Vanderpumping the Valley

A new season of Vanderpump Rules is upon us, with a new twist. The cast members (who make $25K per episode) have decamped from their apartments in West Hollywood and purchased homes near each other in…Valley Village and Sherman Oaks and Valley Glen.  Mrs. UpintheValley is in ecstasy.  Practically neighbors.

If you’re a reality star in your eighth season, what do you buy?  What does $2 million get you?   Farmhouse modern, glossy white with black trim, newly constructed.   One of the houses, I noticed, actually abuts a major Valley boulevard. Who would pay seven figures to live next to traffic?  Bravo stars, that’s who.    It’s also possible they chose houses with a generic facade/motif to discourage fans from identifying their location and pestering them with vegan housewarming gifts.

This strikes me as a seachange in how the Valley will be viewed in pop culture terms, going forward. This is not Calabasas. This is the flatlands, north of the 101.  Adam Carolla-ville. Almost Van Nuys adjacent. This is us, albeit on a grander scale.  It’s the inevitable consequence of too much money chasing too few houses.   The little ones go down, and bigger ones take their place, to the limit of the setback.

Then there’s Cleveland, which has been rebranding for two generations in the hope bargain hunters from Californians and New Yorkers will head there in search of a price point too good to refuse.

After my last post, alert reader James noted an earlier Plain Dealer branding campaign from the 80s:  New York may be the Big Apple, but Cleveland’s a Plum.  

This sort of civic boosterism inevitably gets trumped by crowdsourced public branding. Healthy cynicism, like cream, rises to the top.   Shame can be a social glue, if not a left-handed expression of pride. It offers consolation without changing facts on the ground.  But in the end, King James will leave you, not once but twice.

In America’s great divergence between the boutique cities on the coasts and Everywhere Else, the New Urbanists keep waiting for people to respond to economic signals. Logic says move to the Rust Belt: big house, tiny price tag, short commute. Be a big fish in a smaller pond.  Locate your start-up here, cut your burn rate in half. California responds by saying, meh, I’d rather just move to my own personal Cleveland called the Valley, and turn that into West Hollywood.

Yes, please. Keep pumping.

Van Nuys, Rebranded

The city of Cleveland, which has lost half its population since 1970, once known as “the mistake by the lake” and the famed location of Ten Cent Beer Night has hired branding experts to promote its virtues to the outside world, New Urbanist style. The sales pitch they arrived at was World-class experiences without the world-class ego”.   

Well, hell. We could do that right here. If any place could use a re-brand, it is our lovely working-class Brigadoon in The Nuys. It makes for a good drinking game.

The first slogan which came to mind was: Van Nuys, not a damn thing wrong with it! which had the irascible defensiveness of a man defending his love for a forgotten brand of cheap beer.
Alternately, there is always the appeal to Low Expectations:
Van Nuys: Affordable, not cheap.
You know what you’re getting.
Van Nuys: Good enough!
Or passive-aggressive aspiration:
You’ll feel prettier here.

Half the house, half the commute.

Do more with less. 
Ironic:
Who said Hollywood doesn’t have a stepsister?
Futurist:
Back to the streetcar.
Bitter:
Skid Row without the juice bars.
Sardonic:
Millennial prices without the gentrification.
Obscure:
Free yourself of memory sickness. (Mrs. U didn’t get it either)
Misdirection:
Fifty food trucks can’t be wrong.
Convenience:
Here, be comfortable with yourself.
Bold:
The next Highland Park! 
(I stand by this, btw)
Alliterative:
Dollar stores and Dialysis, Payday Lending and Palm Trees
Comparative:
Cleveland, without the weather.

A call to action:
Look beyond the hedge.
Simplicity:
That’s right. Van Nuys, motherf@$#%*r.

That was fun.

E Pluribus Valley


2020: Rushing headlong now are we toward a conclusion half of us will dread.  A snap trap four years in the making.   There can be no happy ending, though there may be a divorce.   Too many of us have made friendships contingent upon the outcome.  We tolerate each other just so long as we consider the current ugliness to be transitory.  November will correct/affirm the wisdom/insanity of our neighbors.  I knew it all along! They really are that bad/sensible. That settles it. Let the celebration/vilification begin.

I suspect the underlying facts will prove secondary.  Dow 30,000, full employment, USMCA, handshakes at the DMZ, the Supreme Court, the public option, Iran, a looming recession, all background noise.

This is about who we are.  You can believe in the nation-state or you can believe in a borderless world.   Either the people are sovereign or corporations are.   Either we are sovereign or the media is. Either your vote counts or it is nullified by the administrative state.

