Los Angeles vs. Orange County

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Downtown Los Angeles. Photo by Victor Obeck

When they think of Los Angeles, people outside Southern California probably think of urban sprawl and freeways. In fact, although historically low rise in its built form, Los Angeles is quite densely populated. Nevertheless, when I moved to Los Angeles from central Tokyo in 1999, my first impression of life here was that Los Angeles conformed to the stereotype: vast, suburban and not very cosmopolitan.

My views changed after my wife and I bought a small townhouse in Pasadena, a city ten miles northeast of Los Angeles. We chose Pasadena because it is an old city, by Southern California standards, with excellent public infrastructure and neighborhoods where one can walk to shops and restaurants. Even better, there is now a light rail line connecting it to a newly revitalised downtown Los Angeles.

My appreciation of how urban Los Angeles actually works stems from the fact that I have, within the past year, taken a job in Orange County, a group of more conservative bedroom suburbs to the south of Los Angeles County. My challenge is to see how, if at all, my initial impression of Orange County—as being vast, suburban and not very cosmopolitan–may change with greater familiarity over time. After all, that had been my first impression of Los Angeles.

When I both worked and lived in Los Angeles, I thought of Orange County and Los Angeles as being like a divorced couple—the liberals stayed here, the conservatives moved to Orange County, and neither side interacted much thereafter. I now realise that is a great oversimplification, yet there remain tangible differences.

Recently, I came across a sermon by a Unitarian minister who relocated to Orange County from Oakland, across the bay from San Francisco. She was surprised by the number of gated communities:

I had never really seen gated communities before. My buzzing thoughts sounded something like this, “How bizarre! Gated communities next to gated communities. Who are they gating out?” I couldn’t figure it out. I kept looking for the downtrodden neighborhoods right around the corner, since neighborhoods of poor people tend to be quarantined away from those who are more financially fortunate. But I didn’t see any such neighborhoods that day. All I saw were well-off people, living next to well-off people, each in their own gated neighborhood.

And then I noticed that many of the gates weren’t well constructed to keep people out. Their walls were often low and climbable. My realtor gained entrance to most of the gated communities simply by revving it and barreling through a closing gate behind the tails of a true resident. I thought “Most of these gates will deter the honest from entering unannounced and uninvited. But anyone with ill intentions can easily find a way in. What’s the point?” Now, I know some of the neighborhoods have guards and unclimbable fences but many of the less swanky neighborhoods are simply simulating the “look” of security, without any real protection. Why simulate security?

What struck me that day was the connections between socioeconomic status, fear, and gates. Robert Bellah, who was a keynote speaker at our Unitarian Universalist General Assembly in 1998, says in his best selling book Habits of the Heart, “The underclass gives people something to define themselves against; it tells them what they are not; it tells them what it would be most fearful to become. And it gives them people to blame.” Gated communities struck me as a powerful tangible symbol of this division between the underclass and everyone else. To be middle class is to be trustworthy, law-abiding, and in need of protection from violent, scavenging poor people. Or conversely, to be poor is to be violent and depraved–a threat to the rich. Such a construction of class differences not only paints poor people in a highly distorted manner, it masks all the horrible behaviors that middle class people perpetrate.

Bellah describes this system of class division and fear as “a catastrophic economic and political failure of American society”. It’s not that Orange County is different from anywhere else in the country, by any means. What is unique, or at least new to me, about Orange County is that the fear and ignorance that divides upper and middle class people from their working class and poor brothers and sisters is physically expressed with so many gates and fences.

Alhough the minister goes on to accept the gated lifestyle, justifying her choice with a curt “none of us has the right to judge; we don’t know the inner workings of another’s life,” her comments hint at some of the underpinnings of Orange County, at least its wealthier parts. But there’s always more than meets the eye. As Urbanphoto’s new Los Angeles correspondent (living part-time in Montreal!) I’ll scrape away the surface of Los Angeles and Orange County to see what’s underneath.

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Gated community in Orange County.
Photo by The Fumes of Mercury on Flickr

This entry was written by Donal Hanley , posted on Friday December 08 2006at 11:12 am , filed under Society and Culture, United States and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

One Response to “Los Angeles vs. Orange County”

  • Gary Obeck says:

    Can you provide me some bio on you? I’m curious…we may be relatives. I’ll reciprocate if you’re interested.