A light rain fell yesterday morning, and after the weather system left, the skies were clear, the sun came out, a few clouds hung in the sky. And I went for late afternoon walk with camera.
Near Bessemer and Cedros, in front of the Valley Planing Mill, along the sidewalk bordering the Orange Line, is a metastasizing and makeshift encampment of homeless men and women.
It has grown, to encompass an area that probably accommodates some fifty people, who have erected tarp-covered boxes, umbrellas, tents, and wood crates as shelter from the rain and the sun. Around the temporary housing are shopping baskets piled high with anything and everything one might buy at Target.
A green metal fence, protecting new cars owned by Keyes Chevrolet, encircles a rented out parking lot leased from Metro. It provides a safe and civilized enclosure for automobiles. Vehicles are well taken care of, except for one or two burned up, sitting in their spaces with melted and deformed bodies.
Humans (who did not want to be photographed) are left to fend for themselves on public sidewalks. Bed sheets and rattan mats are hung on the fence to sanitize. Privacy, cleanliness, and dignity are pulled out of dumpsters and transformed into street fortresses.
The situation here is appalling. But words do not suffice. And moralism, directed at politicians, developers, law enforcement, social workers and the homeless themselves cannot make sense of this 21st Century barbarism in our Golden State.
If desolation, emptiness, and gigantism are attributes in architecture, then the buildings around the Van Nuys Civic Center achieve glory simply by virtue of their nihilistic presence.
For here, on the streets bounded by Van Nuys Boulevard, Calvert, Sylvan and Tyrone, is a void at the center of Van Nuys.
As a real place it functions only as a photographic metaphor for enormous potential wasted in sheets of concrete and glass.
Michaelangelo Antonioni’s “L’Eclisse” (1962) set its alienated characters inside the vacated EUR district of Rome, Italy dreamed up during Mussolini’s time. Our Van Nuys, the post-war place of big government, benevolent institutions and perfect planning, came of age at the same time.
But it’s all a miserable failure, a disfigurement, a monstrous banality.
In the middle of the day, there are barren plazas, empty arcades, ribbons of cleared sidewalks.
But even dying, there is a weak, faint cry to just do something. It is chronically ill Van Nuys asking, begging, pleading…. for resurrection and recognition.
In its empty post office, in the blank walled State Office Building, in the rows of vertical windows slit into the yellow brick mass of the James C. Corman Federal Building, in the vast parking lot of gravel, chains, walls and a NO ENTRY sign behind The Superior Court Building, the whole mass and substance of the district is on the gurney in the ER hoping for resuscitation.
At the center of Van Nuys, in the historic heart of the San Fernando Valley, in a place that is now 105 years old, nobody willingly visits . They arrive, instead, in handcuffs or carrying legal papers. They are under subpoena, on jury duty, in custody, filing a complaint or reporting a crime.
John Wayne, 42, actor, father of four school age children, went to Van Nuys High School in November 1949 to get a tour of one of the city’s first mandatory driver’s ed programs.
In a November 28, 1949 LA Times article, Mr. Wayne learned that Van Nuys was equipped with a fleet of driving school automobiles, donated by local dealers. 285 students in their sophomore year were enrolled in the instruction program. The school was in the vanguard of teaching drivers ed, the first to do so.
It was a time when education in Los Angeles partially derived its pedagogy from auto dealers. They supplied the tools. The schools provided the teachers and the students.
The driving instruction course was now mandatory across the city of Los Angeles, which was the most automotive centric place on Earth.
Mr. Wayne’s appearance at the school caused fluttering female hearts to beat faster, and provoked admiration from the boys.
So complete was the coming transformation of Los Angeles that eventually all the streetcars would be ripped out and replaced with wide boulevards and freeways and we would all get to breathe that brown air and sit in traffic for the next 80 years.
General Motors, Ford, Chrysler, Packard Studebaker and Hudson were like Honda is today: they made it their mission to help the community advance towards gridlock, smog and sprawl.
And Van Nuys, once a walkable little town with nice little shops, would find its instructional lessons applied in destructive ways.
There were plenty of pizzas and sodas at last night’s meeting of the Van Nuys Neighborhood Council.
Exasperation was the theme of the meeting.
Ten tables long, the Van Nuys Neighborhood Council has now grown, along with waistlines, to encompass twenty people; and the length of the officials with made-up titles now almost pours out onto the sidewalk.
As usual, there were older white women bemoaning the appalling conditions of Van Nuys, including people sleeping on the streets and the poor condition of trash containers on Van Nuys Boulevard, where no humans shop, walk or eat unless they are forced to.
This being Los Angeles, the heartfelt sympathy and emotionality was in evidence for those problems related to the automobile. The situation for one resident was dire. This man lived in a one-car garaged house on a certain street with two hour parking. He had no driveway. His vehicle was being ticketed. Couldn’t someone help him he asked in a ten-minute exchange.
First I cried because I met a man with no eyesight, then I cried because I met a man with no garage….
A woman got up to talk about someone and something that had touched her heart. She was almost in tears, but I had trouble understanding what brought her to the brink.
