Ask Thousand Oaks Councilman Frank Schillo to compare his city with Simi Valley and sooner or later, he starts talking trash.
He sidles into the topic warily, first piling on feel-good platitudes about regional cooperation and healthy competition. Then, bluntly, he dishes out the dirt.
Partisan and proud of it, Schillo boasts that Thousand Oaks outshines Simi Valley: Its citizens are more active in politics, more concerned for the poor, more supportive of the arts.
And a lot more dedicated to keeping their lawns green and their trees pruned.
"The way I personify the difference is that we have much more grass waste than they do because we require so much landscaping," Schillo says, grinning.
His other claims might be a bit subjective, but this one holds water. Ounce for ounce, Thousand Oaks does generate more grass clippings than its cross-freeway rival--27% of its total trash is classified as yard waste, compared with only 19% of the refuse in Simi Valley.
Whether that makes for a better city, however, is open to debate.
And debate people do.
"I think Simi Valley controls signs better than Thousand Oaks and has a better hillside protection ordinance too," said Supervisor Vicky Howard, a former Simi Valley councilwoman who now represents the city on the Ventura County Board of Supervisors.
"There's more of a higgledy-piggledy look about development in Thousand Oaks--it's not as well planned as Simi," Howard added.
Those are fighting words for the folks in Thousand Oaks, who pride themselves on living in the best-planned city around. But Howard's comments are deliberate, designed to squash the stereotype of Simi Valley as the scruffy, disheveled neighbor of well-groomed Thousand Oaks.
Unfairly, perhaps, Simi Valley suffers from a reputation as a city paved with tacky strip malls, blotted with ugly signs and peopled with tough-nosed, blue-collar workers.
"Those sleaze ball, beer-drinking, bowling alley-going people," one Thousand Oaks business leader said with a laugh, then pleaded to remain anonymous.
Across the east county, Thousand Oaks has become known as a snooty, upper-crust enclave, far too finicky about design standards. Despite the city's wealth, Thousand Oaks leaders often whine about their populace's unmet needs and grouse that their constituents' tax dollars subsidize services elsewhere in the county.
One restaurateur who has worked in both Simi Valley and Thousand Oaks said residents' attitudes toward dining out reflect the cities' clashing personalities. Fearful of offending his Simi Valley patrons, he insisted on keeping his name out of print.
"Simi is a meat and potatoes town, and (Thousand Oaks) is more of a health food kind of place," he said. "I'm not sure the people in Simi know what good food is--over there, it's price, price, price and that's all they care about."
Those are the stereotypes. But like all broad-brush caricatures, they often mislead.
For every jarringly purple muffler store in Simi Valley, there's a straggly looking mini-mall along Thousand Oaks Boulevard. For every peeling plastic doughnut sticking out of a Simi Valley coffee shop, there's a faded, barrack-like school in Thousand Oaks.
And Simi Valley has its ritzy developments--Indian Hills, for example, an upscale neighborhood on the northeast end of the city featuring views of the rock-studded Santa Susana Mountains and up-close glimpses of wildlife trekking through specially preserved corridors. In the half-completed Wood Ranch development, some posh homes have sold for as much as $800,000.
Further bucking the stereotypes, many of Thousand Oaks' stores are mom-and-pop, blue-collar-type establishments, including more than a dozen auto-related stores along the downtown strip. There's even a huge Kmart in the center of town--just a few blocks away from City Hall.
Simi Valley, of course, still boasts the only bar with bikini-clad women, where dancers in scanty Lycra triangles gyrate on a platform stage. Compared with Snooky's, Thousand Oaks' den of iniquity looks tame: the Red Onion restaurant, where poofy-haired teen-agers in tight shorts rock and roll under a flashing disco ball until 2 a.m.
But slowly, things are changing.
Even in straight-laced Thousand Oaks, the Red Onion recently established "California Hunks" night, a strip-tease in which male models rip off their shirts and pants, then flex their prodigious muscles and pose for Polaroids in brightly colored bikinis.
And the bastion of beige known as The Oaks mall may soon look a little less bland (or, some have argued, a little more tacky). After much hand-wringing, the City Council recently approved purple and green canopies to spiff up the drab earth-tone exterior.
In another dramatic departure from city norms, Thousand Oaks is building a multistory Civic Arts Plaza smack up against the Ventura Freeway. The combination auditorium, city hall and parking garage carries a $64-million price tag and an unmistakably urban look.