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?

Lord of the Devil’s Asshole

Back in the heatwave of June, I told an acquaintance on the nightclub side of the hill where I lived.  Van Nuys is the Devil’s asshole, he announced without hesitation.  He was referring to the heat, but his tone suggested something more.

Every kingdom has its Lord, I replied, half-joking.

If not I, what shape would this lord take?  Who would be the definitive representation of our sun-splashed, slightly noirish Brigadoon? He might have a weapon protruding from underneath him, like a tail. He might have his fist around a bottle of Jack Daniels, crisp jeans and a gold watch. He would be rusticating in the middle of the day, which is how I found him after I dropped $1100 on maintenance for my trusty Honda CRV, which makes me very much an un-Lordly figure.

Ziggy, on the other hand…he knows who’s the boss.

Stoker has no sense of irony, and zero pity. If you want a portrait of dominion, look no further.

Lords, all of them.  I welcome submissions and nominations.

The Runnymede Poultry Colony

Driving through the Valley using the Uber navigation app, I’ve noticed something called the Runnymede Poultry Colony popping up in the street grid of Reseda….in the middle of a subdivision.

Places that haven’t existed for decades, places with evocative names like Wingfoot, Broadmoor, Mission Acres, Wahoo…can be found on old maps, particularly those of the Pacific Electric streetcar lines.  Intriguingly, Google Maps utilizes a historical overlay, so when you zoom in, these unfamiliar names pop up in familiar places.  The White Favela, for example, sits atop a forgotten neighborhood called “Raymer”.  The navigation apps, including Uber, ride atop the Google platform and that brings us to the utopian community of Runnymede.

“Intensive little farms”, in the phrasing of its founder Charles Weeks, “bringing peace of mind, health of body and an abundant living to thousands bound in slavery by wage-earning and too much business.” It was located in the Winnetka neighborhood, not Reseda, named for the city in Illinois from which Weeks originated.

For $1500 in 1925,  pilgrims got a modest bungalow set back from the road on a deep narrow lot,  a poultry shed with 2000 hens, a vegetable garden, fruit trees, a bee box and a grape arbor. You’d leave the eggs by the road for the morning pickup. You’d wash your own clothes and make your own ice cream.  You’d do it all on one acre, as a family,  living self-sufficiently in the city of Los Angeles.  In case you thought you were still living somewhere in Iowa,  you could ride the Red Car down Sherman Way and over the hill into town and watch Rudolph Valentino.  But you didn’t do that because you were pious.  You also had 2000 chickens to attend to, and kids running around in burlap underwear.  You were keeping Gomorrah well-omletted.

It wasn’t a collective farm, exactly, because you owned your own land, but there was a trade association, a community center for weekly functions and a beach house in Santa Monica the 500 Runnymede families could avail for picnicking in the summer.

If the Valley had developed along the one-acre per family Weeks model, there could have been potentially 150,000 such farm/orchard/home businesses today.  Assuming the necessity of middle children (several, ideally) we would have a population under a million, but big enough to sustain a city, with trolley lines and bike paths everywhere.  Counterfactually speaking, this was possible.

But it foundered, as did so many things, during the Depression. Falling egg prices,  the inability to make loan payments. Weeks himself went bankrupt self-financing loans to the families.  By 1934 it was over.

Instead, the Valley developed as the owners of the land wished it to. Remarkably, there remains to this day intact solitary lots … stubborn holdouts against the street grid,  crazy spinster aunts clinging to life after all the relatives have passed on.

You can see how much they’ve done with the place. That’s the problem with cheap land. Seldom do we make good use of it.

Which reminded me of the house we almost bought before we came to Van Nuys.  This one right here. It wasn’t part of the Colony, but the lot was as long as a football field. The structure was worthless.. teardown condition, but oh, the two week fever dream I had!   Not that I had any experience in this regard, my rather vague, very rudimentary, very what the hell anyone can do this plan was to grow organic spices and produce specifically for local restaurants.  I would be Mr. Local Source. The land would pay for the house. Gentleman Farmer, me. Purveyor to the stars of cuisine.

Just like this mini-farm tucked behind The French Laundry, in Napa.  When you dine there, you’re grazing right off the yard.

One of the peculiarities of our present Downton Abbey on the Pacific is working class people double bunking in apartments, fattening up on caloric take-out, while the gentry drop half a year’s salary on authentic peasant food grown on the most expensive ground in California.

As it happened, the house with the ginormous lot was already in escrow, sparing me the inevitable folly of a Branch Davidian-like standoff with City officials over unpermitted agricultural output.

I would have made my bride a widow defending the soil like an Ulsterman.  I would not have lived to hear the wise counsel of my friend Johnny: we’re only leasing it from God. The crust of the earth can shake us off like fleas at any moment.

Three Civic Oddities Outside Parthenia Street

I stumbled upon this DWP EV charging station, in the slightly-but-not-quite hoody enclave of North Hills East, mounted to a pole like a payphone, while bending down to pick up dog poop.

You just park and plug in.

Except you can’t right now because…the pump lurks below eye level, tucked demurely behind cars.  You’d never know it was there, unless….you already knew it was there, or were walking by.

But not for long. The City is going to re-designate the spaces EV only. Which would be lovely if the neighborhood, thick with apartment complexes operating at 150% of capacity, were a hotbed of Tesla ownership, which it isn’t.

The charging station is not for the locals, rather one in a network of 350 distributed around the city “so EV drivers can travel seamlessly across… service areas.”   If you’re returning to Encino in your Model S, and your battery is dying in North Hills, you’ll have a place to recharge once they repaint the curb and start ticketing the little people.

The very next pole sticking out of the ground has a sign banning overnight parking for a certain type of vehicle.

This type.  The kind which people live out of, but aren’t suppose to in Los Angeles, even though they were designed for expressly this purpose.

You can own an RV, but you can’t park it on the street. You can live in it, but only if its parked in your driveway.   You definitely can’t live in your RV on the street. But you can camp on the sidewalk indefinitely under a blue tarp or cardboard box or improvised pallet cabin, because…there is nothing to which the City of LA can affix a ticket.  You are outside the social contract, and in a small yet crucial way, free of obligations.

By carrots and sticks City Hall manipulates the transportation infrastructure, hoping to influence human behavior.   It moves the needle modestly while raising enormous sums from the public.

At the corner, we reached the graceful, sweeping curve of the Pacific Electric Red Car San Fernando line, orphaned 60 years ago.  Nothing has been done with it in that time. Not a dog park, not housing, not bike lanes, not retail.  Not even parking. People dump their old couches here.

Alternately, you could put in a trolley route, through the thickets of apartment buildings, seeing as how light rail is back in vogue. The rails are probably buried just beneath the asphalt, awaiting excavation.

If you’re keeping score at home, the civic hierarchy runs like this:
1. Tesla drivers
2. Valley landlords
3. Homeless people
4. Working class public transportation riders
5. RV people