Little Doelger Boxes

The Sunset district in San Francisco is a quiet beach town 15 minutes from the urban core…

…and five minutes from miles and miles of off-leash sand. I have friends who live here and it’s always fun to visit. When I stay over I take their dog for a run in the morning mist.

Many of the houses were built in vast tracts over sand dunes by Henry Doelger, much in the same vein as Henry Kaiser built Panorama City.   They have a standard template: 2-3 bedrooms/one bath over a single car garage.  As the Sunset gradually slopes toward the ocean, the elevated configuration offers every house a water view.

They may look small from the outside but are actually quite substantial:  my friends have built two additional bedrooms and baths in the undeveloped downstairs space adjacent to the garage, fully within the footprint for the foundation.  Doelger houses may not wield the aesthetic pull of the Victorian but have stood up well over the years: old-growth timber, oak doors, coved ceilings, terrazzo steps rising from the street…

Doelger went on to develop the Westlake district in Daly City, immortalized in the song “Little Boxes” by Malvina Reynolds, later by Pete Seeger, and covered by just about everybody.  Cultural condescension notwithstanding, the little boxes of ticky-tacky have become a $1.2 million proposition. Our California moment can be summarized thus: the mockery of the boomers is now the desideratum of Gen Xers, and the reason Millennials must move to Texas.

You may know the song from the TV show “Weeds”, which was about rather big boxes in the outer reaches of the San Fernando Valley  (Amazing how many pop reference points have a Valley tie-in).   Though it went off the air in 2012, the transgressive premise was a widow dealing marijuana in the suburbs to pay bills.   Sunday night, ganja in the cul de sac!   Now they sell it off of billboards next to the convenience store. You couldn’t make this show today.

I met a guy last month who works in a weed warehouse in North Hollywood producing 100 pounds a week, all the workers with W2s. One of three jobs he had. The other gigs were downtown, tending bar. His wife worked at the swank Nomad Hotel.  A hundred hours of labor a week between them.  They were from New York.

“If you get your hustle on, you can kill it in LA,” he told me. They had a dream. The dream was to afford a condo. If they had a condo, no one could stop them from having a dog.  They loved dogs.

A little box was beyond their expectations.

Free State of Jones

The Tenderloin, San Francisco, last week.

The Valley, yesterday.

You’re looking at two cities moving in opposing directions in dealing with derelicts.

I include the top photo in the name of thoroughness. It’s misleading.  There are few people pitching tents on the street in San Francisco.  Very few.  This I can report after a thorough walking tour of the problem areas of the City.  I didn’t see encampments. Nor blue tarp pallet houses, surrounded by whirlpools of plastic garbage.    No wagon trains of ramshackle vehicles converted to housing lining the streets.   There is nothing like Skid Row, not even under the freeway.

I’m not going to sugarcoat it: the City has a stumbling army of drug addicts in the Tenderloin/Mid-Market Street area, a smaller battalion in the inner Mission, and this is a highly visible problem, at times loud and threatening. But it is localized.   Walk five blocks and you’re well out of it. I lived in and around SF for a decade, and the Tenderloin has always been like this.

Spending a few days up north was a shock to the system. San Francisco in my memory was the gold standard of street craziness and civic permissiveness.  Compared to the shitstorm Los Angeles has inflicted on itself in the past decade it might as well be Canada.

There are structural reasons why things are the way they are and at the top of the list is the Jones agreement between Los Angeles and the ACLU permitting sidewalk camping in the wake of a 9th Circuit Court ruling in 2007.

We give them free phones.
We give them EBT cards.
We provide gold-plated healthcare, unavailable to rate-paying citizens.
We allow the 911 system to be used as a taxi service.
We allow shoplifting under $950.
We have issued a hall pass for all infractions from jaywalking to defecation.

But the granddaddy of broken windows, the original sin, is camping on the street. Offer up Los Angeles at a cost basis of zero, pay them to stay, place no limit to their number, then watch the Law of Incentives go to work.

William Bratton, then Chief of Police, wanted to appeal the Jones decision and had law and precedence in his favor. The Ninth Circuit held that addiction/alcoholism was an involuntary status, like cancer, and could not be criminalized. Sleeping on the street was involuntary conduct, protected by the eighth amendment. To say either of these floodgate opening premises would be viewed differently by a higher court would be an understatement. The City of LA was happy to take the opening the lower court offered to do what it wanted in the first place: pretend its hands were tied and create a sanctuary. Bratton was replaced with Charlie Beck, a careerist eager to parrot fashionable schemes.

The original injunction was limited in scope to Skid Row, and only to times when shelter beds were unavailable. In practice, it was applied citywide without discretion.  Now it’s a billion dollar business, protected by a militia of interested parties. Since the passing of Props. H, and HHH, Los Angeles has hired over 1,000 additional employees at every level of homeless services.

Just try pulling the plug on those jobs and service grants. Why would you? The quarter-cent sales tax is with us now and the money will find a pocket to land in, and that pocket will go home to South Pasadena, where they have “No camping” signs at the city limits.

No other municipality in the Southland does this, not even Santa Monica anymore.

We have two populations sharing the same real estate: one based in civic responsibility and bound by the obligations of paying bills, living at the mercy of City Hall…the other feral, Free State of Jones.