My two-bedroom apartment in Santa Monica overlooks a sort of courtyard/alleyway that is surrounded by several dozen other apartments. On still summer nights, there is a couple–no one knows quite who they are–who make love with their windows open. They are creatures of habit: the moans, slaps, exclamations, and admonishments resound at 2 a.m., give or take. Sometimes, the neighborhood owls even hoot in response.
When this nightly performance of “aural” sex began, everyone in my small apartment building began eying everyone else suspiciously. Each couple, ourselves included, fell under suspicion. Was it them? Everyone could not help but wonder. No one really minded, although we were supposed to feel outraged at the brazenness of it all, on top of losing a few minutes’ sleep each night. We accepted it as part of what urban living is all about.
Fewer young families are bothered (or entertained) by such noises these days. This past week, the U.S. Census Bureau revealed that from 2007 to 2011, 35,000 people left Los Angeles County for Riverside and San Bernadino Counties, the sprawling “Inland Empire” to the east. It was the single largest county-to-county migration in America, the L.A. Times notes, and happened even though those counties are shedding jobs.
What’s happening is that people are braving longer and longer commutes to keep their jobs while simultaneously keeping their housing costs down. Despite the housing crisis in the rest of America, coastal property prices in California stayed steady and even rose over the past few years. That has sparked an Occupy-style backlash in San Francisco against Google and Facebook, whose employees are being blamed for driving up the rents.
In L.A., people just move quietly and invest in better car stereos. To some extent, the migration is due to the sorry state of public services, particularly education, in the city proper. But for the most part it is due to the staggering cost of living near the places that provide work opportunities.
That is not a problem that Gov. Jerry Brown’s expensive high-speed rail project is going to be able to fix, if and when the train is actually built. In fact, if you credit liberal Joel Kotkin’s arguments, Brown’s environmentalist policies are part of the problem. By restricting single-family dwellings, and encouraging denser urban development as a way of reducing the state’s climate footprint, California is making housing prohibitively expensive.
The irony is that by restricting development, environmentalists and Democrats are ensuring that people spend more time in their cars.
That exacerbates another problem, which is that only the rich seem to be interested in family these days. In my affluent neighborhood, it is common to see mothers and fathers everywhere. (Recently sighted on the beach trail: a heavily pregnant runner in trendy yoga gear, pushing a baby in a jogging stroller.) Hence, the tolerance towards our amorous, noisy neighbors: as long as they don’t wake the kids, let them go at it.
Yet the traditional family seems to be increasingly alien to many Americans, partly because of economic inequality, but largely because of an emerging cultural divide, documented by Charles Murray in his recent book Coming Apart. Poorer Americans–white, black, and otherwise–are opting for single parenthood, which is a chief driver of (and, a liberal might note, a reflection of) economic inequality in our country today.
The cultural shift away from childbearing is evident when you travel from L.A. to San Francisco and discover a virtually childless city, where there are pet shops everywhere, and owners let their dogs off the leash to prance around antiquated and abandoned playgrounds. Perhaps San Francisco is a special case, owing to its large gay population, but the trend towards fewer children in big cities is one that is apparent in other places, as well.
It is, however, reversible. As David Goldman notes at PJ Media, Israel–one of the densest countries in the world, with free abortion and expensive real estate–has managed to reverse a decline in birthrates among Jewish families. It’s not just the religious families that are having more children, but the secular ones, as well: as Goldman observes, the non-Orthodox birthrate in Israel is a huge outlier at 2.6 children per adult woman.
Goldman attributes the rising birthrate to Israelis’ increasing religiosity. Yet there is also the fact that Israelis in general simply expect themselves, and each other, to raise families. Cultural changes, such as the advent of gay rights, have not changed that.
Perhaps we in the U.S. should spend less time worrying about the definition of marriage and more time enjoying it–noisily, if necessary–and stop chasing families to the suburban periphery.