After living all over the United States, Karen Cullie was drawn to Van Nuys by her mother and her son.
She wanted to be close to her recently widowed mother, who’d retired to the mid-San Fernando Valley suburb. And, as a single mother who works as executive director of the Los Angeles County chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, the 42-year-old Cullie also needed reliable child care for her 11-month-old son, Mckenzie.
At the same time, Cullie’s good friend Salley Stott, a psychiatrist, was looking for child care for her toddler foster son. Now the two women share a housekeeper--and a rambling three-bedroom house on a quiet Van Nuys street. The household also includes Cullie’s 19-year-old daughter, Gillian, who attends Cal State Northridge.
“The original idea was to buy a place that had a guest house, but we just never found any place,” Cullie said. Added Stott: “Finally, we thought, ‘Well, why don’t we just live in the same house?’ ”
After a five-month search, the two women found just the right house in a quiet neighborhood for $230,000.
“This house has two fireplaces, the hardwood floors, the French doors, the cozy little patio,” Cullie said. “That’s how I grew up. It was the tradition I was looking for for my son.”
For Stott, the arrangement offered a chance to own after years of renting. “Buying a house had been a goal of mine for down the line, but it’s a rough thing financially for a single woman,” she said. “So it helped more than just in terms of housekeeping.”
Van Nuys is replete with housing tracts like the one Cullie and Stott live in, where cul-de-sacs, dead ends and barrier islands keep the neighborhoods quiet and traffic down.
A city of more than 200,000, Van Nuys is 25.2 square miles in size and located in the center of the San Fernando Valley.
It is known as the site of the largest small-craft airport in the world, and industries like Anheuser-Busch and the soon-to-close General Motors plant.
Although Van Nuys lacks the cachet of its hilly neighbors, Sherman Oaks, Encino and Granada Hills, the city offers luxurious homes--if you know where to look.
Perhaps the ultimate in Van Nuys living is a secluded tract known as Midvale Estates.
When 63-year-old Clair Schutte first came to Los Angeles in 1957 to attend chiropractic school, he used to drive through the area, admiring its spacious homes on extra-large lots and quiet, curbless streets. “Ever since I moved here, I wanted to live in Midvale Estates,” said Schutte, who’s now been a practicing chiropractor in the city for 30 years.
In 1975, Schutte got his wish: he made a deal with the original owner of a large four-bedroom, three-bath Cape Cod and, for $90,000, became a resident of his dream neighborhood.
The house is such a classic example of its style that it has been used as a location for films, television movies and commercials. Besides, Schutte said, “It’s very convenient to get to work--it takes five minutes.”
The quiet streets of Midvale Estates seem unchanged, but the neighborhood around them, Schutte admitted, is not the sleepy suburb it once was. “It’s much more crowded now,” he admitted. “There’s more graffiti.”
Still, Schutte loves his sprawling home, despite its location just east of Sepulveda, generally considered less desirable than living farther west.
“This area has stayed the same,” he said. “It’s quiet here, even though Sepulveda’s right over there. It’s a nice place to live.”
Not everyone agrees with Schutte. Carol Rushay, a real estate agent at Pinnacle Realty, sells in the area west of Sepulveda Boulevard known as West Van Nuys. The prices for the area’s mostly older, smaller homes start at $175,000.
“The older people I’ve talked to have had it,” Rushay said. “They want out. They’re tired of the different nationalities moving in, the rat race, the smog, the traffic.”
The “nationalities” refer to an influx of Latino peoples, primarily from Mexico and Central America, who now account for more than 20% of Van Nuys’ population. If the image some older Van Nuys residents have of Latinos is one of dayworkers standing on street corners, Jose Castillo wants to change that.
Castillo, the owner of Business Systems Plus and a member of the Van Nuys Chamber of Commerce, is forming an organization for Latino entrepreneurs. Castillo hopes to give Latino business owners a higher profile in the community and start a program to develop leadership in Latino youth. “People are moving out of the area because they think it’s undesirable,” he admitted.
It’s ironic that a Spanish-speaking heritage is now considered a negative attribute. The San Fernando Valley was discovered by the Spanish in 1769, during an expedition led by Gaspar de Portola. The valley was primarily farmland until the arrival of water via the Owens Aqueduct was assured in 1909.
