Postcards from YIMBYville


The upper picture was taken in April.  The second one I took at the open house last week.  That’s framing to Zillow in two months.  This ain’t your grandmas accessory dwelling unit.  Granny flats will be granny-free in three years. Sooner, perhaps. For this kind of rent money, people will let her sleep on the living room couch.

In its own halting way, Van Nuys is going Sherman Oaks. Sherman Oaks is going West Hollywood, which is going Tokyo.

In a related development, one of my neighbors put new siding on his house.

And the City of Los Angeles chipped up some perfectly good wheelchair ramps and filled them back in again.  Because the money has been appropriated progress.

Ask the city for basic beautification and neighborhood street lighting and you will be told there is no money at all. The City is broke. Broke!  The field deputies rattle their chains of poverty the way my mother used to wail over her $100/month land payment.  But when it comes to Keynesian ditch-filling stimulus, the bucket of Monopoly money is bottomless.

Dark Fulfillment

We want what we want when we want it. Our desires can be fulfilled…up and down the class structure…cheaper, faster.  Hyper-efficiency and supply-chain management are the cardinal virtues of our time.

Remember when Wal-Mart was the Death Star of retail?  Crusher of towns?  Come China, unload your shipping containers of plastic thneeds.  We’ll take the whole flotilla.  People feared Wal-Mart as much as they once feared Microsoft. They were both just too…dominant, and now not at all.

Now we have Amazon traffic jams on our block in the afternoon, and there is no limit to things we can obtain, overnight. Need an obscure component for your kitchen faucet?  If you go to Lowe’s they’ll try to re-sell you a new Kohler for $200. Alternatively, you can order a rubber washer on your phone for $4. Eighteen hours later it’s in your hand. A three-minute crash course at YouTube University and your problem is fixed.

Framed in this way, Amazon looks heroic. But most days, stuff comes not because we need it, rather because its One Click away.   Idle clicking is the empty calories of shopping.  In our Cambrian explosion of online vending,  any niche start-up, any cottage craftsman can find a willing buyer, in theory, somewhere in America.  The sheer scale of options eclipses traditional shipping sources ability to keep up with demand. Packages frequently arrive in cars driven by underemployed, modern-day Pony Express riders hustling a buck in a reprise of an earlier Toquevillian America…except for the economy being run (mostly) through one company.

Los Angeles is becoming a city of high-end boutiques at the top end and dollar stores and street vendors at the other, in a classic barbell formation. The narrow middle, which isn’t actually narrow since it includes most of us, is moving online. This is not the way our city is structured geographically, which is to say horizontal, reflecting an earlier egalitarian class structure.  There are architectural showcases on Van Nuys Blvd which have sat vacant for years having no desirability as a boutique. Then there are squat freight structures that once served railroad spurs east of downtown you can’t lease for $50 per square foot today.

As recently as the birth of the iPhone, 75% of American porn was made right here in the Valley.  Porn was a lucrative business run on a factory basis like the Warner Brothers of old.  It was difficult to obtain, meaning pricy, which was reflected in the remuneration to performers.  Now it is ubiquitous and cranked out on webcams in apartments all over the world for electronic tips.   An economic theorist might posit this as empowerment for women, who can now bypass the middleman. No service contracts. No suitcase pimps. No one denied employment due to lookism, only gratuities.  In practice, thousands of cams are aggregated through a single entity, PornHub, the Amazon of adult entertainment.

The Atlantic has an article this week detailing the cheerful efforts of a high school senior from Stockton to start her cam career.  Dripping with condescension toward inland California and its people masquerading as concern for her welfare, (the presumption being no working-class life there is worth having) the first paragraph spells it out for us: the largest private employer is an enormous Amazon fulfillment center.

For the moment, she will step into a zero-gravity orbit in which the laws of hyper-efficiency don’t apply, and for a few days, she will be the NewNew Girl, as gaze arresting as her fellow Stocktonian Jeremy Meeks, peeking out from a screen grid of camgirls grinding for tokens in a debauched race to the bottom. She will quickly become a character of out of Dreiser or Hardy, unneeded as the old Van Nuys Savings and Loan.

Our world is flat, and it wants fulfillment.

