This is part two of a two-part series. Read part one here.
Sandstone cliffs, a peacock-blue ocean, and an endless bar of cream-colored sand filled my first view of greater Los Angeles as I drove south from the Santa Barbara airport on the Pacific Coast Highway and entered Los Angeles County. With the 10,000-foot-high San Gabriel Mountains stepping down to the sea, L.A. appeared too beautiful to be real.
From north to south, greater Los Angeles spans close to a hundred miles of seacoast. I stopped at Santa Monica, a city of 90,000 on the northwest edge of Los Angeles. After checking into a hotel, I looked at a map and saw that the Third Street pedestrian promenade was only half a mile away. My decision to walk there was a mistake I did not repeat in Los Angeles. The scrawny palms provided no shade on the sun-blasted asphalt. Except for a bag lady, a woman pushing her child in a pram, and a young man with tattoos who passed me at high speed on Rollerblades, the street was empty for that half mile—a half mile that took me past the Civic Center and Auditorium, where the Academy Awards ceremony used to be held; the Art Deco town hall; and the Rand Corporation. Rather than people I saw only cars and enormous parking lots.
Cars could not enter Third Street, which was roped off for pedestrians, filled with food and jewelry carts, and packed with shops and restaurants. The result was hordes of people strolling—whereas just across the street and all the way back to my hotel there had been almost none. The crowd here was young, heavily Asian, and fiercely middle-class, dressed, like the crowds I have seen in Brazilian cities, in fashionable leisure and beach wear. I sat down at an outdoor Thai-Chinese restaurant for an early dinner. The manager was Japanese, the hostess Iranian, and the other help Mexican. The Iranian hostess, who wore many rings and had mint-green fingernails, was telling a friend that as a graduation present her father was going to drive her cross-country to see Elvis's grave, at Graceland. On the sidewalk beside my table a large crowd watched a black youth tap dance to Brazilian music. The globalized architecture of the shops and office façades was familiar from the upmarket malls I had seen in the Midwest. Also on Third Street I saw more homeless people than I had ever seen in a similar-sized area in New York City or Washington, D.C. They were doing crossword puzzles, talking to themselves, and trying to enter the restrooms of expensive restaurants before waiters caught them. They were overwhelmingly white and male. I saw one man with long gray hair wearing an Army jacket and a woolen hat despite the 80° temperature. He banged his hand against a bench and shouted disconnectedly. People moved away. The homeless barely threaten the panorama of prosperity secured in Santa Monica by a burgeoning multimedia and software industry, which the well-dressed, thirtyish crowd reflected.
Over the next few days I drove through the suburban San Fernando Valley bordering Santa Monica to the north, which is equally prosperous. Unlike Santa Monica, the San Fernando Valley is part of the City of Los Angeles. Its business and political leaders want to secede. With 1.3 million inhabitants, the San Fernando Valley would constitute the nation's sixth largest urban area, and one of its richest. This is not white flight—40 percent of the valley's residents are Latino or Asian. Among the white population, Jews are the largest ethnic group. These people want to duplicate the prosperity of incorporated post-urban dynamos in northern Los Angeles such as Burbank—now the home of the Walt Disney Company, Warner Brothers, and NBC—and Glendale, 45 percent of whose population is foreign-born Latinos, Asians, and Armenians. Joel Kotkin, a Los Angeles-based urban-affairs specialist, calls the secessionist trend that has already Balkanized St. Louis and other American cities the "urban confederacy movement." Unlike the original secessionists, these activists will win, he thinks, because cities are now too big to work—they can function only as a league of smaller, incorporated pieces.
