Leaving Los Angeles (sort of)
When my husband Dave and I lived in mid-city Los Angeles, we would often escape to Ventura for a quick weekend getaway.
We liked the downtown section with its shops, restaurants and antiques. The ocean air. The slower pace.
When we came back home, I felt claustrophobic, like I couldn’t breathe.
I loved the history and architecture of our mid-city neighborhood. We lived within walking distance of LACMA, Little Ethiopia and the Farmer’s Market. I also loved our 1938 apartment, with its hardwood floors, tall ceilings and crown molding, and the fairy tale “cottage” look of some of the 1930’s houses in our neighborhood, known as “Storybook Architecture" - an L.A. architectural anomaly of the 20’s and 30’s. (These adorable little “cottages,” unfortunately, start selling at around $800,000.)
I also liked the sense of community in our immediate neighborhood, known as Wilshire Vista; it felt like a little city within an enormous one. Every October, the city would block off the streets, and hold a Halloween fair for the kids. There was also an annual festival in Little Ethiopia, with bands, food and street vendors. It was an old, established neighborhood; it had tree-lined streets and many families, and after having lived in some rough parts of Hollywood, I felt fortunate to live there.
But there were too many damned cars.
What should have been short, simple errands became sheer tests of patience, will and determination – sitting in an endless line of cars just to get into a parking lot, or circling parking lots in vain for twenty minutes – just to pick up groceries.
And the eight-mile drive home from my work in Santa Monica often took an hour or more. I tried every available route – freeways and surface streets – taking the advice of friends and co-workers. “Oh, I usually take Olympic the whole way.” “Take Pico to Centinela . . .” Every conversation sounded like “The Californians” SNL skit – the skit that will go down in history with Angelenos as painfully funny.
When we could, we would walk or ride our bikes, always a preferable option. We’d embark on what I called our Death Ride to Trader Joe’s on our bikes, up Fairfax, to avoid being trapped in our car in traffic. Despite the danger (or maybe because of it?) it was fun, and being on our bikes gave us a sense of freedom, as we zoomed past frustrated drivers sitting miserably in traffic.
I started daydreaming about what the area must have looked like in the 30’s, before there were so many cars. It must have been paradise – the people of Los Angeles, women dressed up in hats and gloves, men in suits - driving in their large Fords and Cadillacs – of which there were much fewer at the time, or taking the Red Car.
I began to loathe and despise cars – driving them, dodging them as a pedestrian or bicyclist – and seeing thousands of them on the freeway every day, crawling along.
I felt myself wanting to get away more and more. My need for space, fresh air, open roads and nature were overcoming my desire to live in the great city of Los Angeles.
We started talking about where we wanted to move when we retired. The conversation evolved from, “Where do we want to retire?” to “Will we ever be able to retire?” and ultimately to “Do we really want to wait until we’re elderly to move somewhere with quiet and fresh air?”
We talked about buying a house, and if it was even remotely possible.
In L.A.? No way, at least not anywhere we’d want to live. Not on our budget.
We didn’t want to find new jobs outside the city and then move. Not yet, at least. One giant change at a time.
But the commute from Ventura to Santa Monica (where my workplace is) would kill both me and our car.
We started thinking of places between Santa Monica and Ventura.
Calabasas? Agoura Hills? Too pricey, too damned hot in the summer.
Oxnard? Still pretty far. And the nicest area there – the beach area – was too expensive; not Santa Monica expensive, but still out of our budget.
It was Dave who said, “What about Camarillo?”
Like every Angeleno, I associated Camarillo with the enormous, sprawling outlet mall (or the old, infamous mental institution, long since defunct and now occupied by Channel Islands University). The entire city of Camarillo, in my mind, seemed confined to the massive outlet shopping center and a movie theater. I wanted to explore the region beyond the soulless outlets.
We decided to spend the night in Camarillo on a Saturday and go exploring. The city (which really seemed like a small town compared to L.A. – what doesn’t?) was confusing to navigate at first. Like many cities in southern California, it had once been a sprawling agricultural community. It still was, to an extent, but was now rudely interrupted by a freeway that cut through the center of town.
We stayed at a hotel on Daily, and ate at the Good Morning Café the next day; it was a little mom-and-pop coffee shop, decorated with historic photos of Camarillo, and biblical and inspirational sayings painted on the walls. Little did we know this was the “bad” area of town, near Barry St.; being from a very urban part of L.A.., it didn’t seem even remotely threatening. Nowadays, whenever we drive by the area, we joke, “Roll up your windows and lock your doors – we’re driving by Barry St.!”
As we drove around town, one thing I noticed is that there was a lot of space. I could breathe more easily. Driving through the suburbs, it seemed like every other street had a large park. (I thought of the “park” at Carthay Circle in mid-city – a tiny plot of land, with a statue and a bench, in the middle of a busy traffic circle.) People were out walking or bicycling, and kids were playing. As we were driving, suburban developments would suddenly end and we would be driving by acres of farmland. It reminded me of where I grew up – in Cherry Hill, NJ – it was suburban, but right down the street from wide open spaces – and plenty of trees, as there were in Camarillo. It also looked like there were plenty of hiking opportunities (we’ve since discovered the trails in the area, and go hiking often).
