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Photo by Samanta Helou Hernandez

L.A.’s Endangered Middle Class: An Examination

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If our city loses its middle class it loses its heart.

Los Angeles has long been a repository for a wide range of American dreams, from fleeing conflict in pursuit of safety, shelter and hope, to reinventing oneself as an artist, writer or space engineer. For seekers from the American South, Northern Plains, Central America, Southeast Asia or just across the border, this city has demonstrated a tremendous capacity to accommodate the burdens and privileges of the 21st century. This capacity has arguably made Los Angeles, warts and all, the most inclusive, dynamic and important city in America and the world.

The secret ingredient to all of this? Affordability. 

For decades, Los Angeles’s superpower has been how simultaneously interesting and affordable it has managed to be. Here is where we not-so-long-ago built the entertainment, aerospace, international shipping, domestic manufacturing and food culture capital of the country while speaking in more than 200 tongues and providing decent housing at a decent price. More recently, the city’s affordability has been under siege by the rising costs of living that have turned places like New York, San Francisco, London and Tokyo into exclusive playgrounds for the rich. As the cost of housing skyrockets, Los Angeles’ once-vast middle class — guild workers, small-business owners, longshoremen, public-private sector managers, educators, creatives — the very lifeblood of its cultural dynamism, is winnowing out and being replaced by an influx of Silicon Valley transplants, venture capitalists and commercial real estate interests.

Los Angeleno has decided to devote a month-long series examining these issues, helmed by long-time Los Angeles journalist Joe Donnelly. We sat down with Donnelly to discuss how “L.A.’s Endangered Middle Class” was brought to life.

Tell us about the inspiration for the series.

Well, I think it was just last fall, Los Angeleno‘s editorial director Sophia Kercher and I met at the beach on a perfect L.A. day. The sun was soft, the sand was warm and the waves were welcoming. Despite all that familiar L.A. comfort, we started talking about the big narratives Los Angeleno should tackle. Even in the middle of that lovely day, there was no escaping the fact that the precarious state of Los Angeles’s middle class was hanging in the air like a gathering storm. 

I have been teaching a seminar at Whittier College on the existential proposition that is Los Angeles. My thesis is that Los Angeles is one of the last, best hopes in the U.S. for an inclusive, cosmopolitan, multi-lingual city that can accommodate not just our lofty dreams of “making it” but also the more fundamental desires to be relatively free from economic, social and political tyranny that have inspired generations of migrants, immigrants and refugees to flock here. Despite whatever outward glamor the city reflects, its ability to do that has been its greatest asset. But that’s in danger with the increasing difficulty of life here for those not at the top of the socio-economic ladder. If Los Angeles loses its middle class, it loses its heart. 

All this was made more urgent by the suicide of my friend, the journalist and writer Scott Timberg, last December. Scott was a relentless champion of keeping the soul foods of the city-it’s art, culture, food, shared spaces-within the reach of the many, not just the privileged few. After years of wage deflation and itinerant work as a writer, though, it got increasingly difficult for him, as it has for many, to square the sum in the calculus of American life. 

If we can’t make it here, can we make it anywhere? This is why I see the future of Los Angeles as an existential issue. Meanwhile, the battle goes on and here we are. I’m thankful Los Angeleno is taking up the fight. 

How did you begin the project?  

It started with the writers. When we started discussing the package, those who contributed to this package were all among my first choices. Andrew Gumbel is a seasoned and sober journalist who has a great knack for crystallizing complex themes with real-life reporting. He found a perfect muse for framing these issues in the identity crisis embroiling Highland Park. 

Sam Slovick is one of my favorite reporters and he has been writing about the struggles of at-risk populations in Los Angeles for more than a decade. He was a natural to provide a street-level look at what being at-risk means for those barely clinging to their middle-class identities. 

Speaking of middle-class identities, Michelle Chihara, who is a Los Angeles Review of Books editor and Professor of English at Whittier College, writes about the culture of economics better than anyone I know. We often don’t address our economic identities and the cultural mores that go with them, but if we are going to reform toward a more equitable and just economy, as Michelle points out, we will have to do just that. 

We can’t talk about the endangered middle class in Los Angeles without talking about the disappearing black middle class. Erin Aubry Kaplan is one of my favorite Los Angeles writers and she’s had a front-row seat to the aspirations and disappointments of the black middle class in Los Angeles. In this piece, she takes us to the heart of the matter as Inglewood, a bastion of black homeownership, braces for a tsunami of gentrification. 

For this series, Los Angeleno was also fortunate to work with journalist Samanta Helou Hernandez, who is well-known for documenting a gentrifying Los Angeles with her Instagram account This Side of Hoover. She captured the changing scenes in Inglewood along Market Street as well as the SoFi stadium construction for Erin Aubry Kaplan’s essay. Meanwhile, Highland Park resident and photographer Amanda Lopez, who has a knack for documenting untold L.A. narratives, offered her visual storytelling to many of the pieces. And Los Angeleno’s editor-at-large Tony Pierce is bringing more human voices to this issue by going to Van Nuys, South L.A. and the Mid-City area to ask the people of Los Angeles, what does being Middle Class mean to you? The answers, so far, have been more poignant than we expected.

And they show that the middle class’ decline is a trend that’s not going away anytime soon — which is why this dialog matters more than ever. As Michelle Chihara so eloquently writes in her essay: “It’s hard to look up when you’re in survival mode. But if we don’t try for some grander vision, we may not all survive.”

Not Homeless Yet: L.A.’s Invisible Class by Sam Slovick

What We Talk About When We Talk About the Middle Class by Michelle Chihara

Gentrifying Highland Park’s War on the Middle Class by Andrew Gumbel

For Many Black People, L.A. is No Longer the Last Best Place to Live by Erin Aubry Kaplan

Los Angeleno