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Writing Reseda: Nowhere is safe

If you saw another movie set in Reseda, Boogie Nights, you have a hard time forgetting that donut shop scene. If you haven’t seen it, I won’t ruin the movie or your appetite by describing it. Let’s say that the violence in it shocked a lot of people, except for me. That’s because I lived in Reseda in the 70s and 80s.

I’ve written about Mary Ann Henderson and the Carl’s Jr. robbery elsewhere on my site. But my concerns about being safe in Reseda started before then.

There may have been a time when you could leave your house unlocked and walked anywhere you want late at night. But for as long as I could remember, we always double-checked our doors and windows before we went to bed — even in the late 60s.

Around that time, Officer Bill started visiting our elementary school, Vanalden. He let us climb in the squad car, flash the lights, and (if the principal allowed it) turn on the siren. But his main purpose was to tell us about safety. Don’t go anywhere without telling your parents and always go with a buddy. Don’t talk to strangers. Don’t go out at night. When you go trick or treating at Halloween, don’t go inside people’s houses and make sure your parents check your candy before you eat it. Don’t use drugs because they will kill you.

The world inside wasn’t safe either. Every night, the TV beamed pictures of the Vietnam War and announced the number of killed and wounded. Our favorite shows were interrupted to cover assassinations and riots.

The suburbs were supposed to be a refuge from crime and violence, but we felt increasingly unsafe as crime increased in the 70s. It didn’t stop us from walking to the store or going out with friends because we knew which areas and times were safe and which weren’t. But when Mary Ann Henderson was raped and murdered in 1976, it shocked us. My friends from high school continue talk about her and how her death affected us. Parents became stricter about where we went and how late we were out. As one of my friends said, “Nowhere is safe.”

I’ve been trying to write a book about Mary Ann for years, but I haven’t found a story that gelled. Maybe such a story is impossible to write. But I find myself writing about violence occurring in unexpected places. At work. At home. By people you thought you could trust. Safety is an illusion, and danger can come where and when you least expect it.

Crime has become a serious problem in Reseda with an overall crime rate 18% above the national average. But our fears began long before people put bars over their windows and steel gates over their storefronts. We grew up in a time where nowhere, not even a suburb, was safe.

But the news about Reseda isn’t all bad. In my final installment, I’ll talk about redemption and reclaiming the past.

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  1. Writing Reseda: Hillside versus flatland | Matthew Arnold Stern