Biking home from the gym yesterday, great plumes of black smoke near the 405 announced another homeless fire, or the launch of encampmentfire season, as we now know it in the Valley.
Technically this isn’t true, the season got off to a running start on Friday with a one acre burn in the Sepulveda Basin that was doused by helicopter.
But the Basin is always burning. At any hour of the day, butane is igniting. Meth pipes are roasting like s’mores. Cigarettes and blunts are sucked down to the nubby entrails and tossed to the winds. Ramen noodles boil over campstoves. Disputes and debts are settled flammably. It’s only a question of how much brush gets involved.
In this case the unhoused have squeezed into the narrow no mans land between the sound abatement wall of the 405 and the back fences of the people who live on Orion Street. They don’t get away with that in Midvale Estates, but in the sweaty flatlands of working class Latino North Hills with its own portion of unpermitted backyard structures people are less inclined to go to the authorities.
When the only thing separating the feral from the domesticated is a kindling line of sun-scorched lacquered wood the tragedy of the commons is waiting. The flames licked their way across the fictional divide of public and private space to what LAFD delicately referred to in the incident report as “outbuildings”, destroying several before being extinguished. All credit to the Fire Dept. for saving the houses proper.
Not half a mile from here sits the former Panorama Motel, recently purchased by the City for conversion to interim housing for people sleeping within 500 feet of a freeway. It is one of ten motel purchases under Project Homekey. Cost: $105 million. Total served: 536. At $195,895 per head, it is more expensive than the $130K/unit Tiny Home Villages, but a bargain next to the perpetually-in-the-near-future $700K homeless condos downtown.
My question is this: in the fall, after the Panorama Motel is retrofitted transitional housing, will there be more people living by the 405, or less? Will I no longer see people clustered on the off-ramp? If the number remains unchanged or worse, wouldn’t that be a refutation of the “housing first” policy? This will be our acid test.
Would you be a cop today? If you were a strapping young man or woman with a strong sense of civic duty, would you sign up for a career? Would you encourage your child? If you were already a cop, in say, Los Angeles, would you put in for a transfer to a rural jurisdiction or take early retirement? If you are mid-career and the rural departments are full up, and you’re stuck in LA waiting out your 20, how proactive are you going to be? If theft under $1000, mugging and assault are now misdemeanors (provided no gun is used), how much effort are you going to exert chasing violators?
Police encounter uncooperative suspects in a state of acute drug intoxication every day. There are protocols for this. Those protocols were followed in the case of George Floyd. Up until the last three minutes of the encounter, that is. The prosecution conceded as much at trial. Now Derek Chauvin has been convicted of murder. Not negligence. Not a failure to exercise caution. Murder, of a man with advanced arterio-sclerosis and a lethal level of fentanyl in his system. A man who had overdosed on fentanyl several months prior and for which he was hospitalized for five days. A man who left two chewed fentanyl tablets in the back seat of the police car with his DNA on them. Nine minutes with a knee across the shoulder blades is not going to induce cardiac arrest in a healthy person. Don’t believe me? Try it at home.
Chauvin inspires little empathy from me. He was negligent. I worry about the badge, not the man. I worry about the thin blue line, forgive the cliche, separating civilization from barbarism.
What happens to police work now? For starters, physical contact with violent subjects will drop away to nothing. Unless you’re charging at someone with a knife. Oh, wait…
After Chauvin, cops will no longer be proactive. They will drive by and wave. They will show up to take statements and file incident reports. Protection? Not so much. The broken-windows model, the one that transformed every shitty realm in LA, the policy which allowed the historical neighborhoods to rediscover their former glory, the policy that put equity into the hands of so many working class people, is now inoperative. We are entering the realm of No Handcuffs for Violent People. How does this effect Van Nuys? Too early to tell. How about the mortgage-holders in the neighborhoods in proximity to DTLA? Not good. Not good at all.
