Urbanization encroaches, but the Valley retains an unextinguished surplus of beauty, lying in wait, ignored, ready to poke its head up to say hello when you are busy grousing about the world.
Turn the corner and there she is, primeval and glorious. At moments like this a life ensconced in 1950s architecture has a cranky kind of charm, considering the alternatives.
The vertical Valley is coming north and west one building at a time, leapfrogging blocks, out of scale with its surroundings. Godzilla stalking NoHo. Kong on Sepulveda. It’s the tribute 2021 pays to 1950 to keep what we have.
There is nothing quite so permanent as a temporary solution, to quote a friend of mine.
Ad hoc structures sprout like fungi across the cityscape, cobbled together by the People of the Favela from found materials. Kiewit/Shea and the Army Corps of Engineers have nothing on the 77th MethHead Mobile Assembly Brigade. They get it done overnight.
These domiciles cost the public nothing except sanitation, aesthetics, fire safety, petty crime, our collective dignity and quality of life, i.e., property values.
So what would we pay to rid ourselves of eyesores?
How would you feel about $8,600? That’s the price of a two-person Pallet house in a Tiny Home Village. Considering the alternative: $700,000 “transitional housing” apartments with granite countertops and a ten-year horizon line, this a bargain. Sounds good to me.
On Monday the first Tiny House hamlet in L.A. opened on Chandler Blvd in NoHo. Forty 8×8 cabins, each with its own A/C unit and WiFi. Communal showers and support services for 75 people. A second Village is due to open this spring, adjacent to the 170 freeway near Valley Plaza.
There are numerous publically-owned slivers of ground like this, many tucked in enticingly out of the way locations across the county. The Pallet houses can be trucked in and carted away as needed, allowing for flexibility and, crucially, impermanence. Call it Ad Hoc Plus.
You knew this was coming, right?
You’re living in Mayor Garbageciti’s City.
Where the public trough has no bottom.
Where Shantyown, Inc. is King.
The true price of these Pallet houses, to the taxpayer: $130,000.
Scratching your head on this one? Let the Times summarize for us:
A breakdown provided by the Los Angeles Bureau of Engineering shows that the contract provides $1.5 million just to prepare the site.
It also includes $122,000 for underground utilities, $253,000 for concrete pads (one for each shelter), $312,000 for an administrative office and staff restroom, $1.1 million for mechanical, electrical and fire alarms and $280,000 for permits and fees.
Additionally, the city has budgeted $651,000 to connect to the street sewer line and $546,000 in design, project management and inspection costs.
The key phrase is concrete pad. The houses were designed to be dropped off on pallets, or any manner of wooden support, and relocated when circumstances desired, much like a job site Porta-Potty. Impermanence is their nature. Anchoring it to concrete is making a temporary solution an ever-lasting one.
I have the calculator out, running the numbers, and coming up with $73,446 per unit. Into whose pocket is the other $56,554 going? The Times is incurious on this point.
The City of Riverside erected an identical village in December, same manufacturer, for $21,ooo a house. In Washington and Oregon, they’re getting them up for $12,000.
The journey from $12K to $130K is the distance between necessity and avarice, between a city that works and one that doesn’t.
The Sunset district in San Francisco is a quiet beach town 15 minutes from the urban core…
…and five minutes from miles and miles of off-leash sand. I have friends who live here and it’s always fun to visit. When I stay over I take their dog for a run in the morning mist.
Many of the houses were built in vast tracts over sand dunes by Henry Doelger, much in the same vein as Henry Kaiser built Panorama City. They have a standard template: 2-3 bedrooms/one bath over a single car garage. As the Sunset gradually slopes toward the ocean, the elevated configuration offers every house a water view.
They may look small from the outside but are actually quite substantial: my friends have built two additional bedrooms and baths in the undeveloped downstairs space adjacent to the garage, fully within the footprint for the foundation. Doelger houses may not wield the aesthetic pull of the Victorian but have stood up well over the years: old-growth timber, oak doors, coved ceilings, terrazzo steps rising from the street…
Doelger went on to develop the Westlake district in Daly City, immortalized in the song “Little Boxes” by Malvina Reynolds, later by Pete Seeger, and covered by just about everybody. Cultural condescension notwithstanding, the little boxes of ticky-tacky have become a $1.2 million proposition. Our California moment can be summarized thus: the mockery of the boomers is now the desideratum of Gen Xers, and the reason Millennials must move to Texas.
You may know the song from the TV show “Weeds”, which was about rather big boxes in the outer reaches of the San Fernando Valley (Amazing how many pop reference points have a Valley tie-in). Though it went off the air in 2012, the transgressive premise was a widow dealing marijuana in the suburbs to pay bills. Sunday night, ganja in the cul de sac! Now they sell it off of billboards next to the convenience store. You couldn’t make this show today.
