Why People Really Leave Los Angeles (Or Any Other Big City)

Los Angeles County Museum of Art, under the big rockEXPAND
Los Angeles County Museum of Art, under the big rock

Writing about Los Angeles is hard.

It's hard because Los Angeles is really, really big, and really, really complicated. It's just kind of sprawling all over the place, no one knows where it begins and where it ends — is the South Bay part of L.A.? What about Hawthorne? Where's Hawthorne again? Is East L.A. in L.A.? What about Alhambra? What does the L.A. County Board of Supervisors do again? 

People resort to generalizations and shorthand, just so they can have a coherent conversation about Los Angeles that isn't 17 hours long with 23 pages of footnotes. Los Angeles is Hollywood. Los Angeles is all about the car. Los Angeles is turning into Manhattan. Manhattan is turning into Los Angeles. Los Angeles is the future. Los Angeles is dying. The temptation to generalize, to make Los Angeles into one thing for all people, seems so much more intense than in other cities. Or maybe that's just a generalization.

Anyway. A journalist named Scott Timberg recently wrote an essay in Los Angeles magazine titled "Leaving Los Angeles." Roughly 60 percent of it is what you might call a personal essay. I am not a huge fan of personal essays, although I hope to someday write personal essays, and I acknowledge that the personal essay is a legitimate thing that people write and read.

Anyway. There is some very fine writing like:

The next year I met a different girl — an L.A. native — at an indie-rock show at the Troubadour, and we moved in together within sprinting distance of Canter’s and the old Largo. We hiked in Joshua Tree, drove to remote, tree-shaded wineries in Santa Ynez. We were married in an old stone church in Pasadena, bought a small house in the Verdugo foothills, and brought our son home from Cedars — our room was next to Jack Black and Tanya Haden’s — one spring day as the roses in our front yard burst forth.

The essay centers on Timberg's ambivalence over how L.A. has changed, becoming a city where it's harder to raise a family, harder to lead a certain lifestyle, and how he's thinking about leaving. The piece clearly struck a cord with people — it's been shared more than 40,000 times on Facebook and 3,000 times on Twitter — and seems to have tapped into an especially prevalent anxiety about our city.

Namely, that L.A. is becoming too expensive for the middle class.

Venice, one of the 114 officially named neighborhoods inside Los Angeles city limits.EXPAND
Venice, one of the 114 officially named neighborhoods inside Los Angeles city limits.

Indeed, all sorts of data points bear this out. Home prices. According to Zillow, the median price in L.A. is $536,800. At the beginning of 2013 it was $417,000. Rents. The average rent in a large complex is $2,296, up from $1,593 at the beginning of 2013. Middle-class wages, meanwhile, have long stagnated. 

These trends are the same in most American cities, but they're especially pronounced in California, where regulations have prevented new housing development from keeping up with demand. To make matters worse, land speculators are buying homes for the investment value, squeezing out buyers who want to live in them, further distorting the market.

OK. I think I've arrived at my point: L.A. isn't too expensive. 

It's certain things in L.A. that have gotten expensive. 

This may seem like a small, pedantic point. But bear with me.

In general, people are quick to complain about prices that have gone up — houses, gas, movie tickets — without noting how cheap other things have gotten — food, personal computing, small household appliances such as microwaves, coffee makers and vacuum cleaners. The Internet alone has given us the ability to read billions of news articles and watch billions of videos for free.

And yet certain things loom larger in our minds as synecdoches for our social status. Namely, a house.

To many, the thing that makes Los Angeles great is the single-family home. It's the very essence of the Southern California dream, the tantalizing promise of "having it all." You can have a big-city experience full of restaurants and bars and clubs and auditions and free parking and then drive 20 minutes to your real honest-to-God house with four walls and a driveway and a yard and a bedroom for every kid.

And Timberg's essay, in a couple of places, essentially equates living in a house with a good, middle-class life, or not living like a "third-class citizen."

One sentence especially sticks out, when talking about the affordable L.A. of yesteryear: "Firemen could afford to live in L.A. instead of 30 miles away from the city they were protecting."

Let's be clear here: Los Angeles firemen earn, on the low end, $100,000 a year, plus extremely generous benefits. The typical firefighter pay is closer to $150,000.

It's not that they can't afford L.A., it's that they can get more of what they want by moving to the suburbs. And they get about 20 days off per month (they work nine or 10 days, on call for 24-hour shifts), so they don't commute daily. The reason they live in Oxnard or Ontario or wherever is is that they want enormous houses with backyards and big garages where they keep their second vehicles and countless tools.

That is, they place the importance of a certain lifestyle above living in a densely populated metropolis. 

Westlake, an immigrant neighborhood no longer locked down by gang wars.EXPAND
Westlake, an immigrant neighborhood no longer locked down by gang wars.

And that, of course, is the oldest reason people leave cities, the ur-reason: to move to the suburbs, to buy a house with a yard and a good school district, to watch your kid learn to ride a bicycle on a trafficless shady lane.

In L.A. it's too expensive to buy and way too expensive to rent. Those sound like the same problems but they are, in a way, inversely related. In order for the rent to go down, or at least stop rising at such a breathtaking rate, we need to build more apartments. That's happening — not fast enough, but it's happening.

Unfortunately, that's not going to help further the dream of the single-family home. If anything, it's going to hurt it. As the need for housing increases, more neighborhoods will be zoned for apartments and condos. People will cry holy hell but in the end it'll happen anyway because people need places to live and because there's money to be made.

In fact, the only thing that's going to make single-family homes more affordable is a rising crime rate (which might just be happening). Nothing makes people want to leave a city more than the prospect of getting shot at. Barring that, L.A. will become either more dense (and Los Angeles is already the most densely populated urban area in the country) or more expensive.

Which basically means that middle-class couples with young children are going to have to start living in apartments. Their kids might have to share a room. They'll have more places to walk but less personal space. The traffic will be worse but maybe they'll take a train once in a while. They won't be tied down to a mortgage but they won't have a home to pass on to their children.

Or they'll just move out of L.A.

And they'll be replaced by other people, younger people with lower expectations. For each new generation of transplants, the dream of owning a single-family home will carry less weight. 

Cities change. That's one of the things we like about cities. They are dynamic organisms that surprise us and bombard us with people and ideas. But it's also sad when the things we like about our city go away, when our expectations about where we live are upended. The rug is pulled out from under our dreams, and so we move away or change our dreams. That's the choice.

The Los Angeles River, once seen as a scourge, now an asset being re-greened.EXPAND
The Los Angeles River, once seen as a scourge, now an asset being re-greened.

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