Mayhem and myth in the City of Angels

Sociological Notes

IS THIS the future in store for all of us? After the Los Angeles urban rebellion in 1992, most critical analyses of what had happened focused on the explosive urban cauldron that many saw developing in Southern California at least since the 1960s.

Writers pointed out that the City of Angels was a foreboding of the future of all cities - and metaphorically also of humankind. Los Angeles was portrayed as an ungovernable gangland where civility had either never existed or had been destroyed by a sequence of global economic restructuring and catastrophic events. At the opposite end of the spectrum were those "boosters" of Los Angeles who had made the city "LA's the Place" with the Olympics of 1984 and a boom that was built on foreign investment and cheap labour. Following the events of 1992, these boosters did not tire of putting on a happy face where others saw murder and mayhem. Their task was to "Rebuild LA", as one organisation that rose from the ashes of the riots was called. Their medium was denial.

Related to these oppositional urban myths, there is yet another set of stories, which paint Los Angeles either as the wallflower of American history - mis- understood and maligned - or as the "first American city" and the model of all urban settlement as we know it today. Caught between the dystopian view of some and the Utopian idea of others, Los Angeles became the torn image of all 20th-century urbanism, and to some "the capital of the 21st century".

What is wrong with these pictures? Of course, it is difficult to deny that LA is an unusually violent place full of social and economic contradiction, marred by injustice and conflict. It is also a place where the middle classes have found their natural habitat in what they conceive as the end of history: a good place, sheltered by obscene income differentials and police power.

Yet Los Angeles is also the site of a contradictory civility which is captured by neither of the narratives presented so far. What is missing from most portrayals of Los Angeles is the story of the "other LA", of the majority working-class and people of colour communities where an alternative, and sometimes insurgent, civil society has taken hold. This civil society of everyday social activism has many unseen faces: heroic struggles to keep production places open in the face of globalisation; to save neighbourhoods from the bulldozer; to create environmental justice; and to create local government exploring pathways of economic redistribution and social diversity.

In order to gaze into our collective urban future, let us entertain the stories of those Angelenos whose lives are on the line in a process called world city formation. In this convulsive phase of urbanisation, the largest post-war industrial company town in the world, built on autos, aerospace, real estate and Hollywood, was transformed into a globalised megalopolis with a Third World proletariat, a high-tech veneer and a simulated nature.

Let us look closely at their struggles in a sea of adversity where it takes a special effort to stay afloat. Let us look at the alternative proposals made for living in the multi-cultural metropolis of the future. Out of this changed perspective, a different Los Angeles emerges: a Los Angeles of opportunity to create an everyday insurgency against the ravages of globalisation, against racism and the injustice of immigrant urbanity, and versus the threats of a society without a safety net. In the stories of a Los Angeles where social struggle is the connecting thread, a possible future emerges for us all: a future of an urbanism based on democratic governance, economic justice and grassroots multi-culturalism.

Perhaps this is a future we are willing to learn from Los Angeles.

Roger Keil is the author of `Los Angeles: globalization, urbanization and social struggles' (John Wiley, pounds 17.99)

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