BY CATHERINE YESAYAN
The Coronavirus lockdown has generated some creative vibes for some of us. With some extra time on my hands, I ventured into writing about the old days, when we first arrived in Glendale.
Over the past several years, I’ve written stories for Asbarez Daily Newspaper about Armenian communities in different parts of the world. However, I’ve neglected to write about my own city, Glendale – home to a large number of Armenians.
Let me begin by telling you my story. I came to Glendale in 1979. Our move to America was not planned. In December of 1978, my husband and I, with our 4-year-old daughter, left Iran because we sensed there was unrest brewing in the county. We thought we would spend a few weeks in London, where we planned to spend Christmas, then return home. However, the day we chose to leave, the opposition got a handle on the regime and the political landscape changed overnight.
Stuck in London and unable to return, we looked into different options. We had friends in London who advised us that it would be a better idea to seek residency in the United States rather than England. A logical choice was New York City, because my uncle lived there. From London, we flew to New York. There, my uncle suggested that starting a new life would be easier in California. On January 6, 1979, we arrived in Glendale, where a few friends had already made their homes.
All these memories rushed to my mind when, recently, Sears department store in Glendale, after 85 years in business, shut down. The news brought a wistful sadness.
When we first arrived 40 years ago, after a brief hotel stay, we rented our first apartment in Glendale. With the advice of our friends, we furnished it with furniture and appliances from Sears. We bought our first refrigerator, our first washer-dryer and other smaller pieces – all from Sears.
The years melted away. Today, as I look back at the last 40 years,it truly doesn’t seem so long ago. However, back in the day, when I learned that the Sears building had been firmly rooted in Glendale for 45 years – since 1935 – it seemed ancient.
The Sears building, from the outside, reflected a stylized Art Deco aesthetic. Its middle tower was a staple of department stores built in that era in the United States. The inside looked tired; however, there were two sets of “grand” staircases on opposite sides of the store. They made a great impression and told me that, once, the department store was bustling with customers.
At the time, our friends had also suggested we shop at the local Kmart. One day, while shopping there, I heard a sales promotion from the store’s loudspeakers. I followed the rotating and twinkling blue light to the corner of the store. There, I saw a rack of women’s dresses for two or three dollars each. It was a ten-minute special. I bought three dresses. I jazzed up one of the dresses by pulling a corner of the skirt up. Underneath, I wore a petticoat with frills, which I had from before. I guess that alteration made a dramatic statement, because people often stopped me to ask where I had bought it.
I later learned that the “Blue Rotating Light” was a staple of Kmart stores. The tagline said, “Attention Kmart shoppers…” That very Kmart was one of the first to close down – about 20 years ago. The purchase of that dress was one of my sweetest memories of our early days in Glendale.
In those days, Downtown Glendale looked like a ghost town. The buildings on the sides of the main streets were either one story or, at most, two story, with outdated store fronts. Having been to the crowded and vibrant Downtowns of European cities, and having just arrived from New York City, it was astonishing to see the empty streets of Glendale, devoid even of foot traffic.
Among those bare streets stood Glendale’s shopping mall, the Glendale Galleria, which, with its enclosed all around red-brick walls and windowless façade, looked like a fortress. There was nothing exposed from the inside. It was another surprising sight for us. The Galleria was built in 1976, about three years before we arrived in Glendale. Although the outside of the Galleria looked somber, from its opening years to this day, it has been one of the most successful shopping centers in the entire United States.
Once we arrived in Glendale, we enrolled our daughter, who was four at the time, at St. Mary’s Armenian preschool. The school was founded only a few years earlier, in 1975, with only eight registered students. The school was connected to a small church, which was purchased the same year the preschool opened.
The church served the community with full-throttle Sunday liturgies and other religious ceremonies, Christenings, and marriages. However, by 1985, the building seemed to be too small for the fast-growing community. As a result, another, much larger church on Central Avenue was purchased. After some refurbishing, it began serving the community in July of 1988.
