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Escape From L.A.: It's a Rainbow

October 03, 2003|Scott Martelle | Times staff writer

A new analysis of 2000 census data finds that the Los Angeles metropolitan area is still a strong draw for immigrants -- but a growing number of people of all ethnicities are leaving for less expensive U.S. cities.

The trend known as "white flight" has ebbed, with the outflow of people now more closely reflecting the five-county Los Angeles area's multiethnic makeup, the study found. And many of those leaving are workers without college educations, indicating that some of the flow results from the gap between low-wage jobs and Southern California's high cost of living.

"It's economics and lifestyle," said William H. Frey, author of the study for the Brookings Institution's Center for Urban and Metropolitan Policy. "People who came to Orange County whenever it was a prototypic suburb, or to the San Fernando Valley, began to think, 'This isn't the suburbia I have envisioned' -- and they can now find it better in Las Vegas ... which has lower density, less commuting and a lower cost of living."

Yet the findings do not suggest trouble to come, Frey said.

"In some ways it's an urban maturation," he said. "California is a victim of its own success -- everybody wants to live there, and fewer people can afford to."

Los Angeles has long been among the nation's top destinations for immigrants. Frey's study found that the Los Angeles region drew nearly 700,000 immigrants from 1995 to 2000, second only to New York. The area lost nearly 550,000 to other parts of the nation, also second behind New York. Twenty years ago, Los Angeles ranked fourth and 10 years ago ranked third in departures to other U.S. cities, according to the study.

The study is based on a 1% sampling of responses to a census question that asked households where they were living five years earlier. It describes a nation teeming with humans in transition as new immigrants fill neighborhoods in Los Angeles and other major urban hubs while existing residents move on to fast-growing metropolitan areas such as Las Vegas, Phoenix and Atlanta.

"It's the West Coast Ellis Island," Frey said. "New waves of immigrants are wanting to come and are willing to put up with less-than-ideal housing just to get their foot in the door."

Manufacturing in the region could benefit from a steady flow of immigrant labor, and cultural institutions will benefit from continued presence of upper-income families, said Roger Lotchin, an urban historian at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.

"On the negative side, if L.A. is gaining both more of the better-educated and poorly educated, that risks political polarization along economic lines," he said.

Urban historian Ann Keating believes the numbers show that Los Angeles is following a pattern seen years ago in major Eastern industrial cities. "To some degree, what's going on ... started in the Rust Belt," said Keating, a history professor at North Central College in suburban Chicago.

A key question is whether the middle class is feeling pushed out of Los Angeles -- by economics or fear over the welfare and education of their children -- or pulled to other regions by better opportunities, Keating said.

At the same time, she said, the migration patterns also reflect the growing globalization of society, with minority enclaves spreading far outside urban areas.

"If what you're looking for is a more diverse, multiethnic country less concerned about ethnic differences, this seems to be an incredibly hopeful thing," Keating said. "Minorities are comfortable leaving ethnic enclaves, and that's a very positive thing."

The study found that New York and Los Angeles were the top two destinations for new immigrants and also lost the most residents to other U.S. cities. Conversely, neither of the coastal hubs placed in the top 10 destinations for domestic migration -- that list was topped by Phoenix, Atlanta and Las Vegas.

With the exception of Denver, all the top 10 magnets for domestic migration were found in the South, stretching from Georgia and Florida to the California border.

Census figures not cited in the report indicate a nation split among the mobile and the relatively stationary, with about half reporting in 2000 that they lived in the same house they were living in five years earlier.

The Brookings report did not surprise some demographers, who viewed the changes as a geographic broadening of the trends in which new generations of families move farther from urban cores to pursue jobs and cheaper housing.

"Los Angeles County used to funnel to Riverside and San Bernardino, and now the funnel has become bigger," said Elliott Barkan, a professor of history and ethnic studies at Cal State San Bernardino. "People have to go further, and out of their region."

The flow from urban centers to the Sun Belt has been underway for at least two decades, he said. All that has changed are the destination cities.

"The process is the same," said Barkan, who has studied immigration and internal migration. "The Southwest is still attracting people. The [baby-] boomers play a major role. People are retiring from the north ... which pulls in more people."

But USC demographer Dowell Myers believes the census numbers indicate a different sort of change. His analysis shows that 10% of migrants from Los Angeles in the late 1980s were new immigrants, a proportion that doubled by the late 1990s. At the same time, internal migration to Los Angeles tapered off.

The reason, he believes, is that the gap between Los Angeles and the rest of the nation has narrowed as other regional economies boomed in the 1990s. Even housing costs are proportionately closer now than they were in the 1980s.

"We're becoming more equal," Myers said. "The domestic stream shows that we're connecting up with the rest of the nation."

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