New Year in Los Angeles

Kinda weird for a Soviet immigrant like me to realize that you fled one failing society only to end up in a society that was also entering an accelerated phase of decline and degradation.

Evgenia and I were back in LA earlier this month.

When we left our cheap rent controlled apartment in Santa Monica in 2015 and moved to New York, it was the very end of the Obama Era. Hyper-gentrification had majorly kicked in, tech companies were moving in, the real estate bubble had been reinflated, and everyone pretended like the biggest financial crash since the Great Depression had never really happened. Being back now, nothing’s really changed — except that LA feels even more like Elysium but without the space station: richer, more inflated, and a lot more wrecked.

You probably read the headlines about LA catastrophic homeless problem. Well, it’s bad. Really bad.

Right before I left LA four years ago, I wrote a story and made a short doc with Rowan Wernham about the brutal way homeless people are treated here in LA — focusing on Google’s innovative New Economy strategy of hiring aggressive private security guards to physically attack and drive away homeless people living in tents near its brand new campus in Venice Beach, down the street from where I lived. All over LA, things have only gotten worse.

Echo Park Lake, which is a few blocks from where we’re temporarily staying, looks like a refugee camp. Most of the flat lawn space is packed with tents. There was a leisurely outdoor yoga class there this weekend held in front of a row of tents — soggy and rank after a few nights of rainstorms. Just across the 101, the infamous MacArthur Park looks like a refugee camp that itself had been destroyed in a hurricane. There’s debris and trash and human waste spread around everywhere. Walking on Sunset Boulevard last night, it seemed like five out of four people on were homeless — wandering around in a haze, begging, sleeping on the sidewalks.

It’s sad and brutal. There are camps everywhere. Under underpasses, onramps, off-ramps, sidewalks, and unclaimed suburban corners. There’s a small camp down the street from our place set against an earthen slope abutting an underpass — which you can partially see in the photo above. It was washed out by the rain and infested with rats and surrounded by rotting furniture, trash, and clothes. Wherever Evgenia and I go in this city, we see people reduced to a subcaste — while people around us just scurry by and pretend not to notice.

Everyone here agrees it’s bad and everyone is embarrassed by it. But nothing’s really being done. LA’s been throwing hundreds of millions of dollars at the problem, only to see homelessness grow by something like 15 or 20 percent a year here. Donald Trump’s people have been talking up his plans to resettle California’s homeless into camps far outside of Los Angeles. He wants deal with the issue by criminalizing rockbottom poverty and hiding it. My guess is that his plan will be received warmly here in liberal, anti-Trump California — even if people will be too embarrassed to admit it. Even the “progressive” cities like Berkeley have been out front in waging a legal war to push homelessness out of sight.

It’s a sick joke and an indictment California’s happy progressive neoliberalism: the idea that you can outsource all your politics to private, corporate power and let these forces run society in any way they see fit and then hope to soften the destruction they leave behind with a few superficial social programs. It never really worked. Now it’s just obvious. Homelessness here in LA shows what this liberal way of life really looks like: it’s Lynch’s Mulholland Drive behind-the-dumpster monster smeared in shit, giving people heart attacks.

Walking around LA and looking at how fucked things are this holiday season got me thinking…and I realized that this year — 2020 — will mark the 30th anniversary of my family coming to America from the Soviet Union.

We welcomed 1990 with a few other families over some snacks in a trailer inside our refugee camp in Ostia, Italy. That March we came to New York and a few months later we made our way to San Francisco, where my dad got a job working as a Japanese translator. San Francisco was a rundown, real city. There wasn’t a tech boom yet and coastal California hadn’t yet been denuded by wealth and real estate development and speculation.

Looking around, I gotta say that these decades have not been kind to the America Way of Life. In the time that we’ve been here, just about everything’s gotten worse — more billionaires, more pollution and environmental collapse, more inequality, more wage theft, more energy consumption, more garbage production, more wars, more privatization, more school shootings, more poverty, and of course much much more homelessness. With every year the pitch of the decline has gotten steeper and steeper and it feels like we’re now in free fall. There’s systemic failure and stagnation on every level, papered-over with lies and self-deception. Hell, even basic things like recycling turned out to be a failure and a petro-industry consumerist scam.

It’s strange for a Soviet immigrant like me to realize how rotten everything is around here. My Cold War immigrant story should have been about a bright young man being saved from a grim fate under Soviet authoritarianism, living out his life in a dynamic and prosperous free society. There should have been a classic Hollywood ending. But the script is different under late stage American neoliberalism. Turns out that my family fled one failed society only to once again end up in a society that was just beginning to enter an accelerated phase of stagnation and collapse. We had escaped the tail end of one disaster only to be caught up in the start of an even bigger unfolding catastrophe. And this time, there’s nowhere to run. The American Way of Life has conquered the world.

Happy New Year!

—Yasha Levine

PS: Speaking of homelessness, it’s kinda fitting that I played a homeless man being exploited by a documentary filmmaker in Evgenia’s brilliant mockumentary, Changemaker.

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