How blue is my valley

Wednesday, Sep 4 2002

WHAT BOB REMEMBERS ABOUT SIMI VALLEY in the mid-1960s was its distance from Los Angeles, and his windows rattling from the thunder of engines being fired up in the hills at Rocketdyne. Driving to the city could cost him an hour of gridlock just to cross the valley floor before connecting to the two-lane Santa Susana Pass blacktop, which he'd take down to Topanga Canyon and Devonshire boulevards on his way to the San Diego Freeway. But to Bob and countless other LAPD cops, the drive was worth it. Where else but Simi could you buy a new home for $20,000, have your kids attend sparkling public schools, and leave for work knowing they were safe? And even all those miles that made commuting such a pain had their good side, providing a protective moat between Simi and a metropolis rapidly metastasizing with crime.

The 1968 completion of the Simi segment of the 118 freeway (later named for Ronald Reagan) not only eased this commute immensely, it gave cops returning from work a vivid appreciation of the concept of "home" each time they descended from the top of the Santa Susana Pass into the dramatic, rocky valley below.

"You felt the weight come off your shoulders," remembers Bob, who retired from the force in 1988. "I was a dope cop for my last 17 years, doing surveillance after surveillance -- we lived in the car. It was so good to put that behind me, to top that rise and see the lights of Simi."

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There are no public figures on just how many cops and ex-cops live in Simi, although last year a Daily News study reported that 1,200 active-duty LAPD officers alone -- about 13 percent of the force -- live in and around Simi Valley, Thousand Oaks and Santa Clarita.

Bob (he prefers not to use his last name here) joined the LAPD in 1962 and moved to Simi from Sylmar in 1964, before buying his present home in 1977; in his 58-house subdivision, 11 homes are owned by law-enforcement families.

TO MOST PEOPLE WHO DON'T LIVE HERE, SIMI Valley rhymes with "Rodney King." The 1992 trial of four LAPD officers accused of beating the African-American motorist was moved from politically charged Los Angeles to this western Ventura County oasis of golf courses and man-made lakes. When the four cops were acquitted, Los Angeles went up in flames, and Simi Valley became synonymous with white racism, white flight, white cluelessness but, above all, white cops because of the high number of law-enforcement employees who called the town home. For every big city, there's a bedroom burg known for having a large share of its police officers living there -- Riverhead on Long Island, say, or Novato in Northern California -- but Simi's extraordinary population of those in uniform has made it a fabled Copland. If, as Andrew Kopkind wrote 35 years ago, Orange County was the Bavarian heartland of Reaganism, Simi Valley may well be its Prussia.

The town, which was built upon a Chumash Indian settlement and Spanish rancho, caught on with men and women in blue very early -- by the mid-1960s LAPD officers were beginning to turn away from their traditional Orange County habitats and migrate to the small town that once serviced the old Los Angeles­San Francisco stagecoach route.

Today, the first thing you smell when you get off the Reagan Freeway at Tapo Canyon Road is grilled hamburger wafting from a Carl's Jr. in Simi Valley's Civic Center Plaza. The plaza is a shopping center painted in Santa Fe pastels and built in a kind of inflated Mission style that might be called Disney Revival. To suburb haters -- those sensitive souls who can only live in Victorian houses, brownstone walkups or Craftsman cottages -- Simi is the last circle of hell, a Stepfordian vision of scrubbed streets and nail- clippered lawns every bit as scary as its most famous movie locale, the cul-de-sac in Poltergeist.

Since the King trial verdict, outside critics have relished any trouble-in-paradise story that tarnishes Simi Valley's squeaky-clean image, from its rare outbursts of violent crime to the traffic congestion that now clogs the 118, thanks to its becoming an unforeseen alternative to the 101. Then there's the fact that Simi Valley has the worst air quality in Ventura because of a freakish combination of geography and climate that allows ozone to pool there after it follows the commute winds from western Ventura's light-industry corridor in the morning and from the San Fernando Valley in the evening. Bob laughs when he recalls how he and his family moved to Reseda in the early 1960s to be free of the smog that was then mostly confined to Burbank and Glendale.

"We don't notice the smog here," he says. "It's nothing like Van Nuys." Bob and his wife do acknowledge Simi's downsides. "There aren't any really good restaurants in Simi Valley," he laments. "And we don't have an Italian deli in this town, which just ticks us off because we're both Italian."

If you gaze down upon the valley floor at dusk during winter, there might be enough fog and purple light to let you believe you were somewhere in the Scottish highlands. There are, in fact, subtle gradations in Simi's climate, with residents living on the town's north-facing slopes protected a little more from the sun's scalding heat and privy to ocean breezes blowing in across the Oxnard Plain -- hardly a breath of wind seems to pass through without being noticed and remarked upon here during the summer.

But to most Angelenos, who drive through Simi Valley on their way to the Reagan Library or to northern Ventura County, the town is just another sun-baked suburb sprawling out of control. The truth is that Simi Valley is a collection of suburbs, each one embedding the aspirations and vanities of a certain period in their architectures: the wood shake roofs of the 1960s, banked driveways of the '80s and the red-tile mansionettes of the 1990s. It even has an older, feed-and-hardware part of town along Los Angeles Avenue that resembles many other horse communities in California.

TOWNS LIKE SIMI VALLEY BEGIN AS THE ONLY places where people earning working-class wages can live. There was no way that Bob or anyone earning a cop's salary could buy a three- or four-bedroom house in West L.A. -- he might as well have tried for Brentwood. Today, Bob says, his 1,700-square-foot tract house, purchased for $83,000 in 1977, and which sits on half an acre, is worth about half a million dollars. Which means Simi Valley is now priced out of range for many cops. As another LAPD officer told the Weekly, "I've been on the force 16 years, and I can't afford to buy a house out there. I live in the south -- I'm a flatlander."

"We don't think we're different from any other community," Bob says. "We have pride of ownership, we like our kids to be respectful, we like them to get a good education." Which is why Simi Valley residents cannot understand the royal badmouthing they received after the Rodney King­beating trial. Its specter was recently resurrected when Simi Valley's name came up as a possible "neutral" court venue for the trial of two white Inglewood officers charged with the beating of a black youth. "We thought we were getting a raw deal," Bob says of the 1992 trial. "It was blown all out of proportion, but it passed and we don't care. And the good thing is that now everybody knows it's Redneck Heaven out here -- 'Hey, don't try anything because these people for the most part are armed!'"

Simi Valley is probably no more sinister a place than any other pistol-packing California town that's overrun with fast-food counters and has no Italian delis, its civic personality wavering somewhere between the wrought-iron conservatism represented by the Reagan Library and the folksy eccentricity of Grandma Prisbrey's Bottle Village. Even today, with the town's homes priced far beyond most working-cop budgets and its population five times what it was in the 1960s, the valley assumes a tranquilizing stillness when the wind blows through the cottonwoods in the late afternoons. "You look at it right now," Bob says in the shade of his deck as five horses gambol in a backyard corral. "It is quiet. Tonight it will be this quiet."

Reach the writer at smikulan@laweekly.com

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