Mark Zuckerberg underwrites a private army worthy of Pablo Escobar. There are 6,000 security people on the Facebook payroll, $18 million per year dedicated to his detail alone. There is an escape chute in his office that goes to an underground garage and a waiting vehicle, staffed by ex-Secret Service and military people. He maintains this posture of maximum deterrence while living in Palo Alto, the least diverse and safest city in California. All while donating millions to the Racial Justice Accelerator Fund, which backs BLM, George Gascon, and various pro-crime initiatives, including the effort to de-felonize mugging and assault down here in L.A. He’s not alone in this. Jack Dorsey, Laurene Powell Jobs, Mackenzie Scott, Dustin Moskowitz, Patty Quillan, all heavy donors to The Cause. (That’s Twitter, Apple, Amazon, Facebook and Netflix, if you were wondering)
Lets unpack this. The wealthiest cohort in California is funding political street violence and altering laws that allow a very diverse population -lesbian Wiccan schoolteachers to chain-smoking Armenian bodyshop owners- to amicably share space. Truly remarkable, when you think about it, 17 million people speaking 43 different languages can share L.A. roads every morning, conduct commerce, work amongst one other despite incompatible and mutually exclusive understandings of the cosmos, socialize and dine, with a minimum of friction. This is possible due to agreed upon societal guardrails, developed over centuries. Los Angeles is the anti-Lebanon, the living rebuke to the idea Diversity+Proximity=War.
What if Palo Alto decides: let’s burn it all down in the name of perfection. That couldn’t really happen, right? Only in dystopian fiction…
Well….a small sliver of the population provides most of the funding for left wing causes. A handful of editors and producers at the Times and the networks set the narrative of our news feed. A microscopic percentage of the people who work in the entertainment industry decide what programs and films are greenlit. A tiny subset of administrators and admissions officers can impose Critical Race Theory on the education system by fiat, determining who is allowed to ascend into the professional classes. Five people and their advisors control the platforms on which freedom of speech is exercised in America and practically speaking, speech itself.
What if the Wuhan virus was the second most impactful event of 2020? What if the big reveal is just how small The Clerisy is and how ruthlessly it intends to impose its will?
The Chauvin verdict was made with a rioters standing ready outside the courthouse, and racially motivated looting and arson taking place in Minneapolis. With our very own Maxine Waters on the ground (behind police protection) calling for “confrontation” should the jury return a verdict for less than murder. One is obliged to forget a whole lot of American history to believe this ends well.
Apple has an ongoing crowdsourced billboard campaign promoting the capabilities of the iPhone. This year, in keeping with the moment, they chose black photographers utilizing black subjects. Fair enough. Take a look at the photo at the top of the page. This is what greets you as you enter West Hollywood, our most heavily looted neighborhood of 2020. This is not happenstance. TBWA/MediaArtsLab chose this photo out of countless others, and chose to place it at Doheny and Santa Monica, on behalf of the world’s third largest corporation and its major shareholder, Laurene Powell Jobs. This man, it says, has license to punch you. Little people, take it and like it.
With regard to homeless encampments, the City of Los Angeles pretends to be constrained by the Boise decision, and specifically its local variant, the Jones agreement, from enforcing laws against sleeping on the street.
The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals held that as long as the homeless population exceeds the number of shelter beds available in a city, the ordinance cannot be enforced during sleeping hours.
But….what you are not told by the people and corporations feeding off Shantytown, Inc., Boise was limited in scope, and only applied to the night hours, specifically to sleeping. It did not create a right to camp on the sidewalk and was very opaque about shelter.
In other words, if the City created enough shelter spaces, it could put an end to the encampments inside of a week.
What does Los Angeles have in abundance? Space. Empty lots. Unused, undesirable slivers of ground, off the well-trod paths, under freeways, in the brownfields. It also has ample funding, through Props H and HHH, for yurts, tents, geodesic domes, fifth-wheel trailers, and tiny houses on wheels. The crucial elements being temporary and mobile.
We have soldiers and airmen billeted across the globe in these very spartan arrangements for months at a time. Years. If it’s good enough for the military, it’s damn well good enough for crackheads. (hat tip, JayDee)
As long as there is running water on-site, access to sanitary facilities, both of which can be trucked in and out, it qualifies. Small mobile solar panels can provide reading light and phone charging.
What isn’t required? Air conditioning. WiFi. Concrete footings. Sewer lines.
When we landed in Van Nuys our house had NO air-conditioning.
