The Departing Storm

The ladle shaped storm that began to pound the Southland on Friday, February 17, 2017 arrived like a landing jet over the Pacific. It circled, counter-clockwise, landing onto Los Angeles, dropping horizontal blasts of wind, and pounding sheets of rain. It blew down trees, power lines, cable and telephone wires, flooded roads and carried away cars. And drowned our sinned and parched city in a cascade of baptizing waters.

A few died in strange and tragic ways. A man on Sepulveda was electrocuted fatally after strong gusts brought down a tree that hit an electrified power line. Another man was drowned in a raging creek at Thousand Oaks.

What minor choices of life, where to walk, what path to take, might bring us to death?

In Studio City, at Woodbridge St at Laurel Canyon, an aged sewer burst under water pressure and pulled out the soil underneath the road. A 30-foot wide, 20-foot deep hole emerged, sucking two drivers and their two vehicles into a subterranean river. People in those cars were rescued. Thankfully, nobody died or were seriously injured.

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Here in Van Nuys, on Hamlin Street, late yesterday afternoon, the departing storm closed its one-woman show, packed its bags, and headed east.

Solar klieg lights were aimed on the darkened sky as its magnificent performer paraded off stage, led by a chorus line of tall, skinny palm trees, lined up to bid good-bye to the wind and the fury, the destruction and the drama.

It was a thrilling show, taking our eyes off the irrationality in Washington, and bringing us back to the true leader of the planet, one who never relinquishes power, but whose atmospheric whims are capricious, indifferent, and violent, but somehow understandable and predictable.


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The Columbus Curse

Shopping Cart on Columbus
Shopping Cart on Columbus

The pocket of houses bounded by Victory, Kester, Sepulveda and Vanowen is mostly neat, and well-kept, full of sturdy ranch houses and domestic bonhomie.

But along unimproved Columbus slumminess prevails.

While there are remnants of rural Van Nuys, large parcels of land that once grew oranges and walnuts, most are now inhabited by  abandoned or neglected houses, illegal dumping of cars, illegal businesses set up with nurseries, and others of dubious intent where tow trucks show up at 3am and weird men disappear behind locked, fenced gates.

Each family home has been miserable in its own distinct way, to paraphrase Tolstoy.

There was the hillbilly brigade that sold drugs out of their rental house, a group of oily zombies and hollow-eyed skeletons who threatened neighbors and broke the law hourly until the LAPD got in there after many years of surveillance and complaints. Now their lair is an empty house, just one of many on the street, in a city of homeless people and other working people who cannot afford to buy a house.

At another house, last year, a homeless, addict owner of an auto body repair shop (yes there is such a being) moved into a foreclosed yellow ranch house at the corner of Kittridge and started buying the contents of storage lockers and piling them up and down his driveway and all around the property. He used the electricity left on by previous tenants and continued to collect couches, garbage containers, boxes, electronics, toys, furniture. All of it was stacked and crowded around the entire place from curb to front door.

50 or 60 emails and calls to Nury Martinez’s office as well as our LAPD Senior Lead Officers finally resulted in the eviction of the mad vagrant. It only took 12-18 months. After his arrest, yes AFTER his arrest, he was allowed to return to the house he had no right to be in, and he conducted his own criminal garage sale, selling off all the merchandise he hoarded. He is now gone and the electricity is turned off.

LAPD Sr. Lead Officer Kirk worked patiently, diligently and valiantly to contact city attorney’s and work with law enforcement to end the siege of the self-displaced person.  The squeaky wheels who made the noise, all of us, were thankful to her.

DSCF0038At Haynes Street, another man owned a home that he kept empty. It was stripped of its walls and plumbing, and allowed to denigrate into a trash strewn property with high grass, and many bottles and cans dumped everywhere. Eventually, it was bought by a bargain basement builder who axed large shade trees and is building a plain stucco box with vinyl windows. Better than before but now devoid of shade and character.

