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Can Pico-Union Become Like N.Y.'s Lower East Side?

September 28, 1997|Joel Kotkin | Joel Kotkin, a contributing editor to Opinion, is a senior fellow at the Pepperdine Institute for Public Policy and the Pacific Research Institute.

Five years ago, Pico-Union burst into public notoriety because it was the scene of widespread rioting following the not-guilty verdicts in the Rodney G. King-beating trial. Even as the embers cooled, academics, the media and political figures proclaimed Pico-Union a "blighted" Latino-flavored dystopia, locked in a hopeless cycle of poverty, economic decline and gang violence.

Today, the community of roughly 120,000 just west of downtown remains one of Los Angeles' poorest and most neglected. Nearly half its population, according to the 1990 Census, arrived from abroad within the last 10 years. Incomes are about half the city's median; its poverty rate, at 35%, is twice the city average. Residents endure some of the most crowded housing conditions west of the Hudson River, with densities six times above L.A.'s average.

Yet, Pico-Union is not a typical U.S. urban ghetto with an entrenched welfare population and a dead economy. Rather, it shares many of the characteristics of turn-of-the-century immigrant communities on New York's Lower East Side. Pico-Union's story is not only about crime and poverty, but also about a surprisingly vibrant private economy that provides opportunity for newcomers to make it up and often out of the district.

Despite its generally low levels of education and income, Pico-Union has benefited from the region's recent economic upturn. Nearly 90%-95% of all properties destroyed or damaged in the riots have been rebuilt. The area has the highest rate of new-business formation in Los Angeles County. Several major business expansions, including a $17-million supermarket-anchored development at MacArthur Park nearby, are on tap.

None of this means that Pico-Union is a prime candidate for gentrification. What it does suggest is that, with a modicum of organization and continued business investment, the area can become a vehicle for upward mobility for its largely transient population. This was the role played by the Lower East Side when Jewish, Irish and Italian immigrants crowded into its tenements.

Much like today's Latinos in Pico-Union, turn-of-the-century newcomers worked in garment and small shops. They had a reputation for criminality and violence, which led many observers to doubt their ability to integrate successfully into mainstream society. In 1906, Jews, the largest population group on the Lower East Side, accounted for roughly one-third of those entering New York's children's court.

Yet, over the ensuing decades, the majority of the Lower East Side's immigrants gradually improved their lives. Shuls and churches provided cultural guidance; business organizations, political parties and unions supplied social clout. Ultimately, most of the immigrant population--even more so, their children--left the area and joined the swelling middle class in the outer boroughs, the suburbs and beyond.

To date, immigrant and minority success in Southern California, as elsewhere, tends to be concentrated in more upwardly mobile, suburbanized neighborhoods like the San Gabriel Valley or north Orange County. Inner-city immigrant communities such as Pico-Union, by contrast, have been largely ignored or dismissed as beyond hope.

To be sure, whether the "Lower East Side" model is applicable to Pico-Union remains moot. For one thing, unionization is no longer a reliable means, as it was earlier this century, to improve the lives of low-wage workers in a globalized economy. Efforts to unionize Pico-Union's service workers have been only modestly successful and the district's garment laborers remain mostly nonunion.

In addition, there seems to be little prospect for government activism in the form of public works or employment, which for previous immigrants provided opportunities to advance. Whether jobs at shipyards or at aircraft factories, or through programs like the GI Bill, government played a catalytic role in turning newcomers and their progeny into wage earners, home owners and even professionals.

Nevertheless, hopeful signs exist in Pico-Union. Despite his problems with drug and alcohol addiction, Councilman Mike Hernandez has boosted Pico-Union's profile and attracted some public funds to the district. Long leaderless, the district has nurtured a coterie of grass-roots activists, drawn from residents and local business, who have spearheaded anti-graffiti and anti-gang efforts. Despite the impressions created by newspaper headlines and local TV news broadcasts, violent crime has been dropping more rapidly in Pico-Union than in the rest of Los Angeles.

"The people in the neighborhood are tired of having people come here only when something bad happens," says Jasmin Corona, a member of the local LA Neighborhood Initiative board. "There are cleanups, new businesses, things are getting better. We have a lot more good people than bad."

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