Los Angeles

Early this spring, the guests at a small dinner party in the Hollywood hills were chatting about Portnoy’s Complaint, pausing occasionally to watch the lights of Los Angeles dance across the sprawling plain below. The talk gradually drifted toward politics, and a well-respected leader of the state Democratic Party declared: “Abraham Lincoln couldn’t get elected mayor of Los Angeles if he were black.” The guests nodded sadly in agreement and returned quickly to the more cheerful topic of youthful sexual fantasies. For a few days in May it appeared that the Democratic politician might have been wrong. The polls showed that Thomas Bradley, the first Negro ever to make a serious race for the Los Angeles mayoralty, was leading Mayor Sam Yorty by a wide margin. But Yorty’s campaign played on every secret fear: blacks and Reds, students and muggers, all somehow organized to “take over” Los Angeles, and other big cities as well. When the votes were counted, the mayor had been re-elected by 53 percent to Bradley’s 47 percent.

What was it about life in Los Angeles that made voters so responsive to an appeal exploiting fear? Why should Angelenos re-elect Sam Yorty after 74 percent of them were so dissatisfied with his record that they voted for other candidates in the primary?

What city?

Christopher Rand once wrote of Los Angeles as “the ultimate city,” but it is really the “minimal city,” a very private city; in fact, not much of a city at all. (Novelist Alison Lurie was closer when she called it “nowhere city.”) It grew from a small central core as neighboring communities annexed themselves to get cheap water, but today, annexed or bound, few people identify with the larger municipality. Hardly anyone even admits to being from Los Angeles: people say they are from Van Nuys or Hollywood or Pacific Palisades, and it is amazing for a newcomer to find that these are not separate towns, but part of the city.

People cluster in these areas, each one with its own high school and shopping center, and conveniently disclaim responsibility for the rest of the city, particularly for the Negro districts. This is rather easy to do, since the largest black section in South Central Los Angeles is twenty miles away from many of the better white areas. One morning I drove with Bradley from his small home on the outskirts of the South Central area, across the Santa Monica mountains to the San Fernando Valley, the heartland of the white middle class. It took us more than half an hour, and most of the time he talked about how he wanted “to bring the city together.” After Bradley had made such statements in public a few times, one local newsman said: “He wants to make Los Angeles into a city, but people here don’t want to live in one.”

Watts, in the South Central district, is further isolated by the lack of adequate transportation linking it to the central city and outlying industrial parks. The McCone Commission investigating the Watts riots pointed out that it was almost impossible for many local residents to get to work on public transportation, and little has changed; it still takes several hours to get almost anywhere from Watts without a car.

(But if you’re a black man with a police record you often cannot get credit to buy a car, even if you have a job. And if you own a house, it has been virtually impossible since the riot to get either insurance or a horne-improvement loan.)

When asked about his position on sueh issues as low-cost housing, job training, or rapid transit, Mayor Yorty insists these problems are not his responsibility (as he did several years ago during a famous confrontation with Robert Kennedy at a Senate hearing) and that the Los Angeles charter limits the mayor’s legal power. Bradley maintained during the campaign that the mayor can exert leadership by appealing to public opinion and negotiating with the City Council, the County Board of Supervisors, and various independent boards and commissions which do have legal authority. But Yorty’s laissez-faire attitude coincided with the viewpoint of many of his constituents.

The isolation of individual communities is aggravated by the isolation of individual people. As the city gets more crowded, apartment buildings are becoming more popular, but most Los Angeles residents (more than two thirds) still live in one-family homes with lawns they cultivate assiduously. Many Watts residents, too, live in small homes on separate lots; they are often wretched inside but seem presentable from the street. There is at least a feeling of air and space which distinguishes Watts from the almost claustrophobic gloom pervading the tenement-lined streets of a place like Harlem. The sun gets in here. Flowers bloom in many yards, and occasionally you find a lemon tree. Great swaths of open space have been set aside to accommodate power lines running from a big generating plant, and a local antipoverty agency has used the vacant area to plant small vegetable farms and nurseries.

The radio, which plays a central role in everyone’s life because so much time is spent in the car, advertises a bewildering array of plant food (plugged by a husky-voiced “Mrs. Nature”), “superweedilizer,” and rust-resistant paint. (Buyers are warned not to purchase one particular brand during the week, because they’ll get so excited they’ll stay home and miss work to get at those crudely old lawn chairs.) If the New York Times magazine makes its money from underwear ads, the Los Angeles Times thrives on pitches for swimming pools and their accouterments.

