Off the Grid: Mapping L.A.’s Edgelands with Writer Geoff Nicholson

With his new novel, <em>City Under the Skin</em>, the British expat and longtime Angeleno may have invented a literary genre: cartographic noir

The Territory
Nicholson and I commence our walk at the nexus of Hollywood’s “surface layer,” the corner of Hollywood and Vine. We are standing on part of the Walk of Fame, where one casts one’s eyes not up but down to look at the stars. Unfortunate tourists stride over these names both familiar and forgotten on the sidewalk, searching for something that screams: “Hooray for Hollywood.” Unlike the blue plaques on buildings in Nicholson’s home country, these woefully maintained pink terrazzo-and-brass constellations don’t serve as real markers indicating some birthplace, residence, or locale of a famous meeting or event. No one quite knows why the names are dispersed as they are. The stars on the Walk of Fame are like fading tattoos on the city’s skin.

A block north, Welton Becket’s experiment in “programmatic” architecture, the Capitol Records Building, suggests a stack of LPs on a turntable. A visual hallmark that may have seemed novel to visitors when the building opened in 1956 seems anachronistic in 2014. Across the street from Capitol’s headquarters, with its legendary soundproofed recording studio, is a derelict beige metal post, some 25 feet high. Look up and you’ll notice that it’s an air-raid siren, an SD-10 “wire spool” contraption that dates to 1942. It was installed to warn Angelenos of an attack by the Japanese. At street level it’s barely noticeable, unless you know where to look. Across Yucca Street, two different structures built for broadcasting two very different kinds of mid-twentieth century messages face one another.

Just as some people are infatuated with collecting objects, Nicholson is preoccupied with cataloging and collecting the collectors themselves. He devoted particular attention to these figures in his novel Hunters & Gatherers and his nonfiction book Sex Collectors. “I think one of my basic interests is obsession,” he explains. “People who collect things, whether it be maps or books or dildos of the world, I understand that, I have some of those urges, some of those genetic markers. But I’ve talked to and written about enough collectors that I know that I’m not a genuine, full-on collector.” His books bear the earmarks of someone who has spent a great deal of time investigating such magpie subjects as Volkswagens, guitars, foot fetishists, and tattoo artists. He also has a taste for some notoriously inscrutable fascinations—poet J. H. Prynne (who was Nicholson’s supervisor at Cambridge), novelist Thomas Pynchon, irascible songwriter Mark E. Smith of The Fall, the Japanese noise band Acid Mothers Temple—but always shares his enthusiasms with a light hand and irreverent humor. (He’s also an enormous fan of The Simpsons.) His obsession with obsessives is mapmaking of a different sort, the charting of the human psyche, its ruins and forgotten corners.

Nicholson is also enthralled with “edgelands,” a term coined in 2002 by environmentalist Marion Shoard and picked up more recently by Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts to describe those neglected industrial areas that have been reclaimed by the natural world. Stand on the concrete island amid grass dusted with scrap metal and glass and severed by fencing near the 101 overpass at Franklin and Vine, and you’ll catch sight of palm trees, symbols of the land of sun and surf, here framing not the beach but a sprawling concrete tribute to the automobile. Spread out all around us, these edgelands, these unobserved slides into ruination, reveal themselves only when we start to think about the city as a character. J. G. Ballard, one of Nicholson’s favorite authors, ruminated on such topography long before the term existed. The decaying remains of the nuclear test site on Eniwetok in “The Terminal Beach” or the drained swimming pools in Empire of the Sun share the same entropic beauty as the automobile trees of Franklin and Vine. “Ballard would have liked this a lot,” affirms Nicholson.

Heading west on Franklin Avenue for about four blocks, we pass a number of unremarkable apartment buildings with baroque names before reaching the backside of Hollywood and Highland. Geoff points to the top of the Loews Hollywood Hotel, formerly the Renaissance, to a World of Tomorrow–esque flying-saucer-shaped structure that once housed a rotating restaurant. Nicholson tells me this is the inspiration for the Canaveral Lounge, the rotating restaurant of the Telstar, the abandoned ’60s hotel where Zak’s lover Marilyn turns out to be squatting.

Another quarter-mile west on Franklin, Nicholson points out a two-story white house. Only the garage is really visible from the street. Joan Didion lived here during the waning days of the ’60s when she wrote about The Doors and the Manson murders in the essays that would come to form The White Album:

[…] the night they did the LaBianca murder, they were driving along Franklin Avenue looking for a place to hit, and that’s where we lived, and we had French windows open, lights blazing all along on the street.

In Julian Wasser’s famous photo, taken during this era, of Didion posing with her Corvette Stingray, you can see a nondescript garage behind her. It has been replaced by a modern, remote-controlled door, but the house is still the same. As he often does on his walks, Nicholson comes armed with photographs to compare the past and the present. After beginning our walk overwhelmed with names of countless stars scattered underfoot, there is nothing to indicate that Didion lived here. Alongside “another deracinated Englishman,” architectural theorist Reyner Banham, author of Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies, Nicholson credits Didion as the writer who has most shaped his thinking about Los Angeles. “She was able to get herself into the cracks,” Nicholson says. “People didn’t really notice her, and she wrote about these small things, and then it becomes this gigantic truth about cities, the female psyche, and the human condition.” It’s also mind-boggling to imagine anyone being able to afford such a home nowadays on a writer’s salary. Going through a gate to verify that the back patio is in fact the one on which Didion was photographed, we find the backyard tennis court (imagine having enough acreage for such a thing) has been torn up and given over to a garden. It is tended by members of the Shumei Hollywood Center, a group devoted to communal living, urban agriculture, and enlightenment; it might have been featured in a Didion essay at the time she inhabited the house.

Nicholson is one of several contemporary authors who have recorded their walking in their writing. Iain Sinclair’s perambulations through and ruminations on the city in books such as Lud Heat, Lights Out for the Territory, and London Orbital have made him an elder statesman of the genre. Novelist Will Self is known for his ultra-pedestrian outings including one that took him from his house in London to a Hollywood hotel without him once stepping into a car. (He and Nicholson compared their thoughts on walking in The Believer in 2009.) Like fellow Britons Sinclair and Self, Nicholson has had to negotiate his own personal détente with the concept of “psychogeography.” The word was advanced by Guy Debord, founder of the Situationist International, to describe how a city influences the psyches of its denizens. As the term strayed out of Situationist enclaves, psychogeography spawned associations and guidebooks, became a way to intellectualize any city walk as well as the title of Self’s column in London’s Independent newspaper. Nicholson’s reaction to the concept suggests it retains about as much subcultural cachet as a Google exec visiting Burning Man. “You know it must be over because every university in England has a psychogeography department,” he says. “Iain Sinclair refers to it as a ‘franchise,’ and he says he bought his franchise earlier than everyone else.” Although Nicholson says, “I don’t need a philosophy in order to walk,” he sometimes refers to his walks as “drifts,” a Situationist term, and has some sympathy for their ways of seeing cities.

“What Debord and the Situationists are saying is true, that when you walk through a city you do pick up on certain feelings and ambiences, you feel yourself drawn one way rather than another way, and you’re not absolutely certain why. I find myself reading the stuff and thinking, ‘Isn’t that what everybody does?’ Anyone who goes for a walk in the city is doing that.”

I am not convinced this is the case. When we reach Runyon Canyon Park at the end of our afternoon we are practically the only two not attired in workout clothes. We have not come to this 160-acre park for the exercise or the nature or to let a dog off its leash but to visit some urban ruins. Nicholson tells me about George Huntington Hartford (he went by Huntington), who, after his plans to build a Frank Lloyd Wright–like house at the top of the park fell through, attempted to give the property to the city in 1964. When the city turned down the offer, Hartford sold the property to Jules Berman, who demolished the buildings on the site and let the property disintegrate. The ruins of the estate survive in strange platforms that look like stages and heavily graffitied collections of brick awash in the pervasive odor of dog urine. Joggers and canines move blithely by us as we stand on a stone floor, the foundation of a guesthouse where Errol Flynn very likely once resided. (He also played tennis on the abandoned courts further up the trail.) Now people stretch their hamstrings on these structures, if they notice them at all.

Nicholson understands that what makes walking ephemeral is also what makes it important. “For me, I quite like that purposelessness of walking,” he says. “I sometimes think if I put in all the hours I spent walking on doing something else, playing the violin or working on the garden, I would have a great garden or have great skills. There is no end product, apart from the books. I get to write about it.”

[The photographs for this multimedia project, a selection of which can be seen in the gallery at the top of the story, were shot by Michael Schmelling. The full photo series, Maps and Territories, can be seen here.]

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