When things feel too local, sometimes it's good to zoom out a bit. The Q had business in California last week. As fate would have it, I spent time in places that spoke directly to the swirl going through my head about Central BK.
First, the remarkable transition happening in Downtown Los Angeles. When I first encountered downtown some 20 years ago, most upscale folks wouldn't dare set foot there after dark. And there wasn't much reason for them to go there BEFORE dark either. I recall playing the scuzzy indie-rock joint called Al's Bar, and it was difficult to draw even the tattooed set down there. Over the next few years, various neighborhoods nearer downtown than storied West L.A. started to take off. Silver Lake became L.A.'s hipster neighborhood before the term even took hold. Remember Beck in his heyday? Silver Lake was where you'd see him, maybe hanging with the Dust Brothers, mixing Scientology with break beats. Beck defined the zeitgeist in the mid-90s, and both Sliver Lake and Echo Park were neighborhoods just north of L.A.'s downtown that managed to bring that quirky version of bourgieness east. Some of the lovable true weirdos stayed out at Venice Beach. But a new batch of weirdos took their place closer to D-town. Actually, there were enough weirdos to go around - it IS L.A. after all. Generally, though, for all its claims of eccentricity, these neighborhoods soon became pretty mainstream, in that way liberal art school grads define mainstream - offbeat, but not so offbeat you couldn't have your parents over. Rents, and house prices, headed skyward. Still heading...
But then, lured by cheaper rents and a less overtly chic sensibility, these same sorts moved to Downtown L.A. proper. It became trendy to the hearty. With all the old, derelict theaters and reasonable loft and work space, the bums of Skid Row found themselves panhandling to a new clientele by the early aughts. The moves to Silver Lake, Echo Park, then Eagle Rock and East L.A. and even Downtown seem somewhat analogous to the NYC migration and influx of the past 25 years or so. Recent grads have always trended to the action. And the action in L.A. moved east, bringing with it rising rents and zeitgeist nightclubs, boutiques and eateries. Downtown now has fancy lofts and a business improvement district. Two blocks down the hill from Grand, though, and you find that you're in a NYC-like scene from not so long ago, with homeless people everywhere - I counted a hundred people sleeping on the sidewalks on a short walk at just 10pm. Of course we have tons of homeless too, though not nearly so concentrated in a single "tolerated" area. It undoubtedly won't last long in L.A. Newcomers won't stand for it and, well, it's bad for business. For now, the cheapest hotel in L.A. is the vestibule under an old movie theater marquis. And I must say it's among the most diverse populations of street folk anywhere.
There's a conversation about hipsters vs. homeless Downtown, but it misses by a mile the HUGE percentage of residents - the working poor - who have for years called the area home. In a west coast flip of the NYC norm, many domestics and service personnel live downtown and commute out of the central city for work - to Beverly Hills etc. As I left L.A. for San Francisco I mulled over a conversation I'd had at a chichi arts fundraising event the night before, where we discussed the coming development of downtown. As in Brooklyn, art is being used to lure ever greater real estate investment. MoCA and the new Eli Broad Museum, plus Disney Hall, Redcat and half-a-dozen revitalized theaters and galleries have meant the smart money has arrived. Like the BAM Cultural District, which helped birth the Dowtown Brooklyn renaissance, people of means LOVE to be near the art, even if they don't personally take advantage of it. Like great restaurants and nightlife, you get to boast to your friends and reassure your family at the same time! See, City Life is awesome! And safe! And...arty!
Frankly for the capital C cities of America, art can be very good indeed. It's a euphemism for class change, a harbinger of the money that follows. And though that might sound cynical, maybe even snotty, let me point out that I'm a big fan of art. (Well, some art. Short art...always best to make your point quickly and get out, I always say. That way, if you're unsuccessful you won't waste too much of our time.) The great migration back to America's cities is a well-worn story, and it's often told as a surge in creativity. Even Detroit has its intrepid returners, prepared to remake the City in organic and Portlandian ways - perhaps with a special twist of irony to reclaim its automotive glory days? What if, say, Detroit one day boasted America's greatest bike culture, with lanes wider for bikes than even cars or electric buses? America's wealth has grown to a point where we now play the resurgence of our aged cities as team sport. It's a good news story, the converse of the yarn of the troubled City, dying and desperate, and in need of a cash infusion.
But the story is not fully accurate. The Detroits of the country were destroyed not just from within, but from without. The final blow, it can be argued, was busing, starting in the early '70s. Any last reason many middle class white folks had to stay disappeared after they were being forced to integrate. Yet again, it was race that tore us apart. In order to send their kids to predominantly white schools, the suburbs offered a deal: higher property taxes for a virtual gated community. All across the country it played out. The suburbs were cut-off from the City, with a separate tax base in fully self-sufficient incorporated towns. Now you could have your own Mayor that looked and sounded like you. Segregation was now de facto, not necessarily de jure, and therefore much more palatable. The Cities, starved of cash, stopped paying the bills on "frills" like maintaining housing projects. (Seen "Kill the Messenger" yet? You probably already know the story about our own government dumped crack into the inner cities to pay for dirty wars in Latin America. Heck, if the CIA hadn't 'fessed up I'd have sworn it was just another conspiracy theory.)
L.A. still has room to sprawl of course. But for all the talk of the displacement coming to downtown, there's still quite a bit of "affordable" housing in L.A. Not in the most desirable, trendy neighborhoods of course. But unlike NYC and San Fran (which I visited later in the week), Los Angeles is not particularly confined by water. Okay, the Pacific Ocean blocks you on the west. But L.A. has something that the other two don't. That's right, trailer parks.
Trailer parks are the affordable housing of last result for many people. A minimum wage job might even come close to paying the rent in some of the least fancy. And the crazy part is that the economics are such that people actually MAKE money off of trailer parks. My brother-in-law owns some out in Boise, ID and swears by them as an investment. Apparently some folks can survive in t.p.'s on disability checks and social security. Hardly luxury living of course, but that's what capitalism mixed with welfare and state-sponsored retirement can serve up. At least it's something I guess.
The reason that 80/20, or 50/30/20 "inclusionary housing" have become a hot solution in the San Fran and NYC markets is that we don't have these low tier options for new renters. Sure we might, and should, keep folks in their rent stabilized buildings. But if you have been displaced by, well by whatever, you should have a chance to find new digs. Okay, okay, assuming you're a law abiding citizen and have a bit of income. I get it. These developers don't want to fill up their buildings with deadbeats. But, much like trailer parks, at least it's something.
I dunno. I thought it was an interesting point. If you got all the way down here and you're disappointed, just send me a note and I'll refund your nickel.
|For your consideration, a Los Angeles trailer park.|