Los Angeles Is 88 Cities, Many of Them Corrupt

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A primer on America's biggest urban landscape and a source of its civic dysfunction

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There's a lot you don't know about L.A. New York City has five boroughs, 59 community boards, and obscure city agencies aplenty. Even so, every last resident is ultimately represented by Mayor Bloomberg and the City Council. Civic information is available to them on the Web site NYC.gov. And help is a 311 call away. In Los Angeles County, an urban area larger than Rhode Island and Delaware combined, there are 88 municipalities, countless unincorporated areas, and almost 10 million residents, many of whom aren't entirely sure what jurisdiction they're in at any given moment.

Or even where they live:

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The exact boundaries of the City of Los Angeles are especially impossible to delineate when you're driving what may or may not be its streets. Forced to risk $50 if proven wrong, I'd hesitate before telling you that my own neighborhood, Venice, is a mere district in the City of Los Angeles, not its own city. We do have a neighborhood council, whatever that means. It takes me three minutes to escape whatever power it wields: the City of Santa Monica is to my immediate north, and accessible by bike path.

As often, however, I pedal south on a 16 mile route that traverses the unincorporated streets of Marina Del Rey, Playa Del Rey (a beach-side community in the city of Los Angeles), and four incorporated municipalities: El Segundo, Manhattan Beach, Hermosa Beach, and Redondo Beach.

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All lovely places.

But if you're intending to visit, I'd suggest driving or biking, because every time someone has tried to explain the various bus systems that connect them, and the rules for transferring among them, I've experienced that same feeling I had in the class that convinced me to stop taking math.

It usually doesn't matter what city one inhabits at a given moment. But it does come up. My girlfriend, a Venice resident, would take her dog Isabel to the Santa Monica dog park, but doesn't because only licensed Santa Monica dogs are allowed. Here in Venice, no one checks the papers of dogs as they enter the dog park. (We're apparently a bunch of hippies and bohemians.)

Local officials aren't always on top of things. Once I attended a party at the home of a Hollywood screenwriter. (I mean that he works in the entertainment industry, not that he resides in the geographic area of Hollywood, a district in the City of Los Angeles. It is unique in that state law mandates that records be kept as if it were it's own city, even though it's not. Its neighbor, West Hollywood, is its own incorporated municipality.) Anyway, this screenwriter has a great house. On his back patio, which affords a panoramic view of neighborhoods stretching all the way down to the ocean, he told me about the time inspectors from the City of Santa Monica showed up demanding that he pay some fine they were attempting to levy. He insisted he wouldn't pay them. They were smugly certain that he would. He assured them  that they were wrong. They threatened legal action. So he informed them that contrary to their misconception, he lived in the City of Los Angeles, unlike some of his neighbors, who are on the other side of the irregular boundary that separates the cities. In Metro LA, even the people in charge are often unclear on their civic geography.

Despite these SNAFUs, everything on the West Side functions relatively smoothly. In other parts of Los Angeles County, however, the proliferation of independent municipalities causes a lot of problems. Things are especially bad in South LA, which used to be called South Central LA, until the Rodney King riots, after which it re-branded. That didn't stop my San Francisco friends, Deepa and Geoff, from following freeway signs there on an LA visit - they knew place names like Inglewood and Compton from the gangsta rap they listened to growing up, and wanted to see the sites.

It turns out that Dr. Dre and Tupac never rapped about South LA's most brazen lawbreakers. In Maywood, years of financial mismanagement forced the city to dismantle its police department and lay off all city workers. The Los Angeles Times just won a Pulitzer for its coverage of corruption in Bell, where city officials paid themselves many millions in excessive salary and benefits. Something similar happened in Lynwood a few years back: "A majority of the City Council enjoy six-figure incomes; lavish foreign travel and the generous use of city credit cards for meals and entertainment, including steakhouse dinners, a New York musical and a dance show in Rio de Janeiro."

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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