Remember that bittersweet feeling, halfway between queasy and liberating, when you’ve decided you’re going to break up with someone but don’t know when, where, or how you’ll pull the trigger? Someone, that is, with whom you still share a connection but can no longer abide? I’ve lived with this weird ambiguity for almost a decade now. And I’m not talking about dumping my wife.
Each spring, sometime around when the magnolias on my street start to bloom and the elaborate flare of jacarandas, it happens: The Hollywood Bowl summer schedule comes out, the local soccer league announces sign-ups for the fall season, and universities look for commitments from teachers for the next term. Like my landlord’s annual query about whether my wife, young son, and I will be staying in our rented cottage for another year, these all require us to figure out how much longer my family and I will be in Los Angeles.
We’ve been this way for years, existing here psychologically from month to month. As the world’s economy shuddered in the fall of 2008, I lost my job as a writer-reporter covering books and authors at the Los Angeles Times. The relentlessness of the cutting was amazing: Not only were my two closest colleagues at the paper executed the same day, a favorite editor who took me for a consoling lunch at Musso & Frank was himself eviscerated a few months later. As my profession foundered and wages fell, even working full time as a freelancer earned me so little, I lost my house in 2011. The “recovery”—a period during which middle-class wealth actually declined—had sent rents up. Way up. By the time a sympathetic landlord took a chance, renting us a cottage in Burbank, the monthly tithe had nearly doubled since I’d last been in the game.
We’re not unique. For many of us in Los Angeles—a metropolitan area that 57 percent of Angelenos can’t afford to live in, according to a recent study—this is a city from which we are constantly on the brink of slipping away. Average rent in L.A. is $2,550 for a two-bedroom apartment. In fact, the disparity between wages and market prices here is the worst in the country, nastier than in New York City or the Bay Area, and it’s become the toughest American city in which to buy a house. It’s easy to forget now, as gaggles of tourists cross Hollywood Boulevard and Eastside neighborhoods carve themselves up into luxury condos and small-plates restaurants, but Los Angeles and California were hit especially hard by the Great Recession, and the damage lingered longer than almost anywhere else. L.A. County’s unemployment rate was up around 12 and 13 percent for years, and along the way hundreds of thousands dropped out of the labor force entirely.
The economic contraction affected people at all levels, of course, from immigrant construction workers to board-certified doctors. Journalists like me were already reeling from the changes in reading habits wrought by the Internet. But the recession only made things worse, hastening my own layoff while rippling through the terrain of artists, novelists, and actors I’d made a living writing about for decades.
Over the last four years I’ve met an animator whose mental health deteriorated after a painful layoff, architects whose design firm (and marriage) became collateral damage, an accomplished musician and much-published poet who lived out of a van he parked under Silver Lake streetlights. My best friend in L.A., a landscape painter who lived with his wife and son in a tiny Craftsman in Venice—a hub for artists in the ’60s and still an affordable neighborhood when they arrived in 1998—saw his collector base, and income, collapse soon after Lehman Brothers tanked. There are scores of others with similar stories.
Some have remained, but many have left for jobs or reasonable rents they can’t find in L.A. For those of us who’ve stayed to continue the struggle, life here feels distinctly temporary. There are layers of significance in going to California and especially in moving to Los Angeles. But what’s the meaning of leaving?
Los Angeles has been the site of fantasy, boosterism, and magical thinking for so long that it can be difficult to see the place clearly. People have come here from all directions: To the Japanese, this is the East. To Latin Americans, it’s El Norte. And to multitudes within the country—whether impoverished Okies or blacks fleeing the South or the beats or British rock musicians or artist Ed Ruscha in his old Ford on Route 66 or film people coming to break into Hollywood or small-town suburban folks looking to “make it” in the big city—the movement west has had a special resonance.
The area’s pull is as strong as ever. Sandal-wearing Silicon Valley types are buying up midcentury Westside homes from which to commute to Mountain View because it’s cheaper here than South of Market. With so many art schools and galleries in Greater Los Angeles, the city is attracting striving artists who, willing to live on a shoestring, would have once considered New York the only place to be. For them, trading one high-rent city for another isn’t that difficult. For prominent creatives like Moby, Chloë Sevigny, and Lena Dunham, relocating (or at least buying property) here means more square footage and sunlight than in New York, which, conventional wisdom holds, has become blander as the middle class has been pushed out by exorbitant property values. And thousands of wealthy Chinese nationals are buying into the San Gabriel Valley, making a newly mansionized Arcadia “the Chinese Beverly Hills.”
