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Skeptical Optimism for the Future of 'Suburban Urbanism'

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Model 15-B | Illustration: D. J. Waldie

Joel Kotkin the demographer, Gustavo Arellano the editor, and Julia Huang the entrepreneur sat down the other day with Claudia Jurmain for another of the 2014 Conversations in Place at Rancho Los Alamitos. The conversation was about the past of Southern California and what we might become in the future.

Southern California got two votes of qualified optimism and one vote of qualified pessimism. Perhaps that's the best we can expect.

Joel Kotkin, described by the New York Times as America's "uber"geographer," was the skeptical pessimist, wondering where an increasingly older and less educated workforce will find the jobs that make a decent life in Southern California possible. For Kotkin, that kind of life revolves around the habits and aspirations of Southern California's suburban urbanism.

Kotkin's home is the San Fernando Valley, a place that has been a model for many other places in this country and throughout the world.

Gustavo Arellano, OC Weekly editor, and Julia Huang, CEO of interTREND Communications, were the skeptical optimists. They saw business and cultural opportunities in the acceleration of ethnic and racial change in a more urban Southern California. Their personal stories - rooted in the mid-size cities of Santa Ana and Long Beach - gave them hope.

Arellano, the son of Mexican immigrants, and Huang, Taiwan born and raised in Japan, emphasized how familiar their success would seem to an earlier generation of strivers after the American Dream. Education, family, and ambition were the engines of the dream then, and Huang and Arellano thought they were still.

The American Dream was on Kotkin's mind too, but its location was far from the Valley, Santa Ana, or Long Beach.

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After more than a hundred years of selling itself into existence, Southern California seems to have lost the thread of its aspirational narrative. For Kotkin, the migrant's hope leads away from Los Angeles to Dallas, Huston, and the satellite suburbs around those cities. Employment statistics seem to bear him out. Other trends are more equivocal.

Asian immigration has reshaped the suburbanisms of Cerritos, La Palma, and the entire San Gabriel Valley in positive ways. Orange County, Arellano noted, churns with immigrants staking their claim to Southern California's future in a piece of suburban strip mall.

Texas isn't my dream by any set of numbers. But neither is a Southern California economy where my not-quite-middle-class neighbors are squeezed out of their niche and closer to the ranks of the working poor.

Perhaps it's time to wake up from any sort of dreaming to see what's really going on. As Kotkin noted recently in a column for The Daily Beast, "Increasingly, it's not the color of one's skin that determines one's place in society, but access to education and capital, often the inherited variety."

Hybridity has gone a long way to undermine the givens of skin color in what was once Anglo Southern California. It's now a matter of class who will win or lose in the Southern California of tomorrow.

None of the panel members implied that Southern California had become post-ethnic or post-racial -- ask any black youth -- but there was general agreement that "minority majority" Southern California has class issues that make the region's other grievances seem smaller.

The Anglos of Southern California were smug in the 1970s, when big national magazines billboarded them as a blend of thoughtless hedonism and entrepreneurial smarts -- sort of Gidget meets Eli Broad. We're not so smug anymore, nor are we as much in America's imagination.

It's not in the imagination that Southern California thrives, the panel members suggested, but on America's dinner plates. The food truck and strip mall mash-up of cuisines that characterizes Los Angeles today has become our most satisfying export. We don't make jet planes or automobiles anymore, but we do make Lebanese-style huevos rancheros, Korean tacos, and an only-in-L.A. breakfast that Jonathan Gold once described as Asian Amish.

If only we could eat ourselves out of Southern California's wayward condition. If only we had the recipe for success, and it didn't involve going to Texas.

The next Conversations in Place is Sunday, October 19 at 1:30 p.m. with Jonathan Gold, Los Angeles Times restaurant critic and Pulitzer Prize winner; Jared Farmer, author and geohumanist; Jon Christensen, editor of Boom: A Journal of California, and Conversations series co-moderator Claudia Jurmain.

The subject -- familiar to readers of Departures -- is the place of nature in Los Angeles. When the urban is everywhere, new questions need to be asked about the food we eat, the water we drink, the air we breathe, and the landscapes that sustain us. Our everyday encounters with urban nature need to be redefined and brokered anew in sustainable terms. And the connection of natural processes to human priorities needs to be transparent.

Advance purchase of tickets is required, available online (here) or by calling Rancho Los Alamitos at 562-431-3541.

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