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The Reluctant Metropolis
by Bill Fulton
Excerpt from The Reluctant Metropolis
If you define the Los Angeles megalopolis broadly enough, which most people are unwilling to do, I live at one end of it.
I live in Ventura, shorthand for San Buenaventura. It’s a working-class oil town turned typical Southern California suburb, located where Highway 101 hits the ocean after a sixty-five-mile trip north and west from downtown Los Angeles. L.A.’s sprawl has crept toward Ventura along the 101 Corridor across the fertile, flat soil of the Oxnard Plain. It’s blocked from moving farther because of the ocean and an imposing set of rugged hills up toward Santa Barbara known as the Rincon. In a very real sense, this is where L.A. ends.
Most of my neighbors, of course, don’t want to believe that we are part of Los Angeles. A lot of them moved to Ventura or thereabouts to register a vote with their feet on how they feel about L.A. The irony of this attitude is rich indeed. Geographically we are close. We watch L.A.’s television shows and listen to its radio stations. Economically we are linked, much more than we used to be in the oil boom days, where our strongest economic ties were to Bakersfield and Houston. And when something bad happens in L.A. – a fire, an earthquake, a riot – our friends and relatives call to make sure we are okay. Our response is usually that everything is fine because we don’t really live there. We have decided that we live somewhere else.
It should have come as no surprise to me, then, to learn that the people at the other end feel pretty much the same way.
I remember the day I found the other end. It was a moody, rainy morning in the spring of 1990, and I braved the freeways for three-plus hours in my 1977 Honda Civic to go to Moreno Valley in Riverside County. Skidding across wet lanes of the freeway—Southern Californians are terrible wet-weather drivers, treating every rainstorm as if it were a blizzard—I traveled through suburb after suburb, past shopping center after shopping center and tract after tract. Camarillo. Calabasas. Woodland Hills. Sherman Oaks. Studio City. Glendale. Pasadena. Duarte. San Dimas. Pomona. Corona. The suburban monotony was so continuous that it was numbing.
Then, after a hundred and thirty miles, I stopped and saw a meadow. Rich and green from the spring rains, hard up against the San Jacinto Mountains, this was obviously the edge of town. Roads trailed off into ruts. Houses had a ramshackle look, with old tools and cars in the yard. Retail establishments were made of cinder blocks. Of course, there are more town as past the mountains: Banning, Beaumont, Palm Springs. But nothing else I had seen that day conveyed quite the same sense of termination.
It had taken almost half a day, and I had covered a distance that would have taken me through three or four Northeastern states, but I had finally found the other end of Los Angeles. And as I traveled around Moreno Valley that day, the people I talked to felt as much alienation from Los Angeles as my neighbors in Ventura.
Moreno Valley had grown in size from ten thousand people to more than one hundred thousand in less than a decade, and it was almost a parody of the typical 1980s suburb: subdivision after subdivision along the freeway, punctuated only by shopping centers and franchise restaurants, all linked together by overgrown arterials that the traffic engineers had demanded up front. Mini-malls were so ubiquitous that they even housed churches, which had nowhere else to go. And even more than Ventura, Moreno Valley was dependent on the Los Angeles megalopolis. It was largely vacant during working hours, with a third of the breadwinners off in Los Angeles or Orange County or Riverside making the money they would import back to their Moreno Valley tracts. The trick for making the seventy-mile trip bearable, the long-distance commuters said, was to hit the critical interchange of Highway 60 and Highway 91 – the main road to Orange County – before five in the morning, when it began to jam up. The interchange of Highway 60 and Highway 91 is located fifty-six miles east of downtown Los Angeles.
And yet it was here, in this unlikely place on the desert’s edge, that people said they found a semblance of community no longer available to them in Los Angeles or Lakewood or Fullerton or El Monte. Some combination of “low” prices for housing ($130,000 for a starter home), an illusion of spaciousness, and the old suburban ideal that everybody here was starting fresh had so much appeal that it seemed worth the hassle.
One local resident, who endured the two-hour commute to Orange County for several years, told me that he could have found a house closer to his work, “but I wouldn’t have been able to have a pool.” A former flight instructor employed by a local developer who wanted to build more than three thousand houses and a business park (on that meadow I found) said he didn’t really mind living in a half-built, auto-bound community in the middle of nowhere. In fact, he said, it made him nostalgic. It reminded him of his boyhood in Orange County thirty years earlier.
