As a failure of civic will, the Los Angeles River is a thing of wonder.
Fifty-one miles of contiguous watercourse snaking through the one of the world’s great cities…linking mountains, canyons, the Valley, the Narrows, the Basin, with the Port of Long Beach…and pretty much all of it, with some notable exceptions, off-limits to the public. For a progressive city, Los Angeles has few developed public spaces. No greater resource is more undeveloped than the River itself.
There are scattershot plans to redevelop industrial fields near downtown. Artist renderings have been on the books for decades. Should they come to fruition, there might be -yes, for half a mile!- a fully realized greenway, with enough eco-restoration and bio-swales to bring the New Urbanists to a state of ecstasy. Conveniently tucked away in the least populated, most inaccessible location, cut off from the surrounding city by both railroad tracks and San Fernando Road, an Omaha Beach-like kill zone for bicyclists. If the Taylor Yards Restoration happens it will, like most things which get done in Los Angeles, arrive through the pathway of least resistance. Meaning few people were opposed to it in the first place. Because we’re speaking of orphaned ground, permanently disconnected from any other part of the river or any path network.
Fortunately, up in the Valley, we have miles and miles of shaded, landscaped river frontage, lined on both banks with walking and bike paths. A suburban Champs Elysees where one communes with nature in the purple evening air….oh, wait.
We sort of, kind of, have something like that.
Except no one is allowed to go there.
We can take its measure through the chain link fence, as we drive past on the boulevard.
We can imagine it. Not difficult to do, when it’s 80% built already.
Or we can be scofflaws. In the name of civilization we can hop the fence (Giles and I have done this many times. Only in the interest of blogging of course) and prowl about and think: wouldn’t it be cool? And the corollary: what the hell is wrong with liberals in LA?
Somehow cities with far fewer resources than Los Angeles, and I’ll just say it aloud, conservative politics, have managed to not only develop their urban rivers and abandoned railways but put them front and center. Let’s take a tour:
This one really annoys me. Even the narco-state of Nuevo Leon, the Bagdad-on-the-Border, headless torsos stacked by the on-ramp, modern-day Dodge City that is Monterrey, Mexico, has managed to offer the Little People something which looks suspiciously like a pleasant place to walk.
Not for the first time, I feel obliged to say it doesn’t have to be this way. Particularly in a city as geographically blessed as LA. Few us know today in 1930 the sons of Frederick Law Olmstead drew up a master plan for Los Angeles County designed entirely around creeks, rivers and greenways, connecting neighborhoods from Palmdale to Palos Verdes.
There’s a new show on FX called Married. It’s set in the San Fernando Valley, and I must admit, rather entertaining. Look honey, I said the first time I saw a preview, that’s us! The mordant relationship humor, the quiet sexual desperation, the abundant use of familiar locales, a male lead who dresses like he looted my closet, it’s all a bit close to home, but in a well-written way. Just to set the record straight, Mrs. Upinthevalley is hotter than Judy Greer. I want to make that clear.
After watching Nat Faxon, the husband, wander through the first few episodes in cargo shorts and hoodies, I assumed he was unemployed. But no, oh no no, he’s a ‘freelance graphic designer’. She’s a stay at home mom. I know this because the plot lines of recent episodes have turned on this point. And they, a family of five, manage to live in a lovely house in what appears to be …Studio City or Valley Village…on his earnings from digital piecework. There’s another word for ‘freelance graphic designer’: barista. Or stockboy at Trader Joes. Actually that’s not true. There are a great many freelancers in this city who would trade it in for a steady job at Trader Joes in a heartbeat. Apparently this is how TV writers, many of whom live in the Valley, think people in the Valley live.
