For 30 Years, Lewis Center Has Responded to L.A. Issues With Ideas All six current and former directors gather to recall the challenges and successes they experienced while leading regional policy research at UCLA

By Lauren Hiller

During a gathering March 5 at its first home on the UCLA campus, the Lewis Center for Regional Policy Studies commemorated 30 years of scholarship, public advocacy and leadership on campus and in the community.

All five former Lewis Center directors — a who’s who of distinguished scholars — joined the current director, Urban Planning Professor Evelyn Blumenberg, at DeCafe Perloff Hall to discuss the milestones and issues facing the region during each person’s tenure. As each director spoke, it was evident that the center’s longevity is rooted in interdisciplinary scholarship and fostering the next generation of scholars.

In 1989, Ralph and Goldy Lewis donated $5 million to endow a research program at UCLA that studied regional policy issues. The following year, the Lewis Center opened its doors in Perloff Hall, the location of what was then known as the School of Architecture and Urban Planning, with founding director Allen J. Scott, distinguished research professor of geography and public policy. Scott was succeeded by Roger Waldinger, distinguished professor of sociology; followed in chronological order by Paul Ong, research professor at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs; J.R. DeShazo, professor of public policy, urban planning and civil and environmental engineering; and Brian D. Taylor, professor of urban planning and public policy.

“My parents both went to UCLA and they believed in the power of public education and need to support the public system,” said Randall Lewis, whose parents were homebuilders and interested in issues of growth, transportation, housing and air quality. “They felt as they were building houses, building communities, that they didn’t want to create problems. They wanted to find solutions.”

Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris, who joined the UCLA community the same year that Lewis Center was established and received one of its first grants, kicked off the event.

“The Lewis Center best exemplifies the role that we’re asking our research centers to play: push research forward, support the educational mission of the school and its students, and serve as a public forum that disseminates important research-based information and data to a larger public,” said Loukaitou-Sideris, professor of urban planning and associate provost for academic planning.

Launched Amid Regional Turmoil
The early 1990s were a tumultuous time in Los Angeles. The aerospace industry, which was a backbone of the region’s economy, was collapsing. The 1994 Northridge earthquake killed 61 people and caused $6.7 million in damage, crippling major infrastructure like freeways. And civil disturbances fueled by racial injustices, police brutality, and poverty and social marginalization rocked the city.

“Los Angeles looked like, from some points of view, a basket case and getting worse,” Scott recalled. “And so we were, at a very early stage, involved in attempting to build responses to these problems and others.”

Scott and the Lewis Center published a series of working papers focusing on new industry (such as electric vehicles) to replace aerospace and an examination of the nature and causes of the crises in South Los Angeles.

By the time Waldinger took over in 1996, the immigrant population in the Los Angeles region had quadrupled within two decades. Yet, research on the impact of immigration on the Los Angeles region lagged behind frequently studied cities like Chicago and New York. The Lewis Center played an integral role in bringing Los Angeles to the forefront of regional studies with efforts such as Waldinger’s book “Ethnic Los Angeles.” Today, it’s hard to imagine a discussion of immigration and foreign-born individuals without considering L.A.

Waldinger said the center’s early research has transformed California policy. Although immigration policy is a federal issue, immigrant policy can be local, he noted, pointing to state measures that have aided California’s immigrant population.

Ong, the center’s third director, continued the multidisciplinary tradition of the Lewis Center and collaborated with scholars in UCLA Luskin Social Welfare and the natural sciences. As director, he published a seminal report on the undercounting of low-income people and communities of color in the 2000 Census.

Ong’s work also highlighted a core strength of the Lewis Center — its focus on addressing social justice issues for marginalized communities. He said the center also partnered with the County of Los Angeles and L.A. Metro to understand the transit needs of underserved communities.

DeShazo oversaw the Lewis Center during a time when its focus turned to environmental issues. In 2006, California passed the Global Warming Solutions Act (AB 32), promoting ambitious climate solutions that even some legislators doubted could be achieved.

“Those were the days we didn’t even know where greenhouse gases were coming from,” DeShazo remembered. The first step was to identify sources and then to identify solutions to reduce emissions, including electric vehicles, rooftop solar energy and energy-efficient technology.

“Everything that we have today is what people thought was impossible to accomplish. The groundwork for that was laid in the 2006-2012 period,” DeShazo said.

The Lewis Center has also contributed to environmental justice scholarship, especially the designations of disadvantaged communities as a result of identifying where emissions were coming from and where populations vulnerable to those emissions are living.

