Welcome to House Calls, a new feature in which Curbed tours the lovely, offbeat, or otherwise awesome homes of regular Angelenos. Think your space should be featured next? Drop us a line with a few photos and details about your place.Photos by Elizabeth Daniels
Back in May, the New York Times Style Section ran one of its notorious Los Angeles trend pieces, about the rush of creative class New Yorkers abandoning the city for the low rents and other charms (brioche tarts, craft cocktails) of Los Angeles. A lot of the piece focused on a woman named Turner, in LA for only a couple months and living in a perfect-sounding, two-bedroom Echo Park bungalow for far less than she'd paid for her junior one-bedroom in New York: the Times quoted her rent as $1,250. And Angelenos freaked out.
The number was obviously wrong—it'd be hard to find a two-bedroom for that kind of money in even the cheapest LA neighborhoods, forget one of the hottest—and critics saw it as one more shred of evidence that the NYT doesn't really care to get to know LA as it actually is. The story was corrected the next day: Turner has a roommate named Martha, and the rent is actually $2,500. It's a shame that was left out of the original, not just because of the uproar (and, bafflingly, Turner got a lot of the flak herself), but because the story of this bungalow is a story about two strangers becoming friends and making a home together.
For this edition of House Calls, we visited their home—which is actually a large apartment in one of those oddball complexes you find in the Echo Park hills (it has three units)—and talked to Turner and Martha about the "good vibes" that brought them both there, years apart, when they had no other home; why it's so great living in Echo Park; and the weirdness of the New York Times furor. (The interview's been edited a bit for length and clarity.)
Who lives here?
Turner, 33, fashion stylist
Martha, 31, interior designer and prop stylist
What're the stats?
Martha: Well it's technically three bed, or two-bedroom plus office. Two bath. It's about 1,500 square feet. There's a front garden/patio, gated, garage parking and driveway.
What's the rent?
How long have you been here?
Martha: I've been here since 2011.
Turner: And I've been here since December 2014.
What's the best feature?
Martha: I think it's a really good apartment for roommates because it has two bathrooms. It has really good light also. It's a very easy house to live in.
Turner: I think it's easy for my profession, I think for both of our professions, because we're constantly loading clothes for me, and, for her, furniture, so we're not on one of those steep crazy hills, and we have a driveway, so we can just load in and load out easily. That's a huge perk for me coming from New York.
What's the worst feature?
Martha: It's kind of rough around the edges, it's a rental unit, in terms of the appliances. I've taken a lot of things into my own hands in terms of replacing fixtures and hardware and stuff. And the living room is small.
Turner: Is it really small?
Martha: I would have like two times this amount of [furniture] if I had more space.
Turner: I would say the worst feature is this apartment echoes a lot. I can hear Mao and Des, the cats—I can hear them walk, I can hear the pitter patter of their feet. But that's pretty much it.
What do you love and/or hate about the neighborhood?
Turner: The only thing that's bad is that it's really hard to get cell phone service here. Uber drivers don't know where they're going and they're really confused, and that's pretty much it.
Martha: It never fails to amaze me that I meet people and find out that they live a block away from me and I find out more and more cool people and people that I know and work with creatively all live here. So it feels like it really is a community. And you really see that when you're at the yoga studio or at the coffee shop, you're aware of it, but it's not a walkable neighborhood. So in that sense, you may live close to somebody for years and never see them, because you're not walking. The fact that there's not much you can walk to is kind of a bummer.
It's kind of full of surprises, I find Echo Park to be very quirky. There's just such a mish-mash of architecture, and just little moments where you'll turn a corner and there's just a shangri-la. There's an adobe house over here that I think was one of the first settlements in east Los Angeles that dates from like 1810. Then there's Peter Shire's funky Memphis house. It's funky.
Turner: And for me, there's nature's gym: you can hike, you can take the stairs.
Martha: That's a totally amazing thing, having Elysian Park right there.
Turner: These hills are great for if you really wanna work up a quick sweat … [or you can] take a run around the lake.
What's your approach to decorating?