A third of all U.S.-born middle-class Latinos and more than a quarter of all U.S.-born middle-class Asians in the five-county greater Los Angeles region marry someone of another race. Even the notion of white versus black is losing relevance here, with Latinos constituting 38 percent of the Los Angeles County population and Asians and blacks 11 percent each. The racial polarization that divides Washington, D.C., for example, where white suburbs surround what is, in effect, a black urban homeland, is little apparent in L.A. Even within the Los Angeles city limits blacks make up only 14 percent of the population, whereas they make up 29 percent in New York City. For ten days I drove throughout greater Los Angeles, stopping often to walk in different neighborhoods. Media images of the L.A. riots and the O. J. Simpson trial had prepared me for a city as divided as Washington. But in L.A., where more than eighty languages are spoken, that's not what I found.
Zaheer Virji is a twenty-seven-year-old ethnic-Indian immigrant from the East African nation of Tanzania. He wore a blue-velvet baseball cap, a white T-shirt, jeans, and running shoes when I met him and his American wife in a Santa Monica hotel lobby. Virji's family, which imports goods from Hong Kong to Tanzania, is part of a merchant community from the Indian subcontinent which forms the middle class in Tanzania, along with several other African countries. Virji remembers the times when police thugs under the control of the former Tanzanian President Julius Nyerere harassed his relatives and arrested his uncle. He told me that race relations are "so much better" in southern California than in Africa, where Indians and Africans completely stereotype each other: "I came here to escape not just Africans but Indians, too." (The name Virji is an alias.) He went first to England and then to Canada, where there are large Indian communities. But he didn't feel free. "In those places the community is what is happening. Here in the U.S., it's youthat is happening. There is less of system here, fewer laws to restrict you."
Virji came to the United States six years ago, and has no college degree or green card—yet. In the six months before we spoke, he had earned more by investing in the stock market than his wife had made at her job—a reflection not only of his skill but also of an economy in which stocks and other assets have risen but wages have not. With this money, along with funds from his family in Tanzania, he was looking to buy a business: a flower shop, a gas station, whatever he could get the best deal on. He was using a broker; if the business was a gas station, he told me, he would need to know about underground tanks and environmental regulations. He wanted to go into partnership with the current owner for a three-year transition period, to secure part of his investment if the business did not turn out as advertised. Ten years from now, he explained, he wants to be the owner of a small business with able employees, so that he can spend his time investing the profits in the stock market.
Los Angeles is full of Asian and Latino immigrants creating their own civilization, just as European immigrants did a hundred years ago. Because these new immigrants bring different historical and cultural experiences, and because they are integrating into American society under more-advanced technological conditions than did immigrants in the past, they will further reduce the distance between America and the rest of the world.
I went east from Santa Monica across the City of Los Angeles to the suburbs of Monterey Park and San Gabriel. As I drove, I saw a sprawling metropolis in transition. The official, ceremonial downtown, composed of the convention center, courts, government offices, and the Los Angeles Timesbuilding, looked less vibrant than the new, pedestrian-packed downtowns I saw on the way—Westwood and Beverly Hills, a contiguous area marked by the office buildings of City National Bank, Occidental Petroleum, and others; a Korean church; a Mexican-American real-estate agency; and one of the largest schools in the country that teaches English to foreigners. Several real-estate agents told me that the 1992 riots in heavily black South Central Los Angeles had quickened the exodus of corporations toward the wealthier western part of the city.
I passed through West Hollywood, an area of gays, elderly Jews, and Russian immigrants; Koreatown; and the "Banana Republic," a neighborhood populated by Central American immigrants. The notorious Watts and South Central neighborhoods were one-story encampments of poor blacks encroached upon by the Latino immigrants who make up two thirds of the population of those areas. Upwardly mobile blacks are moving from here to the Moreno Valley and other inexpensive suburbs in an eastern area of greater Los Angeles called the Inland Empire. Watts and South Central are, in ethnic and racial terms, being annexed to Mexican East Los Angeles. Demographers say that in coming years Latinos will dilute the presence of blacks in Los Angeles, as they have already done in Miami. Latinos are now the majority of the region's industrial work force. The number of Latino- and Asian-owned businesses in Los Angeles County has increased from 70,000 to 220,000 since the early 1980s, while the number of black-owned businesses has remained static at 20,000.
