Read the Introduction

This is the Introduction from The San Fernando Valley: America’s Suburbby Kevin Roderick.

•My folks arrived in the San Fernando Valley during the great American exodus to the suburbs that began with World War II. It was a fabled place then, a refuge of rustic living where Clark Gable and his studio pals played polo and grew grapefruit on ten-acre ranches. As young families filled the land, a hybrid way of life evolved.
The Valley became the swimming pool and sports car capital of the nation, and grew the biggest yards and shopping centers in Los Angeles. We attended the newest and best schools and seldom ventured into the city except to see the Dodgers play or to escape the heat with a day at the beach. Summers were famously torrid, but true Valleyites didn’t mind the heat. It made for plumper oranges and longer pool seasons and made us feel somehow superior to the shivering hordes over the hill.

If there were any stigma attached to the Valley then, we never heard of it. We patronized the San Fernando Valley Fair every summer and cheered at local parades like the Northridge Stampede, led by cowboy rider Montie Montana, the honorary sheriff of the Valley. This quirky swirl of country and suburb defined our days. Kids scavenged construction sites for scrap wood to build tree houses, and caught tadpoles in hidden creeks.

Even when the ground shook and the night sky glowed from Cold War rocket tests in the western hills, we somehow felt assured that we inhabited a special place. Parents built bomb shelters as protection against Soviet missiles, but nearly everyone left their houses unlocked. Police found it necessary to run campaigns urging motorists to remove ignition keys and lock their parked cars.

Later I heard about other suburbs, places like Levittown and Lakewood, which were widely reviled as featureless blobs of sameness that rose from nothing. This sounded alien, since the Valley so obviously had a past.  Over holiday suppers, families passed along the stories—the years when snow blanketed the Valley floor, the location of a POW camp that operated during the war, the time Dad first cruised Van Nuys Boulevard in his hotrod. They argued over which Ventura Boulevard eatery it was where gangster Mickey Cohen was shot (Rondelli’s, now a fondue place, and he wasn’t the victim), tested one another’s ability to recite the Valley’s last alphabet telephone prefixes (DIckens, EMpire, STate, POplar, TRiangle and THornwall) and debated the location of the final orange grove (actually, several are left).

My favorite time to introduce visitors to the Valley is on a sparkling winter morning, with a chilly north wind gusting down from the San Gabriels to sweep the sky clean. The crisp light bouncing off the mountains sharpens the shadows and lets the view spill on forever. I like to drive high into the hills above Studio City, steer around an arresting bend in the road, then wait for my guests to take in the panorama below. Their first words are usually something like: “Wow, it’s huge.”

But often they already know the landscape, consciously or not, from its role as the backdrop for thousands of television episodes and Hollywood films. Movie classics such as The Birth of a Nation and It’s a Wonderful Life were shot outdoors there. So too were modern blockbusters like E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial and forgettables the likes of Encino ManThe Valsand San Fernando Valley, starring cowboy crooner Roy Rogers. On TV the Valley has been home turf for the Lone Ranger, the Real McCoys and the Brady Bunch and has been the subject of barbs by funnymen from Bob Hope (“Cleveland with palm trees”) to Jay Leno (“Hellholia”).

The San Fernando Valley serves, in fact, as the nation’s favorite symbol of suburbia run rampant.  It is the butt of jokes for its profligate sprawl, kooky architecture, unhip telephone area code and homegrown porno industry, as well as for a mythical tribe of nasal-toned, IQ-challenged teenage girls who like to shop. And yet the Valley only became a suburb fairly late in its history, and whether it qualifies for the label anymore is arguable.

Its formal identity is as an oversized appendage of the city of Los Angeles, but that does not tell the real story. The expansive, gently pitched plain has been a destination in at least four centuries now, a landing place for travelers who picked up their lives in search of something better. Where backyard barbecues now reign, two Native American cultures met to celebrate holidays together. The name El Valle de San Fernando was bequeathed by colonizers who came from Spain to civilize the Indians and to carve up the land. Later waves of settlers came to escape from shattering winters in cities like Philadelphia and Buffalo, or to try their luck at growing walnuts, or at building airplanes or helping invent the new medium of television. And still they come, from New York and Austin, but more often now from Seoul and Tehran and Guadalajara.

All are seeking their piece of the American dream in what has become one of the most richly diverse corners of the country. Once here, they find the miles of walled subdivisions, wide boulevards and corner strip malls that fit with the Valley’s popular image as a stucco haven — as well as the million-dollar estates, ethnic enclaves and urban forest of exotic trees and shrubs that suggest a more textured story.

