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Neighborhood Finds a New Identity

Lake Balboa: Residents pull away from Van Nuys to improve property values and create a new image. Those left behind take it as an insult.


Ah, Lake Balboa. You can almost see the bougainvillea-lined trail leading to the shore.

It was just another place in the San Fernando Valley until last week when it broke off from Van Nuys, becoming the latest neighborhood to officially be recognized by the city of Los Angeles.

Except there is no trail to the shore--because there is no lake.

The boundaries, which were narrowed from an earlier proposal that included Van Nuys Airport, fall short of encompassing the lake for which it is named.

But Lake Balboa, the neighborhood, does include Van Nuys Golf Course and Birmingham High School.

The designation, which carries no political significance, was the result of City Councilman Dennis Zine making good on a campaign promise.

It incensed some Van Nuys residents who were left out. But for those within the two-square-mile neighborhood, it is a fresh start to creating a new image.

"It's us coming together to combat what we saw as decay with ever-increasing velocity approaching us from both sides," said Bryan Brannon, who led a homeowners group seeking the change.

That decay, which has come to define Van Nuys for many, is evident in graffiti, streetwalkers and shattered glass.

In her book, "A Year in Van Nuys," humorist Sandra Tsing Loh described homes in the "bravely tattered" community as "perhaps a bit too gaily painted, every third or fourth bungalow the color of eye-piercing sorbet--lime green, raspberry cream, banana yellow. "

Lake Balboa enjoys a more peaceful appearance.

Most of the homes are buffered from the busy streets that slice it into quadrants: Sherman Way, Vanowen Street, Victory Boulevard and Balboa Boulevard.

"This doesn't put up any physical walls, but it gives us a body of people dedicated to working together in our area to improve community standards," Brannon said.

"That was impossible to do within the context of Van Nuys ... too many people with too many interests."

At the heart of the renaming movement, said Lake Balboa resident Richard Reimer, was a desire to raise property values without having to move.

"Now that the name has changed, I'm a bit more snobbish when people ask, 'Where do you live?'" said Reimer, a letter carrier. "If you tell people you live in Van Nuys, they assume you live in a beat-up house with a gang next door selling crack, or whatever. At least now, [potential homebuyers] will look at the property."

But for all of the badmouthing of the old hometown, the Lake Balboa homes look much like any of the better parts of the remaining Van Nuys, said Don Schultz, president of the Van Nuys Homeowners Assn. Entry-level homes in the mid-$200,000 range, more expensive houses and large apartment complexes can be found on either side of the border.

"We take this as an insult, because we've been working hard to get Van Nuys to be the nice, middle-class neighborhood it was," said Schultz, who lives half a mile east of Lake Balboa. "These little secession movements portend to be not only elitist but [also] racist."

Renaming groups have taken chunks of Van Nuys for the last 12 years. A few blocks in southern Van Nuys defected to Sherman Oaks and Valley Glen broke off. Now this. All told, Van Nuys has shrunk by a third and lost as many as 20,000 of its estimated 130,000 residents.

"If they all really cared about Van Nuys, they would have helped us fight the graffiti and other problems from the start and we wouldn't have so many problems," Schultz said.

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