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Local suburbs more diverse

Integration along class lines has become a norm in the 5-county Los Angeles area, new census data show.

December 09, 2008|Rich Connell, Doug Smith and Teresa Watanabe | Connell, Smith and Watanabe are Times staff writers.

The integration of Southern California's suburban communities continued apace into the second half of the decade, driven by steadily growing numbers of Latinos and Asians moving into middle-class neighborhoods, according to detailed census data released Monday.

Overall, the white population in the five-county region appears to have leveled off after a notable decline in the 1990s. Other groups continued to expand across the region, with the Asian population seeing the greatest increase. But Latinos are by far the largest ethnic group, totaling 7.7 million, compared with about 6.3 million non-Latino whites and 2 million Asians.

The new figures, averaging surveys from 2005 through 2007, offer a first look at population changes since the 2000 census. The numbers suggest the economic boom and robust housing market that peaked in late 2006 lifted many boats, helping change the ethnic complexion of cities across the income spectrum. The release of the data marks the beginning of an ambitious federal effort to replace the census' former status as a once-a-decade survey with a running portrait of the nation as it changes.

Dowell Myers, USC professor of urban planning and demography, said the growing diversity in Southern California's sprawling suburbs reflects a broad breakdown of past housing discrimination. The region includes Los Angeles, Ventura, San Bernardino, Riverside and Orange counties.

"Ethnic groups of all types are integrating into suburban neighborhoods. It's the new normal," Myers said. "It's not about color and ethnicity in California anymore. It's about economic upward mobility."

The change has been far from uniform, and balances in some communities have shifted in intriguing ways.

Liberal and pricey Santa Monica was among a handful of communities to buck the broader, deeper shifts. The waterfront city of tourism, million-dollar cottages and hip new-economy businesses was one of the few in Southern California to see its white population increase between 2000 and the middle of the decade. Now 72% white, it also was the rare community to see a decline in the number of Latino residents.

At the same time, El Monte, one of the most historically Latino cities in the San Gabriel Valley, has seen a sharp rise in Asian residents since 2000 -- and a decline of nearly 7,800 Latino residents. Rising housing costs in recent years are probably a factor, said Mayor Ernie Gutierrez, who has lived in the city since 1937.

"Hispanic people that have immigrated here and haven't been here long enough to save up money are probably finding rent here too expensive," said Gutierrez, 74. He suspects recent immigrant families "might be moving near relatives in other parts of the state or country where jobs are plentiful and housing is cheaper."

Gutierrez has also witnessed a legacy of segregation give way to a new mix of cultures.

"When I was growing up, most of the Mexicans lived in barrios. They couldn't buy a house because it was written in real estate agreements not to sell to certain ethnic groups," he said.

"Today, the Asian population in the city is growing. There are more Asian-owned businesses. . . . Change is inevitable."

More common for many towns has been a gradual, blending of many ethnicities, like that occurring in the traditionally white post-World War II boomtown bedroom community of Lakewood, north of Long Beach.

There, an older-skewing white majority has slipped to 45% of the population since 2000, while the Asian population increased 17% and Latino population rose 20%. The share of black residents increased about 11%.

"When we first moved here, we were the only black family in the neighborhood," said Tammy Sutton, 45, who moved to Lakewood from Paramount 19 years ago. A merchandiser for American Greetings, she is biracial -- her father is black and her mother is white.

"When my son started school, he was one of two black kids. Now, it's a mixture of everything."

On her block, there are two Hispanic families, two black families, a white family and an Asian family, Sutton said. "Over the 20 years, you just see more and more cultures living here.

"When I first moved here, it was mainly a white area. Now, it's everybody, and it's nice."

In southern Orange County, John Wilkins and his wife, Leticia Lopez Wilkins, moved to Mission Viejo in the late 1990s. The Latino and Asian populations in the city have steadily increased and now account for nearly a quarter of residents -- up from about 19% in 2000. Lopez Wilkins, a former Los Angeles police officer, recalled that when they arrived, they were not only the sole Latinos in the neighborhood, they were the only family of color.

One day, a door-to-door salesperson mistook her for a maid. "She asked me, 'Do you speak English?' " Lopez Wilkins said.

"Probably better than you do," she recalled responding.

Now, their neighborhood is diverse, with a black family down the street, a Jewish family around the corner and a Vietnamese family across the way, she said.

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