Wild Blue Yonder

Bill Deverell, Daniel Lewis, and Peter Westwick, members of Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West, ruminated on the end of southern California's aerospace culture in a recent posting to LA Observed. They bookended a century of invention and innovation with the opening of the Los Angeles air show (January 10 to January 20, 1910) and the announcement in early January 2010 of the relocation of the Northrop Grumman headquarters from Los Angeles to the Washington D.C. area.

Northrop Grumman was not only the last corporate giant of the Age of Aerospace in southern California, it also was one of a dwindling number of major corporations headquartered in the Los Angeles area. According to LA Business Journal Editor Charles Crumpley, "When the Fortune 500 list came out last spring, Los Angeles County was home to 14 companies. . . . Since that list came out, DaVita Inc. announced it was moving its headquarters . . . and last week Northrop announced its departure. That brings L.A. County's total down to 12."

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Los Angeles now has fewer big companies than metropolitan areas as small as Minneapolis and as distressed as Detroit.

The mass production of aviation and space technolgy used to be the economic engine that powered the region's economy. The builders of planes and defense systems were the GMs and Fords that delivered good paying jobs to tens of thousands of skilled workers and thousands of engineers and technicians.

Commercial aircraft manufacturing has shrunk to Airbus and Boeing, neither located here. Military systems are a one-customer market that depends on Congressional willingness to buy. And that means that components have to be manufactured in as many states as possible (and preferentially in the states represented by procurement committee chairs).

Aerospace left southern California for these and other reasons, and it's impossible to lay the preponderance of blame on any one of them. Labor costs are higher here, in part because the cost of living is significantly higher. Aging plants located in urban settings are expensive to upgrade and sometimes the target of homeowner NIMBYists. Getting components in and out of those plants was made difficult by equally aging transportation systems and the region's crowded highway corridors. The big plants were serviced by thousands of independent shops that made fasteners and structural components. They came under increasing cost pressures, in part because of their poor environmental record.

And who we are and where we are must take some of the blame. Civil unrest in the 1960s and 1990s, earthquakes in the 1970s and 1990s, and the state's chaotic approach to business development contributed to the decline.

California "? and southern California specifically "? have been defined as "aspirational" sites: places that embody hope. The vault of sky (and the boundary of space beyond) was the summit of aspiration for many Californians for nearly all of the 20th century. And we're unsure, now that we've come down to earth, what will become of us.

The Douglas A20 bomber on this page is by Flickr user Tom Harnish. The image is used under a Creative Commons license.

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