To Provide and Provide Not

City of Burbank
City of Burbank

Consider this urban pastoral, this friendly Sunday afternoon soccer game under the power lines on Whitnall.   Inter-racial. Inter-gender. Inter-age group. Featuring accents of Latin America, Asia and the British Isles.   As I walked past, I thought: this looks like it was assembled by a casting director. Los Angeles doesn’t really work like this, except in commercials.

Then I realized I was in Burbank.

City of Los Angeles
City of Los Angeles

Now turn around, face north, across Burbank Blvd, into North Hollywood.  This is what LA did with the same patch of ground. Across the street.

How does a world-class city get away with this?

The People Who Run Things have an answer to that question. We’re broke!  Los Angeles is a pauper. A patch of grass, in North Hollywood?  What are we, made of money? We can’t even pay our bills around here!

Okay then, riddle me this:

Suddenly...cancer
Suddenly…”cancer”

The City is in the process of dismantling the Sixth Street Bridge, one of the iconic, indispensable structures, perhaps the most photographed location after the Hollywood sign, and replacing it, at a cost of half a billion dollars, with this:

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The purported reason for this insertion of Dubai-like aesthetics into the downtown landscape is concrete. The original structure (1932) has received a propitious diagnosis of Alkai Silica Reaction.  Earthquake vulnerability dictates the bridge must be replaced.  Or so we’re told.

There’s just one problem. Why is it, of the dozen similar bridges built downtown in the 1930’s, with the same concrete mixing process, the only one which has received this diagnosis of ‘concrete cancer’ is the one which goes directly to the Arts District?  Why does the urgency to do something about it correspond to the arrival of the Nabisco Lofts?  Why is it being replaced by a playground for people who buy groceries at Urban Radish?

If the city is too broke for a grassy field in North Hollywood, how is it managing to pay for this? Just asking.

Crossing Alameda

Darkness invisible, Arts District
La belle époque in the Arts District

Five years ago this summer 17-year-old Lily Burk stopped at the Southwestern School of Law to pick up some papers for her mother.  It was three o’clock in the afternoon.  As she approached her parked car on a side street off Wilshire, a career criminal and crack addict named Charlie Samuel, on a day pass from a nearby drug treatment facility, persuaded/intimidated/forced his way behind the wheel and drove off with her inside.  A half hour later they were at an ATM in Little Tokyo attempting to withdraw cash.  Surveillance cameras showed Lily standing mutely next to her abductor, surrounded by passerby.  She did not cry out or attempt to flee.  She called her father, a music journalist, then her mother, a law professor, asking for instructions in withdrawing cash using a credit card. Lily gave no indication she was in danger.  Only later when she did not return did they find the calls alarming. After walking her up to several ATM’s where she failed to retrieve cash,  Charlie returned with Lily to the car and he drove to an empty lot at 458 S. Alameda St.

On the other side of Alameda
The state of nature on the other side of Alameda

At 5 pm a mounted policeman encountered Charlie a short distance away in Skid Row, publicly intoxicated.   A search revealed a crack pipe, and the keys to Lily’s Volvo. He was taken into custody for possession.  No one knew he had any connection to Lily’s disappearance.  Or even that a girl named Lily had not come home. At this point even her parents hadn’t started making calls.

At dawn, following a night of agony for her mother and father in Los Feliz, Lily was found in the passenger seat of her car, throat slashed.  She bled out a short distance from passerby, in daylight hours, probably within minutes of her last ATM stop. She had dislocated her ankle in her final struggle with her murderer.

Why did she get back in the car has always been the tragic riddle in the middle of a tabloid horror show. How could she be so naive? Did the parents raise her that way?  Shame on us for even thinking that. The parents’ suffering is biblical. Who are we to second-guess? 

What did the killer have to gain?  He didn’t rape her.  She was unable to provide cash.  He possibly could have slunk safely away with an apology. Left unharmed, she might not even have called the police. Though she was in rehearsals to perform onstage at the Oakwood School in The Boston Marriage, she wasn’t given to histrionics, that much he could deduce. Lily could/might have chalked it up as a lesson learned and undertaken in the future a keener sense of self-preservation and a greater vigilance for creeps.

Charlie knew where to go. Fifth and Alameda, an industrial and lightly policed DMZ between the nouveau-monied world of Urban Radish and Wurstkuche and the blunt facts of the Union Rescue Mission. Venture a few blocks north and one is neck deep in sushi restaurants. A block east and one can purchase a pair of dungarees and a handmade batik blouse for $300. But turn left into the tent city east of downtown….and one enters a state of nature.

