You think you know Van Nuys.
And then some small remnant of old property appears. And you are pulled back into a long lost world: unguarded, spacious, verdant, shaded, open and expansive.
It happened a few days ago, when I was traveling on Sherman Way and turned up Katherine Avenue, west of Hazeltine, to avoid late afternoon traffic.
As I approached Valerio, I saw the old San Fernando Valley in an apparition: a few large parcels of land, shaded by large trees, a ranch house set back from the street, unenclosed by fences, iron, brick, or barking dogs.
I returned last night with Andreas from Up in the Valley to explore the neighborhood.
At 14203 Valerio, we found a long driveway, headed with a sign of a family name: “The Schaefers”, and beyond, in the distance, many rose bushes, the long exterior eaved porch; all the indicators of normalcy and domestic tranquility that once presented itself in abundance around these parts.
I was surprised that some industrious Armenian had not bought up the land, torn down the houses and erected a cul-de-sac of concrete and columns, but there it was, a lone sweet house, a place that seemed welcoming, not hostile, unafraid and hopeful, a residence of grace and generosity, without violent defenses, grotesque proportions and malingering meanness.
There were no large SUVs, pit bulls, cinderblock or steel window bars. This was Van Nuys as it once was, up until perhaps 1975, a lovely place to live.
There was a large unpicked grapefruit tree in the yard, an old tree, another symbol of the post WWII days when organic was the only type of eating, and unselfconscious Californians ate well in their own backyards.
This house and this land will probably not survive in its present incarnation much longer. If there were a Van Nuys Historical Society it might honor this home with a citation. But for now only the camera can capture what was and what still is.
83-years-ago, the San Fernando Valley was an all together different place than today.
Rural and urban, it was dotted with Spanish style gas stations, grocery stores, small houses; orange and walnut groves, neatly designed and well-kept businesses, with swept curbs and gracefully articulated architecture. Store signs were designed to fit into architecture and each letter and every proportion was sensitive to the greater architectural whole.
Photographer Dick Whittington worked this region back then, and his images are kept, for posterity, in the archives of USC.
Heartbreaking it is to see what has become of the corner of Lankershim and Victory today, a grotesque piling together of cheap plastic sprawl and indifferent commerce, junk food and junk culture. Even without looking, people know the location Lankershim and Victory is synonymous with ugly. Guns, crime, speeding, littering, illegal everything…that is what it is today.
What started out with great promise, California, is now ready for the apocalypse.
The Los Angeles Fire Department has a collection of vintage fire company photos.
In the LAFD archives, I found images related to Van Nuys’ Engine Company #39 which has occupied a building or two at 14415 Sylvan St. since 1919.
Curiously, it seems that present structure, dating to 1939, is merely an Art Deco remodeling of the original neo-classical structure. I could be wrong, but comparing the two buildings, which are in exactly the same location, seems to indicate this.
In the midst of the Great Depression, a grand and completely modern structure was erected or refashioned for a little over $4 a square foot.
Statistics from 1939:
July 25, 1939
Sq.Ft. Main Bld
Main Bld. 15,004
Garage & Storage 1,256
Hand Ball Ct. 1,122
Sq.Ft. Site 100×140
Number of Poles: 3
Phil DePauk, who now lives in Virginia, has been a follower of this blog for a few years
and he graciously sent me some new (old) photos from his family archives. He is the young boy in these photos.
Phil DePauk and his extended family lived in Van Nuys in the 1940s and 50s and operated a well-known local photo studio located at Gilmore and Van Nuys Bl. It closed in the early 1960s.
One of the other addresses that pops up is: 14204 Haynes St. a block located just west of Hazeltine. Phil either lived or spent time here.
A recent Google Maps view shows that the neighborhood is still single-family residential, but now many of the once plain and friendly houses are sheathed in ironwork and other embellishments of modern paranoia.
There are many cars in these photos. Phil’s father worked at Wray Brothers Ford which was located near the intersection of Calvert and VNB, two blocks n. of Oxnard.
