Posted by: Brad Nixon | August 2, 2010

217 33rd St., Manhattan Beach

217 33rd, Manhattan Beach, CA

217 33rd, Manhattan Beach, CA

The building in the picture is in Manhattan Beach, California, one of the “beach cities” in the South Bay of L.A., meaning the southern arc of the Santa Monica Bay. The beach cities are, north to south, Manhattan Beach, Hermosa Beach and Redondo Beach. If you don’t know these names from any other source, you’ve at least heard Manhattan and Redondo in the Beach Boys’ “Surfin’ USA” (and until I moved here and learned there was a place called Manhattan Beach, I always thought the BB’s were being tongue-in-cheek about surfing in the middle of New York City. Now I even know where “Swami’s” is).

This particular building probably went up in the 1960s. #217 is the ground floor and #219 is above it. It’s typical of the not-so-upscale building that was going on in the South Bay at the time. The postwar aerospace boom was in full swing, and large tracts of low-cost housing were rising up all over L.A., especially here in the South Bay, fueled by lots of work at Northrop and Grumman and TRW and associated businesses, including the firm I work for now.

The beach cities in about 1970 still had a scruffy, sand-in-your-shoes bohemian atmosphere, and cheap apartments like the one in the photo were more the rule than the mcmansionization that now rules the towns, driven by the wealth of the ’90s and aughts. The idea of building a relatively inexpensive place two blocks from one of the world’s most famous beaches in what is now a city jam-packed with fashion jeans and BMWs today seems incomprehensible. Most of the original housing stock consisted of beach houses of 900 or 1200 square feet, and there was a thriving culture of hippies and bohemians trolling around the streets or hanging out with their boards on the beach.

Today, that piece of property is worth several million dollars, and is probably only awaiting its turn to be acquired, demolished, and replaced with a steel-framework monstrosity that will go down at least one level below ground (many of the new buildings go down TWO floors below the sand!) and provide necessary shelter and living space for struggling multimillionaires (click on any photo for larger image).

217 33rd, ocean view

217 33rd, ocean view

In the photo above, looking down at the beach from the place, you can see that the building on the other side of Bayview, the little alleyway that crosses the E-W 33rd St. here is undergoing exactly that transformation. 217/219 won’t be far behind, unless the economy tanks again, and perhaps not even then; Multimillionaires and their property seem to occupy a separate economy.

What makes #217 worth memorializing, since it doesn’t seem to demonstrate any attributes of a great, passing era of American architecture? According to several accounts, American novelist, Thomas Pynchon, lived at #217 in the early 1970s, about the time he was writing the mammoth and mind-boggling Gravity’s Rainbow. South Bay locales figure in a number of his works, either more or less disguised, and his fictional “Gordita Beach” is probably a highly fictionalized Manhattan Beach itself. His most recent book, Inherent Vice, is set largely in the South Bay, and demonstrates a familiarity with the geography of the place. I like to think about T.P. at least returning to the South Bay not all that long ago, cruising around, refreshing his knowledge of his former stomping grounds for Inherent Vice.

The world is full of landmark places once occupied by famous authors. One can spend all one’s time in cities like Rome and London just following around to see places where Byron, Shelley, Hemingway, Marx and an endless list of famous and almost-famous writers lived or worked or played. I’ve caught a few of these spots, though I haven’t gone out of my way all that much to seek them out (if you go to the Spanish Steps in Rome, for example, you’re going to see the house where Keats died, whether or not you’re looking for it).

However, the guidebook for “Places Thomas Pynchon Has Lived” has only one entry: 217 33rd Street. Mr. Pynchon is reclusive to a degree perhaps unattained by any other well-known author, and hasn’t been seen in public since his writing career began in the 1960s. Anyone who knows where he was prior to this, or where he’s been since, ain’t talkin’. There are no photographs of him and only occasional reports of sightings. His appetite for privacy makes the late J.D. Salinger seem like a media hound by comparison.

According to reports by people who claim to have known him at the time, Pynchon was living here in Manhattan Beach then, and, true to his nature, maintained only a sparse, carefully guarded acquaintance. It’s likely that Pynchon is still in California, possibly here in the greater Los Angeles area, but no one who knows is talking: certainly not Mr. Pynchon. That’s because he doesn’t talk on the record to anyone about anything under any circumstances. It’s nothing new for famous people to live in southern California. Except, usually, they are a bit more, well, public about it.

He had a darned groovy spot, not just two blocks from the beach, but also a mere block down from the scene up on Highland.

View east on 33rd toward Highland

View east on 33rd toward Highland

Just a few blocks over, on Rosecrans, is one of the innumerable El Tarasco Mexican food joints where Pynchon, reportedly, occasionally ate (there are umpteen El Tarascos, all over the area). This is a pitiably small scrap of information, and demonstrates how successful Mr. P. has been in eluding everyone.

El Tarasco, Manhattan Beach

El Tarasco, Manhattan Beach

From time to time, I may post a few other articles from spots that appear in Pynchon’s novels. There are a significant number of locations in the South Bay of L.A., especially with the publication of Inherent Vice, that qualify. They might say something interesting about either life in L.A., or perhaps they’ll reveal, just as Pynchon’s characters themselves strive to do, some pattern or underlying insight about the man that we can assemble from otherwise disparate and unconnected facts.

Oobop shebam.

If you are keen on visiting the haunts of famous artists, please give the residents of 217 a break. They almost certainly have no information about Mr. Pynchon, if they’ve even heard of him, and they won’t appreciate having their privacy violated. Be respectful of someone who just happens to live at the same address. Also, be mindful of where you park. You may wish to park at the municipal lot on Highland, just a few blocks uphill. Do NOT park in front of anyone’s driveway or park at a meter without paying. Parking is at a premium in the jam-packed beach area, and parking violations are extremely expensive. They will ticket or tow with extreme prejudice.

© 2010, 2015 Brad Nixon

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Responses

  1. […] and early ’70s Pynchon’s Manhattan Beach, California home is located at: 217 33rd St.  Brad’s Blog has an excellent write-up about Pynchon’s Manhattan Beach rental house. 217 33rd Street, […]

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