The Big Breakup

Los Angeles Times Magazine
July 22, 2001

My parents found the San Fernando Valley in the great American exodus to the suburbs that began with World War II. At the time, "The Valley" evoked images of newlyweds gabbing with film stars over the orchard fence or in line at the Piggly Wiggly. Clark Gable, the reigning movie king, grew oranges in Encino and joined his actor pals racing motorcycles over the dirt farm roads that laced the Valley's west end.

On weekends you might spot famous faces motoring to a bridge game at Desilu, the Devonshire Street ranch of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz. Coronet magazine pronounced the early postwar Valley a "dizzy, ubiquitous mixture of Fifth Avenue and Main Street [where] one may find a glamour starlet in imported gabardine chatting earnestly with a chicken farmer in jeans."

Hype like this kept 'em coming by the thousands. From over the hill in Los Angeles and beyond, young couples eager to make up for lost time rushed through the Cahuenga Pass to take root and germinate on their rectangle of Valley soil. They made babies and turned the Valley into the country's swimming pool and sports car capital, inventing a lifestyle centered around backyard barbecues, Little League and nourishing one's own patch of suburbia to be a tad more abundant than the one next door. "Some just grow flowers, some raise horses and dogs and cattle and goats," Los Angeles Times columnist Bill Henry waxed in a '50s paean to Valley life. What mattered most, Henry proclaimed, was that the Valley was not Los Angeles. It was someplace far better: "Thousands of us commute to town to earn our living and then hurry back to the Valley to enjoy the sort of living we think makes the trip worthwhile."

Today the San Fernando Valley is frequently the butt of jokes and a favorite symbol of rampant suburbia. The scorn is mutual. Almost no one who lives inland of the Santa Monica Mountains identifies their hometown as Los Angeles; they live in Mission Hills or Reseda or another of the 30 post office addresses that fragment the Valley. The Valley legally belongs to Los Angeles and contains half of the city's land area, yet it never really has been of Los Angeles. The relationship is similar to that of step-siblings who share the same home but would never be mistaken for blood relations. Or it is like that of a married couple whose union has yet to be consummated.

In this case, the wedding took place March 29, 1915, when the Valley's scattered settlers voted 681-25 to accept annexation to Los Angeles. Some sections of the Valley held out, but except for the still-independent cities of Burbank and San Fernando, the rest soon gave in to a nearly irresistible inducement. Joining L.A. was a condition of drinking the water from William Mulholland's famed aqueduct.

Despite the marriage of convenience, the two parties resisted a merger of the heart. Even now, while Los Angeles strives to be world-class and cosmopolitan, the Valley's high fences and mature shrubbery hide pockets of dirt streets and chicken roosts. If you know where to look, you can find forgotten creeks and remnants of the fruit orchards and horse corrals that once covered the terrain. This implacable divide, both physical and cultural, can't be ignored in understanding the dynamics swirling around the question of whether the Valley should quit Los Angeles. If approved by voters in an expected citywide vote on secession in November 2002, the move would create a pair of smaller, side-by-side 21st century cities.

There is ample reason to view the Valley as a separate place. It possesses its own colorful past of local heroes and scoundrels, and of military skirmishes fought on the Valley floor with lances and cannons. The cross-mountain rivalry with Los Angeles began in the early 1800s when the padres at Mission San Fernando, Rey de Espana, dammed Rio Porciuncula and ignited the thirsty downstream pueblo's wrath. Even so, there's a budding irony in the gathering momentum for taking Valley secession seriously. The breakup referendum just might pass. But the dissolution would come at a moment when the Valley no longer looks so distinct from the throbbing metropolis over the hill. In their middle age, the newlyweds have come to look more alike than ever. Is divorce really the answer?


Chandler Boulevard in Sherman Oaks is one of those gorgeous overgrown drives that makes you long to go for a cruise with the top down in the July twilight. Generously shaded by mature firs and cedars, bathed in the aroma of fresh-mown lawns, Chandler's seductions are those of the good suburban life. This is the Valley as it once was, arboreal and oozing with local flavor. Unlike most Valley thoroughfares, Chandler Boulevard also has a past. Real estate promoters carved it out of the world's largest wheat field in 1912. It formed the first leg of an audacious road called Sherman Way that slithered across the plain for 14 miles, beckoning potential home buyers to take a look. Speed limits of 100 mph made the invitation more inviting, as did ranks of trees and rose bushes planted on the shoulders to hide the festering wheat stubble and hinder dust devils from chasing away customers. A Pacific Electric streetcar line ran alongside the old Sherman Way, from the edge of the town of Lankershim (now North Hollywood) west to the then-remote village of Owensmouth (now Canoga Park).

