For decades, I thought I had found the perfect place for me.
By Mary Daily
In 1973, my new husband and I drove across the country and settled in Santa Monica, California. I had never been west of Denver and didn’t know what to expect.
I had sent resumes ahead and received an offer for a writing job at the Los Angeles Herald Examiner. But the thought of driving to downtown L.A. every day terrified me.
So I accepted a one-year appointment running a math lab at Santa Monica High School. I could walk there. Many of my students’ families owned small businesses in town. Santa Monica began to remind me of Florence, Alabama, where I grew up.
Every afternoon, I meandered my way home. Some days I walked up Lincoln Blvd., past Earl Scheib auto painting, Otto Zipper Alfa Romeo, Aaron Brothers, the Penguin diner, Norm’s, Arby’s, an antique shop called Something Old, Something Nouveau, and Lincoln Park, later named for Christine Emerson Reed.
Other days I walked through the Santa Monica Mall, long before it became the Third Street Promenade. Besides the movie theaters, there was Vin Baker shoes, Sol’s Fabrics, J.C. Penney, J.J. Newberry, Europa linens emporium, and small stores that sold Indonesian bedspreads, kaftans, wind chimes, plants, and macramé hangers. Bearded hippies sat quietly on blankets in front of the stores, maybe puffing on a joint. I bought shoes to wear to work and fabric to make curtains for our apartment.
Soon I discovered Montana Avenue, three blocks from where I lived. I got my first ironing board at Leo Rose Hardware. Fireside Market became my home away from home. I got to know the owner, the butchers, the checkers, and the produce guys. Up the street, my husband and I bought a stereo at Sane and Insane for our first wedding anniversary and liked to eat Saturday lunch in the orange booths at Sweet Sixteen diner.
On Friday nights, we often walked to the Broken Drum (“You Can’t Beat It”) on Wilshire for dinner and then a few blocks east to the Wilshire Theater for a movie.
I was so happy here, and I felt safe. I came to adore my new town. I could walk everywhere. I found time to myself in Palisades Park, where I could stand for an hour watching the sun set over the Pacific and then walk home in the growing darkness with no thought of being harmed or harassed. I loved the majesty of Ocean Avenue and imagined it must be like Miami, where I’d never been.
Meanwhile, in the heart of town, a few people we assumed were homeless hung around. On Wilshire near the movie theater, a wiry, 30-something man wore plastic legs below his knees. He painted them different colors, always bright — green, red, or blue. I figured he was a Vietnam vet. Sometimes he took the prosthetics off and sat quietly on the sidewalk, propped against the buildings, his thighs stretched in front of him and the plastic legs standing beside him.
Across the street, in the alley between Vons and Newberry’s, a petite woman in a skirt and blouse and theatrical makeup pulled a train of grocery carts wired together, filled with her belongings. And up on Montana, the gentle “French Lieutenant’s Woman” stood in front of Fireside Market in a long, hooded cape, asking, “Do you have a dollar?” Passersby bought her food in the market. A few blocks west, “Bunny” pedaled handmade greeting cards.
I never saw them act hostile. They didn’t threaten anyone, didn’t rant about their plight, didn’t litter the area around them, and didn’t steal. They were just our hometown characters, our Boo Radleys. We embraced their presence and helped them when we could.
Today, almost 50 years later, transients hang out in my carport, leaving behind their syringes and food cartons. They yell at me for pulling into my driveway, crowding their space. When I walk two blocks to the post office, I step into the street to avoid homeless encampments. Heaps of trash litter my way. People sitting on the sidewalk ask for money. One man with a Santa Claus belly wears only bikini shorts.
I rarely walk to the Promenade anymore and always in broad daylight and with unease. Along the way, couples are bedded down in the insets outside abandoned buildings. Businesses are boarded shut following the 2020 looting, when the police ignored the real problem areas. In Reed Park, home to drug dealers, I’ve seen occupants urinating by the sidewalk. In Palisades Park, I’ve seen vendors advertising organ harvesting in China. Meanwhile, scooter riders on Ocean Avenue get held up at gunpoint. The part of Lincoln Blvd. I used to walk is a sterile corridor of high rises.
Where is the town I loved and adopted as my own? Who could have imagined it as it is today? The problems of homelessness and crime seem insurmountable, too pervasive to solve. It’s hard to see how we could return to a better state.
The degradation happened gradually, like the death of the proverbial frog in increasingly warm water. Santa Monica’s leaders and many of its residents wanted to be tolerant and compassionate, to make a place for everyone. It seemed an honorable goal, but the good intentions ran amok, eating away at our safety and civility. Now this town sometimes feels like a poverty-ravaged underdeveloped country, even though parts of it are among the nation’s most affluent communities.
The only viable option I see for myself, to restore my quality of life, is to leave the area. Friends who live elsewhere hear the tales of L.A. in the media and urge me to get out before it’s too late. Just the thought makes me feel sad and disloyal. But my surroundings offer little choice. I mourn for what Santa Monica was. Sweet memories remain.
Mary Daily is a writer in Santa Monica.