In a City of Manic Revision

This is my friend in San Francisco, five minutes after she realized she was going to fire her contractor.  Not this guy.   Another guy overbilling her for materials.

$60,000 to repair water damage in the bay of their living room, on top of $110,000 to replace the siding on the house. Heart attack numbers if you live in Van Nuys, but there is an entirely different math up there.

It is math that tells you to peel your house off the foundation and jack it up twenty feet on metal I-beams and slide two new units in underneath like a chest of drawers. So what if this costs you a cool million? You just raised the value twice that figure.  San Francisco Equity is a hammer insensible to caution.

It is a math that demolishes the venerable Sullivan Funeral Home on Upper Market, God’s Hotel of the AIDS crisis, and excavate deep enough for three levels of parking to accommodate the jewel box pied a terre above, to be leased by tech companies for their employees, who will live sealed from the wind and clank of the city by soundproof green glass.

Math which appropriates the narrowest triangle of ground at Church and Market, for years the location of a greasy spoon and a seedy bar and turn it into a jenga tower of extruded battlements, and in an admirable burst of developer inspiration name it Sonder.

From the Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows:
SONDER: n. the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own—populated with their own ambitions, friends, routines, worries and inherited craziness—an epic story that continues invisibly around you like an anthill sprawling deep underground, with elaborate passageways to thousands of other lives that you’ll never know existed, in which you might appear only once, as an extra sipping coffee in the background.

Implicit in sonder is the labor of others without which the simple pleasures of the city can be summoned. Appeals for service work like this are ubiquitous in store windows.   Even if you found someone willing, how could they afford to live here?

The guys who are killing it in the construction boom, like this electrician I saw smoking a blunt in his van, can only contemplate the beauty of the city but never really drink from its well before driving back to the Central Valley or God knows where.

It’s all rather precarious if you consider the history of financial booms. But somehow being here in a city of facadomy and indestructible aesthetics, it doesn’t feel that way. Just because a building was born one-story, it doesn’t have to live so constrained forever. It can be reassigned another role. A spare-no-expense reach into the air can seem like the most reasonable thing in the world. Prudent, even. You can smell the money before you even cross the bridge.  A bouquet can render one exuberant.

Yerevan West

So I encountered this…in North Hollywood, 2am… sprouting majestically from a neighborhood of sad, small houses with attached single car garages…. Trippy. Transcendent. A mothership of American aspiration.

I stopped the car and let it swagger all over me.  It was an appreciation.

Two generations of people lived in the Valley and let their houses crumble over their heads.   Houses for which they paid less than $100,000.

They let water seep into the floorboards while they complained about busing. They sprayed popcorn foam over cracks on the ceiling but let the termites chew their way through the framing.  They put bars over the windows, but kept the linoleum floors.   Home improvement meant shag carpeting and flourescent tube lighting.

They left their houses to their adult children who were estranged from hand tools. They let the shrubbery die and replaced it with gravel.   But boy did they ever expect to be paid off when it came to sell, and paid off they were. In time, preposterous sums.

California was once so abundant middle class people changed houses the way we change cars today, discarding small brightly colored ranch houses on big lots for larger split-levels on small lots in the exurbs of Ventura County, painted an HOA-defined gradient running from excrement to beige.

The Valley was Adam Carolla-ville. It was one of those places you left and told disparaging anecdotes about when you got to where you were really going.

The carcasses of Los Angeles were left for the dusky hordes and the urban hipsters foolish enough to put down roots and not move to Austin. People so determined to be here they sunk their assets into houses without good  bones. Without any bones. Stucco boxes without a redeeming virtue save the ground they sank into a quarter inch a year.

Mrs. UpintheValley and I are Carcass People.   We didn’t intend to be.  We were going to to park ourselves for a few years in Van Nuys, build some equity into the house and then….trade up in an orderly fashion.  Because the world of real estate was rational, if untidy, right?  This was to be but a waystation.   A five to ten year sentence in minimum security prison, then back to one’s pals in Glamorama, with earned street cred.

Who knew housing mobility in LA would prove to be as starkly defined as the British class structure? The Wealth Effect, when combined with tight land use restrictions, means even if you pay down your mortgage in 15 years,  even if you climb to the top quintile of the income ladder, there’s nothing you can afford to buy that would be an improvement over what you already have.  Absent a windfall of cash, there’s no trading up anymore.

Marginal differences in down payment ability in 2004 proscribe where and how you can live in LA today. One is obliged to bloom where one is planted.   This was a lesson I resisted learning.

So when I see a house built out to the property line, a second floor added, and marble laid into the entryway, lit up like Halloween, I realize I have greater kinship with a family from Yerevan that I do with the kids I grew up with in California. They either inherited property, or they left. All of them.

These are my people.