As we slowly disappear
I just read this op ed piece in today’s LA Times. The scenes the writer describe seem so remote from the affluence that still prevails where I live, yet the California county (Riverside) the writer describes is adjacent to the county (Orange) in which I live. Maybe it is not as remote as I think.
This story is so powerful I am going to post the entire piece here.
California’s Inland Empire
By Susan Straight
March 8, 2009
First in a series
At night, I can hear the soft thumps as the rats land on my roof. They launch themselves from the branches of the apricot tree because they want to get inside my attic, into a house with heat.
The house next door, and the one next to that, have been empty since October. Their yards have gone feral, with hundreds of dandelion heads glistening gray in the night.
The rats are cold and hungry. The skunks have a den somewhere next door, where the metal shed was dismantled. Opossums, raccoons and lizards have colonized the abandoned yards on my block in Riverside. And it’s spooky, at night, to see so much darkness, to hear skittering, to keep an eye out for homeless people trying to break in and sleep, to listen for the sounds of desperate humans and animals.
Last week, a woman stole a pair of shoes right off my neighbor Maria’s front porch. Maria woke her son, who ran down the street and confronted the woman. She threw the shoes back at him. After a pair of clippers disappeared from my yard, I’ve started taking ladders and anything else of possible worth inside at night.
Our mailman, Randy, said this week that from what he sees in his letter bag (he reminds me that Americans have no secrets from the letter carrier), about one in eight homes in our neighborhood are in foreclosure or a few months away. The street already has six empty houses, some vacant for nearly a year. And people walking aimlessly in the street make life eerie and uncertain.
Here in the Inland Empire, we joke that our people are canaries but we don’t die.
Our foreclosure rate was the highest in the country for many months; Riverside County’s unemployment rate is 12.2%. But we do recession better than many places. We have experience. In the 1980s, we lost Kaiser Steel and many other manufacturers; from 1992-94, the unemployment rate for the Riverside-San Bernardino metro area averaged 10%, with an astonishing 12.1% in July 1992.
But this feels different. More desperate. Last year, after the price of copper skyrocketed, metal theft was rampant; thieves stole catalytic converters from parked cars, brass plaques from headstones and monuments, faucets and bushings from fire hydrants, copper wire from schools and parks. Thieves strip foreclosed homes, identifying them by "Bank Owned" signs in the dead lawns. Water heaters, copper pipes, electrical equipment — all torn from walls and floors, homes destroyed.
I haven’t slept well for about a year. For a while, I woke up at night to check on my daughter’s Honda, which was broken into repeatedly. We knew it was a prime target. But recently it was stolen from in front of her friend’s house, in the 15 minutes she left it to go inside. On Presidents Day, my ex-husband and I drove to a towing yard in San Bernardino near the Colton border to retrieve what was left of the car when police found it. The guy who brought it to me shook his head.
Stripped. Everything gone but the fast-food trash the thieves had strewn on the floor. "I’ll call the salvage guy for new door panels and seats," my ex-husband said. Then he rolled his eyes. "He only takes cash, but my tax refund’s gonna be an IOU, right?"
We drove through streets of boarded-up bungalows, the neighborhoods of old California now turning back to wild oats and silvery foxtails so high the windows were obscured. Men wandered the potholed streets looking like something out of a current-day Steinbeck novel.
To say we might lose "community" is too simple. We are already more isolated and urbanized than in the past. But to lose the community on my street, the street I’ve lived on for 22 years, breaks my heart.
We watch out for each other. A neighbor with orange trees brings me bags of navels, which I share with other neighbors. I give Maria eggs from my chickens and winter tomatoes and oranges, and she brings us foods from her native Philippines — chicken adobo and pancit.
But increasingly there are things we can’t help each other with. Down the block, my neighbors — waitresses and home day-care workers and contractors and retired people — are all nervous about whether they’ll have jobs tomorrow. One neighbor sold many of her belongings last year in a series of yard sales, trying to make house payments; her husband, an adult-education teacher, was furloughed for the summer, and his hours for this school year were cut. They are filing for bankruptcy.
A few days ago, police were at Maria’s; someone had tried to carjack her son at gunpoint for his truck. And from my kitchen window, I saw police at a house on the next street. After work, my youngest and I smelled smoke on that street, so several neighbors and I ran to see whether the elderly widows on the block were OK. The fire was put out quickly, but one man said to me, "A bad day on this street." Earlier that morning, police arriving to evict a woman found her dead. A woman in her 30s, in a rental house, who’d lost her job some months before and was being evicted, had hanged herself.
None of us can get her out of our minds, because we didn’t help her. We didn’t know. She hadn’t been here long. I can see the roof of her house as I wash dishes, and when I go to bed, I can hear the rats gnawing at the chicken wire over the vents on my roof.
Lisa thats incredible – very sad.
You say you are not too far from there – are your streets showing any sign of this?
Grr posted too earlt
I was going to ask – as this came from main news – could it be a fear propoganda piece or do you think this is real?
Gifts, this is directly from the Los Angeles Times Sunday op eds. The Los Angeles Times is certainly a reputable newspaper and this is most definitely not a fear mongering propaganda piece.
