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Thursday, August 31, 2006


I'm Back, But Still Unpacking

Eight days. Gone. But here I am again.

If you're a regular reader you know I was in Chicago last week for the Society of Professional Journalists convention. What you may not know is that I was there to serve as an advisor to university students in The Working Press program, which produced three newspapers full of stories and photos about the annual event.

The students did an excellent job reporting on the workshops and speeches for which they had prepared in advance. But they also met the challenge of covering a couple unexpected political battles that erupted prior to the annual election of officers. Needless to say, there was no shortage of news at this year's convention.

The students, and the SPJ staff, did a magnificent job. Joe Skeel, editor of Quill, coordinated the program (no small feat when you consider he coordinated the application process and arrange for Apple to provide the enviable collection of desktop and laptop computers that equipped the newsroom). Skeel also served as the publication's editor-in-chief while performing various other duties as an SPJ staffer.

By the convention's end, many attendees remarked on the quality of the publication and praised the student's work. It was well-deserved.

I knew going into it that the bulk of my time would be consumed by the program, editing copy and helping guide the students. Nonetheless, I was hoping to find more time to blog more than I did. At the end of each day (11 p.m. or later) the last thing I wanted to do was turn on another computer, so I didn't.

The convention ended Sunday, but I did not come straight home. I had to make an unrelated trip to another midwestern city, but arrived home in LA last night, determined to avoid leaving my wonderful LA neighborhood for weeks, determined to finish editing the novel I just completed.

I'm still trying to catch up with the work on which I fell behind while I was away. I'm also trying hard to lose this east-coast jet lag, and get things in order for the start of another semester (I'm teaching a college-level journalism course this fall).

My goal is to post a half-dozen new blog entries by the end of the day Friday. I took plenty of notes at the convention, including some helpful website links, some audio from SPJ workshops, and some photographs. I'm eager to put them to the use I intended. So please, check back.

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Saturday, August 26, 2006


Best SWAG (Stuff We All Get)

Every convention it seems attendees are given a bag to hold all the bric-a-brac that will either end up gathering dust on a desktop for years, or, more likely, fall to the floor and end up dwelling in the dark space between the file cabinet and the wall until the next newsroom reorganization.

The best SWAG at the SPJ National Conference and Convention this year, in my opinion, has to be the UL Dude, a spongey guy in a lab coat about the size of a salt shaker.

He's intended to promote a new web feature by Underwriters Laboratory Inc..

UL reps said people had snagged 250 of the dudes since the convention began.

In contrast, attendees picked up just 68 copies of a book that was being given away by another vendor.

— TJ Sullivan
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Journalists Help Jailed Colleague

Journalists attending the SPJ National Conference and Convention in Chicago donated $950 during a luncheon Friday to help jailed journalist Joshua Wolf, who was sent to prison on Aug. 1 by a federal judge. Wolf was jailed for refusing to turn over video he took of a violent protest. The $950 is intended to help cover Wolf's personal expenses.

SPJ is continuing to collect the cash donations throughout the convention, so the total is expected to increase before the final session Sunday.

On Wednesday, SPJ awarded a $30,000 grant to help finance Wolf's legal fees. The grant is more than double the largest grant ever awarded by SPJ. In addition, SPJ negotiated with Wolf's counsel to ensure that legal fees would be capped at $60,000 and that Wolf's family would not be held responsible for the expense.

— TJ Sullivan
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Wednesday, August 23, 2006


A Taste of Chicago

Just arrived in Chicago for the SPJ convention, which begins tomorrow. Thought I'd post a couple sights from last night's game at Wrigley.

Cubs lost to the Phillies, 6-3.

— TJ Sullivan
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Monday, August 21, 2006


Signs On The Dotted Line

The latest addition to the Signs on the Dotted Line gallery, as introduced last week.

— TJ Sullivan in LA
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Friday, August 18, 2006


The Simple Life In West L.A.

Paris Hilton made an appearance at a Best Buy in West Los Angeles tonight to promote her new CD, so I wandered over with my cameras to document the spectacle.

I expected only to get pictures of people standing in line (the queue started at the front door, went around the corner and ran the length of the building on one side). But, surprise surprise, I just walked into the store along with dozens of others to take pictures of the hotel heiress herself. Nobody asked for credentials. Nothing. The store was still open for business, which was laughable considering the line outside and the people inside armed with pocket digital cameras. They were climbing on CD display cases and jostling for position, albeit more politely than the paparazzi. One Best Buy employee in a yellow shirt eventually played the role of cop as he shooed away those who dared step on the single riser that had been set up for the media.

And then there was Paris, back between home appliances and home theater.

I'm no expert on celebrity book/cd signings. I can only recall ever covering one book signing, and that was for an auto writer named "Landspeed Louise." Still, all the celebrity events I've ever attended were credentialed with lots of ropes and guys with wires coming out their ears. This was nothing like that. This was, to my untrained eye, a free-for-all.

The story in the LA Times, KIIS FM, and a banner on the store got the word out about the event. I was running an errand when I drove past the store at about 5 p.m., two hours before Hilton's scheduled arrival, and already the line was halfway down the side of the building (It was the Best Buy at Pico and Sawtelle). The people at the start of the line were likely there for hours. KIIS FM had a DJ in a tent out front and, for a time, there were two black Suburbans parked in the fire lane outside the front doors. At one point a guy with a lost look on his face drove up, rolled down his car window and asked me "are they open?" Poor guy was probably hoping to shop for a television and he couldn't even find a place to park.

I left an hour after the autograph signing began and the queue outside had barely moved.

I'll forever be intrigued with people who stand in line to meet celebrities. Why do they do it? Is it worth it? Do they forever look back upon it as a happy memory, and if so, why?

Were I to wait half the day to see Hilton I would have but one question upon being introduced: "Why Best Buy?"

I've put together a small photo essay. It starts here

— TJ Sullivan in LA
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Thursday, August 17, 2006


The New Math of Housing Inaffordability

The California Asssociation of Realtors ® on Thursday released a new version of its 22-year-old "Housing Affordability Index," which at first glance appears to portray a less dismal outlook for homebuyers than previous index reports.

What's changed? Math and language.

Consider this comparrisson of the annual household incomes necessary to buy a home under the old method results * (in green) and the reconfigured index:
Area or Region3Q '05 HAI2Q '06 FTB-HAI
CA Condos:$100,310$75,080
Cen Valley:$84,630$62,070
SF Bay Area:$169,180$130,890
S California:$120,570$96,130
*Old method results are from the 3rd Quarter index for 2005.
Judging by the state average alone it would appear something good has happened since last summer, when $29,230 more annual income was needed to purchase a home than in the second quarter of this year. But how can that be when the median price for a single family home in California rose from $545,910 in 3Q 2005 to $575,800 in June 2006?

Even interest rates are higher today. (6.52 percent on Thursday, according to Freddie Mac).

What gives?

One hint lay in the language of the new index. It's different. "Households" are now "first-time buyer households." And instead of purchasing a home at the "median price," as in previous HAI reports, buyers under the FTB-HAI purchase homes at the "first-time buyer median price."

In LA County those seemingly semantical differences amount to a $90,000 reduction, the difference between the June 2006 "median price" of $580,140, and the $489,860 "first-time buyer median price."

The difference is not semantical.

"First-time buyer median price" is not the same thing as the "median price."

"First-time buyer median price" is 15 percent less than "median price."

CAR explains all this by citing research:
"[...] first-time buyers typically purchase a home equal to 85 percent of the prevailing median price."
That means somewhere in Los Angeles County there are houses for sale at or near $490,000. Find them on Realtor.com.

Another change is in the downpayment calculation.

The old method figured "a 20 percent downpayment," which may be the ideal, but not the norm in this market. And so, the new method assumes "a 10 percent down payment" more in tune with reality.

Times have changed.

People don't finance homes like they did 20 years ago. Most anyone who bought a home back in the 1980s, for example, likely used a 30-year fixed because it was the standard.

But, as home prices stretched beyond the reach of young families in the past few years, the mortgage market responded with products like interest-only mortgages, "balloon payment mortgages" and "negative amortization loans." Joe Homebuyer snapped them up.

Whether any particular loan product is a wise, or unwise, choice is not at issue. This is about what people have been using to acquire homes.

CAR says the new FTB-HAI is intended to reflect all of this:
"C.A.R. developed the new index measuring affordability for first-time home buyers to better reflect the realities of today’s real estate market."
CAR has also produced a historical series using the new FTB-HAI, providing quarterly comparisons back to 2003. This helps avoid confusion that might result from comparing the old method results to the new method results.

And therein lies the bad news.

The perspective might have changed, but ugly is ugly all the way around. The market hasn't gotten better for first-time buyers. FTB-HAI comparisons back to 2003 show that affordability in Los Angeles has declined every quarter.

Using the FTB-HAI, 50 percent of first-time buyer households in Los Angeles could afford to purchase a home during the first quarter of 2003.

By the second quarter of 2006 that percentage dropped to 19 percent.

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Tuesday, August 15, 2006


Which Way Will LA's Housing Prices Go?


DataQuick News reported today that housing sales in Southern California for July 2006 dropped to their slowest pace in nine years. In addition, it reported the rate of price appreciation also dropped, hitting its lowest level in almost seven years.

July now marks the eighth consecutive month that year-over-year sales comparisons in the Southland have shown a decline.

Marshall Prentice, DataQuick's president, said in the story on DataQuick's website:
"The relatively large drop in sales last month may be nothing more than a statistical blip, but it could also be a sign of fast-petering demand for homes at today's prices [...]"
Last month the CEO of the nation's largest mortgage broker, Countrywide, suggested the more dismal possibility. Said Countrywide Chief Executive Angelo Mozilo in a July conference call as reported by the Los Angeles Times:
"People are overly optimistic about this 'soft landing' as to real estate values."

[See blog post: 'Overly Optimistic' on Housing Slowdown?]
Robert Toll, chief executive of the luxury home builder Toll Brothers, sounded similarly discouraged, a marked change in the outlook he'd previously expressed. As the LA Times pointed out in its piece (published Aug. 10, 2006), "Toll had been among the industry's bulls, saying as recently as last spring that real estate would rebound later this year."

Said Toll to the Los Angeles Times:
"It appears as though [the slowdown] will last for at least six months more, it may last for two years more. We don't know."
It remains to be seen whether any of these factors and opinions portend a major or minor change in the housing market. Reports like these have been appearing for the past couple years of this market and yet the cost of housing has continued to rise.

The law of gravity may prove an apt metaphor for slowing sales momentum amid price increases, but the comparison has to stop there. What goes up in real estate may slow as it approaches its apex, but it doesn't necessarily fall back to where it started. Whether this market levels off, drops or begins to climb again is, at best, someone else's educated guess.

Below is a list of relevant reports and factoids:

• $128,000 INCOME NEEDED

… In November 2005 the California Association of Realtors reported that an annual income of nearly $128,000 was needed to purchase the median-priced home in the state *(the median price is now higher). CAR said:
"California households, with a median household income of $54,140, are $73,810 short of the $127,950 qualifying income needed to purchase a median-priced home at $545,910 in California."
CAR said its figures were calculated assuming a 20 percent downpayment.

I've searched the CAR website for more recent "Homebuyer Income Gap Index" reports, but the site's search engine returns none. Likewise, I could find nothing on the site to explain why they might have stopped doing these reports, nor do I know for certain if they have stopped.


… The California Building Industries Association reported in May 2005 that California was home to 21 of the top 25 least-affordable metro areas during the first quarter of 2005.


… About 14 percent of the households in California make enough money to afford the median-priced home (Source: California Association of Realtors February '06 report):
Los Angeles:
12% Dec '05… 11% Nov '05… 17% Dec '04
10% Dec '05… 11% Nov '05… 13% Dec '04
16% Dec '05… 17% Nov '05… 18% Dec '04
San Bernardino:
20% Dec '05… 21% Nov '05… 26% Dec '04
13% Dec '05… 13% Nov '05… 16% Dec '04

… An Associated Press analysis of US Census data revealed that more than 15 percent of CA households were overcrowded in 2000. Among rental households, the figure was higher, about 24 percent statewide, with some communities hitting 30 percent.


… California isn't building nearly enough apartment buildings. The state Department of Housing and Community Development sited this in its February report titled "California's Deepening Housing Crisis [ PDF file ]," which said:
The greatest production gap is in multifamily housing. Multifamily development only accounted for approximately a quarter of all new units during the 1990s, a drop of nearly 70 percent from the levels of the 1980s. Since 2000, the number of multifamily units has increased slightly, totaling approximately 28 percent of all new units constructed.

… Median prices for Greater Los Angeles in June 2006. (Source: CAR):
State of California: $575,800
County of Los Angeles: $580,140
County of Orange: $725,190
Counties of Riverside and San Bernardino: $400,390
County of Ventura: $707,690

… Median home prices for Greater Los Angeles in July 2006 (Source: DataQuick):
County of Los Angeles: $520,000 (+6.6% from July '05)
County of Orange: $639,000 (+6.3% from July '05)
County of Riverside: $414,000 (+7.5% from July '05)
County of San Bernardino: $366,000 (+11.6% from July '05)
County of Ventura: $634,000 (+9.5% from July '05)

San Diego's median home price of $487,000 (-1.8% from July '06) was the only year-over-year decline in Southern California for July.

… The number of homes sold in July '06 in Greater Los Angeles (Source: DataQuick):
County of Los Angeles: 10,711 (-24.9% from July '05)
County of Orange:4,341 (-36% from July '05)
County of Riverside: 5,762 (-23.3% from July '05)
County of San Bernardino: 4,084 (-21.3% from July '05)
County of Ventura: 1,406 (-36.9% from July '05)

The northernmost and southernmost coastal SoCal counties (Ventura and Orange) posted the worst year-over-year stats for July.

… The foreclosure rate in California during the second quarter of 2006 rose faster than it has in 14 years. [See blog post: CA Foreclosures Spike Fastest In 14 Years] (Source: DataQuick)


… The city of Santa Barbara is considering affordable housing for people with an annual income of up to $160,000. The move is an effort to combat the housing crunch in that community, where the median housing price is a startling $1.2 million. (Source: LA Times).


… The US Census Bureau said California in 2004 had the third lowest rate of homeownership in the nation with 58.6 percent of households being owner occupied. The national average that year was 67.1 percent. The rankings are at the Census Bureau's American FactFinder website. Right behind LA were New York City and the District of Columbia.


… California now has the largest homeless child population at any time since The Great Depression, according to the Department of Housing and Community Development, which said as much in its February report [ PDF file ]. DHCD estimated there are 360,000 homeless people in the state. The California Housing Law Project then took that data, factored that about 1/3 of the homeless population are families, and deduced using average family size that there are probably 80,000 to 95,000 homeless children.

[* UPDATE: LA Times story Wednesday, Aug 16, quotes Los Angeles philanthropist and KB Home founder Eli Broad saying "I think we're in for a period of a year or two years where housing prices are going to go down or stay stable, but certainly not go up." Same story quotes DataQuick analyst Andrew LePage saying "current trends suggest that the market is heading into a lull."]

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Sunday, August 13, 2006


Signs On The Dotted Line

Every Sunday, real estate agents and home sellers stake a claim to neighborhood intersections with satin flags and stand-alone signs, all in the name of the American Dream, or something like it.

So, why not a digital photo gallery dedicated to this modern tradition?

It will be called "Signs On The Dotted Line," a reference to both the dotted lines that mark crosswalks, and to the lines that buyers eventually end up marking with a signature, again, and again, and again (closing documents number more than 70 pages nowadays). All suggestions of intersections worthy of recognition are welcome.

This inaugural photo depicts the corner of Barrington and National in Mar Vista. It was shot Sunday, Aug. 13, 2006.

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Going Fizzbo

My piece on FSBOs is in today's LA Times:
Saving money is the big appeal for many who choose to sell a home as a "fizzbo" — the colloquial pronunciation of the acronym FSBO, meaning "for sale by owner." But this is not like clipping coupons. George Devine, a California broker and author of "For Sale by Owner in California," doesn't think of FSBOs as saving a commission. Instead, he said, they're "earning it."

— TJ Sullivan in LA
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Saturday, August 12, 2006


July Home Sales At Lowest Level In Six Years

A Daily News of Los Angeles story datelined SANTA CLARITA in today's edition says home sales for that city in July were down to their lowest level since 2000:
A total of 237 homes sold locally in July, down from 366 a year earlier and the lowest July tally since 2000, says a report released Thursday by the Southland Regional Association of Realtors.

