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?

Bikestock Comes to the Valley

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Earlier this week I was concerned my fever dreams of bike-centric development for the Valley would founder on the shoals of low turnout.  Ours would be the first CicLaVia in which no one from the neighborhood showed up.  In my more cynical moments, the Valley can be reliably disappointing.

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It didn’t take long to see my concerns were unfounded.

Really unfounded.  For a few hours Ventura Blvd was Beijing, 1972.
For a few hours Ventura Blvd was Beijing, 1972.
Except with more dogs
Except with more dogs…
And Go Pro cameras
…and Go Pro cameras
And street dancers
Street dancers.
Whole families with sno-cones
Whole families with sno-cones
Everybody got their freak on
Everybody got their freak on
Cigar, Big Gulp and gold rims.  Enough said.
Cigar, Big Gulp and gold rims. The 818, tableau vivant.

The mystery of Norah’s Place

Quarter to eight and not a soul in the joint
Quarter to eight on a mid-summer’s eve and not a soul in the joint

There are certain mysteries of the Valley I have yet to unravel, and one of them is how this restaurant manages to stay open without customers, despite having, after Pit Fire grill, perhaps the second best location on Lankershim Blvd.  Great corner building. 270 degree visibility. Natural feng shui. Easy parking.  Foot traffic most restaurants would kill for.  Ample room for sidewalk tables. A neighborhood on the come up…a live theater district in short walking distance. And yet…every time I go by…empty!  How is this possible?

Maybe it has something to do with the food. Or the service. Or the decor…it just cries out for Gordon Ramsay.

Pop’s Chicken and BBQ

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Eighty-two great reviews on Yelp! and –whoosh- gone, in one flaming grease trap… I only hope the cook got out in time.

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Just up the street, Carniceria Chapala  is now taking up the slack. Whole BBQ chickens, $8.99. Note the respectful distance between man and grill.

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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.