If one image defines the thrill of driving into Los Angeles on a breezy summer afternoon it was this: a rainbow-coloured beach ball rolling east down the 210.
That’s California. Even the freeways throw up something fun and hint at good times to come. Though that image was a missed photo opportunity, the scene will remain burnt in my memory as an affirmation that if anything can happen in California, it usually does.
It was a wonderful welcome and got me California dreamin’ about all the beaches I’ve visited on the West Coast since arriving stateside in April. Among my favourite is strolling along Balboa Peninsular. It’s starting to cool down but in late-August the sun still settles warmly on your face and the waves roll gently along Newport Beach. It is so interesting to walk around the peninsula to gape in awe at so many beautiful homes and witness how the other half lives.
If only. For every dream realised in the LA land of opportunity, there’s plenty that aren’t. Walking around the streets of Anaheim, home to Disneyland, there’s hundreds of well-heeled tourists who save up all year to spend up big during their one-week vacation in the kid’s entertainment capital.
But when you stay here longer than a day or week, the darker side of the city emerges: homelessness on a huge scale. Outside the window in my long-stay hotel a utility truck never moves. In the afternoon its occupant listens to music in the driver’s seat. At night, the car’s back window, blown out and covered only by gauze, blows in the cooling Californian breeze.
Along the streets of Anaheim, long-term homeless gather in small groups begging passers-by for spare change. The scene made more stark against the back-drop beauty of wide tree-lined boulevards that lead to the fun house that is Disney, or expertly manoeuver you towards spectacular beaches that stretch 1000 miles along California’s Pacific Coast.
LA depicts the land of promise, the gateway to all things great, and though it’s not the only city in the US, or the world for that matter, to suffer from the emerging 20th-century phenomenon of mass homelessness which unfortunately remains unresolved in the 21st century, few people stop to even lend the homeless a kind smile.
As one local US resident explained to me, there are still thousands of Americans just one pay cheque away from poverty. That said, the mood here has lifted. There’s a sense of good times to come. Jobs stats are positive. Real estate values are on the rise. Those that could hold it together are now experiencing the worth of their homes climbing back to pre-crisis values … and that in itself is bringing a great sense of relief, and promise.
Judy Wilkinson is a freelance writer travelling throughout the United States, Central and hopefully soon South America bringing stories on the ground that count.