Gracie McKenzie is the audience engagement editor for CityLab. She previously worked in public radio, as the digital producer for NPR’s The Diane Rehm Show and Here & Now, and ran social media for Narratively.
In its second season, the podcast “There Goes the Neighborhood” explores the pressures of life in a changing Los Angeles—with lessons for listeners everywhere.
”It has no timber, it has no coal, it has no iron, it has no natural harbor, it has basically no water for eight months of the year,” Graham adds. “Essentially, there’s no reason for a city to exist in coastal Southern California whatsoever.”
So, from the beginning, he tells host Saul Gonzalez, the city’s development has been based on real estate. These days, it’s among the most unaffordable housing markets in the country—part of the reason for the podcast.
The show’s first season, a collaboration between WNYC and The Nation magazine, dug into the history, present, and future of one particular rapidly developing neighborhood in Brooklyn, with plenty of archival audio and interviews with locals and experts alike.
Now, in its second season, WNYC is taking the show out west, this time collaborating with Santa Monica’s KCRW to look into Los Angeles. Gonzalez, the host, has lived in the city for more than 30 years now. He hadn’t listened to the season about East New York before the public radio station he works for approached WNYC asking to work together on a new season. Once he heard it, though, he “loved it.”
“To me it was all new. Not coming from New York—except as a visitor,” he tells CityLab, ”I really loved its approach, how it got into the specifics of what was happening in East New York, and those particular neighborhoods.”
But there was one thing from season one that just wouldn’t work in L.A.: the “granular level of specificity” about one part of town.
“We felt here in Los Angeles, just given the nature of the city, we had to tell a wider story, at least geographically,” he says. That meant creating an arc that spans many neighborhoods, including Rampart Heights, Hollywood, and Downtown L.A.
Gonzalez spoke to CityLab about the podcast so far, and what’s to come. This conversation has been edited for clarity.
How have you seen Los Angeles change in the time you’ve lived there?
First off, I'm glad we don't have the problems we used to have. We used to be a city with a very high crime rate. We had over 1,000 murders a year in Los Angeles in the early 1990s. We had the crack cocaine epidemic. And in a lot of ways I've seen the city really improve. There are more kind of communal spaces and civic spaces here in Los Angeles than ever before.
So we don't have the problems we once had, which is a good thing, but never have I seen so many people talk about the cost of housing and this kind of alienation that they feel living in Los Angeles right now simply because of how damn much it costs to live here. And that's kind of been the trade-off, right?
We've remedied, to some degree, other problems we used to have, particularly with crime, but now we have this huge existential problem with just housing, yes, but also our connection with the city and whether or not L.A. is as welcoming as it once was. A lot of people you hear in our series are saying, “No, it's not.”
Were there moments in the podcast reporting that stuck out to you as representative of your experience?
Absolutely. It was talking to this guy Cesar Vega, who's in episode one. I don't think the podcast quite captures the visuals, where Cesar rents this quintessential Southern California Spanish-style cottage in Hollywood. And all around him, there's this big 500-unit megaproject that's being built on three sides of his cottage. You have a guy who grew up in Los Angeles, and everyday he walks out of his door and he sees this thing being built and says, “That's not the L.A. that I grew up in or imagine myself living in.”
And of course, there are good arguments to be made on either side because he may not feel as much at home here because of what's being built around him—but there are 500 units of housing that are being created in what used to be a parking lot.
And was there anything that especially surprised you?
What especially surprised me was just the collective anxiety over housing. I'm not talking about him in particular, but just how it is such an issue, housing and gentrification, that people are so keyed into right now. It is kind of impossible not to find someone who doesn't have a strong opinion about this. It's hard to find a collective interest or a collective obsession in L.A., being so big, and this is an example of where we're focused on an issue in a way that I haven't seen before.
This is not an unusual thing just for Los Angeles—you can go to San Francisco and Seattle, New York, obviously. But you have this overlay here in Los Angeles. The city is changing in a way that makes a lot of Angelenos uncomfortable—more dense, taller buildings, a mass transit system that that's expanding—and all these things are happening at the same time, in a way that I don't think is quite the situation in other cities.
That leaves a lot of people asking themselves: What kind of L.A. do I want to live in? In a sense, you have an L.A. with one foot in its 20th century image, low-rise single-family homes and we all drive around, and you have this L.A. that also has its foot in the 21st century in terms of what it's becoming. And some people embrace it. Other people not so much.
Has your life as a Los Angeles resident become a part of the show at all?
