By Eddie Rivera, News Editor
Somewhere near the Foothill Boulevard bridge, as it crosses the dry Tujunga wash near the busy 210 freeway on the northwestern edge of Sunland-Tujunga near Lake View Terrace, Kurt Koesler steps nimbly and diagonally down the wash’s steep concrete slopes. He stops to say hello to some still-sleepy homeless who’ve made camp underneath the boulevard above.
“Good morning,” Koesler, a Shadow Hills resident, says to one. “Sorry to bother you. Just checking the graffiti.”
Along with a visitor, Koesler ambles over to the massive concrete stanchions of the 210 freeway. On this early June morning, the stanchions are actually clean. Broad greyish-beige stripes have covered any taggers’ work.
“These days, crews from Graffiti Busters are showing up a couple of times a week,” Koesler explains. And if they don’t, Koesler is likely the first to notice. Over the last year, he has made it his unofficial mission to look after the Tujunga wash, visiting often to paint over graffiti and clean up trash.
Here, under the freeway, the dry wash is filled with discarded spray paint cans, strewn haphazardly, but some also in neat piles, almost as if waiting to be properly disposed of.
Koesler, who grew up in nearby Sun Valley near North Hollywood, remembers coming to the wash as a child with his dad, and with friends. He also remembers fishing in the local ponds, which were placed there by the gravel company that owned the nearby property.
“And I remember some crazy guy once chased off me and my friends with a thirty-aught-six [.30-06],” he laughed. “The area across the street from my parent’s house was all hillside and natural chaparral, so I kinda grew up with this kind of land in my blood,” he told a visitor.
For 38 years, Koesler, long-divorced and with a 27-year-old son, worked in the entertainment production industry, building cabinets for speaker systems, and eventually for video- and audio-editing rooms. He recalled first moving in to his company’s new loft office on the Columbia Pictures lot. One day, his door opened suddenly. There, in the doorway, were Mick Fleetwood and Stevie Nicks, “smoking a joint and staring at me!” They had rented the office across the hall. That’s rock and roll, Koesler would be the first to tell you.
When Koesler’s brick-and-mortar business finally ended in 2013, he began selling his cabinets online.
“I had plenty of time, just sitting at my computer,” he elaborated. “I was bored. This was about a year ago, and I was watching the Facebook pages, and seeing all these graffiti posts. I thought, `Oh hell, I have time, I’ll just go over there and clean it up. I have my afternoons free.’”
Just like that.
“Once, it was me and [local residents] Kristin Sabo and Tim Gardner, and we were coming down here to clean, and we parked by the bridge, and I thought we were going down under the bridge, and they pointed in the other direction. I was stunned. There were all these spray paint cans everywhere. I filled three bags before I had to leave early, but after that, we got Ranger Torres to come up here and get involved, and it grew from there.” Albert Torres, chief ranger with the Los Angeles Department of Recreation & Parks, has helped clean up and remove homeless encampments all over the city, including Sunland Park, over the past few years.
Much of the problem, at least as far is graffiti is concerned, is jurisdiction. Koesler admits that he has been banging his head against the wall trying to get some help from LA City Councilmember Felipe Fuentes, whose District 7 includes the wash. But the freeway is Caltrans’s property, and it is Caltrans’s problem.
“The [City] Council office says, `We can’t help you. That’s not us.’ And I tell them, “This runs right through the middle of your district. How can that not be you?’”
Koesler stops to point out tunnels in the walls of the Tujunga wash channel.
“These tunnels here are homeless camps,” he explains. He points to the discarded shopping carts just below the tunnel entrances. “They make their homes in there, and they toss everything they don’t want down here in the wash. We’re just attracting more and more poor people.”
We see, at minimum, a dozen shopping carts this morning. Also, someone has tried to hook up a water hose to a faucet at a nearby nursery.
Working the way he does, cleaning up as often as he is able, Koesler has a unique and valuable perspective on his local community.
“My sense is that there are always those who bitch and complain online, and who want to point fingers at others, and get in political arguments with people,” Koesler says. “But there is a small amount of people who actually do things, I mean, physically do things.”
He chuckles, ironically. “But, if it wasn’t for Facebook, I wouldn’t be doing this.”
And despite his frustrations with bureaucracy, he is not antigovernment, just frustrated.
“I expect government to do what they’re supposed to do,” he explains. “Protect us, give us a safe place to live. That’s paramount, that’s the number one thing. But when they let these gang members come down here, one thing leads to another. But I understand the resource argument.”
He mostly sees himself as just a very small part of the solution, filling some cracks and gaps in those resources.
“I know people are tired, they work, and they have families. But everyone can spend one, maybe two hours, doing something, even if it’s just seeing a discarded shopping cart and calling it in. Just something. It would be nice just to see a little more people involved.”
He would know.
A community cleanup of the wash, organized by Koesler through Facebook, mostly, occurred on June 20. About 25 people showed up at the same Foothill Boulevard bridge with gloves, trash bags, and ropes for hauling trash—including shopping carts—up the steep embankments of the wash. Through their own will and muscle, Koesler and the others got the job done themselves.