Californians give up on Oz, head home

November 29, 1993|By Robin Clark | Robin Clark,Knight-Ridder News Service

LOS ANGELES -- Fed up with crime, drugs and traffic jams, George Williams packed up and moved out.

Out of Honolulu and back to Los Angeles.

"Paradise? Hawaii? You should hear what I went through!" he said.

Janet and Tom Wing abandoned San Diego for greener pastures in northern Idaho. Now they're back, settled happily in a house just down the street from the home they left.

"What passes for intellectual conversation in Coeur D'Alene is who won the wrestling match on TV," Mrs. Wing said.

As for Todd Polk, he found a better job in Portland, Maine, than in his hometown of Yorba Linda, Calif. But the Orange County native never warmed to New England, for reasons of attitude as well as latitude.

"They don't hug back there," said Mr. Polk, who returned in July. "In California, everybody hugs everybody." In Maine, "they think you're weird."

Call them what you will, they're coming home.

Just when it looked as if the last person out of Southern California would have to turn off the lights, something strange is happening: People are returning.

Not in droves, but here and there, in pairs and handfuls, they are straggling back across the borders of this bedraggled state, often to pick up where they left off before they fled in search of a better life.

No one claims it to be the harbinger of California's rebirth. Most say simply that they had to leave to learn the truth of the adage "Be it ever so humble . . . "

"There really is no place like home," Mr. Williams said. "I don't care what anybody said, I'm glad to be back in Southern California. I would never leave here again."

Sure, the state has had problems: wildfires, riots, earthquakes, unemployment, landslides, street gangs, traffic jams, graffiti vandals, tax revolts and air that should carry a warning label most days.

But, hey, the weather's great. And, in case someone hasn't noticed, the rest of the country isn't perfect, either.

Officially, the exodus is still under way. California state officials estimate that 150,000 more people moved out of the state than moved into it last year, based on driver's license applications and renewals.

But U-Haul Corp., the state's largest self-moving company, said outbound rentals exceeded inbound rentals by only 1 percent during the one-year period ending March 31. That is down from a high of 15.3 percent in 1990.

Crime is the reason Mr. Williams left California. And crime is why he came back.

"It was getting so dangerous in L.A., we thought it was time to move on," said Mr. Williams, 58, who retired to Hawaii three years ago with his 84-year-old mother.

"We flew in Wednesday," he said. "On Friday we were robbed. I woke up and there was a man next to my bed. I was jerked out of bed and beaten half to death. He stole my gold Rolex and my mother's diamond ring."

Mr. Williams was brutalized: two broken teeth, a disfigured ear and nerve damage that still sends pain shooting down both legs.

What's worse, when police arrived to investigate, his mother recognized one of the officers. He was one of the robbers.

"I'll tell you, that old 'aloha' spirit is long gone," Mr. Williams said. "The mainland problems have all found their way over there -- crime, drugs, traffic jams. And the supermarkets don't even have double coupons."

Like Mr. Williams, other California refugees have returned after discovering that the life they sought elsewhere didn't exist, except in their dreams.

Patrick Jobes, a sociology professor at Montana State University in Bozeman, has tracked groups of new arrivals to the Bozeman area periodically since 1973.

"About 30 percent leave the first year, and eight out of 10 are gone in the first decade," he said. "These are people who were convinced that they're making a permanent move. And quite often they leave sad, cynical and angry.

"People come here with an illusion of finding the better life in a small town," Mr. Jobes said. "In fact, there may be better life in small towns. But they have to be stable small towns, and many of the places they've been moving to -- places like Aspen [in Colorado], Jackson [in Wyoming] and Sun Valley [in Idaho] -- are not stable small towns. They are cultivated to look like small towns.

"In reality, the populations are no more stable than a suburb in southern California."

For Mr. Polk, the disillusionment came in degrees. About 40 degrees.

It was 75 and sunny when Mr. Polk left Orange County in March two years ago to take a job in Portland, Maine. When he arrived, it was 35 degrees and raining.

"The beginning of the mud season," he said. "I didn't even own a jacket."

Mr. Polk lasted 11 months before returning to southern California. "I experienced it. I'll never go back," he said of the Northeast.

L It wasn't that he didn't find things to like in New England.

"I dated a potato farmer for a while," he said. "She was nice."

But, he said, "outside Portland, there's nothing. It's just a tree on the left, a tree on the right." As for the beach, "it only gets warm for three weeks a year, and there are no waves. I touched it once with my toe and said, 'I don't think so.' "

The Places Rated Almanac, which ranks cities for livability, dropped Los Angeles to No. 27 this year -- down from 15th in its last edition in 1989.

But David Savageau, the author, said the ranking was lowered to reflect inflated housing costs, not a decline in the basic quality of life.

"I've been out there," he said. "And whenever I go, I say, 'What's wrong with this?' I'd sure rather be out there in February than in Boston."

Mr. Savageau has developed a theory about why some southern Californians flee only to return.

"They're spoiled rotten," he said. "They don't know how good they've got it."

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