No attic ventilation.
Single pane clear glass windows from the 1970s.
After we closed escrow, we had no money to do anything about it.
Not for the first summer.
We would take refuge at the mall, come home at 9 pm, open the door and step into a sauna. We actually camped in the yard during a prolonged heatwave.
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.
Suppose we were to have a civil war in L.A. Suppose the breakaway provinces north of Mulholland Drive declared a sovereign city. Suppose the armies assembled in the Sepulveda Basin for the first pitched battle, Blackwater vs. the Valley Militia. Suppose after sustaining heavy losses to sniper fire Mayor Garcetti called in a napalm strike from the air to give his Hessians cover to retreat.
My question is: would the result look different than what the homeless army has done to the Basin this summer?
If I want to camp in a state park, I have to purchase a space and obey a long list of prudential diktats. Squatting in dry brush with a gas grill and a crack pipe would be at the top of the NO list.
The line between civilization and a state of nature is drawn with butane.
And unlimited EBT cards.
And the right to shit on the pavement forever.
And loot store shelves.
And break windows.
And step off a bus from Ohio with a heroin habit, a bedroll, and an incontestable claim to residency.
All this is de facto legal now.
In fact, it’s a billion-dollar-a-year business.
Want to guess the budget for the Valley Audubon Society?
Enough gloom. Let’s take a peek on the other side of the dam. Something seems to be happening on the spillway. Some kind of roller skating party. A clandestine meetup of photographers and models and dance troupes. That’s not allowed! No one is supposed to be there.
Breaking the rules, all of them. Until the park police chase them away, it’s all spinning girls and illicit smiles and the possibility of the city reclaimed from those who stole it from us.
Me: Can I take my appendix home with me? Nurse: No, no. If it comes from the body, it goes to pathology. Me: Did I creep you out by asking? Nurse: I’ve heard it all and seen it all. I once had a patient covered with swastika tattoos tell me he didn’t want a nigger to touch him. I say to him: Would you prefer death? Me: God commands us to be colorblind Nurse: This is what I think. He doesn’t exist. I am from Africa. There is no explanation for the suffering of children you see in the third world. American people don’t understand suffering. We quarrel over the smallest things.
Then she wheeled me into the operating room.
Last Sunday I woke with tenderness and discomfort in my lower right abdomen which spread outward during the day and grew more painful to the touch. My belly began to distend. As someone who goes to the doctor about once every 25 years, my first instinct was to wait it out. Then I remembered my friend Paul.
Back in the aughts, he went to an ER in Los Angeles presenting with abdominal pain. After a few hours, they sent him home with antibiotics and some medication. His pain worsened. In the morning he returned to the ER, jaundiced. Overnight his appendix had burst and peritonitis had set in. They intubated him. A comic writer and actor, he entertained everyone with jokes on a small whiteboard. Five hours after walking in under his own power he was dead. His fiance was 7 months pregnant.
Mrs. UpintheValley remembered Paul as well and insisted on driving me to Valley Presbyterian which is how I came to lay in a gurney at 2 am listening to Defibrillator Man on the other side of the curtain bellow at the nursing staff for more Oxy 30. D-Man is what is known in the medical trade as a frequent flyer. The fire department wheeled him in, along with his garbage bags, complaining of heart palpitations and squeezings and whatnot.
“It’s my own faults for skipping dialysis this week.” He smoked Newport 100s up until his first heart attack. He’s had four. Now he wheels his own defibrillator with him in his wanderings around the Valley. Prolonged litigation ensued with the nursing staff over which arm to put the saline drip.
“Not the left. That’s where all the hard veins are. You’ll never get the needle in. You have to use this one over here. It still good.”
“That one won’t work, sir.”
“You telling me I don’t know my veins? I asked for my Oxy 30 an hour ago!”
It had been about five minutes. This argument recycled itself. There was a wet splash on the linoleum and a satisfied groan from D-Man.
“I told you so.”
Against my nature and my politics, I sympathized with him more than I should. Pain changes you. So does addiction. It was not my finest hour, nor his. We were two men of similar age but very different lives separated for the moment by a wisp of curtain.
