By Mickey Jannol, Valley Glen Resident and Secretary of the Greater Valley Glen Council
We’ve all been hearing that the SMART Irrigation Project at Valley Glen Community Park is near completion. We are all anxious as to when the Department of Recreation and Parks (Rec. And Parks) will re-open the Park. While we have heard Dates ranging from end of September to sometime in October, the Greater Valley Glen Council has not yet been able to get a firm date out of Rec. and Parks. The holdup is related to Rec. and Parks’ desire to have the plans and grass fully mature. This is obviously frustrating to hear since the grass was planted in mid-June and the plants are just now being planted.
While we all want the Valley Glen Community Park to re-open as soon as possible, it looks like we will have to wait, assuming no other delay, for the maturation process to be achieved. The pictures that follow were taken 8/15 2017 bear this out. You can see how nice the Park looks but you can see patches of grass areas that need to be re-seeded because either the grass’ full density has not been achieved or the seeds didn’t grow.
While we understand that the project has taken longer than expected and that some believe Rec. and Parks could have completed the project faster, there is little consolation we can offer except to say we’ve been there before with large projects like the playground, the walking path, and the fencing. The frustration fades after everything is finished.
In the meantime, we’d like to share with you, a narrative on the origins and the history of our largest park; Valley Glen Community Park. The sources of this narrative come from the Valley Glen Voice, the Van Nuys News and Green Sheet (now the Daily News), the Jewish Journal, the Internet, and oral history given by neighbors and Rec. and Parks staff as early as 2001, and a few old post cards that back up some of the unique history.
An Unlikely History of a Park
The original Benefactor of this Park is the Germain and Meyberg families. They donated 10 acres of land to the City of Los Angeles in 1960 which are now known as Valley Glen Community Park. If the Families’ reported 99-year Deed Restriction is honored, Valley Glen Community Park will remain a park until 2059, at which time Nextdoor.com or Nextworld.com (for those of us who will be in graves by that time) will be full of the latest comments about this park keeping its zoning as a park.
1871 to 1950
Eugene Germain came to Los Angeles (via New York) from Switzerland in 1870. He was in his 20s and established the Germain Fruit Co., an LA-based retailer of fruits, and, later, the Germain Seed & Plant Co. in 1889, an agro-developer of more robust versions of seeds for planting grass, crops, and landscape. No joke intended but if Eugene Germain were alive today, he probably would have advised Rec. and Parks to use faster-maturing grass seed for this park. By 1898, Germain Seed & Plant Co. earned the reputation of being the “most complete seed store in the west.” Both companies were successful and Germain continued to diversify. In the early 1900s, Eugene founded Germain’s Nurseries to focus on developing landscape products for homes, a he sensed a housing boom. Eugene had many followers and employees who shared his love for landscaping. In fact, Theodore Payne, a champion of promoting native plants, started working for Eugene Germain in 1896, and became a manager in 1902. In 1903, he resigned and established his own nursery specializing in native plants.
Eugene and his wife, Caroline, had 5 children who took over various parts of the family businesses when Eugene passed away in 1909. Marc Germain took over the nursery business. The business was growing very fast and Marc needed business advice. Marc and mother Caroline brought in Manfred Meyberg, a well-known local businessman who was successful in growing and selling plants and flowers, to become President of Germain’s Nurseries in 1909. Meyberg ultimately bought 100% of the stock of Germain’s Nurseries in 1922 and became an investor in the other Germain businesses. Meyberg grew the nursery business into a dozen locations in Los Angeles between 1920 and the mid-1950s. His famous saying was, “Show me a house without flowers and with a rundown lawn, and I’ll show you someone with no feeling for freedom and his country.” Today, we also refer to that as a pride of ownership litmus test.
Meyberg was enthusiastic about pride of home ownership. He developed the nursery concept as a showcase for Germain’s new products such as highly regarded roses, flowers and other landscape plants such as the bird of paradise, which Meyberg promoted and the City adopted as the official flower of Los Angeles. Meyberg was also quite the promoter. He landscaped LA’s Central Park with a new seed of grass in 1913 to promote why lawns can be a beautiful thing. He turned “going to a nursery” into a social event where one would dress up in a suit, tie and a hat to visit the Nursery to admire and purchase fine plants and roses.
