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.
Saturday, a sublime autumn afternoon. Driving homeward on Whitsett, I happened across a mural crew painting a concrete embankment, near Saticoy. You can see it from the 170, a cheerful and unexpected pastoral trapezoid of green and yellow popping from the industrial landscape. I got out of the car to take a look. Who do I find hand-mixing a bucket of paint, but Levi Ponce, master muralist.
Me: ‘Hey, you’re Levi, aren’t you?
Levi: “Yeah, I am.’
Told him I was an admirer of his work, and was flattered to hear him say he reads this blog. His hand was covered in paint so he offered his forearm for some kind of man-on-man elbow bump, but I clutched it like a groupie and asked him why I see his murals in Pacoima and Reseda and North Hollywood, but never in Van Nuys. Ask Nury Martinez, he replied. When he began the mural project several years ago, it was his intention to start in Pacoima and work his way down Van Nuys Blvd, all the way to Ventura. The word from Nury’s office is there is no money to pay muralists in her district.
I can think of a great number of things on which we spend public funds in District 6 which could take a back seat to neighborhood beautification.
All civic improvement dies in Van Nuys. Apparently it’s a commandment from the Old Testament, like the plagues of Egypt.
Working alongside Levi was a very nice guy named Ernie, a studio animator, who founded the Exceptional Minds Studio, a center for autistic young adults to learn multimedia and animation skills. He had some of them working the embankment project. Councilman Paul Krekorian and the North Hollywood Neighborhood Council put up the money.
‘Paul wants to be the mural guy,’ said Ernie.
The city has tens of millions squirreled away in CRA accounts. It pays a small fortune for landscape designers to make minor decisions about foliage placement few people notice. But in Van Nuys, it won’t pay artists.
Here’s the way it’s supposed to work in the civilized world: You pay the artist for his work.
They did it in Ancient Rome, they did it during the Renaissance, the Restoration of Charles the II, the Spanish Conquest, the Russian Revolution, even the hermit kingdom of North Korea today ‘pays’ its artists, in a manner of speaking. Somehow, even in North Hollywood they manage to pay the artist. With public funds, no less.
Think of that next time you’re stuck in traffic staring at a dreary tableau of sidewalk banners, mismatched signage and tagging. It may be a colony we are living in, but it doesn’t have to be.
Great location, right off the 170, plenty of parking….lots of dead stores. 180,ooo people live within a two mile radius of Laurel Canyon and Victory. Most are homeowners. Many of these homes are near the half-million dollar range. But they drive to Burbank instead.
There were plans as recently as 2011 to redevelop as a mixed-used residential lifestyle mall along the lines of Americana at Brand. Those have gone to the same civic graveyard as the one to redevelop the Montgomery Ward site in Panorama City. Neither developer was from the Valley. That’s the problem with being a colony. Absentee owners have no social disincentive not to sit on their holdings. Blight today will be worth more tomorrow, so let it be blighted. The City and the CRA will cut a fatter deal next time around.
Amelia Earhart, as you may know, lived in Toluca Lake. She was the first woman to fly the Atlantic Ocean solo. The first person to fly from Hawaii to the United States. She did so in an era lacking radar beacons, with primitive radio, before the F.A.A or the C.A.B. or any of the aviation support infrastructure pilots rely on today. It was a matter of pointing at a spot on the horizon and setting forth with a compass, a sextant and a watch and seeing it through, even after cloud cover no longer allowed one a view of the earthly landmarks below. Amelia disappeared over the South Pacific in 1937 attempting the first solo crossing. When they lost contact with her she was in search of a speck on the ocean called Howland Island, a fuel depot the size of Lake Balboa, a thousand miles from anything, obscured by a fog bank.
Los Angeles has done right by her memory with a nice statue and a library branch on Tujunga. I thought of her today while reading an essay in Vanity Fair by Bret Easton Ellis called ‘Generation Wuss’. The one-time infant terrible of my own Gen X, has taken to Twitter, naturally, to weigh in on the fragility and neediness of people today in their 20’s. Raised in a bubble of positive reinforcement by helicopter parents “…who end up smothering their kids, inducing a kind of inadequate preparation in how to deal with the hardships of life and the real way the world works: people won’t like you, that person may not love you back, kids are really cruel, work sucks, it’s hard to be good at something, life is made up of failure and disappointment, you’re not talented, people suffer, people grow old, people die. And Generation Wuss responds by collapsing into sentimentality and creating victim narratives”.
In fact, not twenty yards from Amelia, beneath the portico of the building which bears her name, a young woman was doing this:
When she was this age Amelia worked as a volunteer nurse during the Spanish Influenza of 1918. Fifty million people, mostly in what is now known as the First World, experienced death-by-diarrhea. In a single year. On Monday, you’d get a twinge of nausea, by Tuesday they’d mark your front door with chalk. Inside of a month, you may well have pooped your insides out and died of dehydration. Oddly, if affected mostly young adults. An environment which did not lend itself to self-pity or vanity. You live through that, contract the illness yourself and survive, you just might say: I’m getting in the cockpit. I don’t care if they laugh at me.
Perhaps it is the uncertainties of the new economic paradigm, but at no time are millenials not texting, tweeting or self-ing. They have plunged eagerly into an avatar life, where more waking hours are spent interacting with the world not as oneself, but as one’s on-line persona, or in Jungian terms, Shadow Self. If you’re a girl, your public face is not the face that greets you in the mirror, but the much-rehearsed, duck-lipped, side-angled selfie post on Instagram. The Girl who is Always Having Fun and Doing Things and Going Somewhere and Trying On Something New Today. If you’re a Boy (boyhood now being extended until 35) your public interactions with other young Boy-Men are conducted through game characters created by someone else. Your porn-to-real life sexual interaction ratio may easily run 100-1. That’s normal now.
To the degree which parents have banished failure, given every kid a ribbon and a hug, then failure is no longer a waystation in the building of a fulfilling life, but a lurking demon, like the Spanish Flu, waiting to take all, and from which all must take refuge in the accoutrements of social media. Narcissism becomes a rational defense mechanism. A mantlepiece upon which one can safely deposit a decade of ones life, along with a diploma, without shame.
As a corollary, cyber-bullying, the maligning of another’s on-line persona is now considered to be a terrible, terrible public crime. Like…cross-burning! It’s also presented in the media as a legitimate explantation for suicide.
Can such people navigate the course of their own lives without inflicting harm to the nation? How many little lord Chattertons can America absorb before the character of America as we have known it, is changed?
What will happen when it is their turn to run things? I don’t know. Let’s Ask Lena Dunham: