I So Red Line Boogie

“Iso” jumped into our train last night at Universal City and told us all he was doing his show.  There was a slightly plaintive quality to the announcement, like he wished to assure he was offering quality and not some subway shakedown.

Then he fired up the boombox and subjected a captive audience to his energetic pastiche of karate moves and pole spinning.

As he was “dancing” I was thinking is it Iso or I So, as I so badass? Or is it “I? So…” Or, “I sow”? Or, “I sew”?  Any one of these might have worked.  If you told me he was going to take the two dollars he was given and run straight to a dealer, I wouldn’t be surprised.  Just as readily if I were to learn two bucks would prize him a pair of sparkly pants for his audition to be one of Rihanna’s back up dancers,  I would believe that as well.

The line between derelict and street performer is a narrow one. The line again between lifelong busker and employed artist is narrower still.

To this end, Jack Dishel, a Venice musician, hit upon the very inspired idea of a YouTube channel called :DRYVRS, wherein he has encounters with oddball rideshare drivers, played by celebrities. Ostensibly a comic short,  each episode serves as a stealth vehicle for promoting his music.

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Episode 1, starring Macaulay Culkin in a reprise of his Home Alone character went viral:  25,000,000 views.

Episode 2, starring Rosanna Arquette: 113,000 views.

Jack Dishel playing music on his channel, after being seen with Macauley Culkin : 4,000 views.  That would be a retention rate of .00016.  Or one out of every 6,250 viewers.

The series lasted two episodes.

“Iso” jumped off the train at Hollywood and Highland like he robbed a convenience store and disappeared into the crowd with his two dollars and his boombox.

At the Hollywood Bowl, Brian Setzer kicked off the show by telling us only 30 people came the first time the Orchestra played Sunset Boulevard, 25 years ago.

Since then he’s been perpetually touring, grinding it out with little variation to the set list, a hostage to his own success, dozens of families, musicians and crew, depending on the forever tour to pay the mortgage, the tuition, the grocery bill.

We were in the cheapest seats, by the upper terrace, and we swing danced as the music was meant for.  Our footwork was …let’s just say we were in no danger of anyone tipping us for our performance. In the shadows of the pepper trees, we almost looked like we knew what we were doing. Which is to say we had fun, fun being the operative verb of indestructible music, cheap wine and moonlight.

Dancing is exhausting. I so left the Bowl with a little more respect for…Iso.

Cutting The Loaf

They slice it just like bread

Just like bread

Before I got schooled, I assumed granite arrived from overseas as sheets, and only the fabricating was done here.  But no, it’s quarried and shipped as giant blocks. Loaves, to use the industry term. They slice it up on this giant machine  right here in the Valley.
The things you learn when doing the kitchen.  

After my physical exertions, to anticapte the topping of the cake prized from the earth in such a brute manner gave me pleasure.

Here’s something else you learn.

Sniffing around a granite yard looking for a pattern known as green rose, I was confronted by a lugubrious man with a baroque Mediterranean accent who popped out from between two loaves of granite, like the Lorax.

Man:  May I help you sir!

Me: Aaah!  

Man:  How may I help you?

Me: I’m looking for a green rose pattern.

He marched me into the showroom and pointed to the slab you see here.

Man:  Here is green. 

I looked around like an idiot, thinking he must be pointing elsewhere.

Me:  You’re saying this is green?

Man:  Is green.

Me: This?

Man: IS green.  Look around the room if you don’t believe me.  You tell me which one is green.

I showed him a picture of what I was looking for on my phone.

Man:  You’ll never find that, sir.  No one has that. What I have is as close to what you’re looking for in the entire city, and I know all the inventory. 

And that was the beginning of our quest through the stone yards of the Valley.

Armenian Zombie Market Walking

Look familiar?

Look familiar?

Dead store, walking

The Freasy, in its heyday

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The former Fresh & Easy in North Hollywood has undergone the Vons-to-Jons makeover, but without the makeover.  Designwise they’ve kept everything: the color scheme, the refrigerated shelves, even the signage. They just pulled the Easy off with a crane, dropped Royal in its place, and stocked the shelves with lots of Armenian product at Armenian prices.  There’s no stopping commerce zombies.

To Provide and Provide Not

City of Burbank

City of Burbank

Consider this urban pastoral, this friendly Sunday afternoon soccer game under the power lines on Whitnall.   Inter-racial. Inter-gender. Inter-age group. Featuring accents of Latin America, Asia and the British Isles.   As I walked past, I thought: this looks like it was assembled by a casting director. Los Angeles doesn’t really work like this, except in commercials.

Then I realized I was in Burbank.

City of Los Angeles

City of Los Angeles

Now turn around, face north, across Burbank Blvd, into North Hollywood.  This is what LA did with the same patch of ground. Across the street.

How does a world-class city get away with this?

The People Who Run Things have an answer to that question. We’re broke!  Los Angeles is a pauper. A patch of grass, in North Hollywood?  What are we, made of money? We can’t even pay our bills around here!

Okay then, riddle me this:

Suddenly...cancer

Suddenly…”cancer”

The City is in the process of dismantling the Sixth Street Bridge, one of the iconic, indispensable structures, perhaps the most photographed location after the Hollywood sign, and replacing it, at a cost of half a billion dollars, with this:

sixth street viaduct 2

The purported reason for this insertion of Dubai-like aesthetics into the downtown landscape is concrete. The original structure (1932) has received a propitious diagnosis of Alkai Silica Reaction.  Earthquake vulnerability dictates the bridge must be replaced.  Or so we’re told.

