Bigger Ain’t Always Better

When are we going to learn that bigger ain’t always better? And oftentimes, less is more!

Unfortunately, I’ve had a front row seat from which I could view the decline of two of the great cities in the world. I left New York City in the early 70’s at a time of despair, when crime and drugs and poverty were taking a tremendous toll. It was a low point in that incredible city’s amazing history. Then came two great years in Colorado where I discovered mountains and elbow room and clean air, but my ambition to become a filmmaker led me to Los Angeles.

LA to me is a prime example of a failing city but because I’ve been fortunate to have a 40 year career—and counting—as a director; I’ve always had to have a foothold there. Now that foothold has become a toehold and I’ve discovered the wonders of the Pacific Northwest. Why the rap on LA? Because for some reason the city fathers and mothers and brothers and sisters seem to think it’s essential that an already overcrowded, choking city needs to continue to grow.

Recently I listened in astonishment as Larry Mantle, one of my favorite NPR hosts, discussed with his guests why Santa Monica needed to grow. The guests went on and on about how it was essential that the children and grandchildren of the families in that seaside city needed new affordable housing. Some callers mentioned that there was already terrible traffic into, out of and around Santa Monica but not one person mentioned one other tiny little factoid: THERE IS NO WATER! Yes, there is the Pacific Ocean, which is sight for sore eyes, but its water is not potable or drinkable, at least not without a tremendous investment in desalinization or sewage treatment.

The same is true of the whole Los Angeles Basin, and as you move inland from Santa Monica, there is another huge problem: even worse traffic and terrible air quality. Yet, growth continues willy-nilly, building permits are easily obtained, and more and more people are paying higher and higher prices to squeeze into this basin. And did I forget to mention: THERE IS NO WATER! Estimates are that there is a year’s supply of agua in the city’s aquifers and then everyone is doing a collective rain dance and hoping for an El Niño this winter that will magically undo a 5 year drought.

This pattern is happening throughout California, which had its largest population gain in 12 years and now claims 38 million residents, far more than all of vast Canada. Leading the way is the tech sector, which has made San Francisco the most expensive city in America and Santa Monica pretty pricey as well. It puzzles me that these tech wizards don’t see what I see coming: the bursting of the California real estate bubble. Maybe those smarty pants are working on a Rainfall App! Right now, you can buy the same house in awesome Portland, Oregon for about one-quarter the price of a similar house in LA. No kidding.

One of my sons is moving there along with several of his boyhood friends. They’ve been priced out of LA and they see Portland as having a lot of the excitement and “chill” factor of LA without the smog and traffic. Of course, they’ve been warned about the wet and gloomy winters of the Pacific Northwest, especially for people who grew up in California sunshine. But they are also betting that abundant water will be a plus and not a minus in the years to come. And they won’t be slaves to their mortgages and they can even afford to get out of Dodge occasionally to find some sunshine someplace.

Recently I drove from my home in Bellingham, Washington, near the Canadian border, through Central Washington, to Portland, San Francisco, and on to Los Angeles. What I saw in Washington and Oregon were bounteous rivers and streams. As soon as I crossed into California, I was struck by how little water there was in the Mt. Shasta Basin and how truly brown and parched everything was compared to the Evergreen Northwest. In California’s parched Central Valley, which is sometimes called America’s Salad Bowl, there are signs everywhere supporting the right of farmers to continue to use most of the state’s dwindling water supplies with the threat that food prices will rise dramatically. When I learned that it takes one gallon of water to produce one edible almond, I realized that we are going to have to change the way we eat because the cities aren’t going to let the farmers keep hoarding the water. There are lessons to be learned here, but I doubt that will happen.

This week, an official in my hometown decried the fact that Bellingham wasn’t growing fast enough. His point was that there wasn’t any room for new housing in Bellingham, and the new generation of homeowners wouldn’t be able to live within the city limits. So what! They can live in the county outside city limits or in nearby Ferndale and Lynden and drive 15 minutes to visit Mom and Pop. Or Mom and Pop can downsize and move into exurbia and create more housing for the next generation to raise their kids and send them to Bellingham’s wonderful high schools. What Bellingham doesn’t need is more infill and more traffic, and if they don’t believe me, they need to take a road trip down the coast like the one I just took.

As for those of you still living in the Golden (read BROWN) State, my advice is sell your house now, at the top of the market, and buy two houses to replace it, one in the Pacific Northwest and one wherever you want to getaway occasionally in the winter. And you’ll still have money left over. It’s a smart move and you should bet the ranch on it!