Better Bike dropped by the venerable Kill Radio studios today to chat up the guys behind Bike Talk, a veritable institution on the Los Angeles area bike scene. Every Saturday, Bike Talk founder Nicholas Richert and his on-air MC, Chicken Leather, rock the mic from 10 to noon from behind this very door. Ensconced in an not gracefully aging building at Beverly & Vermont, Kill Radio is the Los Angeles bike scene incarnate: bootstrapped, threadbare, and proudly worse for the wear. Yet not about to give up the ghost when there’s work to be done yet to wrench a bike-friendly region from the clutch of car-minded DOTs.
What’s more enthralling: two guys who keep this dream alive by broadcasting into the cold ether of cyberspace; or that the show emanates from a ghost of Los Angeles past: one of the few old two-story commercial blocks left on the Vermont corridor. With hallways graced by solid wood doors and stenciled glass panes that front for all manner of bottom-feeding insurance agents and lone jobbers, it’s like walking into a Chandler story. Or a spooky David Lynch scene.
Whether you are a cyclist, bike culture jammer, or alt transport advocate, you’re bound to find something of interest on Bike Talk. When Nick and Chicken Leather flick the switch to spark that Bike Talk music, we’re off to the races. What follows is two hours of ebb and flow and yin and yang punctuated by college radio type tunes to cover for the guys as they get the next segment together. Fans of pirate radio will dig the vibe.
Bike Talk is more than a show. It is a ligament that holds our loose-limbed, diverse bike advocacy corpus together. Every Saturday, all manner of bike folks with a story to tell or an event to plug drop by or call in.
And many species inhabit our larger ecosystem. Hot-dogging parkour punks from the Northeast shows us the avant garde of bike advocacy. Hel-Mel bike coop-types remind us that bike shop commerce need not adhere to the Helen’s model. Chop-shoppers tout Frankenstein frames that make a mockery of the safety bicycle. And policy types like us focus attention on the decisions that aren’t being made to make streets safe.
We all connect though Bike Talk and the many events that unfold daily across our vast metro Los Angeles area. Why not tune in? The show is broadcast on the web at Kill Radio and is later available as an edited podcast at KPFK. Bike Talk on demand! There’s no reason not to tune in. Or to drop by for the show on Saturday from 10 a.m. to noon. Tell ‘em Better Bike sent you.
The most exciting part of sitting in studio for Bike Talk is that building. You know the type: two-story commercial block like those that once dotted every commercial district in Los Angeles. The formula back then was simple: ground floor retail below and either offices or apartments above. Structures like this mixed-uses long before we had a label for it, and they served our city of neighborhoods very well. They will outlast every crappy minimall on the planet.
And then there’s the eye candy: they are wrapped in brick and stone or decorative plaster and accented with terra cotta motifs that lent meaning. Many of these gems put to shame the ‘starchitecture’ that out-scales and underclasses our retail corridors. Sure, they may be obscured by code-defying signage or re-skinned like a bad Beverly Hills face job, but they stand as a testament to a once prosperous city.
Where two boulevards crossed like here at Beverly & Vermont there was money to be made. And this modest structure spun land rent like gold from this once-prime location since 1927.
Back when, the Los Angeles Railway ‘V’ line plied Vermont as far north as Melrose. Middle-class jobs put food on the table and money in the pocket of business owners. (A hefty share always found its way into the landlord’s pockets as Los Angeles was built on real estate investment.) But times do change. Once middle-class wealth began to drain from the city’s central precincts, these beauties went into a long slow decline.
Canaries in the Coal Mine
Shopping districts like this one thrived on local business that stepped off the streetcar or stopped en route to Downtown on Beverly, which then was the most direct road to, say, City Hall. That was long before freeways diverted revenue-generating traffic, and long before sturdy commercial stalwarts like 3800 Beverly succumbed to changing times and changing economies.
In the broad sweep of twentieth-century Los Angeles history, we tend to focus on the macro change like the flight of capital from the center to the periphery. That began in the early decades, and on its heels followed the retailers that bid for those dollars. Downtown department stores migrated to Mid-Wilshire Beverly Hills (and beyond) while the entertainment cornerstones of the theater district folded.
But this story leaves out the foot soldiers of commerce that prevailed throughout twentieth century Los Angeles: the single-story ‘taxpayer’ strips that literally paid the property taxes; or the commercial blocks that rose two or more stories to literally telegraph higher land values there. Or corner structures like 3800 Beverly that maximized street frontage, often where busy boulevards or streetcar lines crossed.
(Today, of course, we package shopping and entertainment in a single ‘destination’ – like Caruso’s faux town centers in Mid City and Glendale – or create commercial developments that rival Ben Hur stage sets – hello Hollywood Highland! These models are catching on in suburbia too as even those folks begin to eschew the indoor mall.)
When capital drained from their communities, however, these structures began a long decline – much like canaries in the coal mine signal noxious air. Yet these ghosts of Los Angeles past are all around us if we pause long enough to peer past the crappy signage on the historic facades or deign to step into a stairwell. There the squeaky stairs and yellowed hallways bring the past back, don’t they? Even in the bright light of a summer day they summon the bare-bulb ambience of vintage noir.
We also appreciate these places because they are home to enterprising outfits like Kill Radio that tolerate street-borne anxieties and a measure of relative insecurity in exchange for cheap rent and flexible terms. These conditions nourish entrepreneurial creativity; they provide an incubator for experimentation and failure. Our best ideas for tomorrow often need lower barriers to entry today, and 3800 and buildings like it are where they originate.
Not all communities can be Beverly Hills, and thanks be that they’re not. At Beverly & Vermont these guys are creating the value while places like Beverly Hills thrive on collecting it. That’s what we feel when we stop by Kill Radio for Bike Talk. We see it, feel it, smell it and be it. Tune in. Better yet, stop by and take in for yourself the scent of bootstrapped invention every Saturday from 10 to noon.