The Original Valley Observed

This is the place to find recent noteworthy comments that describe some aspect of the Valley or its zeitgeist. High value is placed on cultural insight and literary merit. For a longer treatment of the sweep of literature and films on or about the Valley, visit the Valley Lit page.

A note about links to other websites, especially media sites: they often expire. The links provided here worked originally, but may not anymore.

• Erik Himmselsbach writes the Valley Boy column for the weekly CityBeat and ValleyBeat papers. In a recent column he laments plans to tear down a complex of buildings on Radford Avenue near the CBS studio in Studio City that has been a home to writers and producers since Republic Pictures owned the lot. John Wayne kept offices there, and John Herzfeld wrote Two Days in the Valley while in the house. Himmelsbach uses the piece to make some larger observations about Valleywood:

People forget, but the Valley and Hollywood are nearly joined at the hip, geographically speaking. Separated only by a small hill, a quick, ever-so-curvy ascent up Cahuenga from the Ford Theatre will drop you right into the comforting lap of Ventura Boulevard, the Valley’s most presentable (to cityfolk, anyway) artery.

First stop is, of course, Studio City. The name says it all: It is the hub of the symbiosis between Tinseltown and The Land Over the Hill. And anyway, the stupid tourists who pay $10 to park and walk around like sheep, mingle with suburban wannabe gangstas, and eat hyped-up chain food at CityWalk won’t know the difference. Like hand grenades and horseshoes, it’s close enough if you’ve come all the way from Podunk….

There’s no other explanation for the glut of exceptional sushi between Colfax and Coldwater (gratuitous plug: the jalapeño roll at Matsuda – to die for). You think it’s to cater to the family of five from Reseda? Don’t make me laugh – that’s what the Olive Garden’s for. Hollywood people like to eat well. And sometimes not, which explains the long life of that heart attack encased in glass that calls itself Art’s Deli.

Sadly, though, word is that a little pocket of the Valley’s Hollywood heritage will soon make way for the wrecking ball. On Radford Avenue, just north of Ventura, a quaint block of buildings that’s housed writers and production companies for more than 50 years, will soon fade to black, replaced by pricey condos.

• The singer Melissa Manchester, an ex-New Yorker who lives in Encino, talked about her favorite Valley weekends in the L.A. Times Calendar section, available online only to subscribers.

I remember when I first moved out to the Valley, there was a stigma against anyone who would even deign to live here. But I think it’s a terrific place to live in. Tarzana, in particular, is a sort of dusty place, and I always wave to people hello and goodbye and thank you for not staying, because it’s just so lovely and quiet.

On Saturday, we usually go to a farmers’ market, maybe Tapia Brothers on Hayvenhurst Avenue, which is a great old family farm stand. It’s an actual farm, and they have a stall where they sell fruit and vegetables, and then during the holiday season it’s also a pumpkin patch. Or it’s where we get our Christmas tree…

When we feel like having a special dinner, we go to Mistral Brasserie in Sherman Oaks. It’s a very cozy setting: dark wood, crystal chandeliers, French food and a great bar. The service is really convivial. They remember what you drank the last time you were there. Their tarragon chicken is French bistro fare. It comes in a mustard sauce with pommes frites. I also love their beet salad, which is spectacular.

• Novelist and Loyola Law School professor Yxta Maya Murray lives in Studio City and wrote a first-person piece in the Los Angeles Times’ new “Home” section (May 15, 2003) about a neighborhood clash that roiled her quiet street. It could serve as a cautionary tale about life in these ever-more-complicated suburbs. It begins like this..

When my husband and I first set up house on a cul-de-sac in Studio City in the mid-’90s, we fit comfortably within the street’s cozy and softly smug culture: Here we all dwelled with our tidy lawns, our glossy Toyotas, our flower boxes, our wee unused porches. Realtors and editors coexisted peacefully alongside a cameraman, a government lawyer and the odd Mexican American professor and writer; antic dogs wandered about in convivial packs; kids wearing gigantic helmets rode around on bikes equipped with six safety wheels.

