We’ve Got the Covids

We made it almost three years but finally caught the Covid. Thankfully we’re fully boosted and doing okay.

Kelly woke up with flu symptoms on Tuesday and used a home test kit that flagged her as positive. A very nice friend and neighbor offered his garage accessory dwelling unit for me to quarantine in. As a precaution I went to my health provider for a test on Thursday which came back positive today and now I’m back in our house.

Kelly felt bad this week and her doctor put her on anti-virals that seem to be working. I have very mild symptoms so far.

I think we’re in the midst of a huge covid surge that’s vastly under-reported. I know a lot of people who have come down with it in the past few weeks.

I’m very thankful for our dear neighbors who are looking after us. Be careful this holiday season.

LA’s Gangsters

Image: DSA-LA

I got sucked into local politics out of a desire to help make our car-centric city a safer place to walk and ride a bike. After years of effort I came to the realization that the establishment politicians who run Los Angeles can’t be worked with, that they need to be shown the door. I also came to understand the interconnectedness of the problem, that unsafe streets are just a symptom of a crapitalist system that also creates economic and racial inequality.

Working with elected officials here is incredibly frustrating. I found them arrogant, dismissive of activists and only interested in answering the needs of their wealthy campaign contributors. As it turns out they’re also literal gangsters.

As many of you might know by now, since it made international news, a surreptitious recording of a meeting between LA city council president Nury Martinez, councilman Gil Cedillo, councilman Kevin De León and Los Angeles County Federation Of Labor president Ron Herrera surfaced over the weekend. Because the coverage of this recording by local and national media has been not always complete I want to emphasize that, in addition to the truly vile, racist talk on the recording, we should not lose sight of what this meeting was all about: machine Democrats, in a backroom with a corrupt labor leader, gerrymandering their districts to cling to power and disenfranchise African-Americans, renters and progressive voters.

Almost half of the city council is now either in jail, under investigation or caught up in this recent scandal. My own city councilman, Mitch O’Farrell is attempting to distance himself from Nury Martinez, Cedillo and De León but we should not let him do that. On the recording Herrera says, “I want to make sure we protect Mitch.” If you live in Mitch’s district you should vote for his challenger, Hugo Soto-Martinez who is part of a young group of activists challenging LA’s status quo.

If there’s something good that has come out of this weekend it’s that the old order seems to be collapsing much faster than I ever thought it would. There’s a motion to put a measure on the ballot to expand the size of the city council, which has been just 15 representatives for a city of 4 million people since the 1920s. I suspect that progressive challengers like Soto-Martinez and Kenneth Mejia will win on November 8th.

But there’s still a lot of work to do. Now is the time to seize the moment. The old guard relied on us all to be passive and let “the adults” lead. We all will need to pitch in and participate in local government and at our unions to make the changes we need to make. Some resources:

DSA-LA voter guide

Knock LA’s coverage of the leak

LA Podcast Emergency Episode

Mike Bonin’s moving speech at yesterday’s council meeting

Reject Modernity Embrace Post-Capitalism

Meme using a photo by Edward Burtynsky.

I had an aesthetic/moral/anxiety crisis this month which triggered a case of writers block that just wouldn’t stop. The causal chain of my block had a number of reasons but let’s just say that the feel-good filters we use when navigating this world dropped away for me a bit and I became overwhelmed by the multiple crises we seem to be in right now.

One of those problems is the sorry state of the places we inhabit in what we were all taught is supposed to be an “exceptional” country. I think it’s safe to say that the quality of cities in the U.S. went into a steep decline with the ever expanding sprawl of the latter half of the 20th century. Robin Wall Kimmerer in her book Braiding Sweetgrass quotes a Native elder “The problem with these new people is that they don’t have both feet on the shore. One is still in the boat. They don’t seem to know whether they’re staying or not.”

In our day to day lives we screen out the horror of this rootless landscape. We don’t think anything of navigating a hellscape of cars, concrete, billboards and power lines. Worse, our filters blind us to the suffering of our fellow human beings: the poor, the disadvantaged, refugees, and those suffering from substance abuse and mental illness. These filters, instilled in us Americans through the rhetoric of exceptionalism, also don’t let us see the exploitation and injustice perpetrated in our name around the world.

