Van Nuys City Directory, 1940

The Los Angeles Public Library has a collection of city directories dating back to the late 19th Century and these are now mostly available online.

Of course, I turned to browse at the 1939/40 San Fernando Valley City Directory, all 674 pages of it, with its detailed listings of every single person, property and business in the entire valley at that moment in time.

SFV 1940 Wray Bros 1940 Van Nuys

Van Nuys is described as a “model suburban homes community of Los Angeles City; strategic and important business center. Municipal administration headquarters for Los Angeles in the annexex area of San Fernando Valley.” Population 35,000. (Population in 2015 is estimated at 140,000)

The Valley, on the eve of WWII, was about to undergo changes unforseen and unprecedented. It was a unique conglomeration of modern convenience and the dusty rustic.

It was a time when men and women wore hats and dressed up to go out. And people spoke in hushed terms about health concerns and family secrets. Nobody said fuck in public, and the fat tattooed lady was only found in the circus.

While people were private about private matters, they were at ease having their names, addresses and professions printed on a publically distributed platform.

It was a folksy time when business owners adopted nicknames for themselves. “Bran” and “Dee” Funkhouser, for example, owned the Bran-Dee Brass Rail and Cafe at 6308 Van Nuys Boulevard. Their menu emphasized alcohol: beer,  cocktails, wine, lunches and sandwiches.

California was at its most golden moment, still basking in its abilities to welcome [white] newcomers, while radiating an image of wholesome enterprise, carefree recreation, opportunity for all. It stood confident and inspired envy for its education, innovation and technology. It was the home of the movie stars, cattlemen, aviators, oil men and just plain happy folks who swam in pools and ate oranges off the tree.

From the ocean to the mountains, tired people came here to strike fortune, escape gloom, pursue health and happiness, and emerge energized and reborn.

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The RV Encampment

Screen Shot 2015-08-28 at 11.51.53 AMParked along Tujunga Avenue in North Hollywood, on the east side of the park, between Magnolia and Riverside, a remarkable new residential community of homeless people has been established in a line of permanently parked RVs.

Visible and egregious, with their reflective cardboard stuffed inside windshields to cool down the metal houses in the summer sun, these faded and rusted motor homes are testament, depressing and sobering, to the high cost of housing in Los Angeles and the inability of so many to find a suitable and safe place to live.

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I walked along here today and photographed some 15 vehicles where people live.

In front of one, a woman and two men were in lawn chairs, sitting in the shade. The lady asked me, in a friendly way, why I was photographing and I told her it was for my blog.

“I’m homeless. We’re all homeless,” she said.

And I told her I knew that. And I also said I was photographing these four-wheeled residences to let others know how their fellow human beings were forced to live.

“God bless you,” she said.

And I continued my walk.

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The Most Photogenic City

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We had walked over from her place on Benton Way in the late afternoon and stopped into a bright Mexican restaurant and sat at the bar where they had expensive tequilas and cheap margaritas.

At El Cóndor, on Sunset at Edgecliffe, the bartender was tall and black and efficient, fast serving the cold, salted glasses with the green mixtures to go along with the guacamole and chips.

We were talking and then a young guy sat down at the corner. The server, the busboy, and the bartenders seemed to know him as if he were a regular. He talked to a blond, bearded bartender, who left, and was replaced by a clean- shaven, quiet bartender in a denim shirt.

“I moved in with a girl,” he told the quiet bartender who listened and nodded politely and stared into the distance.

“I came here to act,” he said.

“What time do you get off work?” he asked.

“I’m going to a party later,” he said.

He was looking for a friend, maybe something more, but his plaintive loneliness reminded me of so many days and nights ago, and that certain summer twenty years ago when I moved to Los Angeles and lived with a girl. There was nothing to the relationship, other than a brittle friendship, and it died in the fall of 1994, never to return.

When you drink, you think, and you are articulate. The intuitions and insights flood your mind, and you feel relaxed and the fear and the anxiety leaves you and you can walk and laugh, cry and remember, and nothing will stop you, no inhibitions or tentativeness, no wary caution or reversion to propriety.

And the next day, if you are lucky, you remember a tiny portion of last night’s enormous revelations.

After we got back to her place on Benton Way, she told me I was her first activity of the night. Jason was downtown, visiting from Montreal, and she would be driving there to meet him.

But first she showed me those crazy, 1980s sweaters I gave her that had once belonged to my late Mother. She said they smelled like Louise, who died on September 1, 2014. My mother always dry-cleaned her clothes and hung them on wire hangers shrouded in plastic.

We sat on the gray sectional couch that had been in my mother’s apartment on Admiralty Way in Marina Del Rey, the couch that had been purchased at Crate and Barrel in Paramus, NJ on Route #17 in the summer of 2008, the couch that was selected as I pushed my reluctant father in a wheelchair around the store and my mother hobbled along. That couch covered the events of the last seven years, the deaths of its two owners. It lived to find a new home in Silver Lake.

