LOS ANGELES — When an ambitious Civil War colonel from Ohio seized control of a fledgling daily newspaper here in the late 19th century, Los Angeles was a rough-hewed frontier town with no paved streets and a population of a few thousand people. The newspaper was four pages and cost a penny.
The ambitions of that colonel, Harrison Gray Otis, became the city’s ambitions, and the newspaper, soon to be called The Los Angeles Times, was put in the service of transforming Los Angeles into the metropolis it is today.
The turmoil at The Times in recent months — with upheaval in the editorial ranks and a publisher suspended over sexual harassment allegations — is a reminder of the slow decline of a newspaper that had long been a cohesive force in Los Angeles civic life. But more than that, it is symptomatic of something that this community has struggled with for nearly half a century: the absence of strong institutions to bind it together.
“This seems like a three-alarm fire to me,” said Donna Bojarsky, a second-generation Los Angeles native who two years ago created an organization of community leaders here to deal with the civic vacuum. “I don’t think you can have a dynamic, efficacious city without any kind of L.A.-centric media or press.”
“It says something that we are in this position,” Ms. Bojarsky added. “You don’t see any public outrage, and I think you would in other cities.”
For all its successes, Los Angeles has not developed the political, cultural and philanthropic institutions that have proved critical in other American cities. The turmoil at The Times comes just months after Eli Broad, who has been the city’s biggest philanthropist, announced he was retiring.
There are many reasons for this problem. Los Angeles County is made up of 88 different cities, including the City of Los Angeles, rolling across 4,571 square miles that stretch from the ocean to the desert. People here are more likely to identify themselves with the city or neighborhood where they live — be it Glendale, Compton, Beverly Hills or Whittier — rather than Los Angeles. The worsening traffic has encouraged people to stay close to the places where they live and work.
“It’s so vast,” said William Deverell, a historian of California at the University of Southern California. “L.A. was self-consciously designed to be a decentralized place. What we call sprawl in the 21st century was part and parcel of the decentralized nature of the place.”
There has been an exodus of Fortune 500 companies to other parts of the country from Los Angeles over the past 20 years — among them, Occidental Petroleum, which moved to Houston in 2014 — and with it the loss of business leaders who in other cities fill key civic roles. There were three Fortune 500 companies here in 2017, compared with seven in the City of Los Angeles in 1987. Many Hollywood executives and actors have homes in other parts of the country, and with some notable exceptions, have not played a major role in civic life here.
The region has become increasingly economically and ethnically diverse, a challenge for any political or civic leader looking to unify a community. And this is a relatively young city, filled with recent arrivals who do not have the history of the kind of old-line families who have defined civic foundations in established cities like Boston and Philadelphia.
The overlapping maze of governments works against the emergence of a single powerful political leader, such as an Edward I. Koch, the former mayor of New York City. The mayor here has little control over the school board or the health system.
Unlike New York, which has two feisty daily tabloids and a 24-hours news station devoted only to New York news, The Los Angeles Times has stood increasingly alone as other news organizations have gone out of business, such as The Los Angeles Herald Examiner, which closed in 1989. That has meant the absence of different voices and the kind of competition that can ensure a live civic debate, particularly since Los Angeles does not have the prodding that comes with an aggressive tabloid culture.
Marylouise Oates, who was an influential society columnist for The Times in the 1980s, writing closely followed columns that covered every aspect of life here — politics, Hollywood, culture, along with events in the Jewish, Latino and African-American community — said she was distressed that there were few journalistic voices in the community today.
“This city is so silo-ized,” Ms. Oates said. “I covered everything. At the time it was all one city. Otis Chandler made that possible. He decided it was a good thing to do.”
Antonio R. Villaraigosa, a former two-term mayor, said the lack of these kinds of forces was a constant obstacle to accomplishing anything ambitious when he was in City Hall.
