Urban Palimpsest

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The layers of civic history, peeling. First appliances, then bail bonds.  Then, for twenty years, porn.

Gone is Brand X Video.  Soon to be born is the latest undisclosed piece in the redevelopment of the New Van Nuys boulevard.

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Meanwhile, several doors down, the very promising Farm Table restaurant has empty tables. I can’t look.

Quickly everybody, go over there and buy one meal, as an act of civic patriotism, before it turns into a payday lender or dialysis center.

Trumpland, Thirty Years After

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Who would live in Koreatown thirty years ago, but Korean peasants, fresh off the boat, hot racking it in the back room over a corner store, putting in 12-hour days, eager to one day become Korean merchants?  Certainly not middle class white people.

To put it differently, who wouldn’t rather live in a crime-free Valley with a lawn and a breezeway and a carport for the boat, and pay for it with one income?

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Today, if you want to eat, you go to Koreatown. You want to buy a pair of shoes, you want to bowl, you want to have a craft cocktail, you want to see pretty people, or to aspire to prettiness yourself, you want to dance, you want to walk down crime-free immaculately manicured streets, if you want to practice your golf swing….

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…you come here. You stand on a platform five storeys over Wilshire, surrounded by construction cranes, and a machine lifts the ball out of a hole in the floor, and tees it up for you. Perfectly, over and over again. Ten cents a ball.

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You stand over the rooftops like a god, for $18. When it’s over you get in a time machine and crawl over the pass, to the lost world of Fast Times at Ridgemont High.  You are home, yet somehow your heart is elsewhere.

Young John and Elias

John Connor in the wash

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Boys move to uncharted spaces by instinct.  The first step to manhood is leaving your yard alone.   We map the world beyond our parents command first by foot, then by bicycle.

What is this strange world, we ask ourselves.  How far can I go? How high? How fast? Who am I? What is my nature?

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The channels of  the LA River are an imperfect playground for boys, yet irresistible for that very reason. There is communion with frogs and other strange fauna down in the wash, and the call to adventure along new pathways. The wash liberates one from the street grid.    There is refuge from cars, and in the quiet, unique sounds.   An alternative transportation corridor connecting neighborhoods, an in doing so a place of escape unto itself. A bridge to Terabithia in the middle of the Valley.

On Feb. 17, 14-year-old Elias Rodriguez disappeared on his way home from school.  The local TV news took up his cause and the city posted a $50,000 reward for his return.  A tipline was was established. Foul play theories were entertained.

Two weeks later his battered body was found 20 nautical miles away, on a sand spit in the Glendale Narrows, dragged there by storm waters.  He tried to cross the Pacoima Wash on foot in a rainstorm and paid with his life.  Glen Oaks Boulevard was three blocks away, civic minders were quick to point out, he could have safely crossed the wash there. Let this be a teachable moment.

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Well, sure, if you enjoy GMC Yukons whipping past you at 50mph, three abreast, stray dogs and bicyclists be damned, that sort of advice makes sense. This is not how boys think. The straight line to Elias’ grandmother’s house takes him through the hole in the chain link fence behind the Cesar Chavez Learning Academy, across the wash and up onto 7th st.  It was a route he had taken before.  Kids from the school who lived in the neighborhood took it all the time, on the down low.

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That we should have miles of pre-paved walking and bike trails off-limits to the public, is a failure of civic imagination.  Fencing it off with chain link and putting up hazard signs and pretending this will save the life of a boy like Elias is insulting.   The least we could do is build a pedestrian bridge from the school to the neighborhood it serves. But that would entail admitting the alternative to the street grid exists.

If storm water was rising a bit more rapidly than Elias was expecting, once he descended the embankment reversing course would feel like a kind of defeat.  You do what makes sense in boyworld: draw from the well of courage, make a dash for it and hope your footing holds.

That’s would I have done. I look at Elias Rodriguez at 14 and think: that was me. (Was? You still do stupid manchild bulls*** all the time -Mrs. UpintheValley)  This is trueI love climbing trees, bushwhacking, walking the railroad tracks and into the dark underbrush of the Favela.  That it is forbidden only adds to the appeal.

