Back to the Quonset Hut?

Quonset housing, 1946
Quonset housing, 1947

Nothing like martial virtue to inspire biblical relations between genders. When we slaughtered the Hun and subdued the Japanese Empire in four years and warplanes rolled off the assembly line every ten hours in Long Beach, King Priapus ruled the day.

Wingfoot housing
Victory jizz, plus three years=Wingfoot housing

During the Depression very little housing had been built, and during WWII, none at all, creating entire communities living in temporary housing: trailers, quonsets, Wingfoot huts, and repurposed tugboat cabins.

Tugboat housing
Tugboats

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Our little working class brigadoon in Van Nuys was carved from Carnation creamery cow pasture in 1947 as something called Allied Gardens.  A GI and his brood could have one for $10,400. That’s $119,000 in 2017 dollars. No landscaping. No frills. A three circuit Zinsco electrical panel, no insulation, no AC.   Fittingly, it was developed by Louis Kelton, for whom Kelton Street in Brentwood was named, establishing at conception the master-servant dialectical between the two communities.

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At those prices, who wouldn’t want one?  The stucco box was a pleasure dome after the quonset hut. Colored veterans were excluded by covenant from buying.  Colored people lived where colored people lived and the women tended the homes of rich people on the Westside, like Louis Kelton.   White people manufactured things and saved up for a backyard pool.  Service at the pleasure of others, specifically of a household or agricultural nature, was nigger work. White people didn’t do that.

For forty years this arrangement held while white people gradually decamped to Santa Clarita or Thousand Oaks, discarding neglected houses like beater cars.  Black people moved to Riverside, or all the way to the Mississippi Delta. Latino/Asian/Armenian immigrants, stacked up in apartments, busily practicing biblical relations between genders, counted the bedrooms, and said “we’ll take this gone to hell stucco box. Where do we sign?” In they came and out went grumbling white people, trailing blight.

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Along the way, California stopped making things and began designing them. China makes our things now, in vast factory campuses, where workers sleep in stacked bunkbeds like poultry in battery cages.

Nobody uses the phrase nigger work anymore. We’re too enlightened for that. We just have a vast army of surplus labor doubled up in rooms and secreted in trailers behind the hedge, rising at dawn to beat the traffic over the 405 to serve provide for the grasping needs of Brentwood.  People who question these arrangements are bigots.

Walking the dogs yesterday I encountered a new neighbor who crossed the street to pet Trixie but really to introduce himself.  We chatted amiably about Van Nuys.  He worked in a law firm. His wife was a special ed teacher. They had two luxury brand cars in the driveway. He outlined the improvements he had planned for his house and wanted to reassure me the tacky car shed over the driveway was going, and the yard was going to be re-done.

“This is going to be Echo Park in a couple years,”   he pronounced, seeking my affirmation, which I gave, but secretly doubted. Highland Park, maybe, but who am I to prognosticate? When we moved here from Los Feliz in the oughts, I was certain there were 10,000 people hot on my heels. We were going to be trend setters! We were going to plant the flag of gentrification reap the benefits of being first.   Who wouldn’t want to own a nice big yard for the price of rent on a one-bedroom apartment in Hollywood?  Yeah, it might have been a little kitschy, a little dated, a little Fast Times at Ridgemont High 20 years after, with bars on the windows, but it was have-able, and fifteen minutes from Town.

Oof. I was only off by a decade.   Now I just subtract a few years from my biography and pretend to be half a genius.

Van Nuys is changing, though, and quickly. The 1200-square foot stucco box is back in vogue, by demographic necessity.   Which raises a question: how long before the quonset hut returns as a housing option? It’s rather spacious when considered next to Tiny Houses.

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It’s already undergoing a revival as repurposed office space for creative types.

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And as an architectural motif for people very far removed from utilitarian necessity. Perhaps the trend lines will converge. Everything old can be new again.

Cratchitville, on Wheels

The Affordable Solution
Affordable Housing, LA-style

As was inevitable, New Urbanism has come to Van Nuys.  The granny flat on a trailer.  Tidy. Well-ordered, aesthetic. Entry off the service alley, away from disapproving neighbors. A parallel Los Angeles blooming behind the ranch houses. An elf kingdom sliding rent checks under the door, and scurrying away, unseen.   It may be small-ish, but there is nothing cold or dismal about it.

When Mrs. UpintheValley decides the end of the hallway is not far enough, she can have this.    On second thought,  I’ll make it my Man Cave.

More Affordable
More Affordable

Such Cratchitville arrangements are not new, and exist de facto all over the city, without rental income involved.  We decry eyesores, but on what legal basis do we deny people the ability to park on an industrial street, set up a hibachi on the sidewalk, pull a lawn chair out of a dumpster and proclaim oneself at home? Provided they are not committing crime or polluting the neighborhood, what’s to argue?  The embrace of backyard trailer houses by city government will make it more difficult, politically and morally, to draw a firm line against the Shabby RV People.  The shrubbery of the San Fernando Valley is already well-watered with the urine of nephews living in the casita (read: HomeDepot toolshed) in the backyard.

Yes, someone fits inside here, nightly.
Yes, someone fits inside here, nightly.

If parking on someone’s property and paying rent is the basis of legitimacy, then the presence of wheels gives the City plausible deniability.  We are not codifying this, Los Angeles tells itself, we are giving the public a workaround from zoning law.   If there are problems, theoretically they can be rolled away.   Of course, this means any pushcart can now be recognized as an ‘housing alternative’.

There are people pushing carts all over the Valley. Or towing non-functioning vehicles from one parking location to another.  There seems to be a stark dividing line within the world of the dispossessed between those with wheeled shelter and those without. A beater car is preferable to a tent by the freeway. It means one retains aspirations of hanging on, however tenuously by his fingernails, to a place in the Social Contract.

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After the wheels are gone, there is the tent. Once the tent goes there is…the makeshift crackhead fort.

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After you are unable to cobble together a crackhead fort, you just roll yourself up like a burrito and imagine the passion of St. Francis under the stars.