The hot demand for real estate that ignited the market in 2003 has fizzled in recent months as sales have slowed, especially for homes in the upper price range.

"Sales have slowed because some buyers are hesitating, waiting to see which way the market will head, and because some sellers refuse to set their list price based on current market conditions," said Jim Link, executive vice president of the association.

Despite sluggish sales, the median price for a single-family home rose by 4.3 percent, to $605,000. Still, the rate of increase has slowed since April when it hit a record high of $643,000.

According to the association, condominium sales fell nearly 36 percent last month, when 122 units closed escrow, the lowest July total since 1999.

— T.J. Sullivan
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Off and Running

Most of TJ Sullivan in LA is up and running, however, I'll be working to get content up for weeks on some of the pages, particularly those intended to provide lists of links. Regardless, for the most part, it looks like I'm ready to give this a go.

My goal is to post at least once every other day to start. The focus will be real estate news and issues of concern to Los Angeles, however, it will also include a tangent now and then about media events, or the occasional photo, or insight.

I have the "comments" feature turned on at the moment, but only in the interest of getting feedback on the site. I will be turning it off in a few weeks. I've seen comments deteriorate on enough sites to know that the feature usually ends up being more of a burden than a benefit.

Appologies to anyone who had trouble loading images the past couple of days. I believe I've corrected what was wrong, and you should now be able to view the pages as they were intended.

Don't hesitate to send an e-mail, or leave a comment.


— T.J. Sullivan
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SB News-Press Editors To Be Honored

A couple friends of mine will be receiving an ethics-in-journalism award at the Society of Professional Journalists convention in Chicago later this month.

If you've been reading LA Observed or the LA Times you've heard their story. They were among the initial seven editors who quit the Santa Barbara News-Press for the best of reasons — they believed the paper's top management was asking them to violate the SPJ Code of Ethics. The SPJ award will honor nine journalists who have departed that newspaper since the exodus began. The number of journalists departing that staff has now grown to 14.

I'll be blogging from the convention in Chicago, where I'm told at least one of the initial group of seven will attend to accept the award on behalf of all. Check back Aug. 24-27.

— T.J. Sullivan
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Friday, August 11, 2006


CA Foreclosures Spike Fastest In 14 Years

DataQuick Real Estate News reports that the foreclosure rate in California during the second quarter of 2006 rose faster than it has in 14 years.

According to DataQuick Real Estate News the increase in notices of default from 2005 to 2006 for Riverside County jumped by the biggest percentage in Southern California, up 104 percent in one year. Los Angeles County was up 45 percent.

The whole of Southern California averaged an increase of 69.5 percent, slightly more than two percentage points higher than the state average.

DataQuick's president, Marshall Prentice, said the trend "doesn't strike us as ominous," and cautioned not to blame it on adjustable-rate loans.

"We hear a lot of talk about rising payments on adjustable-rate loans triggering borrower distress," Prentice continued. "While there's no doubt some of that is going on, as far as we can tell the spike in defaults is mainly the result of slowing price appreciation. It makes it harder for people behind on their mortgage to sell their homes and pay off the lender."

— T.J. Sullivan
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Thursday, August 10, 2006


'Overly Optimistic' on Housing Slowdown?

As homes remain on the market longer, both sellers and buyers want to know an answer to the question "bubble, or no bubble?" Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke recently told Congress: "We recognize the risk ... and we are watching it very carefully."

Meanwhile, the Los Angeles Times had a story Thursday about new-home sales dropping faster than expected, according to data from both Contrywide Financial Corp. and Toll Bros. Inc.

Said Toll Bros. Chief Executive Robert Toll to the LA Times: "It appears as though [the slowdown] will last for at least six months more, it may last for two years more. We don't know."

Said Countrywide Chief Executive Angelo Mozilo in a July conference call as reported by the LA Times: "People are overly optimistic about this 'soft landing' as to real estate values."

Said A.G. Edwards & Sons analyst Greg Gieber to the LA Times: "I think things will get a lot worse before getting better."

A story from The Associated Press with additions by The Daily Breeze included similar observations:
"So far, the correction in housing has been orderly, but there is a significant risk that this orderly correction could become more chaotic," said Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody's Economy.com.

"The housing market has been driven by euphoric optimism about future house price growth. That could quickly change to dark pessimism and we could see sales and prices fall much more than expected," Zandi said.


