Los Angeles can be harder to understand than most big cities. It isn’t like eastern destinations, with their dominant and familiar identities.
Move to Boston or New York, and those cities will teach you how to be a Bostonian or a New Yorker. Move to Los Angeles, and the metropolis will more or less lie there, unfurled and opaque, awaiting instructions. This is one of my favorite things about California’s largest, most powerful city: The place doesn’t tend to define its people. The people, in the aggregate, define the place.
How that works is the subject of a new book by Zev Yaroslavsky, who has been a Los Angeles civic leader for the last five decades. Now the director of the Los Angeles Initiative at the Luskin School of Public Affairs at U.C.L.A., Yaroslavsky, 74, served for 40 years on the City Council and the county board of supervisors, leaving elective office in 2014.
The book, “Zev’s Los Angeles: From Boyle Heights to the Halls of Power,” is billed as a political memoir, but it is also a history of the people and policies that have shaped the city: the fight for social justice in the 1960s that set the stage for Los Angeles’s modern turn leftward; the tax revolt in the 1970s that foreshadowed the crisis in affordable housing; the immigration that transformed the city in the 1980s — and went on to, among other things, drive the creation of one of the nation’s largest public transit systems.
There’s the love of beauty and creativity that gave rise to the Walt Disney Concert Hall and to the preservation of the spectacular Santa Monica Mountains. And there’s the command-and-control police culture that led to the Los Angeles riots and wave after wave of reform.
Like most journalists who have covered Los Angeles for a while (including the book’s co-author, Josh Getlin), I have long known Yaroslavsky. Some years ago, I even contributed to a county-funded news site he started with former Los Angeles Times colleagues, after the economically strapped hometown media reduced their coverage of local government.
I spoke to Yaroslavsky last week about Greater Los Angeles, past and present. Here is an excerpt from our conversation, lightly edited for clarity.
Reading your book, I was struck by the familiarity of the challenges that Los Angeles still faces: affordability, intolerance, public safety, pollution, distrust of the police.
Well, if you read the memoir of John Anson Ford, who was a county supervisor in the 1930s through the 1950s, the more things change, the more they stay the same. They had a housing shortage during World War II that makes today’s look like a walk in the park. They had a “red squad” in the Police Department that monitored unions during 1920s and ’30s. He also writes about poverty, crime, juvenile justice. We’ve done a lot to try to address these problems in my lifetime, but clearly we haven’t done enough.
Where has Los Angeles moved the needle?
We need to do more, but we are much more intelligent now about the environment and the way we develop. We’re more conscious about creating communities that are livable and walkable, about protecting the things that have attracted people to Southern California in the first place. We have an evolving, modern public transit system. We’re as diverse as any city on the planet — an international city, a world capital for the cultural arts.
What is the top challenge now?
The wealth and income gap. Our social problems, especially housing affordability and homelessness, are manifestations of economic inequality and inequities. That’s not just a local problem. But our challenge is not to give up. In the book, I use a quote from 2,000 years ago by Rabbi Tarfon: “You are not obliged to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.” It was good advice then, and it’s good now.
You write about your own 2007 homelessness initiative, which converted motels into supportive housing. It was wildly successful, but your fellow supervisors wouldn’t expand it.
It was one of my greatest disappointments as a public official. Permanent supportive housing and housing people first is the only long-term answer, and I couldn’t get a second vote. We ended up just doing it in my part of the county, which was a drop in the bucket. But it works. Since the pandemic, billions of dollars have gone into those kinds of programs, and I’m optimistic that if we stay the course, we’ll see progress. But think of how much farther along we would be now if we had started even 15 years ago.
So there’s hope for Mayor Karen Bass?
Absolutely. When she declared a state of emergency on homelessness, she put this crisis on her shoulders — she publicly took ownership of addressing it. If she can show in three years that the dial has moved in the right direction, that will be progress. She’s off to a strong start. I think most people in Los Angeles want her to succeed, but they want to see more than statistical progress. They need to feel like there has been a change when they go around the city. She gets that in her gut.
If there were a map accompanying “Zev’s Los Angeles,” what landmarks would be on it?
Well, I wouldn’t be honest if I didn’t mention the delis! Langer’s, Canter’s, Brent’s, Factor’s, others. And no, I’m not going to name a favorite.
Make a note, New Yorkers. What else?