Then land baron J. B. Van Nuys sold 475,000 acres in three town sites, one of which officially became Van Nuys on Feb. 22, 1911. Developer William Whitsett purchased Van Nuys’ land and sold 50 lots on Van Nuys Boulevard for $1,000 apiece at the city’s first land auction.
“We feel like Van Nuys gets a bad rap,” said Carol Pringle, also of Pinnacle Realty, who works primarily in east Van Nuys, where prices range from $225,000 to as much as $600,000. “But Van Nuys has some very nice pockets.”
One nice pocket in the northwest corner of Van Nuys recently became home to Stella and Mario Goretti. Planning a June wedding, the young couple began searching for a house to renovate last year. After seeing dozens of houses where Stella, a tile importer, said “you needed to bring in a bulldozer,” they found a $200,000 fixer with potential at the end of a cul-de-sac.
Mario, a German-Italian who grew up in Sweden, spent six months before the wedding laying tile--his trade--and overseeing the remodeling. In the end, a beat-up, ugly house with black paneling and orange-red shag carpet was transformed into a bright, spacious 1,700-square-foot home.
The Gorettis are unconcerned about Van Nuys’ growing Latino population. “I don’t care where they come from, what they are--green, red or blue--as long as they’re good people,” said Mario.
“It’s a quiet, clean, little old neighborhood,” Stella said. “You don’t hear anything at night, it’s so quiet. We really like it.”
Another pair of newlyweds, Trish and Jerry Wiener, were also searching for a Van Nuys pocket that wouldn’t be too far from their jobs on the Westside of Los Angeles.
Trish, who grew up in Van Nuys, said, “We had set down a limit of how far west and how far north we wanted to go.” In their under-$250,000 price range the Wieners, both 28, had seen mostly older homes that needed substantial renovation or didn’t have air conditioning.
Then they found a seven-year-old house hiding past a high fence at the end of a dead-end street. “We took one look at it and fell in love,” Trish, a saleswoman, said of the three-bedroom, two-bath house they bought in July for $245,000.
The house needed few improvements. The Wieners repainted and put grass in the back yard.
Jerry, who owns a Culver City restaurant, said, “Our parents say we really skipped the first house in terms of what you didn’t get. We got really everything we needed in this house.”
Their one concession was that the Wieners’ house is east of Sepulveda. But driving the quiet, winding streets of their neighborhood, it’s hard to discern any difference. “This is a great house and this is a great street,” Jerry said.
“I love this house,” Trish added, “and we were able to afford this house because of where it is. This is a nice pocket.”
Flip Smith discovered his Van Nuys pocket as a 19-year-old newlywed back in 1964. Smith and his bride, Katie, paid $26,000 for three bedrooms and a pool. Now 45, Smith doesn’t see the increasing population, Latino or otherwise, as a drawback. Actually, he sees every Van Nuys resident as a set of wheels.
Smith is in the same business his grandfather had back in Akron, Ohio: tires. For 20 years the owner of Flip’s Tire Service, Smith recalled, “When I first got married, we used to go up on Mulholland and look at all the lights and talk about how everybody down there was going to buy tires from us.” Smith remembers with fondness the Wednesday nights he spent cruising Van Nuys Boulevard and hanging out at Bob’s Big Boy.
Now he’s more likely to be seen at the Chamber of Commerce or at the tire store, where his children Shawn, 24, and Katie, 22, both work with him. Smith said, “It’s pretty important to me that Van Nuys stays a good, viable place to make money.”
His neighborhood remains much the same as when he first arrived. “There’s no problems to speak of,” said Smith. “People still know most of their neighbors and get along pretty well. I like Van Nuys. I wouldn’t move.”
At a Glance
1991 estimate: 115,191
1980-90 change: +34.6%
Median age: 32.8 years
Per capita: 17,332
Median household: 39,474
Less than $20,000: 22%
$20,000 - $35,000: 22.5%
$35,000 - $50,000: 19.1%
$50,000 - $75,000: 18.9%
$75,000 +: 17.5%