The Cultural Heart of North Hollywood and the NoHo Senior Arts Colony

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Long before the 1983 Nicholas Cage film, "Valley Girl," and the Frank Zappa song of the same name, the San Fernando Valley has held a mythical place in Los Angeles lore. Among the many neighborhoods and districts in the Valley, one of the best known is North Hollywood (NoHo). Ever since the Metro Red Line was extended to North Hollywood in 2000, streets like Lankershim and Magnolia Blvd have emerged from its farmland history, as brisk nodes of commerce and culture. This community's transformation is most clearly manifested in the NoHo Senior Arts Village and the 3rd annual NoHo Lit Crawl.

A Brief History of North Hollywood
Like many southern California suburbs, North Hollywood's roots reach back to its agricultural past. In the late 19th century, Isaac Lankershim raised sheep and cultivated wheat fields on his large holdings across much of the Valley. Lankershim's son founded the city of Toluca in 1888, which is now better known as North Hollywood. North Hollywood eventually became a part of the City of Los Angeles and has always been a large district. Gradually, various corners of what was originally called North Hollywood became declared neighborhoods like Valley Village and Valley Glen. One of North Hollywood's first well-known residents was the aviation pioneer Amelia Earhart. There's a statue in her honor at North Hollywood Park.

The town of Toluca (now North Hollywood) in 1894. Courtesy of the USC Libraries - California Historical Society Collection
The town of Toluca (now North Hollywood) in 1894. Courtesy of the USC Libraries - California Historical Society Collection

During the 1940s and 1950s, the Valley was celebrated in song and film as the ultimate bedroom community. This myth was further propagated in the Bing Crosby song, "San Fernando Valley," as well as in Midcentury television shows through the 1960s and 1970s. Later the 1997 film, "Boogie Nights," celebrated the seedier side of North Hollywood and the Valley. Dating back to the PostWar years, North Hollywood emerged as a working class suburb north of the Valley's film studios and west of other major Valley employers in the aerospace industry like Lockheed in Burbank.

For the last few generations, many of the area's residents worked in either the film or aerospace industries. The North Hollywood native and longtime Angeleno poet, Amelie Frank's parents both worked at Lockheed for much of the Cold War era. Frank shared a few of her memories from her childhood in the 1960s: "You caught movies at the regal El Portal theater or the Lankershim (bargain matinees on Saturdays, Disney flicks aplenty), got your Mexican eats from Speedy González's restaurant and Chinese from Joe Woo's (best sweet and sour pork outside of San Francisco)." Frank remembers a simpler time. "We were, truly, the last innocent generation," she recalls, "and part of a greater city on the cusp of becoming a hub of world attention for all the good and all the worst reasons possible. It was a very happy place for an exceptionally happy childhood."

NoHo Emerges
35-year-old educator Luis Ordaz grew up between North Hollywood and Pacoima and went to North Hollywood High School during the 1990s. Ordaz watched the neighborhood transform before his eyes because of the Metro. "NoHo, --the area of approximately 2 miles around the station--is and was known for many years before its completion, as an area that had been neglected and was slowly falling into a state of disrepair," he says. Ordaz has long been involved in the theatrical arts and he found himself working with some of the emerging theater companies after he graduated from high school.

Ordaz even laughs a bit about the changes, "It sounds really strange," he shares, "but Metro made North Hollywood cool; it made it hip and a desirable place to live so much so that our snobbish L.A. cousins on the Westside no longer turn up their noses at the prospect of crossing over to our side of town. Hell, some now even entertain the thought of living in The Valley!" Ordaz has lived almost his entire life in the Valley and continues to work with various theater groups along Lankershim.
As noted above, NoHo has exploded over the last two decades with new residential units and dozens of venues. These include art galleries, cafes, dance studios, theater companies and shops. NoHo boosters brag that there are more than 20 professional theatres producing new work and classics and that the district boasts the largest concentration of music recording venues west of the Mississippi.

Metro's red line has helped make North Hollywood a destination.
Metro's red line has helped make North Hollywood a destination.

NoHo Senior Arts Colony
One of the most dynamic spaces in NoHo is the NoHo Senior Arts Colony. Located on Magnolia, just a few blocks east of Lankershim, the space is not only residential but it offers dozens of classes for its residents. It is open for residents 62 years of age and up. Classes offered for NoHo Senior Arts Colony residents include art instruction such as collage, drawing, painting, and printmaking in the art studio. In their library you can find courses being taught in poetry, modern acting, improvisation, and Shakespeare studies. Exercise classes take place in the gym and aqua aerobics in the swimming pool. Other classes offered for their residents include tai chi, creative writing, screenwriting, foreign language, music composition, and computer skills. Movies and documentaries are screened and social events are scheduled in the lounge.

The building is operated by a nonprofit organization called EngAGE. Founded in 1999 and headquartered in Burbank, EngAGE is committed to providing seniors with an active, well-rounded living environment. According to their mission, "It is our vision to make aging a beginning. By providing life-enhancing programs to low- and moderate-income seniors living in affordable apartment communities, they are given the opportunity to continue to grow intellectually, creatively and emotionally." To this end, they not only host a plethora of classes, they also have an annual Senior Olympics.

Photo courtesy of NoHo Senior Arts Colony.

Last summer I taught a poetry workshop at the Senior Arts Colony and was very impressed with their facilities, the residents and constant activity. One of the residents I had the pleasure of working with in the poetry workshop is Jean Ritchie. Ritchie has had a long career as an actress and entrepreneur and now enjoys living at the NoHo Senior Arts Colony. She praises the Chief Operating Officer Dr. Maureen Kellen-Taylor for organizing a dynamic series of classes and never-ending calendar of arts-related events. Kellen-Taylor spent many years teaching in universities and working with school districts to integrate the arts into their curriculums. In 2005 she received the Directors Award from the California Arts Council for a lifetime commitment to the Arts. Thanks to her efforts, residents like Jean Ritchie have become deeply involved in the classes at the Senior Arts Colony.

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Jean Ritchie started writing poetry with the instructor and Zen poet, Morgan Gibson. Over the last year, Gibson lit a fire under Ritchie and other residents like filmmaker Leonard Fink. Ritchie and Fink read their poems along with Gibson in the annual North Hollywood Lit Crawl on October 21 at Studio 77 on Lankershim Blvd. The reading was called, "On Being a Kid," and included all senior poets reading their work.

Now in its 3rd year, the NoHo Lit Crawl is another cultural highlight of North Hollywood. Growing each year, the LitCrawl features readings by dozens of Literary Los Angeles' top writers as well as events by local writing programs and publishers like UCLA Extension, the LA Review of Books and Heyday Press. Started by the national group that started the Lit Crawl in New York and the Bay Area, the organizers chose North Hollywood and the corridor along Lankershim Blvd. three years ago because of the area's walkability and concentration of venues and galleries. Over three dozen locations host readings along Lankershim and Magnolia over about a 10 block stretch.

North Hollywood has come a long way over the last century. The arrival of the Metro Red Line and rise of the NoHo Arts District has made it one of the most vibrant creative pockets in Southern California. Sites like the NoHo Senior Arts Colony and events like the NoHo Lit Crawl showcase the dynamic spirit of the neighborhood in all its glory. Salute to North Hollywood for being one of the most energetic districts in the landscape of L.A. Letters.

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