From South Gate to L.A. Live: Demographic Change, Homeowner Ethos and Redevelopment in Southeastern Los Angeles


When Becky Nicolaides chairs or comments on a panel, people show up. The author of the now seminal My Blue Heaven: Life and Politics in the Working Class Suburbs of Los Angeles, 1920-1965 always draws a crowd. As her book has assumed a sort of Crabgrass Nation status, the suburb at the heart of it, South Gate, has become an ur-text for Southeast Los Angeles more broadly. Nicolaides ended her study in 1965 but in her epilogue noted that twenty-first-century South Gate now served as a predominantly working-class Latino American suburb, representative of larger structural shifts in economics, demographics, and perhaps even immigration (though commentator Philip Ethington might differ on this this final point).

So it should come as no surprise that Nicolaides chaired a panel consisting of two Claremont Graduate University scholars, Mercedes Gonzalez-Ontanon and Graham McNeill respectively, and University of Texas-Austin’s Jake Wegmann, each of whom examined South Gate’s development from 1965 to today. The formidable Ethington (University of Southern California), the master of Los Angeles economic and demographic cartography, provided commentary, which pushed the presenters in a number of useful ways. Undoubtedly for this writer (admittedly this has as much to do with personal research interests and scheduling as much anything else), the panel titled, “Complicating Suburbia in Los Angeles” proved the most engaging and intellectually fulfilling of the entire SACRPH conference.


Mercedes Gonzalez-Ontanon, “The Remaking of Los Angeles: Latino Suburbs, the Case of South Gate, 1966 – 2014”

Originally from Cuba, Mercedes Gonzalez-Ontanon and her family first arrived in Los Angeles in 1963, later moving to South Gate after the 1965 Watts Riots. Her family reached the Southeast L.A. suburb just in time to experience school integration struggles, pitting the city’s older white residents led by Assemblyman Floyd Wakefield and his wife, Ruth, a city council member against advocates of integration.

According to Gonzalez-Ontanon, the Hart Celler 1965 Immigration Act facilitated suburban growth of Los Angeles’ Latino/Latino American communities as more and more new arrivals bypassed settlements in the city for working-class suburban environs, putting down roots in places like South Gate, Huntington Park, and Maywood. The Watts Riots and the growing Latino population destabilized white expectations of suburban living, leading to what Gonzalez-Ontanon and McNeil labeled white flight, particularly by the early 1970s. Ethington questioned tropes like “white flight,” pointing out it might also be caused by the dual tendency of children to move away from their town of origin and the fact American families have fewer and fewer children as generations pass from one to the other. In other words, more generally than simply fear of integration, the demographic shifts that ensued might hint at a more complex process than simply racism; as Gonzalez-Ontanon suggested later, perhaps a more accurate way to describe what happened would be to say “middle class flight.”

Regardless, by 1972, for sale signs proliferated across the South Gate landscape. The rapid sale of homes, when combined with widespread ambivalence regarding the Watts Riots and an increasing non-white presence, enabled many Latino Americans to purchase homes in South Gate, a community that presented an attractive location for working class families due to its proximity to the city and access to the highway.

Of course, deindustrialization took a toll as the town’s populaton changed. Plant closings washed over Southeast Los Angeles with disturbing regularity in the 1970s and 1980s. The suburb’s iconic Firestone Tire factory shut down, taking thousands of jobs with it as numerous small businesses in the area also shuttered their doors. Property values dropped and tax revenue declined, but more and more Latinos arrived as the a new manufacturing base predicated on low wage non-union immigrant labor popped up in old industry’s place.

Site of the action, for the SELA panel; the Biltmore’s Emerald Room

By the 1990s, Latino Americans and immigrants from Meso, Central, and South America emerged as the city’s dominant population. In 1982, Henry Gonzalez became South Gate’s first Latino city council member and two years later, its mayor. As demonstrated by Gonzalez, unlike some of its neighbors whose demographics mirrored those of the Southeastern L.A. suburb, South Gate did a much better job of integrating residents into mainstream community life and combating issues afflicting its neighborhoods by promoting initiatives. For example, South Gate sponsored amnesty classes for undocumented residents and in the 1990s its PTA decided to conduct meetings in Spanish with a translation into English. The results were a nearly threefold increase in membership from 456 to over 1400 in twelve months.

