Editor’s Note: This article by social critic Joel Kotkin, professor of urban development at Chapman University and a frequent writer on Los Angeles, was published in Friday’s Wall Street Journal. It is adapted from a longer article being published in the City Journal’s Summeri Edition.
city’s misguided political leaders
could turn this economic dynamo
Athens by the Pacific.
By JOEL KOTKIN
Los Angeles today is a city in
secular decline. Its current political leadership seems determined to turn the
sprawling capitalist dynamo into a faux New York. But they are more likely to
leave behind a dense, government-dominated, bankrupt, dysfunctional, Athens by
greatness of Los Angeles stemmed from its willingness to be different. Unlike
Chicago or Denver or New York, the Los Angeles metro area was designed not
around a central core but on a series of centers, connected first by railcars
and later by the freeways. The result was a dispersed metropolis where most
people occupied single-family houses in middle-class neighborhoods.
by the pleasant climate and a business-dominated political economy, industries
and entrepreneurs flocked to the region. Initially, the growth came largely
from oil and agriculture, followed by the movie industry. Defense and aerospace
during World War II and the postwar era fostered a vast industrial base, and by
the 1980s Los Angeles had surpassed New York as the nation’s largest port, and
Chicago as the nation’s leading industrial center.
The region hit a rough spot as the
end of the Cold War led to massive federal cutbacks in aerospace. Los Angeles
County lost nearly 500,000 jobs between 1990 and 1993. But it bounced back,
adding nearly 400,000 jobs between 1993 and 1999. Aerospace never fully
recovered, but other parts of the industrial belt–including the port and the
apparel and entertainment industries–grew. An entrepreneurial class of
immigrants–Middle Eastern, Korean, Chinese, Latino–launched new businesses in
everything from textiles and ethnic food to computers. The pro-business
mayoralty of Richard Riordan and the governorship of Pete Wilson restored
confidence among the city’s beleaguered companies.
Then progress stalled. Employment
stayed relatively flat from 2001 until 2005, when Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa
was elected, and then started to drop. As of this March, over the entire L.A.
metropolitan area, which includes adjacent Orange County, unemployment was
11.4%–the third-highest unemployment rate of the nation’s 20 largest metro
Why has Los
Angeles lost its mojo? A big reason is a decline in the power and mettle of the
city’s once-vibrant business community. Between the late 1980s and the end of
the millennium, many of L.A.’s largest and most influential firms–ARCO,
Security Pacific, First Interstate, Union Oil, Sun America–disappeared in a
host of mergers that saw their management shift to cities like London, New York
and San Francisco. Meanwhile, says David Abel, a Democratic Party activist and
publisher of the influential Planning Report, once-powerful groups like the Los
Angeles Chamber of Commerce and the Los Angeles County Economic Development
Corporation lost influence.
that now controls Los Angeles by default consists of an alliance between labor
and the political leadership of the Latino community, the area’s largest ethnic
population. But since politicians serve at the whim of labor interests, they
seldom speak up for homeowners and small businesses.
Mr. Kotkin is a professor of urban development at Chapman University. This article is adapted from the Summer 2011 issue of City Journal.