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.

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.

Ginger Drysdale At Home

November 6, 1961: “These are exciting days for the Valley’s Ginger Drysdale, the beautiful 22-year-old wife of the famous Dodger pitcher. Ginger, a photographer’s model who has done many television commercials, recently was summoned to Warner Bros., placed under 90-day option and given a part in ‘Hawaiian Eye.’…Ginger is going to spend this weekend helping Don paint their comfortable, modern three-bedroom home in Van Nuys.” 

I’m trying to get my head around a major league athlete moving to Van Nuys at the peak of his career, let alone a Hall of Famer, even if he grew up here as Don Drysdale did. But then I would be forgetting this was before free agency.

Drysdale won 25 games in 1962, for which he earned…$36,000, together with Sandy Koufax half of the dominant pitching duo of the decade.

They were paid at the pleasure of owner Walter O’Malley who thought of contract negotiation thusly: “Baseball is an old-fashioned game with old-fashioned traditions.” Translation: you are bound to me by a reserve clause, while I enjoy a congressional exemption from anti-trust laws.  

It was not uncommon for players to take second jobs in the winter.  Stars like Drysdale opened businesses.  The Dugout, on Oxnard St., lasted until 1982.  Today it is the location of La Serenita, a Mexican restaurant.

Koufax owned the Tropicana Motel in West Hollywood,  which would prove both lucrative and historic in the 1970s.

America wasn’t winner-take-all then.  There was a lower ceiling but a higher floor (for white folks). Teachers and Dodger wives shared driveways and did their own house painting.

Zack Greinke and Clayton Kershaw were paid $62 million this year.   There are people on my block who live in converted tool sheds, then commute to work, in keeping with our New Normal.

On the other hand, I have Moroccan tile in my bathroom now, which no one in Van Nuys had in 1962.   I also probably eat better than the Drysdales did, and so can pretty much anyone who takes the time to shop creatively in the cornucopia of LA. Most of us don’t. We eat with our hands from a salty greasy bag without portional restraint. Right now I’m eating Japanese buckwheat noodles and bok choy, watching an ad for Progressive insurance and here’s Stephanie Courtney as Flo,  TV’s top pitchwoman. I think of the few hundred actors below her who book regular commercial work and below them, the Breughel-like masses, the 100,000 actors who book nothing and try to create mystique on YouTube….and there, in the background, are the picket fences of Orion Street,  Van Nuys’ contribution to Americana porn.

All these things are true simultaneously.  Los Angeles is nothing if not polarity.

Ron Shelton wrote a wonderful speech for Bull Durham neatly summarizing the distance between those who make it to the major leagues (and enjoy million dollar contracts) and those who languish in the bus leagues until they give up hope:

“Know what the difference between hitting .250 and .300 is? It’s 25 hits. 25 hits in 500 at bats is 50 points, okay? There’s 6 months in a season, that’s about 25 weeks. That means if you get just one extra flare a week – just one – gorp… you get a groundball, you get a groundball with eyes… you get a dying quail, just one more dying quail a week… and you’re in Yankee Stadium.”

In 1969 Ginger filed for divorce and a restraining order against Don, citing 30 separate incidents of assault. Don passed away in 1993, alone in a hotel room.

Drysdale’s second wife sold his memorabilia for over a $1 million in 2016, twice the sum he earned as a player in his entire career, making his memory more lucrative than his performance.  Ginger got nothing.

Photos courtesy of Valley Times Collection

Answered Prayers

“‘Our nightmare has ended. It’s the answer to our prayers.’ This was the reaction of a Sherman Oaks mother of seven children when the Valley Times told her Thursday that state engineers have recommended that a guardrail be built along the Ventura Freeway where it faces her home. Mrs. Jack Rush, 4721 Greenbush Ave., had appealed for the guardrail since two cars, a load of lumber, a giant truck tire and a conglomeration of hubcaps and other auto accessories had come flying into her yard and the yards of her neighbors.”  

Seven kids. No guard rails.  Hubcaps flying into the yard. Hello, 1961. This is sounding so very early Paul Simon.

Please send us freeways, we once said.   We threw parties for them.  Actually, we still do, only we ask for more lanes and want them to end just short of where we live.

Men in rumpled suits once drew lines on maps with an enthusiasm born of consensus over what constituted Progress.

Jobs over here? Check…
People moving…where? Hand me my ruler.
We’ll put a tunnel under Griffith Park (not a bad idea actually) re-surface in North Hollywood, and then a straight run to Chatsworth.   Done!

