Category Archives: Los Angeles

Back East

Once again, I’ve decided to dust the cobwebs off this blog and bring it back to life. Over the past few posts I made a big deal about wanting to clear excess detritus out of my life, and the self-imposed commitment to maintaining a personal blog ended up being one of the things that got chucked by the wayside as I concentrated on finishing grad school. A quick rundown of what I’ve been up to in the interim:

I ended up staying out in Los Angeles for an extra semester and delaying my graduation for a year. This was due to a number of factors, mainly some problems I was having with my Structures course sequence being complicated by the university’s switch from a quarter system to a semester system, as well as my desire to spend some more time working in LA and see my project along to a more complete stage. I returned to Cincinnati in November 2012, but not before spending a week stranded in San Bernardino County while my Jeep’s transmission had to be rebuilt. (Buy me a drink sometime and I’ll be happy to recount that story. It’s a real hoot.)

Bad tranny

Bad tranny

By taking an extra year to finish grad school, I was given the opportunity to take another co-op placement. I ended up working for a mid-sized firm in New York City over the summer of 2013 and greatly enjoying it. I had actually been planning to spend that co-op at a local firm in Cincinnati, but applied to the firm in NYC without thinking I stood much of a chance of actually getting the position. The firm does great work and I felt that my portfolio was, at best, middle-of-the-pack compared to my classmates, and I was somewhat leery of moving back to NYC after getting seriously burned-out with the city twice before. To my surprise, I got hired and the job turned out to be the best co-op placement of my grad school career. While walking back to the subway one night, it dawned on me that, despite all my frustrations, New York felt at least as much like a hometown to me as my original hometown of Cincinnati. I eventually made the decision that I would try to move back to New York upon my graduation the following spring.

I returned to Cincinnati in August and spent the next nine months fleshing out my thesis project, which I had decided would be something small and manageable: a new Penn Station for New York. It was either that or a meditation cabin in Oregon. Meanwhile, I had begun the search for post-grad school employment. After several months of false starts and dead ends, I received two offers within minutes of each other late in the spring semester: one from a local firm in Cincinnati that does a lot of fairly bland workplace design, and another from a small boutique firm in New York that does mostly high-end residential and hospitality projects. I picked the latter option, and began preparing to move to New York while I finished up my thesis.

In April, I successfully defended my thesis and completed my Master of Architecture degree from the University of Cincinnati. While finishing my bachelor’s degree in 2010 was a huge relief at the time, it felt more like a formality than anything else; it was just my permission slip to enter grad school. This graduation ceremony, though, was the real deal. Looking back several months later, I still can’t believe that I actually did it.

Pro tip: When you can't win over the thesis jury with quality, overwhelm them with quantity.

Pro tip: When you can’t win over the thesis jury with quality, overwhelm them with quantity.

World of PainWith hardly any time to catch my breath after graduation, I put all my stuff into storage once again, boarded a plane to New York, and started working at the aforementioned boutique firm the following Monday… And it immediately became clear that I had entered a world of pain. The work environment could best be described as abusive, the hours were extreme, the work was unoriginal and unproductive, and the firm’s financial standing appeared to be shaky at best. I began sending out resumes again before I had even gotten my first paycheck.

In late June, I visited Chicago for the AIA National Convention. It was my first visit back there since graduating from DePaul in 2010, and the longest I had been away from the city since I first moved to the area in 1993. It was great to see the city again and renew some old friendships, and to let go of some of the bitterness I had been feeling about Chicago since I had moved away in 2007. New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago are great cities that each have their own unique personalities, and I feel incredibly fortunate to have lived in all three at various times in my life.

Another benefit to attending the AIA convention in Chicago was a chance encounter with one of the principals of the firm where I spent my last co-op before thesis year. One thing led to another, and within a couple weeks of the convention I had accepted an employment offer at this firm and turned in my resignation at the abusive boutique firm. It didn’t happen a moment too soon; I had been expanding my job search to the west coast, and was seriously considering moving to Los Angeles or Portland if the right opportunity came up. I love New York, but it’s impossible to survive for long here unless you love what you do, and my first priority was to find a better employment situation. Luckily I didn’t have to move again; I’ve now been at the new job for about four weeks, and so far it’s been going well.

