Bi-coastal anxiety

The fear of living in a second-rate city


There are a lot of geography nerds in Los Angeles, and this makes sense. No other city forces you to consider public space quite as much — dream of it, even. LA’s suburban sprawl makes those who moved here from denser, less segregated cities nostalgic for real crowds, nostalgic for a day when one felt comfortable in them. The sprawl has a way of conditioning its residents, restricting everyone to their own little world, stepping out once in a while to perform their now-concentrated shtick and drive home again. 

My girlfriend and I fell in love in this desert and clung to each other apocalyptically, disappearing into her flat for six months. This is normal in “the loneliest and most brutal of American cities.” Single peeps in LA are particularly single. It’s harder for women, I’m told (and a comparative look at both ends of Tinder confirms this). Generally the city has a way of lowering everyone’s standards. Newcomers, in particular, entertain friends and lovers they would not consider elsewhere. This is fun, but contains its own paranoia. Would this relationship have happened in a real city?

During the first smitten months of my current relationship, I sometimes worried that we wouldn’t have fallen in love elsewhere quite as easily. You see, contrary to my earlier (slightly maudlin) proclamation, we didn’t really find each other in the desert: I, a veteran of the desert, very efficiently targeted her shortly after her arrival.

I had met her a few months earlier in Brooklyn, with a man at her side who seemed exceedingly temporary. She said she was moving to LA, and I thought to myself: well, this might work. Soon she was more-or-less alone in the vacuum. They say Stalin’s most devastating weapon was the cold; mine was the vacuum. I purposely friend-zoned her, becoming her casual friend, introducing myself extensively then leaving her alone for a while, only to pop back into her bubble for a long talk when I felt confident, until she finally asked me to stay.

A few months later, we suddenly realized that we had been barricading ourselves in near-total isolation and were socially almost entirely untested. We ended up that night at a Eurotrash pool party in Los Feliz, and found ourselves awkwardly sitting in a corner together staring out at the crowd. LA’s spatial segregation reproduces itself at social gatherings, with every group forming their own special island. The usual ice-breaker, heavy drinking, is hard to do because everyone’s driving; you don’t want to be the sole x-factor at an otherwise static gathering. The other helpful ice-breaker, chain-smoking, is generally frowned upon. This combination of car culture, health culture, and a lack of public space manifests in an overwhelmingly mediocre nightlife and bar scene, with regrettably few outside drinking spots. After our party fiasco, I took her to all the good bars I knew — not that good, really, though good for LA — but it only heightened her impatience. She started to worry that she’d ended up in a second-rate city, and that over time it would make her second-rate. 

Moving from NY to LA does that. It means giving up on a lot of social (and sometimes intellectual) stimuli. Meeting people by chance, in a spontaneous way, becomes a near impossibility. Your best bet is to find your scene quickly. Like many alternative creative types, I fell in with the East side’s culture scene, the one that can reliably found at Hop Louie in Chinatown or the Night Gallery. That scene is growing, fed by new economic refugees from New York, but never to the point where it becomes difficult to maintain an overview. At every event, I see a variation on the same people. In LA, where you cling to friends and lovers for dear life, people curate their circles very intentionally. My close friends and I regularly speak about expanding our group, bringing in more cool people, but really we know more or less what the places we go to have to offer, and so hope for secret revelations about people we know already.

This contrived little world had long been enough for me — self-involved, mulling over old ideas, trying to turn them into writing. But eventually her dissatisfaction with the city started to secretly infect me. An odd trend developed in our relationship where she blamed LA for her unhappiness, and I defended it, implicitly blaming her. She would say it was so suburban and ugly and how she hates driving everywhere. I would say that comparing cities was bourgeois FOMO navel-gazing, or just play the comparison game myself and bash New York. Our relationship, temporarily, became a battlefield for the instagram-fuelled bi-coastal culture war.

Yes, I would concede for the sake of credibility, LA does have a surplus of incredibly daft people, but really many of the supposed intellectuals I know in New York are just as small-minded, pre-occupied with making money and dropping names, all scampering to afford another day close to the heart of cultural capital. LA, I argued correctly, isn’t as exclusive as New York; the hierarchies are not as established. In 4 years, the city had given me a reliable squad of great friends. My friendships were closer here, ultimately, because LA folks couldn’t afford to be as elusive as their NY counterparts. LA forces you into friendships, forces you into people’s homes, and cut off from the world you can feel particularly free with them. It can be so very nice. 

As Josh Barro once noted, “Angelenos talk about how they don’t spend time comparing L.A. to New York in that tone people use to declare they’re totally over their exes.” Once her doubts took hold of me, I started considering all the evidence I’d previously ignored.  I started to wonder what kind of people came to LA, and channeling Trump, felt that the world wasn’t sending us its best: it sends actors; it sends esoterics; it sends the worst Euros on earth; and some, I assume, are good people. 

It started to bother me how divorced I had become from the world, how theoretical all the world’s problems seemed from Los Angeles. I thought back to my days sitting in on editorial meetings at one of the city’s premier intellectual publications, where the senior editors wore fedoras but didn’t seem to read much news. I remembered the rich girl activists I’d met who talked about their social engagement sounding alarmingly (and wonderfully) like Cher in late Clueless. I thought about the advertising kid who proudly told me he was planning a Euro road-trip in summer starting in Syria, though he was concerned because he had heard about some tourists getting ripped off there. What did I expect an environment like this to do to my brain?    

But soon I recognized this as just another LA mood: after a year of convincing myself I was happy there, I was in a new predictable cycle of indulging my darkest doubts about the place. When that kicks in, the LA guidebook says, you know you need to get out of the city. And so we did, off to New York for a week. And there, among the anxious bandwagon-jumpers of a city we couldn’t afford, we realized that our love wasn’t just the desert playing tricks on us, and that even if it was, we were grateful for that.