November 25, 1997
Prof. Dennis R. Judd, Ph.D.
The Story of Los Angeles and Its Potential Ramifications for the Rest of the World, St. Louis in Particular
In City of Quartz, Mike Davis portrays a bleak metropolis called Los Angeles, California. Davis's L.A. is corrupt and seedy, despite its bright, sunny appearance. Davis's description of Los Angeles can help lend insight into understanding other metropolitan areas, particularly St. Louis. Although many of L.A.'s conditions are unique, they produce results which have spread nationwide, perhaps even worldwide, and exist within the context of broader societal movements. However, these products of an ultimately laissez-faire capitalist, open-shop based society are unsustainable, given that Los Angeles is an automobile-based society in a world of increasing dominance on more expensive oil reserves. Joe Frank.
Los Angeles made its mark on the world because it became a center of the communications, defense and entertainment industries. As the city has geographically overtaken more and more of the desert lands surrounding it, it has also symbolically spread its influence even further. Davis encountered a human example of this spread when he met two immigrants from Central America, who had come to the burgeoning outskirts of the L.A. metropolitan area, following the new housing developments in order to get work. "One of my [Davis's] new Llano companeros said that L.A. already was everywhere. They had watched it every night in San Salvador, in endless dubbed reruns of I Love Lucy, and Starsky and Hutch, a city where everyone was young and rich and drove new cars and saw themselves on television" (Davis 1990, p. 12). Yet upon completion of his pilgrimage to L.A., the immigrant discovered "No one like him was rich or drove a new car--except for the coke dealers--and the police were as mean as back home. More importantly no one like him was on television; they were all invisible" (12). Joe Frank.
While Los Angeles had a message to spread to the entire world, it did not necessarily have a unique culture. Instead, it imported the best of the rest of the world. Joe Frank.
". . . this essentially deracinated city has become the world capital of an immense Culture Industry, which since the 1920s has imported myriads of the most
talented writers, filmmakers, artists and visionaries. Similarly, since the 1940s,
the Southern California aerospace industry and its satellite think-tanks
have assembled the earth's largest single concentration of Ph.D. scientists
and engineers. In Los Angeles immigrant mental labor is collectivized
in huge apparatuses and directly consumed by big capital. Almost everyone is either on a corporate payroll or waiting hopefully at the studio gate" (18). Joe Frank.
However, the physical development of the city cannot be overlooked. The "Arroyo Set" of writers and publicists created a vision "of Southern California as the promised land of a millenarian Anglo-Saxon racial odyssey. They inserted a Meditterneanized idyll of New England life into the perfumed ruins of an innocent but inferior 'Spanish' culture" (20). This late nineteenth to early twentieth century movement was essentially a public relations campaign, which set the stage for "the giant real-estate speculations of the early twentieth century that transformed Los Angeles from small town to metropolis" (20). Joe Frank.
This philosophy of building L.A. has been dominated by "the construction/interpretation of the city myth, which enters the material landscape as a design for speculation and domination (as Allan Seager suggests, 'not [as] fantasy imagined but [as] fantasy seen'). Even though Los Angeles's emergence from the desert has been an artifact of giant public works, city-building has otherwise been left to the anarchy of market forces" (23). Rather than architecture, "celluloid or the electronic screen have remained the dominant media of the region's self-expression. Compared to other great cities, Los Angeles may be planned or designed in a very fragmentary sense (primarily at the level of infrastructure) but it is infinitely envisioned." (23) Joe Frank.
The growth of Los Angeles has been likewise the product of the great Manifest Destiny credo of the United States. In this respect, Los Angeles has excelled in creating a city for its own sake, rather than one naturally positioned for development by its ready access to natural resources. Joe Frank.
"[In 1884], Los Angeles was just a back-country town (the 187th largest in the
1880 Census) tributary to imperial San Francisco, with little water or capital,
and no coal or port. . . Thirty-five years later, Los Angeles was the biggest
city in the West, approaching a million inhabitants, with an artificial river
tapped from the Sierras, a federally subsidized harbor, an oil bonanza, and
block after block of skyscrapers under construction. Unlike other American
cities that maximized their comparative advantages as crossroads,
capitals, seaports, or manufacturing centers, Los Angeles was first and
above all the creature of real-estate capitalism: the culminating speculation,
in fact, of the generations of boosters and promoters who had subdivided
and sold the West from the Cumberland Gap to the Pacific" (25). Joe Frank.
