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….
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.
Consequently Pacoima was once the hotbed of political activity in the Valley. Face it, the hotbed was never going to be Sherman Oaks.
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.
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)
There was no jaywalking in 1906 because there were no crosswalks. There were no illegal left hand turns to make because there were no traffic signals. Automobiles and horse drawn carriages, cable cars and pedestrians shared the roadway with men with brooms sweeping horse dung. It is remarkable to think the people in this frame not only have no idea the earthquake is coming, but no idea we would, a century later, watch with fascination as they skittered across Market Street in black ankle length dresses and bowler hats and think: how primitive. For them, compared to the Gold Rush days, this must have been the apex of modernity. Futuristic, even.
In 1954 the monorail was Los Angeles’ great plan for shuttling people to the Valley. No, really. This is the mockup. It wasn’t going to be loud, dark and dingy like the elevated trains of New York and Chicago. It wasn’t going to blight the neighborhoods it served. It was going to be sleek and fast like the looming Jet Age. “A proper beginning of mass rapid transit throughout Los Angeles County.” Among its most vocal proponents was none other than Ray Bradbury, a man who claimed never to have driven in a lifetime of living in LA. In case you were wondering, there was a bond measure, and people voted with their tires.
They voted for this. For little ranch houses with breezeways and sprinklers and streets names chosen randomly from the English countryside. For freedom of movement. An entire car culture was built around this freedom. A mating ritual developed around the car culture. People came from all over California, to Van Nuys, to partake of it.
They built muscle cars at the north end of the boulevard, and they sold them at the south end of the same street in the same week. There was no foreign competition for the Camaro, nor fuel standards, nor anti-lock brakes, nor airbags. Eight cylinders and a gas pedal. Made to look cool and burn rubber and little else.
Between the GM plant and the auto dealerships, they had both means of production and a promenade between the two to display the products of conception. You rev your engine. The girls would flip their hair. The mating call was complete. There was nothing to keep you indoors. It was a holistic, self-contained world. Until it wasn’t.
Now the arteries of Los Angeles are so clogged with cars, we are reviving the trains, along the very routes the track was once laid, then buried beneath asphalt.
“Most people won’t consider doing it, because of the robe. They think it’s undignified, but it doesn’t bother me. Money is money. I was really sore after my first day. Once I had calluses on my hands it got better.”
The term of art the advertisement industry deploys for such work is human directional. Amado gets a $700 bonus if he can make it to April 15.He rides the bus from ‘the city’ to flip the sign on Van Nuys Blvd.
Here we are today. No streetcars. No horses. Plenty of cars. Houses built atop garages with no yards and no trees, squeezed four to a lot on the lots of old, ringed by a wall. It’s a single family home, but you can stick a broom out your window and scratch your neighbor on the shoulder while he’s shaving in the morning. A century of Valley history squeezed into one frame.