Sandy Hits Close To Home

I’ve lived on the west coast most of my adult life, but was born and raised near the Jersey shore.  Many of my relatives still live in the area and none of them lost their home—or more importantly—their life in one of the most destructive storms ever to hit the east coast.  Despite the cold temperatures and lack of electricity for days on end, they endured, they survived.

Others throughout the region were not as fortunate and no words can comfort those who lost loved ones or watched helplessly as their homes and a lifetime of possessions were either swept out to sea or buried beneath soggy piles of debris.

Some of the saddest, most heartrending images of Sandy’s destruction were the people searching through the mud and the muck for their cherished family photos.  Not only had this monster storm wreaked havoc on their present and future lives, its mayhem also reached into their past.

Residents had no idea what they would find as they sifted through the scattered rubble that might contain bits and pieces of their former lives.  You could see the frozen resignation and stunned acceptance of loss on their faces, occasionally giving way to fresh tears of thanks as a piece of an old photo, like a hand rising from a grave, would catch their eye and be brought back from the dead.  A mud splattered picture of a son, a daughter or a parent smiling in happier times at a Thanksgiving dinner or flipping burgers on the backyard grill.

Stained and smeared, they may not look like much now, but any rescued image surely will be treasured and passed down to future generations, not only for who is in the photo, but for how it found its way back home.

Some who lost photos may be able to rebuild their memories using copies of pictures from family members who were outside of Sandy’s destructive path.  And going forward there will be more photos taken as families build new memories.  But for those who lost their homes, the physical building is gone forever.  Even rebuilding on that very spot will not bring the old house back.  There will be no new pictures of places once called home.  I’m reminded of that sad truth every time a natural disaster strikes.

Ten years ago my wife and I decided to sell our house and move into an apartment.  The boys were grown and the house was too much for two people.  We loved our home and wanted to remember it as it was when we lived there, so a week before the movers came I shot and narrated a video about the house, stopping in every room, every nook and cranny, every square foot of the house, inside and out.  California is no stranger to natural disasters, so a backup copy of that video is a thousand miles away safe with my son in Washington state.

I’ve also uploaded to the Cloud around 150 GB of recent digital and old scanned photos, my entire music library and most of the files on my computer’s hard drive.  In addition, everything is backed up on an external hard drive in case I ever need to grab it and run.   Still, some family memories remain vulnerable with way too many slides, negatives and photos yet to be copied.

Regardless of where we live, we are not immune to natural or manmade disasters.  The time to think about protecting your irreplaceable family photos is now, not as the water is rising or the ground beneath you begins to shake violently.  Two Wall Street Journal articles here and here can inspire and help you preserve your family memories.  And if you’d like to share pictures taken in or around a fondly remembered home, check out wikiHomePages.

There’s something special about the place we call home.  It’s our safe haven where we kick off the shoes we wear in the outside world, slide into a comfortable pair of slippers and lean back in our easy chair.  It’s where we close our eyes at night confident that when we wake up the next morning everything will be as we left it, as it was before.  Normal.  Hope all those affected by Superstorm Sandy return there soon.

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The Snow White Cottages

I thought I had pulled all the useful information out of the 1940 census, that I had discovered everything of relevance to me and my family.  Well, not exactly.

I recently read a Los Angeles Times article about a Glendale, CA, home tour.  One of the featured houses was built in 1927 and designed by Ben Sherwood, best known for the Snow White Cottages in Los Feliz.  Something about “Snow White” and “Los Feliz” rang a bell, so I clicked on the link to a November 2011 Times article about the cottages.

As soon as I saw the pictures of the cottages I understood why they seemed familiar.  My aunt Betty and her husband lived at 2908 Griffith Park Blvd. in 1940 in one of the eight cottages within the small complex.  I had found my aunt in the 1940 census a couple of months ago and used Google’s street view to see what the property looked like these days.  My first impression was that the homes looked interesting in that 1930s L.A. kind of way, nothing special just different.  It never occurred to me to refer to them as cottages. And I definitely did not make the Snow White connection.