The miracle of Los Angeles was also substantially influenced by the breaking of its unions. Colonel Harrison Gray Otis, owner of the Los Angeles Times during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, "took command of the city's business organization on behalf of panic-stricken speculators" when the initial boom in population collapsed (25). "To revive the boom, and to launch a reckless competition with San Francisco (the most unionized city in the world), he militarized industrial relations in Los Angeles. Existing unions were locked out, picketing was virtually outlawed, and dissidents were terrorized" (25). Building upon this triumph of capitalism led by a charismatic leader, "a syndicate of developers, bankers and transport magnates . . . set out to sell Los Angeles--as no city had ever been sold--to the restless but affluent babbitry of the Middle West. . . This massive flow of wealth between regions produced population, income and consumption structures seemingly out of all proportion to Los Angeles's actual production base" (25). Joe Frank.
This principle of growth is good has produced a metropolitan area of over 15 million people, second largest in the United States and among the top twenty in the world, with intentions to expand across the entire Mojave Desert, and rapidly encompassing San Diego and Tijuana, Mexico within itself. Los Angeles is a city with many centers of activity, but no center of socialization. Even though the traditional power structure may reside in Downtown L.A., there has long been a competing "predominantly Jewish and Democratic Westside" (101). Thanks to the post-World War Two Asian miracle, "more powerful players" from Tokyo who have access to vast financial capital, have overtaken these ruling classes (101). Although the fortunes of many of those Tokyo corporations and executives have tumbled in November 1997, the impact of those declines may not be as great as feared. In any case, those drops will affect the entire world, not just Los Angeles. New York has also exercised its corporate influence in many of Southern California's commercial interests, and a few large Toronto-based companies have also overtaken some key properties (101). In the 1990s, the influence of Washington legislators and offficials cannot be overlooked, because the down-ramping of the Cold War and the military base closure commissions have substantially decreased the number of defense-related jobs available in Southern California. So Los Angeles is a city with many powerful leadership voices. Joe Frank.
Los Angeles is not "a hick town with a single 'executive committee of the ruling class' " (101). By that test, St. Louis is. In St. Louis, Missouri, Civic Progress, Inc., the most powerful leadership group in the metropolitan area, is composed of the chief executive officers of the largest locally headquarted corporations. "Not only do these individuals command the resources of huge national and often multinational organizations, but they also can and sometimes do coordinate their efforts by working through a single entity: Civic Progress" (Jones 1992, p. 47). This is not to say, of course, that Civic Progress has oligarchical, stable control over decision-making in St. Louis. Especially as the corporate headquarters of many entities are relocated away from St. Louis, the influence of this body is diminished. Its philosophy is focused on "addressing primarily projects and issues on which the business community can have a direct impact" (51). The 1992 death of Robert Hyland, a member of the upper echelons of St. Louis's power structure by virtue of his innovative revamping of the KMOX-AM radio station into a powerhouse all-talk, news-and-information station, has likewise weakened the potential of a united front in St. Louis. Some claim that St. Louis Regional Hospital, the only public hospital in the area until its virtual shutdown in 1997, would have remained in operation had Hyland still been around to ensure it. However, given his long time leadership of St. Anthony's Medical Center, which has established a profit-motivated near-monopoly in health care for South St. Louis County, a suburban area of over 100,000 people, he more likely would have supported Regional's shutdown and replacement by a consortium of the other local hospitals. Meanwhile, Civic Progress is frequently criticized for its monolithic qualities; all its members are white males with the exception of ex-officio members Mayor Clarence Harmon and UM-St. Louis Chancellor Blanche Touhill. Joe Frank.
The official leadership of St. Louis is hampered by its very cacophony. In Los Angeles, a large proportion of the population lives within the boundaries of the city proper, although much of that territory is quite suburban in character. Even with hundreds of other municipalites, the mayor of Los Angeles has a substantial population base, with a noticeable middle-class component, which gives that office the major voice in regional affairs. This is not to say that white flight has not affected the city of Los Angeles--it certainly has. However, in St. Louis, escape from the city meant simply moving out past Skinker, Goodfellow, or River des Peres. Until the 1970s, that meant escape from darker-skinned individuals. Now of course, in order to be in a lily-white environment, moving out of St. Louis County is a requisite. Similar patterns developed in Los Angeles, but in an area of rapid overall population growth. In metro St. Louis, the total population has remained reasonably stable. Also, Los Angeles City is by far the largest municipality within Los Angeles County, even if the County bureaucracy is substantially larger than the City's (Davis 1990, p.133). Not so in St. Louis. Joe Frank.