In The Terminator trilogy,  the savior of mankind turns out to be a boy from the San Fernando Valley. Savor that for a moment. Heroic efforts are undertaken in the Old Testament of the first film to save his mother, Sarah, merely so John Connor can be born.  T2 begins with 14-year-old John fleeing a Herod-like death sentence carried out by the shape-shifting T1000.

What does John do? He gets on his bike, and eludes his executioner by pedaling down into the storm channels of the LA river.  This is a world he understands because he’s been down there before.   By design, a natural pathway of escape from a pursuing truck.   A world where a boy might seek advantage.

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John Connor had Arnold Schwarzenegger to rescue him.  There was no such deus ex machina for Elias.  Once he lost his grip, the stormwater would have been moving at a good clip. There is the possibility he was knocked unconscious early in his journey. This would be a mercy. For the first three miles, the slopes of the wash are at 45 degrees, and there would be hope even a poor swimmer could grab hold of something and climb out.  Once it merges with the Tujunga Wash, the sides go completely vertical, twelve feet high, a true storm channel, a veritable freeway of water. The odds of escape under one’s own power would fall to zero.   Down and down you would go, past Grace Community Church, and Judy Baca’s Great Wall of Los Angeles, past CBS and Warner Bros and past the Zoo you went to on school field trips.  You would bob like a cork within a shouting distance of hundreds of houses, you would pass beneath street crossings with cars visible to you, windshield wipers flicking madly, deaf to your cries. You would skid and roll and bounce past the private riverfront esplanades of Studio City, and wish for the superpower of Reed Richards of the Fantastic Four, to elongate your arms like rubber, to grab hold of some kind of railing, and pull yourself free. To arrive soaking, bruised and bedraggled at the patio door of the nearest house and ask to use the phone to call your mother.  But that only happens in comic books and movies.

This is how we're made

This is how we’re made

Isn’t this an argument for higher fences and greater restrictions on ingress to the river system? No, the opposite.  We lose one or two boys a year to the storm channel. We lose dozens to hit and run drivers on the boulevards of LA.  The River should not be a place of danger, but of exploration.  We’re dealing with human nature.  If there is no boyhood to be had in the Valley now, there will be diminished manhood in ten years, even less in twenty.  The answer isn’t more time in front of a screen.

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When The Bike Was King

The first Arroyo Seco freeway

The first Arroyo Seco freeway

Imagine biking from Pasadena to downtown LA on a dedicated boardwalk, at rooftop level, then pedaling home in the evening under magic lights while serenaded by bullfrogs and crickets. Like the NYC High Line, but without pedestrians.

In 1900 you could do this. For about two miles.  The remainder of the California Causeway foundered for lack of paying customers, and the ungracious and untimely arrival of the automobile. Like so many magnificent wooden structures of yore, inevitably it would have burned to the ground at some point.  Instead the lumber was sold off, repurposed in local houses.

Oh, to have ridden upon it, even once!

A century later one is taken by the separation from streetcars and horse-drawn carriages. Here, in first conception, the bike fulfills transportation needs and communes with nature in equal measure.

Steve Jobs was fond of saying the condor was the most efficient creation in nature. It moved the greatest distance with the least amount of energy. Man, by contrast, was way down the evolutionary list. Until he got on a bike. A man on a bicycle was the most energy efficient creation ever. He moved at four times the speed of the pedestrian and used five times less energy. A computer, he added, was a bicycle for the mind.

Bicycles take less space, require less public infrastructure, impose less on the physical space of our fellow citizens. If unimpeded, a woman on a bike can cross the city like a wind deity. A boy on a bike arrives at school like a knight in training. Imagine if we had a whole network of cycleways like this connecting the neighborhoods of the Valley.  Oh, wait.

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So we are obliged in the absence of civic leadership to play Russian roulette on public streets, our laptops tucked neatly in our backpacks, spinning the pedals with Jobsian hyper-efficacy, masters of our own movement until a hit and run driver says otherwise.

When The Valley Was Cold

The Nike Family: Hercules, Ajax and Zeus

The Nike Family: Hercules, Ajax and Zeus

From 1954 to 1974 these rockets were parked in the middle of the San Fernando Valley, armed and ready to launch, as part of our deterrent capability against Soviet attack.

