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Fixing Up the Neighborhood

Community: New Valley Glen mural, financed by city program, transforms graffiti-covered wall into an urban asset.


Painter Gary Gertzweig worked alone on a quiet Wednesday morning, putting finishing touches on the sunsets, butterflies and roses that dotted the wall in a dusty back alley in Valley Glen.

The artist from the North Hollywood-based Earth Harmony Foundation was working on the first of several projects planned for the neighborhood through the city's $3-million Targeted Neighborhood Initiative, a beautification program run out of the mayor's office.

The program, currently serving 14 neighborhoods, involves tree plantings, sidewalk repairs, building facade improvements and, of course, the mural.

"It's the mayor's initiative, but each City Council office [lobbied] for their areas to be designated and targeted," said Claire Bartles, chief of staff for Councilwoman Wendy Greuel, whose district includes Valley Glen.

Work on the "Seeds of Peace" mural started Saturday with the help of 45 second- and third-graders from Kittridge Street Elementary School in Van Nuys. Armed with paintbrushes, the children spent a boisterous day covering three graffiti-stained walls with pictures celebrating peace and nature.

Greuel joined the Kittridge children as they fanned out into the alley behind the Taco Bell at Coldwater Canyon Avenue and Vanowen Boulevard. Each filled 2-foot-wide "mini-bubbles" with stars, flowers and animals.

Gertzweig worked on larger figures surrounding each bubble: two purple dolphins swimming toward the ocean surface, a boy sowing seeds in a garden and a girl blowing bubbles near the foot of a range of purple mountains.

On Wednesday, Gertzweig concentrated on the details, filling in the lavender fin of a dolphin here and dragging his brush through the blue swirl of an ocean wave there.

A self-described "Renaissance man" who paints, composes music and plays the violin, Gertzweig, 42, was born and raised in the San Fernando Valley. He even attended Kittridge and later taught music there. Painting the mural not only gave him a chance to give back to his neighborhood, he said, but also to show his appreciation for nature.

"It's possible to bring nature to the city," Gertzweig said, who recalled the "pockets of nature" that once existed in the Valley: ponds he explored as a boy and cows he saw on a farm on Sherman Way.

"That's where I first learned about nature.... It gave me a sense of wonder that never left me," he said.

No ponds or farms grace the Valley Glen streets now, but "at least we can remind ourselves through art," Gertzweig said.

The students can take pride in having a hand in the mural's creation, said teacher Gloria Dominguez. "This is the community they live in," she said. "They can drive by and always see what they did."

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