The Once and Future Bento Box

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There’s a lot of this housing going up all over Los Angeles. Boxy, modular, poured concrete or stucco with some kind of horizontal wood feature set against a tiled entranceway.

This looked sharp and fresh half a dozen years ago but is entirely predictable now.  I’m not saying it doesn’t look good. I’m wondering how it will look 30 years hence. Will we look upon this housing stock the way we look at 70’s kitsch today? As an eyesore?

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Or will it fall into some oddball historical cul-de-sac like the once-modernist work of Richard Neutra, admired by preservationists, but neglected by owners?

Is Craftsman and Mission style architecture the only native California form which will stand the scrutiny of the ages? Which will be both loved and lived in?

Tippi Hedren at home, 1971

Tippi-Hedren

Deep shag, newsprint and a tiny TV set…Sherman Oaks in the 1970’s.

In The Kitchen With Neil The Lion

Okay, so she had a maid, but what strikes me about this interior is how….downmarket it appears by today’s standards of kitchen porn. Glue down linoleum tile floors, tchotchkes, a dependable four burner stove, and cheaply varnished wooden cabinet drawers which I suspect lacked rollers.  No granite, no glass tile, no stainless steel, no Kohler.

As domestic infrastructure goes, the distance between movie star and working class family in Van Nuys is measured here in feet rather than miles.

….wait, why are you disturbed by this photo?  

Is it the lion?

Oh please, people kept backyard lions all the time in the 70’s. Stop being so judgy.

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If you want to judge, look at baby-faced Melanie Griffith waking up in the morning.

After Life magazine published a photo essay documenting the …er, unique circumstances of the Hedren household, they were encouraged by the city of Los Angeles to decamp for the Antelope Valley, where she founded the Shambala Preserve, and has rescued and fostered big cats for four decades.

The Way We Live Now, Pt. 1: Sherman Oaks

Option #1, Kodachrome Redux

Option #1, Kodachrome Redux

In the late 90’s,  there was a film called Two Days in The Valley.  Predictably, most of the film took place off Mulholland Drive.  In mansions. The few flatland scenes featured a bearded Jeff Daniels ranting defensively that it “was a nice place to live,” as though the proposition were very much in doubt.

The Kardashians claim residency in the Valley, by way of Calabasas.

Frank Zappa enshrined the eponymous Valley Girl in the pop lexicon from his redoubt in the Encino Hills.

Free Fallin, the closest thing we have to a local anthem since Bing Crosby, was written by Tom Petty in a post-heroin haze in Hollywood.  The jump off phrase: ‘It’s a long day, living in Reseda, there’s a freeway running through the yard,’ was chosen randomly for its imagery and meter, not for geographical coherence.

If you cross the Sepulveda pass on your drive home, that is sufficient, in our cultural understanding, to be Valli-fied.  In politics, if your district touches any ground north of Mulholland you “represent” us.   A study of legislative maps is an exercise is residency-avoidance.  Richard Alarcon, holder of one of the few seats wholly contained within the flatlands proper, managed the trick of never living here for years.

While the Valley serves on television as a perpetual stand-in for everything from the midwest to contemporary Appalachia, you have to go back to Fast Times at Ridgemont High for something approaching an accurate depiction of where and how people live here.

I’m going to make a ruling. The Valley begins at Ventura.  If you have a view, by definition you have no claim to Valley citizenship.   The real Valley is a place where nobody who matters lives and nobody knows.  Except the 1.5 million of us who do.  We’re the orphaned colony of Sacramento and City Hall.   And yet, Los Angeles would grind to an apocalyptic halt without us, even for one day.

Which raises the question, how do we, deep in the stucco boxes, our little lights twinkling in the street grid down below, how do we live here?   What are we getting for our money? It has occurred to me recently the math in the city no longer adds up.

Mrs. UpintheValley and I, the Little Marital Engine That Could, find ourselves, after paying an upside-down mortgage for several years,  sitting on a modest amount of equity.   What if we wanted to trade up?  Is it possible? What could we get?

Join me while I take a tour of the neighborhoods,  starting with Sherman Oaks.

The house above is listed at $900,000. Post-war, three bedrooms, 1600 square feet. All upgrades.  It is not, to use the industry term of art, ‘South of the Boulevard’. In fact, it is well North. North of the freeway. North of North, just off Burbank.

This used to be the American Dream…3o years ago.  It’s the kind of house no one builds anymore in the post-Sopranos, open-floor plan, granite kitchen, Great Room exurban splendor. This is an artifact of Americana, like Kodachrome film stock.

When it was built, who lived here? A teacher?  An auto mechanic? A grocery store assistant manager?

Who buys this house today, a junior partner at a corporate law firm? A dentist? I doubt this is what they had in mind on the climb up, but this is Los Angeles and what can one do? Even the swells must make compromises.

Do you make over $150,000 a year?  No?  Neither do we.  We’ll have to look a little further north.

