In the summer of 2013, Gothamist published the first of many advice columns from native New Yorker Jake Dobkin, kicking things off with the timeless question, "Is It Normal For Roaches To Crawl Through My Hair At Night?" Nearly six years later, the popular series has been turned into a book, Ask a Native New Yorker, with ALL NEW essays from Jake. This week we are running excerpts the book, which is on sale now! Today's question comes from Chapter 11: "How to Stay in New York Forever" and concerns the meretricious allure of Los Angeles.
It's January and New York is, like, ten below zero, and the only thing deader than the streets outside my apartment is my personal life: no real job to speak of (just waitressing and barely scraping by), no boyfriend, and generally no real reason to get out of bed, except to reset the internet router or steal food from my roommates. One of them recently left to take some great TV-writer job in Los Angeles. She's been incessantly Instragramming her allegedly fabulous new life for the last two months; it's all palm trees, beach sunsets, and chai açai bowls. Anyway, she's got an extra room and invited me out to stay. I'd have to kick in some cash, but it'd only be about half of what my rent is here, and she could probably hook me up with some writing work.
It's so cold and depressing here; why shouldn't I seek a new life in Los Angeles?
Hating It Here
At some point, all New Yorkers are tempted by the idea of life in Los Angeles, usually at times when New York is at its worst: freezing cold, lonely, and overwhelming. Suddenly, maybe in a movie, or more likely in some acquaintance's social-media feed, you are presented with a near-opposite kind of life, one that seems to solve all the problems that have been getting you down. Perfect weather all year round instead of New York's messy and extreme seasons; cheap, beautiful bungalows with vegetable gardens instead of whatever rat-hole-size tenement bedroom you happen to be occupying; a laid-back life of easy jobs and plentiful free time to hike or surf or just sit in cafes drinking lattes instead of the miserable, competitive grind of work in NYC.
I get it. But I've spent many months in Los Angeles over the last twenty years—running LAist, the city blog, and staying with my wife's family on the Westside, and I can tell you that your idea of life there is an insidious illusion that will evaporate after three weeks, leaving you just as miserable as you are here, but in entirely new ways.
It is interesting that Los Angeles features in 95 percent of New York escapist fantasies. The reason is that almost all other large American cities are built on the New York model—high rises downtown surrounded by a ring of urban neighborhoods, which are surrounded by suburbs and exurbs and eventually farmland. New York perfected this model, so any other city similarly constituted, like Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia, or San Francisco, will seem a pale imitation to anyone who has lived here.
Yes, those cities do have their own semi-interesting geographies, ethnic neighborhoods, and cultural scenes, and I might be a little biased, but New York is greater in almost every dimension. Take anything that makes these places famous, like the skyscrapers of Chicago. Sure, they've got a few nice-looking buildings, but if you had to choose a skyline to stare at for the rest of your life, is it really any contest? Similarly, we've got better universities than Boston, better bridges than San Francisco, and tastier beef-based sandwiches than Philadelphia (who in their right mind would choose a cheesesteak over a pastrami sandwich?). Why fantasize about moving to a city that's similar but slightly worse?
Los Angeles is different. First, simply in its extent. Instead of compact, it is sprawling; instead of being easily navigated by mass transit, it requires endless hours in a car. (Almost six million people use the New York subways each day—the equivalent figure for the Los Angeles Metro is about 350,000. Although LA is investing in new subway lines, it will still be years before it reaches the ubiquity of our current system.) Ethnically, it has far more to do with Mexico or Asia than it does with the rest of the United States, which even I can admit gives it certain culinary advantages—their taco trucks and Korean BBQ places are superior, but are they so vastly superior to make up for Tinseltown's other myriad deficiencies? No way, LA.
And then there is the weather, which is temperate year-round, and all the things that weather makes possible: hiking in the hills almost any day of the year, fresher fruits and vegetables than any city east of the Mississippi ever sees, eating lunch outside in February, etc. It is this oppositeness that draws the mind of the New Yorker in, first in pictures and then for a weeklong vacation, and suddenly you're browsing for bungalows in Venice or Silver Lake.
Do not be deceived. First, you will discover that you will not be living in a cute little house five blocks from the beach. All of that real estate— from Venice to Santa Monica and east through the city through Hollywood, Los Feliz, Silverlake, and Echo Park—has been gentrified going on ten years. The only way that you're getting the cheap house of your dreams is to build a time machine or pony up more money than you're paying in New York.
No, you'll be living in one of those no-man's lands halfway to Pasadena or in the outer rim of Culver City. And instead of a Craftsman cabin, imagine more of a 1970s concrete box on stilts. Which is probably a good time to remind you that most of Los Angeles's buildings have not been retrofitted against earthquakes, and the whole region is about a decade overdue for the "Big One." Maybe you won't be kept awake by your neighbors screaming through the walls, as in New York, but try putting nightmares of getting pancaked while you sleep out of your head—that's much, much worse. I won't even get into the fires and mudslides, which are likely consuming about a quarter of the city right now.
