Tuesday, March 31, 2015

The Hitchhiker's guide to the sharing economy

I remember the first time I found eBay.   My parents were incredulous.  But I didn't care where it was coming from.  I just had to have my Britannia Beanie Baby.  So, after a bit of wrangling, I convinced by parents to let me create an account in their name.  To this day my father is known to his sellers only as Bubbleflueff, someone whose transactional history somehow spans Furbie to boxing gloves.  Nearly two decades later, we've crossed into Web 2.0 (I think that's how we refer to it? Or 3.0?), that takes this person to person transaction to a whole new level.

AirBnB.  Lyft (Fine. And Uber).  Fiverr.  Thanks to these services my roommates and I have played host to Canadians, Aussies, Kiwis, Koreans, Frenchmen, Germans, Swiss, Belgians, Swedes, and Americans.  In fact, the only repeat country we've had is two or three American guests.  Traveling abroad, AirBnB has enabled me to get urban design-centric tours of Tokyo, and an exclusive visit into this building (my host owned one of these so I got the chance to stop by, otherwise closed to tourists).  I've been able to rescue myself when I stepped off at the wrong bus stop heading for Newark, and I've been able to locate someone to help me build a smartphone application in much shorter time than it would have taken me to do myself.

It goes without saying at this point, but if you haven't tried these tools, you should. Hint: if you preload your route on Google Maps while on wifi, you can still use GPS data free to locate yourself on the map, all while avoiding international roaming charges.  Oh-one other benefit.  There's also the built in filter that you are bound to meet people who are tech-savvy and forward-thinking.

Yes, it is clear the sharing economy does reflect on a generation of individuals who fell on hard economic times.  But necessity is the mother of invention, and these fruits of the recession are having a significantly positive impact on both local and foreign cultural exchange.

Large institutions arose for a reason.  They fulfilled a gap in the market in the desire for safe, stable operations.  Reliability and consistency trumped identity and gave rise to the leviathan of then hotel industry.  Taxis replaced hitchhiking.  But thanks to the mobile technology revolution, information is now realtime in location too, and an ecosystem of connected services is allowing for the revival of what I would argue is actually the more traditional way of doing business-but with greater accountability.

AirBnB, and other sharing economy services, are not without flaws and controversy.  Yes, I have found a strange-looking stain on the sheets.  Your neighbors may dislike the sudden uptick in strangers passing by their homes.  Rents may be on the rise because individuals are willing to pay more assuming they can rent spare space on AirBnB.  And independent operators are not going to have the experience or preparation to respond in the event of emergency situations (do you have a plan in place for tending to a guest who has come down with a bout of food poisoning, or who is having an allergic reaction to shrimp?).  In these situations, things tend to go perfectly until they go horribly wrong.

But taken in the grand scheme of things, those wrinkles are likely to iron themselves out.  Once again, regulators find themselves caught in a situation where they cannot keep pace with technology, and are playing catch-up.  Just as their forebears did with the boomtimes of yore, many of these companies are flouting regulations that arose in order to protect unsuspecting citizens who might otherwise buy that snake oil.  The question is where the balance lies.

It's incredibly exciting to see some of the changes that are taking place, and completely reinventing the way we buy, sell, engage, and travel.  I can only wonder what tradition will next use technology to make a comeback.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Bringing Broadway Back

I'm not sure when I decided this, but Los Angeles is the most intriguing place in which I've ever lived.  Perhaps it was when I realized that the Park Plaza Hotel is not actually an operating hotel, or that the city is actually building rail transit at a faster clip than any other American city.  But somewhere along the line I realized that this home of Hollywood was in the midst of another makeover.  Here's a place that came of age straddling the advent of the automobile, torn between an incredible urban core and sprawl that has caused it be nominated as the ugliest city in the world (behind, I will add, somewhere else I have lived).  And it's gritty. Like New York in the 70s gritty. But there's hope.

It's no secret that millennials as a whole have started returning to the dense urban cores that their parents fled for the suburbs.  It's already happened in New York and Boston, and finally Los Angeles is catching on.  At the core of this makeover is the Bringing Back Broadway initiative.  I joined this group a few months after hopping off the plane at LAX in a cream colored cardigan, and found myself on a planning team for Night on Broadway.  On January 31st, 20,000 Angelenos descended on DTLA for a night of free theatre performances, street food, art, and music to celebrate the revival of a part of town that had long been a dead zone after sunset.

Other initiatives this group has going include incentivizing businesses to rehabilitate some of the vast stock of incredible historic architecture and develop the DTLA streetcar.

