Santa Monica requiem: Reflections as 2020 drifted into 2021

My father, Isaac, wrote this.

I stayed at the new the Proper Hotel in Downtown Santa Monica (“SaMo” to the locals) at 7th Street and Wilshire Boulevard over New Years: any hotel during COVID-19 is surreal; this was the first time I’d returned to SaMo since decamping from LA for Scottsdale in June. It was also the first time I experienced with profound sadness what has become of SaMo after ten months of rolling COVID-19 lockdowns, the permanent scars left by the protests/riots in late May, the omnipresent shadow of homeless everywhere, and, perhaps most striking, the air of apprehension obvious among the few non-homeless on the streets. Call this post a requiem for a lost SaMo that may never really come back.

I first saw SaMo as an 18-year University of Minnesota sophomore in December 1969, when visiting my brother Jerry, who lived there. He picked me up at LAX in his British Racing Green MGB, and I felt like I was, somehow, home; SaMo immediately struck me as the California Dreaming myth I developed from watching movies and TV shows, and listening to the Beach Boys, Jan and Dean, and the “Laurel Canyon sound” on transistor and AM car radios as a teen in the Great Frozen North.

SaMo had a beautiful beach and beautiful people in the sunshine, with the charming pier, pastel houses and low-rise apartment buildings threaded by the boulevards of small shops with the names I knew from sitcoms, movies, and Raymond Chandler novels. Chandler fictionalized SaMo as “Bay City” in his novels and as soon as I saw the pier, I recognized it as the Lido Pier from The Big Sleep. “Bay City” can still found as part of business names, including Bay Cities Italian Deli; the Deli was looted during the riots, and, while it’s open again, the joy of waiting for your Godmother sandwich with dozens of others in front of the enticing deli case and scouting for obscure Italian jams is gone. Grabbing a to-go sandwich is a soulless experience and obviates the point of neighborhood institutions.

I lived in SaMo twice: first for two years at 23rd and Wilshire in a townhouse I owned with by brother in the early 80s and again for about three years, starting in 2013, in an apartment downtown at 7th and Broadway. When Jake a little boy, I knew the the SaMo City Manager, who recruited me to apply to be the Assistant Manager, but I came in second, as the City Council wanted to hire a woman. If I’d gotten that job, Jake might have grown up in SaMo and I would’ve been responsible for the redevelopment of the pier, the 3rd Street Promenade, and the mid-rise housing developments that transformed the formerly sleepy Downtown in the 90s.

Until the late 80s, like much of LA, SaMo was still relatively affordable—at least for the parts of the city south of Wilshire Boulevard and west of Lincoln Boulevard. Since then, and particularly with the rise of “Silicon Beach” a decade ago, SaMo has become unaffordable, expect for the few living in a subsidized or rent controlled apartment or the upper middle class and the one percenters. Like San Francisco, Manhattan, and Seattle, there is essentially no middle class left in SaMo. The population was 83,249 in 1960 and just 90,401 six decades later in 2020—essentially no growth, despite a near-doubling of the United States. When you choke off the supply of housing in an otherwise desirable area, you’re also committing to high prices. San Francisco reportedly now has more pet dogs than children, and that’s likely the case in SaMo. The median household income is $96,570 in 2020, which is high compared to the US, but not remotely high enough to afford the average sale price of a house—$1.27M—or even the average monthly rent of $3,851.

I drove around downtown before going to the Proper. Boarded-up windows and vacant store fronts are common; in the Before Times, vacant store fronts in SaMo were rare. Downtown SaMo has always been one of LA’s few true walkable districts, but, while there were a fair number of cars on the streets, in the middle of a beautiful sunny Thursday New Years Eve day afternoon, there were almost no pedestrians, and the 3rd Street Promenade was ghostly. A friend of mine had already told me that the Bloomingdales Department Store, which anchored the Santa Monica Place Mall at the southern end of the Promenade, had closed permanently. The homeless, however, were out in force.

Since the late ’70s, the city has more or less embraced, or one might say encouraged, homelessness. But, and this is a big but, the SaMo homeless generally hung out in parks and a few well-known areas, and they weren’t aggressive. When I lived downtown in the mid-2010s, I felt perfectly safe walking, even at night.

When I parked, I talked over the walking issue with the young valet, and he said about walking around, “No way brotha, I know the bad homeless dudes around here but you don’t.” He also told me to stay away from Reed Park, just across Wilshire from the hotel. Since I had my 95-pound Golden Retriever with me, who needed a walk, I figured it would be okay to walk to the park—but it was filled with homeless and tents. The city has created a nice-looking tot lot and children’s play area behind high fences in the park, but there wasn’t a kid or mom in sight. I walked around one side of the park and retreated to hotel, which is essentially a fortress.

New Year’s Day morning, I went to Sidecar Donuts, where three or four moms in Lululemon leggings and guys in skinny jeans were in line, but there was a palpable nervous feeling: everyone there seemed to want to get our donuts and get back into cars or, in my case, the Proper. No small talk and zero sense of community. With the ongoing COVID recession and general malaise hanging over SaMo, I don’t think Sidecar and similar places will survive long.

Decades ago, SaMo was one of the first cities to adopt the strategy of “Community Policing,” which involves foot and bike patrols and assigning the same cops to the beat so that the community comes to know them and they know the community. When I last lived in SaMo, I regularly encountered smiling cops on foot or bikes. During the two days I spent there, I didn’t see a single foot or velo cop. Community policing was developed to replace the former “Fort Apache” style of policing, in which the cops stay in their station and cars.

A place’s vibe is delicate and hard to describe, yet pervasive when you’re there. SaMo’s vibe has changed radically in the last year, in a way that’s hard to appreciate without being there.

I’ve worked the last 45 years in and around urban issues, first for cities in economic development and then for the past 27 years writing grant proposals. The SaMo of my memory, or maybe my dreams, no longer exists. Maybe it will again in a year or two.

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