Taylor next put the focus on housing affordability and transportation in light of large investments in public transit like Measure R, a sales tax that is expected to raise $40 billion over 30 years.

He said the center’s regional lens has a built-in advantage when it comes to studying housing affordability, transportation and access, which play out across a diverse geography.

Taylor’s tenure also overlapped with his role as chair of UCLA Luskin Urban Planning. It was a position that helped him to advocate for the addition of faculty members and scholars who could tackle these regional priorities.

“Housing affordability was not my area of research,” Taylor said. “All I did was try to support and catalyze the intellectual leaders that are helping shape the important debates on this.”

A Legacy of Leadership
Acting as a consistent bridge to marginalized voices, the Lewis Center’s former directors see scholarship and professional development as their enduring legacy. Many onetime students have gone on to become academic leaders in their own right.

“I’m honored to follow in those footsteps,” said Blumenberg MA UP ’90, Ph.D. ’95. She became director in 2018 and has focused on how Angelenos live, move and work in L.A., with a particular interest in pathways out of poverty. The center recently launched the Randall Lewis Housing Initiative.

Has Los Angeles made progress over the last 30 years?

The answer is mixed, Ong said. A commitment to climate change initiatives and equity are highlights, but income inequality and social justice remain daunting issues.

“I’m proud of the fact that the Lewis Center continues to look at issues of inequality,” Ong said. “We’re dedicated to doing the research to find solutions, but it’s like swimming upstream.”

Still, Ong remains hopeful: “I know enough about [Blumenberg’s] history that there will continue to be a commitment from the Lewis Center to accomplish things that will bend us towards justice.”

Image of 1st Street in little Tokyo

Ong on the Little Tokyo Community Impact Fund

Paul Ong, director of the Center for Neighborhood Knowledge, spoke to KCRW’s Greater L.A. podcast about community mobilization against gentrification in Little Tokyo. Local residents and business owners organized the Little Tokyo Community Impact Fund to raise $2 million to collectively buy a building in Little Tokyo and rent it out below market value to selected tenants. Ong, a UCLA Luskin research professor, said the group has the credibility to make it happen but asked, “Will they be able to get enough investors?” He commented, “In many ways, you have to factor in things that normal businesses would not think about. That is, what is the cultural value, for example, of these businesses? What do they represent symbolically?”


 

Ong Foresees Upscaling and Displacement in Crenshaw

Paul Ong, research professor and director of the Center for Neighborhood Knowledge, expressed his concerns about upscaling and displacement in a recent Curbed article on the community’s response to planned redevelopment in South Los Angeles’ Crenshaw district. Residents worry that the expansion of the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Mall will lead to higher housing costs, ultimately displacing low-income residents. Last year, Ong authored a study tracking economic progress in South Los Angeles over the past 50 years that found that 42 percent of renters in the region are “rent-burdened.” He predicted that the opening of the new Crenshaw Metro station will lead to a rise in housing costs in the area. “We certainly see that there are particular interests in developing that area that would lead to upscaling,” he said. The Crenshaw Subway Coalition, led by local community leaders, aims to inform residents about six major developments in the district and educate them about gentrification.


Ong on the Undermining of Ethnic Enclaves

Paul Ong, research professor and director of the Center for Neighborhood Knowledge at UCLA Luskin, spoke to the Los Angeles Times about the imminent departure of two Chinatown grocery stores following disputes with landlords. Such grocery stores act as anchors for ethnic communities, bringing foot traffic to barbers, bankers, restaurants, remittance businesses and other culturally specific vendors, the column noted. Ong said that ethnic enclaves such as Chinatown, Little Tokyo, Historic Filipinotown and Boyle Heights find themselves directly in the path of change because they’re located in the core of the city, where redevelopment is most intense. “There’s still a need for these culturally specific services in the urban core. But the question is, are we going to see these needs served?” Ong asked.