I wrote to Phil this morning to clarify some family facts and here are his words:
“My Dad worked as a mechanic at Wray Brothers Ford from 1948 to 1958.
After Ford, my Dad worked at Pacific Tire and Battery Co. on Sylvan St. across from the old library.
My Uncle Ed (now age 83, sharp as a tack and living in Canoga Park) started working at California Bank (Sylvan and VN Blvd) after his discharge from the Army.
He subsequently worked at numerous other banks before retiring as a Vice President. My Uncle Dan was the manager of the McMahans used furniture store before his transfer to Marysville. My Uncle Bill started his own photo studio in North Hollywood. My Uncle Ed lives in Canoga Park and always enjoys reliving memories and making new friends if you have an interest.”
Many times have I passed the cement yard and concrete loft building on Romaine at LaBrea, never stopping or walking around the remnants of 1930s industrialism still present in present-day Los Angeles.
This past Saturday, I did stop, and parked on Romaine at Sycamore, behind the cement yard, in front of the Producer’s Film Library, housed in two story 1930s streamline building. Bold letters along the side announce CLIMATE CONTROLLED FILM AND TAPE STORAGE, already an industry preserving archival, not current media.
Without fanfare or specialness, there is a march of architectural glory along Romaine, a grouping of white structures; grand and confident, living, eternally young and confident, glistening and glorious against the blue sky, standing mutely on treeless streets and sidewalks.
To your right, you will pass a one story curved building, gracefully and slickly embellished with rounded lines, rhythmic and functional steel windows.
On the east side of Highland at Willoughby, the magnificent white soap bubbles of the two story tall ALSCO factory speak of industrial architecture unafraid of plain spoken ornament.
No signs or guidance, no official sanction seems to value this district. Only the intelligence and intuition of the individual can detect the beauty, the drive, the fire and the dreams of old Los Angeles, the place that built for beauty 80 years ago atop bean fields and lettuce farms.
Get out and walk. Get out of the car. A city awaits.
“W.P. Whitsett recounts the tale of the founding of Van Nuys at the city’s 23rd birthday party. February 22nd, 1934.”
UCLA Library, Digital Collections.
If he could only see it now, the great progress Van Nuys has made, culturally, aesthetically, economically……
Here is a great old photograph of Van Nuys Blvd at Friar St. in 1950.
In 1950, there was still diagonal parking along the boulevard, an arrangement that helped to create a sense of enclosure and neighborliness. Some of the signs along the street were Whelan Drugs, Van Nuys Stationery Store and Bill Kemp Sportswear for Men. On the left side of the photo: a See’s Candies and other small retailers whose facades have been modernized behind flat slabs.
This bustling scene was already on the way out as regional shopping centers, such as Valley Plaza (1951), made their way into the San Fernando Valley and lured customers with lots of parking and giant stores.
While the massive migration of illegal immigration has certainly changed Van Nuys, the post-war decisions of Los Angeles, her government, her people and her power brokers, to widen streets and remove streetcars, to build freeways not trains, and to develop every last square inch of orange grove and meadow, these are the true killers that robbed us of our historic inheritance.
Life was more civilized back then and we can only look back in awe.
This photograph is offered for sale at DECOR ART GALLERIES 12149 Ventura Blvd. Studio City, CA 91604 (818) 755-0755
There is a virtual place online where middle-aged mourners can gather to express their memories of a locale where towheaded youngsters, Brycreamed dads, and aproned moms drove in $4,000 Caddies along spotless streets and empty freeways and sent their kids to brand-new schools and inexpensive colleges, swam in sunny swimming pools, consumed burgers in drive-thrus, and went to happy factories in Van Nuys where cars popped off the assembly line like cookies in a bakery.
Valley Relics was started by Burbank native Tommy Gelinas and, in his words, “is a personal collection of rare photos, yearbooks, documents, postcards, toys, photo negatives, vintage signs, books, antiques, and artifacts from the 1800′s to present, from the San Fernando Valley.”
