To Provide and Provide Not

City of Burbank
City of Burbank

Consider this urban pastoral, this friendly Sunday afternoon soccer game under the power lines on Whitnall.   Inter-racial. Inter-gender. Inter-age group. Featuring accents of Latin America, Asia and the British Isles.   As I walked past, I thought: this looks like it was assembled by a casting director. Los Angeles doesn’t really work like this, except in commercials.

Then I realized I was in Burbank.

City of Los Angeles
City of Los Angeles

Now turn around, face north, across Burbank Blvd, into North Hollywood.  This is what LA did with the same patch of ground. Across the street.

How does a world-class city get away with this?

The People Who Run Things have an answer to that question. We’re broke!  Los Angeles is a pauper. A patch of grass, in North Hollywood?  What are we, made of money? We can’t even pay our bills around here!

Okay then, riddle me this:

Suddenly...cancer
Suddenly…”cancer”

The City is in the process of dismantling the Sixth Street Bridge, one of the iconic, indispensable structures, perhaps the most photographed location after the Hollywood sign, and replacing it, at a cost of half a billion dollars, with this:

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The purported reason for this insertion of Dubai-like aesthetics into the downtown landscape is concrete. The original structure (1932) has received a propitious diagnosis of Alkai Silica Reaction.  Earthquake vulnerability dictates the bridge must be replaced.  Or so we’re told.

There’s just one problem. Why is it, of the dozen similar bridges built downtown in the 1930’s, with the same concrete mixing process, the only one which has received this diagnosis of ‘concrete cancer’ is the one which goes directly to the Arts District?  Why does the urgency to do something about it correspond to the arrival of the Nabisco Lofts?  Why is it being replaced by a playground for people who buy groceries at Urban Radish?

If the city is too broke for a grassy field in North Hollywood, how is it managing to pay for this? Just asking.

Christmas, Light and Dark

Christian Mennonite singers, Broadway and Sixth St
Christian Mennonite carolers, Broadway and Sixth St

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Meanwhile, not a block away, an angry group of men calling themselves the Black-Hebrew Israelites were milling about in robes, haranguing passerby and holding up signs like this one:

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I have no idea what this portends…

They seem to, however
They seem to, however. It’s awfully specific.

Yes, we’re finishing it…

Can I have some?
Can I have some?

Today I paid five bucks for a cup of joe at a discreet and cool industrial-looking coffee house, down in the Arts District.   Not some soda-sized caramel macchiato whipped cream extravaganza from Starbucks, just a plain cup of coffee in the type of cup they used to set in front of you at Denny’s at 3AM in the middle of an all-nighter. Five bucks.

‘It’ll be six or seven minutes to prepare. We need to whip the almond milk.’

Oh, okay….

I’m in no position to pay that kind of money for anything which fits in the palm of my hand.  This is my second consecutive Christmas of ‘oh, let’s at least have a tree.’  I service my debts….and I do so honorably. Beyond that, my fiscal horizons are brutish and short.  It’s no way to be living at this point in my life. So on Small Business Saturday, if I’m not going to be able to afford to window shop, we can put some miles on the Skechers and take in the city a bit.   Start in Echo Park and work our way down east of Alameda.  My day began with a re-habbing jury-rigging of the kitchen door with mismatched brackets I had dug out of a box of old construction materials.  A shameless piece of hack work I didn’t even attempt to conceal with paint, which succeeded in keeping the stiles and rails connected and allowed for the door to swing shut for another winter.  We watched Searching for Sugarman last night, so I was both in a poetic and appreciative frame of mind.  I did what I usually do when I’m in that state:  I left the Valley.

So out came the coffee.  My almond-whipped, individually prepared, fair-trade, put my feet out after a long week and savor the moment premium cassis.

Ghastly.

Sour.

Strange.

Imagine a rusty freighter hijacked by Somali pirates.  Now imagine a cast iron bucket at the bottom of the hold the hostages are forced to use as a piss pot during their captivity.  Then imagine that cast iron bucket being purchased on eBay by some fancypants collector of conflict memorabilia, which through a comedy of errors is mis-routed to Los Angeles where a hipster doofus decides to re-purpose it as a coffee pot. For authenticity’s sake.  Old camp stove coffee.  Almond-whipped.  And all those rich, brine-y flavors working their way into the foam….

Mrs. Upinthevalley, optimist.
Mrs. Upinthevalley, determined.

‘We’re finishing it,’ my wife announced, reading my mind, but setting down the cup with a grimace.

I went back inside for some sugar. A lot of sugar, which appeared to offend the staff behind the counter.

‘The cup is nice,’ she offered optimistically. ‘I like cupping a warm cup in my hands. It almost makes the coffee taste better. or would if it were better coffee.”

Maybe we just don’t have the proper palate, we decided. It can’t be as bad as it seems.

Until we sipped a little more.

We let Giles lick the foam off the spoon, which he did without complaint.   We considered the five bucks a sidewalk rental, and made the best of it. Slowly, steadily, working as a team, we drained the cup. Hell if we’re going to waste five bucks on anything.

On the walk back to the car, she posed for an album cover.  I thought: how could anyone look this good after 15 years of marriage?

