Global Los Angeles


Who lives in Los Angeles?

If the United States is a nation of immigrants, Los Angeles is a city of immigrants, and especially one of recent immigrants: 36 percent of the residents of Los Angeles were born abroad. Among major metropolitan areas, only Miami has a higher percentage of foreign-born residents than Los Angeles.

The link to other countries is even more pronounced in the next generation. More than half of all children in Los Angeles live in households with at least one foreign-born parent. Only Miami and the San Francisco Bay area share this characteristic.

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Among major U.S. metropolitan areas, Los Angeles has the highest concentrations of Hispanics and Latinos, and the second highest concentration of Asians. As a region, Southern California has the largest populations, in absolute numbers, of people who claim Mexican, Guatemalan, and Salvadoran descent. The region is also home to the largest populations of people of Korean, Japanese, Filipino, and Vietnamese origins. Only the New York metropolitan area has a larger population of Chinese descent. Southern California also has the highest concentrations and largest absolute numbers of people who claim Iranian or Armenian descent.

These demographic facts are widely known. Less well known, perhaps, is that in the United States, Southern California is home to the largest populations of people who claim British descent (that is, English, Scottish, or Welsh) and those who claim Scandinavian descent (Swedish, Norwegian, Danish, or Finnish).

A Magnet for International Migrants

Southern California is a major destination for people moving to the United States from abroad. In 2013, it accounted for almost 9 percent of all U.S. residents who had moved to this country from abroad in the previous year. Southern California is particularly a magnet for young adults, with more migrants aged 18 through 24 than any other major city.

Thousands march for immigration reform in Los Angeles, CA - Credit: Flickr user SEIU
Thousands march for immigration reform in Los Angeles, CA – Credit: Flickr user SEIU

Southern California also draws a disproportionate share of migrants who have bachelor’s degrees – more than 10 percent of the U.S. total and more than any other U.S. city.

Polyglot City

In his 2010 inaugural address, C.L. Max Nikias, the incoming president of the University of Southern California, noted that 224 different languages are spoken in the Los Angeles region:

“The 224 languages that are spoken in this city, and the 115 nations represented today on this campus, are distinctly representative of a new world that is tilted toward the civilizations of the Pacific.” C.L. Max Nikias

Somewhat less dramatically, but perhaps more operationally significant, the California Department of Education identified 59 specific native languages among public school students in Los Angeles County in the 2013-2014 school year, and a measureable number (0.4 percent of total enrollment) of students with yet other native tongues. Students with native languages other than English account for 52 percent of total public school enrollment in the county. The comparable figure for the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) is even higher at 63 percent. There is some indication, though, that the wave of students requiring educational services in languages other than English, which has been a characteristic of LAUSD in recent years, is receding. The fraction of students in LAUSD classified as “English learners” – that is, not fully proficient in English – peaked in the 2003-2004 school year and has been gradually declining since.

Fully half of L.A. residents aged five years or older live in households where a language other than English is spoken, higher than any other major U.S. city. The proportion is only slightly lower in the region as a whole. While Spanish is the most common language other than English spoken in a large majority of these households (70 percent of those who speak a language other than English at home), Southern California is far from being simply a bilingual region. Substantial minorities speak Asian languages or Pacific Islander languages (19 percent) or some Indo-European language other than Spanish (8 percent).

Official institutions in Los Angeles accommodate residents who prefer to speak languages other than English. The California State Department of Motor Vehicles offers written driver license examinations in 31 languages other than English. The next most accommodating state, New York, offers examinations in only 12 languages other than English. The Superior Court of Los Angeles County makes instructional materials available in 30 languages other than English. For comparison, the New York State Unified Court System provides information in only 10 languages other than English.

The California State Department of Motor Vehicles offers written driver license examinations in 31 languages other than English.

Despite these efforts to provide written material in multiple languages, L.A. residents with limited facility in English still face obstacles in gaining access to important government services. Although Los Angeles County courts are generally able to provide interpreters for non-English speakers in criminal cases, they lack sufficient interpreters to provide similar services in all civil cases. This prompted a complaint from the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles and a subsequent investigation by the U.S. Justice Department concluding in 2013 that county courts were in violation of the Civil Rights Act. A draft plan to remedy this situation was released in July 2014.

Finally, at least 42 foreign-language newspapers are regularly published in Southern California in 10 different languages. An additional four English-language papers are published in the region for specific expatriate communities.

Integrating L.A.’s Immigrants

Grand Park, Los Angeles - Credit: Flickr user cappuccinojunkie
Grand Park, Los Angeles – Credit: Flickr user cappuccinojunkie

In the long run, the large population of immigrants who now make their homes in Los Angeles and Southern California constitutes a potential source of economic and social strength for the region. The foreign-born population is more heavily concentrated than the native population in the prime working-age group of 18 through 64, and among residents 16 and older, the foreign-born population shows a higher rate of employment than does the native population. Despite the relatively high rate of employment among foreign-born residents, families headed by a foreign-born householder in Southern California are almost twice as likely to live in poverty as are families headed by a native householder.

May Day Immigration Rally 2010 in Los Angeles - Credit: Flickr user Joseph Voves
May Day Immigration Rally 2010 in Los Angeles – Credit: Flickr user Joseph Voves

One explanation for the poor economic status of foreign-born residents of Southern California is their low average educational achievement. As the last row of table 2-5 shows, foreign-born residents of the five-county Los Angeles area are more than four times as likely as natives not to have graduated from high school. In San Diego County the disparity is even greater, at 5.6 times.

By these measures of economic success and educational achievement among the foreign-born population, the Los Angeles CSA does not compare well with other major U.S. urban centers. Nor do these indicators seem to be improving. Employment rates among foreign-born residents were lower in 2013 than in 2006 in both the Los Angeles CSA and the San Diego MSA. Household poverty rates rose in both areas over the same period. The only hopeful sign is that the percentage of foreign-born residents aged 25 or older without a high school education declined in Los Angeles, and held steady in San Diego. Integration of Southern California’s immigrant population into the regional economy, it would seem, is still a work in progress.

Los Angeles Mayor, Eric Garcetti, on Immigration Reform

Recently, the new mayor of the City of Los Angeles re-established an Office of Immigrant Affairs to assist immigrants in navigating local, state, and federal governmental programs. A similar office had been created in 2004, but had been defunded during the previous mayor’s administration. With the re-opening of this office, the City of Los Angeles joins New York, Chicago, Houston, and San Francisco in providing a governmental focal point for immigrant affairs.

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Los Angeles is a global “command center” on the Pacific. It is a hub of sea and air travel and hosts some of the top companies and banking institutions from around the world. This access to the ideas, practices, and products of the world stimulates local innovation and growth. But with the expansion of the Panama Canal, shipping routes could change, and the increase in longer-range aircrafts could allow more flights to skip L.A. on their way to Asia. Strategic policy decisions must ensure that Los Angeles continues to thrive as a global hub.

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International Transportation Connections

Being a global city requires direct connections to foreign destinations by both sea and air. The major ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, subsidiary seaports in the region, and Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) provide strong links between Southern California and overseas markets.

Maritime Trade

The Art of Stevedore | A time lapse video of the port of Long Beach, by Alex Hallajian

By a wide margin, the ports of Southern California lead the United States in the value of goods handled. Both the Houston-Galveston and New Orleans port districts handle greater tonnages of foreign trade than does Los Angeles, but trade in these ports is concentrated in commodities, which typically have lower value per weight than the more varied cargos that pass through Los Angeles-area ports.

From 2003 through 2008, the share of all U.S. maritime foreign trade handled by Southern California ports declined. This share appears to have stabilized since 2008. Even with modest increases in 2012 and 2013, Southern California ports have not regained the market share they enjoyed a decade earlier. U.S. West Coast ports, including those in Southern California, will face increased competition when the widening of the Panama Canal is completed in 2015. The expanded canal will accommodate larger ships, which may then proceed directly from Asia to U.S. Gulf and East Coast ports, bypassing West Coast ports.

Air Transport

Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) - Credit: Flickr user Robert Pratt
Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) – Credit: Flickr user Robert Pratt

LAX is a major international airport. In numbers of international flights and international passengers, it ranks third nationally behind John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK) in New York and Miami International Airport (MIA). If traffic at JFK and Newark Liberty International Airport (EWR) – the two major international airports serving New York City – is combined, the New York region dominates U.S. international flight-segment and passenger traffic by a wide margin. With respect to international freight, LAX is third behind Anchorage and Miami.

Although LAX ranks high among U.S. airports with respect to international flight segments and international passengers, LAX has been losing market share in both categories in recent years. In contrast, the LAX share of total freight handled has been growing since 2005.