Another man who runs the “LICK” Committee spoke about by-laws and promised to help the man who lived in the house with the garage on the street with two-hour parking.
An elderly man got up and said it was not right. And a half hour later his wife got up to speak and said it was wrong and should not be tolerated. What it was was anybody’s guess.
Outside the meeting, Van Nuys Boulevard, Heart of Van Nuys, was deserted, its eight lanes of traffic and empty shops somehow not appealing to hipsters, late-night dinners, and romantic couples out for a date.
Despite the utter evident failure of Van Nuys as a civic and commercial entity, the Assemblyman Adrin Nazarian spoke to the gathered on all the issues he was working to solve and his agenda seemed at times to be larger than the Planet Earth.
Transportation funding, cutting tobacco use, gun control legislation, minimum wage increases, climate change action, renewable energy, earned income tax credits, cap and trade issues, green spaces, affordable housing, earthquake warning systems, VA drug prices.
Assemblyman Nazarian checked off an impressive list of issues whose resolution, if that day comes, promises a heavenly San Fernando Valley free of expensive housing where green spaces and reliable public transport shuttle people around to health care; where affordable drugs and professional medical help is there for one and for all, legal and illegal, young and old, vet and non-vet.
Two hours into the meeting, a sour faced group of old men in tan, anxious to present their proposed hundreds of units of housing to the VNNC, had barely any time to talk of the truly huge changes that might be coming to Van Nuys Boulevard.
And the architect with the $20 million apartment and retail project was told to come back next month as time had run out.
I forgot to mention the board members arguing about plastic bags.
Driving down Moorpark St. in Studio City last week, I passed a notably austere and well-designed apartment under construction. I stopped and walked around and shot some photos of the building which had precise lines, solid forms and possessed an architectural sensibility of the 1930s.
I later looked up the architect online and wrote him an email. To my surprise, he responded in detail. Even more surprisingly, he is a man who has been practicing architecture for over 50 years.
Here is what he had to say about the state of planning and architecture in Los Angeles, especially as it relates to the San Fernando Valley.
I have not disclosed his name to protect his privacy.
Thank you for the complimentary words regarding my apartment project. They are truly appreciated. I looked at your excellent blog.
Your involvement in trying to better the quality of life in Los Angeles is noble. I suspect, however that you are constantly faced with the frustration and anger of dealing with a Los Angeles bureaucracy that has become stifling and counterproductive.
The planning department has been a dismal failure as long as I can remember and has continually failed to address the real and important problems that have faced our city.
I am sure you know the recent history of the Valley better than I do. I came to Los Angeles as a child in 1948, just after WW2 ended and lived in West LA.
A trip to the Valley was a bit of an adventure. Mostly open space. And it was hard to find a restaurant or much of anything. I did not realize then what we were soon going to lose. Tough-minded, enthusiastic, returning soldiers were coming to LA during this period wanting only to work and raise families in peace.
I was fortunate to have a few of these men as instructors at the U.S.C. School of Architecture. The Valley provided an abundance of cheap land on which to develop housing. And with the coming of these returning soldiers, a major Valley building boom began. Housing tracts and apartments were built as quickly and cheaply as possible. It was an exciting event to see a searchlight in the sky and drive towards it to find what new business opening it heralded.
All of this was happening with virtually no master planning. One bland community rolled into another. As I drive the Valley today, I find it kind of fun to try to identify the architectural styles, if you can call them that, of each of the building booms in the 60 plus years since the end of the War. Thank God for the mature landscaping that is making the Valley environment somewhat more pleasant. I find myself, grudgingly, seeing a kind of quirky nostalgic beauty in whole thing. But enough rambling. No easy answers.
The specific problem you face in trying to elevate the quality of Architecture in LA is a tough one. It entails getting greedy bottom line developers to take an interest in the environments that they are building. They only ‘design’ that these developers relate to is that which they feel is necessary to rent or sale their product. This design is too often provided by their spouses or a friend with “good taste.”
A developer buddy of mine once exclaimed with the excitement of discovery that he had figured out how to build a modern building. It is simple he said – no details, white paint and a flat roof. He unfortunately built a number of large apartments in the Valley with his newly discovered understanding of modern architecture.
The developers must be taught that they have a moral responsibility to the community to provide good environment. Good luck on this one. Developers must also be taught that over time a well-designed building will make them more money.
The bureaucracy must be scaled down and restricted on the number of code provisions and roles that they can enact without public input and approval.
I have acted as an Architect, owner builder, and small time residential developer in LA for over a half a century. In the early 1960s, both the California State Board of Architectural Examiners and the A.I.A. for being an “Architect-Developer” chastised me.
There was a conflict of interest they said, not understanding the value of having the Architect as the developer as to opposed to a bottom line businessman. I chuckled when some years latter I ran across an ad for a course called the ‘Architect as a Developer’ sponsored by the A.I.A.
Yours is not an easy road to travel, but please keep it up.
If things are ever going to get better, and I am a pessimistic about this happening, it will take a rising up of the community, under leadership like yourself, to demand the changes you that you are seeking. Thank you for your efforts and good luck.