The cottages were built in 1931, right around the corner from Walt Disney’s original animation studio.  Disney’s staff sometimes used them as offices, and according to the 1940 census, Claude Coats, a young animator at Disney, lived in cottage 2912.  Coats would go on to have a brilliant career at the studio and was honored as a “Disney Legend” in 1991.  Among the many films he worked on: “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.”

The Snow White movie didn’t come along until 1937, so the cottages may have been an inspiration for the design of the Seven Dwarfs’ homes, rather than the other way around. The cottages’ most well-known recent Hollywood connection was as the Sierra Bonita Apartments in David Lynch’s 2001 film, “Mulholland Drive.”

Talk about a house history.  Check out the Times article here for an in-depth look at these fascinating little cottages and their storybook existence.

Company Towns

My father’s New Jersey home was bought by the railroad in the mid-1930s and torn down to make way for a new road running parallel to the tracks.  The family got a good price for the old house and moved to a much nicer part of town.  Still, it must have been strange for my father driving over that road, his vanished living room, kitchen, and bedroom hanging like ghosts above the pavement.

It’s not unusual among family histories to find an old home bulldozed into oblivion to make way for a parking lot, highway or a new, more contemporary home.  While historians and preservationists may see it objectively as another assault on our cultural heritage, the families that used to live in the home experience a different, very personal and isolated sense of loss.  Their lives are changed forever, while down the street, across town, and a few blocks over, life goes on as usual.  But what if all the homes in the neighborhood were leveled?  What if the entire town became a tear-down?

In 1984, I was part of a television news crew documenting the last days of a small Oregon company town high up in the Coast Range.  Valsetz, Oregon, was founded in 1919 to harvest and mill the towering stands of Douglas fir that flourished in the cool, wet climate of the surrounding forests.

At its height of productivity during the 1940s, over a thousand people called Valsetz home.  The workers and their families lived in company houses, bought their food and supplies at the company store, and sent their children to the company schools.  But by the early 1980s the country was deep in a recession, with the timber industry particularly hard hit.  Owner Boise Cascade decided to shut down the sawmill and turn the entire area into a tree farm.  The mill was dismantled and hauled away, along with anything the company could salvage.  The homes of the workers, however, never got a chance at a new life someplace else.

All the old buildings were torn down and turned to rubble.  Valsetz, home to generations of hard-working timber families, ceased to exist.  All that remains today of this once thriving community is the tree farm, an annual town reunion and a website that keeps the memory of Valsetz alive.

But not all company towns that outlive their economic usefulness meet a similar fate.  The 100-year-old sawmill in Bonner, Montana, closed down in 2008, but the old company homes were never destroyed.  New owners recently bought the property and plan to renovate the old houses and rent them out as part of their overall economic development project.  Click here and here to read about how two local men with a plan for the future are breathing new life into this old company town.

In Plain Sight

Having hundreds, even thousands, of old family photos can be a mixed blessing.  Sure, you’re thankful that relatives–many of them now gone–thought ahead to preserve on film that Thanksgiving dinner at your great-grandmother’s house in 1943 or your first steps in your backyard in 1979.  And even if you haven’t looked at them in years, you know right where all your priceless memories are.  Unfortunately, where they are is likely a dark, dank, out of sight, out of mind kind of place.  And packed inside each tattered box of neglected photos is also a ton of guilt.

Organizing and preserving your family treasures can be overwhelming.  You know they deserve better and vow to get to them someday.  But when it comes to your ever-fading photos, over the years you’ve gone from being a garden variety, well-intentioned, amateur procrastinator to a top of the line, well-intentioned, professional procrastinator.  You don’t just put it off forever, but forever and a day.

If that sounds like you, I have a solution, or more like the start of a solution.  Here’s what you do.  I want you to go to that closet, storage room, attic or wherever else your old photos are entombed.  Throw open the door, drag the boxes out into the light and place them in a well-traveled area, such as your living room or family room, someplace you’re sure to see them every day.

The next step is to open a box of pictures and pull out a handful of pictures.  What we’re looking for is a photo taken in or around one of your family’s homes.  Do you recognize the people in the picture?  Can you recall or find out the address of the home?  How about the approximate year the snapshot was taken?  If the answer to all three questions is yes, the hunt is over for now.  There’s no pressure to organize your collection all in one day.  Close up the box and put it aside.