LAX Data Cloud, L.A. Airport: The Next-Generation Destination Board

The loss of share of international traffic – flights and passengers – at LAX is particularly disappointing in view of the rapid growth of Asia, which would seem to constitute the natural destinations for flights from Los Angeles. Presumably, increasing use of longer-range aircraft since 2000 has allowed some flights from the U.S. East Coast to reach Asia without an intermediate stop in Los Angeles, thus reducing the share of international passengers and flights at LAX. But if this were the principal explanation for LAX’s declining shares of passengers and flights, one might expect to find a similar reduction in shares at San Francisco International Airport (SFO), the other obvious gateway to Asia. This appears not to be the case. SFO did see declines in its shares of passengers and flights (from lower starting shares), but the reductions were less pronounced than at LAX. From a lower initial share, SFO lost about 4 percent of its share of international passengers and about 9 percent of its share of international flights from 2000 to 2013. The corresponding losses at LAX were 19 percent and 25 percent. It would appear, then, that at least some of the causes of declining shares at LAX must be factors specific to LAX.

A Commercial “Command Center

Downtown Los Angeles, CA - Credit: Flickr user Neil Kremer
Downtown Los Angeles, CA – Credit: Flickr user Neil Kremer

Although Los Angeles is an international center of decision-making related to a few industries – entertainment being the most prominent example – in general, the city does not rank high among U.S. cities as a commercial “command center”: a place where corporate headquarters or other important commercial institutions have chosen to locate.

Corporate Headquarters

In 2013, Los Angeles was host to the corporate headquarters of 22 Fortune 500 firms, coming behind New York, Chicago, the San Francisco Bay area, and Houston. Southern California has just two more, for 24 total, but in the next count of Fortune 500 companies (in June 2015) the region will lose at least two of those 24. In February 2014, Occidental Petroleum, then based in Los Angeles, announced that it would split off its California assets and move the headquarters of the much larger remaining company to Houston. And in November 2014, Irvine-based Allergan agreed to be acquired by the Irish pharmaceutical firm Actavis.

After these losses, the number of Fortune 500 headquarters in Southern California will be only slightly higher than the 19 in the region in 1991. Since then, the commercial sectors with corporate headquarters in Southern California have changed. Some sectors traditionally associated with international operations and sales are no longer represented. Oil and gas headquarters, for example, have left the region (Atlantic Richfield, Unocal, and soon Occidental). Similarly, aerospace and defense contracting firms (Northrop, Lockheed, Rockwell, Teledyne, Litton) have merged or moved their headquarters elsewhere. But many of the companies now appearing on the list are active internationally. There seems to be no reason to think that the changing mix of companies with headquarters in Southern California has reduced the region’s international connections. Nonetheless, the small number of major-company headquarters in the region is disappointing.

Neither is Southern California home to U.S. or North American headquarters of major foreign or multinational firms. Of the 100 largest foreign companies that had regional headquarters in the United States, only six had headquarters in Southern California: Honda in Torrance, Nestle in Glendale, Hyundai in Fountain Valley, Mitsubishi Motors in Cypress, Toshiba Information Systems in Irvine, and Tewoo Group in Irvine.

Downtown Los Angeles - Credit: Flickr user Matti Vuorre
Downtown Los Angeles – Credit: Flickr user Matti Vuorre

Foreign Banking Institutions

Another indicator of a city’s commercial engagement with the rest of the world is the presence of the offices of foreign banks. Since 1997, the U.S. Federal Reserve has published a quarterly listing of all such offices in the United States.

The total number of foreign banking offices in the United States has fallen by half since 1997, a reflection of consolidation in the worldwide banking sector. New York is the dominant location for foreign banking offices, but a significant cluster of these offices is found in Southern California – more than in any metropolitan area other than New York. Nonetheless, the share of foreign banking offices in Southern California has fallen from 13.4 percent in 1997 to 10.4 percent in 2014.

Managing Foreign Trade

Despite the relative scarcity of major corporate headquarters in Los Angeles and Southern California, the region seems to play a significant role in directing the flow of U.S. merchandise exports. Since 2005, the International Trade Administration (ITA) of the U.S. Commerce Department has reported the annual value of merchandise exports by metropolitan statistical area (MSA). These data do not reflect where the exported goods were actually produced. Rather, exports are attributed to MSAs on the basis of the ZIP code of the United States Principal Party of Interest (USPPI) of record for each export transaction. The USPPI is “the person or legal entity in the United States that receives the primary benefit, monetary of otherwise, from the export transaction.” Plausibly, the location of the party initially receiving the return from the trade transaction is the party directing the transaction. Consequently, these statistics point to a locus of decision-making with respect to U.S. exports and thus reflect which metropolitan areas constitute “command centers” for U.S. international trade.

