When Jesus Cruised Van Nuys Boulevard

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The Star of Bethlehem Parade, a Valley tradition until 1971, when it closed due to lack of interest. Or lack of volunteers willing to assemble Church floats. Or lack of an audience to watch the floats. Or lack of parents willing to drag children by the ear to participate.  Or parents willing to miss Mary Tyler Moore or Gunsmoke. In the mid-60’s, it drew crowds of 200,000. A few years later, no one.

It’s one of those eternal civic mysteries, like why did cruising end on the boulevard?  Everyone has their own answer, and none of them match.  It’s my single favorite question to ask lifelong Valley residents. My doggedly idiosyncratic polling and probing over the years has yielded zero clarity.  People are touchy on the subject, and I’m left feeling a bit like Spencer Tracy in Bad Day at Black Rock,  stumbling toward an answer which concealed shame. People trail off into evasion, where two minutes before there was enthusiasm. But they’re adamant it has nothing to do with, you know… Mexicans.  

No one today wants to admit they refused to volunteer for the last Jesus float.    But the Holy Spirit, in keeping with 2,000 years of tradition, finds a way.  There may no longer be angels hanging from city lampposts, but there are storefront churches popping all over the Valley like kudzu, and megachurches where once there were empty lots.

The Mexicans have something to do with that. Also, the Guatemalans. And the Salvadoreans and Armenians and the Koreans….

All photos courtesy of Valley Times Collection

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)

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…