In the St. Louis area, the St. Louis County Executive has an entirely separate constituency from the St. Louis City Mayor, because since 1876 the City of St. Louis has been an independent city, so that it has both county and municipal functions. Interestingly, the 'county' offices of St. Louis City are exempt from the traditional merit system of employee recruitment and selection; instead, positions are given in county offices based on patronage. The County Executive is elected from a population base of approximately one million, including a substantial suburban middle-class. The Mayor represents about 350,000 people, a number declining every hour, and governs a city with a relatively high poverty rate. The County Executive seemingly has a greater mandate than the Mayor, especially since the County Council consists of only seven members, while the Mayor must deal with 28 aldermen, and does not have unilateral executive authority over budgeting, nor control of the police department. Joe Frank.
Yet the County Executive is hampered by the existence of 92 municipalites, ranging in population from less than twenty (Peerless Park and Champ, where citizen participation is virtually guaranteed, since almost half the adult population holds elective office), to over 50,000 (Florissant). Municipal residents generally pay more attention to the activities of their municipal officials, to the extent that they take notice of local politics at all. The county government does have primary control over the unincorporated areas, which are shrinking even in the long-time holdout areas of South St. Louis County. As annexations and occasion incorporations (most recently Wildwood in far West County and Green Park, a small, sales-tax rich section of central South County) erode the tax base, only a few pockets, likely disinvested areas such as Castle Pointe or Carsonville in near North County, and Lemay in South County, will remain. Joe Frank.
Perhaps creation of an agglomerated city in St. Louis County could improve the situation. Like the suburban San Fernando Valley section of Los Angeles City, a large city in West and Central St. Louis County could provide services in a cost-effective manner while maintaining the all-important property values. Another such city could be formed in South County, and another in North County. Such an endeavor is unlikely to occur, because people like to be close to their government officials, and to have a voice. Some would respond that is precisely why they moved out of St. Louis City--because their concerns and problems were not addressed in a timely manner by city officials. At the very least, however, some attempt at consolidation should be made in the Normandy area; perhaps the villes of Bellerive, Bel-Nor, Bel-Ridge and Greendale could join in order to have viable revenue sources other than from parking tickets and speeding tickets. Joe Frank.
In Los Angeles, socio-economic segmentation and stratification is carried to an extreme hard to fathom in St. Louis. In L.A., homeowners "love their children, but they love their property values more . . . 'Community' in Los Angeles means homogeneity of race, class and, especially, home values" (Davis 1990, p. 153). Also, "the most powerful 'social movement' in contemporary Southern California is that of affluent homeowners, organized by notional community designations or tract names, engaged in the defense of home values and neighborhood exclusivity" (153). Joe Frank.
The Southern California movement known as slow-growth is a key to ensuring this property value stability and increase for affluent homeowners. "With roots in literally hundreds of homeowners' associations, [the slow-growth movement] has emerged . . . to challenge the most powerful economic interest in California today: the land development industry" (156). The first major coup of this movement was the passage of Proposition U, which "reduced developable commercial density in [the City of Los Angeles] by half and imposed a ten-point growth management plan" (156). Quickly, the real estate market reacted. "Anticipating that the slow-growth movement would further constrict the limited supply of developable land, hordes of house-hungry buyers rushed into the market: a self-fulfilling prophecy that led to Tokyo-type escalations in median home values in Los Angeles and Orange counties during 1987" (157). Joe Frank.
However, pro-growth developer-backed forces simply had more money to spend on elections than did the wealthy homeowners. "Measure B (November 1988) which would have restricted future development in [Riverside County's] unincorporated areas was beaten three to two after pro-growth forces outspent slow-growth fifty-five to one. A similar developer-financed, pro-growth blitzkrieg edged out popular growth-control initiatives in San Diego County" (158). Now, "having portrayed the slow-growth movement as virtually invincible in 1986, the press now claimed that the 1988 developers' counter-offensive had left the movement in shambles" (158). Of course, the reality was that positions were shifting, from a "war of maneuver" to a "war of position, involving the courts, the state legislature, and various regulatory bodies, as well as local government" (158). Joe Frank.
This slow-growth movement is quite different from the growth management schemes developed in the San Francisco Bay area in the 1970s. "Beginning with Petaluma's famous 1973 experiment in growth management, more than two dozen cities, along with the designer counties of Marin and Napa, had imposed some kind of moratorium or cap on residential development" (158). However, in Southern California, "the slow-growth movement . . . has been overwhelmingly a movement of homeowners, with some environmentalists serving as organic intellectuals and apologists. . . tenants, with few exceptions, play no role nor are their interests usually addressed" (158). The opposition to such proposals in Southern California has been entrenched, rooted in developers who do not see the potential benefits of increased land values. "Indeed the assault on the development process--and, by implication, upon the rights of corporate land ownership and laissez-faire urbanization--has been sufficiently subversive at times to warrant George Will's warning of 'Sunbelt Bolshevism' " (159). Joe Frank.
