I was lucky enough to spend last year living in the sunny and sophisticated city of Santa Barbara. California’s very own American Riviera. Just two hours north of Los Angeles’ sprawling metropolis, I experienced the city as a tourist, enjoying all its perks whilst being able to escape the claustrophobic smog and traffic.
On various weekend trips to Los Angeles, I was struck by the appalling poverty that blights almost every part of this ‘City of Stars’. We’ve all heard the statistics about the wealth gap between the richest and poorest members of American society, but I never expected to see it quite so starkly as I did walking through the streets of LA. My experience of Los Angeles rather aptly reflected this deep schism between America’s winners and losers. One week I would find myself staying in the Pacific Palisades, an elegant coastal neighbourhood where house prices average over $3 million, and the next week I would be sleeping in one of downtown’s budget hostels that offered little more than a mattress on the floor. Being a spectator (and, crucially, an outsider) of this deeply divided society gave me a sense of perspective that might be clouded for the insiders.
One particularly memorable morning I was walking to catch a bus from LA back to Santa Barbara. The very prospect of me taking public transport had shocked my six college housemates who had been driving (pretty much exclusively) around the streets of Los Angeles since they were sixteen. It didn’t take long to find out why their faces filled with unease. Walking to the bus-stop, I stumbled upon Skid Row, one of the largest stable populations of homeless people in America. Despite having lived my whole life in London and Edinburgh, cities with considerably large homeless populations themselves, nothing could have prepared me for the sheer scale of the problem in Los Angeles. Rows upon rows of tents stretched as far as the eye could see, spilling out into the main road that, rather grimly, connects some of the city’s most affluent areas.
But the dichotomy of wealth, and indeed mutual understanding, becomes obvious as using a car to travel around the city is common. The city’s wealthy residents and its herds of tourists zip through this urban jungle in Ubers, undisturbed by the reality of life on the streets. If you were to drive through Skid Row, the district’s desperate poverty could easily pass you by. During the ten minutes it takes to drive through this shantytown, a passenger may not even look up from their phone.
Yet, walking through heaps of litter on Skid Row, and stepping over people sleeping on the pavements forced me to confront this humanitarian crisis in terms of real lives rather than statistics. If I’d taken my housemates reaction to my plan more seriously, I might never have come face to face with the harrowing reality of LA’s poverty-stricken underbelly.
But while I’d lingered in Skid Row for longer than your average tourist, at the end of the day my experience of the area was fleeting. When I boarded the bus back to the bubble of affluence that is Santa Barbara my life resumed as normal. But questions about what I’d seen continued to bother me. Thinking about the causes of homelessness, my mind initially jumped to the failure of the American welfare system, which has suffered major budget cuts under Donald Trump’s presidency. But why is the problem so severe in Los Angeles?
Los Angeles sparkles. There’s little doubt about that. Having cultivated the careers of many of the names plastered along Hollywood’s Walk of Fame, it is known as a place where dream chasers can cash in their chips in hope of a better life. But the city’s supposed glitz and glamour has a lot to answer for. The appeal of LA is so deeply engrained in modern popular culture, attracting aspiring actors and actresses are drawn to Hollywood like moths to a light. The powerful myth of the city has permeated the minds of dream-chasers across America, clinging onto the promise of a multimillion-dollar mansion in Bel Air, whilst running the risk of ending up in a tent on Skid Row.
Over the coming weeks, I will explore both the positives and the perils of Los Angeles as I attempt to reconcile my own conflicted relationship with this simultaneously enchanting and repelling city.