A couple years ago, they didn't know each other. Like so many Angelenos, like so many Valleyites, they tended to keep to themselves and their tract homes, seldom exchanging more than a few words. Good fences, the thinking went, make good neighbors.
But fences, physical and psychic, may also collect graffiti.
Barbara Link and her husband were bicycling down their west Van Nuys street one day when they saw a neighbor's home had been vandalized by spray paint. The frightened woman accused the boys across the street. Gang members, she said.
"We thought, 'Wow, this is getting real close,' " Barbara recalled.
Barbara's husband confronted one boy. In the end, he helped the Links paint out the graffiti. Then the Links got involved in Neighborhood Watch.
Barbara was sitting in Ellen Angry reader's living room as she told this story, one of 10 neighbors who wanted to give me an earful about the new pawnshop going in at Victory Boulevard and Woodley Avenue. (Ellen didn't want her real last name in the paper.)
When Ellen called the other day, she was so irate I feared she might be Cesar Salgado's mother-in-law. Salgado, the manager of Van Nuys Pawn Shop, had phoned earlier to accuse me of trashing the collateral loan business in my column last Tuesday, failing miserably in my duty to accurately portray an enterprise that provides a legitimate service to a strapped-for-cash public in these difficult economic times.
"My mother-in-law read the story and said, 'Boy, this guy sure doesn't like pawnshops,' " he told me.
So it was journalistically reassuring when Ellen, even angrier than Salgado, accused me of whitewashing this scurrilous industry that profits from other people's misfortune and the work of thieves.
Such perceptions are why Ellen, Barbara Link and more than 400 other people had signed a petition in hopes of keeping Van Nuys' newest pawnshop away from a residential neighborhood that otherwise seems blessed by the trees and greenery of nearby Van Nuys Golf Course and Lake Balboa Park.
"How would you feel about having a pawnshop in your neighborhood?" asked Tracy Hall, a Neighborhood Watch organizer. "Can you understand how we feel?"
The more these Neighborhood Watchers talked, the more it became clear that this particular pawnshop, now poised to open, has become the focus of many frustrations. It was the kind of conversation you hear a lot these days in the Valley, filled with tales of graffiti, drug dealers and threatening stares, a lament about well-kept middle-class neighborhoods against encroaching crime, troubled schools, an unforgiving economy.
"It's amazing how the San Fernando Valley is going down the drain," said Barry Eisenman, who plans to sell his jewelry shop, what with the pawnbroker coming in. He grew up in the Valley; now he lives in Palmdale.
Pawnshops are a perfect symbol--a symptom of hard times and, at least by reputation, a haunt of "undesirables." Even Salgado acknowledged that some pawnbrokers are less reputable than others. And now, in this neighborhood, comes a pawnshop, going in right next door to a store that sells kites and Rollerblades and other fun stuff to take to the park. Why not a dry cleaner?
After nine years at the same location, Eisenman expected better treatment from the landlord who leased space in the same strip mall to the pawnbroker. "He told me, 'Business is business, Barry,' " Eisenman bitterly recalled.
What will happen to the value of their homes, already down about $50,000 in the current slump?
"I wouldn't have bought in this neighborhood if a pawnshop had been there," Joe Kenworthy said.
And to think, Tracy Hall added, in just the past year, Neighborhood Watch and community-based policing had brought crime down by 20% in this area.
"It's like two steps forward, one step back," said Donna Colleran.
So they've called City Hall and they're studying their political options. They were shocked to learn that opening a pawnshop is easier than opening a liquor store. They'll state their case in a hearing before the Police Commission, hoping to secure restrictions on its hours, lighting and signs. By some accounts, the pawnbroker has already agreed not to deal in firearms. Tracy Hall isn't so sure.
There is, however, one thing Tracy Hall is sure about. A couple of years ago, this neighborhood couldn't have collected more than 400 signatures opposing anything in just six days. It just wasn't that organized. There just wasn't the sense of community.
And that's the best hope, she suggests, for making a difference.