His Facebook page mirrors the website with daily updates and photos and comments on long gone places that once dotted the San Fernando Valley.
One of their most recent additions is from Gregg and Davida Symonds of Agoura. Gregg’s father, Bob Symonds, owned Sunset Farms in Sylmar and was the developer of Valley Plaza in North Hollywood.
Valley Relics seems to be enormously successful with 27,185 likes on FB.
It preserves the past and shows us what the San Fernando Valley looked like at one point in time.
The Internet is a strange thing.
Yesterday, while Googling for “Bike and Van Nuys Blvd.” in a search for a bike store, I came upon a family blog about a Chinese immigrant, born 151 years ago, who came to California to work on the railroad and ended up owning hundreds of acres of agricultural land and running a successful asparagus farm in Van Nuys in the 1930s.
“Descendant of the 2nd emperor of the Song Dynasty (Zhao Gunagyi), Jue Joe was born and raised in a chicken coop, in 1860. He grew up dirt poor and vowed that his descendants would never suffer as he had. So at the age of 14 he sailed alone to California, working as a cabin boy, and jumped ship in San Francisco. He sailed with 16 lbs of rice and landed with 1/4 lb left. So he went to the Chinese Six Companies for help. They sent him to St. Helena and Marysville to work the vineyards. Then he found work on the Southern Pacific Railroad. In the Mojave Desert he met Otto Brant who was hoboing his way to L.A. They became friends and together hoboed to that destination. According to San Tong, Jue Joe learned business from Otto Brant and what land and water would mean to future settlers of the L.A. Basin. “ - written by Auntie Soo-Yin.
In 1913, California passed a law that forbid aliens (Non-Americans) from purchasing land in the state. The openly racist ALIEN LAND ACT was aimed at a growing and prosperous Asian population whose success threatened white hegemony in the Golden State.
But Chinese born Jue Joe was friends with the very powerful Otto Brant. The fascinating story of how Otto Brant helped his Asian friend purchase land, in spite of the restrictive law, is retold by Auntie Soo-Yin:
“Jue Joe’s friend was Otto Brant, a prominent member of a Los Angeles land syndicate. Jue Joe discussed with Brant his desire to own and farm land in the San Fernando Valley.
“The name of Otto Brant’s land syndicate was the “Los Angeles Suburban Homes Company,” formed in 1909. It had 30 members all prominent leaders of L.A. (Harrison Otis and Harry Chandler of L.A. Times newspaper, Wm. Mulholland the L.A. Water Commissioner, M.H. Sherman, Grant the founder of Santa Fe Railroad and California Bank, H.J. Whitley the sub-divider, I.N. Van Nuys, to name a few).
Together the Syndicate controlled Tract 1000. In it Brant reserved 850 acres for his Title Insurance and Trust Company and, within the acreage, platted Van Nuys, Marian (Reseda), and Owensmouth/a.k.a. Canoga Park).
You could buy a small farm 1 to 10 acres, or a large farm 100 to 600 acres. In 1920 he reserved a large parcel for Jue Joe: 300 acres of prime property from Vanowen St to Haynes, and from Hayvenhurst to Balboa Blvd. It was segregated from a large ranch owned by Mr. Van Nuys, later was part of the Anderson Ranch, then bought by Mr. Dickey who later sold to Jue Joe.
Brant ( and later Brant’s estate after his death in 1922) held the Jue Joe property as Trustee for the benefit of Corrine and Dorothy until they came of age. When they came of age the land was deeded to them pursuant to the original trust documents.”
Auntie Soo-Yin fondly remembers her time in the 1930s growing up and living on a large agricultural ranch in Van Nuys, whose boundaries today sit just west of the Van Nuys Airport along Vanowen:
“I loved our homestead. Our ranch was self-sustaining. We had our own gas pump, an auto- and repair shop, fruit trees of nectarines, oranges, pears, apricots, lemons, figs, walnuts, etc. We grew strawberries, grapes, corn, and vegetables of all kind. Behind the big red barn that faces Vanowen St. we had a large chicken coop.”