The Vincent Thomas Bridge in San Pedro, California, and the largest shipping port in America - Credit: Flickr user Neil Kremer
The Vincent Thomas Bridge in San Pedro, California, and the largest shipping port in America – Credit: Flickr user Neil Kremer

In terms of the value of merchandise exports (2013 data), the Southern California region ranks third behind Houston and New York. Southern California’s share of total U.S. merchandise exports has declined modestly since 2005 – from 6.6 percent to 6.0 percent.

Binational Chambers of Commerce

A final indicator of a metropolitan area’s role in directing international commercial activity may be the number of local associations dedicated to promoting or facilitating commercial relations between that city and particular foreign countries. The California Chamber of Commerce provides a list of “binational chambers of commerce and associations” in California, along with contact information. In early 2014, there were 41 such organizations in Southern California and, coincidently, another 41 in the San Francisco Bay Area. The Southern California organizations represented 26 different countries; those in the Bay Area represented 22 different countries. There appears to be no archive of lists from previous years, and it is therefore impossible to know whether the number of such organizations is growing or shrinking.

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The city of Los Angeles may not be a traditional diplomatic hub, but it has developed considerable institutional and informal diplomatic ties to the rest of the world. These include extensive consular representation, a robust Sister Cities program, booming tourism, a diverse population of international students, and much more.

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Consular Representation

Air Force One, taking off from LAX - Credit: Flickr user Anthony Citrano
Air Force One, taking off from LAX – Credit: Flickr user Anthony Citrano

The presence of consular offices in a city provides some indication of the richness of commercial and civil relations between that city and foreign countries, as judged by foreign diplomatic services. By this measure, Southern California is second only to the New York area. Washington, D.C., is not included in this ranking since countries that maintain diplomatic relations with the United States have embassies in the nation’s capital, and most of these have consular sections.

There has been modest growth in the consular presence in Southern California in recent years. Southern California hosted 62 consular offices in 2006: that number is now 65.

Sister Cities

An introductory video for the Sister Cities of Los Angeles program

Among them, the cities that make up the Southern California region have sister-city relationships with 159 foreign cities. The city of Los Angeles alone has 25 foreign sister cities.

A Place Where the World Gathers

Venice Beach, California - Credit: Flickr user Pedro Szekely
Venice Beach, California – Credit: Flickr user Pedro Szekely

By a number of measures, Los Angeles and Southern California rank high as a destination for foreigners who come to the United States for limited periods of time.

Foreign Visitors

There is no fully satisfactory source of information on the number of foreigners who visit particular U.S. cities for business or for pleasure. The most common starting point for such estimates is the Survey of International Air Travelers undertaken by the Office of Travel and Tourism Industries (OTTI) within the U.S. Department of Commerce. A variety of proprietary estimates seek to supplement or augment the OTTI estimates, and sometimes these alternative estimates vary significantly from the OTTI estimates. Although they have some shortcomings, the OTTI surveys do provide a consistent measure of foreign visitors across cities and over time.

The growth of foreign visitors to the Los Angeles area is being driven by a sharp increase in the number of Chinese visitors.

Looking at the number of foreign visitors to U.S. cities since 2000 (Figure 2-12), New York is in a league of its own, with three times as many foreign visitors as any other city. In most years, Los Angeles is at the top of a distant second tier of destination cities. San Diego and Anaheim also attract significant numbers of overseas visitors; both rank within the top 20 U.S. destination cities.

The number of foreign visitors to all U.S. cities dropped after the September 11 attacks, bottoming out in 2003, and then gradually recovering. The number of visitors dropped again in 2009 as a consequence of the global recession. New York regained its pre-9/11 number of foreign visitors by 2005, far ahead of other destination cities. Los Angeles, however, did not achieve this until 2011. Something about New York, apparently unique, brought overseas visitors back more quickly than to other U.S. cities.

The growth of foreign visitors to the Los Angeles area is being driven by a sharp increase in the number of Chinese visitors. The Los Angeles Tourism and Convention Board (LATCB) estimated that Los Angeles received 570,000 Chinese visitors in 2013. That number is up from 158,000 in 2009, for an increase of 261 percent. In a welcome display of international orientation, LATCB has established what it calls its NiHao China program, through which staff at L.A.-area hotels, attractions, and retailers are trained to meet the cultural preferences of Chinese visitors. Businesses with sufficient staff who complete the training receive certification and are promoted via LATCB’s marketing in China.

…there is no systematically coordinated planning or international marketing among the various municipal tourism authorities in Southern California. This seems to be a lost opportunity.

Although LATCB marketing materials feature tourist attractions beyond the city of Los Angeles, there is no systematically coordinated planning or international marketing among the various municipal tourism authorities in Southern California. This seems to be a lost opportunity.