There’s just one problem. Why is it, of the dozen similar bridges built downtown in the 1930’s, with the same concrete mixing process, the only one which has received this diagnosis of ‘concrete cancer’ is the one which goes directly to the Arts District?  Why does the urgency to do something about it correspond to the arrival of the Nabisco Lofts?  Why is it being replaced by a playground for people who buy groceries at Urban Radish?

If the city is too broke for a grassy field in North Hollywood, how is it managing to pay for this? Just asking.

Chaos, coming

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You can feel it out there on the street now. Twenty years of sound public policy going up in smoke.

Along the Metrolink tracks, where I once saw two or three parolees and drug addicts during a single walk, I now see twenty.

At the North Hollywood Metro station, I step out of the car and a grown man on a child’s bike starts circling me as I cross the parking lot, making a whoop-whoop sound, circling tighter and tighter, till he’s almost clipping my knees, muttering incomprehensibly. A radio hangs from his neck on a string, blasting pointless static.   The Sheriff’s deputies who monitor the plaza entrance don’t lift a finger as he moves on to the next unsuspecting commuter.

On the train I meet two men with prison-issue telephone scars.  Two, in five minutes.

At home I turn on the TV and the mayor of Baltimore is granting “those who wished to destroy, the space to do that as well,”  to a backdrop of burning liquor stores and pharmacies.  The district attorney follows up by indicting six police officers for murder for failing to secure a prisoner with a seat belt.  In the ensuing month Baltimore records it highest murder rate in 40 years. Seemingly sober people appear on cable panel shows scratching their chins, wondering if cause and effect could be related.

The distance between those who effect policy and shape our discussion of it (The Clerisy, to use a term of art), and the rest of us has become unsustainably wide. There is a particular species of American who waxes sanctimonious about Social Justice but would never tolerate Section 8 tenants on his block for five minutes. They love chewing on phrases like mass incarceration, comfortable in the knowledge the parolees are headed for Van Nuys.   Such people are ascendant now.

The chaos is coming west.

I’m old enough to have seen this movie before. It doesn’t end well.

Levi at work

Levi Ponce and Ernie Merlan

Levi Ponce and Ernie Merlan

Saturday, a sublime autumn afternoon. Driving homeward on Whitsett, I happened across a mural crew painting a concrete embankment, near Saticoy. You can see it from the 170, a cheerful and unexpected pastoral trapezoid of green and yellow popping from the industrial landscape.  I got out of the car to take a look. Who do I find hand-mixing a bucket of paint, but Levi Ponce, master muralist.

Me: ‘Hey, you’re Levi, aren’t you?

Levi: “Yeah, I am.’

Told him I was an admirer of his work, and was flattered to hear him say he reads this blog.  His hand was covered in paint so he offered his forearm for some kind of man-on-man elbow bump, but I clutched it like a groupie and asked him why I see his murals in Pacoima and Reseda and North Hollywood, but never in Van Nuys.  Ask Nury Martinez, he replied.  When he began the mural project several years ago, it was his intention to start in Pacoima and work his way down Van Nuys Blvd, all the way to Ventura.   The word from Nury’s office is there is no money to pay muralists in her district.

I can think of a great number of things on which we spend public funds in District 6 which could take a back seat to neighborhood beautification.

All civic improvement dies in Van Nuys.   Apparently it’s a commandment from the Old Testament, like the plagues of Egypt.

Working alongside Levi was a very nice guy named Ernie, a studio animator, who founded the Exceptional Minds Studio, a center for autistic young adults to learn multimedia and animation skills. He had some of them working the embankment project.  Councilman Paul Krekorian and the North Hollywood Neighborhood Council put up the money.

‘Paul wants to be the mural guy,’ said Ernie.

The city has tens of millions squirreled away in CRA accounts. It pays a small fortune for landscape designers to make minor decisions about foliage placement few people notice. But in Van Nuys, it won’t pay artists.

Here’s the way it’s supposed to work in the civilized world: You pay the artist for his work.

They did it in Ancient Rome, they did it during the Renaissance, the Restoration of Charles the II, the Spanish Conquest, the Russian Revolution, even the hermit kingdom of North Korea today ‘pays’ its artists, in a manner of speaking. Somehow, even in North Hollywood they manage to pay the artist.  With public funds, no less.

Think of that next time you’re stuck in traffic staring at a dreary tableau of sidewalk banners, mismatched signage and tagging.  It may be a colony we are living in, but it doesn’t have to be.

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Ghost Mall

Valley Plaza ain't what it used to be

Valley Plaza ain’t what it used to be

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Great location, right off the 170, plenty of parking….lots of dead stores. 180,ooo people live within a two mile radius of Laurel Canyon and Victory.   Most are homeowners. Many of these homes are near the half-million dollar range.  But they drive to Burbank instead.

There were plans as recently as 2011 to redevelop as a mixed-used residential lifestyle mall along the lines of Americana at Brand.   Those have gone to the same civic graveyard as the one to redevelop the Montgomery Ward site in Panorama City.  Neither developer was from the Valley. That’s the problem with being a colony.  Absentee owners have no social disincentive not to sit on their holdings.  Blight today will be worth more tomorrow, so let it be blighted.  The City and the CRA will cut a fatter deal next time around.

Post Office no more

Post Office no more

Coffee shop no more

Coffee shop no more

No more, no more

No more, no more

Yeah, the 70's

The 70’s, no more