Research Reports

Common Paths: Connecting Metropolitan Inner City Opportunities

Thomas Tseng


After the civil disturbances of April 1992, Los Angeles continues to move forward in revitalizing the conditions of its neglected communities. This challenge assumes a metropolitan dimension as well as a local one. The growth and potential of South Los Angeles are directly related to regional growth and development, and South Los Angeles offers the metropolitan region new opportunities to address challenges of unfettered sprawl.

At the threshold of the twenty-first century, the challenges confronting America's metropolitan areas and inner cities are as important as ever. Despite a new political climate of federal devolution, fiscal conservatism, and welfare reform, persistent issues remain unaddressed. These challenges must now be engaged by new collaborative partnerships made up of community stakeholders, business leaders, and civic entrepreneurs, operating both locally and regionally.

A Metropolitan Challenge

Astonishing population and economic growth in the postwar period led Southern California to become the second largest metropolitan region in the United States. However, suburban sprawl led to massive flight from inner-city communities since the early half of this century. This suburbanization, aided by postwar federal housing and transportation policies, has stimulated growth around the metropolitan perimeter but has discouraged the reinvestment and redevelopment of older, inner-city communities.

In addition, the decline of traditional manufacturing has also aggravated conditions in L.A.'s inner-city communities. Traditional manufacturing industries were previously a significant source of skilled, high-wage, blue-collar employment for many inner city residents. The decline of this employment base eroded an important source of economic and social stability, leading to greater levels of flight and abandonment.

The simultaneous processes of suburban decentralization and deindustrialization indicate a close link between metropolitan growth and inner-city conditions. Addressing the conditions of inner-city communities is also a metropolitan challenge, as the continuing forces of urban sprawl threaten the quality of life of not just the inner city but the entire region as well.

To achieve better ways of growing, the region must pursue growth principles that promote more efficient land uses. Strategies must tackle the following issues: addressing the jobs/housing imbalance; upgrading and maintaining existing infrastructure in developed areas; encouraging innovative, efficient land uses that mix uses and build higher densities; reducing municipal reliance on sales tax revenue; reducing subsidies for developments contributing to sprawl; and encouraging regional discussion and collaboration to address metropolitan growth concerns. Reinvesting in the existing infrastructure of older, inner city communities is an integral component to fostering alternative patterns of growth. Urban areas like South Los Angeles offer viable opportunities for achieving the objectives of more sustainable growth.

South Los Angeles: Beyond Perceptions

Although South Los Angeles faces serious urban challenges, it is the victim of far worse perceptions. This deficit-oriented perspective must be balanced by an asset-based approach, which highlights the positive undercurrents of South Los Angeles. Unheralded and unbeknownst to many, the area possesses significant economic vitality, opportunity, and assets. Over the last few decades, the area has experienced significant changes in its population and residential composition. Changing demographic patterns have rendered the area unique from other inner-city communities across the country. Some significant distinctions include:

A Growing Population. In contrast to other inner-city communities, South Los Angeles has continued to experience substantial population growth despite the outmigration of its middle class residents. Between 1980 and 1990, the population of South LA added 132,000 people, a growth rate of approximately 16 percent. Unlike other urban areas in cities like New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, and Detroit, where population loss has been the norm, the population of South LA has continued to increase.

Immigration and a Growing Latino Base. The source for most of the population growth has been from Latin American immigration, which has profoundly shaped the ethnic character of South Los Angeles. Consequently, the ethnic composition of South LA's population has transformed from a predominantly African American population into a burgeoning Latino majority. In many parts of South LA, Latino immigrants are now the most dominant presence. Between 1980 and 1990, the percentage of African Americans in the area shrank from 64 percent to 47 percent of the total population. In contrast, Hispanics rose from 23 percent to 42 percent of the area's total population in the same period. By all estimates and projections, the Latino presence will continue to grow.

High Rates of Labor Force Participation. Unlike the pervasive joblessness and unemployment observed in other inner cities across the country, many people living in South Los Angeles are involved in full-or nearly full-time work. High degrees of labor force participation accompany the growing ranks of Latino immigrants. More than 80 percent of all Latino males in South Central Los Angeles, for instance, are involved in the labor force.

An Asset-Based Approach. Although serious urban challenges confront South LA, the social and economic realities are masked by far worse perceptions. These perceptions stigmatize South LA communities as places of social and civil disorder. Contrary to popular opinion, South LA is an area of considerable economic assets and opportunities. Consider the following:

There is a strong industrial manufacturing base. Despite past trends in deindustrialization, the manufacturing sector represents the most vigorous portion of the area's economic base. It continues to be an important source of employment, providing jobs for numerous residents and immigrant workers. There are more than 27,000 manufacturing establishments in South LA. Among the largest industries are apparel and textiles, metalworking and machinery, food processing, and furniture manufacturing. Although manufacturing companies make up just 10 percent of the area's establishments, they generate more than 84,000 jobs, or 27 percent of total employment. In South L.A., manufacturing is the largest employer next to the services sector, which represents 24 percent of the area's employment base. Industrial employment is nearly equally divided between durable and nondurable goods, and there has been a strong surge of growth over recent years in nondurables manufacturing. Led by the apparel, textile, and food processing industries, the growth of these industries has created a significant employment opportunities for many South LA residents.

