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Hills 

Wednesday, Feb 27 2002
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Aldea Hill, as it was and may still be known to the little children of Encino Village, is where the street I grew up on rises steeply to meet Burbank Boulevard, across which superannuated character actor Edward Everett Horton (Top Hat, F Troop, Fractured Fairy Tales) in the days of my youth kept his woody, ramshackle estate. (F. Scott Fitzgerald lived there for a while in a guesthouse, you might like to know, but that was before even my time.) From the top of the hill, you look back north across the level expanse of what was once the RKO movie ranch -- where Frank Capra constructed the main drag of Bedford Falls just a decade before my parents’ house was built -- past the Little League fields, and the railroad track, and the wash where the river runs, past fields and subdivisions to the mountains that make the far end of the San Fernando Valley. That is as pretty a picture as I know.

The essential purpose of this blocklong incline -- a matching of form to function from whose perfection a philosopher might extrapolate the existence of God -- was evident to anyone old enough to ride a bike without training wheels. It was for coming down fast. On a bicycle or skateboard or whatever other wheeled thing you were brave enough to try. One time a kid in my class was hit by a car, I remember or think I do, as he cruised into the intersection at the bottom of the hill; he flew across the street and landed more or less safely in some bushes. Maybe I am making that part up. But he lived to tell the tale, and, I am (practically) sure, to coast and coast again.

Climb, coast; struggle, release; work, reward -- that is the dialectic, the yin and the yang, the Laurel and Hardy of the hill. I think of Sisyphus and his big rock -- he might have had some fun watching it crash back to the bottom, might have at least enjoyed the view, the easy walk back down. It would take only the slightest conceptual shift to see the whole business not as useless labor -- all rock and no play -- but as an endless game.

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It wasn‘t until I went away to live awhile in the state of Florida, where you can see a hundred miles from the top of a stepladder, that I realized to what extent I was a child of my landscape, how keen was my Valley. Confining in a sense, but sheltering as well. A big rocky cradle made of hills and mountains, ground muscling up at every point of the compass. Crossing the thousand-mile pancakescape of the Great Plains, as I sometimes do, ringed by pure unadulterated horizon, I inevitably wonder, Don’t people go crazy here? I suppose the natives must develop their own kind of workable life-aesthetic based on the preponderance of sky. But I‘m sure we could never completely understand each other.

Though it is the grid that seems in an iconic way to stand for the city, the sprawl of parallels and perpendiculars that impresses itself upon the visiting mind, Los Angeles is after all a hill town. What is the Hollywood sign, the truncated remnant of a realtor’s Big Idea, without its hillside, its elevation? The city‘s one big park is a mountain, the grid itself nowhere more apparent than from yon lofty heights. L.A. was established first among the foothills; the flats were filled in later. The mountains and hills define and divide the metropolis, creating neighborhoods and even cultures -- the hills cleave Town from Valley as the Hudson River does Manhattan from New Jersey, and the similarities do not end there -- and provide a backdrop, in a literal, theatrical sense, to the soliloquies and asides of our daily dramatics.

They are dramatic in themselves. So often and so completely are they masked by bad air, the hills and mountains near and far, that on a day after a rain or when the winds are up, they seem to appear out of nowhere, gem-bright and imminent, with the force of revelation. (Smog is an insult to, well, so very many things, but perhaps its worst crime is against the hills.) You can see the real shape of the city then. I have my pet views, of hills from hills: looking north from Normandie, where it peaks between Beverly and Melrose; dropping into Glendale over the Glendale Boulevard Bridge; getting that airborne feeling on the Sunset Strip; and the vertiginous roller-coaster crest of Silver Lake’s Baxter Hill (as it may not officially be known), which is not a hill for going down fast -- San Francisco knows no more frightful grade -- but a hill for going up and over, with the distinct sensation of tipping into the lake.

Gods live in the mountains: Shiva, the bush that spoke to Moses, the deities and departed of the San people of the western Kalahari, who revere the four Tsodoli Hills, conceptualized as Male Hill, Female Hill, Child Hill and Ex-Wife Hill. The hills are alive with . . . something. With their hilly holiness, their holy hillness. In a local sense, gods just means movie stars and other people with money, though in real estate terms the principle is identical: The more elevated the property, the nearer you are to heaven. (Consider Mt. Olympus, home to Zeus and a housing development overlooking Laurel Canyon.) When fortune smiled upon an Encino Village family, when their ship came in, they would invariably sail it up to a new house in the hills. Where else? Onward is upward.

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