A Bear Walks Into A Neighborhood

I still love Los Angeles. Will I ever be able to go back?

I awoke Thursday morning to the news that a bear was roaming the streets of my old neighborhood in Los Angeles. At that point there was only one photo in circulation, a shadowy image of a large black bear moseying past a garden wall in the northeast L.A. enclave of Eagle Rock. By the time I caught up with the story, the bear was already the subject of countless social media posts and even had its own Twitter account, where it was tweeting jokes like how angry is your cat that it has to stay in? and fly me from Eagle Rock to Mars @elonmusk.

I was both charmed and alarmed, a common response to cute-but-ultimately-disturbing photos or videos of wild animals in places they should’t be. Los Angeles is rife with critters that venture into populous and less-than-suitable human spaces. As urban sprawl colonizes the foothills and displaces everything it touches, it’s only natural (in the most unnatural sort of way) that creatures like bobcats, mountain lions and the occasional bear find their ways into backyards. In the first house I ever owned, a tiny Spanish bungalow in the hills of Echo Park, coyotes were so comfortable in our midst that my next-door neighbor routinely found one sleeping in her terrace lawn chair.

My own backyard was lined with a rickety privacy fence and my dog Rex would often press his nose against the spaces between the planks as small clusters of coyotes gathered on the other side, equally curious about him. While packs of coyotes are notorious predators for small pets, Rex was large enough that I didn’t worry. Are those your wild canine cousins? I took to asking him. (I asked Rex lots of questions, including “how do I look in this outfit?”) From there, I took to referring to the coyotes as “cousins.” The cousins are singing to you! I’d say to Rex when the nighttime quiet was suddenly punctured by the yipping of coyotes celebrating a fresh kill (probably someone’s cat). Later, when I moved with my then-husband to a house in the Eagle Rock neighborhood where that bear roamed on Wednesday, a flock of wild green parrots would occasionally descend into the magnolia trees that lined the sidewalk.

What I’m saying is that L.A., despite the ways in which it’s an overcrowded hellscape of shallow desperation and bad lip filler, is also a wild place. And deliciously so. On hiking trails and mountain passes all over the city, canine cousins and their second and third relatives-once-removed prowl the urban backcountry like wily security patrollers. There are bobcats in the Santa Monica Mountains and cougars in the Hollywood Hills. As if protecting the citizenry from some of our worse instincts — the urge to veer off the path on a morning jog, the desire to have an off-trail picnic deep in the gorges of Griffith Park — these creatures act as both novelty and menace. We fear them and delight in them in equal measure. We love having them around, but hate ourselves for feeling that love.

But that’s what it is to have an affinity for Los Angeles, especially if you’re not a native. The more it grows on you, the more you start to wonder about your taste and sanity. When I left L.A. five and half years ago, there was no question that I would come back. For reasons that I’ve written about quite enough by now, I needed to get away for awhile, so I returned to New York City, where I’d lived in my twenties and where, I told myself, my “industry” was based.

In the time since I’ve been back in New York, the publishing and media industry has been obliterated into tiny particles. Writing contracts and regular jobs have turned into fly-by-night freelance work and Substack endeavors. Even before the pandemic shut everyone down, the creative economy was turning us all into Uber drivers, metaphorically if not literally. I’ve always been a freelancer. I pride myself on being professionally resilient, steely in the face of financial uncertainty, as scrappy as a coyote. I have, historically, been willing to take any kind of writing assignment, from celebrity profiles to writing the copy on vitamin bottle labels, as long as it let me make ends meet.

Today, the words you are now reading represent the only steady paying gig I have left. I’m not especially panicked about this, partly because I have faith in the other things I’m working on and partly because a constant, low-grade panic has been integral to my career since the moment it began. But I am, as time goes by, increasingly concerned about my relationship to Los Angeles. As much as I love it, I’m beginning to fear it. I fear what it’s become and also what I’ve become. I fear that it’s become unlivable. Which is maybe another way of saying is that I fear that I no longer have what it takes to live there.

