Hope is not a plan

No kidding
No kidding

Just as a thought experiment, substitute the word neighbors for in-laws as you consider this bus shelter PSA which sprouted across the Valley this week. For it is a peculiar moment in which we have placed ourselves, as a nation.  There are now fewer people working and paying into the system than not. Next year, there will be fewer still. Fully one third of able-bodied working age Americans are unemployed and living to a large degree a life subsidized by the state. Or to put it another way, by their neighbors.  Except we usually don’t think of it in those terms. No one really says ‘I’m gonna walk across the street and ask John if I can borrow a cup of sugar and this month’s rent. I’m gonna go next door to Alice and ask her for groceries and this month’s 401K deposit.’  And yet….what are we doing, but precisely that?  In a rational policy marketplace we could have come to a reckoning with our obligations and adjusted accordingly.  Instead, we keep borrowing 40 cents on the dollar to postpone the inevitable for another year. Which is to say, we print money, i.e., sell Treasury bonds. And who has to pay the bonds off?  Maybe us, maybe our neighbor’s children. Maybe his children’s children, not yet born.   We have passed agreements paying out to retirees in public pensions far in excess of what was paid in. We know this, yet we cannot summon the political will to make even modest curtailments of benefits for the survival of the system.  Even in the face of municipal bankruptcy we don’t do it, at least not in California. There’s a phrase for this. It’s called eating the seed corn.

This is not the Chinese way. The Chinese are working. They are saving. They are buying the bonds our grandchildren will be working to pay off.  They are coming to our schools and dominating our STEM programs. Then they are taking what they learn and selling it back to us at a profit. Meanwhile, an unhealthy percentage of Americans are sitting at home watching TV and listening to appeals from personal injury lawyers and sucker bait payday/car title lenders, the subtext being you can painlessly obtain something for nothing.  The conventional wisdom, particularly here in California, is deficits don’t matter. They can be rolled over indefinitely, or failing that, if push comes to shove and we really, really need to get serious, we can always reach deeper into the Magic Money Bucket that is Apple, Google and Facebook, and grab even more than we already are.  As though these companies were a permanent extractable resource, like coal. Fifteen years ago, Apple was staving off liquidation. Google was not even a listed stock. Mark Zuckerberg was in high school.  Microsoft and AOL were the dominant players, and look where they are now.  No one in a world of Deep Think tome-wielders and stock pickers predicted what happened.  Literally, no one.   To hang the future of California on three new media companies when no one knows what the next 15 years will bring, is to cleave to hope. And hope is not a plan.

Lazy wheelchair people

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This is a phenomenon which bothers me more than it should, but what is up with people who are neither paraplegic nor elderly trundling about in electric wheelchairs?  I’m not talking about a conveyance of necessity, but the making  of the world an extension of one’s living room.  A barcalounger with a motor, commandeering the sidewalk and the aisles at Costco, so an entirely ambulatory person can be spared the injustice of standing on his own feet.   These chairs are not cheap, yet the state gives them out like communion wafers to those willing to fill out the paperwork. Or more predictably, who hire an advocate to file claims on their behalf.  Yes, some of these people might be fat, but by no means so obese they need to be extracted from their bedroom by a fire crew with the jaws of life.  They can walk.  They choose not to.  They park in the handicap spot at Target and berate the management for only providing three motorized shopping carts per store, when there are clearly four marked handicap spots. They threaten neighbors with litigation because of uneven sidewalks, then get out of their chairs and carry them over the broken pavement.  When the battery expires during an outing, they phone their children and have them push them home in flip-flops. Meanwhile, there are amputee combat veterans in this city competing in triathlons on artificial limbs, without complaint.   The vets know once you sit down, you don’t get back up.  What does it mean to sit down when you’re 40?  Or 30?  What does it mean when an entire sub-segment of the public decides to sit down, literally or figuratively. and the state underwrites this behavior with subsidy? Do people really think America can pay its bills by making disability more profitable than work? Tell me how this movie ends.

