CONVENTIONAL wisdom says it's the two ``R'' words - recession and riots - that have finally put the brakes on the decade of near-record growth in Los Angeles.
But the evidence is large that well before this city's recent troubles, the masses of new immigrants had already begun avoiding the traditional push into inner-city barrios, ghettos, and ethnic enclaves in favor of safer small towns and suburbs statewide. For example, Fresno experienced a 626 percent increase in Asians between 1980 and 1990. Palmdale's Asian population grew 1,820 percent. Huge increases in Hispanics in small towns such as Chino, Corona, Upland, Rialto, and Ontario have taken officials by surprise.
The reasons given by immigrants for this first-ever bypassing of Los Angeles as a traditional port-of-entry city? Crime, gangs, smog, and congestion.
While the entire five-county Southland is still inching forward about 1.6 percent a year, the population within the Los Angeles city limits dropped 68,000 from 1991 to 1992. That is the city's largest annual decline and only the third time this century that it has lost residents in one year.
Job losses accelerated by the declining defense and aerospace industries have slowed the number of younger, incoming residents and caused older residents to move to other areas, says Jeff Beckerman, a city demographer. Upscale communities show a net outflow while poor communities are experiencing the fastest growth.
The longer-term forecast depends not only on how, when, and if the state pulls out of recession - and a concurrent slide in real estate - but whether the region's burgeoning ethnic communities can accommodate one another amid a backdrop of service cutbacks and education and crime woes.
While the City of Angels' troubles have multiplied, its role as a bastion for those seeking new lives has been usurped by another glitzy desert town: Las Vegas, Nev.
Not only have the number of yearly tourists to Las Vegas doubled in a decade - to 22 million - the number of residents in the city has doubled as well, to 900,000. That shift made Las Vegas the fastest-growing city in America in the 1980s. City officials expect it to double again by 2020.
Beyond the promises of suburban elbow room and anything-goes individualism, Las Vegas's growth is being attributed to its push beyond a gambling outpost to a full-service, familywide entertainment mecca.
Three new hotels that opened 11,000 rooms in recent months also boast participatory adventure areas with rides, video-game arcades, and round-the-clock live and ``safe'' entertainment, such as circus shows. The largest complex, the MGM Grand, spent hundreds of millions of dollars to build an amusement park next to its 5,000-plus-room hotel.
Besides the city's 24-hour gaming ethic, Las Vegas has become attractive to out-of-staters interested in paying no state income or inheritance taxes.
The state has every reason to expand, sell, and market its gambling culture - which it has accelerated with a vengeance in recent years. Nevada coffers derive half their public funds from gaming-related revenues.
Though the surrounding desert puts no geographic limit on how large and how fast Las Vegas can grow, state officials say one geologic feature may hold the city back: scarce water.
``By the year 2006, you won't be able to build another home or business here,'' says Patricia Mulroy, general manager of the Las Vegas Valley Water District. One of the West's largest water wars has heated up in recent years as the city has sought water rights from the state's agricultural communities.
Enraged by the use of farm water for Las Vegas casino pools, fountains, and water shows - and an average, per-capita usage of 343 gallons per day (compared to 200 in Los Angeles) - rural Nevadans are literally reaching for their guns.