Nanny State

L.A.'s Circular (Drain of a) Political Culture


The Los Angeles City Council voted unanimously yesterday to ban new fast-food restaurants from serving the comparatively impoverished area of South Los Angeles (previously known to non-Angelenos as South-Central). In the impoversihed vocabulary of SoCal politics, it isn't a "ban," but rather a one-year "moratorium," which is the preferred method to introduce ever-stricter controls on what residents can do with their "private" property. (Previous moratoria have included banning the demolition or condo-conversion of downtown flophouses, the opening of new medical marijuana dispensaries, and the construction of homes on unused hillsides that had previously been zoned for, um, housing.) Explained one of the measure's chief backers, former LAPD chief-turned Councilman Bernard Parks, "Our communities have an extreme shortage of quality foods."

I can't begin to tell you what a losing battle it was trying to argue directly with L.A. "stakeholders" such as Parks during my two-year tenure at the L.A. Times that you can't reasonably expect to restrict your way into prosperity, let alone into getting your favorite chain stores installed nearby. In fact, I once took a three-hour tour (by mini-bus, not Minnow) of South L.A. with Parks and his staff, in which he'd point out the window and list off all the unseemly businesses he'd like to see move along. "Auto-related business, auto-related business, fried chicken restaurant, liquor store, small supermarket, fast-food restaurant," and so on. It was Parks' dream ? one I share! ? that major intersections be populated not by Popeye's, but by sit-down family restaurants, or at least a little taste of fast casual. But unlike Parks, I don't think it's good policy to punish the very businesses that were willing and able to serve maligned neighborhoods, in the hopes that clearing such space would serve as a magic wand to bring in the Trader Joe's of your dreams. (The lack of which, by the way, is held up as evidence of ? wait for it! ? "food apartheid.")

I exaggerate not a bit when I describe the prevailing politics of L.A. to be roughly as follows: Wal-Mart and big box stores = evil, and need to be stopped at all costs. Also, we need more cheap supermarkets! Mom and pop stores need to be defended from Big Corporations, unless they sell fried chicken or used tires, or get in the way of a big development project. We have an affordable housing crisis, which is why we need to raise property taxes, limit the footprint of houses on their lots, and bulldoze thousands of affordable houses to make way for schools that we don't need!

Actually, the worst evidence I ever saw of the latter was in my little bus tour with Parks. We'd go through lower-middle class neighborhood after lower-middle class neighborhood, where entire swaths of bungalows and palm trees had been flattened, often (as Parks complained bitterly) without the L.A. Unified School District ever really notifying the relevant local elected officials. (Bought-out homes and bulldozed property have a way of creating irreversible facts on the ground, as opponents to eminent domain have long known.) So he was sensitive to eminent domain abuse, and interestingly opposed (unlike most of L.A.'s political culture) to condo-conversion restrictions and even rent control.

I guess I should be happy that the concept of private residential property held at least some sway with an L.A. politician, but after enough of these moratoria you just kinda want to throw your hands up in despair.

UPDATE: Lousy L.A. Times editorial in support of the ban here. Not-quite-as-lousy L.A. Times editorial from a previous regime here.