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In Need of a Moral Compass

Unless L.A. develops an inclusive notion of the common good, it will continue to come apart.

October 29, 2000|D. J. Waldie | D. J. Waldie, a Lakewood city official, is the author of "Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir."

LAKEWOOD — The deconstruction of the city of Los Angeles is turning out to be remarkably easy. It doesn't require an apocalypse or even an act of will. It only takes acquiescence to the powerful centrifugal forces of race, class and utopian longing that have tugged at this city for more than 100 years. The moral order of Los Angeles, always a subject of doubt, seems incapable of resisting.

The moral order in the life of any city is the story of illustrative failure and heroism it passes on to its citizens. That story needs to be both familiar and believable. L.A.'s working poor, cocooned elites and secessionist suburbanites feel so uncomfortable together in their distrust of any shared story that they might actually forego being L.A.'s citizens. That's remarkable in a city whose major industry is storytelling, except the Hollywood version of the L.A. story is mostly about consumption and almost never about citizenship.

It's not an infallible guide that L.A. needs, only a more generous and inclusive conception of the common good than the official indifference that greeted stranded bus riders during the transit strike just ended. L.A. has shed one moral order (a disfiguring story of Anglo fears of immigrants and their politics) but seems incapable of finding another. Fortunately, the outlines of a new order may be forming far from the city's traditional centers of authority.

Living in a city with no coherent narrative of its purpose has disturbing consequences for both public and private L.A.: It empowers separatist movements in the San Fernando Valley, San Pedro and Hollywood. It virtually requires some disassembly of the lumbering Los Angeles Unified School District. It contributes to the increase in the rate of the city's violent crime (up 10% this year) and the drop in the number of arrests (down 23% this year). It silences frightened witnesses in gang-related murder cases and gives cover to the assassins of a cranky Venice activist who disputed with gang members the right to define the character of his neighborhood. It allows the Los Angeles Police Department to accommodate its infidelities shamelessly. It even propelled Mayor Richard Riordan to oppose a new state law making it harder to form nonunionized transit districts in the Valley and elsewhere. Eroding the paychecks of union transit workers justified the mayor's unintended aid to suburban breakaway movements.

A city in so much haste to harm itself is without a moral compass. Its lack accelerates the rifting between the city's working-class core and its affluent edges. The gap could be filled by immigrants eager to be in the middle if the city made more effort to make a place for them. But increasing disparities in wages, housing, child-care availability, health insurance coverage and even simple mobility steadily hollowed out L.A.'s aspiring middle during the late 1990s, even as unemployment dropped and the total number of jobs increased. The region's 1 million working "almost poor" (broadly defined as a family of four making less than $33,300) work mostly without union benefits and with the handicaps of poor education, limited English skills and uncertain immigration status. They don't work for the nimble "new economy" of dot-com individualists but for all the anonymous services that sustain it.

It is about these citizens that L.A.'s Marie Antoinettes muttered, "Let them drive Lexuses" during the transit strike, and Riordan praised for being so unexpectedly resilient, as if they had any other choice.

The L.A. people who, in Peter Schrag's terms, are "more closely connected to their peers in New York or Tokyo, or Hong Kong or London, than they are to the people on the street below" presume to draw on common social capital, to which they make only ambiguous and tentative contributions. At worst, theirs is a "cocoon citizenship." Even the secular faiths of politics and culture--traditional centers for defining a city's moral order--seem to have abandoned their role in assuring the common good and substituted a loose federation of unrelated self-interest groups, each seeking primarily its own sovereign identity, for the idea of a city for everyone.

Whatever that idea is today, its clock is running out. By 2002, voters in the Valley and the city at large will test their appetite for secession. By 2003, the present cohort of the city's elected officials will have been replaced or reshuffled by term limits. By 2004, the reform City Charter should have had enough time to redirect the flow of political power from the leaderless City Council, upward to the mayor's office, and outward to the charter's untested but hopeful network of area planning commissions and neighborhood councils.

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