Columbus at Hamlin looking south. During rainy season, puddles form as the street has no sewers to drain rainwater.
Columbus at Hamlin looking south. During rainy season, puddles form as the street has no sewers to drain rainwater.

Last year, hope sprung up as one of the large properties, over 28,000 SF, was purchased by a Van Nuys architect/developer who concomitantly was also designing some large scale, mixed use retail/commercial buildings along Sepulveda and on Van Nuys Boulevard.

VNNC Planning and Land Use arranged for residents to meet with the architect at his offices on Delano St. It was a civilized, courteous, nice evening of pizza and wine and drawings of the proposed homes, 4 or 5 of them. The architect took suggestions about design changes and again presented a second version of the houses at a later meeting.

It seemed that the project was moving along. Bulldozers cleared the property which was also behind another under-construction apartment building on Sepulveda associated with the developer.

Then a few days ago, a neighbor sent me a listing he found on Redfin. The 28,314 sf property where the new homes were to be built was up for sale. If a new buyer comes in and purchases the land for $1.1 million (it previously sold in 2011 for $320,000) she would not be building what the previous architect/builder had proposed.

In an email to me the architect denied that the project was forestalled or cancelled. He claimed he had a disagreement with some partners and put the property up for sale to satisfy their demands. I believe a similiar situation happened to Mildred Pierce in 1945 and the end result was not good.

In fairness to the architect/developer, whom I personally like, I hope his project continues. But the signs are not hopeful.

Once again, what can only be called “The Columbus Curse” has come to pass.

Sr. Lead Officer Erica Kirk, 2016.
Sr. Lead Officer Erica Kirk, 2016.

Observations Atop the 134 Bridge After the Storm.

LA River/Griffith Park

After many days of successive, concussive waves of rain swirling into Los Angeles, the hills in Griffith Park were wet, green, and soaked.

I walked there, yesterday afternoon, along the bike path, and the bridle path, at the point where the 134 roars alongside the LA River.

LA River/Griffith Park griffith-park-after-rain-6

The storm, now depleted, had moved east, sent into exile. And in the distance, under dark clouds, I saw the Verdugo Mountains, the flat roofed towers of Glendale, and all the man-made highways and power lines: showered and renewed, glistening and spot lighted by sun.

The littered homeless encampment on the island in the middle of the river was vacated. There was nobody else around but me, except for a lone man riding a child’s bike.


A bridge over the waters and the freeway, a bridge under construction, its metal rods exposed, a messy conglomeration of concrete, lumber, fencing and plywood, that incomplete, torn-up bridge evoked others before her time destroyed by floods.

Angelenos in the 1930s and before lived in fear of the river and put their hope in President Roosevelt. Now we trust the river and fear our president.

Once we trembled under the fury of nature. Now we shudder under the drama of political malfeasance.

After 1940, the army conquered the unpredictable river, contained its fast water, and controlled its deadly fury.

Tomorrow, we trust, we hope, will fold out and reveal itself as it did in Genesis.

“Now the springs of the deep and the floodgates of the heavens had been closed, and the rain had stopped falling from the sky. The water receded steadily from the earth. And God said

never again will I destroy all living creatures, as I have done.

 “As long as the earth endures,

seedtime and harvest,

cold and heat,

summer and winter,

day and night

will never cease.”

LA River/Griffith Park

Four Days After the National Cataclysm.


Four days after the national cataclysm, uneasy inside, tentative, mourning for my nation and its political immolation, I took advantage of a partially overcast Saturday morning and walked on those quiet, well-kept streets north of Valley Presbyterian Hospital.

Tom Cluster’s emails had introduced me to the area, and I wanted to see for myself what it looked like.

On Columbus Avenue, where Tom had grown up, the street was still lined with trees, with neatly kept houses, and well-paved sidewalks. In front of his childhood home at 6944, where he lived from 1955-62, a gravestone next to the driveway read: “Beneath the Stone Lies Squeaky 7/13/61.”

I assumed a pet, but have not asked Tom yet. But I am sure he will fill in the mystery.

