By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
By Dennis Romero
“I didn’t feel safe anymore,” Jimmy says, “so I quit.”
In 1996, he moved to Santa Monica, but he’s only had part-time jobs since then. “It’s so hard to find a job in California,” Jimmy says. “I didn’t know that, otherwise I would have stayed at 7-Eleven. It’s not like New York or New Jersey, where you can find a job with no problem.”
Jimmy was one of the hordes of single, homeless men on the streets of Santa Monica. He was commuting from his $9-an-hour, part-time job at a local mattress store on Tampa Avenue in the Valley, not far from where he now lives. But the MTA bus trips from the Westside to the Valley took forever, and the cost was a big bite from his salary — after taxes, Jimmy says, he was only making $200 or $230 a week. The city of Santa Monica was cracking down on homeless folks, so in 2006, he decided live on the streets in Northridge, a quiet, low-slung community with little crime and relatively few homeless. Sometime in 2007, after sleeping on the streets for a year, he was laid off from the mattress store — one of the early, invisible victims of the coming mass recession that was just gaining steam. That’s when Jimmy erected his current home.
“I was first on a corner with a sleeping bag,” he explains. “Then I started feeding the stray cats and building them homes and I decided to build myself a home — a tent.”
Jimmy never fed stray cats in Santa Monica because he says he couldn’t find them. But when he arrived in Northridge, he often found them prowling the streets at night. “The cats don’t come out during the day. Nobody knows where they go during the day. They disappear.”
After a while, as Jimmy traveled his route, he bumped into an entire community of people in Northridge, who help out feral cats, or “homeless” cats, as some of the most ardent feral-cat activists like to call them. Edward Muzika, for example, became one of Jimmy’s friends, one of several people who often donates cat food to Jimmy so he can maintain his nocturnal feeding routine.
“There are a lot of people who feed homeless cats,” Muzika says during a phone interview, “and we get to know each other.” Muzika, an editor of medical reports used in lawsuits, who says he annually spends thousands of dollars tending to stray cats, now meets Jimmy every night and they chat about things. Through those conversations, Muzika says he’s found Jimmy to be “very kind-hearted toward animals and people who don’t have much.”
It was when Jimmy was ticketed by Union Pacific for trespassing on private property — the big cement swath where Jimmy pitched his tent — Muzika says, that he became “outraged.”
“It’s an emphasis on property and not life,” says Muzika. “There’s a kind of greed and power grab going on there.”
Which, for a railroad company, would be nothing new.
In 1910, the Southern Pacific railroad, which was bought decades later by Union Pacific, founded Northridge as a depot town originally called Zelzah Station. There’s even a long and well-used Zelzah Avenue today. Southern Pacific was a major player in railroad transportation in California, running the first “through” train, from San Francisco to Los Angeles in 1876. It also became a major villain in the state, when a dispute over property rights in Hanford, California, turned into a bloody battle. Coined the “Mussel Slough Tragedy,” a California Historical Landmark monument sits on the site of the violence today.
Settlers in the Hanford area of Central California in 1880 were angry about Southern Pacific’s strong-arm tactics of removing people, sometimes with force, from land the railroad believed it owned. Newspaper reporters and settlers felt the railroad company’s controversial policies, backed by powerful politicians, were another glaring example of corporate greed and political corruption taking over California and the rest of the country. At a May 11, 1880, picnic, settlers clashed with Southern Pacific men who showed up to begin evictions; two men associated with the railroad were shot dead, as were six settlers.
Newspaper reporters and pulp novelists ran with the story, citing it as an ugly example of American capitalism run amok. The incident is even credited for informing the anti-monopoly policies of President Theodore Roosevelt. Much later, such stories of railroad companies running herd over settlers were used as material for Hollywood Westerns, such as Sergio Leone’s masterpiece, Once Upon a Time in the West. In Jimmy’s fight with Union Pacific, it appears that this time, the railroad company may be doing the bidding of someone else, and the action is playing out in a quiet courtroom in the upper reaches of the Valley.