When Google Buys Your Hometown Mall

Rethinking civic identity in rapidly changing Los Angeles

Photo: Clara Ciszynski/EyeEm/Getty Images

I’m at a party in Silverlake when I meet her. She’s a model-turned-filmmaker from a place where the way people greet each other isn’t “Hello” or “How are you,” but “Do you have a cigarette?” She lives in the Hollywood Hills. I am told her friends make up most of the CW casting pool.

We are congregated around the firepit outside. It is a sea of raw denim, leather jackets, beanies, and beards: a Netflix-perfect amalgamation of LA style, whatever that might be.

As she puffs, adjusting her Penny Lane jacket around her shoulders, the conversation turns to the Olympics and then to Los Angeles’ housing crisis. We don’t want the Olympics to come to Los Angeles. Nobody wants the Olympics to come to Los Angeles, except perhaps our oft-absent mayor, Eric Garcetti. It will make things worse, we reason, but we are afraid to expound upon how, lest the “worse” become real and take up residence in a $3000/month studio downtown that used to be a textile factory.

“It’s a crisis,” we say, and the beanies all nod in unison. “If we aren’t careful, we’ll end up like the Bay Area.” The Bay Area is our gentrification boogeyman. If we don’t triple-check the locks and say our prayers, predatory developers and tech giants will wait until we fall asleep, steal our homes, price them out from under us, and then rent them to a couple from Arizona. We can never be too careful. If San Francisco is our overachieving older sibling who’s finally buckled under the pressure, what hope is there for us, the screw-up art kid who wants to go to school to make pottery and arthouse films?

But the model waves her hand away dismissively, “A crisis? You can’t call it a crisis. Other people have it worse.” She does not say who or where or what she’s done to help them. Perhaps she means people in Chicago or Oakland. It doesn’t matter. The crisis exists for working and middle-class families, black and brown multi-generational residents, the low-income, the debt-saddled millennials, the mentally ill, immigrants. She will never see the crisis from her home in the hills.

Which is precisely why it’s so dangerous to say the problem doesn’t exist.

But when she waves our fear away like an errant cloud of American Spirit smoke, the circle goes silent. As the beanies turn to me I realize I am the only one at this party who’s actually from LA: the delegate from Rancho Park, the only one who didn’t buy or flip a house in a formerly low-income neighborhood when the market collapsed. Too late, they have realized, their own arrival to the city was a sign of things to come.

My annoyance is still fresh and rumination going strong days later, when my phone buzzes with a text from a my mother that says simply “!!!” with a link to an article about the Westside Pavilion. The former pastel bastion of adolescent shopping culture has been leased by Google, with plans to turn the ailing mall and indie theater into a state-of-the-art corporate campus. My heart sinks.

Rancho Park is my hometown, and the Westside Pavilion, one of its most beloved landmarks. It was there I got my ears pierced at the Claire’s after my First Communion, where I had my first job as a bra fitter at Victoria’s Secret, where I had my first date, where I saw Stranger Than Fiction and found an aspirational figure in Emma Thompson’s eccentric, elusive novelist.

When the families leave and landmarks fall to neglect, what’s left?

I don’t know why I am taking the loss of a mall I haven’t stepped foot in for years to heart until I realize it is not just the mall that will be gone. Or my memories of spending Saturdays babysitting my brother in the foam fruit playplace in the cafeteria that always smelled like feet. It is the end of a neighborhood’s identity. When the families leave and landmarks fall to neglect, what’s left?

I had always assumed, perhaps foolishly, that my hometown was built with the same fatal design flaw every other hometown seems to share: the inability to change. I could leave and there Rancho Park would stay, untouched. No matter how much the rest of the city seemed to evolve and chafe against its prescribed borders and sensibilities, somewhere girls would be shuffling down Overland Avenue from Notre Dame Academy in maroon blazers, feet pinched in oxblood loafers, to clandestinely roll up their skirts half an inch in the mall cafeteria bathroom. Families would still decorate the stretch of homes along Selby Avenue for Halloween, lovingly constructing kid-friendly haunted houses and candy-fueled obstacle courses. Somewhere, even, Ray Bradbury might still be writing in Cheviot Hills, his butter-yellow home with crisp white trim still intact.

But Rancho Park, at least as I have always known it, is as good as dead.

The author’s bedroom, 2012.

Rancho Park, like its neighbors Cheviot Hills and Palms, is a relatively new addition to Los Angeles’ landscape. Developed and named by real estate broker Bill Heyler in the 1920s, Rancho Park was built with a largely middle-class demographic in mind.

What started as a trickle of Hughes Aircraft workers and Sony Pictures (then MGM) Studios employees to the area later became a boom. Non-native palm trees began to dot the streets of West LA along with a post-war suburban sprawl of affordable ranches and bungalows that would become ubiquitous in the Southern California aesthetic. For most of the long-term residents of these communities, to buy a house was to hope that the worst was finally behind them.

Separated from those early residents by about 50 years, it was the same for us.

We had lived, before that, in Park La Brea which — prior to its early aughts facelift — was a neighborhood for low-income and working class families, seniors on fixed incomes, and newly arrived immigrants and their children. We, the resident ragtag gang of neighborhood children, would busy ourselves playing Underwater Rockstar Spies in the courtyards and Cold War-era bomb shelters coated in lead paint. Our parents: two working Angelenos, an aspiring transplant actress and psychic and her hunter husband, a woman separated from her husband by thousands of miles and the Yugoslav Wars, a soap-star single mother and a couple newly arrived from South Korea, respectively, would congregate on someone’s back porch and talk about houses they would buy and schools their children would attend.

