You can feel it out there on the street now. Twenty years of sound public policy going up in smoke.
Along the Metrolink tracks, where I once saw two or three parolees and drug addicts during a single walk, I now see twenty.
At the North Hollywood Metro station, I step out of the car and a grown man on a child’s bike starts circling me as I cross the parking lot, making a whoop-whoop sound, circling tighter and tighter, till he’s almost clipping my knees, muttering incomprehensibly. A radio hangs from his neck on a string, blasting pointless static. The Sheriff’s deputies who monitor the plaza entrance don’t lift a finger as he moves on to the next unsuspecting commuter.
On the train I meet two men with prison-issue telephone scars. Two, in five minutes.
At home I turn on the TV and the mayor of Baltimore is granting “those who wished to destroy, the space to do that as well,” to a backdrop of burning liquor stores and pharmacies. The district attorney follows up by indicting six police officers for murder for failing to secure a prisoner with a seat belt. In the ensuing month Baltimore records it highest murder rate in 40 years. Seemingly sober people appear on cable panel shows scratching their chins, wondering if cause and effect could be related.
The distance between those who effect policy and shape our discussion of it (The Clerisy, to use a term of art), and the rest of us has become unsustainably wide. There is a particular species of American who waxes sanctimonious about Social Justice but would never tolerate Section 8 tenants on his block for five minutes. They love chewing on phrases like mass incarceration, comfortable in the knowledge the parolees are headed for Van Nuys. Such people are ascendant now.
Once upon a time, along Roscoe Blvd, civic-minded people saw a concrete wall and imagined a mural. So a mural was summoned forth.
For years afterward, if one stopped beneath the 405, waiting for traffic to clear, one was treated to a tableau of rusticating California golden bears. Bears rubbing their backs against trees. Bears spearing salmon from waterfalls. Bears in mustard fields grappling one another in terpsichorean ecstasy. Bears watching enigmatically from their shrinking habitat, preparing for hibernation, while you sat in your car revving up for your day, or taking inventory of the ingredients needed for dinner, depending which direction the car was pointing.
It wasn’t Guernica, but it was an engaging piece of public art. A punctuation to your day, a yogic breath before the left turn to the on-ramp, where you could enter the forest for a moment and walk among the grizzlies. And then the light would change.
Set beside the civic artwork of the other great cities of the world, the Bear Mural is but a widow’s mite. A Valley-esque exercise in middlebrow taste.
Twasn’t much, but it worked. And until this past year, it was ours.
Then the shopping carts began to appear. Then mattress and sleeping bags.
Then the city, in its ever-expanding need to fatten pensions wisdom, silently declared the mural and all its street frontage to be the responsibility of the state of California. Since it was ‘under the freeway’ it need no longer be policed by Los Angeles.
In short order, the carts and mattresses gave way to a fortress city of bagged crap which decanted urine in the middle of the day and bore menacing signs. In keeping with Wilson’s Law of Broken Windows, all the murals under the 405 are disappearing under heavy tagging.
I can think of a place this wouldn’t be allowed to happen: Sherman Oaks.
I can think of another: the City of San Fernando.
When there are 5,000 people per councilperson, calls get returned. When there are 300,000 people per councilperson, she never has to shake your hand. So she doesn’t.
The City of Los Angeles has more tax revenue this year than last, more last year than the year before that. It’s going somewhere, just not to Van Nuys.
More houses have been renovated in my neighborhood, gut-renovated, from the foundation up, in the past four years than in the past 50 combined. Move twenty feet off any boulevard and you’re standing in an urban Mayberry, self-sustaining, joyful, polite, and without crime. An embodiment of our finest virtues: hard work, parsimony, kindness to others, faith and family. Virtues which are shared across the many dialects of our neighborhood. Friends from other areas of LA doubt me on the crime part, but it’s true. I have no need to lock my house.
Step back on the boulevard and you’re looking at a slum mall with a PayDay lender, a dialysis clinic, and a convenience store feeding off EBT cards. The man who owns the strip mall doesn’t live here, but he extracts a fat dollar from blight. The city functionaries who dole out the EBT cards and Section 8 vouchers make a nice living doing so, but they don’t live here either. People in the public sector are paid twice the salary the citizens they serve, but when I went to Nury Martinez’s office her field deputy didn’t know where Sepulveda Gulch was until I showed her on a map.
Blight is the end result of policy choices. We’re having an election next week in CD 6, but if you do a little homework, you’ll notice that 98% of the money spent on mailers and signs is coming from sources outside the district. People with business before the council. People looking for Mayberry’s money. Mayberry keeps grinding it out, reliably, and the taxation which sustains the City is nothing if not regressive.
The city budget is $8 billion a year, but good luck persuading Nury to install a few sprinklers to revive dead landscaping on the ugliest stretch of Sepulveda Blvd. Or pay for a Levi Ponce mural. What would be the point of that? We’re a colony, after all. They can just hand us shovels and tell us to fill in our own potholes.
On Tuesday, a few hundred people are going to spend an obscene sum of Mayberry’s money to persuade a few thousand people to give a 12-year sinecure and million-dollar pension to a woman who couldn’t say, when asked, what the City’s unfunded liability is.
How were 80,000 British soldiers able to maintain dominion over 200 million Hindus? By persuading them to internalize their own inferiority. Burn all foreign dress, Gandhi advised. Don’t wear the white man’s colonial suit. Your mind will follow.