The Runnymede Poultry Colony

Driving through the Valley using the Uber navigation app, I’ve noticed something called the Runnymede Poultry Colony popping up in the street grid of Reseda….in the middle of a subdivision.

Places that haven’t existed for decades, places with evocative names like Wingfoot, Broadmoor, Mission Acres, Wahoo…can be found on old maps, particularly those of the Pacific Electric streetcar lines.  Intriguingly, Google Maps utilizes a historical overlay, so when you zoom in, these unfamiliar names pop up in familiar places.  The White Favela, for example, sits atop a forgotten neighborhood called “Raymer”.  The navigation apps, including Uber, ride atop the Google platform and that brings us to the utopian community of Runnymede.

“Intensive little farms”, in the phrasing of its founder Charles Weeks, “bringing peace of mind, health of body and an abundant living to thousands bound in slavery by wage-earning and too much business.” It was located in the Winnetka neighborhood, not Reseda, named for the city in Illinois from which Weeks originated.

For $1500 in 1925,  pilgrims got a modest bungalow set back from the road on a deep narrow lot,  a poultry shed with 2000 hens, a vegetable garden, fruit trees, a bee box and a grape arbor. You’d leave the eggs by the road for the morning pickup. You’d wash your own clothes and make your own ice cream.  You’d do it all on one acre, as a family,  living self-sufficiently in the city of Los Angeles.  In case you thought you were still living somewhere in Iowa,  you could ride the Red Car down Sherman Way and over the hill into town and watch Rudolph Valentino.  But you didn’t do that because you were pious.  You also had 2000 chickens to attend to, and kids running around in burlap underwear.  You were keeping Gomorrah well-omletted.

It wasn’t a collective farm, exactly, because you owned your own land, but there was a trade association, a community center for weekly functions and a beach house in Santa Monica the 500 Runnymede families could avail for picnicking in the summer.

If the Valley had developed along the one-acre per family Weeks model, there could have been potentially 150,000 such farm/orchard/home businesses today.  Assuming the necessity of middle children (several, ideally) we would have a population under a million, but big enough to sustain a city, with trolley lines and bike paths everywhere.  Counterfactually speaking, this was possible.

But it foundered, as did so many things, during the Depression. Falling egg prices,  the inability to make loan payments. Weeks himself went bankrupt self-financing loans to the families.  By 1934 it was over.

Instead, the Valley developed as the owners of the land wished it to. Remarkably, there remains to this day intact solitary lots … stubborn holdouts against the street grid,  crazy spinster aunts clinging to life after all the relatives have passed on.

You can see how much they’ve done with the place. That’s the problem with cheap land. Seldom do we make good use of it.

Which reminded me of the house we almost bought before we came to Van Nuys.  This one right here. It wasn’t part of the Colony, but the lot was as long as a football field. The structure was worthless.. teardown condition, but oh, the two week fever dream I had!   Not that I had any experience in this regard, my rather vague, very rudimentary, very what the hell anyone can do this plan was to grow organic spices and produce specifically for local restaurants.  I would be Mr. Local Source. The land would pay for the house. Gentleman Farmer, me. Purveyor to the stars of cuisine.

Just like this mini-farm tucked behind The French Laundry, in Napa.  When you dine there, you’re grazing right off the yard.

One of the peculiarities of our present Downton Abbey on the Pacific is working class people double bunking in apartments, fattening up on caloric take-out, while the gentry drop half a year’s salary on authentic peasant food grown on the most expensive ground in California.

As it happened, the house with the ginormous lot was already in escrow, sparing me the inevitable folly of a Branch Davidian-like standoff with City officials over unpermitted agricultural output.

I would have made my bride a widow defending the soil like an Ulsterman.  I would not have lived to hear the wise counsel of my friend Johnny: we’re only leasing it from God. The crust of the earth can shake us off like fleas at any moment.

Three Civic Oddities Outside Parthenia Street

I stumbled upon this DWP EV charging station, in the slightly-but-not-quite hoody enclave of North Hills East, mounted to a pole like a payphone, while bending down to pick up dog poop.

You just park and plug in.

Except you can’t right now because…the pump lurks below eye level, tucked demurely behind cars.  You’d never know it was there, unless….you already knew it was there, or were walking by.

