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Tuesday, January 2, 2018

A Tree Grows in Van Nuys

6032 Woodman Avenue, Van Nuys, CA, as it looks today.
My recent move from Paris to the United States--a return to my home country after 29 years in exile--has provided an opportunity to sift through old files and documents, the remnants of times past. I came across an article I wrote for the Los Angeles Times Sunday Magazine in 1986, not long after the death of my mother. The Times' editors titled it "The Best Offer," although my original title was the one you see as the headline of this post. I always considered it one of the best things I wrote in my early days as a writer and reporter in Los Angeles, so thought to reproduce it here (if you can't share your experiences on your blog, where can you do it?) I think it speaks for itself, so here is the original text.


The house I grew up in, a house on Woodman Avenue in Van Nuys, will be torn down this summer and replaced by an apartment building. My mother died last September--my father died several years ago--and my brother and I came with some ambivalence to possess a quarter-acre of San Fernando Valley real estate. My parents had bought the new stucco ranch house back in 1949, and the orange tree they planted in the backyard shortly afterward is now one of the few vestiges of the Valley's formerly rural character.

For months after our mother's death, my brother and I procrastinated. Should we rent the house out? Should we sell it? Should we keep it for ourselves? On occasion we would confess to each other our fantasies about moving back in and reclaiming that fragment of our past.

We finally decided to sell. Our broker told us that the house was a "cream puff," real estate jargon for a home kept in beautiful condition. For a while we had illusions that a nice family would come along and fall in love with it. My mother, despite her illness, had completely redecorated her home, with new carpeting, wallpaper, draperies, bookshelves, French doors. In the backyard, she had built a swimming pool.

But although Woodman Avenue was just a dirt road in 1949, today it is a major Valley thoroughfare. Prospective buyers loved the house but balked at living on a busy street. And the land along that strip of Woodman had years earlier been rezoned for apartments; single-family homes were on their way out. When the developers began their bidding, we took the best offer and gave up our hopes of preserving the family homestead.

At the moment, we are in escrow. My father had gone into real estate soon after we moved to the Valley, and every night he and my mother would talk about "escrow" this and "escrow" that. To my  child's mind, it seemed like some strange state of being, an eerie limbo. I realized only dimly that, all around my safe little world, houses were going up by the blockful as the postwar Valley building boom hit full stride.

Our house was in one of the first tracts built in Van Nuys after the war. Across the street and just to the north of us was Marlene Dietrich's estate, and behind us, cowboy star Tex Ritter had a chicken ranch. My brother and I walked past the place each day on our way to school, and when Mom had packed a lunch we didn't care for--bologna was the chief offender--we would feed our sandwiches to the chickens that thrust their beaks through the wire fence.

As the Valley grew, so did the backyard orange tree, and every winter the oranges seemed to get bigger. One year, my father, who was then working for the real estate appraisal department of a downtown savings and loan, took an huge orange to work. The photographer for the office newsletter took a picture, but the editor apparently did not believe it was really an orange. When the newsletter was published, the photo caption read: "Morris Balter and a grapefruit from his tree."

Recently, I took a walk through downtown Van Nuys. Most of the landmarks of my youth still stand, though there are many signs of change. At Sylvan Street and Vesper Avenue, the old Spanish-style building that was once the Van Nuys Library is now occupied by the Bureau of Fire Prevention and the Department of Transportation. (I still remember being perched on the back seat of my mother's green 1949 Pontiac, surrounded by books like a pirate among his chests of doubloons, as she drove me home from an afternoon's treasure-hunting at the library.) And the McDonald's on Van Nuys Boulevard just south of Sherman Way, where I had my first "real" job at the age of 17, cooking hamburgers, is still serving up Big Macs by the billions.

When I was a young teen-ager, my best friend, Jerry, and I would walk down to Van Nuys Boulevard every Saturday, looking for things to do. After stopping off at Cupid's, at Victory Boulevard and Tyrone Avenue, and eating those delicious chili dogs under the stand's distinctive sign--a big red heart pierced by a yellow arrow--we would arrive on the boulevard only to discover, as we did every Saturday, that there was really nothing for us to do there. My circle of friends became determined to explore what was outside the San Fernando Valley. As soon as we learned to drive, rather than cruise Van Nuys Boulevard on Wednesday nights as many of the other kids did, we would travel to the ends of the city and beyond. And at the age of 18, I graduated from high school and moved out for good.

I confess that I have always been proud that I "escaped" the Valley, although I wonder whether I would have been better off growing up someplace more "exciting." Perhaps I appreciate Los Angeles and the rest of the world all the more, having discovered it only in stages. And now, 20 years later, I have returned to briefly reclaim my childhood home. Escrow closes at the end of this month. My brother and I will take one more slow walk through the empty rooms and hallways, grasping at memories already receding from our minds.

We will walk through the backyard, pausing before the orange tree, which, we have been told, cannot be saved and replanted elsewhere, because when it is uprooted, it will die. This past winter, for the last time, the tree exploded into great glowing orange orbs. My brother and I picked the fruit feverishly, knowing we would never again taste their sweetness.

And so with one last look back, we will lock the front door gently behind us and surrender it all--tree, house and land--to the forces of inevitable change and, I suppose, progress.


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