I parked in East Los Angeles and walked about a mile past small stores selling furniture and other household goods. I noticed many bridal shops, suggestive of strong family patterns, and many pedestrians, too. Los Angeles, I had begun to realize, was very much a vibrant pedestrian city—in parts. One part I had seen was the largest garment district in North America, whose narrow alleys are packed with Latinos, Asians, and Middle Easterners, a throwback to early-twentieth-century New York. This vast confederation teems with successful commercial and residential areas like the Third Street Promenade and East Los Angeles. But you need a car to travel between them.
From the "Mexico" of East Los Angeles I crossed into "Asia": Monterey Park and San Gabriel, once gray and run-down and now booming with glittering banks, supported by Hong Kong Chinese and Chinese-American immigrant money, and many new malls, among them San Gabriel Square.
At this mall, which is decorated with Spanish colonnades, I entered the 99 Ranch Market, part of a California Chinese supermarket chain. At first it seemed like any other enormous American supermarket, with dozens of aisles and too much air-conditioning. But nearly every product in the store was an Asian specialty item, either imported or grown in the Los Angeles area. Chinese food stores are common in the nation's various Chinatowns, and so, increasingly, are supermarkets like this one. But never before had I seen forty aisles, each a hundred yards long, devoted to noodles, pork, taro, tofu, pea sprouts, dried shrimp, soybean paste, spicy bean cabbage, dried seaweed, rice spirits, and also Thai, Korean, and Japanese items. Next door was a Chinese restaurant with an overabundance of employees and an absence of Western cutlery or Caucasian customers. Women crossed the red floor pushing food trolleys filled with saucers of chicken feet and other dishes.
An all-new Asian-American civilization is forming here, and flourishing, too. Pacific Rim cultures that were antagonistic for centuries are cooperating in the California marketplace. Traditionally nations rise and fall; but at the 99 Ranch Supermarket I wondered if America might escape that fate by shedding its skin as a nation to reveal an international civilization.
I visited another pan-Asian supermarket, this one to the south—in Cerritos, once a dairy-farming district but now a planned, incorporated community 45 percent of whose inhabitants are Asian. The checkout counters are manned by Latinos, and the customers are mainly Chinese. A few blocks away I called on Vincent Diau, a forty-four-year-old who emigrated from Taiwan in 1981. Though ethnic Chinese account for only 2.7 percent of Los Angeles County's population, one in five home buyers in the county is Chinese, and such top Los Angeles hotels as the Beverly Wilshire and the Los Angeles Biltmore are Chinese-owned. Diau wore expensive glasses and casual clothes; there were two cars in his driveway and new appliances in his house. Everything was in perfect order, almost as though nobody lived there, although Diau and his Chinese-American wife, Alice, a schoolteacher, share the house with their two children. The children's academic awards were framed near a violin and a piano, and their schedule for music lessons and other after-school activities was posted on a wall beside charts of the English alphabet and Chinese characters. The Diaus own a computer, as do 72 percent of Chinese-Americans; 53 percent of Chinese-American families are linked to the Internet, in contrast to 11 percent of all families. (Forty percent of Asian-American adults hold college degrees—almost twice the percentage of Caucasians.)
Diau told me, "I moved to Cerritos for the same reason that many Chinese and Korean immigrants have—because Whitney High School is one of the best public high schools in the state." Diau has law and political-science degrees from universities in Taiwan, and a law degree from Tulane; he is a consultant on Asia with the Hughes Corporation. People complain about the American legal system, he told me, but compared with those in Asia it is straightforward: "If you have discipline and determination and a strategic goal, this country is simple; only the language and alphabet are hard." Because Americans are clear and informal, "you can cut through issues quickly," he said. "In Taiwan everyone wants to control you: there is so much social pressure. Here, among people who are not Chinese, I can truly be myself." Diau told me that he mixes with all kinds of people—Latinos, Middle Easterners, Indians—but unfortunately not with blacks. This was less choice than adherence to tradition, he explained. Chinese families favor intermarriage with Caucasians but not with blacks. "I hope that changes," he said.
