This is what I saw en route to Lowes this week. I was buying concrete and a chair rail for the Moroccan wallpaper I ordered from Etsy and this guy in the next lane is fleeing Los Angeles. Even the car he’s towing is filled with stuff. So which one of us is the idiot? I filtered it to look like an oil painting cause it felt like one: The Migration of 2020. Back to the Dust Bowl.
In a pinch, I could unpeel my pretentious Etsy-ish wallpaper, roll it into a tube, and find room for it in a U-Haul of my own, but concrete is another matter. That’s voting with my hands. My existential debate about staying or leaving California is an idle one. For now.
This was DTLA in March, 3% unemployment and a futurist paradise of architectural renderings in waiting. You can learn a lot about the culture of a city from its tallest buildings. They used to be churches. Then government buildings. Then banks. Now all the big stuff is apartments and hotels. Our most basic industry is lifestyle. These lofty aeries sell aspiration as their core function. They are a place to dwell. What do they dwell among? The good life. Other dwellers, drawn to the same imperatives of, um, well, okay…cool things. Fabulous restaurants and preposterously priced craft cocktails and the sort of boutique that sells the sort of movables and knick-knacks that might appear in the glossy magazine Dwell. It’s a virtuous circle of yoga and kale and above all beautiful women, this economy. A certain species of woman, homo Instagramus, who fires the feverish designs of men. Concrete is trucked in by the ton to erect just the proper plinth for her.
What is the nature of this plinth? It requires 1) physical safety and 2) lots of discretionary spending. Prodigious spending, of a discerning, socially conscious nature, flattering to the spender.
What happens when these boutique businesses, the kind which punctuate the proper distinction between the glamour of Los Angeles 2.0 and the dreary but useful order of Santa Clarita, start dropping away? How many businesses can you lose in one block before the gloss is gone and one is nose to nose with the feral world of the dispossessed, always a background character, now a co-star on the stage in a way you can no longer deny? Can a downtown with fewer amenities but a permanently subsidized army of street people exert the same magic hold on homo Instagramus, her suitors, and her imitators?
How many days can one spend on Zoom, ordering in, and binge-watching before concluding Amazon is the world’s greatest invention but isn’t it available in Tennessee? What’s the 3BR price in Nashville? In a word, downtown teeters on fragility, though perhaps not so fragile as New York, being less dependent on Wall Street or the leasing of office space.
Paradoxically, Van Nuys is actually rather anti-fragile. The industrial union ship sailed in 1992. There are very few single-earner households here. Three or four workers per domicile as a rule, if you include adult children, and they run the gamut from nurses to granite fabricators. Los Angeles could take a pretty big economic hit, including the construction trades, and people in my neighborhood would be able to continue to pay their mortgages. In the urban survivalist sweepstakes, four service workers trump one professional. People who can’t easily pull up stakes for Nashville will stick around by default, paying bills. Van Nuys has never been in danger of obtaining a Lululemon franchise, thereby is in no danger of losing one. We already have plenty of empty storefronts. Service gigs are abundant and pegged to the minimum wage, an incremental ratchet which only turns in one direction. We have achieved a kind of safety in modest expectations. Who knew?
Then there’s this. Answers to the viability question won’t be fiscal, rather they will prove civilizational. Will law and order hold? Los Angeles hasn’t become Portland, yet, but that’s not due to bold leadership. Mayor Garcetti is in the same feckless vein as Ted Wheeler, Jacob Frey, Jenny Durkan, Lori Lightfoot, and Bill DiBlasio.
Here’s my call: We have too many hard-working first and second-generation immigrants in L.A. grinding out shifts for political nihilism to take hold here. In a city in which latinos outnumber blacks 5 to 1, there is a hard ceiling on how much street chaos BLM will be allowed to cause.
I think the jean short selfie on the 36th-floor garden balcony might have to wait a few years. DTLA has an over-supply of inventory to work through. Applebook California has had a long run. Woody Guthrie California might be about to have its moment.