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The Valley Reconsidered

Changing The Context

Calabasas Is the New Suburbia, a Vibrant City Devoted to Keeping Its Identity. Understand It and You Understand the Valley's Urge to Secede.

November 12, 2000|MARLENE ADLER MARKS | Marlene Adler Marks' last article for the magazine was about ethnicity

My friend Francine Moskowitz and I are taking an afternoon coffee break at the Corner Bakery in the Calabasas Commons, a new shopping village on the northwestern rim of Los Angeles County. With its gold-domed Rolex clock tower, posh boutiques, rock pond, waterfall, multiplex theater with 1940s-style marquee and whimsical Tom Sawyer-like wrought-iron figurines, the Commons feels both new and familiar. You've sat and talked like this before, in a town square like this one, but certainly not along the 405 or 101 freeways.

We are trying to determine which East Coast suburb this place reminds us of.

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"Chestnut Hill [Philadelphia]," says Francine.

"Long Island?" I suggest.

"Cherry Hill, N.J.?"

"Great Neck?"

"Great Neck! Huntington!"

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To say these town names, redolent of John Cheever and F. Scott Fitzgerald tales of wealth and ambition, makes us onetime East Coast girls giddy. We forget that we are sitting in a community that many outsiders still call "The Last of the Old West." Right now, in the old-town section on Calabasas Road, Phyllis Power, head of the privately run Leonis Adobe Assn., is leading a tour of the 1844 Leonis Adobe and relishing the tale of colorful Miguel Leonis, ruthless "King of Calabasas" and his Indian widow, Espiritu Chijulla.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday December 3, 2000 Home Edition Los Angeles Times Magazine Page 4 Times Magazine Desk 2 inches; 38 words Type of Material: Correction
An article in the Nov. 12 issue incorrectly stated that the city of Calabasas and the environmental group Heal the Bay have sued to block the Ahmanson Ranch housing development in Ventura County. City officials and Heal the Bay are considering a lawsuit but have not filed one.

In place of the Old West, the Calabasas of today is a vision of the New West--a New Suburban West. This community is wealthy, but also safe, clean, vibrant and with-it in a calm, middle-class way. It's suburban L.A. as we thought it should be, with its own myths and identity--perhaps like neighborhoods in the San Fernando Valley were years ago, before one butted up against another, before high-speed roads made the Valley into a characterless suburban adjunct of downtown and the Westside.

Calabasas residents created their city in 1991 to avoid the crime, congestion and bland, caricatured suburbia that define the worst parts of the Valley's image. Similar instincts have given birth to planned communities in Orange County and elsewhere--notably Irvine and Rancho Santa Margarita. In the Valley, other communities have tried local resurrection within the last decade: West Hills separated from Canoga Park; Valley Village broke with North Hollywood. Yet because these areas are part of the city of Los Angeles, their efforts resulted in little more than changes of postal addresses, interpreted as sinister attempts to keep real estate values high. Calabasas had the ironic good fortune of existing outside of the city, under the county's governance, which meant it could rebel against overdevelopment by voting to incorporate into a new city (some parts remain unincorporated and are directly controlled by the county).

So strong are those impulses that Calabasas residents don't consider their city part of the Valley. The feeling is understandable, but it's wrong--in geography and spirit. For in truth, the same impulses are coursing through the Valley. To understand them is to understand the Valley's urge to change, to secede. In Calabasas, with its soothing gated communities and broad, tree-lined parkways, the Valley sees a message: You deserve to live in a place that reflects your own lifestyle and imagination--a community that offers something better than a strip mall on Ventura Boulevard as your piece of local destiny. If you were in charge of your own fate, if anyone had asked your opinion, as developers in Calabasas were forced to do, you might have designed a place like this too.

the calabasas coyotes are having a bad night against the visiting Agoura Chargers on a recent football evening. The crowd at Calabasas High School looks like outtakes from "Leave It to Beaver" with doting parents and enthusiastic students. The team, with a high number of Jewish players, almost had a locker room "throw down" in September over whose family makes the best kugel.

Schools provided the initial burst of energy in Calabasas more than a decade ago as families fled the Los Angeles Unified School District for Las Virgenes Unified. Las Virgenes has 12,000 students this year, almost 500 fewer than Santa Monica-Malibu Unified. The average age of Calabasans is 33, according to the city's Web site, and a baby boom seems to be in full swing, judging from the overflow crowd of toddlers at the Tuesday morning GymRunners class at the Commons Gymboree.

Calabasas High School, with 1,680 students, is completing its physical expansion. But it may not be large enough. The school boasts high scores on the Scholastic Assessment Test for college admission: In 1999-2000, the school's SAT average was 1149. By comparison, at El Camino Real High School, not five miles away and a jewel of the Los Angeles Unified system, the SAT average was 1067. Nearly one-fourth of Calabasas graduates go on to the University of California, school officials say, more than at El Camino, where 15% go on to attend UC schools.

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