The Decline of Los Angeles


Next week, Antonio Villaraigosa will be overwhelmingly re-elected mayor of Los Angeles. Do not, however, take the size of his margin – he faces no significant opposition – as evidence that all is well in the city of angels.

Whatever His Honor says to the media, the sad reality remains that Los Angeles has fallen into a serious secular decline. This constitutes one of the most rapid – and largely unnecessary – municipal reversals in fortune in American urban history.

A century ago, when L.A. had barely 100,000 souls, railway magnate Henry Huntington predicted that the place was "destined to become the most important city in this country, if not the world." Long run by ambitious, often ruthless boosters, the city lured waves of newcomers with its pro-business climate, perfect weather and spectacular topography.

These newcomers – first largely from the Midwest and East Coast, and then from around the world – energized L.A. into an unmatched hub of innovation and economic diversity.

As a result, L.A. surged toward civic greatness. By the end of the 20th century, it stood not only as the epicenter for the world's entertainment industry, but also North America's largest port, garment manufacturer and industrial center. The region also spawned two important presidents – Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan – and nurtured a host of political and social movements spanning the ideological spectrum.

Now L.A. seems to be fading rapidly toward irrelevancy. Its economy has tanked faster than that of the nation, with unemployment now close to 10%. The port appears in decline, the roads in awful shape and the once potent industrial base continues to shrink.

Job growth in the area, notes a forecast by the University of California at Santa Barbara, dropped 0.6% last year and is expected to plunge far more rapidly this year. Roughly one-fifth of the population depends on public assistance or benefits to survive.

Once a primary destination for Americans, L.A. – along with places like Detroit, New York and Chicago – now suffers among the highest rates of out-migration in the country. Particularly hard hit has been its base of middle-class families, which continues to shrink. This is painfully evident in places like the San Fernando Valley, where I live, long a middle-class outpost for L.A., much like Queens and Staten Island are for New York.

In such a context, Villaraigosa's upcoming coronation seems hard to comprehend. By most accounts, he has been at best a mediocre mayor, with few real accomplishments besides keeping police chief Bill Bratton, a man appointed by his predecessor. So far, Bratton has managed to keep the lid on crime, a testament both to his skills and to the demographic aging of much of the city.

Besides this, virtually every major initiative from Villaraigosa has been a dismal failure; from a poorly executed program to plant more trees to a subsidized drive to refashion downtown Los Angeles into a mini-Manhattan. Instead of reforming a generally miserable business climate, Villaraigosa has fixated on fostering "elegant density" through massive new residential construction. This gambit has failed miserably, with downtown property values plunging at least 35% since their peak. Many "luxury" condominiums there, as well as elsewhere in the city, remain largely unoccupied or have turned into rentals.

More recently the mayor has presided over a widely ridiculed scheme to hand over the solar business in Los Angeles to a city agency, the Department of Water and Power (DWP), whose workers are among the best paid and most coddled of any municipal agency anywhere. Most solar plans by utilities focus more on competitive bidding by outside contractors. Villaraigosa's plan, which recent estimates suggests will cost L.A. ratepayers upward of $3.6 billion, would grant a powerful, well-heeled union control of the city's solar program.

This has occurred despite years of overruns on previous DWP "clean energy" projects. Not surprisingly, the plan was widely blasted – by the city's largest newspaper, the rapidly shrinking Los Angeles Times, the feistier LA Weekly and the last independent voice at City Hall, outgoing City Controller Laura Chick, who proclaimed that the whole scheme "stinks." Yet despite the criticism, a ballot measure endorsing the plan – opponents have little money to stop it – seems likely to be approved next week.

With his firm grip on political power, Villaraigosa likes to think of himself as a West Coast version of New York's Michael Bloomberg or Chicago's Richard Daley. Yet at least they have demonstrated a modicum of seriousness about the job.

In contrast, Villaraigosa, according to a devastating recent report in the LA Weekly, spends remarkably little time – about 11% – actually doing his job. The bulk of his 16-hour or so days are spent politicking, preening for the cameras and in other forms of relentless self-promotion.

