By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
When we crossed Santa Susana Pass and drove over into Santa Clara Valley, we both had the same thought: It looked like the Valley in 1953. We came back through San Fernando Pass, and then followed the river all the way to Long Beach. We walked the boardwalk at Venice Beach and watched a purple evening emerge from light dismantled in the sky above the ocean.
The night before, we had had dinner with the writer and historian D.J. Waldie and a friend of his at La Serenata de Garibaldi in East L.A. The four of us discovered, without attempting to, that the L.A. River had played an important psychic role in each of our lives when we were boys. Our affection for the river, though, and our hopes that it might one day be stripped of some of its revetment, were not a yearning for restored scenery, or even for wild nature renewed in an urban corridor. What we felt was a desire like wanting a tourniquet removed. The river, in the very way of its trickle-and-flood personality, its El Niño essence, had shaped something vital in us, and we missed it now, as if it were a finger lost in an accident.
I intuited again the next day, on that long zigzag drive to Chatsworth with Dave, that the Valley of my childhood was not gone, only dormant. Like the Gabrielino, it's ceased to exist as an obvious force, but it's still present, vibrating in the shadow lines. A cursory glance might incline you to think the Valley has been thoroughly ruined -- subdivided, automobilized, scorched by venal dreams of wealth. But its spirit remains intact. The oblivion is an illusion. When I drive the back streets of Winnetka and Reseda today, I see people of ordinary means with routine struggles standing in their front yards, watching the wind blouse sentinel eucalyptus and watering their array of exotic plants. In the trimness and intense fragrance of their mestizo yards, they have erected a barrier against much that insults and hounds them. When I stop to talk, I sometimes find these people have preserved a centerpiece of my era -- backyard agriculture. A few chickens, some fruit trees and berry vines, a clutch of beehives, a kitchen garden. These individuals' sense of where they are, and how to manage, transcends what has been imposed on the Valley. The Gabrielino could have explained a life to them they would understand.
MY OCCASIONAL TRAVELS THROUGH THE VALLEY ARE only incidentally meant to find whether a restaurant I ate at as a boy is still in business on Ventura, or if two of my three childhood homes still stand, or if the field where I played Little League ball is still in use. Deeper emotions of gratitude, tenderness and wonder come over me when I study the eyes of rock doves on rooflines along Calvert Street. (Were birds I raised ancestors to these?) And when I cross the Santa Monicas to find -- so suddenly -- the Pacific and recall Charles Wright's description of that sight: "the ocean like a sleeping dog, its side rising and falling and twitching occasionally in the aftermath of some dream or other." The deeper emotions come when I bend over to sip again from a drinking fountain at Our Lady of Grace, turning the same spigot handle I did as a boy, when I thought water the most delicious of all foods.
At its core, the Valley is a particular modulation of light and water, an imbalance of aridity and flood, of stagnant air and wind. As civilization has done in every landscape where it has made its pitch, settlers here thought they would get closer to paradise if they could simply adjust these amplitudes -- have water coming on a more predictable schedule, completely eliminate aridity, create a consoling and beautiful horticulture, pave over the dust, and brighten things up by getting rid of as much of the night as possible.
I watched as a 10-year-old boy for clear, moonlit nights in the Valley. I would ride my bike for miles through the great dark expanses of cultivated land between Chatsworth and Reseda on those evenings. I'd look up to the high, pale lit walls of the basin, the lower one to the south named for St. Monica, the mother of St. Augustine, the other range for a third-century virgin martyr, St. Susanna. I saw in the fields through veils cast by night sprinklers the heads of deer come down to graze from the dry mountains in a luxuriant and wet paradise. I cannot imagine them wondering why paradise was there that night, only thinking it was fabulous.
The slow chuck, chuck, chuckof the big sprinklers and the moon-shot fields felt mythic and comforting. They held no threats for me. They carried no mean notices, like the sign I once saw in a restaurant window downtown: Se sirve solamente a raza blanco. It was simply the dampened soil doing its work under the magic wand of the sprinkler. I knew the water came from somewhere far away, that it had not always been like this. But the vistas of worked and well-watered land, seen in the intense heat haze of a stifling July afternoon or on a cool starlit night such as this, seemed stronger, more enduring, than any violation I knew, the residue of which I sometimes felt clinging to me like a smear.
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