The San Fernando Valley

L.A. Architect
Jan.-Feb. 2002

Adapted from The San Fernando Valley: America's Suburb (Los Angeles Times Books, 2001).

My favorite time to introduce newcomers to The Valley is on sparkling winter mornings when a chilly north wind gusts down from the San Gabriels to sweep the sky clean. I like to drive high into the hills above Studio City, steer around an arresting bend, then wait for my guests to behold the scene. Often they gasp and exhale something witty and erudite like: "Wow, it's huge.''

So perceptive. Dissected by freeways and the concrete belt of the Los Angeles River, the 20-mile-long by 12-mile-wide Valley floor could hold the city limits of Boston, Washington and San Francisco with generous space left over. The population of about 1.7 million exceeds the head count of a dozen states and all but five U.S. cities. Given its humongous scale, can the San Fernando Valley really be thought of as a neighborhood?

I think so. It certainly is our best-known symbol of suburbia, and suburbs are but a collection of neighborhoods. The Valley -- no place else around these parts possesses the resume to call itself simply The Valley - is the home turf of the Brady Bunch, E.T the Extra-Terrestrial and the Real McCoys, the birthplace of mini-malls and Valley Girls, and a hotbed of googie and ranch style. That status as ultimate suburban icon, and the movies in which the Valley has starred - think Chinatown, Boogie Nights and Magnolia, and loopy forgettables like Two Days in the Valley and Encino Man - make the Valley feel familiar, like a favorite neighborhood.

Then there is the ingrained Valley culture that denies it comprises half the land mass of Los Angeles and 4 in 10 of the human mass. Valley denizens don't call themselves Angelenos or their hometown "L.A." Indeed, part of The Valley's charm is that sections are named for a fictional ape-man (Tarzana), an English manor (Chatsworth) and an Indian settlement (Tujunga) and it's in those communities where the inhabitants claim residence. This practice has its origins in the historic fact that addresses like North Hollywood, Reseda and Canoga Park began as dusty farm towns (under different names: Toluca, Marian and Owensmouth, respectively) before Los Angeles annexed the Valley beginning in 1915. Indeed, most of The Valley's familiar place names, from Van Nuys to Toluca Lake, formally are mere districts of Los Angeles.

Exceptions to this rule are the five separate cities that also occupy pieces of the gently tilted river plain where the vaqueros of Mission San Fernando, Rey de Espana, chased down strays two centuries ago. There's Burbank, Calabasas and a goodly portion of Glendale, as well as San Fernando, which was the first American town on the former Spanish rancho, and Hidden Hills, where today's population of fewer than 2,000 resides entirely behind a secured gate. What ties these locales together is their place in Valley lore -- and what is a neighborhood if not a community of shared stories and experiences?

My folks, like hundreds of thousands of others, found The Valley in the great American exodus to the suburbs that erupted with World War II. The Valley then was a fabled enclave where Bing Crosby, Clark Gable and their studio pals played golf and polo, drank cocktails and grew juicy grapefruit. Along Devonshire Street in the west end, you could drop in on the Desilu spread of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, visit the Marwyck Ranch where noir queen Barbara Stanwyck bred thoroughbreds and wooed Robert Taylor (in a Paul Williams-designed home, still standing) and throw an orange over the fence and hit Janet Gaynor. Nearby behind a moat stood the steel-and-glass Richard Neutra landmark designed for the movie producer Josef von Sternberg and later owned by the writer Ayn Rand. (Alas, the home was razed two years after Neutra's death in 1970).

Once the war ended, a human spigot gushed open, splashing young couples through Cahuenga Pass to take root and germinate in the fertile (and newly lucrative) Valley soil. The Valley became the nation's swimming pool and sports car capital, and the backyard barbecue center of L.A. Sure, the summers were notoriously torrid, but true Valleyites didn't mind. The heat made for gorgeous July evenings, plump tomatoes and long lingering days in the pool.

Today's Valley is a hybrid of the old, the new and the very old. Seemingly filled wall-to-wall with boulevards, malls and people, and adding more every week, it nonetheless retains a determined suburban style - you don't have to pay to park at grocery stores in The Valley, and backyard pool parties still reign. Nowhere else in Los Angeles has thousand-year-old oaks shading million-dollar estates as in Encino, dusty unpaved roads as in Shadow Hills or trampled horse paths leading out of front yards as in Chatsworth.

There's also secret history to be found, if you keep your eyes open. On a recent expedition, I discovered remnant olive groves and crumbling barns that date from when farming was king. I know of a street of 1920s homes built entirely of Tujunga Wash boulders, a small herd of long-horned cattle, and the last wood-frame house from the old Lankershim wheat ranches that covered half the Valley in the 1880s and '90s. It all makes for a pretty interesting neighborhood, if you ask me.

┬ęKevin Roderick 2002