The city also embraced and regulated residents’ small-scale entrepreneurial instincts. Rather than shun a tradition of weekend yard sales, the city instead regulated them. Now every second Saturday of the month residents can have garage sales on their front lawn. More entrepreneurial sorts have almost professionalized the event by bringing in cash registers and rolling racks and having homeowners work as security guards. Gonzalez-Ontonano argued these “open air mercadoes … create[d] a sense of camaraderie among Latinos accustomed to open air markets,” while providing further demonstration of attempts to incorporate Latino residents into the community.  Ethington concurred, noting that this sort of “professionalized yard sale with brand new merchandise” was reminiscent of the Mexican stalls one sees regularly at “swap meets in Los Angeles.”

Economic redevelopment played a central role as well, as the city established a redevelopment agency. By 1994, Gonzalez-Ontanon points out South Gate ranked third among entrepreneurial hot spots due to its pool of workers, highway access, and low taxes. That same year, half of the suburb’s businesses were Latino owned. Growth continued into the twenty first century. Residents spent roughly 220 million per year and local business interests responded by building an outdoor mall, the Azalea shopping center. Hardly confined to immigrant-oriented businesses or small mom and pop ventures, Azalea features “suburban style chain stores” including a Forever 21, TGI Fridays and Michael’s, noted a September 2015 Los Angeles Times article. While some may debate whether corporate chain businesses should be considered progress, South Gates’ transformation symbolizes similar changes that have reshaped Southeastern Los Angeles and perhaps demonstrate a new, slightly altered suburban ideal.

CiCLAvia 2012 ride through SELA and South Gate

Graham McNeill, “Deindustrialization and the Evolution of the Working Class Suburban Dream in Southeast Los Angeles, 1965- 1990”

Needless to say, numerous scholars have taken to reevaluating the process of deindustrialization over the past five to ten years. Patrick Vitale and Tracy Neumann, both presenting at this year’s SACRPH and the former a member of the audience at this panel, represent just two of the new breed of scholars working on the subject. Claremont Graduate University’s Graham McNeil waded into the discussion with his talk on South Gate’s deindustrialization, overlapping nicely with many of the arguments presented by Gonzalez-Ontanon.

For McNeil, the typical history of deindustrialization, most often focusing on a Midwestern or Eastern city, differs from that of greater Los Angeles. Moreover, in addition to complicating standard Rustbelt stories of decline and stagnation, L.A.’s relationship to deindustrialization offers new insights that do not squarely align with stories about postwar Sunbelt growth.

While large portions of Southeastern Los Angeles County consisted of concentrated industrialized economies by the 1940s, these areas remained both industrial and suburban in character. Low population densities and single family homes populated by blue collar white families defined its 1950s and 1960s postwar landscape. Though these suburbs might have adopted a middle class sheen, much as South Gate did, they remained working class in many respects. Despite the prevalence of unions, organized labor never shaped community or identity as it did in places like Detroit, Chicago, or New York. White intransigence regarding race resulted in a very distinct color line, such that “suburban exclusion” persisted well into the 1970s and 80s, according to McNeil.

Three central issues formed the core of McNeil’s talk:

  • debate over local initiatives regarding the deannexation of Southeastern L.A. schools from L.A. Unified
  • political battles over government-sponsored redevelopment
  • efforts by Southeastern Los Angeles governments to eliminate garage housing and other untraditional housing forms

Much like Gonzalez–Ontanon’s paper, McNeil’s study traverses the demographic change that South Gate residents experienced from 1965 to the present day. However, while an eventual shift toward racial tolerance and an embrace of diversity emerged, the longstanding ethos of homeownership remained a political and cultural touchstone for many South Gate citizens, whether white or Latino American.

In other words, though the suburb’s demographics shifted rapidly and embraced its new Latino residents over time, it maintained a hostility toward non-homeonwners and the poor. Whether conservative or liberal, critics frequently deployed arguments about the “ills of urbanization” to justify their positions.   The suburban dream and all its attendant associations and politics continued to hold the center in the minds of many residents.

