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The Big Shakedown : THE VALLEY : Values and Virtues of Middle-America

January 23, 1994|Kevin Starr | Kevin Starr, professor of planning and development at USC and faculty member of the USC Embassy Residential College, is author of "The Dream Endures: California Through the Great Depression," to be published by Oxford University Press.

The Northridge earthquake struck at the very premise of the Southern California dream--the San Fernando Valley. Few places more dramatically epitomize the hope of ordinary citizens for a better life than this sprawling region that has long since blurred the distinction between city and suburb.

Nordhoff Street--honoring journalist Charles Nordhoff (1830-1901), author of one of the most influential books in the history of the state--runs a block north of the quake's epicenter. First published in 1872, translated into many European languages and frequently updated, Nordhoff's "California for Health, Wealth and Residence"' helped fix, in the minds of Americans and Europeans, the image of Southern California as a setting for the good life for middle-income migrants, with special emphasis upon owning a home in healthy and beautiful surroundings. It is a notion severely tested by last Monday's quake and its aftermath.

In every aspect of its history--Native American life, mission era, rancho days, emergence as an agricultural region, explosion as the epicenter of post-World War II suburban growth in the Southland--the San Fernando Valley distills and preserves the accumulated memories and social structures, the themes and symbols, the successes and failures of the Southern California experience.

From the start of the European era, the Valley seemed destined to grow. Founded in September, 1797, and named in honor of a 13th-Century king of Spain who was raised to sainthood after his death, Mission San Fernando Rey de Espana prospered as the largest of the California missions, a combination of church, monastery, manufacturing center and rancho. On Dec. 21, 1812, an earthquake leveled the mission church.

In 1845, three Fernandenos--as the Native Americans associated with the mission were called--received the grant of Rancho El Encino, which they subsequently sold to Don Vincente de la Osa, who built his adobe a few hundred yards north of present-day Ventura Boulevard. Throughout the 19th Century, well into the American era, the Valley remained rancho country, centered on the market town of San Fernando, founded in the mid-1870s.

Los Angeles annexed the Valley in 1915, a move that paralleled the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. With its annexation, the City of Los Angeles emerged as a de facto city-state, as much a Swiss canton as an American city, with its own agricultural region within city limits.

The Los Angeles oligarchy had set its sight on the Valley as a prime location for speculative development. Among the earlier subdividers and speculators were Isaac Lankershim and I. N. Van Nuys, who left their names on the landscape. In the early 1900s, the Los Angeles Suburban Homes Co., a syndicate that included Harrison Gray Otis of the Los Angeles Times, E. H. Harriman of the Southern Pacific and Henry Huntington of Pacific Electric interurban railway, held options on huge acreages in the region. In 1913, the Owens Valley Project brought water to the San Fernando--and land values soared. The oligarchy, in other words, had put together an unbeatable combination of press, transit, water and politics in the service of real-estate speculation.

Water transformed the San Fernando Valley into an agricultural paradise. Throughout the 1930s, San Fernando, Burbank, Glendale, North Hollywood, Encino, Tarzana, Canoga Park, Newhall, Valencia, Northridge, Chatsworth and Sylmar evolved from settlement to market town to planned development. Only Burbank, Glendale and San Fernando retained their independence from annexation-hungry Los Angeles.

Tarzana's founder, Edgar Rice Burroughs, the creator of Tarzan, bought 550 acres from Otis. Contiguous to the Santa Monica Mountains, the land was developed as a model ranch. In the 1920s, Burroughs developed a country club and subdivided. The Lockheed brothers, Malcolm and Allan, joined by Jack Northrop, established, in 1927, the Lockheed Aircraft Corp. in Burbank, thus bringing to the Valley a key industry of greater Los Angeles, second only to agriculture and motion pictures.

By 1941, James M. Cain could describe Glendale, in his classic novel "Mildred Pierce," as the paradigm of middle-class Southern California: a city of standardized bungalows, each of them furnished in Mediterranean faux and Grand Rapids mid-American, with only the Spanish architecture and the avocado, lemon and mimosa trees reminding visitors that they were no longer in Kansas. Cain's heroine, both in the novel and in the Joan Crawford movie, epitomized the mid-America that was beginning to make the San Fernando Valley its own.

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