San Francisco was easy to love. Los Angeles is harder.
I moved to San Francisco when I was 23. I had spent a lonely and drunken season after graduation in Washington, D.C, interning at an antipoverty nonprofit at a time when the federal government wanted to solve Katrina through free-enterprise zones and tax credits. The work was depressing; I was miserable. So when a friend called and asked if I wanted to move to San Francisco with him, it was an easy yes.
Like lots of middle class types, I do this thing where I imagine myself in a movie. It's dumb and childish and leads to valuing the wrong types of things, but there it is. (Judging by the number of Instagram accounts, I don't think I'm the only one.) This little movie I like to film in my head is never so pretty, never so well composed as the reality of my life in SF.
San Francisco was coming over a hill and seeing the whole city tossed out in front of you like a tablecloth, the clouds skimming in from the bay, draping shadows over the buildings. It was Dolores Park at the end of a Saturday afternoon, the evening purpling out from behind Twin Peaks as a slow-moving wall of fog poured down the hill. It was riding bikes through the empty FiDi at night, headed toward the pier in 2008 when Angel Island burned and glowed like an ember in the dark waters of the bay.
It's hard not to appreciate San Francisco. Even when I was stressed and sad, San Francisco would grab me by the scruff of the neck, remind me that I lived in one of the most beautiful cities in the world. I'd climb to the top of Bernal Heights or settle into a showing of Dark Passage at the Castro Theatre (with the projected light actually making the screen silver) and San Francisco would remind me of why it was worth it.
I'm not trying to review the city. Yelp would be even shittier for cities than it is for brunch places. "Came here with the girlfriend. Was gaga for Golden Gate Bridge, and the Mission is muy bueno. Wasn't a huge fan of the fog. And Muni, could we talk about maybe explaining this whole 'step down' thing? Four stars." But I loved San Francisco and it wasn't difficult at all.
Before I moved to LA, I'd been to the city exactly five times and never once had the thought of "This seems like the place for me." But last winter, I was 29 and reeling from a layoff, marooned in the world of marketing, and I got a job offer in Los Angeles. This time it wasn't an easy yes, but I accepted. On New Year's Day 2012, I packed up and made the long, ugly drive down the I-5 to Los Angeles.
What I loved about San Francisco was that I could hold the whole thing in my head. It was small enough to do that. It's a continuous pattern of one thing, with variations, spread out over 49 square miles. I can't do that here. Los Angeles is countless medium-sized cities, connected by sprawl and highways. It's too much, there's no pattern, there's no guiding principle except the coastline and the hills. You can't even say where the thing ends.
If San Francisco wouldn't shut the fuck up about its loveliness, Los Angeles is quite content to let you miss it all if you're not looking for it. Encapsulated in the bubble of my little Honda Civic and daily commute, it's easy to experience Los Angeles as a series of stoplights, strip malls, and surface streets. That movie I'm making in my head seems sadder, more like the opening scenes to a downer film about urban anomie, when it just features me poking at my radio presets while stuck in traffic on Wilshire Blvd. instead of soaring down Market St. on my bike.
Los Angeles takes work. San Francisco is playing "Heart and Soul" on the piano, or "Brown Eyed Girl" on guitar. It's simple as hell and you'll have fun doing it. Los Angeles is one of those Beatles songs that seems simple but actually requires odd tunings and has like a 11/8 time signature. Los Angeles is gonna feel strange for a long time before it feels right.
So I've tried to put the work in. I've spent weekends riding my bike past the taco trucks of East LA, through the quiet, stately streets of Miracle Mile before ending up at druggy washes of Venice Beach and the cliffs of Santa Monica. I've sat on a blanket listening to Cut Chemist, and watched The Terminator in the Hollywood Forever Cemetery as a meteor shower zipped across the sky overhead. I've gotten up early on Sunday mornings to swing out across the 2 to the Rose Bowl Flea Market, followed by soup dumplings in the San Gabriel Valley. I've slapped a racing form against my thigh and happily lost money on the horses in Inglewood while watching planes float into LAX. But it doesn't come as easily to me as San Francisco did. There are plenty of days when I really like LA, but loving it? That’ll take some time.
But I also wonder if that matters so much. Because a city isn't about the movie you're making in your head. It's the day-in, day-out push of work and home and making your life livable. And in a lot of ways, I think Los Angeles is better for that than San Francisco.
Because San Francisco is a boutique city. It's small and charming and full of achingly tasteful stuff that I'll never be able to afford. Los Angeles is a mega-mall, huge and sprawling and without curation, but filled with the things I can build a life around.
San Francisco is a place that welcomes you in your 20s. It wants to hear about your band, your start-up, your idea for a novel. But San Francisco gets a little bored, starts checking its phone, when you get into your 30s. San Francisco thinks your desire for more than two bedrooms is a little predictable. When you begin to talk about the difference between a Roth IRA and a 401(k), San Francisco is frankly not so into it. San Francisco thinks maybe you should look at Los Gatos or Concord or Texas or something when you start going on about public schools. San Francisco offers very high quality of life, but it needs to be a certain type of life and it doesn't come cheap. And if you can't afford it? San Francisco wishes you the best of luck and also wants to know who will be renting your place when you leave.
Things that were nightmares in San Francisco are easy here. My first trip to Ikea in Emeryville was a death march back to the city with 60 pounds of particleboard furniture hauled from shuttle bus to BART to Muni and then up hill on Divisadero. My first trip to Target in Los Angeles, I wanted to embrace my fellow shoppers in the parking lot and shake them by the shoulders as we loaded our bags in our respective cars. "We don't have to ride BART! We don't have to ride BART!"
From the outside, the packed-in density of San Francisco looks more like a city than the auto-aided sprawl of Los Angeles. But Los Angeles is the actual city, a megalopolis of dizzying variety, more than 200 languages spoken within its borders. San Francisco is obsessed with the past. Los Angeles thinks the past is nice as long as it can make itself useful. For a transplant like me, there's something to be said for the latter.
And then there's this: Los Angeles is the place where I've gotten well. Where I've finally started giving a shit about what I eat, how much I drink. Where after work I join all the other assholes in the gym, sweating and staring off into the middle distance with headphones on. Where my bank account balance ticks up by a bit each month instead of wavering between "Oh, shit" and "Oh, fucking goddamn hell."
I'll always miss San Francisco. I'll never be 23 again, never move to a city with just a suitcase and get that panoramic surge of newness.
San Francisco was easy, but easy can be overrated. Los Angeles has been tricky, but tricky keeps me working to carve out a life here. I'm not very good at LA, yet. I kind of suck at it. But I remember how good I got at San Francisco, and how much that meant to me. If I could manage to get that good at Los Angeles, I think it would mean even more.