 

*Photo credit YouTube

How Green Was My Weinerhaus

I was contemplating this week S.B. 50, the legislative sausage of Scott Weiner (D-SF) which would grant the State of California supremacy in local zoning decisions.  If enacted,  single-family homes could be razed in favor of 4-5 story apartment buildings anywhere within a half mile of a transportation corridor.   Much of Los Angeles would qualify under its jurisdiction. Van Nuys, but for a few pockets, definitely would.   Weinerhausing would be like a reverse Prop 13 in its abrogation of property rights, only more significant in its political fallout.

Weiner is the first apostle of the YIMBY movement. As a Gen Xer, when I contemplate the gross inequality between my parent’s housing price point and my own I’m sympathetic, broadly speaking, to YIMBYism.

My parents obtained 80 acres of rolling pasture land and mixed forest in Mendocino County in the 1970s for $18,000.  Only they didn’t pay that. That would have cost them about $100 a month, which would have meant taking a day job.  In the Era of Boomer Land Abundance, this would not do.  No, no, no.  Much too much.  In lieu of labor, they recruited a relative to join them in their endeavor and an in-law to underwrite them as a silent majority partner thereby obtaining a Homestead Act portion of Hippie Splendor for …$25/month, and this is no embellishment, I assure you.

Need I mention they were living in a sprawling Victorian at the time, three blocks from Cal Poly while existing on public assistance?   That their property hunt consisted of a drive north in which they stopped on the 101 to use the bathroom, smoked a fateful joint, pointed at a random hillside and said that’s so pretty. I wonder if anything is for sale there?  There was little which wasn’t, as the timber companies and aging ranchers were unloading their inventory as fast as bandido real estate agents could subdivide it, frequently without road easements.

Many years later they would be obliged to buy out the silent partner, the dreaded $100 payment waiting for them like an appointment in Samarra,  and oh, oh, the wailing.  My mother would circle the room flailing her hands over her head in despair, as though wolves were nipping at her heels. A hundred dollars! The land payment! Lillian Gish lashed to the ice floes! I would come home from college and point out I was paying four times that sum for a cubicle in a dingy student rental and they would look at me like I was speaking Swahili. You need to get your money trip together they would reply before resuming their sorrows with renewed vigor.

Mr. and Mrs. UpintheValley…once they got their money trip together…paid more in a down payment for churro-eating Van Nuys than the entire purchase price of my parent’s extensive wine country holdings. Our monthly nut, the non-negotiables only, is greater than their annual income for much of my childhood.

And yet, how advantaged we are to own anything in California.  Our house has tripled in value in 15 years.   I could applaud myself for all the renovations I’ve done…a  super-ant amidst the grasshoppers…but sadly, this has only nudged the equity needle.  Move our house to Cleveland and it would lose value annually, no matter the effort we put in. A Zillow surveillance of Rust Belt cities shows just how little a Pinterest-worthy 1920’s two-story colonial commands in a market with inverted demography.

California home values are predicating on zoning, and for this reason we would not be able to repurchase ours today. No one we know can afford the house they are living in, which brings us to a unique inflection point in history.  Who will come after us?   What provision have we made for them to buy in?

The boomer plan was no plan but to withdraw as much land as possible from development. Protect it all! Especially the meadow right down the street from me… Then open the gates to the world…and reap the unearned generational advantage of zoning.   Theirs was a different California, white, entitled and lazy.  Grilled cheese sandwiches, Der Wienerschnitzel and Sambo’s, and the graft of other people’s labor. Wine country for me, Van Nuys 2.0 for my kids, alternative housing for the millennials: trailers, pods, tree houses, bunk beds, shipping containers…

S.B. 50. would indirectly address generational inequality. That would be the seduction, though not the intent.   In practice, it would look like this.

What would be exempt from upzoning? Marin County, home of the silent partner.  Two miles from SF and to this day mostly rural.  Santa Cruz, where I went to college, where the $400 student rental is now $1200.   All the coastal counties …but LA, SF, Orange, and Ventura.  Cities with a population less than 50,000, exempt.  Historic Preservation Zones.  Neighborhoods with low-frequency transit.