So how is this person about to be re-elected with only token opposition? Rick Caruso, the developer of luxury shopping center The Grove and one of L.A.'s last private sector power brokers, ascribes this to a growing sense of powerlessness, even among the city's most important business leaders.

"People feel it's kind of hopeless. It's a dysfunctional city," Caruso, who once considered a run against Villaraigosa, told me the other day. "They don't think there's anything to do."

Certainly, odds against changing the current political system seem long to an extreme. The once-powerful business community has devolved into a weak plaintive lobby who rarely challenge our homegrown Putin or his allies in our municipal Duma.

Of course, entrepreneurial Angelenos still find opportunities, but largely by working at home or in one of the city's surrounding communities. They tend to flock to locales like Ontario, Burbank, Glendale or Culver City, all of which, according to the recent Kosmont-Rose Institute Cost of Doing Business Survey, are less expensive and easier to do business in than L.A.

"It's extremely difficult to do business in Los Angeles," observes Eastside retail developer Jose de Jesus Legaspi. "The regulations are difficult to manage. ... Everyone has to kiss the rings of the [City Hall politicians]."

Legaspi, like many here, still regards Southern California as an appealing place to work, but takes pains to avoid anything within the purview of City Hall. As the economy recovers, I would bet the smaller cities around L.A. and even the hard-hit periphery rebounds first.

The only immediate chance of relief for us Angelenos is if Villaraigosa (who will soon face term limits) takes off to run for governor. As the sole southern Californian and Latino candidate, he could prevail in a crowded Democratic primary. But the idea of this empty suit running the once great state of California – not exactly a paragon of good governance – may be enough to push even more people to the exits or, at very least, think about taking a very strong sedative.

This article originally appeared at Forbes.

Joel Kotkin is executive editor of and is a presidential fellow in urban futures at Chapman University. He is author of The City: A Global History and is finishing a book on the American future.

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Villaraigosa Must Go!

I beg to differ with this writer. Walter Moore is a viable candidate to vote for if you're sick and tired of the left ruining our city. Check out his website at Make no mistake, Democrats live to serve only one master -- the unions. They will continue to tax and spend us into poverty as long as YOU let them. Vote for Walter Moore on Tuesday and send a clear signal to the Los Angeles Beaurocrats -- GET OUT OF MY WALLET OR GET OUT OF OFFICE!

kotkin's antonio

This piece had much to say about LA, with little data to support it. I wonder if the author's longstanding distain for Villaraigosa has warped his perspective on what Richard Florida and others have called one of the nation's more promising and "high metabolozing" cities that will survive and prosper this recession. He also fails to see that Burbank and Glendale ARE Los Angeles, just as much as his hated downtown. Most people can agree that we expected a lot more from Antonio; I doubt if many agree with the weird logic that, because Antonio isn't a great mayor, then LA is doomed.

thank you for this article

I registered and logged in so that I can comment on this.

I have lived in LA for over 20 years and have watched in disbelief how quality of life in LA has been declining, and how the City government is becoming pervasive and more keen to be an impediment than to provide service to legal residents here.

Under the current mayor, what I pay for trash collection and sewage fees has grown exponentially to where it now exceeds what I pay for electricity and water. I can scarce breathe when I think of what they will charge me, who lives in a house, for the solar energy plan - which sounds so good when the Mayor gives press conferences, but I know will end up on my DWP bill. Apartment dwellers don't get to pay the added utility costs, apartment building seem to grow like weeds, all over town.

In the past few years I have taken an interest in city governance and spent time at City Hall, watching what I call "democracy in action" and I am often left speechless by what I see and hear there.

Your article tells me I am not alone in the sense of despair I feel about living in LA, where the City seems to mistake me as a bank it can draw money from at will. I am drained, there is nothing left.

Most of the friends I had made have left town - some, after their small businesses were invaded by inspectors from various city departments that fined them, demanded they change layout of their work places, inspected and fined them again. Relentlessly until my friends gave up and left Los Angeles.

