In L.A., to­day’s Gilded Age shows its dark un­der­belly

USA TODAY US Edition - - FRONT PAGE - Rick Hamp­son USA TO­DAY

The home­less camp where the wild­fire started in De­cem­ber was only a mile from a new hill­top man­sion twice the size of the White House that’s for sale for $500 mil­lion.

LOS ANGELES – When she be­came pres­i­dent of the Bev­erly Hills/Greater Los Angeles Realtors As­so­ci­a­tion, Robin Green­berg wanted to do some­thing for peo­ple who couldn’t af­ford any home, much less one like hers in the golden hills of Bel Air.

Ev­ery month for eight years, she and col­leagues went to skid row or else­where down­town to feed the home­less.

Last De­cem­ber, she learned the home­less had come to her.

Be­fore dawn Dec. 6, a wild­fire raced out of a parched ravine in Bel Air, scorch­ing 422 acres, de­stroy­ing or dam­ag­ing 18 homes and forc­ing the evac­u­a­tion of about 700 oth­ers — in­clud­ing Robin Green­berg’s.

The fire was caused by a portable stove at a home­less en­camp­ment.

The wild­fire is an in­struc­tive tale of Amer­ica’s sec­ond Gilded Age, when the ex­cesses and ex­tremes that once seemed con­signed to U.S. his­tory have come roar­ing back.

In this Gilded Age, like the one at the end of the 19th cen­tury, the gap be­tween rich and poor is widen­ing; mo­nop­o­lies have more power over busi­ness, busi­ness has more power over pol­i­tics, and pol­i­tics are close­fought and hy­per-par­ti­san. The pace of change — tech­no­log­i­cal, cul­tural, so­cial — is dizzy­ing.

In his pres­i­den­tial cam­paign, Don­ald Trump si­mul­ta­ne­ously evoked two Gilded Age types: the plu­to­crat and the pop­ulist. “Trump is the per­fect fig­ure for the new Gilded Age. He’s like some­thing out of Mark Twain” (who coined the term “Gilded Age” in 1873), says David Na­saw, a bi­og­ra­pher of Gilded Age in­dus­tri­al­ist Andrew Carnegie. “Ex­ag­ger­a­tion is his essence.”

The most strik­ing fea­ture shared by the two Gilded Ages is grow­ing eco­nomic inequal­ity.

In Los Angeles, hundreds of en­camp­ments have sprung up on beaches, in riverbeds and in canyons as the home­less pop­u­la­tion has ex­ploded and ex­panded be­yond its bound­aries.

The home­less camp where the wild­fire started in De­cem­ber was only a mile from a new hill­top man­sion twice the size of the White House that’s for sale for $500 mil­lion. It de­stroyed the $5.5 mil­lion house of for­mer NBA star An­drei Kir­ilenko, singed some vines at Ru­pert Murdoch’s Mor­aga win­ery and forced celebri­ties such as Paris Hil­ton and Chelsea Han­dler to flee.

“I’m not a fire-and-brim­stone, endof-the-world kind of guy,” says Bert Muto, a for­merly home­less man who saw a fire at an­other camp threaten mul­ti­mil­lion-dol­lar houses. “But the bib­li­cal stuff is a re­minder of what it feels like to­day. Where’s it gonna stop?”

The Gilded Age be­gan about a decade af­ter the end of the Civil War and ended around 1901, when Pres­i­dent Wil­liam McKinley was as­sas­si­nated and Teddy Roo­sevelt took of­fice.

It was an era of rob­ber barons such as Rock­e­feller, Carnegie and Van­der­bilt; of state leg­is­la­tures (which at the time elected U.S. sen­a­tors) con­trolled by rail­roads and other spe­cial in­ter­ests; of gi­ant in­dus­trial mo­nop­o­lies known as trusts; of fi­nan­cial crises, in­clud­ing the pan­ics of 1873, 1893 and 1907; and of a pop­ulist re­ac­tion against all of the above.

Ty­coons built 70-room mar­ble ocean­front “cot­tages” they oc­cu­pied for only four to eight weeks a year. A New York cou­ple spent $400,000 — more than $9 mil­lion to­day — to throw a cos­tume ball at the Wal­dorf Ho­tel. So­ci­ol­o­gist Thorstein Ve­blen called the phe­nom­e­non “con­spic­u­ous con­sump­tion.”

Home of the ‘giga-man­sion’

The city that epit­o­mized the first Gilded Age was New York, site of the great­est houses, most glit­ter­ing so­cial events and the might­i­est banks. It was home to the so­cial elite — the so-called Four Hun­dred (the num­ber that could fit into Mrs. As­tor’s ball­room). Its slums, bear­ing names such as Ban­dit’s Roost and Mis­ery Row, were the sub­ject of Jacob Riis’ book How the Other Half Lives.

The cap­i­tal of Amer­ica’s sec­ond Gilded Age is Los Angeles, where hill­top homes worth tens of mil­lions of dol­lars look out over a city in which even the mid­dle class strug­gles to af­ford shel­ter and the num­ber of home­less in­creases daily. The city’s famed sprawl can­not iso­late An­geli­nos from dis­ori­ent­ing con­trasts many Amer­i­cans as­sumed had dis­ap­peared af­ter the changes of the Pro­gres­sive Era, the New Deal and the Great So­ci­ety.

The heart of Gilded Age Los Angeles is Bel Air, a com­mu­nity of curv­ing lanes and hill­side man­sions where a Hol­ly­wood leg­end lurks be­hind ev­ery hedge and gate. One may pur­chase “giga­man­sions” with names such as The One

($500 mil­lion); Chartwell, the set­ting for The Bev­erly Hill­bil­lies TV show

($295 mil­lion); Bil­lion­aire, which has an or­na­men­tal he­li­copter on the roof

($188 mil­lion, down from $250 mil­lion); and The Manor, once home of pro­ducer Aaron Spell­ing ($200 mil­lion).

(These prices are more as­pi­ra­tional than ra­tio­nal; the $110 mil­lion for which Hard Rock Cafe co-founder Peter Mor­ton’s Malibu home sold last month broke the L.A. record of $100 mil­lion set two years ago by the Play­boy Man­sion and an­other house.)

In Bel Air, a house is con­sid­ered a man­sion only if it’s 30,000 square feet — 12 times as large as the av­er­age Amer­i­can sin­gle fam­ily house.

Many of Bel Air’s steep, nar­row lanes are con­struc­tion zones. “There’s a say­ing here,” says Jeff Hy­land, head of the city’s lead­ing high-end real es­tate agency. “If the house is 10 years old, it’s a can­di­date for a re­model. If it’s 20 years old, it’s a can­di­date for a tear down.”

Once, the rich built their own dream houses. In the sec­ond Gilded Age, de­vel­op­ers such as Nile Ni­ami, a for­mer B-movie pro­ducer, will do it for them.

Ni­ami is the builder of The One, the USS En­ter­prise of the new class of spec houses. It sits on a 4-acre hill­top lot with

360-de­gree views, in­clud­ing the down­town sky­line and the Pa­cific.

The One has 20 bed­rooms, seven pools (in­clud­ing a moat) and five el­e­va­tors. It has a night­club, casino, flower room, spa, gym, beauty sa­lon, 45-seat theater, four-lane bowl­ing al­ley and a four-oven com­mer­cial kitchen. There is a lounge where the walls are glass tanks filled with iri­des­cent jel­ly­fish. There is park­ing for 30 ve­hi­cles.

The mas­ter bed­room suite — 5,500 square feet, more than twice the av­er­age house — has its own of­fice, kitchen and pool.

If The One were to sell for even a third of its ask­ing price af­ter it’s fin­ished next year, it still would set a U.S. record by about $30 mil­lion.

No one needs such houses, so buy­ers must be made to want them by cre­at­ing what Ni­ami’s ar­chi­tect, Paul McClean, calls “an emo­tional con­nec­tion.” Hence, ameni­ties: swings sus­pended from the ceil­ing, or a jel­ly­fish room.

Buy­ers who want such a place want it now, not in the three to four years it takes to build one. Many man­sions are sold in move-in con­di­tion — fully fur­nished, dec­o­rated and sup­plied, down to the champagne.

“All the de­ci­sions have been made for you. The life­style is there for you,” McClean says. “All you have to do is move in.” As Ni­ami puts it, “The day they buy it, they’re ready to have a party.”

The mar­ket is global. The world has more than 1,500 bil­lion­aires, a third of whom are Amer­i­cans.

None of Ni­ami’s po­ten­tial buy­ers seeks a pri­mary or full-time res­i­dence. Most have five or six homes. The One, like other giga-man­sions, will be a pied-à-terre, or a place to en­ter­tain and im­press. In a metro area with 58,000 home­less peo­ple, The One will be empty much of the time.

Its iso­lated hill­side perch and sky­line views pro­vide an es­cape from such ver­tig­i­nous con­tra­dic­tions. McClean, the ar­chi­tect, talks about how his houses sep­a­rate their oc­cu­pants from the “dayto-day life of the city.”

They also break down the dis­tinc­tion be­tween in­doors and out­doors. Trad­ing on the be­nign cli­mate, McClean uses glass walls and doors to cre­ate a sense of be­ing out­side when you’re in­side. The ironic re­sult is hous­ing for the rich that seems to dis­ap­pear even as, for the poor, it ac­tu­ally is dis­ap­pear­ing.

The poor­est of the poor

Home­less­ness has achieved a spe­cial dis­tinc­tion in Los Angeles. Hav­ing in­creased 50% dur­ing the past five years, “it’s sup­planted traf­fic as the topic ev­ery­one talks about,” says Tom Wald­man, spokesman for the Los Angeles Home­less Ser­vices Au­thor­ity.

