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Los Angeles Following in the Footsteps of Detroit

The long, slow, steady decline of a once-great city.

by
Jack Dunphy

Bio

November 20, 2012 - 11:22 pm

If a man sits on the bank of some great river and looks across to the other side, so tranquil does the current appear that it might seem to him as though the water isn’t really moving at all. Only when he looks closely will he see that the river is running steadily, ever so steadily, to the sea.

And so it is with the course on which the city of Los Angeles finds itself.  Visitors to the city will still find it to be a vibrant and interesting place to spend a week or two, with its pleasant climate and many tourist attractions, and there are still plenty of nice neighborhoods where home prices, despite the recent housing slump, are well beyond the reach of most Americans (most certainly this one).  And there is a revitalized downtown, where you can grab a nice dinner and take in a movie, a concert, or a game of professional basketball or hockey.  The entertainment industry, too, is still centered in and around Los Angeles, even as the actual production of many television shows and nearly all feature films is carried on elsewhere.

Yes, to the average tourist and even to most residents, Los Angeles would seem the very picture of civic vitality.  But like that mighty river, powerful forces are now propelling it on a course that will take it, if you will, right out to sea.

Except for a few years after college, I lived my entire life in Los Angeles, and by that I mean within its actual boundaries.  And even for those few years when I lived outside those boundaries, I was never more than a ten-minute drive from the city limits.  But I don’t live there anymore.

I take no joy in reporting this, for I always assumed I would live out my days in the city where I was born and where my roots are deep.  My father was born in Los Angeles, which by L.A. standards is akin to tracing one’s roots back to the Mayflower.  But some time ago the Divine Mrs. Dunphy and I were faced with a decision: Where would it be best for us to plant our own roots and make the best possible life for our family.  Having had the perspective offered by many years with the LAPD, I was armed with as much information on the city as anyone is likely to have.  I was like that man on the riverbank watching all that water flow inexorably downstream.  For us the choice was clear.  We now live in a suburban community outside Los Angeles, close enough to enjoy L.A.’s many charms, but far enough away to avoid its many flaws.

Seldom does a week go by that I am not presented with evidence that we made the right decision.  Most recently I read this story in the Los Angeles Times regarding the city council’s desire for a half-cent sales tax increase to help plug the city’s deficit.  This comes on the heels of the passage of California’s Proposition 30, which raises the state sales tax, already among the highest in the country, by a quarter of a cent for four years.  (And do you suppose that the tax will actually go away after four years?)  Proposition 30 also raises state income taxes on individuals earning over $250,000 per year and couples earning over $500,000.  (This second facet of Proposition 30 was sold as lasting for seven years, but again, anyone who thinks this tax will go away is probably mailing off his letter to Santa Claus right about now.)

In short, a majority of the Los Angeles city council has endorsed the proposition that L.A. should be one of the highest taxed cities in the one of the highest taxed states in the country.  What could possibly go wrong?

But the L.A. city council has had too many great issues on its agenda to attend to something so trivial as closing the budget deficit without raising taxes.  Last month, for example, it voted to prohibit pet stores from selling dogs that come from breeders.  I am the proud owner of a rescued mutt, so I have little interest in obtaining a purebred dog, either now or in the future.  But I realize that others do not necessarily share my taste in pets, and as much as I might wish that everyone looking for a dog get one from their local animal shelter or rescue group, some people will only be satisfied with a pedigreed pooch.  They should be free to buy one, and people in Los Angeles should be free to sell them one.

And back in May, the city council voted for another, even more annoying restriction on freedom when they banned the use of plastic grocery bags, forcing consumers to pay ten cents each for paper bags or else buy those reusable canvas germ traps.  If some pandemic breaks out and claims thousands of lives in Los Angeles, it will probably be traced back to one of those bags that had for too long been rolling around in the back of someone’s Prius.

And while the Los Angeles city council has busied itself with these feel-good examples of utopian legislation, the long, steady decline in crime in the city appears to be coming to an end.  Looking at the year-to-date figures as of Nov. 3, the city as a whole has seen crime decline by 0.9 percent from last year.  Not the sharp drop-off seen in recent years past but not necessarily a call for alarm, either.  But a closer look at the data reveals ominous signs.  Part I crime has increased in seven of the LAPD’s 21 patrol divisions, in one case by almost 20 percent.  And homicides have increased in ten of those divisions, with three of them up 100 percent or more.  The city’s troubled finances have precluded the further expansion of the LAPD, and this, coupled with the early release from state prisons of thousands of convicted felons, will all but guarantee a further rise in crime next year.

In July of last year, Joel Kotkin wrote of L.A.’s decline in the Wall Street Journal.  In the article, titled “How L.A. Lost Its Mojo,” Kotkin described the city’s political transformation that has seen power shift from business and homeowner groups to those identified with labor and ethnic solidarity — a shift the current civic leadership openly encourages.  That way lies trouble, which is why the Dunphy family decamped for a neighborhood that is clean, safe, affordable, and blessed with good schools.  Such neighborhoods, once common in the Los Angeles of my youth, no longer exist there.

So while things in Los Angeles may seem all palmy and nice for the moment, with the sun-drenched landscape unmarred by plastic bags or purebred dogs, it appears to me that Los Angeles is in the early stages of what will be a long, slow, Detroit-like death spiral — an agony I’ll be fortunate enough to witness from out in the suburbs.

We run into quite a few refugees from Los Angeles in our new neighborhood.  We have yet to meet a single one who claims to miss it.

Jack Dunphy is the pseudonym of a police officer in Southern California.
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