John Boston | The Nostalgia of An Armpit in Old D-Town Newhall

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Maybe 50 years from now, I’ll get my official card as a Newhall old-timer, which allows discounts, like free drinking water at Hart Park and no waiting for a counter seat at the Way Station.

Year 47.

Still no beef stew and biscuits.

I still smile and shake my head at the nostalgia painted around my boyhood home.

Truth? Until recently and since the bona fide 5-star Southern Hotel burned down in 1888, our rural version of Rodeo Drive or Champs-Elysees has been quite the armpit.

Back when, Downtown Newhall’s fashion district, operated by “Uncle” Milt Diamond, sold both kinds of shirts: “Poly” AND “Ester.” The few eateries could somehow manage to ruin a French fry and the closest thing to scenery on our main drag was a ceramic pot in front of Howdy Cleaners overflowing with cigarette butts, 96.5% of a dead tree and a few yellowed pamphlets from the Tony & Susan Alamo Foundation warning that if you didn’t join their church, wide-eyed congregants would kill your cat.

Personally, I never felt threatened by the Alamos.

Didn’t own a cat.

Well. An indoor one that you had to feed or pet.

D-Town Newhall was an aesthetic-free zone. No park. No statue. No shade. No benches. No art. The soul of the community could best be described by our two signs: “Tires” and “Eat.”

About once a decade, since the late 1880s, the local captains and captain-ettes of industry would ban together, feverishly poke holes in the ozone with index fingers and Finally Demand The De-Uglification of Downtown Newhall. 

By cracky.

In the early 1960s, merchants even hired an architect to create a master theme involving raising wooden sidewalks three cubits and gluing rustic timber paneling onto the outside of businesses. Plus, he sketched an epic frontier fort entrance at present-day Railroad and Main. It looked like you were entering a Randolph Scott movie. 

Our business leaders loved the idea. They scattered like cockroaches exposed to light when the architect presented the bill.

Oh well.

Punt.

Wouldn’t hurt to go another decade or two looking like the Elephant Man of Urban Development.

In the early 1970s came Valencia. Downtown Newhall morphed from the main shopping district for 1,000 square miles to being the smellier and unsightly hairy armpit. I’d tirelessly beg folks to support DN, although the time would have been better spent skewering human skulls onto spears outside the shopping district as a warning to missionaries and bargain seekers.

Support the old-time locals? It almost always ended in tragedy.

Few today remember Newhall Stationery. You know. The store that offered copy paper by individual sheets and three chewed-on pencils as their entire inventory?

The roads to hell and Downtown Newhall, both paved with good intentions. One day, I needed a ream of paper. The smart thing would be to shop anywhere in Valencia. For one thing, everything was four times cheaper. But, with the zeal of a Baptist trying to talk indigenous Hawaiians out of cannibalism, I took my business to Newhall Stationery. There were three people in the store: me, the braindead young clerk and her friend. I plopped down my purchase on the counter and stood while these two girls chatted — I’m not kidding you — for nearly 10 minutes.

Finally, the clerk, without a “Hello” or “Howdy y’all!” laconically rang up my order. No offer to put it in a bag. No receipt. No eye contact. No “Dear Painted Whores of Babylon THANK YOU for shopping at Newhall Stationery and saving my job and our ancient way of life!”

Way back when, I had dozens of shopping experiences bordering on hostile.

There used to be Harry’s Shoe Repair on the main drag in Newhall. When I’d take my life’s favorite possession, my rough-out cowboy boots, for new soles, Harry refused to fix them.

Refused.

Harry was the size of a cigarette and more sour than a sack of wet Democrats. Harry’s reason for not fixing my cowboy boots?

“Don’t wanna.”

This from a guy who nailed heels on penny loafers every third week.

I’m not kidding. Harry, the town’s shoe repairman, thought it was “kooky” to put new soles on old boots.

“Harry,” I asked. “Isn’t that sort of the mission statement of your business?”

I’d get kicked out of Margaret’s Snak Shak hamburger salon not because I was a pill, but because I was a kid. Margaret wouldn’t serve children. Or women. Felt they didn’t eat fast enough.

And, of course, we’re straddled with that flawed organ, the brain, which remembers slights more than blessings. In the 1950s and ’60s, how many perfect tuna sandwiches on toasted wheat did I enjoy at Newhall Pharmacy, washed down by a vanilla Coke while I read every Marvel Comic for free? Or working at Sprouse Reitz when I was barely 100 pounds, mostly feet and Adam’s apple? Or the useless comedy of getting my bicycles registered at the old Sheriff’s station on 6th? Or Walt Fisher in full and sopping wet cowboy regalia barging into The Way Station at 5 a.m. and yelling: “WHISKEY AND FRESH HORSES FOR MY MEN!!” Or riding a fine tall horse down San Fernando Road to start the 4th of July parade every year?

Downtown Newhall in the year 2020? I love the year-round festive lights, the trees, the benches. It’s beginning to flirt with being charming.

After a century-plus, it’s finally becoming itself, making memories for future old-timers.

And that, is a beautiful thing…

John Boston is a local shopper, and, sometimes, an award-winning writer.

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