We live under the spell of a rapacious capitalism that’s a race to the bottom and the aesthetic ugliness that surrounds us is just the visual manifestation of a system that accumulates unfathomable wealth for a few and leaves so many people bedding down every night on the hard concrete.

Perhaps we need a Virgil to guide us through the layers of hell and purgatory we find ourselves in and lift the filters from our eyes. During my period of writers block I kept thinking of writers, artists and film makers who attempt, sometimes successfully and sometimes not, to wake us from sleep walking through this injustice both aesthetic and moral. I thought I’d rattle off a short list of people who aspire to this role, each of whom actually deserves a lengthy blog post of their own.

High Culture Haters
A long line of enemies of modernity has queued for this gig but unfortunately they tend to have a right wing outlook I’m not a fan of. I’m thinking of people like Roger Scruton, Prince Charles, James Howard Kunstler and Trad Architecture Twitter shit posters. The problem with these critics is that they reduce the problem to the moral failings of designers and architects. They conveniently avoid the real elephant in the room which is a capitalist system that seeks to exploit human labor and relationships and every single resource the earth has to offer. In short they are moralists who fail to make a systemic critique.

Michelangelo Antonioni
I just re-watched two of the films of one of my cinematic heroes, Michelangelo Antonioni: Zabriskie Point and The Passenger. The first part of Zabriskie Point takes place in the billboard strewn and ugly Los Angeles of my childhood and even includes a scene at a gun shop just blocks from the house I grew up in. I think what makes these first scenes so compelling is, in addition to the astonishing cinematography, Antonioni’s outsider viewpoint: as a foreigner he can see the things we filter out.

There’s a trajectory in the film from the student revolutionaries at the beginning to the liberatory ending with its discordant Pink Floyd soundtrack over a literal explosion of American consumer goods. Zabriskie Point dates from a period, long before the Marvel dreck we’re stuck with now, when people still thought a movie could change the world. On re-watching Zabriskie Point this year, that final scene sent a shiver down my spine because, let’s just say, I have hope that we’re about to experience its revolutionary potential.

I won’t get into the The Passenger but, in short, it’s a prescient commentary on the post-modern condition of Instagram inauthenticity and you should definitely watch it. The Passenger is the internal landscape to the physical landscape of Zabriskie Point.

Skeleton88

https://youtu.be/UC47WI2Vl4c

There’s a YouTuber who goes by the name Skeleton88 whose hobby seems to consist of making high res videos with a GoPro mounted on top of a car while driving around Las Vegas and other western U.S. cities. His videos, as bleak as anything in the horror fiction of H. P. Lovecraft or Thomas Ligotti, have no narration or music.

I don’t know Skeleton88’s motivations. Sometimes I think these sorts of videos are about blaming homeless people and sex workers for blight, as if they were at fault for the ugliness of our cities rather than victims of a system that both creates ugliness and fails to take care of people. Perhaps it’s just an oddball hobby, but Skeleton88’s viewpoint, a kind of car top Eye of Sauron, tends to dehumanize. Google Street View has a similar viewpoint.

To get a better lay of the land you have to leave the car and talk to people, otherwise you separate the built environment from the social relations from which it arose. That said, it’s hard to deny the impact of Skeleton88’s videos where a kind of supernatural horror seems to lurk just behind the auto body shop on a bleak Las Vegas boulevard.

Octopolis

Another candidate for our American Virgil goes by the name Optopolis. He tours and live-streams mostly abandoned retail spaces on the outskirts of towns in Wyoming and Colorado. His videos remind me the essays of the land artist Robert Smithson, who wrote about America’s blighted infrastructure as if it was like discovering a Mayan ruin. I had a lot of trouble narrowing down Octopolis’ prodigious output for this blog post. I recommend you spend a mind bending evening binging his work. And if you’d like to know what I was like as a young person, well . . .

