Carnival

Look!  A Carnival Cruise liner has floated down Vine Street and dropped anchor at the end of our street.

As proposed, the Onni project ‘1360 Vine Street’ stands a block wide, with half a million square feet of upscale floorspace.  Five liquor licenses, a podium-level pool deck and umpteen variance and waiver requests, the project towers more than 260 feet above Afton Square – our quiet, backwater neighborhood of historic 1920s single-family bungalows in the flatland of Hollywood.

The project’s ‘open-air’ design, hung with a rigging of cantilevered skybox balconies, constitutes an ‘interpretive tribute to the California bungalow experience,’ crowed the architect.  The polished facade of his fancy suit afforded not the faintest wrinkle of irony.

Our street, our neighborhood, our history, now even our ‘experience’ has been acquired by a consortium of Canadian developers fronting Chinese money.  The ‘1360 Vine Street’ project is just the latest port excursion for moneyed cruisers prospecting for profits aboard the hot-pants Hollywood party circuit.

Slighted, blighted and benighted, we saw the lucre coming.  When we moved here almost forty years ago, the smart money was in asphalt.  Back then, from his bachelor penthouse high atop the Roosevelt Hotel, self-proclaimed ‘Mayor of Hollywood’ Johnny Grant presided over an empire of parking lots.

But soon Hollywood – once low and open as a dusty western town – began steadily glinting with veins of gold.  Grant had seen the future and delivered it up in crisp little parcels, empty and cleared for development.  The subway bored in and the buildings went up.

Don’t get me wrong.  As one who has stared into the abyss of Hollywood and Western on a hot summer night in 1979, I welcome a shot at a proper post-Buchowski city.  After all, following a life of literate debauchery, even Hollywood’s most famous citizen abandoned his gritty neighborhood to find paradise in the rural charms of San Pedro.

But now that intersection is an abyss of a different kind, more harrowing and more unnerving.

I drove two thousand miles to escape the soggy skies and hicktown expectations of the Midwest, and now here they are, on my doorstep: America the earth-tone strip mall, indistinguishable from Anywhere, USA.

Hit the Interstate and witness the literal end of location: Same gas, same food, same pink liquid soap that smells like high-test and perfume, an ocean of franchise and beige spreading from coast to coast while the cloistered black sites of capitalism – the hills of Beverly and Hollywood – never looked so green and bohemian, and private.

Down in the flatland we watched in horror as the billboard monolith of the W Hotel rose up out of a giant hole on Hollywood Boulevard.   What, exactly, is that cladding material: stone or plaster?  It looks like a checkerboard of gingerbread and chewing gum, ready to be served up with milk or burst into flame.  What it does to sunlight is an assault upon the optic nerve.  The chandeliered lobby is a drunk’s delirium, equal parts cackle and retching.

But now the rooftop palm garden, with its pool and private cabanas, sway fifteen stories over an equally fevered expansion of homeless encampments lining the streets below.

The peeling pawn shop and dusty liquor store that occupy Vine Street at Afton today are not my idea of glamor. But in the absence of that, I’ll take some local Bukowski character and color.

Hollywood renaissance? Smack in the middle of the most famous city in the world for the arts, where is our own signature building?  Downtown is graced with Disney Hall, while we get… what?  The ghastly Highland Complex faux-Egyptian shopping mall, that gibbering, mind-wrenching monument to the gnashing, nattering nonsense of modern life.

Who’s running this goddamn show?

We have been through this before, on another street, in another part of Hollywood. And so we are familiar with what I call The Developer’s Tautology.

Of course the project is out of scale for the historic neighborhood of Afton Square. But when another proposed project levels the block across the street and the glass and concrete canyon slips further down Vine, this skybox ‘bungalow experience’ will fit right in, an ‘interpretive tribute’ to the lives we live today.

Perhaps I am confused: Is this a negotiation?  Is this the developer’s version of shock and awe, the most outrageous, max-profit presentation, in full-color renderings?  The architect could not contain his enthusiasm.  “Notice,” he pointed out, “how the building falls away at such an angle that our tenants cannot see the top?”

A comforting detail.

But standing on my front porch looking West, a wall of concrete will blot out the sky – a mountain of bungalow balconies, filled with happy cruisers, looking down.

There is talk of reducing the height, and fighting for a few low-income units in the back. Either way, the message is clear enough: It is we who are out of scale, out of money, almost out of time.

A friend of ours has been researching her retirement. She visited condos in Seattle and communes in New England.  She travelled through small towns and forgotten cities, hot and cold, East and West, driving through rainforests near the Canadian border, driving through the steamy tropics of the South.

And when she came back she decided what she really wanted was to stay here, in Los Angeles, right in the very center of things, where the world is still young and teeming – the only place she has ever felt at home, among the seekers and the dispossessed.

At the end of our quiet street in Afton Square, one of the few remaining registered historic districts in Los Angeles, a Carnival cruise liner has dropped anchor.

Trapped, now, somewhere between Disneyland and Vegas, in a place where even money looks fake, how are we to stay?

Where are we to go?

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