Custom motorcycle builder Barry Koven remembers the weekend nights 15 years ago when as many as 200 bikers clogged Foothill Boulevard, roaring up and down Tujunga’s main drag and looking to raise a little Cain.
Veteran biker Bob “Apple” Sexton wistfully ticks off the names of a dozen or so biker-friendly bars they once frequented--the Double-D, the Yukon Bell, the Shangri-La, Louie’s--all of which are gone now.
“We’d basically spend the weekend getting drunk and beating each other up,” recalled Sexton, a hirsute and weathered 49-year-old who was nursing an afternoon beer at the Bullpen, his roadhouse of choice. “But people are getting older. You grow out of that stage after a while.”
Many Southern Californians with a passing knowledge of Tujunga still think of it as a rough-and-tumble haven for leather-clad rebels and their beloved hogs. But most locals agree that Tujunga--an isolated patch of basalt and granite in the northeast corner of the San Fernando Valley known as “The Rock"--is not the biker town it used to be.
Tujunga’s last hard-core biker bar, The Place, closed its doors about a year ago. The local influence of the Mongols motorcycle gang, which more or less claimed The Place as its own, was weakened recently when a federal undercover sting resulted in murder, drug dealing and other charges against its members.
And the godfather of the biker scene, “Gentleman” Bob Bell--longtime leader of the Devil’s Henchmen, Tujunga’s dominant motorcycle club--has moved out of the state, his friends said.
For the most part, it seems many locals who chose the full-on biker lifestyle have simply burned out or faded away. “I’m just gettin’ too [darned] old,” said Bill Elze, 71, a longtime Tujunga resident who rode with a club called the Shaggers in the 1950s.
A few of those who remain are even settling into civic life, after a fashion: Sexton, who still rides a 1990 Harley-Davidson FXR, is running for “honorary mayor.” The “election” is a charity fund-raising event in which donors “buy” votes for $1 each. The campaign has pitted Sexton against a well-known real estate agent and the proprietor of a Sunland hair salon.
“I’m just doing it because I can,” Sexton said. “My choice [of charity] is handicapped children.”
These days, Tujunga’s real estate agents and civic boosters talk about rising house prices, the 105 luxury homes under construction in the hills and efforts to clean up Foothill Boulevard--the well-worn stretch of auto repair shops and empty storefronts that comprise the community’s commercial backbone.
“Slowly things are turning around up here,” said Lloyd Hitt, president of Sunland-Tujunga’s Little Landers Historical Society. “Property is in short supply in L.A., so people are starting to discover us.”
But outlaw reputations die hard.
“I’ve heard stories about that place being a bottom-of-the-hill kind of place filled with scooter trash,” said John R. Schlim, a former Oakland policeman and expert on criminal motorcycle gangs. “That’s just always what I’ve heard; I’ve never worked a case down there.”
Attracting Bikers Since the 1950s
Nestled below a crook of the Angeles National Forest, Tujunga is a gateway to some of the most breathtaking and challenging rides in Southern California, and Tujungans acknowledge that its location has attracted motorcycle enthusiasts since the 1950s. But they take issue with the “scooter trash” image.
Tujunga was founded in 1913 as a quasi-utopian agrarian community, but the hardscrabble land could not support the early settlers’ dreams. It was eventually annexed to Los Angeles, attracting middle-class families that commuted to aerospace jobs in the Valley after World War II, Hitt said. Many white-collar families still live in the quiet neighborhoods off the boulevard.
Artists and bohemians also have found their way to the foothills. Fiction writer T. Coraghessan Boyle lived there for a while; he recently wrote that his former neighbors consisted of “motorcycle gangs, killer dogs, dysfunctional cars up on blocks, chop shops and methamphetamine labs.”
Those who have stuck around, however, tend to talk about Tujunga’s small-town ambience, the feeling that neighbors are not just friendly, but they also look after one another. Longtime residents such as Sunland-Tujunga Chamber of Commerce President Kathy Anthony say the remaining bikers can be counted on more than others to keep an eye on things.
