Go West, Young Babes

Rob Dodd, a 25-year-old aspiring actor, moved to Los Angeles on Feb. 1 after four years in the East Village. On Feb. 5, he and a friend went hiking in Tamescal Canyon. After two hours, he took a break and sat on a rock.

“I didn’t see the snake. It bit me on the thumb, and I pulled my hand out of the brush and it was hanging off of me. I had to shake it off.” It was a baby rattlesnake, whose venom is much stronger than that of an adult.

By the time Mr. Dodd made it back out of the canyon, “I had lost sensation in my arms and legs and in my face,” he said. “It attacks your limbs, it turns out. I read that on the Internet later.

Two days in intensive care and one $30,000 medical bill later, Mr. Dodd was fine.

“I came here because, you know, the cost of living was so much less, and more space and all that. Then I get this bill in the mail.”

Mr. Dodd is still optimistic about the West Coast. “It’s beautiful,” he said, “and there are a lot of things that it does have to offer. I just haven’t necessarily found them yet.” And he is emblematic-even if his desert adventure is not-of a new ripple among young New Yorkers. Beat up and distressed by a difficult period in New York City, many of them have made a tentative, none-too-guilt-ridden exploration of Los Angeles lately.

Emily Mead, for example, is a 28-year-old New Yorker who graduated from N.Y.U., worked at ICM, Talk magazine and Entertainment Weekly , and lives in Fort Greene. Ms. Mead said she has a recurring fantasy that she’s sitting somewhere “with the window open and breezes blowing through, and just being comfortable.” She also has another fantasy in which she’s “driving around in a tank top and a pickup truck.”

A couple of years ago, anyone who heard Ms. Mead’s fantasy would have guessed that the breezes were blowing through Tribeca, into the arched windows of a massive loft with wide-plank wood floors. The pickup truck would be parked on some warehouse-lined cobblestone street, and the salt breezes would be blowing off the Hudson.

But Ms. Mead’s new head trip is about Los Angeles, where she’s now planning to move. It’s an old story-but one that was put on hold during New York’s hothouse growth in the 90’s. Ms. Mead-like earlier pioneers who headed for Santa Monica, Malibu, Westwood and, of course, Hollywood in decades past-is among a new group of the young and disillusioned dreaming of escape to L.A.

“I don’t think I’m going to miss the constant angst of being jammed up against nine million other people,” Ms. Mead said, sounding a little like a Neil Simon refugee gone west during the 70’s. “Life just seems so much easier out there.”

Though the concept of L.A. as Paradise Found feels like a revelation to some-“I know people who I consider hard-core New Yorkers who have gotten out there and said, ‘Oh my God, do people know about this?'” Ms. Mead said-the idea is at least as old as Horace Greeley’s 1841 advice to New Yorkers to “turn your face to the Great West and there build up your home and fortune”: advice that was followed by New Yorkers from Sam Goldwyn to J. Lo. Every decade has its share of New York émigrés who headed west to the palm-lined streets of Los Angeles.

Every decade, that is, except the 90’s. Woody Allen’s 1977 film Annie Hall may have made it culturally embarrassing to seek existential succor in Los Angeles, but Mayor Giuliani and the bulls of Wall Street killed that desire entirely.

For the past several years, L.A. wasn’t even on the map for anyone who wasn’t planning a career in the movies. Gotham became the yuppie paradise, and 90’s grads with M.B.A.’s or even just B.A.’s saw no reason to live anywhere else.

But the jobs, the money and the allure of a Sex and the City lifestyle have become a thing of the past, which has muddied the optimism that New York demands from its inhabitants. And now that the big bonuses and stock options that drove a whole generation have subsided, the heat-seeking youth of Manhattan is rubbing its eyes and seeing for the first time a city full of hard-working, haggard and increasingly vicious peers. The struggle to succeed has been replaced by the struggle to survive.

“My high-rolling bull-market New York crashed,” said Casey Greenfield, a 28-year-old native New Yorker who said she plans to be ensconced in Los Feliz by mid-May. “I wasn’t going out to Pastis after work anymore. I wasn’t going to Balthazar; I wasn’t going out dancing all night; I wasn’t going to after-hours clubs with stockbrokers; I wasn’t taking cabs in the middle of the night and spending $80 on martini bullshit. The highs that were keeping me here stopped happening.”

So, L.A. beckons. No one really wants to hear about the snarled traffic or hairy economic issues that impinge on L.A. Not to mention the existential crises and sheer loneliness of that town without pity. There is sun there, and beaches, and the same $1,100 that gets you a crappy studio in Brooklyn can get you a two-bedroom apartment in West Hollywood.

