The San Fernando Valley: 'Totally Awesome'
November 12, 2012
As you prepare to visit Los Angeles for the 2013 AAG Meeting, surely a side trip to the enchanting, scenic San Fernando Valley is on the itinerary. Oh, it’s not, you say?
That figures. Since I was born and raised in Van Nuys, the geographical center of the San Fernando Valley, I have long been aware that my hometown does not get a whole lot of respect. Many Angelenos, especially the trendsetters and powerbrokers of the Westside, consider the Valley to be an intellectual and cultural void. Susan Sontag escaped the humdrum suburb of North Hollywood, as her first step toward becoming an internationally renowned cultural critic. Robert Redford recalled his boyhood home of Van Nuys as "just this furnace that could destroy any creative thought that managed to creep into your mind." Thanks a lot, Sundance Kid! Even Dr. Seuss, beloved purveyor of bedtime stories, disparaged Van Nuys as the epitome of 1950s conformity in a little poem called “The Organization Man.” Indeed, the San Fernando Valley's reputation rose and fell in sync with the particular brand of postwar suburban development it symbolized. By the time I was coming of age there, this Levittown of the Golden State had become the subject of satire, as in the Frank Zappa song "Valley Girl," Sandra Tsing Loh's snarky memoir for the "downwardly mobile," A Year in Van Nuys, and such classic films as Encino Man. Its comic potential exhausted, the Valley simply receded into the nether regions of cultural consciousness, where it remains today. Perhaps the Valley deserves a fresh look?
You are Now Leaving L.A. Welcome to L.A.!
Let's begin with the basic geopolitical factoid that most of the Valley, with the major exceptions of San Fernando, Burbank, and Glendale, belongs to the city of Los Angeles. Yet, if Valley "communities" like Van Nuys, Northridge, and Pacoima all seceded from L.A.—as nearly occurred in 2002—the new city would be California's second largest, with approximately 1.8 million people. Take that, San Francisco!
The Valley became part of Los Angeles in the first place thanks to water politics and some shady real estate deals (yes, much like the movie Chinatown). The city fathers of Los Angeles, hungry for expansion, placed the mouth of the monumental Owens Aqueduct at the northern end of the Valley, finagled the purchase of local groundwater rights, and then made Valley towns an offer they couldn't refuse: join Los Angeles, or go thirsty. In the decades that followed, the Valley blossomed as an irrigated landscape of citrus and olive orchards, truck farms, and horse ranches. Vestiges of the Valley's agrarian past can be found in well-known historic sites, such as Shadow Ranch in Canoga Park. But the abundance of citrus and avocado trees in backyards suggests that horticulture, at least, is far from dead. Rather, it is a sweet and fragrant presence in Valley life today.
As a part of L.A., Valley communities have no independent political status, yet these place names organize the Valley's social geography and color the reputation of neighborhoods. As Mike Davis pointed out in his influential book City of Quartz, paranoia over falling home values often leads to neighborhood rebranding. In the 1980s, the topographically and economically lofty part of Canoga Park managed to break off and form West Hills, a cosmetic change that led to an immediate spike in home values. Similarly, my family home is now in the breakaway republic of Lake Balboa. What was wrong with Van Nuys?
Surreptitious Public Spaces
Great cities are perhaps distinguished by their appealing public spaces; however, the San Fernando Valley was long been defined by the comforts of private enclosures. As a classic postwar suburb, the Valley embodied a white, middle-class dream of retreat into single-family ranch homes, equipped with kidney-shaped swimming pools and tiny lawns, ten lots to an acre, against a distant backdrop of chaparral-covered hills. Gathering spaces in the Valley, such as shopping malls, have long had a commercial character. So, its appeal is hard to explain to tourists, who by definition are drawn to accessible public spaces, such as L.A.'s famous beaches.