In a normal day in in Los Angeles, these worlds overlap only in the geographical margins. One can live in Los Feliz or Santa Monica and have only the most passing interaction with the small army of service economy workers who commute in from Panorama City to tend to your daily wants, nor know their names, nor understand their cosmology.  A particular worldly and artistically inclined teenager might maintain a wide circle of social acquaintances across the city, none of whom attend public school.  Or at least the sort of public school most Angelenos attend.  One can walk Wilshire Blvd, camera in hand, and admire the landmark Art Deco edifice that is the old Bullocks Department store and feel very much the urban explorer, and yet not push in half a block deeper to the SRO hotels, methadone clinics and four-to-a-room immigrant stash houses that lurk beyond.   One can be that Right Thinking Person who votes against the Three Strikes Law, or welfare reform, or border enforcement, or quality-of-life policing, and never know the consequences of the blight one piles up in someone else’s neighborhood.  Who feels categorical judgements about Good and Evil are for the unsophisticated. Right up until the day your neighbor’s daughter is snatched like Persephone and dragged down into the underworld on Hades chariot.

There they were in the car, Charlie and Lily, in a utilitarian No Man’s Land chosen by him where neither she nor he would be recognized.  What was said?  What was left unsaid?  We know only the denouement was not like its more famous cinematic analogue…which also took place on Alameda Street:

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An afternoon, a game of Scrabble, and Thou

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‘Let’s go for a drive’, says I. ‘Let us bid farewell to Van Nuys for a few hours.’  ‘Yes, Lex!’  replied Mrs. UpintheValley. Slip into her ModCloth dress she did and away we went.  Downtown!  Where she soon drew admirers…

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Giles is game for all outdoor adventuring, but Santee Alley was a bit chaotic and crowded for a small dog underfoot.  It’s a world of commerce in extremis. Men in slim-fit suits lurk next to the mannequins at the front of stalls whispering: ‘Fendi, Fendi, Valentino.’   Then you walk around to the service alley and there are Koreans in beat-up vans unloading garments in huge trash bags through the back doors of the stores.

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The contrasts are remarkable. Here we have another mixed-use industrial building being converted into high-end lofts….directly across the street, however:

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…there are poverty stores where the great unwashed are reminded not to wash their hands in the melted ice of the soda cooler.  The Brazilianization of California continues apace.

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After an hour or so, Mrs. UpintheValley had her fill of the garment district,  so we moseyed east of Alameda, to the Arts District.  This was more to her liking.

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There’s something about the arts district phenomenon, here and elsewhere, that fetishizes and celebrates the architecture of the manufacturing age. This is partly inevitable. Vacant buildings in a post-industrial landscape offer the dormant capacity needed for residential re-development. But that’s not the only reason. Even the most utilitarian structures from the golden age offer aesthetic delight and authenticity difficult to re-create today and this is part of the attraction. The workmen of the day (and it was men, working then) were frequently artisans, even in the construction trades.  As someone who has built and re-built a thing or two, let me bear witness to the staggering amount of craftsmanship and nearly flawless execution in this single brick wall.  Mark Zuckerberg himself couldn’t buy the people with the skill set to duplicate bespoke masonry at this level, at any price. The people who could do this sort of thing are no longer to be found in Los Angeles. What does it mean if the most enduring artistic achievements of the area prove to be the structures themselves?

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Just down the block from the swanky National Biscuit Company lofts we found this cafe tucked nicely in a narrow curved alley. Only after we walked around the corner did I realize beneath this brick patio was once a railroad siding that served the Nabisco loading docks. From this spot biscuits and crackers began their dispersal throughout the rail networks to the far corners of North America, once upon a time.  Now it’s a lifestyle playground.

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On the other side of this mural, we discovered the Urban Radish, uber-gourmet grocery.  I would be lying if I didn’t say we both lusted in the aisles of this store.  Artisanal cheese!  ($35 lb) Gourmet sausages! ($15 ea)  Dry-aged beef! (don’t ask)  Organic brickleberry flavored ice cream made from pastured cows! ($11/pint)  I would also be lying if I suggested if we could afford any of it.  Clearly, this is someone else’s lifestyle playground.

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But play, we did. We ended up at the ironically named Pour Haus, for happy hour and glasses of wine and a game of Scrabble.  At the moment of this photograph I had just laid down a seven-letter word to leap 60 points ahead. She is amused by any confidence on my part I will hang on to this lead.   ‘You have no chance of winning, my dear. None.’  The word was: Serious.

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She was almost gracious in victory.

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When we reached the limit of our $20 budget for the afternoon we returned to the car, and the trek back to the Valley and its particular cake of comfort and squalor.  On our way to the freeway we passed the American Apparel factory and its huge Legalize LA banners and the image seemed to encapsulate everything about our political and cultural moment in Los Angeles.  Here at the crossroads of the garment and arts districts, where the new economy embeds itself within the ruins of the old (Southern Pacific, no less), where the new fortunes are being made or blown…here, the poster child of DTLA proclaims to the world: ‘Pay Americans Less Money’.  Let there be no immigration law which would prevent millions of unskilled workers coming here to do battle in the labor marketplace with those already arrived and the native-born hanging on by their fingernails. May the devil take the hindmost.  They even sell Legalize LA t-shirts to the hipster kids who wear them in a celebration of ignorance of the laws of economics.   Van Nuys is boring. But it’s mostly honest. If you stick to a budget you can own a house there. For now.   I love my wife.