When we bought the house twelve years ago the backyard had been reduced by the prowling of three enormous Rottweilers to a moonscape of grass-less, weed-less hard pan adobe. Re-sodding was the first order of business. Before bathroom renovations, before closets or windows or electrical or a hundred other more practical things. The one-bedroom apartment era of our lives was over. We had graduated to homeownership. Dammit, if I wasn’t going to have a smooth grassy expanse extending off the patio, my own Van Nuys-ian bit of the 18th hole at Pebble Beach. So in went the Marathon, which lasted about a year, before retreating to scattered clumps about the yard. Undeterred and figuring I had been dealing with an inferior brand of grass, I upgraded to the much more expensive St. Augustine. Charged it, as all things were in the first Housing Boom. The St. Augustine lasted…for a couple years, but eventually succumbed to the sunlight deprivation and thirst of the seven backyard trees which surround it. What we were left with is more or less what you see above. For the past few years I’ve made a Spring ritual of buying grass seed and restarting the lawn. It lasts until about August and then….well, you get the picture. Faced with a choice of trees and shade and fruit on the one hand, and a lawn on the other, or some kind of Mr. Miyagi-like native plant Zen garden as a third alternative, I have chosen to…keep sodding. Homeowner, thy name is schmuck. I’d rather curse the darkness and keep pushing my rock up the hill, than admit defeat. Stubborn People built this country, I remind myself, always eager for a rationalization. Quitting is not our nature.
This may be the year Mother Nature intervenes in my foolishness. Then again, two days of rain are coming this week. If I start tilling now….
‘Let’s go for a drive’, says I. ‘Let us bid farewell to Van Nuys for a few hours.’ ‘Yes, Lex!’ replied Mrs. UpintheValley. Slip into her ModCloth dress she did and away we went. Downtown! Where she soon drew admirers…
Giles is game for all outdoor adventuring, but Santee Alley was a bit chaotic and crowded for a small dog underfoot. It’s a world of commerce in extremis. Men in slim-fit suits lurk next to the mannequins at the front of stalls whispering: ‘Fendi, Fendi, Valentino.’ Then you walk around to the service alley and there are Koreans in beat-up vans unloading garments in huge trash bags through the back doors of the stores.
The contrasts are remarkable. Here we have another mixed-use industrial building being converted into high-end lofts….directly across the street, however:
…there are poverty stores where the great unwashed are reminded not to wash their hands in the melted ice of the soda cooler. The Brazilianization of California continues apace.
After an hour or so, Mrs. UpintheValley had her fill of the garment district, so we moseyed east of Alameda, to the Arts District. This was more to her liking.
There’s something about the arts district phenomenon, here and elsewhere, that fetishizes and celebrates the architecture of the manufacturing age. This is partly inevitable. Vacant buildings in a post-industrial landscape offer the dormant capacity needed for residential re-development. But that’s not the only reason. Even the most utilitarian structures from the golden age offer aesthetic delight and authenticity difficult to re-create today and this is part of the attraction. The workmen of the day (and it was men, working then) were frequently artisans, even in the construction trades. As someone who has built and re-built a thing or two, let me bear witness to the staggering amount of craftsmanship and nearly flawless execution in this single brick wall. Mark Zuckerberg himself couldn’t buy the people with the skill set to duplicate bespoke masonry at this level, at any price. The people who could do this sort of thing are no longer to be found in Los Angeles. What does it mean if the most enduring artistic achievements of the area prove to be the structures themselves?
Just down the block from the swanky National Biscuit Company lofts we found this cafe tucked nicely in a narrow curved alley. Only after we walked around the corner did I realize beneath this brick patio was once a railroad siding that served the Nabisco loading docks. From this spot biscuits and crackers began their dispersal throughout the rail networks to the far corners of North America, once upon a time. Now it’s a lifestyle playground.
On the other side of this mural, we discovered the Urban Radish, uber-gourmet grocery. I would be lying if I didn’t say we both lusted in the aisles of this store. Artisanal cheese! ($35 lb) Gourmet sausages! ($15 ea) Dry-aged beef! (don’t ask) Organic brickleberry flavored ice cream made from pastured cows! ($11/pint) I would also be lying if I suggested if we could afford any of it. Clearly, this is someone else’s lifestyle playground.
But play, we did. We ended up at the ironically named Pour Haus, for happy hour and glasses of wine and a game of Scrabble. At the moment of this photograph I had just laid down a seven-letter word to leap 60 points ahead. She is amused by any confidence on my part I will hang on to this lead. ‘You have no chance of winning, my dear. None.’ The word was: Serious.
She was almost gracious in victory.
When we reached the limit of our $20 budget for the afternoon we returned to the car, and the trek back to the Valley and its particular cake of comfort and squalor. On our way to the freeway we passed the American Apparel factory and its huge Legalize LA banners and the image seemed to encapsulate everything about our political and cultural moment in Los Angeles. Here at the crossroads of the garment and arts districts, where the new economy embeds itself within the ruins of the old (Southern Pacific, no less), where the new fortunes are being made or blown…here, the poster child of DTLA proclaims to the world: ‘Pay Americans Less Money’. Let there be no immigration law which would prevent millions of unskilled workers coming here to do battle in the labor marketplace with those already arrived and the native-born hanging on by their fingernails. May the devil take the hindmost. They even sell Legalize LA t-shirts to the hipster kids who wear them in a celebration of ignorance of the laws of economics. Van Nuys is boring. But it’s mostly honest. If you stick to a budget you can own a house there. For now. I love my wife.