See where this is going? The most privileged precincts would extend their zoning advantages, and their monoculture, by manipulating transit routes and schedules, subdividing, creating protections for favored neighborhoods.  They would down-zone themselves out of the very societal obligation S.B. 50 was intended to enact.  The regulatory burden would fall, as it always does, on those regions divided by language, class, and culture.

It’s not really about housing. It’s about making the little people ride the bus.

California is nothing if not an experiment the wealthy perform on everyone else. And I was so ready to buy Scott a beer…

*Bart Housing illustration by Alfred Twu

Denouement in D Minor

Last week I happened upon the personal effects of another man’s life…spilling from burst garbage bags, tossed at the Narrows…at the crossroads of three tent encampments…a window into the past, when packs of young white men swaggered across Los Angeles in boots and ripped jeans, hair bouncing in expectation of near fame, failing that, admiring glances from the ladies, failing that, self-affirmation in the mirror.

The first thing I noticed in the pile was this framed graduation photograph from Bonds-Wilson High School, Charleston, South Carolina, class of 1978.  This is quite an artifact to turn up in the Favela 40 years later.  Did he live in the neighborhood all this time? Why else would it be here?

He joined an 80s hair band called Warhead.  That’s him, second from the right.  Encylopaedia Mettalum lists two songs in their oeuvre: “Explosive Rock”, and “Tonight, We Rock”.

A few years later, the band left South Carolina in a bid for the big time, re-constituted in LA as Bad Influence. Westar Promotions, the promoter/manager, lists a Van Nuys phone number.  This may be as far as they got. I asked a wise veteran of the metal scene of that period if he had ever heard of them. He hadn’t, “but there were a literally a thousand bands.”

He wasn’t kidding. Also among the effects, a yellowed copy of Rock City News, the Sunset Strip free weekly ….pages and pages of bands remarkable only in their astounding similarity. A phone book of douche faces (and I say that with affection) attached to forgettable monickers: Terriff.  Tarrga. Thieves & Lovers.  One is reminded of Mick Mars’ dictum: if the band has a shitty name, it’s certain to be a shitty band.  That’s probably unfair to the people we see here whose skill level ranged from classically trained to hack, but there can only be one Motley Crue and a whole lot of earnest young men handing out flyers.  It’s the unforgiving animal we all ride.

There was a point in life when your hair was the most valuable thing you owned.  Or to express it differently, there was a point when you had hair. You cared for it, the fulcrum upon which tilted your destiny.

Then there is this. Who is she?  A girlfriend? A beloved sister? Was she the keeper of his memories?  Did she mourn him or tire of him? Is he alive? If so, is he in Los Angeles, still working a day job? Why would you keep this all these years, only to toss it on Raymer St, behind Target?

I like her better as a mystery.

The Craigslist Escape Chute

Why do so many dingbat apartments look like minimum security facilities?

What do you do in your confinement but lay on your stained mattress in your airless sweatbox at the Casa Royale and wishcast on Craigslist a whole other life for yourself?

You scroll listings you can’t afford, like young Lucas, my protege at Lord Bezos Farm.  You fantasize a rent-controlled studio for $900, three blocks from the beach, with no need for air conditioning. No commute over the hill to work.  You, and thousands of others living off the 405, sharing an opium dream of fog slipping through the open window while you sleep.

In a mockery of desire, the very life-changing rental you seek crops up…. and just to really make you feel extra bad, it’s $300 less than you’re paying in Van Nuys, and one block from the Promenade. You drag yourself the open house to buy your lottery ticket, but only because you can’t talk yourself out of it. You send unhappy texts to Mr. UpintheValley, anticipating defeat.

Dude, the line for that apartment is huge.
Nowhere to park. Think I may bounce.
Me: Stay and fill out the paperwork, at least.
There’s going to be hundreds of applicants.
God hates me. I won’t get it.
Me: God loves you. Fill out the paperwork.

So Lucas stayed for the paperwork and paid the $60 application fee for the Apartment No One Gets, and went home to the Casa Royale feeling like a sucker.  Two days later he gets a text. He, out of the audition line of supplicants has obtained the apartment.  Suddenly he is Charlie Bucket, holding the gold foiled Wonka bar.