By the 1940s, the site of our Park was where one of Germain’s locations, 6133 Ethel Avenue, showed off a special collection of roses. This location was once known as Rancho Floravista, a 10-acre ranch located at Ethel Avenue and Erwin Street at the park site. Germain’s purchased the ranch in the 1920s and converted it to one of its nurseries which included various structures with patios to house featured items. The west side of the Park was where Germain’s prized collection of roses of all colors was housed. The slope that is more pronounced towards the middle and southern half of the Park was reported by neighbors to contain a winding-flowing-river with waterfall-feature. Water was pumped in from Atoll Avenue which then headed east and then south toward Mary Ellen Avenue. I originally thought this to be a tall tale. However, Manfred Meyberg was an L.A. County Arboretum & Botanic Gardens trustee. He was a big supporter of the Arboretum and created and funded the Meyberg waterfall, designed with a 20-foot drop. It seems that the Valley Glen Community Park’s water feature and the L.A. County Arboretum’s water feature are more than coincidental inventions. One can imagine how it must have been nice dressing up and taking a drive with the family, or a date, on a Sunday to see the roses, the man-made river, and anything new at Germain’s.
1950 to 1959
Documented history is sketchy after 1950. Postcards for Valley tourists displaying Germain’s Nursery were for sale in various Van Nuys gift shops between 1949 and the early 1950s with pictures of the Ethel Avenue Nursery. Ads in the Valley Green Sheet showed numerous advertisements by Germain’s up to 1956 and then the ads stopped. Coincidentally, Manfred Meyberg passed away in 1956.
In the 1950s, there was a shift in the nursery business. Dale Bergquist, an employee of Germain’s, broke off and established Green Thumb and Green Arrow Nurseries. Bergquist believed that you no longer had to dress up in a suit and tie and take a 10-acre stroll to buy a plant. Places like Green Arrow Nursery (now closed) advertised that you could show up in jeans and take a short 3 or 4-acre stroll with a little red wagon so you could carry and buy their cheaper plants and roses, and garden tools and fertilizer. A Nursery was no longer a museum. It was an efficient one-stop shop so people could do their own landscaping during the housing boom of the 1950s and 1960s. Bergquist’s concept took off and many young families were able to more efficiently do their landscaping.
So, the Meyberg and Germain heirs realized changing demand patterns had taken over the nursery business and decided the best course of action would be to devote assets to its roots of inventing better and more productive seeds. Throughout the 1960s to 1980s, the original Germain companies continued their business. They became so good at seed invention that the Germain entities were acquired in 1990 by Associated British Foods, plc. The Germain Technology Division was established with locations in the US, UK, and Europe.
But what were the Meybergs and the Germains going to do with all its nurseries?
The families donated some of their locations with the assurance that the land would be used as a park or something close to the tradition of the Germain family. This is how the City of Los Angeles came to receive the 10-acre parcel.
1960 and the Beginnings of the Park; 30 Peaceful Years, the 130-foot Set Back, Baseball and Grant High
According to the Rec. and Parks people, Valley Glen Community Park (then Erwin Street Park) received the land with a deed-restriction in 1960. The land was rezoned from a commercial designation to “OS” or open space. The park opened in 1961 as a peaceful green-space community park with only a baseball backstop and later 3 benches and a drinking fountain. The benches were then reduced to 2 benches because 1 bench at the southern end of the park was removed due to a neighbor claiming the bench was too close to their property. That is why there is a cement pad with no bench at the southern end of the park. By informal agreement benches will not be placed within 130 feet of that neighbor’s property.
Absent a few incidences, the neighbors had a good working relationship with Rec. and Parks. Some, even to this day, will come out in the morning to pick up loose trash. Legend has it that when neighbors got wind in the late 1980s and early 1990s that a playground and bathrooms were being planned for the park, they were very concerned and got a verbal promise from the Regional Director of Rec. and Parks that this would not happen unless a lot of families with young children moved into the area and demanded it.
Neighbors report that our park remained unchanged and very peaceful for the 30 years from 1961 to the early 1990s. It’s most intensive use was as a social gathering place for US Grant High School students during the 1960s and 1970s. Many informal games of baseball were played. The neighbors used the park sporadically as a place to walk and liked that the park was quiet. Most of their children moved out by 1980 to 1990 so the neighbors were enjoying the peace.
