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Revising Los Angeles’ DNA

Photo by Ted Soqui

No one moves to Los Angeles to get an apartment. Or at least not to end up in one. An apartment here is a way-station, a temporary fix until the college loans are paid off, or until the band is signed, or the screenplay is sold, or you make partner, or you tie the knot. Or it’s a refuge, for when things go bad, like when you’re served with divorce papers, or you suddenly lost your knack as a day trader. A really nice apartment is the mark of stunning and climactic success in Manhattan or Paris. In L.A., it’s a sign of quirkiness, transition or defeat.

Isn’t it? After all, the most distinctive strands in the cultural DNA of Los Angeles are the car, the street and the detached single-family house. The top is down, the radio is blasting, there’s a buddy or a soul mate at your side, who smiles as you grab your burger from the drive-thru and cruise back to your street and up the driveway of the 1960s ranch-style tract house, with stucco walls, the lawn in the front, the pool in the back and perhaps a long-neglected basketball hoop and backboard bolted over the garage. This is the life that Top 40 songs and family sitcoms were made of. The Beach Boys never sang about apartment living. The Beaver and the Brady kids never had to pound on the ceiling to quiet the noisy upstairs neighbors.

Or maybe you’re in your Beemer, wending your way up the leafy hill street that leads to the remote-controlled gate and the faux Norman spread that once barely missed making the “Hot Properties” column in the Sunday Times. Or it’s a minivan, with the kids in their soccer uniforms fighting in the back seat, pulling up to the red-tile-roofed pink stucco Spanish bungalow that has seen better days and hides its windows behind iron bars, but still proudly sports a giant palm tree growing from a postage-stamp yard. At the end of each ride is home: stand-alone, with a fence or a hedge. Your house. Your land. And maybe the bank’s.

Study that Los Angeles DNA more closely, though. A majority of Angelenos don’t live in cottages, mansions or tract houses but in apartments, and there is no living unit more emblematic of L.A. than the three-story dingbat apartment building, parking spaces underneath, stucco-covered, unadorned but for a starburst and maybe the lettering of an inexplicably tropical name, like the Mauna Loa Arms. You lived here for a while, or someplace like it, whether you admit it or not. Perhaps you live here still.

Apartments have been an essential and often iconic part of the L.A. lifestyle from almost the beginning. Yes, the rich folks built themselves Craftsman lodges for their winter sojourns, but soon there came the bungalow court, for the less wealthy, and that then morphed into the courtyard apartment complex. Raymond Chandler wrote stories of secret lives lived in Spanish Revival mansions, but there were also the two-story Spanish apartment houses, nearly as private as stand-alone homes, with creamy plaster walls, wrought-iron rails, tiled outdoor staircases, maybe a turret and a fountain in the secluded courtyard.

Arthur and Nina Zwebell, unschooled in architecture but brilliant in imagination and design, virtually invented the garden apartment in the 1920s with their Andalusia apartments in West Hollywood. If you wanted Italian instead of Spanish you could try the Davis brothers’ nearby Villa d’Este, or get the best of both with the Zwebells’ Casa Laguna. L.A.’s obsession with single-family homes aside, who wouldn’t just as soon live in a Zwebell apartment, if one ever became available?

Residents today of the depressing Jardinette apartments, which rumble with the vibrations of passing trucks on the Hollywood Freeway, may never guess that their cellblock-like building on a dismal and forsaken street is a landmark of modernism, the first L.A. work of Austrian transplant Richard Neutra. Later Neutra apartments leave behind the grim prewar European approach to apartment living and instead update the bungalow court, with flat roofs, glass and stucco, banded windows, and a typically Neutra combination of machine sensibility and woodsy comfort. The Elkay, the Kelton and the Strathmore in Westwood offer housing in many ways superior to that offered in adjacent $2 million homes, as does Neutra’s nearby Landfair, even if the architecture is lost on the UCLA students who use the rooms for keggers. Meanwhile, there may be no L.A. house more iconic than John Lautner’s flying-saucer-like Chemosphere, but for actual living in you might prefer Lautner’s quirky Sheets Apartments, also known as the Tree House.