Besides, all the young hipsters are doing it. Sensitivity was never Paris Hilton’s strong suit, but somehow the poster girl of table-dancing, nipple-revealing turn-of-the-century Manhattan felt the coming chill early and hightailed it to the coast last year to work on her acting and singing career. Johnson & Johnson heiress Casey Johnson has moved there and even adopted a dog, Zöe, formerly of the Crips. And those dark-rooted clairvoyants of the youth market, publicists Lizzie Grubman and her rival Lara Shriftman, have recently beefed up their Los Angeles offices.

Artist Melissa Cliver said that she’d begun to feel “really toxic” in the months before her February move to L.A. Some friends had been robbed, and the Williamsburg studio of another acquaintance had exploded because of a gas leak, injuring one person. “Everything was exploding, and then there was the World Trade Center and it seemed like there was a lot of bad energy floating around,” she said.

Thirty-two-year-old photographer Eric Cahan made the decision to move when he found World Trade Center ashes stuck in the air conditioner of his loft in Soho. “That was about the time I had the epiphany,” he said. He has been in Los Angeles since November.

Of course, voicing a desire to leave town after the buildings came down was verboten . If you were a New Yorker, you were supposed to be here to stay, to bring the city back to life. But for some twentysomethings, putting up a brave front took its own exhausting toll.

“I would go to parties in the same apartments where I’d been to parties in past winters,” said Ms. Greenfield, “but it was harder to get there, harder to keep the conversations going. It felt like this was not a city drifting happily from event to event and moment to moment, but like it was heavy, grinding gears trying to make the same things happen.

“Everyone was wearing skirts from three seasons ago and didn’t even seem to notice. It felt a little over and a little dismal.”

Ms. Greenfield, like other young New Yorkers, felt that the city had entered a hibernal state and she could not find purchase. “I don’t know what the context of this city is right now,” Ms. Greenfield said. “It’s not about being flush with money, not about intellectual production, not about new media, not about the dot-com bubble, not about Giuliani. It’s not about Wall Street, because every time I think of Wall Street, I think about Ground Zero and it makes me sad.”

Ms. Greenfield, who was priced out of her Village apartment in 2001 and forced to move blocks from her childhood home on the Upper West Side, began to want out. During New Year’s, she visited two couples who had just moved to Los Angeles.

“Everyone there was just available,” she said. “And when they showed up to hang out, they really hung out, not just for a few minutes before the next event. They had time …. And I didn’t want to leave.

“I started to be seduced by the very things that had kept me from wanting to move out there before,” she said. “I wanted to be someplace where I was not part of the dominant cultural force, someplace too big, where nobody knew me …. I miss having a car. I miss being somewhere where things are easy and there’s a separate room to keep the cat box. And it’s shocking for me to even hear these things coming out of my mouth, because this is so not how I conceive of myself.”

Freida Orange, an Alabama native who was laid off from her position in Oxygen Media’s sports department in late March, said she knew a number of other young New Yorkers reaching the same conclusion. “After Sept. 11, it seemed like it was going to get back to normal, but all of a sudden all of the e-mails on the system are saying ‘Apartment available, apartment available,’ and there are people moving out en masse,” she said. Ms. Orange wants to be in Los Angeles by May.

For those who had never dreamed of living anywhere but the Lower East Side, there was suddenly a new southern West Side, L.A., the perfect means of escape-with warm weather, beer on the beach, closet space-as well as the only means of escape.

“What other city would you move to?” said Alex Wagner, a 24-year-old magazine editor. “L.A. has really distinctly New York energies. It’s metropolitan, it’s a city sensibility, and you still feel like you are on the map because people are bi-coastal. Even though it’s on the other side of the country, it’s really next-door. You can get away with leaving New York for L.A. People understand.”

And what other city in the world is home to more displaced New Yorkers? “When I first moved to L.A., I bumped into everyone I knew from New York but hadn’t seen in a long time,” said Michael Heller, a 25-year-old lawyer and party promoter who moved there in January. “It was like all these missing links. L.A. felt like a mini-New York.” Mr. Heller added that since arriving in Los Angeles, he’s already filled up his cell phone with phone numbers of old friends he knew from New York-most of whom have kept their 917 numbers. “I’m like the only one who switched my cell phone to 323,” he said. “I totally sold out.”

Jessica Meisels, a 25-year-old publicist with Lizzie Grubman, said she left New York two months ago because “it all became repetitive to me, everything that was going on in New York.” And she said that life hasn’t changed all that much now that she’s out there. She still spends most evenings partying at bars with relocated New Yorkers, including Paris Hilton-“She’s like my little sister”-Casey Johnson and Mr. Heller, the 25-year-old lawyer. “It’s the same thing as New York,” she said of L.A.’s nightlife. “There’s the certain party to go to-there just aren’t as many different places. It’s also much earlier here. When I was back visiting New York, I was like, ‘We’re going out at 10,’ and I got somewhere at 11, and the door guy was like, ‘What are you doing here, Jessica?’ and I was like, ‘I guess I’m on L.A. time.'”