This tranquillity existed though faint seismic rumblings even then could be heard in the dells and gardens of the street I’ve come to think of as Shady Lane: These rumblings augured the economic earthquake that would soon occur on our block and transform it from a mixed group of Renters and Middle Classers into a curious community of homeowners, where those who drove Fords and sowed their own gardenias would live cheek-by-jowl with the Hollywood Upper Classers…

• Author Michael Connelly, who worked the Valley crime beat for the Los Angeles Times before turning successful mystery novelist, often places his characters in familiar haunts. In Lost Light, Connelly’s 2003 offering, retired LAPD detective Harry Bosch makes several drives out to see an ex-cop in Woodland Hills…

I watched the sun drop behind Malibu and leave a burning sky in its trail. At the low angles the sun often reflected off the smog caught in the bowl of the Valley and turned it brilliant shades of orange and pink and purple. It was like some sort of reward for putting up with having to breathe the poisoned air every day. This evening it was mostly a smooth orange color with wisps of white mixed in. It was what my ex-wife used to call a Creamsicle sky…

• In his earlier Edgar Award-winning The Black EchoConnelly has Bosch head to the mid-Valley to get a feel for a murder victim who he knew back in Vietnam…

Sepulveda, like most of the suburban communities within Los Angeles, had both good and bad neighborhoods. The apartments were at least a decade past being attractive. There were bars over the windows of the bottom units and graffiti on every garage door. The sharp smell of the brewery on Roscoe wafted into the neighborhood. The place smelled like a 4 a.m. bar…

• Author and essayist Barry Lopez (Arctic Dreams, Field Notes and others) grew up in the rural West Valley in the 1950s, and wrote beautifully of his childhood hometown in a long two-parter in the L.A. Weekly in February, 2002…

Water, its trickle, pool and flow, is the dream image I recall most often from those years. And with it the fecundity of vegetable fields and flower gardens in the Valley; big marine winds boiling through the eucalyptus trees; and the ineffable breadth of farmland opening to the west of Reseda and to the north of Northridge…

• Mystery writer Denise Hamilton’s protagonist, fictional L.A. Times reporter Eve Diamond, grew up in the Valley as we learned in The Jasmine Trade

We were at a party, one of those big bashes that kids in wealthy Valley neighborhoods threw when their parents went out of town…Hundreds of kids would show up, most of them under-age. It was an innocent time compared to today, and one of the few opportunities for Babette and me to meet boys. Back then, we didn’t worry about rival gangs arriving to shoot each other. Not in Sherman Oaks…

• From The Other Side of Mulholland, a novel of “Lesser Los Angeles” in 2001 by author Stephen Randall…

The Valley had an inferiority complex bigger than David Geffen’s expense account…As the city grew and prospered, the Valley became the bedroom community for people not quite successful enough to live in real Los Angeles…Like Australia, with its illustrious history as a penal colony, the Valley would never be fully accepted as part of the empire.

• Raymond Chandler held a jaundiced view of the 1940s Valley, judging by his descriptions of the place whenever he sent the hard-bitten detective Philip Marlowe over the hill to pursue a case. This snippet is from The Little Sister

I drove east on Sunset but I didn’t go home. At La Brea I turned north and swung over to Highland, out over Cahuenga Pass and down on to Ventura Boulevard, past Studio City and Sherman Oaks and Encino. There was nothing lonely about the trip. There never is on that road. I drove on past the gaudy neons and the false fronts behind them, the sleazy hamburger joints that look like palaces under the colors, the circular drive-ins as gay as circuses with the chipper hard-eyed car-hops, the brilliant counters, and the sweaty greasy kitchens that would have poisoned a toad.

• In her best-selling novel White OleanderJanet Fitch displays a good feel for the Valley’s many and varied neighborhoods, as when teenager Astrid Magnussen is driven to her new foster home in Tujunga…

I watched the low ranch houses get larger, then smaller, the yards chaotic. The sidewalks disappeared. Furniture grew on the porches like toadstools. A washing machine, scrap lumber, a white hen, a goat. Finally we were no longer in town.

Later, Astrid moves across the Valley to a new foster family, the Turlocks, and enrolls at Madison Junior High…

The air in Van Nuys was thicker than in Sunland-Tujunga. It was a kingdom of strip malls and boulevards a quarter-mile across, neighborhoods of ground-hugging tracts dwarfed by full-grown peppers and sweet gums fifty feet high.

• From 1998, My Sister From the Black Lagoon by novelist Laurie Foxtraces the not-so-happy young life of Lorna Person, trapped in a dysfunctional family in 1950s Burbank. Her sister Lonnie needs therapy, her parents don’t always care enough, and throughout the novel Lorna casts an appraising eye on the Valley of her time…

Today, as we approach the Cahuenga Pass, the last stretch of undeveloped land connecting Burbank to Studio City, the hillside is a blur. I see five separate moving clouds of dust; they portend some sort of magic. Within seconds, wild horses emerge from the dust clouds; they run riotously every which way. Mother says somebody must be filming a cowboy movie, and my eyes widen. I consider the movies a reason for living!