Segregation by Design

Segregation by Design is a website and social media project by architect Adam Paul Susaneck that profiles the erasure of African-American neighborhoods in the name of “urban renewal” during the 20th century. In Instagram, Susaneck posts before and after photos showing once thriving neighborhoods turned into the sort of horrific landscape depicted in Skeleton88 and Octopolis’ YouTube videos. The Segregation by Design website takes a systematic approach, showing how redlining and demographics were weaponized to eradicate minority neighborhoods and install freeways and parking lots to benefit suburban white commuters and financial interests. He’s already profiled 12 cites and has a plan to do many more.

We Prefer the Before

We Prefer the Before is an Instagram account that shows the horrific HGTVification of the last decent period of vernacular architecture in this country, those magic years from around 1900 to 1929. Here in my own neighborhood most of the old bungalows have been bungled by house flippers who rip out walls and details and paint everything white, white and white. Chip and Joanna Gaines are, of course, the ring leaders of this dark satanic trend. Not since the Puritan’s iconoclasm have we seen as much architectural detail smashing.

For you, my dear readers sake, I suffered through a few chapters of Chip Gaines’ latest book in an attempt to find some sort of philosophical basis for this madness. It was all about how much he WORKS and then he WORKS SOME MORE and then WORKS EVEN MORE. Chip’s book reminded me of what Mark Fisher had to say in Ghosts of My Life,

Capital demands that we always look busy, even if there’s no work to do. If neoliberalism’s magical voluntarism is to be believed, there are always opportunities to be chased or created; any time not spent hustling and hassling is time wasted. The whole city is forced into a gigantic simulation of activity, a fanaticism of productivism in which nothing much is actually produced, an economy made out of hot air and bland delirium.

Capital demands that we rip out a perfectly good 1920s bathroom and replace it with the latest stream of vomit from Home Depot. And when the lateral wood and diagonal tile go out of fashion in a few years capital demands we rip it out again. The iconoclasm combined with the de-skilling and exploiting an underpaid immigrant workforce inherent in the flipper methodology deserves a longer blog post.

What we need to end this cycle is for David Cronenberg’s to do a horror movie with the Gaines’ as the art directors. Cronenberg has always been interesting to me because he sets his bio-horror films not where you’d expect, say in a dilapidated Victorian house, but rather in our impoverished and sterile modern spaces. Maybe the sight of some bloody lump slithering across the laminate flooring or a blood splattered giant clock, will finally stop the Gaines’ reign of terror.

Tartaria

Of all the critical looks at our current built environment by far the most insane is the small community of people in the Reddit forum r/tartarianarchitecture. These folks seem to believe (like a lot of internet stuff it’s hard to tell if this is one big troll) that a lost Tartar civilization built all the nice pre-WWII buildings and that they are systematically being erased. Tartaria is architectural Qanon. Here’s how journalist Zach Mortice describes this conspiracy theory,

The overall premise is an alternative history. A vast, technologically advanced “Tartarian” empire, emanating from north-central Asia or thereabouts, either influenced or built vast cities and infrastructure all over the world. (Tartaria, or Tartary, though never a coherent empire, was indeed a general term for north-central Asia.) Either via a sudden cataclysm or a steady antagonistic decline — and perhaps as recently as 100 years ago — Tartaria fell. Its great buildings were buried, and its history was erased. After this “great reset,” the few surviving examples of Tartarian architecture were falsely recast as the work of contemporary builders who could never have executed buildings of such grace and beauty, and subjected them to clumsy alterations.

Like a lot of conspiracy theories it seeks a clear and certain explanation for a much more complex history. I’d be into enjoying this conspiracy, as well as the trad architecture fans on Twitter, if it weren’t for the racism and antisemitism that inevitably creeps into this stuff.

Some good news to wrap this up
We may not have found a definitive Virgil for our little tour of hell but, in the midst of my silly little writers block crisis some good things happened here in Los Angeles. A young activist and fellow DSA member, Eunisses Hernandez beat an entrenched incumbent and machine Democrat, Gil Cedillo in a race for city council almost nobody thought she could win. Another candidate and DSA member that I’ve been doing some volunteer work for, Hugo Soto-Martinez, came in nine points ahead of the incumbent Mitch O’Farrell and will head to a runoff in November.