Option #5, Poso-ville

Option #2, POSO-ville

A standard post-war stucco box, with predictably small square footage, but nicely fixed up.  Usually a good kitchen remodel, and lots of native plants in the yard.  Crucially,  south of Oxnard.  South, mind you. People aren’t paying $150K more for the same house as the neighbors two blocks to the north in Van Nuys for nothing.  They’re no longer Van Nuysians!   They’ve petitioned the city for redress and the city has lifted the mark of Cain from the chain of title, the albatross,  the hex on their postmark. They’re Part of Sherman Oaks, now. The dusky hordes and their obese children are Up There, tucked safely on the other side of the Orange Line.  One almost never sees them. Almost.

Unfortunately these houses are in the $650-700K range.   We could live here if we made $100k a year. What used to be the gold standard of earnings success gets you this…and white neighbors…in the Valley.

We don’t make that kind of money, but we’re getting closer.

Option #2, The Condo

Option #3, The Sad Condo

This is half a block from Sepulveda, about two miles north of Ventura Blvd. Like most condo buildings in the Valley, forgettable, colorless, slightly dated.  Not run down by any means, yet bearing the vague stigma of 80’s dreck. The apartments are what you’d expect: well-carpeted.  The elevator is very slow.  The only amenity within walking distance is Target.  Basically, a place to sleep, stash your belongings and watch TV after work.  Or a place to watch as much TV as possible, if that’s what your life has come to.  A friend of mine bought an apartment here in a bidding war, all cash. Divorce settlement.

This is where you end up when he leaves you for someone younger and prettier.  This is the House that Built the Botox Industry.

There are two listings here on Zillow, both two bedroom: $425,000.  If we wanted to live out our days like George and Martha, we could afford this!

A private esplanade on Valleyheart

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As bicyclists, birders and New Urbanists have long been aware,  there exists in digital space overlapping fever dreams of a Greenway along “51 miles of the LA River”.  A Google search will retrieve dozens of mock-ups.  This sublime alternative Los Angeles, we are given to expect,  is due to arrive by 2020.  Golden Road has already issued a commemorative IPA in celebration, sort of making it official.

Fifty-one miles would, by default, include the Valley.  Except that it won’t.  Unless one believes the western perimeter of the Valley is Universal City.  Cause that’s as far as the Greenway is going to extend.

Sssh. Don’t tell anyone.  People are too busy lining up for photo shoots with our money.

Besides, who bikes in the Valley?   Who walks, for that matter?

Los Angeles is spending $600 million replacing the viaduct between the Arts District and Boyle Heights with a mixed-use architectural showcase.  One block parallel to another bridge.

There are plans in motion to build a park atop the Hollywood Freeway. Price tag unknown.

The development of the Downtown to Elysian Valley segment of the Greenway, including parks, is going to run a billion dollars.

What are we getting in the Valley, west of the 170? This:

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We’ve all seen Chinatown. We know the score.

To give the appearance of inclusion in the great Greenway, several short discontiguous pathways, a half mile in length, have been scattered here and there: Radford to Whitsett, Mason to De Soto, and now the most recent: along Valleyheart, between Sepulveda and Kester.  One can’t complain as to the landscaping. It’s very nice.   But disconnected from each other and from the rest of the system, they serve no practical purpose for the general public. One cannot pedal to the Zoo, and thence down the Glendale Narrows to Downtown, as I did yesterday.

They are, in effect, taxpayer-built private esplanades for the people who live nearby.   No one else will be using them. One gets the feeling people in those neighborhoods wanted it that way.

This is our Angeleno moment: Dubai in Hollywood, Detroit in the Valley.

Speaking of Detroit, Andy Hurvitz has urban renewal schemes for parking lots up in Van Nuys:

Future Gardens of Van Nuys?

The Forbidden River

If it's the Valley, the answer is NO

Shaded, sort of landscaped and off-limits

As a failure of civic will, the Los Angeles River is a thing of wonder.

Fifty-one miles of contiguous watercourse snaking through the one of the world’s great cities…linking mountains, canyons, the Valley, the Narrows, the Basin, with the Port of Long Beach…and pretty much all of it, with some notable exceptions, off-limits to the public. For a progressive city, Los Angeles has few developed public spaces. No greater resource is more undeveloped than the River itself.

There are scattershot plans to redevelop industrial fields near downtown. Artist renderings have been on the books for decades.  Should they come to fruition, there might be -yes, for half a mile!- a fully realized greenway, with enough eco-restoration and bio-swales to bring the New Urbanists to a state of ecstasy.  Conveniently tucked away in the least populated, most inaccessible location, cut off from the surrounding city by both railroad tracks and San Fernando Road, an Omaha Beach-like kill zone for bicyclists.  If the Taylor Yards Restoration happens it will, like most things which get done in Los Angeles, arrive through the pathway of least resistance. Meaning few people were opposed to it in the first place.  Because we’re speaking of orphaned ground, permanently disconnected from any other part of the river or any path network.

