The 1980s saw old truisms about the San Fernando Valley slip badly on their foundations.
The decade’s striking curtain-raiser was school busing, a social and educational experiment that brought inner-city minority students to schools in Northridge, Canoga Park and neighboring suburbs. Opposition to the plan agitated many Valley residents. But in the end, cultural and ethnic heterogeneity came through the backdoor, not through busing, as the Valley became the new home during the 1980s to increasing numbers of minorities.
A monolithic Valley is hard to find now. Instead, there seem to be many Valleys, and lots of change.
North Hollywood has become less Jewish and more Latino. Van Nuys has a mini-mall run by Thai businessmen who erected a Buddhist shrine in their parking lot. Chatsworth has lost orchards and gained sprawling, job-intensive industrial parks.
Street gangs have sprayed graffiti on Ventura Boulevard signs. A Northridge church offers services in Spanish. Encino has sprouted a skyline, and traffic is heavier. In Woodland Hills, predominantly white homeowner groups are fighting development. In Lake View Terrace, black, Latino and white residents have united to rail against a garbage dump.
Ironically, as the Valley became harder to define, the culture-merchants--with a major assist from musician and Studio City resident Frank Zappa and his daughter, Moon--created the Valley Girl myth. If the Valley had no national identity before, after the Zappas’ 1982 hit song “Valley Girl,” the fashion and social mores of middle-class, white, teen-age girls suddenly captured the nation’s imagination.
What follows are snapshots of what happened to the Valley area as it drifted from its suburban roots in the ‘80s.
In 1980, Barbara Spork of Toluca Lake and Dean Jeffries of Studio City had a piece of the Southern California dream: From their houses, each had a beautiful view of faraway mountains.
But their postcard vistas are no more. The 32-story Geiger Tower building in Burbank has blotted out Spork’s view. And as the decade closes, the panorama from Jeffries’ patio is of the backside of a seven-story Ventura Boulevard office building. “We had a tremendous view, all the way to the mountains,” Jeffries recalled recently. “But they took it all away.”
Spork and Jeffries were victims of a 1980s phenomenon--the emergence of a San Fernando Valley skyline. Before, the Anheuser-Busch brewery was virtually the sole architectural sentinel to poke above the Valley’s flatness. But during the 1980s office towers sprouted in Encino, Warner Center and Universal City. Seven of the Valley’s 10 tallest buildings were constructed in the ‘80s; the biggest was the 35-story MCA-Texaco building in Universal City.
But high-rises were only the most blatant symbols of something else: the urbanization of the Valley.
In Chatsworth, Southern Pacific Railroad transformed a square mile parcel of strawberry fields and orchards into an industrial park. Throughout the Valley, hundreds of single-family houses were razed to make way for apartment buildings. Between 1980 and 1986, 15,328 apartment units were built in the Valley, and 1,340 single-family houses were demolished.
The seemingly inexorable advance of man-made clutter even crept into the Valley’s finer neighborhoods during the ‘80s, noted Encino architect Mark Smith. In Encino, Woodland Hills and Sherman Oaks, smallish, 1950-vintage houses were torn down and replaced with larger, luxury houses that pressed against the outer edge of property lines and loomed over smaller homes nearby.
In 1988, the Los Angeles City Planning Department said the Valley had grown faster during the ‘80s than the rest of the city. As of 1988, the Valley--or that portion of it within the boundaries of the city of Los Angeles--had 1,133,000 residents, up 116,000 over 1980. The Valley’s growth rate during this eight-year period was 11.4%, compared to 10.9% for the remainder of the city.
A sign that the Valley was becoming more urbanized could also be found in the L-shaped mini-malls that mushroomed during the decade, says David Hornbeck, a professor of economics and geography at Cal State Northridge. Hornbeck likens the malls to the mom-and-pop stores found on the ground floors of apartment buildings in New York, London and Paris. History teaches that high densities of people and their money attract merchants offering convenience, Hornbeck contends.
The 1980s were a “decade of an altogether new kind of maturity for the Valley,” said architect Smith. The Valley went from being an almost “purely suburban community to being an urban center,” he said.