The nurse poked his head in to give me the results of the CT scan: acute appendicitis, not yet burst.
“I’m going to give you some morphine now. How much would you like?
“As little as possible.”
As little as possible flattened me to the gurney. For a precarious moment, I was Ewan McGregor falling through the carpet in Trainspotting. A flash of paranoia: in all the mishegas they must have given me Defibrillator Man’s dosage by mistake. Yes, I must be O.D.ing. This is what it feels like. I am about to be a cautionary tale at a local nursing school. “This is why Kevin is working retail now…”
But no, it was just morphine doing what it has done for centuries.
They brought me upstairs to a private room with 12-foot ceilings and a window facing south, protected from the sun by a run of trees. Quiet as a monastery. Pleasingly asymmetrical. I was on the second floor of one of the two original circular pod towers designed by William Pereira in 1958, a groundbreaking innovation at the time. The charge nurse was astonished to hear me praise my accommodation.
“Usually I have to apologize for putting anyone here. People hate this room. It’s too small. They prefer the new annex building. The bathrooms there are about as big as this room.”
What can I say? It was bigger than my bedroom. There were no bright lights and annoying beeps, no moaning effluence two feet away. I was in God’s Hotel.
Valley Pres at its booster-ish conception was the epitome of mid-century modern cool. It was also, like the freeway system and the water pipes, woefully inadequate in size and scope for the city it served. A street grid for over a million people had already been laid across the Valley, and everyone pretended a hospital of this size was sufficient. Permits were easy then, planning negligible. A third tower, twice as tall, was added in 1966, then support buildings, parking structures, the annex. Today the original building is stripped of its iconic metal shutters that kept the sun off the windows, a forgotten starter home dwarfed by larger McMansions, barely visible from the street.
Gunshot Guy was on the gurney to my left as we waited for our turn in the operating bay. He lay fetally on his side, his foot poking out from the blankets, wrapped in a rugby ball-sized swath of bandages.
“Are you on cocaine right now? It’s okay we don’t judge.”
“How much cocaine did you take?”
“How much heroin are you using?”
“Is that daily? The anesthetist needs to know before we operate.”
“We can remove the bullet, and reset the bones, but you will have difficulty putting any weight on it for a long time.”
“We have a physical therapist to help you re-learn walking.”
Gunshot Guy mumbled his responses from underneath the blankets. The double doors opened and they wheeled in an obese woman, who recited her list of surgeries to a captive audience of nurses as though a reality show film crew were in the hallway with us, recording her every word. First had been her ankle, then her hip, then her back, and now her neck. The injustice of human frailty was ascending her body like a clan of mountaineering trolls.
“This is so unfair. I’m only 48 years old. I’m too young for this shit.”
At this juncture, the African nurse bent into view to tell me with perfect colonial grammar and a baroque accent she would be shaving my groin. I wondered if she would use a straight razor. I considered all the comedic possibilities of my testes and Murphy’s Law. Her face was filled with exactly the compassion one seeks at such a moment, and it was here we had our lovely conversation about God and suffering.
I was in the best hands, she assured me. Dr. Slick would be attending to me.
I had heard of Dr. Slick from the E.R. nurse the night before. Also from the floor nurse upstairs and the attending physician. How lucky I was to catch him! They all said how fast he was, a virtuoso with a laparoscope. My only association with speed and medicine was Dr. Nick Riviera from The Simpsons, and the creepy lobotomist in the film Frances, so it was a relief to be greeted by a guy who looked like an accountant but had a roll in his step like a professional athlete. I was easily his most boring case of the day. He would be going through my belly button and a 5mm opening on my left side.
“Count backward from 100,” they said once I was situated on the table. I decided to recite the Lord’s Prayer instead. I got as far as “our father, who art in…”
Feral Cat 1, Sun 0. Basking in a survivors’ victory at 7 pm…
I have no idea how they do it with a fur coat on. Nature is a genius.
The ficus didn’t do so well yesterday. Watered it on Saturday. Less than 24 hours later, the top third of the hedge withered before my eyes as though God had sent down pestilence.
All things green shall by sundown be green no more, sayeth the Lord.