Fortunately, up in the Valley, we have miles and miles of shaded, landscaped river frontage, lined on both banks with walking and bike paths.  A suburban Champs Elysees where one communes with nature in the purple evening air….oh, wait.

Let's take another look

Let’s take another look

We sort of, kind of, have something like that.

Except no one is allowed to go there.

We can take its measure through the chain link fence, as we drive past on the boulevard.

We can imagine it.  Not difficult to do, when it’s 80% built already.

Or we can be scofflaws. In the name of civilization we can hop the fence (Giles and I have done this many times.  Only in the interest of blogging of course) and prowl about and think: wouldn’t it be cool?  And the corollary: what the hell is wrong with liberals in LA? 

Somehow cities with far fewer resources than Los Angeles, and I’ll just say it aloud, conservative politics, have managed to not only develop their urban rivers and abandoned railways but put them front and center.  Let’s take a tour:

San Antonio

San Antonio Riverwalk

Charlotte, NC

Sugar Creek Greenway,  Charlotte, NC

Beltline Trail, Atlanta

Beltline Trail, Atlanta

Beltline Trail, Atlanta

Beltline Trail, Atlanta

Savannah, Georgia

Savannah, Georgia

Paseo Santa Lucia, Monterrey, Mexico

Paseo Santa Lucia, Monterrey, Mexico

This one really annoys me.  Even the narco-state of Nuevo Leon, the Bagdad-on-the-Border, headless torsos stacked by the on-ramp, modern-day Dodge City that is Monterrey, Mexico, has managed to offer the Little People something which looks suspiciously like a pleasant place to walk.

The Olmstead Plan

The Olmstead Plan

Not for the first time, I feel obliged to say it doesn’t have to be this way. Particularly in a city as geographically blessed as LA.  Few us know today in 1930 the sons of Frederick Law Olmstead drew up a master plan for Los Angeles County designed entirely around creeks, rivers and greenways, connecting neighborhoods from Palmdale to Palos Verdes.

Just so we can feel really sorry for ourselves

One more,  so we can feel sorry for ourselves just to make you angry

Verisimilitude

MARRIED -- Pictured: Nat Faxon as Russ. CR. Matthias Clamer/FX

There’s a new show on FX called Married.  It’s set in the San Fernando Valley, and I must admit, rather entertaining.  Look honey, I said the first time I saw a preview, that’s us! The mordant relationship humor, the quiet sexual desperation, the abundant use of familiar locales, a male lead who dresses like he looted my closet, it’s all a bit close to home, but in a well-written way.  Just to set the record straight, Mrs. Upinthevalley is hotter than Judy Greer.  I want to make that clear.

After watching Nat Faxon, the husband, wander through the first few episodes in cargo shorts and hoodies, I assumed he was unemployed.  But no,  oh no no, he’s a ‘freelance graphic designer’.  She’s a stay at home mom.  I know this because the plot lines of  recent episodes have turned on this point.   And they, a family of five, manage to live in a lovely house in what appears to be …Studio City or Valley Village…on his earnings from digital piecework.  There’s another word for ‘freelance graphic designer':  barista.  Or stockboy at Trader Joes.  Actually that’s not true.  There are a great many freelancers in this city who would trade it in for a steady job at Trader Joes in a heartbeat.  Apparently this is how TV writers, many of whom live in the Valley, think people in the Valley live.

Don't we all live like this?

Don’t we all live like this, without working?

Normally this wouldn’t be a deal breaker for me. Television shows frequently depict families living beyond what is feasible in the real world.  Usually, however, the characters are at least portrayed as having a job.  Maybe because Married is set in the Valley and maybe because we have frequented the locales used in the show (Oaks Tavern, Starlight Lounge) there’s a verisimilitude issue for me.  No one lives south of Burbank Blvd by freelancing, part-time.  Mrs. Upinthevalley and I live in Van Nuys.  And by live, I mean we bought a tiny s**tbox with 1948 infrastructure we spent years fixing up. Our mortgage payment is $2500/month.  That’s thirty grand a year, right off the top.   Well, not exactly.  First the government takes about twenty grand, money we never see.  Then Wells Fargo takes its piece. Then we face the bills.  We’ve never taken a vacation. We still use flip-phones.  We have dial-up internet. We have one car.  We use coupons. We have no savings.   We’re extraordinarily fortunate to have survived the Great Foreclosure Flood of 2009.  Barely.  To not have to rely on roommates.   There are ten people sharing a three bedroom house to the left of us. Six adults,  all legal residents of the US,  working in the service economy.  Collectively, they can pay the mortgage, and make car payments and that’s pretty much it.  There are seven people living in the house to the right of us. Three generations under one roof.  That’s how it’s done. Unless you’ve lived here for twenty years, or inherited property or have a six figure income, this is the only way it is done.

We  grind it out and grind it out, all of us, month after month, and hope the edifice of cantilevered credit by which we keep it all going does not collapse upon our heads.   And that we don’t drive each other crazy.

We say a little prayer each evening and are grateful. Even as we slum it in that vast terra incognita north of Burbank. We, the invisible people.