Councilwoman Joy Picus also sees the 1980s as the Valley’s “decade of urbanization.” But, on balance, has it meant an erosion of the Valley’s quality of life? “I think we’re as well-off now as we were in 1980,” says Picus, who can sound a few hurrahs for the changing order. “It used to be I had to drive to Sherman Oaks to shop, now everything is within five minutes.”
More office towers and more apartment buildings meant more traffic during the decade. In 1980, the Simi Valley Freeway between Balboa Boulevard and De Soto Avenue did not exist. Now CalTrans says this junior segment of the Los Angeles freeway system, completed in 1983, carries 117,000 cars on an average day.
Since 1980, traffic volume on the Ventura Freeway has increased by 40,000 cars a day and now totals 281,000 cars a day. The crush prompted CalTrans to begin a project to widen the Ventura Freeway by a lane in each direction from Valley Circle Boulevard to the Hollywood Freeway. By 1989, it was a dog-bites-man cliche that the morning rush hour would find southbound San Diego Freeway traffic backed up for miles as it approached the Sepulveda Pass, said Michael McDermott of Metro Traffic Control, the traffic reporting service for many Los Angeles radio stations.
Larry Cohen, a taxi driver for Valley Cab Co. for eight years, lives and breathes Valley traffic. “The last three or four years have been the worst,” he says. Cohen blames it on apartment construction in the ‘80s. “They took out all those single-family homes and put in apartments. That’s been a big cause of the problem,” Cohen says.
As traffic congestion has mounted, so have signs of motorist distress. “I see more horn-honking and obscene gesturing than I used to,” Cohen says.
Valley gridlock has been a boon for David Biondolillo, a salesman for Cellular Mobile Phone Co. “Los Angeles is the biggest market in the world for cellular phones, and that’s largely because of the traffic,” he says. “You don’t get the kind of market penetration in Des Moines that you get here.” And if Los Angeles is the best market for car phones, the Valley is the market’s creme de la creme, he says.
But the Valley’s car culture did provide some good news in the 1980s. Authorities attributed an improvement in air quality over the decade to the natural phase-out of older, dirtier cars. In Reseda, for example, the air was unhealthful on 105 days and very unhealthful on 29 in 1978, according to the South Coast Air Quality Management District. By 1988, Reseda had 68 days of unhealthful and four days of very unhealthy air.
“The Valley” has long been synonymous with white and middle-class. But the 1980s rendered that stereotype inoperable, said geographer Hornbeck of Cal State Northridge. Hornbeck estimates that the 1990 census will show that 20% of the Valley’s population is Latino--or more than twice what it was in 1980.
Some of the post-1980 changes are subtle. “Now you walk into a shop in the Valley and the salesgirl is Latino,” Hornbeck said. “It wasn’t that way before.”
Nor was it common to see Latino day laborers camped outside construction material yards in Northridge looking for work. Or to see evangelical churches in Northridge that cater to Spanish speakers, or to Korean speakers. “People don’t realize just how ethnic the Valley has become in the ‘80s,” Hornbeck said. Some demographic studies say that Northridge and Chatsworth are now 25% Latino, black and Asian; Hornbeck contends--based on studies he has done--that the 1990 census will show these areas may be closer to 50% minority.
When Roberta Weintraub was first elected to the Los Angeles school board in 1979, she got her mandate from white parents seeking to block a plan to bus inner-city minority children to Valley schools. By 1981, busing-for-integration had been stopped in the courts. But the march of demographics transformed Valley schools anyway. Now, they have an enrollment that’s about 50% Latino, mirroring the neighborhoods they serve.
“The East Valley has changed dramatically during the decade from being white and middle-class to having a very large Hispanic population,” Weintraub said.
“Fundamentally, these children also come from pretty low-income backgrounds,” she said, referring to Latino students. “And many come to us from foreign countries where they received little or no formal education.”
Al Avila, a legislative aide to Los Angeles City Councilman Richard Alatorre and a longtime Valley resident, believes that enough Latinos live in the East Valley to elect a Latino to a council seat.