Less than a year after our arrival, several other Armenian families moved to Glendale. The Board of Directors of St. Mary’s school felt an urgency to seek out a bigger campus to move the kindergarten and the higher grades to. Soon after, the Board located a vacant campus within the boundaries of the La Canada school district, about four miles north of Glendale. Our daughter started kindergarten at the new location on Palm Drive.
A year later, another opportunity presented itself. A school in the neighboring city of La Crescenta was up for sale. The visionaries on the Board of St. Mary’s school were quick to make a decision to purchase the campus, knowing that they would be able to put it to good use. Around the same time, philanthropist Vahan Chamlian from Fresno, California fully paid off the school’s loan. To express their gratitude, members of the Board decided to name the school Chamlian Armenian School.
Here, I’d like to interject and say that our daughter, who we enrolled at St. Mary’s preschool in those early days, had classmates at the school who she is friends with to this day.
The preschool campus has remained at its primary location, where it had its humble beginnings, at the corner of Carlton and Chevy Chase. However, the campus has expanded since then, as the preschool acquired additional properties, adjacent to its grounds.
In 1990, Mr. and Mrs. Ralph and Savey Tufenkian made a generous donation of $250,000 in memory of their beloved son, Richard. In honor of its benefactor, the preschool was renamed St. Mary’s Richard Tufenkian Armenian Preschool.
This year, on February 8, more than 600 dedicated community members, parents, alumni, dignitaries, and supporters of St. Mary’s Richard Tufenkian Preschool and Kindergarten attended the school’s 45th Anniversary Gala, where $535,000 was raised in support of the Tufenkian school’s Modernization and Expansion Project, to be completed by the year 2025.
Today, 670 students attend Chamlian school (K to 8th), and over 200 children are enrolled in the nursery and kindergarten at Tufenkian preschool.
In 1985, the Armenian Sisters Academy opened its doors in La Crescenta, CA. Today, ASA serves 260 students in grades pre-kindergarten to 8th, the Roman Catholic Church being its religious affiliation.
There are several Armenian preschools and kindergartens. However, Chamlian school and the Armenian Sister’s Academy remain, in Glendale, the only schools with middle schools. Similarly, there are several Armenian churches, but St. Mary’s church is the largest.
In 1987, the Davidian & Mariamian Educational Foundation was established, with a mission to teach our youth the Armenian language and cultural heritage. The Foundation created an after-school program for elementary students in public schools. The program is conducted in Glendale, Burbank, North Hollywood, and Los Angeles areas. I personally attest to the wonderful and efficient programs they offer.
There are currently around 10,000 Armenian students enrolled in K to 12th grades in the Glendale Unified School District. Due to the large number of Armenian students, in the 2016 to 2017 school year, the School District began to commemorate the Armenian Genocide with an official school holiday on April 24. Glendale is the first school district in the nation to do so.
Today, the Superintendent of the Glendale School District is an Armenian – Dr. Vivian Ekchian. Additionally, four out of five members of the school district Board are Armenians. We should be very proud of that fact. Three out of five city council members are Armenian, as well.
I assume that, around the time we arrived in this neck of the woods, perhaps only a few thousand Armenians had made Glendale their homes. However, through the course of the upcoming four decades, massive waves of Armenians moved to Glendale – largely due to conflicts and civil unrest, including the Lebanese Civil War, the Islamic Revolution in Iran, other Middle Eastern wars and, of course, the breaking away of Armenia from the Soviet Union. Today there are an estimated 80,000 Armenians living in Glendale.
In the early days, the Iranian Armenian Society was another hub that brought the community together. The Society was founded in 1956, originally in Hollywood. In 1978, the Society purchased a building on Brand Avenue in Glendale. That same building on Brand was purchased by the Redevelopment Agency of the City of Glendale in 2003. In 2011, the Armenian Society moved to its final location, to the newly built and well-appointed three story building on Louise Ave in Glendale.
I have a fond memory of a Christmas bazaar that the women’s chapter of that society had organized during the first year of our stay in Glendale. The talented women had artistically created exquisite Christmas decorations and ornaments for sale. We bought some trimmings for our home and our Christmas tree, which I treasured and reused year after year.