The home­less are as vis­i­ble as the Hol­ly­wood sign. More than two years af­ter Mayor Eric Garcetti de­clared a “state of emer­gency,” about 41,000 are “un­shel­tered” — sleep­ing in cars, out­side City Hall, un­der free­way over­passes. The Los Angeles Times calls it “a hu­man tragedy of ex­tra­or­di­nary pro­por­tions.”

The home­less are blamed for ev­ery- thing from de­clin­ing rid­er­ship on the Metro mass tran­sit sys­tem — nearly three in 10 riders say they stopped rid­ing be­cause they felt un­safe — to last year’s hep­ati­tis A out­break. Of 36 cases, 16 were among home­less peo­ple.

The city gets about 1,900 re­quests a month to clean up or re­move home­less en­camp­ments, nearly three times more than two years ago.

In­creas­ingly des­per­ate of­fi­cials have des­ig­nated lots where peo­ple who live in their cars can le­gally park for the night and made 1,400 bins avail­able to the home­less to store their be­long­ings. There are plans to lodge peo­ple in trail­ers on city prop­erty.

The ranks of the home­less have been swelled by mil­i­tary vet­er­ans, young peo­ple emerg­ing from foster homes, refugees from do­mes­tic abuse and in­mates re­leased un­der an ini­tia­tive that made it eas­ier to pa­role non-vi­o­lent of­fend­ers. About three in 10 home­less peo­ple are men­tally ill, and two in 10 are ad­dicts.

Hous­ing is too ex­pen­sive. In Cal­i­for­nia, eight in 10 homes for sale are not af­ford­able on a pub­lic school teacher’s salary.

Al­most six months af­ter the Bel Air wild­fire, in the neigh­bor­hood that was evac­u­ated, there’s talk of help­ing the home­less, and of keep­ing them out.

Robin Green­berg says the home­less won’t re­set­tle in the canyons and in­stead will stay closer to ser­vices. She plans to keep go­ing to skid row to help: “I like in­ter­act­ing with them. I like it when peo­ple say, ‘Thank you.’ I’ve brought my grand­chil­dren.”

Nickie Miner, an­other long­time res­i­dent, says that in an arid land­scape sub­ject to high winds, home­less camps are a threat to pub­lic safety. She says some of the home­less don’t want help: “They want be sur­vival­ists, and they want to do it in our hills.”

Res­i­dents have been go­ing on a so­cial net­work­ing site to re­port home­less sight­ings. A man was seen walk­ing in the street near traf­fic, ap­par­ently “off his meds.” One res­i­dent raised the pos­si­bil­ity of de­ploy­ing a drone to spy on po­ten­tial camp­sites.

A bud be­gin­ning to grow

The ex­tremes of the Gilded Age were mod­er­ated in the Pro­gres­sive Era that fol­lowed. But the seeds of change — the in­come tax, an­titrust laws, lim­its on work­ing hours and child la­bor — were planted in the Gilded Age.

Such seeds may be there to­day, if we look for them. Con­sider the ex­pe­ri­ence of Bel Air’s sim­i­larly af­flu­ent neigh­bor to the west, Pa­cific Pal­isades.

In Novem­ber 2015, a man in a home­less en­camp­ment, us­ing a lit paper bag as a flash­light, started a fire that en­dan­gered sev­eral homes. Police ejected all the home­less, in­clud­ing Vic­tor Jimenez, who’d lost his home af­ter los­ing his job as a videog­ra­pher at a law firm.

A Pa­cific Pal­isades res­i­dents’ com­mit­tee pri­vately raised $125,000 to hire two so­cial work­ers to con­nect the home­less — de­fined as Pal­isades “res­i­dents” if they’d been in town for six months — with hous­ing and ser­vices.

One worker helped Jimenez, 49, get a job and an apart­ment down­town. He’s grate­ful but is un­der no il­lu­sions about what prompted it: “Af­ter the fire, the money was there.”

Home­less­ness has been a sort of con­fla­gra­tion for greater Los Angeles.

In 2016, vot­ers ap­proved a $1.2 bil­lion city bond to build hous­ing for the home­less. Last year, they passed a county sales tax to fund home­less ser­vices.

On the scorched hill­sides of Bel Air, the flow­ers known as “fire fol­low­ers” are be­gin­ning to bloom.


“The One” is a 105,000-square-foot man­sion over­look­ing west Los Angeles. The ask­ing price: $500 mil­lion.

Los Angeles police of­fi­cer Rusty Red­i­can looks over a home­less en­camp­ment in the hills of Pa­cific Pal­isades that was cleared out.


Real es­tate de­vel­oper Nile Ni­ami is build­ing The One, the most ex­pen­sive home (bowl­ing al­ley and moat in­cluded) in the coun­try.


Amer­ica’s first Gilded Age was epit­o­mized by New York City, site of the Wil­liam K. Van­der­bilt House.


Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.