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Perhaps you have noticed that I have been less than religious about updating this blog. Or maybe I have been religious, but it’s a particular James Joyce, post-Portrait of the Artist, lapsed Catholic guilt brand of religion I seem to have been practicing.
Well I’ve returned to the fold. Which is to say, to the Valley.
I spent the past year in San Diego, finishing my last year of college, and it was remarkable how, even at such a minimal distance, the Valley receded into the vague cloud of the Platonic “Los Angeles” that I thought of when I thought of home. I found it difficult to write with any specificity on the Valley alone; my reach always seemed to extend over the hill. Having returned, however, the distinctions are once again becoming abundantly clear.
So the project begins anew because for the first time, despite all the lip service I’ve been paying it for months, I actually feel that I am compelled to continue. That this ugly, unwashed underdog of a place needs defending. And that I’m the person to do it.
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Remember how I said earlier that people who don’t live in the Valley hate it for all the wrong reasons? Here’s one of the best examples:
“God, the Valley is so disgusting and suburban. It’s just crappy strip malls EVERYWHERE.”
To the hypothetical speaker of that comment, I have one thing to say: Good god, man! “Crappy” strip malls? Bite your tongue! Do you have any idea of the treasures that lie within them?!?!?!?!
Allow me to justify my histrionics. The Valley is at both its best and worst when it isn’t pretending to be anything else, and the best example of that is the strip malls. They are grungey and unappealing, many are in sketchy parts of town, and they house some of the best food in Los Angeles. Two categories in which they particularly excel: donuts and sushi.
Here is an important, and in some quarters controversial, opinion (although I’d rather say “fact”) I have about donuts: There is no such thing as a good donut from Krispy Kreme. If you disagree with me, then please disregard everything I am about to write about donuts, and skip straight to sushi. One thing I know for certain: whichever side of the Krispy Kreme/real donuts line you fall on, there you will stay. To my mind, a good donut is big, doughy, covered in some kind of quasi-melty glaze, fresh, and contained in a pink box with either eleven or twelve others, depending on how seriously the proprietors take that whole “baker’s dozen” thing (I bet you can guess where I stand on that one). That’s what I love about the independent donut shops in the Valley; they make totally unapologetic donuts. They don’t try to sugarcoat (so to speak) the fact that what you are eating is wonderful for your mouth and terrible for your body; they just want to make you happy (and maybe sell you some inexpensive coffee to boot). They have un-clever names like “Donuts Plus”, “Donuts & More”, and “California Donuts”. Donut shops in strip malls are neither trendy nor cool. They simply exist, appropriately, by the dozen. P.T. Anderson knows all about this (he should—talk about the ultimate hometown boy made good); a crucial scene in the Valley-set Boogie Nights takes place where? A donut shop in Van Nuys (spitting distance from my house, actually).
Valley sushi, on the other hand, is a slightly less laid-back affair, even in a strip mall. Don’t be deceived by a humble exterior (or even interior); Valley strip mall sushi is serious business. Remember when I said that the sushi obsession was one of the big things Valley Girl got right? Case in point: there are more than twenty sushi restaurants in Studio City alone, and most of them are pretty great. I’m not naming names (this isn’t a “where to go in the Valley” blog; these places are for you to discover) but know that many have excellent food, staffs that aren’t 100% fluent in English (usually a good sign), and low prices. Sandwiched between laundromats, clothing stores with names like “Trendy Outfits $10”, and, yes, donut shops, these are the rewards for those who venture outside the obvious and familiar, which is kind of the whole appeal of the Valley.
Valley strip malls are great, because they are like microcosms of the Valley as a whole. Misunderstood, unpretentious, seemingly homogeneous, full of surprises, and worth a closer look.
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I’m pretty self-conscious regarding my use of the word “like.” Which is to say, any time I use it not as a means or comparison, nor as an expression of affection, I feel incredibly sheepish. This is not unique to me; I think most reasonably intelligent, self-aware young women probably experience some level of embarrassment if they have the habit of using “like” as a filler. But for those of us native to the Valley, this feeling is particularly acute because we know that we are living up to the stereotype of that most repellently materialistic and ditzy of creatures: The Valley Girl.