America is closely divided, horrifyingly so, on matters only a short time ago not under question.

We’ve reached a point in Los Angeles where we are no longer telling the truth about ourselves to ourselves, so we unfriend our neighbors instead.  We threaten to turn each other into memes.

Politics until recently was played between the 40-yard lines.  Claims of catastrophe if the other side prevailed were generally bullshit.  Beneath the hyperbole on cable news, an undertow of bipartisan consensus held: on Wall Street rescue packages, trade with China, techno-utopianism,  deficit spending, the forever war in Afghanistan.  Not this time.  The competing claims are too irreconcilable.

So how to share space with each other after the shock of discovery?   We can start by practicing good manners now. That begins with listening well.

Vermont Descends Like Enchantment

The three weeks in December when the Valley impersonates New England are when I am most grateful to be here…as though I arrived by wisdom rather than necessity.

Then there are the oranges, our unique backyard superpower most unlike Vermont.   A week ago they were too tart, in another month they will slip into sweetness. For now they are just right but we can only eat six a day before our bellies distend like Bilbo Baggins so we drop them off at the neighbor’s house by the bagful. We are profligate.  We are having it both ways. A Mediterranean clime while God paints the leaves.

Six On A Bed

I discovered this digital Polaroid during an encampment cleanup off Sepulveda, put it in my pocket and forgot all about it, then re-found it in the laundry.

For most of us, Van Nuys means an affordable ranch house. But for others, Van Nuys means my weekend at the bail bondsman or my frustrating encounter with the Building Department. Then there are women for whom Van Nuys means my summer sweating for Leon at the Travel Inn.

You might presume (as I did) someone was awfully eager to pose them on the bed like chattel. How we feel about the picture depends on who we think the photographer is. We assume a male. Polaroids are keepsakes. But what if one of the women took the picture and it was meant for each other, the pose taken ironically, an artifact of their sisterhood in the fleshy trenches?

How did the picture make the journey from the motel room to the Favela?  Through whose hands did it pass?  Maybe no ones. Maybe one of these women is living in a tent next to the 405 right now. It would be the simplest explanation, but doesn’t feel like the right movie to me.

Rainflowers To Come

O’Melveny, six weeks after the wildfire:  Nature’s Civil War battlefield.  Light rain falling and no one about, like we were the last two people on earth, navigating an apocryphal chapter of the Old Testament.

Come spring, the flowers will return in abundance.   We know this before we put our first boot print in the afternoon mud, which makes it fun rather than depressing. We take comfort playing tourist in nature’s cycle of wrath and renewal.

Here, on the charcoal side of the Urban-Wildlife Interface,  one realizes the only thing between the former and the latter is the forty feet of asphalt on Sesnon St.   Then you remember the Santa Rosa fire of 2017, which jumped a six-lane freeway.  Then you think of the Hollywood Hills, of Brentwood, of canopies of trees overhanging narrow streets, nearly shaking hands, and winds whistling up the canyons.

If we think we can live in this tension indefinitely, houses pushing in, nature clawing back, what happens when people begin squatting in the unclaimed spaces, cooking over open flames?  How does that change our calculus?

Unlike nature, Shantytown, Inc. has no opposing force.  Camping in the underbrush is incentivized. There’s no one at City Hall arguing for prudence, only subsidy.  More service providers dispensing free stuff. The rest of us carry on arguments in the privacy of our heads.

How long will this parallel world build up along the unclaimed spaces, along the freeways and rivers and storefronts before wrath enters the picture?

What form will the rain flower take?

Favela Re-Development Agency, In Action

Darling, did you notice the homeless encampment by the freeway?  It’s gone.
I did.
Where do you think they went?
Not far.

That was last week.  Yesterday, flames of a suspicious origin erupted from the lower floor of 7101 Sepulveda Blvd, a mile or so north.   Vacant for 25 years, the building once housed a college for paralegals.  With wood framing, the flames reached the upper floors quickly.

Directly adjacent is an empty lot at 7111 Sepulveda, site of the former Farmer’s Ranch Market.   Permits were approved for 180 units almost two years ago, but ground was never broken on the project.  The eyesore vacancy at 7101, a plinth for cell phone towers and Van Nuys’ most unloved structure, was rumored to be a hindrance.

Guess where the 405 encampment moved to? Guess how long it took them to crack open the back door of 7101 and pilfer wiring and play with matches?  If you own the building, you get an insurance settlement. If you own the lot next door, you get south-facing light for your mixed-use development.  If you live in the neighborhood, you’re quietly gratified to see something, anything, done with the place.