The mid-1990s and Gangs
By the mid-1990s, the park reportedly became a gathering place for gangs. The gangs filled the vacuum created by lack of use of the park. It reportedly got so bad that neighbors no longer frequented this park. The park reportedly looked well-maintained but that was because the neighbors would come out in the morning to help Pec. And Parks maintenance people pick up trash.
The 2000 to 2005 Awakening
We moved in to the neighborhood just south of the park in 2000. I immediately wondered why such a nice park had hardly any people using it. Neighbors were proud of the park but would not use it for reasons of safety. The park was very-well maintained during the day. The grass was luscious and over-watered daily. The water pressure was so high and the pipes were so old that the pipes would burst. The flood of water heading south would be as high as 18 inches, as far as 800 feet south of the park, where we live.
I really thought this park was like a diamond-in-the-rough. So, I met with our newly created neighborhood watch, our SLO, and Rec. and Parks and asked what could be done to make this park safer and better. The LAPD suggested a few things that have come to fruition: speed humps on Atoll and Ethel Avenues, no parking at the Mary Ellen Avenue cul-de-sac, no parking at night at the park perimeter, and better patrolling and responsiveness to neighborhood complaints. Rec. and Parks disclosed that Quimby funds (named after a State legislator that got a bill passed to assess developer a fee to support parks) to fund capital items like benches were available to the park.
Why benches? The Rec. and Parks people told me that for the park to be safe, the park must be made safe not only by LAPD but by neighbors occupying the park. Why not give people many places to sit? There were only 2 benches at the Park We had about $100,000 in Quimby funds. Over time, we got about a dozen more benches at close to $7,000 per bench, concrete footing included. The neighbors loved the idea. Their motivation was to spend all the money so that no money would be left for bathrooms. That might be considered selfish as the park serves all of Valley Glen and not just the families within a short distance from the park. But the neighbors feared what impact bathrooms would have on the park and the LAPD SLOs and Rec. and Parks understood the concern.
New Police presence became noticeable and neighbors were urged to return to the Park and use it. With help from the Valley Glen Neighborhood Association and lots of petitions from nearby residents, the Park was renamed in 2003 as Valley Glen Community Park to add to the identity of the new Valley Glen community. By 2003, the Park benefited from the first of many benches. With improved safety, residents, including younger families started patronizing the park. The park became a famous spot for filming. In 2004, the center of the park was the scene of a mock football game scene in Disney’s “The Shaggy Dog.” Disney ended spending thousands of dollars to rearrange part of the park for filming and then leave it in “mint” condition/. They even constructed a new baseball backstop. The Valley Glen Neighborhood Association was awarded $750 by Disney as Rec. and Parks suggested Disney ought to donate funds to local neighborhood organizations as part of permission to use the park for filming.
Mayor Villaraigosa, League Soccer, Fugitive Dust, Passive Encroachment, and the “Dog People”
Things were going well until 2005. Upon taking office in 2005, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa ordered that all “No Soccer Playing Allowed” signs at LA parks be removed. This gradually paved the way to league soccer play at our park; kicking out a cricket league that had been allowed to use the park by Rec. and Parks management in 2003. League soccer players played in the vast center of the park; big enough to accommodate regulation play. The soccer players wore cleats and the cleats destroyed the grass.
Soccer with cleats combined with years of drought and reduced watering of the park (and broken pipes) turned the grass at the center of the park into fine dust. During the summer, a light breeze would cause that dust to become airborne by the late afternoon. Finally, by 2014, the park looked horrible. Mayor Garcetti was not willing to overturn Mayor Villaraigosa’s executive order. With watering restrictions hampering Rec. and Parks ability to help, the neighborhood petitioned the LA County Health Department and asked that the center of the Park be closed as dust from the center of the Park caused Park patrons and nearby residents to suffer respiratory problems. Within 48 hours of receipt of the petition, LA County investigated the problem, and deemed the problem “Fugitive Dust.” The City of LA Rec. and Parks fenced off the center of the park, began re-seeding it, and blew through water restrictions in the name of public health.