Grants Support Challenging Convention, Strengthening Communities

Four members of the UCLA Luskin faculty have received research grants from the Institute on Inequality and Democracy. The 2019-20 grants, among 10 awarded to faculty across the UCLA campus, support research, scholarship and teaching that challenge established academic wisdom, contribute to public debate and/or strengthen communities and movements, the institute said. UCLA Luskin recipients are:

  • Amada Armenta, assistant professor of urban planning, who will study undocumented Mexican immigrants in Philadelphia and their layered, complex relationship with the legal system in their everyday lives.
  • Kian Goh, assistant professor of urban planning, who will use the lessons of Hurricane Sandy to research the key role public housing and infrastructure play in the quest for climate justice.
  • Paul Ong, research professor and director of the Center for Neighborhood Knowledge, who will create multimedia public narratives that document the stresses of gentrification, displacement and other community changes.
  • Amy Ritterbusch, assistant professor of social welfare, who will develop a restorative justice initiative to take research to the streets, producing knowledge about historically misrepresented communities beyond the confines of academic publication traditions.

In addition to awarding faculty grants of up to $10,000, the Institute on Inequality and Democracy supports research by graduate student working groups. The six groups announced for the 2019-2020 academic year include several urban planning and social welfare students from UCLA Luskin.

Ong Joins Conversation on Controversial SB50 Proposal

Paul Ong, research professor and director of the Center for Neighborhood Knowledge at UCLA Luskin, was featured in a KPCC Airtalk interview along with Gov. Gavin Newsom about the controversial SB50 upzoning proposal that was recently tabled. Ong agreed that “we need to move to denser, more efficient urban development” but pointed out the shortcomings of the trickle-down economic theory behind SB50. A “marginal increase in supply is not adequate,” he said, because housing will continue to be controlled by those with the “greatest demand and greatest income.” One of the biggest challenges is implementation, he added, noting that he wants to see greater protections for current tenants. Ong agreed that SB50 is a move forward that “makes development possible and levels the playing field” that has historically favored the privileged, but he stressed the importance of “listening to people’s fears about the uncertainty of change” and “collectively thinking about what is best for society as a whole.”


Ong on Fried Chicken and Gentrification

Paul Ong, director of the Center for Neighborhood Knowledge at UCLA Luskin, spoke to the Los Angeles Times about the impact of Chinatown’s most popular restaurant, Howlin’ Rays. While Chinatown locals have struggled to stay afloat as office and housing costs rise,  the Nashville-style hot fried chicken restaurant has attracted masses of Los Angeles locals and visitors since it opened in 2016, resulting in lines up to five hours long. Ong explained that new businesses like Howlin’ Rays attract a specific clientele, prompting increased investment and property development in Chinatown that alienates locals. After realizing that many locals didn’t have the time or money to try Howlin’ Rays, L.A. Times reporter Frank Shyong waited two hours in line to buy chicken to distribute to nearby business owners. “The biggest challenge is understanding how we all play a role in a much larger dynamic,” Ong remarked. “More broadly, we have to talk about what we want our cities to look like.”


Ong, González Examine Ethnoracial Inequality in City

Center for Neighborhood Knowledge Director Paul Ong and Assistant Director Silvia R. González have co-authored a book on urban ethnoracial inequalities. “Uneven Urbanscape: Spatial Structures and Ethnoracial Inequality,” newly published by Cambridge University Press, draws from a vast trove of research and data to evaluate the causes and consequences of urban inequality, specifically looking at housing, employment and education. Focusing on Los Angeles, Ong and González studied small geographic units that approximate neighborhoods to determine how location relates to access and isolation. Los Angeles, they found, is “a powerful case study for understanding spatialized racial and ethnic stratification.” The authors describe the different elements that make up the urban spatial structure — place, relative location and networks — as a means to evaluate how spatial structure produces and reproduces ethnoracial inequalities in cities. “The material world reflects and projects socioeconomic realties and is instrumental in creating the lived experience,” they wrote. “By touching a broad range of human activities, the urban landscape, or urbanscape, becomes complicit in the production of socioeconomic injustices along racial and ethnic lines.” Ong and González said Los Angeles as a case study provides critical insights into the nation’s racial and ethnic hierarchies. They call for engaged scholarship with research such as theirs and conclude, “The academy is a privileged institution that should embrace societal responsibilities to directly combat socioeconomic disparities.”


 

Lewis Center Director Evelyn Blumenberg at the inaugural InterActions LA event on regional growth and equity. Photo by Amy Tierney

First Conference on Regional Growth and Equity Tackles Transportation and Communities UCLA scholars, nonprofit representatives discuss how to use multibillion-dollar investment to address regional inequities

By Claudia Bustamante

Los Angeles is populous and diverse, but that distinction also produces inequality. There are disparities in housing costs. Amenities vary across neighborhoods. Many low-income families struggle to make ends meet despite impressive gains in employment.

