EAST LOS ANGELES, Calif. – When reporters from the Northeast come to Los Angeles for the first time, they always ask to see the slums, the “inner city,” the sometimes over-boiling melting pot of Southern California.

And when they get there, they say, “Where is it? Where are the slums?”

In truth, Los Angeles doesn’t have many stereotypical slums, as Northeasterners understand them. Most of Los Angeles looks like a suburb: single-family dwellings, tidy yards, smallish apartment buildings. Not O.J. Simpson’s Brentwood or Knots Landing, but not tenements.

White migrants from various European heritages, from the American Midwest and South, helped build this neighborhood in the early part of this century. There followed a heavy influx of Irish and Jewish lower- and middle-class families: California dreamers chasing the great American dream.

Today East L.A. is heavily populated by Mexicans and their American children. As Pete Hamill writes in his new book, News Is a Verb, East L.A. is “a true neighborhood, with middle-class folks in their own homes a few blocks from housing projects, dozens of shops, great music stores, fine restaurants, and a big main street that until recently was called Brooklyn Avenue.” (Now it’s Cesar Chavez Avenue.)

Your reporter finds abundant reminders that wave after wave of new immigrants from Mexico and elsewhere in Latin America have made deep, lasting changes in the daily life of our big cities.

You see it in Phoenix, San Antonio and Houston. You see it in Denver, El Paso and Miami. Each has its own booming inner city. And so do major metropolitan areas outside the Southern and Western United States.

Neighborhoods such as East L.A. are, as Hamill points out, “horizontal cities, unrestricted by geography, built after the coming of the automobile; they had no need to emulate the verticality of the East.”

The center of gravity of American life has shifted in my lifetime and yours from the city to the suburb, from the Northeast to the South and West. An increasing weight within that center of gravity is immigration from Mexico, the Caribbean, Central and South America. Its core is in neighborhoods such as East L.A.

Walking the streets of East L.A. this week, your reporter listened closely to what people are talking about, what’s on their minds.

Their children and a yearning for better schools headed the list. Some still want schools to teach a majority of subjects in Spanish, but most (in this scattered, very lightweight sampling) don’t. Most seem to believe that if their children don’t learn English with something approaching native fluency, they will be disadvantaged for life.

That’s a hot issue now. California’s Proposition 227 could do away with bilingual education in that state’s public schools. The results of Tuesday’s vote – and, specifically, how East L.A. polled – will be scrutinized, and may wind up an important factor in your children’s education.

DAN RATHER; Rather is anchor of the CBS Evening News and a native Texan.

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