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Al Martinez

They fear the geometric patterns of tedium that characterize the tracts below. : Two Ladies in Their Middle Years

April 11, 1985|AL MARTINEZ

I have a feeling that when the world is headed toward the brink of the abyss, two housewives in their middle years will break free from their domestic duties, dash past the quarreling men and the pamphleteering feminists and save us just in the nick of time. Then they will return to the garden and to the kitchen, allowing credit for their achievement to be claimed by those who did little more than bicker and chant.

The thought surfaced as I wandered alone by a creekside in an area of sandstone bluffs called Hope Town. It is a quiet place in Simi Valley, a cool, green glade amid the harsh splendor of the Santa Susanas and just a bulldozer's echo from the garish calamity of red-roofed homes that have come to characterize the burgeoning city itself.

Hope Town is composed of 212 acres of oaks and eucalyptus and yellow-flowering elderberry trees. Cattle doze in the warm sun and a dry creek lies half-cloaked by the chaparral, remembering winter.

Bob Hope has owned the land for 20 years. Westerns were filmed there a half-century ago and for a while the sets remained intact: a saloon where John Wayne downed shooters of Red Eye and a street that churned dust to the hoofbeats of a horse ridden by Ronald Reagan.

But Hope is selling the land to a development company, and chances are the quiet place where the Chumash Indians once roamed will one day clang to a builder's steel. Time marches to the tune of hammers pounding and saws screaming.

A company called Griffin wants to turn Hope Town into homes and light industry. It's all up to the Simi Valley City Council. Remember what the valley was and take a look at it today and you'll get a pretty good idea of how the whole thing is likely to turn out.

Which brings me to the two ladies in their middle years.

Barbara Johnson and Wilma Tomerlin are not unlike many housewives. Once the demanding years of child-raising are past, they find time to take jobs, complete educations abandoned in favor of other priorities, tend their gardens or concentrate on hobbies. And sometimes they go to war.

I knew a housewife who once almost single-handedly rallied a community to fight the takeover of its school district by bigots and wound up ignored amid the self-congratulatory victory toasts that followed her achievement.

It goes that way. Housewives tend to work without bugles, and although their monuments endure, their names are often forgotten.

Barbara and Wilma became incensed when they read of Griffin's plans. "Why this place?" Barbara asked anyone who would listen. "We have lost so much already, and Hope Town is a treasure of history. Must they standardize everything?"

"We're getting 70% for a park and open space," Wilma said, "but the whole integrity of Hope Town ought to be preserved for the future. The open space won't be a wilderness park, it will be a city park. There's a difference."

The two women gave up everything to begin a fight they will probably lose. They went to Hope's lawyers, to the builders, to environmental organizations and even to Gene Autry in an effort to persuade him to buy the land for a Western museum. Petitions circulated, letters were written, telephone calls made.

They perceive not a total destruction of beauty, acknowledging that Griffin will leave most of Hope Town untouched. But they fear the initial intrusion of the dozers, and the standardization intrusion portends: geometric patterns of tedium that characterize the tracts below their hillside homes.

"This won't be condo village," Elaine Freeman said. She is vice president of land development for Griffin Homes. "We're talking intermediate density. Detached homes in all three alternative plans.

"I've lived in Simi Valley for 20 years. I don't want it ruined. But the population has to come. Someone asked me about that the other day. I said to her, we're all part of the problem."

There are no villains in this piece. If Griffin does what Elaine says it will do, we may have discovered an enlightened builder among the tree-killers.

Barbara Johnson and Wilma Tomerlin are heroines nonetheless. They remind us, as housewives have through even the darkest times, that beauty is without measure and ought to be preserved.

They celebrate individual effort in an encounter that marshals armies, and perhaps that very effort is the line beyond which Griffin dares not tread.

I thought about that as I walked through Hope Town, down a dusty trail among the trees, over a bridge, along the edge of the timeless bluffs. I came across Corriganville, the Western town where old movies were made. Only foundations and a few walls remain.

But on one of the walls, an adobe facade with the chicken wire showing through, someone had written in black spray paint: "There's something about this place."

Indeed there is. And one hopes with deep longing that when the builders are through the magic of the message will remain, and the words will not be an epitaph to a quiet place in a noisy world.

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