Air conditioning becomes a weapon against infection, D.J. Waldie finds the soul in Los Angeles

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D.J. Waldie, author of “Becoming Los Angeles: Myth, Memory and a Sense of Place,” stands on a street in the City of Lakewood. Photo by Frances Anderton/KCRW

Air flow to better health

One of the most common ways COVID-19 gets transmitted is indoors, via tiny airborne droplets. So-called super spreader events are said to result from a convergence of three v’s: venue, vocalization, and ventilation.

That’s when a lot of people gather indoors and talk or sing, such as at a religious service, choir practice, or college cafeteria luncheon. Poor ventilation is believed to intensify transmission. 

The LA Times reported recently that people living on the streets of Los Angeles were experiencing lower rates of coronavirus than the housed. While the unhoused are susceptible to many health issues, the low transmission of COVID-19 has been credited to living outside.

So wherever building owners and designers have the budget, they’re looking into ways to improve ventilation systems.

At Santa Monica Malibu Unified School District (SMMUSD), to make the school buildings safe for the eventual return of students and teachers, staff are planning to run fans for a constant exchange of air, says Carey Upton, Chief Operations Officer. “But in those spaces where we can, we'll also have the windows and the doors open, which is completely inefficient, but it will increase the amount of air exchange, which is necessary during this pandemic.”

They will then likely add another layer of air improvement. “Either a UV lighting system or an ionization system that kills bacteria, mold and viruses, or allows you to capture and nullify them. And so that's something we're looking at putting in. It's a little expensive. It would be about $2,000 per room.”

Upton also acknowledges that contributes to another existential crisis: climate change. After all, it’s only now that the school district is installing air conditioning. Santa Monica buildings once relied on breezes for ventilation. An increasing number of very hot days demands the installation of AC.

Some designers argue it is still possible — and healthier — to rely on natural ventilation. Hraztan Zeitlian is an architect who recently renovated an office building in Santa Monica. Built in the early 1990s, the original building was designed to seal people in. Zeitlian introduced operable windows and easy access to outside balconies.

“The best way actually to create a healthy environment is to have fresh air coming into the building as much as possible. That's a very old, passive idea, very prevalent in old architectures in the Middle East where you try to create air circulation to move the air and bring in fresh air.”

He acknowledges this is tough to achieve in the many areas of LA that have very poor air quality or are much hotter than the breezy west side. 

But he points to a multifamily building he is working on in Pasadena. He says he is trying to bring down the mechanical ventilation of the building to the minimum possible, through integrating open air circulation corridors and a courtyard that's fully shaded.

There's a psychological aspect to this as well, he adds. “The feeling of cool or hot is also related to a sense of connecting with the exterior. There’s this kind of poetic connection to nature, to the sky and the environment that comes to play in this equation.”

Hraztan Zeitlian renovated this 1990s office building in Santa Monica, opening up windows and access to the outside. The glazing faces north to reduce heat gain. Image courtesy of Hraztan Zeitlian

Becoming Los Angeles

D.J. Waldie first gained attention in 1996 when he published "Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir." 

This was a poetic meditation on growing up in the blue collar, post-war suburban City of Lakewood. 

Since then he has written many more books about Los Angeles. His latest is "Becoming Los Angeles: Myth, Memory and a Sense of Place." 

It is published by the Santa Monica-based Angel City Press. It is a book of many small revelations from a writer who is deeply concerned with finding the soul in a city often seen as only skin deep.

“I am persuaded that everything talks to everything else, that the trees talk to the streetlights, that talk to the clouds passing overhead, that talk to the grid of streets around them, that talk to me,” says Waldie, a devout Catholic. “My book is my attempt to convey that experience to you, to readers."

It is also a book end to “Holy Land.”

“Part of this book was a dialogue with my former self. The me of 1995 is not the me of 2020, and I see the world and my experience of Los Angeles in a different way.” 

That difference has in part to do with the reckoning around race. That means Waldie now sees Lakewood as perhaps less benign than in “Holy Land.”

“It seemed like a wonderful life and I would wish others could experience it. But I know that there were many, many, many other thousands who were denied the opportunity I had, denied the opportunity my parents had, to own a small house and live a decent, dignified life in a well-run, new community. And this is the crime. This is the sin. This is the burden that all Southern California suburbs bear, all the postwar suburbs bear. They were made for working class people, but some working class people were prevented from living there.”

Waldie talks to DnA about the ways Anglos molded the Southland into their vision, from the defining and selling of the climate to housing policies. 

Waldie, a lifelong non-driver, is an acute observer of the details of the life, landscape  and urban fabric of Los Angeles, from the tiles at Union Station to telecopters.

“Helicopters are kind of a metaphor for me for a perspective on place, that is distancing and remote, that seems to provide a kind of all-seeing eye, but which really misses an awful lot about what's going on down on the ground. …  And I laugh at the idea that we can understand Los Angeles from the perspective of a news channel’s helicopter. That's not how we really can understand where we are.”


Westview Village in Ventura is co-designed by Partner Energy. Photo courtesy of the Housing Authority of the City of San Buenaventura (HACSB)