No man’s land

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Consider this flag, at the midpoint of the Mulholland Bridge, at the entrance (or exit) from the Valley, halfway between here and the City, between two cranes raising a needless four-lane span on a two-lane road,  an exercise in fraudulent contracting borrowed against the earnings of children not yet born, carried out in plain view of half a million cars a day.  I took this picture on my way to a church picnic, a denomination dividing in half over the issue of gay marriage, which I support. Then I went home to Van Nuys, the Sanford, Florida of Los Angeles, and spent the remainder of the evening being angrily lectured by One-percenters on cable TV about what a terrible American I was for not disagreeing with a jury who found, based on unimpeachable forensic evidence, George Zimmerman shot Trayvon Martin in self-defense.  I longed to be back on the bridge, noisy as it was, and remembered it was Bastille Day.

Ragged glory in Panorama

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How far apart we are from one another today, as a nation.  How distant our government from the citizenry.  How aloof and disdainful the media from the values of the little people, you and I, in our stucco boxes in the Valley.  The aloofness and disdain explain a great deal about the first two questions, but knowing this, understanding it, brings no resolution to our great American division.  Blue is progressively disengaging from red.  They are leaving the nation-state which has cradled and sustained us all for 237 years and have declared it to be an anachronism of the past, its founding documents encumbrances to the New Dawn of how we should all live, and those who cling to them, who take the words literally, who cherish the shrines….they are a collective anchor best cut loose. After all, what sort of person paints the stars and stripes on his garage door? Nobody they know…..

Golden Road and the Restoration

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Biked the LA River today, and finished up with an IPA at Golden Road Brewing Co.  Always a happy, friendly crowd, but not too-hip for its own good. Nice frosty glass. Baseball and hockey on the flat screen.  Solid bar food, with vegan options.  Even a dog patio.  Here’s the scene at 6pm…both outdoor patios already fully occupied, the bar filling rapidly.

By rights, Golden Road should have a hard time rustling up business, situated between the freeway and the train tracks on a dead end street in a warehouse district, miles from anything. With detailed directions, it can be hard to find. There is insufficient parking. Metrolink commuter trains zip past mere yards away, and they are not quiet.

And yet….people make the journey and fight for seats, and it’s not just to support LA’s only craft brewery.

Now let’s sidle over a few miles to Noho.  Lankershim Blvd, one hour later, on my way home. Like a moth to the flame, I’m distracted by yet another wall mural. I park, grab my camera and flutter my wings:

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Here we have Norah’s Place, in the Arts District. A corner lot. Lankershim runs at an angle to the street grid, giving southbound traffic maximum visibility.  In the psychometrics of streetscapes and retail architecture, one is beckoned right to the front door, as though pulled by the invisible hand of the consumer gods. Who wouldn’t want to sit on the playa with a mermaid sharing pupusas and mariscos,  listening to traditional love ballads on the karaoke? As a bonus there’s easy street parking.

Peering in the window,  there was not a single person seated inside. Barren. 7 PM on a Friday night.

