The 5 to the 10: Wait, this is not Los Angeles — how white flight created the LA suburbs

A map of Southern California with Los Angeles outlined. Arrows point outward to the surrounding cities.
(Sarah Flemming • The Student Life)

I’d put money on the fact that whoever is reading this has told some poor, confused soul that they “go to school in (or just outside of) Los Angeles.” I mean, it’s technically true. And, to be fair, you probably thought you’d be closer to the City of Angels before you arrived on campus. 

Closer to lively nightlife, vibrant multicultural enclaves and maybe even the beach. Claremont’s meticulously manicured suburban streets stand in striking contrast to the bustling behemoth that is Los Angeles proper — and that is no mistake. Claremont, like the LA suburb I grew up in, is the product of white flight, the mass exodus of white people from Los Angeles to the suburbs beginning in the 1950s. 

Take it from me, someone who is probably too familiar with the Los Angeles suburbs. 

On my first day of college, I loaded my brand-spanking-new shower shoes and Twin XL sheets into the back of my car and drove from one end of LA County to the other. More specifically, I drove an hour and ten minutes down the 5, then the 10, from one Los Angeles suburb — Santa Clarita — to another. Both of them happen to be clinging onto Los Angeles County by their fingernails. 

Compared to Santa Clarita, Claremont felt like an aberration. Santa Clarita has long been a Republican stronghold in an otherwise dark blue county, making it a less-than-kind place to grow up in as a queer leftist. It didn’t make sense for a place lush with rolling green lawns and shady oak groves to exist in the desert I’d grown up in. More than the greenery, the presence of pride flags and progressive lawn signs signaled that I was in a different environment entirely. It was hard to believe I had found a place that felt so antithetical to my hometown in such close proximity. 

However, when you cross Claremont Boulevard, the aberration dissipates. The trees begin to dwindle and expansive parking lots and cookie-cutter homes reappear, reminding me that this place is not so different from home. Despite their differences, Claremont and Santa Clarita share a common lineage of white flight that remains alive and well in both cities. 

Threatened by the looming possibility of desegregation, aided by post-war highway construction programs and redlining and startled by the Watts Riots of 1965, thousands of white families migrated to the suburbs, transforming the makeup of Los Angeles. Keeping in mind that the Brown v. Board decision was released in 1954, LA’s white population dropped from 93.4 percent in 1950 to a staggering 24.6 percent in 1980. White flight became self-perpetuating, as the fight to desegregate LA public schools magnified white fear and created “throngs of new commuters transforming former orange groves into suburban refuges,” education scholar Jack Schneider wrote.

This left us with the ex-citrus fields we now call Claremont. Unlike our neighboring cities, Claremont has a unique knack for maintaining near-post-war levels of whiteness. According to Data USA, while Pomona and Ontario are currently only 10.8 percent and 15.9 percent non-Hispanic white, Claremont is a striking 48.9 percent non-Hispanic white. How is it that Claremont is only 22 percent less white than it was in 1950, while its neighbors continued to diversify? 

A recent 5C student project, “Deconstructing Claremont,” identifies a complicated history of “restrictive housing practices, the explosion of the interstate highway system and the unchecked sprawl of suburbs that accompanied this new, car-centered infrastructure.” 

A closer-to-home example of this was the Claremont Colleges-approved construction of Claremont Boulevard in 1960. Outlining the easternmost edges of Pomona College, Claremont McKenna College and Pitzer College, the road is a monument to de facto segregation. The authors of Deconstructing Claremont assert that the road split the Latino community of Arbol Verde, destroying homes and a church in the process and ultimately resulting “in the physical division and eventual dissolution of a once-cohesive community.” Hidden under a veil of neoliberal progressive attitudes, the racist violence of Claremont’s construction is built into the city’s infrastructure. 

In contrast to Claremont, Santa Clarita’s population has changed dramatically over the past few decades. This shift in demographics is represented in a lawsuit against the Santa Clarita City Council. The suit demands the abolition of election practices that violate the California Voting Rights Act by dramatically diluting Latino votes. The city is utilizing an illegal “at-large” winner-take-all voting system, which means that theoretically each council member represents the whole city. In reality, the system is antithetical to representation. Attorney Sage Rafferty asserts in a petition to the city that this practice has “entrenched incumbents who were elected when Santa Clarita was 80% white, and only 20% Latino.”

Instead, Rafferty proposes the implementation of single-member districts. District elections would, for the first time, open the door to the possibility of ending an incumbent Republican dynasty which has dominated the council since 1998. Santa Clarita’s at-large election process is but one devastating legacy of white flight, which Rafferty alleges has cemented “electoral choices taken twenty years ago, by a very different city.” 

To the untrained eye, these suburbs are innocuous. Claremont Boulevard looks like every other street, and Santa Clarita elections chug along like any other mundane municipal election. As for Claremont, its progressive exterior tends to shield the history of white flight in a way Santa Clarita’s explicit bigotry doesn’t. Nevertheless, both are crucial and often overlooked living elements of LA’s past. 

Though local politics aren’t sexy, they are remarkably important, especially in the suburbs that permanently altered the trajectory of Los Angeles. I cannot overstate the importance of showing up for public comment at a city council meeting, voting in off-cycle elections, and canvassing for down ballot candidates. It is truly remarkable what local officials can get away with without oversight from an engaged, activist constituency. So, be a pain in your city council’s ass today

Cassidy Bensko SC ’25 is TSL’s Southern California columnist, from Santa Clarita, CA. They’re a certified tree hugger, goldfish enthusiast and lover of comedy.

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