Van Nuys for dummies

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By Tandy Lau 

I’ve been standing on the same street corner since 1992. I’ve been through four US presidents, five Lakers’ championships, six Star Wars movies, one major earthquake and a Rodney King Riot.

Outside my window, the same three shops have remained. The cheap Chinese food restaurant left of me is still open. The owner still sits outside, smoking a cigarette and reading his Mandarin newspaper. His wife’s inside, either serving customers or cleaning. Their formerly smooth skin are now adorned with wrinkles. Straight across from me, a liquor store sat, with its usual rogue’s gallery of homeless, drunks and teenagers with fake IDs, walking out with brown paper bags all day. To the right, the swap meet flourished over the past two decades. During the day, Van Nuys locals entered empty-handed and left with handful of purchases. At night, vendors unloaded trucks full of merchandise, going back and forth with crates stacked upon a pallet jack.

I’ve worked several jobs. I started off as a dress shop mannequin. The store was owned by a young immigrant couple from Mexico. They made wedding dresses, prom dresses and quinceanera dresses, all sewn together by hand. When I first came to Van Nuys, the couple had a color-tv that replayed coverage of the Watts Riots. It was strange to say the least. At the end of the day, the store would close promptly at 8, and the couple would watch Spanish TV coverage of the riot like it was Sunday Night Football.

My career at the dress shop ended in the early 2000’s. Turns out there isn’t a high demand of expensive dresses as there is for cheap clothes. I went from modeling extravagant lace dresses to cheap polyester t-shirts and knock off jeans. Still, it had its advantages. I got fresh air everyday, as I wasn’t stuck in a window everyday, but instead propped up in front of the entrance. The clothing shop changed hands quite often; it seemed like there was a new owner every other year. Despite the instability of the business, it was much of the same for me. The same middle-aged ladies would come in and bargain with the owners for a discount. Over the years, the nuances of grey in their hair would become more and more noticeable. But still, they argued, sometimes successfully, over a few dollars.

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Today, I work as an arrow sign-spinner. It’s typically a job for a college-kid with a lack of self-consciousness and a desperation for work. It’s also much cheaper to have free labor, and that’s one of the advantages of being a plastic, lifeless entity with no agency; I don’t have tuition or rent to worry about. In 2012, the clothing shop closed, the property was bought out by a larger company, a cheap insurance company. For those who can’t afford actual insurance coverage, my employers provide a piece of paper so at least they’re allowed to drive. Instead of a lace dress or cheap polyester clothing, I’m wearing a bright-lime green polo and women’s khakis.

It’s hard to understand how time facilitates change. Van Nuys is going through the early stages of this thing called gentrification. There’s a lot to like about gentrification. Clean, sterilized, post-modern apartments stand where old tortilla flats stood for decades. Along with the new, young and caucasian college kids moving in, Starbucks, Chipotle and PizzaRev became tenants of Van Nuys.

Yeah, it will clean out Barrios Van Nuys and MS-13 and all the graffiti, drug-dealers and house-robbers. But it also pushed out the hard-working people of the city, the decade-old businesses that served the community and the housing for those who can’t afford luxury lofts. It wasn’t their fault. They just weren’t born in the position to re-invent Van Nuys themselves.

Proponents of gentrification believe that it repairs a community. What they fail to understand is that it destroys the pre-existing community in order to create another. Like an invasive species destroying an ecosystem, gentrification displaces the previous people, businesses and culture. Yes, there might be crime and graffiti, but for many, it’s also home. The abusive relationship of the rich and the poor allows for Van Nuys to become the eminent domain of the children of those with privilege.

For me, 26 years has been great. Somehow I’ve survived through four US presidents, five Lakers’ championships, six Star Wars movies, one major earthquake and a Watts Riot. But I don’t foresee a Whole Foods or a LuLuLemon having much use for a quarter-century old mannequin. And for the Chinese restaurant, or the liquor store and swap meet, there will still be place to get Asian cuisine, vices and clothing. But not for the poor. Instead of a plate of rice and orange chicken, lettuce wraps, or drinking booze from a bottle, it’s a mason jar, or cheap polyester, it’s...expensive polyester. And 20 percent cotton.

At the end of the day, one of the advantages of being a plastic, lifeless entity with no agency is that you don’t have to worry about the consequences of gentrification. But, for flesh-and-blood entities with no agency, my figurative heart goes out to them.


Tandy Lau