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Healing a Space

A close-up photo of red and pink flowers.

Dear Readers — 

Since sending out the last Lightplay three weeks go, I’ve been regretting not sending you an update on the jacaranda tree that grows outside my office window. Or, should I say, that used to grow there.

In the very first issue of Lightplay that I (Jasper Nighthawk, a writer) sent out, all the way back in May 2020, in the depths of COVID lockdown, I included a picture of that jacaranda tree, its blossoms a vibrant purple against the yellow insulation of the half-constructed building beyond it. In May, 2021, for Lightplay 014, I took a photo from the same vantage and compared it to the last one. The tree’s flowering was less effusive, but at least the building was more complete. By last May, the building was painted and tiled, but the tree was dead.

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Last October, a crew with a bucket truck and chainsaws came by, felled the snag, cut it up, and carted it off. Two hours later, not even a stump remained. This year we celebrated May Day without our jacaranda.

What a bummer, right? 

My guess for what happened is that the tree died of thirst. Why? The yard it grew next to stopped being watered, because the building the yard belonged to was abandoned. I don’t exactly know when the abandonment happened, or even when it was that the funky mission-style fourplex was boarded up and encircled in chain link fencing, the lawn started going to seed, and windblown trash began collecting on the front stoop. Certainly no one was living there by the time we moved to the neighborhood.

Abandonment is a process. Working every day by the window, I look idly out on the ruin. I notice various things happening around the abandoned building. City inspectors come by to take pictures and write citations. A few times, someone in need of shelter has thrown their backpack over the driveway gate, climbed the fence, and disappeared behind the building, clearly intending to break in. A winter windstorm blew a bunch of terra cotta tiles off the roof. A landscaping crew came by and weed-whacked the whole yard, temporarily knocking down the gangly grasses that clog the yard. Gradually, then all at once, the jacaranda died.

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Writing out the story of this gradual change has put me in a pensive mood. And it makes me think: What makes my neighborhood great? And what makes it terrible? How does a place come together? How does a place fall apart?

There are some obvious, big-picture answers. This place, the eastern end of West Hollywood, is great because of its many trees, its walkability, its general serenity, and its diversity. It’s terrible because of the frequency with which muscle cars tear down our narrow streets, the way too many residents are forced to live unsheltered, and the ambient, ridiculous expensiveness.

But when I actually look at what’s happening, look close, I see so much more complexity. I see the many tiny decisions people make, and the little dramas that play out. Here are a few more to add to the tale of the dead jacaranda.

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The Immaculate Apartment Building

A few blocks east, there is an apartment building that almost glows with the care it receives. It’s similar in design to most of the apartment buildings in our neighborhood: two floors of apartments above a street level “soft story” parking area, all accessed by open-air walkways and stairwells. But this one is low-key perfect: the paint on the railings is all touched-up, the parking areas are spotlessly clean, and in every nook and stairwell there are handsome ceramic planters with short, perfectly-pruned trees that simply sing of their health. On one side of the building there is a ten-foot-wide plot of open land, and this has been shaped into a slope with modest, evenly-spaced, impeccably well-kept plantings.

How is this all possible? Many afternoons, if you go by the place, you will run into at least one of the building’s proprietors—an elderly Japanese couple who are never seen without gardening shears or a broom and long-handled dustpan or the business end of a hose. They care so much, and it raises the tenor of our whole street.

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The Arrested Squatter

Meanwhile, even closer to home, Lisa and the baby and I had just set out on a walk this Thursday when we saw a small tragedy unfolding. Two police officers were arresting a man on the sidewalk in front of the next door apartment building. We couldn’t know what charge the cops were booking this guy on, but the scene left some clues. 

Someone—this man?—had dragged an old red couch into the void under the building’s street-facing staircase. Beside it, right under the concrete stair treads, there was a battered coffee table. Bottles were strewn around. Broken glass. It looked like a crude, outdoor facsimile of a living room where someone had gone on a bender. 

As we passed, one cop was cuffing the man and pushing him into the police SUV while the other catalogued the contents of the man’s pockets on the vehicle’s hood: a wad of money, a bic lighter, a pack of cigarettes. 

Seeing this, I had several thoughts at once. It was obviously necessary that our society intervene in some way to keep the residents of the building safe. The situation under the stairs could not stand. At the same time, I wondered whether arresting this man, possibly charging him with a crime, and locking him up for months or years would do much to actually resolve and heal the underlying dynamics that brought him and the police to this point. It seemed extremely unlikely that this would be the last scene in the tragedy, or that healing would now begin in earnest.

When we came back fifteen minutes later, the cop cars were gone but the detritus under the stairs remained.

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The Monstrosities

Our neighborhood is composed of storefronts and office space and gas stations along the big streets (Santa Monica, Fairfax, Melrose) and then, along the smaller streets between them, a mix of low-rise apartment buildings and single family houses on narrow lots. The older single family houses were generally built over fifty years ago, and their designs follow the architectural vernacular of Southern California: three-bedroom houses in mission style, mid-century modern duplexes, countless cute bungalows, and, in fancier parts of the neighborhood, craftsman mansions.