Inevitably, there was another homeless encampment brush fire in the Sepulveda Basin, the second of the past month. We have normalized this like summer weather.
Feral cats and meth heads are anti-fragile. Los Angeles may fall into perdition in the next six months and they will make a slight adjustment and continue as before. The rest of us, in our green and ordered life, anchored by our need for safety and sustainability, scan the horizon line and wonder what It Portends.
I encountered this guy around the corner yesterday. He had wandered into the neighborhood from Sepulveda, sweaty and disheveled, muttering on the curb as he loaded his crack pipe…unfettered by self-consciousness, so deep was he into the finger rituals of addiction.
Like my beloved Los Angeles, he was in a state of nervous prostration. A herald of self-destruction. It made me think of our three-month bender of submission to safetyism and power-tripping bureaucrats. So many of us remain insensible to reason. Hopeful data do not appease us. Hard facts of morbidity do not move us. We’re all Emily Dickinson now, cowering at the top of the stairs. We hide behind our duty masks and wait for someone else to be the first to defy authority, lest we are ratted out on social media.
When we take the full measure of the economic damage inflicted upon ourselves and face with clear eyes our willingness to swallow propaganda from a garden hose we will look back on this time as one of madness. We will tell our children by way of explanation for the debt we hand them, forgive us, it was sort of like we were smoking crack.
“I am growing handsome very fast indeed! I expect I shall be the belle of Amherst when I reach my 17th year. I don’t doubt that I will have crowds of admirers…” When admirers failed to appear, roaring disappointment contracted Emily’s world. She ventured no further than the garden gate, then the sitting room, finally her bedroom, where she retreated for the remainder of her life. Amherst became that terra incognita signified on ancient flat earth maps by sea dragons.
“A prison gets to be a friend,” Dickinsonfamously said. As we emerge from the lockdown, will our pent up creative energies prevail, will the animal spirits of commerce revive fully intact, or will we find ourselves diminished somehow? Marked by a limp? Will we embrace a newly discovered weakness?
I discovered this digital Polaroid during an encampment cleanup off Sepulveda, put it in my pocket and forgot all about it, then re-found it in the laundry.
For most of us, Van Nuys means an affordable ranch house. But for others, Van Nuys means my weekend at the bail bondsman or my frustrating encounter with the Building Department. Then there are women for whom Van Nuys means my summer sweating for Leon at the Travel Inn.
You might presume (as I did) someone was awfully eager to pose them on the bed like chattel. How we feel about the picture depends on who we think the photographer is. We assume a male. Polaroids are keepsakes. But what if one of the women took the picture and it was meant for each other, the pose taken ironically, an artifact of their sisterhood in the fleshy trenches?
How did the picture make the journey from the motel room to the Favela? Through whose hands did it pass? Maybe no ones. Maybe one of these women is living in a tent next to the 405 right now. It would be the simplest explanation, but doesn’t feel like the right movie to me.
O’Melveny, six weeks after the wildfire: Nature’s Civil War battlefield. Light rain falling and no one about, like we were the last two people on earth, navigating an apocryphal chapter of the Old Testament.
Come spring, the flowers will return in abundance. We know this before we put our first boot print in the afternoon mud, which makes it fun rather than depressing. We take comfort playing tourist in nature’s cycle of wrath and renewal.
Here, on the charcoal side of the Urban-Wildlife Interface, one realizes the only thing between the former and the latter is the forty feet of asphalt on Sesnon St. Then you remember the Santa Rosa fire of 2017, which jumped a six-lane freeway. Then you think of the Hollywood Hills, of Brentwood, of canopies of trees overhanging narrow streets, nearly shaking hands, and winds whistling up the canyons.
If we think we can live in this tension indefinitely, houses pushing in, nature clawing back, what happens when people begin squatting in the unclaimed spaces, cooking over open flames? How does that change our calculus?
Unlike nature, Shantytown, Inc. has no opposing force. Camping in the underbrush is incentivized. There’s no one at City Hall arguing for prudence, only subsidy. More service providers dispensing free stuff. The rest of us carry on arguments in the privacy of our heads.
How long will this parallel world build up along the unclaimed spaces, along the freeways and rivers and storefronts before wrath enters the picture?