May 2018 Money Diary: What Makes the Perfect City?

Ivan here.

The highlight of May was a four day trip Jennie and I took to New Orleans to attend the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. It was on my bucket list of items to check off before we leave North America to work and travel around the world.

 
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Total cost of the New Orleans trip was around $600, with the help of Southwest Airlines points (transferable 1:1 via Chase) plus the Southwest Companion Pass.

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Now, with money out of the way, let’s talk about something I care about...


The (Very Short) Lifespan of Music and Cities


Diamond or doorknob?
Sapphire or sawdust?
Champagne or just home brew?
Tell me, tell me, tell me, dreamface,
What am I to you?
— Duke Ellington, Tulip or Turnip

I’ve been a casual fan of jazz since high school. It’s one of the most liberating art forms to emerge from the U.S., with a focus on “dialogue” and “improvisation,” something that really resonated with me from a young age. Spontaneity has never been my strong suit. Generally, I have what most people would consider an uptight personality. Music and writing helps me experience and feel things I’d normally miss in the moment.

In recent decades, jazz has gone the way of classical music. It’s stuffier, more “high brow” now. Academics have gotten their hands on it, turning a working class art into a “discipline,” to be studied at arm’s length like a museum piece. When this happens, art loses its original vitality and connection to everyday life.  

I think this applies equally to capitalists and cities. There’s something about achieving a certain level of wealth and comfort that tends to narrow peoples’ imaginations. One of my biggest fears is to wake up one morning and settle into a conversation with Jennie over breakfast about the price of real estate.

Like music, I think every city has a limited lifespan. Like the perfect sushi, every piece of nigiri has its own time. Its moment in the sun. And it’s up to each of us to decide the kind of city we’re looking for - before it's too late. 


3 Things We Look For In a “Perfect” City


Downtown Los Angeles, California


There are three main things Jennie and I look for in a “perfect” city:
 

1. Cost: How much does it cost to live there?

Economics tells you a lot about cities. The average price of rent determines the type of neighbors you’ll have, the kind of retail/dining experiences available, and even the opinions people tend to hold. From our experience, Jennie and I are a lot more comfortable living in neighborhoods that are affordable to a wider range of people. This not only helps our wallet, but provides a form of stimulation that’s very hard to find in certain parts of New York, San Francisco or Los Angeles (where we live).

Affordable cities like New Orleans and Philadelphia have some of our favorite types of places. For example, at the Bacchanal Wine Bar in New Orleans, we were eating cheese and sipping red wine at a table with two certified hipsters, a middle-aged couple from Houston, and three local contractors/electricians who were originally from Guatemala and Honduras. By contrast, the only Hispanic people we meet in the tolerant, liberal oasis of West Los Angeles are construction workers, cleaning ladies, nannies, and gardeners. We have a huge fucking problem with this.
 

2. People: What is the general attitude toward life?

Are people ambitious or laidback?
Do they prioritize getting the most out of life today or working for a better tomorrow?
Is there room for different ideas and perspectives?

To what extent do people care about how they look versus who they are?
Do they communicate directly or indirectly?
Are they comfortable with dissent and conflict?
Are they individualists or collectivists? 

These are just some of the questions Jennie and I ask ourselves when we visit a new city. We tend to gravitate towards certain types of people. People who like to push the envelope and are unafraid to say what’s on their minds, even at the risk of being “wrong” or causing offense. These are usually the same people who tend to be less flaky and can be depended on to do what they say they’re gonna do. And while it’s hard to make sweeping generalizations about large groups of people, we’ve traveled to enough places to notice certain patterns and differences - even between residents of neighboring cities.
 

3. Convenience: How easy is it to get around?

None of the first two points matter if the city is inaccessible.

  • Is it possible to get around by public transit in a reasonable amount of time?
  • Can people of similar interests come together in an area?
  • Are there social/invisible barriers that prevent people of different backgrounds from mingling?

OUr Verdict on Los Angeles


 Some beach in Los Angeles, California.

Some beach in Los Angeles, California.

Basically, the “perfect” city we’re describing here is the exact opposite of Los Angeles. 

LA is not very affordable, the average person here is too cool and trendy for us, and it’s certainly not convenient. Now, I’m sure there are some wonderful people living in this city who we’d get along with swimmingly. But if they’re from East LA and we’re from West LA, they may as well be from the surface of Mars.

If our trip to New Orleans this month (and every other trip we’ve made outside of California) has taught us anything, it’s the realization that Los Angeles is not our type of city.

Honestly, Jennie and I are surprised we took two whole years before coming to this conclusion. Of course, every place has its positives and negatives, and we’ve really tried to make the best of our time in this city. But when we actually sat down and weighed the city’s pluses and minuses, all the positives were much lower on our list of priorities.

We've learned that some things are just more important than 284 days of sunshine.