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In Defense of the San Fernando Valley
Emerson Dameron
12/16/2008


“I’m gonna settle down and never more roam / And make the San Fernando Valley my home.”
-Bing Crosby, crooner, SFV booster
 
“818 ‘til I die!”
-Brody Stevens, comedian, SFV apologist

 It’s hard to talk about the apocalypse without using the word “awesome.” If you’re getting your vitamins and oxygen, you’d love a front-row seat for the apocalypse. And of all the places on earth primed to serve as Ground Zero for the Big One (or the ultimate culmination of a million Little Ones), few are as sunny, pampered or absurd as LA’s San Fernando Valley.

It’s 345 square miles of late-capitalist congestion, bordered by crags (the Santa Susanas, the Santa Monicas, the Verdugos the San Gabriels and the Simi Hills). That means stadium seating, and a first-rate view of the fireworks. How polluted is it? During the excruciating LA summers, it’s a good 20 degrees hotter than the rest of the city. In 1994, it hosted an earthquake so destructive that my native pals won’t discuss it in restaurants. Once a haven for a wealthy ham-and-eggers fleeing LA’s urban centers, it is now plagued by most of the same sociopathologies as any big city.

If you grew up in the San Fernando Valley, you watched a little piece of the American dream die like a squished roach. If you grew up here, you’ve got stories. And it’s well above sea level, so the booze goes further. In the Valley, you’re a cheaper date.



A LITTLE BIT COUNTRY, A LITTLE BIT STRIP-MAULED

Mexican Spainards founded the San Fernando Mission in 1797, so they could convert some native heathens. LA annexed the Valley in 1915. In cinema’s buoyant youth, the Valley was a set for many Westerns (and, oh yeah, Birth of a Nation) and a pastoral getaway for stars. But the Valley’s modern history begins in the aftermath of WW2, when the aerospace industry ruled, young veterans sought placid safety and had money to drop on it, and the carefully groomed suburbs inspired the ascendant middle-class American lifestyle.

There was a time when every iced-in dreamer quietly coveted a bite of the Valley’s orange. When most people think of the San Fernando Valley circa now, they visualize the quintessence of suburban misery. But the Valley isn’t even a suburb, people. It sort of includes the independent cities of Burbank and Glendale, and the Universal City DMZ, but those are distinct entities, and they’re too cool to claim the Valley proper. If you live in Glendale, you live in Glendale. If you live in El Segundo, you live in El Segundo. If you live in the Valley, you live in Los Angeles, friend. And Burbank is scared of you. How much cred is that?



The essence of the 818 can be sought in the upscale Encino and Sherman Oaks, the increasingly gritty Van Nuys and Reseda, and the bland-as-flakes Tarzana… all of which are technically neighborhoods in Los Angeles. You made it!

Should the opportunity arise, “world-class” Angeleno culture vultures will, over a few blacklight-sensitive cocktails, take hateful snaps at the Valley. But, give it some sugar; it is your neighbor. It’s not a foreign republic. It plays a huge role in LA culture, commerce and mythos. If the SFV secedes from Los Angeles (which would be pointless at best, and would probably damage the Valley and the city, but does sometimes sound good to its more persnickety residents), it will be the sixth largest city in America. LA will be punked into third, which will do wonders for Chicago’s self-esteem.

LA feeds off the passion and creativity of frustrated Valley kids, who produce far more prominent, resonant art than any smug Silver Lake bohos. (Friday night at the Shortstop may be compelling, but it hasn’t inspired a “Free Fallin’.”) Once it was aerospace. Now it’s entertainment. But the Valley’s real stock in trade is alienation. When things go well, alienation begets art.

It’s not the healthiest relationship, but LA and the SFV complete each other.



LOCKED INTO THE GRID

The San Fernando Valley would not exist in its current form without the sudden explosion of internal combustion. It is largely impossible to navigate the 818 without an automobile. Cars dominate. Cars always dominated, as far back as any existing evidence will indicate. Living or working in the Valley automatically entails many hours spent absorbing wacky morning shows, hypnotic pop songs or inspiring books-on-tape. It’s fragmented. It’s spread out like a slutty golf course. The roads are impossibly clogged. Notwithstanding its notorious abundance of malls, it lacks alluring social centers. Everything is fuck-all expensive. Families live in far-flung cul-de-sacs. Parents are harried, fearful and conservative. Children are spoiled and bored.

Sprawl? If the San Fernando Valley is an aquarium, sprawl is the water. Unless you’ve traveled, you don’t spend a lot of time thinking about the sprawl. That word is kind of sexy, isn’t it? “Sprawl.”

Heat, dust, fires, quakes and pollution routinely ravage the 818. Everyone’s a little on edge; thanks for asking. The SFV’s schematics hail from a long-gone era, when commerce was god’s lesson plan, and parks and other “green spaces” didn’t seem all that important. (‘Cause, you know, it’s not like we’re running out of land.) Few cool people want to live here. A lot of them are glad they left, and would love to discuss their redemption. In 1944, suave everymen serenaded the Valley as an insulated wonderland. Now, most of its civic boosters sound weary and desperate. Aside from the adrenaline-drunk standup comedian Brody Stevens, none of its culturally savvy denizens seems compelled to defend it to the haters down the hill. But Brody might be its perfect ambassador. For the Valley has always been a cosmic trickster. A giggling ghost in the American machine.



This is where the real sight-seeing and people-watching happens, if you’ve got a full tank and you’re paying attention. The Valley has spawned a unique indigenous culture that’s the ideal case study for everything that drives and troubles most of the nation at large. And it’s got most any chain restaurant you can name. Let’s drive through for coffee--we’ve got a long way to go.

