Cross posted at

"This is the city," ran the famous introduction to the popular crime drama Dragnet.
"Los Angeles, Calif. I work here." Of course, unlike Det. Sgt. Joe
Friday, who spoke those words every episode, I am not a cop, but Los
Angeles has been my home for over 35 years.

To Sgt. Friday, L.A. was a place full of opportunities to solve
crimes, but for me Los Angeles has been an ideal barometer for the city
of the future. For the better part of the last century, Los Angeles has
been, as one architect once put it, "the original in the Xerox
machine." It largely invented the blueprint of the modern American
city: the car-oriented suburban way of life, the multi-polar metropolis
around a largely unremarkable downtown, the sprawling jumble of ethnic
and cultural enclaves of a Latin- and Asian-flavored mestizo society.

Yet right now even the most passionate Angeleno struggles to feel
optimistic. A once powerful business culture is sputtering. The recent
announcement of Northrop Corp.’s departure to suburban Washington was
just the latest blow to the region’s aerospace industry, long our
technological crown jewel. The area now has one-fourth as many Fortune
500 companies as Houston, and fewer than much-smaller Minneapolis or Charlotte, N.C.

Other traditional linchpins are unraveling. The once thriving
garment industry continues to shift jobs overseas and has lost much of
its downtown base to real estate speculators. The port, perhaps the
region’s largest economic engine, has been mismanaged and now faces
severe threats from competitors from the Pacific Northwest, Baja,
Calif., and Houston. Although television and advertising shoots remain
strong, the core motion picture shooting has been declining for years,
with production being dispersed to such locations as Toronto,
Louisiana, New Mexico, Michigan, New York and various locales overseas.

Once a reliable generator of new employment, over the past decade
L.A. has fared worse than any of the major Sun Belt metros–including
hard-hit Phoenix–losing over 167,000 jobs between 2000 and 2009.
Historic rival New York notched modest gains, while the rising big
metro competitors, Dallas and Houston, enjoyed strong and steady
growth. L.A. may not be Detroit, and probably never will be, but its
once proud and highly diversified industrial base is eroding rapidly,
losing one-fifth of all its employment since 2004. In contrast to the
rest of the country, unemployment still continues to rise.

To give you an idea how much L.A. has sunk, look to this year’s Forbes best city rankings,
which measures both short- and mid-term job growth. Once perched in the
upper tier of major cities, Los Angeles now ranks a pathetic 59th out
of 66 large metro areas, far below not only third-place Houston and
fourth-place Dallas but also New York and even similar job-losing
giants like San Francisco and Philadelphia.

It takes a kind of talent to sink this low given L.A.’s vast
advantages: the best weather of any major global city, the largest port
on this side of the Pacific, not to mention the glamour of Hollywood,
the Lakers and one of the world’s largest and most diverse populations
of creative, entrepreneurial people.

Jose de Jesus Legaspi, a prominent local developer, pins much of the
blame for this on what he describes as "a parochial political
kingdom"–with Antonio Villaraigosa, mayor since 2005, wearing the
tinsel crown. A sometimes charming pol utterly bereft of economic
acumen, Villaraigosa is a poor manager who is also highly skilled at
self-promotion. His idea of building an economy revolves around
subsidizing downtown developers and pouring ever more funds into the
pockets of public sector workers. No surprise then that L.A. suffers
just about the highest unemployment rate of any of the nation’s 10
largest cities outside Detroit. One in five county residents receive
some form of public aid.

But the real power in L.A. today is not so much Villaraigosa but what the Los Angeles Weekly
describes as a "labor-Latino political machine," whose influence
extends all the way to Sacramento. These politicians represent, to a
large extent, virtual extensions of the unions, particularly the public

The rise of the Latino-labor coalition does stir some pride among
Hispanics, but it has proved an economic disaster for almost everyone
who doesn’t collect a government paycheck–L.A.’s city council is the
nation’s highest paid–or subsidy. Although perhaps not as outrageously
corrupt as the Chicago machine, it is also not as effective. L.A.’s
version manages to be both thuggish and incompetent.

According to an analysis by former Mayor Richard Riordan, the city’s
soaring pension liabilities will grow by an additional $2.5 billion by
2014, by which date the city will probably be forced to declare

So is the city of the future doomed for the long term? Not
necessarily. Although Latino politicians and "progressive" allies
strive to derail entrepreneurialism, our grassroots remains stubbornly
entrepreneurial. This is particularly true of Latino and other
immigrant businesspeople in Los Angeles. In 2006, for example, roughly
10% of the foreign born population was self-employed, almost twice the
percentage of the native born.

To be sure, much of this activity takes place in smaller area
municipalities–Burbank, Glendale, Lynwood, Monterey Park–that are
mercifully outside the reach of the City of Los Angeles, which accounts
for somewhat less than half of L.A. County’s 10 million people. But as
Legaspi, who came to L.A. from Zacatecas, Mexico, in 1965, points out,
ethnic enterprises–Armenian, Iranian, Israeli, Korean, Chinese as well
as Mexican and Salvadoran–continue to thrive even within the city
limits. You rarely find in L.A. the kind of desolation found in dying
cities like Detroit or Cleveland or even large swaths of New York or

All this suggests there’s still hope for Los Angeles to blossom
further as a hub for international trade, global culture and fashion.
But to achieve that goal the city needs a government that will nurture
its grassroots rather than stomp or extort them. "Los Angeles is a
potential great world city, but it needs to be ruled like a world
city," Legaspi points out. Until that happens, our putative city of the
future will exist more as dreamscape than reality.