I have no doubt that it must be a blast to be young, rich, or famous in today’s Los Angeles; I used to be one of those things, though it didn’t last as long as I’d expected. Let me try to make this sound like a song: I arrived here one summer near the end of the century, at the tail end of my twenties, to work for a new weekly. (“Good riddance, dreary New England!” read a postcard an L.A. friend sent me; the burned-out mills on the reverse side vaguely resembled the Connecticut port city I was leaving.) It didn’t take long for my life to ascend to the level of cliché: I found myself with a blond Midwestern girlfriend who loved to drive her Jeep to the Malibu beaches at all hours. The head-spinning LACMA show on video artist Bill Viola made me rethink what art could be, while Boogie Nights, out right before Christmas, had me wondering whether I was in some baffling mix of retro fantasy and urban Gomorrah. I could walk to Rhino Records on Westwood Boulevard and spend countless hours there. In older, more settled places, you’ve missed your chance to really belong if you weren’t born there, but L.A. is different. You typically become a local a year or two after landing. Like others I spoke with, I felt I’d found a long-lost home, rushing to discover every film noir location or Beatles haunt or lingering bit of vernacular architecture.
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.
Along the way I became not just an enthusiast but a partisan of California culture. I wrote stories about the ’50s West Coast jazz scene and the ’60s art explosion and sang the praises of modernists, forgotten painters, overlooked composers. I called the book I coedited about contemporary L.A. novelists and poets The Misread City, a title that practically screamed, “Take this, you blinkered, provincial Easterner.”
As prosaic as it sounds, all this sunlit glory was accessible because of middle-class jobs and an economy that had made the city and state the envy of the world. The tens of thousands of careers that the aerospace industry provided in the postwar years helped make today’s L.A. possible. There’s been wealth here since the late 1800s, when industrial barons bought summer homes in the area. But the region offered room for millions of others to thrive on the money they made at jobs that didn’t require a professional degree or investor funding. Firemen could afford to live in L.A. instead of 30 miles away from the city they were protecting.
Much of the manufacturing base was already gone by the time I met my wife. L.A. was pricey but not insanely so. She worked as a freelance writer and later as a teacher and school librarian while I labored as a scribe. We split $1,200 for our place near Fairfax, and although it took a lot of searching to find an affordable house, we made it happen. At a certain point, without quite sensing the change, I assumed we’d die here someday.
After my job went, my house, my credit, and any hope of eventual retirement followed. On groggy, unshaven mornings, as I run up narrow streets with my son to make the elementary school bell, the sun shining on the Griffith Park hills, I still feel like I could stay in the city forever. But even when things were going well, we gradually realized that to be middle class in 21st-century L.A. puts you on the sidelines. Now with my wife (despite two master’s degrees) half a step from a layoff of her own, we know we’ll always be downwardly mobile. Certainly we aren’t homeless or poor, the way hundreds of thousands of Angelenos are. We can struggle to remain sideways. But as much as I like Los Angeles—which has been “home” longer than my Maryland hometown was—I’m no longer willing to be a third-class citizen here.
If L.A. began as a love affair with a beautiful and engaging (albeit neurotic) young woman, the city now seems like the girl who cheated on me and passed on a disease. During the first few months I was in town, I was both here—digging the sun and the bands and the beaches—and away, pining for places and people I’d left back east. Since my layoff, I’ve been partly here, partly in the next place. But where is that? I can tell you about the elementary schools in Portland, the coffee shops of Louisville, the guitar stores in Asheville, the yoga opportunities around Amherst—all areas we’ve considered moving to.
Though money, more than disenchantment, often drives a departure, one can lead to the other. Art critic Holly Meyers was elated when she came out here after graduating from Yale. But when she returned to the recession-raked landscape from three months in the silent Colorado mountains during an attempt to write a book, the city looked different. L.A. went from being “the city I was made for” to a place of so much auditory and social and professional noise that she knew she had to leave. Being broke helped the decision to head for Santa Fe.
David Shaw, who worked in sales for two indie-rock labels here, never quite got his groove back during the Great Recession; he ended up leaving town and now works for a label in Chapel Hill. He misses a lot of things about L.A.—the vegan restaurants, “the massive number of dreamers” who give the city its energy—but he noticed an anxiety settling over him like ash from a forest fire. The smog, crushing traffic, and creeping drought slowly made him fold up inside. He’s happier now. For essayist Richard Rodriguez, L.A. was a city of wit and conversation—it made him think of the intellectual life of 18th-century London, only with sliding-glass doors and better-looking people. He retreated to San Francisco, where clouds and the dour Yankee ethic meant he could get work done.
