Many are familiar with the large, architecturally impressive Bank of America at Haynes and Van Nuys Blvd. It was designed by Paul Revere Williams, a prominent architect who was also an African-American Angeleno. The bank was built in 1967 and features murals inside and out by artist Millard Sheets. In 1968, famed photographer Julius Shulman photographed the bank. It was a high point for civic architecture in Van Nuys, and perhaps the last time this area felt proud of its main street.
Prior to the 1967 bank, there was a more humble, late Art Deco, Bank of America at this same location, 6551 Van Nuys Bl.
In this black and white photograph, one sees the crisp, scrubbed-down, finely cared for building. Around it was a thriving street with well-dressed, law abiding citizens, and perhaps the occasional criminal whose activities were the exception not the rule.
Today, human beings in Van Nuys sleep, eat, and defecate alongside bank buildings. Their disgraceful conditions scarcely cause anyone to notice. Or care.
In 2017, we are so busy congratulating ourselves on our “tolerance”that we forget that things that were once intolerable, illegal and immoral were considered so for many good reasons. In our gross barbarity, in our willful blindness to the suffering of neighbors, we are co-defendents in a new type of indecent nation, one that tests our moral fiber and will present itself to history for judgment.
Human beings do not belong on the street. They should be housed safely, affordably, with sanitation and security. Call this conservative, call this liberal, call this anything you want.
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.
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.
In the first third of the 20th Century, Los Angeles developers built many tall apartments in the midst of single-family homes.
One sees, in the older sections of the city, in West Hollywood, Koreatown, and West Adams, the presence of five, six, even ten story apartment houses that pop up, sometimes mid-block, in-between single family properties.
These photographs of buildings, from the USC Digital Archives, are historically valuable, but also aesthetically heartbreaking, for it shows a city where architecture mattered, and humans were housed in civil, respectable, affordable places. Isn’t that the bare minimum expected in a “First World” nation?
There may have been poor people in 1925, but they didn’t live in the tens of thousands under bridges, on park benches, or wander the streets as zombies, covered in dirt, screaming obscenities. Nor would the society back then have allowed mass vagrancy as public policy.
The old buildings were strong and subtle. They wore their classic proportions without irony. They commanded respect quietly. They stood confidently, wore facades in single colors, and were built of solid materials like brick, solid concrete or smooth stucco.
Today, market style makers demand new apartments broken up nervously in clashing colors, painted in clownish and garish hues, most likely to reduce their bulk, preventing probable offense to neighbors prickly over density. They scream fun, but omit horror on the first of each month when rent is due.
But, in fairness to these attention grabbers, at least they have a dialogue with the street, and introduce shops and ground floor activity to the area. They just do it in the Instagram way, by shouting, “look at me man!”
The old buildings always marched right up to the sidewalk. You entered by walking up to an entrance. And this zoning reinforced the urbanity of the neighborhood, because it created chances for pedestrians to interact. Compare that to six lanes of Sepulveda, and parking garage apartments where the only people walking outside are selling something illegal.
Imagine if Van Nuys Boulevard near the Busway had a Langham or Talmage Apartments with hundreds of residents who walked to the bus, or rode their bikes, or ate in restaurants in the neighborhood?
The old civility of courtyard housing, of interior spaces, shielded from the sun, planted with greenery, done with subtlety and grace, that is also how this city used to build.
What is preventing the State of California, the City of Los Angeles, the people of this region, from banding together to amend the harmful zoning laws that prohibit certain types of structures, once commonplace 100 years ago, from being built again?
“A whopping 87 percent of LA’s total housing supply was built prior to 1990, while only 13 percent was built in the last 25 years.
More recently, between 2010 and 2015, we’ve only added approximately 25,000 new units. That number does not include all of 2015 and includes none of 2016, and it will grow by 30 to 50 thousand in the next several years as existing developments finish construction and planned projects get underway. But at best we’re roughly on pace for housing production similar to the ’90s and ’00s, both of which saw historically small amounts of new housing and historically large increases in housing prices. That’s not a boom, that’s the continuation of a decades-long slump.
This slump is reflected in our city’s vacancy rates, which have a direct relationship to home prices and rents. Lower vacancy rates cause prices to go up faster. It’s exactly the same relationship we see with unemployment: When unemployment is low and fewer people are looking for work, labor is scarce and so workers can sell their labor for more money. As a result, job applicants and existing employees gain bargaining power and their average pay increases. Likewise, when housing is scarce, landlords gain bargaining power and rents increase.”
Back when Los Angeles was younger, at the dawn of the automobile age after World War I, tires, gasoline and cars were sold in buildings and displayed in a manner befitting a jewelry store.
Among the rich archives of the USC Digital Library, are photographs of local businesses, who put extraordinary artistry into their signage and architecture to draw in customers, while projecting an image of modernity attractive to the growing city.
Many of these photos come from the Dick Whittington Studio.
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.