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The Big Breakup

In Their Middle Age, the San Fernando Valley and the Metropolis Over the Hill Are Starting to Look More Alike Than Ever. Is Divorce Really the Answer?

July 22, 2001|KEVIN RODERICK | Kevin Roderick, a Los Angeles journalist, is the author of "The San Fernando Valley: America's Suburb," to be published next month by Los Angeles Times Books

MY PARENTS FOUND THE SAN FERNANDO VALLEY IN THE GREAT American exodus to the suburbs that began with World War II. At the time, "The Valley" evoked images of newlyweds gabbing with film stars over the orchard fence or in line at the Piggly Wiggly. Clark Gable, the reigning movie king, grew oranges in Encino and joined his actor pals racing motorcycles over the dirt farm roads that laced the Valley's west end. On weekends you might spot famous faces motoring to a bridge game at Desilu, the Devonshire Street ranch of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz. Coronet magazine pronounced the early postwar Valley a "dizzy, ubiquitous mixture of Fifth Avenue and Main Street [where] one may find a glamour starlet in imported gabardine chatting earnestly with a chicken farmer in jeans."

Hype like this kept 'em coming by the thousands. From over the hill in Los Angeles and beyond, young couples eager to make up for lost time rushed through the Cahuenga Pass to take root and germinate on their rectangle of Valley soil. They made babies and turned the Valley into the country's swimming pool and sports car capital, inventing a lifestyle centered around backyard barbecues, Little League and nourishing one's own patch of suburbia to be a tad more abundant than the one next door. "Some just grow flowers, some raise horses and dogs and cattle and goats," Los Angeles Times columnist Bill Henry waxed in a '50s paean to Valley life. What mattered most, Henry proclaimed, was that the Valley was not Los Angeles. It was someplace far better:

"Thousands of us commute to town to earn our living and then hurry back to the Valley to enjoy the sort of living we think makes the trip worthwhile."

Today the San Fernando Valley is frequently the butt of jokes and a favorite symbol of rampant suburbia. The scorn is mutual. Almost no one who lives inland of the Santa Monica Mountains identifies their hometown as Los Angeles; they live in Mission Hills or Reseda or another of the 30 post office addresses that fragment the Valley. The Valley legally belongs to Los Angeles and contains half of the city's land area, yet it never really has been of Los Angeles. The relationship is similar to that of step-siblings who share the same home but would never be mistaken for blood relations. Or it is like that of a married couple whose union has yet to be consummated.

In this case, the wedding took place March 29, 1915, when the Valley's scattered settlers voted 681-25 to accept annexation to Los Angeles. Some sections of the Valley held out, but except for the still-independent cities of Burbank and San Fernando, the rest soon gave in to a nearly irresistible inducement. Joining L.A. was a condition of drinking the water from William Mulholland's famed aqueduct.

Despite the marriage of convenience, the two parties resisted a merger of the heart. Even now, while Los Angeles strives to be world-class and cosmopolitan, the Valley's high fences and mature shrubbery hide pockets of dirt streets and chicken roosts. If you know where to look, you can find forgotten creeks and remnants of the fruit orchards and horse corrals that once covered the terrain.

This implacable divide, both physical and cultural, can't be ignored in understanding the dynamics swirling around the question of whether the Valley should quit Los Angeles. If approved by voters in an expected citywide vote on secession in November 2002, the move would create a pair of smaller, side-by-side 21st century cities.

There is ample reason to view the Valley as a separate place. It possesses its own colorful past of local heroes and scoundrels, and of military skirmishes fought on the Valley floor with lances and cannons. The cross-mountain rivalry with Los Angeles began in the early 1800s when the padres at Mission San Fernando, Rey de Espana, dammed Rio Porciuncula and ignited the thirsty downstream pueblo's wrath.

Even so, there's a budding irony in the gathering momentum for taking Valley secession seriously. The breakup referendum just might pass. But the dissolution would come at a moment when the Valley no longer looks so distinct from the throbbing metropolis over the hill. In their middle age, the newlyweds have come to look more alike than ever. Is divorce really the answer?

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CHANDLER BOULEVARD IN SHERMAN OAKS IS ONE OF THOSE GORGEOUS overgrown drives that makes you long to go for a cruise with the top down in the July twilight. Generously shaded by mature firs and cedars, bathed in the aroma of fresh-mown lawns, Chandler's seductions are those of the good suburban life.

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