More Biltmore Hotel action

McNeil agreed with Gonzalez-Ontanon’s conclusions regarding the shift from heavy industry manufacturing to low wage, non-unionized, and largely immigrant textile, clothing, furniture, and printing industries in downtown and Southeastern Los Angeles. In a slight contrast, McNeil emphasized that even before this shift, Latinos had gained a foothold in Southeast Los Angeles and these related areas of employment. From 1960 to 1970, the percentage of residents with Spanish surnames roughly tripled, going from 5 percent to 17 percent.

With an aging white population, this shift came into starker relief in the schools where percentages proved even higher. In turn, politicians like Ruth Wakefield played off fears held by the declining white population, arguing for deannexation of the town’s schools from L.A. Unified. Wakefield and her husband claimed “local schools were deliberately overcrowded” because the system allowed neighboring communities to send their students to South Gate’s facilities. In 1971, she suggested outside students made the schools dangerous for local kids. The Wakefields eagerly awaited expiration of a ten year moratorium on deannexation, set to terminate in 1972, to push for their cause. However, demographic shifts led to a gradual softening of tone for many residents as the “racially intolerant ideal of suburbs faded” and the Wakefields’ white political constituency quickly declined. When her husband lost his assembly seat to 1974 redistricting, busing controversies on the city council also diminished. As McNeill noted in response to Ethington’s skepticism regarding “white flight tropes,” the Wakefields decamped for Orange County, hoping to take advantage of its New Right leanings as a means to reboot their respective political careers. While nearly everyone agreed with Ethington’s suggestion that historians lean too heavily on terms like “white flight” to explain rapid suburban and urban demographic change, race still seemed to play a role, but perhaps not as unilaterally as some have suggested.

Redevelopment also sparked controversy in South Gate. As deindustrialization engulfed the area in the 1970s, redevelopment schemes promoted by the government sought to set aside funds for job creation, but residents feared such plans might interfere with their pronounced sense of property rights. The local redevelopment agency exploited white fears, argued McNeill, by stating that the increase in Spanish-surname households indicated a suburb in economic decline. Divisive city council meetings followed as arguments in favor of job creation could not compete with pro-homeownership rhetoric and the low tax mantra of South Gate. These latter forces aligned with proponents of Proposition 13. Council members who suggested the city increase revenue via taxes to pay for city services in the face of reductions due to the referendum’s passage paid a political price as they were targeted in electoral contests. Even by 1980, the city hotly debated whether or not to accept federal Community Development Block Grant funding out of fear that acceptance would require the construction of affordable housing for low income families. Eventually, roughly 60 percent of voters came around on the issue, but only after assurances that no low income housing would be built. As the decade concluded, the increased density of South Gate and greater numbers of Latinos led to a shift in stances that prompted more favorable views of federal redevelopment monies.

Finally, the issue of garage or informal housing demonstrates the ways in which South Gate residents, even after demographic shifts, continued to embrace a strain of the homeowner ethos. As the amount of unregulated garage and backyard housing increased, local government took “unprecendented action,” noted McNeill. In 1984, under the leadership of Latino American mayor Henry Gonzalez, the city deployed housing code violations to crack down on garage housing. Over 1,000 families were evicted. In 1987, Gonzalez spoke about South Gate’s threatened school system, which the mayor claimed was driven in great part by unregulated backyard housing. During the 1986 election, those city council members in favor of enforcement won seats on the council while those candidates in opposition lost.

Throughout, the “suburban ideal” dictated policy in the minds of voters and their elected leaders. Whether white or Latino, residents supported the image of homeownership, thereby enabling Gonzalez to enact “draconian measures against the most vulnerable population,” argued McNeill. South and Central Los Angeles continued to be the bogeyman for South Gate residents even after demographic changes; the “urban ills” beset upon these communities could easily migrate to South Gate, politicians and residents repeatedly told themselves. Ultimately, they reestablished a level of suburban retrenchment but one based on class lines rather than race. For anyone who saw the recent HBO mini-series about Yonkers, Show Me a Hero, many of the arguments put forth by South Gate leaders seemed depressingly familiar even if in a different context. As the Who once sang: “Meet the new boss. Same as the old boss.”

Garage conversion in South Central L.A.

