30 May 2009

Lamenting Los Angeles: A Melancholy Manifesto

You could say that I've been working on this blog post for nearly two years. It's taken me days to write. You'll forgive me, then, if its large length dwarfs that of my normal posts.

My days in LA are numbered. Whether I get a job or not still remains to be seen. What is not in dispute, however, is that I don't think Los Angeles is right for me at this time in my life. The following thoughts (or novella, perhaps) try to explain this feeling a bit.

When I got here in August 2007, my heart and my eyes were wide open; I'd lived in several of the country's greatest cities - New York City, San Francisco, and Washington, DC - and now I was going to give Los Angeles an extended try, by going to graduate school at USC. I'd never really liked LA in the several weeks I'd experienced it as a visitor or business traveler, but I was sure that living here would be different. In my first couple of months, I think I must have had an exuberance that only new people can show; everyone was nice to me, I smiled constantly, and I started to think like this guy.

A ferris wheel at one of USC's many on-campus events.

As it's well documented, I sold my car before I moved to LA. I did this because I am not one to shy away from a challenge; so what if LA is the "car capital of the country? They have a fledging subway system, I'll be fine. Plus I have my bike!" Frankly it made sense financially, too. By getting rid of my car before moving, I saved not only a couple hundred bucks a month in car payments, I also saved at least $100 a month for insurance, let's say $150 a month for parking, plus maybe $50-$75 a month for gas...not to mention how much it would cost me to move around the city, and pay for parking in those places. I've estimated that I saved at least $20,000 by not having a car while living here in LA. That savings allowed me to spend more time on school work and less time at a job, which led to more opportunities at school, which led to several extra lines on my resume. I do not regret my decision at all, and every time I realize how much hassle my friends go through trying to park and/or fix and/or pay for their cars, I feel a little relieved that I sold mine a while ago.

One of USC's many perks: football games.

What I soon started to discover, however, and what I still believe, is that, while I enjoyed my time at USC immensely, my school is an island. It's not the only one though. There are many, many islands in Los Angeles. Some of them have big tall buildings and cultural institutions, like Downtown or the Miracle Mile; some of them have lovely neighborhoods and bohemian attitudes, like Santa Monica or Venice Beach. On the other hand, some of them have blight and crime and poverty and gangs, like Skid Row, just next to Downtown; or "the Jungle" in Baldwin Hills, which I once rode my bike through without any idea that there had been a movie made about the gangs in the area. Other "islands" are as reserved and exclusive as if they were an actual island, like Brentwood or parts of the Hollywood Hills. And Griffith Park, which the city boasts is "one of the largest urban parks in the country", is so hard to get to it might as well be an island.

The Getty Center has some of the most beautiful gardens in the entire LA area. And they are free and open to the public! Well, except for the cost of parking. The Getty Center is definitely an island.

My thinking about Los Angeles as a series of islands came from my gut. This is a city without a center: Downtown is trying really really hard to be the center, but aside from a glorious confluence of public transportation lines (that I took advantage of constantly), it bears little resemblance to the city centers I know and love, like New York and San Francisco. Communities insulate themselves here. Whether because of trying to stick to the safety of their native / immigrant culture, or fear of other groups, or awful school systems, or who knows what, the norm for a lot of people in Los Angeles is not to interact with the unknown "other". People get around "other" people in Los Angeles by hopping in their cars and driving around them. The truth, of course, is in a city as diverse as Los Angeles, you can't really avoid people who aren't like you. At USC, we embrace diversity in a way that I didn't experience much in the rest of LA. I did feel uneasy in a lot of places in the city, however, in part because many signs were not in English, or the streets and sidewalks were so poorly maintained it was hard to walk.

This year's entanglement on World Pillow Fight Day in Pershing Square.

