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Milestones of Growth and a New Ethnic Order

The Southland's core became more ethnically and racially mixed, with Latinos ascendant.


Southern California's long-predicted new ethnic order became reality in the 1990s, as Latinos ascended to dominance in Los Angeles and nonwhites came to outnumber whites regionwide by more than 3 million, census data released Thursday showed.

As the millennium dawned, the combined population of Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino and Riverside counties hit 16,373,645--surpassing the statewide total in 1960 and topping all other states in 2000 except Texas and New York.

The Southland gained more than 1.8 million residents in the last decade, swelling the bounds of older suburbs even as new ones blossomed to the east, north and south.

Immigration cooled a few degrees from the furious pace of the 1970s and 1980s, but clearly remained Southern California's driving engine of growth.

Rimmed by shrinking white pockets on its edges, the region's giant central bowl became more racially and ethnically complex than ever, adding 31% more Latinos and 35% more Asian Americans.

"It ain't coming," Azusa City Manager Rick Cole said. "It's here."

Even in a place jaded by the constant lurch of change, the last decade brought a host of significant milestones:

* For the first time, the census reflected that Latinos have replaced whites as the largest ethnic group in both the city and county of Los Angeles. Inglewood and Compton, which in 1990 were the area's only cities with black majorities, are now majority Latino.

* Asians emerged definitively as the region's third-largest racial or ethnic group, increasing their margin over African Americans to more than 500,000. The Asian population spiked in the San Gabriel Valley and along the border between Los Angeles and Orange counties; Cerritos and Walnut joined Monterey Park as cities with Asian majorities.

* Growth continued its gallop across the Inland Empire. Riverside and San Bernardino counties gained more than 660,000 residents and were home to 14 of the region's 20 fastest-growing cities or unincorporated spots.

* The under-18 population grew by more than 20% across Southern California, with Latinos accounting for most of the increase. At the same time, the number of white youth in the region declined by more than 11%.

It was a two-sided decade for Southern California, half grimace, half grin.

The first five years brought the riots, the O.J. Simpson trial, the Northridge earthquake. Jobs declined by the hundred thousand as defense cutbacks shriveled the high-tech sector and construction dropped to a trickle.

The downturn triggered white and black flight from Southern California's coastal counties, driven mostly by economic considerations.

"We had a large exodus of whites and a smaller exodus of blacks, moving mostly to Riverside, San Bernardino and Las Vegas," said Herman De Bose, a sociology professor at Cal State Northridge.

In the decade's back half, the economy's two-tiered recovery brought high-paying jobs into swiftly expanding suburban metropolises such as Thousand Oaks and Irvine, sending their populations skyward.

The Southern California depicted in the census' April 2000 snapshot shows growth in virtually every corner of the map, radiating outward from Los Angeles in bands of warm, warmer and warmest.

Older, built-out suburbs in northern Orange County and the San Gabriel Valley charted some of the biggest numerical gains, suggesting that more and more of Southern California has become too densely packed to match its image for rangy, Western sprawl.

"We are a far more urban area than we like to think," said William Fulton, president of Solimar Research Group and a senior research fellow at the Southern California Studies Center at USC. "Los Angeles, in particular, is now an older urban area."

Immigrants more than replaced those who deserted Los Angeles' urban core, outweighing a 15.4% drop in the city's white population and a 11.5% decrease in the number of African Americans.

The ethnic dispersion that marked the 1980s intensified in the 1990s as Latinos and Asians also flowed persistently, if unevenly, into the suburbs, often bypassing traditional ports of entry.

In fact, Latinos increased faster in the counties bordering Los Angeles County than in the central county itself.

Orange County's Latino population grew 46.1% and now numbers as many as 875,579, exceeding that of San Antonio, a renowned Mexican American hub.

The Latino population also surged 71.8% in Riverside County and 66.2% in San Bernardino County, beating state demographers' estimates by 400,000.

"We expected lots of growth out there, but not that composition," said Leo Estrada, a professor of urban planning at UCLA. "It's been amazing."

While Latino growth in Los Angeles remained brisk--Latino population in the county grew 20.7%--the rate of increase was actually below the statewide Latino growth rate of 35%.

The slower-than-expected rates of growth in Los Angeles meant that a Latino majority did not emerge in either the city or the county, as many Latino leaders had hoped for.

Immigration Key Factor in Growth

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