Jake Wegmann, “The More Things Change, the More They Stay the Same: Demographic Transition, Local Politics, and the Persistence of the Suburban Ideal In Southeast Los Angeles County”

Believe it or not, University of Texas Austin Assistant Professor of Community and Regional Planning, Jake Wegmann didn’t start out in urban planning. Instead, he spent months on a glacier conducting research for what would become a Masters in Glaciolology before realizing the life of a scientist wasn’t for him. Now Wegmann studies “informal housing” — otherwise known as the garage housing that McNeill demonstrated proved so controversial in 1980s South Gate.

Wegmann began his talk with a quote from Nicolaides and then moved into a discussion of how South Gate’s 1920s working-class families were seen as thrifty for buying up a plot of land, pitching a tent, and making do while they built their bungalow houses. Of course, as the city transitioned into a more middle class identity city leaders passed laws preventing the kind of self-constructed housing that once defined the suburb. Yet, informal housing including garage conversions, converted sheds, and RV’s camped out in backyards (among other improvised living arrangements) has enjoyed enormous if clandestine popularity across the Los Angeles metropolitan area — especially in South Gate and the other 13 cities that make up Southeast Los Angeles County’s so called “gateway cities.”

Unfortunately, as Wegmann discovered, there has been no civil society emerging from the proliferation of informal housing. In contrast, in many Latin American (see Brazil for just one example) and South Asian nations (India in particular) where informal housing proliferates, political groups and NGOS have organized around the issue in an effort to represent residents politically.

In dialogue with McNeill, Wegmann found that the politics of homeownership, meaning a tendency to stake out positions seen as beneficial to property owners, often results in “law and order” rhetoric promising to crack down on informal housing, thereby undermining any potential for political organization. Rather than focus on declining wages, skyrocketing housing costs, or inadequate housing production, leaders favor sticks over carrots and double down on enforcement as responses to local decline. After all, though gateway city populations have grown by over 40 percent since 1960, residents have witnessed a ten percent decline in homeownership rates from 51 percent to 41 percent.

Housing elements in several cities more or less ignore informal housing as a real development. Granted, some choose to pass regulations requiring city employees to report any informal housing they come across. Others, such as Huntington Park and Lynwood, require presale inspections that verify compliance with codes. While such measures have slowed the growth of informal housing, none have succeeded in ending the practice. Though one might argue suburbs and townships might benefit from crafting more pragmatic policies to deal with the issue like graduated building permits or amnesty programs, “generalized calls for stricter code enforcement” remain the municipal lingua franca, argues Wegmann.

Garage conversion South Central Los Angeles

Critics frequently point to stunted activism that leads to lower voter participation and municipal corruption as two reasons for the inability to stop or address informal housing in real and meaningful ways. In regard to the former, Los Angeles has been a leading center of 21st century labor organizing, meaning activism abounds. For the latter, the last decade has been relatively scandal free, yet there seems to be no civil society or any real government response to informal housing, outside of standard demands for crackdowns.

Rather, Wegmann identified three other factors that explain not only municipal government’s neglible engagement with informal housing outside of the usual “crackdown” policies, but also the inability to form any real organized political constituency.

The first has to do with government structure. Many cities in Southeast Los Angeles pay the county for services. Known famously as the Lakewood Plan, this enables municipalities to keep taxes low but also results in weak governance particularly when the high times of industrialization ended and rising unemployment and downward mobility ensued. Political participation by residents declined as well, making for a dangerous combination of diminished voter engagement and handcuffed governance.

Second, many of these governments experienced rapid turnover particularly as demographics quickly changed. For example, Southeast Los Angeles’ 1950 population consisted overwhelmingly of Anglos but from 1980 to 2010 the Latino population boomed going from 42 percent to 82 percent across the gateway cities.

The third factor Wegmann described as the spatial structure of “informal housing, Los Angeles style.” Admittedly, code enforcement exists everywhere across Southeast L.A. but many agencies remain dependent on citizen reports. Since a great deal of informal housing resides on legally owned properties, a certain chilling effect takes place as homeowners with informal housing on their properties hardly want to draw attention to the issue through political organization lest their neighbor rat them out. Without a natural political constituency or one willing to identify itself, organizing a political response remains tough

Though one might conclude informal housing might be a feature of Latino suburbanization, it’s not. It exists across the Los Angeles landscape, ranging from “screenwriters living in Hollywood garages,” noted commentator Ethington, while Wegmann pointed to San Fernando and San Gabriel Valley as well. Instead it points to a lack of housing and a changing suburban ideal. “Lakewood doesn’t look like Lakewood or Levittown,” commented Ethington. As Wegmann noted, often this informal housing functions to enable multigenerational family living, which in its own way represents a notable shift from the image of suburbia’s nuclear family. As the panel concluded, one could only surmise that continuing research provides new insights into a changing suburban ideal even if strains of the old ethos remain. To quote fellow Angeleno Jeffrey Lebowski, “new shit has come to light man.” Indeed.


