How else to survive the concrete landscape and endless traffic, the airheads and flakes, the tinsel and hustle and sheer vapidity of a metropolis which considered la-la-land a compliment?
So the beat poets and hippies and all the other bohemians would make fleeting forays south before returning to their foggy bay area sanctuary with tales of sun-frizzled vulgarians.
Then everything changed.
“San Francisco turned into this billionaire playground. Everything I identified with was being pushed out. The community that I loved was crumbling and disappearing,” said Andrew Schoultz, a painter. “I just didn’t want to be in that city anymore. So I moved to LA.”
Schoultz, 41, who does installations and public murals, moved in 2014 and was among a group of bay area migrants featured in the new site 7×7. “It’s been very amazing. It was a good decision. A lot of art curators, galleries, museums don’t do San Francisco anymore.”
A burgeoning community of San Francisco transplants – musicians, writers, designers, comedians – appears to be growing fast, injecting fresh talent into a city which thrums with new museums, galleries, events and artistic experimentation, giving it plausible claim as the US’s cultural capital.
“I never thought LA would feel like home but it does. It was really easy to move here knowing I had more artist friends here than there,” said Jason Quever, founder of the indie pop band Papercuts, who relocated last spring.
“The Papercuts were a San Francisco institution for years. When Jason moved to LA that’s when I really knew San Francisco was over,” said Van Pierszalowski, 31, lead singer of the group Waters. He moved two years ago. “I’ve not looked back a single time. As soon as I moved here my music career greatly benefited. I felt the effects of being close to the epicentre of the industry.”
So I moved to LA: a phrase repeated by so many bay area migrants it sounds like an epitaph for bohemian San Francisco. The descendants of Jack London, Armistead Maupin, the Grateful Dead and Maya Angelou are fleeing a city they say has become unaffordable, imperilling its artistic identity.
“I love San Francisco but couldn’t find a studio space. It was stressful and exhausting always looking. I moved south because this is where the art world is happening,” said Melissa Fleis, 36, a fashion designer. “San Francisco is changing. It’s not the San Francisco I knew.”
A tech boom has flooded the city with programmers, executives and start-up entrepreneurs who work at the likes of Twitter and Zendesk, or shuttle daily to Apple, Facebook, Google and other campuses in Silicon Valley, 40 miles south.
They earn so much they are driving rents to record levels – an average one bedroom apartment goes for $3,866, a two-bedroom for $4,683. With even white collar professionals struggling to keep up many artists can barely rent a sofa, let alone a studio or exhibition space. A 25-year-old made national news in March for paying $400 a month to live in a wooden box in a friend’s living room.
Quever, of the Papercuts, said San Francisco was not artistically dead. “The city is too gorgeous and cool to totally write off because of tech bros. There are still people there making really cool music.”
Even so, many artists have boxed up their possessions and made the six-hour drive south . “I just felt San Francisco lost sight of that community and that LA is where it was happening,” said Fleis.
It is a common refrain also among New Yorkers who have flocked to LA, especially its revitalised downtown and eastern neighbourhoods such as Echo Park, Highland Park and Silver Lake where galleries and performance venues pop up like toast.
“A ton of people I know from Brooklyn have moved out here or thought about it,” said Kristen Liu-Wong, an illustrator. Before New York the illustrator lived in San Francisco. “The tech world has kind of taken over which I’m not super happy about, since every time I go back it seems like all the old spots I grew up with are vanishing.” Living in LA, she added, had eroded some of the stereotypes.
It remains a film industry town in thrall to celebrity, beauty and the siren call of fame. The Kardashians are aristocrats, unemployed actors wait tables and would-be screenwriters hog tables in Starbucks. But the pampered, nihilistic wasteland of Brett Easton Ellis’s novel Less Than Zero it is not.
The artsy influx has fuelled a thriving cultural mix including Hopscotch, an experimental opera performed in cars, hangout spaces like Melody Lounge, Lace and The Barn, and the spanking new $140m Broad museum of modern and contemporary art. The Los Angeles County Museum of Art (Lacma) is preparing for an ambitious $600m makeover.
“It’s a far more inspiring place to be creatively,” said Pierszalowski, the musician. “A lot of that is the sheer number of people here. Not just music – film, TV, comedy.”
The image of sharks in suits exploiting artists belied a supportive community, he said. “No one really cares about the money part of it. They just want to play music. It’s more easy to live here as an artist so people have more time, more resources.” Pierszalowski is assembling a new band under the name Van Williams. “In San Francisco that would’ve been so hard. Here it’s so easy, I’ve got my dream band.”
LA is also siphoning the Bay Area’s LGBT community with the help of Otherwild, a studio and event space, and bars like Silver Platter, Akbar and Moonlight Rollerway.
“LA is a sanctuary for artists and specifically queer artists,” said Stephen Meeneghan, 36, an acupuncturist and naturopathic doctor who recently received, along with his artist and designer partner Ashley, an eviction order to vacate their San Francisco apartment. “We’ve been trying to fight it but really there’s no way to do that. We’d like to still live in a city surrounded by cultural creatives. And LA is the solution to that.”
The role reversal comes with an ironic twist. The tech gentrification refugees are themselves part of a wave that is displacing residents, many poor and Latino, from downtown and eastern LA. Activists in Boyle Heights have staged noisy protests against perceived interlopers.
“They had scarves covering their mouths and video cameras,” said Fleis, the designer, who encountered a protest last weekend outside the Museum as Retail Space (MaRS). “People were in awe. They had to shut the gates to the gallery.”
A tip for newcomers: don’t marvel at cheap LA rents, because they’re not. Rents have soared in recent years. They still lag San Francisco but average incomes lag even more, so on that basis LA is actually less affordable.
“Whenever anyone, from anywhere, moves into my city with a Camry and a dream, I can feel my cost of living increase,” Megan Koester, a comedian and writer, said via email. Even unglamorous San Fernando Valley has become pricey. “I tried to find an apartment there … and everything was out of my range. Do you know how humbling it is to be priced out of the fucking Valley?”
San Francisco-esque cafes and restaurants were mushrooming, lamented Koester. “The kinds of places where pour over coffee is $7 and every table has a succulent on it. I don’t know if this can be blamed on the transplants, or on the fact that not just San Francisco, but the entirety of Earth, is becoming uninhabitable to anyone who doesn’t make their living writing code all goddamned day.”
Some Bay Area techies have joined the migration but settled mostly in Venice and Playa Vista, the so-called Silicon Beach on LA’s westside, sparking gentrification battles there too.
Johnny Chin, the founder of a start-up security service, Bannerman, said he adored LA but he had reassuring news for bohemian settlers who fear techies are hot on their heels.
“My passion for LA is not shared by my peers. Even those friends who are fairly rich now don’t want to go to LA.” For many tech lords Tinseltown still had the stain of old, fusty Hollywood, he said. “There’s still this stigma.”