Martha: For me, decorating is kind of secondary to collecting. I didn't get into decorating with a whole lot of intention, to be honest. I was a collector of just objects that struck me, and I basically got into decorating by figuring out how to piece them together in my home. If I find something that I really love, I find a way to work it in. So it's a real hodgepodge and if you love it, make it work.
Turner: Living with Martha has been a total education in the way that I now see things. For example, my dad was a photographer and I've been carrying around a box of his C prints, he took portraits of military aircraft, which you will see in my office and my bedroom, and up until I moved here, those images that were really close to me lived in a box, until Martha brought them out of the box and helped me matte and frame them and find a home for work that really meant a lot to me.
I've always known what I liked and been able to pick out pieces on my own, but in terms of styling and things, Martha's taught me a lot and I pretty much ask her opinion on everything. ... I'm reminded of my dad every day just because she was able to help me. What I've learned by living here is she has a lot of her own personal things and you can combine them in a way that doesn't feel way too personal, it can be an expression of you without feeling too…
Turner: Yeah, yeah. It's not like a shrine to my dad.
Martha: I have a lot of family things from Kentucky, that's where I'm from originally and I'm very far from home, and my heritage and my family in the South is important to me and there's not a lot of cross-pollination here, so I have a lot of pieces that remind me of that time and the family there.
How'd you end up here?
Martha: I had planned to move to Los Angeles; I had no idea how difficult it would be to find an apartment because I was used to living in Chicago, paying those rents for a decade, having it be really easy, I moved around a ton when I lived there. But I had gotten a job out here with Tom Ford—I used to work in fashion and visual merchandising—and had a start date for the job and had come out a couple of times to find a place and hadn't found anything. And I had a roommate who was moving from New York … she had come twice and not been able to find something for us, so altogether it was four trips, we couldn't find anything. It was so disappointing and it was so demoralizing, because the requirements to rent … I feel like you had to have vet records stating the temperament of your pets, you jumped through every hoop possible to prove that you were a trustworthy person and of course neither of us had been living here, so we didn't have employment to establish and we kept losing leases and losing leases …
It finally came down to, my stuff had been loaded onto a truck, heading to LA with no destination. I was sleeping on the floor of my empty apartment in Chicago, just in tears, supposed to drive out within the next couple of days with no place to go. And had my laptop and was on Craigslist, and I'd just been on Craiglist and on Craiglist and on Craigslist, and this unit showed up and there were these very blurry pictures, they were kind of dark, and there were sheets tacked up over the windows and beds and sleeping bags all over the place because there was a dance troupe that was living here at the time. But I could see enough in the pictures to kind of get a sense of like this is a good place, this is a great location, it seems like the rooms are big, it has these amenities that I really want, the price is right. So I emailed this woman and I had by this time this whole spiel … I had this whole presentation, and this woman, who was the landlord, I kind of sent her my whole spiel and she was like "Oh I don't need any of this, I had a dream that you were coming, the apartment is yours." It was just like, tears.
My roommate at the time and I drove across the country with her two dogs, my two cats, a bunch of houseplants, and ourselves in my small car, at each others' throats by the time we arrived, and came to this street we had never been on, in the middle of the night, arrived at this house we had never seen—literally rented the place sight unseen because we had no choice, we had to find a place—and she had left instructions on where we could find the key, we walked in, and there was a bottle of champagne and an ice bucket, there were two palettes like yoga mats with sleeping bags she had made in two of the bedrooms, rose petals strewn around, a crystal, some incense, and pillows. And we just sat in the living room and hugged each other and popped the champagne and just cried of happiness.
It was the greatest thing and she was the sweetest woman, and it's still to this day the best landlord I've ever had. And the fact that she would know how much it meant to us to come through this long journey into a situation that could've been so many things, it could've been an absolute trainwreck, and it was just the loveliest welcome gift ever. So I try to be a very good tenant in the years I've lived here to repay her for her kindness.
How is she in general?
Martha: She's great, I don't see her a lot … we just have a very amicable relationship. She comes over and drinks wine sometimes.