How is this possible, a couple blocks from the Red Line? Surrounded by high-end apartment complexes within walking distance? Not everyone wants to drop $12 a drink at the Bow & Truss.  People love authentic ethnic food. They go looking for it. If Anthony Bourdain were to do a segment on NoHo and had one pass down the Blvd to pick a restaurant, he very well might try Norah’s. At home I check Yelp and find but a single review in the past three years: ‘….has a funny smell.  Probably due to the carpet…’   Pity gives way to scorn.  Comfort food and beer isn’t hard to do well, and easy to innovate. In a town where culinary academy graduates are working at Starbucks, if you can’t bring in business in a gold-plated location you’re not trying. If you’re not trying it’s cause you probably don’t need to. If you have a cheap lease or own the building outright, you can coast on that, and it occurs to me the distance between Golden Road and Norah’s is emblematic of the divide between the rundown, legacy LA I found when we moved here in the 90’s, and the Los Angeles of the Restoration.  When there were no bike paths and Van Nuys and Echo Park were slums.  When it was a city long on blight and short on yoga studios. When I rose at dawn to check the MLS listings, then sprinted to the car to beat the rush to the next available stucco box in the Valley, to plead my case to a woman in a mou mou with three inches of ash suspended between her fingers and the house falling to pieces around her,  a house she refused to maintain for thirty years, who felt damn entitled to the unearned hundreds of thousands we were dropping in her lap, provided none of the others racing over the Cahuenga Pass in hot pursuit outbid us. Over and over again I did this, venturing deeper into the Valley, until we finally closed on one.  Dirt lot, bars on the windows.  No insulation, no ventilation, no A/C. 1948 wiring and plumbing.  Squeaky floors.  Too broke-ass after closing to do anything except chip away at it, piecemeal, as funds trickled in over the years.   But room by room,  it slowly got done. After a few years you look around, and the neighborhood isn’t quite as ramshackle as when you arrived. Others have joined you and duplicated your efforts. Trees get planted, yards landscaped.  On the boulevards, new businesses crop up.  If you’re Tony Yanow, you find a sad, hole-in-the-wall on Magnolia and stock it with craft beers from around the state. You offer two menus, one for vegans, one for carnivores.  After pouring other people’s beer for a couple years, you decide there’s no good reason LA shouldn’t have its own. You buy some warehouses, and start brewing. You call it Golden Road. People bike clear across the Valley to sit at your table.

The Passion of Dan Stroncak

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It’s difficult not to like Dan Stroncak.   Aggrieved homeowner.   Crusader against street prostitution and unlicensed pot shops. On Saturday he brought his kamikaze run for City Council to Fatburger on Roscoe Blvd, for a meet-and-greet.   His heart bled for the Valley. He worked himself into outrage at the petty tyrannies and corruption of the city bureaucracy. If elected, he vowed to camp out at the Building Department personally to see to it permits in his district were expedited.  He was the earnest, young Willie Stark in All The Kings Men, before he got wised up.  The irony being Willie was an unwitting tool of the party establishment, hand-picked to divide the hick vote and keep the incumbent in power, and Dan is quite the other thing.  He’s running against a pair of machine-backed Latinas who moved into Los Angeles within the past year, solely to succeed Tony Cardenas in District 6, and who have been biding their time serving on state boards collecting six figure salaries for once-a month meetings.  They have campaign money. He does not.

Like I said, it’s hard not to like the guy.   He speaks without the platitudes and banal catchphrases one is used to from the mayoral candidates.  There’s only one problem. He’s not actually on the ballot.   Five hundred signatures are required for ballot placement. Of the 600 he submitted,  one hundred and four were rejected by election officials as having signatures not matching addresses on voter records.  So he’s four short of qualifying.  Make of that what you will.   He asks folks to write his name in.

**UPDATE** Dan demurred at my characterization of him as an ‘angry man’:

“I see myself more as a worried father, frustrated homeowner, and when I’m out on neighborhood watch it’s as the “guardian at the gate” if you will because in my area the drug and prostitution traffic is heavy after 2am unless someone is out there with a flashlight and camera getting the license plates numbers, which is what the police dept recommends we do because it deters them, at least until I go back in then it starts again. 
 “The best case scenario is for the police to have the resources they need to take care of the crime without community help, but right now they are actually reaching out to neighborhoods looking for more people to get involved with neighborhood watch because times are tough when you consider the budget cuts and increased crime due to AB109 (realignment).  That said, we all need to be vigilant in our own communities.  The perfect example of the out of control crime (and how dangerous it is) is the fact that the Fatburger is across the street from the alley where the security guard was murdered a week ago.
“Finally, the only thing I would ask you to add (if possible) is that while I do truly want people to vote for me via writing in my name on their absentee ballots in the next couple of weeks or in May, I personally consider this a two year campaign.  The partial term filled by this special election is over in 2015 so candidates for the 2015 race can file this August and start campaigning.  I will most definitely be in the race and ON the ballot in 2015.”

