Once, in the middle of desperate job-hunting, I considered getting a new cellphone number. Maybe something that started with a 323, or just anything that's not 818, would look better at the top of my resume. Maybe that would get a call back.
Years before that, I had become self-conscious about my phone number. Someone would ask for it. I would respond “818,” and the person would ask, “You're from the Valley?” before I could give out the rest of the number. They ask how you deal with traffic and the heat and whether you know any porn stars. Then they confess that they never actually go to the Valley. Well, maybe they'll stop in Studio City or Sherman Oaks if they must, but nothing beyond that. The Valley isn't worth time spent on the 405 or 101. You, Ms. 818, aren't worth more than a few bad jokes told in a fake Valley Girl accent.
Still, I decided not to change my number. In fact, I still hang on to my 818 area code years after moving out of the San Fernando Valley. It's a reminder of the homeland, of a vast expanse of neighborhoods trapped between mountains that the rest of L.A. misunderstands or ignores.
There's the Valley that people want to exist, a sprawl of former orange groves that begat suburbs — very white, very middle-class suburbs — that in turn released an army of mall rats whose images remain frozen like paused frames from ’80s teen flicks. That semi-fictional Valley is the one that's derided, the one that people wouldn't be caught dead visiting. Then there's the Valley that does exist, which is impossible to pigeonhole and where people really should spend more time.
The Valley shifts not just from neighborhood to neighborhood but mile to mile
Part of the problem with understanding the Valley is that, despite obvious physical barriers, its parameters are debatable. The Los Angeles Times’ Mapping L.A. project identifies 34 neighborhoods situated in the Valley. Two of those — Burbank and San Fernando — are separate cities (Universal City is unincorporated). Other sources add a few extra cities, like Glendale, Calabasas and Hidden Hills, and unincorporated neighborhoods into the zone. What's beyond debate is that an overwhelming mass of the Valley is part of the city of Los Angeles, split between seven seats on the City Council, and that this space is large and not particularly unified. Yet to outsiders, we're all “the Valley.”
Amongst ourselves, we'll divide ourselves further: North Valley, South Valley, East Valley, West Valley. When we meet each other, we'll give our exact neighborhoods; to others, we might just respond that we're from “the Valley.” After all, how many people know the difference between Northridge and Porter Ranch?
But the distinctions between neighborhoods are important. No matter how you define the parameters of the Valley, there are still more than 30 neighborhoods within it, and each has a distinct personality. Pacoima has become a street-art destination with its Mural Mile. Van Nuys resembles a downtown with its courthouse and government buildings. Porter Ranch has a megachurch and a Walmart Supercenter.
The San Fernando Valley may be historically suburban, but it's been a long time since that was an accurate assessment of it. Parts still look like the suburbs with their tract homes and parking lot–rich shopping centers, but other neighborhoods are more urban or industrial or even rural. The Valley shifts not just from neighborhood to neighborhood but mile to mile, block to block. It's high-income and low-income, liberal and conservative, dense and sprawling.
I'm from Northridge, best known for a California State University and an earthquake, but there's more to it than that. Northridge is an ethnically diverse neighborhood; in fact, the Mapping L.A. project notes that it's “highly diverse” for both the city and county of Los Angeles. Drive through the neighborhood and you'll find everything from Indian dress shops to falafel joints to a large Korean grocery store. Go to the Northridge Fashion Center or the local L.A. Fitness and you'll hear multiple languages overlapping. It's also, in some ways, a college town. In other words, Northridge is low-key weird. There's an apartment building called Das Bauhaus that caters to creative types, a utility box painted like a Mondrian and wide bike lanes running alongside sidewalks lined with mom-and-pop stores. It's not a bad place to visit, but it's not a destination either. This isn't the easiest place to access. It's miles from the 405 and 101, closer to the 118.
Northridge is similar to a lot of other Valley neighborhoods in that lack of convenient access to it makes it easy to ignore. Decades of poor planning have left the San Fernando Valley with few freeways and subpar public transportation compared with the rest of the Los Angeles. Getting in and out of the Valley is a clusterfuck, but just traveling around the 818 is a test of patience. You're often better off taking deep breaths while siting on a congested main street, because that shortcut you think you see likely leads to a cul-de-sac. When you grow up there, you get used to this, just as you get used to going back to school during a heatwave that will endure until the winds (and your allergies) pick up sometime around Halloween.
Growing up in the Valley is a bit isolating. You're part of Los Angeles, but you're also excluded from the rest of the city. You go to schools with rivalries that are known only by those who share your area code. You're aware of ZIP code hierarchies and certain levels of class-conscious snobbery that people outside of the Valley don't know exist. You escape to the local teen haunts that have existed over the years but long for the day when you have a car and can get over the hill. Still, it's not all bad.
The Valley gives you a different kind of perspective. Diversity is a hot topic right now, but that's long part of the fabric of these neighborhoods. You grow up knowing that not everyone speaks the same language you do, nor do they celebrate the same holidays. You know that everyone is different, that every nook and cranny of the Valley is different. It's too bad that so many of the Angelenos looking over the hill can't see the Valley in the multidimensional way that the Valley sees itself.