With my job search happily resolved, my next big priorities are to find permanent housing here in New York and to complete the Architectural Registration Exams. I’m hoping to have enough money saved up for my own apartment by around January or so, and I’m hoping to be registered as an architect within the next year or so.

My resolution for 2012 was to rid my life of distractions as I finished grad school. Now that that’s done, it’s time to start building again. Wish me luck; I’ll certainly need it.

Good luck cats

Manifest Destiny

Early in the year I resolved to let go of things that I felt were holding me back, and one of the biggest things I had in mind was the home I had created for myself in Cincinnati’s Over-the-Rhine neighborhood. I moved there in January of last year to be closer to friends and nightlife downtown, closer to school, and to have an overall nicer place to live. And what a place it was: a huge, newly-renovated loft in an 1860’s-era row house, complete with exposed brick walls, three decorative fireplaces, 10-foot ceilings, an incredible view of the downtown skyline, and within easy walking distance of nearly bars and art galleries on Main Street. I put a huge amount of effort and money into making the apartment into a real home, and the results were spectacular. My friends were properly impressed, and for a while, it felt like the kind of home I thought I wanted. The idea was to stay there until a few years after grad school, when I’d presumably be ready to buy a house or condo.

It was impossible to resist the siren call of exposed brick, polished concrete countertops, and hardwood floors.

It was the right idea, but at the wrong point in my life. With my meager student budget and co-op schedule, the apartment turned out to be an incredibly seductive but expensive albatross. The rent was already at the high end of what I could afford, and became untenable when the utility bills started pouring in. (As I discovered, it’s incredibly expensive to heat and cool a huge apartment with exposed brick walls and high ceilings, especially in a climate like Cincinnati’s where winters and summers are both equally brutal.) And there was the fact that I was already thoroughly burned-out with the whole “urban pioneer” lifestyle when I left New York in 2010. I love the city and its neighborhoods, but before long I quickly remembered just how much I hate loud car stereos and obnoxious college kids on a Friday night.

There’s also the issue of Cincinnati itself, and my long-term career options there. My first two co-ops were both with local firms in downtown Cincinnati, and I came away from them with a pretty strong conviction that if I were to stay in Cincinnati and practice as an architect there after grad school, I’d be spending the bulk of my career designing grocery stores and renovations to strip malls. My gaze turned westward, which prompted me to apply to firms in Seattle, Portland, and Los Angeles for my five-month co-op. When I accepted the offer from the firm in Santa Monica, I made the difficult decision to give up the apartment and put almost everything I own into storage. My ideal home would have to wait until some other time and some other place.

At the end of the winter quarter, I began packing up and moving out. By the evening of Thursday, March 22nd, all the effort I had put into that apartment had been undone. My stuff had been packed away into a self-storage facility, my cat had been dropped off to live with my parents while I’m away, and my car had been loaded up with my clothing and some other essentials. It was already starting to get dark when I finally hit the road, but at this point I just wanted to get Cincinnati behind me before I had time to think too much about what I had done or what I was getting myself into out in California. Almost eight years after leaving my life behind in New York and heading to Oregon, I was once again taking a giant leap of faith to the west coast, and I had just stepped off the edge of the cliff.

Somewhere before reaching Louisville, I had a mild anxiety attack as I was driving down the dark interstate. Now that I was on the road and was finally able to catch my breath after moving all day, the second-guessing and self-doubts started kicking in. What the fuck have I just done? What if I hate Los Angeles? What if the new job sucks? What if everything I left behind in that storage unit gets wiped out by a fire or tornado? I felt a bit like Captain Kirk in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, having just scuttled the Enterprise and now watching its burning hull streak through the sky of the newly-formed Genesis Planet:

"My God, what have I done?"

I made it through Louisville and a few miles into Indiana before stopping for the night. Tomorrow would be a new day, I figured, and the sooner it got here the better. I left the hotel the next morning feeling rested and renewed, and my focus turned from what I had left behind to what was waiting for me on the road ahead. The following three days took me across eight more states, the Great Plains, the Colorado Rockies, and the desserts and mountains of the Southwest.