And there is, of course, a fantasy element. Alex Wagner said L.A. “isn’t as competitive as it is here. It’s easier to do something over there-you’re not hustling as hard as you have to here. It’s like heaven.”

If this sounds familiar, it may be because this kind of rhetoric once kindled manifest destiny-before it was derailed for a decade by Rudolph Giuliani and a slew of Manhattan-based sitcoms about sexy, wisecracking-but-sensitive youths who had big apartments and worked at the Museum of Natural History.

But for New Yorkers in their 20’s, the pull of Los Angeles is utterly new, and the idea that other generations might have thought of it first is an unbelievable stretch.

When Ms. Greenfield told her mother, the writer Carrie Carmichael, about her plans to go west, Ms. Carmichael surprised her by reminding her that “when I was 5 or 6, in the late 70’s, my mom wanted my family to take a sabbatical year in Los Angeles. I remember it being her total vision of Shangri-La.” The family never made the move, but the memory jolted Ms. Greenfield. “In the 90’s,” she said, “if an Upper West Side writerly family announced they wanted to move to Los Angeles, everyone would have said, ‘Are you on crack?'”

But now even her father, CNN political commentator Jeff Greenfield-who, Ms. Greenfield said, except for college and law school, never “lived below 71st Street or above 115th Street on the Upper West Side”-is looking at Santa Barbara. “He’s got the fever hard-core,” she said. “This is a man who does not know how to ride a bike . He got his driver’s license when he was 40.”

Reached by phone, Mr. Greenfield explained that he had no intention of “moving” to Santa Barbara, but that he and his “highly significant other” have been making plans to spend more time there. He said he understood why his daughter might picture him as someone who, in his words, “thinks that if you’re not within a 10-minute walk of Zabar’s, life has lost all meaning,” but he stressed that his fondness for Santa Barbara is “not [about] the West Coast; it’s a very particular place that struck me as a wonderful place to be.” Mr. Greenfield also said that he had a driver’s license when he was young, but let it lapse until he was 42.

Mr. Greenfield mused that if members of his daughter’s generation were leaving the city now, it might have something to do with a yearning for safety after the terrorist attacks, and he questioned what would happen if another city-perhaps Los Angeles-were victimized. They might, he said, be “people who are hoping to find the place where this will go away,” or “people who are surprised that this is no longer a place where you can get indignant at 27 because your bonus on Wall Street was only $1.5 million.

“There were two premises by which young people had been living their lives here: peace and prosperity,” he said. “But neither of those things were reliable certainties to begin with.”

But, he argued, anyone with a memory would not view the trend as new. Mr. Greenfield recalled The Life of Riley , an early television show from the late 40’s and early 50’s about two Brooklyn guys who headed west for defense-plant jobs and never left. “For me,” he said, “the miracle was that, beginning 10 years or so ago, people started this scene in New York and it became this promised land. That was what was different.”

So how will the westward-movers react when their every fantasy becomes a reality, and they find themselves ensconced in bi-level houses with traffic from their front door to the Ivy?

Melissa Cliver, who lived in New York for seven years, said that she thinks she “can go back whenever” she wants. She also said that when she came home for the first time last week, she “didn’t want to leave.” She said she “told the woman at the airport that if the plane was full or something, I could stay in New York for a few more days.”

Maya Kukes, a 29-year-old journalist at the Los Angeles Times , was a little more emphatic.

“Tell everyone who wants to move out here to call me,” she said, “and I’ll tell them to stay where they are.” A Columbia Journalism School grad, Ms. Kukes left her slot as assistant research editor at Real Simple -“like a big dumb ass,” she said-and moved to Los Angeles in May 2001.

“I had this total romantic view,” she said. “I felt like the West Coast symbolized relaxation and health, and New York was the opposite of that.” But once out there, she froze. “It was the double whammy of ‘What am I doing in this bizarre city?’ and ‘I can’t get any work,'” she said. And even after scoring her L.A. Times gig, she didn’t warm to the city. “I miss the subway so much,” she said. “I get tears in my eyes because I just want to sit and read a book while I’m stuck on the 5, and the thought of stinky people next to me is practically appealing at this point.

“I hate to generalize that the people here are awful or anything,” she said, “but they are really different.”

“You can write a correction when I move back in three months,” said Ms. Greenfield. “I had the whole ‘I “heart” New York more than ever’ syndrome, genuinely and as a matter of principle. But at this point, I’m confident enough that this city is going to do fine without me-and that I’m going to do better without the city for a while-that my guilt is not enough to keep me here.”

“After Sept. 11, I definitely felt like leaving the city,” said Evan Kestenberg, a 24-year-old bond-market analyst who’s been living in Venice Beach for five months. “Now I’m all about Eastern Europe.” Go West, Young Babes