The Narrow Margin

If it’s unclaimed ground, no matter how slight or uninviting, the protean Favela will put it to use, as surely as the sun rises in the East.

This feral world and the farmhouse behind it are separated by a mere chain link fence. A silent agreement. They pee on their pavement and not on our hydrangeas and we ignore their degradation. Who thinks twice about these arrangements any more? Mr. UpintheValley wonders how firm the civilizational lines are. Should the wet ass hour descend suddenly, without warning, if say the LAPD withdrew, how soon before we retreated to the armed safety of castle doctrine?

What would the wet ass hour consist of? What would precipitate it? Most Angelenos, myself included, operate so far removed from the maxims of prudence which have historically governed human relations on planet earth, the return to the Hobbesian default would come as a shock, then an affront, then self-chastizing horror as we retreated to safety. How could we have ignored the obvious?

Theft under $950 has been de facto legalized in Los Angeles.  As far as the city government is concerned, there are no borders. We issue free phones, debit cards, and health care to the indigent.  What is well-watered will grow.

If You Want To Be A Bird….

The Bird scooter, recently ubiquitous on the Westside.  You book one like an Uber, find it on your GPS, ride it to your destination, or until you get bored, or until the battery runs out, then you leave it on the sidewalk. Then the next rider hops on.  A lotus eaters version of the Russian Army in Stalingrad sharing the rifles.

The future of rideshare in Los Angeles?  I guess we’ll know Van Nuys has truly arrived when the Bird gets here.  Or we’ll know the Bird has truly arrived when it reaches Van Nuys.

Like, for example, the Barbie PowerWheels SUV with 12-volt motor, speakers, and faux leather seats.  This is the status and consumption marking kind of thing we love in girl-centric suburban America.

Until the older brother gets ahold of it and strips the drivetrain trying to spin donuts in the driveway.  Then he and his friends throw it into the Pacoima Wash to rid themselves of the evidence.

All  brightly colored plastic shiny things wind up in the Wash eventually, to be reclaimed and repurposed by the Favela.  Grab and go.  Leave it anywhere. Someone will be by soon enough.

Barbed Wire, Bougainvillea and a Box of Bees

Van Nuys, simplified: Nature and utility at war.  Beauty is forever encroaching upon blight here.

Inscrutable dogs park their disembodied heads atop concrete block walls and stare at us as we walk past.

Funghi popcorns from tree bark to announce an early spring.

…and people leave their bees nests in a box by the sidewalk.

The bees don’t stay in the box, believe it or not.  They move five feet to the utility pole, and begin a new hive.  They wiggle furiously into the seams. Unless I’m mistaken, these are honey bees, a diminishing natural resource. Are they queen-less now? Will they survive to re-pollinate the neighborhood, or collapse?

In Van Nuys we say ‘meh’ to nature, and nature ignores our indifference in return.

Last Empty Lot in Van Nuys

Not quite, but almost.  At the current pace of redevelopment there won’t be a single weedy lot left, not one orphaned tree marooned between apartment buildings, bereft and wishing for the company of crows, the itchy scrape of feral cats.

Sprawl has flipped on its side and moves on a vertical axis now. Down two stories for the parking, then up four for the apartments. Four being the height limit for non-treated wood frame construction in LA.   This right here used to be the infamous Voyager Motel, which perished in a “fire” two years ago and is being replaced with a 160-unit building. Either it is going to be steel frame or the right people got greased, because the renderings indicate a structure six stories tall.

Mystère Femmes Aux Pieds Nus

So it’s 2:30am, and you’re heading home from the beach towns on the 405, listening to The Cask of Amontillado on the radio, headlights piercing fog banks at 80 mph, when a ping comes over the Uber app.  An easy pickup, right off the freeway.

Easy pickups are the Uber driver’s fool’s gold, particularly when you’ve already called it a night. Convenience has a way of luring you in, then sending you all the way to West Covina just at the moment you’re ready for whiskey and a plump pillow, to punish you for wanting one more.

The GPS location is a bar. The bar is closed. No one is hanging out in front of the bar. Not a pedestrian in sight in either direction. So you wait, and listen to a chain-smoking actor from the 1940s melodramatically recite Fortunato’s visit to the wine cellar. At the five minute mark, a young woman emerges from a service alley behind the building: no shoes, no purse, short black dress, clutching an iPhone and looking like bees slept in her hair, or worse.

She skips to the car on the soles of her feet, shivering.  She smells of alcohol, but she’s upright and near as you can tell, compos mentis.  Though she looks exactly like the nameless victim in the opening scene of a slasher film,  no one is chasing her.  The destination is the Airport Hilton.

Nobody goes to a hotel, shoeless, at 2:30am for a good reason.  Who goes shoeless across the pavement of an American city for any reason? Shoelessness is crisis in motion.  Why no purse?  The only thing which distinguished her in vulnerability from a deer in the forest was the glowing phone in her hand, which vibrated loudly every ten seconds, bearing urgency which had no explanation.

Was she okay, you ask. Yeah, why, she replies dismissively. Due diligence complete, you take her to the Hilton as she has paid you to do. You purloin glimpses of her in the rear view mirror.

She dashes across the bright entryway on dirty feet, flashing a glimpse of butt cheek as she pushes through the spinning glass door. You linger a moment to see if someone is there to meet her, but there isn’t.  Is she arriving, or returning? Fleeing danger or diving headfirst into a whirlpool of foolishness? The elevator door closes on her, and with it any clear explanation.

On Friday, Mrs. UpintheValley is walking the dogs at her usual hour: 5am, i.e., total darkness.

Thwap Thwap Thwap she hears to the left of her.  A blur, running past porchlights.   She turns the corner, keeps walking. Two blocks later, the thwapping returns, and another blur runs past her, moving in the opposite direction.

Mrs. U bends down to retrieve dog poop, and suddenly there is a loud thump directly overhead.

A woman wearing only a bra top and a pair of leggings has jumped atop the roof of the car next to her. No shoes.  No purse. No phone.

The woman waves her hands hysterically in front of her face. She’s terrified of pitbulls, she says.  Meaning Trixie.  Also, she’s just been pepper-sprayed.

She was a stripper at Synn, up on Sepulveda.  There was a misunderstanding about money another stripper accused her of taking from a purse. She didn’t have her glasses on, she explained, and might have been mistaken in whose purse it was. But she didn’t take nobody’s money. Plus, she’d been drinking.

She had to drink because she hated stripping so much but she needed the money to pay for kinesiology school.  But that didn’t mean she was stealing.

She had a long-winded, barely believable, non-theiving explanation for how she came to be running barefoot through the neighborhood in the wee hours with nothing on but a bra top and leggings and Mrs. U listened to it patiently until the police arrived, shined a flashlight into her blinking face and administered the Three Questions.

My life is boring, I think, when I consider these two night couriers, these harbingers of drama.  How predictable I have grown. You can set a watch by my responsiblity.  I’m a guy who lives in the Valley and pays his bills. Banks love me. People call me sir.

Oh, to heed the siren call of barefooted women, and swagger into the Mystery Elevator, careless and eager.

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

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

RYV-QUONSET

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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.