The Whitnall Freeway (the middle line above) was never realized, owing to community resistance in the eastern half of the Valley, by then nearly built out.

People were beginning to discover elevated freeways were a tad noisy.  They had a way of shattering the very orderly calm families left the city to obtain.  Yet they serve the same necessity the left anterior descending artery does in the human body. No city functions without them.

This has been the sticking point in California for fifty years:  Older neighborhoods don’t want to concede an inch to ease the commute to the exurbs, despite relying on commuter labor. Exurbs want as much distance from the city as possible while drawing a paycheck from same.  Nobody wants to ride a train.

So, we build trains, hoping people will change their minds capitulate when things get bad enough. Young people love living in the snazzy new developments over the train stops and taking Uber to work.    Wealthy neighborhoods get high sound walls and a veto on new development and petition against sprawl, the working-class no sound abatement at all and encampments in the shrubbery.  As soon as they can swing it, they move further out, toward Bakersfield.

Everyone has a prayer to be answered, but few wish to marry their fortunes to those of a stranger. Each of us feels his righteousness to be well-earned. Which may be for the best. If you believe Saint Theresa of Avila, more tears are shed over answered prayers than unanswered ones.

*historic photos courtesy of Valley Times Collection

The Case Study of Case Studies

What if someone suspended a cluster of Case Study houses in the airspace above a working-class community in the Valley?   Improbable though it may sound, this is coming soon to a ghost building not far from me.

Who would buy there and how would you market it?  I can’t improve upon this pithy analysis from a noted New Urbanist:

“Soooooo. Let’s say you are a reasonably solvent individual who wants 1) a mint condition glass box home that 2) hovers above the Blade Runner view of LA and 3) is a manageable Lyft to the perks of civilization. But you also 4) fancy yourself a bit of an iconoclast who 5) savors the grittiness of said landscape – so long as you personally never have to touch it. What better location than the White Favela of Panorama?”

“You get convenience, street cred, and an ironic address all at once. Two options. Each apartment will be huge and very expensive, designed to appeal to empty nester Boomers who don’t want to mow the lawn anymore. Or, these will be tiny personal cubbies and large common areas to facilitate Millennial bonding. There’s more than one way to cash flow a dead office tower.”

The Stahl House above (Case Study House#22, Pierre Koenig) was built in 1960,  Panorama Tower, a modernist filing cabinet of offices, in 1962. Neither structure served its purpose for very long. The tower was designed by none other than Welton Becket, the king of jet age Los Angeles architecture: Capitol Records, the Cinerama Dome,  Pauley Pavilion, to name a few.

Stahl, the most iconic private residence in the city has been unoccupied for years (also, has only two bedrooms). You could fit four on each floor of this building, and every window would a have a comparable view to the horizon, making the re-imagined Panorama Tower the case study of Case Studies: a luxury Bento Box embedded in the exoskeleton of a mid-century icon, the only one its kind in the Valley.

Takacs Architecture is handling the adaptation. Izek Shomof is the developer. A little sleuthing reveals he has chosen the Millennial option: 194 live/work units. Fifteen per floor, with ground floor retail extending into the adjoining lot.

On Billionaire Beach

Come to Malibu, said Johnny, we have a house this weekend. 
By house, he meant an AirBnB on Carbon Beach.
As a friend of friends, I was able to slipstream past the access point at Geffen’s house and park in a driveway.
Being a peasant from the Valley, I arrived overdressed.

It’s hard to think of Malibu and not think of James Mason walking into the sea.  Or Joan Didion composing despair on her balcony with a scarf around her head, or this painting by Alex Colville:

Which you might recognize in cinematic form, from the movie Heat.

There’s something about an empty house, the horizon line and eternity.  Self-destruction must be near at hand.

Malibu did not always reference glass box ostentation and social isolation.  It once meant simple cottages by the sea.  Single story. Wood shingle.  Mid-market.

Roddy McDowall maintained an open house policy at his bungalow in 1965 and the weekends were filled with Hollywood royalty eating hot dogs and drinking beer like, well, like people would in Van Nuys.  His home movies of the stars rusticating on his veranda are a window not only into timeless Pucci dress Marlboro-on-the-fingertips glamour but an era when the social contract worked for more people.  No maids.  No people living in cars. No lavish landscaping.  No security systems. No “coastal access points”.  Hollywood people may have been prettier than everyone else but were not appropriating public spaces for themselves.