“Rallying the city around big challenges becomes more difficult when you don’t have the broad cross-section of institutional players,” said Mr. Villaraigosa, a Democrat who is running for governor. “We don’t have anything like that here. We’ve been struggling for 50 years with weakened institutions.”
But he said he thought that was changing. “We are a global city,” he said. “We need to see ourselves as a global city.”
The other factor is the lack of philanthropy. There is no shortage of wealth in Los Angeles, but leaders of cultural institutions have long struggled to raise money or solicit contributions of art. Los Angeles ranked 14th in charitable giving in 2017, according to The Charity Navigator; San Diego ranked first. The Walt Disney Concert Hall, by any measure a landmark work of architecture in this city and the world, almost did not get completed; Richard Riordan, a former mayor, made a personal plea to Mr. Broad to help come up with the needed financing.
Mr. Broad said he was not worried that no one would step up to fill the shoes he has left since retirement. For example, he suggested, David Geffen, the Hollywood mogul who lives in Beverly Hills and New York, pledged $150 million last year for the construction of a new Los Angeles County Museum of Art building.
“It’s a changing city,” Mr. Broad said. “It’s a younger city. We’re growing up.”
Geography may be seen as an impediment to strong institutions, but it is also a central piece of Angeleno identity — a landscape of beaches, mountains, valleys, open skies and clusters of buildings. “Geography is part of our values,” said Zev Yaroslavsky, a former member of the county board of supervisors and a professor at the Luskin School of Public Affairs at the University of California, Los Angeles. “We don’t want to live on top of each other, like in New York or Philadelphia.”
Southern Californians, he said, “want to be independent.”
Bill Boyarsky, a former editor at The Los Angeles Times and the author of “Inventing L.A.: The Chandlers and Their Times,” a book on the newspaper, described the idea that people in Los Angeles “can’t see beyond their block” as an East Coast stereotype.
“I always thought geography was an unusual but true way of binding the city together,” he said.
The developments come as Los Angeles — by many other measures — is on an upswing. The economy is humming. Its youthful mayor, Eric M. Garcetti, is traveling the country, a potential presidential candidate in 2020, which in some circles provokes eye-rolling, but is also a source of pride, particularly at a time when political activism in this relatively apolitical city has risen since the election of President Trump.
The city now has two professional football teams — after 20 years when there were none — and was chosen as the site of the 2028 Olympic Games. And a raft of new museums are opening or are being renovated, including one financed by the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures and another by George Lucas in downtown Los Angeles.
“We are a trendsetting city,” Ms. Bojarsky said. “And we look much more like what cities of the future are going to look like. We have the diversity of the economy, the diversity of the people. There are no all-white cities or single-economy cities anymore.”
Still, the absence of progress on big issues — homelessness, education and battered streets, to name a few — is a source of frustration and embarrassment for many civic leaders.
“Los Angeles plays small ball really well,” said Austin Beutner, a former deputy mayor who served briefly as the publisher of The Times. “What’s missing oftentimes is the ability to bring the entire community together on behalf of issues or opportunities that will benefit the community as a whole.”
The contrast with the era when Otis was a power at his newspaper and in the city is striking. Upon arriving here, Otis, through subterfuge, conspired to steal water from the Owens Valley and bring it to Los Angeles, making rapid growth possible. The newspaper’s power helped secure funding for a new harbor, opening the city to global trade.
With special sections, the newspaper marketed Los Angeles to the rest of the country, attracting waves of striving migrants with the promise of sunshine, cheap land and abundant opportunity. In politics, the newspaper bent City Hall to its will, and along the way propelled the rise of favored leaders, including Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. The Chandlers sold the family-controlled Times Mirror Company to the Tribune Company in 2000.
The newspaper developed from being less a political player and more a civic leader — a paper with international prestige that helped set the conversation every morning here. “It proved to be the golden age for an organization like The L.A. Times to engage citizens of Los Angeles,” Mr. Beutner said. “With everything going on here today you’d expect it to be a leader in the conversation. Meanwhile, it is being pummeled from above.”
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