Which is not to say that I didn't have fun during my time here. When there was a pillow fight or a protest or a bike ride to be had, I was always out there. But I'm a fun-loving, happy-go-lucky person. My natural state is inquisitive and awe-struck, but cautious. I took initial joy in the drama of every day life in the city, and things like film shoots or festivals in my neighborhood were an adventure. But recently I had to walk 3 blocks out of my way to get home because of a film shoot, and frankly that made me cross. And I can hardly walk around my neighborhood now without dodging creepy people, or silently ignoring catcalls or unsolicited comments from some disgusting man on the street. (Why do people always try to talk to me, anyway? Do I have a sign on my head that says, "Please, crazy person, speak up"?) So after a couple of years of dealing with this, even formerly welcome surprises have lost their luster.

Prop 8 protest at City Hall, November 15, 2008.

The interesting thing to note here is that this is all my opinion, an opinion that was formed by a person who does not have a car in one of the most car-happy cities in the country. The irony here, too, is that LA has many neighborhoods that are walkable, including my own. It's just that everyone here knows that one's life isn't restricted to one's neighborhood. Would I have come to any of these conclusions had I also been a car owner, if I had taken public transportation less and disengaged from the life of a sidewalk dweller a little more? It's hard to say. But I know many people who live in LA who do like it, and it works for them, and I believe all of them are car owners. And it's not even that I am so anti-car that I wouldn't consider getting one; I just don't like the idea that my life in a particular place is incomplete without being permanently attached to a set of wheels. I used to live in Cincinnati, where having a car was even more of a necessity, but it was also affordable. In Los Angeles, things that are affordable elsewhere become much more of a burden.

Downtown at sunset, from a bike.

Which brings me to my next big problem: LA is the most overpriced city in America. Don't take it from me, take it from that article. This goes back to some of the issues I mentioned earlier. I think it's easy for communities in this region to insulate themselves, into what I think of as islands. This is a gross generalization, of course, and not everyone acts this way, but in the communities that do, I think you'll find a higher percentage of gang activity. And these gangs are really scary. Gangs are obviously a serious problem here, but of course they are not the only problem. There's an ecosystem of political and social problems that feed off of each other, that contribute to making life more difficult in the Southland. There's the budget problems, how California has the worst credit rating in the country, and how it's about to go bankrupt. There's the modern-day equal rights debate, being played out all across the state and in protests and counter-protests throughout the city. And there's the vicious cycle.....the distance between home and work for many people is exacerbated by the cost of housing and the availability of jobs; in turn, the distance contributes to a higher cost of transportation; the massive amount of roads required to get massive amounts of people back and forth from all areas to all other areas requires an equally massive investment in infrastructure; the need for infrastructure improvements creates a greater tax burden; taxes are strained even further as public services like the police and fire departments struggle to not only keep up with the distance between communities but the increased tension between them. In short - it's a giant hot mess. And it might - might - all be manageable, if it weren't for that pesky other problem we have to worry about: our environment.

View from the roof of my apartment building during the fires that surrounded the county last November. This photo was taken in the middle of the day.

When the San Andreas Fault and its little siblings aren't trying to shake us all to the ground; when fires aren't eating up chaparral and homes somewhere to the North, South, or East of us (quelled only to the West by the ocean); when the air pollution spewed forth by the imposing and unrelenting grid of buildings, the sea of autos, and the throbbing mass of humanity isn't trying to change our DNA; what we really have to worry about in Los Angeles, my friends, is the water, or lack thereof. This, too, is ironic since there's so much of it just to the West of us. We don't currently have the capacity to make that useful, however (desalination, anyone?), and we have been in a drought for three years and counting. Water conservation rates are going into effect starting June 1. The Southland draws water from two aquaducts that traverse the entire lower half of the state, but when will they dry up? The people that run the state have been asking that question for a while now. But we don't have an answer yet.

Ah, the beach.

If I think too hard about all the problems that face Southern California, it's enough to make me run screaming from the region. But the truth is that humans have been settling here for hundreds of years, and the climate is more than conducive to human activity. A little too conducive maybe....in the winter months, I noticed the tendency for people to bring up the "sunshine" and the "warm weather" in conversations more often. As if to say, 'hey, it may have taken me 90 minutes to get here in bumper to bumper traffic, and the cost of living is crippling, and there could be another atmosphere-wrecking wildfire or an earthquake next week, but at least it's not -5 degrees here like it is in Minnesota.' Yes, the weather is, as my friend Ian would have said, "unnoticable" most of the time. But I just wish the Southland would try a little harder to look at their long-term growth while soaking up the sun. Because I chuckle when people talk about how California is leading the green movement. In some respects, like standards and legislation, it IS a national leader for environmentalism, and good for it! ... But in many other respects, it's definitely not.