The grass grew and matured within 90 days but the area remained shut down for almost a year to allow time to come up with a plan to make soccer league play with cleats unattractive but still promote less intense soccer play. The Greater Valley Glen Council met with Rec. and Parks people many times and the solution was to release Quimby funds for tables in the north-central area of the Park to put into place a concept called “passive encroachment.” This involved strategically placing benches and tables to reduce the size of the soccer area to make it less attractive for league soccer play while still leaving place for informal soccer play and baseball. This was done in 2015 and the concept worked. League soccer players no longer find the park attractive, especially because people, and their children and dogs, used the tables. As a rescue dog family, I affectionately call these people, the “Dog People” that saved the grass. The Greater Valley Glen Council provides dog-waste bag stations at the park so that dog-owning patrons use them to keep the park clean.
The 2005 to 2015 Big Demographic Shift and Major Investment in the Park
Despite the Mayor’s effect on the park, the 2005 to 2015 period was a period of good growth for the park. Rec. and Parks people indicated that while many of the veteran neighbors wanted to keep the Park the way it is, they warned of a demographic shift in the neighborhood to young families such that an ongoing idea of having a playground at the Park would become more pronounced. By 2007-2008, there was a strong move to erect a playground. After many community meetings, the neighborhood agreed to allow a less-intense ADA compliant 2 to 9-year-old playground at the Park, with no bathrooms, along with a walking track (just under 2.5 laps = 1 mile) and fencing. These projects were funded by Proposition K State funds intended for parks. The Greater Valley Glen Council applied for and wrote the grant proposals and the City, through its competitive grant process for the Prop K funds, awarded the Park over $700,000 to fund these improvements. With the increased facilities at the Park, residents wanted to make sure they did not attract any night time activity. The City granted a request to make parking along the perimeter of the Park a parking violation.
The new improvements were finished between 2012 and 2014. With the new improvements and a solution to the league soccer play, the Park is being almost exclusively by community members that live within 1/2 mile of the Park. The Valley Glen Neighborhood Association continues to hold annual picnics at the Park. Once every 3 or 4 years, the park is host to a National Night Out event. The Greater Valley Glen Council now hosts Movies at the Park during the summer and early fall. Without a doubt, all these projects, including the benches and tables, have increased traffic at the park many times over. The Germain and Meyberg families would be pleased.
2015 and Beyond – What’s on the Horizon?
The new sprinkler system, accompanied by a redesign of the Park to replacing grass areas with drought tolerant native plants, is a $700,000 Department of Water & Power project that was in the planning stages since 2014. The irrigation system at the Park was over 50 years old and was not working well. While the project has had its delays, the hope is that the grass will stay green during the summer months because of the new and more efficient irrigation system.
Other projects on the horizon for this park include additional shade-cloth structures at the playground to provide additional shade from the sun. Other initiatives involve ways to replace trees lost over time to disease and lightening.
With the start of the Warmington project on the north side of Victory Blvd. near Ethel Avenue, there will be at least $225,000 of Quimby Funds (that Warmington paid) available for more projects at the park and nearby parks. It’s doubtful the park will maintain its character if more facilities are built on it so perhaps some of this money can be directed to a few other parks in the Greater Valley Glen Council area, including Laurel Grove Park and the un-named park on Rhodes Street south of Vanowen Blvd. near the 170 Freeway.
A “Class Act” Community Park
This 55 to 60-year odyssey of a small and limited service community park has measured up to the hopes of the Germain and Meyberg families. They would be happy with the way the neighborhood and Rec. and Parks have brought the park to its current state. I am happy to see our neighborhood using the Park to a greater degree today than back in 2000. Whenever someone complains to me about the park, I accept their complaint but ask them to make sure to use the park often. We should dedicate ourselves to active use of the Park, to active reporting of any suspicious activity that detracts from the Park’s beauty and serenity, and do what we can to protect the park’s character while being mindful of the needs of the community.
The best way to voice any issues/concerns you have about the park is to join meetings of the Greater Valley Glen Council Park, Improvements, and Medians Committee. We meet monthly and you can find out the next meeting date and agenda by checking our calendar.
Mickey Jannol serves as Board Member and Secretary of the Greater Valley Glen Council and has been a resident of the Valley Glen, Van Nuys/Sherman Oaks, and North Hollywood area since 1962. Since 2000, Mickey has been a resident in the Valley Glen Community Park area. Having served as Editor of the Valley Glen Voice, the official publication of the Valley Glen Neighborhood Association, from 2006 to 2015, Mickey is a part-time freelance writer in addition to his full-time work as a commercial banker.