Historic Van Nuys: Katherine Avenue and Vicinity


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Is Van Nuys, as some believe, a hopelessly hellish place beyond redemption?

Perhaps not.

Hidden just east of Van Nuys Boulevard, south of Vanowen, is a secret garden neighborhood of historic houses, quaint architecture and lovely homes. Katherine Avenue is the heart of it, and it has a landscaped traffic circle, a construct of such ingeniousness and calmness that it is a wonder that it is not used everywhere.  Shadier, slower moving, safer, the neighborhood could almost pass for Pasadena.

Along Katherine, and down Kittridge, there are many old houses, some dating back to the early 20th Century, with large gardens and an eclectic bunch of styles: Mission, Spanish, Wooden. Many fly the American Flag on a front porch, a marker of civility, pride and patriotism signaling that our best hope for America begins at home.

Writer and comedian Sandra Tsing-Loh lived here for a few years and wrote a satirical novel about her experience: “A Year in Van Nuys”.  Unfortunately, her humor was less remembered than her brutal depiction of the suffering of having to live in Van Nuys. 14132 Kittridge 14127 Kittridge


Walking this neighborhood I found a Mid-20th Century apartment building on the corner of Katherine and Vanowen which had been stylishly and subtly updated with a good-looking wood and iron security gate. Roofline edging was added, smartly and economically emphasizing dark horizontal strips of wood.  The whole place was neat and well-maintained with an aura of Japan. DSCF0055 DSCF0054 DSCF0053


There are also ugly new projects (14310 Vanowen) that some call improvements, including a gross trend, seen around these parts, of painting plain buildings in burgundy and gold, pasting thin stone veneers on walls and the lower parts of structures, and dropping decorative lanterns into the mix. Security lights are on all night illuminating a deluxe prison. I wrote about this trend last year at another desecration: Kester Palace. DSCF0039 14306 Vanowen


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Again, what is missing in Ms. Nury Martinez’s Sixth District are big investment and big plans. There is gridlock in Van Nuys because the people who live here are not making enough noise. They are not demanding that their community go in a better direction. The passivity of the area is understandable as many who live here are just surviving and trying to get by. But what about the larger city of Los Angeles and the re-development of the San Fernando Valley? Must it be done so poorly and so haphazardly? How many more years will Van Nuys sit with its empty stores, empty parking lots, filthy sidewalks, and battered down signs?

Mayor Garcetti and Councilwoman Nury Martinez will no doubt be attending LA River clean-ups and “pride” events but will they be building the buildings and businesses in an architectural and civic plan worthy of a “great”city? Will the city which counts among its citizens the wealthiest celebrities in the world say it has no money?

If you walk, as I did, along the better parts of Van Nuys, you will learn that there are people and places worth saving. The powers that be must recognize it.

Old Style Street Signs.


I’ve long been an admirer of the older street signs in Los Angeles.

They emit the characteristic and regional style of a time and place. Their lettering is crisp, stylized, and easy to read.

According to this LA Times article, the city began to produce the distinctive shotgun shaped, dark blue porcelain, metal signs in the 1920s.

As the city grew, in the 1930s and 40s, the signs became markers of urbanism, uniting the vast region under a single style.

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Along Kittridge Street in Van Nuys, near where I live, I found this poetic sounding trio of survivors: Norwich, Lemona and Saloma.

Metal poles with decorative finials add elegance.

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Further east on Kittridge, a newer sign, in medium blue, looks cheaper and functional. It is attached to a plain metal pole.

It does its job, like a vinyl replacement window in an old house.

But a public sign should, in a civic sense, not only shout out a name, but do it with a flourish, and a sensibility.

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Imagine Berlin or San Francisco without their unique street signs.

The old sign makers understood that we as a city are lost without proper signage.

Boulevard of Blankness.


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According to City Data, the area of Van Nuys bounded by Roscoe Boulevard on the North, Woodman Avenue on the East,Burbank Boulevard to the South, and the 405 on the West, an area of 7.2 square miles, contains some 100,000 people at a population density of 13,271 per square mile. The LA Times claims 110,000 lived here as of 2008.

Heart of this district is a blank-walled canyon of bleakness, Van Nuys Boulevard. It was once a thriving commercial street, full of fine looking Mid-Century Modern banks, small stores, and family run businesses where the windows were washed and the sidewalks swept daily.

In the 1950s through the 1980s it was a cruising area, taken over by young people and cool cars.

And now it is a dump.


 

It seems that this blog, for over 8 years, has reported ad nauseum on this wasteland of shuttered shops, littered parking lots, and vast expanses of asphalt surrounded by decay.

And yet, two blocks from Van Nuys Boulevard, there are some lovely and historic streets, well maintained houses, people and their properties who are trying to keep neatness and bourgeois respectability evident in their front yards.

