Valley of Ghosts

The writing is on the wall, say the people who have left L.A., people now safely ensconced in the bluest dot available in a red state, the people to whom I listen on podcasts while walking the dogs in the early darkness that comes at 5pm now.

My Valley is haunted by the ghosts of those who have left but also those who have retreated indoors where a certain kind of life can be cultivated through the meticulous curation of deferred dreams and a supporting cast of delivery people.

But outside…the city we know and love is going away, piece by piece. First the reciprocal bonds of citizenship, then guardrails of safety, now tolerance and civility.

I step around people like this man multiple times a day, and no longer marvel at how much money swirls the drain, how many six figure salaries are paid out in Los Angeles to service ghosts.

Instead I wonder what ghosts dream of when they reach for the sidewalk.    What have they discarded in their crawl to perdition?

People used to arrive in the Valley with ambitions as basic as an affordable apartment or as grandiose as YouTube stardom. Now they come to colonize public spaces in a medicated permanent twilight.

This is not the worst urban malady, only the most visible one.  De-policing, vax mandate-related layoffs and the institutionalized hypocrisy of the elites will inflict greater long-term harm.

Who with influence over public policy practices the inclusivity he preaches? I shouldn’t use the categorical, but yeah, basically no one.

The Alexan, NoHo West

And yet…while all this is unfolding, construction continues apace. The pre-2020 fever dreams of an urbanized, vertical Valley remain in a state of forward momentum. For now.   Like a freighter coasting to port on a dead propeller.

As these urban villages go online, what happens if there are few takers for the new units?    I can think of two recently completed buildings in Van Nuys at around 25% capacity, going by all the unlit windows.  With hundreds more units completing in the next six months we’ll learn just how viable Los Angeles remains.

We’re poised between two fates. Boarded up storefronts and lifestyle emporiums on the same block.  We cling to the memory of 2019 in the expectation a course correction is due any day, because…because it has to, right? Things are not as bad as 1992, not yet, and we came back from that, right?

America of 1992 had very different demographics, a shared narrative, and wasn’t living in a state of permanent gaslighting.  It didn’t have depraved billionaires funding political street violence and installing prosecutors who refuse to enforce laws.

The recall of D.A. George Gascon, an easy sell ten years ago, failed twice to gather enough signatures.  Los Angeles 3.0 will have to find a way to transcend our historic political paradigm if its going to work.

For now I am obliged to place my faith (and hard won equity) in working-class Latinos, Armenian and Korean merchants to practice a California version of Irish Democracy.  I hope for a golden mean between the chaos unleashed by the Clerisy and the self-interest of honest people who don’t have Laptop Jobs and the luxury of partaking in the urban exodus, people who will fight, if not for the city as a whole, then at least for the block they live on.

That’s the ghost I cling to.  Sometimes I am, to paraphrase a dear friend, my own worst enemy.

9 thoughts on “Valley of Ghosts”

  1. I have three friends who move to LA from San Francisco in the past month. They’re each smart, young, competent, and ambitious. One already earns good money from a business he founded from scratch and is ready to relocate to a larger market in order to expand. One relocated to be with his girlfriend who transferred to LA by choice for her nursing job. And one is already financially secure and is going to pursue his dream in the music and entertainment industry in LA.

    Every bitter member of the outraged middle class who cashes out and escapes LA for the tranquility of Boise, Bozeman, or Ogden is replaced by a newcomer happy to fill the void. The tricky bit is which little slice of LA each market segment occupies. Are these energetic new folks moving to your niche in Van Nuys? Nope. They’ve each settled on the West Side. Because they can. All those empty newly constructed apartments in the Valley will eventually fill up with people who find their own value proposition.

    1. “Are these energetic new folks moving to your niche in Van Nuys? Nope. They’ve each settled on the West Side. Because they can.”

      They can also leave, just as easily. Long term civic stability will come from energetic immigrants trapped in their value proposition housing arrangement. I think we might be saying the same thing from different directions.

  2. Per the article “Californians Flee the Coast to Inland Cities in a Mass Pandemic-Era Exodus” featured in the Wall Street Journal on Nov 21, 2021, in 2020, 130,152 people moved out of Los Angeles and 85,536 people moved in. The Bay Area had 101,677 people move out and 43,950 people move in. Some 7,900 households leaving the Bay Area went to Los Angeles. Interpret it how you will.

    1. These are official numbers, drawn from voter registration changes, driver’s license applications and other data. The real numbers are driven by an open border policy. Two million migrants are estimated to have entered the country in 2021, most were either never caught or detained and released within the USA.

      People trading SF for LA, on the other hand, offers a sliver of hope. It makes sense, even at these prices.

      1. Respectfully, both you and Johnny have interesting analysis.

        First question, what then is your estimate of the percentage of the two million migrants that settled in Los Angeles? According to an article by the USC Dorncife Center Center for the Study of Immigration Integration titled “5 things you may not know about immigrants in Los Angeles County” is of the opinion that the migrants would likely behave in a similar manner as the natives.

        It could all be chalked up to a random machination of celestial mechanics of elements both animate and inanimate which collective egos call cities that rise and fall as the earth spins.

        Personally, one more optimistic pessimistic potential view is more akin to Detroit in the 1960s. The metropolitan area seems to be still established, but it also seems like the majority of the population fled the urban core after the degradation of services and civil unrest.

        Secondly, it may be true that incompetence and entropy is driving a lot of the recent urban degradation which could be reversible by a change of leadership- but my caveat is an opinion that matters of real estate can also viewed as a game of “Go” where there are some entities that hold real estate like a feudal baron or a warlord that are not cooperating with each other for to maintain a livable space out of pursuit of power and a desire for the extraction of maximum economic resources – particularly at the expense of neighboring rivals.

        Furthermore, as perhaps always, there is an ongoing asymmetrical hybrid cold war and it plays out in global cities. Some of the mechanics are still like “Go,” and if that is a difficult reality to accept, it is relevant to ask how it was to live in Hong Kong in 1855 or the United States during Operation Underworld. This isn’t entirely inconsistent with the views of Shellenberger with a little imagination.

        What happens to cities during times of conflict? People flee to the hinterlands. Sometimes they return. Other times they do not. To me the question is mostly if the local population can mobilize in such a way that is pro-socially cohesive in defiance to those forces that are actively degrading the quality of life of a metro area for political gain be it more localized or distanced in nature. That is a very sensitive topic in a cosmopolitan city. For the moment neither Garcetti or King James inspire a lot of social cohesion.

        1. To answer 1) Los Angeles has become less of a draw and landing place of opportunity for fresh migrants over the past 20 years. So I don’t think the 2021 number is proportionate to CA population. A lot of thankless ask-few-questions-about-ID-type jobs are in the south and the Midwest now.

          As to degradation, Zoom has made it easy for a certain class of professional to live 2-3 hours from the city. Close enough for urban pleasures to remain in reach but far enough away not to deal with crime. Also a lower price point. Mendocino, Monterey, SLO, Solano counties, to name examples, will be the new Silver Lake.

          “If the local population can mobilize that is pro-socially cohesive…That is a very sensitive topic in a cosmopolitan city.” Rampant undeterred crime, paradoxically, can create just that social cohesion, even across racial lines. I would argue a de facto consensus exists right now, but the media is working overtime to keep people siloed in their ethnic/class enclaves.

  3. Other interesting literature for the sake of discussion:

    “Pandemics, places, and populations: Evidence from the Black Death” by Rémi Jedwab, Noel Johnson, Mark Koyama 08 May 2019.

    The wikipedia page “Black Death in Italy,” of note to this blog the following:

    The population decline caused by the Black Death resulted in smaller taxes and smaller income for the elite, and a smaller work force who demanded better salary and better conditions from the elite, who reacted to the demands by repression and violence toward their work force. In parallel, the dissolution of law and order in the countryside during the plague became long-lasting when unemployed mercenaries, known as the Condottiero, took control of the countryside population.

  4. I’m with you on the “stay and fight,” but I’m exhausted. One reason the fight is so frustrating is that people who are theoretically on your side dare not speak up, or they or their kids will be cancelled. So a few people do a lot of the work.

    There are so many good things about California, but they are being slowly destroyed. Newsom won 2 to 1 in the recall.

    So what do we do?

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