Yet there are big exceptions, gems hidden in plain sight. The flood basins and stormwater channels, concrete evidence of the Valley's highly engineered hydrology, have become intriguing and even subversive public spaces. In some spots, the sterile cement channels become an artist's canvas, most notably the "Great Wall," a half-mile-long mural along the Tujunga Wash in North Hollywood. Begun by Judith Baca in 1976, and completed by teams of artists and historians over the next eight years, "the mural tells the history of California from the perspectives of those excluded from dominant narratives," as Pulido, Barraclough, and Cheng write in their illuminating and lavishly illustrated new book, A People's Guide to Los Angeles (UC Press, 2012). The Great Wall evokes the vibrant traditions of Mexican and New Deal-era muralism, and has helped to inspire a new generation of transgressive art in Southern California's public spaces.
Just a few miles away, the Sepulveda Dam Basin, an artificial landscape sculpted by the US Army Corps of Engineers, is now the site of a revival of urban nature. Here, a "soft-bottom" stretch of the Los Angeles River, which rises in the Valley, has been restored to natural habitat, fed by treated wastewater that first settles in nearby Lake Balboa (which is actually in Encino). Waterbirds such as pelicans, terns, loons, and grebes flock to this surprising oasis in the heart of the landlocked valley.
Economic Shifts in a Dynamic Ethnoburb
Unfortunately, the first thing some people think of when they hear "San Fernando Valley" is "porn." It's true that the Valley is the throbbing core of the nation's "adult film" industry. Arguably the greatest mainstream movie about the San Fernando Valley, Boogie Nights (1997), tells the story of the local porn industry in the 1970s. But the Valley has long played an important if ancillary role in mainstream Hollywood, whether as a backdrop for Westerns (Chatsworth Rocks), location for movie and TV soundstages (Burbank, Universal City, Studio City), or home to the stars (Toluca Lake, Encino). Economically and socially, the Valley south of Ventura Boulevard is more oriented towards nearby Hollywood than to the working-class flatlands.
While often considered a model "bedroom community," the Valley has an important but overlooked industrial legacy. GM's Van Nuys Assembly Plant, which for decades churned out Chevy Camaros and other muscle cars, is now a shopping center called "The Plant." Similarly, the old Lockheed airplane factory in Burbank is now host to big-box stores like Best Buy and Lowe's. In fact, starting in World War II and throughout the Cold War, aerospace was the Valley's key manufacturing sector. At a secluded location near the Santa Susana Pass, Boeing and Rocketdyne lit up the night sky testing rockets for the Apollo moon missions in the 1960s. This was also the site of the nation's first commercial nuclear reactor (powering just over a thousand homes), and the first reactor meltdown—just a partial one!—in 1959. Thus, the Valley was a microcosm of California's postwar growth, fueled by defense spending, the bellicose shadow of suburban peace and prosperity.
Today, the indefatigable engine of the Valley's economic growth is small retail and service businesses, a sector that is increasingly dominated by immigrants. Ubiquitous mini-malls, so often maligned by urban planners, are the nodes of a dynamic churning of capital, goods, and labor from all over the world. Despite appearances, it's not all nail salons and donut shops, although these simple businesses do provide a template for social mobility. What was once an archetype for suburban "white flight," as Laura Barraclough explains in Making the San Fernando Valley, is today a truly multicultural and polyglot community. According to the San Fernando Valley Economic Research Center at Cal State Northridge, an astonishing 60 percent of Valley residents speak a language other than English at home, and 40 percent of people in the Valley were born in another country, a slightly higher proportion than in Los Angeles—global city par excellence—as a whole.
To best capture the spirit of the Valley, for better or for worse, drive down Van Nuys Boulevard or Sherman Way, those seemingly interminable commercial strips. People from all over the world have found the promise of opportunity in this unpretentious landscape of stucco, cinder blocks, and palm trees. It's not always picturesque, but there is a kind of beauty in the striving and sheer human energy of a million small stories.
Eric D. Carter
Eric Carter is Assistant Professor of Geography and Holder of the Edens Professorship of Global Health at Macalester College. He is the author of Enemy in the Blood: Malaria, Environment, and Development in Argentina, published by University of Alabama Press (2012).
CREDIT: MUSEUM OF THE SAN FERNANDO VALLEY
Caption: The San Fernando Valley as depicted on a 1932 map illustrating the Los Angeles Olympic Games.
Caption: The San Fernando Valley is often equated with conformity, although the reality can be very different. Above, protesters march in Van Nuys demanding fair immigration policies.