Time of the signs

As I’ve mentioned here many times before, I spend a lot of time working and performing in North Hollywood, which has really sort of become the de facto downtown of the San Fernando Valley even though Van Nuys is where all of the L.A. City Government stuff is and Burbank is considered the hub of the entertainment industry, although only one of the Big 5 movie studios is actually there. That’s because most of the smaller production companies and post-production houses are in that city.

But North Hollywood, along with Universal City (guess which studio is there, even if one word in their official name is a lie), are the two Valley communities that are directly connected by the L.A. Metro Red Line to Hollywood and Downtown L.A. (DTLA) themselves. In fact, it was the opening of the North Hollywood Red Line Metro Station on June 24, 2000 that jump-started the process of North Hollywood rapidly changing (some would say gentrifying) from a place that you would not have wanted to be after sunset to a place that has a thriving night-life and a rich artistic culture. There are theaters both live and film, art galleries, several escape rooms, educational spaces, coffee shops, tons of restaurants, and tons of actors and artists who live here.. It’s also home to the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, i.e. the Emmy People.

Despite the gentrification, it still has some of the cheaper apartments and housing available in the Valley, all conveniently within walking distance of those theaters and performance spaces and the subway. And while it was long known as North Hollywood, sometime during this whole process it was rebranded as NoHo. To be honest, that’s an expression I first used in an unproduced play of mine years before anyone else said it, and in my take it was a put down — emphasis on “No,” but I’m not bitter, and that’s not the point here.

But that’s just background to this piece, and the TL;DR is that at one point in time, up to about twenty years ago, NoHo was a shithole of a place. Once the arts started to flourish here, so did the neighborhood itself, and it’s still great. But it is starting to show some cracks. For one thing, there has been a sudden, recent influx of homeless people in the area. Here’s a paradox, though. Winding up with a lot of homeless people is actually a sign of success of an area, not failure. That’s because people without the security of a place to live are not going to risk trying to survive on the streets in a place in which it is not even safe to live inside. Homeless people don’t flock to Detroit, or the South Side of Chicago, or South Central L.A.

Fortunately, voters in the city of Los Angeles passed things like Proposition HHH and Measure H, designed to help the homeless, and we’re starting to see the benefits. (Ironically, the big hold up to making this happen isn’t government red tape. It’s the inevitable NIMBYs who want to help… unless they think it will affect them directly.)

So, back to the original point and reason for this article. One of the projects that popped up after NoHo started to recover was a place called NoHo Commons, a mixed-use development that combines living and commercial space, as in apartments and condos on top of commercial businesses and next to office space, all of it on top of or adjacent to public transportation hubs, like the Metro Red Line NoHo Station which connects to a ton of bus lines, as well as the Orange Line that crosses the Valley from east to west.

And, oddly enough, it’s been a big success. Or maybe not oddly at all. Hey — connect a transportation hub to housing, arts, places with jobs, several schools, thriving nightlife, and places with some sort of tourist interest, and you are going to have to make a concerted effort to fail. (Update: As I was working on this article, I found out that the Art Institute of California-Hollywood, across the street from the theater I work at, was abruptly shut down due to alleged fraud on the part of administrators. So I guess that some people did make a concerted effort to fail, which kind of proves my point.)

So the easy success in a community like this is what makes me so curious about the phenomenon documented in the photo up above. That LED sign is officially called “Drive By.” It’s 240 feet (73.2 meters) long and six feet (1.83 meters) tall, and at one point was activated by passing traffic. Apparently, it used to alternate between displaying famous movie quotes and showing abstract patterns based on cars driving below, replacing approaching yellow blocks with red splats when one lane passed another in the opposite direction. It was created by the City of L.A.’s public arts program in 2007. Ironically, it was shut down not long after by an ordinance from the city’s own Department of Building & Safety because it was (wait for it) classified as advertising. To be fair, though, it may have been more the result of ambiguous wording in that law rather than malice, and the sign was brought back in 2011.

But I’ve been hanging out in NoHo for a while now, and the one thing that has struck me all during that time is how obviously “Drive By” is in bad repair. A lot of the quotes are not readable because of missing or burnt-out LEDS, and there are times when the display itself stutters into jiggly blocks of nothing before tossing up another quote with many missing letters or words. And I have to wonder, what’s going on?

I contacted the city’s public arts program to ask who is responsible for the sign’s upkeep now — is it still the city, or is it now a private entity? And is its current state of repair due to a lack of funding? If so, is there any way that concerned citizens can help. Unfortunately, I haven’t received a reply yet but I’d like to get this story up, so I will update that part if I do get some answers.

