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Conejo Grade's Great Divide Growing Smaller

August 24, 1989|DENISE HAMILTON | Times Staff Writer

Some people look at the Conejo Grade and see an "Iron Curtain" that separates east Ventura County from the west.

Others see a 700-foot hump that they ascend daily with little problem and less pondering.

Still others say the hill once divided cowboys from suburban slickers, but its psychological importance is crumbling as residents on both sides grapple with countywide problems such as traffic, smog and crime.

Like a gigantic Rorschach test inkblot, the Conejo Grade is perceived differently--depending on whether you're a retailer, housewife or Camarillo teen-ager with an unreliable car and a girlfriend in Newbury Park.

But most folks do agree that when you cross the Conejo Grade, you've really gone somewhere.

"It's truly an event," said Dick Faussett, vice president of TOLD Corp., a developer based in Oxnard.

"It's a point of departure," said Dave Robertson, an administrative analyst for Ventura County who lives in Thousand Oaks. "You crest the grade on a clear day, and you see the whole Oxnard Plain dropping off into the ocean. Then it literally disappears from sight and from mind somewhat."

Retailers, politicians, developers and others with their eye on the county say that east county residents identify more with Los Angeles than coastal Ventura. Many still work in the greater metropolitan area and have moved to the affluent, master-planned communities of eastern Ventura County within the past 20 years.

Likewise, they say many residents of Ventura, Oxnard and Camarillo are proud of their coastal or rural roots and share a distaste for the urban jungle of Los Angeles.

"We stay out of there as much as we can," said Edwin Jewett, a 79-year-old from a longtime Ventura farming family who recalls driving his Model T Ford into Los Angeles for occasional sporting events.

Back then, "when you came back over the grade into Camarillo at night, you could only see two or three lights shining." Today, Jewett said, "the whole valley is lit up with lights, lights everywhere."

Stereotypes Miss Point

But though there are still plenty of west-end ranchers tooling along in pickup trucks and east-end yuppies zipping around in BMWs, longtime observers caution against stereotyping.

"Those differences are being erased quickly," says Richard Wittenberg, the county's chief administrative officer. "There's more of a homogeneity, more of a community feeling countywide."

And longtime perceptions of sophistication on the east end and homespun simplicity on the west are false, many say.

"You go to a charity party in Ventura, and the men are wearing their own tuxes and the women are elegantly dressed," said one person who attends many such functions.

"It's the difference between old money and new money," she said. "One is pretty flashy and the other one isn't."

Most people agree that west Ventura County has pockets of wealth in Ojai, Channel Islands Harbor and Ventura, as well as pockets of poverty. In the east end, by contrast, the wealth is distributed more evenly.

Such demographics are why an upscale mall probably won't open in Ventura County for another five years or more, according to Barbara Teuscher, general manager of the Thousand Oaks shopping center known as the Oaks.

A study commissioned by the Oaks found that the average household income in the Thousand Oaks area was $49,251; the Ventura area lagged with $38,170. About 64% of the east-end population worked as professionals, compared to 36% in the west.

"Your white-collar executive or middle manager, who is the dominant force in the Conejo Valley, buys more suits and dressy clothing, which is what shopping centers thrive on. . . . The white-collar worker may own a house with a swimming pool, even a boat, but he certainly isn't towing it around--he's mooring it somewhere," Teuscher said.

By contrast, "your blue-collar worker is going to buy more jeans and casual apparel. He's going to be driving a four-wheel-drive and towing a boat or a camper shell."

One progressive business that flopped in Ventura was a natural food supermarket. Owner Jim Hagen, who still runs a Santa Barbara store called Hope & Hagen, says he sold his Ventura store in 1987 because it was a "marginal operation."

The Ventura clientele "is very much your meat-and-potatoes crowd," Hagen said. By contrast, a Los Angeles-based health-food market called Mrs. Gooch's is moving into Thousand Oaks in October, and Hagen said he would also consider opening a store there.

But others bridle at such glib characterizations.

'We Have the Base'

"I don't think it's accurate to say we don't have high demographics. We have the base here, but nobody knows it yet," said Wendy Wallace, a leasing administrator for Oxnard Financial Plaza, which does not include high-end department stores such as Nordstrom's.

Such distinctions were unknown 200 years ago, when the Conejo Grade was a trade route favored by coastal and inland Indian tribes.

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