I’ve lived 18 years in Southern California, cumulatively. For countless hours I’ve traversed its freeways, sniffed gallons of ocean air, and mingled with more celebrities (and pseudo celebrities) than I could ever need — or want, for that matter.
I have loved California. I chose California. I adopted the state and made it mine. A Dodger fan since my childhood in Chicago — don’t tell anyone — Southern California was my dream.
While I grew up landlocked, Los Angeles was what I saw on TV every night. Even shows and movies that were based in other cities were shot in L.A., and I loved to spot the scenes. The Fonz rode his bike up a Wisconsin mountain (?), which was actually Topanga Canyon. Lucy & Ricky, Fred & Ethel, Laverne & Shirley — they all migrated to Los Angeles. That tiny apartment on Three’s Company looked ideal to preteen me. To a child TV addict, living in sun-drenched Southern California seemed wondrous and magical.
Finally, on a family trip in 1982, I tread on actual California pavement. In 2007, I reflected on that visit:
The first time I laid eyes on California was at Long Beach airport in 1982. I was eleven years old, and as I stood with my […] grandma watching the baggage carousel go round-and-round, I saw a guy in a surfer T, pegged jeans and checked Vans get mauled by his hot blonde girlfriend who just got off a plane from somewhere that wasn’t California. Even when my dad took a wrong turn and we ended up on a dead-end hill overlooking oil derricks and brackish inlets, I had this very true sense this landlocked kid from Phoenix was home. I spent the rest of my adolescence with my body in one place and my soul sitting on the side of the Santa Monica freeway. The dirtiest times of my younger days in Hollywood and the most pristine memories of Point Dume as a father meld into a fantastic collage in my brain; it’s all been beautiful. When people ask me why California and especially why Los Angeles, the only answer I can give that they will understand, even if they don’t really understand, is that I belong there.
If you’re curious, here’s what Long Beach airport looked like in 1982. Yes, that’s a knitted tie.
In some ways I still feel that. We’ve had to move for work a few times, but wherever we were I still felt the pull of California. I desperately missed our old haunts; Chinatown, the Central Library, walking through the Bonaventure Hotel, Point Dume, Topanga Canyon. The memories of eating frozen bananas with the kids in Newport Beach and driving through empty freeways to Disneyland on an early Sunday morning floated at the top of my consciousness every day.
In 2012 we moved back and have been in the same San Fernando Valley home since. And now it’s time to leave again, but this time of our own volition.
The Southern California we left in 2004 is radically different from today. The whole world has been through a lot since then, and those changes are reflected deeply here.
The biggest shift has been, just as Lex Luthor predicted, “Real Estate.” If Zillow shows us anything, it’s that home values have been radically increasing while quality of life is declining. Our current home, which we rent, was valued at $350k when we moved in. Today, the value is at $1M. What changed? Did our landlord put in a pool? No. Build an addition? Uh-uh. Remodel the kitchen with the latest WiFi-enabled appliances? No, in fact we’re on our second oven which is currently not working — again. In 2024, the price of not only buying, but renting a home in our middle-class neighborhood is a major indicator that things are not sustainable.
For example, how would you like to live in a nice single family home, 3 beds, 2 baths, a pool, and 1,544 sq. feet? Sound pretty nifty? Great. It will only cost you $9,500 in rent.
Granted, this is an extreme example. But the cost of living in a decent home here in the West San Fernando Valley is out of reach for a lot of families.
And while the local mall boasts ritzy stores like Louis Vuitton, Cartier, and Nordstrom, you will be rubbing elbows with homeless people looking for a warm (or cool) place to be. The great span of classes with not much in between seems like a preview of what’s to come — or is already here — around the country. At the same time, the convenience of being able to snag a $10,000 watch at the local mall has prompted property values to grow in tandem with the uppity shopping experience. The fact that most of the people working at the mall probably can’t afford to shop or eat there is economic data you can’t ignore. It’s not your parent’s mall, kids.
Another major change I’ve noticed has been a certain aggressiveness. For the most part, people mind their own business and are generally pleasant, but there’s an undercurrent of anger that is palpable to me. I blame it on the one-two punch of a Trump presidency and COVID. The classic “laid back” California ‘tude has seemingly morphed into one of disdain or open mockery of anyone who looks or thinks differently from them. I’ve rarely seen people act this way before, and I’ve lived all over the U.S. and Europe. Maybe these are things that have always been, and I’ve only come to notice them in the past few years. I’m willing to admit that it may be my perception that’s changed.
And of course, that doesn’t represent everyone. Our neighbors are lovely and we have many friends here who are generous, welcoming people. The cashiers at our local grocery store are wonderful. Even the folks at the DMV can be chatty and sociable. So I don’t want to lay a blanket of doom over the whole thing. Whatever the source, it just doesn’t feel the same to me anymore.
Those are the main reasons we are leaving, with our financial sustainability leading the charge.
We recently bought a home (our first) in the Chicago suburbs. It’s less than a third of what our current home is valued at, with a considerable upgrade to our quality of life. I’ll be posting more about that soon because, in the words of Harry Caray, “Holy Cow!” We’ll be officially moving in as of March.
In the meantime, we’re packing up and trying to fit in some California nostalgia before we go. A recent visit to recreate our traditional birthday Solvang trips was decidedly necessary and fun — despite missing Pea Soup Andersen’s. I’ve always been a no-regrets-let’s-move-forward type of person, but I will miss California. I’ll miss the views driving up PCH and on the 101 through Thousand Oaks, Santa Barbara, and Ventura. I’ll miss the Hollywood of my 20s, 30s, and 40s — all very different experiences. DTLA will always be one of my favorite places to hunt down historical places and imagine myself in the Los Angeles of the early 20th century. I’ll miss Dodger stadium. Grand Central Market. That little Thai place in Santa Monica. Pasadena.
Mostly I’ll miss our oldest, who is staying in L.A. — and more on that another day.
We’ll be back someday. Definitely to visit and who knows? Maybe to live again. If Lex Luthor doesn’t finally make Arizona beachfront property, it’s always a possibility.