I suspect that it’s most likely that the public arts program is spread thin at the moment, because there’s just so much public art in Los Angeles, so maybe they just haven’t noticed yet. It may not be a funding issue, because the programs derive their money in two ways: a one percent levy on the cost of construction, improvement, or renovation jobs done by the city, and an assessment on owners of private development with projected values over half a million dollars, based on either a per-square foot fee or one percent of the project’s Building and Safety valuation, whichever is less. Given all the development and construction going on in the city right now, these are probably not trivial amounts.

And it’s not like NoHo Commons is hurting. Their ground floor storefronts along Weddington, Lankershim, and Chandler are full of thriving businesses, most of them some sort of fast casual restaurant, and they have Wells Fargo Bank as a corner anchor, plus 24 Hour Fitness as the upper floor tenant. The two apartment buildings attached, The Gallery and The Lofts, seem to be well-occupied as well. There’s never been a time that I’ve been in the area that it hasn’t been crowded with people.

So the sad state of repair of “Drive By” is still somewhat of a mystery to me, but probably emblematic of the natural dichotomy that is a part of every major urban area: The good and the bad, the beautiful and the ugly, the pristine and the decayed, all jam together in the same public space in an endless waltz between two partners who, while mismatched, brought each other to the dance, and so are destined to keep on spinning around together forever, neither one of them sure who’s leading.

Photo credit: Jon Bastian

Training

As the rail transit system in Los Angeles continues to expand and improve, it provides more and more options for getting around this sprawl of a city without a car.

I find hopping on the subway, riding to a random destination, and then just walking around a couple of miles exploring to be ridiculously relaxing and strangely liberating. Once I’ve gone down the escalators and through the turnstiles, I’m suddenly not bound to where I parked anymore. I also get a much more intimate view of the city by walking through it instead of blasting past it in my private urban pod. Not to mention that it’s a great way to exercise.

The city is full of people, too, and one of the things I love most about LA is that when I get on the train I know that it’s going to be full of people who are as diverse as humanity itself is on the entire planet. Pick any random subway car at rush hour, and you can probably find people on it with backgrounds from six continents (sorry, no penguins!), and at least half a dozen whose first language isn’t English. I also see people of all ages, and lots of families traveling together.

What have I never seen on an LA Metro subway? A fight. Now, that may just be because I’m not a regular commuter so I haven’t had enough exposure, but people on LA subways seem remarkably polite to each other. Well, except for the dipshits who have their headphone volume so loud they might as well be carrying a boombox, but at least most of them actually seem to have musical taste, and it’s their ears, not mine.

I’m not sure why I find the experience so relaxing, though, considering that it consists of long stretches of sitting (or standing) on a moving vehicle interspersed with some heavy-duty pedestrian activity. Today, for example, if Google Maps is accurate, I did about three miles. And, since I always seem to forget to bring my headphones, I’m not distracting myself with music. I just distract myself by annoying all of you by over-posting about my experiences to social media!

Okay. I suppose the real reason it’s so relaxing is that it helps to quiet down the circus in my head — and as those unfortunate enough to have gotten into close proximity with that party know, it’s not just the Big Top in there. It’s all Three Rings, the whole goddamn Midway, and a ridiculous Sideshow thrown in for fun. But no clowns. No clowns. I hate clowns!

What I do love are trains and treks and discovering things about my own hometown that I wouldn’t have seen if I hadn’t taken the time to look. Today, a friend of mine pointed out in response to one of my photos (Hi, Charlie!) that we Angelenos don’t realize how lucky we are to live in a place that people actually save up and pay a lot of money to visit. Now, I’ve worked in or on the edges of The Industry for my entire adult life, so I know how little Hollywood actually has to do with the entertainment business. But you don’t see hordes of tourists in Burbank (well, except at Warner Bros.) for a reason. And for all its cheesy wonder, Hollywood Boulevard is kind of interesting if you just take it for what it is: as fake as the teeth and tits on most actors, male or female, but still nice to look at.

Incidentally, I’m 99.9% sure that I was conceived one summer day in an apartment building half a block north of that boulevard and right next to Grauman’s Chinese Theater. I’m that sure because I’m also sure that my parents weren’t that adventurous, so it wasn’t in the theater or in the back of a Ford or something.

I think. Which just reminds me that if I had ever had kids, at least one of them would probably have been conceived in a car. Except, oh, right… can’t conceive with that combination. At least not without making the news.

But I do digress. Wherever you live, take a moment to discover your town — native or adopted — like you’re a tourist. You might be surprised at what you see.