Bright lights, big city: L.A. Live


Defining and Designing Public Space in Los Angeles

 Orly Linovski, “Designing for Development: Urban Design in the Era of the Community Redevelopment Agency, Los Angeles 1968–2012”

In a December 2008 article for the Los Angeles Times, Christopher Hawthorne offered a few thoughts on the developing L.A. Live complex in downtown L.A. “[T]he project is relentlessly focused on creating its own wholly separate commercial universe: a brighter, more strategically frenzied place than the world outside its doors,” he wrote. The new buildings had little to say about their surroundings but instead provided a “sleek placelessness” perfect for hanging “logos, video screens and a sophisticated range of lighting effects.”

This “entrepreneurial turn,” as University of Manitoba Assistant Professor Orly Linovski noted, represents a larger shift in the role of city governments in which municipalities, once expected to provide services to residents, instead now sought to makes themselves repositories for international trade and foreign investment. Yet, to what extent is this new and how has this development affected urban North America’s built environment?

L.A. Live’s developer AEG, noted Hawthorne five years ago, had talked extensively about encouraging a relationship between the new complex and the adjacent neighborhood of South Park. “Those connections would have been an important boost to the area,” wrote Hawthorne, “because South Park, like downtown as a whole, is in the midst of a fragile transition from no-man’s-land to residential center.” Indeed, South Park serves as Linovski’s lens. From the 1964 Centropolis proposal to the Los Angeles Sports and Entertainment District (LASED aka L.A. Live today) scheme of 1997 forward and 1972’s Silver Book and 1992’s Strategic Plan in between, one finds both continuity and change argued Linovski.

What’s been relatively constant? Throughout, from Centropolis to L.A. Live, development has been pitched by city leaders as a potential “shot in the arm” to local economies, but also as a means to engage international trade and global investment. Even the 1964 Centropolis proposal envisioned Los Angeles as a central node in the apparently then burgeoning network of Supersonic plane transportation, thereby emphasizing the “relation between urban form and global context,” Linvoski suggested. Proposals in the early 1990s stressed the same. “The forces of growth and change in place in LA favor the revitalization of downtown into a clear and prominent center of a great world city.” Granted, Centropolis devoted less time and attention to the idea of public when compared with its antecedents but the idea of boosting local economic fortunes and connecting them to Asia and elsewhere remained at its core.

So what changed? According to Linovski, while development of South Park had always been seen as a means to boost local economies and tie into transnational financial flows, what was seen as the catalyst for this growth changed. During the 1960s, education and industry were the watchwords of growth; in the ‘70s, “major public open space”; during the ‘80s, improvements to public space; and in the ’90s, “arena and concert venues.” When compared with earlier proposals, L.A. Live combined some of the open space elements with greater emphasis on tourism, resulting in great deal more in the way of “entrepreneurial design”; what Hawthorne described as a kind of placelessness attuned to retail and tourist spectacle, rather than a visible linkage to the South Park area.

In dialogue with the work of Saskia Sassen and Jason Hackworth, Linvoski provided a visible representation of a process often spoken of in the abstract. Moreover, the University of Manitoba professor pointed to an ignored continuity between commercial development and transnational trade, demonstrating that destinations like L.A. Live emerged from a process stretching over decades. Sure, some aspects changed, but most remained the same.

Still, as Linovski told the audience during the Q & A session after the panel, project proposals like L.A. Live and its predecessors say a great deal about perceptions of leisure time: both what designers believe the public wants and needs and that which the public actually desires. Besides, remember that no matter what gets built, give city residents some credit as well: “People are using these spaces … maybe not using it for what [planners] might like them to, but they are using them.”