California Fool’s Gold — Exploring Sherman Oaks

California Fool's Gold
Sherman Oaks from Mulholland

This blog is about the Los Angeles neighborhood of Sherman Oaks. To vote for other communities (as many as you’d like) to be the subject of future entries, leave a comment.

Pendersleigh & Sons Cartography‘s hand-drawn map of Sherman Oaks, available on art prints and a variety of merchandise

Sherman Oaks is a neighborhood located in the southern portion of the San Fernando Valley, surrounded by Van Nuys and Valley Glen to the north, Valley Village to the northeast, Studio City to the east, West Hollywood to the southeast, Beverly Crest and Bel-Air to the south, Brentwood to the southwest, Encino to the west, and the Sepulveda Basin Wildlife Reserve to the northwest. For this episode, I was joined by my frequent traveling companion, Tim Shimbles. It was a hot day, yet, for unknown reasons, he kept rolling up the windows so that he could listen to and sing along with the hits of Sugar Ray, Smashmouth, and Collective Soul videos on his iPhone.


HISTORY

Roughly 13,000 years ago, the Paleoamerican ancestors of the Chumash first arrived in the region. Roughly 3,500 years ago, the Tongva arrived from the Sonoran Desert to the east — an event known as the Takic Expansion. Around 450 CE, another Takic group, the Tatavim, arrived in the Santa Clarita and San Fernando valleys. What’s now Sherman Oaks was home to the village of Siutcanga, meaning “Place of the Oaks.”

In 1769, Spaniard explorer Gaspar de Portolà led an exposition to the area and shortly afterward, the indigenous population was decimated. In 1821, Mexico achieved independence and the land remained a Mexican possession for the next quarter-century. On 18 June 1846 a small group of illegal immigrants from the US raised the California Bear Flag and declared independence from Mexico. A couple of years later, the US invasion and conquest was successful and the land became part of the US.

For the decades that followed, the flatlands in the area were covered in wheat fields and mustard flowers and the mountains in the south were a woody wilderness. Development hastened in 1910 when the LA Suburban Homes Co. purchased 47,500 acres in anticipation of the land boom the 1913 construction of the Los Angeles aqueduct would cause. General Moses Hazeltine Sherman bought 1,000 acres for himself.

Move west down Ventura Blvd – Sherman Oaks in 1920

In 1924, Mulholland Drive opened, envisioned as a scenic road that would allow travelers along the Santa Monica Mountains to see stunning panoramas of the enormous Southland sprawl connecting Point Mugu to Griffith Park. In 1927, Sherman subdivided his land and mansions began springing up in the woody hills over the next two decades.

Floods in March 1952

Businesses began to spring up along Ventura Blvd in the late ’40s and ’50s. With the last traces of Hollywood glamour overwhelmed by filth, acidity, and decay in the suddenly scuzzy neighborhood, the film studios mostly moved over the mountains to the Valley. Many celebrities moved to Sherman Oaks; in the 1940s, Bing Crosby, Mary Astor, Richard Arlen, and W.C. Fields were among the well-known actors with homes there. In the 1950s, the mass exodus of television and film production facilities and celebrities to the San Fernando Valley continued, leaving Hollywood the post-apocalyptic stink hole/disappointing tourist trap it remains today.

As a result of the influx of studio types, Sherman Oaks was sullied with their tawdry ways. The mid-century period that many older people often fondly speak of as the good old days witnessed its fair share of unsavory events. On 11 February 1954, “a film studio talent scout was bludgeoned to death with a billet of firewood … and his body, hands and feet tightly bound, stuffed into a bedroom closet of his Sherman Oaks home.” A month later, Sherman Oaks resident Donald B. Nelson was accused of stealing $5,000 of Schlitz beer. On 16 April 1955, Susan Hayward was found unconscious on the living room floor of her Sherman Oaks home after having overdosed on sleeping pills in an attempted suicide. On the night of 2 December 1959, Mafioso Mickey Cohen ordered a hit on Jack “the Enforcer” Whalen, the Valley’s biggest bookie at the time, on Ventura Blvd. (The Valley has long been the primary operating center of the Mafia).

