THE BLOG
12/18/2012 07:07 pm ET | Updated Feb 17, 2013

The San Fernando Chronicles: When White People Lived in Pacoima

This is Part 1 of a series of blog postings about growing up in the San Fernando Valley of the '50s and '60s.

It was innocent enough. Kay just wanted us to snap a picture of her standing in front of the childhood home she shared with her mother and sister in the mid 1950s. As Warren was about to get her centered in the photo frame, a man crawled out from underneath one of the three cars which was housed behind a heavy iron fence. I noticed that one of the cars was sitting atop what used to be a prized dichondra lawn, the "no mow lawn" popular in southern California during the '50s and '60s.

"Why are you taking a picture? Go away," the man said to us, never bothering to make eye contact.

"Well, I'm sorry sir, but if you would just let me explain. I wanted a picture of myself standing in front of my childhood home," Kay explained.

"How would you like it if I took pictures of your house? Give me your address," he demanded.

Not being one to back down, Kay added, "I'll give you my address. I live in Calabasas on ...."

Sensing that this could get ugly, I suggested that we all go back to the car and just drive around our former neighborhood. Frankly, I thought the guy had something to hide, and I really didn't want to discover what he was hiding. Kay and Warren followed, and we spent the next half hour driving around the square blocks all with pleasant sounding street names like Dorrington Place, Terra Bella, and Kagel Canyon. Although the names were familiar to me, the landscape was not. In fact, it was downright alien. Each house was barricaded with either a six foot block wall fence or a heavy iron fence, some with electric gates in front of the driveways. Most of the houses had at least three cars behind the fences, and there were more lining the narrow streets. Some of the houses were well kept, others were not.

As we turned the corner and approached Beachy Avenue Elementary School where Kay and I went, I noticed ten foot tall fences behind the main office of the school. Once a school that was fairly open and approachable from all sides, now resembled an isolated, concrete fortress.

In addition to the safety and security measures taken, the demographics in Pacoima had changed. My first clue was the school marquee with the school's name in bold letters and all the upcoming events posted, one side in Spanish, the other side English. A closer look at LocalSchoolDirectory.com reveals that 95% of the student body is Hispanic. 2012-12-17-NEWBEACHY.jpg

Because of neighborhood covenants and the practice of Redlining, Pacoima and the city of San Fernando had long been considered the dumping ground for all Asian, Latino and African American minorities. However, there were small pockets in the '50s that were predominantly white.

I always thought of my little neighborhood as diverse, meaning there were variations of Caucasians. One neighbor was Dutch, I think, or at least they left wooden shoes on their front porch. The Gates, the Freshmans and the Honigs were Jewish. Pamela and Jeffrey Gates used to tell us that the sidewalk was public property. Everybody owned it. After a spat with them, they would always remind us that, "It's a free country, and we can play anywhere we want to play." At the time, I remember thinking that might be part of their heritage. The WWII movies I watched back then showed the Jews being led out of the concentration camps and set free after years of being tortured. Mrs. Honig reminded us how lucky we were because we lived in the land of the free.

Then there was a German family who used to tie their kids feet to the pedals of their bikes. I suppose this was some sort of "facing your fear" therapy they used with their kids when they were first learning how to ride their bikes. This, of course, was all pre- Dr. Spock.

Some people look back at the '50s as idyllic times and like to reminisce about the innocence of that time. But I look back with a sort of jaded eye. I believe that everything and everybody was not as innocent as they appeared. In fact, I venture to say that what goes on behind the doors of the houses on Dorrington Place now, also went on back then. The man under the car, wasn't the only one who had something to hide. I'm reminded of the French expression Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

That is where my story begins, boys and girls. Stay tuned.

To be continued.