Long Beach, the county's other big city, has Los Angeles-sized problems: under employment, aging public facilities, mounting debt, and decades of bad development decisions that fractured its neighborhoods. And like Los Angeles, Long Beach is attempting to build itself into a different kind of city and out of its deep economic hole.
Not so long ago, Long Beach had it all -- tidelands oil money, the United States Navy, shipbuilding and refitting yards, the big Douglas Aircraft plant, year-round tourism, and a sedate population of older, white residents in neighborhoods of neat bungalows. Nearly all of that is gone -- the Navy, most of the oil money, aerospace manufacturing, the shipyards, and the bungalow neighborhoods with their demographic uniformity. Only the port and the long, wide, level beach that fronts Long Beach remain as they once were.
Decisions in Washington wiped away middle-class jobs in defense industries. Angry voters choked off property tax revenues. Real estate speculators demolished neighborhoods and replaced them with dingbat apartment boxes. Bad advice set Long Beach on a hopeless search for security through subsidized retail development.
Long Beach made the choices it did because Long Beach, like other California cities, is limited in its ability to remake itself, absent the presence of other actors who can reshape the local economy. Mostly, cities regulate land use to favor one kind of development over another and then hope for the best.
Cities buy up neighborhoods declared blighted, subsidize their conversion to acreage, and turn those acres over to developers (at least as long as the state is prevented from taking redevelopment agency revenue to backfill its worsening deficit). Cities foster their development preferences by lowering barriers to construction entitlements. Recently, cities have found ways to limit the environmental objections that inevitably come from those whose neighborhood will be changed by big projects. And cities give away some (or all) of the revenue they get from those projects by subsidizing job and sales tax creators.
If all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. For Long Beach, applying these tools will have the effect of making a denser, taller, and hopefully more gentrified downtown on nearly 800 acres of what is mostly rental housing and marginal businesses east of the city's historic core. Los Angeles, on a much larger scale, is using the same hammer to achieve similar goals in some of its neighborhoods.
Long Beach and Los Angeles are overwhelmingly a low-rise grid of homes and local businesses. Both cities aspire to replace patches of the grid with high-rise apartments above retail businesses and "new economy" workplaces. City officials and incumbent council members in both cities are happy to use whatever is the current sales pitch -- cleantech, smart growth, new urbanism -- to frame these goals for a largely indifferent electorate.
Voters in Long Beach and Los Angeles want what they've always wanted -- safe streets, adequate public services, and enough uniformity in the built environment to reassure them that they weren't fools to invest in their neighborhood.
Homeowners think of predictability and safety in numbers. Planners (echoing Jane Jacobs) speak of the jazz of urban life -- the happy jangle of its unpredictability. And city officials think of any way they can -- given their limited ability -- to beat the odds and raise enough revenue to keep from going under.
D. J. Waldie, author, historian, and as the New York Times said in 2007, "a gorgeous distiller of architectural and social history," writes about Los Angeles on KCET's SoCal Focus blog.