THE VALLEY PLAYS ITSELF

Outsiders from Eagle Rock to Maine have never withheld their contempt the San Fernando Valley. It’s a pariah and a scapegoat. In the 1980s, as the nicks appeared in the Reagan patina, the SFV became the world’s symbol for suburbia’s shallowness, excess and despair. But the Valley was having a ball.

Inadvertently striking a vein, the late Valley resident Frank Zappa dropped the novelty record “Valley Girl.” After he hit “record,” his daughter Moon Unit mimicked her bitchy, materialistic classmates. Together, they scored an unlikely smash. The whiny, narcissistic Valley Girl, with her obnoxious slang and sleek entitlement complex, became an American archetype. If you’re an ‘80s baby, you might recall wanting to be her. Or bang her. Don’t give me that look.



Popular films, from Fast Times at Ridgemont High to Earth Girls are Easy to Encino Man to Boogie Nights, lampooned 818 stereotypes, skewing much darker as the ‘90s wore on. Late-night yuk-meisters ripped the Valley with abandon, delighting in its overpaved dullness, its naive affluence, and its bizarre identity crisis. In the popular imagination, if LA is a setup, the SFV is the punchline.

And, since you keep asking, the Valley is also a loving cradle for the sleepless, lucrative pornography industry. Chatsworth hasn’t had a homicidal hippie cult in years, but it serves as home base to AVN News (the porno Variety). This is where the fluffers and woodmen raise kids, go to church, and try to blend in. Go grocery shopping, and you’ll eventually spy some synthetic tans and water-balloon funbags.

THE EVOLVING REALITY

Like famed resident Michael Jackson, the San Fernando Valley ain’t as cute as it was. Over the last few decades, and particularly in the last few years, the Valley has become more and more like the rest of Los Angeles. It suffers from gang activity, illicit drug trafficking, property crimes, claustrophobic paranoia, and everything else on the urban-blight buffet. Some areas in particular (that’s you, Van Nuys… Pacoima, you know you’ve got problems) have gotten so dicey that they’ve inspired breakaway districts. Parts of North Hollywood’s hodgepodge became Valley Village and West Toluca Lake. The erstwhile left tip of Van Nuys now answers to Valley Glen. No self-respecting gangbanger would rep Valley Glen. But plenty rep the Valley.



Once a white-flight asylum, the Valley now makes way for kaleidoscopic ethnic diversity. But that hasn’t altered its pattern of seething racial tension. It was in Lake View Terrace, near the scenic Tujunga Canyon, where four LA cops pummeled black motorist Rodney King, indirectly touching off the infamous ’92 riots. Many of its recurrent political battles (public funds, school districts, neighborhood realignment) have a strong whiff of cultural chauvinism.

The NIMBY politics are walking wounded. With demographics in flux, those attitudes seem increasingly futile. A steady arrival of immigrants has changed the panorama. Valley strip malls now include plenty of, ahem, “authentic” Mexican, Korean and Pakistani joints alongside Wendy’s and El Pollo Loco.

Many classic Valley stereotypes remain roughly accurate, depending on where you are, exactly. But let’s stay current. The Sherman Oaks Galleria, once the designated HQ for Valley Girl hubris, was razed years ago. There’s still not much to do, but there’s more variety. Today’s ego and greed are more decentralized.



For a social-studies nerd, the San Fernando Valley is one of the most frustrating places in the nation. It has a lush history, filled with corruption, intrigue, natural beauty and cultural flashpoints. But it’s almost too sad to get into that. The Valley has a nasty habit of erasing itself. A disproportionate number of once-beloved SFV landmarks have been significantly altered or bulldozed out of existence. Many indigenous brands and institutions have diversified their portfolios and no longer identify with the Valley. If you remember them, pour out a little liquor. If not, let’s make the best of what’s still around.

Even as the rest of Southern California makes admirable strides toward basic environmental dignity, the Valley’s sprawl, filth and avarice continue apace, set to take down whatever is left of the area’s ancient rural beauty. The Valley is ready for the end. It’s not keeping its receipts. See it now--it’s a limited engagement.

THERE’S GOTTA BE SOMETHING TO DO

The San Fernando Mission remains a historical anchor point and a timeless place of worship. The Unitarian Church in North Hills (where a Greatful Dead scored one of the Merry Pranksters’ notorious Acid Tests as Tom Wolfe took notes) also keeps the faith, for hippie dreamers as much as for humanist Christians.



If you’ve explored the rest of Los Angeles and missed the smell of nature, check out the Sepulveda Basin, if only for the shock of seeing a section of the LA River that’s still unpaved. If you like running water, see the Tujunga Wash during winter (the only time it gets really wet here) and the nearby Mulholland Dam (which inspired Roman Polanski’s fictionalized neo-noir classic Chinatown.) Somewhere in Toluca Lake, there’s a teensy-weensy lake, but good luck finding it.

If you prefer the harder stuff, you can worship the Budweiser Brewery in Van Nuys, near the 405 on-ramp and a 24-hour Tommy’s Hamburgers franchise. It now mocks vegetarians by its damned self, as the once ubiquitous Bob’s Big Boy burger joints have well nigh disappeared.
 
If animals are your friends, Canoga Park’s Follow Your Heart Market & Cafe bucks the Valley’s hopeless unsustainability; it patented the first vegan-safe mayo alternative. It lies on Sherman Way’s “Antique Row,” which warrants a mid-afternoon mosey.

In its museum of goofball Valley stereotypes, tony Encino also harbors the Stand, roundly heralded as the finest hot dog connection anywhere in LA. The Granada Hills Northridge Fashion Center may as well be America’s prototypical mall; it becomes a real beehive ‘round the holidays, backing up traffic to… screw it. Traffic is always backed up.




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