This is one in an ongoing series about the life and people of the San Fernando Valley.
Seldom do we have conversations, outside our immediate friends or family, about the San Fernando Valley as a place that has real cultural and civic significance. Occasionally we might drop a reference to a Hollywood celebrity who lives here, or about some heinous crime that was perpetrated in one of its many drive through communities but very little about what the potential of the Valley could be. Far fewer of these conversations center on Neighborhood Councils or on our elected representatives. And even fewer who know what those people do. Conversations like these imply a sense of community, a resource seemingly in short supply.
I didn’t find this to be the case with one vocal resident who lives in the middle of the valley. Andy Hurvitz isn’t just thoughtful about the Valley he writes about in his blog Here in Van Nuys. No, Hurvitz is considerate of it evoking a genuine interest in the history and future of the Valley amidst an ever evolving landscape of new inhabitants covering topics ranging from local culture, blight, and community responsiveness (or lack of it) from local representatives. One of the keenest points I took away from my conversation with Andy is his view of what the San Fernando Valley could be, a thought that lives collectively in the back of all the heads of those who live in Van Nuys and the San Fernando Valley. One of the ways Andy likes to communicate is through the visual medium, a talent that you can see in his capturing the essence of his subject. Andy’s photographic work espouses a context that only a true residential perspective could give for places that many of us take for granted or just pass by.
Recently, I had a long conversation with Andy about all things here in Van Nuys. Interestingly, I think you’ll find that the things he shares are the same things of interest to many of us wherever we live in the San Fernando Valley.
Andy thanks for taking the time to do this interview. I want to start by asking how long you’ve lived in Van Nuys and what brought you here?
Since August 2000. We were shopping at the 99 Ranch Market (near Sepulveda and Victory in Van Nuys) and drove behind the store and found this beautiful shaded street with a humble ranch house and a for sale sign in front. I had some money saved and we put a down payment on the house and bought it. The karma of the house was good. One brave couple had lived (and died) here for 41 years. He was a Polish-American who saved his wife from the Nazis and they kept good care of this house and were admired by everyone.
Andy, like so many in the Los Angeles area, is a transplant from the East Coast who came to the region to work in film and entertainment. Following a career in the industry, his latest passion is photography, a talent that is easily picked up on in reading his blog Here in Van Nuys and seeing his work. Spending time on his site, you get a sense that he cares passionately about the city at the center of the Valley. So, I asked him where that passion comes from.
I’m passionate about trying to point out and improve the quality of life, not only in Van Nuys, but in Los Angeles in general. We need to get back, in my opinion, to a city of self-governance and self-respect, a city where there is local pride and you can walk to local stores and restaurants, and take public transportation if need be, and enjoy a more urban life (even if you live in a house with a garden) in an economically and ethnically diverse place.
What do you see as the potential of Van Nuys or the Valley?
Van Nuys has a lot of potential. The most common reason to bemoan it is to blame the enormous influx of illegal immigrants for somehow destroying it. But the destruction of Van Nuys began after World War II when roads were widened; streetcars torn out, every orange and walnut grove paved over, and the shopping centers took over and destroyed Van Nuys Boulevard. When it became less desirable here, poorer people moved in creating what we have today, a historic area without a sense of history where historic churches and homes are bulldozed without protest, and where people become demoralized because it seems that no elected official cares about them and nothing can be done.
Like many who call the Valley home, I asked how it gets there. What would make it a better place?
We need to work together, all the people, and convince someone with money, such as the developer Rick Caruso, to build walkable and green housing and shopping area near the Bus way, so that people will have a choice to take the bus and train and still shop and socialize in downtown Van Nuys. We need to bring Van Nuys out of its desperation and death spiral and up into a more progressive, younger, bike oriented, walk oriented, greener village as they are doing down in Culver City and in many parts of Los Angeles.
Why do you think Van Nuys has never embraced (or forgotten maybe) its role as the Valley center with features to attract local residents other than having to go down and pay a parking ticket or serve on Jury Duty?
Again, the powers that be will only be persuaded by the presence of other powerful people. I often have thought that if Brad Pitt opened a steakhouse or George Clooney a beer garden, right on Van Nuys Boulevard, then suddenly there would be a huge influx of business and money coming into Van Nuys. This is actually a town peopled by celebrities, where Robert Redford, Marilyn Monroe, Jane Russell and Natalie Wood went to high school and spent a big chunk of time in. LA is driven by celebrity sponsorship, and it is frustrating to see the richest and most privileged Angelenos fly off to Aspen or Switzerland when they could drive 10 minutes north of Sherman Oaks and do a great deal of good within Van Nuys.
Do you think Van Nuys, or the Valley, ever had that kind of role?
Van Nuys was established in 1911. It went quickly from being a small town surrounded by agriculture, to a sprawling industrial city after WWII where GM, Budweiser, the Van Nuys Airport and other industries produced products that made the San Fernando Valley economy hum along. You could come here in 1960, get a factory job then buy a three bedroom ranch house for $20,000. The schools were good and people thought well of government because it was helping finance highway construction, home building and buying, and the expansion of education. But Van Nuys never was the “center” of the Valley because we all know LA abhors a center. It is city of a 100 downtowns and people do not gather in front of the Dorothy Chandler Center to welcome in the New Year. So Van Nuys has to have some reason and some self regard for it to become a destination.
My ideas and thoughts are radical in some respects. I think we should have innovative and experimental designs, architecture, streetscapes and landscape designs through Van Nuys Boulevard and along the ugly boulevards of Oxnard, Victory, Vanowen and Sherman Way. It is all so gruesome and pockmarked and hideous that it effects how people think of Van Nuys when they drive along the main roads. In reality, there are some very nice pockets within this district.
