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.
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.
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:
“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.
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.
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.
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).”
Other old photos of the Sepulveda Drive-In:
Cluster Family Photos.
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.
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.
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.
Tom Cluster School Days
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.”
A few weeks ago I received a lovely email, and some photos from Tom Cluster, a reader of this blog.
Here is one excerpt:
I just discovered your blog about Van Nuys. I’m entranced by it. I’m almost 70. Our family moved to 6944 Columbus Avenue in the summer of 1955. It was a small tract of new homes. We moved from Westchester (near LAX). A lot of people moved from Westchester to the Valley because the airport was expanding and streets were being eaten up. Our new neighborhood was between Kester, Vose, Sepulveda, and Vanowen.
The local celebrity was Andy Devine, who still lived in his big house on 6947 Kester, down near Basset. At Halloween he’d hand out small boxes of Sugar Pops. There was an old swimming pool across the street that he had built years before – the Crystal Plunge – and we’d swim there in the summer. We had smog alerts in those days and if there was a big rain we wouldn’t go to school because Kester St. would flood.
There was a family on Vose who sold eggs from their chickens – the mother and father had survived the Holocaust and had the tattooed numbers on their forearms.
[Then as now] It would get hot and there was no air conditioning, not at Valerio School (which in 1955-1956 was at the corner of Kester and Valerio, consisting entirely of temporary buildings with a dirt playground) and not in our homes. Still, I have fond memories of Van Nuys.
The area where the Presbyterian Hospital is now was a big empty field full of tumbleweeds – we’d make forts and paths there. When the hospital was built it was small compared to what it is today. It was just two circular wings designed by William Leonard Pereira. (1909-1985) of Pereira and Luckman.
(Valley Presbyterian Hospital images courtesy of LAPL)
If you look at a map, you’ll see that Noble, Burnett, and Columbus extend from Basset to Marlin Place – the 6900 block. The houses from 6900 up to 6932 were built in 1951, the houses beginning at 6932 were built in 1955. Our houses (6932 and up) were in an old walnut grove, so there was plenty of shade.
I’ve attached a picture out front of our house. The older end of the street didn’t have walnut trees and it always seemed hot. What we didn’t understand was that the walnut trees would all soon die because sidewalks and asphalt and lawns aren’t good for them. At that point our end of the street got hot and the trees that had been planted at the other end of the street grew up and gave it shade. We moved out in 1962. The people who bought our house are still there – probably the longest residing family in that block of Columbus.
If you look at Street View for 6944 Columbus you’ll see that it’s perfectly manicured. The builder of our little tract was named Arthur Guyer – he built tracts throughout the Valley. He built 15153 Marlin Place for himself in about 1957.
There was another local celebrity on that street, although he wasn’t famous then. The Cerf family lived at 6932 Columbus, and Vinton Cerf, the oldest son, was attending Robert Fulton Jr. High. Vinton is famous as the “father of the Internet”. He and a buddy invented TCP/IP while at UCLA. The Cerfs left Van Nuys about the same time we did.
I won’t bore you with my memories of all the commercial establishments, but I will mention that Kenny’s Automotive at 14852 Vanowen, near Kester, was there in the 1950’s, just as it is today. Another hold out from the old days is Lloyd’s Market, at 7219 Kester. It was called Lloyd’s even back then, and we’d stop there every day when we walked home from Valerio.
For a few months, a large encampment of homeless men and women established a village on the streets and sidewalks of Van Nuys near the corner of Bessemer and Cedros.
Tents, tarps, clothes, shopping baskets and many bicycles (?) were piled up on the sidewalks between the parking lot rented by Keyes Chevrolet from Metro. New cars were set on fire, and the homeless, some militant some not, became a frightening reality for small businesses who are located in the area.
Embarrassed into action, Councilwoman Nury Martinez’s office, along with LA Homeless Services Agency, LAPD, The Department of Sanitation, and the LAFD came in early last week and removed, through bulldozer and dump trucks, all the debris of the Third World settlement.
During the siege, legitimate businesses who depend on safe streets and the ability for their customers to have street parking, as well as get in and out of buildings had to give up their normal rights to accommodate a pervasive pathology.
For the time being, the streets are clean and present a photo opportunity.
Meanwhile, a new encampment is setting up on Aetna just west of Van Nuys Boulevard, near where the new Fire Station #39 was planned and later sued into defeat. Community opposition from homes south of Oxnard defeated the new fire station, but now those residents who fought firefighters will have to welcome homeless people on their doorstep.
On N. Sepulveda Blvd., between Victory and Vanowen, three apartment projects are now underway.
