Midafternoon at the Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf on Santa Monica's Main Street, an impromptu conversation sparks between two strangers just feet from me -- he a cheerful, swarthy, well-fed, balding accountant originally from New York City, she a pretty, willowy, 20-something brunette, just arrived from the Boston area and looking for housing.
She mentions parts inland and his face flickers with mild concern. "There are some areas that are OK, I guess," he says. "But I live right around here. And this is par-a-dise."
He savors the word like it's a white truffle.
She assents with a smile, then asks about the area around Sherman Oaks: "What's that like?"
His head tremors from side to side. "Oh my Gaaaawwwdddd. No! I never even go north of Mulholland. Never!"
His answer seems more appropriate to a nuclear waste dump 20 miles outside of Barstow than a desirable suburban neighborhood with parks, tree-lined streets and stretches of boulevard rife with such acceptable-modern-living signifiers as Whole Foods, Trader Joe's, Guitar Center and ArcLight Cinemas.
Yet all around L.A., this anti-818 sentiment is repeated with some regularity. Angelenos insist the San Fernando Valley is our New Jersey: uncool, ultra-suburban, out of the way. I wish they'd just shut up already.
I felt this way even before I moved to the Valley. A native Bostonian, I've lived in Silver Lake, greater Hollywood and on the coast in Santa Monica. I always found the Valley a perfectly pleasant place to visit, work or party in.
And since I moved in with my girlfriend less than a year ago, into the storied, mountain-ringed grid, such talk really raises my ire. Wherever I've lived in L.A., I've enjoyed my neighborhood even while craving time on the other side of town. And the same goes for my current Studio City/NoHo abode. We're next to a really nice park, we've got a laid-back, cutesy strip of independent stores and cafés on nearby Tujunga, we're eight minutes to Hollywood & Vine, and the rent on our two-bed, two-bath pad is less than that for many studios on the other side of the hill.
It's neither utopia nor hell on Earth -- like most of L.A.
"Oh my God, I think people think that the Valley is totally out of style," Kelly Bulen, 36, tells me. A hairdresser at Floyd's on Moorpark, she has a Sunset Strip rocker girl's body and arms tatted out with colorful ink. She lives in Studio City -- and she heard it all when she worked in Beverly Hills: "They think we're out of date, a little bit backward, maybe not as classy, not as trendy and trying to wannabe Hollywood."
She insists that's bogus. Her neighborhood has great schools and livable streets -- and even celebrity sightings. "So I'm shopping at Ralph's one day, on Coldwater," she dishes, "and Slash is there. And Dave Grohl is at the park down the street. I do Steve Carell's hair."
"The reality is, it's so easy to reside in the Valley," says my longtime friend Bob Cella. A 13-year North Hollywood homeowner recently retired from bartending after 17 years at storied Birds on Franklin, Cella now builds high-end guitars. "As a place to sleep at night, as a place to 'keep your stuff,' as George Carlin says. Parking is super easy. It serves its purpose perfectly." Cella searches for the perfect summation: "It's residentially idyllic."
While bartending at Birds, the watering hole anchoring the very hip, lower Hollywood Hills Franklin strip, Cella sometimes felt he concealed a secret identity: "People knew me in that area, and I bet in the minds of those people I was from the L.A. Basin side. But my dirty secret was that I went and slept over in the Valley.
"Remember," he adds, "when you go out at night in L.A. or Hollywood, even to the 'coolest' places, probably a good percentage of the people around you live in the 818."
In fact, Cella discovered that one of his Birds regulars lived just up the street from him in NoHo -- the bar was a 15-minute drive for both of them.
Cella's artist neighbor Sarah Hage, 46, lives with her software developer-turned-screenwriter husband in a spacious one-story home. With its tiled, in-ground pool and Southwest-aesthetic landscaping, the place feels like a boutique Palm Springs resort in the city.
"It's so culturally diverse here," she tells me. "We've got Latinos; we've got an Ethiopian mechanic nearby who's keeping my Toyota pickup alive. And there's more mom-and-pop stores here.
"I have a friend, she said: 'Oh you're living in the Valley?! The air quality is gonna be a problem.' Then she came out to visit and was, like: 'Oh, this is great!' "
But not everyone can be convinced, as I learn while talking to my friend, actor-comedian Ron Barba, a part-time New Yorker who prefers to sublet apartments in or near the dense core of Hollywood proper. The subject comes up incidentally, naturally.
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"Dude, I hate the Valley. It reminds me of going to Brooklyn and Queens," he tells me. "I have to get my shots from the doctor before going over there.
"We're all desperate all over the city," he adds, "but when I'm over there, I go through the agony of them extolling what it's like to be in the strip-mall, Palookaville, second-tier part of the city." His faces scrunches comically, his mind searching for the perfect topper. "They produce porn over there," he sneers. "'Nuff said."
Last I checked, however, millions of Americans -- including tons of Angelenos -- love porn. Now if only they could learn to appreciate the place where it's made.