There is a substantial market demand for consumer goods and services. A huge unmet demand exists, far outstripping supply, for commercial and retail goods and services. The current retail commercial base fails to adequately capture this demand. Compared with the rest of LA County, we find that South LA, per capita, has 65 percent fewer grocery stores, 40 percent fewer banks and financial institutions, and 20 percent fewer clothing stores. Despite low per capita income levels, high population density in the area translates into substantial purchasing power. Since the area contains a dense, growing population accompanied by high rates of labor force participation, aggregate income levels are substantial. Aggregate income levels in South LA are currently estimated to be greater than $10 billion.Because many of the retail goods and services offered within the neighborhoods do not meet the types of goods and services demanded, most residents shop outside their neighborhoods. According to one projection, the leakage of outside spending spurred by unmet demand in grocery store services alone exceeds $400 million, which is spent in supermarkets and grocery stores outside South Los Angeles.

There exists a viable and growing housing market. South Los Angeles has an extensive base of well-maintained single-family neighborhoods where housing values have remained stable. Many South LA neighborhoods are locations of historic housing stock that are a rich cultural asset. There are high rates of home occupancy. Only 6.6 percent of housing units were vacant in 1990. Population growth has created a huge potential for homeownership opportunities, especially for Latino homebuyers.

There is a large workforce that is both willing and able. Companies in the area cite the labor force as one of the key reasons they remain competitive. Despite high unemployment overall, many parts of South LA that are characterized by high rates of labor force participation, indicating a large willing and able labor force. Over 25 percent of South LA residents work in the manufacturing sector, while over 30 percent are involved in traditional blue-collar occupations such as crafts and precision production, machine and transport operators, and labor and handlers. Likewise, greater than 30 percent of industry employment is in service producing sectors. These labor market segments perform critical roles in keeping the regional economy in motion.

South Los Angeles is strategically located for industry and trade. South LA is centrally located and lies adjacent to major transportation corridors, offering significant locational advantages for businesses. Proximity to critical infrastructure provides the area's economy with quick and easy access for shipping and handling freight by both air and/or water. The Century Freeway, which lies on the southern border of South LA, offers a direct connection to Los Angeles International Airport. The development of high-speed rail along the Alameda Corridor will provide easy access to Downtown LA and the Port of Los Angeles. Alameda Avenue itself is a major transit corridor lined with a large number of warehousing and industrial activity.

Signs of Renewal. All across South LA, there are signs of revitalization and reasons for optimism. Some indicators of renewal include: Public/Private Partnerships - As government funding is scaled back, the formation of these partnerships have been effective in leveraging the resources and expertise drawn from government, the private-sector, and non profit community organizations. Successful projects have been developed in South LA that would not have otherwise been possible without these partnerships.

Immigrant Entrepreneurialism. A burgeoning immigrant economy is forming in South LA that is meeting the changing consumer demand of the area's shifting demographics. The growing Latino presence has driven the developments of new supermarkets and grocery stores catering to the tastes and preferences of these new ethnic markets.

Community Economic Development Approaches. Community-based development organizations are quietly, but significantly, strengthening the neighborhood assets and improving the community fabric of South LA.. Community development corporations are building needed housing units and commercial spaces, financing new entrepreneurial ventures, and training workers in new skills for a changing economy.

Throughout South LA, a growing network of community development, business leaders, and civic entrepreneurs are recognizing the importance of these assets. They are fostering strategies that strengthen and build upon these opportunities. They see the value of investing in the individuals, associations, and institutions that are rooted in South LA's physical and human infrastructure. In order for these efforts to have meaningful, long term impacts, the strategies adopted by various groups should continue to be integrated under a collaborative framework. A regional collaborative approach brings together a diverse group of people from across the region-businesses, churches, community organizations, neighborhood associations, and government, among others. Strengthening connections between South LA's diverse stakeholders and creating social capital under a collaborative framework enhances the area's identity, viability, and capacity for growth. Finally, this collaborative approach is essential for bridging the gaps between inner-city communities and the broader region. The next stage of urban renewal must foster a comprehensive vision, encompassing the shared concerns between metropolitan regions and inner-city communities. As growth challenges demonstrate, the two move along a shared trajectory and walk forth on common paths.