My trick is to use Google Live Street view to drop a pin into Munich or Copenhagen or Oslo and see how they live. It should shame us all, as Americans, to compare, say a medium sized town in Germany to a medium sized town in the Inland Empire, California.
In many of the places you photograph around Los Angeles how do you think Van Nuys compares to other parts of the Valley or the larger city?
The best things about Van Nuys are the spacious houses on big lots. People on Orion Street live in one of the most storied and filmed upon streets in Los Angeles. You can find beauty in Van Nuys in the older ranch homes that harkens back to an LA that was influenced by Westerns, Hollywood glitz, and by the idea of indoor-outdoor life near a pool next to a barbecue.
The worst thing about Van Nuys is the worst thing about Los Angeles: the traffic and the billboard sprawl and the wide speedway streets which need to be narrowed and put under shade trees to make them pedestrian friendly.
Just recently, there were two pretty significant accidents that happened near where Andy lives at Gilmore Street and Kester Avenue, where one person lost his life after hitting a car with his motorcycle. These were local events but say a lot about how dense our community is getting, something Andy caught in a few photographs at the time. But, its events like these that have led to some positive things. So I asked in your time in Van Nuys, how have you seen it change? Is it better or worse?
It is getting better due to the Bus way, and the self-awareness of residents who are using the Internet to form positive community groups such as Kesteridge (a Facebook community page for residents of Kesteridge, Van Nuys).
On the other hand, we have a well-meaning but ineffective community council [Van Nuys Neighborhood Council] whose workings are unknown to 98% of the people and which doesn’t even have a website.
What would have to happen to change that outlook, one way or another, is a big investment by a progressive developer [who] could help spur new investment into Van Nuys, which is still centrally located and much better situated, in my opinion, than Santa Clarita. But families will not move here if the crime, unlicensed businesses, trash and safety are still sub-standard.
You mentioned the Van Nuys Neighborhood Council, how do you think the relatively new Neighborhood Councils have been serving the Valley? Have you seen the council in Van Nuys do much in the community?
Not well. They are disconnected from the lives of the community, poorly funded, and do not seem to know how to use the web and social media to bring the community together.
For example, the woman with four kids who works two jobs does not have time to attend monthly meetings at Marvin Braude (The relatively new Van Nuys Constituent Service Center building). But she may use her iPhone to post about a local concern if there were such a place to do it on the Van Nuys Community Council Facebook page, which does not now exist.
You mentioned Kesteridge, how do you see a local group like that fitting into the broader community or interacting with more locals in Van Nuys. Is a group like this the future of neighborhood associations?
My neighbor, Cat White, started Kesterridge and it has already produced some positive results, giving us a place for residents to meet where we could air our grievances and concerns. Some of the problems are small like high school kids hanging out and throwing their trash into the street or on lawns. But if people are aware of it, we can be more mindful of our neighborhood and help patrol it.
Politics aside, let’s switch gears because there is more to the Valley than politics and business and let’s talk culture. Where, in your opinion, do you think the most interesting place in Van Nuys are?
There are a lot of interesting places in Van Nuys. Woodley Park is beautiful with its trails, its natural river vegetation, its bike paths, and the Japanese Garden.
Our ethnic markets, such as 99 Ranch, Jons and others, carry Korean, Armenian, Mexican, Chinese, and Japanese food. You can literally find any ethnic food along Sepulveda Boulevard and the produce is much better priced than at Ralphs.
One thing Andy I talked about was the absence of interesting places to get together, like coffee shops or restaurants. We ultimately ended up at an out-of-the-way Starbucks in a strip mall on Sherman Way. Like its counterparts around the city, it was small, hectic and noisy. Noticeably missing was a sense of where the coffee bar was, a sentiment that seems to be common about most places in the Valley. So, I wanted to give Andy a ‘soap box moment’ so that he could say anything he wanted to say about Van Nuys that we might not have already covered or that he says on his blog?
I am neither, I think, a booster nor a destroyer in what I try to write about. Through my photographs and writing, I’ve tried to just talk about and documentary the self-evident aspects of life in LA and Van Nuys. We have to realize that we live in 2012. We are not living in 1955 or 1985 Los Angeles. We have to marshal that old magic of LA to reinvent and re-imagine our city so that we can move ahead. We can’t just sit on our pity pot or shrivel up into fake named communities with imaginary blue signs just to hide from our civic responsibilities. Valley Glen and Valley Village are still North Hollywood. Lake Balboa and Part of Sherman Oaks are still Van Nuys. West Hills is Canoga Park. Changing a name is not the same as changing a city.
Collectively we are all part of the city of Los Angeles, in the state of California, in the United States of America.
We need money and power on our side so that those without money and power can better contribute to life in Los Angeles, to make it a good life, where people live happily, in pleasant surroundings, working towards betterment, personal and public.
Andy’s outlook of the Valley is made all the more valuable because he embraces the place as his home sharing the same wants and desires any of us have of wanting to see the best in where we live and he’s not afraid to say it publicly. He may, at times, have a critique of things, but seldom if ever does he just come out and blast a person, place, or idea for the sake of doing it. It’s that level of honesty that makes Here in Van Nuys a story worth hearing, and Andy a story-teller worth listening to.
Big thanks to Andy for taking the time to share his time and thoughts. If you haven’t already, you can check out Andy’s photography work, his writing, and following his visual and textual explorations of the Valley at his blog, Here in Van Nuys.