Jess Margarito, a U.S. Census Bureau official and a councilman in San Fernando, said the waves of immigrant Latinos moving to the East Valley during the 1980s swamped the area’s schools, churches and social service agencies, which normally help immigrants adjust to new surroundings.
This gap in services is particularly acute in the emerging Latino community, stretching from Roscoe Boulevard south to North Hollywood, between Laurel Canyon and Lankershim boulevards, he said. “This is a much more troubled community than Pacoima.”
Pacoima is used to being a melting pot for Latino immigrants, he said, but Sun Valley and North Hollywood are not.
Working in the Valley used to be a “Sleepy Hollow assignment” for cops, says Cmdr. Chet Spencer, second-highest-ranking officer in the Los Angeles Police Department’s Valley Bureau. “If you were a comer, you wanted to be assigned downtown, where the action was. If you wanted to take it easy, you came to the Valley,” Spencer recalls.
But that changed in the 1980s. The Police Department’s Devonshire Division, which covers Northridge and Chatsworth, is no longer known as “Club Dev,” and Valley Bureau officers now encounter the same urban crime problems--notably, gang killings and street sales of drugs--that have been commonplace in the central city for 20 years. “We are now very much like the other side of the hill,” Spencer sighed recently.
LAPD Lt. Bill Gaida says that in the 1970s he could recite the names of all the gangs in the Valley. There were five of them, and they were Latino-based. “Now, I don’t know them at all,” he says. “It’s mind-boggling there are so many. There’s black gangs, Vietnamese gangs, white gangs, Nazi gangs and integrated gangs. And they’re all over the place.” As for gang-graffiti: It made its debut at some of the Valley’s best addresses in the 1980s. “Who would have believed a few years ago that there would be gang graffiti in Woodland Hills?” Gaida says.
The changes have necessitated radical steps, including the closure last month of a 12-square-block area around Columbus Avenue in Sepulveda, a notorious drive-by drug marketplace. And the Valley secured for itself a place in crime history on Sept. 29 when authorities seized 21 tons of cocaine and $12.4 million in cash at a Sylmar warehouse. It was billed as the world’s biggest drug bust.
Jobs and Business
During this decade, it became increasingly clear the Valley was no longer just a bedroom community. It also had become a major business center.
Western Economic Research, a business information service, found that the Valley began the decade as a place that produced a lower-than-average number of jobs for its residents compared to other parts of Los Angeles County. But by 1986 that jobs-to-residents ratio had tilted the other way, with the Valley producing 470 jobs for every 1,000 residents. That was 13% more jobs than the Los Angeles County average of 417 jobs per 1,000 residents. Meanwhile, the Southern California Assn. of Governments found that in 1980 the Valley accounted for 14.3% of all jobs in the county, but by 1987 it could claim 15.9%.
“The Valley has developed a strong, diversified economy that makes it impossible to view it as simply a bedroom community,” said Mike Long, Western Economic Research’s president.
The aerospace and entertainment industries continued to dominate the Valley’s economy. But by decade’s end, “the Valley’s business base has a decidedly more high-tech bent to it,” said John Keating, chairman of the board of Lincoln National Bank, a Valley-headquartered institution that itself was formed in the 1980s. “Just look at all the small, high-tech computer firms in the Valley now.”
Sixteen of the 70 publicly held companies--which either have more than 2,000 employees in the Valley or are headquartered in the Valley--are linked to the computer industry.
As for all those mini-malls that sprang up in the 1980s: 84% of the shop owners were recent immigrants (13% were Chinese and 9% each were Palestinian, East Indian and Vietnamese), according to Susan White, a CSUN graduate student in geography, who studied 47 randomly selected Valley convenience centers west of the San Diego Freeway.
Gerald A. Silver was an unknown in 1980. But now he’s the often-quoted president of Homeowners of Encino and a vocal leader of the Valley’s slow-growth movement. During the ‘80s, Silver and brigades of homeowner activists like him fought to save the Valley from the traffic, the noise, the trash--all the accouterments of urbanization.