I'm glad that this type of development is getting recognition.  And getting involved was as easy as showing up to a meeting of like-minded individuals.  Having only been a kid at the time when New York and Boston gave their cores a good microderm, it's incredibly gratifying to witness the changes in Los Angeles as the vestiges of Los Angeles' past start to resurface from its worn art deco facades.  Standing on the steps of the Los Angeles Theatre that night, I overheard one man in hipster glasses turn to his friend and yell, "This is the coolest night I've had in LA."  Who knows-maybe one day the east side will steal back some of that interest that has for so long gone west.

Regardless of what happens, Los Angeles probably won't become New York anytime soon.  And I like that.  I finally called up that doctor in Beverly Hills (you know the one), and during my annual physical he told me I need to start eating exclusively organic and add chia seeds to my diet.  Where else am I going to get that sort of medical advice?

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Angeles' Ashes

An intersection at 6th Street and Commonwealth.

Exit La Fayette Park Place and take a right past South Baylo University on 6th Street. Walk past the charter school and the quaint Mediterranean Revival public library, past the courthouse and the First Congregational Church cum high school.

Arrive at the intersection of 6th and Commonwealth, and you'll notice a line drawn in the poorly maintained roads.  Beneath the layers of asphalt, vestiges of what was formerly the world's most elaborate streetcar system have slowly started to fight their way to the surface.

Having lived in Houston, and now living in Los Angeles, it isn't too hard to see how the pair are two sides of the same coin, or perhaps just two data points along the same narrative.  More bluntly, Los Angeles fifty years ago is what Houston is today.  Los Angeles existed before the advent of the automobile, and faced an awkward transition into the age of the automobile, something for which it continues to pay dearly.  It is now entering that junction in its development where it can follow the status quo, or accept the investments that would be required to serve a generation whose lives don't revolve around the car.  Houston has only really existed in its current scale with the automobile, and really won't exist in any other form for the foreseeable future.

Given the setup of Los Angeles is not dissimilar from Paris, a comprehensive rail system (or something of the sort if you are of the opinion that rail is too expensive) would function relatively well. The interesting reality is that the city is using preexisting right of ways from the historic Pacific Electric cars to build the new light rail, and is doing so faster than anywhere else in the country. Thus, it sounds like within the next decade or two (eek), this type of system might come back to place.

It's not the most beautiful city in the world.  In fact, those individuals stepping off the plane from Asia into this gateway city may think they've gone back in time.  Too much stucco and too little street cleaning, streets that are too wide and give deference to cars rather than bicyclists and pedestrians.  You can tell that the concepts are new to a lot of Angelenos, in the way that they honk at pedestrians who have the right of way, or don't know to watch out for bicyclists before taking a turn or opening the car door. Still, sufficient historic buildings and a gridded layout exist to serve as the backbone for an incredible future, especially in what is actually the densest metropolitan region in the country.  It seems the proper steps are already being taken.  But is it really impossible for privately owned rail to succeed in the US?

The weather is about perfect 300 days of the year, so it isn't hard to envision a much different future for the basin, and perhaps one that can take a cue from the past.  I'm pretty optimistic.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

The One that Melted in the Dark

Take a stroll just five blocks east from my condo and you'll find yourself staring at one of the most beautiful urban parks in Los Angeles.  Formerly a drinking water reservoir, Westlake (and the MacArthur Park neighborhood in particular) were billed as LA's answer to the Champs-Elysées some time in the middle of the century.  Sitting in the famous Langer's Deli looking out onto the park, one can see the past logic that the neighborhood just outside of downtown would have been designed as a pleasantly residential area for families to live just a short streetcar ride from work.

Fast forward a few decades later, and the park would find itself the center of unfortunate crime and urban blight.  As with the rest of Westlake and Koreatown, one can see the vestiges of a bygone era in the ornate façades, in the asphalt that is peeling back to reveal the tell-tale streetcar tracks that betray what was once the world's most elaborate streetcar system.

In the past decade or two, significant strides have been made in revitalizing the park, repurposing such beautiful (but unoccupied) historic structures as the Park Plaza Hotel as an event venue (Lance Bass had his wedding there a few weeks ago).  Correction-it's actually called "The Legendary Park Plaza," perhaps because it isn't actually a functioning hotel anymore, and thus to call it a hotel would be false advertisement.  Though the park is still the place of Donna Summer fame, a place to go if you need a fake ID, the area has been a case where "revitalization" was not merely a euphemism for the displacement of the local population.

