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.

EPSON scanner image

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)

When Men Were Free to Oink

Miss Gym and Swim , 1963

Miss Gym ‘N’ Swim, 1958…gripped and grinning

You could get away with this back when. You just pull her in by the ball and socket joint, wedge her under your armpit so she can’t get away, then run your meaty thumb over her clavicle while your photographer pal takes his time adjusting lights and changing film rolls.   Forget that engagement ring on her finger. You’re Allen Rich, TV critic of the Valley Times, and you have a judge’s ribbon on your lapel. You’re enjoying the perks of the job.

Poor Linda, keeping her legs slightly crossed, right toe forward, like they taught her at the pageant, smiling through the blooms of pipe breath and lunchtime bourbon, doing her best not to understand the gravelly incantations from local big shot, Mr. Rich:  Give us a spin, darling…I know people in publicity…

 

This Was Us

1958, when the Valley was quiet

1958, when the Valley was quiet

We built capacity because we knew what was coming, though not so white as we imagined. Now the future is here, it’s 12 lanes, and it’s not moving at all.

We were the outer limit of the metropolitan commute. Now you stop here for gas on the way to Moorpark.

As consolation, the food is a whole lot better.

People are prettier, when pretty is a professional aspiration. The rest of us are fat as f***.

Houses are unobtainably expensive.

Electronic gadgetry is cheap, ubiquitous, and wonder making in its power.

The air is cleaner.

Good manners have gone to hell.

Love of a beautiful sentence is going the way of VHS and polyester slacks.

A year of pop music is a pale facsimile of a month’s worth of output in the 1970’s.

Long form television is our Golden Age.

We are lonely in our crowds, in a way the man in the stepside pickup probably wasn’t.

We nest inside our Netflix queue and pronounce ourselves content.

We are growing childlike in our willingness to repeat propaganda.

They don't know what's coming. But neither do we.

They don’t know what’s coming. But neither do we.

Trumpland, Thirty Years After

IMG_4574 (1)

Who would live in Koreatown thirty years ago, but Korean peasants, fresh off the boat, hot racking it in the back room over a corner store, putting in 12-hour days, eager to one day become Korean merchants?  Certainly not middle class white people.

To put it differently, who wouldn’t rather live in a crime-free Valley with a lawn and a breezeway and a carport for the boat, and pay for it with one income?

IMG_4573

IMG_4576

Today, if you want to eat, you go to Koreatown. You want to buy a pair of shoes, you want to bowl, you want to have a craft cocktail, you want to see pretty people, or to aspire to prettiness yourself, you want to dance, you want to walk down crime-free immaculately manicured streets, if you want to practice your golf swing….

IMG_4603

…you come here. You stand on a platform five storeys over Wilshire, surrounded by construction cranes, and a machine lifts the ball out of a hole in the floor, and tees it up for you. Perfectly, over and over again. Ten cents a ball.

IMG_4584

You stand over the rooftops like a god, for $18. When it’s over you get in a time machine and crawl over the pass, to the lost world of Fast Times at Ridgemont High.  You are home, yet somehow your heart is elsewhere.

How Dreck Is Made

Does this look plumb to you?

Does this wall look plumb to you?

Lets take a closer look...

Lets take a closer look…hmmm

How is the poured concrete attached to the blocks?

Let us connect concrete walls using the cake batter technique

IMG_2015

Construction has stopped on the new USA Fitness gym in Panorama for reasons not aesthetic.  Like an abandoned ark, this hodgepodge of listing, peeling concrete forms and blocks has loomed for months, half-completed, over Van Nuys Blvd.  Shut down by the Building Department, presumably.

The trouble would appear to have originated in the failed mating of two distinct structural techniques, poured concrete and reinforced blocks.  The blocks went up first. They must have thought they could use the exoskeleton as an anchor for setting forms for the pour, but they gave way.   Those who skimp on aesthetics will skimp on engineering. They will do the minimum.  Cheap on cheap equals cheap.