There also grew high-rises that were meant to house wealthy transplants from back East but became the faded palaces of L.A. noir. In addition to those Spanish mansions, Chandler wrote about the Bryson apartments near MacArthur Park, “a white stucco palace with fretted lanterns in the forecourt and tall date palms,” with marble steps and a Moorish archway “over a lobby that was too big and a carpet that was too blue.” Chandler described a dozen frowzy apartment buildings like this one, their best days behind them, if they ever had best days. Philip Marlowe lived in a place like this. Fifteen years ago they were falling apart and hurting for tenants. Today they command top dollar.

But these monuments are the apartments of yesterday, and even if you throw in the postwar dingbats and their 1980s and 1990s counterparts, they still provide less than enough rental housing for Los Angeles. As single-family-home prices rise, as commutes from the ranch-house-strewn suburbs grow longer and more tension-filled, as young professionals cast their eye toward a more urban lifestyle, apartment construction and conversion in Los Angeles has exploded. More and more people want to rent, or they have to.

Artists, as is so often the case, led the way, staking out space in warehouses and remaking the eastern edge of downtown in the 1980s. They paved the way for “loft” living, made legal in 1999 with an adaptive reuse law that for the first time allowed the old banks and office buildings on downtown streets like Spring, Main and San Pedro to be legally converted into living space. Developer Tom Gilmore made the old height-limit “skyscrapers” into a neighborhood.

Meanwhile, developer Geoff Palmer drew less adventurous and more safety-conscious urban pioneers downtown with his Medici Apartments, a fortress overlooking the Harbor Freeway. He kept the ball rolling with new gated palaces with names like the Orsini and the Piero, and along the way was charged with a misdemeanor when his bulldozers demolished the last 19th-century home on Bunker Hill to make way for more faux-Italian apartments for the formerly commuting class.

Then in 2003 the adaptive reuse law went citywide, and steel-and-glass skyscrapers are now being turned into apartments. L.A. was once imagined as the perfect linear city, with single-family homes on either side of Wilshire within walking distance of the business towers that stretched from downtown to the ocean, but it never materialized because it never took into account the possibility that the people who lived in those houses might want to work somewhere else in town. But now people are moving into some of those towers, and renting out rooms that once were offices. How will that change the cultural pattern of L.A.?

In the utopian dreams of urban visionaries, the new proliferation and desirability of apartments will rewrite the essential code of Los Angeles, creating communities where once there were only streets. It works that way in New York, where you can rent and still be a stakeholder. Will it work that way here? Apartments, after all, are inherently transient. You pay your rent until you don’t want to anymore, and you move on. You deal with landlords, but not mortgage companies.

Angelenos who rent have been a majority of the population for more than a quarter of a century, but because of their very transience, or perhaps their relative lack of wealth, they have yet to make their presence felt in law and policy. That’s about to change. Renters are growing in numbers and income, and in the coming years may shift the balance on questions like expanding rent control, funding public transportation and providing parks in lieu of parking.

At the same time, apartment dwellers are far from monolithic. The new hunger for urban living that draws young professionals from the suburbs to the Orsini or the top floor of a 1920s bank puts upward pressure on rents in the nearby dingbats and cellblock apartments, where families of six pack into one-unit apartments only to wind up on the street when their rents are doubled or tripled.

Neighborhoods as disparate as Echo Park and San Fernando are going upscale at a head-dizzying pace as suburban newcomers, often political liberals whose grandparents may have fled the exact same streets 50 years ago, are moving in and displacing Latino families. It is part of the tragedy, irony and puzzle of reurbanization. The suburbanites move in for the character, force out the people who created the character, then destroy the character.

“The so-called progressives are gentrifying our community!” declared San Fernando Mayor Nury Martinez recently, at a forum on gentrification.

To defend themselves, residents are organizing against “los yuppies,” forming tenant support groups and demanding protection of their elected officials.

None of this is unheard of in Los Angeles, but on this scale, to this degree, it is new. L.A. will always have single-family homes. But we stand at the dawn of an era when the cultural patterns here will be defined less by the tract ranch house than by the apartment balcony. Apartment L.A. will never look or feel like Manhattan. But just what it will look or feel like, it’s too early to tell.


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