Undeterred by plastic bags, human refuse, stagnant water, street noise or West Nile Virus. Home is where the ducks are.
Well, not exactly. Plenty of white folks left in those areas of Van Nuys now known as Valley Glen, Lake Balboa and Sherman Oaks. But Old Van Nuys, in its working class, starter home glory, is now the landing place for strivers from Central America and Asia. At the time of Prop. 187, they were hot-racking it in boarding houses or sleeping on a cot in the back of a store. Today they hold mortgages. Happily they perambulate the aisles of big box outlets, they fill the pews, the maternity wards and car pool lanes. To walk the dogs on a Saturday night in springtime is to have one’s olfactories titillated by unfamiliar barbeque and to hear three different languages in the space of a block. A landscape of bouncy houses and childrens balloons, of men drinking beer around a television in the breezeway broadcasting futbol and UFC.
Slide over to tyhe leafier landscaping of Northridge or Studio City and the houses are bigger, the lawns better tended, but you don’t hear or see the neighbors quite in the same way. No one is kicking a soccer ball in the street. And far fewer are sitting in the pews.
1964. Jan and Dean. Tab Hunter. Shelley Fabares. Air-conditioned comfort. Acres of free parking! For an extra quarter you could purchase the right to smoke in one of the extra-comfy chairs in the loge section.
1970. Expansion into multi-plex. The Godfather. Jaws. Star Wars. Animal House…you wouldn’t know from the exterior, but a great decade of cinema was about to unspool here. Sadly and inevitably, the neighborhood declined in the 1980’s, and the Americana became a grindhouse, serving up drive-in fare like Piranha and Humanoids from the Deep.
2013. Now a profit making cosmetology school with a tuition rate of $16,63o a year. Tuition at UCLA: $11,220. Veterans are urged to cash in their benefits here. For the indecisive, there’s a helpful toll-free number plastered to the side of the building. That’s $33K for a two-year program…for the right to compete with other WBI alumnus for the right to hang a shingle over a chair at Fantastic Sam’s for whatever shifts they have available that haven’t been taken by graduates of the Academy of Barbering Arts three blocks down Van Nuys Blvd. Or the Newberry School of Beauty on Devonshire. Or the Marinello Beauty School on Sherman Way. Or….
Would I be a bad sport to mention student loan debt is not dischargable in bankruptcy court? Tell me how this movie ends. Maybe we should bring back smoking.
Most weekdays, the contractors have come and gone by 8am. Afterwards, the pickings are slim. You can hang out by the entrance all morning, try to flag work with hopeful eye contact, but there are too many of you. So you wait til lunch, when some of the trucks come back to re-supply. During the boom you could work the lot, scare up the odd gig helping a housewife load garden supplies into her SUV. Now the security guards chase you off for harassing the clientele. You retreat to the shade trees at the edge of the landscaping and hang out in clusters of two and three, making conversation. By 3 pm you stop casing the cars. Even the gringo home remodelers are too broke-ass to pay you. But you don’t go home. Everyone else is waiting for you to go home. It’s a war of attrition. You’re not going to let the last man standing on the lot take your job. You’re here to put in a full day. Until then, you tell each other stories.
I know a woman who grew up in Sherman Oaks. When she was in high school, she and her friends would play/mess around/get stoned in the Sepulveda Dam flood basin after school. To get there, they would simply link hands and run across the 405 freeway together, giggling and shreiking. You know, between gaps in the traffic. Obviously, she’s a bit older and the 405 is a different sort of animal entirely today. Even while it was under construction she would sit on top of the spillway, thinking, ‘where in the world will they ever find enough cars to fill that huge road? It’s overkill. It’s eight lanes!’
In a few months the 405 will become 14 lanes, but you will still be able to beat the morning commute by simply jumping from car hood to car hood. The Valley, like the city, has twice the number of people in the same amount of space, and probably eight times the auto traffic as it did when the infrastructure was laid out 50 years ago, but certain things don’t change. Teenagers, when they can extricate themselves from their electronica, will forage and frolic after school. They will gather in small tribes and set out into the civic landscape. They will reclaim it for their own purposes.