Friday, September 26, 2008

A Different Point-of-Hue: L.A. Stories 2008
(Part IV)

Road Rage.
I know what you’re thinking. You’re wondering when I’m gonna go off. Given the gloomy title and even gloomier Prologue, perhaps you’ve been anticipating that I’d eventually get to the bad part; that I would launch into some kind of Hell-A tirade. Perhaps you were waiting for me to start spouting off about how ‘in my day’ things were different; how life was so much better in the paradise that once was my beloved SoCal.

And in the beginning, when I first returned home and began pondering what to talk about in this series, you would have been correct.

Meh…chalk it up to jet lag.

Fact is, I was tired — physically and mentally — upon returning from a nine-day vacation to the old homestead. There was never a point at which I regretted going; but I now have considerable regret over perhaps spreading myself a bit too thin while I was there. However, that in no way was anyone’s fault but mine alone — and to be honest I really don’t see how it could have been avoided in the first place. Any other course of action would have meant missing out on seeing someone, and I’d have had none of that.

I love my friends; it’s one of only two legitimate reasons for returning to California as often as I do — save for the far greater purpose of spending time with my Dad and Step Mom. But even after the sad day arrives when my folks are gone, I will still make that trip as often as possible to visit my friends, and to reconnect with the abundant memories of an absolutely awesome childhood spent there.

But then again, not every moment on this trip was exactly what you’d call, awesome.

Traffic — the bane of most working folks in the greater Los Angeles area — was an absolute nightmare. One would certainly have a reasonable expectation of dealing with that when visiting Los Angeles. However this time it really caught me by surprise. I thought at first that it might have simply been the fact that three years had passed since my last visit; that I had been away long enough to somehow forget what L.A. traffic was really like.

Nah. I remembered.

I remember what it was like driving the freeways of Southern California for eighteen out of the twenty-two years that I lived there. I especially remember what it was like back in the mid-80s through the early 90s, when I was driving from Long Beach to the San Fernando Valley nearly every day of the week.

It was bad then; horrendous even, but at least it was somewhat predictable. Rush hour was well-defined; and barring some kind of catastrophic event, like an accident (the occurrences of which are surprisingly rare — a tribute to the skill of SoCal drivers), if you factored in the time of day, you pretty much knew how long it would take to get from point A to point B. And perhaps that’s still the case; but if so, the formula has changed.

And yes, this presented a problem for me on this trip.

As a SoCal resident, one of the things I always prided myself on was knowing the heartbeat of L.A.s freeway traffic patterns — inasmuch as my own sphere of personal travel was concerned, of course.

Not many people drive all of the freeways, all of the time. However that Long Beach/North Orange County-to-Downtown L.A.-or-The-Valley route was one that I knew well. To a lesser degree, but still with a certain amount of familiarity, were the traffic rhythms of Long Beach to the Hemet/Palm Springs area, where my folks retired to in the late 1980s. This was also a path I had worn well over the years.

Bottom line is, I had no reason to expect any dramatic changes in the traffic patterns this time around — but I got ‘em anyway. In the more recent trips I’d taken, in 2000, 2004 (twice), and again in 2005, it seemed to me that things had for the most part stayed the same in the 13 years since our relocation to Nashville.

I especially remember thinking, during that 2005 trip, how little the experience had changed, and what a perverse pleasure driving in congested L.A. Freeway traffic brought back to me. I’m sure I didn’t expect it to stay the same forever, but even the logical anticipation of it getting worse didn’t prepare me for what I experienced on this visit.

It may not have been ‘Road Rage,’ but it was close.

In a State of Flex
I noticed the heavier traffic right off the bat, soon after I arrived on Thursday afternoon. One of the things I had purposely done was to try and take a middle-of-the-day flight; one that wouldn’t force me to leave Nashville airport first thing in the morning for the outbound leg, but also one that didn’t depart so late in the day as to place me right in the teeth of afternoon rush hour traffic upon my arrival at LAX.