Silver, in a 1987 interview, said he remembered the Valley when its “streets were uncluttered and the air was clean and there were lots of single-family houses . . . a wonderful place, and what has been done to it is diabolical.”
A major battlefield in the clashes between developers and the slow-growth forces was 17-mile-long Ventura Boulevard. Silver was among the first to seek a moratorium to stall high-rise development along the Valley’s “Main Street.” The City Council eventually approved a moratorium.
It was the construction of a block-long, six-story building on Ventura Boulevard, owned by Tokyo-based Fujita Corp., that helped catalyze voter anger and prompt the passage of Proposition U, the 1986 slow-growth measure that halved the commercial development permitted on thousands of parcels citywide. Valley homeowners also won enactment of ordinances to restrain apartment construction in Van Nuys, North Hollywood, Studio City and Sherman Oaks. But such victories sometimes rang hollow. Lots of development managed to slip through before homeowners could close the barn door.
The slow-growth movement also produced its lollapaloozas. A case in point was the 1989 effort to declare a Studio City carwash, with its three 55-foot-tall boomerang-shaped beams, a cultural-historic monument. This proposal failed only after a snickering national media had had a field day holding it up as another example of Southern California nuttiness and/or cultural impoverishment. Mostly untold was the real story of how local homeowners had desperately hoped that landmark status for the carwash would stall a developer’s plans to build another Ventura Boulevard shopping mall.
But developers were not always the target of homeowner ire. In 1985 a middle-class Northridge neighborhood got up in arms about crime and health conditions at a large apartment complex that houses about 3,000 Latinos, many of them recent immigrants.
Prodded by his white, middle-class constituents, Councilman Hal Bernson initially backed a plan to use mass evictions to bring a “different class of tenants” into the Bryant Street and Vanalden Avenue complex.
Latino activists called the plan “racist,” and it was abandoned. However, the incident left some wondering if there was not an ugly underside to the homeowner uprisings of the 1980s. “Unfortunately, slow growth can mean, ‘Let’s save our communities to keep the Mexicans out,’ ” said Al Avila, Alatorre’s deputy.
In 1983, a 22-year-old real estate agent, Mike Glickman, sold his first $1-million house, near the Encino Reservoir. “Then it was spectacular to see a $1-million home in the San Fernando Valley, but now there are a lot of them,” said Glickman, who heads Mike Glickman Realty Inc., which he had formed before the million-dollar sale.
The ‘80s explosion in residential real estate values enriched many. But the decade also saw a dramatic erosion of the Valley’s role--first forged in the post-World War II population boom--as a middle-class bedroom community. Young, first-time home buyers were especially hard hit by the skyrocketing increases in property values.
“Once the mecca for affordable housing and wide-open spaces, the Valley has become an area of high-priced homes with little open land left for building affordable housing,” said Becky Roberts, 1990 president-elect of the San Fernando Valley Board of Realtors.
The average price of a house in the Valley in 1980 was $136,300, according to Roberts’ group. In November, 1989, it was $268,400, a 97% increase in value. Board records also show that for December, 1980, real estate agents reported selling 37 houses worth more than $250,000; in November, 1989, they reported selling 492 houses in excess of $750,000.
A more bitter housing reality faced other Valley residents during the 1980s. Large numbers of low-income Latinos lived in garages, a Los Angeles Times report found. Even farther down the housing ladder were bands of Latino day laborers who were discovered living along the concrete-lined banks of the Los Angeles River in Canoga Park.
As housing prices climbed, young families began to look toward the fringes of the San Fernando Valley and beyond. They found refuges in the Santa Clarita and Antelope valleys, which became the “San Fernando Valleys of the ‘80s,” said mega-broker Mike Glickman.
At the inception of the decade, Palmdale was a sleepy burg with a population of 12,000; during the previous 10 years, Palmdale had gained only 4,000 new residents. But state officials put Palmdale’s population at 45,859 on Jan. 1, 1989, a 282% increase in nine years. That and other factors, including retail sales growth and building permits issued, earned Palmdale the title of the fastest-growing city in California from 1987-89.
