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Around the Foothills

It's the area of broken terrain where mountain ranges bump together.

August 16, 1990|DOUG SMITH

Areader has asked, "Why 'Around the Foothills?' alluding to the common interpretation of foothills as the strip of communities at the base of the San Gabriel Mountains and stretching, one might say, from Sylmar to Cucamonga.

Literally speaking, the term does not fit the Glendale territory that, according to the fine print on the masthead, includes La Canada Flintridge and the communities of northeast Los Angeles. But neither does any other term that I can think of, leading to my more figurative usage.

The easiest way to see it is from above, looking down on a relief map or, better yet, looking down on the real thing from Mt. Wilson. The San Fernando Valley stretches drearily west, the San Gabriel Valley east and south, the Los Angeles basin curls away to the sea.

Where the three flatlands meet, somewhere north of downtown Los Angeles, are the Foothills. In my definition, they include Griffith Park, Elysian Park, the slopes of the Arroyo Seco, the Verdugos, the San Rafaels and the San Gabriels. Granted, this is a coinage. It is devised to identify something that binds a dozen communities as disconnected historically, culturally and economically as Echo Park is from La Canada Flintridge.

I could hardly argue that the grouping represents a sincere attempt to capture a regional identity. In the long-range conception of The Times, this territory has been as fragmented as a Balkan state.

There was once the Glendale-Burbank Section, which covered two-thirds of an area that had a generally acknowledged identity--that is to say Glendale, Burbank and Pasadena. They are linked governmentally by ownership of an airport and are also affiliated in business and transportation matters with a logo and a name, the Tri-Cities area.

Going beyond the three cities, most of the communities known as northeast Los Angeles were parceled out to other regions. Highland Park and Mt. Washington were placed in the San Gabriel Valley Section, which also covers Pasadena. Los Feliz, Silver Lake and Echo Park were covered briefly by the Central Section, which went as far south as Watts.

(Incidentally, either way you look at it--by compass or street divisions--most of the area called northeast is actually west of downtown, but it couldn't be called northwest , because that is what the San Fernando Valley is called.)

Anyway, the Central Section expired in 1973, as I recall, and northeast Los Angeles was annexed by the Glendale Section. Then, in 1984, the Glendale bureau lost part of its domain when the Valley Edition began daily publication and annexed Burbank. Later, the Valley Edition annexed Glendale, in a roundabout way, by adding the daily edition on top of the weekly Glendale Section.

I think the reasons those communities have been lumped together by The Times has more to do with the base of advertising revenue than it does with the way people identify their turf. They are certainly too abstruse to be sorted out by someone who makes a living trying to find out what makes communities click.

My task, given a set of boundaries, was simply to find the shared element. It was pretty easy to see--the hills.

(I may have a predisposition toward that view. I grew up on Mt. Washington and still find it natural to use the preposition "on," even if it is more correctly "in" the community of Mt. Washington.)

Yet, it is obvious that none of the territory is flat, outside of downtown Glendale.

La Canada Flintridge and La Crescenta have the San Gabriel Mountains at their backs. Los Feliz has Griffith Park. Silver Lake has so many hills that there is no direct way across it, east to west. Echo Park has Fargo Street, the steepest in Los Angeles, it is said. Highland Park has the deceptively steep banks of the Arroyo Seco. And anyone who's taken the back way from Eagle Rock to Glendale knows that the peak of the Adams Street grade gives the best simulation of the colossus anywhere.

It doesn't appear that all these hills are related geologically. Griffith Park and Elysian Park are connected, like a tail, to the Santa Monica Mountains. The Verdugos and the San Rafael Hills appear to be side formations of the San Gabriels. Only a geologist would know how Mt. Washington, Montecito and the nameless (so far as I know) hills of Highland Park and Eagle Rock arose.

These hills are hardly alike in appearance, either. Those of northeast Los Angeles are covered with houses, trees and seemingly ancient stairways, almost like villages of rural France. The Verdugos and San Rafaels are wild with buckwheat and grass.

Whatever their differences in origin, texture or name, the Foothills distinguish a territory north of downtown Los Angeles from everything south, west or east, places whose very names--say Hawthorne, Culver City or Downey--sound foreign. It's the area of broken terrain where mountain ranges bump together.

The subtle connection of these hills and valleys is best appreciated on a brisk day after a rain, with broken clouds directing shafts of sunlight that turn hillside shanties into alabaster villas.

You don't even feel like driving to Mt. Wilson.

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