When I was in elementary school, my friends and I used that as an insult towards any girl who seemed overly girly and not too bright. Wearing a lot of pink and waxing poetic about Leonardo DiCaprio made you an instant target. “She is such a Valley Girl,” we’d say, completely oblivious to what that meant or the fact the “Valley” in Valley Girl referred to where we lived. So imagine my ten-year-old horror when my parents, recounting to me and my sister the story of how they had come to L.A. and gotten married concluded with “…and then we raised a couple of Valley Girls.”
“I am NOT a Valley Girl!” I shrieked, indignant at their accusations.
Of course now, my response would be something more along the lines of “Okay, fine, for sure, for sure.” Because when I listen to the Frank Zappa song “Valley Girl” (the one that started it all), a couple of things ring uncomfortably true:
-More than a few evenings of my adolescence were spent at the Sherman Oaks Galleria (which deserves its own post; I can’t do it justice here).
-Many of my bitchin’ clothes were purchased on Ventura Blvd. (see previous parenthesis).
Valley Girl, guilty as charged. But give credit where credit is due to my fourth grade self; I came into this late. What I mean is, Valley Girl culture was exclusive to the Valley for about a minute in the late eighties. After that, just as an example, we have Cher Horowitz, the protagonist of Clueless, who derides anyone who lives north of Sunset, and yet adores shopping and speaks with the signature Valley Girl inflection and slang. By the mid-nineties, you could find Valley Girls everywhere, not just “in like, a really good part of Encino.” By the time I was old enough to be aware of the expression, it had more to do with attitude and language than it did where you lived. Which is why the movie Valley Girl has always been a bafflement to me, albeit an enjoyable one.
Granted, there are some things about Valley Girl that are very similar to the Valley I know: the sushi obsession, late-night snacks at DuPars, that particular spot where the 405 runs just past the Galleria, and oh my god is that the Studio City Bookstar back when it was still a movie theatre you bet your ass it is! What was strange to me (given that I was barely in preschool when the eighties ended, I can’t really speak to the accuracy of this) was the insularity, and even exclusivity of Valley life depicted in the movie. Granted, I think a lot of that was plot-related (the ham-handed Romeo and Juliet allusions are a bit of a tip-off there), but there might have been some truth to that at the time, particularly among teenagers.
These days, many high schools in L.A. are magnets, so their student populations have representatives from every part of the city. I went to middle and high school in North Hollywood, but a good half of my friends were from outside the Valley. My sister went to school in Culver City, and nobody thought twice about anything but the commute. The Santa Monica Mountain Range doesn’t serve as quite the Iron Curtain it used to; these days its more of an oppressive inconvenience, which makes the places different but (I’m gonna bristle some non-Vals with this one) the people virtually indistinguishable. Hipsters, spoiled suburbans, gangsters, you can find them all on both sides of the hill.
Maybe that’s why, past the age of twelve, I haven’t bristled so much at the designation Valley Girl. Am I the quintessential Valley Girl depicted in the song and the movie? Not by a long shot, but like I said, the image doesn’t ring completely false. And hell, I like the song, and the movie, too (I own it, as a matter of fact; it’s probably going to get a post of its own later on). So I take the name and wear it proudly.
I’m a Valley Girl, and there is no cure.
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Let’s talk beginnings.
The Valley didn’t come out of nowhere, and I don’t mean that geologically speaking. It was (and here is a concession I am always reluctant to make) not always part of Los Angeles. In fact, prior to 1915, it was a sparsely inhabited desert with next to no land value (I know, I really invited the snark with that one, huh?). So what happened in 1915 that changed all this?
I’ll let the fictional Noah Cross field this one: “The future, Mr. Gitts (sic)! The future!”
Why, you may ask, am I quoting Chinatown on a blog about the Valley? For this reason: Chinatown isn’t really a movie about Chinatown; it’s a movie about the Valley (although that’s a gross oversimplification if ever there was one; rent it and see what I mean). Of course, if you recognized the quotation then you have obviously seen the movie, and none of this is news to you. But for those who haven’t, here is why all this matters.
Chinatown is the story of how the Valley came to be a part of Los Angeles, couched in the seedy, sexy wrapping of the noir genre. Screenwriter Robert Towne, in his infinite cleverness, remembered that old chestnut about the truth being stranger than fiction. In other words, the super-juicy, earthshaking conspiracy at the heart of the movie did actually exist, only it was in 1915, a time when the detectives weren’t as hard-boiled and the femmes weren’t as fatale (point to Towne: the thirties look much better on screen). So what exactly happened? I prefer to call it by its more colorful name: the rape of the Owens Valley.
