A walk along North Vermont Canyon and Commonwealth Canyon Drive yields… (Michael Robinson Chavez…)
When Jo Ann Koch moved to Long Beach in 1962 from her tiny hometown of Rockford, Iowa, she was far from alone. The port city was dubbed "Iowa by the Sea," and drew tens of thousands of her Midwest compatriots to its annual Iowa picnics.
Everyone in Southern California back then seemed to be from somewhere else.
While this perception was more trope than truth, more residents did come from out of state than were born here, going back to the region's bean field and cattle ranch days.
But the newcomers have been in retreat for about a decade, and this year, for the first time in well over a century, native-born Californians will be a majority in Los Angeles County, according to projections by USC's Population Dynamics Research Group.
"This changes our self-conception as a community," said coauthor Dowell Myers, a professor of policy, planning and demography with the USC Price School of Public Policy and director of the group. "It makes us more tightly knit than we have been in the past. It gives us a shared destiny."
The flow of immigration has plunged to one-quarter of the rate seen in 1990. And a region built on waves of new arrivals — from the East Coast, the Midwest, Mexico, China, Japan, Vietnam and Iran and so on — is becoming a homeland of its own.
Koch, 73, has lived in the same house in Lakewood for 30 years. Some of her neighboring homeowners are living in homes they grew up in, or their parents grew up in.
She still attends and helps organize the Iowa Picnic — which about 120 people attend every year — but does not pine for a place left behind. She stepped into the brilliant sun Tuesday to trim her hibiscus bushes and thought of the snow drifts back in Rockford. "This is just a nice place to live," she said.
Author D.J. Waldie — a Lakewood resident himself, who lives in the home he grew up in — sees this as a turning point for the region. He says people who are raised here and plan to stay will have more "affection for the landscape," and be more "sensitive to the politics of Los Angeles."
"Maybe they'll be more prone to want to reform and make things work better," he said.
And he notes that unrealistic depictions of Southern California, so often vacillating between romantic or apocalyptic — from "Ramona" to "The Day of the Locust" to "Slouching Towards Bethlehem" — are finally giving way to a more tempered reality.
"All the mythologies that Los Angeles is an exotic elsewhere or hideous hellhole you're forced to live in are kind of draining out," he said. "It's not paradise or a place of exile, but a place to make an ordinary life."
Fernando Guerra, director of the Center for the Study of Los Angeles at Loyola Marymount University, says all major cities go through this maturing process as the flow of outsiders tapers down and people settle.
The last decade showed the slowest population increase in the county's history, just above 2%. "There used to be decades when it was 300%," Guerra said.
The slowdown isn't just due to decreasing immigration. Many people have moved back to their origins, and birthrates have dropped. In 1990, 204,000 babies were born in L.A. County, according to the USC report. In 2010, the number was 133,000.
"Four years ago there were 750,000 students in L.A. Unified," Guerra said. "That's like the city of San Francisco. Now they only have — I say only — 630,000."
With fewer children and working-age adults and more retiring baby boomers, the region is facing an "epic transition" that will demand dramatic changes in public policy, Myers and John Pitkin, a senior research associate in the population study group, wrote in the report.
"The boomers are beginning to retire from the most productive period of their lives, creating enormous replacement needs in the workforce, among the taxpayers, and in the housing market," the report said.
Raymond Hansen, an 80-year-old labor attorney who lives downtown, came to Los Angeles from Chicago when he was 15. He said his parents were lured to Los Angeles by its romantic side — the beaches and sunshine.
"We moved all over and then they saw Los Angeles," Hansen said. "It was almost like a small paradise."
His appreciation for the city evolved as he produced three native L.A. children of his own. He liked that Los Angeles was a place of immigrants and out-of-towners. It kept the city alive and interesting — the cuisine, the arts, the language.
"A great benefit for L.A. was the fact that we had people from everywhere coming in all the time," Hansen said. "I hope we don't lose that diversity."
But Illinois native Jeanne Walters does want to see the constant physical and cultural flux slow down, take a breath. She came to Los Angeles in 1995 to pursue a career in acting. Now 56, she works with the blind at the Braille Institute, lives in Hollywood and is struck by how much she identifies now as an Angeleno.
She hopes that as more people feel the same, businesses and neighborhoods will have a chance to mature, instead of going through endless reinvention. Her favorite restaurant in Los Feliz is now a Chabad house. Her favorite coffee place in Silver Lake was razed to make way for a mixed-use project.
"L.A. has always been a chopped-up kind of place," Walters said.
Maybe that will change as a more rooted populace develops a deeper appreciation for the neighborhoods and their connections to the past.
Giovanni Walker, a 49-year-old building maintenance worker born in Long Beach, said he's glad to see a trend toward more native-born.
"Locals know the politics of the county and the city," Walker said. "People who just come from out of town act like tourists. They aren't grounded in history."
Times staff writer Emily Alpert in Los Angeles contributed to this report.