Jeff Spicoli Lived Here

Fast Times at Ridgemont High was on TV the other day…I was drawn in by nostalgia but stayed for the spectacle of teenagers working after school.   I couldn’t get past it.

Every character in the movie had a job, including Phoebe Cates, the Megan Fox of her time, dutifully served the public while draped in a corporate issue smock so unflattering it would never make it past the wardrobe assistant today.

First, the oddity: when do we see this anymore?  Then the deep memory: we all did this when were young.  Then the recognition: how completely we’ve restructured things.  White teenagers working at the Galleria? That’s what an open border is for.

A job used to be the first step to adulthood and freedom from parental constraints, the children of professionals just as likely to be slinging pizza as those of an auto mechanic.  Almost everyone today not explicitly rich claims membership in the middle class.  It’s the conceit at the heart of the 1%/99% formulation. But in 1982 it was mostly true if you viewed it aspirationally rather than by income quintile.

1982 was faux wood paneling, Formica countertops, cheap linoleum, tchotchkes, and self-maintained yards.  This could be Sherman Oaks as easily as Arleta.  All rather downmarket by modern Dwell standards, but perfectly in keeping with the aesthetics of the time.

Anyone whose house looks like this today is, well, probably “poor” or elderly.  Escaping…this… prison of dreck is the great motivator of contemporary LA.

The first commandment of Valley 2.1: all ranch houses shall be gutted and made Zillow-ready.  Better yet, they shall be replaced with more units. Which brings me to the condemned house in the first picture, in the shadow of an IMT apartment block on Sepulveda. I have it on good authority Jeff Spicoli lived there. Now it’s going to be six McMansions.   If they have kids, they won’t be working after school.   They will intern.  Peasants from Chiapas will man the espresso machine and pull the weeds.

The global south is on the move. The Red State high achievers are on the move. Both are coming here. Ambition leaves Cleveland as quickly as honorable men flee Chapo’s brigades in Sinaloa.

Chinese yuan is in search of a safe harbor. The Federal Reserve is printing money and handing it out at no interest to banks: start funding things, anything, spin the dials of consumption. Come pension fund apparatchiks, say the banks, come ye Central Asian strongmen, ye Israeli billionaires and Gulf sheiks looking to elude the virtue police, build an apartment block in Van Nuys, start collecting rent and citizenship is yours. Hedge your bets here, in the former land of hedges.

Stacy and Brad, Damone and Spicoli, Linda and Ratner, they had no idea what was coming.

St. Elizabeth of Fryman Canyon

In Fryman Canyon, they no longer allow you to park on the streets to the public trailhead, but they love their Harvard socialism.

There is a small pay lot on Laurel Canyon that has perhaps 1/3 of the capacity needed for weekend hikers. In the event of overflow, we would use one of the many empty streets nearby and partake of the public good known as the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, an accommodation the gentry has done away with. First by guile, and now by civic order they’ve persisted.

There are three houses on this street for sale, all over $5 million. Is this in keeping with Elizabeth’s claim to be capitalist to her bones?  

The $2000 Studio Comes to Panorama

For that price, it better be Instagram about to happen. And it is.  The long-vacant Panorama Tower has, after 25 years, adaptively re-purposed and will open for leasing next week, Blade Runner views in all directions.

Infrastructure is minimal, in keeping with the live/work loft fiction.   At 600 sqft, units are generously sized for a studio,  but there is no getting around the one room problem. Two people who aren’t sleeping with each other are going to have trouble sharing it.

Clearly the developer wants white people to move here though I anticipate few will arrive with children.  The Era of the Vertical Valley has begun.

Little Doelger Boxes

The Sunset district in San Francisco is a quiet beach town 15 minutes from the urban core…

…and five minutes from miles and miles of off-leash sand. I have friends who live here and it’s always fun to visit. When I stay over I take their dog for a run in the morning mist.

Many of the houses were built in vast tracts over sand dunes by Henry Doelger, much in the same vein as Henry Kaiser built Panorama City.   They have a standard template: 2-3 bedrooms/one bath over a single car garage.  As the Sunset gradually slopes toward the ocean, the elevated configuration offers every house a water view.

They may look small from the outside but are actually quite substantial:  my friends have built two additional bedrooms and baths in the undeveloped downstairs space adjacent to the garage, fully within the footprint for the foundation.  Doelger houses may not wield the aesthetic pull of the Victorian but have stood up well over the years: old-growth timber, oak doors, coved ceilings, terrazzo steps rising from the street…

Doelger went on to develop the Westlake district in Daly City, immortalized in the song “Little Boxes” by Malvina Reynolds, later by Pete Seeger, and covered by just about everybody.  Cultural condescension notwithstanding, the little boxes of ticky-tacky have become a $1.2 million proposition. Our California moment can be summarized thus: the mockery of the boomers is now the desideratum of Gen Xers, and the reason Millennials must move to Texas.