Which left the small matter of the mattress, and its sweaty, unhappy residual memories,  better left in the Valley.  Lucas decided to dump recycle it at the Narrows, at the crossroads of three homeless encampments.  Over my objections, ladies and gentleman of the jury, as a homeowner and Mayor-Without-Portfolio of northern Van Nuys.

Dude, it’s going to be gone in an hour. Someone will sleep comfortable tonight.

Later that evening,  I walked the dogs up to the Narrows to reassure myself the mattress was …recycled.  It had.  In its place…amidst the festival of plastic garbage, I found the repository of another man’s history.  Someone’s else’s life in LA which closed out in D minor on Raymer Street. A moment of urban symmetry.

Three days later, on my way to the gym, I saw a mattress which looked suspiciously like his on Roscoe Blvd., over by the airport, two miles from where he left it.  I sent an accusing text.

“That’s not her.  My lady didn’t have those handles….”

And I thought of the dirty futons of my youth and wondered what became of them. I thought of the bed I chopped to pieces and set on fire in an act of marital cleansing and renewal, many years ago.   All the escape chutes I wished for that never came to fruition.  Suffering has brought me a different kind of happiness.

An Invasive Species

Mr. UpintheValley was weeding the yard this week … his exertions caused him to free-associate…and he was reminded of the strident opposition anti-gentrifiers have to art washing.  In Van Nuys, weeds are weeds, but if you’re defending Boyle Heights, art is weeds. Art on the walls begets pop-up stores, which in turn beget poke bowls, which beget Lime scooters, leading, inevitably, to the dreaded/welcomed Bento box apartment block and people posting to IG while crossing the intersection on scooters on their way to have dreaded/welcomed poke, all but daring the locals to tap their brakes a moment too late.  Abstract this, sidewall beardo guy…

It’s an invasive species, proclaim the nativists, this malediction/bloom of white hipsters. Murals are a semaphore for an invading force which should be resisted at all costs, by direct action if necessary… all are on a continuum…and a good example of how one can be correct on the facts but still get the politics wrong. Urban neighborhoods are nimble in their mutability, everchanging,  and in Los Angeles more than anywhere else we circle back to the origin along a genogram that often reads: Smith->Jefferson->Lopez->Chen->Smith.

After weeding,  I made my way to the Sepulveda Basin, where I frolicked in sheaves of wild mustard, shoulder high…such joy among the wild bunnies and predatory birds…only to read later at home I had been celebrating a pernicious weed siphoning resources away from native plants, encroaching on the habitat of local fauna.   Officials have a list of such plants..they call it The Evil 25.  And there I was…dancing like the demented villagers in The Wicker Man, exhausting synonyms for yellow, welcoming the invaders, abetting evil. Also, I like both gourmet coffee and pretentious ramen, making me trebly bad.

Invasive species can be defined as alien to the local ecosystem and whose introduction causes economic or environmental harm to human health.  They compete with natives for limited resources. They alter the habitat they enter.  They are difficult to eradicate.  Encountering no natural predators or environmental restraints, they multiply rapidly and set up colonies.

We note the obvious in the privacy of our cars on the drive home but speak it aloud at our peril.   If this is okay, why can’t I park on the freeway and take a nap on my way home when I get tired of driving?  Why can’t I throw my trash in the Pacoima Wash? Why can’t I join the Free State of Jones when the whimsy strikes me?  Why don’t we call things by their rightful name? How did we come to surrender so much common sense in the course of a decade?  Why do we genuflect before obvious lies in the hope of dodging condemnation?

In short, shouldn’t we be viewing bad policy decisions as weeds?

Perhaps this fruit of local government should be added to the invasive species list.

Like usury, which makes a gain from money itself, not through the means of exchange it was intended for, but by replicating endlessly through interest, Los Angeles government is self-breeding.   Its offspring is more government.  Rather than being a conduit of public will, it manufactures consent for bad policy through patronage. It funds advocacy groups which petition the city “do something” about the issues from which those same groups stand to profit…in a feedback loop of gluttonous virtue.

