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A Place for Kids in the City of Angels

April 22, 2001|JAMES RICCI

I COULD HAVE COME TO LOS ANGELES MANY YEARS BEFORE I ACTUALLY DID, BUT I DECLINED the opportunity because I didn't want my children to grow up here.

My decision was based more on impressions than statistics or extensive personal experience. It rested on an image of L.A., not uncommon to outlanders, as a too-expensive place where people lived flightily and with no respect for the nurturing past. My daughters would be better off, I thought, growing up in the fastness of the upper Midwest, where life flowed with a heavier viscosity.

Childhood, however, is in large measure its own place, its quality mostly a function of relevant grown-ups and children's own mettle, rather than of latitude and longitude. "You'll never find a perfect place to grow up in. You'll only find that place in yourself," says 16-year-old Geri Sadek, one of 17 L.A.-area children whose lives are sketched in the magazine today.

Which is not to say geography doesn't have a place. The sketches farther along in these pages are gathered under the rubric "Growing Up in L.A." That implies, correctly, something is unique about the process as it unfolds on this landscape. The tales reflect, for example, children's easy access to a hospitable outdoors. They touch on long freeway journeys and the hustle-along pace of a metropolitan area in which distances are vast, and expectations of happiness high.

The differences between being a child here and being one elsewhere are both negative and positive. They're hard to fix empirically, but I'd bet they include these:

The expense of living here means parents are more commonly absent from home, working to be able to afford home in the first place. Los Angeles is the nation's capital of nannydom and no doubt ranks high in the incidence of non-parental relatives involved in day-to-day child care.

The area's mushrooming population is slowly overwhelming its neglected infrastructure. That means, among other things, heavy automobile traffic is so ubiquitous that kids can't reliably get from one place to another safely, even in their own neighborhoods, by bicycle or on foot. When you consider that in tandem with L.A.'s odd quilt-work pattern of relatively safe neighborhoods lying cheek by jowl with relatively unsafe ones, the end result seems to me a kind of confinement for children. They don't dare venture very far from home, save in steel-clad conveyances piloted by adults.

Here youth-targeted entertainment and its alluring vision of unending revelry are not abstract phenomena on television and compact discs. In Los Angeles, they're an industry, palpable, visible and readily experienced.

This is to say nothing of the effects on children of the rampant, unapologetic materialism that's become a hallmark of this place. Its inevitable companion, a preoccupation with appearances, is so pronounced many adults have difficulty resisting it.

L.A.'s notorious chasm between rich and poor similarly has an impact on the young, breeding a noticeably greater degree of frustration and nihilism among those growing up on the less-privileged end of things. This is the only possible explanation for the ineradicable youth gangs that drive the region's crime rates and keep jeopardy sizzling at the edges of many children's lives.

And yet.

L.A. is remarkably without castes. Thanks to its abundance of ambitious immigrants and culture of fearless innovation, it's in a state of constant revision and renewal. Just as the wealth gap discourages some, this dynamism infects other children with the keen sense of possibility that comes closer than anything to being a regional ethos. Anyone, the thinking goes, might succeed here, maybe even wildly.

Most salutary of all, the truly exceptional diversity of peoples in L.A. gives children (those not blinded by gang loyalties or locked away for safekeeping in gated communities) a distinct leg up on what demographers say is America's future. For most kids here, racial and ethnic differences are simply no big deal. The high incidence of interethnic marrying among the region's young people attests to it.

More than any other single impression, the articles in today's magazine convey children's need for and attachment to a benign home life. Every tale offered here throbs, however subtly, with the fragility of children, even when their resilience is being celebrated. Reading, you can't help but feel concern for them, and hope their lives will turn out well.

None of this is news, or ever can be, because it rises from our deepest and most enduring instinct. Nature, it is said, cares not for individuals, but only for species. Her only interest in us is that we project the DNA of our species into the future as effectively as possible. Whether we have children or not, they are what we are here for.

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