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If you walked just three streets, Halbrent, Columbus and Burnet, you might be forgiven for believing that virtuous, middle-class, hard-working, Ozzie and Harriet Van Nuys was still the norm.

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There is hardly any trash, the curbs are swept, the lawns are cut, and it seems that the hospital itself is as sanitized on the exterior as the interior. There is a calm, a self-assurance, an illusory orderliness conveying control. The buildings, dating back to 1958, drum shaped towers, share the grounds with more recent concrete ones; but unlike Cedars or UCLA, there is no affluence in the architecture, no preening for impressiveness or garish technological materials. This is a plain Protestant place, stripped down and frugal.

At Valley Presbyterian, there is also a long driveway leading from Noble, west, into the main entrance of the medical facility. The edge is lined with raised, planted beds under a 1950s modern, illuminated overhang. Welcoming and efficient, it conveys a public language of progressive health care and community.


The Edsels and the Oldsmobiles and the Pontiacs wait patiently at the entrance as the medical staff bring out wheelchairs. Dad, always calm, lights a cigarette and turns on the radio to hear how Don Drysdale is doing. Mom, in labor, is brought into the hospital by nurses as Dad goes to park the car and walk back into the hospital to wait, in the maternity area, for his wife to give birth to their third child.

Volunteer girls in red lipstick and white uniforms hold trays of apple juice in Dixie cups. They walk the floor and offer refreshments.

Dad took the afternoon off work but will be at the GM plant in the morning. His wife will spend a week in the hospital and they will pay their $560.00 bill in $15.55 monthly installments over the next three years.

For a few blocks, a section of Van Nuys, its homes and hospitals, is still preserved in a formaldehyde of memory and architecture, a Twilight Zone where hospitals were up-to-date and affordable, great schools were within walking distance, jobs were plentiful, work was secure, streets were safe, and houses reasonably priced.

Beyond these streets, the real, harsh, angry, misery of another Van Nuys in another America plays out.

And we Californians, we Angelenos, are caught in a vise of fear, hoping for the best, fearing the worst, and seeing the day of demagoguery descend over Washington and the world.

In preserved pockets, like the one north of Vanowen, some cower and hide from a restless surge of irrationality in search of scapegoats, chasing myths down dark alleys of the mind. The state, if it comes to it, may join the vigilante in enforcing the law. Or the law, if it is just, may return us to a semblance of sanity.

The best and the worst, the past and the future, it is all here in Van Nuys.









Tom Cluster’s Van Nuys (1955-62) Part 2


Tom Cluster (b. 1947) lived at 6944 Columbus with his sister and brother and parents from 1955-1962. The family then moved to Pacific Palisades. He now lives in Northern California and has been sending me his recollections of life in Van Nuys in the 1950s.

Here are some excerpts from his emails to me:

12/6/1954 Star of Bethlehem Parade, Van Nuys, CA
“Everyone talks about the Bethlehem Star Parade on Van Nuys Blvd., and we’d go to see it also. It was a Big Deal in Van Nuys.

Chicken Ranch SFV (LAPL)
Chicken Ranch SFV (LAPL)
You write about Kester a lot, and thinking of Kester reminds me of my grandmother who worked at the MGM cartoon department in the 30’s and early 40’s. One of the cartoonists had a chicken ranch on Kester somewhere down near the LA River. I know this because I have a letter he wrote to my grandmother.

Pictured are Mexican nationals at the Van Nuys jail. They are going to be returned to Mexico. Photograph dated April 14, 1949. (LAPL)
I had mentioned that the Valley was Lily White – what I meant was that there were (few) Blacks or Asians (apologies to the Jue Joe Clan). There were, of course, Hispanics. I remember riding my bicycle to a Mexican grocery just below Kester (on the east side, in other words) near Van Nuys High School. They had big pickles that I liked. I also remember that in my one semester at Van Nuys High (September 1961) a fight broke out in the quad between the Hispanics and the Whites. I’m not sure what words we used to describe these groups. We might have said “Mexicans”.