“When people think of bikers, they think of these roughneck, bad dudes, but that’s not the case,” said Anthony, a Sunland tailor who has lived in the area 40 years. “They have a lot of respect for the town, [and] nobody does anything bad in a bikers town, because the bikers take the law in their own hands.”
A number of locals, from business owners to barflies, compared the bikers to the posses of the Old West. Especially popular is the legend of the Easter Carnival a few years ago. With a thinly stretched Los Angeles Police Department unable to provide sufficient security, the legend goes, the Chamber of Commerce called the old bikers out of retirement to keep the peace when some street gang members began acting up.
“Here were all these old guys and their old Harleys,” Anthony said. “They just stopped it. Just by showing up, the gangs split.”
Others tell a similar story, set during the weeks after the 1992 Rodney King verdict.
“During the riots, the cops had no problems up here,” said Tim Caves, owner of TC’s Old V-Dub Home, an auto shop on Foothill Boulevard. “The bikers took care of things. You could hear ‘em rumbling all night.”
“Let me put it like this,” said Koven, a lifelong biker who has lived in the area 24 years. “There are a lot of good guys who are bikers, and there are scumbags. When you look at somebody, you don’t know who the scumbags are. I’ve seen scumbags in a three-piece suit. And I’ve seen guys in dirty Levi’s with their hair all roughed out, and they’re like perfect gentlemen.”
Police say the bad-apple bikers bring a particular set of problems, mainly the use and sale of speed. Tujunga’s reputation for meth peaked in the 1990s, and the LAPD singled out the area in 1994 as the speed capital of the Valley. Users cruising for a fix were a common sight on some of the narrow side streets off Tujunga Canyon Boulevard.
Police say the meth scene, though still active in Tujunga, is no longer the problem it was, thanks to block-by-block community policing efforts and the town’s relative gentrification.
“For bikers, that’s the drug of choice,” said LAPD Officer Bobby Royal, who has patrolled Tujunga for four years. “But we really have put a dent in it.”
Tujunga resident Kelly Jackson, 40, said she used to be addicted to speed, and she often sees the officer who busted her--and caused her to go straight. She sometimes stops him to offer her thanks.
“I’d say two to three years ago [the meth scene] was really really rampant,” said Jackson, who hangs out with motorcycle club members. “People were walking the streets all night long. Since then it’s gotten real quiet. A lot of people, myself included, have quit the drugs.”
These days, Royal said, Tujunga is actually the safest town in the Foothill Division, based on figures for serious crimes in the first three months of the year. The rate is partly due to the mellowing of the old motorcycle guys, he said.
“They’re not the troublemakers they once were,” he said. “I can’t tell you the last time I took a call that involved a hard-core biker.”
Living Down Another Reputation
For years, Tujunga struggled to live down another reputation that is tied to bikers: inhospitality to minorities.
“Back in the ‘60s and early ‘70s, the bikers took credit for keeping the blacks out--which pretty much wasn’t true,” said Roy Ledoux, 55, a co-owner of Harley shop R&J; Motors and an area resident since 1967. “They did burn a few crosses, though.”
Visitors to the few remaining roadhouses along Foothill can still hear opinions on race that would not be out of place in the Jim Crow South, but there’s a general sense that the atmosphere has changed.
“I think there has been a--how do I want to put this?--a much greater acceptance of people of all backgrounds,” said Cheryl Dellepiane, principal of Verdugo Hills High School. “I think it’s just because of people [of different races] moving in and becoming neighbors and friends.”
Some minorities agree that Tujunga’s redneck image is overstated.
“It’s gotten better,” said Donnella Wilson, 32, an African American who moved to Tujunga from Pacoima 10 years ago to raise her family away from the threat of gangs.
“When I first moved out here, there was maybe a couple of people who made racist comments. But there were a lot of Caucasian people who told me to overlook their comments.
“Now I love it, because there’s peace of mind for me,” she said. “My neighbors are excellent. I love Tujunga. I wouldn’t leave it for anything.”