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L.A.'s civic disengagement

Op-Ed

In Los Angeles, the haves and the have-nots have something in common: apathy.

March 15, 2013|By Harold Meyerson
  • Philanthropist Eli Broad is seen at the topping-out ceremony commemorating the placement of the steel beams in the framing of The Broad Museum located at the corner of Grand Avenue and Second Street.
Philanthropist Eli Broad is seen at the topping-out ceremony commemorating… (Los Angeles Times )

At first glance, two stories much in the news in Los Angeles of late would seem to have nothing to do with each other. The first concerns the fate of the Museum of Contemporary Art — whether it will affiliate with the Los Angeles County Museum of Art or USC or the National Gallery in Washington — and the outsized role its primary benefactor, Eli Broad, is likely to play in the choice. The second concerns the low voter turnout in the first round of the city's mayoral election this month.

In fact, a through-line connects the two stories: the generally low level of civic engagement and consciousness in Los Angeles, within both the city's elites and its overall population.

Los Angeles, I hasten to explain, does not have an Eli Broad problem. The Brentwood billionaire, who amassed his fortune through home building, insurance and other ventures, has been the foremost donor to numerous local institutions, from museums and concert halls to universities and medical schools. There isn't a signature local cause in which Broad hasn't played a central role, both as a donor and in bringing in other donors. Without him, for example, the Walt Disney Concert Hall might still be just an idea. And there are some other local causes, such as keeping MOCA afloat, in which Broad seems at times one of the only major players to involve himself.

There's the rub. While America's second-largest city is chock-a-block with millionaires and billionaires, why is Broad's often the only hand raised when help is solicited from the city's wealthiest citizens for various civic institutions? Where is the rest of the city's elite? There is no analogous figure to Broad in New York or Chicago, because both of those cities are home to so many more high-dollar civic donors than you find in L.A. that no one donor predominates.

Why this Angeleno disconnect? Partly, it stems from the fact that Los Angeles has always been the most de-centered of cities, and not just physically. Sixty years ago, its WASP elite ran the local banks, oil companies and newspapers; Jews, whom the WASP elites shunned, ran the studios; and beyond the city limits, aviation moguls ran the region's biggest factories.

Through the first half of the 20th century, the city's wealthiest (WASP) businessmen informally — and later more formally through the Committee of 25 — joined forces to influence the city's politics. But not until the 1950s, when Dorothy Chandler began strong-arming the city's wealthiest residents (both WASPs and Jews) to fund construction of the Music Center, did the city's elite focus on cultural concerns.

For a time, then, the city had a genuine cultural elite, and it was responsible for creating and endowing many of the arts institutions that survive today. But it began to crumble as the business concerns its members controlled left the city and the region.

Today, virtually all the local banks, oil companies, studios and aerospace companies have been taken over by conglomerates headquartered in distant states or nations that don't see Los Angeles as their town. Nor are the many wealthy investors or Hollywood millionaires who live in L.A. necessarily invested in L.A. — or, by extension, in its civic betterment. They are as connected to the city as they want to be, and in far-flung, polycentric, polyethnic Los Angeles, that often means not very much.

A similar dearth of civic sensibility is at the root of L.A.'s historically low rate of participation in city elections (which, to be sure, are strangely scheduled to come just as voters are catching their breath after presidential elections).

There are many reasons for the underdevelopment of L.A.'s political culture: to name just two, the fragmentation of local governance among the county, the city, the other 86 cities within the county, and who-knows-how-many school and special districts; and the focus of local television news on anything but public affairs.

Another factor is the absence of citywide political institutions. Municipal government has been nonpartisan in California since 1911, which means there are no citywide party organizations as there are in most big cities. In the last 15 years, organized labor has effectively stepped into that void for a segment of the population, turning out its members, and working-class Latinos more generally, in certain elections. Its impact on L.A. mayoral contests, though, has been at best a sometime thing.

Disconnection defines Los Angeles. Eli Broad and voters in city elections have this much in common: They're entitled to feel lonely.

Harold Meyerson is editor at large of the American Prospect and an op-ed columnist for the Washington Post.

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