Portions of Sherman Way later got new monikers--the original easternmost leg was renamed for land promoter and former Times publisher Harry Chandler. In the postwar suburban boom, Chandler Boulevard became a coveted address, a marker of success. Of course, not everyone bought into the notion: As a teenager in the late 1940s, Susan Sontag rode the Chandler Red Cars into Hollywood in search of bookstores, thinking that the Valley of her youth was an intellectual's wasteland. But for most, suburbia's charms were more than enough.

Part of what distinguished the Valley from the city over the hill (in addition to torridly hotter summers and the patio lifestyle) was the uniformity of the population. Nearly everyone was white. In 1950, fewer than 5,000 of the Valley's 402,358 inhabitants were racial minorities. The San Fernando Valley became known as an enclave where ethnicity was unwelcome, a trait instilled by covenants in most property deeds that forbade sale to "anyone not of the Caucasian race." Even after courts deemed the deed restrictions illegal, realty brokers and builders enforced the redlining. Blacks, Asians and, to a lesser extent, Mexican Americans were discouraged from living anywhere but in Pacoima, the Valley's unofficial minority district. Sid Thompson, an African American and the future superintendent of Los Angeles schools, could not buy in Mission Hills to be near his job as a math teacher at Pacoima Junior High. Bias was so prevalent that innovative builder Joseph Eichler, a believer in "open housing," made news--and enemies--when he sold designer homes in his Granada Hills tract to black families.

The heart of white suburbia was on Van Nuys Boulevard, itself a renamed leg of the original Sherman Way. But today, after three decades of gradual transformation, the boulevard belongs to the New Valley. All around the Van Nuys business district are pupuserias and mueblerias and travel agents specializing in discount tickets for international travel carriers such as Avianca and Aeromexico. Storefront diners in Van Nuys serve the native fare of El Salvador, Peru, India, Armenia and a dozen other nations. Most institutions that dominated the district, even in the 1980s, are gone: the department stores have been replaced by markets catering mostly to Latino customers, the First Presbyterian Church closed after the number of English-speaking worshipers plummeted, and the Daily News, founded as the Van Nuys Call in 1911, left for tonier digs in Woodland Hills.

It's the same a few miles up the boulevard in Panorama City, the first large planned development in the postwar Valley. Today, the Broadway, Robinsons, Orbach's and Montgomery Ward stores are gone, and one of the busiest outlets is La Curacao, an Aztec-themed retailer that delivers merchandise to Latin America. The Valley's new diversity is unmistakable in the proliferation of foreign-language church services, weekend soccer and cricket matches and the collage of international tongues and faces on the streets.

What has happened is that the Valley, like the rest of Los Angeles, has become one of the country's most global places. Results of the 2000 census bring the point home. About half of the population now claims some Hispanic heritage, and for the first time since the 1870s--when the first Americanized towns were settled on the wild Valley floor--non-Hispanic whites are not the majority. Immigration has fed the shift. In the 1980 census, a quarter of the Valley was foreign-born; that share grew to a third in the 1990 count, and will no doubt be higher when detailed 2000 numbers are released. The suburban housing tracts and strip malls, the spawning ground for the Brady Bunch and Valley Girls, have become a prime destination for middle-class strivers from Seoul and Tegucigalpa.

The global flavor is most apparent in schools. Of the 20 Los Angeles Unified schools with the highest number of resident languages, most are in the Valley. The student body at Granada Hills High represents 28 languages other than English: Spanish, Korean and Cantonese top the list, with Punjabi, Tagalog, Greek, Hebrew, Croatian and Gujarati among the others. A generation ago, Granada Hills was the most undiverse symbol of suburban isolation. The city championship football game in 1970 became a grudge match between two schools from different sides of the Valley's demographic equation: all-white Granada and multiethnic San Fernando High. While a full house of charged-up partisans glared at each other, Granada won, but not before a melee spilled onto the field and ended the contest early.

Of course, the Valley's newly emerging soul is not defined neatly by ethnicity or nationality. Quite simply, the suburbs grew up. Postwar boom babies left for college and stayed away or moved to the cities beyond the Valley's encircling mountain ranges. Their childhood homes have been filled by less-traditional suburban arrivals or torn down for apartments. Meanwhile, entire new tracts continue to rise on the surrounding hills, in communities such as Porter Ranch. The Valley population of 1.7 million (1.3 million in the Los Angeles portion) is greater than that of a dozen states. With that size has come crowding and traffic snarls and more than enough examples of poverty and crime.

The murder and violent crime rates are lower than in the rest of Los Angeles, but no longer by so much that Valleyites don't complain loudly that they need more police coverage. It was in Granada Hills where hatemonger Buford O. Furrow Jr. shot into a day-care center full of Jewish children, and in North Hollywood where two heavily armed bank robbers died in a live TV shootout with police. One Web site lists more than 70 Latino barrio gangs in the Valley, and Grant High School has become the scene of recurring battles between Armenian and Latino students. Each heinous incident shreds the old sense of Valley superiority a bit more. Although enclaves of true suburbia remain--albeit, increasingly behind locked gates--a Los Angeles Times Poll in 1999 found that 35% of residents no longer consider the Valley a good place to raise children. Nearly 4 in 10 vowed to move within two years.

