Often I, as do others, think of Van Nuys as some sort of dystopian jungle, full of illegal and unsavory human behavior.
It is an impression easily made after driving along the wide ugly boulevards packed with stucco slums, billboards, wooden power lines, discarded couches, and mini-malls. Cars speed through red lights. Whores walk smiling down Sepulveda. Undocumented workers hang out as if they were breaking no law.
But to walk down side streets, with curiosity and a camera, as I did a few weeks ago, reveals neighborhoods that still have ethical moorings and architectural promise.
One such area is just east of Van Nuys Boulevard and north of Victory. Along Hamlin and Gilmore are a number of low-slung buildings, built 50, 60, 70 or more years ago, all within walking distance of churches, schools, drug stores and family run restaurants.
There is grace, integrity, artistry, and civility in places where the people of Van Nuys worshipped , learned math, had their teeth cleaned, or once filled a prescription.
But something massive and dysfunctional came along, a force of economics, social change and governmental malfeasance. It utterly destroyed the normality of Van Nuys, distorting cordial and friendly interaction, the bedrock of any community.
We live now in a shattered and terrifying environment of anonymity and aggressiveness where a knock on the front door, a strange car parked in front of our house, and the sirens in the distance unnerve and disturb our private safety and public freedom.
Van Nuys will be 100 years old in 2011. But there is no sense of civic celebration. We have no town square to gather in. No “oldest house in Van Nuys” to bear witness. The activity here that engages the largest amount of people at one time is being awakened at night by the LAPD helicopters.
Who will marshal brain and bulldozer, money and manpower, power and politic to transform this area into something better? One man named Van Nuys did more a century ago than thousands of us do today.
Walk along the old streets of Van Nuys, as I did a few weeks ago, and see the architectural ghosts of our dearly departed community.