"Tujunga" is an ancient Indian word meaning "old woman of the earth." But 20 or 30 years ago, a lot of people thought Tujunga meant "motorcycle gangs."
No one really knows why so many long-haired, bearded young men on motorcycles, aligned in groups with names like "The Devil's Henchmen," chose to hang out in this workingman's community perched on the southwest slopes of the San Gabriel Mountains a half dozen miles north of downtown Glendale.
But hang out they did, in droves, and Tujunga developed an unenviable reputation as one of Southern California's premier "biker towns."
That reputation still survives to some extent, even though most of the bikers either left town long ago or else have undergone the settling down process that inevitably accompanies thinning hair, widening waistlines and advancing age.
Some residents think the historically negative image is so strong as to be bad for business, and have suggested--unsuccessfully so far--that Tujunga distance itself from the past by changing its name. "Hill Haven" is one idea.
But Tujunga by any other name would still be Tujunga. And for people interested in a small-town atmosphere and a chance to get into the Los Angeles housing market, Tujunga can be a place of opportunity.
"I wouldn't want to live anywhere else," said Evelyn Burdge, 70, who moved to Tujunga in 1938, seven years after Tujunga ceased being an independent city and was absorbed into the city of Los Angeles.
Tujunga is bounded on the north by the San Gabriel Mounmtains, the west by Mt. Gleason Avenue, the east by Lowell Avenue and the south by the Foothill (210) Freeway.
Burdge now lives in a small, two-bedroom house on Olcott Street that she and her late husband bought for $5,750 just after World War II. She's not sure what its value is now, but the house next door to hers sold last year for $179,000.
True, Burdge said: "We used to have a lot of motorcycle gangs here. But they finally ran 'em out of town. The ones that are still here are all family men now."
Burdge's current concerns about the quality of life in Tujunga have nothing to do with motorcycles. Instead, they are concerns one might hear from residents of almost any Los Angeles community: too much quick growth, too much traffic.
And even potential problems created by foreign investment.
"There are just too many apartments here now," Burdge said. "It used to be that you knew everybody when you went into town"--town meaning the commercial area along Commerce Street and Foothill Boulevard.
"But now you don't know anybody. And Tujunga Canyon is bumper-to-bumper every morning now because of all the apartments." Furthermore, Burdge said, "some of us aren't too happy" about a planned 18-hole private golf course and club that a Japanese firm called Cosmo World wants to build at the bottom of Big Tujunga Wash near Wentworth Street and Foothill Boulevard in nearby Sunland. The project is undergoing environmental impact review.
"They say it won't increase traffic because all the members will be brought out here in limousines," Burdge said. "But I don't know."
Tom Theobald, 74, like Burdge an almost life-long Tujunga resident, also worries about growth.
"We're getting too many apartment houses," Theobald said, "and traffic is worse than ever." Theobald, who grew up in Tujunga, worked for the U.S. Post Office there from 1938 until his retirement, and his wife, Jean, paid $4,500 for their three-bedroom home on Kyle Street in 1941, "and everyone wondered how we'd ever be able to pay for it."
He estimates its current value at $285,000.
All things considered though, both Burdge and Theobald say, Tujunga is still fine with them.
"It's close enough to the city, and far enough away too," Burdge said.
"I've lived here almost all my life, and I intend to stay here," Theobald said.
Barbara Powell, 44, a Tujunga newcomer who owns a small typesetting business, shares the longtime residents' feelings about the community. A native of Baltimore, she has lived in a rented house on Helendale Avenue for only a few months, but eventually she'd like to buy a home in Tujunga.
"Tujunga is small and manageable," Powell said. "Everything you need is within a few blocks. The air quality is better than in a lot of places"--at 1,700-plus feet above sea level, Tujunga is above at least some of the San Gabriel Valley smog--"and in every direction I look I see mountains."
Powell was aware of Tujunga's past reputation as a tough community when she moved there, but she has found that the community doesn't deserve that reputation.
"You do see a few unsavory characters there, and an awful lot of motorcycles and pickup trucks," she said, laughing.
"In fact, when I moved in, I noticed that there were motorcycles parked at the houses on either side of me. But since then I've met them (the neighbors) and they really are wonderful people."
For the record, if one believes that any conclusions about a community can be drawn from the types of vehicles parked in driveways, a recent and admittedly unscientific survey of three residential blocks in Tujunga revealed a seemingly higher-than-average ratio of pickups to cars--29 trucks to 44 cars, none of them a Mercedes.
Curiously, perhaps, there was only one motorcycle visible; however, the survey was conducted on a beautiful Tujunga day, warm and clear, perfect motorcycle weather, so the results may have been somewhat skewed.
One of the best things about Tujunga, Powell said, is that housing is still affordable--relatively, affordable, anyway--"and that's certainly an attraction."
According to realtors in the area, single-family homes in Tujunga average $200,000 to $250,000, although there are starters or fixer-uppers at about $125,000. The highest priced home that has come on the market recently in Tujunga is slightly over $600,000, but there are also "horse properties" in the area that can run $1 million plus.
Those kind of prices are what prompted Kathy Talbott, 47, a former Glendale resident, to buy a home in Tujunga last year.
"I really don't like Tujunga that much," admitted Talbott, a financial representative at Verdugo Hills Hospital in Glendale. The streets need a lot of repairs, and there are still too many "unsavory characters" for her liking.
"But let's face it," Talbott said, "It's one of the few places that's affordable." Talbott, who like Burdge lives on Olcott Street, says most of the homes in her neighborhood are in the $175,000 range.
According to Joan Slater of Slater Realty Co., which specializes in property in the Tujunga-Sunland area, the majority of housing sales in recent months have been to prospective residents, not to investors looking for quick profits. "Low-end" properties have been the most active.
Apartment rentals range from about $500 for a single to $800 for a two- or three-bedroom, making Tujunga a financially attractive location for younger people who can't yet afford to buy a home.
Also, Tujunga's location on the Foothill (210) Freeway between the Glendale (2) Freeway and the San Diego (405) Freeway makes for easy commuting to either downtown or the Westside. That portion of the 210 is one of the least-used freeways in L.A.; barring the odd overturned tanker truck, it seems immune from traffic tie-ups.
There are, then, a lot of reasons for prospective home buyers to forget about Tujunga's past and check out Tujunga present. It's small, affordable, easy to get to and from.
And you don't have to ride a motorcycle to live there.
TUJUNGA AT A GLANCE Population 1990 estimate: 25,691 1980-90 change: 23.8% Median Age: 31.6 years Annual income Per capita: 17,711 Median household: 43,206 Household distribution Less than $15,000: 13.2% 15,000-$30,000: 20% $30,000-$50,000: 24.8% $50,000-$75,000: 24.1% $75,000+: 17.7%