My eldest child tells me that when she arrived at an East Coast college her classmates—many of whom had never visited LA—would ask, “Does your family live in the city, or outside of it?” Her answer, she says, was always long — really long — and of eye-glazing complexity.
Anyone who has raised kids in the middle-class neighborhoods of multipolar LA might chuckle at the thought of trying to define urban or suburban. In “inner” San Fernando Valley Barbecue Belt communities like Encino, Sherman Oaks, and Studio City, your family can call for a Deli delivery at 2AM. You might run into entertainment industry executives or movie craft workers lunching at the local coffee shop; many of their offices and studios are right in the neighborhood, as are numerous other “knowledge worker” businesses. And you’re spitting distance (in LA terms, less than a half hour on the freeway) from downtown Hollywood the Getty, or UCLA. If you judge by the restaurant/ workplace/ club scene/ museum index alone, this part of town should qualify as “city,” not “suburb”.
But you’re also likely to enjoy an unattached home: ranch (modest or luxurious), bungalow (tiny and deteriorating or spiffy and renovated), or McMansion. If you’re in an apartment, it’s likely to be garden style, not a high rise.
The best of both worlds. Two geographies, joined at the hip? Not quite: it’s a marriage of convenience with a few downsides. First, you can’t talk about being an LA parent without talking transportation. Whether you are in the less dense communities of the valley, the hills, and the beach areas, or in the more urban-feeling neighborhoods like Hollywood, if you’re an LA parent you are tethered to your car.
When the suburban car-dependent culture melds with urban fear of crime and nightmarish traffic, the end game can be the worst of both worlds.
Everyone knows that LA’s geography sprawls, and one result has been limited public transportation. To take the subway, we need to drive to the station (8 miles, in our case), and then find parking. Buses are more prevalent, but often stop far from a journey’s start or finish.
Think it’s just another LA whine about a walk further than curb to car door? I’m a native New Yorker who—I believe—feels more positively about public transportation than many who write for this site. But I challenge you to walk three quarters of a mile on a 108 degree day with a couple of little kids to catch a bus.
For adolescents, a certain lack of independence is an inevitable result; for parents, the urge to infantilize is rampant. I can say without exaggeration that our first daughter never once stepped out our front door and walked to a specific destination. We lived in the hills — no shops or friends within a couple of miles — surrounded by country-like winding roads… packed with high speed commuter traffic. The local school was only about a mile away, but it was down a sidewalk-free canyon, often littered with dead dogs, cats, coyotes, and the occasional deer, mowed down at the nexus of city and country. Like many LA parents, we drove our kid everywhere.
We tried a different approach with our second daughter: a street close to busses and the neighborhood’s main drag. Initially, the strategy didn’t work too well. Few of her fourteen-year-old friends would ride a bus. Some had never crossed a commercial street and were afraid to try, and a couple were not permitted to do so (yes, there’s a crosswalk and traffic light).
The parental DDQ (Daily Drive Quotient) here is magnified by the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), which does not provide school buses for local kids to reach their district schools. A four mile round trip can become a 40-minutes-twice-a-day time warp. Walk? Sure, if your route has sidewalks; many don’t. Car pool? There’s a reason that school driveways are clogged with Navigators, Yukons and Suburbans. Working parents often need to get to work on time. That translates into the sought-after one-drive-per-week carpool. But only the biggest SUVs can accommodate five families. And for those with kids in two or three different schools, it’s two carpools and all chauffeuring all the time.
Long commutes to school are a plague in many remote locations. But in Los Angeles, the school system is at the same time famously beset with typical urban education problems: a large poor and non–English speaking population, aging physical plants, and a mind-boggling administrative bureaucracy.
Our kids attended public elementary school in Bel Air. Sounds classy, doesn’t it? Check out the rest rooms; make that singular (the second one did not function during either of their stints). The principal claimed that she could not find a janitor willing to drive to the relatively remote site for the part time job. Our kid’s second grade teacher asked parents to please bring in writing paper because “I would like them to do creative writing, and if everyone pitches in we can make it happen.”
How could LAUSD be anything but dysfunctional? It’s a behemoth. The student population has now dropped to just below 700,000, but it still has more students than Vermont, Alaska, or Boston has total residents; its population is about twice that of Cincinnati.
Los Angeles has numerous poor neighborhoods, but you don’t need to raise your children in Beverly Hills to incur the stratospheric costs common to elite cities. Many LA neighborhoods may look like déclassé small towns from the perspective of Malibu or Beverly Hills. But in a ‘real’ small town or city, a teenager on a night out might pay $3.50 for a grilled cheese sandwich with fries (I have a 2008 Wilkes Barre, PA receipt as documentation), instead of about $10 here. And housing costs here, even in extremely modest neighborhoods, and even during the current real estate cataclysm, soar above the national average.
It’s not just the economics of child-raising in LA that suffer from a clash of suburban and urban. The social blend of the two geographies can also be uncomfortable. I’ve lived in Los Angeles for 25 years, and truly love many aspects of life here. But “it takes a village” are fighting words in a place where it can be a challenge to identify—let alone mobilize—the people next door.
A neighbor on our street recently won a brand-sponsored contest for an ice cream Block Party. We walked over with our daughter and discovered that, as we had suspected, several other teenagers lived within a few houses.
The older residents explained that ‘everyone here used to know each other, when we all had little kids the same age.’
The teenagers, of course, went to a variety of schools; parents here often move their kids between private schools, public magnets, and district schools. They had a friendly chat and discovered some friends in common. But I don’t think they will ever meet again. If they do, it will undoubtedly be through some social network that’s irrelevant to the geography of this LA street.
Zina Klapper is a writer and editor based in the Los Angeles area. She is a partner in Pop Twist Entertainment and a former editor of Mother Jones.