T’wasn’t always so. Los Angeles is thick with sublime and timeless commercial structures, built by craftsmen, forgotten or hidden over the years behind quick paint jobs and dreadful get it done by Wednesday facades.

Even in Panorama.

Panorama, 1964

Ohrbach’s, 1964

Valley Swap Meet, 2017

Valley Swap Meet, 2017

Katie Was A Free-Range Kid

In the typewriter era...

Back in the era of scary wallpaper and bowl cuts…

John McLaughlin had the loudest whistle in Van Nuys. At sundown, when the streetlights came on, he would put two fingers in his mouth and let it rip. From Kittridge to Archwood, the kids would report in on their skateboards and roller blades and bikes.  Katie, her brother Mike,  Samantha and Annie, all the friends.

“We were a pack of wolves.”

In the morning her mother would drop Katie and Mike off at St. Elisabeth’s Elementary. In the afternoon, she would walk home on Kittridge, a key around her neck, across six lanes of Van Nuys Blvd., past the Dearden’s department store and the 7-11. When Mike, who was three years older, transferred to Notre Dame High, she made the trek alone.  Creepy men would sometimes pull over and expose themselves to her.

When her father played in his softball beer league in Encino, the kids would run into the cornfield and down into the concrete wash.  There were no fences to stop them.

There was no phrase “free-range parenting”. That was just the way it was done in the Valley in the 1980’s.

Valley kids, 1980's

Leadwell St., 1986

Ice Skating, Laurel Plaza

Ice Skating, Laurel Plaza

Maybe it worked because there was strength in numbers. Or maybe it worked because there was little to command their attention indoors, but no so long ago a large cohort of children wandered, unleashed, without GPS devices or sunscreen, across Van Nuys.

Costello St, 1958

Costello St, 1956

Katie’s mother Jan also was a free-range kid.  She grew up two doors down from the house she raised Katie and Mike.   Her father, Frank, was a set painter at MGM studios. He painted ships for the Navy during WWII.

IMG_9734

Frank and Madeline settled in Van Nuys and had three daughters. Jan was born in 1946.

Alemany High School, 1964. Cheech Marin second from right

Alemany High School, 1964. Cheech Marin second from right.

Jan attended San Fernando Valley State, married John in 1968, and began teaching English at Providence High School in Burbank. John also became a teacher, and later in his career, a principal.  In 1976, when Michael was born, they bought 6712 Costello, where Jan once played with her childhood friend Dolores.

They would both teach for over 30 years

They would both teach for over 40 years

IMG_9747

The kids lives revolved around the ball fields at St. Elisabeth’s. John would chalk the field, seed the grass, man the snack shop, and coach.  Katie’s greatest fear growing up was that her parents would get divorced.

IMG_9656

That, and being abducted by aliens.  There was a neighbor who lived across the street who claimed to have been abducted and probed.  In an era noted for the Night Stalker and the Freeway Killer, Katie sobbed hysterically when she saw E.T.   

IMG_9729

In the summers, the families in the neighborhood would share a rental in Newport. John would surf. Katie smoked her first cigarette here at 15 with Samantha and Annie.

IMG_9740 (1)

She would attend Notre Dame High School, with her brother Mike. On the weekends she would go with her friends to Hollywood to see girl bands like Hole and Seven Year Bitch. She became a Derby Doll.  She met a boy from the East Coast with tattoos who worked with motorcycles and fell in love with him.  She moved directly from her childhood home into his apartment in North Hollywood, which was both a rebellious and very traditional thing to do.

IMG_9651

In 2000, John would leave Jan after 32 years of marriage. He would spend time at the beach.  Things went a little haywire in the McLaughlin household for awhile.  Jan withdrew. Mike struggled. Katie decamped for Virginia with her boyfriend.

Costello Street, 2016

Grace and Katie, Costello Street, 2016

Grace saved the family when she came to the world in 2005.