In western Kansas the following night, I was treated to one of the most spectacular sunsets I’ve ever seen. The next day I stopped for a pint at the Cheeky Monk on Colfax Avenue in Denver, which had been the site of celebrating my friend Bret’s ordination to the Episcopal priesthood at nearby St. John’s Cathedral a few years ago. The Rockies, of course, were spectacular, and it was nice to see them again after my last visit to Colorado. I took a short detour to Breckenridge to have lunch at the Breckenridge Brewery, and spent my third and final night on the road in a tiny place called Salina, Utah.

The last day on the road took me through the remainder of Utah, a few more deserts and mountain ranges, a small corner of Arizona that’s home to the spectacular Virgin River Gorge, a monster traffic jam that lasted almost the entire way from Las Vegas to San Bernardino, and finally Los Angeles.

I arrived at the Santa Monica Pier late in the evening of Sunday, March 25th, in the midst of a rare Southern California thunderstorm. I would’ve kept on driving, but I had reached the edge of the continent. I’m convinced that every American should take a solo road trip across the country at least once in their life. Until they do, they’ll never truly appreciate the immense size and beauty of this country.

I checked into my hotel in Woodland Hills — where I’d arranged to stay for a week while I looked for more permanent housing — and began work the next morning. One of the few cardinal rules I have for this blog is that I rarely ever discuss work (I’m happy to air my own dirty laundry online, but not my employer’s), but I will say that it’s going well so far. The firm is well-regarded within the profession and has been widely published, the office culture is generally casual and drama-free, I like my co-workers (and they seem to like me), and the projects are challenging and interesting. More than just being a high-profile “starchitect” firm, though, their philosophy towards design is very closely aligned with my own. No grocery stores or strip mall renovations here. In fact, it’s the kind of place I could see myself working long-term after I finish grad school.

Southern California itself has also been treating me pretty well so far, despite dire warnings from my East Coast and Midwestern friends that the place is nothing more than a traffic-choked wasteland of suburban sprawl and fake personalities. Most stereotypes have a grain of truth within them, but for the most part, I’ve found that Los Angeles isn’t nearly as bad as people who’ve never been here insist it is. (And let’s be honest here. Nobody in Cincinnati is in a position to spew negative stereotypes about any other city. Cincinnati has its own less-than-stellar public image to deal with.) Ironically, I live in a very walkable neighborhood that’s within an easy bike ride of my office, with a 24-hour Ralphs grocery store right around the corner. As such, traffic is a non-issue during the week, and I can usually take an alternate route on the weekend if a particular freeway is jammed up.

As for the fake personalities, I think that stereotype is perpetrated on late-night talk shows by those the entertainment industry, where people’s livelihoods are often based upon how well they can put on a fake persona. The vast majority of the people I’ve encountered, though, are no different than the people I’ve encountered elsewhere. Some of them I like a lot, some of them I can’t stand, and most of them fall somewhere in the middle of that spectrum. Even among the few people I’ve met who actually are connected to the entertainment industry in some way, I’ve found them to be as genuine as anybody else. For every celebrity who manages to be a constant source of tabloid fodder, there are a thousand other people who work regular day jobs while advancing their particular craft during their spare time. And then there are all the behind-the-scenes people who, despite incredible talent, will never see their names in lights. Even though I have no desire to go into that business myself, I still find it all incredibly fascinating.

The things I like most about Los Angeles?

The climate is perfect for me. Just warm enough during the daytime to wear short sleeves (maybe a blazer during the winter), and cool enough at night that I can sleep under a thick blanket with the windows open. It’s amazing to not be living in constant fear of the weather. As an added bonus, my allergies — which normally go haywire whenever I’m within 500 miles of Cincinnati — have been clear for the entire two months I’ve been living here.

I'll take the one on the left, please.

The natural scenery is great; within the same county are miles of beach as well as snow-capped mountains. Having lived most of my life near either the ocean or Lake Michigan, I had forgotten just how much I miss the beach and the associated casual beach culture. And of course, there are the mountains. With the San Gabriel Mountains and other nearby ranges, it’s like having a piece of the Colorado Rockies closer to downtown Los Angeles than the actual Rockies are to downtown Denver.

