On a Sunday evening in July, on foot, after a few beers, the old town of Van Nuys, carried a note of Tribeca 1985, in its summoning of potential, laid out, for dreamers and developers.
There were empty storefronts and shabby alleys, but there were also women in chairs, attending children on bicycles, who played near clothes for sale, hung on a fence. Here Andreas bought a shirt for $3.
There were menacing BVN insignias on garbage bins and apartment walls, but there was also the eternal light of California soaking the decay in cinematic color. If I were sober, if I were alone, I probably wouldn’t have walked here.
Intoxication, used wisely, is a gift. When nerves are soothed, adventures commence.
What glories the cessation of fear brings to the eye. Every corner revealed something: teal and brown homeless tarps seemingly sculpted, the wood pallets in the alley placed with artful intention, a wood gate in the back of a parking lot like the entrance to an old western town.
The best buildings were the forgotten ones: The steel walled packing house on Vesper St., the pink stucco cottages on Cedros, and 14225 Delano St. a mid-century structure with a dark green cornice and an inverted glass wall, respectable, laconic and businesslike.
It was Sunday night but some people worked.
On Bessemer St. a worker at Technology Auto Body buffed a gleaming pick-up truck, squeezing the last minutes of light to finish his job.
Last night, these fearsome streets, Calvert, Bessemer, Vesper, Delano and Cedros, were peaceful and passive. Sometime soon, this walkable, neighborly and nostalgic area will revive, and these ramshackle adventures through denigration will take their place in the history book of Los Angeles.
In the first third of the 20th Century, Los Angeles developers built many tall apartments in the midst of single-family homes.
One sees, in the older sections of the city, in West Hollywood, Koreatown, and West Adams, the presence of five, six, even ten story apartment houses that pop up, sometimes mid-block, in-between single family properties.
These photographs of buildings, from the USC Digital Archives, are historically valuable, but also aesthetically heartbreaking, for it shows a city where architecture mattered, and humans were housed in civil, respectable, affordable places. Isn’t that the bare minimum expected in a “First World” nation?
There may have been poor people in 1925, but they didn’t live in the tens of thousands under bridges, on park benches, or wander the streets as zombies, covered in dirt, screaming obscenities. Nor would the society back then have allowed mass vagrancy as public policy.
The old buildings were strong and subtle. They wore their classic proportions without irony. They commanded respect quietly. They stood confidently, wore facades in single colors, and were built of solid materials like brick, solid concrete or smooth stucco.
Today, market style makers demand new apartments broken up nervously in clashing colors, painted in clownish and garish hues, most likely to reduce their bulk, preventing probable offense to neighbors prickly over density. They scream fun, but omit horror on the first of each month when rent is due.
But, in fairness to these attention grabbers, at least they have a dialogue with the street, and introduce shops and ground floor activity to the area. They just do it in the Instagram way, by shouting, “look at me man!”
The old buildings always marched right up to the sidewalk. You entered by walking up to an entrance. And this zoning reinforced the urbanity of the neighborhood, because it created chances for pedestrians to interact. Compare that to six lanes of Sepulveda, and parking garage apartments where the only people walking outside are selling something illegal.
Imagine if Van Nuys Boulevard near the Busway had a Langham or Talmage Apartments with hundreds of residents who walked to the bus, or rode their bikes, or ate in restaurants in the neighborhood?
The old civility of courtyard housing, of interior spaces, shielded from the sun, planted with greenery, done with subtlety and grace, that is also how this city used to build.
What is preventing the State of California, the City of Los Angeles, the people of this region, from banding together to amend the harmful zoning laws that prohibit certain types of structures, once commonplace 100 years ago, from being built again?
“A whopping 87 percent of LA’s total housing supply was built prior to 1990, while only 13 percent was built in the last 25 years.
More recently, between 2010 and 2015, we’ve only added approximately 25,000 new units. That number does not include all of 2015 and includes none of 2016, and it will grow by 30 to 50 thousand in the next several years as existing developments finish construction and planned projects get underway. But at best we’re roughly on pace for housing production similar to the ’90s and ’00s, both of which saw historically small amounts of new housing and historically large increases in housing prices. That’s not a boom, that’s the continuation of a decades-long slump.
