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Getting Out: The Great California Exodus : Remember us? We left Southern California looking for cheaper housing, employment opportunities and a better way of life. Well ... We're Ba-aack!

March 30, 1997|LISA TAYLOR | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Lisa Taylor is a Laguna Niguel freelance writer

Getting Out: The Great California Exodus

--Los Angeles Times, May 19, 1991

California, Here I Go

--The Times, Feb. 21, 1993

Record Number Leaves State as Economy Drags

--The Times, Sept. 2, 1993

*

The headlines heralded what we already knew:

Southern Californians had been leaving since the late 1980s in search of safer, cheaper, bigger or greener pastures.

They went, they saw . . . and now they are coming home. They're not stampeding back; it's more like an intermittent trickle. The official term for it is "return migration."

And it's a fairly predictable phenomenon, according to Peter A. Morrison, a demographer for the Rand Corp. in Santa Monica. Some of the reasons people may have left--the high home prices of the late '80s, the recession in the early '90s and the resulting downsizing, layoffs--have started to turn around as the state's economy continues to recover.

"They no longer need to be living somewhere else," said Morrison. "And if it isn't a place they want to live, then California now looks like a place they can."

Driver's license data show a net inflow into California for 1996--the first such influx since 1991, according to the Center for Continuing Study of the California Economy, a Palo Alto-based think tank.

The center estimates that the net inflow from other states exceeded 25,000 in 1996, a sharp reversal of the outflow of 127,000 licensed drivers in 1993-94.

Southern California is "undoubtedly drawing back some of the significant numbers of people who have left in the past few years," Morrison said.

Here are the stories of five families who followed their dreams and then came back. They're not tales of defeat. They're about people who, for their own reasons, decided that Southern California isn't such a bad place to live after all.

The Casanovas: Affordability by the Sea in Galveston

Growing up in Los Angeles, Angelica and Stacy Casanova watched its woes intensify: pollution, traffic, high cost of living, fewer jobs, urban unrest and those natural disasters. "We just got fed up," said Angelica, 34. Added Stacy, 33: "We needed a breath of fresh air."

The couple was renting a home in the Montecito Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles for $900 a month and got discouraged every time they went house hunting. Several visits to Galveston, Texas, to visit Stacy's family in an area where real estate ads trumpeted two- and three-bedroom houses for $40,000 only reinforced a growing question: Why are we living here?

So they loaded their three cats, two dogs and whatever they could cram into their minivan (a moving van carried the rest) and, on Thanksgiving weekend of 1994, trekked from L.A. to Galveston.

Upon arrival, things happened with a this-was-meant-to-be swiftness. Although the Casanovas didn't have a place lined up, they had to stay with relatives for only a couple of weeks before finding a colorful Victorian two-bedroom house to rent for $500, expensive in that town, according to Stacy Casanova.

In Galveston's historical district, the house was on the main drag, where the Mardi Gras celebration is held each year. The beach was only two blocks away. They got a kick out of waving from their balcony at camera-toting tourists riding the street's trolley. "It felt like we were on vacation," said Angelica.

In terms of work, it all seemed to come together. Angelica, a hairdresser who had had her own business in Silver Lake, found a job within days. Stacy, a drapery installer, hooked up with a decorator friend of his mother's in Houston and also worked for a mom-and-pop installation business in Galveston.

They found Galveston's pace and attitude more relaxed than L.A.'s. "I had time to enjoy Angelica's company for once," said Stacy. "We'd take the dogs for a walk at the beach every day. It's a very seasonal town--things slow down after summer and you get some breathing room."

However, that vacation feeling began to wane. Stacy's installation work in Houston fell off and the owner of the shop in Galveston died, so he took a refurbishing job with a maritime maintenance company. Angelica was working two jobs and figured it would take her at least two years to build up enough clientele to open her own salon.

As their first anniversary in Galveston neared, they began to assess whether they were happy with their move. While her parents had retired to their ranch in Zacatecas, Mexico, Angelica missed her family and friends in L.A.

And compared to Galveston, the job opportunities in L.A. didn't look as bad as they had before.

Then there was an indescribable something that kept nagging at Angelica to return, a feeling that all was not well at home. "I started to get antsy, but maybe it was something more," she said.

On New Year's Day of 1995, they repacked their van and headed to L.A. When they arrived at Angelica's sister's house in Pico Rivera, they learned that her father had just suffered a stroke and had to be hospitalized in the L.A. area.

The couple quickly found a house to rent on Mt. Washington. Stacy was rehired by his former employer, and Angelica got several of her former clients back while working at a salon in Silver Lake.

Eventually, Stacy found a more stable job as a driver for Coca-Cola and Angelica opened her own shop, this time in a prime location in Silver Lake Village. They bought their first home, a two-bedroom Craftsman-style house in Highland Park, for $127,000 last December.

Angelica's father has been in and out of hospitals, and her mother died unexpectedly in February 1996 of a pulmonary embolism. "When we look back now," Stacy said, "it was meant for us to return. If we'd still been in Texas, things might have been even more traumatic for Angelica, not being with her family."

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