The story of one American family in the San Fernando Valley, who didn’t let little obstacles like racism and the Great Depression get in their way…….
For a few days, last week, I reprised a role I had once played, three decades ago, in the city of Boston.
Some friends of mine, residents of Los Angeles, will soon relocate near Boston University and one of them will enter graduate school and study physical therapy.
Thanks to a very generous cousin in Cambridge, who opened up her home and heart, we three had a place to stay, in an old neighborhood north of Harvard University, where old frame houses, brick colonials and crooked streets are intersected by Irish taverns, old firehouses, new bakeries and shabby gas stations.
I love Boston as much as I despise Los Angeles, so I eagerly jumped on the chance to bring them around to the places I had last lived in when Ron and Nancy were in the White House.
Fulfilling President Reagan’s fondest dreams, the wealthy and powerful are even more so today, and well-endowed, luxury-priced Boston University (tuition:$39,000), once a homely, forlorn and gray place along the streetcar tracks, is now full of edifying and prestigious piles of brick colleges, ornate lampposts, decorative sculptures, landscaped meridians, cobblestone sidewalks and a frenetic energy of the young, stressed and indebted.
The sun shone every day of our visit, in a weird evocation of the city we were in exile from. Spring was evident in the flowering dogwoods, crocuses and tulips and on the tinted green lawn of the Public Garden. A season earned by those who had worked through a cruel and harsh winter. A spring deserved and appreciated, as spring should be. The scarcity of something wonderful is wonderful to behold.
And there was the new, gleaming Kenmore Square, which I remembered as the ass end of the Back Bay, where broken beer bottles, Sunday morning pee-in-the-alley, and angry musicians once held court. It was now a sanitized and Disneyfied collection of luxury hotels, smart restaurants; and a ridiculously oversized twin-peaked, mansard-roofed building suited for a studio back lot.
In my old Boston days, I had always walked and dreamed and wandered along Commonwealth Avenue, under the trees and past the statues of great dead men. And my favorite was William Lloyd Garrison, the abolitionist, whose quote I memorized to fire up my own integrity:
“I am in earnest — I will not equivocate — I will not excuse — I will not retreat a single inch — AND I WILL BE HEARD.”
He was fighting against the national evil of slavery, and this writer was only speaking up, pathetically, in defense of his own sexuality. Perhaps that is not entirely true, but when I walked there 30 years ago, I did so in the shadows, without self-knowledge, trapped in a dream and a nightmare of unfulfilled carnality.
Transcendentalism. Unitarianism. John F. Kennedy.
Paul Revere. Honey Fitz. Marky Mark. The Late George Apley.
Henry Cabot Lodge. Ted Kennedy.
Faneuil Hall. Samuel Adams. The North End. The Public Garden. The T.
Copley Square. Brookline. Charles River. Myles Standish Hall.
Concord and Lexington. Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket.
Isabella Stewart Gardner. Emily Dickinson. John Silber. Nick DeWolf.
Thirty years ago, and three days ago, my mind’s awhirl with what I saw and what I learned and who I might become. Thirty years have passed. But they have not diminished my passion for the people, places and philosophy of the Bay State.
Boston was the first moment, at 18, when my conscious mind came into existence.
And I felt it again, last week, that I belonged to Boston, in its fervor and trembling intellect, in its profundity and promise, and I know that I have barely scratched the surface of my own potential when I return to the place where youth crashed into adulthood and I picked up the pieces…. sculpting life anew.
If you were to bullet point Mike Hewson’s biography, the list would sound sad:
• Grew up gay in the 1950s
• Drafted into Vietnam as a medic
• Returned to Los Angeles and worked in a hospital
• Cared for his mother during her 4-year ordeal and death from cancer
• Watched his good friends, all young men, die from AIDS.
But it was Abraham Lincoln who said, “People are about as happy as they make up their minds to be.” He might have been speaking about Mike, who was born on July 18, 1945, and moved to 16724 Morrison St. in Encino five years later.
