Micro-Modifications:
Stories of Dingbat Dwellers

Dingbat, Los Angeles, 2015. © Paul Redmond.

 

Text by Joshua G. Stein. Photographs by Paul Redmond.

 

Most photographic documentation of dingbats follows traditions primarily intended to capture architectural or graphic composition. Los Angeles-based photographer Paul Redmond instead approaches the dingbat through its inhabitants, their stories, and their traces. By selecting one neighborhood and walking its streets, Redmond was able to meet residents and hear their perspectives on living in a dingbat. Los Angeles’s Pico-Robertson neighborhood contains a high concentration of dingbats along with a few older apartment types, single-family residences, and larger, recently constructed apartment buildings.

Redmond’s photographic series of this small sample of dingbat inhabitants confirms some expectations about dingbat-apartment living while revising others. Parking remains a driving attraction, although now more as a place to store an obligatory car rather than to display a fetishized object. When first constructed, dingbats served as way stations for Americans moving west, who were in need of a quick place to set up a new life. While this is still the case, in moving through this neighborhood in present-day L.A., the reality becomes much more complex as these dingbats now house a surprising diversity of languages, cultures, and classes.

While some dingbats in this neighborhood have barely changed since their initial construction, others have clearly undergone renovations, or at least benefited from new finishes and fixtures. As the housing market in Los Angeles continues to constrict due to a shortage of units and increasing rents, dingbats have proven to be more desirable as longer-term habitation for some renters. For owners who might have once assumed these structures to be easy teardowns, dingbat rentals now offer considerable profit after only minor upgrades.

Deftly attuned to both narrative and physicality, Redmond’s photographs display the range of different lifestyles possible within a single building type—the minor adjustments necessary to make a space temporarily livable, the accumulations over time, and the more calculated planning of long-term residents. The stories of these inhabitants relate typical narratives of apartment life as well as the more specific scenes of dingbat life in Los Angeles.

 

Dingbat, Los Angeles, 2015. © Paul Redmond.

 

Eneida (and family)

Apartment type
Two bedroom

Occupant(s)
Three adults (mother in mid-seventies, daughter in late forties, and grandson in late twenties)

Occupation(s)
Retiree, School Headmaster, and Student

Length of Residency
Twenty-one years

 

Dingbat, Los Angeles, 2015. © Paul Redmond.

 

Were you aware of the term “dingbat apartments?”

This is the first time I’ve heard the word. I thought maybe there were bats in the building, because in Puerto Rico the bats would make their nests in the eaves of the buildings.

 

What can you share about your dingbat experience?

I live here with my daughter and grandson. I’m originally from Puerto Rico and came here from Chicago. I wish there were buildings like this one in Puerto Rico. Here I feel like it is all my family living together. I would tell my mother in Puerto Rico that if I had the money I would build something similar to this building here.

I have lived here for twenty-one years, but there are many others who have lived here for at least ten or fifteen years. This building was built for the original owner’s extended family. For a while it was filled with mostly retired people—no dogs and no kids. One man lived here for maybe thirty years until he died at age 100. Here, when people move in, they don’t want to move out. Even people who moved in when they were teenagers have stayed here as adults.
When I moved here, there were only palm trees and concrete, and for me it was too depressing. I had to change it. I lived on a farm until age seventeen and I learned how to garden from my mother, so I started a garden here. Now, even though the building owner lives in Beverly Hills, he likes to sit in this garden to relax. I used to have many more plants but when more children arrived in the buildings, I decided the cacti and roses were dangerous and I took maybe seventy percent of my plants to my niece’s house.

I’ve been through three owners and I’ve been friendly with all of them. I check the building every morning to see if there are any leaks or any problems, kind of a manager on-site without the appointment. I watch people’s dogs and cats when they go away on vacation and I help show a vacant apartment. I’m not the manager but I want the building to look nice and the people who move in to be friendly and suitable, and I must admit the landlord asks my impression and opinion in that matter. They don’t pay me—I don’t want the responsibility—but I feel good about keeping the building clean, nice, and safe. When people move in I make sure I introduce them to everyone else so they join the family. In this place, we help each other out.

During the 1994 earthquake this building didn’t suffer any damage. Not one crack. Eight years ago, when the new owner bought this building, he bought it to demolish these two buildings and build a large condominium complex just like the one behind us. One of the tenants, with the help of all of us, took the owners to court. We felt it would be like splitting up a family. The media came to cover the event. We went to court and we won the case. We don’t know what will happen now that the housing market is booming. When the owner applied to build a much larger apartment building, the city told him he would need access to the alley for all the necessary parking. He had not anticipated this and there was one piece of property between us and the alley. He has since bought that property so we now expect him to try again.

 

Dingbat, Los Angeles, 2015. © Paul Redmond.

 

Dingbat, Los Angeles, 2015. © Paul Redmond.

 

Dingbat, Los Angeles, 2015. © Paul Redmond.

 

Jenni and Tom (and Sookie Blue)

Apartment type
Two bedroom

Occupant(s)
Two adults (married, early forties) and one dog

Occupation(s)
Marriage and Family Therapist and Film Editor

Length of Residency
Eight years

 

Dingbat, Los Angeles, 2015. © Paul Redmond.

 

Were you aware of the term “dingbat apartments?”