Both Soto-Martinez and Hernandez represent the sort of leaders who understand the connections between poverty and the sorry state of our built environment. We can take care of people and have trees and beautiful public spaces. Give us bread, but give us roses.

The Great Water Conservation Grift

Governor Gavin Newsom shoveling something with Stewart and Lynda Resnick. Source: CalTech.

For many years we’ve been in a drought here in California as a result of climate change. In response our elected officials, through the mainstream media, push out a message of water rationing in cities. Here in Los Angeles we’ve all been asked to restrict watering to two days a week.

There’s no doubt that we’d all benefit from ditching lawns in favor of native and low-water landscapes. However, I believe these calls for household water conservation are a kind of misdirection from what’s really going on. In short, we as individuals are being blamed for a water shortage that would be better attributed to a class of Central Valley agricultural oligarchs whose profligate water use dwarfs what we use for our urban landscapes.

Journalist Yasha Levine did a superb story on the unholy relationship between governor Gavin Newsom and billionaire pistachio/pomegrante/Fiji Water oligarchs Stewart and Lynda Resnick that deserves more attention. Levine details a hustle typical for our billionaire class. The Resnicks launder their destructive, extractive capitalism through “philanthropic” schemes, in their case things like art museums and a “sustainability center” at the California Institute of Technology. Of course, they are also generous donors to politicians such as Newsom. Here’s now Levine describes Newsom’s trip to the opening of that sustainability center,

“Philanthropists” is an interesting way for the Governor of California to describe one of the most powerful forces in farming in the state — a billionaire family that owns something like 300 square miles of Oligarch Valley land, has its own toxic corporate farm worker town, and, from their ridiculous mansion in Beverly Hills, has been on a destructive quest to eviscerate the state’s river system and plunder its aquifers, helping fuel a mass extinction in the San Francisco Bay Delta…all so they can grow and export pistachios, a fringe snack food that people around here barely eat.

But then calling these rapacious oligarchs “philanthropists” is exactly the point. Governor Gavin was going out to Pasadena to do some public relations work: to lend his name and image and the respectably of his public office to Stewart and Lynda Resnick’s ongoing effort to rebrand themselves as do-gooders and environmentalists, rather than the industrial-scale destroyers of the environment that they are.

Levine also notes the irony of a family that exports water from Fiji and even had a journalist deported for digging around into their sleazy business practices in that country.

In addition to the misdirection issue, hastily conceived water conservation policies have gone poorly when it comes to our urban landscapes. Take, for instance, LA’s horrible lawn replacement rebate program that ended up in the hands of fly by night operators who exploited their workers and left us with acres of gravel and plastic lawns. Or, since most homeowners don’t have any understanding of climate or horticulture, we just get dead lawns or, at best, decomposed granite and a few sad cacti. Coastal California is not a desert yet, and our landscapes can be both lush and not use a lot of water. Plus we might want to use water for things like parks, schools and athletic fields especially when that use is small compared to what the Resnicks extract to make their billions.

My big fear is that, while technically the water restrictions don’t apply to trees, in practice people withhold water from trees and we end up with a further destruction of our already stressed urban tree canopy. Our cities get hotter and the Resnicks get richer.

Hugo for CD13!!!

Our ballots just arrived in the mail here and, in lieu of my usually links roundup, I thought I’d speak to my neighbors to suggest that you vote for Hugo Soto-Martinez for council district 13. The current occupant of this office, Mitch O’Farrell, has had nine years to work on issues such as homelessness and the safety of our streets. He’s spent those years virtue signalling and doing the bidding of his wealthy patrons. Mitch’s campaign funders include wealthy real estate interests, slumlords, lobbyists and gig economy companies such as Doordash and Airbnb.

We need someone like union organizer Hugo Soto-Martinez who, I believe, has a compassionate approach to homelessness as well as solid positions on transportation and the environment. You can read more about Hugo on his website Hugo2022.com.