On a commercial level, denizens of the Valley now sip the same Starbucks lattes, shop at the same supermarket chains and see the same first-run movies on the same weekend as other Angelenos. The Valley, in fact, is home to much of the rank and file who work in the defining Los Angeles industry: show business. So with less distinction between the Valley and the city, how much of the old rivalry is left to light the fire under secession talk?

Good question, says Los Angeles City Councilman Alex Padilla, whose election victory in 1999 marked a milestone in the rise of the New Valley. A native of Pacoima, his 7th District covers most of the Northeast quadrant of the Valley, from Sun Valley to Sylmar, and is the most heavily Latino council area in the city. Padilla's official position on secession is neutral, but he says he learned something revealing from the thousands of residents he met as he knocked on doors during his campaign: "In those six months I was asked about secession a total of six times. The people in my district feel they are part of L.A."


Past tries at secession, and there have been several, drew fuel from the Valley's raging sense of isolation. Many suburbanites ventured into the city only under duress, unless they were headed for Dodger Stadium or the Music Center. But there's less talk now of the Valley living in fear of the Los Angeles menace. That's because, to many Valley partisans, the spoilage has happened. "The Valley is in a state of decline, and people are very unhappy about that," says Jeff Brain, president of Valley VOTE, the volunteer group that gathered 201,468 signatures on petitions to push the secession question to its most advanced stage ever.

This helps explain why the secession story line is changing. It would still qualify as the biggest municipal divorce in the United States, but the Valley's pervasive separateness drives the rhetoric less than before. The ideological impetus now is local control, and giving residents more power to shape their lives. Locals are enticed to the fruits of smaller government when they drive through adjacent cities, such as Burbank, Glendale and Calabasas, which appear to be flourishing and more attractive than many parts of the Valley that fall within the Los Angeles city limits. "You can just see it," Brain says. "Why is Burbank thriving when North Hollywood [in Los Angeles] is suffering?"

"We view this as reorganizing Los Angeles into two smaller, more manageable cities," Brain goes on. "The residents of Los Angeles will reap the same benefits as people in the Valley." In effect, inhabitants of both hemispheres of the existing city could emerge from secession with more clout in their respective city halls. Under the petition now pending before the county's Local Agency Formation Commission, there would be an elected City Council member for each 100,000 residents in the New Valley city, plus a mayor who serves on the council. Los Angeles council members today represent more than twice as many people, but after secession, they too would have much smaller districts. In both cities you'd have a far easier time getting your elected representative on the phone to gripe about a pothole or a burned-out street light.

For the moment, the Valley displays little of the fire-breathing protest language heard in the successful fights against mandatory school busing and rising property taxes in the 1970s, or the rhetoric that surfaced on both sides of the debate in 1994 over Proposition 187, the ballot measure that sought to ban public services for illegal immigrants in California. According to the polls, most people, even in the Valley, simply haven't given secession much thought. Still, Brain insists a grass-roots hunger for added control over city services is lurking just below the surface and will explode once voters understand that a separate city should not cost them more in taxes. Supporters of secession hope that assurance will come from a study undertaken by the Formation Commission that found that a Valley city would be viable financially and would have to pay Los Angeles a form of annual "alimony" to make the breakup an even division of assets as required under state secession law. Los Angeles officials dispute the findings, and the debate is on hold pending a review of the commission's methods and a final report.

In the civic debate that looms in advance of a secession vote, the arguments pro and con will be dissected in myriad ways. Is it immoral for the Valley to strand L.A.'s poor, even with its own poor to worry about? Will adequate leadership emerge to shepherd a new city? How much will it cost taxpayers? Is smaller really better? However the debate goes, the reality of the New Valley will have to be considered. It will never again be a refuge of innocence where not a single crime was reported over the Memorial Day weekend in 1936, and where police in the 1960s had to educate motorists about locking and removing the keys from their parked cars.

The city of the San Fernando Valley would not be a slightly larger version of affluent Calabasas--or Thousand Oaks or Irvine or any other suburban enclave where the people revel in their isolation. Rather, the Valley would be the sixth most populous municipality in the country, trailing New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Houston and Philadelphia. Think Phoenix, not Burbank, with all of a big city's problems. And no matter what, the big city will always lurk just a short drive through the Santa Monica Mountains. If this divorce happens, the combatants will still live next door to each other, and after a few years you might not be able to tell them apart.

©Kevin Roderick 2001

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