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Valley’s the Place Topangans Love to Hate

“The Valley is all right,” Jennifer De Jesus was saying, standing in an aisle of Topanga Creek General Store. “But the people in the Valley are--well, I don’t want to sound mean . . . but they’re kind of hickish. They’re not really with it.”

Jennifer is 22 and, presumably, with it. Her ensemble included a floppy hat, black boots and a nose stud. Her friend, Reina Massey, 21, echoed her sentiments. Topanga Canyon dwellers identify with the coast and not the Valley, Reina says, because beach people “are more fun, more clean, more real.”

More real?

“Well, maybe not more real. But they’re into the beach. And hiking. And nature.”

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Jennifer, without missing a beat, noted another coastal charm.

“Good bars,” she said, nodding sagely. “Good places to hang out.”

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Poor Topanga. Once again, floodwaters have damaged the highway to the sea, choking off the exit that Topangans prefer. Once again, the highway that swerves south and west of Topanga’s village center is under repair. It’s one lane going out before 7:30 a.m. and one lane coming in after 3:30 p.m. Locals only.

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So now the Topangans have to get up early and wait in line. Or they have to risk the narrow, white-knuckle roads that climb over the ridges into other canyons. Or, heaven forbid, they just have to bravely head the other way on Topanga Canyon Boulevard--up and over and down into the Valley. For some commuters, it can add 90 minutes to the trip each way.

Many Topangans enter the Valley daily, but it’s not really much of a choice. They come because they work at jobs that enable them to live in Topanga. My friend Maggie is one. Two years of Topanga living has convinced her that her neighbors would avoid the Valley if they could, save for an occasional pilgrimage to Home Depot and Target.

Maggie tells a story about her friend, Nancy. During the last heavy rains, after three days under a leaking roof, Nancy got cabin fever. When she realized she couldn’t drive to the ocean, Nancy let out a wail: “Oh, God! Whatever shall I do?” Finally, she mustered her resolve and swallowed hard. “I’ll just have to go to the Valley,” she said.

By now the Valley must be accustomed to such disdain. Some Valleyites even seem fond of the slurs. One of the few things that country club Republicans who live in Palos Verdes, black political activists from South-Central, the Downtown loft-dwelling soldiers of the avant-garde, Malibu liberals and, yes, Topangans like Jennifer and Reina have in common is a certain snobbish regard for the San Fernando Valley. Never mind the Valley’s complexity and its remarkable changes; we’re dealing with stereotype here. Long before Frank Zappa penned “Valley Girl,” this sprawl of suburbia was L.A.'s famous haven of the bourgeoisie. Karl Marx would have hated it.

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The resentment of Topangans, however, can be more personal. Jennifer De Jesus and Reina Massey blame “Vals” for throwing bottles, cans and trash along the canyon roads. One good thing about the highway closure, Topangans say, is that it’s keeping some drive-through commuters out.

“Up here, people call it the flatlands and make fun of it,” says Claire Diamond, who owns and operates Topanga’s Cypress Cafe with her husband, Maynard. Claire, however, was a Valley girl before anyone coined the term, having been raised in Chatsworth before moving to Topanga 20 years ago. But of course, Chatsworth was rustic country back then.

Over the last two decades, the Diamonds have seen the character of Topanga change bit by bit. When they came, the people who lived here tended to be more rugged, better able to cope with the fires and floods that come with the canyon. Now there are more city slickers who just come and go. Claire grimaces remembering how some people reacted after fire officials ordered an evacuation during the wildfires of November ’93. “There was so much bellyaching from people who wanted to go home and get their fax machines,” she said.

By Topanga standards, this road closure is a minor matter.

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Back in 1980, a flood closed the highway to the beach for four months. For several days, the Diamonds’ restaurant, then at another location, was without running water, so the Diamonds filled large plastic bottles from their home tap farther up the canyon and brought them to their cafe, enabling them to stay in business.

A health inspector threatened to shut them down. “You need running water,” he told them. “It has to come from a faucet.” The Diamonds pleaded for an extra day to come up with a plan.

The next day, the health inspector returned and found a motor home outside the cafe. The Diamonds had borrowed it from a friend. The faucet worked, and the cafe stayed open.

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That winter, the Diamonds discovered that they needed the Valley. They stopped banking in Santa Monica and started banking in the Valley.

Lee Miller, a 32-year-old screenwriter and novelist who is new to Topanga, is learning to cope. Before the storm, her writing partner would drive up the coast and into the canyon to meet her. Now she has to travel to her partner’s Westside home. She’s been rising at 5:30 a.m. to beat the traffic.

She was shopping at the general store, gathering provisions because the forecast again called for rain, rain, rain. “Look! Here’s my can opener,” she said, showing off the utensil. “Just in case my electricity runs out.”

An Easterner, Lee Miller came west a few years back to seek her fortune. Before moving to Topanga, she lived in North Hollywood.

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“Oh, I don’t mind the Valley,” she said. “But I like the Westside better.”

Scott Harris’ column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays.

More Scott Harris

* A collection of the most recent columns by Scott Harris can be found on the TimesLink on-line service. Sign on and “jump” to keyword “Harris.”

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