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The Danger Of Thinking Small

In response to globalization, more and more civic groups are seeking political sanctuary in their own neighborhoods.

April 26, 1998|Kevin Starr | Kevin Starr, a contributing editor to Opinion, is State Librarian of California and a professor of history at USC. The latest volume of his history of California is "The Dream Endures, California Enters the 1940s."

SACRAMENTO — The more global our society becomes, the more local we become. Here is the great paradox of our time. Ethnic self-determination is nothing new. It remade the map of Europe in the aftermath of World War I. It detached sub-Saharan Africa from colonial rule, perhaps a generation too early. It has spawned, first in Canada and now in the United States, a philosophy and code of multiculturalism that threatens to Balkanize us forever into hyphenated antagonists.

This is not exclusively a First World or even Second World phenomenon. In part, ethnic determination shattered the Soviet Union; the surviving republics, most notably Russia, are dealing with secessionist minorities. Throughout the First World--in Scotland, Wales, Brittany, Catalonia, the Basque country, Quebec--self-determination movements verging on secessionism are gaining strength. Scotland now has its own Parliament.

What is new, however--and fascinating, sociologically--is the rise of hyperlocalism in unified, or at least politically consolidated, venues. At first glance, the opposite might seem the case. Millions of Americans spend a significant portion of each day in cyberspace, which is to say, in no one localized region. The Internet is everywhere and nowhere simultaneously. Cable, satellite and combined satellite-cable-television hookups bring hundreds of channels into our homes. In terms of television, viewers, once confined to their local station, now have equal access to direct broadcasts from a host of major cities.

All this might, at first glance, suggest a scenario in which local identities blur and weaken. If we can be everywhere through the Internet and the media, why should we care where we are in our physical person? The exact opposite, however, is occurring.

In the '80s, futurologist John Naisbitt predicted the rise of a high-tech/high-touch society. The more technological we become, Naisbitt correctly predicted, the more synesthetic, the more localized, the more imaginative and emotionally resonant we would become. Far from enervating human community, physical contact, local identification and sensuous resonance, high technology would intensify these values by submitting them to a clear-cut dialectic in which two worlds, nature and technology, would play off and mutually reinforce each other.

For Los Angeles, this drive toward localism is especially momentous. Los Angeles, after all, rose to its current imperial status in the first three decades of the 20th century at the flood tide of modernism. In political terms, modernism favored the centralized, the controlled, the abstract. (That is why, paradoxically, modernism and fascism, as in the case of the poet Ezra Pound, have lurking sympathies for each other.) In 1898, New York City voluntarily consolidated itself by voting in the borough system. This made New York a federation of quasi-autonomous, locally governed boroughs. Los Angeles, by contrast, the model of a modernist city, expanded out from its center, annexing region after region and grafting them onto an almost abstract notion of civic identity.

Los Angeles, in other words, invented itself as a totality, while New York brought itself into being from previously existing parts. Ask a New Yorker where he or she is from, and he or she will give you the precise street, in the precise neighborhood, in the precise borough. Ask an Angeleno the same question and he or she--until recently--would merely reply Los Angeles. Ask that same question today, and the residents of this city, like their New York counterparts, also will answer with street, neighborhood and geographical section of the city.

Never before in its history has Los Angeles been in such a self-scrutinizing mood. The reasons for this are many. The scandalous collapse of the multibillion-dollar subway project, among other things, threatens to leave behind billion-dollar tunnels going nowhere, a mocking admonishment of a city that could not finish what it had begun. The secessionist movement in the San Fernando Valley threatens to deconstruct Los Angeles itself, making of it the first city in world history voluntarily to put itself out of business.

It is no surprise, then, that nearly everyone these days, including Mayor Richard Riordan and the two converging charter-reform commissions, is enamored of neighborhood councils. Such councils, among other things, would allow Los Angeles an opportunity to refederalize itself, even reboroughize itself, and thus make up for the fact that in its headlong rise to abstract identity, the City of Angels neglected local context and loyalties.

The question becomes: How much power are such councils to have? Are they to be merely advisory, as the mayor suggested in his State of the City speech, or are they to be instituted as a new decision-making level of government, with substantive authority over local land-use questions, as recommended by state Sen. Tom Hayden and others?

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