When Pacoima Was Negro

Georgia Taylor, "Negro", leading the fight for fair housing

Georgia Taylor, “Negro”, 1965

We think of the term today as antiquated. An othering expression.  But this was the politically neutral, dispassionate term used widely in the media, and not in uncomplimentary way, to describe participants in the civil rights movement.

When the Valley was White, the Negroes lived in Pacoima.

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Consequently Pacoima was once the hotbed of political activity in the Valley. Face it, the hotbed was never going to be Sherman Oaks.

Signing up Freedom Riders, 1961

Signing up Freedom Riders, 1961

We think of Pacoima today as the home of Richie Valens and Danny Trejo, and the muralist Levi Ponce. We don’t think of black people.  But it was one of the few places in the Valley which rented to them.

Housing segregation was enforced by an honor code among real estate agents.  As a remedy the state legislature passed the 1963 Rumford Housing Act, which challenged restrictive practices.  The first challenge of the law took place in San Fernando, where landlords were holding the line against any bleed through from the black population of nearby….Pacoima.

In response, the following year the California realtor lobby put Proposition 14 on the ballot:

Neither the State nor any subdivision or agency thereof shall deny, limit or abridge, directly or indirectly, the right of any person, who is willing or desires to sell, lease or rent any part or all of his real property, to decline to sell, lease or rent such property to such person or persons as he, in his absolute discretion, chooses.

It passed overwhelmingly.  By two thirds in Los Angeles County.  Three years later, Prop. 14 would be ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in Reitman v. Mulkey.

By then, the Watts riots had happened.

After Watts, Negroes were Black.  The beatific and patient visage of Georgia Taylor, local NAACP, was no longer the face of progress.

The Mohammed Mosque, 1961, now Iglesias Vida Y Luz

The Mohammed Mosque, 13209 Van Nuys Blvd,  now Iglesias Vida Y Luz

In 1965 the Voting Rights Act was passed, the Dodgers won the World Series, Jim Morrison and Ray Manzarek met at UCLA. Of lesser note, but more lasting consequence for Los Angeles, was the quiet passage of the Hart-Cellar Immigration Act.  Nominally it abolished the quota system on national origins in place since 1924. In practice Latinos and Asians flooded into California, first as a trickle, then in a tidal wave by the mid-1980’s, rendering the feud in the courts and the ballot box between whites and blacks academic.

In the 1970’s Pacoima would produce USC All-American tailback Anthony Davis and Heisman Trophy winner Charles White. The city was three-quarters black. By 1990, it was 70% Latino, and no longer produced NFL draft choices.

Today, you can enjoy the cuisine of three continents in a single strip mall, cheaply.  It’s part of what makes Los Angeles special.   When you step outside, the kids roll by in their cars,  windows down, hip-hop thumping: nigger this and nigger that and bitches and hos and money and guns.  If there is any lingering social discomfort over this, it remains tucked within an ironic framework people have grown used to.

I guess that’s progress. Just not the kind Georgia Taylor was thinking of.

(All photos courtesy of the Valley Times Collection)

District 6 is a Colony

Civic surrender on Roscoe

Nury surrenders the Bears

Once upon a time, along Roscoe Blvd, civic-minded people saw a concrete wall and imagined a mural.  So a mural was summoned forth.

For years afterward, if one stopped beneath the 405, waiting for traffic to clear, one was treated to a tableau of rusticating California golden bears. Bears rubbing their backs against trees. Bears spearing salmon from waterfalls.  Bears in mustard fields grappling one another in terpsichorean ecstasy. Bears watching enigmatically from their shrinking habitat, preparing for hibernation, while you sat in your car revving up for your day, or taking inventory of the ingredients needed for dinner, depending which direction the car was pointing.

It wasn’t Guernica, but it was an engaging piece of public art. A punctuation to your day, a yogic breath before the left turn to the on-ramp, where you could enter the forest for a moment and walk among the grizzlies.  And then the light would change.

Set beside the civic artwork of the other great cities of the world, the Bear Mural is but a widow’s mite. A Valley-esque exercise in middlebrow taste.

Twasn’t much, but it worked. And until this past year, it was ours.

Then the shopping carts began to appear. Then mattress and sleeping bags.

Then the city, in its ever-expanding need to fatten pensions wisdom, silently declared the mural and all its street frontage to be the responsibility of the state of California. Since it was ‘under the freeway’ it need no longer be policed by Los Angeles.

Nury surrenders Parthenia

Nury surrenders Parthenia

In short order, the carts and mattresses gave way to a fortress city of bagged crap which decanted urine in the middle of the day and bore menacing signs.  In keeping with Wilson’s Law of Broken Windows, all the murals under the 405 are disappearing under heavy tagging.

I can think of a place this wouldn’t be allowed to happen: Sherman Oaks.

I can think of another: the City of San Fernando.

When there are 5,000 people per councilperson, calls get returned. When there are 300,000 people per councilperson, she never has to shake your hand. So she doesn’t.

The City of Los Angeles has more tax revenue this year than last, more last year than the year before that. It’s going somewhere, just not to Van Nuys.

