When I first came to Los Angeles 22 years ago, I thought it would be a temporary gig.
I was the West Coast national writer for an East Coast newspaper, and I arrived with a New Yorker’s standard suitcase-full of cliched notions about my new home.
I was expecting it to be shallow and crass. I was also expecting to get lost. (I’d read something in some book about how the freeway exits didn’t have numbers and I imagined myself driving endlessly in a cloud of smog, afraid to stop but unsure where to get off.)
And yes, I soon encountered some people who fit the stereotypes — notably my landlady, who worked in “the Industry,” was busy having work done on her face in her 30s, and spoke to her fully bilingual Central American gardener, who had kids attending UCLA, in cringe-worthy slow, over-enunciated English, as in “I am GO-ing to be A-way for a ve-ry im-POR-tant job. I need YOU to take care of these RO-ses!”
And I did see smog. My husband and I had been living in our rented home above the Sunset Strip for months before we discovered we had a view of the Pacific.
But I rarely got lost. I instantly seemed to find my bearings here. And my reaction to L.A. took me completely by surprise. I fell in love on Day One.
Maybe it helped that an old friend capped a fabulous tour with a martini at Musso and Frank. But I was equally smitten with the brown-paper-bag plainness of the city’s much-derided mini malls — because it was clear to me that they contained so many hidden stories about so many journeys from so many different countries.
I grew up in a somewhat peripatetic way. As the child of a foreign correspondent, I lived in Africa, India, England, Hong Kong. I finished high school on a hilltop in Swaziland.
I started writing thinking I would follow in my father’s footsteps and build a career traveling the world. It turns out that what I like the best is to get to know one place better and better, to keep excavating my own backyard for the benefit of the people who live in it and who care about it just as much as I do.
For the record, I’ve now lived in L.A. far longer than I’ve lived anywhere else. I’ve seen it through plenty of tough times. I’ve written about fires and about mud shoving houses and people off hills, about priests abusing children and the L.A. Archdiocese covering it up. I’ve seen neighborhoods change rapidly and beautiful old buildings suddenly disappear, and the historian in me sometimes traverses the city mournfully, thinking, “The Ambassador used to be here,” and “The Sixth Street bridge used to be there,” and “When oh when will we get back Tail o’ the Pup?”
I’ve seen plenty of changes in the city that make me hopeful and proud. I’m excited about the new ways people are learning to inhabit and embrace it.
L.A. also has growing challenges that threaten to overwhelm — the traffic gridlock, the crushing cost of living, the people who live on our sidewalks and under our freeways without anyplace else to call home.
I make a decent living, but last year, a few bumps in the road made me wonder if I would be able to pay all my bills. I also became a real L.A. commuter for the first time when my office moved to El Segundo — and I sometimes wanted to cry in my car as I inched my way ever so slowly home in the dark.
More and more, I would be shaken awake late at night by the screams and rants of the addicts and mentally ill living in a tent encampment a few blocks away. Once I woke up around 2 a.m. to the flashlights of several young guys pacing both sides of my block, looking for anything to grab out of parked cars. I started having dreams of living somewhere far, far away, in the country, where I could feel rich on far less than I was barely managing to live on here.
I almost left L.A., but for so many reasons, I’m so thankful that I didn’t. My newspaper feels stronger and more vibrant than it has in forever. And my bosses are giving me the rarest of privileges. They’re setting me free to examine the place I call home and to have an ongoing conversation with you about it — about what it feels like to live here now and how it might feel in the future and how it is changing and who it is changing for and what we can do together to help make a better city for all.
My first column will go online Thursday morning. Both this introduction and that column will be in print Saturday. I’m nervous and thrilled about this new role. I’d love you to come along for the ride.
Now I’m bringing City Beat back, hoping to turn my eye in the same close-up, personal way to the central issues of life in Los Angeles.
I’m counting on you to help me do that by telling me how you are feeling and inviting me to come out to your neighborhoods to see the L.A. you are seeing. I want to know about your grass-roots efforts to make change, about your frustrations, about your neighborhood heroes, about the great city stories that only you know and that you think deserve a little more attention.