The San Fernando Valley: America’s Suburb
If you love the Valley, this website is for you. Some news, some links, but mostly observations on San Fernando Valley history, lore and culture. I’m Kevin Roderick, author of The San Fernando Valley: America’s Suburb. You’ll find historical photos from the book, research from my files and stories from readers
Here’s a condensed version of the Valley’s 230-year story, leaving a lot out for simplicity. It begins before 1769, when the first Spaniards walked upon a village of native Tonga beside a gentle river…
On the afternoon of August 5, 1769, an expedition that began in what is now called Mexico walked through a canyon in the Santa Monica Mountains and found, to their great surprise, a broad valley of tall grass and stately oaks, or encinos, and a gentle river lined with reeds. Since it was the feast day of St. Catherine of Bononia, they named the place El Valle de Santa Catalina de Bononia de los Encinos.
Gaspar de Portola, a captain in the Spanish army, led the expedition of 64 men and 100 mules. Their path through the mountains took the canyon known today as Sepulveda Pass. At a spring in the area of today’s Encino they met a society of native people:
“Two large villages of very fine, well-behaved and very friendly heathens who must have amounted to about 200 souls, men, women and children. They offered us their seeds in baskets…” the expedition’s diarist, Fray Juan Crespi, wrote.
The native Tongva, as they came to be called, used the nga sound to denote place names, as in Topanga, Tujunga and Cahuenga. The settlement at today’s Encino might have been known as Siutcanga though little of the Tongva’s lore survives. Also in the Valley were settlements of Chumash.
Ranchos San Rafael and Portesuelo soon appeared, at the southeastern corner of El Valle de los Encinos. Across the basin, the rancho of Francisco Reyes, a mixed-race settler who had served as the alcalde, or mayor, of el pueblo de Los Angeles, drew the notice of priests looking to build a new mission. They obtained the land and founded Mission San Fernando, Rey de Espana, in 1797.
The 17th of California’s 21 Franciscan missions, it was named for the sainted king of Castile and Leon who vanquished the Moors in 1248. San Fernando Rey’s adobe church and long, arched convento were the first substantial structures on the Valley floor, all of which the padres claimed as the mission’s domain.
The priests sought to “civilize” the native Tongva and Chumash and set them to work on the land. As the 18th century ended, 541 Indians lived at San Fernando Rey and did the heavy work: making adobe bricks, planting crops, tending livestock. They were subject to floggings and other harsh discipline if they tried to leave. By 1826 there were 56,000 longhorn cattle bearing the mission brand and 1,500 horses foraging on the Valley floor. San Fernando Rey was famed for the artistry of its silversmiths, its abundant olives and fine wine
The end of Spanish rule over Mexico also led to the end of the mission’s institutional role. Indian baptisms and marriages halted in 1834 as the mission lands passed out of church control and came under the management of a secular mayordomo or overseer.
Two battles joined on the Valley floor between troops loyal to Mexico and Californio rebels prompted the ouster of governors of the province of Alta California.
The first skirmish, fought in 1831 with lances, sabers and pistols, led to two deaths and the exile of Gov. Victoria back to Mexico. In 1845, a day-long cannon battle along the L.A. River somewhere in the area of today’s Studio City caused no casualties. But at the end of the showdown, Gov. Micheltorena was routed and replaced by Pio Pico, a native Californio.
As governor, Pico granted land at Encino and El Escorpion (today’s Bell Canyon) to former Mission San Fernando Rey indians for private ranchos. He leased the rest of the Valley to his youngest brother, Andres. When war between Mexico and the U.S. loomed, Governor Pico sold the vast Valley acreage for cash to Eugolio de Celis, a Spaniard living in Los Angeles. Andres Pico went on to become a Californio hero of the Mexican-American war and signed the Capitulation of Cahuenga at Rancho Cahuenga, near today’s Universal City. Under American rule, he lived in style at Mission San Fernando Rey and served in the state Legislature and as a general in the state militia despite never learning English.
The Picos later regained ownership interests in the Valley. In debt and needing cash, Pio Pico in 1869 sold his half-share to a group of investors led by Isaac Lankershim, a Northern California farmer. The price: $2 an acre. To complete the deal, the Valley was split in two, along a ploughed furrow that stretched the length of the Valley floor and generally followed the route of today’s Roscoe Boulevard.
Lankershim got the south half and planted the world’s largest wheat-growing empire. Work crews with teams of horses did all the sowing and harvesting on the hot, dusty plain. If it rained, the wheat grow. In drought, the crop failed.
The northern half of the Valley was also sold, in 1874, and split three ways. The portion east of the mission and closest to the San Gabriel Mountains was held by Charles Maclay, who founded the town of San Fernando. Railroad tracks laid across the Valley by Southern Pacific, which was owned by Maclay’s secret benefactor, Leland Stanford, connected San Fernando to Los Angeles. A tunnel bored through Newhall Pass extended the train line to Northern California.
