Boxes both Little and Big

It wasn’t an earthquake that left the wreckage on the left. It was a demolition crew. This former home, in Venice, California, weighed in at around 1200 square feet and sold, just a few years ago, for a few hundred thousand dollars. Its replacement will be three or four times larger, and will sell for five or ten times more.

Venice was never just a refuge for misfits, artists, and poets. It was also a bedroom community inhabited by nurses, garbage collectors, aerospace engineers, teachers, secretaries, janitors, florists, truckers, court reporters, and cost accountants. Along Lincoln Boulevard were auto body shops, bait and tackle shops, firewood lots, hardware stores, diners, bookstores, record shops, and more. Most of that has vanished, as it has from neighborhoods from L.A. to London.

There is, for the moment, considerable local support for affordable housing construction. Last year, voters approved Measure HHH, promising 10,000 units for the city’s homeless. Four years ago, the City Council committed to a citywide affordable housing plan.  Mayor Eric Garcetti recently has made that commitment a centerpiece of his second term, promising 100,000 new units in L.A. by 2021.

None of this has yet slowed Venice’s transformation from middle class suburbia-by-the-sea to yet another exclusionary beach town. Its stock of affordable housing continues to dwindle under pressure from Airbnb, speculative investment, and wealthy families wanting to live within the city’s tsunami zone.

Resistance to these trends is not futile: it is possible to carve out affordable units or enclaves here and throughout the city. Still, I think, victories will be local and limited: there is just too much money chasing too few properties. (For a take on why this is a difficult problem to solve, see this from Steve Lopez). Barring natural disaster, the fifty-mile swath of beachfront from Malibu to Palos Verdes is well on its way to becoming a new Gold Coast.

There is one argument against this transformation that I find especially weak: preservationism.

Preservationism is a favorite argument, for instance, of The Free Venice Beachhead, a local newspaper collective that has muckraked the worst abuses inflicted by unscrupulous developers.

The Beachhead characterizes the newly built McMansions as “big ugly boxes for rich couples.” These large homes have, it’s said, destroyed the community’s more modest charms.

But really: what have these “big ugly boxes” replaced? In a lot of instances, it’s squat and ugly “Little Boxes,” housing Malvina Reynolds skewered a half-century ago with a song that bled sarcasm and snark (here sung by Pete Seeger). It is ironic that the Left, which so detested these suburban homes in the 1950s and 60s now so earnestly defends them. (Sometimes, to quote another eulogy of L.A. development, you don’t know what you’ve got til it’s gone).

Those small stucco-skinned houses – “made of tacky-tacky” – were no charmers.

I know: for more than twenty years I’ve lived in one, built in 1955. It’s a perfectly serviceable house, and was relatively inexpensive when my wife and I bought it on a teacher’s salary,  my parents covering the down payment.

But the house proved less affordable than it first seemed. We’ve had to upgrade a failing electrical system, replace the rusted-out galvanized pipe, repave a disintegrating driveway and repair the foundation. The first year we lived in the place, winter rains flooded the subfloor crawl space. So we had to install a not-inexpensive drainage system. The house is not energy efficient, a growing concern as summer heat waves hit the coast with increased frequency.

We may live here another twenty years. With luck, the house will last that long. And then? I’m under no illusions: Après moi, le bulldozer.

Opposing new construction because it’s “ugly” is to misread Los Angeles. It is perfectly traditional here to build a fantastical family spaceship right up against a dingbat apartment complex, overlooking a Section 8 low income housing project, adjacent to a century-old beach cottage, all in sight of faux half-timbered façades, concrete heraldic lions, and phony Mediterranean roof tiles.

Reyner Banham understood this. Shortly after Malvina Reynolds wrote her anti-suburban anthem, Banham, an architectural critic, began his classic meditation on L.A.’s cityscape, Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies. Of the city’s boxes, big and small, he said this:

Very large areas of Los Angeles are made out of… elementary cubes – they nestle among the foothills and line the straight venues of the plains. They are economically, structurally, and – given the sunshine – architecturally, the local norm and vernacular. Anyone who begins to understand Los Angeles visually has to accept, even celebrate their normative standing.

Fifty years later, Banham still gets it right. The problem with McMansions is not aesthetic. The problem is that, if big boxes are the only boxes we build,   we’ll force working families to the margins.

I do not really care what your house looks like. I care much more that L.A. and other cities do not strangle their own economic lifeblood by closing themselves off from all the people who make cities possible.

To the right is another shot of that recently demolished Venice house.

The forlorn drapery is poignant, a reminder that a family – a middle-class family – once lived here. Their kind – our kind –  won’t be returning.

Don’t mourn the house. Mourn the family.







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