Turner: A couple days before I packed up and left New York for LA, I got an email from my friend David who was going to indefinitely house me in LA until I got my feet on the ground, he sent me an email with Martha's information and it was a link to all these images of her house and a description of the type of roommate she wanted and all the other perks of living in this great three-bedroom house. And I saw the rent was $1,250, that I'd have my own bedroom, my own bathroom, closet, and office, an attached offices. I was just like "huh?" I almost didn't read the email, I'm so glad I did. I emailed Martha right away. … Before I even got here, she wrote me an email while I was in Santa Fe, saying "the house is yours if you want it." She had already offered it to me before meeting me—how does that ever happen? When you're on your way to LA, you're leaving your life behind in New York, and…
Martha: The good vibes of this house being passed on!
Turner: Yeah! You can only imagine me leaving New York, which has been my home for 16 years and I've always had this dream to live in LA, to have a bicoastal life where I could go back for my work in fashion in New York and be able to live here. I didn't really know what I was getting myself into, I was just going, selling all my things and just going out. And to have this perfect scenario of a wonderful roommate and a really beautiful home, I'm just lucky.
This is LA, this is like a new start. She's helped me feel the most at home I've ever felt in any apartment situation … this is more of a home to me than I've ever had since I was 16 years old.
If you could have any living situation in LA, what would it be?
Martha: I would love to have some kind of a Spanish or Mid-Century house in the hills of Los Feliz, or maybe in Beachwood Canyon. That would be my single-person fantasy, maybe, but I love Pasadena deeply because it reminds me of where I grew up, so there's part of me—when I get really stressed out—I would just love to just have this pretty little house in Pasadena with my husband and a golden retriever and just go to my spin studio and, you know, tend to my roses.
Turner: It was always my dream to just come out here, so I feel like I'm lucky where I am right now. Of course, there's always been a dream of mine to buy a house … I'm just trying to work toward that goal.
What happened with the New York Times?
Turner: A writer contacted me through, I think it was a couple people … basically what went out was "writer looking for recent people who've moved from New York to LA" and I just happened to be one of those people who just moved. And he contacted me and it was a series of really friendly conversations back and forth. I actually didn't know that it was gonna be a story, I thought it was gonna be a quote. And was shocked, it was a pleasant surprise to find it was a little bit more about my story. What I didn't understand was why people got so upset about the rent, when it was misquoted. It was an honest, human error. It wasn't the Times trying to paint this dream scenario, it was remedied the following day. But at that point it was way too late … People were saying "we don't want any more New Yorkers here." I just didn't understand why people were so quick to think that I was lying.
The point is that I am getting a lot more here than I was getting in New York. I was paying $1,850 for a junior one-bedroom that I would say is the size of this living room and [the foyer]. And I didn't even have a sink in my bathroom, I couldn't even shut the door when I was using the toilet. I lived four blocks from the train, I had to take three trains to the office. What I was doing in New York is what everyone does in New York. The point is I am getting more than what I was getting in New York. That is evident. When people who live in LA come here, they're like "Oh yeah, nice." But when friends of mine from New York visit, they're like "Oh my god, this is insane." I feel really happy having those two rooms, I don't even get to that point where I'm like "I kind of wish I had…" I have enough.
All this that I get to share with Martha is crazy perk to me—having those books, having a roommate that's super clean. People are like "Oh you have a roommate." No, I have the best situation. I've gained a friend, learned a lot, it's more than just sharing a space with someone. Maybe that's the one thing the New York Times didn't really talk about.
How do you feel about that tension between New York and LA?
Martha: People say "LA is having a moment," but LA's been having a moment forever, it seems like. Definitely it seems to be picking up … I think people have come to realize, like Turner was saying, you get to a certain age, I think, where you just get tired of not being able to entertain at your home because you have a galley kitchen and a hotplate. Or in Chicago, yeah, you've got these cheap rents, but all your friends are leaving because there's no work there, and it's just not as much excitement. I think LA offers, despite the crazy drought and the terrible traffic and the feelings of isolation or insularity that you have in this city by virtue of it being a car city, I think that there is obviously this sense of community and there is obviously this sort of—it's like everyone has sort of come together again as adults, or as older adults, and made a home in Los Angeles.