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When Roxy Music was recording “Street Life” for the 1973 album Stranded, they hung a mic out the window of AIR Studios above Oxford Street, but they didn’t like the results and they ended up mixing in the sounds of a Moroccan market instead. As “Street Life” begins, we hear traffic amid four haunting chords and a shimmering hi-hat rhythm, and then Bryan Ferry belts out that he wishes everyone would leave him alone. He goes out for a walk. “Each verse seems to have its own character,” he later said, “like blocks on a street.” A fan since my youth of early Roxy Music, I still hear that song’s ethereal city vibe when I, too, wish everyone would leave me alone and, like Bryan, hit the streets.

If I go left, heading into what I think of as downtown Echo Park, I glimpse the green folds of the Angeles Crest as I pass Craftsman and Victorian houses and courtyard bungalows. I turn onto Sunset Boulevard, passing barber shops, burger stands, bookstores, and botanicas. I can get my knives sharpened and my shoes repaired, shop for groceries, eat eighty different kinds of food. The streets are full of people of all kinds, even as Echo Park comes twentieth in a walkability ranking of L.A. neighborhoods, according to some website. MacArthur Park, which is more population-dense than parts of Manhattan, ranks higher, as does Hollywood. But here I have the option of avoiding commerce by going three blocks north to the park, where I can walk miles of shaded trails. Or stroll my little residential enclave, where people are sitting on their stoops, a guy is working on his ’68 Camaro, trees are heavy with citrus, softball-size dragon fruits shine redly through a fence. I can walk to Echo Park Lake, due west, entirely through an alleyway, where among overgrown fig trees and sidewalk pulverized to dirt you might think you were in some Mississippi backwater Barry Hannah was describing, but you’re parallel and just behind Sunset. At the lakefront are picnickers, food carts, fishermen creating what my son refers to as “pressure on the lake.” One day I watch a guy and girl furtively produce a pristine white duck from a knapsack and release it. They’ve clearly just bought the thing at a live-poultry shop and are trying to rewild it among the mallards and grebes, but the mission seems also to be a form of courtship.

On these walks, minutes from home, I am certain that Los Angeles, which I moved to from New York twenty years ago, is the most beautiful city in the world (and yes, I have seen the world). But that’s only if I go west or north or south. If I head east, toward downtown, 1.5 miles away, my booster talk ebbs. It’s freeway overpasses, empty lots, and fortress-like buildings, a dead zone.

I should be able to walk to the opera house, Walt Disney Concert Hall, the Broad, the Bradbury Building, or City Hall, to the grand old theaters on Main Street, the jewelry district, Union Station. To Philippe the Original on Alameda, a hundred-year-old deli where undertakers from the nearby mortuaries park their hearses and stop in for a sandwich. To the new Frank Gehry building on Grand, across from my son’s music school. (Late in life, Gehry now seems to believe in design that prioritizes not postmodern showiness but plazas and shade and places for the passerby to sit.) But to get to the pedestrian-friendly world downtown involves several blocks of monolithic residential architecture along freeways, all by the same developer, inward-facing buildings with dark and empty storefronts, bunker parking, and sky bridges. The tenants of these places don’t have to ever step foot on the street. I’ve heard they are mostly USC students, but you don’t see them. The only people I might encounter are unhoused individuals, and those in this particular area often appear to be in severe mental crisis, as they linger beyond buildings that are as obdurate and closed as medieval armories.

Dubbed the Renaissance Collection, these buildings form a plaque that separates the people of Echo Park from downtown L.A. They were built by Geoffrey Palmer, a little man who resembles a ventriloquist’s dummy and is gifted at making enemies. Palmer buys up forlorn and odd plots alongside freeways, where he builds his “Italianate” developments, as Italian as leatherette is leather, but less charming. In 1973, the artist Gordon Matta-Clark purchased random little slices of land around New York City for a conceptual art project he titled Fake Estates. Perhaps the unsavory parcels that Palmer acquires would remain similarly conceptual were it not for the very real fake estates he builds on them. This is his own defense—that he’s building where no one else dares—but he seems to take almost libidinal satisfaction in perching rows of apartment balconies over the 110–101 freeway interchange. The off-white stucco exteriors of his buildings are coated with soot within days of completion. In 2003, he illegally bulldozed the last Victorian of Bunker Hill while building the Orsini, a few blocks from my house. Palmer is vehemently opposed to affordable housing and has spent tens of millions on lawsuits and ballot measures to ensure that he won’t have to build any. He recently settled a class-action suit over systematically keeping tenants’ security deposits. One of Trump’s biggest donors, he has bragged that his company hasn’t paid federal taxes in thirty years. In the fall of 2014, a fire was deliberately started in Palmer’s half-built and wood-framed Da Vinci, a block down from the Orsini. Flames shot higher than many buildings downtown, stretched a city block, melted freeway signs, and cracked one hundred and sixty windows in the iconic John Ferraro Building, headquarters of Water and Power. The consensus among architects, residents, and journalists was that almost anyone could have started the fire, given how many people hate Palmer. City commissioners joked, in a planning meeting, that they sure hoped everyone present had an alibi. The city sued Palmer for the reckless conditions that allowed the blaze to grow so large. The person who started it was caught and sentenced to prison. He supposedly did it for Michael Brown, to protest the police killings of unarmed black men. No one was hurt. The Da Vinci was promptly rebuilt.

“Why is Everything So Ugly?” wondered a recent editorial in n+1. The editors structured their thoughts on the subject around a Situationist-style dérive they take through New York City. They begin by pondering a new condominium tower limply called the Josh, which has been erected in place of a recently demolished hundred-year-old building. The Josh, they tell us, is made of plastic, concrete, and “an obscure wood-like substance”—materials that have been chosen not for quality and beauty but on the basis of global supply-chain availability, a cookie-cutter design review process, and a cost-saving preference for semi-skilled labor. The Josh is already looking shabby at five months old. When it rains, its façade gets “conspicuously . . . wet.” Their dérive continues past more than one Bank of America, alongside a vape shop, and into a theater, where a shitty franchise based on a TV show of a comic book is playing. After the movie, there’s a run-in with blindingly bright LED lights, resulting in a visit to urgent care.

Google reveals that the building the editors are calling the Josh is actually the Greenpoint—located, as you might guess, in Greenpoint, Brooklyn—but the Josh does more work to illustrate certain ideas than the real name might. I think I know eighteen Joshes. No offense to any of them; I too have a common name and would wager the Josh could have been called the Rachel in the blink of an eye. Still, the Josh has a certain sound when isolated as a branding mechanism, with its soft landing into sshh, whether put to service selling wine or machines for living. I chuckled about the Josh. It, or he, made me think of that guy Tom from MySpace, everyone’s first friend. I imagined Tom living at the Josh, enjoying an industrial salad at a particle-board table. But names are merely symptoms. They are not the cause of “the violence of the new ugliness” that the n+1 editors ponder. Branding arises from standardization. If the things that are made are more or less the same, difference itself must be manufactured.

The Situationists first began undertaking their dérives—which means to drift, to walk without a fixed plan—in response to a rail strike. Guy Debord and others tumbled drunkenly through the night, walking or hitchhiking, and found that the new routes they forged promised a change of orientation, a new outlook. In Debord’s autobiographical Panegyric, at a point in his life when he had lost hope in the city and headed for the hills, he regrets that a “flood of destruction, pollution, and falsification had conquered the whole surface of the planet, as well as pouring down nearly to its very depths.” (Had Debord, too, noticed how wet the Josh was looking?) Five years later he shot himself in the heart. It wasn’t just that everything was ugly and the revolution stalled, if not foreclosed. Alcohol had done him in.