Yet I see non legal residents run businesses all over town, any where, anyhow.

I too, once had a small business, now out of business. I cannot see my way clear to starting up again in Los Angeles, and when I try talk about, what seems to me to be, insurmountable obstacles placed in my way by LA City with the few friends I have left in town - and they don't seem to understand the problems I face - I realize they live in cities adjacent to LA, like Culver City, Santa Monica or Beverly Hills.

Even with manufacturing - I once made and sold products - the companies I subcontracted with, and rented industrial type of workspace from, in downtown LA are all gone. The few remaining are in LA adjacent cities of Vernon or Hyde Park.

This solar energy initiative of the Mayor sends chills down my spine because I cannot afford it. They built a McMansion next door to me in 2004, it generates heat, noise and considerable vibration. It has ruined my quality of life completely. 2 houses across the street stand empty, the resident removed after the McMansion was built. I live near the ocean, most existing houses here have no AC at all, we have ocean breezes.

I do not understand the disconnect and disparity between the building permitting process and the "green initiative".

I do not understand the high density new constructions and the disconnect regarding water supply.

I do not understand the disconnect between LA City and the oil fields that use substantial amounts of water in their new shale oil drilling methods.

I do not understand the demand for car parking spaces while the buses fill up to standing room only on some routes, and empty double size buses on other routes.

Thanks to your article though, I do understand that I am not alone trying to stay afloat in LA City and with my strong desire to leave is well founded.

In the past few years as I have stopped working I have had time to talk to fellow Los Angeles citizens. I find that a great many who hold green cards both vote and serve on juries.

I have no idea which, if any, government agency is in charge of assuring that people who vote are citizens.

I think Los Angeles has undergone a silent coup.

The business community is playing by the rules, but the rules, one wonders what they are now.

I hope things get better in Los Angeles and other cities

I hope things get better in Los Angeles and other cities.

I recommend people read

"Tough Times in Troubled Towns

America's Municipal Meltdowns" by Nick Turse

I hope Congress decides to pass legislation that increases the odds that businesses will create jobs via tax cuts on businesses.

It is about jobs in the private sector.

The more businesses that fire people the more businesses that may fire people.


Ken Stremsky

I'm finding this out 2 weeks after moving to los angeles? -.-

Argh! Things like this are reasons why I can't stand when my teachers screw me over! (they give me F's after I do all the work, get A's on all the tests, and moreover, offer me to teach the class for a day? By the way, I'm not in LA unified, my parents are divorced and my school is ranked #104 in the nation. With me still getting one of the better STAR test scores.) I want to be a politician or urban planner so that I could fix things like this. But I'm only 17!! >_< If I was a high-ranking politician, I would have told this "mayor" that he either takes things seriously, or I myself will endorse a candidate with A LOT of money in the next election! >_< and, now...I'm finding out that I moved in while the party is moving out? This sucks! I always knew this mayor was cheap, but not like that! My mother is a government worker, and her boyfriend works with Cal transit or whatever the company is called. I am a socialist. I believe in socialism in government...BUT NOT IN URBAN PLANNING! When it comes to cities socialism becomes a COMPLETE MESS! From what I've researched, my own wisdom tells me that socialist policies will only work if used for a whole nation (hence, Sweden having one of the highest Human Development Indexes in the world). This mayor NEEDS TO GO! I love this city! 10x better than the suburbs! And we cant be having businesses leave! I did not spend every single year except this one of my childhood and life living in a boring town to finally move to the big city and find that everyone is leavin' on me! Though my mother and her boyfriend are basically what this article (or the other I read about a decline Los Angeles) is blaming the problem on. They're definitely still human. Smartest folks I know, and my mom and I moved here on terms that were best for ME. Because I just learned something about how most of the apartment being renter or empty. I MOVED TO ONE OF THEM! (rent) I gotta age so I can solve this problem now! >_< C'mon guys! You're Genius entrepreneurs SURELY you can find a way around this? Don't give up now! Do what you must to revive the city! (I know you're frustratingly giving it all you can. But I know that Los Angeles can restore its former glory).