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By Frank Gruber

A conceit of writing a column like this is that there are readers willing to accommodate the columnist's obsessions, provided that he or she can make them amusing enough. Thank you, and I try, but I know that like those of most of my friends and family, your eyes would glaze over if I cornered you at a party and started talking about everything that fascinates me.

So it was with an ever-increasing sense of joy and wonder that I spent two and a half days this past week in the company -- dare I say, the bosom -- of the California Studies Association at their 16th annual conference.

I mean, to be together with people who are fascinated simultaneously with how a new ride at Disneyland will affect the continued viability of California's noir literary and filmic culture and how far bus benches should sit from the curb, was so heavenly that I began to appreciate the rapture that enveloped California's early settlers as they looked upon paradise.

As I mentioned last week, I participated on a panel at the conference about possible changes in the dominant paradigm of the "California Dream:" the single-family, detached house in a development surrounding a shopping center. The idea is that because of a dramatic drop in the percentage of households with children and the ever-increasing social costs of sprawl, the time might be ripe for a paradigm shift toward a preference for city dwelling.

The panel focused on downtown Santa Monica as a case study. Two panelists were Santa Monica's most active market-rate and affordable housing developers, Craig Jones, who has built most of the apartments downtown, and Joan Ling of Community Corp. They explained what they were building, who their customers were, and what they wanted.

We also heard from Christian Peralta, who works at Livable Places, a non-profit developer of in-fill housing that focuses largely on providing first-time homebuyers with alternatives to buying houses on the sprawling fringe.

The fifth panelist was D.J. Waldie, author of the remarkable book, Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir. "Holy Land" is about Mr. Waldie's hometown of Lakewood; it combines memory and history. For me the book was a revelation. It stood all my anti-suburban prejudices on their head.

Lakewood was the first example of developers building the full program of detached houses surrounding a shopping center. "Holy Land" describes the heroic achievement of housing of 17,500 working class families and explains the durability of the existing paradigm.

Mr. Waldie gave our panel an historical context. He pointed out that Lakewood, as planned in the late 40's and built in the early 50's, was the result of a 50 year long "conversation" about how best to house working people, and that any changes in that paradigm would need to result from a continuation of that conversation.

(Fans of "Holy Land" will be happy to learn that Mr. Waldie has a new book just out this month, Where We Are Now: Notes from Los Angeles, a collection of essays.)

One thing that is clear is that any such conversation about housing involves a lot more than how many bathrooms there are and how many bedrooms. Along that line, one of the fascinating presentations I heard at the conference was that of Professor James Allen of the Geography Department of Cal State Northridge. Professor Allen presented a series of maps that showed the pace of demographic change in the region, based on census-tract-by-census-tract analysis of the 2000 Census.

What the maps show is that Southern Californians are constantly on the move in search of better places to live, and that these movements follow certain patterns based on ethnicity. People tend to start from enclaves of their racial or ethnic group (whites having been the first to congregate and then to move), and then move outward to new enclaves with better housing. In general, however, there are more enclaves people move to than people move from, and the places people move to tend to be more diverse than the places they moved from.

The communities that have been here the longest tend to be the most dispersed. Only 22 percent of whites live in census tracts where more than 80 percent of the population is white; in Chicago or New York, 60 percent do. Although in the public mind, all African-Americans live in South Los Angeles and neighboring communities, in fact they are now scattered throughout the region. Blacks represent only eight percent of the population as a whole, but there are only four census tracts in the whole region that have none, and very few that are less than one percent black.

(Many of the maps Prof. Allen showed at the conference are available in a book he wrote with his colleague, Eugene Turner, called Changing Faces, Changing Places.)

As has been widely reported, the Latino population in Southern California now is the largest single group -- 40 percent as compared to 39 percent Anglo/white.

Latino immigration has, of course, been dramatic. Another speaker at the conference, Gregory Rodriguez, a contributing editor to the L.A. Times, reported that today two-thirds of adult Latinos are foreign born; the figure in 1970 was 11 percent. While that explains why so much Spanish is spoken here, the process of North Americanization is inexorable: two-thirds of the grandchildren of immigrant Latinos speak only English.

Why is it that in a culture that places a lot of value on neighborhood and community, people feel the need to abandon the old places to create new lives elsewhere? In other societies, immigrants and new workers moving to the city from the countryside form the new neighborhoods and aspire to work their way into the center. Even in Southern California there are old neighborhoods that defy the trend and attract investment.

I may have heard the answer, or part of it, at another panel, one about building and maintaining the infrastructure that neighborhoods depend on. Speakers included Kathi Littman, a consultant who has played an important role in the L.A. Unified School District's dramatic program of building and rebuilding schools, and Jonathan Kevles, an official at the L.A. Community Redevelopment Agency.

While it is apparent that through the work of a new generation of technocrats like Ms. Littman and Mr. Kevles, governmental agencies are finding ways to work together to make fruitful investments in local communities, I was amazed to learn from Ms. Littman's remarks that until recently planning departments at the state and local level and public developers like the CRA did not consider schools to be part of infrastructure.

So while the CRA was dumping millions and millions of dollars into parking lots in downtown L.A. and Hollywood, none of the power brokers trying to protect their investments had the foresight to ask why families were fleeing Los Angeles for the outskirts, depressing property values and discouraging private investment along the way.

What the CRA, government officials, property owners or any other interested policy maker could have learned from talking to any suburban realtor, the first answer any new suburbanite gives for why he or she moved to the suburbs is, "the schools."

What if it turns out that our older cities have not been a revolving door for the poor of each generation because of an innate desire for one's own front lawn to mow, but because the people of California through their government(s) made a conscious decision not to invest in old schools and old neighborhoods?

As Mr. Waldie said, it's a conversation.

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