To walk the beach Saturday was to stare at a row of uninhabited fortresses, propped up on stilts, in defiance of nature. Look at me! they demand, but don’t touch.  I am a show horse, here to signify the social pecking order. My utility is my expense.

The bigger the house, the less people use them.   (A corollary: the fancier the kitchen, the less people cook.)  Larry Ellison of Oracle owns ten, right here, within a mile of each other.  I don’t think he has a mistress stashed away in each one.  He’s hoarding, not from the little people, but from other mega-wealthy.

When you peek underneath the decks, things get a bit interesting.  The ravages of nature are everywhere.  In rough weather, the surf splashes up against the pilings, and into the wood framing and all things metallic.

If you believe in sea level rise due to anthropogenic global warming, why would you ever sink money into these structures?

Yet the prices only keep going up.  The AirBnB, which was only three bedrooms, sold this year for $18 million.  Despite their prolific funding of environmental causes, I suspect they don’t really believe in AGW on Carbon Beach.  Or maybe they half-do but are to content to rent the sand from Mother Nature for a few years before flipping it to the person who sells the tungsten rights to Uzbekistan under the table and needs a place to park the cash.

They decry the idea of a Mexican border wall, but they love their gates and cameras.  Just like they oppose all development west of La Cienega but expect crisply folded linens.  They love regulating plastic straws but there is never a limit on the carbon footprint of donors to the DNC.

As we had cocktails at sunset, living as billionaires for an afternoon, a dozen people lounging on the deck…clever, pretty and kind we may have been but not a child we had between us.

Two thoughts arose: If it’s good to be rich, perhaps it’s better to be a friend to the wealthy.

We may need a new vocabulary for what we are doing in California. Someone needs to translate for future historians of our Instagram feeds how we blew through so many civilizational stop signs.   How we committed suicide by other names.

NoHo, Alexanderplatz

In the beginning of the Valley portion of our lives, we almost bought a house on this street in NoHo, a few blocks from here, but we hesitated because the neighborhood was zoned for apartment buildings, which until recently meant 1960’s dingbat courtyards, two story, eight units. A cluster of tapia palms growing where the pool used to be.  A metal gate in the front.

There were maybe two buildings like that on the block.  That was too much for me. Think of all the people we’d have coming and going!  It wouldn’t be…neighborly.   So, Van Nuys for us.   Little did we know.

Now, NoHo is Berlin Alexanderplatz.  Extruded mid-rise transit oriented development, built to curb,  ground floor retail, six floors of windows and balconies, design schemes running from Bento Box to discount Art Moderne, varied enough to disguise the monotony of identical rooflines.    Low installation cost, high return on rent. Hundreds of people per lot, instead of dozens.

In Los Angeles the height limit on wood framing is four stories, so in the first years coming out of the recession, that’s what you saw in most places. Then the money got so good…the human tide of urban enthusiasts willing to drop the the annual salary of a midwesterner on a two-bedroom apartment so profligate,  the land values so overheated, it made more sense to drop the popsicle stick skeleton onto a two-story concrete podium and fatten the profit margins.  Two plus four is six, and a 50% markup.

An Instagrammable Life is the sales point. Live here, feel Adjacent to Something.    You know you must be part of something because there’s yoga downstairs and a pokè bowl at the corner. Everyone is pretty, near-pretty or pretty good at faking it and busy shedding the skin of their former lives.

People who live in these buildings don’t actually ride public transit. The people who pull shifts at the pokè bowl? They ride the Orange Line and live in squalorous dhimmitude behind metal bars at the Canoga Palms with telenovelas and Call Of Duty blaring from every window, box fans twirling six months a year, hot diapers and curry wafting through the courtyard.  The Valley primitive, loud and intimate.

NoHo Alexanderplatz is Disneyland for millennials. Few millennials can afford it, yet here they are. Someone’s paying their freight, because the math never adds up.   Another civic truth we don’t say out loud.

The most successful actor I knew, a guy who appeared on network television consistently, six figure income, an actual face on a billboard, he lived in NoHo, but it wasn’t in a building like this. He lived -for years- like a mouse on a ground floor unit without A/C, tin foil on the windows to reflect the sun, and saved his per diem until he could buy a condo. He knew how quickly it could end.

Lifestyle Porn may now be LA’s primary industry, since nobody pays for actual porn any more. What happens to NoHo when people stop subsidizing the pretty ones?