By SARA FISHER
Take a look in the mirror, L.A. Feeling any better about yourself?
There hasn’t been a major earthquake in four years. The city has been riot-free for almost six years. El Ni & #324;o? So far at least, it’s been El No-Show.
With an improving economy, a growing cultural stature, lower unemployment and falling crime rates, L.A. is being declared fit as a fiddle again.
Especially by those in public office.
“You have a safer city, a cleaner city, a friendlier city,” Mayor Richard Riordan said last week.
Whether the rest of the world agrees is another matter.
“L.A’s image is largely couched by the media, which has had a feeding frenzy over the last several years between fires, earthquakes, drive-by shootings and more hysterical trials than I care to remember,” said Ronald Altoon, president of the American Institute of Architects and founding partner of the Los Angeles-based firm Altoon + Porter Architects.
While the press is often slow to let these things go, Altoon and others have noted the mostly positive reviews of L.A. printed in the last three months, due largely to the opening of the Getty Center.
But a few good notices won’t change the anti-L.A. mindset, according to Xandra Kayden, who teaches political science at UCLA and heads the local chapter of the League of Women Voters.
“It is incredibly difficult to change stereotypes, and the perception of Los Angeles is built on them,” Kayden said. “The most telling world image of L.A. is as a self-absorbed, provincial city.”
Still, it’s been hard for even the snobs to ignore L.A. of late, what with the Dec. 16 opening of the $1 billion Getty Center the most expensive arts complex ever built in this country. It is probably no coincidence that New Yorker magazine is reported to be putting together an issue dedicated to Los Angeles remarkable for “a city that views L.A. much like England used to view America,” according to Kayden.
“Judging from how the press around the world is treating us, the Getty Center is clearly a major cultural event,” said Harold Williams, outgoing president of the J. Paul Getty Trust. “But more importantly to us, the Getty has a permanence that will help change L.A. The new center will hopefully spur philanthropy and prompt L.A. to more fully appreciate the rich cultural opportunities already here.”
There are other signs that the town, dormant or under siege for much of the 1990s, is coming back to life.
The L.A. City Council, often cranky when it comes to approving development projects, gave the green light for the new Staples Center sports arena, which will become the new home for the Lakers and the Kings.
In addition, the fund-raising campaign for the Disney Concert Hall, a cornerstone of the planned downtown “cultural corridor,” moved back on track. And the Los Angeles Roman Catholic Archdiocese unveiled plans for a grand new downtown cathedral to match its stature as the nation’s largest Catholic archdiocese.
The latest issue of Buzz magazine even devotes an article to speculation about Cardinal Roger Mahony becoming the first American pope.
Then, there is the business side of things.
“The exit of companies from L.A. has gone down from a major exodus to a minor trickle,” said Regina Birdsell, executive director of the New Los Angeles Marketing Partnership. “All in all, we’re seeing confidence within the region improve.”
L.A.’s re-emergence as a business center was reinforced last July, when Forbes magazine chose to hold its high-caliber forum for chief executives in Los Angeles. News Corp. head and L.A. resident Rupert Murdoch gave a rare public speech for the occasion.
But with the local economy rebuilt around small businesses, there is a growing schism between the business and community environments in L.A.
“There is an absence of major corporate donors and the loss of business leadership,” said Williams of the Getty Trust. “We do have economic strength through smaller businesses, but it is hard for them to work civicly as the Fortune 500 companies could.”
Countering that concern, however, are other positive signs of a rebound.
One is that more visitors are coming here.
“Travel to L.A. has been on an upswing,” said Steve Loucks, director of communications at the American Society of Travel Agents. “We regularly poll our membership to find out where they’re booking their clients. Three to four years ago, L.A. was not even included in the top five destinations. Now, it’s regularly in the number three position behind Orlando and Las Vegas, and duking it out with New York and San Francisco. I expect bookings to increase in 1998.”
The Los Angeles Convention and Visitors Bureau estimates that 23.6 million people will visit L.A. in 1997, spending $11 billion while they are here. This is up from 23.2 million visitors in 1996 and 22.1 million in 1995.
Projections for 1998 are significantly higher.
Also, both the unemployment rate and the number of welfare recipients are declining.
“The welfare-to-work numbers are enormously ahead of course,” said Frank Moran, outgoing chair of the Latin Business Association and a commissioner for the L.A. Convention Center. “The number of people getting off welfare and into jobs is an estimated 13 percent ahead of what was anticipated.”
Denise Fairchild, president of the Community Development Technologies Center, Rebuild L.A.’s successor organization, believes that community relations and race relations have improved significantly since the riots.
“Low-income communities have strong community assets, both with their indigenous leadership and with their youth,” she said. “But we can’t forget, as we make major investments in the large projects going on around L.A., that we should keep investing toward inner-city growth as well.”
Some of the toughest challenges to L.A. come from within.
Gov. Pete Wilson signed legislation in 1997 making it easier for the San Fernando Valley to secede from the city of Los Angeles. Secession talk also has popped up in West Los Angeles, Venice, Eagle Rock and San Pedro and will no doubt arise in the future in other communities that have a beef with City Hall.
“Our movement is about how to make our life in L.A. better,” said Jeff Brain, co-chairman of the Valley Voters Organized Toward Empowerment, a group that hopes to ultimately put the secession issue before voters. “The city government is inefficient and non-responsive, and we have an unfriendly business environment. L.A. is simply too large geographically and would be better served in smaller units.”
Brain as well as other community figures readily lists a series of problems that plague L.A.
“Is L.A. actually better, or is it all window dressing?” Brain asked. “We have mass transit that goes nowhere, a government that doesn’t take charter reform seriously, the DWP is a financial disaster and the school district wants to break up. What does that really say about the city?”
Williams of the Getty Trust said it will take more than charter reform to save the city.
“Los Angeles needs to work to increase its civic spirit,” Williams said. “We currently are a cluster of economic enclaves, not a larger community. Until we get a sense that we are in this together, L.A.’s image will not truly get a facelift.”
In an effort to create that spirit, the city has launched a marketing campaign that includes banners throughout the city proclaiming local achievements.
That helps with the self-image, but not with the larger image reflected to the world, said UCLA’s Kayden.
“It’s meaningless because it’s still inward-looking,” she said. “Tremendous activity is reshaping L.A., but we don’t know how to sell it to the rest of the world. To be successsful, it needs to be outward, such as the New York ad campaign a couple years ago that was on national television.”
And of course, it won’t hurt if El Ni & #324;o peters out this year.