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.
On these winter days, when the streets are emptied of cars, and the skies are filling with rain clouds, our neighborhood of Van Nuys cools down and empties out, revealing a strange amalgam of enormous parking lots; as well as businesses and homes surrounded by iron gates and fences.
In its entirety, these fortifications evoke prison: a high security, patrolled, guarded, and fearsome place where criminals and children are kept back by a fortress of steel and iron.
For sixteen years I’ve lived here, always imagining that every New Year will bring an imaginative, humane and socially comprehensive new architecture into Van Nuys.
I fantasize that the parking lots will be torn up and rows of orange trees replanted in the soil. I think someone will see the enormous plots of land, now taken up with blight and decay, and see this as the new place to construct walkable communities with native plants and organic gardens surrounding little residential communes.
That is the dream, shared by some of my neighbors.
Reality is something else.
On Sepulveda, between Archwood and Lemay, the hellish Ridge Motel is on Death Row, surrounded by fencing and covered with graffiti and garbage. It had long outlived its usefulness and functioned only as a prostitution and drug outlet, blighting its surroundings and neighbors.
Across Sepulveda, Fresh and Easy has closed, taking with it moldy produce and difficult checkouts. But sometimes I’d come here, and liked its convenience, its weird combination of English, Indian, Spanish and Asian foods, its overpriced milk, eggs and breads. And I miss that friendly manager who always smiled and helped me.
One Thanksgiving, about 2012, we bought our entire meal here and ate it back home with my mother, a pre-made, plastic topped collection of containers with sweet potatoes, mashed potatoes, stuffing, cranberries and turkey. My father had recently died, and my mother was to die two years later, and the holiday meal had a morose sadness intensified by the microwaved artificiality of our victuals.
Fresh and Easy is gone, but what remains are those walls and gates around it, and that big parking lot in front, and a reminder that even when there is no business, or no people, we will still live in an incarcerated city, a place where entrances and exits are controlled, and guarded from either imagined or real, chaos and crime.
And those vast spaces of nothingness that are spread all over, those too are outdoor jail yards of lifelessness, neither urban or rural, human or natural.
These are the prisons that keep us captive and hold our imaginations and our existence hostage.
Kester Avenue, a narrow North/South artery between Sepulveda and Van Nuys Boulevards, is, north of Oxnard St., an industrial and immigrant arrival point, a place of car repair shops, small apartment buildings, bodegas and liquor stores.
Long neglected, like the rest of Van Nuys, it has undergone some positive change, small but not insignificant: apartment construction, remodeled houses, some cleaned up properties.
At 14801 Califa, (near Kester and Oxnard) a property investor has taken a large industrial park and transformed it into a modern post-industrial building. It has been landscaped with trees and plants, painted gray, adorned with metal doors and windows in a style best described as Culver City North. Envisioned as a rental property for media companies, it is within walking distance of the Orange Line.
Walls are untouched by taggers, possibly due to discreet security cameras ringing the property.
Remnants of old Van Nuys before and during WWII are also in evidence around the area. Steel buildings, used as citrus packing houses, and Quonset Huts with their arched rooflines, still exist near Oxnard and Kester.
Walk on Kester north of Oxnard and you are in a man’s world of marijuana, liquor, used tires, transmissions, clutches, sand, gravel, cement, cheap beer, lottery tickets, tow trucks and dogs on chains. This is un-distilled and un-filtered Van Nuys, where hard-working immigrants take flat tires off cars and put bald ones back on.
At sunset, the meanness is softened by orange and pink hues. Piles of tires turn into melted chocolates next to green boxes. Long hot days are ended and extinguished in icy lager Coronas.
At Kester and Delano there long stood an old wooden house, a broken down slum place with discarded tires and trash. It has since been cleaned up and stuccoed up, as hygienic and impersonal as any Burbank tract house. But it is clean, which is notable, in a place where slumlords from Encino and Bel Air could care less.