You may know the song from the TV show “Weeds”, which was about rather big boxes in the outer reaches of the San Fernando Valley  (Amazing how many pop reference points have a Valley tie-in).   Though it went off the air in 2012, the transgressive premise was a widow dealing marijuana in the suburbs to pay bills.   Sunday night, ganja in the cul de sac!   Now they sell it off of billboards next to the convenience store. You couldn’t make this show today.

I met a guy last month who works in a weed warehouse in North Hollywood producing 100 pounds a week, all the workers with W2s. One of three jobs he had. The other gigs were downtown, tending bar. His wife worked at the swank Nomad Hotel.  A hundred hours of labor a week between them.  They were from New York.

“If you get your hustle on, you can kill it in LA,” he told me. They had a dream. The dream was to afford a condo. If they had a condo, no one could stop them from having a dog.  They loved dogs.

A little box was beyond their expectations.

Two Hollywoods, One Wheel

He stole my phone when I was kissing him!
The guy in the pink tank top?
Bitch, I knew he was going to do that.
Why didn’t you say anything?
Would you have listened? You were too busy eating his mustache.  

True Sunday story, right here. One can’t say they weren’t warned. Signs over the bar warned of cell phone pickpockets like it was Dickensian London, but with glitter.  In WeHo, the young pretty things boldly exploit middle-aged longing, the middle-aged dangle free drinks to pretty young things doubled up in rooms in Van Nuys,  and there’s a great drag show to distract us from all the Darwinian undertow.

At the other end of CicLAvia, there’s this post-Dickensian tableau. Only one tourist bothers to look.  Others step around her like she was topiary and figure out where the restaurant is.  No literary genius will immortalize the addict in the sleeping bag.  She’s part of the shrubbery now.

The city will not allow you to use a plastic straw but will defend the right to camp on the sidewalk like it was God’s commandment.   Don’t Normalize Trump, we shriek, but oh how we’ve normalized this.

After a lovely CicLAvian day from Vermont to San Vicente and back, I biked back to the Valley, three cocktails deep and sweaty. Small civic detail: there is no bike lane in the Cahuenga Pass.  None.   So right at the point where Cahuenga becomes a freeway alternative and cars accelerate accordingly, one is shunted into the gutter.  A dozen rotations of the pedals later, I hear this fsssssss…. and being in a happy frame of mind decided, oh, this must be some feral creature, some urban fauna lurking in the shrubbery, warning me away from his domain.  I’m communing with nature. How loverly! It wouldn’t be a flat tire. Not in under a minute.  Not me. I did the right thing. I didn’t park in the city.  I’m one of the good ones! 

Guess who pushed his bike back over the Pass, cars nipping at his elbow the whole way?  You’d think there’d be a bike path by now. Didn’t we pass a sales tax? Twice?

You can pretend for an afternoon, but the First Law of the City remains unchallenged: the car is king.   To believe otherwise is one of the 23 Lies we tell ourselves about LA.

Postcards from YIMBYville


The upper picture was taken in April.  The second one I took at the open house last week.  That’s framing to Zillow in two months.  This ain’t your grandmas accessory dwelling unit.  Granny flats will be granny-free in three years. Sooner, perhaps. For this kind of rent money, people will let her sleep on the living room couch.

In its own halting way, Van Nuys is going Sherman Oaks. Sherman Oaks is going West Hollywood, which is going Tokyo.

In a related development, one of my neighbors put new siding on his house.

And the City of Los Angeles chipped up some perfectly good wheelchair ramps and filled them back in again.  Because the money has been appropriated progress.

Ask the city for basic beautification and neighborhood street lighting and you will be told there is no money at all. The City is broke. Broke!  The field deputies rattle their chains of poverty the way my mother used to wail over her $100/month land payment.  But when it comes to Keynesian ditch-filling stimulus, the bucket of Monopoly money is bottomless.

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

How Green Was My Weinerhaus

I was contemplating this week S.B. 50, the legislative sausage of Scott Weiner (D-SF) which would grant the State of California supremacy in local zoning decisions.  If enacted,  single-family homes could be razed in favor of 4-5 story apartment buildings anywhere within a half mile of a transportation corridor.   Much of Los Angeles would qualify under its jurisdiction. Van Nuys, but for a few pockets, definitely would.   Weinerhausing would be like a reverse Prop 13 in its abrogation of property rights, only more significant in its political fallout.

Weiner is the first apostle of the YIMBY movement. As a Gen Xer, when I contemplate the gross inequality between my parent’s housing price point and my own I’m sympathetic, broadly speaking, to YIMBYism.

My parents obtained 80 acres of rolling pasture land and mixed forest in Mendocino County in the 1970s for $18,000.  Only they didn’t pay that. That would have cost them about $100 a month, which would have meant taking a day job.  In the Era of Boomer Land Abundance, this would not do.  No, no, no.  Much too much.  In lieu of labor, they recruited a relative to join them in their endeavor and an in-law to underwrite them as a silent majority partner thereby obtaining a Homestead Act portion of Hippie Splendor for …$25/month, and this is no embellishment, I assure you.

Need I mention they were living in a sprawling Victorian at the time, three blocks from Cal Poly while existing on public assistance?   That their property hunt consisted of a drive north in which they stopped on the 101 to use the bathroom, smoked a fateful joint, pointed at a random hillside and said that’s so pretty. I wonder if anything is for sale there?  There was little which wasn’t, as the timber companies and aging ranchers were unloading their inventory as fast as bandido real estate agents could subdivide it, frequently without road easements.

Many years later they would be obliged to buy out the silent partner, the dreaded $100 payment waiting for them like an appointment in Samarra,  and oh, oh, the wailing.  My mother would circle the room flailing her hands over her head in despair, as though wolves were nipping at her heels. A hundred dollars! The land payment! Lillian Gish lashed to the ice floes! I would come home from college and point out I was paying four times that sum for a cubicle in a dingy student rental and they would look at me like I was speaking Swahili. You need to get your money trip together they would reply before resuming their sorrows with renewed vigor.

Mr. and Mrs. UpintheValley…once they got their money trip together…paid more in a down payment for churro-eating Van Nuys than the entire purchase price of my parent’s extensive wine country holdings. Our monthly nut, the non-negotiables only, is greater than their annual income for much of my childhood.

And yet, how advantaged we are to own anything in California.  Our house has tripled in value in 15 years.   I could applaud myself for all the renovations I’ve done…a  super-ant amidst the grasshoppers…but sadly, this has only nudged the equity needle.  Move our house to Cleveland and it would lose value annually, no matter the effort we put in. A Zillow surveillance of Rust Belt cities shows just how little a Pinterest-worthy 1920’s two-story colonial commands in a market with inverted demography.

California home values are predicating on zoning, and for this reason we would not be able to repurchase ours today. No one we know can afford the house they are living in, which brings us to a unique inflection point in history.  Who will come after us?   What provision have we made for them to buy in?

The boomer plan was no plan but to withdraw as much land as possible from development. Protect it all! Especially the meadow right down the street from me… Then open the gates to the world…and reap the unearned generational advantage of zoning.   Theirs was a different California, white, entitled and lazy.  Grilled cheese sandwiches, Der Wienerschnitzel and Sambo’s, and the graft of other people’s labor. Wine country for me, Van Nuys 2.0 for my kids, alternative housing for the millennials: trailers, pods, tree houses, bunk beds, shipping containers…

S.B. 50. would indirectly address generational inequality. That would be the seduction, though not the intent.   In practice, it would look like this.

What would be exempt from upzoning? Marin County, home of the silent partner.  Two miles from SF and to this day mostly rural.  Santa Cruz, where I went to college, where the $400 student rental is now $1200.   All the coastal counties …but LA, SF, Orange, and Ventura.  Cities with a population less than 50,000, exempt.  Historic Preservation Zones.  Neighborhoods with low-frequency transit.

See where this is going? The most privileged precincts would extend their zoning advantages, and their monoculture, by manipulating transit routes and schedules, subdividing, creating protections for favored neighborhoods.  They would down-zone themselves out of the very societal obligation S.B. 50 was intended to enact.  The regulatory burden would fall, as it always does, on those regions divided by language, class, and culture.

It’s not really about housing. It’s about making the little people ride the bus.

California is nothing if not an experiment the wealthy perform on everyone else. And I was so ready to buy Scott a beer…

*Bart Housing illustration by Alfred Twu

Valley 2.0, YIMBY-ville

Like kudzu, garage houses are going up all over my beloved working-class Brigadoon.   Not your grandmothers granny flat. A casita royale. Numero deux. The deuce. YIMBY-ville.

Something with a separate address, and a ghost in the stucco where the door once was.

Yimby, Yimby, Yimby.  Literally.  Just around back. Through the side gate.   C’mon in.  A house of one’s own.  Yes, right here.  Yes yes yes.

The old arrangement: five cars in the driveway and a door within the door of the garage had all the plausible deniability of a 40oz malt liquor in a paper bag.  This served, for decades, as the ugly-yet-practical affordable workaround in a city which restricted new housing stock to Instagrammable apartment blocks for sugar babies, well beyond the economic reach of the unsubsidized. A few carbon monoxide deaths a year from space heaters may have been the price to be paid, but as long as there was a single electric meter the City looked the other way.

Very quietly,  by allowing garage conversions, Los Angeles has potentially doubled housing stock in certain neighborhoods. The accessory dwelling unit is out of the closet at long last and ready to walk the boulevard in tight pants.  Always thirsty for permits and taxes, it’s the City’s unofficial way of expanding horizontally without sprawl.   The backyard is the new outer ring suburb.

Californians in this era of the one-party state have been required to accept conditions that our predecessors would never tolerate.  Every once in a great while, it can get something right. I think this is going to work, though it will have detractors on aesthetic grounds, as one moves upmarket.

Then again, there’s this. Valley 3.0. Vehicles with extension cords.

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….