After a brief marriage in Virginia, Katie returned to Van Nuys and moved back in with Jan to raise her daughter as a single mother.   As so often happens with the arrival of a grandchild, a rapprochement of sorts was effected between Katie’s parents.

Grace can put her foot behind her head. She played Danny Zuko in her school production of Grease.  She claims a photographic memory and has excited opinions on many topics. She talks with her hands, and can recite the plot of Carrie, though she’s not allowed to see it yet and is terrified of scary movies.  She sleeps in the bedroom her mother grew up in and loves her vinyl record collection.

What she doesn’t do is wander down the street.  There are no other children her age on the block. She doesn’t walk to school, either. Unlike St. E’s, her magnet school is well out of the neighborhood.  She’s the last 11-year-old in LA without a phone. Almost.

Like so many Valley children today, Grace is not a free-range kid.  She lives indoors. She loves her Marvel and her DC comics and YouTube channels and her Kindle. For Katie, this is the heartbreaking part of raising her, the inability to re-create for her daughter the freedoms of her own childhood.

By any statistical measure, it’s much safer for children alone on the street today than 30 years ago. But the heart doesn’t work that way.  One can’t un-know things once one has experienced them.  Creeps will lurk in cars. A cool priest will be deposited in your parish, mix jokes with his sermons and be very popular, until he wasn’t.  Men you love will fail to live up to the hope you invest in them.   There may have been no alien abductions, but Southern California played host to a cornucopia of serial killers.

And Grace is the only child. The last in the line of four generations living on Costello. The house hasn’t changed, but the world around it has. You cleave to her most tightly and you care for your aging mother and you hold down your job at the salon and occasionally you slip away to Macleod for a beer to nurse your heartaches.   You’re going to make it work.

Sisters. Frenemies. Valley Girls.

Valley Girls.

When the Freeway Killer came to Van Nuys

bonin005

bonin006

“Creepily and sadly one of my classmates who lived around the corner was lured and killed by the Freeway Killer while walking along the Pacoima wash to the 7/11 on Valerio/Van Nuys Blvd. That was the way we always rode our bikes…”  –Correspondence from a reader in Wellesley, Mass, who was raised on Lull St. in Van Nuys.

“Our neighbor had originally owned and farmed the land there.  Her husband had been “gassed” during WWI but I didn’t learn what that meant for many years. She had sold all but an acre of the original property and tract houses were put up.  She had retained a magnificent orchard–lemons, limes, tangerines, grapefruits, oranges, plums, peaches, pomegranates, and grew her own vegetables.  She let us have the run of her yard and we were too young to realize that it was full of black widow spiders.  Part of her original property was left undeveloped (a virtually empty field we called the dead end) except for a large old, empty house (the haunted house).  That was our playground….”

William Bonin killed 21 teenaged boys in the Los Angeles area between May 1979-June 1980. He accomplished this in the 1970’s fashion: by luring them into his Chevy van.  They were subdued, raped, then strangled, frequently with their own t-shirts.  The bodies were dropped off alongside freeways around Southern California.  Bonin had six prior convictions of sexual assault at the time of his murder spree, and had been deemed an “untreatable offender” by psychiatrists at Atascadero State Hospital.   Yet there he was, the Hurdy-Gurdy Man on parole, free to cruise Van Nuys Blvd when he found Victim #12, Ronald Gatlin.

Empty fields and fruit trees and free range to ride one’s bike unsupervised was the essence of Valley life for kids in the 1970’s. It was why families chose to live here rather than Venice. Van Nuys was thought of the way we think of Valencia now, a far away land, well removed from the chaos of the city.

Three Strikes laws and electronic dragnets have done away with the William Bonins of California. By any statistical measure, Los Angeles is far safer from random crime than it has ever been.    There are more shaded streets, more crosswalks and more speed bumps and safety helmets, but you don’t see kids wandering around, away from the reach of parents.

The Pacoima wash is fenced off now.  Once the playground is violated, it’s done.  Freedom can be a difficult thing to re-learn.