Everybody wins.  Just how locked was that back door, anyway?

*photos courtesy LAFD

The Top of the Stairs

What do you do when you’re having your hardest year in a very long time, when your pride as a teacher is at hazard?  You can have a cocktail.  You can have two. You can ugly cry on the commute home. Or you can gather the dogs on Sunday and climb stairs in the hilly neighborhoods around LA.    Then have a cocktail.

You huff and puff to the top and along the way, the permafrown surreptitiously lifts from your face while you’re not looking. Your husband tells you to stop right there and takes your picture and you pretend not to be annoyed. You wonder if he prefers this version of you, unburdened, eternally hopeful.

When you get home you close your eyes, put your hands together, and bring a measure of order to the chaos of the world.  This too shall pass. Make it one year, lord, not two.

Superman in a Collection Bin

He was a bottom feeder, a man without talent.   He plied the tourists on Hollywood boulevard for tips. When I crossed paths with him five years ago, his costume was visibly grungy, like he’d slept in it for days. He hassled me for money for taking his picture.  I hadn’t been.  He just happened to walk through the frame as I photographed a mural.   He was missing teeth.  He looked exactly like what he was, a meth-head impersonating his former self impersonating a comic book hero, badly.

Earlier in his two decades on the boulevard, Christopher Dennis looked the part.  He had the length of bone, the jawline, an aquiline nose topped off with dyed black hair to evoke a reasonable facsimile of the DC comics version of the Man of Steel. Padding filled out the suit. By the end, he looked like Superman down to his last 50 T-cells.

During the descent, he managed to wrangle appearances on Late With Jimmy Kimmel and the Morgan Spurlock documentary Confessions of a Superhero.

He claimed to have lost his costume and his front teeth in a mugging. Crowdfunding appeals raised money for him to get his cape back and fund a web series about his life, neither of which materialized.  He told different stories to different people to explain his circumstances. Sometimes he would be slumped in the street, in a fugue state, babbling to himself, drawing in his notebook.  His decline was covered with uncritical sympathy by local media, heavy on the passive voice, always with appeals for assistance, as though his schtick was worthy of the character he was feeding off. His life became a meta-hustle of the public for the means to return to hustling the tourists for drug money.

Naturally, he ended up in Van Nuys, on Nury Martinez’s Skid Row North™.

Last week his body was discovered in a Goodwill collection bin.  He had climbed inside seeking to pilfer donated clothes.    This is his last known photograph, from the website People Helping People LA.

If you’re not sensing much sympathy for a dead man, I’ll tell you a story.  I picked up a stand-up comic at the Orange Line station not long ago,  on his way home from a gig in NoHo.  I’ll call him Doug. He’d been working out new material, he said. After much trial and error, he found a way to make it click. He killed his set, and now he was treating himself to an Uber ride home.  Not that Doug had been paid anything for his work on stage. Normally he would walk the two miles up Van Nuys Blvd. to his garage apartment off Saticoy. But tonight, on such a high, to navigate Nury’s Living Room for the walking dead, that would be asking too much of himself.  It would call into question his entire life in LA.

Doug was avoiding Christopher Dennis, whose superpower was self-indulgence.  I turned the app off and gave him a ride the rest of the way home for free.  It was the least I could do.

Los Angeles runs on guys like Doug, who keep the cocktails flowing and the cash register ringing to pay the headliner.  It takes balls of steel to get onstage and do original material. You can’t hide behind a cape. Even modestly successful road comics end their careers unmourned and little remembered.

That’s Sandy Baron second from left in a still from Broadway Danny Rose, Woody Allen’s sweetest work and a tribute to those on the fringes of show business.   Sandy started in the Borscht Belt, and would have faded from pop culture right about here, in a cameo role at the Carnegie Deli, and probably died broke, were it not for this:

His turn as Jack Klompus was so successful Seinfeld brought the character back in five episodes, and Sandy got to spend his final years in notoriety, with some extra money in his pocket.   He passed in 2001 in a nursing home in, where else, Van Nuys.

Pinchloafing

Because it’s Wednesday…and he has a plate of takeout at his feet, for which he needs to clear some room.

As of last month, any and all tickets for quality of life infractions in Los Angeles are null and void…if you are a street person.  The rest of us have to pay our fines.   LA is now operating with asymmetrical civilizational guardrails.

We need a new vocabulary for this since the old language of judgment is forbidden.