These two photos were taken within a few hours of each other.

In addition, Southern California is a culinary delight, even on my meager budget. I don’t think I’ve had a bad meal here yet, except when it’s been something I cooked myself. And of course, there is the refreshing lack of Bible-thumpers and teabaggers in the civic realm.

Perhaps most importantly, though: almost everybody out here is from somewhere else, and nobody here gives a damn which high school or college I went to or what family I’m from. By almost any account, there shouldn’t even be a city here; there’s no natural port, and the nearest large-scale source of fresh drinking water is hundreds of miles away. But in the same way that the Los Angeles Basin was an entirely blank slate upon which to build a massive city from scratch, my life out here feels like a blank slate that can be given whatever attributes or characteristics I want.

My biggest complaint so far has nothing to do with my job or the locale, but the transitional living arrangement I find myself in while I’m out here. I keep telling myself this whole student lifestyle is only for a couple more years and will be worth it in the end, but a part of me is very much obsessed with getting my stuff out of storage and re-establishing a real home that actually feels like a home. I’m 37 years old, and way past the point in my life where I should be sharing a small apartment with a roommate and going to parties where beer pong is the dominant form of entertainment. My biggest motivation for finishing grad school is to put this decades-long student phase of my life behind me. More than giving me the credentials I need to achieve my professional goals, my masters degree will hopefully be the piece of paper that gives me permission to settle down, sink some roots, build a career, and finally create a real life for myself. It can’t come fast enough, though, as I’m getting incredibly impatient.

Genesis Planet

A couple weeks after my arrival, I was asked to house-sit at a friend’s apartment in Culver City while she was out of town over a long weekend. The large apartment complex felt almost like a fantasy world, with lush tropical landscaping and fountains between the buildings, several pools, and all the other modern amenities one would expect. The apartment itself had a large fireplace, dramatic vaulted ceilings, and just the right amount of space. At night, the only sounds where crickets chirping and the running fountain outside the window. I did some further research, and found that this apartment complex should actually be within my price range once I’m out of grad school and earning the average salary with somebody at my level of experience. And being a fairly large complex with several hundred apartments, there are always a certain number of vacancies each month. If I end up staying in Los Angeles for good after grad school, they’ll likely be the first place I contact about housing. I just need to hold on until I have that permission slip.

Blank slate.

California Dreamin’

Animal style. (J. Kenji López / seriouseats.com)

Over the past few posts I’ve mentioned that I’ve been searching for internship positions outside of the Cincinnati area for my five-month co-op term that will begin in late March. I applied to a few firms each in Portland, Seattle, and Los Angeles, and one firm in London. After a couple of tense weeks of not knowing where I’ll be living next quarter, I was offered and accepted a position with a very cool firm in Santa Monica.

As far as logistics go, I’ll be moving out of my apartment on March 20th, and putting almost everything I own into storage. Either that evening or first thing the following day, I’ll hit the road for Los Angeles, and I expect that trip to take about three days. If all goes well, I’ll arrive in LA late in the evening of Friday the 23rd. I’ll have a weekend to get settled, and then I start work on Monday the 26th.

Housing is still up in the air at this point; I have an extended-stay hotel room in Woodland Hills reserved for a few days, but I’ll have to start looking for something more permanent as soon as I arrive, most likely a small studio or a roommate/share situation.

This will be the first time since 2004 that I’ve moved to a city that I’ve never lived in before. I’m seldom happier than when I’m exploring someplace new, so I have a lot to look forward to over the new few months. It helps that I already have a couple good friends out there, and the weather will certainly be a refreshing change.

Perhaps just as importantly, Los Angeles feels like a blank slate to me: I have very few personal connections and no sentimental attachments to that city, and very little in the way of preconceived notions of what life will be like out there (although I imagine it will involve a lot of sitting in traffic and dining at In-N-Out), and there’s something very liberating about that. There’s something to be said for showing up in a new place with no expectations, and the opportunity for a clean start.  If things work out well enough, Los Angeles might well become my top choice of places to head to once I’m done with grad school here in Cincinnati. But regardless of whether I ultimately love it or hate it out there, it will no doubt be interesting. Stay tuned.