"These are going to be challenging times in the housing market," said Robert Bailey, a Santa Cruz broker and past president of the California Association of Realtors. "The market has changed throughout California, and the inventory has increased in virtually every regional market."

— T.J. Sullivan
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Saturday, August 05, 2006


Dolphins at Venice Beach

Spotted these dolphins this morning at about 7:30 as they played in the big waves off Venice Beach. There were more than a dozen of them swimming between the Santa Monica Pier and the Venice Promenade. One of the regular morning beach walkers told me she's seem them out there all week.

As the sand became more populated after 8:30 a.m. many people began to notice what I was shooting at and remarked with gasps and shrieks (OK, so only the teenage girls shrieked, but then, they also shrieked at seashells, seaweed and seagulls).

It reminded me of the first time I saw dolphins from the beach. It was not long after I moved to California in the mid '90s. I thought it was something rare, a sign of something wrong, or something right. I told the city desk the moment I got into the office, to which their reply was something like "You've been living in the desert for the past 8 years, haven't you?"

I had.

I soon realized that dolphins here are like coyotes there. You see them from time to time. You delight in it enough to stop whatever you're doing. And, if you're lucky enough to have your camera with you, you might capture a photo like this one.

— T.J. Sullivan
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Wednesday, August 02, 2006


Me Tarzana, You LA

Los Angeles can be a confusing place, all these cities and counties stitched together with highways and streets so numerous that the same street names repeat in city after city with no connection to their counterparts. We navigate so often with numbers that directions end up resembling math homework — 101 to 405 to 10 to 1… I'm not even going to start in on the area codes mess. There are plenty of others debating that hot, four-button issue. Rather, let's consider the frustration potential of listening to some westsiders explain the maximum distance a home can be from the Beverly Hills City Limits and still legitimately be referred to by the listing agent as "Beverly Hills adjacent." And, while we're in Beverly Hills, why is it that San Vicente Boulevard runs through Beverly Hills and San Vicente Boulevard runs through Brentwood, but I can't get there from here by taking San Vicente Boulevard?

LA doesn't just have traffic snarls, it can tangle your mind as well. There are more than 100 municipalities in the Greater Los Angeles Area, so many that even people who have lived here all their lives are unfamiliar with the names of some of them. To make it worse, there are many districts and census-designated places, like Mentone, which I thought was a breath mint until some friends bought a home there. Prior to that I was unaware Mentone existed, let alone that it had a beach, and a motto — Mentone, Home of "Oranges on the Rocks."

Given all that, some slack is probably due news outlets like LiveScience.com, which has become a go-to source for weather science news on a few of the news blogs I read. Still, the mistake in a recent LiveScience report is one that others have made before, and continue to make. So here it is again:
Woodland Hills, near Los Angeles, reported a new record of 21 days with maximum temperatures exceeding 100 degrees.
Yes, Woodland Hills is hot. No it's not "near" Los Angeles.

The City of Santa Monica is "near" Los Angeles, but Woodland Hills is in Los Angeles. Try as the San Fernando Valley might to secede, it's as much a part of the City of LA as Hollywood, or Venice.

Call them districts if you have to call them something, but don't make the mistake of calling them cities. Yes there's a mayor of Hollywood, but that doesn't make it a city any more than Ryan Seacrest being named Queen of the West Hollywood Halloween Carnaval makes it a monarchy, which brings up one more important point. West Hollywood is a city surrounded by Los Angeles.

Maps can make this all the more confusing. Jurisdictional lines become hard to read, shading can be vague. And although Wikipedia may not be perfect, at least it seems to have a grasp on what goes where in LA, unless you're trying to take San Vicente Boulevard from Beverly Hills to San Vicente Boulevard in Brentwood, in which case, you might want to go with Mapquest.

— T.J. Sullivan
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Tuesday, August 01, 2006


Getting Closer

If you're one of the readers who has discovered this website and blog, and you're wondering why the posts say so little, I have an answer.

It's because the site isn't officially up yet.

I've got some work left to do before I begin posting regularly. Until then, I've decided to upload the site so that I can test how it responds to different browers and operating systems.

In the meantime, please, excuse the dust.


— T.J. Sullivan
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