When I moved to downtown Los Angeles nearly five years ago a lot of friends questioned the wisdom of that decision. A few even ridiculed me and I had my own doubts. One of the strangest things about life is that we spend extensive time researching minor decisions but we make the major decisions on instinct, often without much reflection.
Signing the lease for my loft was one such decision. Prior to the move I had lived in Del Mar, California. The small beach town of Del Mar (2010 census: population 4,161) sits about twenty minutes north of San Diego on the coast. I lived a block from the beach in a generic, squat, two-story apartment building called the Maui. It wrapped around the rarely-used swimming pool in a westward facing “U” shape and a light breeze from the Pacific danced through the courtyard on most days.
Despite the existence of my abode and a small handful of other apartment buildings, the town of Del Mar exuded an easy California affluence without quite reeking of wealth. Gardeners in the neighborhood arranged the flowers to bloom in a twelve-month-a-year symphony of color. Almost no one had gates blocking their driveways. People watched the sunset on the Del Mar bluffs with a glass of wine in hand in the evening. Sun tan surfers and age-defying La Jolla cougars filled up the bars in the town plaza. On quiet nights, while drifting to sleep I could hear the waves crashing onto the beach.
Del Mar’s the kind of place I think F. Scott Fitzgerald would have romanticized in This Side of Paradise. And rightly so. But for me, I had become like a plant in a pot that was too small.
The contrast of my surroundings after the move in April of 2009 rivaled any culture shock I have experienced while traveling abroad. On my first nights downtown, I would consistently check the locks on the windows, despite living on the ninth floor. Shortly after moving I walked out one morning and a man was peeing on my building. Every homeless person in the neighborhood sensed a newbie and in those days I gave away money frequently. I felt scandalized watching drug deals happen in broad daylight on the sidewalk corner 420 feet from my front door.
A month or so after the move, shortly after nightfall I was walking a beer keg on a two-wheeled cart back to my loft from my car. It’s a two block walk. On the nearly deserted sidewalk, a man in his mid forties walked uncomfortably close to me and introduced himself. He said he had left prison that day and asked what I did. True writers would somehow remember other details like the color of the shirt he wore or the uneven nature of his facial hair. Since my movement was so restricted by the keg, I was too busy suffering an internal panic attack to catalogue these memories for later.
“I’m a lawyer,” I answered. I feared the response marked me as someone worth robbing, but I also hoped that it signified that I was the kind of person for whom the police launched an investigation.
The man spouted off some tirade about how bad his lawyer had been in his case. He then asked me what he should do about one of his traffic violations. Apparently he missed his court date because it had been scheduled while he was in prison.
Of course, I then realized Notre Dame Law School had failed me. We spent weeks on the intricacies of feudal estates in property law; I also remember specifically an arcane case where people stranded on a boat started eating each other; and, of course, I learned the ins and outs of Federal administrative procedure and Federal tax. Yep, a hundred thousand dollars later and not once had I learned what to do when you miss the court date about the suspension of your driver’s license because you’re in prison for other offenses. It’s also worth noting that none of the clients at Baker & McKenzie had this problem.
I’ve seen addicts, with their bodies spinning, convulsing or clinging onto a trash receptacle in order to avoid falling down altogether. Back in suburbia, in shock, I would have called 911. Here I shuffle leftward on the sidewalk and keep walking. About the street life in downtown Los Angeles, I could go on. And on. And on.
For about a year or two after I moved, the promise of urban revitalization still seemed a bit hollow. New residents continued to trickle into the neighborhood, allured by high ceilings, the potential of shorter commutes and the vision of urban living in the great suburban city. But, a lot the buildings were not quite full. And, dozens of projects were frozen in bankruptcies from the Great Recession. So, at times it seemed like the city of Los Angeles had planned a party and the guests had failed to arrive.
However, as anyone who has hosted a dinner or a party in this city can attest, Los Angeles is not a place where the guests arrive on time. Some of the guests also flake but it doesn’t mean that the party won’t go on – and so it is with DTLA. GQ recently called it America’s Next Great City. Bon Appétit said the best new restaurant in America is on my street. The New York Times included DTLA on this year’s list of 52 places to visit. Ace Hotel opened last week. Whole Foods is building a store. I can’t say enough good things about local gems like The Last Bookstore, Perch, Church & State, Seven Grand and Peddler’s Creamery.
But even with all of this great attention, this is still one of the wackiest neighborhoods in Los Angeles. Steps away from any of the many, many restaurants receiving acclaim, there’s probably a homeless man or woman defecating in a plastic bag. When my sister visited I took my nephews a block away to a great playground at Spring Street Park, but will the stroller set really move into a neighborhood where homeless people erect tents on the sidewalk to sleep at night? Is the stroller brigade necessary for the gentrification to continue? If not here, where do the homeless people go? Is the city missing a great opportunity by granting permits to too many medium density buildings? Does gentrification ripple out to other neighborhoods along the Expo Line? Boyle Heights? I have so many questions.
On the one hand DTLA is all of the excitement and flair encapsulated by the press. At the same time, now that Los Angeles has banned plastic bags, will the homeless just defecate right on the sidewalk? F. Scott Fitzgerald once said “that the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” I think I must have reached that intelligence because I often wonder how I can possibly keep living here, while also wondering how I could live anywhere else.
Los Angeles, California
As an addendum I have two shameless plugs:
** This Sunday is the Williams’ Institute Annual Jazz & Champaign Brunch. The Williams Institute is one of the most important causes that I support and I urge you to consider attending. Please see invite here.
** This Thursday I am hosting an event at my loft for my alma mater, DePauw University. If you’re a DePauw alum please check out the invite here: