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….

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