An entire generation of middle-class workers has been priced out of their hometown

By Kyle Knoll

Pricey new homes have replaced the old Hughes runway under the LMU bluffs
Photo by Kyle Knoll

It’s easy to get lost in Westchester these days. The neighborhood I grew up in is nearly unrecognizable.

I was filling up at the gas station on Jefferson and Centinela this summer when a driver in his early sixties sidled up to me in a faded red SUV, his grandson eyeing me pensively from the bench back seat. With a mixture of frustration and flat-out embarrassment in his voice, the man asked me for directions to
the beach.

“I used to remember how to get there, and I’m trying to go off of memory,” he explained, struggling in the shadow of new Playa Vista apartments to recall
the exact route of many sun-soaked trips as a younger man. “But with all of this new construction, I feel like I’m in an entirely new place. I’m completely lost.
I used to be able to just see the coast and go that way.”

Growing up in Westchester in the 1990s and 2000s, I used to enjoy the same wide-open coastal views that had been this man’s North Star to the coastline. I remember being a teenager and driving west down Jefferson Boulevard with a driver’s license that had been in my wallet less time than it took to obtain it at the DMV. With Loyola Marymount University perched on the Westchester Bluffs to my left and the masts of ambling mega yachts in Marina del Rey harbor on my right, the Ballona Wetlands opened-up into a naturally framed vista of California beauty. A patchwork of muddy ditches running along the old Hughes Aircraft Co. runway and the occasional meandering cloud filled up the expanse in between.

But now the Westchester that made me who I am is dead. Suffocating traffic congestion, the corridor of plate glass and steel extending the length of Jefferson and the rebranding of my hometown as “Silicon Beach” are all egregious insults, but none of these are exclusively to blame for killing it. My hometown is dead because it is no longer an affordable place to live for teachers like me and others who used to be able to call themselves middle-class wage earners.

The Westchester of 2019 belongs not to those who grew up here but to corporate executives, high-wage professionals and the new arrivals who code all those
new computer programs that teachers are put-upon to find uses for in their classrooms.

Who would you rather have as your neighbor: a teacher at your child’s elementary school living in a single-story Craftsman, or a reclusive tech-entrepreneur jetsetter who spends as much time in her eight-bedroom vanity project as the guy who details her car spends in her Mercedes?

Property values in Westchester have basically quadrupled since I was born in 1992. The average price among a sample of 46 Westchester homes sold in 1992 was $317,285, according to historic pricing data provided by The Stephanie Younger Group. The average Zillow market estimate for that same sample of homes as of this autumn was $1,247,040.

Teacher salaries in Los Angeles have barely kept pace with inflation over the same period of time. Those salaries used to buy houses in Westchester. Now they hardly cover rent.

Mainstays of a middle-class neighborhood like Gerald’s Hardware store on Manchester Avenue and The Buggy Whip on La Tijera Boulevard have no place in the gateway to Silicon Beach. But a neighborhood without at least one or two cars parked outside on the lawn is hardly a neighborhood at all.

I understand that change has been constant in this town ever since the United States took California from Mexico in 1847 and shortened the name of El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Angeles. The railroad reached Los Angeles in 1876, and Californian technicians were pumping one-quarter of the world’s oil supply from the ground here by 1923. Westchester, Playa del Rey and Venice all housed workers who maintained oil derricks that ran like popsicle sticks stacked along the surf from Santa Monica to Manhattan Beach.

People across the country have looked to Los Angeles as a land of opportunity for far longer than I’ve been alive. They famously include a midcentury Texas oilman eager to step out from his father’s shadow and establish himself in the aviation and movie industries. In 1940, Howard Hughes purchased 380 acres of land two miles inland of the grove of oil wells bunched at the end of Culver Boulevard and turned the land into a private airport. Hughes Aircraft and other aerospace companies powered the takeoff of the local post-World War II economy.

When the UCLA was looking for land on which to build a boathouse along Ballona Creek for its competitive rowers, the Associated Students bought those land rights from the associated Hughes Tool Company. Both my father and I spent countless formative hours rowing predawn laps up and down the creek as Bruin oarsmen. However, even our glorified sewage ditch is changing. The vibrant class and university murals painted along the cement walls of “the creek” — some of them more than 50 years ago — were plastered over with grey paint my senior year. To those who contend that Los Angeles is a place without history, maybe it’s just that our history is being constantly erased.

Admittedly, Westchester also has a history of being an exclusionary and forbidding place. Racial covenants in housing deeds that restricted homeowners from selling their properties to people of color proliferated in “Whitechester” until such covenants were ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 1948.
And unless you are a member of the Gabrielino-Tongva tribe, you currently live on land that was taken from someone at some point in the past, most likely through coercion or by force.

For a restrictively small and privileged population, however, Westchester and the Westside in general did used to be a place of opportunity. My grandparents on both sides of my family came to Santa Monica chasing their own California Dream. My mother’s parents were born in Illinois and Alabama and met at USC shortly before World War II. My father’s parents arrived from Germany in 1957 and opened up a coffee shop on Santa Monica Boulevard in the building that now houses the popular English pub Ye Olde King’s Head.

My parents bought a house on West 76th Street near La Tijera on the Westchester-Inglewood border because of its proximity to the 405 Freeway onramp. My father needed to be close to the freeway in order to get to work at my grandparent’s Santa Monica restaurant, Knoll’s Black Forest Inn.

Just like the railroads replaced the ranchero system at the end of the 19th century, and the aerospace industry replaced the oil and manufacturing industries after that, the likes of Snapchat, Google and YouTube are now displacing the children and grandchildren of former Hughes employees and the small business owners who served them meals.

But does change always have to mean that workers outside the prized industry of the moment are priced out of their hometown?

For all its small-town charm and its strong network of community organizations, living in Westchester is no longer economically viable for teachers, firefighters, police officers and other bedrock blue-collar workers.

Perhaps the new denizens of Silicon Beach will realize this vacuum exists and do something to address housing affordability in Westchester. In the meantime, their children will attend schools staffed by over-caffeinated, under-rested teachers braving extended commutes from far-flung, semi-affordable neighborhoods. And the Westchester kids who become teachers when they grow up will probably have to do the same.