From the mid-’60s to late-’80s, the formerly decidedly suburban Sherman Oaks began slowly to urbanize although the southern end remains fairly wild and there are several parks in the neighborhood’s hills, Longridge Park, Dixie Canyon Park, and Fossil Ridge Park. In the 1970s, naturalists Charles and Lotte Melhorn devoted considerable energy to preserving the natural areas along Mulholland, preventing mansions from hogging the view and preserving habitat for 25 rare or endangered species of plants and animals.

The Sunkist Building

Meanwhile, Ventura Boulevard (at one time the northern border of the neighborhood) began to see some high-rise construction. Although the border has moved north, Ventura Boulevard remains the main commercial corridor with an alluring skyline punctuated by suburban skyscrapers. On Riverside, in 1968, AC Martin Partners constructed the new world headquarters for Sunkist. Years later its design was echoed in Guangdongese architect He Jingtang‘s China Pavillion.

In 1990, in what some Sherman Oaksians considered the heist of the century, a 20-foot high inflatable chicken was stolen from atop an El Pollo Loco.

Sherman Oaks street scene

In 1993, Sherman Oaks’ northern border was extended into bigger, poorer, and browner Van Nuys from Magnolia to Burbank (aside from a corridor of auto shops on Van Nuys). In 2009, that border was moved north to Oxnard Street. The change was resisted by much of Sherman Oaks’ old guard, who felt that the move amounted to gate-crashing by citizens of a neighborhood compared by one Sherman Oaksian to Tijuana.

The expansion of Sherman Oaks has resulted in a demographic change. Now it’s only 74% white, with 12% Latino, 6% Asian, and 4% black minorities – although that leaves it still among Los Angeles’ whitest neighborhoods. That’s not to say it’s without ethnic diversity (unless you’re one of those jerks who reserve the concept of ethnicity for non-Caucasian people), as there are many significant populations of various white ethnicities, including Russian, German, Persian, and Jewish. This particular mix helps explain why there are so many fountains in Sherman Oaks, rivaling even Rome and Kansas City.

CULTURE

Outside Sherman Oaks, the neighborhood is world-famous for its many malls and shopping centers. There’s the Westfield Fashion Square, the Sherman Oaks Square, and most famously, the Sherman Oaks Galleria. Originally, the Galleria opened at the dawn of the decade most associated with mall culture, the 1980s. Shortly after opening in 1980, the Galleria was the place to shop and hang out and thus the center of Valley Girl culture. Soon it was the most famous mall in the land. Scenes from Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Commando, Terminator 2, Phantom of the Mall – Eric’s Revenge, Walk Like a Man, Chopping Mall and (most famously), the exterior shots of Valley Girl were all filmed there. Phantom Planet even sang about a Galleria in a song called “The Galleria,” although, not having heard it, it could possibly be about the Glendale Galleria or any other.

By the time of its eleven-day closure in 1994 after damage from the Northridge Earthquake, Valley Girl culture had declined. Toward the end of the decade, many of the mallrats that formerly overran it had jumped ship for the newer and nearby Sherman Oaks Fashion Square and, by 1999, only a lonely gift shop remained. That year it closed and, after being demolished and rebuilt, it was re-opened in 2002. Another popular shopping center is The Village at Sherman Oaks, and, like the rebuilt Galleria, it reflects the return to popularity of open-air shopping.

Most of the nicest boutiques and shops are truly open-air, lining the sides of Venture Boulevard. Cultural activities in Sherman Oaks that don’t revolve entirely around consumption include the Sherman Oaks Street Fair, which occurs every April and October along a stretch of the Boulevard.

MOVIES

As previously mentioned, there were several films shot partially at The Sherman Oaks Galleria. Films short, in part or in whole, elsewhere in the neighborhood include Almost Salinas, Amerasian, Billboard Dad, Breakin’ All the Rules, California Valley Girls, Crash, Dick Tracy’s G-Men, Escape From New York, The Girls Next Door, Grad Night, The Indian, Bug,  Innerspace,  Killer’s Delight, Linda Lovelace for President, Looney Tunes – Back in Action, The Open Door, The Scarlet Letter (1934), Taken, This is Spinal Tap, Transformers, Volcano, Whatever It Takes, The Woman Who Willed a Miracle and You Don’t Mess with the Zohan.