Given these attitudes, it should have been equally unsurprising that when a large portion of urban Los Angeles erupted in flames and riots almost exactly two years later, people in places like Ventura and Moreno Valley didn’t think it had much to do with their lives or their communities.
Triggered by the acquittal of four white Los Angeles police officers accused of beating black motorist Rodney King, the riots raged over an enormous area – a hundred square miles or more, an area bigger than most large American cities. The riot zone encompassed L.A.’s historically back neighborhoods, as well as dozens of other crowded districts that were the entry points for recent immigrants from Asia, Mexico, and Central America. Many of the names were familiar enough to people anywhere in Southern California. Watts. Central Avenue. West Adams. USC and the Coliseum. Koreatown. MacArthur Park. Even Hollywood. But to the suburbanites watching the tragedy on television, most of these places were nothing more than names – poor, neglected places that had been thrown away, decades earlier, by their parents or grandparents. In the mental map of Southern California that most people carry around in their heads, the riot zone was a hole in the metropolitan donut.
The riots touched people in the outer suburbs, of course. Most had a friend or relative in danger who had never escaped the urban detritus; many opened their homes to these unfortunate souls during the riots. Older suburbanites remembered living and working in neighborhoods that were going up in flames. One friend, a woman in her fifties, said that watching the riots brought back vivid memories of crouching in her Wilshire District home during the Watts riots of 1965 while chaos reined on the street outside. For her, the whole experience simply confirmed the wisdom of her decision to flee many years before to Camarillo, fifty miles away.
In the months and years that followed, there was considerable evidence that the riots had profoundly affected all of Southern California’s suburbs and all of its suburbanites. In Ventura County, where I live, Korean merchants arrived en masse from L.A., looking for retail stores to operate without having to fear for their lives. They quickly learned that they needed a gun in a poor neighborhood in Oxnard just as much as in South Central. In Moreno Valley, where working-class black neighborhoods had grown up around a local air force base, South Central kids arrived regularly, sent to live with aunts and uncles located far from the turmoil of urban life. The result, as Moreno Valley quickly discovered, was not a reduction of gang activity but a geographical expansion of it. (The gang member “Monster” Kody
Scott, who wrote a well-publicized autobiography, divided his time between South Central and Moreno Valley and was arrested in Moreno Valley for beating up a man who allegedly derided his gang.) And all over Southern California – as the region reeled from a devastating recession and a series of natural disasters – businesses, workers, and families suffered from bad publicity worldwide and a resulting publicity by tourists, investors, and others to make a commitment to the region.
Yet none of this drew people together. If anything, it pushed them further apart. Nothing has changed in my neighborhood, people said; I have nothing to worry about. Maybe the people in South Central burned down each other’s mini-malls, but in our town the chaos seemed about as real as the Gulf War. (The riots didn’t come within thirty miles of Simi Valley, the conservative suburban enclave in Ventura County where the Rodney King trial was held.) Those who feared their neighborhoods were changing moved farther away. And those who were still afraid moved behind walls and gates where, they hoped, the rest of society couldn’t follow. Even people who really did live in Los Angeles continued to atomize, bombarding the U.S. Postal Service with requests to list their residences as being located in North Hills, West Hills, Sherman Valley, or anything but Los Angeles. (In 1996, the San Fernando Valley even pursued one of its periodic attempts to secede from the City of Los Angeles.) Instead of trying to fix Los Angeles, we all simply decided that we live somewhere else.
That lush meadow I saw in Moreno Valley doesn’t have three thousand houses and a business park on it today, as the developer of the property anticipated. In part that’s because real estate and capital markets collapsed shortly after my visit. But it’s also because, predictably, there was no consensus in Moreno Valley about what should be done. Many of the town’s political leaders supported the project, because the developer promised that businesses locating there would provide local jobs. But a lot of local homeowners, who felt that jobs would never materialize, did not want to chew up a beautiful meadow to build houses for a few more commuters competing for space on the freeway at four-thirty in the morning.
As for myself, I didn’t stick around long enough to form a strong opinion one way or the other. By the end of the day it had stopped raining, so I get back into my Civic and headed west on the Freeway. Moreno Valley was interesting, but it was just another suburb of Los Angeles. It wasn’t really a part of where I live. It was too distant, too remote, too filled with cars and shopping centers and commuting suburbanites who didn’t fit the ambiguously anti-urban image I had of the town where I live. Like everybody else in metropolitan Los Angeles, I just wanted to get home to my tract.