West of Maclay’s land was the spread of George K. Porter, who ranched and sold off parcels of land for small ranches and the Valley’s first citrus orchards. West of Aliso Canyon, in line with today’s Zelzah Avenue, belonged to his cousin Benjamin Porter. It’s on this acreage — owned by Porter’s heirs until the 1960s — where the present-day communities of Porter Ranch and Chatsworth stand.
In the 1880s and ’90s, more towns opened joined San Fernando on the map. Burbank, Glendale, Pacoima, Calabasas and Chatsworth Park opened. Some names didn’t last: Dundee, Monte Vista, Oat Hills. The town of Toluca, later renamed Lankershim and then North Hollywood, came to life on the eastern reach of the original Isaac Lankershim wheat empire. Blessed with deep loam and abundant ground water, the area was great for peach growing and prospered.
The Valley began to attract more settlers. An Italian immigrant, C.J. Rinaldi, cultivated orange groves west of San Fernando, which grew large enough that the town built itself a high school. The Southern Pacific added a second railroad diagonally across the Valley floor from Burbank to Chatsworth that became the coastal route up California. Automobiles showed up in 1898.
By the start of the 20th century, the Valley was still scantly populated: fewer than 3,000 people on a plain of more than 200 square miles. That would soon change.
In the biggest land deal in Los Angeles history, subdividers led by L.A. Times owner Harrision Gray Otis and his son-in-law Harry Chandler paid $53 an acre for 47,500 acres in the south half of the Valley in 1909. They planned not to farm but to sell lots and build more towns.
First came Van Nuys, then Marian (today’s Reseda), then Owensmouth (today’s Canoga Park and West Hills). All were linked to Los Angeles by Pacific Electric Red Cars and to each other by a wide, tree-lined highway named Sherman Way. In other areas, the towns of Zelzah and Roscoe (today’s Northridge and Sun Valley, respectively), Sunland and Tujunga appeared. Amenities like newspapers and baseball teams helped to make life in the Valley feel less remote. In 1912, the Valley’s first airfield opened on a corner of Griffith Park, where the Los Angeles Zoo is located today.
Nothing altered the Valley’s future like the opening on Nov. 5, 1913 of an aqueduct between the Eastern Sierra’s Owens Valley and a reservoir west of San Fernando. The waterway designed by William Mulholland transformed a parched region into an irrigated greenbelt. Mainly, it ensured Los Angeles a steady water supply. To partake of the bounty most of the towns in the Valley voted in 1915 to join the city of Los Angeles. The vote for annexation was a lopsided 681-25.
The water not only let towns flourish — and made a success of the subdividers like Chandler whose land exploded in value — it let a thousand farms bloom. Instead of wheat and cattle that depended on the vagaries of the weather, the Valley began to grow beets and lima beans, lemons and walnuts, grapes and tomatoes.
The Valley’s image changed as the landscape turned lush and verdant. It became a lure and by 1920 had swelled to 21,000 residents.
Another reason the Valley became famous was the arrival of movie makers. They adored the varied terrain, historic ruins and predictably sunny weather. Cinema legends D.W. Griffith and Cecil B. DeMille discovered the Valley and shot many early movies there, then bought ranch getaways in the canyons. Around studios like Universal, Warner Brothers and Republic, a movie colony grew.
Stars like Bob Hope and Bing Crosby golfed and gagged around in Toluca Lake, while Clark Gable and Al Jolson made Encino ritzy. In the west Valley were the stars who favored the ranch life: James Cagney, Barbara Stanwyck, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz among others. Ronald Reagan was one of the actors who lived the life of a San Fernando Valley rancher.
The presence of all these celebrities and the stories they told about living the good life sold an image of the Valley as a sort of paradise. National magazines helped feed the myth and the Valley continued to lure more people.
Wide open spaces and clear skies also made the Valley a center of the nation’s blossoming love of airplanes and the people who flew them. Small dirt airfields popped up and lasted a few years until the cash ran out. The 1920s and ’30s also brought the opening of today’s major airports, Burbank and Van Nuys, and the exploits of Amelia Earhart. She lived in Toluca Lake with her husband, the publisher George Palmer Putnam, and often flew above the Valley in planes made in Burbank by Lockheed.
The most glamorous airport of them all was Glendale’s Grand Central Terminal, where the first airliners to fly between New York and L.A. would drop off the stars. It was there that tycoon Howard Hughes began his aircraft company. Hughes had also built and stocked two entire airfields, one at Balboa and Roscoe boulevards and the other in Chatsworth, for the filming of Hell’s Angels, his cinematic paean to World War I aviators.
World War II, which the United States joined after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, yanked the Valley into a new era. Farms gave way to airplane plants and to new homes by the thousands.