Two years ago, the Antelope Valley won a different sort of recognition related to growth: It was then that radio stations began broadcasting the Antelope Valley Freeway’s horrible traffic snarls.
The influx has had other predictable effects, including that of pushing Antelope Valley housing prices upward. In the mid-1980s it was possible to buy a new house in the Antelope Valley for $80,000. Now the price is nearly double that but still lower than the median price of a house in the San Fernando Valley.
While some outlying communities put out the welcome mat for the Valley’s Diaspora, others tried to control the flood. During the decade, Westlake Village, then Agoura Hills and finally, in 1987, Santa Clarita became incorporated. The three took the cityhood step primarily to defend themselves--through municipal zoning laws--from growth. “We don’t want to become another San Fernando Valley,” Connie Worden, a Santa Clarita cityhood movement leader, told a reporter in 1987.
The ultra-chic Bistro Gardens restaurant and a serene Thai Buddhist temple say a lot about what happened to Valley cuisine during the ‘80s, according to restaurant critic Charles Perry and Valley cafe-hopper Harvard Gordon.
The eye-popping temple, near a bleakly industrial corner of Laurel Canyon and Roscoe boulevards, is a beacon of sorts to serious eaters. Near it are a host of Asian restaurants.
“For a long time, the Valley’s idea of food was a snack counter, a ham sandwich and an enchilada,” Perry said. “But that changed in the ‘80s, with the tremendous growth of ethnic groups in the Valley.”
These new arrivals, particularly the Thais, have produced a welter of restaurants. An ad-hoc, mom-and-pop “ethnic restaurant row” has even developed along Sherman Way near Laurel Canyon Boulevard; within the space of three blocks, a smorgasbord of Armenian, Chinese, Iranian, Mexican and Thai restaurants can be found, Perry observes.
If the Buddhist temple is one symbol of the Valley’s growing gustatory maturity, another will be the opening soon of a Valley edition of the Beverly Hills-based Bistro Gardens restaurant, according to Gordon, an Encino food fancier.
The original Bistro is the haunt of celebrities and even a few former U.S. presidents. At the very least, the Bistro’s annex at Coldwater Canyon and Ventura boulevards indicates that someone believes Valley residents are ready for sophisticated dining, Gordon and Perry agree.
The Valley Bistro has been built on the site once occupied by the Tail O’ The Cock restaurant, a longtime Valley institution. When it finally closed its doors last February to make way for the wrecking ball and the chi-chi, laments could be heard across the Valley from those who recalled the Tail O’ The Cock’s heyday, its All-American beef and piano-bar motif.
Efforts to put the Valley on the cultural map moved slowly during the 1980s. The preoccupation of the decade for the Valley’s culture lobby was building an arts complex, replete with museum and performing arts theater, in the Sepulveda Basin.
At the decade’s end, it is still unbuilt. But Jane Boeckmann, wife of Valley car dealer and philanthropist Bert Boeckmann, remained the arts complex’s undaunted patron. “In the ‘80s there was progress. It may not appear that way on the surface, but there really was some.” That progress included tentative selection of architectural designs for the complex.
If ever built, such a complex (or “park,” as its champions now call it) would “finally reverse the Valley’s stepchild status” in the arts, Boeckmann says. Boeckmann, her husband and Mayor Tom Bradley aide Dodo Meyer are the patron saints of the complex.
But providing a challenging alternative to the hegemony of the Music Center, Museum of Contemporary Art and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art has not been easy. One roadblock was laid by the Sierra Club. Jealous of any encroachment on the Valley’s dwindling open space, this group forced an environmental review that stalled the arts project. Still, Boeckmann said, “within the next three or four years, we’ll have something to be proud of in the basin.”
Meanwhile, art for the masses fared better in the 1980s. By the end of the decade, the Valley got a 17-screen movie theater complex in Universal City. Its developers maintained in 1985, as they unveiled their plans, that the Cineplex Odeon complex was the “world’s largest.”