I met a guy last month who works in a weed warehouse in North Hollywood producing 100 pounds a week, all the workers with W2s. One of three jobs he had. The other gigs were downtown, tending bar. His wife worked at the swank Nomad Hotel. A hundred hours of labor a week between them. They were from New York.
“If you get your hustle on, you can kill it in LA,” he told me. They had a dream. The dream was to afford a condo. If they had a condo, no one could stop them from having a dog. They loved dogs.
On the bus, two passengers said, the suspect would make people move out of his way when he moved about. At one point, they said, he pulled out a handgun and, unprovoked, shot another passenger.
“He was acting weird, he was trying to press on people,” said one of those passengers, Carlos Hurtado, 23. “He was trying to make people know he was a bad guy.”
Said the second of these passengers, Luis Rodriguez, 41: “It could have been anybody. I could have sat where (the victim) was sitting. It’s like he was going, ‘Eeny, meeny, miny, mo.’ ” *
Imagine you’re on the Orange Line on a weekday afternoon and you see this guy acting out. He’s not physically imposing, just oddly aggressive. If you were a nice middle-class lady on your daily commute from work, you might be inclined to express your disapproval at his behavior in a non-threatening way. What reason would you have to think he was carrying a gun? You’re in the Valley. Why would you think he killed his parents that morning in Canoga Park, killed two others at a gas station in North Hollywood, and was now riding the bus, waiting out the helicopter search? You wouldn’t. Your good manners would be your undoing. You would be victim number 5.
I picked up two guys in Fairfax the other night, but only one got in the Uber. Is your friend coming? I asked. That wasn’t my friend, the rider replied. That was a homeless guy, bumming a smoke. I attract them. Recognizing their humanity is my weakness. They can sense I’m a listener. I’m an easy mark. I’d rather be living in a tent on the street myself if the alternative was never talking to anyone.
This tender particularity of character is what makes it possible for 5 million people to share a single city. It also opens the transom for the deranged, the conniving, and the evil to elide the limbic danger detection systems under which we operate. You can share a smoke with a stranger, rarely will you be smoked. But it happens.
We live in this tension between prudence and brotherhood. The urban reforms of the 90s: broken windows policing, determinate sentencing laws, civil anti-gang injunctions, were so complete in their victory over random street crime people under the age of 35 have no living memory of it. I’m old enough to have lived through the tail end of urban decay, and even I have let my guard down. I say whaddup to everyone, including people I probably shouldn’t. My name is Eeny. Someone else is going to be Mo. Someone on the evening news.
That’s another of the 23 Lies We Tell About LA: we can empty the jails, abandon quality of life enforcement, vilify the police and the crime rate will remain unchanged. Because Lake Balboa is safe today, it will be safe tomorrow.
“I’ve lived in some crappy places in my life, but I never had to look out my bedroom window at razor wire,” noted Orca in the comments last week. Reading this reminded me just how extensively barbed wire and security gates have become the dominant aesthetic of working-class housing in the Valley to the point one hardly notices anymore.
Chanteclair is a chichi hotel in Cannes. In Panorama City it is the whimsical nom de domicile affixed to a dingbat apartment surrounded by battlements of black spikes defending neglected shrubbery, metal gates shutting off the courtyard from the street and a baleful troll to ward away non-keyholders. And that’s just the front entrance.
Head around back to the carports, the usual ingress point after work, and it gets angrier.
Angry, angry, angry. Or, if you prefer, utilitarian. Or as the residents would say: safe.
The carports of Panorama are especially well-defended, and there’s a reason for that.
Ironically it is the beautifiers of Los Angeles: the gardeners, the maids, the house painters, the granite fabricators, the trowelers of smoothset stucco who live in these buildings. Vehicles double as tool chests, necessitating defenses for every parking space.
These apartment blocks went up in the 1960s when the trend in Southern California architecture was to evoke through detail and design choice the mood of an exotic locale, preferably the South Seas.
If security considerations have displaced aesthetics this is the clear preference of the residents. Steel spikes metal grills razor wire iron bars makes a man feel he has done right by his family, and his hard-earned $1800 a month well spent. Everyone’s safe. I have defended my own. A wanderer in the neighborhood might dismiss all as blight, but beneath the brutalist overlay similarities to buildings one has seen before in West Hollywood and Sherman Oaks abound. The same era, probably same floor plans, perhaps same architectural firm, but different tenants and therefore different upkeep.