2007 advocacy: Stop enforcing the law. Let them camp in the street.
2019 advocacy: Camping in the street is shameful.  This crisis demands a permanent flow of money.  For us.

For $500 million, we could purchase housing in less expensive regions of the country for every street person in LA.  Here’s the deed. Here’s your bus ticket.  Done.  Prop HHH raises $355 million per year. How many are we housing with that, and why are we doing it here?

When everyone in the picture is applauding themselves, without irony,  it’s time for Los Angeles to do what New York did in the ’90s: get back to first principles.

Rock Bottom, Meet Basement

Aldi, the estranged cousin of Trader Joe’s, just opened on Roscoe Blvd.   It’s about the size of TJs, but with a bigger parking lot.  The most successful grocery chain in the world with 8000 locations, and expanding aggressively into southern Cal, this is their first store in the Los Angeles proper, and but a mile from Chez UpintheValley.  Let’s check it out.

The product mix consists of a lot of private label brands I’ve never heard of,  containing items I’ve seen before in different wrapping. Or at least think I have. Is this not a Kind Bar, with a new label?

Isn’t this Duncan-Hines? That’s what ze Germans want us to think.  For all I know it is Duncan-Hines. Is this important? Probably not, in the case of cake mix.

But what about organic?   The Whole Foods version is on the right, a dollar fifty more.  So is Aldi buying from Horizon and undercutting on price, or are both Horizon and Aldi buying from third-party vendors? Or is the Aldi version deficient in some way? Are they getting the chaff from the first cut of quality control and passing the savings on to you?

The nutritional information is identical.  Aldi is opaque in the provenance of their products. Reading the label tells you nothing. Everything is “distributed” from Aldi. Inc., Batavia, Illinois.  One can see how semi-familiar packaging flattens the branding distinction, bringing the price point forward in the decision process.

Do I really want to go below 50 cents a pound for pig meat?    Five more days of Lent….think it will keep?  Tempting…

Here’s where the store goes sideways for me:  a surprising quantity of non-food items clogging the aisles.  With limited shelf space and a deficit of certain products I was hoping for -better beer selection, more vegan ice cream, Trader Joes-like stuff- why so many steering wheel covers, fire extinguishers, carbon monoxide alarms, gun safes, dog crates, bookshelves and garden furniture? Do you really want to sell shovels and bagged soil three blocks from Home Depot?   How about a two-ton car jack? Why these products? Were they remaindered?  The margins on a square foot basis can’t possibly work. Unless they can.

China is 43 miles from Van Nuys, disgorging craptastic product lines at the Port of Long Beach like the Normandy invasion.  Every single day. In that environment, nothing should surprise us.

Aldi has the warehouse feel of Costco but without the scale.  Priced to compete with TJ’s, but grey, institutional and cheerless, and lacking the unique gourmet items.  I was hoping for Fresh and Easy,  which I loved, and this is not it.    Fresh and Easy is dead as last weeks mackerel and Aldi is expanding, so what do I know?  Then again, so is Harbor Freight.

Valley 2.0, YIMBY-ville

Like kudzu, garage houses are going up all over my beloved working-class Brigadoon.   Not your grandmothers granny flat. A casita royale. Numero deux. The deuce. YIMBY-ville.

Something with a separate address, and a ghost in the stucco where the door once was.

Yimby, Yimby, Yimby.  Literally.  Just around back. Through the side gate.   C’mon in.  A house of one’s own.  Yes, right here.  Yes yes yes.

The old arrangement: five cars in the driveway and a door within the door of the garage had all the plausible deniability of a 40oz malt liquor in a paper bag.  This served, for decades, as the ugly-yet-practical affordable workaround in a city which restricted new housing stock to Instagrammable apartment blocks for sugar babies, well beyond the economic reach of the unsubsidized. A few carbon monoxide deaths a year from space heaters may have been the price to be paid, but as long as there was a single electric meter the City looked the other way.

Very quietly,  by allowing garage conversions, Los Angeles has potentially doubled housing stock in certain neighborhoods. The accessory dwelling unit is out of the closet at long last and ready to walk the boulevard in tight pants.  Always thirsty for permits and taxes, it’s the City’s unofficial way of expanding horizontally without sprawl.   The backyard is the new outer ring suburb.