This is the only photo on this post that I didn't take. It showed up on MSNBC last fall during the fires. If I could sum up Southern California with a photo, this would be it.

With that, I think I've said my piece. I've decided that my two years living in Los Angeles was well-spent, and pleasant, but a challenge. I could probably come back, eventually, but only if the city evolves to reflect a place that offers the quality of life that its high cost of living already demands. I'm going to leave you with a few more photos that I've taken since I moved here, as well as some quotes from a recent Los Angeles Magazine article about LA Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. Mayor Tony just got reelected to a second term (apparently; I sure didn't vote for him) and the article tries to give him suggestions on how he might salvage his time in the Mayor's office.

An Open Letter to Antonio Villaraigosa by Ed Leibowitz

"....Your successes can mask the truth: what you now lead is an administration in which politics is almost always trumps policy - where solvable problems become impossible to fix."

"We're still the gang capital of the world, with 40,000 members causing havoc. In 2006, gangs were responsible for more than half the city's murders. Crime rates have gone down, though try telling that to the elementary school students in Highland Park who practice diving under their desks in anticipation of live rounds, the way children in the '50's prepared for atomic bombs. By middle school, as much as 90% of the students in L.A.'s poorest neighborhoods will have been exposed to violence, with more than a quarter of them suffering post-traumatic stress disorder."

I love this picture I took of Downtown from the top of City Hall.

Andy Lipkis: "The critical problem the mayor should take on is water. Three factors are creating a perfect storm of water shortages in LA. First, although rain in most years could provide nearly half the water we need for all uses, we send most of the rainwater we receive into the ocean. Second, we are inefficient in our use of the water that is piped here from hundreds of miles away. Third, our traditional sources of water are being threatened by environmental degradation and climate change...."

Disney Hall, by Frank Gehry.

Lisa Watson: "With more homeless than any other city in the country, Los Angeles has the opportunity to be a national leader or a national disgrace. I hope that Mayor Villaraigosa continues to take on the challenge to lead the country in ending homelessness by providing affordable and permanent supportive housing to the area's 70,000 homeless people."

Umbrella building in Culver City, by Eric Owen Moss.

Bill Allen: "When compared with the rest of LA County, the city of LA has dramatically underperformed in the creation of jobs since 1980. From 1980, to 2008, LA added more than 1 million residents to its population while losing more than 50,000 jobs. The causes include the highest taxes on business of the 88 cities within the county, a far too complicated and political process for development, and an extraordinarily high rate of conversion of the city's scares industrial land to uses that accommodate population growth but not job growth."

One of my favorite buildings in the city is just up the street from my apartment: the CalTrans building by Morphosis.

David A. Abel: "It was urban theorist Jane Jacobs who said that a metropolitan economy, when it is working well, doesn't lure the middle class, it creates one. The most important challenge for the mayor is to attract, retain and grow middle-class jobs. Today LA is not only losing its middle class, it is without either a coherent, integrated economic strategy to reverse the trend or an accountable city department to implement one."

6565 Sunset Blvd.

Cheers, Los Angeles. I'll try to miss you.


nancy lacher said...

Hi Emily
congrats on your degree. Good luck in finding a job, I'm now living in Chicagoland, so if you ever need to crash out here for a job interview give me a call.
nancy (wilson) lacher

emKem said...

Nancy, that's amazing! Thank you. How did you find me? More importantly, how do I find you!?!

nancy (wilson) lacher said...

my email is lacher@me.com
I googled "david niland", I got my license and wanted to thank the few profs that helped me achieve this goal. I saw your post a archinect, and after seeing "1996-2002", I looked at your profile, figured out that it was probably you, which brought me to your blog.
Isn't the internet great?
send me an email- catch me up on the last 7 years. How did you get to USC? And your degree- building sciences? I thought you wanted a structural degree?
got to get back to work.