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….

An Elusive Equinox

Only several days ago Spring thrilled in the elusive sunshine, promising an end to a Portland winter.

Painted ladies stormed the fruit trees like locusts.

Then Nature, in a display of bad sportsmanship, as if she were taking pleasure in reminding us what we were being denied, offered a fresh deluge.  Raindrops dropped like bowling balls. The butterflies folded up their wings and disappeared into the eaves.  The succulents were in two inches of water

Bursts of sunshine…

…followed by more drizzle.

She can’t decide what she wants. We are at the fulcrum of something we needed badly, and a return to the cake of comfort.


We are prisoners of weather.  This is not what we are used to but we’re gonna miss it when it ends.

Widows Weeds

The Valley the zeitgeist forgot.    The remnants.  The lost backlot of the 1980s. No quarter given to the aesthetic demands of the age.  No fancy countertops. No solar panels.  No satellite dish. Landlines and linoleum.  Dry rot and mold. Five figure mortgages.

An Appalachia West, where the cars and the houses like married couples after many years begin to look alike…

…only to become landscaping when they cease to function as transportation.

The overlooked nooks and crannies of Arleta and Panorama…

…where they wear the station wagon in the driveway like widows weeds.

Not Gay. Australian!

West Hollywood, 1 Am, Two Dudes in the Uber:
Driver, are you gay?
We’re straight, but we’re totally cool with it. We’re from Australia.
I love my mates. Sometimes I kiss them on the mouth.
But we’re straight.
We’ve seen each other’s junk too.  But we’re cool with it.
I know where all my mate’s moles are.
You do?
Mate, I know your moles.  I could pick you out of a headless lineup.
You mean a dick lineup?
Driver, can we go back to the Abbey? I left my credit card at the bar.
Nobody told us it was a gay bar.
Not that we care. We’re Australian.
We’re there for the girls.
Driver, can I drink from your water bottle?
I promise not to put my lips on it.
Maybe a little. Whoops.
Do you believe in “super germs”? Like when germs from another continent mix with American germs and make new germs?
Since you’re already gay, you wouldn’t mind a little, right?
We’re from Australia.

There are nights I really, really enjoy being an Uber driver.

This Was Never Almost Us, After All

In 1988 the LA Times published a futurist edition in which we would travel to work in 2013 in smart cars.    Robot maids with arms would clean houses.  There would be robo-pets mimicking the charm of canines.   Efficiency would rule the day. The city would mandate staggered shifts for businesses to ease traffic!

You could say it was a tad theoretical.

Among the things it didn’t predict:
Three million feral cats.
Sidewalk homeless encampments.
A vast brown service class.
Any service class at all.
The wealth effect.
A glorious reclamation of every pre-war building in the city.
Craptastic cheap Chinese consumer goods.
The million dollar bungalow teardown.
Cultural civil war.
Middle-class diaspora to Texas.
Maximalist landscaping.
Pharmacopeia.
Social media influencers.
Open borders.
Doggie daycare.
The rich calling the little people bigots.

The Times got much of the technology right: fiber optics, wallet-sized computers, streaming video; and placed it in the hands of a presumed to be a white middle-class family living in a ranch house in Granada Hills. What it failed to imagine is how technology would reshape the culture to a point where middle-class families no longer obtain purchase in Los Angeles. The Times guessed at coming of the iPhone. It didn’t imagine how the design and implementation of the iPhone and its applications would generate such vast wealth as to explode the class structure to the point where Granada Hills, like the rest of the Valley, became irrelevant to the grand design. The Times didn’t imagine the paper itself would be obsolete here, with but one reporter, commuting in.

The Timesian future of two hundred-story buildings and pneumatic tubes turns out to be Bento Box apartments peering down on ranch houses, with a light frosting of tagging.

Blade Runner was also going to be our 2019.
Air taxis? Clearly, no.
Massive electronic billboards, yes.
Clutter and cacophony. Check.
Ubiquitous street food.
Old buildings.
Asian influence.
The revival of 1940’s aesthetics.
Sexbots, almost here.
Corporations achieving power by providing a simulacrum of human companionship?
Most definitely.

It’s worth noting Syd Mead provided the original sketches for the set design as well as for the Times piece.   Blade Runner feels truer to where we are today downtown, even if it got ahead of itself with the technology and the apocalyptic weather.

Adding a layer of irony, Philp K. Dick toiled in semi-obscurity living in a tract home near sunny Disneyland, a neighborhood steadfastly untransformed by his prognostications to this day.

