Friday, July 26, 2013

Down and Out in Beverly Hills

[I've been experimenting with composing using various voice recognition options on the laptop and smart phone with mixed results (more on that later). I'll spare you the standard amusing mistranslations but if you come across a weird homonym you can blame Apple.]

Joseph had a recent post on urban sprawl that raised the question does being poor in Atlanta differ from being poor in LA. I spent a couple of year in Atlanta before moving to LA. I was never poor in either city but I was on a fairly restricted budget from time to time so here are some thoughts on living in Atlant and particularly LA when money is tight.

When I first moved to LA I was expecting something similar to Atlanta style sprawl. what I got was something very different. in the roughly 2 years I lived in Atlanta with maybe 3 or 4 exceptions, when I left the city proper, I left the state. Atlanta had a relatively small dense core where I worked, lived and spent almost all of my time, surrounded by vast stretches of suburbs malls and exurbs into which I almost never ventured.

Los Angeles by comparison is decentralized in what I consider a good way. The places where I would like to work, live or spend my time are spread out surprisingly randomly over the almost five thousand square miles of LA County (unless they're specifically referring to governance, when people say "LA" they mean the county, not the city). I have always live within a 10 to 15 minute commute from work and I have found that wherever I got work in Los Angeles (ranging from one side of the county to the other) I was a reasonable distance from a nice neighborhood in my price range. So far the rents I have paid in Los Angeles have ranged from $850 to 950, all  for fairly nice one-bedroom apartments. If I had been more flexible on commute and neighborhood, I could have found something cheaper.

Recently some journalists based, I suspect, in New York or DC questioned whether or not it was possible to find apartments for $600 in most of the country. I know this is doable in Los Angeles, Atlanta and most other cities I've lived in.

As for other costs of living, Los Angeles is a very good town for cheap eats and bargain hunting. The large immigrant communities that more or less dominate the region tend to produce a wide range off extremely inexpensive food of excellent quality and tremendous diversity and  the extraordinarily rich agriculture of the area means that it is even possible to eat organic cheaply.  Being a major port produces a great number of odd lots and bargains. You can get a lot of stuff for very little money here.

of course Los Angeles is also the home of some of the most extravagant people in the world. it is possible to find places that charge truly obscene prices for the trendiest and most exclusive of products and services. There is however some question as to whether or not that $50 plate at that trendy fusion place is actually as good as the $5 lunch special at the Burmese dive around the corner.

In terms of educational opportunities, media, culture, and natural resources  available on a limited budget, LA is perhaps unequaled.   If money is tight, USC is probably out of your price range. With that exception aside, almost all of the remaining major schools are part of the California system which remains remarkable bargain. Not only do you have UCLA on the westside of LA, but on the east you are fairly close to UC Irvine, another excellent school, and a reasonable Drive to UC Riverside. Add to that the very good Cal State system and a huge number of community colleges which still offer courses at an exceptionally low price.

As for the now obligatory mention of over the air television, a set of rabbit ears in Los Angeles can get you somewhere in the neighborhood of 100 digital channels. These include more than a dozen public television stations. Public Radio is also very good in the area and highly innovative.

LA has a big and vibrant free art and music culture. Even in my fairly small social circle,  I can think of a number of musicians who routinely play Los Angeles in no cover bars and coffee houses  or literally busking on street corners but who sometimes head to the East Coast where they make real money touring and get sizable write ups in places like the Wall Street Journal or NPR.

(if you get a chance to see Mr Paxton, make sure to introduce yourself after the show and tell him he owes me a dinner)

As for nature, this is perhaps ironically one of the aspects of LA that really demands  a  car.  Los Angeles is a metropolitan area at the intersection of mountains, desert and ocean. Out of towners usually associate LA with beaches  while natives are much more likely to think of the town in terms of the first two. You can spend a great deal of time in Los Angeles without seeing the ocean. Not a day will go by when you don't see a mountain. More importantly, if you need to get around LA, you will frequently find one of those mountains in your way. In this town,  having the word Canyon in  the name of a road or a neighborhood is not just picturesque.

This unusual terrain creates a bizarre array of microclimates. You will often see parts of Los Angeles County, or even City, with a 20 to 30 degree temperatures for it. Not long ago when driving down the 405 my car's thermometer registered a ten degree drop in less than 3 miles. (which was, of course, one of the reasons I was headed that direction.)

There are loads of caveats here. My experiences in this town are hardly representative. Hell, I'm almost never representative and my current situation is the product of a string of unlikely events. My vantage is thoroughly middle class: I have a pretty good idea what it's like to live in LA for $25K a year but only a vague notion of what it might be like on $15K. And there are some worrisome trends, including a push to dismantle the finest public university system in the country.

Still, based on my narrow experience, the quality of life here is pretty good even if you aren't part of the one percent or even the forty-nine percent.


  1. One nuance here that makes things complex is incomes are higher in California (2009 median income $58,931) than Georgia (2009 median income $47,590). So it is actually worse than living on the same amount in both cities -- in Atlanta you are living on less.

  2. You're slightly overselling the quality of life with no car. Yes there are definitely places you can live with just a bike and be totally fine. But the LA style sprawl (which I also like) means that without a car you get to take advantage of a very limited portion of what's cool about LA. The bus system is pretty good for what it is, but it's a huge hassle and getting anywhere in a different part of town takes prohibitively long (prohibitive if your marker is quality of life, not ability to survive, which obviously many people do spending 2-3 hours on the bus every day).

    Huge agreement that nature is a wildly under-appreciated yet enormous upside to life in LA. For sure 30 minutes and some local knowledge can get you to relatively uncrowded, gorgeous beaches in Malibu. But the Santa Monica mountains are just as spectacular, and the San Gabriel mountains are amazing as well (hell, you can ski looking down over the Inland Empire from Baldy!).

    Further under-appreciated is what's available within a 3 hour radius of the city. If you can afford the gas, you can camp and explore for free in stunning places in the Sierra Nevadas (Sequoia National Park is 3 hours away), the desert (Joshua Tree is 1-2.5 hours depending on where you live), and the Central Coast! California is truly the promised land :)