He had an ideal childhood, with a stay-at-home mother and a father who worked as printing company salesman, and a younger sister, Deawn.
In those days, Encino was like a small town, with block parties and vast ranches and newly built houses. The 101 and 405 didn’t come through the Valley until the early 1960s.
He went to Encino Elementary and Birmingham High School. His family lineage, including many veterans of many wars, stretched back some 200 years.
He attended Valley and Pierce Colleges for two years and then studied to become an Operating Room Technician.
In 1967, he went into the Navy and later joined the Marines and went off to Vietnam for 27 Months. His nickname was “Flash”.
In his field hospital, 30 miles outside of Dan Nang, near China Beach, he assisted in neurological operations on wounded soldiers. Blood, suffering, the horrors of war, death and truncated and destroyed young men: all of these violent and horrific human tragedies marched before his young eyes.
He got down in the trenches and did anything he needed to do to help his fellow Marines. He was “Doc” but he was GI Joe too, never allowing his higher position to interfere in lending a helping hand.
He told me that everyone knew he was gay, but that he never heard one hateful remark. He believed that a lot of homosexuality went on in the armed forces, but that it was not an issue because survival and fighting mattered most.
Only politicians make an issue of it.
When he came back to the San Fernando Valley, in 1971, he was overjoyed to be back in the USA. He was still only 26 years old, and he went to work at Encino Hospital and lived as a single gay man in the Brady Bunch era.
Active in the Metropolitan Community Church, he also hung out with a group of friends who all died from AIDS. He and another buddy survived the lethal scourge of the 1980s.
Unlike many people who remember so fondly the San Fernando Valley and talk badly about its present condition, he finds that some things have gotten better. He misses the horse farms and orange groves, but he loves all the trees and greenery that has come up in the last 60 years. He remembers the view of the mountains that was so clear in the early 1950s, and now those views are returning as cars burn cleaner.
His last job was at Barnes and Noble in Encino, and he does regret the loss of the store, which was closed by greedy billionaire owner Rick Caruso and will be replaced with another CVS.
Mike is retiring to Puerto Vallarta. And at age 65, he will take his optimism down to Mexico, which is also a place where people have hard lives but smile frequently.
From the USC Digital Archives.
1952 Floods in Los Angeles.
Celery fields in Venice, CA, 1927, which was once known as “The Celery Capital of America”.
“The “Dick” Whittington Studio was the largest and finest photography studio in the Los Angeles area from 1924 to 1987. Specializing in commercial photography, the Whittington Studio took photographs for nearly every major business and organization in Los Angeles; in so doing, they documented the growth and commercial development of Los Angeles. Clients included Max Factor, the Broadway, Bullock’s, and May Co. department stores, the California Fruit Growers Association, Signal Oil, Shell Oil, Union Oil, Van de Kamp’s bakeries, Forest Lawn, Sparkletts Water, CBS, Don Lee Television, Goodyear Tire and Rubber, real estate developers, construction companies, automobile, aircraft, and railroad companies, and drive-in theaters. Another notable client was the University of Southern California, which contracted with the Whittington Studios for coverage of athletic and other events. The collection consists primarily of roughly 500,000 negatives; the rest are photoprints.”
Reader Boyd Kelly sent me a link where one can find many old time images of Burbank.
They show an all-white, all-American town, baked in sunshine; a place of boys and men in close-cropped hair, girls in braids, and women in dresses. Magnolia, Hollywood Way, Victory, Olive, Alameda, San Fernando Road: all the storied and exciting locations, sprinkled with cops, firemen, government officials, soda jerks, grease monkeys and the common folk. Lives lived out alongside the train tracks, or inside the studio grounds, saluting the flag, and kneeling in front of the cross.
Aviators and movie makers, weapons makers and homemakers, ball players and ice-cream eaters, swimmers and parade goers, Nixon rallies and Nazi gatherings….yes, this is Burbank as it was….and perhaps Burbank as it still is.
A remarkable group of photographs, of old Bunker Hill, 1962, is online. The images were shot by George Mann (1905-1977) an entertainer, vaudevillian and photographer.