Welcoming International Leaders

Four organizations in Southern California participate in the U.S. State Department’s International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP), which aims to “connect current and emerging foreign leaders with their American counterparts through short-term visits to the United States.” The four participating organizations are the International Visitors

The International Visitors Council of Los Angeles (IVCLA)

Council of Los Angeles, the UCLA International Visitors Bureau, the International Relations Council of Riverside, and the San Diego Diplomacy Council. Southern California is not unique in hosting visiting foreign leaders: cities throughout the United States have participating local organizations. Southern California stands out, though, in the number of visitors it hosts. These four local organizations host, among them, more than 2,500 visitors, a substantial fraction of the 5,000 or so foreign visitors who participate in the IVLP each year.

International Conferences and Meetings

A characteristic of truly global cities and regions is their hosting of international conferences and meetings. Among U.S. regions, Southern California shows mid-level performance by this measure. The region’s status as a location for international meetings depends largely on the popularity of San Diego, which surpasses Los Angeles by a considerable margin.

The International Congress and Convention Association collects data on the number of “regularly occurring association meetings which rotate between at least three countries” in selected U.S. cities. Primarily, these data reflect meetings of international professional associations and what the ICCA terms “social groups” (Lions Club International, for example). These data exclude corporate gatherings and international governmental meetings.

The Hon. José Manuel Barroso, former President of the European Commission, at a Pacific Council event - May 2014
The Hon. José Manuel Barroso, former President of the European Commission, at a Pacific Council event – May 2014

Combining Los Angeles and San Diego, Southern California ranks well below Boston, Washington, D.C., and the San Francisco Bay area as a preferred location for international meetings in the United States. No U.S. city ranks anywhere near the top cities in the world for international conferences: Paris (204 meetings in 2013), Madrid (186), and Vienna (182) lead the way. Figures for European cities are naturally higher because the smaller size of European countries makes border crossing for meetings much more common than in the United States.

Although it is not specifically an indicator of international engagement, the city of Los Angeles ranks poorly for its size as a preferred location for conventions and business gatherings – not just international gatherings. The most recent ranking of U.S. cities by Cvent places Los Angeles only nineteenth in this regard, with San Diego ranking fifth.

International Students

The colleges and universities of Southern California are major contributors to the international character of the region. In figures compiled by the Institute of International Education (IIE), the state of California leads the nation in the number of international students enrolled in its colleges and universities with 121,647 in the 2013-2014 academic year, far ahead of second-place New York with 98,906. Higher education institutions in Southern California enrolled some 72,762 international students in academic year 2013-2014.

Crowd cheers for President Obama at USC Rally - Credit: Flickr user Neon Tommy
Crowd cheers for President Obama at USC Rally – Credit: Flickr user Neon Tommy

Comparing data on total international enrollment in Southern California institutions in academic years 2005-2006 and 2013-2014, Southern California’s share of total international enrollment in U.S. universities has remained roughly the same: international enrollment in the region in recent years has been growing at just about the same rate as international enrollment in the United States as a whole. The 2005-2006 academic year marked a low point in international enrollments in the United States – in both absolute numbers of students and as a share of total university enrollment – after the attacks of September 11, 2001, made travel to the United States by foreign students more difficult.

…the state of California leads the nation in the number of international students enrolled in its colleges and universities…

Some institutions of higher education in Los Angeles are particular magnets for foreign students. The University of Southern California (USC) ranks second – after New York University (NYU) – with 10,932 international students in academic year 2013-2014. UCLA, with 9,579 international students, ranks sixth in the nation. The California Institute of Technology (Caltech) is a much smaller institution than USC or UCLA and thus has fewer international students enrolled, but as a share of total enrollment, Caltech has easily the highest concentration of international students in the region for a major research university – 34 percent of its student body in 2013-2014.

UCLA Powell Library - Credit: Flickr user Jimmy Yeh
UCLA Powell Library – Credit: Flickr user Jimmy Yeh

Among the institutions that the IIE classifies “master’s institutions,” three of the top four universities in international enrollment are in Southern California: California State University-Northridge, California State University-Long Beach, and California State University-Fullerton. Three other Southern California campuses of the California State University system – California State-San Bernardino, California State Polytechnic University-Pomona, and California State-Los Angeles – are also in the top 25 master’s institutions in the number of international students. And eight Southern California community colleges rank among the top 35 “associate’s institutions” in the nation in the number of international students, with Santa Monica College coming in at number two.