What was designed to be enclaves of detached homes with broad yards, fed by arterials, -the Valley 1.0- remains exactly mostly that.  Once built, the world is not easily re-engineered.   You can install a fancy kitchen and an accessory dwelling unit behind the garage. You can squeeze ten people in a house built for four.     You can make cars more gas efficient, you can structure ridesharing arrangements, but you can’t get people out of their cars.  That’s not what we built.

Regression to the mean trumps master planning. Human nature resists perfection, thank goodness.

How Brady Was My Valley

Would you pay $1.9 million for a two-bedroom rehab with a wood shingle roof in Studio City?

You would if it was this house, and you were Lance Bass from Nsync. Except this is a set and the house at 11222 Dilling St. we think of as the Brady Bunch House is merely a plausible exterior for what had already been created onstage at CBS studios nearby. Nothing was ever filmed there, yet the totemic effect is undiminished. Pilgrims from across the globe take pictures of themselves at the place where Greg and Marsha lived. It bears the distinction of being (after the White House) the second most photographed private home in the country. Over my lifetime it has had but one owner.

Lance wanted to go meta-Brady and retrofit the house to match the set down to the period detail, then live inside of it.

Oddly, there is a part of me which can relate to this.  Growing up I would watch Brady reruns on Channel 44 at friends houses after school.   There was little else on TV at that hour, and nothing waiting for me but a long walk home to a family nothing like the Bradys.

When the show originally aired, intact two-parent families with a working father were the norm. Ten years later, in coastal California, it was nostalgia. The latchkey kids, the apartment kids, kids in trailers, hippie kids, we sprawled on leaking bean bags with empty stomachs and gazed into a world as foreign to us as the Pyramids of Giza, in which the drama was small and resolved in 30 minutes. Maureen McCormick’s skirts held dominion over us all.

The staircase impressed on my impoverished childhood a sense of modernity on a palatial scale, yet looking at the show with a critical 2019 eye, one sees nothing but cheap wood paneling, avocado-colored appliances and unrestrained polyester knits from the Sears catalog.

Say this for 1970s: the upper and lower income tiers dressed more alike than they do today and everyone seemed to have the same carpet.

In keeping with the zeitgeist, Studio City has systemically banished Brady Bunch houses in favor of faux-Cape Cods with triple the square footage, behemoths intended to reduce older California split levels to the dimensions of a Mississippi Delta shotgun shack.

How many of these domiciles would you wager contain six kids? I would say zero. How many more than two? Not many.

If we could put the Brady kids in a time machine, what would they make of the even cozier confines of Chez UpintheValley?   They would probably be so mesmerized by my phone, my tablet, and the weird black cylinder on the kitchen counter which plays whatever I command they wouldn’t even notice my little stucco box and its pretentious landscaping.  They would stare into the obelisks. Land and space were abundant. Technology was rare.

Lance Bass’ fever dream of nesting inside a sitcom was not to be. HGTV outbid him, paying $3.5 million, and is now developing a show around a remodel starring the Scott Brothers.  Naturally, they’re building it out to the property line, but in a nod to posterity, with a 1970’s motif.

Super Drainage, in Action

Concrete river channels get a bad rap, but the Army Corps of Engineers knew what they were doing.  An entire El Nino storm can be whisked away in a matter of hours.   Unfortunately, it’s going into the ocean.

The alternative is this.

Valley, Light and Dark

May 5, 1962: “Emcee Bruce Lundy twists to the music of the Moongooners at the Peppermint Stick, a teenage nightclub at 15463 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks.   A Valley chiropractor, Dr. David Rosen of Van Nuys, hopes his club ‘will help combat juvenile delinquency by providing teenagers and young adults with a healthy and entertaining environment.'”

“Shown in Van Nuys police station after their arrest on suspicion of violation of State Narcotics Act are Fred Zinn of North Hollywood and Barbara Gonzales of Los Angeles. One detective was injured when Zinn made a futile escape attempt.”

If you let your daughter do the twist, but surround her with nice boys in ties, she won’t become a beatnik poetess with a drug habit.  She won’t appear in the local paper like a hard Bettie Page aspiring to Patti Smith. A gloomy album cover. A bad example.

That was the idea, anyway.  In 1962, some people thought it might work. Let a little Chubby Checker in, but keep a dress code and the id-driven forces will stop at 3rd base.   Permit just enough of the Devil to rob him of his mystique, then have a highball and hope for the best.

How’d that work out?  Here’s Cherie Currie of The Runaways, in her bedroom in Reseda, 1977.

Photo credit: Valley Times Collection. Brad Elterman.