The Lofts at NoHo Commons, with its exterior muraling by Thierry Noir, is the opposite end of the aesthetic spectrum, or if one prefers, the reassertion of a fanciful past. There are as many security elements in this building as any in Panorama, augmented with key cards and video surveillance, but by design tucked into the background. Here is a building which smiles at you and proclaims Yes. Oh, how I am Instagrammable. Come hither, pose, and spend your parents’ money. Descend the stairs in athleisure wear and have a ten dollar smoothie. You’re an artist now. It says so in the brochure.
Spend they do. They spend spend spend and buy buy buy. White people don’t work with their hands down here. It’s in the bylaws. In the absence of talent, they can aspire to social influence, childless and enviable in 600 square feet of urban perfection. Having others envy you can be a paying job, perhaps the most sought-after gig in LA for a certain species of Millennial. What you consume and where you do it and how charming you can be as you blab about it. Followers. Obtain enough of them, and your apartment pays you. The apartment becomesthe toolbox.
These worlds are separated by a few miles, but getting closer each year. Those miles are otherwise known as Van Nuys. Buildings like this are the halfway point between the Chanticlair and the Noho Commons. No ground floor retail, no Thierry Noir, but no toolbox trucks in the garage either. A bento box pastiche, a short walk to MacLeod, tenants who pay their own rent and willing to pay a premium to stay out of Dingbatville. It takes about three years to develop a 12-unit building like this. At this pace, in another 50 years, we could meet the housing needs of the next generation of kids aging out of their grandparent’s apartments in sweaty, noisy, gloriously fecund Panorama.
Alternately, in the absence of development, we can think about beautification. Paint is cheap and so are succulents and cactus, and they propagate. So also is getting rid of security features. Half the mid-century buildings in the Valley could be turned into this in six months. If I strapped a megaphone to my back like a street preacher do you think I could sell this at the corner of Cedros and Parthenia with my bad Spanglish? Would I win converts with phrases like the “force multiplier of good taste”, flailing my arms over my head, gripping a copy of Jane Jacobs?
Now that’s a reality show I would watch. Follow me….
In the beginning of the Valley portion of our lives, we almost bought a house on this street in NoHo, a few blocks from here, but we hesitated because the neighborhood was zoned for apartment buildings, which until recently meant 1960’s dingbat courtyards, two story, eight units. A cluster of tapia palms growing where the pool used to be. A metal gate in the front.
There were maybe two buildings like that on the block. That was too much for me. Think of all the people we’d have coming and going! It wouldn’t be…neighborly. So, Van Nuys for us. Little did we know.
Now, NoHo is Berlin Alexanderplatz. Extruded mid-rise transit oriented development, built to curb, ground floor retail, six floors of windows and balconies, design schemes running from Bento Box to discount Art Moderne, varied enough to disguise the monotony of identical rooflines. Low installation cost, high return on rent. Hundreds of people per lot, instead of dozens.
In Los Angeles the height limit on wood framing is four stories, so in the first years coming out of the recession, that’s what you saw in most places. Then the money got so good…the human tide of urban enthusiasts willing to drop the the annual salary of a midwesterner on a two-bedroom apartment so profligate, the land values so overheated, it made more sense to drop the popsicle stick skeleton onto a two-story concrete podium and fatten the profit margins. Two plus four is six, and a 50% markup.
An Instagrammable Life is the sales point. Live here, feel Adjacent to Something. You know you must be part of something because there’s yoga downstairs and a pokè bowl at the corner. Everyone is pretty, near-pretty or pretty good at faking it and busy shedding the skin of their former lives.
People who live in these buildings don’t actually ride public transit. The people who pull shifts at the pokè bowl? They ride the Orange Line and live in squalorous dhimmitude behind metal bars at the Canoga Palms with telenovelas and Call Of Duty blaring from every window, box fans twirling six months a year, hot diapers and curry wafting through the courtyard. The Valley primitive, loud and intimate.
NoHo Alexanderplatz is Disneyland for millennials. Few millennials can afford it, yet here they are. Someone’s paying their freight, because the math never adds up. Another civic truth we don’t say out loud.
The most successful actor I knew, a guy who appeared on network television consistently, six figure income, an actual face on a billboard, he lived in NoHo, but it wasn’t in a building like this. He lived -for years- like a mouse on a ground floor unit without A/C, tin foil on the windows to reflect the sun, and saved his per diem until he could buy a condo. He knew how quickly it could end.
Lifestyle Porn may now be LA’s primary industry, since nobody pays for actual porn any more. What happens to NoHo when people stop subsidizing the pretty ones?
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.
This is the first sentinel we encountered on our way to the fancy tile emporium in NoHo.
