Are Cars Protecting Los Angeles From the Coronavirus?

LOS ANGELES — I was born in New York and spent my formative years there, so waiting makes me crazy. I’m a jaywalker and I push elevator buttons more than once. I find the shortest line to anything. I walk fast and can drive like a competitor in a video game race. I attribute these qualities to years spent trying to survive in New York’s hustle culture, and not to innate personal flaws.

Then I moved to Los Angeles and discovered that pedestrians wait for the lights to change before they cross. I’d heard that this was the case, but you could never believe such a thing possible unless you saw it with your own eyes.

The car is king here.

I never could adjust. Yeah, the car gives you freedom — if you don’t mind sitting in endless traffic jams. I mind. Also, because Los Angeles was designed for cars, everything you want to do and everything you care about is too far away to get to on foot, so you never walk to anything. Sometimes, after getting coffee with a friend, one person will drive the other to her car, parked around the block. I’ve actually taken lifts from friends in their car to my car in the same parking lot. Even on those short pointless trips, you can find yourself in traffic.

For years, New Yorkers like me have mocked and reviled Los Angeles because of its messy residential sprawl and its out-of-control car culture. They’ve asked: Can you even call that a city? But sprawl and cars means Los Angeles doesn’t have much in the way of virus vectors like subways and residential elevators.

And indeed, the pandemic in Los Angeles has not been anywhere as intense as in New York, where as of this week the number of deaths was about eight times what it was in Los Angeles. We know people in New York who’ve died of Covid-19; here, so far, we know no one.

It seemed that Angelenos could finally claim a real advantage in having an identity that included an embarrassing, carbon-emitting, traffic-jammed, sprawl-and-crawl culture. And maybe that’s still true, but insidiously, Los Angeles’s infection curve was still creeping upward, as New York’s was plateauing. Still, will Los Angeles reach the painful peak New York has experienced? Probably not.

Now, because of the pandemic, I can’t go back to my hometown. I watch Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York on television, with his daily litany of death. One of my sons works in Manhattan, and he can’t come here, either.

The other day, I FaceTimed him.

“How’s the homeland?” I ask.

“Wait, I’ll show you,” he says. “I’m taking you out on my run.”

He lives in a high-rise. Instead of taking the elevator, he runs with phone in hand down 20 dark and bumpy flights of stairs, and out into the streets of SoHo and the Village.

I’m shocked even though I already know. He shows me the empty streets in a way that no still photo can capture. Here I am in Manhattan’s abandoned canyons, rocking up and down to running steps. Not a car, none of the usual downtown truck traffic, no one out but my son and his phone. Silence except for my son’s footfall and breathing.

It’s my city, but with its life extracted, waiting behind closed doors until it can emerge again. Still — with an unfamiliar ferocity and pain — I’m proud of the way New Yorkers are heeding the difficult lockdown.

“Hey, can you hear that?” my son asks.

I hear a vague clattering in the background.

“That’s 7 o’clock, Mom. Everyone’s out yelling.”

I’ve seen it on videos, but this little clinking, this rattling for health care workers that floats from my phone, is more poignant.

“OK, I’m crossing Sixth Avenue,” he says. “No cars. OK, Seventh Avenue … no cars. Here’s the West Side Highway, Mom, crossing it. No cars. Don’t have to look both ways. Now I’m really beginning to run. Call you later. Bye.”

He clicks off, and New York disappears.

Los Angeles is easier for me to deal with emotionally. At the beginning of our stay-at-home, we took long walks through leafy neighborhoods. Parrots flying through the palm fronds. Blue sky. Birdsong in the morning and at dusk. Masks and distance, bikes, babies, skateboards. We were lucky and still had jobs, remotely.

Just before Los Angeles’s curve began to ascend, we left the neighborhood one day and drove to take a walk downtown in the Arts District. We were the only people out, and suddenly we could see the district for itself, without its decorative population of millennials, hipsters, artists, would-be artists, gallerists and tourists, who in real life (as we now call former times) always got in the way with their tumult and buzz.

So many grand architectural projects and renovations, and so much aspirational capitalism arrested in midflight. The airy, neo-industrial Hauser & Wirth gallery, closed; the Institute of Contemporary Art, closed. The district shimmered with lost promise and fading dreams. We passed, too, all the restaurants where we’d had dinners in unmerited splendor amid fantastical décor, the epitome of Los Angeles’s new global culture before it was slapped down by the virus. It has always been shocking that these sleek, luxurious, high-concept eating places of the moneyed and homeful are adjacent to the thin tents and homeless scarcity of Skid Row.

The dazzling restaurants and galleries are closed now, but Skid Row is still up and running. People hang out in front of their places, talking, walking and laughing together, playing cards, bartering, fixing things inside their tents. More than half the people we see are wearing some kind of mask, either around their faces or dangling from their necks. They’re aware of the virus, and trying. But there’s an overabundance of life here, and an overabundance of caution is impossible. Skid Row’s tents are set up shoulder to shoulder, and there are no walls thicker than fabric.

Recently we took the car and went to pick up some urgent necessities like Parmesan cheese, arugula and black peppercorns from a local restaurant selling “no contact” goods. We were chatting through our masks as we neared our destination when we noticed in stunned recognition that we were … in a traffic jam.

Where formerly there were no cars because of the lockdown, now people were joyously driving bumper to bumper with their windows down, their sunglasses on and their radios playing — and not wearing masks. Dude! Hold on! Had Governor Newsom opened California up or something? No he had not. We sat there in traffic waiting for the left-turn light.

So where was everyone going on this sunny afternoon? They were hoping, I think, to find themselves on the long trip back to real life. Or maybe, like us, they were picking up some absolutely indispensable essentials.

Possibly, though, they were driving to a place where, unseen, the virus lurked, waiting for them. That’s real life, too. Meanwhile our numbers have yet to level off.

Amy Wilentz is the author of several books, including “Farewell, Fred Voodoo: A Letter From Haiti,” which won the National Book Critics Prize for Memoir for 2013. She was named a Guggenheim fellow in general nonfiction this year and teaches in the Literary Journalism Program at the University of California, Irvine.

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