Newcomers are often startled to discover signs of a rural past. Pockets of dirt streets and horse trails remain, along with faded farmhouses, backyard chicken coops, gurgling creeks and overgrown orchards, if you know where to look. This should be no surprise. At the start of the 20th century, the Valley floor contained the world’s largest wheat farm, biggest citrus orchardand grandest grove of producing olive trees. The population was scant, just a few thousand, among them Basque sheepherders, Italian orange growers, Japanese strawberry pickers and Midwestern homesteaders. Horse-drawn stages still rattled through a winding mountain pass to Los Angeles.

Some 1.7 million people, more than the population of twelve states and about a third of the Los Angeles population, now reside in the Valley. More than a third of them were born in another country. But some things never change. These denizens of the Valley still live a largely separate existence from their fellow Los Angelenos. They don’t share the same climate, flora or fauna, or much of a common history. The two hemispheres of the city have been joined only for a fraction of the Valley’s existence — and then only in an audacious arranged marriage recognized in fiction in the film Chinatown, but which in real life has yet to be fully consummated.

The relationship is like that of step-siblings who have grown closer over time, but who should never be mistaken for blood family. Many residents of the Valley still eschew visits to the city; they treasure the quieter neighborhoods, long summer evenings and ample free parking at the supermarket found on the inland side of the Santa Monica Mountains.

Locals never refer to the Valley as “L.A.”; Instead, they claim residence in one of thirty districts recognized as bona-fide addresses by mapmakers and the U.S. Postal Service — but which otherwise don’t legally exist. Some of these quasi-communities, such as North Hollywood, Reseda and Canoga Park, sprang into being as dusty farm towns (under different names: Toluca, Marian and Owensmouth, respectively) that were miles from their closest neighbors. Part of the Valley’s charm is that sections are named for a fictional ape-man (Tarzana), an English manor (Chatsworth), an Indian settlement (Tujunga) and promotional slogans (Studio City, Sun Valley, Sunland). There is a West Hills, a North Hills, a Shadow Hills, a Woodland Hills, a Granada Hills and a Mission Hills, each distinguishable from another.

The wary relationship with imperial Los Angeles, ingrained since the early 1800s, occasionally erupts into rebellious talk of secession. The notion of breaking off into a new city is absorbing for some and merely amusing to others, including the smaller independent cities that never joined Los Angeles. San Fernando, the Valley’s original town, is named for a 13th-century Spanish king, Burbank for a dentist-turned-land baron, and Calabasas for the wild pumpkins that formerly grew there. The largest of the cities, Glendale, occupies the lone breach in the mountains that surround the Valley. Hidden Hills, a wealthy enclave of horse ranches and estates, bars outsiders from even entering without an invitation.

As a native son, and as a journalist, I set out to discover and clarify the legacy of dreamers and schemers, of milestones and lore, that stamps the Valley as home – – to find out what made this place grow up to give the world Valley Girls, mini-malls and the International House of Pancakes, among other institutions. I’ve lived half of my life elsewhere, but I always considered the Valley my hometown, and I yearned to understand why there are no fewer than six historical societies and a half-dozen small museums dedicated to preserving its past – – a past that slips further into wispy memory with every new year.

Now that I know at least some of the answers, I see glimpses of history all around. I can imagine vaqueros chasing stray mustangs across a grassy plain, and brown grizzly bears snatching steelhead out of the Los Angeles River. Landmarks infused with history are everywhere: the Chatsworth rocks that hid outlaws from bandito Joaquín Murrieta to murderer Charles Manson; the quirky church where the Grateful Dead and Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters staged an Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test; the high school that produced Marilyn Monroe, Robert Redford and Don Drysdale.

Some might expect a book on the San Fernando Valley to be a rant against sterile suburban sprawl, or perhaps a celebration of local identity and traditions. I hope this book is neither. Nor is it intended as a work of historical scholarship. I merely found these stories and organized them in a way that made sense to me. If this book helps save any lore from vanishing into the void, and settles a few family arguments, my mission is complete.

Humble thanks are necessary, since many of these accounts and insights and facts were first put on paper elsewhere — in the Los Angeles Times and other newspapers, and in the good works of writers who toiled from 1769 to the 21st century. My job was made easier and much more pleasurable by the prodigious talents, diligent efforts and exacting memories of so many. I am hugely indebted to all the reporters, diarists, historians, authors, photographers and storytellers who got there first, and I have taken care to be true to them.