This blog explores the history of Phoenix, Arizona and a little bit of Los Angeles and San Francisco, California

California when it was a cheap place to live


When I think of places like San Diego, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, the first thought that pops into my head is how terribly expensive these places are to live in. And lately I've been wondering about what California was like when it was a cheap place to live.

I just finished reading "Two Years Before the Mast", which was about a young man's adventures on a ship that sailed from Boston to the California coast in 1935-36. Back then California was pretty much empty, populated by a few Mexican towns (yes, it was part of Mexico back then) such as San Diego, El Pueblo de Los Angeles, San Buenaventura, Santa Barbara, Monterey, and San Francisco. The author's descriptions are of a place that was on "the edge of nowhere", where people like him visited only when they had to, and where all it would have taken to live in Santa Barbara would have been to make yourself an adobe home, like the rest of them were. The author revisits the California coast in 1859, and by that time San Francisco was getting to be a real city, but the other places mentioned were still sleepy little towns, now part of the United States, but you'd have hardly seen any difference. So you could have lived pretty cheaply in San Francisco, compared to, say, Boston in 1859, and anywhere in Southern California for virtually nothing, other than the labor of maybe doing some odd jobs for the ships that visited, working to collect hides, that sort of thing.

Support Arizona history by becoming a patron on Patreon

Click here to become a Patron!
History Adventuring blog posts are shared there daily, also there's "then and now" images, billboards, aerials, and super high-resolution photos of historic Phoenix, Arizona

On a more modern note, I'm reminded of the 1971 Neil Diamond song "I am, I said". In the lyrics of the song, which compares New York to Los Angeles, Neil mentions that "palm trees grow and rents are low". Of course, he was comparing rents to New York, which have always been higher than average for the country, but just the mention of rents being low in Los Angeles now strikes me as kinda strange. When I lived there, in the late 1980s, the cost of housing, including renting, meant that people were crowding into spaces. In the apartment complex where I lived, I was the only person who was living alone in an apartment, which were all studios, about 500 square feet. Most of them had families. During that time, the city of Los Angeles passed a law limiting the number of people allowed to live in a one-bedroom apartment. The limit was 12. Twelve. That's what people have to do when rents are high, and their income is low. There were eight young men living in the apartment next-door to me, and they slept on the floor, in shifts. And this was in a less-than-fashionable part of town, Canoga Park.

When I drive along Topanga Canyon, I'm reminded of an old 1950s movie with Bob Hope where he played the father of a daughter who was dating some poor low-life young man, who lived in Topanga Canyon. Even in the 1960s Topanga Canyon was a cheap place to live, filled with hippies. Nowadays it's such an expensive address it's hard to imagine.

Yes, California used to be a cheap place to live, but those days after over. When you go there, bring a LOT of money, and be prepared to spend it.


Image at the top of this post: Las Virgenes Canyon near Calabasas, California, north of Malibu.