The neighborhood, flattened in the 1960s for redevelopment, replaced by corporate skyscrapers, was elegant 100 years ago, then went into a long, bohemian, rooming-house decline. Its eccentric Victorian architecture and oddball residents were no match for the governmental and business power brokers who were determined to obliterate it.
A note: I rented a DVD with the 1961 documentary “The Exiles”, about Native Americans in Los Angeles, and it had a fantastic 1956 USC film about Bunker Hill.
This past Saturday, May 7th, Richard Hilton led a group of people, on an English-speaking tour, around historic Van Nuys center.
Radiating from the intersection of Sylvan and Van Nuys Boulevard, within three blocks, is an outstanding collection of architecture and history.
These include: the Art Deco tower of the Valley Municipal Building (1933); the glass and marble, Reagan era, Superior Court (1985); the spindly Mid-Century modern Van Nuys Library (1964); the LAPD Van Nuys Division (1965) with its decorative concrete façade and curtain wall windows; the post-war First Methodist Church (1957); the magnificent Engine Co. #39 Fire Station (1939) with its carved moderne columns and still functioning fire company; the Depression era Van Nuys Post Office (1936); and the old Spanish styled Van Nuys Library (1927) which has now been lavishly and intricately renovated for use as a law office.
Van Nuys has all the building blocks of a civilized small town, accessible by walking, near to public transit.
Since 1945, it’s obliteration by a vast unintentional conspiracy of outside forces has rendered some of it almost uninhabitable.
Illegal immigration, the destruction of historic homes (700 were bulldozed for the civic center mall in the 1960s), the widening of streets which encourage speeding and violent driving; asphalt, junk food, utility pole and billboard-blighted boulevards—these are only some of the items on a long, long list of reasons why people drive through this historic place and hope to never come back to it.
Fortunately, there are now some small and barely funded voices of enthusiasm for Van Nuys, such as Mr. Hilton’s, who hope that people can see what excellence exists in this area’s history, buildings and civic idealism.
Luigi, a tailor, whose shop on Sylvan Street is celebrating its 50th year, said Van Nuys was a sunny, beautiful, prosperous place when he came here in 1960. The GM plant and other machine, electronic, and defense industry companies once provided a solid living for middle class families.
Photos by Andy Hurvitz
Richard Hilton, a Board Member at the Museum of the San Fernando Valley, led a walking tour around North Hollywood yesterday.
Any time someone mentions one of these historic expeditions on foot to me, I start to nod off. I expect it to be dry and fact filled.
But this tour was amazing. We saw the exteriors and interiors of churches, a post office, an old bank, an Art Deco fire station, a Masonic temple, and explored a rich tapestry of architecture and social history.
Dr. Gerald Fecht added his pithy and erudite observations as well, further enriching us.
2011 marks the 100th Anniversary of the founding of Van Nuys.
What does Van Nuys mean to you? Please send in your observations, memories, or stories related to Van Nuys, CA.
Photo: USC Digital Archive
In the 104 years since this photo was taken, the elements in it remain those of a civilized and urbane city.
There is a lovely park with benches, quite accessible.
A streetcar nearby makes it possible to come here easily and efficiently.
A tall and eccentric building, manages to be dignified and unique and still “speak” to the street with open windows and ground floor retail.
This is Los Angeles. This is Pershing Square. This is what it once was.
55 years ago, the opening of the Budweiser plant on Roscoe Blvd. was a big event. Costing $20,000,000
and employing 1500 workers, the plant was a large contributor to the post-war prosperity of Van Nuys.
In 1957, the NAACP launched a boycott of Budweiser beer. An NAACP spokesman said that there were only two “Negroes” employed by Annheuser-Busch in their entire Los Angeles operations! Here is a more detailed article about the racial prejudice black workers faced in the 1950s.
Busch Gardens and Bird Sanctuary was part of the complex and a major tourist attraction for many years until it closed in 1976. Here are more photos of that attraction.