I’m back in New Hampshire rebounding from an extended three month sublet stay in Los Angeles. There were several reasons for going, and one of them frankly was to escape for the first time in my 59 years a New England winter. Little did I realize that the northeast’s winter would be the warmest since Biblical times, but I enjoyed sunny Southern California nevertheless.
Given that I try to help people find meaningful and satisfying work I have a tendency to observe the local economy whenever I travel. I’m interested in several indicators like the number of open store fronts and office space available, how many houses and condos are for sale, local news reports regarding employment, and the overall demeanor of commercial street activity. Observing the economic goings-on of LA was then a natural. I’d like to share some of what I saw in this other corner of the country.
To begin it might be useful to mention what I expected to see of California coming from a state that certainly has experienced a tough downturn as of late, but that weathered the Recession better than many other states, including CA. I had heard about their 10%+ unemployment rate, high number of home foreclosures, elevated cost of living, multitudes of illegal immigrants, and the state government’s inability to fund many services. And then there is the whole Tinsel Town reputation the city has, replete with superficiality and inflated egos all vying for someone’s, no anyone’s, attention. I was expecting the city to be facing hard times. Were these negative preconceptions reinforced through observation? Not nearly as much as I thought they would be.
On the contrary, living on LA’s Westside I saw vitality, lots of economic activity, and surprisingly little homelessness. The place is abuzz. Now I was not in one of the more upscale sections, such as Brentwood, Westwood, or Marina Del Ray (Although I was within walking distance to the charming Culver City). What I saw in what passes for LA middle class was that most commercial and residential, buildings and the sidewalks connecting them were occupied by a mix of Mexicans, Pakistanis, Asians, African Americans, Middle Easterners, Indians, Central Americans, Jews, Muslims, transplanted Europeans, Christians, Hare Krishnas, Anglos, and others in a single non-segregated community. Business was being exchanged robustly within this population. Residentially, too, there was a high level of integration.
The one sociological and economic phenomenon that is historic and still occurring to a large extent is the labor class being largely inhabited by Latinos. They are washing the cars, cleaning the buildings, maintaining the gardens, and doing the construction. But the strong family bonds I saw shared, the high quality of the work shown, and the ubiquitous Spanish language that rivals English in community usage demonstrates the growing power and influence of this group in the life of the city.
One could think that the second largest city in the country would have such a diversity of industry that no one would predominate over the others. It doesn’t take long to see, however that entertainment is king here. The movie, television, and music industries strongly support the economy, culture, and lifestyle of Los Angeles. From the large studios like Paramount and Sony to the small boutique editing shops that dot the cityscape production of what the world likes to see and hear is foundational to what makes this place tick. But it isn’t just the production of a commodity that defines the character of the city. It’s their ability to be creative and innovative that is so striking. LA attracts artists from around the world that form a vibrant creative arts scene. New ideas and ways of shaping the future abound. Hybrid concepts are everywhere. I saw what I believe to be America’s future alive today in Los Angeles.
One scene that captured LA life for me was a day in February when I was walking along a residential street and I heard the oncoming din of pop music pounding out of the windows of an approaching car. Expecting a teenager to be behind the wheel I found myself doing a double take at one of the neighborhood’s Islamic women wearing a burqa driving a Prius, and playing her contemporary music at top volume. I knew then that I wasn’t in New Hampshire anymore.