One aspiring screenwriter pulled into town, after days on the road, with “Surfin’ Safari” on the stereo and promptly ended up on the 405, going the wrong way. He compares his nine years in L.A. with the downward spiral of Naomi Watts’s wide-eyed character in Mulholland Drive. He took an instant dislike to the place, but hiking, mountains, and a few teasing forays into Hollywood kept him from realizing it until he left for grad school in Michigan, coming back only to get his stuff out of storage.
It’s no surprise that when you have kids, making the pieces fit is especially difficult, as novelist Katharine Noel puts it. She wrote in a corner of her Los Feliz living room while her husband, Eric Puchner, also a writer, toiled in a corner of the bedroom. They spent four to six hours a week commuting to their teaching jobs in Claremont, concluding that they would not ever be able to buy in a decent school district for their two kids. Johns Hopkins recruited them, and they now live comfortably in a leafy part of Baltimore. Noel misses strip-mall Asian restaurants, Eastside coffee shops, and the Silver Lake Reservoir, but they’re getting ready to buy, and they walk to work. As my wife and I look at various neighborhoods—trying to sync up costs and decent schools with commutes and basic urban pleasures—I think of them.
In a sense you can never really leave Southern California: Put on the Byrds or Dr. Dre, or watch Three’s Company or M*A*S*H or a John Ford movie, and you’re back here, even when it’s a location pretending to be somewhere else. Los Angeles has colonized our imaginations. Visit many other cities, Rodriguez points out—Houston, Atlanta, Vegas, Austin, Seattle—and you’re in a place that’s emulated L.A.’s rambling horizontalism.
But there’s another, deeper way we can never leave L.A.: The city transforms people. Even those who arrived here as adults and then left consider themselves Angelenos. A former film publicist who lived in Los Feliz (for $625 a month) listens to KCRW online from her house in Portland, Maine. Siobhan Spain, who resettled in the Midwest when the Chinatown gallery she directed shut down, remembers L.A. as a magical place: “Where else, on any certain day, could you witness Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting at Walt Disney Concert Hall, walk by a homeless person defecating on the sidewalk, swim near dolphins at Point Dume State Beach, help install artwork by Sanford Biggers, sit in traffic for over an hour, watch your friend act in an episode of Nip/Tuck, and go to sleep with ghetto birds circling your neighborhood?”
The musician Stew grew up here, founding the group the Negro Problem, but has come and gone several times. New York, Amsterdam, and Berlin gave him the sense that he was at the center of something rather than being eclipsed by the industry’s heft. “Los Angeles,” he says, “had a tendency to make you feel small.” He left in 2004 for New York, partly because of a commission by the Public Theater for what became the musical Passing Strange. The east is full of philanthropists supporting culture. “In L.A. you’re kind of on your own,” Stew says. Today he lives in Brooklyn, in a brownstone near Prospect Park. But not completely. “You take L.A. with you wherever you go,” he says. “I will never be a New York artist. I will always make music from the garage in the backyard.” He’s a Beach Boy, not a Ramone.
It’s human nature to try to make meaning out of life, to build narrative shapes out of events and images. That may be, in the end, what creativity is about. But there may be no way to craft a life story around leaving L.A., to moving to Iowa or Chapel Hill or wherever. The energy is just so much stronger in the other direction. “To leave Los Angeles to go to Baltimore—that’s not really a heroic journey,” Noel says. “It didn’t have to do with geography or any kind of larger narrative. It had to do with making a life as a writer.”
That’s the reality shaping my own story. As much as I’d like to think the city will mourn my family’s departure, others will replace us. They may not be a small family trying to lead a middle-class existence, but I have no doubt that Los Angeles and its culture will go on whether or not we stay. My band of exiles, for all their disparate destinations, continue to see L.A. as mysterious, alluring, electric, just out of reach. Someday soon I will, too. The vagaries of employment and other economic issues mean I can’t tell whether I will be gone by the time you read this or still plotting my escape. But in the restless spirit of a true Angeleno, I can’t wait to get there.
Scott Timberg, a longtime Los Angeles arts and music writer, is the author of Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class, and a staff writer for Salon.
This feature originally appeared in the July 2015 issue of Los Angeles magazine.