Ho

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Plying the street trade on a sunny afternoon.  Immediately outside this frame is a middle-class neighborhood of nice ranch houses, with tidy yards.  Four years ago, these women were not here.  Section 8 housing vouchers, SSI, EBT cards…plus vacant apartments = ghetto, in miniature, with all its trappings.  The people who own the apartment buildings and cheap motels along Sepulveda extract a nice profit in government remittances, but don’t live in the neighborhood they are despoiling.  The police, who are very well remunerated and don’t live in the neighborhood, either, do not push the women off the corners during the daytime hours.  The Chief of Police, Charlie Beck, lives in Simi Valley, and has a personal driver whisk him to town each day.  For how long, do you think, would a hooker stroll be tolerated on the streets of Simi Valley?  How about Brentwood? Sherman Oaks?

Dept. of WTF

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Los Angeles is ‘broke’. Meaning, despite an annual revenue stream well into the billions, it has managed to spend well beyond these billions and is, like the state of California, perpetually in deficit.  One asks for a bike path to be built, or a particularly blighted median or embankment to be landscaped, and one is told these are extravagances. There is no money for anything beyond essential services.  Downscaling expectations, one asks for nuisance crimes to be enforced, for tagging to be removed in a timely manner and the request goes unanswered.  The pothole on your block deepens with each rainstorm, till the day you go to Home Depot, buy bags of asphault patch and fill it in yourself.

And yet….somehow there is always money for a) salaries and pensions found nowhere in the private sector; b) luxury junkets to various locales by public officials; c) an endless slush fund for shakedown settlements to city employees suing the city; and d) vanity projects.    For example, the Woodman Avenue Multi-Beneficial Stormwater Capture Pilot Project.  And what might this be?

For several blocks,  cisterns will be embedded beneath the median to absorb the rain run-off,  letting it percolate back into the water table beneath the valley floor, rather than sluice past, all the way to Long Beach.  Duly captured, this .0001% of the valley’s rainwater would then be available, theoretically, for pumping to some unbuilt reservoir, at some unnamed future date our water needs require. And when was the last time we pumped water out of the valley floor?  1913.  A century ago.  The Sierra snowmelt and William Mulholland’s great swindle have served the Valley in good stead ever since.

As a bonus, there will be benches and trees placed atop the median, in case one might have an idle hour with a book and wish to spend it stranded between six lanes of commuter and two lanes of residential traffic, or engage in shouted conversation with a neighbor.  Hence, the ‘multi’ in beneficial.

Total price tag: $3.39 million.

No member of the public asked for this. Nobody.  How did this particular Potemkin village come to be?   In the usual fashion: one government agency (DWP) petitioned another (State Water Board) for the money, and they passed the costs along to the rest of us. In 2009.  The depths of the recession. In what would prove to be five straight years of double-digit unemployment. A period so fiscally dire, Sacramento imposed the largest sales/gas/car tax package in state history,  $1100 per family, employed or not.  Simply had to, you understand. Services cut to the bone.  Bond rating in danger.  Anything less would be irresponsible.

Now you know where your money went.

Tell me why this is legal

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Once upon a time you used to write your Congressman.  For the price of a stamp and an envelope you could demand your potholes be filled. He would ignore you.  Then he would send you four newsletters a year touting his accomplishments with your money and you would have to pay for his postage. Franking, it was called.

Live long enough in politics, and eventually they name stuff after you. After you go.  Or so they did, back in the day, in the rare and sparkling occasion of tragic demise. Now, hack politicians contrive to baptise schools, parks and naval ships in their own name while they are still in office, and looking to run again.

Here we have a disaster awareness PSA, city shield right on the billboard, doing double duty as a campaign ad for a sitting councilman.

Los Angeles hasn’t elected a non-machine candidate in three decades. Ever wonder why?