Fortunately there has been a longstanding flight on Southwest Airlines’ schedule that I’ve taken before, and was able to do so again this time. Not only is it a non-stop, it leaves Nashville at 12:05 PM and arrives in L.A. at 2:20 PM. I figured that would give me ample time to get my bags, catch the shuttle over to the car rental agency, and pick up my wheels for the week, all before 3:30 PM — the traditional start of rush hour as I had known it in all my years of driving in L.A.. And when I say, ‘the start’ of rush hour, I mean the very start, as in medium traffic, and few if any slow-and-goes. Under those circumstances, it should have taken no longer than 30-45 minutes tops for me to get to my where I’d be staying for most of the week, at my friend Cindy’s place in Cypress.

Heh; and guess what’s changed in L.A. over the past few years?

Enter the wonderful world of Flex Scheduling. It’s nothing new or even that novel a concept. It’s been around for years; but apparently it’s now in wide use in Southern California, according to Cindy.

She says that now, instead of most people working the standard 9 to 5, more and more companies are allowing their employees to stagger their hours to dilute traffic concentration, in an attempt to thereby avoid the traditional tie-ups of the work-a-day rush hour traffic pattern. The upshot of all that being, instead of coming to work at 8 or 9 AM, some people are now coming in at 6, 7, 10, or 11’oclock in the morning, and going home at 3, 4, 7, or 8’oclock in the evening.

The concept is sound…in concept, anyway. Spread out the concentration of peak traffic and you have less congestion, right? Except for one little detail that seems to have thrown a monkey wrench into the works: the obviously increased traffic volume in Southern California.

Well, in my day…”
I haven’t taken the time to exhaustively research it, so forgive me if I make assumptions that aren’t the strongest from a perspective of merit; I’m only going by what I’ve observed, what I’ve been told by longtime residents, and what I have discerned through logic applied to the reality of the situation.

There are just a GOB more people in SoCal now than there used to be!

And because of this, despite the flex scheduling, the effect of traffic is now actually much worse, because rush ‘hour’ is now six hours long!

I assure you, it’s not my imagination. The reality is that you seriously have to plan your travels more wisely now than ever before to avoid getting snarled in a sea of red tail lights. If you’re not well en route to where you need to go (of any considerable distance) by 2:30 in the afternoon, more than likely you will deal with rush hour traffic.

Yep, the place they called ‘Paradise’ is more crowded than ever. The only thing one needs to point to as proof is the cost of real estate — supply vs. demand, baby. The more people looking for a place to live in a given area, the higher the prices will be. And the cost of a place to lay your head has never been so high in SoCal as it has been since the mid-90s.

Square feets have always been worth their weight in gold in L.A.; that’s been the case since the late 70s. I was there, so I can say that authoritatively. I watched the average price of what most people would consider a nice house in a decent neighborhood rise from around $75,000 to $125,000 in a matter of 2-3 years in the early 1970s.

The reason? There were a few chief ones back then. First and foremost was an economy that sent America’s Auto Industry scrambling. A new term for the upper Midwestern industrial region along the Great Lakes was coined in the late 70s: The Rust Belt. Many of the recently-displaced factory workers of that era arrived by the thousands, searching for a piece of the new California Gold Rush: the Aerospace Industry, spawned by the heightened military budget of President Ronald Regan’s first term of office.

There was also the massive influx of Cambodian and Vietnamese refugees; the so-called ‘Boat people,’ who fled to the U.S. following the withdrawal of American troops in Southeast Asia. The vast majority of them wound up in Southern California, adding even more coziness to our little corner of heaven.

That was just the beginning.

Prices continued to climb before seeming to level off somewhat throughout much of the 80s and into the early 90s. But that wasn't any help for us; we couldn’t even afford the 20% required for a down payment on what was a then-average price tag of $200K for a 3-bedroom home in Long Beach. Eventually, due this and other unacceptable conditions in which to raise a family, we left SoCal for the greener pastures of Tennessee in 1992.

And as if real estate wasn't crazy enough at that point, it went completely nutso over the next few years.

The L.A. market had softened for the first time in decades, and apparently that's all it took for whatever it was that had been ailing it to get well like never before. By the mid-to-late 90s, home prices began to jump — dramatically.

