Saving Bukowski's Bungalow

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Eckarth Palutke / Huntington Library / AP

Charles Bukowski in his library.

The vacant property isn't much to look at now, and it certainly wasn't any prettier back in the late 1960s, when a 1952 Comet was parked on the front lawn, tins of bacon grease filled up the kitchen, cigar smoke stunk up the air, and newspapers littered the floors. But the little bungalow at 5124 De Longpre Avenue in East Hollywood was the epicenter of a cultural earthquake that continues to rock Los Angeles's literary landscape. It is the house where Charles Bukowski went from blue-collar postman to full-time writer, eventually becoming world famous for his bawdy tales of lust, liquor, and love.

While Bukowski, who died in 1994, is now a literary immortal, his bungalow's days may be numbered. The current owner recently evicted the tenants, erected a chain-link fence, and put the property on the market, advertising on Craigslist, "You can easily tear down the old building and do new construction!"

But like the hard-headed Hank Chinaski, the author's autobiographical alter ego, Bukowski fans aren't letting the home he rented from 1963 to 1972 go down without a rumble. They're pushing for preservation, and the city is listening. On September 20, a historical commission will take the first step in determining whether the property should be made a landmark and saved from demolition. The preservation charge is spearheaded by a young woman who might have caught Bukowski's wandering eye back in his days at De Longpre, the setting for his racy novel Women. Aspiring photographer and temp worker Lauren Everett, 26, has been a Bukowski fan since her childhood, but she probably understands him now more than ever, explaining, "I'm an office temp, so I definitely identify with his idea of 'stick-with-it-you-don't-have-to-kill- yourself-even-though-your-job-is-horrible.'" Everett claimed that the house is the most significant of all Bukowski residences: he lived there the longest and had his only child there. "Everything else has been torn down," says Everett. "It would be someplace that people could go to experience his environment. I think that's important."

She's enlisted the help of Richard Schave, who leads literary tours around Los Angeles, including one Bukowski-themed excursion called "Haunts of a Dirty Old Man." Schave explained that the De Longpre neighborhood remains the same blue-collar, immigrant community of Russians, Armenians, and Slavs that it was in the 1960s and '70s. And around the corner is still the Pink Elephant, Bukowski's favorite liquor store. "It was at De Longpre where his explosion of work began," said Schave. "This place was the rocket booster that propelled him through the rest of his life."

Bukowski's longtime publisher and friend John Martin agrees. "That's where I met him," says Martin, who founded Black Sparrow Press in 1969 after discovering the writer's poetry in underground mimeographs. He then published Bukowski until the author died from leukemia in 1994. "You just knew this was someplace special," remembers Martin, now 77 and living in Santa Rosa, California. "He had a whole closet full of unpublished poems. Literally, they were stacked up on the floor leaning against the wall two or three feet high. So I went through and picked out ones I thought were especially good, and I began, one way or another, to publish Bukowski."

Aside from being the setting for numerous poems and novels, the bungalow was also where Bukowski decided to quit the post office. "It was killing him," said Martin, who asked Bukowski how much he needed to survive every month. Martin handed Bukowski his favorite pen, and then Bukowski tallied his needs: cigarettes, rent, child support, booze, food. Adding up to a mere $100 per month, Martin promised that much in perpetuity. They shook hands on it, but the pen disappeared into the Bukowski's mess, never to be found again.

When Bukowski did quit the post office in January 1970, Martin suggested he write a novel. Twenty-one days later, Bukowski finished his first novel, telling a shocked Martin, "Fear allows you to do anything." Martin went down to De Longpre and picked up what became Post Office. "To this day, it remains his most popular book," says Martin.

If the commission moves the case forward, the preservationists will try to enlist the help of celebrity fans such as Johnny Depp, who is working on an animated film about the author. "So many people for so long have gone to the mat for Bukowski," says Schave. "If we do get a yes, then it will make it so much easier to do all the hard work that will still be in front of us."

That "yes" would come from Los Angeles's Cultural Heritage Commission, which dedicates anywhere from 30 to 50 monuments a year, according to staffer Ken Bernstein. "The vast majority are saved for architectural significance," says Bernstein, "but the cultural heritage ordinance does allow for and encourage designation of sites that are important to the social and cultural history of the city. The question for the commission will be whether the bungalow retains the physical qualities that enable it to tell the story of its culture and history." If so, demolition will be blocked to allow for further review until the L.A. City Council gives the final nod.

So what happens to the owner then? There are tax breaks for historic properties, but Schave admits, "It could potentially cramp his style." The owner, meanwhile, is not talking. When contacted, he got flustered and said, in an Eastern European accent, "I am sorry. I'm not at liberty to discuss anything about De Longpre." Former publisher Martin, who called Bukowski "the most widely recognized and important author ever born and raised in Los Angeles," hopes the property can be saved. He explains, "I don't know if they're going to be able to save this property, but I think it's as interesting and important as anything of its kind in the city."

What would Bukowski think about this hullabaloo? No one can say for sure, but it's definitely a lot of effort for a man whose gravestone reads simply, "Don't Try."