But not for long. The City is going to re-designate the spaces EV only. Which would be lovely if the neighborhood, thick with apartment complexes operating at 150% of capacity, were a hotbed of Tesla ownership, which it isn’t.

The charging station is not for the locals, rather one in a network of 350 distributed around the city “so EV drivers can travel seamlessly across… service areas.”   If you’re returning to Encino in your Model S, and your battery is dying in North Hills, you’ll have a place to recharge once they repaint the curb and start ticketing the little people.

The very next pole sticking out of the ground has a sign banning overnight parking for a certain type of vehicle.

This type.  The kind which people live out of, but aren’t suppose to in Los Angeles, even though they were designed for expressly this purpose.

You can own an RV, but you can’t park it on the street. You can live in it, but only if its parked in your driveway.   You definitely can’t live in your RV on the street. But you can camp on the sidewalk indefinitely under a blue tarp or cardboard box or improvised pallet cabin, because…there is nothing to which the City of LA can affix a ticket.  You are outside the social contract, and in a small yet crucial way, free of obligations.

By carrots and sticks City Hall manipulates the transportation infrastructure, hoping to influence human behavior.   It moves the needle modestly while raising enormous sums from the public.

At the corner, we reached the graceful, sweeping curve of the Pacific Electric Red Car San Fernando line, orphaned 60 years ago.  Nothing has been done with it in that time. Not a dog park, not housing, not bike lanes, not retail.  Not even parking. People dump their old couches here.

Alternately, you could put in a trolley route, through the thickets of apartment buildings, seeing as how light rail is back in vogue. The rails are probably buried just beneath the asphalt, awaiting excavation.

If you’re keeping score at home, the civic hierarchy runs like this:
1. Tesla drivers
2. Valley landlords
3. Homeless people
4. Working class public transportation riders
5. RV people

Interurban

Modernity
Grappling with modernity
The Valley, 1915
The Valley, 1915
Petit Ranch, 1920
Petit Ranch, 1920
Cahuenga Pass, 1922
Cahuenga Pass, 1922, when the trolley was king
Cahuenga Pass, 1949
Cahuenga Pass, 1949
Cahuenga Pass, 1955, no rails
Cahuenga Pass, 1955, no more rails
Last trolley car to Van Nuys, 1952
Last trolley car to Van Nuys, 1952
Hollywood Freeway, 1972
Cahuenga Pass, 1972

When was the happiest ratio between car and rail in Los Angeles?  Probably when the population was one quarter of what it is today. Let Harold Lloyd show you in three minutes of awesomeness.

Trolley photos courtesy of the Ralph Cantos Collection

To Cairo, With Love

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The elevated station at Sixth and Los Angeles streets, 1950.  The building on the left in bkgd is now the swanktastic PE Lofts. The building on the right contains the Santa Fe Lofts and other DTLA enticements.

One wonders which would be more surprising to the people riding the train that day: in the future there would be a swimming pool and day lounge atop an office building, or that people would eagerly proffer half their monthly income for a studio apartment there?  That people would urinate in the doorways without penalty, or that men would congregate flamboyantly with other men at a bar called the Redline?

6th and LA aeriel

The station was replaced with a three level parking lot. Contrary to popular lore, the automobile didn’t bring an end to the train in LA. They were phased out and replaced by a fleet of buses.

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And what happened to the train cars? Many of them were taken to Terminal Island to be melted down at the Kaiser Steelworks. But the ones in the best condition were sold to the city of Cairo, where they were ridden until the wheels came off, literally.

Everything Old is New Again

There was no jaywalking in 1906 because there were no crosswalks.  There were no illegal left hand turns to make because there were no traffic signals. Automobiles and horse drawn carriages, cable cars and pedestrians  shared the roadway with men with brooms sweeping horse dung.  It is remarkable to think the people in this frame not only have no idea the earthquake is coming, but no idea we would, a century later, watch with fascination as they skittered across Market Street in black ankle length dresses and bowler hats and think: how primitive.  For them, compared to the Gold Rush days, this must have been the apex of modernity. Futuristic, even.

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In 1954 the monorail was Los Angeles’ great plan for shuttling people to the Valley. No, really. This is the mockup. It wasn’t going to be loud, dark and dingy like the elevated trains of New York and Chicago. It wasn’t going to blight the neighborhoods it served. It was going to be sleek and fast like the looming Jet Age.  “A proper beginning of mass rapid transit throughout Los Angeles County.”  Among its most vocal proponents was none other than Ray Bradbury, a man who claimed never to have driven in a lifetime of living in LA.  In case you were wondering, there was a bond measure, and people voted with their tires.

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They voted for this. For little ranch houses with breezeways and sprinklers and streets names chosen randomly from the English countryside. For freedom of movement. An entire car culture was built around this freedom. A mating ritual developed around the car culture.  People came from all over California, to Van Nuys, to partake of it.

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They built muscle cars at the north end of the boulevard, and they sold them at the south end of the same street in the same week. There was no foreign competition for the Camaro, nor fuel standards, nor anti-lock brakes, nor airbags.  Eight cylinders and a gas pedal. Made to look cool and burn rubber and little else.

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Between the GM plant and the auto dealerships, they had both means of production and a promenade between the two to display the products of conception. You rev your engine. The girls would flip their hair. The mating call was complete.  There was nothing to keep you indoors.  It was a holistic, self-contained world.  Until it wasn’t.

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Now the arteries of Los Angeles are so clogged with cars, we are reviving the trains, along the very routes the track was once laid, then buried beneath asphalt.

Which brings us back to the beginning.

The Dance of Progress

Opening of Sepulveda Pass tunnel, 1930
The end of the beginning: Opening of Sepulveda Pass auto tunnel, 1930
The extent of street trolley service then
The extent of street trolley service then
Courtesy of CurbedLA
Courtesy of CurbedLA

Oh, the sums we spend today to recreate the world we once had….

Jakarta Twilight

Still life, with PTSD
Still life, with PTSD

I work the closing shift, which means I get to drive over the 405 in the middle of the afternoon, and return to the Valley at 10:30 pm. On a good day, Brentwood to Van Nuys in under 12 minutes, if I hit all the lights. I’m one of the few people in LA who loves his commute.  Like an idiot, I’ve tempted fate by saying this aloud.

Yesterday, I had to go to work early, which means I left early, which means I joined the tail end of the normal commuter flow, with everybody else.  How bad could it be?

Lets put it this way: at seven thirty, I was on Barrington,  four cars away from Sunset Blvd, looking out the window at this beautiful vintage gas station framed in milky twilight, and in a very civil mood. Off early! I could go to the gym!  Perhaps Mrs. UpintheValley was still awake and could be had for the price of a foot rub!  No tired lion, me. All possibilities were on the table.

At eight o’clock, darkness had fallen, and I was still next to the same gas station, on the Sunset side, and I was plotting revenge against everyone who ever wronged me.

The stoplight would cycle through, and nobody would move.  This didn’t dissuade anyone entering from side streets inserting the nose of their car into the scrum.  Unhappy honkings all around…random, pointless, like steer lowing in a slaughterhouse pen.

I thought of Joe Gillis evading the repo men in the opening sequence of Sunset Boulevard, and how comically unrealistic that would play now.  When much of LA was laid out, traffic signals looked like this:

Traffic_Signal_and_Streetlight

Westwood_Village_1939

Gas stations looked like movie palaces and Westwood Village looked like this.

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K-Town looked like this. That’s Oasis Church on the right.  It is now one of the shorter buildings on Wilshire Blvd.  Add three million people to this picture and take away the Pacific Electric Red Car.  That’s where we find ourselves today, scurrying to rebuild the public transportation we once had.    A bus and rail line for the working poor, slumped over in their seats, ear buds on, locked into their own podcasts, dreaming of the day they’ll be able to afford a car of their own.  And a house in Van Nuys.

It took me an hour to reach the freeway. That’s .25 mph.  Point two-five! The full Jakarta…

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When I entered Macleod, they were playing traditional Irish songs and ballads.  iPads were used in place of sheet music,  I couldn’t help noticing. Here, two centuries were working to shared advantage.  I ordered a Better Days ale. Beer has rarely tasted so good.