I never knew these buildings were called “dingbats” until I found the flyer for this book on my car. Growing up, my family used the term “dingbat” all of the time to describe someone or something foolish. When I was older, I learned that “dingbat” referred to an ornamental shape used in art, jewelry, and other designs. Until we received the flyer for this project, I had never heard “dingbat” used in the context of architectural design.

 

What can you share about your dingbat experience?

I find the building we live in to be pleasant and plain—how I prefer it. I like living in an apartment that is surprisingly larger and nicer on the inside than one might guess by looking at the outside. I feel safer knowing these are not the most upscale digs on the block, and therefore, less likely to attract anyone looking to score some awesome loot. The building has held up for this long, it must be well-made. The owners maintain it nicely. There are two bedrooms, but we use the second one as an office. We pull out an air mattress when family comes to stay. I see clients in an office in West Los Angeles, but do most of my nonclient work at home. Tom cuts film at home when his work allows. The neighborhood is changing, diversifying, which as a half-breed myself, I find exciting. That said, Jewish couples and families continue to occupy the majority of places around us, being so close to the Kabbalah Center, temples, and schools. I love to see multi-generational families out and about day and night, although with such narrow streets I prefer them on foot rather than in their very large family SUVs. It feels like there has been an increase in neighborhood dog owners, but that might just be because adopting Sookie has increased our daily walks.

 

Dingbat, Los Angeles, 2015. © Paul Redmond.

 

Dingbat, Los Angeles, 2015. © Paul Redmond.

 

Dingbat, Los Angeles, 2015. © Paul Redmond.

 

Hayley and Annie

Apartment type
One bedroom

Occupant(s)
Two adults (couple, early twenties)

Occupation(s)
Administrative Specialist and Retail Employee

Length of Residency
Three Months

 

Dingbat, Los Angeles, 2015. © Paul Redmond.

 

Were you aware of the term “dingbat apartments?”

No! Hayley (the midcentury enthusiast) was acutely aware of the phenomenon, but not the term.

 

What can you share about your dingbat experience?

Luck brought us here—we were looking for an apartment in roughly this part of town (it is convenient to both of our commutes), and we chanced across this one on our way to another open house. It was a perfect fit, and we managed to snag it.

It is a pretty cute building. We love the blue tile accents on the façade and our gated balcony. The apartment is definitely older, but well-kept. It is just the right size for us. Huge bonus (at least for Hayley) is the tiny yellow kitchen with a couple of crazy accent tiles above the sink. They depict cartoonish lemon slices on ornate skewers next to what we think are tea infusers. Our appliances in the kitchen are shiny, new, and obviously updated regularly, but the AC seems like it hasn’t been replaced since the Reagan administration.

We have probably the worst parking spot in L.A. County. Our parking lot is absurdly cramped, accessible only through a narrow driveway lined with stucco walls. There are disconcerting paint scrapes everywhere. Our spot is the hardest in the lot, and we have to do a crazy forty-point turn to back in or out of it. Sometimes one of our neighbors double-parks, which makes everything impossible. That being said, we are still happy to have the space because of how little street parking there is in the neighborhood.

We don’t think we could have an independent lifestyle in Los Angeles, or at least this neighborhood, without dingbat apartments. Because they’re older and perceived by some as dated or rickety, dingbats are often a lot cheaper than anything comparably sized on the market. We are both recent college graduates and are comically underemployed. There is no way we could be able to afford anything on our combined income in this neighborhood without all these dingbats. This is one of the most expensive cities on earth, and many new apartments going up (especially in affluent West L.A.) brand themselves as “luxury” apartments and market to the wealthy. Most include special auxiliary features that we do not need or want. Dingbats are a good mix of form and function—cute spaces that meet our minimalist needs, and we can actually afford them!

The neighborhood is nice. It is mostly other dingbats and mission-style duplexes. A couple in the next building has a really cute balcony garden facing us. They eat dinner out therein the summer, and we exchange hellos regularly.

 

Dingbat, Los Angeles, 2015. © Paul Redmond.

 

Note

Essay republished with permission from Thurman Grant and Joshua G. Stein’s Dingbat 2.0: The Iconic Los Angeles Apartment as Projection of a Metropolis (Los Angeles: DoppelHouse Press and The LA Forum for Architecture and Urban Design, 2016).

 

Joshua Stein is the founder of Radical Craft and the codirector of the Data Clay Network, a forum for the exploration of digital techniques applied to ceramic materials. Radical Craft is a Los Angeles-based studio that advances an experimental design practice saturated in history, archaeology, and craft. This inquiry inflects the production of urban spaces and artifacts by evolving newly grounded approaches to the challenges posed by virtuality, velocity, and globalization. He is Professor of Architecture at Woodbury University where he also directs The Institute of Material Ecologies (T-IME).
www.radical-craft.com | www.data-clay.org

Paul Redmond is a Canadian-born portrait/editorial photographer. Having immigrated to the US as a child, his images portray an earnest embrace of American culture. Redmond uses the term “arbitrary architecture” to explain what he seeks to capture in landscape photographs, details that make evident the human marks that are not always fully thought out or finely designed. When capturing people he looks more to the deliberate choices we make as individuals, from the subtle to the flamboyant. His photographic work has been exhibited in the first annual APA Off The Clock exhibition, his solo show Light Leaks, and various groups shows.
www.paul-redmond.com



Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *