Under California Stars

This is what I saw en route to Lowes this week. I was buying concrete and a chair rail for the Moroccan wallpaper I ordered from Etsy and this guy in the next lane is fleeing Los Angeles.  Even the car he’s towing is filled with stuff.  So which one of us is the idiot?   I filtered it to look like an oil painting cause it felt like one: The Migration of 2020. Back to the Dust Bowl.

In a pinch, I could unpeel my pretentious Etsy-ish wallpaper, roll it into a tube, and find room for it in a U-Haul of my own, but concrete is another matter. That’s voting with my hands.  My existential debate about staying or leaving California is an idle one.  For now.

1600 Grand, by Gensler

This was DTLA in March, 3% unemployment and a futurist paradise of architectural renderings in waiting.  You can learn a lot about the culture of a city from its tallest buildings. They used to be churches. Then government buildings. Then banks. Now all the big stuff is apartments and hotels. Our most basic industry is lifestyle.  These lofty aeries sell aspiration as their core function. They are a place to dwell.  What do they dwell among?  The good life. Other dwellers, drawn to the same imperatives of, um, well, okay…cool things. Fabulous restaurants and preposterously priced craft cocktails and the sort of boutique that sells the sort of movables and knick-knacks that might appear in the glossy magazine Dwell.  It’s a virtuous circle of yoga and kale and above all beautiful women, this economy.  A certain species of woman, homo Instagramus, who fires the feverish designs of men. Concrete is trucked in by the ton to erect just the proper plinth for her.

Pygmalion and the Image

What is the nature of this plinth? It requires 1) physical safety and 2) lots of discretionary spending.  Prodigious spending, of a discerning, socially conscious nature, flattering to the spender.

What happens when these boutique businesses, the kind which punctuate the proper distinction between the glamour of Los Angeles 2.0 and the dreary but useful order of Santa Clarita, start dropping away?  How many businesses can you lose in one block before the gloss is gone and one is nose to nose with the feral world of the dispossessed, always a background character, now a co-star on the stage in a way you can no longer deny? Can a downtown with fewer amenities but a permanently subsidized army of street people exert the same magic hold on homo Instagramus, her suitors, and her imitators?

How many days can one spend on Zoom, ordering in, and binge-watching before concluding Amazon is the world’s greatest invention but isn’t it available in Tennessee?  What’s the 3BR price in Nashville? In a word, downtown teeters on fragility, though perhaps not so fragile as New York, being less dependent on Wall Street or the leasing of office space.

Opening of Van Nuys GM Plant, 1948
Last Camaro to roll off the line, 1992

Paradoxically, Van Nuys is actually rather anti-fragile.  The industrial union ship sailed in 1992. There are very few single-earner households here.  Three or four workers per domicile as a rule, if you include adult children, and they run the gamut from nurses to granite fabricators.  Los Angeles could take a pretty big economic hit, including the construction trades, and people in my neighborhood would be able to continue to pay their mortgages.  In the urban survivalist sweepstakes, four service workers trump one professional.  People who can’t easily pull up stakes for Nashville will stick around by default, paying bills.  Van Nuys has never been in danger of obtaining a Lululemon franchise, thereby is in no danger of losing one.  We already have plenty of empty storefronts.  Service gigs are abundant and pegged to the minimum wage, an incremental ratchet which only turns in one direction. We have achieved a kind of safety in modest expectations. Who knew?

San Francisco Chronicle

Then there’s this.  Answers to the viability question won’t be fiscal, rather they will prove civilizational. Will law and order hold?  Los Angeles hasn’t become Portland, yet, but that’s not due to bold leadership. Mayor Garcetti is in the same feckless vein as Ted Wheeler, Jacob Frey, Jenny Durkan, Lori Lightfoot, and Bill DiBlasio.

Here’s my call: We have too many hard-working first and second-generation immigrants in L.A. grinding out shifts for political nihilism to take hold here.  In a city in which latinos outnumber blacks 5 to 1, there is a hard ceiling on how much street chaos BLM will be allowed to cause.

I think the jean short selfie on the 36th-floor garden balcony might have to wait a few years.   DTLA has an over-supply of inventory to work through. Applebook California has had a long run. Woody Guthrie California might be about to have its moment.

The Ouroboros Box

The glory days, before the fall

The Sears outlet at the Northridge Mall is no more.  The latest in a series of closures following the restructuring of the company in 2017.