Lockheed erupted into one of the war effort’s most prolific assemblers of bombers and fighters, becoming the Valley’s biggest employer. As the men got drafted, the factory work was taken over by women and high school students. They worked under giant camouflage nets hung over the plant, shifts running nonstop.
Some 3,177 residents of Japanese descent were taken from their homes — mostly farms — and interned at camps away from the coast. So many Valley Japanese were at Manzanar that the camp had a baseball team called the San Fernando Aces. While they were away, crops were picked by housewives, prisoners of war and workers brought from Mexico.
In 1944, the Army opened Birmingham Hospital for war wounded on Vanowen Street in Van Nuys. The sprawling hospital held more than 1,000 maimed troops. That year, Bing Crosby’s hit song “San Fernando Valley” — from a movie of the same name, starring Roy Rogers — made the Valley sound even more heavenly to GIs trapped overseas. The population swelled to 176,000 during the war.
After the war the Valley became the nation’s fastest growing region. Magazines and radio programs hyped it as the place to be, although the Atlantic Monthly scoffed that “every piece of land that nourishes four walnut trees is called a ranch” by shameless land brokers. Real estate became the business to be in. The population doubled by 1950, and again by 1960. Tract after tract of mostly uninspired homes rose quickly across the plain of the Valley, racing outward faster than the streets and sewers and fire stations could keep up.
Along the way, a new American lifestyle took hold. Families lived in their backyards and drove everywhere except into Los Angeles, where the Valley suburbanites rarely ventured. The San Fernando Valley became the nation’s leading symbol of suburbia, as well as the swimming pool and sports car capital of the country and, eventually, the home of the minimall. Vestiges of the ranching culture began to be squeezed into smaller corners of the Valley, as suburban homeowners objected to tractor dust and waking to the crowing of roosters.
The Valley played a crucial role in the Cold War. No doubt many nuclear warheads pointed its way. Burbank Airport was home to Lockheed’s secret Skunk Works, where the U2 spy plane and other war birds were hatched. Residents in the 1950s and ’60s had to put up with sonic booms that shattered windows ands frazzled nerves, the product of test flights. The west Valley endured for more than a decade the roar and lit-up skyline of nighttime rocket tests at Rocketdyne’s Santa Susana Field Lab, which also was used for experiments with nuclear reactors. Nike missile batteries were visible along Victory Boulevard and on Oat Mountain above Chatsworth.
As a rule, the Valley wore its patriotism openly. There were loyalty parades and volunteer sky watchers who kept an eye out for enemy aircraft. But there also were complaints about noise and hazards of military operations. Cold War activity took its most severe local toll on January 31, 1957 when an F-89 fighter jet collided at 25,000 feet with a new airliner on its final check-out flight. Debris fell on Pacoima Junior High, killing three boys on the athletic field and prompting calls for a new hospital and an end to Air Force flights over the Valley.
The Sixties brought protests against the Vietnam War and more evidence that the Valley was changing. Late in 1968, black students upset at their campus treatment forcibly occupied the administration building at San Fernando Valley State College (later renamed Cal State University, Northridge.) The following summer, two months before the more famous Woodstock, tens of thousands of rock and roll fans descended on Devonshire Downs for the raucous Newport ’69 festival. In August, youthful killers led by Charles Manson ventured out of the Chatsworth hills on a terror spree aimed at inciting race riots.
With its spread out spaces and lack of other transit options, the Valley grew up with the automobile. Everyone drove to work and to shop, creating extended traffic jams on streets that often began as dirt farm lanes. At one time, eight drive-in theaters ran shows nightly at dusk. They were the Pickwick, Victory, San Val and Laurel in the East Valley, the Sepulveda, Van Nuys, Reseda and Canoga in the west. Even churches met in the drive-ins.
Youth culture was especially tied to cars. The center of it all was the southern end of Van Nuys Boulevard. There, hundreds of cruisers gathered to show off their customized wheels and to hang out. On Club Night, every Wednesday, it could take an hour to drive a few miles through Van Nuys and Sherman Oaks. Community backlash and a police crackdown in the 1980s ended the tradition that dated to the 1930s. “If it was not for that lighted stretch of concrete in the San Fernando Valley, I would not be married to the lovely lady sitting next to me,” a letter to the editor mourned in the L.A. Times.
More than a million people lived in the Valley at the end of the 1960s, the great majority of them white and proudly suburban. As the 21st century began, the population had grown to 1.7 million and represented one of the most diverse mixes of ethnicity and nationality found in the United States. Residents of Hispanic heritage became the largest segment, with substantial communities — immigrants and native born alike — who identify themselves as Korean, Armenian, Thai and Indian.
Being from the Valley is an identity all its own, as well, and in 2002 a vote was held across Los Angeles to decide whether the city’s portion of the Valley should secede to form the nation’s sixth-largest municipality. The proposal lost, but within the Valley itself a narrow majority voted to break away. Keith Richman, a Republican state Assemblyman, was “elected” as the phantom mayor of the city that was not to be.