The bottom line is the bottom line. There is not a plan, nor a large scale investment, nor a vision for Van Nuys Boulevard. There are piecemeal and weak proposals put forth by well-meaning people to make it “bicycle friendly” or “pedestrian friendly”. But who the hell wants to spend time in the 100-degree heat, soaking up the smell of urine in doorways, stepping over dog shit, as the smoke of illegal food vendors blows over the parked cars and idle trucks who have flunked their smog inspections?

The current environment is a hellish place, one whose continuing demoralizing existence blights the whole community of Van Nuys.

One hundred thousand people who live here deserve better.

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Valerio at Van Nuys Boulevard


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A few weeks ago I posted a two-part photo essay about my walk around Van Nuys Boulevard north of Sherman Way:

Part 1

Part 2


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I’m posting a few more images here, of buildings and businesses at the corner of Valerio and Van Nuys Boulevard.

I caught them at dusk, which was close to 8pm on August 4th.

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Ugly during the day, the strip malls and the small businesses mellow out as the sun goes down.  Hard working people come home. Some stop off for grilled chicken, fried plantains, cool and delicious aguas frescos, roasted peppers and yellow rice at Ay Papa Que Rico.

Some climb to the top of a second story mall to smoke a cigarette in an open air parking lot.

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And dwellers from Guatemala, Mexico, El Salvador and Honduras live at English West, 14436 Valerio, a building whose name, perhaps, sounds foreign to their ears.

All photos were shot by me: Andrew B.Hurvitz.

Juvenile Gang Style, Van Nuys, 1951.


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Members of a juvenile gang (“Jack’s Gang”) wait outside of the Valley Municipal Building, August 14, 1951. They were charged with possession of numerous weapons.

Gang members in the early 1950s were quite different from our modern gangsters.

Thin, lanky, well-groomed, they wore argyle socks, dress trousers with cuffs, or, like one young man, dark jeans with graphic t-shirt (“Hollywood and Vine”). Another sports a Hawaiian shirt and rolled up denim jeans.

Their parents seem perversely proud and non-plussed by their boys, as if the young men were just going through another male rite of passage.

Photos: USC Digital Archives

Art in the San Fernando Valley: 1970-1990


10560575_10152556019069463_8203707631608093871_o CSUN will run, from August 25-October 11, 2014 an art show devoted to the San Fernando Valley as it existed in the years 1970-1990. One of the artists, whose work will exhibit here, is Mike Mandel. I found some of his photographs on Flickr. 10040107395_bf46ac63d9_o

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All Photos: Mike Mandel

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Van Nuys Boulevard: Between Sherman Way and Saticoy (Part II)


 

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Here are some additional photos from my exploration (along with “Up in the Valley” pal Andreas Samson) as we walked in the commercial neighborhood along Van Nuys Boulevard from Sherman Way to Saticoy.

John's Barber Shop

John’s Barber Shop (14435 Sherman Way Suite 105 Van Nuys, CA 91406) has only been open a year, but has garnered a devoted local following. I found them, again, on Yelp and went there today for a $15 haircut. Third generation barber Jerry said that owner John also comes from a long line of barbers. The styles adhere closely to the current “fade” trend evocative of the 1950s with greaser hair and short razor thin back and sides.

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Near John’s in another expansive mall, south of Sherman Way, one finds a variety of ethnic restaurants including Tacos Mexico (7140 Van Nuys Blvd Van Nuys, CA 91405) housed under a red and white taco shaped roof. Many reviewers give it high marks while some express the usual hatred for Van Nuys itself.

 

“The best Al Pastor tacos EVER!!! The marinated meat is heavenly and the seasoning is just perfect.”

 

“I know there are thousands of divey taco stands all over Southern California and I have tried quite a few, but I feel completely lucky to have found this little gem located in a shitty part of Van Nuys.”

 

“On this dank and dark corner of Van Nuys (with pawn shops, ATT Mobile units, and laundromats).”

7128 Van Nuys Blvd, San Fernando Valley, CA 91405(818) 780-8022

Oddly placed Korean BBQ: Duk Su Jang (7126 Van Nuys Bl.) which has been around for a long time but is not getting any good reviews from Yelp: “Extremely Poor customer service, not so fresh vegetables, ok meat, high prices, dirty and old building.”

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Architecturally, logistically, aesthetically, the landscape of Van Nuys Boulevard at Sherman Way reflects the lowbrow tastes of the 1980s and 90s when small shops were cleared out and vast blacktops of asphalt and ungainly malls proliferated. On a hot day, this is one of the hottest places to walk, un-shaded by trees, drowning in exhaust fumes, and a nightmare for pedestrians to navigate with lumbering buses and speeding cars.

Van Nuys reaches the acme of ugliness at this point: cheap, crass, tacky, devoted to car and fast food, obesity and environmental degradation.

But within this suburban hell, there are many small businesses that are making money, employing people, and greasing the economic engine of the San Fernando Valley. A largely Latino population runs and patronizes the stores, shops, services and eating establishments, often paying cash for everything from transmissions to groceries.

 

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