This slump is reflected in our city’s vacancy rates, which have a direct relationship to home prices and rents. Lower vacancy rates cause prices to go up faster. It’s exactly the same relationship we see with unemployment: When unemployment is low and fewer people are looking for work, labor is scarce and so workers can sell their labor for more money. As a result, job applicants and existing employees gain bargaining power and their average pay increases. Likewise, when housing is scarce, landlords gain bargaining power and rents increase.”
The plot: two sober living men intoxicated by young beauties get drunk on self-deception.
I mulled this idea around in my head since the beginning of the year, choosing the title early on.
Originally it was about a man chasing a woman and chasing his youth while she turned his life upside down. Boring and banal.
I wrote pages of that story and then destroyed it, something I never have done.
Then I went back to something a playwright named JRB once told me. He said he tears a photo out of a magazine and begins to write from it.
I used that concept, of seeing something visual and then building a tale from that. It happened that I have a friend who is a painter, and I like his work, and he lives nearby, so his art propelled me to write.
Maybe this is all boring. I happen to hate those NPR radio shows where some producer or director or actor or songwriter talks about what inspired them.
So I have been on a month long hiatus from most alcohol including beer and wine. I wanted to see how staying away from drinking made me feel and so far it’s been good. My pants fit easier and I don’t wake up in the morning with a headache of regret.
But I still went to the 3rd Anniversary Party at MacLeod Ale. Which, as I said for a few years now, is the best thing to happen in Van Nuys since maybe 1960.
Friends and near friends were there. I went back and hung out with some people and we drank and laughed and everything was fun.
There was one eccentric, older woman with red hair. I decided in my intoxication that she should join our group and I pulled her over.
She immediately asked everyone where “they were from.” She didn’t mean Reseda or Santa Monica, she was inquiring about the ethnicities of all the people.
And the usual bragging rights afforded to the mediocre came out. “I’m from old Norwegian stock and on my mom’s side her father was a ship captain from Ireland and we also have some pirates who we trace back to Crete, and then on my grandmother’s side she had a distant relative who was a first cousin with the Rockefellers.”
When her finger pointed to me, I knew what was in store so I dodged the bullet. When you are around drunk people you don’t say your last name is Jewish. You say Russian. So I did. That seemed to satisfy her, and she related my background to something noble that helped elect her leader who was making America great again.
Around the hops the discussions continued. This time the drunken brother of a regular customer was making fun of another person who he said was “a fake boyfriend of my sister and definitely gay.” The chuckles and the chortles of the regular dudes continued and they made fun of the man they pegged as gay.
It reminded me, in a strange way, of those days, long ago, in Lincolnwood, IL when I was friends with the Clarke Family and good old Pete, Dave’s older brother would greet me at the front door with “Hello Fruit!” or “The Fruit is here!” There was always a laugh on that one, the calling out of that which is not normal or regular.
I think I was 10 at the time so I didn’t understand what he was saying. But my father, schooled in Chicago manliness, honed on the ball field, said, “My son is not a fruit!” and so I learned I better not ever be one.
It is now 2017 but you wonder if those sober vows of tolerance are really just ready to burst especially when the intoxicated gather. There is public tolerance for almost everything that once set teeth on edge: gay people, pot smokers and growers and sellers, mixed race couples, trans people, obese people with tattoos, homeless people. We think it’s OK for people to walk around mentally ill and sleep in the street, and we are quite “cool” also with two dads for Sarah, and if Sarah wants to become Sam, that is “cool” too.
Everything that once made us uptight is “cool” just as everything else is “amazing.”
And maybe when we are sober, and rational, we decry the hate speech, but get a few beers in us, and we revert to our old ethnicities, our old tribal thinking, or old dumbness, really.
And somewhere there are little kids playing well together and everyone gets along great until one little kid learns he is a Unitarian, or a Ukranian or a Uruguayan and then the trouble starts.