More houses have been renovated in my neighborhood, gut-renovated, from the foundation up, in the past four years than in the past 50 combined.  Move twenty feet off any boulevard and you’re standing in an urban Mayberry, self-sustaining, joyful, polite, and without crime.  An embodiment of our finest virtues: hard work, parsimony, kindness to others, faith and family. Virtues which are shared across the many dialects of our neighborhood.  Friends from other areas of LA doubt me on the crime part, but it’s true. I have no need to lock my house.

Step back on the boulevard and you’re looking at a slum mall with a PayDay lender, a dialysis clinic, and a convenience store feeding off EBT cards.  The man who owns the strip mall doesn’t live here, but he extracts a fat dollar from blight.  The city functionaries who dole out the EBT cards and Section 8 vouchers make a nice living doing so, but they don’t live here either.  People in the public sector are paid twice the salary the citizens they serve, but when I went to Nury Martinez’s office her field deputy didn’t know where Sepulveda Gulch was until I showed her on a map.

Blight is the end result of policy choices.  We’re having an election next week in CD 6, but if you do a little homework,  you’ll notice that 98% of the money spent on mailers and signs is coming from sources outside the district. People with business before the council.  People looking for Mayberry’s money.  Mayberry keeps grinding it out, reliably, and the taxation which sustains the City is nothing if not regressive.

The city budget is $8 billion a year, but good luck persuading Nury to install a few sprinklers to revive dead landscaping on the ugliest stretch of Sepulveda Blvd.   Or pay for a Levi Ponce mural.  What would be the point of that?  We’re a colony, after all.   They can just hand us shovels and tell us to fill in our own potholes.

On Tuesday, a few hundred people are going to spend an obscene sum of Mayberry’s money to persuade a few thousand people to give a 12-year sinecure and million-dollar pension to a woman who couldn’t say, when asked, what the City’s unfunded liability is.

How were 80,000 British soldiers able to maintain dominion over 200 million Hindus? By persuading them to internalize their own inferiority.  Burn all foreign dress, Gandhi advised. Don’t wear the white man’s colonial suit.  Your mind will follow.

Levi at work

Levi Ponce and Ernie Merlan

Levi Ponce and Ernie Merlan

Saturday, a sublime autumn afternoon. Driving homeward on Whitsett, I happened across a mural crew painting a concrete embankment, near Saticoy. You can see it from the 170, a cheerful and unexpected pastoral trapezoid of green and yellow popping from the industrial landscape.  I got out of the car to take a look. Who do I find hand-mixing a bucket of paint, but Levi Ponce, master muralist.

Me: ‘Hey, you’re Levi, aren’t you?

Levi: “Yeah, I am.’

Told him I was an admirer of his work, and was flattered to hear him say he reads this blog.  His hand was covered in paint so he offered his forearm for some kind of man-on-man elbow bump, but I clutched it like a groupie and asked him why I see his murals in Pacoima and Reseda and North Hollywood, but never in Van Nuys.  Ask Nury Martinez, he replied.  When he began the mural project several years ago, it was his intention to start in Pacoima and work his way down Van Nuys Blvd, all the way to Ventura.   The word from Nury’s office is there is no money to pay muralists in her district.

I can think of a great number of things on which we spend public funds in District 6 which could take a back seat to neighborhood beautification.

All civic improvement dies in Van Nuys.   Apparently it’s a commandment from the Old Testament, like the plagues of Egypt.

Working alongside Levi was a very nice guy named Ernie, a studio animator, who founded the Exceptional Minds Studio, a center for autistic young adults to learn multimedia and animation skills. He had some of them working the embankment project.  Councilman Paul Krekorian and the North Hollywood Neighborhood Council put up the money.

‘Paul wants to be the mural guy,’ said Ernie.

The city has tens of millions squirreled away in CRA accounts. It pays a small fortune for landscape designers to make minor decisions about foliage placement few people notice. But in Van Nuys, it won’t pay artists.

Here’s the way it’s supposed to work in the civilized world: You pay the artist for his work.

They did it in Ancient Rome, they did it during the Renaissance, the Restoration of Charles the II, the Spanish Conquest, the Russian Revolution, even the hermit kingdom of North Korea today ‘pays’ its artists, in a manner of speaking. Somehow, even in North Hollywood they manage to pay the artist.  With public funds, no less.

Think of that next time you’re stuck in traffic staring at a dreary tableau of sidewalk banners, mismatched signage and tagging.  It may be a colony we are living in, but it doesn’t have to be.

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Night Soliloquy

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Do not forsake this woman, whatever you do.

Forget cheating on her.

If you do, do not fall asleep with pruning shears in the house.

Don’t tell her she needs to lose weight.

When asked for the truth, tell her what she wants to hear.

If you’re becoming bored, feign delight.

Cause there is no way you are breaking up with her.

She will have something to say about that.

Like she did the last guy.

Danny Trejo and Pancho Lisa

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Tuesday afternoon I’m stuck in traffic on my way to Lowes. I resort to side streets, then an alternative route through Pacoima, where I was confronted by….Danny Trejo!  Chicano Badass. The Machete. Glowering, Stalinesque and 20 feet high.

‘What you doing in this neighborhood, ese?’

‘Why…why I’m off to buy boards to repair the back fence.’

Glower.

‘May I pass?’

Glower.

‘One more picture?’

Glower.

On the other side of the building I found this fanciful mash-up of Mexican history and classical reproduction:

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These wall murals, as well as several others on the same block, are the work of local talent Levi Ponce.