On a recent Sunday one was urged to buy a “baby-sitter” for the pool that keeps the water chlorinated even while you’re on vacation; an automatic water sweeper; and a chemical that rids one’s household of that insidious blight, “old-fashioned pool water.” These homes, moreover, are seldom part of an organic unit. Many of them were constructed alter the war in endless tracts that are almost caricatures of atomization. Even today, homebuilding rivals aerospace as the state’s top industry, and while the latest developments have placed a greater emphasis on planning, they still find it hard to avoid the brittle sterility of most tract houses. There are many districts in Los Angeles, but few real neighborhoods. (In their search for privacy, some people have taken to the water; 20 percent of 6000 boat owners in a new marina here live on their boats.)

All loads

The primacy of the automobile in Southern California is legendary. Fifty-five percent of downtown Los Angeles is devoted to streets, gas stations, showrooms, and parking lots (the latest plan is to pave over a little garden in front of the public library, one of the last remaining green spots in downtown L.A.) . Close to 80 percent of the commuters drive their own cars to work, and about the only rapid transit around is the monorail at Disneyland. It is harder to find a taxicab than a college president without ulcers. Art Hoppe, the columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle, once said that the typical Los Angeles resident was “a well-preserved, middle-aged, middle-class, two-door Chevrolet sedan.”

All roads eventually lead to supermarkets the size of football fields that should have rest stations in the aisles for anyone foolish enough to try to make it front the baked goods to the fresh vegetables in one trip. The enclave of Santa Monica has closed several streets and created a pleasant shopping mall; it is one of the few spots where people walk from store to store, interacting in the way that can make urban life so vital, but it is a rare place. Many people do not even go to the beach or other public places for recreation; they have their own weedilized lawns and pampered pools. You can usually get a ticket to a play or a reservation at a restaurant with little trouble; many people prefer to stay home.

James Q. Wilson has suggested that it is not the rootlessness of Southern Californians which makes them conservative so much as their devotion to their private lives and material possessions. And they do not want those lives disturbed by a central government which insists that they are part of a larger community and have some responsibility toward it. This factor shows itself on the issues of taxes. In April, three measures to raise revenues for city schools were defeated by the voters, and next year many school programs will have to be curtailed.

But rootlessness is a problem, for there is no settled community structure in Los Angeles, few traditions or institutions that have any history or influence. There seem to be few norms for what to do, how to dress, where to go. Chancellor Charles Young of UCLA wears turtlenecks for his official portraits, and many tradesmen show up in long hair and mustache. Ties and shoes are considered unnecessary apparel for all but the most formal affairs. Los Angeles is growing so fast (the city has gained almost 450,000 people since 1960), and so many people are from somewhere else, that this can be a particularly lonely place. Los Angeles has spawned the “singles” apartment complex—a sort of perpetual freshman mixer for those seeking ready companionship. The Sunday paper regularly advertises more than a dozen computer dating services promising instant bliss for the mateless reader. They have even begun to specialize: Christians, divorcees, and one outfit called Man to Man. The Los Angeles Free Press, an underground paper, carries pages of ads for “swingers,” couples or singles who want to trade bed partners ("The In Crowd. Why not find out for yourself? Where FREE EXPRESSION is always YOUR decision! Modern—Discreet. Couples and Singles”) . For those seeking solace in less energetic ways, the papers also carry a full list of Southern California’s patented religious eccentricities. (Dr. Fletcher Harding spoke recently at the Community Church of Religious Science on “How to be frustrated successfully.”The same page also advertised Zzyzx, California, a desert retreat that promises glowing good health it you take regular mineral baths and listen daily to the preaching oi Dr. Curtis Springer. Zzyzx has its own airstrip for better-heeled converts.)

There are few cohesive “ethnic groups,” except for the Mexicans, who have been slow to enter community life. It is hard to find a Polish-American home or a little Italian family restaurant. There are plenty of old people (more than 10 percent of the population is over sixty-five), but they have usually returned here for the weather, and their children and grandchildren often live somewhere else. There are ten divorces for every twelve marriages. Los Angeles has a special telephone number teen-agers can call for help on a wide variety of problems, and a “free clinic" where they can go, without their parents’ knowledge, for advice about pregnancy, venereal disease, and other youthful afflictions. The good weather also draws kids from all over the country, and the Pacific Coast Highway is usually lined with stray teen-agers looking for rides. They are hippie-hobos, dropouts, and wanderers, living on the beach or in mountain cabins, enjoying the sun and the ocean and the cheap grass, rootless and free. The huge aerospace industry adds to the feeling of impermanence. Workers expect to be transferred every few years as old government contracts phase out and new ones begin. This spring alone, close to 10,000 local workers were dismissed after the Air Force canceled the Manned Orbital Laboratory contract. In one community dominated by the defense industry, the average family stays only four years.

