In the L.A. of my dreams quintessential Angeleno housing will be livable and communal

Elisa Wouk Almino for the issue 07 Image magazine.
(James Michael Juarez/For The Times)
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This story is part of Image issue 7, “Survival,” a collective vision for the L.A. of our dreams. See the full package here.

Dear House (or “Housie,” as you are sometimes called),

I don’t know if I’ve ever told you this outright, but I consider you my first home. The first space where I mentally settled. We haven’t seen each other for a while, but I hope you’re still around.

Courtyard housing has always carried so much possibility for L.A. You are particularly special in my eyes. I am told that attachment is common. This seems to happen a lot on the courtyard property on which you’ve sat, on the border of Los Feliz and East Hollywood, since 1922. In my time, most tenants of the nine townhouses preferred to come and stay. You probably can surmise why — there was so much that we shared as tenants. I’m thinking of the garden that gave us lemons for pies, limes for caipirinhas, aloe for sunburns and jasmine for the month of May. That was home to hummingbirds and Jurassic crows by day, raccoons and owls by night, and always spiders that were quick to spin their webs. On the grassy patches, neighbors ate pizzas and Thai food; we played tarot and spelling bee games, and we even fake-officiated a wedding. In other words, we became friends. It feels fitting to me that you and your fellow houses are arranged in a U shape, an open embrace.

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Elisa Wouk Almino for the issue 07 Image magazine.
(James Michael Juarez/For The Times)

I’ve been doing some research, and apparently this is typical. That people who’ve lived in courtyard housing have that glint in their eyes whenever they remember the sense of place they so easily found. They too had friends to water their plants, take care of their cats and pick up their mail when traveling. Friends to call when they’re lonely and want to share a glass of wine. I read that some courtyard housing units even have waiting lists.

Elisa Wouk Almino for the issue 07 Image magazine.
(James Michael Juarez/For The Times)

I’ve always been curious about who lived with you before I came along. Maybe it was immigrant laborers in the early 1900s (courtyards offered spaces for community, after all) or pasty Midwestern retirees chasing that California sun. Maybe you temporarily hosted camera crews and Hollywood stars. Hey, I wouldn’t be so far off — Charlie Chaplin once rented courtyard houses for his film crew, including Judy Garland. It’s plausible you could have hosted any of these people, of all walks of life, because courtyard housing has proved to be desirable to folks across social classes. (With maybe the exception of courtyard houses in Pasadena — definitely engineered for a fancier milieu.)

These letters are part of Image issue 7, “Survival,” a collective vision for the L.A. of our dreams.

A group of architects has called you “quintessentially Angeleno.” It’s funny, because I don’t think many people outside of L.A. would think of you that way, or necessarily know you exist (sorry). But they should. Instead, they think of the American Dream: the single-family home of spacious rooms, big backyards, garages and a drive away from a cup of coffee. But that’s what’s remarkable about you: You deliver the dream without being extravagant. The sad irony is that while single-family homes are the ones driving up emissions, you’re the one in danger with all these dull developments going up left and right, and tearing you down in the process, so landlords can make more money. Sigh. I hope you’re doing OK.

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"There’s a reason why residential courtyards have existed since ancient Roman times. The design works" — Elisa Wouk Almino.
“There’s a reason why residential courtyards have existed since ancient Roman times. The design works,” writes Elisa Wouk Almino.
(James Michael Juarez/For The Times)

I know you are older now; your bones are creaky and dusty. Maybe you are more prepared for the end of your time than I am. But here’s my plea: Stay strong. Architects and urban planners think of you as the future and a solution to appalling housing shortages in this city. What makes you such an appealing solution is that you’re actually livable and pleasant. I mean, the fountain. Need I say more? What a blessing it was to have the sound of water steadily streaming from 9 in the morning to 9 at night. To open all six windows in my living room and let in the green shadows of trees and the sound of neighbors playing guitar, to wave hello as I caught one of them on their way to work. There’s a reason why residential courtyards have existed since ancient Roman times. The design works. You see it in Arab-Islamic architecture too, which then made a mark on Spain, which ultimately inspired Southern California architects.

But besides giving me community when I was a new person to this city, you also gifted me with solitude, in the sense that Marguerite Duras describes — you became my “house of writing.” Like Duras and her house, my writing came from you, from your intimately sized rooms and sharp afternoon light. On most days, when it was just the two of us, I felt our give and take. In between writing or working, I tended to you and measured the flow of time as I went up and down your stairs. You reminded me to pause, to take a break, to notice the birds chirping their way to sleep, the fountain lapping away, the laughing outside. To be in your embrace.

With love,

Elisa

Elisa Wouk Almino is a senior editor at Hyperallergic and translation instructor at UCLA Extension.

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