Mr. Pancho’s Market, long a fixture in the area, in now called “Los 3 Potrillos” (The Three Colts) and has been painted bright orange and I don’t know if they sell horse meat.
A four-story apartment building has been under construction for some time near at Erwin and Kester. It stands in uncompleted modernity behind scaffolding and plywood.
On the west side of Kester, one walks past the last seven decades of architecture and development.
6315 Kester is a two-story courtyard apartment building built in 1961. A bizarre (or unique) frieze of Roman soldiers on horses decorates the exterior. Starved for ornamentation, post-war architects in the late 1950s and early 60s borrowed from epic movies like “Ben Hur” (1959) or “Cleopatra” (1963) to cinematically embellish properties.
6321-6323 is a 1949 multi-family dwelling decorated with developer William Mellenthin’s (1896-1979) characteristic “birdhouse” designs over the garage. Mellenthin brought a rustic, Northern California feeling to this structure with board and batten siding, red brick, double hung windows and exposed beamed roof.
Sadly, this subtle, historically Californian style has little appreciation to The Vulgarians who now build in the San Fernando Valley. But in1949, it must have been a fine place to live, at a time when one could leave a window open at night, for ventilation without fear, and fall asleep to Tommy Dorsey on the radio.
And the 2015 tour wraps up at 14851 Victory, the slum mini-mall whose most notable feature is the trash on the side of the building that the tenants and the owner never clean up.
Kester has a lot of variety and stories, but suffers under the weight of neglect, which is a pity because it is a very human and historic place.
On March 26, 2015, I was invited to address the opening of a new Van Nuys Planning Summit held at the Marvin Braude Center. The event was created and sponsored by Quirino De La Cuesta and the Van Nuys Community Council.
Here I am in the beginning of the tape, delivering remarks.
Even in 1960, people in Van Nuys were getting gunned down and killed.
As originally reported in the Los Angeles Examiner, on June 24, 1960 police discovered murder victim Shaik Dastagir, 49, dead in front of his home at 13944 Valerio St.
Shaik Dastagir was the owner of a furniture store and two apartment buildings. He often carried large sums of cash.
18-year-old Jim Shields, an employee of Mr. Dastagir’s, later confessed to police that he had tried to rob his boss by gunpoint, but his boss resisted, and in the struggle the killer accidentally shot himself in the arm. Mr. Shields needed money to repair his car and thought he would rob his employer to get the funds. Conscience later caught up and the tearful suspect surrendered.
The dead man, of Indian origin, was also the brother of an actor named Sabu Dastagir.
Sabu was an actor of some repute. Born in 1924, he was the onetime “Elephant Boy” of the movies, discovered in India by a documentary filmmaker who later brought the boy to Hollywood where he starred in several films, most notably “The Thief of Bagdad (1940) directed by Michael Powell. During WWII, Sabu became an American citizen, joined the Air Force and was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for bravery.
Sabu’s career declined after WWII. He married Marilyn Cooper and had two children, Paul and Jasmine.
Paul Sabu (born January 2, 1960) is a singer, songwriter, producer, and guitarist.
In 1963, Sabu, 39, went for a medical checkup in Chatsworth.
His wife later said that Sabu’s doctor told him, “If all my patients were as healthy as you, I would be out of a job.”
Three days later, on December 2, 1963 Sabu died of a heart attack.
Assisting Tommy Gelinas of Valley Relics in his cataloging of unique and historic items related to the San Fernando Valley, I came across this June 1974 postcard sent from Valley Presbyterian Hospital in Van Nuys to a family in Ft. Lauderdale, FL.
“My Dearest Ones,
Sorry I haven’t wrote sooner but so worried and upset over Mother. Almost lost her. Her pulse was dropping down to 15 from time to time. Then a week ago last Sunday she had a heart attack in the hospital. A week ago today they did surgery and put a pace maker in. She looks great and feeling so much better. If all goes well she will go to my place a week from today.
Edie and Jim”
The medical center, still standing but greatly enlarged at 15107 Vanowen St., is described as a “unique circular medical center, located in the San Fernando Valley.”