My neighbors moved out two weeks ago. They had been on the block sixteen years, and their absence means, among other things, that the rest of us are struggling to put up the Christmas decorations on the forty or so tree trunks that line the street. I can tell you from experience that this is work. For years, Marcia had been the one-woman committee who spearheaded the tree wrapping, buying giant rolls of aluminum foil each season, and recruiting people to help; the whole thing took a minimum of two days. Though Marcia sometimes grumbled about not getting all the help she needed, she was always proud of her handiwork. It matters, she told me more than once during the cold morning hours spent wrapping and stapling foil to the magnolias and elms. The block ought to look nice at Christmastime, not plain or indifferent. It needs to send a message.
But she and her husband are gone now, and nobody in the block club is taking her place, not yet. I just don't think anybody expected them to be gone so soon. Marcia had always talked about going back to Arkansas, where she and her husband are from -- she said she could get a fine house for $60,000 there -- but she also said there were no jobs. L.A. is far more expensive but it also has a deep, diversified economy that Arkansas can only dream about. So they stayed. Still, for the last two years Marcia talked about having a bigger house, one with ample closet space and then some, not necessarily in Arkansas, but somewhere well east of L.A. and its obsession with ZIP codes that fell within a ten-mile radius of the beach.
By that measure, Inglewood qualifies as prime property. But that's not how the real estate market sees it. After the housing bubble burst back in '08, houses in our area slid from the $500,000 range to $400,000 to less than that, and they're still sliding. It doesn't mean they aren't selling: Marcia and her husband sold their place less than a month after it was put on the market. They got less than $300,000, but that's hardly bad news to them because they bought 16 years ago and made their money back. They made a profit. Not so me. My husband and I bought our place in 2004 at exactly the wrong moment, it turns out; housing speculation was at an all-time high, so high that $450,000 seemed reasonable for blue-collar south Inglewood. In hindsight, that amount was ridiculous and unsustainable. Economic recovery notwithstanding, the half-million dollar bubble in these parts has not come back, nor should it.
That means that people like my husband and me can't move anytime soon, unless we don't mind losing the money it took to get here (or to return here -- I grew up nearby and always thought it was a place I'd leave). Of course, the goal was to settle down and not go anywhere for a long while -- to claim home -- but the idea that we couldn't go if we needed to is, well, unsettling. People tell us we'll just have to wait it out, whatever "it" is. I suppose they have to say something to refute the notion that real estate is no longer the gold it once was. California is no Arkansas -- Marcia said that many times -- but it isn't paradise anymore, either. I'll have to be satisfied with my closet space. Marcia is still looking at places in Moreno Valley, where bedroom closets are big enough to put an armchair in. Paradise indeed.
Journalist and op-ed columnist Erin Aubry Kaplan's first-person accounts of politics and identity in Los Angeles, with an eye towards the city's African American community, appear every Thursday on KCET's SoCal Focus blog. Read all her posts here.