Certainly it would include Disney Hall, the Hollywood Bowl, the Ford Theater, the museums. But also the micro arts scenes in every Los Angeles community. Our beaches, the Santa Monica Mountains and San Gabriel Mountains, which are Los Angeles’s egalitarian playgrounds. Boyle Heights, where I grew up and which is part of me. The Fairfax neighborhood where I’ve lived most of my life. But there’s so much to do and experience here, sometimes I feel like a tourist in my own backyard. Every culture of the globe is represented here. I’m not sure we appreciate how rich and interesting that makes Los Angeles.
Shawn Hubler is a correspondent for the National desk and is based in Sacramento.
If you read one story, make it this
He devoted his life to compassion. His killer showed none.
The rest of the news
Migrant flights: After days of uncharacteristic silence from Gov. Ron DeSantis, Florida officials confirmed that his administration had orchestrated two recent charter flights that carried migrants to Sacramento from New Mexico. California authorities have begun an investigation, and Gov. Gavin Newsom has suggested that “kidnapping charges” were in order. But legal analysts say it could be challenging to hold anyone civilly or criminally accountable.
Builders’ remedy: A new reading of an old law has empowered developers to circumvent city zoning regulations and advance proposals for thousands of new apartments across the state, CalMatters reports.
Book ban: The Temecula Valley school board has blocked use of a history textbook because its supporting materials mention the gay rights advocate Harvey Milk, The Mercury News reports.
No cellphone? No problem: The Desert Rats, or the Radio Amateur Transmitting Society, in Palm Springs are more than a hobbyist group for ham radio enthusiasts — they are preparing for disaster, The Guardian reports.
Doughnut shop riot: Legend has it that a decade before Stonewall, a gay uprising took place in 1959 at Cooper Do-nuts, a shop that has long since closed. Now, as Los Angeles prepares to commemorate the historic location, the legend is being called into question.
“The Manila District”: In downtown Los Angeles, the pop-up Filled Market is carving out a slice of the city where Filipino culture and community can thrive.
Dock disruptions: A shipping industry group said that concerted actions by a West Coast dockworkers’ union had effectively shut down parts of the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, ABC7 reports. The shippers and the union are in talks over a new labor contract.
Wildlife: Officials have confirmed a rare sighting of a lone wolverine at Yosemite National Park, only the second time in nearly a century that the endangered mammal has been spotted in California, NBC News reports.
Real estate: As disinvestment continues to plague San Francisco, the owner of two of the city’s largest hotels has stopped making mortgage payments and plans to give up the two properties, The San Francisco Chronicle reports.
Homelessness: A new annual report from Sonoma County shows a 22 percent decrease in the number of homeless people, The Press Democrat reports.
Where we’re traveling
Today’s tip comes from Laura Berthold Monteros, who recommends the La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles:
“It’s one of the locations of the Natural History Museums of Los Angeles County, and one of the few in the world that is on the site of ongoing digs. You can even see folks working to clean the Pleistocene fossils in the ‘fish bowl’ inside the building, methane bubbling up from deep in the earth in the Lake Pit, and the stacked boxes in the Project 23 area. Twenty-three because that’s how many boxes of hardened tar — actually asphalt — were dug up before a parking lot was put in across the street.
If you come on the right day, you might even see a presenter in danger of attack by a saber-toothed cat! When out-of-towners tell me they want to see Hollywood, I tell them it’s not what they think, but if they want to see something totally Los Angeles and completely real, they should go to the Tar Pits.”
Tell us about your favorite places to visit in California. Email your suggestions to [email protected]. We’ll be sharing more in upcoming editions of the newsletter.
We’re almost halfway through 2023! What are the best things that have happened to you so far this year? What have been your wins? Or your unexpected joys, big or small?
Tell me at [email protected]. Please include your full name and the city where you live.
And before you go, some good news
Ten new restaurants in the southern half of the state were added to the 2023 Michelin Guide California on Tuesday. You can read more about them here.
Thanks for reading. We’ll be back tomorrow.
P.S. Here’s today’s Mini Crossword.
Soumya Karlamangla, Briana Scalia and Johnna Margalotti contributed to California Today. You can reach the team at [email protected].
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Shawn Hubler is a national correspondent based in California. Before joining The Times in 2020 she spent nearly two decades covering the state for The Los Angeles Times as a roving reporter, columnist and magazine writer, and shared three Pulitzer Prizes won by the paper’s Metro staff. @ShawnHubler
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