Dennis Zine is trying to kill me.
Or at least it seems that way. He’s driving across the grass at Lanark Park in his city car, enthusing about how responsive he is to his City Council constituents here in the West San Fernando Valley, explaining to me that his staff back at City Hall and in his Reseda district office are trained to answer the phone on or before the third ring.
And he’s going to prove it. He’s got his left hand on the wheel and his right on his cellphone and -- oh, my God, Dennis, watch the road -- now we’re on Topanga and he’s punching in numbers. Or hitting speed dial, or whatever; I can’t tell because my hands are on the dash trying to steady myself and I’m looking out for cross traffic because, after all, someone has to. I’m riding shotgun, and in the back seat on this late summer afternoon are Zine’s district director, Irma Pomposa, and his communications director, Jessica Tarman; their occasional comments -- “This is what you get when you drive with a cop” -- suggest that they may not be all that happy with the situation but they’re used to it and they know there’s not much to be done about it.
And by the way, yes, he’s an ex-cop, and Dennis, isn’t there some kind of law about using cellphones while driving? Wait, now you’re steering with your elbow and your knee? For heaven’s sake, someone please answer the phone on or before the third ring.
Visions of my youth and teen years are flashing before my eyes, and to be honest, it’s only in part because I’m worried about being launched through Zine’s city-owned windshield.
It’s also because I grew up in the West Valley and I’m seeing things intimately familiar and, every few blocks, things that are just a little off. That office on Vanowen where I met up with Zine and his staff -- it’s next to the YMCA where I (reluctantly) took my first swimming lessons, and at Lanark Park between Owensmouth and Topanga, where I’m pretty sure Zine just left tire marks in the grass, I went to my first day camp. There’s Topanga Plaza, where my sister went ice skating, right next to where the absolutely coolest fake rain dripped from the ceiling in circular patterns, which was in turn right next to where I had my first taco in that most amazing of new inventions, the food court. There’s Rocketdyne, or rather what was Rocketdyne, where so many of my friends’ fathers worked. Over there on Victory is where my mom promised me the city would build the new library (it was indeed built, but more than a decade later, after I had grown up and moved away). I knew the girl who worked at the drive-through window at that Carl’s Jr., and I bought my baseball cards and bubblegum across the street at that liquor store.
And to be fair to Zine, I used to ride shotgun with my older, licensed friends at the wheel of their Firebirds or beaten-up Chevy Novas as they steered with one hand on the wheel and maybe half an eye on the road while they fiddled with their eight-tracks or cassette tapes. Maybe Led Zeppelin or, depending on the friend, the car and the mood, Joni Mitchell. I might have done the same thing, once or twice, when I was old enough to borrow my father’s Mustang and pretend it was mine.
My old friends and their families, I and my family, all moved into houses that were newly built, with sewer lines, water pipes and electrical lines that were newly installed, along streets that were newly formed and newly paved. Our older brothers and sisters were among the first to graduate from their spanking-new elementary schools and junior highs. It’s no revelation that we were and are baby boomers, but driving now with Zine -- and thank goodness, the phone was answered on the second ring, Zine made his point and he now has both hands on the wheel -- it’s becoming clear in a way I hadn’t previously noticed that these neighborhoods in the West Valley are also boomers, most of them on the more recent end of that demographic spike, created (like us) sometime between Sputnik and the first Kennedy assassination. And like us, they’re getting old. All at once.
I asked Zine to drive me through his district because as a member of the Los Angeles Times' editorial board, I have to come to grips with the wants and needs of these neighborhoods as we recommend, and voters in Council District 3 elect, a City Council member to succeed Zine.
There are six candidates: Joyce J. Pearson, Steven E. Presberg, Cary T. Iaccino, Bob Blumenfield, Elizabeth Badger and Scott Silverstein. Some of our questions for them are almost rote, although crucial: To what extent would you use your position to move the city back from the brink of insolvency, and to what extent do you instead throw yourself into serving the district and its people, and let the rest of the city fend for itself? And some questions, for me and my colleagues, apply equally to many of the seven other council races: Is it a good thing or a bad thing that there’s a candidate like Blumenfield, a member of the Assembly, bringing his experience, his connections and perhaps his baggage from Sacramento? Does it make him the best choice or the worst? To what extent are the other candidates motivated or limited by their nurturing in neighborhood councils? Would they get eaten alive in City Hall, or are they just the prescription to get the city on a more rational and productive track?
My colleagues and I will be grappling with these and other questions over the next several weeks, and we expect to be writing about them. But I also want to consider questions that seem more germane in this district than in any other.
For example, in neighborhoods that were born, grew up and are now aging, does one craft policy and politics for the growing number of seniors and retirees who are living out their lives here? Or for their neighbors, who complain about single-family homes being turned into elder-care facilities, an increasing number of ambulance sirens late at night and too few restaurants and other amenities geared for twentysomething professionals?
To what degree are residents here correct when they say their neighborhoods are being looted, through their utility and tax bills, to pay for wasteful City Hall spending or to subsidize poorer parts of town? Or to what degree are residents instead living with infrastructure that always seemed new but suddenly is as decrepit as the sewers, pipes, power lines and streets in the rest of the city -- and must be paid for, after residents had gotten used to decades’ worth of shiny facilities and low maintenance costs?
To my pleasant surprise, I survived my trek with Zine. Now I’m asking people who live here or who study this area these very questions. I’m rereading a stack of Valley and city literature, including Kevin Roderick’s “The San Fernando Valley: America’s Suburb,” and I’m making my way through Laura R. Barraclough’s interesting and, as you’ll be able to tell from the subtitle, provocative “Making the San Fernando Valley: Rural Landscapes, Urban Development and White Privilege.” I’m driving through my old neighborhood -- keeping an eye out for Zine.
If you’re a boomer or a millennial or anything in between, a Valley Girl or Guy or an urbanista, and you care about the district -- from the Leonis Adobe to White Oak, or anywhere else in or outside the city -- I welcome your thoughts and comments.