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How Los Angeles Lost Its Mojo

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 

into an
Athens by the Pacific


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
the Pacific.

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.

The machine
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.


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Mr. Kotkin is a professor of urban development at Chapman University. This article is adapted from the Summer 2011 issue of City Journal.

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14 Responses to How Los Angeles Lost Its Mojo

  1. Unfortunately, Joel understates the corruption in LA.

  2. Wayne from Encino says:

    Athens? L.A. is more like Tripoli by the Sea! We have the same type of leadership in L.A. that exists in Libya, a set of puppet petit-dictators called “CounselClowns”, a figurehead Pinhead called “Da’Mayor”, and the Legal Representative: The Duke of San Pedro Carmen “Gaga” Trutanich. Then we have the peasants and the slaves, known as the homeowners and businessowners of L.A. No wonder Havana is L.A.’s true “Sister-City!”

  3. Silly Me says:

    Good-bye LA, good-bye.
    You use to fly high to the sky.
    You even reached the stars;
    but now you are marred
    You’ve been sold to campaigns
    by those leaders with reins,
    whose caring they feign
    are for personal gain.
    It’s left you stained.
    And yet in your wake,
    there’s a glisten that makes
    me remember an LA where glory was our stake.
    Good-bye my LA, I loved you so.
    I grieve for you now for I must go.
    I grieve for those who knew you well,
    for the union’s swell has made you Hell
    to those that helped you grow.
    For those voters who lacked
    a united back
    it may be too late.
    You’ve sealed it’s fate.
    But how would you know
    as the leaders throw
    false hopes of an LA
    we once use to know?
    Good-bye my LA
    I loved you so
    But now you are someone
    I do not know.

  4. Anonymous says:

    You, pathetic and clueless voters, can only blame yourself for LA destruction.
    And it’s soooooo nice for people like Kotkin to acknowledge this now — where was he like 20 years ago?
    People you lost it and nothing can be done to turn the city around. Way too many takers who don’t contribute, way too much corruption and pretty low quality of life for somebody who does not reside in one of those gated conclaves.
    Just pleasant weather, otherwise almost like Detroit.

  5. Anonymous says:

    For those who have not read the article, here is an excerpt that highlights all that is wrong with LA. It is our Mayor & his development buddies who are destroying our city even as they enrich themselves.
    The article hits the nail on the head by writing that “Mayor V, a former labor organizer, has little understanding of private-sector economic development beyond well-connected real-estate interests whom he has courted and which have supported him. He has been a strong backer of LA Live and other projects that have benefitted from favorable tax treatment and major public infratructure investments. He’s currently supporting a push to build a new downtown football stadium though LA has no football team. His biggest priority is to build the so-called subway to the sea,a $40 billion train line to connect downtown with the Pacific.
    But LA’s downtown employs a mere 2.5% of the region’s workforce;New York’s Central business district, by contrast, employ 20%. “To put the entire focus of development on downtown LA”, says Ali Modarees, chairman of the geography department at Cal State LA, “is to ignore the historical, cultural, economic and social forces that have shaped the larger geography of this metropolitan area”.
    Moreover, the Mayor’s accent downtown is on housing, not manufacturing—which doesn’t create the jobs that small manufacturers do”

  6. Anonymous says:

    8:27. And? You didn’t see this 2 years ago and re-elected Villar?
    And just this month some of you have elevated that corrupt bimbo Hahn to congress. Way to go!

  7. Anonymous says:

    8:45, so why did you elect Hahn to Congress?

  8. Anonymous says:

    8:49 am
    not all of us voted for Hahn- not my district, but many of us worked hard telephoning for Huey. I guess that is what you mean.
    I agree with you, however. Too many voters did not vote in all the elections. Just because you work for a union doesn’t mean you have to vote
    their way. They lie when they tell you that
    they will know how you vote. Vote at a polling place to make sure and vote your own vote.

  9. Anonymous says:

    8:27. And? You didn’t see this 2 years ago and re-elected Villar?
    And just this month some of you have elevated that corrupt bimbo Hahn to congress. Way to go!

  10. Anonymous says:

    Let’s face it that most of the bloggers on this site did not vote for the Mayor or any of the current Councilmembers. We are more informed about City Hall corruption and are trying to find solutions, so please weigh-in how to get our city out of these corrupt hands, instead of laying blame.

  11. Bernard Pez says:

    I find Joel Kotkin’s romance with Leave It To Beaver Land to be a joke and his sense that it is under constant threat a joke. Since when are single family house neighborhoods in Los Angeles under threat? Name one. Sure the traffic is bad but does anyone think building more roads is the solution? What clowns like Kotkin are really objecting to is that they don’t like the mix that Los Angeles in 2011 is. They can no longer compete. You really want to glorify the days of fossil fuel providers? Move to Houston and tell me how it is in twenty tears. And as for Downtown, doesn’t it make sense to encourage growth in Downtown precisely to protect single family neighborhoods that people like Kotkin and Humphreville choose to live in? What about that Humphreville, what an old fogy blowhard. He always knows what’s wrong but has very few constructive ideas other than more government jobs like the so-called rate payer advocate. Hey Jack, if you don’t like the way things are run for office. What a bunch of non-visionaries and nattering nabobs. Kids in this town are sick and tired of people like Kaye and Kotkin with their old school golden age myths trying to push Los Angeles back to a time when it was the most non-diverse, non-culturally sophisticated, Sam Yorty ignorent, dependent upon the federal government for cold war military contracts big city in the United States. Pete Wilson? This is who we are reduced to celebrating with this gang. Los Angeles has always been different than other big cities and as it grows and changes it is also going to grow in a way that is different than New York, or Houston, or Chicago, and certainly Detroit. Thank goodness.

  12. Anonymous says:

    Wow! Mr Urban Planner Pez, you sure have answers to everything, don’t you. If you can answer one simple question about whether the current infrastructure in LA can support your vision of dystopia, please share it with us.

  13. Anonymous says:

    So, would Los Angeles’ transnational-gangster underworld-establishment be an example of diverse-cultural visionary-sophistication? Good grief!

  14. I think the article is spot-on, as I lived in L.A. before; the business community needs to be rebuilded somehow.

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