Van Nuys (b. 1911) began as a town, centered around a main street, connected to Los Angeles by streetcar and rail.
It built its fire station, library, city hall, police station, and its churches, schools, shops and post office steps apart. On foot, a person could buy a suit, take out a library book, mail a letter, and walk to school.
Come to think of it they still can. But it was all there in downtown Van Nuys.
Today you might stand outside the LAPD Van Nuys Station and smoke a joint, drink a can of beer, pee against a wall and nobody would raise an eyebrow.
The librarian, the cop, the priest, the attorney, they would walk past you and shrug their shoulders and mutter, “What can I do?”
We are so tolerant these days. Everything degrading is welcomed, while everything worthwhile is rare, expensive or extinct.
Surrounded by orange and walnut groves, the growing town nonetheless managed to provide safe, civilized and opportune situations for its newly arrived residents with affordable housing, subsidized by low interest government backed loans after WWII.
And plentiful, well-paying jobs. Imagine that!
Somehow it was lost after 1945. The enormous shopping centers robbed Van Nuys of its clientele. The street widenings turned boulevards into raceways and the village feel was destroyed. Factories closed, banks shrunk, stores fled, and crime settled here to afflict, rob, disable and kill.
Why does Van Nuys flounder, while all around it other cities like Burbank, Glendale, Pasadena, and sections of Los Angeles, like North Hollywood, Studio City, Mid-City and Highland Park flourish?
A journalist from Curbed LA called me yesterday. He is writing an article about Van Nuys and wanted to talk.
I mentioned many things that I wish were changed here, from road diets to better housing, from cleaner streets to more law enforcement for illegal dumping.
But I also told him that so much of our political leadership is devoted to working on problems like prostitution, rather than building a coalition of architects, designers, investors, and planners who could build up Van Nuys and make it, once again, a coherent, safe, stimulating, and pleasant place to live and work.
I know what’s bad here. But what about making it good? Where are our dreams? Why can’t we be as artistic as our studios, as wild in our imaginations as our writers, directors, cinematographers, animators, and designers?
Why isn’t the whole energy of creative Los Angeles devoted to overcoming our civic afflictions?
The deadest and more depressing areas of Van Nuys are closest to the Orange Line, which is also a good thing. Because this is where Van Nuys should work to build new, experimental, and innovative housing and commercial buildings.
From Kester to Hazeltine, north of Oxnard, the “Civic Center” district contains an empty post office, vacated stores, underutilized buildings, and dystopian spaces of concrete, homelessness, garbage, and withering neglect.
The pedestrian mall on Erwin, south of the Valley Municipal Building and surrounded by the Superior Court, the library and police station, is a civic disgrace.
Ironically, all the law enforcement, all the government agencies, all the power that resides in Van Nuys….. presides over the ruins of it.
Meanwhile up in Portland, OR.
On Dezeen, there are posts about new, infill buildings in Portland, OR and Japan where the general level of architecture and design far outpaces Van Nuys. These are sophisticated, modern, but humble structures with ideas for living.
Look at these and imagine how, perhaps 25 new ones, could transform Van Nuys.
In the midst of our wasteland, we need to go back to working to demanding the best for Van Nuys, rather than accepting squalor and mediocrity.
At the height of the Cold War, a brave and liberal minded group of progressive people marched through Los Angeles and eventually ended up in Moscow where they worked to defuse tensions between the US and the Soviet Union.
Los Angeles at that time was a conservative, anti-communist city whose main industry, Hollywood, was just emerging from the blacklist and any association with Russia was tantamount to career suicide.
The Committee for Non-Violent Action (CNVA) was an American anti-war group, created in 1957. Its purpose : resist the US government‘s testing of nuclear weapons. It used non-violence to oppose atomic military tools.
The group was often attacked as pacifist and for its welcoming of African-Americans into the fold.
Photograph article dated December 22, 1960 partially reads, “Eight foot–sore peace walkers marched through the Valley Wednesday on the 11-month tour that will take them from San Francisco to Moscow, Russia. The placard-bearing marchers, who represent the Committee for Nonviolent Action, stopped Wednesday night at Highland avenue and Hollywood boulevard in Hollywood. They will remain in the Los Angeles area until Christmas day when they will resume their march toward Tucson, Ariz. In addition to having their board and room paid for by the committee, which is composed of 60 Americans, the hikers have seven administrators and advance publicity men making the tour with them.” Bruce McIntyre, 20, leads the peace walking team along Ventura Blvd. near Noble Ave.
“Photograph caption dated May 24, 1959 reads “Jack Shitlock, manager of Mr. L, VanNuys new women’s sportswear shop, welcomes Anne Cwerman as fashion coordinator. The shop, keyed for college and career women, is at 6505 VanNuys Blvd., VanNuys.”
50 or more years ago people (of means) ate out perhaps once a week.