The second sentinel, awaiting our return. He shuffled over to us as though he were about to deliver a handwritten letter. One grows accustomed to panhandlers at the intersections, conniving or addicted, but not hunched with calcium loss. I’d say he looked about 70, the same age as my bathroom.
The bathtub was forged in cast iron by the American Radiator and Standard Sanitary Co., then dropped into the framing by a road gang in 1948, with no thought given to later renovation, leaving only one exit route, via sledgehammer.
This was the American Radiator Building in New York City, gilded icon of the Jazz Age, all Gothic turrets and coal-inspired black brick.
It once had a showroom in the basement for its useful, class-neutral products: radiators, boilers and bathroom fixtures. Now it’s a Moroccan-themed cocktail lounge called Celon where one can order a Lavender Oasis martini for an undisclosed price. The Radiator Building is now the Bryant Park Hotel.
Because one cannot over-improve for the neighborhood anymore, even in The Nuys. Because we are all hostage to whatever 1948 house we landed upon in the somnolent years before The Restoration. Because no one can trade up to Echo Park. Because equity trumps the purchasing power of a paycheck, so we bloom where we’re planted.
Because a white tiled bathroom would make Mrs. UpintheValley so very, very sad.
We allow them to pitch tents ten feet from people paying $3000 a month in mortgage, and we wonder why they stay. Cyclically, we tell them to vacate a given location, but never to leave the City. Nor to assume self-responsibility and sobriety. There’s no grant money to be prized from that. What will Do-Gooders do for work? So, the Favela rotates within neighborhoods like a seasonal crop. From the freeway to the Narrows, to the Wash, to Raymer Street and back again.
It is impermissible in the Los Angeles Times, or City Hall, to speak of human nature. Or moral hazard. We subsidize the Favela endlessly, while nimbly managing to escape the inclusivity we preach. The people who staff the Caring Organizations, courtesy of the Los Angeles taxpayer, are unusually allergic to living here. They live in South Pasadena. They live in Sierra Madre. Or Redondo. Or Moorpark, or any of the other small, orderly cities of 100,000 people that surround LA, cities directly accountable to the voters and consequently intolerant of the Favela metastasizing within their borders.
Los Angeles has spent over a billion dollars in the last 30 years directly “combating” homelessness. In that time, it has spread from Skid Row to Van Nuys and staked a claim to every weedy mite of ground in between.
Mayor Photo-Op intends to spend $1.87 billion (that’s billion with a B) in the next decade to cut the homeless population by …half.
The beauty of ten years from now accounting is Garcetti will no longer be Mayor when the ledgers are squared. He intends to be President. The City Council will be termed out as well. The money will be burned in great hay bales in Grand Park. They will throw it on the pyre with pitchforks and dance around it, singing, like the Whos in Whoville. When the smoke clears, half of the 34,189 people on the street at last count will be re-housed. The Mexican border will remain wide open if the City has anything to say about it, but the tents will diminishbe replaced by pod villages in parking lots. Or something which squares personal self-destruction with virtue-signaling photo ops rounded out by civic baby talk. Public policy in LA is nothing if not a cargo cult.
In this most optimistic scenario we pay $109,548 for every Larry we remove from the streets, in addition to all the other freebies we already provide. That’s a whole lot of kitchen remodeling in South Pas.
Alternately, we could purchase a house somewhere in the U.S. for every blue tarp refugee, then hand them the deed. Like this one, in Marlin, TX. Two bedrooms, $24,000. Congratulations, you are now homeowners. Here’s your bus ticket. Your sins have been cleansed from the books.
Too rural? How about this 4-bedroom storybook traditional in Detroit? I found it in five seconds on Zillow. $37,000. That’s less than ten grand a head for permanent housing.
One tenth what Garcetti proposes to spend on Guiding Principles™ and Liasons to Committees of Concerned Frowning, with some pods and motel rooms thrown in.
But but but but but….that’s crazy talk, Mr. UpintheValley. You want to argue moral hazard? Anybody could just show up in LA, pitch a tent in the street and be given the deed to a house. Where does it end?
To which I reply, what are we doing now? We are about to spend ten times this amount to not house people, to provide them most of the necessities of life and some of the pleasures, plus a caseworker and a lawyer, but put no lasting roof over their head. We demand nothing in exchange and they return the favor.
Behind this Ikea shelf is a “bedroom” in North Hollywood. The man who lives here is a Temple graduate. He has two day jobs. He also takes on side gigs in the Industry when opportunities arise.
In June his life upscales for the better, when a roommate shuffle will create a vacancy in one of the bedrooms. He gets to move out from behind the TV set. This is the guy who pays the $1.87 billion to keep the Mayor in photo-ops and the salaries paid for Homeless Advocacy, Inc.