The Spanish missionaries who founded Mission San Fernando Rey de España in the late 1700s were quick to recognize the agricultural potential of the surrounding countryside, which was much like their native land in temperament and appearance.
The plains and foothills outside the mission walls were soon planted with olive groves and vineyards interspersed with grazing land for cattle.
The olive trees especially thrived in the alluvial soil; long after the mission had been secularized, the Los Angeles Olive Growers Assn. was formed in 1890 to industrialize the growing of the trees and the production of a myriad of olive-based products: olive oil, pickled olives, pitted olives, canned olives and more.
The association planted a 1,000-acre olive grove, which became a 2,000-acre grove in less than 10 years. A massive packing plant was built nearby, and San Fernando Valley olives were shipped to markets and ports across the world via the boxcars of the Southern Pacific Railroad.
By the time William Mulholland opened the floodgates of the Los Angeles Aqueduct, the area below the Cascades was covered in olive trees as far as the eye could see. When the city annexed the mouth of the aqueduct and the land around it, some poetical bureaucrat dubbed the new neighborhood Sylmar, a portmanteau that means "sea of trees."
With the aqueduct now delivering the bounty of the Sierra snowmelt directly to Sylmar, more water-intensive agricultural uses, including chicken farming and horse ranching, became widespread.
Meanwhile, the same dry air and sunshine that led olives to thrive drew tubercular pilgrims to the Valley to rest and recover at Olive View Hospital, one of many sanitariums that opened across Los Angeles. It was a massive 750-bed complex that was soon joined by a new Veterans Administration hospital in providing advanced medical care for those suffering from consumption.
The olive trees would make way for tract homes at the end of the Second World War, and freeways were soon cutting through the fallow farmlands of Sylmar. In 1971 the Sylmar quake brought down the old VA hospital, and the newly opened, state-of-the-art expansion wing of Olive View Hospital collapsed.
The hospital has been rebuilt and reopened, and the site of the VA hospital is now a park. The sea of olive trees is gone, but there are still traces of the rural: Here and there a farm remains, and horseback riders are a frequent sight.
The great outdoors: The nearby foothills and mountains are popular destinations for hikers, and nearby Hansen Dam has a swimming pool to help beat the Valley heat.
Saddle up: Have horse, will travel to Sylmar, which has miles of equestrian trails and is home to the Stetson Ranch Equestrian Park.
California history: Nearby Mission San Fernando offers a glimpse of mission life, and Sylmar's Nethercutt Collection of antique cars, musical instruments and trains is a local favorite.
A rural vibe: The olive groves are gone, but there's still a gritty, rural vibe to Sylmar. If you aren't comfortable in cowboy boots and plaid button-downs, NoHo might be a better choice.
Joseph Scudieri, a real estate agent with Century 21 Peak, describes Sylmar as a family-friendly hillside neighborhood with a breathtaking view and a variety of mom-and-pop restaurants and stores. He said the neighborhood is less congested than most of Los Angeles.
Half of it is flat, "and the other half starts to climb up the hill, where the houses get nicer and the views get better," Scudieri said. Many of those hillside homes, he added, are million-dollar ranch-style properties with stables and a lot of land.
Scudieri said there is a lot of inventory in Sylmar at the moment.
"A lot of people in the neighborhood are retiring and moving out of state," he said. "There are a lot of houses for sale. In my area, there were seven or eight homes available at the same time."
Those looking for a more modern home, however, might consider looking elsewhere.
"There is not too much new construction," he said. "It is an older city."
There are more than a dozen public schools within the boundaries of Sylmar including Herrick Avenue Elementary and Sylmar Elementary, which had scores of 820 and 775, respectively, in the 2013 Academic Performance Index. El Dorado Elementary had a score of 723, Olive Vista Middle scored 738 and Sylmar Senior high scored 709.
In the 91342 ZIP Code, based on 49 sales, the median sales price for single-family homes in May was $490,000, according to CoreLogic. That was a 5.4% increase in median price over the same month the previous year. There were 20 condominium sales in May that resulted in a median sales price of $360,000, up 5.2% year over year.
Times staff writer Rachel Spacek contributed to this report.
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