The region’s universities are also centers for international scholarship and research, collaborating with foreign institutions and attracting faculty from around the world. In particular, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, operated by Caltech, is a symbol of U.S. dominance in space exploration and a participant in many international collaborative space ventures. Beyond connecting Southern California to the rest of the world, JPL serves today as the world’s principal connection to the rest of the solar system!

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Arts, culture, and entertainment are central to L.A.’s international connections. Motion pictures and videos produced by L.A. studios are seen worldwide; foreigners visit the L.A. area’s museums, performance spaces, and theme parks; artists based in the Southern California region are in demand abroad; and institutions and companies active in artistic, cultural, and entertainment endeavors are important channels for the international exchange of people and ideas, and are thus significant contributors to the international character of the region. Artistic, cultural, and entertainment products do much to shape outsiders’ views of Los Angeles. But, while the prominence of the city in the entertainment industry is long established, more recently, Los Angeles is emerging as an energetic and innovative center for other aspects of arts and culture.

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The Motion Picture and Video Industries

Universal Studios, Hollywood - Credit: Flickr user Prayitno
Universal Studios, Hollywood – Credit: Flickr user Prayitno

Los Angeles has long been the center of the global motion picture and video industries. Long before L.A. could reasonably have been characterized as a global city, the Hollywood film industry had captured the imagination of the world. Throughout the world, people knew about Hollywood, and Hollywood delivered a powerful, if not always entirely accurate vision of the United States to global audiences. Here’s how Historian Bruce Cumings describes the Hollywood entertainment complex:

“[Hollywood is] a culture industry that still makes nearly all the films seen across the country and the world, lacks any serious competitor (as it always has), and remains a central foundation of America’s global position – and especially, how the world views Americans.

In recent years, considerable attention has focused on declining employment in the industry in Los Angeles. Figures from the U.S. Census Bureau show a decline of some 20 percent from 2008 through 2012 in Los Angeles County employment in North American Industry Classification System (NAICS) code 5121, Motion Picture and Video Industries. This NAICS code includes production and distribution of motion pictures and video as well as industries associated with the exhibition of movies and videos.

James Dean statue, Griffith Park, Los Angeles - Credit: Flickr user Prayitno
James Dean statue, Griffith Park, Los Angeles – Credit: Flickr user Prayitno

Declining Los Angeles County employment in these industries parallels a similar decline in national employment, reflecting the movement of movie and video work overseas. But movie and television jobs have been moving to other parts of the United States as well, and declining employment in Los Angeles County has been steeper than in the nation as a whole. In 2008, the peak year for movie and video employment in both the county and the nation, Los Angeles County accounted for 39 percent of total national movie and video employment. By 2012, this share had fallen to 34 percent.

Despite declining employment in the motion picture and video industries, Los Angeles County remains the home of the studios that account for the vast bulk of movie box office receipts, both domestically and internationally. Fifteen of the 16 studios with the highest domestic box office gross receipts in 2013 are located in Los Angeles County. Moreover, these 15 studios accounted for a staggering 69 percent of worldwide gross box office receipts in 2013. Clearly, Los Angeles-based studios still dominate the global motion picture industry.

A Center for Contemporary Visual Arts

Timelapse video of Los Angeles – Credit: Bodhi Films

The Southern California region – and Los Angeles in particular – is a major center for contemporary visual arts. The Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Hammer Museum, the Norton Simon Museum, the San Diego Museum of Art, and the Santa Barbara Museum of Art all have substantial collections of contemporary art within larger collections of art from various periods. The Museum of Contemporary Art (with its satellite exhibition spaces at the Geffen Contemporary and at the Pacific Design Center), the Orange County Museum of Art, the Orange County Center for Contemporary Art, the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, and the Museum of Contemporary Art Santa Barbara are dedicated exclusively to contemporary art (in some cases along with modern art). Los Angeles will also soon have a major new museum of contemporary art with the opening of the Broad Museum.

View of Downtown Los Angeles from the J.Paul Getty Museum - Credit: Flickr user Justin Vidamo
View of Downtown Los Angeles from the J.Paul Getty Museum – Credit: Flickr user Justin Vidamo

Los Angeles County boasts three major schools for training visual artists: California Institute of the Arts (CalArts), the Arts Center College of Design, and Otis College of Art and Design. Graduates from these schools do much to enrich the local arts environment.

