Exploding Five Myths about Los Angeles

In preparation for this fall’s Greater Philadelphia Leadership Exchange visit to Los Angeles, Economy League Managing Director for Regional Engagement Josh Sevin explodes a few common myths about L.A. and points toward some of the themes that we’ll be exploring in Southern California.


As a lifelong Northeasterner, I’m going to admit to having accumulated some biases over the years when it comes to Los Angeles and Southern California. So, as the Economy League has been gearing up for this fall’s Greater Philadelphia Leadership Exchange trip to L.A., it has been fun and more than a little surprising to see how many of the commonly held views about Los Angeles are off-base. The more we get into the real L.A. story, the more we see how much Philly can learn from the nation’s second largest metro. In researching and preparing for the 2016 Exchange, I’ve uncovered five common myths about L.A. that need to be exploded.


Myth #1: L.A. = TINSELTOWN

We are relentlessly bombarded by images that equate Los Angeles with the lavish wealth of Beverly Hills and the entertainment industry in Hollywood. While these images are undoubtedly a significant part of L.A.’s identity, they can also make it easy to forget that the Southland’s economy is as diverse as you would expect from a region with 13 million residents. A growing technology industry has emerged on L.A.’s west side from Santa Monica south to Venice and Playa del Rey in an area that has been dubbed “Silicon Beach” (though “Silicon” nicknames have been grossly overused by aspiring tech hubs, at least this one is humorous in its redundancy). In addition to the hundreds of startups that have found a home there, tech heavyweights and Hollywood giants like Google, Facebook, and Walt Disney Company are opening offices and accelerator labs to capitalize on the area’s momentum. Established health care institutions like Cedars-Sinai, UCLA Health, and Kaiser Permanente anchor a major life sciences innovation community. The Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach – which together form the largest port complex in the Western hemisphere – and LAX – currently the seventh busiest airport in the world – are likewise significant economic drivers in a thriving logistics and goods movement sector.



While many like to snicker about Los Angeles’ seemingly never-ending sprawl, the region is actually the most densely populated urbanized area in the United States. Long lamented for its lack of a proper downtown, many have used the saying “there’s no there there” to describe L.A. However, this narrative has been challenged by a dramatic downtown revitalization that has taken place over the last fifteen years. Two major events are credited with catalyzing L.A.’s downtown development: the opening of the Staples Center and the approval of the city’s adaptive reuse ordinance in 1999. Today, downtown L.A. is marked by a residential and retail boom and the addition of major cultural attractions, including the visually arresting Broad Museum, the transformative L.A. Live entertainment complex, and the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s Walt Disney Concert Hall. Amidst this transformation, however, stark disparities are still evident in the city and throughout the region. Los Angeles has the dubious distinction of having the largest chronically homeless population in the U.S.


Myth #3: CAR IS KING

Ok, maybe this portrayal of L.A. is still more truth than myth. The region’s spread-out development pattern and population growth have combined to make car travel along congested freeways a necessity for most and traffic a major concern for all. (Angelenos really do talk obsessively about the best route from San Vicente Boulevard to Mulholland Drive – think Manhattanites and real estate.) Yet for all of this auto-oriented culture, Los Angeles has been home to the nation’s most ambitious rail-building program over the last two decades. The Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority has invested $9 billion in new light rail and subway lines and plans to invest an additional $12 billion over the next 10 years to build two new rail lines and three extensions. Governor Jerry Brown recently signed legislation that would allow county transportation officials to introduce a sales tax increase in 2016 to generate revenue for improvements to local roads, freeways, and mass transit.



Everyone has seen smoggy images of the Los Angeles skyline set against the Hollywood Hills – the air thick with a yellow haze that points to the region’s history of notoriously poor air quality. While its location in a basin surrounded by hills and the Pacific Ocean certainly exacerbates the region’s air pollution challenges, Greater Los Angeles has made major strides in improving its air quality. This transformation can be partly attributed to pioneering federal and state environmental protection regulations that have forced reductions in pollution over the years. Sustained smog reduction efforts have also had a major impact on public health – a study published last year found that children in L.A. have notably better lung function today than they did twenty years ago. During this year’s GPLEX, we’ll be looking at another important environmental issue in L.A. – the availability and quality of water. From the four-year drought that continues to impact Angelenos on a daily basis to exciting plans to restore the Los Angeles River to its natural state, water is a top-of-mind issue in the Southland.


Myth #5: LA-LA LAND

Finally, there’s the “La-La Land” nickname that paints Southern Californians as … well … not the sharpest tools in the shed. As epitomized by Jeff Spicoli’s archetypal surfer dude in Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Cher Horowitz’s Valley Girl in Clueless, there’s a tradition of portraying Angelenos as intellectual lightweights. Yet these cinematic stereotypes – though entertaining – come up against the realities of Los Angeles’ dynamic, talented workforce. Powered by 150 institutions of higher education – including UCLA, USC, the California Institute of Technology, and Pepperdine – Greater Los Angeles produces more engineering graduates than any other U.S. metro. And L.A.’s world class human capital is further driven by its status as an immigrant gateway. With over 4.4 million immigrants in the region, last month the White House’s Task Force on New Americans decided to kick off its multi-city tour in the City of Angels. The city’s Step Forward LA program – which helps people determine their eligibility for citizenship and prepares them for the citizenship test – has already helped 45,000 people.


These are just a few of the themes that we’ll be exploring as we build out the program for September 25-28 in Los Angeles. We say it every year, but this one is shaping up to be the most interesting one yet, with plenty of fresh ideas to apply back home and in your business, new perspectives to be gained on Philly, and new and strengthened connections with a dynamic group of cross-sector leaders from our region.


So put aside your preconceptions, put on your favorite pair of shades, and apply to join us this fall in Southern California!


The 2016 GPLEX application period is April 1-29. Applications will be available at economyleague.org/apply. For more information on GPLEX and past Leadership Exchanges, check out economyleague.org/connecting-leaders/gplex.