At 6500 N. Sepulveda, the former site of the notorious Voyager Motel is completely cleared. It was a crack-y whorehouse of ill repute. But also a patriotically, quadrennially decorated neighborhood-voting place. It burned in a gratifyingly appropriate fire earlier this year.
The 53,382 square foot parcel is now void of anything natural or man-made. It is simply flat, vast and magnificently empty. It emulates Van Nuys, as it might have been in the late 1940s, when tracts of orange and walnut groves were bulldozed to make way for ticky-tacky houses and shopping centers.
An apartment is planned for this site. I don’t remember its design, but if it follows any of the other projects in Van Nuys it will come by way of big and boxy, designed by big and boxy men, near architects who also moonlight as junior builders, and amateur bankers. It will be three or four stories tall and cover every square inch of land. Parking will be provided in excess of what is needed because the most important feature of any project in Los Angeles is how many parking spaces are provided. We need more parking. And just a reminder: Please make sure there is parking. Everywhere.
At 6536 N. Sepulveda, on 28,146 square feet, another apartment is going up. This is on that charming stretch of the street where new hookers walk and old couches come to die. Nightly helicopter patrols and pounding rap music enliven the air. A house was recently bulldozed here and gargantuan sized orange bulldozers now occupy the parcel.
At 6725 N. Sepulveda Blvd, on 30,647 square feet, between Archwood and Lemay, another flat and modern multi-family is planned. This was the site of the low self-esteem Ridge Motel, whose police reports and trashy clientele attested to a level of service usually seen only in jails.
The Ridge Motel, still a menace in its dying days, was kept behind security fencing, like King Kong in captivity. Its campy, catapulting roofline was somehow not in the sights of the LA Conservancy, whose members work tirelessly to preserve other historical buildings such as bowling alleys in the San Gabriel Valley.
The rose-bushed, picket-fenced hood of working moms and worked-out fathers bordering these three Sepulveda Blvd. properties are relieved that some badness (and discarded condoms) has departed. Some see the Day of the Bulldozer as Saul saw Jesus. Sin cleansed by salvation.
Bulldozers are like angels in Van Nuys. They are sent by the Good Lord to flatten and knock down anything standing in the way of new banality. Even when they are used to destroy history, they have a mission. They will bring, don’t you know, “jobs” and “opportunities” and “housing” to the San Fernando Valley.
We see the stuccofied greatness of our environment every day, along Vanowen, Sepulveda, and Van Nuys Boulevard. Someone, somewhere is surely looking out over all this destruction and construction, making sure that the architecture and the design enhances our landscape.
Or perhaps nobody is in charge. And we live in a kind of roulette table of a city, spinning a wheel and hoping that the building that lands next to us is a winner.
There was a time in Los Angeles, many years ago, when young women had figures, and older men, with community support, hired them to present awards to “good driving” teenagers.
The Road-E-O Safe Driving Contest promoted safe rules of the road.
Strange to our modern eyes to see scantily dressed pretty girls handing out trophies for good driving.
Imagine, in 2016, the outcry if this type of event took place today.
“How come all the girls are white?”
“Are you trying to fat shame people who aren’t thin?”
“What about hot guys presenting hot awards?”
“Cars are evil. You shouldn’t be promoting driving. Biking and walking are better.”
“It’s creepy to see an old guy in a suit with a young girl. I read on Wikileaks that man cheated on his wife!”
But in 1959, when people still trusted government and business leaders, it was all for a good cause: to make the automobile indispensable to Los Angeles and to make sure the car was central to any and all activities of life, work and leisure.
Photograph caption dated May 27, 1959 reads, “Diane Olson, 16-year-old Junior Miss Sherman Oaks, presents Sherman Oaks Teenage “Road-E-O” winner’s trophy to Rick Mahn, VanNuys High School senior, while his sister Cynthia, 21 Miss Sherman Oaks, looks on. Mahn racked up the highest score ever recorded locally.”
Photograph caption dated May 28, 1959 reads, “Winners in Sunland-Tujunga Junior Chamber of Commerce Road-E-O safe driving contest proudly display trophies and certificates they won for their driving abilities. From left are Joseph McKeon, first; Doris Williams, second, and Melvin Kuznets, third.”
Photograph caption dated May 20, 1959 reads, “For Skill Driving – Del Moore, TV-Radio personality and Sherman Oaks resident, and Diane Olson, 16year-old Junior Miss Sherman Oaks, display trophy which will be presented to winner of Sherman Oaks Jaycee “Teenage Safe Driving Road-E-O” Saturday.”