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COLUMN ONE

Van Nuys May Get Last Laugh

Having devolved from idyll to punch line, the suburb is nevertheless a logical place to serve as headquarters for an independent Valley city.

September 06, 2002|SUE FOX | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Born in a barley field, Van Nuys was packaged 91 years ago as "the largest opportunity on the entire Pacific Coast" and sold to eager buyers for $350 per sunbaked lot.

The booming suburb became the heart of the San Fernando Valley, an all-American town of bungalows nesting on crisp green lawns. It was a cultural hub for teenagers cruising in flashy cars and a government center complete with a scaled-down version of Los Angeles City Hall.

But like the Valley itself, Van Nuys has tumbled in much of the public imagination from an idyllic home to a lame punch line.

"The very armpit of the Earth," Sandra Tsing Loh, author of "A Year in Van Nuys," joked about her hometown at one book-signing. "Van Nuys is walking down a red carpet, being a friend of a friend, or a friend of a friend of a friend, and the paparazzi take one breathless look at you and ... turn away to reload."

Now, however, the aging suburb has a chance to reclaim a bit of the old glory. As secessionists press their case for Valley independence, they have thrust Van Nuys back into the spotlight--this time as the potential headquarters of a new city.

It remains a vivid example of the impulses that drive secession--the sense of neglect and disrepair that some Valley residents feel has been inflicted on them by a distant and indifferent City Hall, and the notion that potential is being overlooked.

"We've been dissed," said Armand Arabian, a retired state Supreme Court justice who keeps a law office in Van Nuys. "We're ready to control our own lives, and you watch and see if we don't step up to the plate. We've got everything we need here in Van Nuys."

A Golden Beginning

It wasn't always so grim.

Van Nuys was once the place to be, the epitome of the good life in sunny Southern California. It literally boomed into being in a single day: Feb. 22, 1911.

That's when developer William Paul Whitsett threw a giant barbecue to promote 47,500 acres of dusty earth. He divided the land into lots, hired a swarm of workers to build streets and called every person in Los Angeles who had a telephone to invite them out for the day.

Thousands of curious customers trekked to Van Nuys (named after the previous landowner, wheat farmer Isaac Newton Van Nuys).

"The Golden Harvest You Will Reap," trumpeted a 1911 advertisement in The Times. "Scores are building homes and planting their land to fruit and vegetables. Fortunes will be made!" (Whitsett, for one, raked in $250,000 on opening day.)

For its first 50 years, Van Nuys fairly burbled with optimism. By 1961--the year a group of West Valley businessmen began clamoring for secession--Van Nuys had become a major commercial center. It was home to 115,000 people, many of them professionals from the aerospace and electronics industries.

But over the next two decades, a dramatic shift in shopping and housing patterns altered the landscape. Indoor shopping malls popped up across the Valley, draining Van Nuys of profitable department stores and specialty shops.

At the same time, city planners rezoned many neighborhoods to allow high-density apartment buildings, which drew many more low-income families to Van Nuys.

Those changes transformed parts of Van Nuys, converting it from an affluent suburban community to one with swaths of poverty.

Forty years later, faded Craftsman houses are wedged between cinder-block apartment buildings. Schools are plunked down beside industrial strips of auto shops.

Once largely white, Van Nuys has diversified along with the rest of Los Angeles. More than half its 167,000 residents--51%--are Latino, and 37% are white. Blacks and Asians each represent about 6% of the population, according to the 2000 census.

The stable base of homeowners here has eroded over the years as people sold their land to apartment builders. Two-thirds of the area's housing units are now rentals, according to census data.

"It's like 'Blade Runner' with all these cell block apartments," said Tony Austin, 44, a graphic designer who grew up in Van Nuys and supports Valley cityhood. "It all boils down to density. When you put a bunch of young males in such a small space, you're going to get the problems that L.A. has, which are crime and gang violence."

Violent crime has increased 64% in the Van Nuys Division during the past year, compared to an 8% jump citywide, according to LAPD data.

Just half a block away from the LAPD's Van Nuys complex, 13-year-old Arneisha Davis passes a gutted Trans Am, windows smashed and trunk open. The initials of a local gang, Barrio Van Nuys, are splashed across sidewalks and fence posts.

"Everybody around here is in gangs," said Arneisha, who is going into the eighth grade. "Out here, you got to worry about somebody looking at you the wrong way."

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