Why Are We Still Moving to California?

In Depth

This weekend, the New York Times published two laughably conflicting articles about California—one from the Style section on the happy-go-lucky migration westward of New York City’s “creative class,” and one that looks at a state going brown, well into the fourth year of its historically ruinous drought.

The first article is a perky take on Los Angeles as a city in “renaissance,” with a “burgeoning art, fashion and food scene that has become irresistible to the culturally attuned.” Dissatisfied NYC millennials, does this sound familiar?

Last fall, Christina Turner, a fashion stylist in Brooklyn, was dreading another New York winter in her cramped, lightless Greenpoint, Brooklyn, apartment while gazing longingly at the succulent gardens and festive backyard dinner parties posted on social media by her friends in Los Angeles.

Here’s your quick fix!

Indeed, Los Angeles has seemingly become the flight fantasy of choice for the likes of Ms. Turner, who insists that anything good she was giving up in overpriced, overstressed Brooklyn is already in place on the booming east side of Los Angeles: the in-season Zambian coffee outposts, the galleries, the vintage clothing boutiques.

Conversely, the second article is a grim appraisal of California’s options in the face of what could be its worst drought in 1,200 years:

Desalination, making seawater potable, is another option, which Carlsbad, north of San Diego, is now pursuing with a huge plant under construction. Australia went down this road during its epic drought in the 2000s. But the plants proved to be so prohibitively expensive to run that four of them were mothballed. Billions were spent without producing a drop of clean water.

There is truth in the contradiction between these two pieces of writing, as the same brand of cognitive dissonance has appeared to infect those gleefully packing it up for L.A..

There has always been an element of incongruity to Los Angeles, a city that exists as some sort of glimmering haven for the pale, shrunken, overworked refugees of an increasingly inhospitable New York—a narrative that has been compelling for as long as New York has been overpriced and stressful. I, along with almost all of my friends, have considered making this particular move every single winter, despite the fact that I’m a fair-skinned nervous driver with an extremely low tolerance for vegan restaurants. Joan Didion understood better than most the strange, unsustainable dualities inherent in that collective belief in the West, writing in Slouching Towards Bethlehem: “California is a place in which a boom mentality and a sense of Chekhovian loss meet in uneasy suspension.”

But now there is no water in California. There is no water in California. And yet it’s never been more popular. When I talked to friends about this recently, the general consensus regarding the water crisis was: “They’ll figure it out.” These two incompatible realities—that California is dying, that California is more alive than ever—is even reflected within the second op-ed, as writer Timothy Egan declares the drought to be a “disrupter,” not a killer, that the state will recover, if not fully. But Egan’s initial attempt at optimism is immediately muddied by his own argument:

The idea that California could have it all — a pool in every suburban backyard, new crops in a drought, wild salmon in rivers now starved of oxygen — is fading fast.

And this:

[O]ne fear of making water an open-market commodity is that rich and politically powerful communities would get all the clean water they needed, while poor public districts would be left out. A class system around breathable air has already developed in China. Is abundant water the next must-have possession of the 1 percent?

And this:

Big new reservoir projects — a return of the concrete empire — are doubtful. Without a government subsidy, cost is the biggest obstacle. Farmers certainly aren’t going to pay the billions now footed by federal taxpayers. And then: Where is the “new” water going to come from? Underground, wells are probing ever deeper, sucking aquifers dry, the land sinking at a dramatic rate. Overhead, the sky is unreliable.

For right now, for today, Los Angeles is booming. It’s a great place to be! But when will that end? When the water runs out a year from now? When the wildfires roll in next month? Or when rents inevitably skyrocket, as a direct result of lines like this?

“New York feels like it’s all about ‘making it,’ ” said Julia Price, a musician and former Manhattanite who is in her 20s. “L.A. feels like it’s all about making things.”

It’s possible that Los Angeles will continue, at least for awhile, to be a nice place to live if you’re one of the people who can afford to live within a shrinking bubble. And if that’s the case, will it be so different from New York, after all?

Image via Getty.

Contact the author at [email protected].

Flygirl is Jezebel’s travel blog dedicated to exploring the world at large. Have a story or an idea? We’re always taking submissions; email us with “Flygirl” AND your topic in the subject line. No pitches in the comments, please.

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