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The Suburban Nightmare : While older suburbs experience many problems of the inner city, 'edge cities' now offer a new escape

October 23, 1994|MIKE DAVIS | Mike Davis is the author of "City of Quartz: Excavating the Future of Los Angeles" (Routledge, Chapman & Hill)

Once upon a time, a placid town basked in the golden glow of its orchards. In the 1920s, it was renowned as the "Queen of the Citrus Belt." In the 1940s, it served as one of Hollywood's models for Andy Hardy's hometown. In the 1950s, it became a commuter suburb for thousands of Father-Knows-Bests in their starched white shirts.

Now, its nearly abandoned downtown is surrounded by acres of vacant lots and derelict homes. Its major employer, an aerospace corporation, pulled up stakes and moved to Tucson. The 4-H Club has been replaced by local franchises of the Crips and Bloods. Since 1970, nearly 1% of its population has been murdered.

This town is, of course, Pomona, Los Angeles County's fourth largest city. Although geographically a suburb, Pomona now displays pathologies typically associated with a battered inner city.

Its incidence of poverty, for example, exceeds Los Angeles' and its murder rate, in bad years, approaches Detroit's. Its density of gang membership, as a percentage of the teen-age male population, is one of the nation's highest.

Unfortunately, Pomona is not unique. Across the nation, hundreds of aging suburbs are trapped in the same downward trajectory, from garden city to crabgrass slum. This silent, pervasive crisis dominates the political middle landscape.

But the arrival of a second urban crisis--potentially comparable in magnitude to the endless ordeal of American center cities--does not fit comfortably into either political party's current agenda. Although urbanists and local government types have been screaming at the top of their lungs for several years about the rising distress "in the inner metropolitan ring," most politicos have kept their heads buried deep in the sand.

The failure of candidates to address, or even grasp, the acuity of the suburban malaise explains, in turn, much of the populist rage that currently threatens the two-party status quo. America seems to be unraveling in its traditional moral center: suburbia.

Indeed, the 1990 census confirms that 35% of suburban cities have experienced significant declines in median household income since 1980. These downward income trends track, in turn, the catastrophic loss of several million jobs.

As a result, formerly bedrock "family-value" towns like Parma, Ohio (outside Cleveland), Brockton, Mass. (outside Boston), or University City, Mo. (outside St. Louis) are experiencing the social destabilization that follows the relentless erosion of job and tax resources.

As the National Journal tried to warn policy-makers last year, "older working-class suburbs are starting to fall into the same abyss of disinvestment that their center cities did years ago."

In Southern California, of course, suburban decline is not necessarily a slow bleed. Recent aerospace and defense closures--like Hughes Missile Divisions' abrupt departure from Pomona, or Lockheed's abandonment of its huge Burbank complex--have had the traumatic impact of natural disasters. Following the Lockheed shutdown, for example, welfare caseloads in eastern San Fernando Valley soared by 80,000 in an 18-month period.

But older suburbs' losses are usually someone else's gain. Just as the inner-ring suburbs once stole jobs and tax revenues from central cities, so now their pockets are being picked, in turn, by the new urban centers--farther out on the spiral arms of the metropolitan galaxy--that Joel Garreau calls "edge cities."

It has been estimated, for example, that the inner-ring suburbs of Minneapolis-St. Paul lost 40% of their jobs during the 1980s to the so-called "Fertile Crescent" of edge cities on the metro-region's southwest flank. Outside Chicago, Schaumburg and central DuPage County--west of O'Hare International Airport--have had similarly adverse effects on the older suburban communities of Cook County, as have the young edge cities of Contra Costa County on the East Bay's traditional blue-collar suburbs.

Closer at hand, the 18-mile-long tape-worm-shaped City of Industry puts a bizarre spin on the idea of the predatory edge city. This special-interest "phantom city" (population, 680) monopolizes most of the tax assets of the southern San Gabriel Valley--including 2,000 factories, warehouse and discount outlets, as well as a first-class golf course and resort hotel. Its malign influence on surrounding, tax-starved suburbs like La Puente and South El Monte has been compared to an economic atom bomb.

The one-sided competition between old and new suburbs has exploded latent class divisions in the historic commuter belts. Southern California, in particular, has become an unstable mosaic of such polarizations. Think of the widening socioeconomic divides between northern and southern Orange County, the upper and lowers tiers of the San Gabriel Valley, the east and west sides of the San Fernando Valley or the San Fernando Valley as a whole and its "suburbs-of-a-suburb"--like Simi Valley and Santa Clarita.

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