Driving through the Valley using the Uber navigation app, I’ve noticed something called the Runnymede Poultry Colony popping up in the street grid of Reseda….in the middle of a subdivision.
Places that haven’t existed for decades, places with evocative names like Wingfoot, Broadmoor, Mission Acres, Wahoo…can be found on old maps, particularly those of the Pacific Electric streetcar lines. Intriguingly, Google Maps utilizes a historical overlay, so when you zoom in, these unfamiliar names pop up in familiar places. The White Favela, for example, sits atop a forgotten neighborhood called “Raymer”. The navigation apps, including Uber, ride atop the Google platform and that brings us to the utopian community of Runnymede.
“Intensive little farms”, in the phrasing of its founder Charles Weeks, “bringing peace of mind, health of body and an abundant living to thousands bound in slavery by wage-earning and too much business.” It was located in the Winnetka neighborhood, not Reseda, named for the city in Illinois from which Weeks originated.
For $1500 in 1925, pilgrims got a modest bungalow set back from the road on a deep narrow lot, a poultry shed with 2000 hens, a vegetable garden, fruit trees, a bee box and a grape arbor. You’d leave the eggs by the road for the morning pickup. You’d wash your own clothes and make your own ice cream. You’d do it all on one acre, as a family, living self-sufficiently in the city of Los Angeles. In case you thought you were still living somewhere in Iowa, you could ride the Red Car down Sherman Way and over the hill into town and watch Rudolph Valentino. But you didn’t do that because you were pious. You also had 2000 chickens to attend to, and kids running around in burlap underwear. You were keeping Gomorrah well-omletted.
It wasn’t a collective farm, exactly, because you owned your own land, but there was a trade association, a community center for weekly functions and a beach house in Santa Monica the 500 Runnymede families could avail for picnicking in the summer.
If the Valley had developed along the one-acre per family Weeks model, there could have been potentially 150,000 such farm/orchard/home businesses today. Assuming the necessity of middle children (several, ideally) we would have a population under a million, but big enough to sustain a city, with trolley lines and bike paths everywhere. Counterfactually speaking, this was possible.
But it foundered, as did so many things, during the Depression. Falling egg prices, the inability to make loan payments. Weeks himself went bankrupt self-financing loans to the families. By 1934 it was over.
Instead, the Valley developed as the owners of the land wished it to. Remarkably, there remains to this day intact solitary lots … stubborn holdouts against the street grid, crazy spinster aunts clinging to life after all the relatives have passed on.
You can see how much they’ve done with the place. That’s the problem with cheap land. Seldom do we make good use of it.
Which reminded me of the house we almost bought before we came to Van Nuys. This one right here. It wasn’t part of the Colony, but the lot was as long as a football field. The structure was worthless.. teardown condition, but oh, the two week fever dream I had! Not that I had any experience in this regard, my rather vague, very rudimentary, very what the hell anyone can do this plan was to grow organic spices and produce specifically for local restaurants. I would be Mr. Local Source. The land would pay for the house. Gentleman Farmer, me. Purveyor to the stars of cuisine.
Just like this mini-farm tucked behind The French Laundry, in Napa. When you dine there, you’re grazing right off the yard.
One of the peculiarities of our present Downton Abbey on the Pacific is working class people double bunking in apartments, fattening up on caloric take-out, while the gentry drop half a year’s salary on authentic peasant food grown on the most expensive ground in California.
As it happened, the house with the ginormous lot was already in escrow, sparing me the inevitable folly of a Branch Davidian-like standoff with City officials over unpermitted agricultural output.
I would have made my bride a widow defending the soil like an Ulsterman. I would not have lived to hear the wise counsel of my friend Johnny: we’re only leasing it from God. The crust of the earth can shake us off like fleas at any moment.