Los Angeles Faces Black Exodus

City's black leaders worry about a loss of political power and more competition for resources. MIDDLE-CLASS FLIGHT

ERIC GIVENS grew up on the southern edge of Los Angeles, attended the elementary school his grandfather did, and would have liked to stay in the area where his friends and family still live. Instead he recently moved to Victorville, 90 minutes away in the high California desert.

``I can't afford to pay $3,000 a month on a new house,'' says the young construction worker. ``The air is also a little cleaner, and it is not as crowded.''

Mr. Givens is part of a growing exodus of blacks from Los Angeles that mirrors a nationwide trend.

Coming at a time when Asians and Hispanics are arriving in large numbers, the black ``flight'' presages dramatic shifts in the ethnic mix of the nation's second-largest city - with important political, economic, and social ramifications.

`Enormous implications'

``It has enormous implications,'' says Dr. James Johnson, director of the Center for the Study of Urban Poverty at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA), who has studied the outmigration of blacks. ``We are talking about a total restructuring of the black community here.''

The exodus from South Los Angeles, which holds the largest concentration of blacks in the western United States, is being driven by a variety of forces.

Some, like Mr. Givens, are fleeing to escape escalating housing prices. Others want to avoid the congestion, crime, and gang activity in the city. Some have been unable to find jobs. Many have climbed up the economic ladder and seek better neighborhoods elsewhere.

Forty percent of the blacks who left Los Angeles County over a five-year period went elsewhere in California, according to a recent study by Dr. Johnson and Curtis Roseman, a geography professor at the University of Southern California. Many of those are young middle-class families who moved to San Bernardino and Riverside counties, east of here, seeking cheaper homes and better schools.

Black emigration

A high percentage, though, also moved out of state, mainly to Texas, Louisiana, and other parts of the South. This included a large number of blacks who returned to states where they were born.

Some, says Johnson, are single welfare mothers or elderly who could not make it here anymore or who did not want to and moved back with relatives.

Although the study was based on 1980 census data, the authors say the pattern of black migration has likely only accelerated in the past few years. Another study, this one by the US Census Bureau, recently showed that more blacks migrated out of California and Western states in the 1980s than migrated in. This reverses a 100-year pattern.

The black exodus here reflects changes also occurring in cities in the Midwest and Northeast. During and after World War II many blacks migrated to Northern cities from the South, seeking in part better job opportunities. But the migration began to reverse in the 1960s and 1970s.

``In many ways Los Angeles is typical,'' says Dr. Roseman. ``The difference is that the housing crunch is worse on blacks here than in many other cities.''

The city has seen a dramatic loss of manufacturing industries - such as tire and rubber - that drew many blacks here during World War II.

As blacks leave, other groups, notably Hispanics, are moving in. The ethnic change is particularly pronounced in South-Central Los Angeles, the heart of the black community here.

By one estimate, the Latino population in the area has grown by 200 percent since 1980.

Changes are evident on the street.

Watts, one part of South-Central, has gone from 14 percent Latino in 1970 to about 45 percent today. Many high schools in the area now have a majority of Hispanic students. Taco stands have sprouted next to former jazz emporiums.

Competing for resources

Some black leaders are worried the exodus could erode their political power in the city and lead to competition for resources.

``There is considerable ethnic tension in South-Central, and it is over jobs, housing, and scarce public resources,'' says UCLA's Johnson.

Yet others don't see the distemper.

True, there have been some clashes here between blacks and Korean business owners, as in other cities across the country. But for the most part these community leaders see brown and black and Asian blending.

``I see no ethnic discord,'' says Mike Stewart, deputy to Los Angeles Councilwoman Joan Milke Flores, who represents much of the Watts district. ``What we have to do is make the economic pie for everyone.''

Loss of the middle class

One other concern among some community leaders is that if too many middle-class blacks leave, only the poor and the upper class will remain.

``Those moving are the educated blacks, the middle class, which drains out the expertise, the professionalism of the community,'' says Tommy Jacquette, head of the Watts Summer Festival, an annual cultural event.

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