Soon after I moved to Los Angeles, in February of 1992, a lot of other people began to move out of Los Angeles. A less hearty more sociable soul than I might have taken offense, or perhaps even joined that late 20th century exodus from our sorta urban milieu. Just what were these tepid emigrants fleeing? Biblical times, brother: a brief, combustible era of riots, floods, earthquakes, gang violence as depicted on the news and in mediocre films, ostentatious sin manifested in plethoric street drugs and rampant prostitution performed by gals of frequently misleading sexuality. Early 90’s L.A. was largely a depraved freak show, you see, but that wasn’t the only reason I was so enthusiastic about living here. Truth be told, it was even better than it sounds.
If twenty years ago Los Angeles was a cultural smorgasbord, and it was, then I was a ravenous Swede. All of the cultural touchstones that I had begun to seek in college—food, literature, music, film—were in abundance. Sure, this has long been a city protracted all over the place, with many bland neighborhoods to wade through in order to locate the sublime. But the juice was worth the squeeze. A boy who thought Mexican cuisine consisted of ground beef chimichangas and something called an enchirito discovered al pastor tacos, huaraches, and tortas. In L.A., one could (and still can) close one’s eyes, throw a stone, and hit a decent taco. There were neighborhoods in the basin, Westside, and Valley with multiple used bookstores in a single neighborhood, even bookstores that specialized in feminist, sports, and technical books. Used record stores were common enough, and there were neighborhood video stores that carried varieties of foreign, documentary, and obscure films that I’d read about as a film student in Iowa City, but had been mostly unattainable for me in that otherwise lovely college town. To summarize, ahem: “L.A. was a precarious shithole containing everything a boy could want.”
Last month La Canada Video died. Over the past twenty-odd-years, as many other venerable neighborhood video stores closed shop, LCV had been my go to place for films that the local cheapie video stores will never carry. This is where my children were raised on Miyazaki, Kurosawa, and nine jolly hours of Shoah. But now, in a time when consumers opt to spend their money on Netflix and whatnot, LCV’s landlord decided it was time for a precipitous raise in rent, and ultimately LCV could no longer afford to stay in business.
It’s 2014 in L.A., and there are few video stores remaining that are smart enough to carry the abstruse, unconventional stuff. Neighborhoods with multiple bookstores, or bookstores that specialize in specific genres, are near extinction. Sure the ubiquitous state of succulent tacos endures and improves, but aside from that, what the hell’s happening here?
The case of La Canada Video illustrates the pitfalls of a landlord with funny ideas about maximizing profit. When the Chipotles and Starbucks move onto the block, it must be a chore for some landlords not to dream of renting all their property out to deep-pocketed restaurant chains. This in conjunction with L.A.’s perpetual obsession with “the hottest new neighborhood” – as Eagle Rock was momentarily ordained a few years ago, York Boulevard today, and some other ephemeral star tomorrow—one will observe more starry-eyed landlords demanding the sort of rents that will clear a block of many unique, low-overhead businesses. Seizing the pen on the other side of the rental agreement, there will always be those looking to move into the next big neighborhood, be they corporations or other deep-pocketed interests, who will titillate the myopic landlord by outbidding the smaller fella, and ultimately drive all the rents up.
Speaking of myopia, hows about us consumers? What the hell’s up with us? Sure it’s nice enough to be able to order whatever you want on your computer or TV or computer TV without leaving your home, if isolation and convenience are your hobbies. Maybe Starbucks makes a nice cup of Joe; I wouldn’t know. Netflix, my college son tells me, supplies access to a number of excellent television shows that he otherwise cannot find.
But then, he lives in a college town without a decent video store, as I live in a major metropolis progressing toward the same fate. His college town has one small used bookstore and a Barnes & Noble that sells more university apparel than literature. The university runs free buses to the closest Walmart in order to encourage that kind of student commerce. The corporations are beginning to descend on the college towns, much as they are reshaping the cultural space of previously idiosyncratic metropolitan neighborhoods. What do all these corporations have in common? They look bland, offer bland products, and pay crappy wages so that a few people get egregiously rich. And many of us are spending our money in places that are counterintuitive to our best interests.
There is a price to pay for convenience, repercussions resulting from how and where we spend our dollar, and sometimes saving a few bucks ultimately means losing a lot more. If we do not want our neighborhoods to be defined by the blandness of Walmarts and McDonalds and whatnot, if we want to have access to variegated, diverse culture and not just what Netflix and Amazon and Apple chooses to promote, if we do not want our children and their children to be working for the corporations that are swallowing up the independent businesses, we need to stop funneling our money to these non-people. Go buy a birthday present from an independent pottery store or an art gallery, drive a few miles to a video store or a bookstore that takes the time to curate inventory. And take your damn children with you, or borrow somebody else’s damn children, so that they know what it’s like to live in a real neighborhood and interact with real people.
There are still places in America that fiercely cling to their independent ways, that challenge corporate hegemony and encourage the idiosyncratic neighborhoods with their independent book, record, and video stores, as well as countless other cultural mileposts. If every other city succumbs, there will always be your Portlands, Berkeleys, and Austins.
But me, I don’t want to live in those places where it’s too damn easy to walk onto any damn street and see a hundred damn places that are ridiculously cool, god bless’um. I’ve always preferred Los Angeles’ cool-crappy patchwork of here’s an interesting neighborhood, here’s a bland one, let’s see if we can discern between one and the other, because that’s a formidable challenge. Challenges are good for the soul, discerning is excellent exercise for the brain, and Los Angeles’ charm lies in its dual capacity to reward and repulse. We have to fight to keep the repulsive from swallowing up the rewarding, and fighting, when one has a purpose, is the best kind of fun.