Ideologically, it is really more a totalitarian strategy than a socialist one, however. It is totalitarian in the sense that the wealthiest group takes control of its destiny, to the exclusion of the less well-off. "The master discourse . . . is homestead exclusivism, whether the immediate issue is apartment construction, commercial encroachment, school busing, crime, taxes or simply community designation" (159). Restrictionism is the essential component--even though the 1948 Supreme Court case Shelley v. Kraemer officially outlawed racist restrictive covenants, and the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka outlawed de jure public school segregation, homeowners still will do anything they can to protect their property values, which most homeowners interpret as keeping out anything or anyone 'non-conforming' to their moral standards. Joe Frank.
The St. Louis area has not seen such obvious and explicit tactics as these, at least not since Shelley v. Kraemer. In St. Louis, the racists just move away when the non-Caucasians move in. On the individual level, there has certainly been confrontation and recommendation that black folks not move into certain neighborhoods. But in 1997, an entity called the St. Louis Smart Growth Alliance is in its gestational stages. Its main component members are the Sierra Club, the Citizens for Modern Transit, and various churches. So far its aims seem to be diametrically opposed to those of 1980s slow-growth movements in Southern California. Rather than protecting middle-class property values, the Smart Growth Alliance's aim is to halt the construction of the 10-lane Missouri River bridge highway called the Page Avenue Extension, which may alleviate traffic problems for St. Charles County commuters, but would cut a wide swath through Creve Coeur Memorial Park, which was supposed to be preserved in its natural state in perpetuity as a memorial to the veterans of World War Two. Ideally, the funding allocated to the Page extension would somehow be redirected toward MetroLink light rail expansion. Further, there would ultimately result a retrenchment into the urban neighborhoods of St. Louis City and the inner suburbs of St. Louis County and Metro East. After all, areas like University City, Maplewood, Lemay, Wellston and Jennings are just as urban in character and density as are the adjoining sections of St. Louis City. This ideal return of the middle class to the city would ultimately integrate the schools and neighborhoods, thus negating the necessity of voluntary interdistrict desegregation (which itself does not include any of the outlying counties--yet another enticement for individuals with racist tendencies to leave St. Louis County). However, if such a marvelous achievement as the return of the middle-class would occur, what happens to all the poor people? Even if one chooses to ignore that industrial, high-paying, union-benefit, low-skill jobs are being replaced by equally low-skill but much lower-paying, non-unionized service-sector jobs, it is impossible to ignore the existence of the working poor who occupy such positions, and the nominally middle-class families in which everyone over the age of fifteen works in order to support a comfortable lifestyle. Joe Frank.
These families exist both in suburbs and cities. If the people who can genuinely afford to live where they choose do move into inner-urban neighborhoods, and typically purchase houses to live in themselves, they displace the poorer renter families. This gentrification process has occurred in Soulard, in Lafayette Square, in the Central West End and DeBaliviere areas. The fear of many residents of the Forest Park Southeast neighborhood (just south of Barnes-Jewish Hospital/Washington University Medical Center, across Highway 40) is that the very same process will occur in their neighborhood as a result of the millions of dollars being poured into housing reinvestment and revitalization in that area by HUD, Washington University, BJC Health Systems, and the City of St. Louis. While that particular neighborhood certainly can benefit from a makeover of its traditionally rough-and-tumble image--it's home to the 'Big Drink Bar No. 1' at Tower Grove and Race Course Avenues, and was where in 1991 the 9-year-old Christopher Harris was killed when allegedly used as a human shield in a gunfight between two drug dealers in the 4400 block of Gibson Avenue. Nevertheless any urban renewal plan must protect the interests of poor renters, not just serve as a way for a University to impose its largess upon the community. Joe Frank.
Overall, St. Louis can learn from the mistakes of Los Angeles. St. Louisans can try to reverse the sprawl of their metropolis by stopping the incessant construction of freeways to artificial utopias of one acre lots. Mass transit can be encouraged, because unlike Los Angeles, St. Louis still has a framework of historically transit-based development. Los Angeles's success in integration into the world economy is enviable, although real estate speculation is not the most productive method of globalizing a city. The world has come to Los Angeles, but only to the extent that Los Angeles has spread across the world. Older established cities should not try to model Los Angeles's development patterns--yet they often do, to their peril. Joe Frank.
Davis, Mike. City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles. Vintage Books: New York, 1990.
Jones, E. Terry. "Community Leadership." St. Louis Currents. Second Edition. Leadership Center of Greater St. Louis: St. Louis, 1992.
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