The Rip Post


THE PRISONER OF BUNDY DRIVE

by Rip Rense

(Originally published in the Los Angeles Times.)

          This is the story of an exile behind steel bars. A prisoner of the-way-humans-do-things. An embattled hostage in protective custody. Absolutely no visitors allowed, except on official business.
           It's the story of No Man's Land, literally. A tiny, three-sided piece of property at Bundy and Santa Monica Boulevard in Santa Monica, where pedestrians may no longer tread. Call it the Bundy Triangle, a mysterious place where good intentions and good sense enter---never to be seen or heard from again.
           It's a sad, peculiar saga of foliage and human foibles, and it begins a long time ago, in a less complicated city far, far away. . .
           Once upon a time, the Triangle was someone's expansive pastoral yard, fronting a Bundy Drive and Santa Monica Boulevard hardly more substantial than cow-paths. Apparently affronted at so much unmolested breathing room, a now-forgotten urban engineer decided to take Ohio Avenue and extend it across Bundy---right through that pastoral yard---and connect it with Santa Monica Boulevard. Thus was born the sawed-off, three-sided, orphaned chunk of civic territory.
           It was then---sometime in the early 30s---that the question first arose: well, what do we do with this thing? Local residents decided to decorate---disguise might have been a better term---rather the way one throws fabric over an old trunk and sticks a vase on top. You can't just leave it there, looking like the awkward, useless oddity that it is. So jolly jacaranda trees were planted, and stone benches were installed at intervals over a rustic cobblestone walkway to. . .nowhere. After all, you could walk entirely around the plot's periphery in a brisk 90s seconds.
           The crowning touch? They named it Bundy Greens---a title dignified enough for a majestic botanical garden. The only justification, probably, for such a name here was the absolutely tremendous number of grass blades on the property.
           Was it a park? No, not officially. A place to walk your dog? Well, possibly, if your dog had real short legs (or if you consider "walk" a euphemism for "relieve.") A place to play a little outdoor chess? Maybe, if you didn't mind your concentration crushed by a circling, flatulent parade of cars, trucks, and buses. Was it an exaggerated bus stop? Sure. Definitely a pretty place to wait for a bus. Rumor had it that a church group used to meet there on Sunday mornings, though it's hard to imagine why. Bundy Greens' blessing---or curse---was that it didn't afford quite enough room for a parking lot and McDonald's, thus guaranteeing its survival through the decades.
          And the place endured as a nicely landscaped what's- that until the modern era of homelessness arrived, and a number of bedraggled men decided it was a good place to sack out. Bundy Greens suddenly acquired a citizenry---a few dozen souls, all told, by the early 90s. It was poetic, in a way. Disassociated people taking up residence on disassociated property. People no one knew what to do with. Property no one knew what to do with. A match made in purgatory.
         The citizens of the nation of Bundy Greens declared their own laws, of course, and they were pretty liberal. Any food that charitable folks dropped off was met with choruses of "we'll divide it up equally!" Littering was allowed. There was no ban on public urination, that was for sure. The proof was heavily in the air. Some of the drifters were said to be veterans who meant no harm. They probably were. Some of them were said to be drunks, dope-addicts, thieves and brawlers. They probably were.
         You know how it goes. Robberies, burglaries, and assaults in the neighborhood rose. Passers-by were hustled, sometimes threateningly, until there were fewer passers-by. Local businesses started complaining. The cops got fed up. The residents got fed up. Councilman Marvin Braude's office got fed up.
         The solution was drastic. Take Bundy Greens away from humans entirely, and put it in protective custody. Imprison the place. It was decided to fence the tormented lot---but, in keeping with tradition, this would not be a tacky chain-link barrier. The um, historic Greens merited something grand. Early last year, a foreboding, towering, seven-foot "boxed steel" fence went up, at a cost of $28,000. Fifty-seven dollars per linear foot. The money came, courtesy of Councilman Braude, from a budgetary wonderland called "the unappropriated balance of the city's general fund."
         It was the right thing to do, of course; any barrier less formidable would have been no proof against wanderers in search of a hangout. Besides, the fence really was stylish; you know, kind of like "decorative burglar bars." A nearby Starbucks later erected its own patio-enclosing boxed-steel barrier, just to be decoratively simpatico. Call it prison chic.
         Today, Bundy Greens looks like an exhibit from a time when cities had lovely public land that people didn't abuse. The squirrels are real happy.
         "We've gotten reactions from people saying this is not the way to deal with the homeless," said stalwart, longtime Braude deputy Clair Rogger. "Indeed, it is not. Since the larger solution remains a big question mark for most the entities in America that deal with this problem, in the meantime, you do what you can to maintain some kind of community livability."
         "Community livability?" Sounds almost quaint, in this era of Uzis and road-rage. The former citizens of Bundy Greens moved on in search of their own brand of community livability. Some of them complained to one George Kanegai, who owns West L.A. Travel across the street from the Greens. "We weren't given a chance to protest!" they told Kanegai. His response? "I said, 'What are you going to protest? You don't pay taxes.' They said 'I guess you're right.'"
         Thus did an unprepossessing part of the community become The Prisoner of Bundy Drive. Bear in mind, though, that this prisoner does not suffer from neglect. At one time or another, the Greens has required the substantial attention of the LAPD, Councilman Braude's office, the Department of Public Works, and the General Services Department. The Landscape Maintenance Division of the Bureau of Street Maintenance of the Department of Public Works was cutting the Greens' grass until it ran out of equipment and manpower (perhaps it was all used up in supporting the size of its name), and subsequently gave the job to a private contractor (who sometimes couldn't get in because he didn't have a key to the fence.) Cost of maintaining the feckless place is in the (gasp) tens of thousands. . .
         Last summer, the Prisoner faced a new threat---this time by so-called responsible citizens. Seems they needed Bundy Drive to be widened so they could roll a greater number of stinking vehicles around, in order to keep all of their important appointments. Hence the byway was hacked up and broadened, and Bundy Greens took a big hit from its west end: losing a few jacarandas, an undetermined number of cobblestones, and about twelve feet of land. The small civic absurdity became even smaller. Or larger, depending on how you look at it.
         All is not lost, though. These days, there are many suggestions for liberating and using the Greens. Neighboring resident John Shaughnessey wants to turn it into a "chess island" a la parks in New York. Others talk of dog obedience classes, meeting places for local community groups---and other of the types of ideas that have, over the years, disappeared without a trace into the Bundy Triangle. . .
         And yet, this time, there is reason to be encouraged. Although the Prisoner remains under a life sentence, apparently, Clair Rogger promises that its days of solitary confinement are numbered. "Visiting hours" will allegedly be established, and a bicycle parking rack is under study for the west end. The place will then be opened up as a park, Rogger said, during the day, and locked up at night. Wait---did she use the word. . .park? Does this portend. . .official recognition by the city of this bastardized territory? At long last, will the little persecuted patch earn a legitimate use? A real identity? Yes, says Rogger, leaving only one question: what might this park be named?
         "I don't know," said Rogger, "how about Rip Rense Park?"
         Hmm. A handsome, barely useful oddity that has befuddled authority figures for decades. A troublesome, somewhat quaint anomaly with pretense of grandeur that no one knows quite what to do with. . .
         Not a bad idea.

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