Californians in this era of the one-party state have been required to accept conditions that our predecessors would never tolerate.  Every once in a great while, it can get something right. I think this is going to work, though it will have detractors on aesthetic grounds, as one moves upmarket.

Then again, there’s this. Valley 3.0. Vehicles with extension cords.

Thierry Noir, Gates and Wire

“I’ve lived in some crappy places in my life, but I never had to look out my bedroom window at razor wire,” noted Orca in the comments last week. Reading this reminded me just how extensively barbed wire and security gates have become the dominant aesthetic of working-class housing in the Valley to the point one hardly notices anymore.

Chanteclair is a chichi hotel in Cannes. In Panorama City it is the whimsical nom de domicile affixed to a dingbat apartment surrounded by battlements of black spikes defending neglected shrubbery, metal gates shutting off the courtyard from the street and a baleful troll to ward away non-keyholders.  And that’s just the front entrance.

Head around back to the carports, the usual ingress point after work, and it gets angrier.

Angry, angry, angry. Or, if you prefer, utilitarian.  Or as the residents would say: safe.

The carports of Panorama are especially well-defended, and there’s a reason for that.

Ironically it is the beautifiers of Los Angeles: the gardeners, the maids, the house painters, the granite fabricators, the trowelers of smoothset stucco who live in these buildings. Vehicles double as tool chests, necessitating defenses for every parking space.

These apartment blocks went up in the 1960s when the trend in Southern California architecture was to evoke through detail and design choice the mood of an exotic locale, preferably the South Seas.

If security considerations have displaced aesthetics this is the clear preference of the residents.   Steel spikes metal grills razor wire iron bars makes a man feel he has done right by his family, and his hard-earned $1800 a month well spent.  Everyone’s safe. I have defended my own. A wanderer in the neighborhood might dismiss all as blight, but beneath the brutalist overlay similarities to buildings one has seen before in West Hollywood and Sherman Oaks abound.  The same era, probably same floor plans, perhaps same architectural firm,  but different tenants and therefore different upkeep.

The Lofts at NoHo Commons, with its exterior muraling by Thierry Noir, is the opposite end of the aesthetic spectrum, or if one prefers, the reassertion of a fanciful past.  There are as many security elements in this building as any in Panorama, augmented with key cards and video surveillance, but by design tucked into the background. Here is a building which smiles at you and proclaims Yes.  Oh, how I am Instagrammable. Come hither, pose, and spend your parents’ money.  Descend the stairs in athleisure wear and have a ten dollar smoothie.   You’re an artist now. It says so in the brochure.

Spend they do. They spend spend spend and buy buy buy. White people don’t work with their hands down here. It’s in the bylaws. In the absence of talent, they can aspire to social influence, childless and enviable in 600 square feet of urban perfection. Having others envy you can be a paying job, perhaps the most sought-after gig in LA for a certain species of Millennial. What you consume and where you do it and how charming you can be as you blab about it. Followers.  Obtain enough of them, and your apartment pays you. The apartment becomes the toolbox.

These worlds are separated by a few miles, but getting closer each year. Those miles are otherwise known as Van Nuys.  Buildings like this are the halfway point between the Chanticlair and the Noho Commons. No ground floor retail, no Thierry Noir,  but no toolbox trucks in the garage either. A bento box pastiche,  a short walk to MacLeod, tenants who pay their own rent and willing to pay a premium to stay out of Dingbatville.  It takes about three years to develop a 12-unit building like this.  At this pace, in another 50 years, we could meet the housing needs of the next generation of kids aging out of their grandparent’s apartments in sweaty, noisy, gloriously fecund Panorama.

Alternately, in the absence of development, we can think about beautification.  Paint is cheap and so are succulents and cactus, and they propagate.  So also is getting rid of security features. Half the mid-century buildings in the Valley could be turned into this in six months.  If I strapped a megaphone to my back like a street preacher do you think I could sell this at the corner of Cedros and Parthenia with my bad Spanglish? Would I win converts with phrases like the “force multiplier of good taste”, flailing my arms over my head, gripping a copy of Jane Jacobs?

Now that’s a reality show I would watch. Follow me….