All photos from the Whittington Gallery at USC Digital Archives.
John Wayne, 42, actor, father of four school age children, went to Van Nuys High School in November 1949 to get a tour of one of the city’s first mandatory driver’s ed programs.
In a November 28, 1949 LA Times article, Mr. Wayne learned that Van Nuys was equipped with a fleet of driving school automobiles, donated by local dealers. 285 students in their sophomore year were enrolled in the instruction program. The school was in the vanguard of teaching drivers ed, the first to do so.
It was a time when education in Los Angeles partially derived its pedagogy from auto dealers. They supplied the tools. The schools provided the teachers and the students.
The driving instruction course was now mandatory across the city of Los Angeles, which was the most automotive centric place on Earth.
Mr. Wayne’s appearance at the school caused fluttering female hearts to beat faster, and provoked admiration from the boys.
So complete was the coming transformation of Los Angeles that eventually all the streetcars would be ripped out and replaced with wide boulevards and freeways and we would all get to breathe that brown air and sit in traffic for the next 80 years.
General Motors, Ford, Chrysler, Packard Studebaker and Hudson were like Honda is today: they made it their mission to help the community advance towards gridlock, smog and sprawl.
And Van Nuys, once a walkable little town with nice little shops, would find its instructional lessons applied in destructive ways.
There were plenty of pizzas and sodas at last night’s meeting of the Van Nuys Neighborhood Council.
Exasperation was the theme of the meeting.
Ten tables long, the Van Nuys Neighborhood Council has now grown, along with waistlines, to encompass twenty people; and the length of the officials with made-up titles now almost pours out onto the sidewalk.
As usual, there were older white women bemoaning the appalling conditions of Van Nuys, including people sleeping on the streets and the poor condition of trash containers on Van Nuys Boulevard, where no humans shop, walk or eat unless they are forced to.
This being Los Angeles, the heartfelt sympathy and emotionality was in evidence for those problems related to the automobile. The situation for one resident was dire. This man lived in a one-car garaged house on a certain street with two hour parking. He had no driveway. His vehicle was being ticketed. Couldn’t someone help him he asked in a ten-minute exchange.
First I cried because I met a man with no eyesight, then I cried because I met a man with no garage….
A woman got up to talk about someone and something that had touched her heart. She was almost in tears, but I had trouble understanding what brought her to the brink.
Another man who runs the “LICK” Committee spoke about by-laws and promised to help the man who lived in the house with the garage on the street with two-hour parking.
An elderly man got up and said it was not right. And a half hour later his wife got up to speak and said it was wrong and should not be tolerated. What it was was anybody’s guess.
Outside the meeting, Van Nuys Boulevard, Heart of Van Nuys, was deserted, its eight lanes of traffic and empty shops somehow not appealing to hipsters, late-night dinners, and romantic couples out for a date.
Despite the utter evident failure of Van Nuys as a civic and commercial entity, the Assemblyman Adrin Nazarian spoke to the gathered on all the issues he was working to solve and his agenda seemed at times to be larger than the Planet Earth.
Transportation funding, cutting tobacco use, gun control legislation, minimum wage increases, climate change action, renewable energy, earned income tax credits, cap and trade issues, green spaces, affordable housing, earthquake warning systems, VA drug prices.
Assemblyman Nazarian checked off an impressive list of issues whose resolution, if that day comes, promises a heavenly San Fernando Valley free of expensive housing where green spaces and reliable public transport shuttle people around to health care; where affordable drugs and professional medical help is there for one and for all, legal and illegal, young and old, vet and non-vet.
Two hours into the meeting, a sour faced group of old men in tan, anxious to present their proposed hundreds of units of housing to the VNNC, had barely any time to talk of the truly huge changes that might be coming to Van Nuys Boulevard.
And the architect with the $20 million apartment and retail project was told to come back next month as time had run out.
I forgot to mention the board members arguing about plastic bags.
Priorities always at the VNNC Snack Pit.
