Tue, Apr

Are Angelenos the New Mayans?


LEARNING FROM THE PAST-Are Angelenos the new Mayans? Historians relate how the Mayans and their great cities just disappeared. Of course, Mayans who are still living in Central America would dispute the idea that they aren’t here, but I am talking about the demise of their great cities in the 8th and 9th centuries. Read this piece by Joseph Stromberg on August 23, 2012 on Smithsonian.com“Why Did the Mayan Civilization Collapse? A New Study Points to Climate Change.” 

When we look closer to the Mayan collapse, we see that the entire civilization did not disappear, but rather certain cities collapsed. Thus, maybe we Angelenos have something to learn from the Mayans. If Los Angeles slips to a 3rd, 4th or 5th rate city, urban areas like South Texas, Richmond Virginia and Phoenix will continue to thrive. But if one lived in a great Mayan city, its demise would not be palatable because others prospered. 

We are certain that Mayan cities like Tikal in today’s Guatemala did not have a CityWatch to publish articles warning of the forces which were dooming the city. If Tikal had TikalWatch, we imagine that the leaders of Tikal would have ignored its prognostications. That’s what rulers do. 

Although I have not polled them, I think that the common impetus for CityWatch contributors is to make Los Angeles a better place to live. Such a desire leads them to agitate against decisions which are harming the city and to promote programs to improve the city. Eliminating the negative and accentuating the positive make for a healthy society. 

Here are some trends reported in CityWatch, a couple of which correlate with the fall of Tikal. 

(1) Population Density--The rulers thought population density meant greater wealth as they had more subjects, and thus, they appeared deaf to the downside of too many people in too small an area. The primary support which Tikal’s population needed was food, but as the population became concentrated near the great central ceremonial temples, the clearing of vast acreage extended far into the forests. As a result, the deforestation reduced precipitation, which reduced the crops, which lead to more deforestation in an endeavor to grow more food. 

Meanwhile the rulers wanted a larger population as a considerable portion of their wealth came from trade and that required tradesmen. 

Because the rulers concentrated the population around the ceremonial centers, they needed to build more temples which required the burning of vast acreage of trees. Their palaces and public buildings required prodigious amounts of wood for the fires to make the lime plaster for construction. That building mania not only attracted too many people into small geographic areas, it also accelerated the deforestation. 

We see a general parallel with Los Angeles, where the wealthy want to concentrate the real estate wealth in The Basin with extremely dense office complexes like Bunker Hill, DTLA and Century City, but the social costs of supporting these modern temples overburdens society. 

Bunker Hill was constructed somewhat similarly to Tikal – through the forced participation of the citizenry. The Community Redevelopment Agency [CRA] was behind Bunker Hill as private investment houses did not see it as a financially sound project. Due to the CRA’s power, the office towers on Bunker Hill did not have to pay any incremental property taxes. That is not as harsh as whipping Angelenos to carry away millions of tons of bags of dirt on their shoulders, but the loss of tax revenues was the same as taking between $700 million and $1 billion out of Angelenos’ bank accounts. We had to pay for all the city services, while the billionaire developers paid zilch. 

While the few men who owned Bunker Hill became vastly wealthy, everyone else in Los Angeles suffered due to our infamous traffic congestion. If LA’s rulers had ignored the real estate developers and had allowed businesses to follow people as they moved away from The Basin, LA would be decentralized. We would have as many cars going and coming, but without our rush hour traffic jams as tens of thousands of people would not be trying to get to the same place at the same time. 

(2) Response to Drought --Another similarity between Tikal and LA is that nature starts droughts but men make them worse. As mentioned, Tikal continued to densify its population which increased the need to cut down more trees to grow more food and to burn more wood to create the lime plaster for their buildings. 

It is common for cultures to perpetuate destructive trends. One reason is that those who are in power usually gained power due to the current way of doing things and their personal power depends upon the city’s modus operandi not changing. That seems to be the mentality of Los Angeles. 

After WW II, hordes of people descended upon Los Angeles as a form of heaven on earth. This influx made real estate developers king and they knew how to turn the tide to their financial benefit. Los Angeles’s landmark study in 1915 warned Angelenos not to allow developers to retard the spread of business and industry, but rather to allow business and industry to follow the people as they moved to the periphery. 

Rather than learn from past mistakes, the City has tripled down on the densification of Hollywood. Not surprisingly its crime rate continues to escalate as Councilmember-Mayor Garcetti pushes the destruction of rent-controlled apartments and more mixed-use projects into the Los Feliz area. Did the rulers of Tikal order more slashing and burning of the forests in the face of evidence that aggrandizing Tikal was leading to its demise? 

(3) Tikal’s People Moved Away--When the Mayan trade routes shifted and business opportunities followed to towns near the sea, people left the great inland Mayan cities. Life was already becoming too arduous due to the population density of Tikal. The demand of rulers for more wealth and the rising cost of food and housing was making Tikal unsustainable in light of better conditions elsewhere. 

Likewise, for over 15 years our City’s rulers have ignored the health of our port, while the Panama Canal has been widened and shipping more easily goes to the Gulf of Mexico – near Texas where many former Californians now live. If the City had not focused on destroying rent-controlled homes and over-constructing luxury apartments for the last decade and a half, we might have made wiser plans for the port and its workers. Drastically escalating the cost of living for port workers and dissing San Pedro was not a wise policy. 

Did Tikal’s rulers ignore the emigration when it started? Did they unknowingly accelerate it? We know that Los Angeles’ rulers are both ignoring and accelerating the loss of our more productive work force. 

The USC Sol Price Institute for Public Policy has told us that the great population influx into Los Angeles is over. Other demographers have documented that Los Angeles is losing people. The only reason the population rises is that births exceed deaths and the net population exodus. Newborns are a burden on society for 18 to 23 years. The portion of the population which we need to bear the cost to repair our decayed infrastructure is the very segment which is leaving Los Angeles. 

Demographic patterns do not stop because City Halls turns a blind eye. Twice a week CityWatch explains not only the factors which are harming Los Angeles, but the measures needed to improve LA. 

My pet proposal to reverse LA’s decline is to stop the corrupt vote-trading scam where every councilmember agrees to never vote No on another councilmember’s construction projects. The vote trading deal turns Los Angeles into 15 fiefdoms – or, you could say, LA is more like15 wards that extend “mob courtesy” to each other.


(Richard Lee Abrams is a Los Angeles attorney. He can be reached at: [email protected]. Abrams views are his own and do not necessarily reflect the views of CityWatch.) Edited for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.

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