Yes, the county described is the county next to the one in which I live. The "Inland Empire" as it is nicknamed, is the vast swath of Southern California that is directly east of Los Angeles, Orange and San Diego counties. Many of the Inland Empire residents bought there because it was much cheaper than buying on the coast. We on the coast are not experiencing this level of foreclosure at all. In fact, where I live, although there are foreclosures, they are hidden. I have not seen a single one and my area remains as lovely as always (at least for now). I have not been to the Inland Empire for quite awhile but I have heard from many of my friends who have been out there and they describe entire neighborhoods that look like they are in foreclosure,.
Then thats awful lisa.
I didnt mean to doubt – i live in country australia so i wouldnt know what was a reputable paper or not.
Ive seen pictures and stories of tent cities over there and thats frightening in itself.
This hasnt come to my area at all – yet – but if it does – i think ill take my 4wd and campervan and head even more inland australia.
Thank you so much for posting this! I know Susan, and I know exactly where she lives. We lived in Riverside for more than a decade, before moving down to the Temecula Valley, which is also foreclosure ground zero.
Susan’s neighborhood is the wood streets of Riverside, it was a pricier version of my neighborhood, with lovely craftsman era homes, well cared for. Riverside has always had it’s gritty edge, with gang issues, homeless folks and property crimes. What she writes sounds like an escalation of the problems that have always been there. She is a fabulous writer, and as is the magic of wonderful writers, she can take certain elements from life and craft a larger and more poignant story from them than the rest of the folks around her would necessarily see or interpret.
We sold our Riverside house and moved 40 minutes south in 2001. And, thank god, we sold that tract house in Nov. 2007. We check in with our neighbors in Murrieta every couple of months, and for them, the changes are not that dramatic. In fact, the only striking development I’ve heard, (aside from the vaporising home equity, which folks seem resigned to) was when our neighbor Mark banded together with some civic minded folks from what we called "the rich people’s neighborhood" across the four-lane road to go out once a month last summer and mow the lawns of foreclosures to keep the neighborhood looking good, but that’s about the most apocalyptic thing I’ve heard out of anyone. Most folks are just getting on with life. In fact I was stunned to go back in November and trade massage with another therapist I know and hear that her business had actually picked up through much of last year. One of the (many) reasons I wanted to leave was my thinking that my massage therapy business would surely suffer with the downturn that was already apparent when we put our house up for sale.
For what it’s worth,
eta: I was just telling my husband about this story. He used to work at the LA Times, and one of his good friends, who is an editor still at the Times, lives in the really gritty/cool part of old downtown Riverside, closer to the homeless park and the Greyhound bus station than Susan’s neighborhood. Steve talked to him just the other week and Rueben didn’t say a thing about crime or Riverside falling apart, and Steve’s sure he would have gone on at length about it if he were concerned.
I guess I say all this because, while I am as invested as the next person on this site that my guesses are right about where we’re headed (some of the decisions I’ve made are going to look very foolish and costly if this ship rights itself and sails on), but I am also a journalist and a storyteller and I know how newspaper articles are written.
I’ve read a half-dozen in recent months that chronicle the wasteland that is my former home, the I-15 corridor from Corona down to Lake Elsinore and on into Murrieta. GQ had a stunning one about bobcats living in empty subdivisions. It’s a great read, and it’s not a lie, but it’s not the whole story. The truth of the matter is, life isn’t that different for folks at ground zero. They’re still going out to dinner. My folks still have to wait in line at the Red Lobster in Temecula for a half an hour on a Friday evening.
I think it’s important to remember that only part of the story can ever get reported in any given article, and that for maximum impact, it’s going to be the most dramatic part of the story and it’s going to overstate what’s going on right now.
It’s entirely possible that Susan is seeing into the future and the desperation she chronicles will spread, but it’s not there yet, from what I’m hearing. I find it very confusing trying to reconcile the accounts from former neighbors and friends with what I"m reading in the media.
Thanks for posting that because I also feel a sort of "cognitive dissonance" when I observe everyday life vs all I read. It reminds me of when I lived in Israel in the mid-1990’s after Rabin’s assassination. There were indeed a lot of terrorist attacks at that time, but life was "normal" if you didn’t happen to be near any attacks. But if you were outside of Israel and keeping up on the news, you would figure the streets were blowing up all over the place. Chris Martenson talks about this in one of his podcasts (forgot which one) – our observations vs what we believe is happening. And recently Davos included a Daily Digest post that was a narrative written by someone who lived through the Great Depression. That writer’s observations, at least to me, felt like I do now. Life continues to go on but slowly deteriorates. In any event, I am sure there will be plenty of people from Riverside County who will respond to the LA Times article. It will be interesting to read the letters to the editor.
Lisa, I was just thinking of that same link from Davos! The one that goes to a book summary about living through the depression and still finding joy?I think Susan’s story is what will be told after the fact about this time, and it will paint a painful and grim picture. But I think many people’s actual experiences will be less dramatic, for the most part, and less disruptive. I toggle back and forth between thinking we’re the frogs in the pot of slowly boiling water and thinking that human minds are primed to seek out conflict, crisis and tragedy, thus overshadowing the stability, happiness and ease that exists in the moment.
The reason I keep mulling all this over is I don’t want to guess wrong about what steps will benefit and protect my family. And I’m mindful of my impulse to catastrophise. I guess all I can do is keep taking the most reasonable sounding steps, knowing that what sounds reasonable will shift as apparent conditions shift…
Inland Empire was the neighbourhood that was featured in one of Davos’s blogs- it showed the trashout squad doing booming business clearing out abandoned foreclosed houses.