One of the important components of the society was to conduct language classes on Saturdays for Armenian kids to learn how to read and write in Armenian. Other chapters and activities included: music, choir, dance instructions, and various activities for seniors. The society had a sizable hall, where many events such as weddings, christening, and other celebrations took place.
Back in those days, alongside of the Iranian Armenian Society, there was also Homenetmen, the worldwide Armenian institution that promotes sports and scouting activities. Originally established in 1918 in Istanbul, Turkey, the aim of Homenetmen is to provide youth with strong bodies and minds. In addition, Homenetmen exposes our youth to the wealth of Armenian culture and heritage.
The Glendale chapter of Homenetmen was established in 1978, with only seven volunteer members. The organization experienced tremendous growth during the surge of Armenian migration in 1980s. Today, the Glendale chapter is the largest in the United States, with nearly 2,300 members. Homenetmen provides family-oriented scouting, athletic, cultural, and educational programs for Armenian youth. My children took part in the organization’s scouting program.
Today, in Glendale, at the corner of Broadway and Brand Avenues, there is a Marshalls store. But in 1979, an Armenian restaurant stood at that very spot. The owner, I assume, was an Armenian from Iran – I say so, because the restaurant offered Persian-style yogurt soup, aash maast. We ate there often. I remember one day, when I was pregnant and had a cold, I was craving that yogurt soup. I felt much better after consuming a large bowl my husband brought me. That restaurant closed years ago. I remember it fondly.
Phoenicia Restaurant, which offers Armenian-Lebanese food, was another place we frequented in those days. I recently met with the proprietor of the restaurant, Ara Kalfayan, and asked him about what inspired him to open a restaurant. “While I was a university student in San Francisco, I worked at a restaurant,” he said. So, when the business minded Kalfayan moved to Southern California, he thought he would start a business that he knew something about. Estblished in 1978, Phoenicia still stands in its original location on Central Avenue and has expanded its grounds to outdoor patios and banquet rooms. Kalfayan is the epitome of a good restaurateur. You will always spot hi,m attending to his customers with a genuine smile and a warm handshake.
Avakian Grocery was the first Armenian grocery store in Glendale. Mr. Avakian and his wife started the business in 1975 on the southeast corner of Chevy Chase Boulevard and Glendale Avenue. I remember in those early days, Avakian’s Grocery would donate generous gifts to a number of banquets and gatherings we attended. In 1980, Mr. Avakian sold the business to a family from Iran who had recently migrated to Glendale. The new owners kept the name “Avakian” and, for nearly 40 years, offered the best services to their customers until they closed the business. Today, there are countless Armenian grocery stores, but most of Glendale’s Armenians still remember the Avakian Grocery with special affection.
Today, aside from thenumerous grocery stores, I can count close to 30 Armenian bakeries in Glendale. Other Armenian businesses include multitudes of doctors’ offices, pharmacies, flower shops, hairdressers, mechanic shops, and dance studios.
I cannot end this story without mentioning Larry Zarian, a former mayor and the first Armenian-American to be elected to public office. In 1983, Zarian became the first Armenian elected to the Glendale City Council, where he served for 16 years and earned the nickname “The People’s Mayor.”
Zarian died at age 73, in October of 2011, from an aggressive blood cancer. He was an admirable member of Glendale’s Armenian-American community and an inspiration to many. He used his time to advocate for numerous causes and served on many boards within our city and throughout the state.
His tireless efforts set an exemplary precedent for the next generation of Armenians to become active in the city’s politics. His love for Glendale and for Armenian causes was evident in the actions he took. After his death, the historic Glendale Train Station was dedicated to him, and was named as the “Larry Zarian Transportation Center.” Today, we are blessed to see the many young, Armenian elected officials who have followed in his footsteps, leading the way for both Armenians and all the other minorities that now reside together in Glendale.
I hope I was able to give you a good idea of what our Glendale looked and felt like in the old days.