In Van Nuys, up until the late 1960s, the dining scene reflected the overwhelmingly white make-up of the region. The vast immigration from Central and South America, Africa and Asia that has made present day Los Angeles so varied and so heterogeneous and brought us Malaysian, Taiwanese, Laotian, Mongolian, Thai, Filipino, Vietnamese, Guatemalan, Russian, Indian, Burmese, Persian, and Ethiopian did not exist half a century ago.
What was on the menus back then offered a variety of “German”, “Italian” and “Chinese” cuisines that had as much authenticity as a studio back lot.
Which is not to deride the food. It was offered to customers graciously, copiously and somewhat formally, as people would not dare enter a restaurant without being dressed up, with men in suits and ties, and women in dresses, skirts and high-heels.
At Hoppe’s Old Heidelberg, 13726 Oxnard, men and women who fought in WWII, 15 years earlier, would dine guiltlessly on Schnitzel A La Holstein for $2.75 and enjoy an imported German beer for sixty cents.
Entrees came (free of charge) with soup, salad, potato and vegetable, fresh bread and butter and a dessert. Light eaters might order fruit cocktail for 20 cents and a glass of tomato juice for 15 cents.
Otto’s Pink Pig at 4954 Van Nuys Bl. offered many fine seafood dishes, some of which are seemingly extinct in Los Angeles dining, such as frog legs, mountain trout, abalone steak, filet of sole, and Crab Mornay. All the aforementioned were also offered under $5.
Otto’s had a huge beef menu offering 19 choices. There was a 16 Oz. Culotte Steak, Sirloin Steak, NY Stripper Steak, Porter House Steak, Filet Mignon, Ribeye, Steak Au Poivre, Steak Alla Pizzaiola, Grenadine of Beef Bordelaise, Beef Steak Surprise, Dinner Steak, Steak and Green Peppers, Tournedos of Beef Au Sherry, Tournedos of Beef Morderne, Beef in Brochette, Steak and Eggs “King Size”, Steak and Eggs “Princess Size”, Steak Sandwich, Megowan Steak Sandwich De Luxe. And there were three roasts as well!
At 6801 Van Nuys Blvd. at Van Nuys and Vanowen (think of that lovely location today) stood Nemiroff’s with its blue menu and regal crest.
It seems to have been a Jewish style deli much like Jerry’s, without kosher offerings, but selling such sandwiches as Lox and Cream Cheese on Bagel for $1.25 and Chopped Chicken Liver on Rye for 90 cents.
Every day of the week offered a special, such as Monday’s Beef Tenderloin Tips with Egg Noodles and Garden Fresh Vegetables, described as an “exquisite meal” for $1.95 or Friday’s Filet of San Francisco Bay Red Snapper for observant Catholics. Indeed, Nemiroff’s seems to have delved into many styles with its German Sauerbraten ($1.95) and Irish Corned Beef and Cabbage with boiled potatoes and fresh carrots, horseradish sauce cooked in “Nemiroff’s Kettles for natural flavors” and it also cost $1.95.
There were many more restaurants, too numerous to mention, but places, spoken of today, regarded fondly, chiefly because where you ate when you were young is sacred, and every drop of cottage cheese and chocolate pudding, canned peaches and fish sticks, transports you back to a time when the world possessed freshness, vigor, and possibility.
And all the dreams you had were still in the future, waiting to be fulfilled, and a dream job, a dream car, a dream girl, a dream boy, a dream house, existed not only in the imagination, but for many, across this region, in reality.
On a Sunday evening in July, on foot, after a few beers, the old town of Van Nuys, carried a note of Tribeca 1985, in its summoning of potential, laid out, for dreamers and developers.
There were empty storefronts and shabby alleys, but there were also women in chairs, attending children on bicycles, who played near clothes for sale, hung on a fence. Here Andreas bought a shirt for $3.
There were menacing BVN insignias on garbage bins and apartment walls, but there was also the eternal light of California soaking the decay in cinematic color. If I were sober, if I were alone, I probably wouldn’t have walked here.
Intoxication, used wisely, is a gift. When nerves are soothed, adventures commence.
What glories the cessation of fear brings to the eye. Every corner revealed something: teal and brown homeless tarps seemingly sculpted, the wood pallets in the alley placed with artful intention, a wood gate in the back of a parking lot like the entrance to an old western town.
The best buildings were the forgotten ones: The steel walled packing house on Vesper St., the pink stucco cottages on Cedros, and 14225 Delano St. a mid-century structure with a dark green cornice and an inverted glass wall, respectable, laconic and businesslike.
It was Sunday night but some people worked.
On Bessemer St. a worker at Technology Auto Body buffed a gleaming pick-up truck, squeezing the last minutes of light to finish his job.
Last night, these fearsome streets, Calvert, Bessemer, Vesper, Delano and Cedros, were peaceful and passive. Sometime soon, this walkable, neighborly and nostalgic area will revive, and these ramshackle adventures through denigration will take their place in the history book of Los Angeles.