• Warren Miller, the film-maker, author and skiing columnist, has a story on his website remembering his discovery as a boy in the late 1930s of two long-vanished Cahuenga Pass landmarks: the Pine Needle ski run at Universal City and Monkey Island. Credit to reader Wesley Clark for the link…

I had come to visit a new tourist attraction that was built right near the first Valley stop on The Pacific Electric Railroad, the route of the Big Red Cars. Some investor had built a 40-foot-high, fake plaster and cement mountain and surrounded it with a 20-foot-wide moat of slimy, green, stagnant water. The attraction was 100 undernourished, morose monkeys sitting on the concrete mountain watching you watching them. For 10 cents, you could watch the monkeys. For another five cents, you could buy a bag of peanuts and throw them to the monkeys.

• Being a citizen of the Valley can mean absorbing a ribbing where it’s least expected. In his 1999 novel satirizing New York media culture, Turn of the CenturyKurt Andersen brings the Manhattanite narrator to a Burbank TV studio built on the site of a failed porn video company and riffs on the Valley…

Because the Valley is inherently dispiriting, the drizzle and the gray improve it in some relativistic way — the lousy weather and the Valley are in synch on a day such as this. Burbank seems less like a failed paradise manque’, and more like Cleveland.

• Same when Robert Redford sat down for a May 18, 1998 interview with The New Yorker and revisited his family’s move to Van Nuys from West L.A. forty years earlier…

It didn’t seem like a better life to me. It seemed like a step down. Back then, the Valley was a big oven with nothing in it, a great sea of nothing, an ocean with no ships on it, and at night if you went out there were very few lights. I spent my time wanting to leave. So it was sports and getting into trouble. And cruising and getting into trouble. Drag racing on Van Nuys Boulevard.

• Gregory Rodriguez contributes a thoughtful piece on the ultimate meaning of the Valley’s denigration by many in L.A. in the New York Times’ Week in Review section for July 7, 2002…

Even as Los Angeles evolved into an expansive and decentralized Western city, its cultural elite still took its cues from more traditional Eastern cities. They mimicked the New York intelligentsia’s contempt for suburbia, and the San Fernando Valley became the most convenient target for their disdain…

•  Screenwriter Raphael Simon lives in Silver Lake now, but while growing up he inhabited the streets off of Mulholland Drive and developed a viewpoint of the Valley that was partly that of a native, partly that of someone from over the hill. His essay in the Oct. 20, 2002 Los Angeles Times Magazine shares some insight into the Valley and into how it’s perceived beyond the canyons…

My new classmates were unlike any kids I’d met before. They were whiter, wealthier, better groomed. They were like kids on television. In some cases, they were kids on television. It was, in short, the Valley…As time passed, I stopped being embarassed in the Valley and started being embarassed by the Valley. I would hang out in Santa Monica with friends from the Westside, my new heroes of upper-middle-class cool. When we entered one of the underpasses that led out to the beach, I always stared at the graffiti scrawled across the concrete: “Vals Go Home!”

•  The reviews of Punch-Drunk Love, the latest film by Paul Thomas Anderson to be set in the San Fernando Valley, have in the main liked and admired the movie. The reviews have not been so adjectivally generous about the Valley itself. A sampler…

…the bleakly anonymous industrial grandeur of the San Fernando Valley… – Seattle Weekly

…Set in the bleak vastness of the San Fernando Valley… – OC Weekly
… the hard-edged yet diffuse light of the San Fernando Valley… – Salon
…shortly before dawn in a bleak industrial stretch of the San Fernando Valley…Valley sunlight shines bright as a nuclear blast…. – LA Weekly

•  Rock writer Richard Meltzer came to Los Angeles in the 1980s, wrote for the L.A. Weekly and L.A. Reader, and authored L.A. is the Capital of Kansas: Painful Lessons in Post-New York Living. A chapter titled “The Ugly, the Ugly and the Ugly” succintly states his distaste for the Valley…

The old problem, which certainly hasn’t left us, was and is simply too much ugly. Ventura Boulevard, for inst, has been at 100% ug-saturation for a good half-decade now…For us folks who ug-criticize for a living, a trip to the Valley, especially when it’s 112 in the shade — and there ain’t no shade — is still a blightfest for sore eyes. Still? More than ever…

•  Paul Goldberger, the noted architecture critic for The New Yorker, revealed a little bias against the Valley’s constructed scenery in a 2002 “Skyline” piece that reviewed the newly opened Our Lady of the Angels Cathedral in downtown Los Angeles (only the most current Skyline essay is online…

The concrete is quite beautiful, although it may have been a mistake to set concrete panels on some sections of the building in such a way that they look like gargantuan pieces of aluminum siding. And the subordinate structures, including the cardinal’s residence and the parish offices, are clad in stucco and look like ordinary commercial buildings in the San Fernando Valley….