During an inaugural event focusing on regional growth and equity, the UCLA Lewis Center for Regional Policy Studies convened a group of experts to discuss how to leverage a sweeping, taxpayer-supported $120-billion investment in Los Angeles’ transportation system to address decades-old disparities.

Following the 2016 passage of Measure M, Metro committed $52 billion in sales tax revenue for capital investments throughout the county. The agency is looking to accelerate 28 projects by the time Los Angeles hosts the 2028 Summer Olympics. Senate Bill 1 approved in 2017 designated another $54 billion to fix roads, to relieve congestion, and to improve transit and trade corridors throughout California.

“The question is how can we improve the quality of communities by taking advantage of the ongoing and major regional investments in public transit,” said Evelyn Blumenberg MA UP ’90 Ph.D. ’95, director of the Lewis Center and professor of urban planning, at “InterActions LA: Inspiring Quality Transit Neighborhoods,” held April 18, 2019, at The California Endowment.

“It is precisely in these moments of rapid change when there is a window of opportunity to do something different,” Blumenberg said. “Hopefully, it’s to engage in more equitable outcomes that better connect residents to economic opportunities, that protect and expand affordable housing, and that improve the health and robustness of the L.A. region.”

Paul Ong, UCLA Luskin research professor and director of the Center for Neighborhood Knowledge, has done extensive research on the role of urban structures on the reproduction of inequality. He said this topic is an important one for discussion.

“We, as a society, make neighborhoods,” Ong said, “and neighborhoods make us. The type of neighborhood we live in determines not only today’s quality of life but the trajectory over generations.”

Multiple approaches to improve neighborhoods were discussed. They include progressive housing and land use policies, stationary design, neighborhood amenities and community engagement.

Key among the discussion was the need to focus on people who use transit and their specific needs. For example, women, older adults and people with disabilities make up about 60 percent of Los Angeles’ transit ridership. Those transit users have specific concerns about safety and security while walking to stations, waiting and riding transit, said Madeline Brozen MA UP ’11, deputy director of the Lewis Center.

“If we’re not planning for specific groups in an intentional way, it’s not likely we’re going to see the shifts we want to see from these investments,” Brozen said.

Julia Stein, project director at the Emmett Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at UCLA Law, said the city’s Transit Oriented Communities program, which provides incentives to developers to build near major transit stops and include affordable housing units, provides an opportunity to address some issues.

Since the program’s inception in 2017, about 2,400 affordable units have been proposed, of which 42 percent are reserved for extremely low-income households.

Attendees also heard about specific efforts being conducted in the city by nonprofit organizations, including improvements along Avenue 26 near Lincoln Heights and Cypress Park spearheaded by LA-Mas. The nonprofit agency engaged with community members to generate design improvements and creative wayfinding on a quarter-mile stretch near the Metro Gold Line station.

The end result was impressive, but Avital Aboody from LA-Mas said the permitting process was complex, expensive and time-consuming.

“We had the expertise and time to navigate this process, but that may not be the case for community members or grassroots organizations that may want to do this in their community,” she said.

Lessons Learned Outside L.A.

Outside California, the Twin Cities region in Minnesota has a reputation for being progressive. But the community deals with stark racial disparities, which date back to decades of systemic racism, like redlining, according to Owen Duckworth, director of organizing and policy at the Alliance, a Minnesota-based coalition of community-based organizations and advocacy groups.

Now that the region is investing in transit infrastructure such as an expansion of a rail line that connects downtown Minneapolis to St. Paul, there is an opportunity for communities to have greater impact.

“Government agencies want to deliver on equity. That’s the buzzword,” Duckworth said. “We can’t have equitable outcomes by continuing inequitable processes in planning.”

Another theme echoed by many panelists is community engagement — making sure residents’ input is not merely tokenized by developers and government organizations.

Community members provide valuable insights as experts in their own neighborhoods.

“Our partners want to be partners to government agencies in community development, but there’s no compensation for these organizations. They mostly volunteer their time,” said Thomas Yee of LA THRIVES.

“Everything from here on out needs to be collaborative. We need to get away from silos. We need to work together,” Yee added.

Multiple Objectives

Blumenberg ended the event by saying it is clear that multiple objectives must be met to ensure quality transit neighborhoods. To name a few, planners must consider housing, traffic, environmental concerns, access to opportunities, safety and security issues around mobility.

The solutions must be equally diverse — tailored to the different neighborhoods and communities throughout the region, she said.