Teacher as moody singer-songwriter
Schoolteacher as seraphic singer-songwriter

She can.   Yeah, we’re gonna finish this, too. I got all the sugar I need.

Formerly the Van Nuys Hotel

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Erected in 1896,  before the city was irrigated….one of the last vestiges of the old, old downtown, like the Farmer’s and Merchants Bank and the Bradbury Building.  Pre-Deco, pre-Moderne, pre-Mayan Theater.   Back when Los Angeles was a railway outpost and distant second fiddle to San Francisco.  Before oil. Before Chaplin.  Before the great swindle. Before Chandler, Lankershim, Whitley and Van Nuys, the Four Horsemen of the Los Angeles Suburban Homes Company,  purchased Tract 1000.

What was Tract 1000?  Uh, let’s see….everything north of the Santa Monica Mountains and south of Roscoe Blvd, from Lankershim on the east….all  the way to basically Ventura County.

People lived and acted on a Noah Cross-like scale once upon a time.  It wasn’t just a movie.

Crossing Alameda

Darkness invisible, Arts District
La belle époque in the Arts District

Five years ago this summer 17-year-old Lily Burk stopped at the Southwestern School of Law to pick up some papers for her mother.  It was three o’clock in the afternoon.  As she approached her parked car on a side street off Wilshire, a career criminal and crack addict named Charlie Samuel, on a day pass from a nearby drug treatment facility, persuaded/intimidated/forced his way behind the wheel and drove off with her inside.  A half hour later they were at an ATM in Little Tokyo attempting to withdraw cash.  Surveillance cameras showed Lily standing mutely next to her abductor, surrounded by passerby.  She did not cry out or attempt to flee.  She called her father, a music journalist, then her mother, a law professor, asking for instructions in withdrawing cash using a credit card. Lily gave no indication she was in danger.  Only later when she did not return did they find the calls alarming. After walking her up to several ATM’s where she failed to retrieve cash,  Charlie returned with Lily to the car and he drove to an empty lot at 458 S. Alameda St.

On the other side of Alameda
The state of nature on the other side of Alameda

At 5 pm a mounted policeman encountered Charlie a short distance away in Skid Row, publicly intoxicated.   A search revealed a crack pipe, and the keys to Lily’s Volvo. He was taken into custody for possession.  No one knew he had any connection to Lily’s disappearance.  Or even that a girl named Lily had not come home. At this point even her parents hadn’t started making calls.

At dawn, following a night of agony for her mother and father in Los Feliz, Lily was found in the passenger seat of her car, throat slashed.  She bled out a short distance from passerby, in daylight hours, probably within minutes of her last ATM stop. She had dislocated her ankle in her final struggle with her murderer.

Why did she get back in the car has always been the tragic riddle in the middle of a tabloid horror show. How could she be so naive? Did the parents raise her that way?  Shame on us for even thinking that. The parents’ suffering is biblical. Who are we to second-guess? 

What did the killer have to gain?  He didn’t rape her.  She was unable to provide cash.  He possibly could have slunk safely away with an apology. Left unharmed, she might not even have called the police. Though she was in rehearsals to perform onstage at the Oakwood School in The Boston Marriage, she wasn’t given to histrionics, that much he could deduce. Lily could/might have chalked it up as a lesson learned and undertaken in the future a keener sense of self-preservation and a greater vigilance for creeps.

Charlie knew where to go. Fifth and Alameda, an industrial and lightly policed DMZ between the nouveau-monied world of Urban Radish and Wurstkuche and the blunt facts of the Union Rescue Mission. Venture a few blocks north and one is neck deep in sushi restaurants. A block east and one can purchase a pair of dungarees and a handmade batik blouse for $300. But turn left into the tent city east of downtown….and one enters a state of nature.

In a normal day in in Los Angeles, these worlds overlap only in the geographical margins. One can live in Los Feliz or Santa Monica and have only the most passing interaction with the small army of service economy workers who commute in from Panorama City to tend to your daily wants, nor know their names, nor understand their cosmology.  A particular worldly and artistically inclined teenager might maintain a wide circle of social acquaintances across the city, none of whom attend public school.  Or at least the sort of public school most Angelenos attend.  One can walk Wilshire Blvd, camera in hand, and admire the landmark Art Deco edifice that is the old Bullocks Department store and feel very much the urban explorer, and yet not push in half a block deeper to the SRO hotels, methadone clinics and four-to-a-room immigrant stash houses that lurk beyond.   One can be that Right Thinking Person who votes against the Three Strikes Law, or welfare reform, or border enforcement, or quality-of-life policing, and never know the consequences of the blight one piles up in someone else’s neighborhood.  Who feels categorical judgements about Good and Evil are for the unsophisticated. Right up until the day your neighbor’s daughter is snatched like Persephone and dragged down into the underworld on Hades chariot.

There they were in the car, Charlie and Lily, in a utilitarian No Man’s Land chosen by him where neither she nor he would be recognized.  What was said?  What was left unsaid?  We know only the denouement was not like its more famous cinematic analogue…which also took place on Alameda Street:

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