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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 Wageners: Going Home Again to Nebraska

On their many visits to Jay Wagener's hometown of Lincoln, Neb., Jay and his wife, Linda, both now 43, were struck by the differences in home prices, quality of the life and public schools.

And for two psychotherapists from competition-heavy Southern California, the prospect of practicing in a city where most of the psychologists had waiting lists was tempting.

A year of planning and a few house-hunting trips later, the Wageners and their four children moved from their home overlooking the Rose Bowl in Pasadena to Jay's old neighborhood in Lincoln.

The family's exodus was chronicled in a 1991 article in The Times Magazine headlined "Getting Out," and they still get recognized, Linda Wagener said.

It was 1990, around the beginning of the real estate downturn, and their 3,000-square-foot house in Pasadena's Prospect Park--for which they paid $295,000 in 1986--sat on the market several months before they decided to lease it.

But, oh, what they got in Lincoln: a 1912 6,000-square-foot, three-story brick Georgian with a basement on a two-acre lot on a tree-lined street in the "country club neighborhood" for $260,000.

It didn't take long for the Wageners to assimilate into the Lincoln lifestyle. Besides the plus of living near Jay's parents and longtime friends, the move allowed the children to go to the public schools that their grandparents had attended, and the family joined the country club. Fall meant gold leaves, hunting season and football games. Winter was a postcard wonderland.

"Our children . . . could go all over the place on their bikes," Linda Wagener said. "In our neighborhood near the Rose Bowl, that wasn't possible."

And things gelled professionally--at least for Linda, who works with children and adolescents. "It was very easy to build up my practice quickly to whatever level I wanted to be at," she said.

For Jay Wagener, that wasn't the case. Having doubts about the decision even before they moved, he continued seeing patients in Pasadena. Every week, he would fly into Burbank on Tuesdays and return to Lincoln on Thursday nights. While he had a practice in Lincoln, they felt they needed the extra income.

"Then it became a matter of hedging the bet--wanting to make sure this was the right move," he said. "By the end, it was just wearing me down so that I could hardly think straight anymore."

With Jay's Lincoln practice, things got uncomfortably familiar. "I ended up knowing most everybody or knowing of them," he said. The move also aggravated a sort of a mid-life crisis Jay was experiencing in his late 30s.

"It felt like I'd gone back home again and, at that particular time in my life, it was sort of the antithesis of what I wanted to feel. I think one wants to feel they're progressing and creating new things, not that they're almost ready for retirement."

A teaching offer for Jay in San Francisco seemed like a solution, but they realized that neither house would sell quickly and that the standard of living with four children "was going to be much worse than when we were in Southern California," he said. "At that point, we were burnt out from having gone through one transition. The specter of going through another was just too huge and depressing."

Everything came to a boiling point Labor Day weekend in 1992. The children had to start school somewhere, so they packed their van and came back to California.

They resettled in their Pasadena house and eventually sold the Lincoln house back to the couple who sold it to them, for $270,000.

Return visits to Lincoln make them feel "sad and nostalgic," Linda Wagener said. "A part of me thinks we should have stayed. I felt like we'd gotten the things we'd gone there for. But I'm not unhappy here by any means. We have a great life."

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