Two Views Of a Golden State Boom
From a rooftop high above the convergence of southern California's two busiest freeways, the view is all spaciousness and light. Verdant hills surround clusters of mirror-skinned high-rises and rural roads head to golden beaches.Skip to next paragraph
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Just three exits north, however, chockablock neighborhoods are congested and houses worn. Miles of commercial strips are lined by handmade signs in Korean, Vietnamese, and Spanish. The homeless push shopping carts through dirt alleys.
The land where the two highways and contrasting images converge is Orange County, once considered the end of the rainbow for Americans migrating West. Today, this sixth-most-populous county in the United States has become the country's leading laboratory of "post-suburbia" - a new kind of metropolitan area that lacks a traditional, urban core but provides citizens with most of the employment, consumer, and entertainment options formerly associated only with large cities.
Four years after garnering ignoble national visibility as the largest US municipality ever to declare bankruptcy,
Orange County is back on an economic roll. But it comes with a unique challenge that holds lessons for other booming municipalities: Can its prosperity be embraced by the heavy concentrations of immigrants and minorities who now make up 40 percent of the sprawling 2.6 million population?
Indeed, the changing ethnic makeup of this longtime conservative bastion has made headlines before. Voters here turned out 24-year congressional veteran, Republican Robert Dornan, for a Democratic woman with an Hispanic surname, Loretta Sanchez.
"Orange County today has literally everything going for it from economic wealth and diversity to cutting-edge vision," says Joel Kotkin, a senior fellow at Pepperdine University's Institute for Public Policy. "The question is will it repeat the mistakes of other places in letting large pockets of poverty continue to thrive and grow."
Like all of California, Orange County is riding the same wave of economic prosperity that is buoying the US stock market. The state had endured its worst recession since the Great Depression beginning about 1990, losing about 550,000 jobs, primarily to defense downsizing.
Along with Los Angeles County to the north, Orange County has helped regain those jobs with the expansion of high-tech computers, software, and biomedical services. Since about 1994, the county has added 103,360 jobs, about 46,335 more than when recession began.
The continued strength of international exports is an important reason for the county's resurgence, with huge overseas markets in aircraft and electronic equipment. "International trade has filled up the gaps [created] by defense cutbacks," says Esmail Adibi, director of the Anderson Centre for Economic Research at Chapman University, which tracks the county economy.
While the US economy expanded last year by 2.2 percent in jobs, Orange County expanded at 3.8 percent, well ahead of California as a whole (at 3.2 percent). Countywide unemployment is now a paltry 3 percent. Predictions for the next four years remain good, Mr Adibi says, although Asia currency crises will keep gains about 10 percent below what they could be.
One of the biggest indicators of good times, say several economists, is the relocation of Lincoln-Mercury, one of the world's leading automobile design firms, from Detroit to Irvine.