America | Refugees and Recession

A home coming in a post - american world

A foreclosed home awaits auction in Pasadena, a city in Los Angeles County. As the economy worsened, foreclosures grew common. REED SAXSON/AP IMAGES
01 January, 2010

THIS PAST WEEK, I moved back to Los Angeles from Delhi. The devastated US economy’s unemployment appears to have leveled off. Yet Los Angeles’ smog feels especially morose lately, and traffic is less debilitating than when I last lived here. I have been told the city has registered a recent uptick in public transportation as the recession unfolded.

A year ago, I moved to Delhi from the United States, as the worst economic crisis in a generation took hold. I was one of many Indian-Americans returning to take advantage of India’s booming economy. With a pristine university degree in hand, I worked on the editorial page of Mint, an Indian financial newspaper. I was tracking the apparent demise of my homeland, as the West receded into the so-called Post-American World. Lately, India is charged with a frenetic energy of opportunity and start-ups.  Delhi is a tornado of dust and paint thinner, as opulent malls are constructed alongside the urban chaos. But after a year at Mint, I decided to return to my home, Los Angeles.

Compared to Delhi, LA seems tranquil and orderly. But maybe easy credit and a culture of debt just make things look more upbeat. Unemployment might be at record levels, but billboards advertising luxury goods and high-end hotels line Century Blvd, the thoroughfare to LAX. It’s a stark contrast to the fluorescent hotels and cheap restaurants along the Delhi-Gurgaon Expressway, which reach toward New Delhi’s Indira Gandhi International Airport. From a superficial gaze, Los Angeles appears to have skirted the greatest economic crisis since the 20s. On the 405 North freeway leaving the airport, I counted a tremendous number of high-end vehicles—BMWs, Mercedes Benz, and various sports cars. Los Angeles has always been a city obsessed with opulence, I thought. Or maybe these cars, like overleveraged McMansions, are the symptom of easy credit. In any case, it didn’t seem like the Joneses or the Rodriguezes or the Chans (or even the Patels) were faring too badly.

Underneath the surface, though, times are still tough. I went to watch a film at a local independent theatre with a friend from out of town. Our tickets were nine dollars each. Previously, the theatre was often near capacity, but I counted just four other patrons at this evening show.

It’s an oversimplification to say that the West is reeling from its own excesses. Here, at a fairly trendy coffee shop I often visit, nothing seems to be out of the ordinary. At Aroma Café in North Hollywood, the regular Hollywood glitterati continue to tap away at their MacBooks, pumping out the next big film script, sipping their iced mint mochas.

Yet, mint mochas aside, not all is well. One personal landmark, a used car lot in the San Fernando Valley, is now an empty lot for lease. I had always driven by, eying the cars on display, and I probably wasn’t the only person window shopping.

Illegal immigration has reportedly declined in the United States, in part because of the recession. California, like Delhi, has always been a place of migrants—often low-wage labourers—picking its grapes, or constructing its homes. But the hourly wage of the lowliest constructions workers in the US is about 10 dollars. That’s more than four times the 100 rupees daily wage Biharis in Delhi receive for construction work leading up to the 2010 Commonwealth Games.

But the normal locations where contractors scout for day labourers—in the parking lot of Lowe’s Home Improvement, a warehouse-sized building supplies emporium—are curiously empty. Half-finished construction sites dot the San Fernando Valley, near my home.

The numbers support the anecdotal evidence. Construction employment in October was down 11.7 percent on last year, even though recent US Census data also suggests the housing market, despite all its hardship, is turning a corner. Nationally, building permits for privately-owned housing units were up six percent on October, but that’s still 7.3 percent below November 2008. It’s reasonable to assume that these national, optimistic figures are weaker in Los Angeles. Southern California was the epicenter of the real estate bubble. This is most obvious in the outlying desert communities where whole subdivisions sit vacant.

There are encouraging signs, though. In October, unemployment stood at 12.6 percent in the Los Angeles metropolitan area, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. Overall, the labour statistics for Los Angeles don’t look that dismal, at least superficially: non-farm jobs decreased 3.7 percent on last year.

So the news is good as long as you’re not picking grapes or reporting stories.  As I search for journalism jobs, I know it will be challenging. I may settle for freelance gigs, as full-time employment will be hard to find. I am reminded that, right now, Indian media houses continue to hire full-time newspapermen or train rookie reporters fresh out of college. That is difficult to imagine here, yet I remain confident I will find some sort of job, and that eventually the economy will slowly sputter back to life.

Meanwhile, the greatest irony of moving back to a country that my parents considered the land of opportunity is, at least temporarily, the lack of opportunity.