Why, I asked myself, worry about "the Asian threat"? The best way to contain Asian dynamism is to absorb it—which is exactly what the United States is doing.
As I drove through greater Los Angeles, the term "city-state" was foremost in my mind, not because L.A. is similar to ancient Athens or Sparta but because of the very size and eye-popping variety of this thriving urban confederation, with its hinterland of oil refineries and agricultural valleys. Santa Monica has the ambiance of a beach resort, East Los Angeles is like Mexico, Monterey Park is like Asia, and Cerritos is an Asian Levittown for the nineties. Except for the prevalence of home-security systems, the winding streets near Dodger Stadium, north of downtown, have almost a rustic, Southern European aspect, with their vine-covered houses and steep hills. Going from one township to another, I often felt as if I had journeyed far and wide. The freeway system makes this compression of distance possible, and climate abets the system's expansion: because Los Angeles gets little rain or frost, road surfaces are cheap and easy to maintain.
"I'm middle-class," Gregory Rodriguez, a researcher who lives on a steep street near Dodger Stadium, told me when I visited him. "But there are also working-class and poor people a block away, and some wealthy entrepreneurs: Jews, Anglos, Mexicans, Chinese, you name it. It's an Old World neighborhood of immigrants, like neighborhoods in Manhattan." I sought out Rodriguez, a thirty-one-year-old third-generation Mexican-American, to learn more about ethnicity in southern California, and particularly about the culture of "Latinos"—a word Rodriguez prefers to "Hispanics," which he calls "cold and generic." "'Hispanic' is a term people in the East use," he said, "but here no one does." Had I relied merely on my East Coast impressions, the figures Rodriguez presented would have startled me. In the Northeast, "Hispanics" are often Puerto Ricans and Dominicans, who have not assimilated as successfully as Mexicans; yet nationwide, Mexicans account for 60 percent of all Latinos.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Rodriguez told me, 55 percent of Latinos are bilingual in English and Spanish. In greater Los Angeles four times as many U.S.-born Latinos are in the middle class as live in poverty. A quarter of all middle-class families in southern California are Latinos, and in economic performance U.S.-born Latinos living in greater Los Angeles are not far behind whites and Asians: about half of U.S.-born Latinos here are in the middle class, whereas 58 percent of white or Asian households are. Among black households in the area 38 percent are in the middle class; the national average is 26 percent. Perhaps the most telling distinction among Latinos, Asians, and blacks is in the percentage that are government employees in an increasingly entrepreneurial economy. While 28 percent of middle-class blacks in greater Los Angeles work for the federal, state, or municipal government, only about 14 percent of middle-class Asians and 10 percent of middle-class Latinos do.
Rodriguez used his own term, "mestizo-ization," for a dual perspective prevalent among Latinos: they maintain a firm belief in some degree of bilingualism while welcoming U.S. citizenship and often intermarrying. David E. Hayes-Bautista, a medical sociologist at the University of California at Los Angeles, told me that the Latino experience suggests that "being American simply means buying a house with a mortgage and getting ahead—there is no agreement anymore on culture, only on economics." Seventy-five years ago D. H. Lawrence called America a homeland "of the pocket" and not "of the blood."
Immigrant dynamism coupled with Asian as well as Latino mestizo-ization are the central facts of late-twentieth-century Los Angeles. And the reality is richer still, as Indian immigrants buy up Artesia, next to Cerritos, and Iranian immigrants, after buying many properties in Beverly Hills, buy now in nearby Westwood. "South Central is no longer a burnt-out core, and that is partly because of Latino immigrants," Rodriguez said. "Because Latinos came in at the bottom, a pool of home buyers existed for upwardly mobile blacks who needed to sell their properties and escape South Central and Watts for racially mixed, middle-class areas. Leftists talk of blacks being 'displaced,' but that disparages the very blacks who have succeeded. Is it 'displacement' to climb your way out of the ghetto?"