As previously mentioned, Sherman Oaks has long been and continues to be a popular neighborhood to take up residence in for actors and musicians. Fewer, however, have been born there. The most famous are Jennifer Aniston, the Olsen twins (and their siblings), Chris Kattan, and Lorena York.

TELEVISION

Sherman Oaks has also been the setting of or mentioned in numerous television shows. There was a short-lived series about a plastic surgeon called Sherman Oaks. Alan’s ex on Two & a Half Men lives in Sherman Oaks. It’s also shown up in Beverly Hills 90210, Desperate Housewives, Falcon Crest, Scrubs, Seinfeld, Six Feet Under, and The X-Files.

EATS

In the 1940s, when Sherman Oaks was first taking off, a guide listed restaurant options Ching How “Chop suey…very good;” Edward’s Chinese House; A Bit of England; Windsor House; Aunt Plenty’s Kitchen, “Fried chicken, corn pones and moonshine pie;” and Dick Stanton’s, “Baked goose and frog legs.” Although none of those savory-sounding options are still available, Sherman Oaks now boasts a much greater variety of food, with Italian, Mexican, and various Mediterranean, Middle Eastern, and East Asian cuisines heavily represented. There’s even the Italian-Middle Eastern Market.

Shimbles and I chose Jinky’s Cafe. I got a vegetarian chili, he ordered a massive plate of chilaquiles. We both found the food to be excellent. Other Sherman Oaks establishments include Anajak ThaiAntonio’s Pizzeria, Aromi Cafe, Asakuma Rice, BambooBamboo Forest Chinese Restaurant, Barone’s Famous Italian, Bill’s Hamburgers, Billy’s Grill, Bizen Sushi, Boneyard Bistro, Brats BrothersCafe Bizou, Carnival,  Casa Vega, Clay Oven Indian, D’Amore’s Pizza, Deli Mex, The Dip, Donut Factory, 88 Chinese & SushiLa Fogata Mexican, Four ‘n 20 Restaurant Grill, La Frite, La Gallette, Gourmet on the Go, Grandma’s Thai Kitchen, Green Leaf Restaurant, Grounded Cafe, Gyu-Kaku, Hagop, Heart of India, Helena Wirth Cakes, Hoagies and Wings, In-and-Out, The Infield, Iwata Sushi, Jazzve Coffee, K’s Donut Emporium, El Katracho, Kintaro Suhsi, Koraku, Kung Pao China BistroLeaf Cuisine, Leaning Tower Pizza & Pasta, Lemon Grass Thai, Little Siam Thai, Mamani Cafe, Marcellino’s Italian Kitchen, Marche LA, Marmalade Cafe, Mel’s Drive-In, Menchie’s Frozen Yogurt, Midori Sushi, Mistral, Mr. Cecil’s California Ribs, Napolles Pizza Kitchen, Nat’s Early Bite, Natas Pastries, New York Bagel & Cafe, Noah’s Bagels, Orange Deli & Grill, Pane Dolce, Panzanella Ristorante, Passage to India, La Pergola, Le Petit, Pin Up Pastries, La Pisa Cafe, Pita Kitchen, Poquito Mas, Rigos Tacos 2, Rive Gauche Cafe, Robbie Mac’s Pizza, Roman’s Fresh Bakery & Grill, San Marcos Mexican Grill, Santino’s New York Pizza, Senor Fred, Siam Cabin, Simon’s Cafe, La Sirentia, Sisley Italian Kitchen, Slices, Spumoni, Stanley’s, Star Falafel Grill, Steve’s Bigger Subs, Sumo Sushi, Sushi Delivery USA, Sushi Fukyo, Sweets Bakery, Take Ten Deli & Grill, Il Tiramisu, Tony’s Mexican Grills, El Torito, Townhouse Kitchen & Bar, Valley Hye, Vitello’s Express, Watercress, Yogurtland, Yoshi’s Shabu Shabu and Zankou Chicken.

NIGHTLIFE

I think it’s fair to say that Sherman Oaks isn’t high on the list of most Angelenos when thinking of nightlife destinations. However, there are bars including The Barrel, Chimneysweep, Coda, Cozy’s Bar & Grill, Ireland’s 32, Robin Hood British Pub, and Smiles. For live entertainment, there’s the Whitefire Theatre, the LA Connection Comedy Theater, and Cafe Cordiale, which features live music.

MUSIC

Inside Freakbeat Records

Freakbeat Records is a well-known record store. We stopped in so that Tim could dig through ’45s, apparently to buy anything released by Decca or Pye. I can’t come up with any famous musicians actually born in Sherman Oaks but several have ties to the area. Liberace had a gaudy home on Valley Vista and was the “honorary mayor,” Gene Clark died there, and Britney Spears, after shaving her head, was tattooed at Body and Soul.

OTHER STUFF

The Cathedral of St. Mary

The Cathedral of St. Mary, built in 1961, is the first Byzantine Catholic church in California.

A section of the trail along the Los Angeles River was landscaped by a local guerrilla gardener, Ernie La Mere, in 1987. He died in 1995 at age 84 and, in 2003, Los Angeles County spruced it up some and designated it Ernie’s Walk.

Castle Park

One place I definitely want to return to is Castle Park, which has a very elaborate miniature golf course.

Aahs!

Shimbles and I also popped into Aahs!, a crazy gift store that sells soccer jerseys, costumes, gift cards, knick-knacks, video games, and all kinds of other almost random stuff.

Discount Cigars

And finally, we popped into Discount Cigars. Shimbles was in the market for a pipe. After looking nervously at a selection that seemed to mostly range from $85 to $500, he coughed up $6.50 for a lowly Missouri Meerschaum Corncob pipe.




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Eric Brightwell is an adventurer, essayist, rambler, explorer, cartographer, and guerrilla gardener who is always seeking paid writing, speaking, traveling, and art opportunities. He is not interested in generating advertorials, cranking out clickbait, or laboring away in a listicle mill “for exposure.”
Brightwell has written for Angels Walk LAAmoeblogBoom: A Journal of CaliforniadiaCRITICSHidden Los Angeles, and KCET Departures. His art has been featured by the American Institute of Architects, the Architecture & Design Museum, the Craft ContemporaryForm Follows FunctionLos Angeles County Store, the book SidewalkingSkid Row Housing Trust, and 1650 Gallery. Brightwell has been featured as subject in The Los Angeles TimesHuffington PostLos Angeles MagazineLAistCurbedLAEastsider LABoing BoingLos Angeles, I’m Yours, and on Notebook on Cities and Culture. He has been a guest speaker on KCRW‘s Which Way, LA?, at Emerson College, and the University of Southern California.
Brightwell is currently writing a book about Los Angeles and you can follow him on AmebaDuolingoFacebookGoodreadsInstagramMubiand Twitter.

17 thoughts on “California Fool’s Gold — Exploring Sherman Oaks

  1. Thank you for putting these pieces about each city / neighborhood together! They seem thoughtfully put together with good details that even someone born and raised close by can appreciate.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for the positive feedback — it means a lot! This year is the tenth year and I’m to start re-visiting those neighborhoods I did ten years ago to go more in depth and see what’s changed.

      Like

  2. Great piece on Sherman Oaks. Thank you. Slight correction on your amazing map of LA, the southwestern border of S.O. is actually Sepulveda Blvd (not the 405). It also includes a small neighborhood south of Ventura Blvd and west of the 405 around Sherman Oaks Circle (where Liberace’s old house can be found). If you do revisit the neighborhood, check out the Valley Inn (one the oldest gin joints in SO, est. 1947). Thanks again for the blog and the map!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Man I read this nine years later and it still rings true, despite some closed up locales. It’s expanded and can be considered burgeoning (Petit Trois! developed L.A. River sections! the Galleria lives!) but you nailed it. Great work as always.

    Like

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