Many things in Los Angeles are reminiscent of the classic Western movie façade. A willing suspension of disbelief allows us to imagine all sorts of fictions. No stranger to a rapid pace lifestyle, intense work pressures and mind-numbing gridlock, longtime residents know the importance of finding their spot: a place to take shelter, to make a little green, to calm down. It’s important. We live in something of an illusion if we can find it. On one side, our particular oasis borders a strip of tired old apartment buildings and newer, shoddily constructed condominiums. The area was once low farmland fed by the runoff from the Hollywood Hills. It had moisture the rest of the city didn’t have. Plants were meant to grow here.
The neighborhood’s south and west sides have lovely 1920s homes with ample yards, protected by zoning that is dedicated to the single family home. Sadly, to the north and east, the buffer of homes that stand between opportunistic development and us, is getting smaller. As it turned out, our side of the street is zoned for both single family and multiple units. A multiple tenant building in the 1920s meant a quaint Spanish duplex, whereas now it can easily refer to a 20-unit complex of dubious design with twice that number of cars owned by its inhabitants. When we fell in love with this house, the fluttering leaves out each and every window seduced us away from concerns about the clutter to the north. The zoning wasn’t something we focused on, although for years we’ve directed visitors to drive here through the prettier route. Unfortunately, growth is now encroaching and it’s not the growth of gardens, but of more cement, rebar, and lots and lots of stucco.
Up until now we sat in our house and faced away from it all. We were able to maintain something of an illusion of spaciousness, of a natural world – the mirage of a better reality, right in the middle of the city.
It’s amazing how a sense of calm can be immediately altered with a single phone call. It’s not as though someone died or was harmed, thankfully, but for a household whose members have each moved enough for a lifetime, our sense of feeling settled down was tremendously altered.
The voice on the telephone said he was with a development company. He spoke of other projects his company constructed, but wasn’t specific. The website for the company showed grandiose condominiums – shiny steel and glass. He offered to buy our house and would pay in cash. First came the carrot and then, the stick. His plan was to demolish and build a condominium of unspecified size, upon our lot. When we recovered from the shock at the thought, we asked if keeping the house and moving it to a new location was an option. He had no objection, yet there is so little available vacant land in the city, that the proposition of moving it would be unrealistic.
How ironic to think of the house moving once again. Ed and Tina, our 90-year-old neighbors across the street tell us of hearing an incredible rumbling one day 32 years ago. Walking out onto their lawn they saw our little old house rolling down the street on the bed of a truck. Their home is the first on the street, built in the early 20s when only a few farmhouses sat near Ballona Creek (now a paved viaduct). They compliment us on the new green we used to paint the house and tell us how fond they are of looking out to the sycamore trees as they go out to fetch their newspaper each day. I can’t imagine inflicting their last days with the unsightly view of an enormous condominium complex, not to mention the cutting down of the trees and demolition that would accompany it.
Since that phone call, we’ve gained some information but remain confused. Not having the heart to sell our wonderful home to developers, it took no time at all to decide it wasn’t an option. We could not willingly subject our surrounding neighborhood to the monstrosity that would surely be built and we couldn’t live with ourselves if we destroyed the spirit of this sweet house. It’s also not possible to replace this kind of ambiance, within our means, in the city.
Apparently, the owners of the rental house next door got the call as well, and the fact that they haven’t returned our calls has us spooked. We don’t know if any of the other five houses left on the block received calls and consequently, we don’t know if people in them have made decisions. The chance to sell out in a diminished housing market may be tempting to some, while the potential to weaken the value of our investment is something we can’t afford to ignore, even if the light is pretty and the trees are tall. We may find ourselves forced to offer the house for a regular sale to a person who wants the house in spite of the potential for a 3-story condo next door. Even writing that makes me feel like a traitor.
Not wanting to leave, we research options for trees that grow quickly, that won’t spread too widely and have non-invasive root systems. We think of planting in strategic locations and staying put. Then we remember all the cars and all the sounds and all the smells that would accompany a multi-unit building next door. The sounds of construction and later of arguments and loud music where there have never been any. The smell of cigarettes and bacon that would surely find their way into our windows make me want to bolt. I don’t know the answer yet. It may be that another home would be as inspirational as this one. Staying or leaving – it’s a gamble either way. Ultimately it’s difficult to imagine finding another place with such a long glistening throw of light as this one offers.
I was photographing the house, its grounds and light long before the developer’s call and continuing to do so feels empowering. The work was shifting along the way, becoming more abstract. I’m not sure what role that telephone call played in making the black and white images – possibly a need to isolate an essential element of this place. The botanical shadows were included in many of the color photos, but the emphasis on shadows rather than on the light itself was a subtle change. I don’t consider them darker or more sinister but perhaps they are in certain images. Maybe it’s just seeing the whole picture this time. I’ve always had a tendency, when others are admiring a sunset, to look the other way. It’s my contrary nature I suppose, but I just really love the way everything looks when it’s bathed in the light falling at the end of the day.
If, in the end, we decide to move on, I want a full recording of what happened here in September and December and April and July. The light and all its changes of angle allow for different photographs every day. Most of them I do not take. Generally, I think the camera gets in the way of a lot of experience and I think taking it in is important in life. For every image I grasp with my camera, a hundred more are embedded in my mind, generally the place where the best photographs live.