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Melting-Pot Blues

PRISMATIC METROPOLIS Inequality in Los Angeles Edited by Lawrence D. Bobo, Melvin L. Oliver, James H. Johnson Jr. and Abel Valenzuela; Russell Sage Foundation: 612 pp., $49.95

February 11, 2001|MICHAEL DEAR | Michael Dear is the author, most recently, of "The Postmodern Urban Condition" and is the director of USC's Southern California Studies Center

If California's 19th century belonged to San Francisco and the Gold Rush, the state's 20th century surely belonged to Los Angeles. Based on a series of its own "gold" rushes, L.A. emerged with breath-snatching speed to become a world city, America's No. 2 metropolis (soon to be No. 1) and a prototype for America's urban future.

Southern California's early growth was based on "green gold," that is, exploiting the region's agricultural resources to feed the gargantuan appetites of its Bay Area neighbors. Then came "black gold" (oil), followed by the irresistible luster of "gun-metal gold" (the defense contracts of World War II and the later aerospace industrial complex). Today, our fortunes are inextricably tied to "e-gold" and the prospects of the dot-com world.

Throughout its exuberant history, Los Angeles has relied upon a never-ending stream of immigrants from overseas as well as from elsewhere in the United States. People from Mexico and Central America, from China and Japan, all took their (unequal) places alongside Midwestern whites and blacks from the South. California's history is fundamentally a story about racial and ethnic diversity. Yet when confronted by this fact, the eyes of most Californians tend to cloud over with cataracts of confusion. How, they wonder, can we make sense of the impact of prejudice in this polycentric, polyglot and polycultural metropolis?

Most great cities of the world have instantly recognizable signatures. Think of the boulevards of Paris, the skyscrapers of New York, the churches of Rome. Even if you haven't visited these places, you know them from the movies: Jacques Tati's Paris, Woody Allen's New York, Fellini's Rome. But what is L.A.'s signature? Is it Hollywood? The beaches? Smog? The freeways?

Whenever I encounter newcomers trying to get a grip on Los Angeles, I refer them to Reyner Banham's "Architecture of the Four Ecologies" (originally published in the early 1970s, and now thankfully being brought back into print by the University of California Press). Banham suggested that L.A.'s complexities can be distilled into four easy pieces: surfurbia ("what other metropolises should envy in Los Angeles"); foothills ("where the financial and topographical contours correspond almost exactly"); the plains ("An endless plain endlessly gridded with endless streets"); and autopia ("a complete way of life," according to Banham).

Newcomers aren't the only ones to be puzzled by Southern California. Until recently, Los Angeles was the least studied major metropolis in the United States. But since Banham, a growing cadre of urban intellectuals (from all ideological persuasions, and all parts of the globe) has labored to provide the conceptual and factual bases necessary for informed public debate about our collective future. "Prismatic Metropolis" adds to that growing list of books. It invites us to adopt one more ecology to unlock the mysteries of Los Angeles: race and ethnicity. Its reference to "prismatic" is meant to conjure the many "colors, hues, and cultures" that make up the region.

The book's purpose is to provide a "crisp descriptive and analytical focus" on the growing gap between rich and poor, especially as it affects people of color. At the heart of the study is a survey of more than 4,000 people in Los Angeles County, conducted in 1993 and 1994 under the auspices of the Los Angeles Study of Urban Inequality. Whites, blacks, Latinos and Asians were questioned in five languages at a time when the recession was biting hard and the region was still recovering from the civil unrest of 1992. The survey set out to discover how changing labor dynamics, racial attitudes and relations and residential segregation interact to foster urban inequality. The questions focused on demographic background and labor market experiences (including wages, commute times and immigrant status), neighborhood and community (including housing costs and preferences) and racial attitudes (including experiences of discrimination and perceptions of competition between groups).

The breadth and depth of the sample allowed a statistical analysis never before attempted. The researchers' principal question was whether Los Angeles (the "quintessential multiethnic metropolis") can actually work. The result is a unique and important portrait of racial and ethnic relations in the Southland.

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