Though it retains a shitty food court, the mall is now without one of its two anchor tenants.   We already kind of know how this will end.  Being the Valley, I don’t anticipate Google riding to our rescue.

Once the Amazon of its day, Sears has been a great declension a century in the unmaking, reflected in its architecture.

As it fell out of favor, the in-house brands and subsidiary businesses: Allstate, DieHard, Craftsman, Kenmore, and Discover Card, were sold off one by one in debt restructurings. The corporate headquarters in Chicago, once the tallest building in the world, was vacated twenty years after being built and downsized to an office park in the suburbs.

Starbucks Center, Seattle

Ironically, Sears leaves behind a terrific portfolio of civic architecture in the form of massive Art Deco mail-order distribution plants now rapidly being repurposed nationwide as live/works lofts, creative office space and in another irony, retail. Many of these buildings were vacant for decades.  Think how different it may have turned out if Sears had held on to the real estate. It was uniquely positioned to take advantage of re-urbanization.

Crosstown Lofts, Memphis

Izek Shomoff is developing the 13 acre Boyle Heights site as a 1000 unit mixed-use campus with predictable bells and whistles.

Sears’s lasting legacy will prove to be its timeless line of mail-order Craftsman houses,  pre-cut, delivered on railroad cars, and easily assembled by road gangs.  Most of them are with us today, 100 years on, a testament to indestructible aesthetics.  They spawned countless imitations.  Historic Los Angeles and Pasadena are fecund with variations on these designs. It’s the default residence of our collective dreaming, and thereby television locations: my life, we tell ourselves driving past, would be oh, so perfect if we lived in that house.

Just as an aside, how popular a housing solution would this be?  With small alterations for local codes, the plans are perfectly valid today.  Build them in clusters of six around a common yard. Cluster the clusters around a common greenway.  
If you could go back to the 1980s and tell the board of directors, get out of the malls, you will be replaced by an electronic mail-order catalog, your end is in your beginning, return to first principles. Your value is old real estate and love for your catalog and always will be. Would anyone listen, even if you gave them second sight? Or would the snake just keep eating its tail?

The Will to Bezos

This is what war to the death for market share looks like from inside my car when dropping off at LAX.    Free=$195/week lease rate.   Fair=Anyone with a license is eligible to drive for Uber. In California, legal status is irrelevant.   If you complete 125 rides/Eats deliveries in a week, the lease is paid by Uber.     That’s one way to take a $5 billion write-down in a single quarter and bleed veteran drivers at the same time.

Make no mistake, the rideshare model is ubiquitous and profitable in the major cities. No one is going back to buses and cabs.   The ancillary businesses: delivery, freight, scooters and bikes, overseas markets are fiscal sinkholes.  So are endless recruitment incentives.

If Uber can agree with Lyft how to divide the market, each could raise fares one dollar per ride,  use it to retain the current driver fleet and pad their bottom line.

But that’s not what they’re doing.  Los Angeles is shaping up as the Gettysburg of the gig economy.  We are in the bloodletting stage before Pickett’s Charge.  There will be one dominant market player at the end of the horsemeat.

In another century we had Will to Power. Now we have the Will to Bezos.

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

Lights, Camera, Eat

Backstage at the the most ostentatious grocery store in the history of San Fernando Valley, opening Wednesday….

Ralphs started out as a local chain in Los Angeles. If you wrote a complaint to the manager for bad service, he would come to your house with a fruit basket.   Alpha-Beta started in Pomona, and it ran cheesy ads with low end brands emerging from a bottomless paper bag and actor Alan Hamel urging viewers to “tell a friend”.

It was a different world then. You could smoke in the aisles and fill your cart with Sugar Smacks and Jiffy, and give your kid a shiner if he was making too much noise.

Now Whole Foods and Pavilions and Gelson’s are taking no prisoners, sparing no expense in the war of luxury. Little zings of moral affirmation will be found on every shelf. Local this. Fair trade that. No preservatives, no hormones, no trans fats. The gentry will be satisfied!   The little people can f*** off to Costco.  (Or they can shop at Amazon. Win-win, Bezos.)

Whole Foods employees have been told they will be ticketed and towed if they park in the surrounding neighborhood.   But they are expressly instructed not to park in the garage. Those spaces are reserved for shoppers.   In a metropolis where every public land use decision pivots on parking space requirements, this is a remarkable oversight. Unless of course it isn’t.