Last September, temperatures reached 121 degrees in the San Fernando Valley town of Woodland Hills. It’s always hot in Woodland Hills, but this was the highest temperature ever recorded there. The entire month of September was California’s warmest since the weather service started keeping track in 1880. Mercifully, the state’s miserable 2011 to 2017 drought abated in 2019. But since I left in 2015, temperatures in Southern California have risen every year. Along with those temperatures came the most devastating fire seasons in the state’s history.

When I moved to Los Angeles in 2003, I would brag to naysayers that the region’s legendary smog was a thing of the past (thanks in part to auto emissions standards) and that the air was cleaner than in many less-densely populated places in the country. But in recent years, the air quality has dipped back to where it was in the mid-1990s. You’d think that home prices might have dipped along with it, but housing has never been less affordable. While the pandemic caused rents and real estate prices in New York City to go down, the Los Angeles housing market has boomed, with prices rising by more than 10 percent since December of 2019.

The median home price in Los Angeles is now $600,000, which actually makes me laugh because most $600,000 homes I’ve run across on my compulsive Redfin searches are essentially tear-downs. My tiny bungalow in hip-but-still-hardly-ritzy Echo Park is now, according to Zillow, worth more than a million dollars. Again, this makes me laugh, because if that house were listed for sale today it would undoubtedly receive multiple all-cash offers for higher than the asking price. Another reason this makes me laugh is because I’m trying not to cry.

Here’s another thing that’s hilarious: before the pandemic hit, my longterm plan was to keep my apartment in New York City, sporadically sublet it, become a homeowner in Los Angeles again and be bicoastal. Hahahaha! Instead, I’m living in the smallest space I’ve occupied since my early twenties, paying more rent than I could sublet the place for and am stuck with more JetBlue miles than I’m probably ever going to use in my post-pandemic lifetime. This predicament could be easily solved if I hated it here. Unfortunately, I love my apartment. As small as it is, I could — and frequently do — stare at the view all day. I adore my building and my neighbors and have fun at most of the social functions I get invited to, at least I did back when social functions were a thing. Even my huge dog thrives here. When he complains about living in an apartment, I remind him that there’s snow here rather than 121-degree autumn days.

But I am not someone who can live in New York City on a permanent, full-time basis. I need open spaces and hiking trails. Ideally, I need bursting succulents and bougainvillea-splashed hillsides and the shrill harmonies of cousins howling at night. As much as I cherish the winter sunset outside my apartment window, there is still no light as sumptuous as the blue-golden hue that hangs over late afternoons in Los Angeles. They call this the magic hour for a reason. It’s the hour that makes up for all the hours spent in traffic, in rage-filled Trader Joe’s parking lots, in withering self-doubt.

Is self-doubt what’s plaguing me now? Is my problem the same one so many of us have right now, that the pandemic has set us so far back on our heels that we can’t remember what we were once heading toward? Or is it that Los Angeles, like much of California, has become its own explosive device? More than a paradise lost, it’s a paradise scorched. That isn’t to say I’m not still determined to get back there. But somehow the image of that bear in my old neighborhood gave me . . . (sorry) pause. The bear had no business being there but he came nonetheless. His habitat had become uninhabitable. So he went over the mountain to see what he could see.

Did he see a world that was unlivable? Who knows, but apparently he knew an opportunity when he saw one. Around 1am, a few hours after the bear was reported to have left the area peacefully, a local resident tweeted “UPDATE: The Eagle Rock Bear has just flipped a 1500 square-foot craftsman north of Colorado Blvd for a 500k profit.”

I guess I’m stuck here for awhile.

Weekly blogger for Medium. Host of @TheUnspeakPod. Author of six books, including The Problem With Everything. www.theunspeakablepodcast.com www.meghandaum.com

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