We finally closed on a small house in Rancho Park in March of 2000, the week after St. Patrick’s Day, which my mother believed to be especially auspicious. The night we moved, my parents sang. My mother — who, along with her mother and three brothers, had fled the violent sectarian conflict of 1970s Northern Ireland for an apartment on Rose Avenue in Dogtown-era Venice — chose the Jefferson’s theme song, “Movin’ On Up.” My father, adopted from the now-defunct Hollygrove Children’s Home in Hollywood and raised in Canoga Park, chose “Our House” by Madness.

Author’s dog, Princess/Culver City Ice Rink, 2004

We didn’t know it then, but the tech boom that would consume West Los Angeles was already in its infancy. Slowly, gaming companies, startups, and developers would terraform the swamps formerly occupied by the Hughes Aircraft Company. The developers that followed would turn it into the pristine, Stepford-like enclave of Playa Vista. Snapchat would buy property in Venice, the same neighborhood in which my grandfather, a Scottish immigrant and carpenter, had saved up $30,000 to buy a neglected Victorian Bungalow in 1975.

I wonder what it is about the influx of tech that sends a shiver down Californians’ spines. We are, after all, a place dominated and characterized by our industries. We are the golden state, Califia’s Garden that sits on the edge of the Pacific, supplying the rest of the country with gold and wood and weed and music and movies. It is tempting to say that Angelenos celebrate and tolerate the entertainment industry and all its iterations because it is the devil we know, but to do so would be a gross underestimation of the city’s ties and reliance on Entertainment.

Sure, they might shut down major streets for slick car chases and award shows, and yes, YouTuber transplants have descended upon the city like a bad case of pranking bedbugs, but at least the entertainment industry exists in a strange, lopsided symbiosis with the town in which anyone can participate. Productions need crews and extras and actors. Producers need assistants. Sets need building, boom mics need holding, cameras need operating. Tech, being the specialized and closed industry that it is, offers no such symbiosis.

And none of this is to say the blame falls on any one industry. Swap out tech for any other non-native, high-demand industry and the results would be the same: Workers relocate. Unscrupulous real estate developers build in anticipation of those workers’ high industry wages. Private landlords and smaller management companies follow suit. Home prices skyrocket. The end result is the same: The working and middle classes are shoved out and low-income families disappear. Another neighborhood, this time mine, dies.

California, Los Angeles specifically, has failed its residents. It could be tech today and extreme beekeeping tomorrow; The fact remains that there is little to nothing in our laws that protect Californians — least of all the residents of Los Angeles County, where roughly half of all renters devote more than 35% of their income towards monthly rent and a typical mortgage costs 75% of the median income.

In last year’s local election alone, deceptive campaigns, threats of retaliatory rent hikes, and intimidation helped persuade California voters to vote down Prop 10, a ballot measure that would have curbed unfair rent increases in major California cities. Measure JJJ, approved in 2017, would create incentives for developers to add affordable housing units to projects near public transit; however, that only applies to projects approved post-measure. Projects approved prior to that, like Chinatown’s College Station development, are subject to no such restrictions.

Hours of frantic texts to architect friends and tenants’ rights advocates later, I’m no more at peace with Google’s decision to co-opt a beloved childhood landmark, nor am I more reassured of Los Angeles’ commitment to caring for its dwindling working and middle classes. Briefly, I consider changing careers, even consider leaving LA entirely, anxious at the mere thought of how unrecognizable my home may soon become.

I begin to imagine the slow demolition of my childhood home, the green single-story ranch with the cranberry front door and my long-deceased pet rabbit buried in rose bushes beside the garage. And when I can’t bear to think of that any longer, I imagine the sterile, concrete condos that will likely take its place, its frosted glass doors and its long, unwieldy handle in lieu of a real doorknob. In my personal nightmare, the model-turned-filmmaker has switched careers again; this time she’s a realtor, dutifully filling the condos with identical couples. When she’s placed the third couple — an app developer and an influencer who specializes in pastel pottery and artfully designed smoothie bowls, respectively — she leans against the “For Sale” sign for a quick smoke break and reminds me that LA has always been this way, that my own privilege protected me from the reality of it until well into adulthood.

Our instinct, as residents of a city based on image, is to photoshop our ugly bits and shy away from the conversations that dampen moods and ruin parties.

I hate to admit it, but she’s not wrong. By the time our family left Rancho Park, it was a solidly upper-middle class neighborhood with all the cushy Zillow estimates to prove it. My parents work in architecture and design and our relocation, as much as I fought it, was by choice. But like my Greek Chorus of beanies and heritage-brand flannel, I had not seen the problem until it was knocking on my door. I was insulated by a home that was built just as much by assimilation and class as it was by wood and drywall and mid-century stacked brick.

The author’s home in 2001 (left) and 2012 (right).

It would be naive to say that income inequality has only now become as synonymous with Los Angeles as tacos and palm trees and tiny dogs in handbags, but things are unequivocally worse in recent years, I tell the imaginary gentrifier in my head. Our instinct, as residents of a city based on image, is to photoshop our ugly bits and shy away from the conversations that dampen moods and ruin parties. “Other people have it worse,” we say before changing the subject. But those other people are our fellow Angelenos. And we all deserve better.

the second mrs. de winter wattpad.com/califiapress

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