But none of these are being built anymore. All of the new construction, it seems, is in an emergent style: monstrosity. These houses have identical footprints, with two stories, twenty-foot setbacks from the street, two-car garages, and for each a small back yard. This shape has been settled on as the way to maximize interior square footage within local building codes. (No number is as important to a realtor as square footage.) The monstrosities tend to have floor-to-ceiling plate glass windows facing the street, so that everyone can see the glamorous life being lived inside. (Strangely, more than a few of these windows frame a very public bed.) Maybe the worst thing about them, though, is their facades. These are almost always hideous. The least offensive are the “architected” places with concrete and architectural glass and black mirrored garage doors. Others, though, slap up some columns and shutters and white paint in a pastiche of colonial style, or they center a funny wraparound porch with wicker furniture in a postmodern take on plantation style. 

One particularly hideous example of a monstrosity that seems loosely inspired by, uh, Connecticut, is painted bright white and for a roofline has three tiny dormer windows and then, next to them, somehow three roof hips in quick succession. For all the world it seems that three houses were teleported into the same space, their volumes overlapping in a non-Euclidian mess. We refer to this structure as either “those house” or “that houses.”

But what is most monstrous about the monstrosities isn’t their architectural failings, or their insipid devotion to maximizing square footage, or their uncanny geometries. It’s that they don’t respond in any way to the neighborhood, nor do they add anything to it. A beautiful house can make any passerby happy to be walking down the street in front of it. These make you feel dead inside. 

Many monstrosities are on the market right now. None are listed for less than $4M.

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Kitty’s Garden

Down towards Melrose there is a classic bungalow with a front yard entirely planted with thriving, pokey cacti and succulents. A small wood sign to one side reads, Kitty’s Garden. Oddly enough, though, one never sees a cat there. 

One evening we ran into the owner of the yard. When we complimented his delightful garden, he explained that he couldn’t really take credit for it. The cacti had been cultivated by his friend, Kitty, who used to live down the block. After she died, the house was sold to a developer who was going to put up a monstrosity. So at the eleventh hour, in the dark of night, he went and liberated Kitty’s garden, giving her beloved cacti and succulents a second life in his front yard.

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The Three-Quarters-Finished Townhouses

Catercorner to our apartment there is a block-long row of three-story townhouses that have been under construction since we moved in. Or maybe it would be more accurate to say that they were under construction for the first year-and-a-half we were here, and since then they have been suspended in a state of half-completion.

Who knows why the developers haven’t finished the project. Maybe they ran out of money? Certainly it’s not because demand for housing has dried up in this city. But whatever the reasons, the building has become a strange kind of ruin. Unhoused people hop the chain link fence to go take shelter in the subterranean parking level. Ravens scramble about on the overhead electric lines connecting the building to the grid. Dessicated dog poop accumulates on the sidewalk. 

Late one night, I even caught the moment when someone wearing a black sweatshirt with the hood up stood in front of the green fabric that covers the chain link fence and added their tag with white spray paint. A few days later, a box truck with various paint drums and air hoses in the back came by. The driver went methodically down the fence, taking a picture of each piece of graffiti on a cell phone before spraying it over with dull, army green paint and taking one more picture of the fence, proving for his employer that it was, once again, graffiti-free.

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What makes a city or neighborhood or home healthy? What makes a place rise above the dull norm and become somewhere we actively want to spend our lives? 

One answer that I’ve been preferring: we get there when we consciously work to heal a space.

Lately, rather than asking “What can I do?” I’ve been starting with the question, “What can I heal?”

I can’t say that has made all the difference—but, well, it’s a nice place to start. It puts me on the side of the elderly proprieters of the nice apartment building and the keepers of Kitty’s Garden. That’s the team I choose to be on.

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Well, I could say more today, but for now I’ll leave it here. I like this idea—that the flip side of harm reduction is health production—and I wanted to share it with you. There’s more to write about it. I’m drawing this framing in part from Christopher Alexander, by way of Jack Cheng’s essay about the assignment of designing a dream house. I’d like to write more about that essay, that assignment, and the book A Pattern Language. It all connects in provocative ways with the idea of healing space. I’d like to explore my own thoughts here. And I will! Sometime soon.

For now, though, it’s Sunday afternoon, I’m down on the rug with my kid, who is laughing as he plays with a little toy that is a mirror on one side and on the other side a fabric picture of a smiling slice of watermelon. His mom is up at the laundromat, loading two weeks worth of washing into the machines, which later I’ll unload from the dryers and fold. The work of household and parent goes on. It complements the role of neighborhood philosopher, but ultimately it’s more important.

Thanks for joining me today, on this waning crescent moon of an afternoon, soon to be evening. I hope yours is full of warmth and good cheer. And next time you see some unwell part of your neighborhood or home, why not start there?