Newsletter: The uncertain fate of the San Fernando Valley’s last remaining commercial citrus grove
Good morning, and welcome to the Essential California newsletter. It’s Friday, Aug. 16, and I’m writing from Los Angeles.
Fifteen thousand acres of citrus groves once blanketed the San Fernando Valley, but now just a single commercial citrus grove remains, a half-mile from the 101 Freeway on the border of Tarzana and Woodland Hills.
At 14 acres, Bothwell Ranch represents less than one-thousandth of what once was, before the orchards and ranches of the Valley gave way to tract housing, cul-de-sacs and two-car garages. Citrus production amid the multimillion-dollar homes is far from a viable occupation, and the Bothwell family put the property on the market earlier this summer. The $13.9-million real estate listing boasted of the potential for constructing 26 single-family homes on half-acre lots. Less promoted but nonetheless implicit was the end of a way of a life, albeit a vestigial one.
But a sale has yet to be brokered, and the fate of the property remains uncertain. On Wednesday, the Los Angeles City Council took steps to preserve the property as a Historic-Cultural Monument. The city’s Cultural Heritage Commission still has to consider that proposal, in what will undoubtedly be a lengthy process, but setting the designation in motion has essentially hit pause on any potential development.
“It’s part of what makes the identity of the San Fernando Valley,” Councilman Bob Blumenfield, who represents the area and first proposed the landmark designation, told me over the phone. “When you think about the San Fernando Valley, you think about aerospace, you think about the indigenous past, you think about ‘The Brady Bunch,’ and you think about our agricultural history. And there’s not that many signs left of it.”
Surprising as it may sound today, Los Angeles was actually the top agricultural county in the nation for four decades, from 1909 to 1949, according to Rachel Surls, author of “From Cows to Concrete: The Rise and Fall of Farming in Los Angeles.” Citrus crops were integral to that success, but equally if not more integral to the branding and selling of Southern California into being.
“The Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce, different citrus marketers and organizations such as Sunkist oranges were very much a part of basically making Los Angeles look like this golden, almost tropical, agricultural paradise where people could come and get a whole new start,” Surls explained. “That positioning of Los Angeles as a place where citrus grew was really, really key to the growth of Los Angeles.”
For Southern California, the orange was — as Charles Fletcher Lummis observed more than a century ago — not only a fruit, but a romance. Citrus crate labels became an art form in themselves, often crammed with as many elements of local mythology as could fit on one box. The industry rose in tandem with the railroads: The oranges went out and the people came in. (It should be noted that this citrus paradise was, like all Anglo mythologies of Southern California, built on the backs of an immigrant workforce whose lives were far from perfectly sun-kissed.)
In 1939, at the apex of citrus culture, at least six railroad trains pulling 50 cars left L.A. laden with citrus fruits every day.
Citrus production in the Valley declined sharply after World War II and into the early 1960s, as rapidly growing suburbs replaced orange groves and commercial production largely migrated to Central California. By the early 1970s, only a few hundred acres remained.
And now there is just Bothwell Ranch. The issue of preservation is made more complicated by the fact that the ranch is private property. Curbed LA reports that the Bothwell family is far from happy about the potential landmark designation, which they fear will hurt the resale value and scare away potential buyers.
Blumenfield mentioned that he had reached out to various conservancies and land trusts to alert them of the site being for sale, and said an “ideal solution” would be an entity that cares about the history of agriculture swooping in to purchase the facility and preserve it as both open space and historic site.
When seen in aerial photographs, the ranch looks like a lush green anachronism — plucked from the agrarian past and neatly but nonsensically deposited into a suburban jewel box of red roofs and turquoise pools and tennis courts.
“We’re overrun,” as the late Bothwell matriarch told a reporter in 1998 with a sigh. “But you can’t stand in the middle of Ventura Boulevard and say, ‘Stop!’ ”
No one except the Cultural Heritage Commission can stop time.
And now, here’s what’s happening across California:
L.A. County Sheriff Alex Villanueva rode to victory on the Democratic Party’s endorsement. Now, amid myriad concerns, his base is rebuking him. On Tuesday, the Los Angeles County Democratic Party passed a resolution calling on Villanueva to restore trust in his department. Los Angeles Times
(Confused about what’s been going at the Sheriff’s Department? Read our newsletter Q&A with reporter Maya Lau, who covers the agency for the Los Angeles Times.)
Police shut down Amazon’s “Maisel Day” gas promo after it snarled traffic on Cloverfield Boulevard and the 10 Freeway for several hours, attracting throngs of drivers who wanted gas at 30 cents a gallon. Los Angeles Times
How the weeping fig became the “It” plant of the gardening world (again). Los Angeles Times
Jeffrey Epstein’s former girlfriend Ghislaine Maxwell was spotted at an In-N-Out Burger in the Valley. Maxwell allegedly helped procure underage girls for Epstein. New York Post
Five art getaways from Los Angeles. Hyperallergic
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IMMIGRATION AND THE BORDER
A federal appeals court upheld an order requiring immigration authorities to provide minors with adequate food, water, bedding, toothbrushes and soap. Los Angeles Times
POLITICS AND GOVERNMENT
Proposition 13 treats all California property taxes the same. Voters could change that in 2020. Los Angeles Times
Gov. Gavin Newsom is keeping his distance from AB 5, California’s controversial gig worker bill. San Francisco Chronicle
On a totally separate Newsom note, the governor, who struggled with dyslexia, is writing a children’s book about it. Los Angeles Times
The California Channel is shutting down. Where will you get “gavel to gavel” Capitol coverage? Sacramento Bee
Bedbugs spread from the Kern County Department of Human Services to the homes of the department’s employees. Delano Record
CRIME AND COURTS
Two California olive oil rivals have settled a lawsuit over similar packaging. Modesto Bee
A Santa Rosa doctor was arrested on murder charges in the overdose deaths of five patients. San Francisco Chronicle
Coast Guard officials found 1,300 pounds of marijuana wrapped in plastic floating off the coast of Catalina Island. Long Beach Press-Telegram
California now has the biggest legal marijuana market in the world. Its black market is even bigger. Los Angeles Times
If awarded a permit to operate in San Francisco, scooter start-up Scoot promised to serve the city’s “communities of concern.” But the company prevents customers from dropping off its scooters in two poorer neighborhoods. Los Angeles Times
The Dalai Lama’s smashed up 1966 Land Rover was accidentally shipped to Los Angeles. It is now restored and for sale in California. Atlas Obscura
Los Angeles: sunny, 82. San Diego: partly sunny, 75. San Francisco: sunny, 72. San Jose: sunny, 93. Sacramento: sunny, 104. More weather is here.
“An ideal Los Angeles of the recent past is continually reconstructed in imagination, despite complaints at almost every stage since 1850 that paradise had already been lost.”
— William Alexander McClung
“Les vrais paradis sont les paradis qu’on a perdus.”
— Marcel Proust
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Please let us know what we can do to make this newsletter more useful to you. Send comments, complaints, ideas and unrelated book recommendations to Julia Wick. Follow her on Twitter @Sherlyholmes.
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