Street couches are a complex part of Los Angeles' urban tapestry. A discarded sofa tells stories, and you don't need a degree in archaeology to read them. Are there still cushions? It hasn't been outside very long. Is the couch on the curb with a bunch of other furniture in the middle of the month? Looks like someone moved (or got told to move) in a hurry. Each stain is a memory of dinner, drinks, maybe even sex.
People leave couches on the curb because they can't afford to move or dispose of them properly. You probably won't find a street couch in Beverly Hills, but you will find them almost everywhere else in Los Angeles. The city's seal might as well include a dumpy love seat perched above a red curb.
There was a story this week in the Los Angeles Times that started out with so much promise. The subject: Andrew Ward, an Irishman who has been shooting photos of L.A. street sofas for a few years. He posts the pics on Twitter under the hashtag #sofasofla. So far, so good. No, wait. So far, so great.
But then comes the twist: “After Ward has his shot, he uses a phone app called My LA 311 to report the furniture to the city for pickup.”
And there's the problem. The transient nature of Los Angeles' population, combined with its unique blend of cultures, has created fertile ground for street furniture. If you see something decent on the curb one day, there's a good chance it won't be there tomorrow. Sure, some shit stays out there forever, but for the most part people in this city pass around used furniture like goblets at a bacchanal. They're contributing to Los Angeles' sharing economy — and you don't need an app for that.
I've been photographing street furniture for a while now. I registered the domain StreetCouch.com in 2010 and started posting pics right away. Same deal with Twitter and Facebook. The Instagram account came later, because Instagram came later.
Am I saying I'm the first street couch photographer? Of course not. That would be dumb. People have probably been photographing street couches for as long as there have been couches and cameras. I'm definitely not the first. But I have spent a lot of time appreciating street furniture.
After I wrote about Los Angeles' street couches in an article for Vice earlier this year, I was alerted to several other folks across the United States documenting similar phenomena. Over on Instagram, UglyCouchQueen's compositions are beatific, while SadChairs is prolific. Down in the Bayou City, John Nova Lomax has done good work cataloguing street sofas for Houstonia, even advancing the theory that the cushions are nabbed by roofers looking for cheap kneepads.
You'll notice something about all these photographers: They're fans of gritty urban aesthetics, and they might wonder what each ditched sofa says about its former owners, but they present the photos without judgment.
Which brings us back to Andrew Ward.
The only time I've interacted with Ward was last week, after an online acquaintance alerted me to his hashtag:
— joe janecek (@joejanecek) September 7 2014
@joejanecek The more
Perhaps he misunderstood my tweet and read the word “handle” in the sense it'd be used by a Mafia boss.
Taking a photo of a street couch before reporting that same couch to the city is kind of the inanimate equivalent of Diane Arbus hanging out with a bunch of circus freaks in the 1960s and then calling the cops on them for deviancy. But of course Arbus would never do such a thing.
It's one thing to appreciate the urban landscape. It's another to appreciate it and then want the artifacts removed.
If you want to call the city to pick up a sofa in your own neighborhood, good on you. But in my experience a lot of couches get scooped back up by the community, or at least the cushions do, and you're wasting that opportunity when you ask the city to haul a piece of furniture away immediately. You've decided to involve City Hall, as if only paid staff (and you) know what's best for people in other neighborhoods.
Let's all give everyone a chance to share first.