Thursday, April 28, 2011

McCourt Just The Latest In A Series Of Los Angeles Carpetbaggers

I have to thank my mom for finding this interesting piece by DJ Waldie, contributing editor of the Los Angeles Times, which opines on Frank McCourt and the perils of having our most beloved Los Angeles institutions managed by non-Los Angeles natives:

Like the arrival of the Dodgers in Los Angeles, the sale of the Times to the Chicago-based Tribune Company in 2000 was a deal that sounded good to AngeleƱos. Instead of bitter Chandler family members, real journalists would run the paper, even if nearly all of them were out of town. And like the sale of the Dodgers to the McCourts, which floated on so much borrowed money that the franchise is now $525 million in debt, the leveraged sale of the Tribune Company in 2007 to developer Sam Zell turned out to be a cynical farce. Another fast-talking out-of-towner took control of an iconic L.A. institution for cents on the dollar and with no idea of Los Angeles. What mattered was making the deals. The deals had nothing to do with this place or our story.

The deals still do not. The Delaware bankruptcy court overseeing the dismantling of Zell’s empire of paper is only interested in getting its assets sold. Commissioner Selig’s takeover of the Dodgers was only a last-ditch maneuver to prevent the McCourts from saving their borrowed lifestyle by mortgaging the Dodgers’ future broadcast rights.

Something narrow and coarse in the imaginations of the McCourts and Zell and Selig and their business partners squeezed out any moral dimension to their deals or any feeling for Los Angeles. But to question how they acquired so much of our place so cheaply is uncomfortable for AngeleƱos. Better to grumble about indifferent outsiders. Seen from their perspective, Los Angeles has only market value, the sort of value that sold Los Angeles to the world as one of the most successful lifestyle products of the 20th century.

Not any more. Too many deals have soured; too much of the city has been taken into receivership. Even our citizenship – already problematic – has been foreclosed. Deals under duress have taken too many of our civic institutions from local control and put them in the hands of monitors and special masters, raising another question we would prefer to duck: Do we have the capacity to govern ourselves?


Grudging compliance to special masters and appointed monitors may be the best we have to give in a city fragmented by institutional barriers and so distracted from civic concerns. Few of us want to see Los Angeles as it is or what it should be; we’ve let others do it for us. This city’s unaccountable political structure, its conception of power merely as the means to another deal, and the city’s air of disconnected neutrality have let thugs police its streets, unfeeling technocrats run its services, and the McCourts loot its most-loved institution. And when those faults became intolerable, others – not us – imposed their solutions. We’ve come to expect this – and worse – from Los Angeles and ourselves. “Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.” might as well be the motto on the city seal.

Los Angeles succeeded once, less as a place and more as a succession of slick real estate deals that have reached the limits of our landscape. Truthfully, we never needed a shared moral imagination until now, when so many desertions from the common good have shown us how little loyalty the once powerful had for this place. And no deal, no special master, no court-ordered monitor can supply what we lack.

It's not the most uplifting piece, by any means. But I don't know if I subscribe to the underlying assumption that non-natives won't be able to effectively manage Los Angeles institutions. Do we look elsewhere for operational and managerial assistance? Sure, but so do most major corporations and entities beyond political structures. In an increasingly global economy and society, outside help isn't necessarily a bad thing.

Selecting bad outside help, however, can be debilitating. And good and bad managers exist everywhere. If anything, I just hope that the next owner and operator of the Dodgers is willing to invest in the team and the Los Angeles community with the proper amount of fiscal, social, and managerial care. And if he or she can do that, I don't care from where that person might have come.