•  Patti Massman and Susan Rosser wrote Just Desserts in 1991 about the life adventures and romance that Diana Lowe finds after her dentist-husband leaves her and their affluent life south of the Boulevard…

Some days, Diana Lowe thought, living in Encino was a poetic experience. The natural, unstructured beauty made overreacting seem normnal in this bucolic suburb tucked away under the Santa Monica mountain range. Encino. So quiet south of Ventura Boulevard in the old estate section where Diana lived…

• Buddy’s Bat-A-Way has been a gathering spot for baseball fans in Van Nuys since 1967, an offspring of L.A.’s first automated batting cage in Studio City, says Danny Feingold in a piece called Swing Fever at LosAngeles.com…

As close to a historical landmark as the mid-Valley can claim, Buddy’s has stood as a mecca for several generations of baseball lovers. The place is anachronistically modest — five batting cages, some benches and tables, a small office with memorabilia, video games, and a refreshment stand — and definitely in need of a facelift. But oh does it draw the faithful. “This is one of the only things in the Valley that’s still the same,” says Angel Santana, as he watches his son Jonathan fend off 85mph pitches in the Sandy Koufax cage…

• Out on the town at Leon’s Steakhouse with Ernie Bernardi, the coolest Big Band leader ever to play the Los Angeles City Council, also from Feingold

Though at first glance the somewhat disheveled-looking band appears anything but imposing, these guys can play. Many in Bernardi’s group are big-band vets; one, a spry nonagenarian named Ben Kanter, toured with everyone from Goodman to George Gershwin…Bernardi himself was a professional musician. His career began a few ticks of the clock before the Depression, and included stints with Goodman, Tommy Dorsey, Bob Crosby and others. He came out to California in 1940 with Kay Kyser, a popular bandleader and radio host…

• Check out a little Valley observation verse from Lili Barsha in the L.A. Weekly’s “A Considerable Town” feature (end of the column), called Just Over the Hill. Here’s a piece of it…

Pretend you’re on vacation.
Like the Sepulveda Dam pretends it’s the L.A. River.
Like Tujunga pretends it’s Larchmont.
Like Ventura pretends it’s Sunset.
Like a Studio pretends it’s a City.
Like
It’s the Valley.

• An oldie but goodie — despite some factual whoppers — about films and the Valley’s station in life from John Patterson in The Guardian of February 11, 2000…

It’s a distinctly separate place, cut off both mentally and geographically from the fleshpots of Hollywood, the corporate eyries of downtown L.A., and the Speedo-clad, Coppertone-marinated democracy of the city’s 40-mile ribbon of golden beaches…Closer examination reveals that in many ways, the history of southern California is better encapsulated by the Valley than by L.A. itself.

• Another oldie, this evocative piece in New Times Los Angelesoverreaches in its historical grasp yet captures the last days of the original Sherman Oaks Galleria in 1999…

There was a time in the years after the place opened in 1980 when this was the center, the headquarters. When San Fernando Valley culture colonized the booming suburbia of Everywhere Else, when every city built its own Ventura Boulevard and planted a large enclosed beige box on it, a breeding ground for the new species of teenager…

• Food critic Jonathan Gold in the L.A. Weekly on one of the Valley’s culinary charms…

Some restaurants may have been more elegant, some friendlier, some with sharper regional dishes, but Dos Arbolitos in its way may have been the ideal Los Angeles Mexican dive…

and also from Gold, an ode to the Cupid’s chili dog…

The biggest frankfurter cult of all was probably that belonging to Cupid’s, a tiny Van Nuys chilidog stand that exuded a bravado, an allure, perhaps surpassed only by the impossible glamour of the far-off Tommy’s.

• Greetings from the Golden State, the first novel by Leslie Brenner, follows the winding lives of a mostly dysfunctional postwar Valley family…

Besides that, the valley oppressed him. He had moved there from Brooklyn in 1958, but in those days the valley was gorgeous: the orange trees were insane with fruit, and smog, when it did appear, was confined to the farthest reaches of Burbank and the East Valley. But by 1987 the orange groves were all but gone, traffic was a nightmare, and Van Nuys Nuys Boulevard had lost what little charm it once had.