Valley Town Market/ Sepulveda Drive In

Note: Constructed in 1955, at a cost of $3,000,000,  the Valley Town Market and the Sepulveda Drive-In Theater were located near Erwin and Sepulveda in Van Nuys, CA. The market featured some amusement park rides, animals and outdoor informal “fast” food. 

The entire complex was demolished in 1992, and was replaced by Wickes Furniture, which was then torn down. And is today the site of LA Fitness and the Orange Line Busway parking lot.

5-15-55-valley-town-market-and-drive-in (LA Times)
5-15-55-valley-town-market-and-drive-in (LA Times)

5/22/55 LA Times
5/22/55 LA Times


Valley Market Town (SFV Blog)
Valley Market Town (SFV Blog)

Valley Market Town (SFV Blog)
Valley Market Town (SFV Blog)

“Targets” (1968) 

Random mass murder was still a novelty in 1968.

In that year, Peter Bogdanovich directed “Targets” about an assassin here in Van Nuys.

Tom Cluster remembers: “There was a drive-in theater on Sepulveda north of Oxnard, and there were some gas storage tanks adjacent to it. The tanks are still there, up against the 405, near the Orange Line Busway. This drive-in and the tanks were featured in the Peter Bogdanovich movie “Targets” (1968).”



Sepulveda Super Drive-In Theater (1955-89) Corner of Erwin and Sepulveda. Demolished 1992. Now site of LA Fitness and Orange Line Busway Parking Lot. (Still image from “Targets”)

Other old photos of the Sepulveda Drive-In:


Cluster Family Photos.

My beautiful picture
1961/ Columbus Ave.
First picture – two kids on the sidewalk – one is my brother. This was taken in front of the bank manager’s house – the Cerf residence is just behind the closest walnut tree. This is the fall of 1961. We’re looking south down Columbus, toward the hospital’s land in the distance. Notice how the walnut trees stop after the Cerf’s house, and notice also how you don’t really see any buildings at the hospital, compared to now, where there’s a virtual wall at the edge of their property on Basset because of their expansion.

1959 Cluster
1959 Cluster

Second picture – My sister on a trampoline, Christmas, 1959. There was a craze then for trampoline centers where kids could break their necks, so eventually they faded away. This particular center was on the west side of Kester, just north of Vanowen.

My beautiful picture
Third picture – 1958 – My brother and sister, with Marlin Place in the background. You’ll see that our windows still have the fake shutters. We pulled them off when we got the house painted and never put them back – I’m not sure why. You can see Mr. Guyer’s house in the background, on Marlin Place. I looked it up and Zillow tells me it was built in 1955.

May 1956/ View south down Columbus towards Vanowen/Bassett
May 1956/ View south down Columbus towards Vanowen/Bassett

12/1957 Neighborhood children
12/1957 Neighborhood children

Tom Cluster School Days 


Tom Cluster (behind woman in hat) 1961 (LAPL/LAT)
This ceremony was at the church on the southeast corner of Sherman Way and Kester.  At the time I think it was a Baptist church, but if I’m not mistaken it’s now a Four Square Gospel [Church on the Way] (3.5 stars on Yelp).   I was nominated for it by Mrs. Stitt, a social studies teacher at Fulton Jr. High.  Poor lady, such an unfortunate name, but it fit her.  I’m on the right, the first boy behind the woman with the fur, smiling and with my face partially obscured.  I still have that certificate (I keep almost everything).  My time in Junior High is clouded in shame that I shall never live down, which is one reason I didn’t attend the Van Nuys High School 50th reunion.  As much as I would have liked to see my old classmates, too many of them would remember that I was a “Cadet” at Fulton, or, in generic terms, a “Safety”.  We wore sashes that said Cadet and we were empowered to write citations for infractions such as littering and running.  I even got elected to the student council, into the position of “Boy’s Safety Representative.”

Tom Cluster (Top Row, 1st boy on left)


Photo Credits:


Drive in Photos /

Valley Market Town, Postcard of Van Nuys

Cluster Family photos courtesy of Tom Cluster