On May 31, 2017 it was announced that homelessness in Los Angeles had increased by 23% in the past year, a figure true to anyone who drives down boulevards packed with old RVs, or passes many bus stop benches hosting overnight guests.
60,000 or more are sleeping outdoors, and many more are arriving daily from cold cities and small towns, around the world, to camp out here. Others fought and suffered in our long running theaters of international conflict, and still more lost their jobs, their health insurance, and their families.
But sixty-four human beings are no longer homeless because they now live at the Crest Apartments on Sherman Way, a glistening, five-story tall tower built by the Skid Row Housing Trust which provides permanent supportive housing for people afflicted with poverty, poor health, disabilities, mental illness or addiction.
Or all of the above.
Yesterday, there was a grand opening at Crest, attended by architect Michael Maltzan, Los Angeles County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl, Congressman Tony Cardenas, and District #2 City Councilman Paul Krekorian, CEO Mike Alvidrez of SRHT, and other workers from agencies, private funding groups, banks and the blogosphere.
Little trays of pretty little food were laid out. Smart looking people with downtown clothing and uptown education mingled amongst the residents. The air smelled of refinement called into service for a national emergency.
Two sartorial standouts, a tall man and a tall woman, radiated chicness in oversized collars and skinny, pegged black pants. They said nothing but perused the on-site finishes. I walked up the stairs with them in silence. They must have come here on their way to LACMA.
As the dignitaries spoke, a cold, foggy wind blew across the seats, chilling dieting women and putting men like me into a stupor. Yet, perhaps because we live in chilling times, with an international ignoramus in the White House, the words emanating from the dais seemed charged with eloquence and urgency, rousing us from our jadedness.
“Get active not angry!” thundered Representative Tony Cardenas, the former City Councilman whose previous epoch in Van Nuys made everyone angry and inactive.
Sheila Kuehl told a metaphorical story about three women saving drowning babies in the river. One rescued the babies, one taught them how to swim, the other lady wanted to know who was throwing the babies into the water. Sadly for Sheila, the nearest river was the LA one, so it was hard to imagine it flowing.
A Vietnam Vet, disabled, now living here, spoke of his previously unraveling life that left him without a place to put his “NAM” cap. He had been chosen, like a lucky lottery winner, to move into Crest Apartments.
We were all gathered here to celebrate something that is uncommon in Los Angeles: An exquisite piece of architecture, run by a non-profit, financed by private and public funding, dedicated to the proposition that all humans deserve a chance to live in dignity, cleanliness and even artfulness, while rebuilding their broken lives into something moral, fulfilling and contributory.
Michael Maltzan, the architect, has become the go-to guy for homeless housing perhaps because he quietly designs top-notch, low-budget, stripped-down minimalism.
Here, at the Crest, he contrasted a white facade with some bright colors and brought in light. The breezy, gentle, undulating landscaping includes organic gardens, and flowering trees softening his straight lined, laconic forms.
Maltzan is unlike many of his bedazzling contemporaries in Los Angeles. He is a shy reformer, like Irving Gill, or RM Schindler, an architect who builds without fancy materials, but plays with light, inserting windows and openings to create a rhythm.
Walking down the spare halls of Crest yesterday, there was a penitential severity in its white walls and concrete floors, but then you would turn a corner and stumble upon freedom: a bright, open-air lookout, painted in green or yellow or blue.
From the street, the Crest Apartments is like a sting of pearls left in a dumpster.
Smoky, chemical fumed Sherman Way is up there on the list of the ugliest and most inhuman streets in Los Angeles, a road where civilized life was extinguished long ago, hosting a violent deluge of speeding drivers, fuming trucks, asphalt parking lots, Thai restaurants, mini-malls, baklava outlets, tattoo shops, marijuana clinics, car washes, discount marble, gentleman’s clubs, unlicensed medical clinics and an air of impending menace and blazing desperation.
Yet, this degradation is also where you stumble upon one of the gentlest and best-intentioned small projects erected in contemporary Los Angeles.