Halloween saw thousands of families taking to the streets for Trick-or-treating.  More importantly, the Mexican consulate's MacArthur Park-facing office has seen multiple demonstrations in solidarity with the Missing 43, including the one pictured above that temporarily shut down 6th St.   The demonstration took place entirely in Spanish, which I suppose is only surprising in that it surprises me.  The park is vibrant: never have I seen it during the weekend without a large crowd gathered for a game of soccer, with others playing frisbee or just laying on the grass.  Maybe someday the boathouse will reopen to allow for paddle boats once more.

Monday, January 5, 2015

The One with the Geography

Koreatown.  Recently described by the Los Angeles Times as the neighborhood to reflect what most of Los Angeles will become (more dense, higher rail transit, walkable), the neighborhood sits at a nexus of some of the most vivacious neighborhoods in the city.  Downtown is two stops away on the Metro.  Greater Wilshire and Central LA are just to the west.  And clockwise going north are West Hollywood, Hollywood, Los Feliz, Silverlake, Echo Park, and Chinatown. It's really a question of which arrow on the compass inspires for the day.  Smaller neighborhoods of Olvera Street and Little Tokyo round out the loop.  Oh yes, and Skid Row.

I should start by saying that Koreatown isn't technically even east Los Angeles-but on the broader scale, the "West Side" comprises the beach towns along the 405: Santa Monica, Venice, Manhattan, Redondo, Hermosa, etc.  The east side traces the 110 freeway (and includes all those neighborhoods mentioned above, as well as Boyle Heights, Alhambra, and Monterrey Park), and South Central is the neighborhoods of Florence Graham (a street near home is named Bonnie Brae, I really can't complain about local nomenclature), Watts, and Compton.

Known to be the center of Korean culture and business for Los Angeles, Koreatown is actually over 50% Hispanic.  The neighborhood is home to a eclectic mix of mid-century classic architecture and a host of ultra-modern developments popping up left and right, including the recently completed Vermont Towers.  It's the home of the best $10 bibimbap I've ever had, as well as some of the best flautas.  In fact, we've come to realize that the best food to be had in the two mile radius around us comes from restaurants where the only language missing on the sign out front is English.

Often criticized for its lack of parking and somewhat hostile (for LA) environment for cars, the area plays host to two subway lines-the red and purple.  Yes, one can get all the way from our place to Universal Studios without ever changing lines on the train, or get to Orange County with one switch at Union Station, the most beautiful building in Los Angeles (more on that later).  Los Angeles is actually building rail faster than any other city in the country (come on Boston, pick up the pace if you want to be ready for 2024).

Center of the world? Maybe not.  Center of everything in Los Angeles that is more than the beach? Perhaps.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

The One With the Backstory

"You're moving to California."

My heart stopped.  Three years had passed since I had locked the door to my San Francisco apartment for the last time.  I quelled my voice to maintain my professionalism to my manager.

"I appreciate the opportunity, this is really exciting!  I'll look forward to discussing the logistics with HR."

I put down the phone.  I picked it up.  Hey, Rod, um, I'm moving to California.  Rod was my landlord and closest friend in Houston.  For a year I had been renting the first floor of his beautiful town home.  Moments later my phone rang and all that I could hear was "Why God?!" blasting through the earpiece, in his characteristic why-are-other-people-getting-what-I-want humor.

For the next month, I spent my evenings and weekends on Trulia and Curbed LA, trying to find the neighborhood in which I would live.  After life in Texas, I was ready to get back to a dense urban setting, and knew that the densest part of Los Angeles was the part that I wanted to call home.  Any neighborhood with "Beach" in its name was out for price reasons.  I consulted with a colleague who had lived in Hermosa Beach after growing up in New York.  He knew I hail Boston and that my sensibilities are accordingly calibrated. "You'll like Koreatown," he advised.

And he was right.

I found a place right on the border between the Koreatown and Westlake neighborhoods, near the infamous MacArthur Park.  Soon after moving in, I had my first taste of LA living.  A friend of mine moved to town as an aspiring actor and became my roommate.  While Nick eventually found himself a spot in West Hollywood, I managed to convince one of my closest friends from college to move here following her graduation from Princeton's school of architecture.  And in August, she became my new roommate.  This blog is the story of our experience in the second largest city in the United States, a city of dreams, of immigrants and perfect weather.  A city that is actually an amalgamation of dozens of neighborhoods.  A city that has seen social and economic rise and fall.  A city where everyone is just one big break away from immortality, but also one small break away from bankruptcy.  A city that has reinvented itself multiple times over the course of its history.  A city of nearly 4 million people (and a county of over 10 million). With luck there's room for 3 more.