Andrew Gumbel: Los Angeles Stories

Death, an exit and a buyout hover over the City of Angels
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The Independent Online

The police, and a special rapid-response team that backed them up, were of course supposed to save the baby. But the patchwork of bullet holes coming in and out of Jose Peña's dealership office at least raised the possibility that the officers returned fire first. (Peña also perished in the exchange.)

Everything about the case is highly charged, not least the allegation that the police value human life a lot less in the south-central suburbs of Los Angeles than elsewhere.

Watts was the scene of days of race rioting exactly 40 years ago, when the neighbourhood was predominantly black. Now it's more typically Latino - giving the racial politics a distinctly contemporary twist as the first Latino mayor of modern times, Antonio Villaraigosa, takes office.

And so the process begins - of deciding whether the shooting of a toddler was somehow "in policy", or whether someone needs to be held accountable. Angelenos have come to expect that such tragedies are decided as much on the politics as on the facts. Mayor Villaraigosa and police chief Bill Bratton both know, though, that passions in the poor, dispossessed parts of the city are high and could easily blow, as they did in 1965 and again in in 1992.

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Upheaval of a different kind is rocking another venerable city institution, the Los Angeles Times, whose editor, John Carroll, has announced his retirement rather than fight the bean-counters at the Tribune Company, the paper's parent, in Chicago. The LA Times is more than just a city newspaper - it is part of the historical fabric because of its crucial role in land speculation and anti-union suppression in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and again because it heralded the city's move to the liberal end of the political spectrum in the 1970s and 1980s.

It was already a shock, five years ago, when the paper was bought up by an out-of-town business concern. Mr Carroll has certainly covered the Times in glory, snagging 13 Pulitzers, including five last year. (This led one LA columnist to wonder just how good he would have had to be to keep his job - are editors only as good as their last five Pulitzers?) The Tribune Company is now threatening big budget cuts, and the paper remains a favourite punching-bag of alternative weeklies and bloggers. Is the Times about to take a dive? Staffers, including the widely respected new editor Dean Baquet, are certainly determined it should not.

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Southern California mall culture has been in a decline for a while, supplanted by the growth of outdoor pedestrian shopping areas and discount superstores. And now it has taken another big hit, with the demise of the Robinsons May department store chain,.

Robinsons May is a low-to-mid range store that often acted as anchor tenant to entire mall enterprises including the quintessential 1980s Valley Girl hangout, the Sherman Oaks Galleria. Its disappearance is not just the end of a piece of California lore; it also threatens the viability of every mall it previously supported.

Wal-Mart, the discount store that notoriously pays its staff so little it gives them advice on obtaining food stamps, has been nibbling at the market from the lower end, and chains such as Macy's have been siphoning off the top. And that, as the Valley Girls might have said, just sucks.