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Wanda Coleman and Luis J. Rodriguez -- two of the city's most distinguished writers -- discussed the burning Los Angeles the other evening, part of an event launching Aris Janigian's novel of 1992, "This Angelic Land". Their conversation necessarily looked further back than the fires of 20 years ago to the Watts Riots of 1965 and forward to the incendiary qualities of Los Angeles today. I had the pleasure of being asked to join in the discussion.
"Change" had been on everyone's mind all week, as the local media optimistically calculated the distance from 1992 to 2012. Coleman and Rodriguez were unoptimistic, arguing passionately that 1992 and the present were historically continuous, that the fires of 1965 and 1992 were built into the social and political fabric of the city.
But hadn't "change" come in 20 years?
The LAPD is different, of course, although a cynical Joseph Wambaugh (a few days earlier at the LA Times Festival of Books) credited any moderation in the behavior of the police to departmental fears of lawsuits and officers' fears of indictment, not because of any change in the ethos of the LAPD.
Real "change" had occurred elsewhere, Rodriguez said in response to an audience question. It had occurred in the way L.A. works. The number of industrial and manufacturing jobs -- many of them unionized in 1992 -- is far less today than even 20 years ago and many tens of thousands less than in 1965. Some of those unionized jobs -- not as many as deserved -- were open to African American and Latino men who could, if lucky, make a not-quite-middle-class life in one of the region's tract house suburbs. Growing up in one of them, I saw how it could be done.
Despite the periodic turmoil of strikes, lockouts, and recessions, those jobs were durable. As Michael Bernick noted recently at Zócalo Public Square, a man might enter the plant as a high school graduate with a military service discharge and leave after 35 or 40 years with a modest pension, some money in the bank, a paid-off mortgage, and kids who graduated from the local Cal State to jobs in what was then an even more secure, white-collar world.
The L.A. of unionized industrial work, decent wages, and job security is gone, Rodriguez argued, unraveled from the bottom so quickly that today the disorder of a precarious economic life reaches well up into the lives and neighborhoods of the educated, competent, and still docile middle class. Because work has changed so much, Bernick finds:
The conventional wisdom is that all this insecurity and instability will only accelerate. In a new book called The Start Up of You, Reid Hoffman, founder of LinkedIn, argues that we all need to think of ourselves as start-ups: constantly selling ourselves, refreshing our skills, adapting to fast-changing business conditions.
Willie Loman, the anti-hero of "Death of Salesman," would have have understood the bit about the constant selling of the self. Willie could have added that something horrible and inhuman is built into each transaction and that catastrophe follows when no one wants to buy.
The late Clark Davis wrote in 2000 in a Los Angeles Times op-ed that "a fundamental shift (is) unfolding among middle-class Americans: a growing sense of resignation that the once-sacred contract between corporate employers and employees has been shattered. America's corporate ranks are growing accustomed to the notion that no job is safe, that everyone is expendable."
At the head of the growing number of expendables in L.A. are young men and women of color and the poor of all colors. There were jobs for some of them once and the possibility of a life made whole by their work. Behind this vanguard of the expendable are many thousands more - some of them recently exiled from the middle class - whose newer grievances are just as real.
Resigned some of them may be, but in this inflammable city, what promise is that?
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.