The urban sprawl inevitably results in more hours trapped in your car, hours that will be unpleasantly spent in bumper-to-bumper traffic on the 10 or 405 or 101 or whatever freeway takes you to and from work. This unpleasantness is generally hidden from tourists who stick to hotels and Airbnbs in the more convenient neighborhoods and move about outside of rush hours. To get a taste of it, try driving from Santa Monica to the Arts District downtown at 5 p.m. on a weekday and explore the emotions it elicits from you.
This has a corollary when it comes to friendship, which is that you will never, ever, see your friends if they live on the opposite side of the city. In the rare event you have close friends who will even consider making the effort, you will spend hours negotiating where to meet. In New York, seeing your friends is easy, even if they live in different boroughs; you can just meet in Manhattan after work, get loaded, and take the subway home. This kind of thing simply doesn't exist with any regularity in Los Angeles because the distances and costs are too great. Even now, when the advent of Uber has made it possible to have more than two drinks and not get busted for a DUI on the way home, Los Angeles socializing is still light years behind New York's.
(Jake Dobkin, Bluejake.com)
So you will schlep back and forth to work and generally stay close to home the rest of the time. For most Los Angelinos, even that requires a car, as only a handful of neighborhoods are walkable, and even fewer have enough bike lanes to make commuting on two wheels something less than a suicide mission. This is a city where most residents drive to the grocery store, to the bank, to the movies—all of the places you can get to on foot in New York. This means that to stay in equivalent physical shape, LA residents must make a concerted effort to exercise. Some of this can be enjoyable—hiking is a religion there, and on the popular routes, like Runyon Canyon, you see hundreds of people running up the steep slopes—but you still have to squeeze it into your schedule in a way that we don't in New York.
Likewise, the city is periodically swept by cultish fitness crazes— CrossFit being the most recent—and, at certain outdoor public staircases, you will witness people actually lining up to trot up and down, over and over. All this work, and the average person in Los Angeles is probably still less fit than the average New Yorker who gets all the exercise he needs just by walking around. There's an old saying about life in the two cities: That you should live in New York, but leave before you become hard, and live in California, but leave before you become soft. Speaking physically, this is bullshit: Humans are much better off being in shape than turning to jelly.
Finally, there are the people of Los Angeles, your prospective future neighbors. Many, of course, are normal working people who live their lives, do their jobs, spend time with their families, and generally don't bother anyone else. These, for many reasons, are not the people you will be hanging out with. No, being a new arrival generally means getting thrown in with the other rootless young metropolitans. Most of these people have been drawn to Los Angeles to work in some area of the entertainment industry, which still dominates the city like a colossus. At cafés, markets, parks, gyms, museums, and beaches, you will hear them talking, endlessly, about their unproduced scripts and uncasted parts, about studios, grosses, agents, TV deals, on and on. It's possible that this stuff interests you, professionally, but after awhile you will reach your limit and long, wistfully, for the diversity of New York City, where a stranger at a party could at least be a banker or a journalist or something.
The industry brings along with it an economic inequality that's far worse than what you find in New York. Yes, we, of course, have the Upper East Side right next to East Harlem, but people from both of those neighborhoods have to wait together on crowded 6-train platforms. Not so in Los Angeles, where the residents of Bel Air, or Beverly Hills, or Pacific Palisades, can spend a lifetime interacting with almost no poor people (with the exception, of course, of their maids and gardeners). At most, in Los Angeles, the rich share a freeway lane with the poor, seldom glancing out the windows of their $150,000 Teslas to notice a beat-up pickup truck full of leaf-blowers as it slowly passes by.
This inequality has malignant effects. For one, it encourages many of the richer areas to secede and form their own pockets of heavily insulated prosperity, while poorer people are left to make do with what's left in a sprawling and underfunded county. Yes, New York also has the poorly performing schools this kind of urban balkanization produces, but all neighborhoods receive the same trash collection, sewer maintenance, and road resurfacing. Not so in LA—you can actually feel the inequality as you drive. Some stretches, even of fancy streets like Wilshire Boulevard, get considerably bumpier when you pass out of the islands of wealth and into the rest of the city.
I could go on about the Santa Ana winds and the strange mood of unease they produce for weeks each winter; or about the air pollution that can set in for days at a time, hiding the mountains only a few miles away; or about the desperate, creeping ennui that develops when all the seasons are the same, and it's sunny and warm and pretty and you still feel lonely and depressed, but I think I've made my point. Los Angeles has just as many problems as New York, if not more, once you factor in the cost of moving and trying to create a new life there. It's not the miracle cure for your problems that it presents itself to be. Remember, when it's dead winter and you feel miserable in New York, spring is always on the way, bringing with it new possibilities. Los Angeles can't say that; it can only offer the endless monotony of its seventy-two-degree days, which, to anyone who's lived in New York, will soon feel sad, suffocating, and lifeless.
Don't ever move there!
N.B.: Los Angeles forms the template for a number of other sprawling cities out west, from Houston to Phoenix to San Diego, but, as Boston is a pale copy of New York, so are they to LA. Everything I've said here goes double for them.