Leaving Los Angeles

The dream of living here comes at a price. A writer contemplates parting ways with the city he can no longer afford

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.

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