Like a lot of young people, Jason Neville moved here to pursue his dreams. But, unlike most, Jason took a bit of a different path once he arrived in town. One that didn't include an automobile. At least, at first.
This month I did something I pledged never to do when I moved to Los Angeles seven years ago.
I got a car.
And let me tell you, I have been loving it.
A little context:
I moved to Los Angeles in 2005 to be an urban planner.
Seeking to “live my politics”, I got around with a combination of a bicycle, metro pass, and bummed rides from friends. Or the occasional date.
I’d take furtive joy in asking women at bars: “So…what do you drive?”.
On my bike, I explored Los Angeles at a delightful scale and cadence: sampling Mexican pastries sold from a converted baby stroller, pausing to gaze at streets quilted with the lavender snowflakes of flowering jacarandas, cataloging neighborhoods by their scent.
Then one day I was riding my bike home from work. In a suit. Sweating. Panting. Up the hill. Groceries in my messenger bag and ripe avocados smearing onto manila folders full of important papers for work. Cars whisking past my trembling elbows.
And with the same matter-of-fact epiphany you have in a relationship when you finally realize: “Wait—I don’t actually like this person”, I realized something as profound and undeniable as it was heretical to what I wanted to believe:
Riding a bike in Los Angeles is a miserable, death-inviting experience.
So I paid a friend $850 to borrow his 1996 Camry for my last three months in town. And set out to find the Los Angeles that I’ve always heard about, but never fully experienced.
Now, I do have an intellectual predecessor. Rayner Banham was a bike-riding British architectural historian who came to Los Angeles in 1971. And he got a car, too. His defense, quote:
“Like earlier generations of English intellectuals who learned Italian so that they could read Dante in the original, I learned to drive so that I could read Los Angeles in the original.”
I noticed practical improvements in my life.
I arrive un-sweaty, no bike grease on my pants. I drink coffee and make phone calls during the drive.
I listen to the radio in the car for hours a day. And I’ve realized that, just as the New York City subway fosters that city’s literary culture – all that commuter reading? The autopia of Los Angeles spurs a vibrant and sophisticated range of radio. All those drivers. Listening alone. Together.
But my newfound mobility and independence has also undermined one of my proudest accomplishments in Los Angeles: camaraderie with my fellow Angelenos.
No more serendipitous conversations at the bus stop. No more catching a ride with a friend, and getting to know each other better because of it. I’m no longer connected to — or even aware of — the 9 million people living all around me.
I am more comfortable, more mobile, more independent, more productive. But also more isolated, more oblivious, more alone. In other words, more of an ordinary Angeleno.
Jason Neville lost his job as an urban planner when the Los Angeles Redevelopment Corporation closed earlier this year. He now lives, without a car, in his native New Orleans.