Angelenos discuss today’s LA

Los Angeles is thought to be a city of runaways, immigrants and people chasing down dreams.

“People came to start new histories,” said Hector Tobar, a Los Angeles Times opinion columnist who writes about Latino issues.

But for the first time in the city’s recent history, more and more Angelenos are natives, said Dowell Myers, a professor from the University of Southern California’s School of Policy who studies demographics.

This new population is composed of young hopefuls and children of immigrants, and it’s creating a generational divide. Combine that with a budget crisis, an eroding public school system, lack of public transportation and job losses, and you’ve got a city that has lost its identity.

imageSeven residents of Los Angeles felt the same way and wanted to discuss the city’s new identity. Writers, politicians, professors, historians and lawyers gathered for a panel called “Thinking About Now in Los Angeles” on Thursday evening.

More than 40 people packed the small, niche Leimert Park bookstore, Eso Won Books,for the discussion hosted by the Society of Professional Journalists.

Panelists agreed on one thing: we are witnessing a moment in the history of the Los Angeles narrative. Each speaker shared his or her personal narrative of living or arriving in Los Angeles.

Carol Sobel, a civil rights attorney, passed around a picture of downtown Los Angeles in the early 1970s. The audience was surprised to see open land, smaller freeways, and City Hall as the tallest building. Arriving from New Jersey, she didn’t like the relatively small downtown Los Angeles because it felt like it had no spark.

Arielle Rosen shared a story of growing up in the San Fernando Valley during the 1980s. “I remember at a very young age being afraid,” she said. “I’d lock my doors when I got in the car.” When Rosen moved to Boston for college, friends would ask what she was doing.

“The only thing I was afraid of was the police,” said James Thomas, a pastor in the San Fernando Valley. Thomas arrived in Los Angeles in the 1990s from a small town. He drove around Compton unaware of gang territories and staying out past dark. As a new resident, Compton felt like “culture and progress and it was beautiful, but others felt it was very dark.”

After the panelists shared stories and memories from their own lives, they discussed narratives still being written and affected by the past.

The newest trend for Angelenos, especially the baby boomer generation, is nostalgia. “Just look at California Disney,” says George J. Sanchez, a University of Southern California historian.

Sanchez says baby boomers want to go back to the 1950s, and this causes a generational divide, because the younger generation focuses on the city’s ethnic and cultural differences.

Myers says older Angelenos need to talk about the city’s sometime violent past. “You can’t embrace the new until you mourn the old. We need to go back and talk about it.”

Another issue the generational divide affects is the housing market. Because Angelenos are native and younger, they’re renting apartments, not buying houses. “There’s no magic person with deep pockets that’s going to buy us out,” said Myers.

Myers arrived in the late 1980s and has experienced what he called a housing “rollercoaster.” “I look at the current recession and say oh, I remember this.”

Audience members had a chance to discuss their own opinions. “It’s only a housing crisis when it affects the rich people,” said Gerardo Gomez, a resident of Echo Park.

Sobel agreed. She said the poor have always been pushed out and she predicted further class divide and gentrification in Los Angeles. “When I look at L.A. Live, I think of 5,000 homes gone for poor people. We focus on taller buildings with more glass rather than building homes,” said Sobel.

Aside from generational divides in Los Angeles, panelists discussed educational gaps in public school funding, ethnic divides, the gay, lesbian, and transgenders’ experience in Los Angeles, police relations with the community and problems still affecting South Los Angeles.

The panel discussion ended late, but conversations among audience members continued throughout the evening, expressing the continued belief that Los Angeles is a city of possibilities.