I decided, on a recent afternoon, to conduct my own dérive, straight into the morass between my street and downtown. I left the house, took a right, another right, and then a left over the 101 freeway. If this overpass could talk, I thought. It might tell of the many women and the many nights of flinty bargains with men in cars. By daylight, it was empty. I turned left onto Temple Street, passing a hotel that abuts the 101, and a sun-blasted bus stop where my kid was let off in grade school, and from which he began conducting his own dérives. This block of Temple has a bakery, a liquor store, and until recently, D’Bongo Party Supplies, then falls into a post-human stretch: there is a tow yard, a recycling center, a cul de sac against the freeway where there was a tent encampment until it burned, and a huge and empty bus yard. That’s all on one side of the street. On the other is the massive retaining wall of a high school baseball diamond. The reason there is open land here, greenery, even if it’s chemically treated monograss beyond chain-link, is that this was an oil field, and it isn’t safe to put up buildings. (What look like lampposts around the field are actually vents that allow methane gases to escape.)

Beyond the baseball/methane field, I pass our own version of the Josh, but it’s called the Charlie. The Charlie is new. There used to be an auto repair and car wash here that was run by a family. Now there is a narrow eight-story building in “space gray” with a gaggle of red real estate balloons bobbing on the wind. I have driven past at night. The units are dark, while the Charlie’s eight-story “parking podium” glows meanly, prison-bright.

From the Charlie I cross the street toward a new Palmer monstrosity on a ten-acre site that used to be a Bank of America data center. Construction is not yet finished. The invasive palms that have been chosen as Palmer’s signature “lush Mediterranean landscaping” have just been trucked in and still have their fronds gathered into ponytails. Even with their fronds let down, they will provide no shade. There’s a giant piss-elegant fountain but it’s dry. now renting 2 months free + free parking, a big sign says. The name of this new addition to Palmer’s suite of Italianate freeway rentals is the Ferrante. Maybe the name came from his wife, a Parisian who seems a little more cultured than he is. Perhaps she’s a fan of Elena Ferrante’s books. I have no proof. I’m guessing.

We’ve been told for years now that Elena Ferrante is a fiction, a made-up name, like Tom, or the Josh. But someone is of course writing those books. Whoever they are, they’re talented, but the insistence on anonymity is starting to seem a little showy, even a bit tacky, if not as tacky as the Ferrante and its 1,150 units. I pass its blank row of street-level commercial spaces. Palmer won’t even try to rent them out. And apparently there’s no fine for leaving them empty. As an architect explained to me, he doesn’t build that income into his plans. Why should a developer care if there is street life? I turn left and walk under a highway overpass and approach the rangy back edge of our neighborhood CVS. What does CVS stand for? No one seems to know. Everything you might want to buy there is now locked up, and you have to press what feels like a panic button to get access to the shelves.

I cross through the parking lot, past a weird machine with a tower on it, flashing a blue light. This is some kind of automated security apparatus, but I’m not sure how it works. A barefoot boy asks me for a light. I don’t have one, I tell him.

Remember how outraged everyone was to discover that the author JT LeRoy, supposedly an ethereal rent boy/lot lizard, was actually a middle-aged woman? They acted like this was the ultimate con, something ugly and counterfeit masquerading as something genuine and tragic and hot. Meanwhile, Elena Ferrante is purporting to be a middle-aged woman. What if she’s a teen boy turning tricks in parking lots? I think, as I turn out of the lot and go right on Sunset.

I walk toward Palmer’s Orsini, which lines both sides of the street, all of its commercial space dark and empty and locked. There is no one here except one man in rags setting bits of trash on fire on the sidewalk. Is it Palmer’s fault that people are setting things on fire? It’s more complicated than that. But with no street activity, people act out. Or, their actions are starker, and less muted by a variety of people and vibrancies that a healthy street should reflect. At the end of this very long, sterile block is one other person, a young woman. Her arms are covered with injection scars. She seems not to notice me. She’s in a kind of Sisyphean struggle, attempting to push an e-scooter that is not activated, its wheels on lock.

The next day I drive back down this street, heading to pick up my son from music school. I spot the woman who tried to push the scooter. She’s still here, as if this bleak zone were her proving ground. Her shirt is off now, and she is throwing her half-clothed body against the brick exterior of the Orsini. But the building is constructed not to feel her, the street not to see her, and I barely see her myself, because my light is green.

While parts of the designed world might be ugly at any speed, it is only the slowness of traveling on foot that causes true discomfiture, by forcing a walker to behold, worry over, brood upon, those to whom this ugliness shouts loudest.

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October 2023

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