‘Round about 1915 there was this fellow by the name of William Mullholland (yes, THAT Mullholland, the one they named the street after), and he had some serious plans for Los Angeles, plans that would lead to a real estate scam, the likes of which are rivaled only by those of Lex Luthor and assorted Scooby Doo villains. Los Angeles, as many of us are painfully aware, is a pretty dry place. At the time, it had barely enough water to sustain itself and could not accommodate expansion of any kind. Mullholland’s plans to irrigate water from the Owens Valley were not met with the degree of support he had hoped for (farmers in the Owens Valley were particularly not thrilled, surprise surprise). So this guy, this guy after whom we have named one of the most iconic streets in all of Los Angeles, this guy who had it all, this guy who was the head of the Department of Water and Power, THIS GUY faked a drought. Now, it doesn’t take much to fake a drought in Los Angeles (as locals are well aware—- we got ourselves a real one right now), but Mullholland’s plan involved surreptitiously dumping tons of water into the ocean. Drought-plagued L.A. residents voted for an aqueduct and were upset when, of all the nerve, the initial water was directed into the San Fernando Valley, not yet part of Los Angeles. Well, not for long. The Owens Valley, on the other hand, became an arid and unfarmable wasteland.
And that is how the Valley first became incorporated into the city of L.A. (of which it now makes up more than half). Talk about getting off on the wrong foot. With origins so sordid and contemptible, is it any surprise that the Valley has suffered such a bad reputation? It should come as no shock then that upon my first viewing of Chinatown I was left feeling both outraged and somehow ashamed, as though in growing up in Van Nuys I was somehow in collusion with the corrupt forces that had ruined the lives of so many Owens Valley farmers. And that is why I think the Valley’s history is important. Those of us raised in the San Fernando Valley have, indirectly, inherited the contempt and guilt left over from the travesty that gave us our homes. We were born to a reputation that many of us did not even know the origin of, and, given that so many native Angelenos have first-generation parents, could not possibly have been responsible for. The put-down that “The Valley isn’t even part of L.A.” is a (perhaps unconscious) call-back to something that happened nearly a century ago.
Would I call this a soul-crushing burden? Hardly. But it does make every Val feel like they have to pick a side between L.A. and the Valley, and many of them do. As for me, I see them as one and the same and claim them both as my own.
Guess that Mullholland greed is still in the water.
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Them: Oh, so you’re not really from LA.
Me: Well, yes I am.
Them: Yeah, but like, not really.
Me: I live in the City of Los Angeles. My mayor is the mayor of Los Angeles. I was educated in the Los Angeles Unified School District. My public transportation system (ha) is the LA City public transportation system.
Them: But you’re not from LA the way like, someone from Santa Monica is from LA.
Me: Actually, Santa Monica is technically an incorporated city, it’s not really a part of LA.
Them: Yeah, but it’s like, more so.
Me: *long sigh*
And that’s about where I give up because I’m pretty sure no one is interested in hearing about the rape of the Owens Valley at a party where it’s hard enough to hear the name someone is shouting at you. And it’s not that simple an issue, either. Because, as any Valley native can tell you, for all that you resent being disassociated from LA, you know in your heart that, technicalities aside, in many ways you are. You know that you live in one of the most reviled regions of one of the most reviled cities in one of the most reviled countries in the world. And yet you take a strange, ferocious pride in it. While I often heap criticism on it myself, I am incredibly defensive when others criticize it (in no small part because, to my mind, the criticism of outsiders is usually misinformed). How can I feel so protective over a part of town I wouldn’t even want to live in if I moved back to LA after school? Like I said, the answer is complicated, but I think it has something to do with my inescapable impulse to root for the underdog.
So I guess, in a sense this is a Valley Girl’s apology of the Valley, and I mean apology in the original sense, a defense of sorts. My goal here is to portray the Valley as I have known it, warts and all, the things I hate and love, the things that are unique to this misunderstood corner of the world. Granted, my point of view will not be all-encompassing; I readily admit that my familiarity is more with the East and Mid-Valley regions, so my insights are limited mostly to North Hollywood, Studio City, Valley Glen, Valley Village, Van Nuys, Sherman Oaks. A snapshot, really, but trust me, it’s fertile ground.
And with that, let me welcome you into the belly of the beast: The San Fernando Valley, where the parking is free and the air conditioning is no joke.