Yerevan West

So I encountered this…in North Hollywood, 2am… sprouting majestically from a neighborhood of sad, small houses with attached single car garages…. Trippy. Transcendent. A mothership of American aspiration.

I stopped the car and let it swagger all over me.  It was an appreciation.

Two generations of people lived in the Valley and let their houses crumble over their heads.   Houses for which they paid less than $100,000.

They let water seep into the floorboards while they complained about busing. They sprayed popcorn foam over cracks on the ceiling but let the termites chew their way through the framing.  They put bars over the windows, but kept the linoleum floors.   Home improvement meant shag carpeting and flourescent tube lighting.

They left their houses to their adult children who were estranged from hand tools. They let the shrubbery die and replaced it with gravel.   But boy did they ever expect to be paid off when it came to sell, and paid off they were. In time, preposterous sums.

California was once so abundant middle class people changed houses the way we change cars today, discarding small brightly colored ranch houses on big lots for larger split-levels on small lots in the exurbs of Ventura County, painted an HOA-defined gradient running from excrement to beige.

The Valley was Adam Carolla-ville. It was one of those places you left and told disparaging anecdotes about when you got to where you were really going.

The carcasses of Los Angeles were left for the dusky hordes and the urban hipsters foolish enough to put down roots and not move to Austin. People so determined to be here they sunk their assets into houses without good  bones. Without any bones. Stucco boxes without a redeeming virtue save the ground they sank into a quarter inch a year.

Mrs. UpintheValley and I are Carcass People.   We didn’t intend to be.  We were going to to park ourselves for a few years in Van Nuys, build some equity into the house and then….trade up in an orderly fashion.  Because the world of real estate was rational, if untidy, right?  This was to be but a waystation.   A five to ten year sentence in minimum security prison, then back to one’s pals in Glamorama, with earned street cred.

Who knew housing mobility in LA would prove to be as starkly defined as the British class structure? The Wealth Effect, when combined with tight land use restrictions, means even if you pay down your mortgage in 15 years,  even if you climb to the top quintile of the income ladder, there’s nothing you can afford to buy that would be an improvement over what you already have.  Absent a windfall of cash, there’s no trading up anymore.

Marginal differences in down payment ability in 2004 proscribe where and how you can live in LA today. One is obliged to bloom where one is planted.   This was a lesson I resisted learning.

So when I see a house built out to the property line, a second floor added, and marble laid into the entryway, lit up like Halloween, I realize I have greater kinship with a family from Yerevan that I do with the kids I grew up with in California. They either inherited property, or they left. All of them.

These are my people.

1948, In Shards

This is the first sentinel we encountered on our way to the fancy tile emporium in NoHo.


The second sentinel, awaiting our return. He shuffled over to us as though he were about to deliver a handwritten letter.  One grows accustomed to panhandlers at the intersections, conniving or addicted, but not hunched with calcium loss.  I’d say he looked about 70, the same age as my bathroom.

The bathtub was forged in cast iron by the American Radiator and Standard Sanitary Co., then dropped into the framing by a road gang in 1948, with no thought given to later renovation, leaving only one exit route, via sledgehammer.

This was the American Radiator Building in New York City, gilded icon of the Jazz Age, all Gothic turrets and coal-inspired black brick.

It once had a showroom in the basement for its useful, class-neutral products: radiators, boilers and bathroom fixtures. Now it’s a Moroccan-themed cocktail lounge called Celon where one can order a Lavender Oasis martini for an undisclosed price.   The Radiator Building is now the Bryant Park Hotel.

Because one cannot over-improve for the neighborhood anymore, even in The Nuys.  Because we are all hostage to whatever 1948 house we landed upon in the somnolent years before The Restoration.  Because no one can trade up to Echo Park.    Because equity trumps the purchasing power of a paycheck, so we bloom where we’re planted.

Because a white tiled bathroom would make Mrs. UpintheValley so very, very sad.

That world is in shards, now.

Windmills of Poo


We give them free phones.

We give them EBT cards.

We give them free health care.  Also the ability to use 911 as a hotel and car service.

We allow them unlimited shoplifting privileges up to $950 per incident. We provide them with pro bono legal representation.

We exempt them from civic laws relating to public safety and sanitation.

We allow them to pitch tents ten feet from people paying $3000 a month in mortgage, and we wonder why they stay.  Cyclically, we tell them to vacate a given location, but never to leave the City. Nor to assume self-responsibility and sobriety. There’s no grant money to be prized from that. What will Do-Gooders do for work?   So, the Favela rotates within neighborhoods like a seasonal crop. From the freeway to the Narrows, to the Wash, to Raymer Street and back again.

It is impermissible in the Los Angeles Times, or City Hall, to speak of human nature. Or moral hazard.  We subsidize the Favela endlessly, while nimbly managing to escape the inclusivity we preach. The people who staff the Caring Organizations, courtesy of the Los Angeles taxpayer, are unusually allergic to living here.   They live in South Pasadena. They live in Sierra Madre. Or Redondo. Or Moorpark, or any of the other small, orderly cities of 100,000 people that surround LA,  cities directly accountable to the voters and consequently intolerant of the Favela metastasizing within their borders.

Los Angeles has spent over a billion dollars in the last 30 years directly “combating” homelessness.   In that time, it has spread from Skid Row to Van Nuys and staked a claim to every weedy mite of ground in between.

Mayor Photo-Op intends to spend $1.87 billion (that’s billion with a B) in the next decade to cut the homeless population by …half.

The beauty of ten years from now accounting is Garcetti will no longer be Mayor when the ledgers are squared.  He intends to be President. The City Council will be termed out as well. The money will be burned in great hay bales in Grand Park. They will throw it on the pyre with pitchforks and dance around it, singing, like the Whos in Whoville. When the smoke clears, half of the 34,189 people on the street at last count will be re-housed.   The Mexican border will remain wide open if the City has anything to say about it, but the tents will diminish be replaced by pod villages in parking lots. Or something which squares personal self-destruction with virtue-signaling photo ops rounded out by civic baby talk. Public policy in LA is nothing if not a cargo cult.

In this most optimistic scenario we pay $109,548 for every Larry we remove from the streets, in addition to all the other freebies we already provide.  That’s a whole lot of kitchen remodeling in South Pas.

Alternately, we could purchase a house somewhere in the U.S. for every blue tarp refugee, then hand them the deed. Like this one, in Marlin, TX. Two bedrooms, $24,000.  Congratulations, you are now homeowners.  Here’s your bus ticket. Your sins have been cleansed from the books.

Too rural?  How about this 4-bedroom storybook traditional in Detroit? I found it in five seconds on Zillow. $37,000.  That’s less than ten grand a head for permanent housing.

One tenth what Garcetti proposes to spend on Guiding Principles™ and Liasons to Committees of Concerned Frowning, with some pods and motel rooms thrown in.

But but but but but….that’s crazy talk, Mr. UpintheValley.   You want to argue moral hazard? Anybody could just show up in LA, pitch a tent in the street and be given the deed to a house.  Where does it end?

To which I reply, what are we doing now?  We are about to spend ten times this amount to not house people, to provide them most of the necessities of life and some of the pleasures, plus a caseworker and a lawyer, but put no lasting roof over their head. We demand nothing in exchange and they return the favor.

Behind this Ikea shelf is a “bedroom” in North Hollywood.   The man who lives here is a Temple graduate. He has two day jobs. He also takes on side gigs in the Industry when opportunities arise.

In June his life upscales for the better, when a roommate shuffle will create a vacancy in one of the bedrooms.   He gets to move out from behind the TV set. This is the guy who pays the $1.87 billion to keep the Mayor in photo-ops and the salaries paid for Homeless Advocacy, Inc.

This is how we live in LA now.

I So Red Line Boogie

“Iso” jumped into our train last night at Universal City and told us all he was doing his show.  There was a slightly plaintive quality to the announcement, like he wished to assure he was offering quality and not some subway shakedown.

Then he fired up the boombox and subjected a captive audience to his energetic pastiche of karate moves and pole spinning.

As he was “dancing” I was thinking is it Iso or I So, as I so badass? Or is it “I? So…” Or, “I sow”? Or, “I sew”?  Any one of these might have worked.  If you told me he was going to take the two dollars he was given and run straight to a dealer, I wouldn’t be surprised.  Just as readily if I were to learn two bucks would prize him a pair of sparkly pants for his audition to be one of Rihanna’s back up dancers,  I would believe that as well.

The line between derelict and street performer is a narrow one. The line again between lifelong busker and employed artist is narrower still.

To this end, Jack Dishel, a Venice musician, hit upon the very inspired idea of a YouTube channel called :DRYVRS, wherein he has encounters with oddball rideshare drivers, played by celebrities. Ostensibly a comic short,  each episode serves as a stealth vehicle for promoting his music.

3054824-poster-p-1-dryvrs-puts-hollywood-stars-behind-the-wheel-as-ride-share-drivers-with-crazy-stories

Episode 1, starring Macaulay Culkin in a reprise of his Home Alone character went viral:  25,000,000 views.

Episode 2, starring Rosanna Arquette: 113,000 views.

Jack Dishel playing music on his channel, after being seen with Macauley Culkin : 4,000 views.  That would be a retention rate of .00016.  Or one out of every 6,250 viewers.

The series lasted two episodes.

“Iso” jumped off the train at Hollywood and Highland like he robbed a convenience store and disappeared into the crowd with his two dollars and his boombox.

At the Hollywood Bowl, Brian Setzer kicked off the show by telling us only 30 people came the first time the Orchestra played Sunset Boulevard, 25 years ago.

Since then he’s been perpetually touring, grinding it out with little variation to the set list, a hostage to his own success, dozens of families, musicians and crew, depending on the forever tour to pay the mortgage, the tuition, the grocery bill.

We were in the cheapest seats, by the upper terrace, and we swing danced as the music was meant for.  Our footwork was …let’s just say we were in no danger of anyone tipping us for our performance. In the shadows of the pepper trees, we almost looked like we knew what we were doing. Which is to say we had fun, fun being the operative verb of indestructible music, cheap wine and moonlight.

Dancing is exhausting. I so left the Bowl with a little more respect for…Iso.

Cutting The Loaf

They slice it just like bread
Just like bread

Before I got schooled, I assumed granite arrived from overseas as sheets, and only the fabricating was done here.  But no, it’s quarried and shipped as giant blocks. Loaves, to use the industry term. They slice it up on this giant machine  right here in the Valley.
The things you learn when doing the kitchen.  

After my physical exertions, to anticapte the topping of the cake prized from the earth in such a brute manner gave me pleasure.

Here’s something else you learn.

Sniffing around a granite yard looking for a pattern known as green rose, I was confronted by a lugubrious man with a baroque Mediterranean accent who popped out from between two loaves of granite, like the Lorax.

Man:  May I help you sir!

Me: Aaah!  

Man:  How may I help you?

Me: I’m looking for a green rose pattern.

He marched me into the showroom and pointed to the slab you see here.

Man:  Here is green. 

I looked around like an idiot, thinking he must be pointing elsewhere.

Me:  You’re saying this is green?

Man:  Is green.

Me: This?

Man: IS green.  Look around the room if you don’t believe me.  You tell me which one is green.

I showed him a picture of what I was looking for on my phone.

Man:  You’ll never find that, sir.  No one has that. What I have is as close to what you’re looking for in the entire city, and I know all the inventory. 

And that was the beginning of our quest through the stone yards of the Valley.

Armenian Zombie Market Walking

Look familiar?
Look familiar?
Dead store, walking
The Freasy, in its heyday

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The former Fresh & Easy in North Hollywood has undergone the Vons-to-Jons makeover, but without the makeover.  Designwise they’ve kept everything: the color scheme, the refrigerated shelves, even the signage. They just pulled the Easy off with a crane, dropped Royal in its place, and stocked the shelves with lots of Armenian product at Armenian prices.  There’s no stopping commerce zombies.

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:

sixth street viaduct 2

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.

Chaos, coming

DSCN1091

You can feel it out there on the street now. Twenty years of sound public policy going up in smoke.

Along the Metrolink tracks, where I once saw two or three parolees and drug addicts during a single walk, I now see twenty.

At the North Hollywood Metro station, I step out of the car and a grown man on a child’s bike starts circling me as I cross the parking lot, making a whoop-whoop sound, circling tighter and tighter, till he’s almost clipping my knees, muttering incomprehensibly. A radio hangs from his neck on a string, blasting pointless static.   The Sheriff’s deputies who monitor the plaza entrance don’t lift a finger as he moves on to the next unsuspecting commuter.

On the train I meet two men with prison-issue telephone scars.  Two, in five minutes.

At home I turn on the TV and the mayor of Baltimore is granting “those who wished to destroy, the space to do that as well,”  to a backdrop of burning liquor stores and pharmacies.  The district attorney follows up by indicting six police officers for murder for failing to secure a prisoner with a seat belt.  In the ensuing month Baltimore records it highest murder rate in 40 years. Seemingly sober people appear on cable panel shows scratching their chins, wondering if cause and effect could be related.

The distance between those who effect policy and shape our discussion of it (The Clerisy, to use a term of art), and the rest of us has become unsustainably wide. There is a particular species of American who waxes sanctimonious about Social Justice but would never tolerate Section 8 tenants on his block for five minutes. They love chewing on phrases like mass incarceration, comfortable in the knowledge the parolees are headed for Van Nuys.   Such people are ascendant now.

The chaos is coming west.

I’m old enough to have seen this movie before. It doesn’t end well.