Ready to launch as soon as the bombers crossed into radar range. On 24/7 alert for two decades running.

Where was this, you say? Where exactly?

The Launchpad

The Launchpad

Right here, between the Japanese Tea Garden and the Orange Line bus stop. There? Really?

This nondescript concrete pad we’ve driven past so many times is the former LA-96 Battery. The opening volley of WWIII was slated to start a short bike ride from my house.

The vertical rectangles were once openings through which hydraulic elevators raised the missiles from their underground bunker.  A single launcher site normally held twelve missiles. In case of a prolonged attack, they were transferred to the surface one at a time, pushed along rails. Launch crews lived in catacombs, Dr. Stangelove-style, in shifts, alongside stores of distilled water and canned food should things go badly and the Russian bombers evade our defenses.

The Radar Station

The Radar Station

The other half of the Battery was up on San Vicente Peak, off Mulholland. Radar beacons here swept the horizon perpetually, seeking the first blips on the monitor, moving at supersonic speed.

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I imagine the people who worked the radar site had a different memory of the Cold War than the guys down in the launch bunker.  My father in his youth spent two years as a Russian translator posted to a radar station in a ski village near the East German border.  The time of his life, he always claimed, despite being a lifelong anti-war leftist.  I doubt he would say the same had he been given submarine duty.

Everything Old is New Again

There was no jaywalking in 1906 because there were no crosswalks.  There were no illegal left hand turns to make because there were no traffic signals. Automobiles and horse drawn carriages, cable cars and pedestrians  shared the roadway with men with brooms sweeping horse dung.  It is remarkable to think the people in this frame not only have no idea the earthquake is coming, but no idea we would, a century later, watch with fascination as they skittered across Market Street in black ankle length dresses and bowler hats and think: how primitive.  For them, compared to the Gold Rush days, this must have been the apex of modernity. Futuristic, even.

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In 1954 the monorail was Los Angeles’ great plan for shuttling people to the Valley. No, really. This is the mockup. It wasn’t going to be loud, dark and dingy like the elevated trains of New York and Chicago. It wasn’t going to blight the neighborhoods it served. It was going to be sleek and fast like the looming Jet Age.  “A proper beginning of mass rapid transit throughout Los Angeles County.”  Among its most vocal proponents was none other than Ray Bradbury, a man who claimed never to have driven in a lifetime of living in LA.  In case you were wondering, there was a bond measure, and people voted with their tires.

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They voted for this. For little ranch houses with breezeways and sprinklers and streets names chosen randomly from the English countryside. For freedom of movement. An entire car culture was built around this freedom. A mating ritual developed around the car culture.  People came from all over California, to Van Nuys, to partake of it.

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They built muscle cars at the north end of the boulevard, and they sold them at the south end of the same street in the same week. There was no foreign competition for the Camaro, nor fuel standards, nor anti-lock brakes, nor airbags.  Eight cylinders and a gas pedal. Made to look cool and burn rubber and little else.

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Between the GM plant and the auto dealerships, they had both means of production and a promenade between the two to display the products of conception. You rev your engine. The girls would flip their hair. The mating call was complete.  There was nothing to keep you indoors.  It was a holistic, self-contained world.  Until it wasn’t.

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Now the arteries of Los Angeles are so clogged with cars, we are reviving the trains, along the very routes the track was once laid, then buried beneath asphalt.

Which brings us back to the beginning.

The Valley, Judged

Courtesy of Kerry J., whoever the f*&@# that is

Courtesy of Kerry J., whoever the f*** that is

Most of my posts, I can’t help noting, originate from areas demarked Only Come Here If You Need A Car, Run Down Strip Malls, Panorama Shitty, and You’ll Probably Get Shot Here.  This is how my neighborhood and daily environs are seen by outsiders. Oi, that’s harsh. Not even worthy of a dismissive putdown like College for Dropouts. Just a blank spot in the map called Danger, enter at your own risk.  Well, we know better at UPITV.

One little mystery stands out: what the hell is Free Penis, at Victory and Woodley? Anyone, anyone? I must be slow…

If you enjoy this sort of judgment, there’s plenty more here:  https://www.pinterest.com/trentgillaspie/judgmental-maps/