Curbed LA recently published a photo essay by Kwasi Boyd-Bouldin, “An Ode to the Valley Before it Changes” featuring images of grass growing through concrete and defunct gas stations in parts of the San Fernando Valley. It’s a type of setting I have long adored and sought out.
Mr. Boyd-Bouldin writes, “The Valley neighborhoods I encounter still vibrate with an authenticity that I took for granted in the past and that have all but disappeared from the rest of the city I love. I am doubtful the Valley will always look this way as the pace of redevelopment picks up around it.”
Here are some my photographs of Van Nuys, taken with a different eye and intent.
Should one yearn for authenticity and places that have not changed or improved in 50 years, a person might travel down Victory Boulevard between Kester and Hazeltine, where the buildings are 1950s shops and 1960s office buildings converted to vacancy, pot shop, and bail bonds. The Coalition to Preserve LA would no doubt approve of the frozen in 1966 retardation of Van Nuys where “greedy developers” have not come in and built anything on the scale of The Grove. Here preservation, in the form of economic impoverishment has worked wonders.
Should one desire a great example of failed urban planning from the 1960s, one might walk amongst the sleeping homeless gathered in front of the police station, next to the library, behind the Valley Municipal Building, on that mall of nothingness surrounded by the Superior Court and the small statues sitting in pools of pee.
Van Nuys is full of the real, the urban, the forgotten, the abandoned, the neglected and the ugly. We have blocks and blocks of empty buildings, empty parking lots, and shuttered retail stores awaiting tenants, investment, customers, renters and buyers.
There are no parking problems along Van Nuys Boulevard because nobody shops here. There are plenty of parking spaces in big asphalt spaces on Gilmore west of the “downtown” where Matthews Shoe Repair shut down, and other buildings, with tens of thousands of square feet of space, awaiting the next boom.
This is Van Nuys. I’ve been writing and photographing it for over ten years. I show it as it is. Or I try to.
And I welcome change, provided it’s done with some architectural integrity and it’s not just the result of shlock hucksters and con-men throwing up the next slum.
But I would live with change, I’d welcome it, if it made my neighborhood safer, more prosperous and livelier.
Those of you who follow me on this blog may also know I write short stories.
“Decline Press” is my latest.
It is a work of fiction based upon some of the most ominpresent issues of our time: economic hardship, race relations and law enforcement, and the struggle of an Iraq War vet, Derek Moss, who builds his life anew only to see everything pulled out from under him. Whether Mr. Moss is self-destructive or merely the author of his own self-destruction is up for interpretation. As his world unravels he is pursued by an admirer, Conner Loh, who is also the narrator of this story.
It all takes place right here in Van Nuys and is set in such glamorous locations as Lido Pizza, MacLeod Ale, LA Fitness, Fatburger, Bevmo and Galpin.
One of the best buildings in Los Angeles has opened in one of the least likely locations.
Crest Apartments, 13604 Sherman Way, is a $20 million dollar, 45,000 s.f., 64-unit apartment for the Skid Row Housing Trust. It is east of Woodman Av.
It provides special needs support for the chronically homeless as well as veterans. Social services and a federally supported health clinic are part of the complex.
Architect Michal Maltzan designed a five story tall, tautly elegant building. Rising subtly from its garish surroundings of motels, billboards, discarded furniture, speeding cars and urban decay, Crest Apartments is a crisp, all-white façade with no signage and no ornamentation.
Mr. Malzan has experience designing many lauded buildings, including another homeless project near downtown, New Carver Apartments, which has received many awards.
There is irony in the fact that an exquisite, understated and artful building will now house a marginalized group of people.
The Crest Project is but a drop in the bucket of solutions to the appalling and obscene homelessness afflicting our city.
In a better nation, morality, money, architecture and the public good would join hands to build a more humane and aesthetic city. But reality favors bluster, bravado and bragging.
Some of the ugliest housing in Van Nuys and greater Los Angeles is still going up for those who feign affluence and success.