Many older residents are veterans of the great wave of immigration from the Middle West, and while this is hardly Marlboro Country, people preserve a residue of the frontier spirit, or think they do. This helps explain their affection for a man like Yorty, who has always been known as a “gutty little guy” and a “political maverick" who stood up to the “bosses” and the politicians. (A registered Democrat, Yorty has supported Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, among other Republicans.) It is a form of contemporary Populism that remains suspicious of bigness and sophistication, of Easterners and city slickers. Yorty, who came from Nebraska at the age of seventeen, repeatedly denounced the “Eastern money and influence” he said was pouring into Los Angeles to support Bradley. (Edward Kennedy, Edmund Muskie, and other Eastern politicians made TV and radio tapes endorsing Bradley. Charles Percy came here personally for the laying on of hands.) At one news conference Yorty pointedly refused to answer a question posed by a reporter for a big Eastern newspaper while the television cameras rolled. But Yorty’s favorite target was the Los Angeles Times and its publisher, Otis Chandler, who had supported the mayor in 1961 and 1965 but turned against him after uncovering several scandals in his administration. (Yorty sued the rimes for libel after a cartoon showed two white-coated attendants waiting for him with a straitjacket, but the case was thrown out.) Yorty chided Chandler, the scion of one of the city’s few aristocratic families, as a “spoiled rich kid”; he attacked the Times, a paper with enormous local influence, for its “alliance with the extreme left-wing.”

Check art

Although Yorty was able to conjure up a campaign specter of “downtown interests,” hardly anyone in Los Angeles really qualifies as “society” or “old money.” Big fortunes are seldom more than a generation old and were earned in real estate, oil, or the movies. Los Angeles, and the entire West Coast for that matter, still depend largely on Eastern capital. There is little here to compare with the august financial institutions of Wall Street, except the Bank of America (which now offers a choice of eight full-color California scenes on its checks) . The pillars of the community, the men who donate theaters at the Music Center, own savings and loan associations that grew into billion-dollar enterprises during the postwar housing boom. On Wilshire Boulevard there is a bronze bust of a man who earned metallic immortality by building a shopping center.

UCLA, one of the oldest colleges in the state, celebrated its fiftieth anniversary this year, while Harvard was approaching its three hundred and fiftieth. The city of Compton, founded in 1880, boasts about its age. Labor unions have a stranglehold on newspapers in New York, but they cannot even get a contract with the Los Angeles Times or the Herald-Examiner. Political parties are just as ineffectual. Until a few years ago a candidate could run in both the Republican and Democratic primaries: party loyalty is about as prevalent as chastity. The lack of ethnic groups also helps free political life from formal patterns that are common in the East. Los Angeles did not even have a major league baseball team until 1954, and when it got a second one, the California Angels, the team moved to the suburbs. The most popular institution seems to be the police department, well known to television viewers through the Dragnet series. It is not only that people are frightened; the police are about the only group that links the city together. Yorty always gets a hand when he praises them as the “best in the country,” and he scored heavily against Bradley by predicting that his opponent’s election would provoke hundreds of resignations from the force (even though Bradley had been a policeman for twenty years) .

Even physically the city exudes a certain instability and impermanence. Few structures stand taller than two or three stories. An “old building” is one built before 1950. The city strings out along endless parallel boulevards with no focus or center. The skyline at night reminds one vaguely of Paterson, New Jersey. There aren’t even many tall trees. Out beyond tiie San Fernando Valley you know there are mountains, but they are seldom visible through the smog. Ail the talk about an imminent earthquake has some geological justification. But it also suggests that a lot of people are unsure and vulnerable to threats as implausible as California’s breaking off into the sea. The kooky cults of Southern California are well known, but they are not here merely because peoples’ brains get addled in the sun. Black magic and astrology are big businesses; many people ask your zodiacal sign before they ask your name. (For five dollars a year you can now get your horoscope within seconds through a computer operated by a firm called Zodiatronics.)

There is something else to say: many of the aspects of Los Angeles which produce insecurity and reaction are also liberating. 1 he lack of a community structure, or hoary institutions looming over you psychologically as well as physically, of rules and traditions and expectations, all these contribute to a certain sense of freedom.

Even the physical character of the city has its effects. Because it is so spread out, no one goes to the same place at the same time; you can get a parking space or a theater ticket without feeling that you are competing against thousands of people for it. There is room to breathe here (on smogless days), at least for the time being; bulldozers are as ubiquitous as sports cars. When I lived on the West Side of Manhattan my front window looked out on a grimy brick wall. If I craned my neck a bit I could catch a glimpse of the sky, and down the block was a scraggly little tree. Now I look out on trees and flowers and last reaches of the Pacific, dotted with sailboats. Last month I saw three deer in our backyard.



Georgiana Stevens lias written extensively about the Middle East, as has Alfred Friendly, Sr., who is associate editor of the Washington Post.

Steven V. Roberts is Los Angeles bureau chief for the New York Times. Ronald Steel, author of Pax Americana, was recently in Haiti.