Normally this wouldn’t be a deal breaker for me. Television shows frequently depict families living beyond what is feasible in the real world. Usually, however, the characters are at least portrayed as having a job. Maybe because Married is set in the Valley and maybe because we have frequented the locales used in the show (Oaks Tavern, Starlight Lounge) there’s a verisimilitude issue for me. No one lives south of Burbank Blvd by freelancing, part-time. Mrs. Upinthevalley and I live in Van Nuys. And by live, I mean we bought a tiny s**tbox with 1948 infrastructure we spent years fixing up. Our mortgage payment is $2500/month. That’s thirty grand a year, right off the top. Well, not exactly. First the government takes about twenty grand, money we never see. Then Wells Fargo takes its piece. Then we face the bills. We’ve never taken a vacation. We still use flip-phones. We have dial-up internet. We have one car. We use coupons. We have no savings. We’re extraordinarily fortunate to have survived the Great Foreclosure Flood of 2009. Barely. To not have to rely on roommates. There are ten people sharing a three bedroom house to the left of us. Six adults, all legal residents of the US, working in the service economy. Collectively, they can pay the mortgage, and make car payments and that’s pretty much it. There are seven people living in the house to the right of us. Three generations under one roof. That’s how it’s done. Unless you’ve lived here for twenty years, or inherited property or have a six figure income, this is the only way it is done.
We grind it out and grind it out, all of us, month after month, and hope the edifice of cantilevered credit by which we keep it all going does not collapse upon our heads. And that we don’t drive each other crazy.
We say a little prayer each evening and are grateful. Even as we slum it in that vast terra incognita north of Burbank. We, the invisible people.
The redesigned Ralph’s on Hazeltine debuted last month, cool, bright and modernist. Gone is the asphalt parking lot, banished from view below stairs. The front doors are pushed right up the sidewalk, the better to scoop up the foot traffic in a manner befitting….West Hollywood. Will it? The jury is still out. Despite a take-out cafe and on-site Starbucks and a cluster of shaded tables and benches out front which all but announce: hang out here, oh ye walkers of the neighborhood, oh ye cool people of Sherman Oaks, no one appeared to be taking the store up on its offer. Begging the question, do the yentas walk in Sherman Oaks? Do the grandkids? Does anyone? Is it that kind of neighborhood?
Andy Hurvitz at the HereinVanNuys blog has more: Ralph’s Sherman Oaks.
Question: Could the City of Los Angeles kindly maintain the landscaping alongside Sepulveda Blvd? Not all of it. Just the ugliest part. Just the two blocks beneath the Metrolink tracks on the most heavily-travelled north-south commuter route in the Valley. Oh no. It could not. There’s no money for that. No money at all. There’s none to be had in the $8 billion annual city budget. But we’re welcome to ask the Van Nuys Neighborhood Council for the money. Does the council have the power to turn water on or off? No. Install sprinklers? No. Are they responsible for street services and public works? No. But we should be asking them to help fix the roadway embankments because…..well, because it should be a community project, that’s why. The City of LA? An innocent bystander in this matter. A pauper-ish third party, stripped of all budgetary discretion by the Villaraigosa regime. Thus spake the representatives of Nury Martinez. After a topsy-turvy conversation like that….lager is called for.
Andrew H. sez: ‘What’s with all yer mishegas? She was a nice lady. Some of us have real plumbing problems.’
There are moments, driving down a residential street (avoiding traffic, of course) the light will illuminate the trees just so…. and the natural world moves to the foreground and the suburban bric-a-brac recedes, and the radio goes quiet and for a space in time you are no longer in Los Angeles, or even in the year 2013. This particular grace has a way of sneaking up on you on the angriest of afternoons. You are glad all over again to live here. The Valley, its cluttered tackiness and brutal commutes, it’s upside-down mortgages across the darkling plain….makes sense! Flush with patriotic sentiment, you fumble in the glove compartment for a camera to commemorate the……wait a sec, are those…dogs…hanging from that tree? Dogs? Cats? How long have they been there? Why isn’t anyone doing anything? Has the Shining Path established a fresh redoubt in some Panorama City apartment? Has a new Dictatorship of the Proletariat been declared? Are teams of insurrectionists descending into Sherman Oaks (well, POSO-ville) to proclaim the second coming of El Presidente Ezekiel?
Oh, wait. Apparently someone hasn’t taken their Halloween decorations down. After 23 days. Ah, The Valley. We’re comfortable with ourselves.
In case you had no idea what I was free-associating about, this was Peru, for 20 years in the grip of Maoist fanatics. That would be an un-ironic stick of dynamite in the dog’s mouth. Their calling card. There was a truly sublime film made about this: The Dancer Upstairs, starring Javier Bardem. Also, a great novel: Bel Canto, by Ann Patchett.