Class War in Beverly Hills

If you were airlifted straight to Rodeo Drive, you’d have no idea the United States is in the grip of an economic meltdown; you’d probably think it was a wealthy, happy, healthy country.
Publish date:
March 28, 2012
travel, inequality, class war, class, Beverly Hills, s.e. plays the rube

While Julie and Cat were in Santa Monica on a top-secret makeunder mission, I was in an undisclosed location somewhere in Los Angeles, although I actually spent most of my time trolling the city for food1, interspersed with art2.

Our many adventures took us along Rodeo Drive and through Beverly Hills, for what I can only describe as a completely surreal drive-by tour of inequality in America that almost threatened to make my head explode. I had to resort to Twitter to bleed off some pressure.

Driving through Beverly Hills puts me in #classwar overload.

I was too stupefied to photodocument.

So here’s the thing: I have been to Los Angeles many, many times. I have even been in Beverly Hills (including into the interior of some of these fancypants houses). I have also been on Rodeo Drive; I’ve even been shopping on Rodeo Drive. But something about seeing it all concentrated in one quick blur past my car windows made me feel almost ill.

When it comes to luxury districts, Rodeo Drive is world-famous, and there’s a good reason for it. It’s an unrelenting parade of stores with designer names and multi-thousand dollar outfits hanging in the windows, displays of jewelry worth more than the GDP of some nations. It’s people wearing more than I make in a year walking carelessly along the sidewalk, not even blinking an eye at cars worth millions of dollars. It’s a parade of excess that really kind of beggars the imagination, unless you’re part of that culture, in which case it’s apparently totally normal.

Despite the economy, Rodeo Drive seems to be doing quite well for itself. My hostess pointed out that the Ferrari dealership has been forced to downsize, but that’s about it. Unlike the shopping district in my hometown, there are no empty storefronts, faded and peeling “for rent” signs, or promises of “recession discounts!” inside, let alone going out of business sales or windows covered in dust with an optimistic “be right back” sign that was obviously put up weeks or months ago.

If you were airlifted straight to Rodeo Drive, you’d have no idea the United States is in the grip of an economic meltdown; you’d probably think it was a wealthy, happy, healthy country.

It’s like being in a totally different world, a bubble where none of the things happening in the outside world can possibly penetrate. Moments before we entered Rodeo Drive, I’d transferred money from my dwindling savings to my checking to cover a medical bill; people on the streets were dropping that kind of money many times over on gewgaws in one store alone. Well, the ones who weren't there to gawk at the rich people, anyway.

And then we hit Beverly Hills. First it was just ostentatiously large houses. They were visible from the street, although some had hedges and gates. Nice landscaping. Not a person in sight, except at one residence; a Latino gardener mowing the spotless lawn, taking care to maintain the careful mowing pattern. I boggled at the size of the houses while my hostess joked that this was the “bad” part of Beverly Hills. On the flats, you know.

We entered a quiet, tree-lined street. Traffic was slowed and slightly hushed. Tall hedges and neatly clipped trees lined the road.

“Are we in the middle of a park or something?” I said.

I was used to Golden Gate Park, which has a similar sort of feel, where you suddenly shift from the noise and smells and intensity of the city to leafy green quiet. This was an eerie kind of quiet, though; at least in Golden Gate Park you see walkers and joggers.

“Uhm no,” my hostess said. “This is still Beverly Hills.”

I started to catch glimpses of seriously heavy-duty gates and security guards through the thick hedges. Vague hints of gatehouses. Once, the corner of a roof. I realized that we were driving through the middle of a distract of palatial estates; when we want past the Playboy mansion, my hostess pointed at an impenetrable hedge and said “This is where it starts...”

I looked over, wondering how she could distinguish the start of one hedge and the beginning of the next. We swept along a curve in the road.

“And it keeps going...” After another minute, she said “and here’s where it ends.”

I laughed at a ridiculous mailbox and promptly stopped when she told me she had priced it at $6,000 when she researched it just out of curiosity. This is a world where people buy mailboxes that cost $6,000. And it’s probably considered cheap.

Look. I’m aware of class inequality. It’s a big part of what I write, talk and think about on a daily basis. But my little jaunt through the world of wealth and privilege was a stark reminder of how unequal we are. Numbers are difficult and hard to grasp, but seeing a manifestation in the flesh made me understand on a more visceral level why there’s such a fundamental disconnect between the very rich and the very poor; rich people have no idea what the lives of poor and middle class people are like. Our world is just as unfathomable to them as theirs is to me.And yet, people find wealth strangely seductive and attractive, as evidenced by the fact that Rodeo Drive is a tourist attraction. Come and view rich people in their natural habitat. It's an aspirational model; you, too, can hope to be this rich and powerful someday.

“I don’t understand how people can live like this,” I said.

“I don’t either, but I’d sure be willing to try,” said someone else in the car.

“Sure, give me a couple million and let’s find out,” I joked.

“Oh honey,” my hostess said. “A couple million wouldn’t even get you in the door.”

1. Woah, you guys. In Los Angeles, a bevy of taco trucks comes out after dark, and you can get tacos for A DOLLAR FIFTY. That’s $1.50. Do you have any idea how many tacos I ate while in Los Angeles? Return

2. Seriously, props to my fabulous hostess, who fed me like a champ and was a generally excellent tour guide. As I explain to people when I visit them, I’m an easy keeper, as long as you keep shoving food in my piehole. Return