The 1200 square-foot, two-bedroom, one-bath cracker box in Long Beach that we’d rented for eleven years, which had been assessed at a value of $205,000 in 1990, was suddenly worth $500K. Until recently, those appraisals have continued to climb; bestowing mansionesque value to dwellings that were by any other standard, modest homes at best. The ‘million-dollar house’ was no longer the exclusive domain of the 90210 zip code. The exception had now become the rule.

But aside from the obvious assumption that every property-owner in SoCal had suddenly discovered oil in their back yards, back in Nashville, the question on my mind was, ‘how?’ and ‘why?’

I mean, at the time I left Southern California, I wasn’t the only one. Large numbers of families were fleeing L.A. for the promise of a more affordable life elsewhere. The blush had fallen off the rose, so to speak; it just wasn’t worth the struggle for a lot of people. Multitudes relocated to places like Seattle, Phoenix, and (of course), Nashville and the Southeast.

But as I said, something happened just a few years later. Something changed and sent folks streaming back into the area. There’s no other explanation for the sharp up-spike in property values.

There simply seem to be more people living in Southern California now than at anytime that I’ve ever known. Housing trends would certainly bear that notion out, as the cost of real estate has so famously shot up to the record levels seen over the past ten years.

So the question is, where did all these extra people come from? I can’t say authoritatively. As I mentioned, I haven’t researched this thing as I normally do when I make my famous wild generalizations. And I’m gonna keep it that way. No sense in spoiling a good yarn with needless facts.

Obviously I’m kidding here, but the reason I’m not all that concerned about taking a stab at the answer by my own self is that the authority I do have on the reason is pretty solid, and it makes perfect sense.

Blame the Mexicans
No…not really. I just wanted to see if you were paying attention. But actually, to a lot of folks, that might seem like a plausible suggestion.

The truth is that over the past 30 years, the influx of illegals crossing into California from south of the border has been practically unabated. It couldn’t HELP but play a role in the growing population of SoCal, and by way of extension, participate in the increased traffic and higher housing prices as well. And that’s not just my opinion, but that of a number of residents I spoke to while I was there in August. These people are not bigots, and really don’t begrudge the idea of their new neighbors being there. They’re just pragmatic about the whole thing. The fact is that ther ARE there, and somehow, local government officials are just going to have to find a way to make it work.

Personally, while I can see the logic, I still don’t understand the necessity for the circumstances that SoCal’s overpopulation has wrought in the years since I left. Yes there are more people now. Yes that will naturally express itself in a higher cost of living, higher traffic volumes, and lower boiling points for the tempers of everyone involved.

But to pin it all on the illegals is ridiculous. And I guess this is where the rant rears its ugly head in this story.

The hardship of living in Southern California is not in dealing with longer rush hours and tighter traffic; it’s financial. It’s being forced to pay in excess of 40% of your monthly take-home on housing. It’s being forced to submit to a ridiculous interest-only, ‘Prime +’ or another stupidly-flimsy creative financing vehicle just to try and buy a house there, only to find that you really can’t afford those $3500-a-month payments after all, and you default on your mortgage.

However and whomever is responsible for the obscenely steep increase in home values that have made life hell for nearly everyone over the past 15 years should be shot. And no, I’m not talking genocide on the Mexicans. I’m talking about the mortgage bankers and real estate speculators who just this week nearly brought down our economy single-handedly.

In the movie Wall Street the saying ‘greed is good’ entered our pop-cultural lexicon. But it wasn’t Gordon Gekko who first coined that phrase; it was the blood-sucking real estate industry in Southern California, who has been perfecting it since the 70s.

It’s what drove me out of the state, and it’s what began the trend that now threatens our entire financial system.

Believe me folks, I’m as much a capitalist as the next guy, but I hate greed; I hate exclusivity; I hate injustice. And to see how much worse the cost of living has gotten in my former homeland this past trip just made me want to puke.

Don’t mind me…I’m just blowin’ off a little steam. I’m not offering any answers — ‘cept maybe the part about shooting the bankers and real estate developers.

But seriously, something’s got to give out there. I think what we’ve seen here nationally this past week, that it’s obvious just how thin that bubble has become, and that we need to do something before it bursts.

So that’s it. Rant over; on to happier subjects…

(Hmmm…seems I’m saying that a lot lately, huh?)

Next: Et Cetera ‘08
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