But what really makes Los Angeles a center for contemporary visual arts is the presence in the region of a large community of working artists, some of whom have gained international recognition. Quantifying the size or the importance of the arts community in any location is necessarily contentious. There is no single, meaningful metric of what makes artists or the communities in which they work “important,” especially without the advantages afforded by the perspective of subsequent years. Nonetheless, a variety of plausible indicators tell a roughly consistent story about Southern California’s place in the larger international visual arts scene. Basically, the story is this: New York remains the dominant center of contemporary art in the United States, and probably the world. Within the United States, Southern California is unquestionably in second place with regard to the number of prominent living artists – no other U.S. metropolitan area comes close. By some indicators, Southern California also trails such foreign arts centers as Berlin, London, and Paris.

The website offers a ranking of some 100,000 contemporary artists on the basis of where their works are displayed. The algorithm used is not without controversy, but it is an attempt at a quantitative and standardized measure of the “importance” of many artists. A list of the top 500 artists by this ranking methodology is available at the ArtFacts site. Of the 500 artists noted in the 2014 list, 377 are currently alive, and information on where they live and work is available. Of these 377 living artists, 100 live and work in New York and 22 in Southern California. No other U.S. city has more than one artist on the list. Two L.A.-area artists – John Baldessari and Ed Ruscha – are among the top six most important living artists.

The Whitney Biennial, Venice Beach, CA - Credit: Flickr user Susan Sermoneta
The Whitney Biennial, Venice Beach, CA – Credit: Flickr user Susan Sermoneta

Southern California is important in the world of contemporary art not only because a large number of artists are working in the region. The region is also prominent on the demand side of the art market because it is home to a number of major art collectors. Each year the magazine Art News compiles a list of the 200 top collectors in the world on the basis of publicly disclosed transactions. The 2014 list is dominated by collectors whose primary residence is New York – 51 out of the 200 collectors listed. Southern California is tied with London in second place, each with 12 of the top 200 collectors, and Paris and Chicago have the next largest numbers of major collectors.

Live Theater

New York is widely thought of as the center of live theater in the United States and, perhaps with London, of the world. Certainly, the large Broadway theaters attract huge numbers of playgoers. Off-Broadway and off-off-Broadway theaters feature additional theatrical events. Los Angeles also has a thriving professional live-theater scene, mostly centered on smaller theaters that typically mount productions for short runs. Although the data are far from perfect, it appears that a higher number of different productions are mounted in L.A. than in New York.

Los Angeles Theater (S. Charles Lee, architect) 1931 - Credit: Flickr user Christopher Lance
Los Angeles Theater (S. Charles Lee, architect) 1931 – Credit: Flickr user Christopher Lance

Data for this comparison come from two different sources. Since November 2013, the online service of the Los Angeles Times has offered a weekly listing of live theater events opening in the coming week throughout Southern California.

In New York, the website of the Off-Broadway League provides a retrospective calendar of all show openings in New York City. Despite the organization’s name, the opening-night calendar includes Broadway, off-Broadway, and off-off-Broadway openings as well as special events of a theatrical nature.

The disparity in the number of theatrical openings in the two locations is striking. In the eight months from the middle of November 2013 through the middle of July 2014, the Off-Broadway League calendar captured 262 openings. During the same period, the Los Angeles Times noted 728 theatrical openings.

Data from the two sources are compiled independently, and they are not strictly comparable. The Los Angeles Times listings, for example, include theatrical events as far afield as San Diego, while the New York calendar appears to be restricted to New York City. Nonetheless, it is hard to imagine differences between the two data sources sufficient to account for the relative abundance of theatrical openings in Southern California – 2.8 times the reported openings in New York. Perhaps what these numbers reflect is the much lower costs associated with mounting theatrical productions in small Los Angeles theaters, and the presence there of actors employed sporadically in the motion-picture industry.

The Restaurant Index

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One reflection of a city’s international character is the variety of national or ethnic cuisines to be found in its restaurants. Residents from foreign cultures will want to eat their native foods; chefs from foreign countries, chefs who trained abroad, and chefs who learned from earlier immigrants will be able to prepare the foods of other cultures; and a general population that is open to and interested in foreign cultures will patronize a variety of ethnic restaurants. A city with a lot of restaurants serving the cuisines of other countries is, at least along one dimension, a cosmopolitan city, open to and enjoying what other cultures have to offer.

The Pacific Council has constructed a measure of the international cuisines available in some major U.S. cities. The basis for the index is the restaurant listings on the OpenTable restaurant reservation system, the most successful online reservation system in the United States. What makes OpenTable interesting for the purposes of measuring the variety of cuisines available in a city is that it is possible to search for restaurants by cuisine. One can, for example, look for restaurants in a city that offer Chinese cuisine, French cuisine, South American cuisine, and so forth. It is a straightforward matter to count the number of restaurants that claim to offer any particular cuisine.

The resulting counts of restaurants serving various cuisines in a particular city will be rough at best, because OpenTable only includes restaurants that accept reservations; cuisines are self-reported by the restaurants themselves; and restaurants with multiple types of cuisines may show up more than once. Still, these counts reveal something about local markets for different kinds of food. If nothing else, the index provides an innovative and interesting way to think about the cosmopolitan nature of different cities.

Defining Foreign Cuisines

The index counts a restaurant as offering a foreign cuisine if it self-reports its cuisine as one of the following:

  • Afghan
  • African
  • Asian (theoretically including Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Indian, and so forth)
  • Australian
  • Caribbean
  • European (theoretically including French, Italian, German, and so forth)
  • Latin/Spanish (potentially some overlap with European)
  • Mexican/Southwestern (unfortunately, it’s impossible to disentangle these two)
  • Middle Eastern
  • South American

The index does not count a restaurant as foreign if it claims a cuisine in the following very vague categories:

  • “Mediterranean” – This can mean just about anything.
  • “Continental” – If this means anything at all, it should be captured by “European.”
  • “Global/International” – This should be picked up elsewhere.

The Results

Looking at the total number of restaurants listed on OpenTable in August 2013 in 12 U.S. metropolitan areas and the share of these that claim to serve a foreign cuisine (by the above definition), Miami has the largest fraction of restaurants serving international cuisine, followed by New York in second place and Los Angeles/Orange Counties in third. The less international character of San Diego and the California Central Coast (which is mostly Santa Barbara) reduces the share of international restaurants for the broader Southern California region. Nonetheless, the Southern California region still ranks sixth in the country by this measure.

Entertainment Awards Shows

Annual entertainment awards shows attract substantial international press coverage and viewership. These shows may constitute something less than high art, but playing host to such shows provides international exposure for a city, generally in circumstances that allow it to look its best.

Academy Award Winner - Credit: Flickr user Davidlohr Bueso
Academy Award Winner – Credit: Flickr user Davidlohr Bueso

The Los Angeles area is, by a wide margin, the most frequent location for entertainment-industry awards shows, a reflection of the region’s status as the center of the entertainment industry. In 2014, 10 of the 13 highest-profile awards ceremonies took place in Los Angeles County. Seven of these ceremonies were televised internationally, further promoting the glamorous image and international character of Los Angeles.

A Center for International Sporting Events

Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum - Flickr user InSapphoWeTrust
Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum – Flickr user InSapphoWeTrust

Southern California has professional franchises in all of the major U.S. sports, most of these in Los Angeles, and some of these teams have international followings. More relevant to the present discussion, though, has been the city’s role in hosting major international athletic competitions: the Olympic Games in 1932 and 1984 (as the only U.S. city to host the games twice); the FIFA Men’s World Cup Final in 1994 (the only time the World Cup competition has come to the United States); and the FIFA Women’s World Cup Final in both 1999 and 2003 (again, the only times this tournament has been held in the United States).

Mary Lou Retton – Vault – 1984 Summer Olympics, Los Angeles, CA

The annual Los Angeles Marathon attracts runners from all over the world and, by number of finishers, is the eleventh largest marathon in the world. In 2015, Los Angeles will host the Special Olympics World Games. Racetracks in Southern California have hosted the international Breeder’s Cup thoroughbred race 12 times in the 31-year history of the race, and will do so again in 2016 and 2017.

In recent years, other prominent international competitions and sports-related events in Southern California have included: the Freestyle Wrestling World Cup in 2014 (coming again in 2015); the U.S. Open Badminton championships in 2011 and 2013 (despite the name, this tournament draws elite players from around the world); the 2012 International Olympic Committee’s World Conference on Women and Sport; the 2009 World Baseball Classic; and the 2009 World Figure Skating Championship.

Major Tourist Attractions

Disney California Adventure - Credit: Flickr user Tours Departing Daily
Disney California Adventure – Credit: Flickr user Tours Departing Daily

Since it opened in 1955, Disneyland has maintained a strong grip on the international imagination. Despite a proliferation of theme parks in subsequent years, some of them designed and operated by Disney itself, the original Disneyland in Anaheim was the third most-visited amusement or theme park in the world in 2013. Disney’s California Adventure, also in Anaheim adjacent to Disneyland, is tenth in this ranking. Universal Studios in Hollywood is 17th, and SeaWorld in San Diego is 22nd. There is no way to know what fraction of total visitors was accounted for by foreigners, yet it seems likely that these attractions are also among the top draws for foreign visitors to the United States.

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