We are not more than friends so I left to make way for love, which was fine, as I was happy to drive into the waning light and go back to a street I found a few months ago where the giant Church of Scientology looms over a motley block of cheap apartments.

That street was Berendo, near Lexington, and I found it just when the sun was setting, and the harsh ugliness of old, broken-down, and neglected buildings became comely, enticing and seductive.

Water LA Scientology Over Berendo Lexington Near Vermont

There were markers of Western history dropped onto the streets, like French chateaus and Spanish castles. There were homely, plain and workaday brick and wood apartments and houses, old wooden electrical poles and wires, and cars that were packed into tight alleys, and parked along the curb. Occasionally, a cat would crawl out from under a car and dart into another shadow.

Berendo was blasphemy, watched over by a cross atop on an old blue hospital now advertising SCIENTOLGY.

Under the gaze of the cult, I was walking, and photographing, a city unique in its fate and form.

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Los Angeles: the most photogenic city in the world.

Whatever you imagine it is, it is.

Her beauty is fragile and fleeting. Her people arrive to grab onto to something illusory and transforming.

She should be seen and felt in the fading light, after the hours when the sun is brightest and before the hours when the darkness descends.

The Golden Age of Gasoline.

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In the 1920s, fanciful, imaginative, inventive gas stations were built all over the Southland.

They mined every era in history, borrowing minarets from the Middle East, Chinese pagodas and southwestern adobe ranch houses.

But the most memorable and dazzling ones looked forward to the future, sweeping in with illuminated glass signage, polished steel pumps and graphically inventive designs.

Attendants wore clean uniforms, and proudly serviced cars, luring drivers in with not only prices, but entertainment.

One station offered an all female staff, the other clothed their workers in jodphurs.

Comic book characters like Tarzan, dinosaurs from the pre-historic age, and Pegasus from Greek mythology, all gathered to sell gasoline.

One hundred years later we see that the people on the front lines in clean uniforms were the public face of a dirty business, one that has led the planet Earth into endless wars of terrorism, despotism, the melting of the icebergs and the degradation of our oceans, rivers and air. We are still fighting over oil, even as it swallows us up from the pipeline plains of Alberta to the violent sands of Arabia, even as its toxic vapors diminish human, animal and plant life in every corner of the globe. Fracking into rock for oil makes earthquakes in Oklahoma. But its addiction is unending. Everyone wants oil, from the warriors of ISIS to the kid in his 1988 Honda on his way to Valley College.

Our price for a cheap ride to the nail salon ends in the extinction of nature.

But for thirty cents a gallon, a family in Los Angeles once had a joy ride on the smooth road, going from shopping center to beach with the top down. And those days are gone forever.

Photos from the USC Digital Archives.

The Capriciousness of Life.

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I was down in Venice yesterday on a foggy Saturday morning, down there to attend a training video for a new food processor I’ve been hired to test.

I parked on Sunset near 4th Avenue, not far from Gjusta, where I went to eat. They sell loaves of bread for ten dollars there.

And along Sunset I passed a man and a woman and a tent, their home I assumed. I ignored them and went to the restaurant and ordered eggs, toast and coffee for $16.

On the way back, the man and the woman had moved, and set up their tent on 4th Avenue.

Camera in hand, I went over to introduce myself.


The man, Alexander, said he was from Pomona and was 22-years-old. The woman, Dina, said she was 44 and from Egypt. They both said they met in Israel.

They said they were artists. And they had ended up here and had no means of supporting themselves, so they were living in the tent, on the sidewalk, chased away by residents and police.

Alexander was smart, funny, articulate and intelligent. He said he was Jewish, an anomaly in Catholic and Hispanic Pomona. Dina said she grew up in Egypt, a Muslim, and her father was blacklisted for writing against the regime. She said she had children in Israel.

Alexander told me that the hardest part of being homeless was how exhausting it was. They had to be constantly moving, like Bedouins, and forage for food. Cleaning up was not easy, they washed their hands along the curb. Yet they seemed clean.

“Capitalism can be cruel. Even in poorer countries, people seem to look out for each other, to help. In America, the indifference is noticeable,” Alexander said.

“All of my family live in the same compound,” Dina said, thinking of her kin back home. And what would they think of her now?

Dina had the flinty, tough, tenacious soul of a woman from the Middle-East. She was genuinely touched that I cared enough to stop and speak with her, and discuss her plight and struggle.

They both said they needed a backyard to stay in. That would help them feel settled. I wondered why there was not a place in Venice or Santa Monica, in a community full of backyards, where one couple could camp out temporarily.

Their goal was to save $3,000 and return to Israel.

I don’t exactly understand how they got into this position, but I am sure that life doesn’t always reward the moral and punish the immoral.

Sometimes it is capricious, and good people end up in bad places, and if they are lucky enough, can dig out and get back on their feet.

But why is it that nobody can lend them a backyard and few bucks?

A few blocks from Dina and Alexander, Google is building a new office. And a friend of my brother rents a small apartment on Rose for $4,500 a month.

And Dina and Alexander sleep in a tent on the sidewalk while all around them humanity passes by.