I participated in a discussion last week -- on World Water Day -- that ranged widely over the issues that confront Angeleños if purveyors big and small are to provide enough safe, affordable water for all of us. (Michael Hiltzik of the Los Angeles Times outlined some of their concerns in a recent column.)
Any way you look at it, water is one of the two or three essential elements on which Los Angeles (and the region) rises or falls. That's been true since 1781 and the founding of the city. During the discussion, I expected the experts to focus on water conservation, wastewater reuse, structural impediments to water supply, and the politics of moving water around the state. They did, with analyses that were both warnings and hopeful predictions.
But I was unprepared for the brief lunchtime meeting I had with one of the event's organizers, who turned the conversation from water and drought to community and corruption. The blunt statement I heard was that "Los Angeles will be another Detroit in ten years," hollowed out by industrial flight, middle-class indifference, and political failure.
Part of the reason (often the subject of these essays) is the poverty of the city's civic life. Everyone is part of some kind of community in Los Angeles, but the city lacks a "big tent" in which true civic engagement can grow beyond neighborhood concerns to the realization of common aspirations. Los Angeles is set up for failure because a larger and more inclusive "sense of place" is choked off.
That theme -- of a city of distractions without a heart -- is a familiar one. I've diagnosed the usual causes and I trotted them out as a conversational response to my lunchtime companion. But that wouldn't do. Conventional wisdom about the disuniting effects of freeways and demography and missing corporate headquarters wasn't good enough to explain why Los Angeles is drifting today and without a moral compass.
The chilling reason I heard -- from someone who has been a close observer of Los Angeles for two decades -- is old-fashion corruption. And as a result of endemic corruption, Los Angeles will be another Detroit in a decade. It was pointless to finger causes and effects. A malignant synergy led from civic disengagement to corruption in city government and back to a disinterested and uncomprehending electorate that can be expected to keep the city hall system going through another election cycle.
Corruption poisons civic life and stalls the fundamental changes that might make the city prosper anew.
I've heard that story before, but never told with such matter-of-fact conviction. And I was frightened.
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 and 1st and Spring blogs.