Along with all the open space and natural beauty, unfortunately there was a lot of bland architecture – condos and new housing developments, and lots of mini-malls. That’s one reason we were excited to discover the Old Town section. Old Town was like many quaint town centers such as Sierra Madre and Montrose, with a clock tower in the center of town, potted concrete vases, old-fashioned lamp posts; it also seemed to be the only place in town that had stand-alone restaurants that weren’t connected to mini-malls. Old Town was also right across the street from the train station; being a big train fan, I was also excited about this. There was also an Old Town “trolley” bus that took visitors to and from the train station. (I told Dave that Old Town, with its lamp posts, potted plants, clock tower and trolley, reminded me of Main Street in Disneyland; if you know me, you’ll know that’s a compliment and not a snide remark).
The second time we stayed overnight in Camarillo, we did it on a Sunday night so we could try out our commute to work the next morning. We stayed at the Bella Capri Inn in Old Town, and I stopped at the wonderful Element Coffee the next morning, a place I now frequent. Unfortunately, for my very first commute from Santa Monica to Camarillo, there was an unusually severe back-up on Malibu Canyon due to an accident; I had to turn around and take the dreaded 405 instead. It still didn’t deter me from wanting to make the move to Camarillo, though.
We decided to try it out. We’d rent an apartment there for a while. If it worked out, if we liked it, then we’d look into buying there; if we didn’t, we’d go back to L.A.
We rented an apartment, in one of those huge, modern complexes. It had new appliances and all the amenities we could wish for; it felt more like an upscale hotel of suites. It lacked the personality of our 1930’s mid-city apartment, but it also lacked the problems (giant bugs that invaded in the summer, thin walls, no insulation, chasing down our landlady for repairs); it was run very efficiently, in a bland and corporate way. Not very homey, but we also knew it was temporary. We also wanted to take advantage for a little while of having someone else do/pay for repairs; we knew we’d be homeowners soon, and that the burden would all be on us eventually.
In October of 2015, we finally bought a house – or rather, half a house; its official term is cluster home, as it’s attached by a single wall to the home next door. It’s like a duplex, but it feels like a single home, with our own big front yard, backyard and driveway, and thankfully isn’t part of an HOA. It was built in 1978 and has its quirks (which I’ll save for another blog post), but fortunately didn’t come with an ugly 70’s carpet or kitchen that had to be replaced; it had beautiful hardwood floors and a fairly modern kitchen. It does have a popcorn ceiling, holes in the wall, and non-working light switches, all of which we'll deal with in time. Despite its imperfections, we love our house, and feel lucky to have been able to buy for half the price of what it would have been in L.A.
My friends think I’m crazy, making the 90-mile round trip to work in Santa Monica Monday through Friday.
But here’s the thing: it’s one of my favorite parts of my morning. I never thought I’d say that about a work commute.
Most days I carpool with Dave, who works in Woodland Hills. We take the 101 south, I drop him off at work (often going to the Coffee Bean for my morning fix), and then I take Topanga Canyon Boulevard over to PCH. The only time it’s a problem is when there’s an accident (or when school has just started and traffic is unusually heavy). That happens occasionally, but then I can at least look at the rugged mountains of Topanga Canyon, or the ocean (and the surfers) on PCH; it sure beats being stuck on the 10 Freeway, surrounded by concrete.
When I drive in by myself, there’s a few different ways I can go. Even though it takes a little longer, lately I’ve been driving past Channel Islands University, past farmland, to PCH. Then I get treated to a Southern California picture postcard view as I drove past Sycamore Canyon, Point Dume, Leo Carrillo, and the entire stretch of Malibu. If there's traffic on PCH, I can deal with it more easily than I could back in the days when I sat on the 10; I can roll down the window and inhale the ocean breeze.
We moved here in 2014, and have never, not for a second, thought of moving back to L.A. We both still work there. We go to events in L.A. often, especially during the week, when it's more convenient. But when we’re heading home west on the 101, and the sky gets darker, the landscape less cluttered, and we can see a million stars in the sky, I know we’re getting close to home and I can breathe a sigh of relief. Once we’re traveling down the steep Conejo Grade, and I can see the ocean on the horizon and the lights of Camarillo in the valley below, I know we're home.
I love L.A. I love its history and architecture, and am proud of its rich film history. I'm filled with pride when I'm at a Dodger game and Randy Newman's "I Love L.A." begins to play (a somewhat sardonic ode to the city, but still, its official theme song). But the things I don't like about it are the things everyone doesn't like about it - traffic, smog and high housing prices. (I am also upset about the way developers have barged into my old neighborhood of Echo Park, tearing down old homes, building hideous new apartment buildings in the middle of residential areas, and driving up the rent.) The difference is that I no longer think it's worth it to live there and just accept these things, or try to fight against them in vain.
The great thing about living on the outskirts is that it's just an hour drive away to visit Phillipe's French Dip, MOCA, Little Tokyo, Angel's Flight, The Pantages Theater, Disney Hall, the historic stairs of Silver Lake - everything that's remarkable and unique about L.A.
Then I can come back home, get some space, and breathe.