The Island Recalled

Anita Hirsh was born in 1936 in Studio City. Her recollections of the L.A. River, its streetcars, and her family's influence are discussed in the following narrative.

Part 1: Streetcars

I lived on Ardmore Street, one block west of Normandie Avenue between Santa Monica Boulevard and Melrose Avenue.

My Grandparents and Uncle and Aunt lived in North Hollywood (as it was known then) on Cartwright Avenue on the Island. Then, as now, Cartwright Avenue ran one block between the (then) two branches of the L.A. River.

My Father and Grandfather drove but were often unavailable. From the little court in which we lived, my Mother and I would walk to the streetcar stop on Santa Monica Boulevard and Normandie Avenue. When the streetcar became visible we would stand out in the street in the safety zone. I might not remember all the routes along Santa Monica Boulevard, but I do remember the one that terminated at Beverly Drive.

I seem to remember that if the street car coming was not the right one, we would just stand in the safety zone and see what else was coming. If nothing was in sight, we would return to the sidewalk. I called our streetcar the North Hollywood one because I knew it terminated somewhere in North Hollywood. This red car, as it was often called, traveled along Santa Monica Boulevard to Highland Avenue, where it turned north. Beyond Hollywood Boulevard it would follow the curve and enter the Cahuenga Pass. This was all very familiar to me. It would be a bonus if Universal Studios was grazing their cows on the hill.

Part 2: Virginia

A girl my age lived in the last house of the east side of the street. Her name may have been Virginia. Her Mother would occasionally call out to her with a loud 'Vir-gin-eea" - a very distinctive call. The family parrot called her all day long exactly in her Mother's voice. She told me she usually could tell the difference.

Virginia's house was the last house before the drop to the very broad river branch of the river. I remember sand bars and lots of birds, and the boys that talked about there being quicksand. This branch is the one that remains.

In the early forties, all the existing houses were in place leaving a lot on the west side, which possibly were two lots. The "quicksand" boys were eager to tell that the tall grass on the lot had rattlesnakes. Also, I don't believe that there was a house where 10683 now stands.

On the south side of Cartwright Avenue, and downhill ran the other branch of the river. It was much narrower than the lazy side at the other end of the street. Here it ran fast and fresh and I recall being told there was watercress. Several years ago I saw the Jordan* River. I was surprised to see it was not very wide, it was just the width I remembered the south fork to be. I thought both sides were beautiful but was very taken by the sight of all the birds on the north branch.

Part 3: Uncle Leo & Aunt Vina

My Grandfather built the modest house that they lived in. It is located fourth from the end of what would be the west side of the street. This being on the left side coming from Valleyheart Drive. He also built a very small house at the corner of Cartwright Avenue and Valleyheart Drive. I think of it as more of a Mexican home rather than the ubiquitous Spanish style of at least ten years earlier. The whole job - I was told - was done for five thousand dollars in the mid-late thirties. For some years the house has sported a second story, which I think looks very good.

My Uncle Leo Chakov and his wife Vina (pron V-na), and Mamita lived in that house. Leo and Vina worked at Colombia Studios. Mamita, which was the only name I knew for her, managed the house.

Leo was destined to be an artist. The Russian revolution, immigration from China, and the American depression upset his destiny. In the mid-late forties, I worked at Columbia a couple of times and went to visit him. He was in the retouching and airbrush department, which was underground and had no light except behind the screens. He came up for air and light often. Most of his work was perfecting the actors in the stills beyond perfection. He removed wrinkles, tilted chins, blew wind in hair, and definitely reduced some actors' guts and love handles. Then the perfected stills were sent to contractors who used them to make large, brightly painted posters for the theaters. Today, as many know, all of the retouching (and airbrush) work is high-tech and easily done.

Vina was interested in Mexican and Latin American culture. They had parties. Invited were the culturally Latino elite - or so I thought. The one I clearly remember was Dr. Prieta, the dentist. It seems to me that this was during the great Mexican artistic movement. Leo photographed Vina in lace mantilla with a Spanish candelabra behind her. I have the photos and they are still very dramatic.

Mamita had lived through some difficult times during the Pancho Villa era. In those days, in maintaining the house she had no use for appliances. The washing machine stood unused as she only considered something washed if it was done by hand. My Mother declared Mamita to be a wonderful cook. I remember my first (hand-made of course) tortilla. It was like nothing I'd ever tasted. I was given a second one to take home, and I nursed it tiny bit by bit all the way home in the back seat of my Father's Ford/Chevy/Plymouth - whichever it was - destined for the wrecking yard.

Leo and Vina acquired an English Bulldog and named him Chato. The house had a charming fireplace. On each side stood a large turquoise vase. I remember thinking how beautiful they were. And then there was Chato and only one vase remained and then there were none. I do not know what eventually happened with Chato. My Uncle was drafted into the army and Vina dumped Leo for a Syrian gentleman. The house was sold.

Many, many years later, first one son and later another son and I drove to see my Uncle's house. I thought what fun it would be for them to buy it back. It was not for sale. The most shocking, then and now, was the broad green park covering the swift side of the river all the way to Freeway 101. The south fork has been channeled underground forever.

South Weddington Park left no hint of what was.....Just a far reaching green park.

* The streetcar then turned on Vineland Avenue and our stop was the first one. Crossing Vineland Avenue, we walked along the small roadway. To our left was a walnut grove. To our right and downhill was the south fork of the L.A. River.

* The directions that I indicate depend on accepting Ventura Boulevard as running EAST and WEST. Basically, the river ran along the same way as Ventura Boulevard in this district.

* The small road mentioned must have been much closer to Ventura Boulevard than memory serves. A recent check indicates that this south fork, which helped form the Island, must be more or less tunneled under Bluffside Drive.

*Around 1950 Leo and Vina bought a house for $20,000 dollars on Valleyheart Drive between Laurel Canyon Boulevard and Whitsett Avenue, overlooking the river channel. At some point in my more mature phase, I asked my Uncle if it did not disturb him to see the river in its cement coffin? He said "It did not". But it will forever disturb me.

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