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THE NEXT LOS ANGELES / TURNING IDEAS INTO ACTION : Essay : Soaring, Slumping, Living : Millions of People and Their Ideas Will Shape the Next Los Angeles

July 17, 1994|PETER H. KING

It's great sport to kill off whole cities. Delivering them from the dead can be almost as much fun. Those who wrote the obituaries of New York City in the 1970s no doubt found it just as fulfilling to report the Big Apple's revival in the boom-boom '80s. Similarly, some of the same hip-shot sociologists who a decade ago filled bookshelves and public television documentaries with glittering dispatches from the new capital of the Pacific Rim now, with equal sweep, lament the fading of poor, pitiful Los Angeles.

The concept of an organic city--now soaring, now slumping, now cohesive, now torn apart--is a tempting plaything for anyone with a magazine to fill or a grant proposal to submit. Let us do Los Angeles, they say. And so Los Angeles is done. And redone. And done again.

It's a game.

It is wind.

It means nothing.

With the exception of ancient Pompeii, cities typically don't up and die, just like that. Nor do they emerge overnight. Rome wasn't built in a day, and neither was Reseda. Yes, cities grow and change and pass through bright times and bleak. And yes, a city as a sum of its parts can be charted, tracked, polled, pondered. This macro approach, though, can make for some dubious science, and it requires a certain suspension of reality.

Reality is not waking up all worried about the collective mood of the metropolis. Reality is jumping into clothes and off to the job. Reality is not fretful contemplation of the merits of mass transit. Reality is trying to squirt past that lumbering truck driver who has jammed up the fast lane. Reality is not 15 million residents living, thinking, fearing and hoping as one, strands in some coherent municipal weave. Reality is 15 million people with 15 million different reasons to climb out of bed each morning and 15 million sets of dilemmas and demons, of everyday delights and big dreams. And about all they have in common is geography.

Reality is people just getting by, one by one, and an interesting place to meet some of these people is Room 2207 of the L.A. County registrar's headquarters in Norwalk.

Room 2207 is one of several bureaucratic way stations that must be visited when filing fictitious business name statements. This filing is part of a larger process, the process of starting a new business. And to spend a morning in Room 2207 is to encounter a wealth of everyday hope and everyday courage.

In this room, I met a woman from Claremont named Alice Wolleydt. She had spent the past dozen years caring for her mother. On the side she designed dolls, "a doll here, a doll there." Her mother died, and Wolleydt was going to launch the American Doll Collection Co. She spoke of business seminars she had attended and of articles read and clipped. One magazine piece had mentioned a doll maker who turned a $100-million profit on just five designs. Her eyes almost danced as she repeated the figure.

"I have wanted," she said, "to do this for so long."

I met Reynaldo Roter, a 49-year-old immigrant from the Philippines. In his old country, he had been a salesman, a "businessman." Here, he parked cars, tended bar, learned to "take any work they give you, in order to survive." Over 10 years he had managed to save a few thousand dollars, enough to gain access to a small plot of land and some bonzai seedlings. Exotic Bonsai is what he wants to call his company.

Was he scared?

"Why," he asked, "should I be scared? I know bonsai."

I met a mother of three who, with her husband, intended to run several home businesses, selling telephone services, discount travel packages and the like on the side. They had paid $495 apiece for franchise start-up kits at a convention. She spoke of a desire for "supplemental income, a little more financial security." She spoke of saving enough to someday move "to a better place."

I met a couple of guys starting a janitorial service. "Everybody needs toilet paper," one explained merrily.

They wore beepers and seemed quite secretive, and only after a promise of anonymity would they explain. They are sales reps for an existing janitorial company. They were supposed to be on the road right then, making calls. But they could see the future, and it was not bright. "It's a good business," one said, "but the people who run it don't know what they are doing. It has nothing to do with the recession, but it is going to go under. When it does, we will be ready."

I met Angel. Mother of three, she had worked 14 years as a secretary for a national telephone company. She had been laid off. "I never thought that would happen," she said. This calamity forced a family decision. Her husband would quit his job with a furniture company. They would invest her severance and start a furniture company of their own.

"It's been a long time coming," she said. "It's scary to take that first step. But everybody has to do it sooner or later, right? Everybody has to take a chance, if they want to take some control over their own lives."

They had discussed moving to another city, another economy, but that conversation, Angel said, "lasted about three minutes. I am from here. I was born here. East L.A. So was my husband. I don't know any other place. I feel comfortable here. This is all I know."

I asked Angel what was the big dream, and she flashed a smile.

"A pool," she said, without hesitation.

In all I met maybe a dozen people starting new businesses. Dozens more passed through Room 2207 before I could hear their stories. A county worker told me they come each day "by the hundreds. Hundreds and hundreds. You can see a lot of hopes and dreams in this room."

And you can hear a lot of stories. And taken together maybe the stories say something about the city. And maybe they don't. For there is no sum to this equation, only parts. The parts are the people. And there are millions of them, each an expert on the question of what might await the Next Los Angeles.

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