The Incarcerated City.


_ABH2013 On these winter days, when the streets are emptied of cars, and the skies are filling with rain clouds, our neighborhood of Van Nuys cools down and empties out, revealing a strange amalgam of enormous parking lots; as well as businesses and homes surrounded by iron gates and fences.

In its entirety, these fortifications evoke prison: a high security, patrolled, guarded, and fearsome place where criminals and children are kept back by a fortress of steel and iron.

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For sixteen years I’ve lived here, always imagining that every New Year will bring an imaginative, humane and socially comprehensive new architecture into Van Nuys.

I fantasize that the parking lots will be torn up and rows of orange trees replanted in the soil. I think someone will see the enormous plots of land, now taken up with blight and decay, and see this as the new place to construct walkable communities with native plants and organic gardens surrounding little residential communes.

That is the dream, shared by some of my neighbors.

Reality is something else.

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On Sepulveda, between Archwood and Lemay, the hellish Ridge Motel is on Death Row, surrounded by fencing and covered with graffiti and garbage. It had long outlived its usefulness and functioned only as a prostitution and drug outlet, blighting its surroundings and neighbors.

Across Sepulveda, Fresh and Easy has closed, taking with it moldy produce and difficult checkouts. But sometimes I’d come here, and liked its convenience, its weird combination of English, Indian, Spanish and Asian foods, its overpriced milk, eggs and breads. And I miss that friendly manager who always smiled and helped me.

One Thanksgiving, about 2012, we bought our entire meal here and ate it back home with my mother, a pre-made, plastic topped collection of containers with sweet potatoes, mashed potatoes, stuffing, cranberries and turkey. My father had recently died, and my mother was to die two years later, and the holiday meal had a morose sadness intensified by the microwaved artificiality of our victuals.

Fresh and Easy is gone, but what remains are those walls and gates around it, and that big parking lot in front, and a reminder that even when there is no business, or no people, we will still live in an incarcerated city, a place where entrances and exits are controlled, and guarded from either imagined or real, chaos and crime.

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And those vast spaces of nothingness that are spread all over, those too are outdoor jail yards of lifelessness, neither urban or rural, human or natural.

These are the prisons that keep us captive and hold our imaginations and our existence hostage.

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Freshly Uneasy

Fresh and Easy, Van Nuys, CA.
Fresh and Easy, Van Nuys, CA.

Fresh and Easy moved in, a few years ago, into a mid-century shopping center on the SE corner of Vanowen at Sepulveda.

The first time I went to this British import I left unimpressed. It was like buying groceries at IKEA. It felt impersonal and cheap.

But gradually, in these years of lots of want and little cash, the nearby store with its handy $5 off coupons, green cards, self-service checkout, and reasonably priced items, grew on me.

A very friendly store manager recognized me, and she always said hello. I would quickly come down the aisles, with my reusable canvas bag, and snap up bananas, packaged lettuce, shredded carrots, potatoes, onions, tomatoes, eggs, milk, cream, 99-cent French bread… and get out quick. Salmon and chicken, beef and pork, sausages and luncheon meats, everything was stocked and easy to get. Esoteric mustards, organic soups, Indian and British foods were mixed into the eclectic shelves. Balsamic vinegar, almond milk, coconut rice, clam chowder soup: oddness and affordability.

The parking lot was not crowded. It was easy to get in and out of.

And, unlike Trader Joes, the drivers were not eye-rolling, mirror-checking, sunglasses on botox bitches behind the wheel. The de-facto driver was that sweet 200-pound mama in black spandex in a 1994 Nissan, slow and steady and smiling.

But that all might change. Forever.

Now it seems that Fresh and Easy will be closing hundreds of its stores in the US. The official announcement has not been made for the Van Nuys location, but the rumors of its impending demise seem ominous.

If F&E leaves, we will have the dirty but interesting 99 Ranch Market, specializing in Asian foods and decaying fish smells; and the bigger and equally strange Jons up on Sherman Way, well stocked with produce, but short on anything eaten by college graduates or urban metrosexuals: jars of Armenian pickled vegetables, bins of dried chilis, Mexican carbohydrates and sugary desserts, Mexican sodas, Mexican pork fat, freezer fulls of pork butt, pork head, pork shoulder, and plastic wrapped two-dozen quantity chicken leg packages, 50 pound boxes of Sun Detergent and aisles of frozen Russian Vodka.

Fresh and Easy was Van Nuys’ last chance to reach out to the Prius crowd. People who shopped here were poor but grew up rich.

If it dies, so do the dreams of all young, pale, tattooed and hungry gamers, bloggers, consultants and artists who live north of Oxnard.