In Valley, pace of change is fast

Times Staff Writer

New numbers from the U.S. Census recently offered a demographic profile of the San Fernando Valley, information that helps explain the Valley as it is -- slightly wealthier than the rest of the city to which it is sometimes uncomfortably attached, but with large numbers of immigrants and a medley of languages.

Still, even as those statistics frame it as a place, they fail to illuminate changes that are accelerating within the Valley itself and transforming its place within Greater Los Angeles.

As close observers of the San Fernando Valley know, today's Valley is itself divided, principally by an east-west split that runs along the 405 Freeway.

Moreover, the Valley's divide is widening as its poorer areas grow. The result: The Valley today is less distinguishable from the rest of Los Angeles, its political and cultural divisions more like those on the other side of the hills.

"The Valley is changing," said Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, who represents much of the area. "There's no question about it -- politically, ethnically, economically."

Bob Hertzberg, former speaker of the state Assembly and a longtime denizen of the Valley, agrees. "All the old assumptions," he said, "are being blown out of the water."

Those changes are altering every aspect of civic life in those communities, once thought of as the quintessential suburb, now a more complex matrix of language and culture.

Armenian is now widely spoken in area schools. Many large churches are Korean or Thai. Korean grocers have replaced Jewish delis.

On one end of the Valley, gated mansions and old ranch houses still preside over well-groomed neighborhoods; on the other, some residents still don't have sewer hookups or streetlights.

The split is evident when examining the base-line questions of economic status and ethnic identity. For eons, the Valley has been considered in monolithic, sometimes overly simplistic terms -- as a predominantly white, wealthy, Republican stronghold in an overwhelmingly Democratic and increasingly Latino city.

Although never entirely true as a description of the whole Valley, that segment of its population has been powerful in the past. It was, for example, instrumental in electing Republican Richard Riordan in 1993, when he carried the Valley handily en route to his post-Los Angeles riots mayoral victory. Riordan ran that year as the candidate "tough enough to turn L.A. around."

East-West split

But census data and results of two recent city elections belie the stereotype of the Valley as a natural conservative bastion and highlight the significance of the Valley's east-west split.

As of 2000, a majority of those living in the West Valley were white, whereas in the East Valley, whites made up just a third of the population.

The differences in other areas were just as pronounced. West Valley residents, for example, earned $5,000 a year more than their counterparts in the East Valley -- the median family income in the West Valley was $51,551, compared to $46,529.

As a consequence, West Valley residents were more likely to own their homes, and East Valley residents were more often renters.

Educational achievement was similarly split on opposite sides of the 405: Nearly two-thirds of West Valley residents attended college, compared with barely half of those in the East Valley who had the benefit of higher education. Indeed, 35% of those in the East Valley did not possess a high school diploma.

It is the East Valley, however, not the west, that is growing most rapidly.

And with that growth have come political consequences: In 2002, when Los Angeles considered and rejected a proposal to allow the Valley to secede, the measure carried in the West Valley but lost in the east, as well as in the rest of Los Angeles.

Then, in 2005, when Antonio Villaraigosa campaigned to oust incumbent Mayor James K. Hahn, Villaraigosa's immense popularity in the East Valley helped him overcome Hahn's stronger support in the west.

Political effects

A Times poll conducted just before that election helps illustrate how strongly the changing demographics of the Valley have affected its politics. Hahn was not especially popular anywhere in Los Angeles, and many West Valley residents resented his opposition to secession, but Villaraigosa's support in the East Valley was staggering.

Asked which candidate would do a better job in fighting crime, improving traffic and helping schools, East Valley residents picked Villaraigosa, sometimes by overwhelming margins.

On schools, for example, 56% of those interviewed in the East Valley favored Villaraigosa's leadership, compared with just 17% who backed Hahn.

On the Los Angeles City Council, the significance of the political distinction between the East and West valleys also is readily apparent.

Two of the council's most conservative members, Dennis Zine and Greig Smith -- both of whom are white -- represent districts in the West Valley. In the East Valley, voters picked two liberals -- Tony Cardenas and Alex Padilla -- both Latino.

Although the Valley's changing demographics are increasingly becoming important in local politics, they did not come about overnight.

Latinos have long made the northeast Valley home, and blue-collar neighborhoods have, at least since the end of World War II, tended to cluster along the area's eastern reaches.

Different visions

What has changed in recent years, says Kevin Roderick, author of "The San Fernando Valley: America's Suburb," is that "the east side of the Valley has filled in."

The Democratic and immigrant areas, once largely confined to the northeast, have gradually moved west, he said, overtaking such places as Panorama City, Van Nuys and North Hollywood.

In addition, there is a more subtle but also consequential divide that splits the Valley between north and south, with the communities closest to the Santa Monica Mountains identifying most strongly with the rest of Los Angeles and those farther north tending to see themselves apart.

That was strongly evident in the results of the secession campaign. Secession drew its greatest support from the communities of the northwest Valley -- places such as Chatsworth, Porter Ranch and Granada Hills.

It failed across the East Valley, including in Sherman Oaks, North Hollywood and Toluca Lake and even in some swatches of the West Valley that hug the Santa Monica Mountains such as Encino.

Bygone days

For those who have lived and worked in the Valley for years, the changes that have reshaped it have accelerated, gaining momentum one neighborhood at a time.

As a boy growing up in Los Angeles and now as a councilman responsible for helping to govern it, Tom LaBonge has watched that process, sometimes with wonder, other times with dismay.

"I remember getting a job in 1970 from a printer and him taking me down Lankershim and saying, 'This is the main boulevard,' " LaBonge said last week. "I met my wife at the Palomino in 1978."

In those days, the Palomino was a musical hub. In his book, Roderick describes it as the "West Coast capital of country music" -- popular with the suburban dwellers who lived in those North Hollywood neighborhoods.

Johnny Cash played there, as did Willie Nelson. LaBonge remembers seeing Emmylou Harris one memorable night.

But the Palomino closed in 1995, its demise symbolic of the larger changes afoot on the floor of the San Fernando Valley.

Today, the Palomino is called the Le Monge Banquet Hall, available for rent. It sits across the street from a storefront church, Ministeria Pentecostas de Jesucristo, and a custom wheel refinishing shop.

During the day, it's a gathering spot for a group of seniors who receive health services and socialize over coffee and tea.

As a group of seniors piled into the old Palomino one morning last week, they leaned on walkers and chatted in Russian. Asked about the old club, the manager shrugged. She'd never heard of it.

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jim.newton@latimes.com

Times computer analyst Sandra Poindexter contributed to this report.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

A Valley divided

The San Fernando Valley has long been divided between east and west, but those differences have accelerated in recent years. A map of the votes cast in the 2002 secession election shows the sharp division between the politics of the East and West valleys, with the 405 Freeway marking the boundary.

Race/ethnicity

- West Valley

Whites: 52%

Latinos: 29%

Asians: 11%

Blacks: 4%

Others: 4%

- East Valley

Latinos: 53%

Whites: 32%

Asians: 7%

Blacks: 4%

Others: 3%

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Housing

- West Valley

Owner-occupied: 56%

Rental: 44%

- East Valley

Rental: 51%

Owner-occupied: 49%

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Education

*--* West Valley East Valley

No high school diploma 20% 35% High school diploma 19% 19% Some college 29% 25% Bachelor's degree 21% 15% Advanced degree 11% 7%

*--*

Note: Percentages may not add up to 100% because of rounding

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Sources: 2000 census, Los Angeles County Registrar-Recorder. Data analysis by Doug Smith. Graphics reporting by Jim Newton

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