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Will White Influx Put Down Roots in L.A. Core?

July 19, 2004|Gregory Rodriguez | Gregory Rodriguez is a senior fellow at the New America Foundation.

Central Los Angeles is getting a makeover. From Koreatown to Silver Lake, Echo Park to downtown, the city's core is becoming aggressively hip. It's also becoming noticeably whiter. After 40 years of inexorable decline, central L.A.'s white population is edging up.

Over the last few years, Silver Lake has been dubbed Brentwood East, Echo Park the new Laurel Canyon and Koreatown a "blossoming bohemia." Though hardly Santa Monica, downtown's central business district is beginning to feel like a yuppie neighborhood. Is L.A. undergoing a quiet Anglo reconquista? It seems certain that young whites are increasingly comfortable settling in multiethnic L.A., but how rooted in its life and culture will they really become?

Though the reasons for white flight from the city have always been varied, discomfort with growing ethnic and racial diversity has long been considered a primary factor. In 1960, fully 72% of L.A.'s residents were white. By the end of the decade, that percentage had dropped to 59%. Between 1980 and 2000, the white share of the population fell from 44% to 33%. Nowhere was the decline more severe than in the southern and central portions of the city.

During the 1980s, the decline of the white population began to affect L.A. County at large. In a decade in which all other major demographic groups continued to grow, L.A. County lost 330,000 whites. Between 1990 and 2000, that loss grew to a whopping 570,000, much of it during the severe recession in the first half of the decade.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday July 21, 2004 Home Edition California Part B Page 15 Editorial Pages Desk 1 inches; 41 words Type of Material: Correction
Los Angeles demography -- The 1980-2000 decline in white population in Los Angeles was understated in a Monday Op-Ed article on the white influx into downtown. Instead of dropping from 44% to 33% in that period, the figure declined to 30%.

And even as California was becoming a magnet for international newcomers from Latin America and Asia, it lost its allure to domestic migrants. The state that had traditionally drawn large numbers of newcomers from within the U.S. was now losing more native-born Americans than it was receiving. And 70% of all domestic migrants leaving California in the 1990s were white.

By the end of that decade, however, California was experiencing a small, yet symbolically significant, net in-migration of college-educated Americans. In general, all the state's new domestic migrants had more education and higher incomes and were more likely to be single than those who were leaving, and 74% were at least third-generation Americans.

While L.A. County continued to lose people over 35, it too began gaining younger people, particularly college-educated, middle-class whites. With the economy gaining steam since 2000, demographers think that this trend has only increased. At least some of those new migrants may have moved into central L.A. Other downtown newcomers are thought to be domestic refugees from the expensive Westside or lonely suburbia.

What do the newcomers portend for the city's core? Those who are buying homes on the edges of the middle-class neighborhoods in the hills could help stabilize those areas, but it is unclear whether growing numbers of renters in places like Koreatown or loft dwellers -- buyers or renters -- will stay long enough to benefit the city's infrastructure, such as schools and community groups.

"Young people want to become part of the urban scene," says Brookings Institution demographer Bill Frey. "But when they start thinking about having kids and buying homes, they tend to move out of the inner city."

The arrival of middle-class whites also brings fears of displacement and ethnic and class conflict. In his book, "Whitewashed Adobe: The Rise of Los Angeles and the Remaking of its Mexican Past," historian William Deverell chronicles the tendency among 20th century Anglo L.A. migrants to disregard the city's Mexican heritage. He suspects, however, that today's newcomers are actually choosing the city in part for its unique multiethnic society. Because whites will probably remain a minority in the central city, others also speculate about the relative openness of today's newcomers. "These are multicultural yuppies," says Jack Kyser, chief economist at the Los Angeles Economic Development Corp. "They're not afraid of diversity; they enjoy it."

In the long run, however, L.A. may develop a pattern similar to that of New York City, where the locally born children of foreign-born immigrants are often more "rooted" in the city than domestic migrants. In New York, more than one-third of whites of native-born parentage grew up outside the metro area, many arriving after college. They're likely to leave when they start families. By contrast, the children of international migrants are more likely to be raised, grow old in the city and raise the next generation there as well.

It's a positive sign that more young, middle-class whites are becoming comfortable with the city and its demographics. In the long run, this trend may mean good things for the future of race relations. But the people most likely to make long-term improvements to a place, the ones who will tackle its pressing issues, are those most rooted in the geography in question. And the Angelenos with the deepest local connections could turn out to be those with the strongest international ties.

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