A Million Stories in the City, Half from the Valley

Los Angeles Times Op-Ed
Oct. 15, 2001

If the bureaucratic obstacles thrown up by local officials don't cripple the Valley secession cause, public reticence in the aftermath of Sept. 11 might. Motivating the San Fernando Valley populace to split from Los Angeles was a longshot even without the threat of war and recession.

Even so, the secession talk has helped give overdue recognition to the concept of the San Fernando Valley as a separate, identifiable place -- physically and culturally. Nowhere else do 1.7 million people live in a basin so neatly contained within mountains and hills, without benefit of official status and with such a rich but largely unknown history of its own.

I was reminded of that hidden past last week while exploring with my father in Sylmar, in the far north corner of the vast Valley plain. Driving in the nation's second-most populous city, albeit 20 miles from City Hall, we encountered unpaved dirt roads beside overgrown fields of tumbleweed. The barns and bare-wood packing sheds we found could have been in a Sylmar scene from 70 years ago.

The rutted, dusty lanes were shaded by low-hanging olive trees left from the groves that covered the area before World War II, when Sylmar-brand olives were sold nationally. Surviving orchards are tucked all around Sylmar's suburban tracts. We also saw a pioneer cemetery where the first occupants have lain since the mid 1800s, horse corrals and a small herd of longhorn cattle of the sort that roamed the Valley when it was the largest private rancho in Mexico's Alta California.

History is where you find it, of course. I noted this silently as we drove past the Denny's where Charles Manson treated his gruesome family to milkshakes on the night of Aug. 9, 1969, as they headed back to their Chatsworth hideaway from a new murder spree less than 24 hours after the massacre of actress Sharon Tate and four others.

The Valley's separate historical record, its ledger of heroes and villains, helps explain the periodic impulse to revolt against Los Angeles' ownership. It's this separateness of experience, more than the heat or the architecture or resentments over unequal public services, that makes it the Valley.

On the Los Angeles side of the hill that separates the Valley from the coast, Ritchie Valens is known as the rocker who perished in the plane crash that claimed Buddy Holly. In Pacoima and the East Valley, Valens was a local folk hero whose death at age 17 was unspeakably tragic. The Tate murders revealed Manson as a monster, but his youthful followers had been spooking Chatsworth for a year before those crimes.

Lately, the modern Valley's origins have begun to attract more interest among scholars and writers. On Tuesday, Cal State Northridge will celebrate its first San Fernando Valley History Day with displays and a lecture by California state librarian Kevin Starr. The school's Oviatt Library plans to unveil an online visual history with 2,600 photographs provided by historical societies and Valley residents.

Pepperdine's School of Public Policy is offering a course on the Valley taught by author and urban affairs analyst Joel Kotkin, who calls the area ''seriously understudied'' for a region of such magnitude. The timing is fortunate since there's a growing body of work available for the course reading list.

Among the offerings are "William Mulholland and the Rise of Los Angeles" by his granddaughter Catherine Mulholland, which offered new details on the Valley's early co-existence with the city; Works by Mary Helen Ponce, who lovingly described barrio life in 1940s Pacoima; and this year's humorous ''A Year in Van Nuys'' by writer and performer Sandra Tsing Loh, which provides valuable, if starkly dissimilar, insights into Valley culture.

People all over the country feel they know the Valley from movies, television and the news. Now, though, its real history is becoming better known. City leaders, and the rest of Los Angeles, need to keep the Valley's enduring distinctions in mind or the secession threat -- which flares every generation or so -- will never fully go away.

©Kevin Roderick 2001 Not for publication without permission