Write down a few sentences about the home in general.  Who owned it.  Some of the events that took place there.  Your memories of the home and its residents.  Add a separate couple of lines about what we see in that specific picture and note the approximate year it was taken.  Next, either scan or take a digital photo of the picture and email the jpg and your written descriptions to me at bill@wikiHomePages.com.
I’ll start a HomePage for the address on wikiHomePages.com and post it on our map.  In the future, you can go directly to the website and add additional photos and captions for that address.

And what about those boxes of photos?  I want you to leave them right where they are, sitting in plain sight. The entire dynamic has changed. You’re no longer guilty of ignoring your treasured photos. Gone are the days when you would put your head down and walk swiftly past them.  You’re actually doing something now.  Even if it’s just one picture at a time.

Once you see the history of the home preserved online, I’m betting that what was once a chore will become more of a willing work in progress where you find the time to sift through other photos from the address, or another home you once lived in.  And flush with your success locating and sorting the pictures of your homes, don’t be surprised if you can’t wait to begin organizing the rest of your family photos.  Remember, no task is too big when you break it down to bite-sized pieces.

Unclaimed Property

Researching and preserving my family’s history is very rewarding, in a personal sort of way.  What I didn’t count on, but was delighted to discover, was that my reward would also come in the form of dollars and cents.

1974 was a very busy time for my wife and me.  We began the year living in an apartment near Western Ave. and Beverly Blvd. in Los Angeles.  By April, we had moved into our first house, a two-bedroom, one-bath, stucco home in the San Fernando Valley.

The house had an addition on the back, hardwood floors, plus a big yard and a pool, which made it one of the more expensive homes on the block.  The price: $27, 500. Seriously.

Finding the house, searching for a lender, scraping together the down payment, meeting with realtors, signing papers and shopping for new furniture, all combined to make the spring of 1974 one big, blurry whirlwind.

Fast forward to 2010.  That’s when I began work on wikiHomePages.com, a website where people upload and post photos and stories of houses and apartments they or their family once called home.  As part of my research, I sorted through photos I had taken in and around my former homes and any papers I had saved pertaining to those addresses.

Seeing those street names and numbers again after so many years got me thinking.  I had heard stories about unclaimed property—money left behind in bank accounts and other abandoned financial assets—that sometimes get lost when people move.  I felt it was a long shot, but I decided to check it out.

My first stop was MissingMoney.com, a website that handles free unclaimed property searches for a number of states. I scrolled through a long list of people with my same name, but none of my old street addresses showed up.

California maintains its own website for lost property searches and claims.  I entered my name again and began scrolling through a list of L.A. addresses, convinced I was wasting my time.

Finding money is the kind of thing that happens to other people, not me.  And even if I did have cash due me, it would probably amount to one or two cents gathering dust in a long dormant checking account. So, imagine my surprise when up pops my old apartment address on Harvard Blvd.  An even bigger surprise was the amount due me: $284.40.

My “found money” was from an insurance policy that I cancelled early in 1974 while living at the apartment.  I recall being told by the insurance company that the policy had some cash value, but I didn’t expect it to amount to much.

Somehow the check was never forwarded when we moved to our new house.  There was so much else going on that year, that I simply forgot about it.

The next step to get the money took some time.  I had to fill out a lot of paperwork to prove my identity to the state of California and waited over 3 months for the check to arrive.  It took 36 years to bring me and my money together, but I’m not complaining.  Better late than never.

The total value of unclaimed property held by the states is estimated at over $32 billion.  If you’ve moved often, it’s well worth your time and effort to do an online search to find out if any of that money belongs to you.  And here’s something else to think about.  Unclaimed property is held forever.  As in Until The End of Time.  If you discover property belonging to a deceased relative—even one who died many years ago—and can prove you’re a rightful heir, you too could have a check headed your way.  Just remember to provide the state with your correct mailing address.  Especially if you’re in the process of moving and don’t want to wait decades for the check to catch up with you.