We have an episode coming up about gentrification in my neighborhood, on the border of Eagle Rock and Glassell Park in Northeast L.A, centered on a fancy upscale coffeehouse that opened.
My neighborhood before was only really known as having one of L.A.'s few Polish restaurants; that was its commercial claim to fame. But now we have this super adorable, white wall, subway tile coffeehouse that's moved in, and we look at how is this going to change my neighborhood, for good or bad. And it likely will. You know, it's pretty successful and likely will have some sort of change that will echo out if it stays there.
And we have an episode coming up about my experience as a commuter here, just getting around the city. We're trying to look at this other place we live, which is, you know, just how we get from point A to point B. In a way, our movement through the city is our other home in L.A.—maybe even more so than any other city in the United States.
Just because everyone has to go so far.
Yes, you know, I live 15 miles from Santa Monica, which isn't so bad, but 15 miles becomes up to two hours on the freeway some days. So we will likely inject some of that experience into our final episode.
What makes audio a good format for talking about urban change?
I spent most of my career at PBS, KCET, the local PBS affiliate. I know it's a cliche but it's the immediate connection you can make with someone in audio in a way that you can't with television. I've never been a print reporter, so I can't speak to that. But with a radio mic, it's just smaller, not as intimidating. You're not hauling out a camera and pointing it at someone's face, so it's easier to strike up an intimate personal conversation pretty quickly.
I think what we're trying to do in every episode is to turn sound into a character. In our first show we go up in a helicopter and we fly over L.A. and we hope that captures the cinematic quality of living in L.A.—in that it's just so damn big. And we really were looking around, like, what is the way to portray this? So we found a helicopter company—and then we found out the pilot was a realtor, which was kind of cool.
I was going to say, I laughed out loud at that part of the show.
A very L.A. thing, right? Every third person is a realtor. We're also trying whenever possible to turn our places into characters, and that's most developed in episode two, at the apartment building we profiled. We really hope the place itself is every bit as much of a character as the people living in it or the landlord.
We are really trying to be at places as things are happening. So in episode two when there's a conflict between the tenants and the landlord, we were quite pleased that we were able to arrange it that we were there while he was trying to move some of the tenants out. And you heard that unfiltered (except for some editing we did).
We're trying to replicate that with every episode where, again, whenever possible, we're trying to talk to people as things are happening and not just, you know, what happened in this neighborhood three weeks ago.
And, what makes audio challenging and how are you all working against that?
Coming from television, what makes audio challenging—particularly when you're dealing with how the story relates to the urban landscape—is that you can't see the places that we're going to.
We hope our soundscape work and even music helps create kind of a mood or a feeling for the place. We're working with very talented people back in New York who are doing some of our soundscape work and the audio mixing. You do sometimes wish, “Oh, I want people to see this.” We try to make up for it by having our still and video content online.
Another challenge is how to make a potentially dry subject—some urban issues or zoning issues or real estate issues—come alive. We aren't dealing with murder mysteries here, right? Also you don't just want variations of people saying “gentrification is bad,” or “I'm worried about gentrification.” That's interesting for five minutes. So, how do you take this issue and tell a fresh story each and every episode, that can stand on its own?
The stereotype of the people listening to podcasts are the people who are doing the gentrifying. Is that something that you all are thinking about as you do your work?
Oh yeah. We know that we are more likely talking to the people who are being accused of gentrification. I don't think it's affecting how we're covering things at all, but we're aware of that.
In one editorial meeting we considered somehow getting into that, you know, about public broadcasting and maybe its role as a gentrifier. We didn't really do much with it just because I think we had other ideas we liked more come up.
How many episodes will there be total?
There'll be eight episodes total, and so we have just passed our halfway point. We did episode four on “flippers” and their role in neighborhood change, and episode five is all about artists and creatives and their role in gentrification, or lack of a role. We're also doing community outreach. I just hosted a town hall forum on gentrification and we have another one coming up.
One last question: For potential listeners outside of L.A., what do you think people can learn from listening to stories about cities that aren't theirs?
So many cities are going through exactly the same thing right now. These are stories that are very relatable if you're living in Austin, Texas, or Seattle or Miami. A lot of the same forces are in play and a lot of the same concerns are in play. I think you could very easily listen to this in many cities really around the world and relate to it. So we're kind of producing with that in mind.
We don't want to be parochial. Yes, we're telling an L.A. story—but we also know that it concerns a lot of people outside the city limits of Los Angeles. And from what I understand, I don't have the exact numbers, but a lot of the New York subscribers are still very much there and listening to season two.