My parents moved from Nebraska to Hollywood in the fifties, having heard the land game was booming in the San Fernando Valley. My developer father built us a home on a cul-de-sac in the suburb of Woodland Hills. The valley was still rife with small farms, ranches, undisturbed orange groves and only a handful of strip malls. We even played in a bog – a gated open forest located right across the street from my low-slung Mediterranean manse.
Paradise was not yet lost. It was still lush and green and hopeful. It had a culture, distinguished by great pockets of open space in the rapidly built-up jungle. Somehow, Ahmanson Ranch was spared from a sub-division fate when Washington Mutual gave up the fight to develop the refuge in 2003 and it was sold to the state of California, preserving its undeveloped status as a natural park. It’s located near my brother’s home in the Hidden Hills, and he often explores it on horseback, encountering a rattler or coyote now and then.
But that kind of wilderness isn’t the norm. Uncorked commercial development and urban sprawl greatly changed the rural childhood picture as I knew it with grid-locked, smog-producing freeways linking inhabitants to three car garage homes with massive gas barbecues and pools, and mostly, endless monstrous retail centers in Tarzana, Reseda, Encino, Sherman Oaks, Van Nuys, Canoga Park and North Hollywood. Sure, there are canyons and mountains and open terrain, but usually it is visual experience with very little access.
Meantime, most cultural centers (museums, theater, concert halls) are located downtown in “the city” and you have to subject yourself to the stress of traveling there to show your children there is more to Los Angeles than markets, fast food joints, gas stations, nail salons, car washes and dry cleaners. The strip malls and shopping center are now the culture of the valley. And they beckon us to buy and use more than we need.
I think of this because my youngest daughter is housed up in the valley for a week, initiating her summer vacation and celebrating a well-deserved break from the strains of 5th grade. She is spending “quality time” with my family members who all still reside in the valley.
My mother, sister and brother are hard pressed to keep Lauren entertained. I guess their ages and the fact they are childless must be factored in. But I also believe it is the culture of the outdoors being dramatically outstaged by retail blight.
The other day, my mother dragged the kid with her on her errands to the market, the cleaners, the car wash, the gas station. I was dragged on errands too, but also driven to the beach on summer days when it took a mere 20 minutes to traverse the canyon in her station wagon to Zuma. It also took 20 minutes to get to Westwood or Century City or Beverly Hills, but cars have ruined it and now the hour commute is too much for my mom to handle most days. Mom also spent a few hours with Lauren at the local 20,000 sq-foot strip mall, The Commons, where they saw The Karate Kid and had a bite.
The Commons has become a common destination for my daughters when visiting grandma. Hey, you can keep up with the Kardashians who have a shop called Dash across the street. Ain’t that culture?
My brother took my daughter with him to look at properties and to the office. She likes to color, so being indoors for a few hours isn’t all that boring. After, he took her to lunch and to Nordstrom, where they bumped into my mother at the jewelry counter. It was a funny coincidence that I’m sure added some interest to the week. My sister, who is the most innovative in the group, did arrange a swim day for Lauren with a friend and her child at a pool with some kind of crazy water features.
Swimming has always filled the summer days of valley kids, but it was never enough for me and my cronies. We also spent countless hours exploring those open orange groves and various fields which were interspersed between the developments. We hopped on our bikes or cruised around on foot, never fearing some lunatic would snatch us up if we dared venture into the green without grown ups. At times, the destination was the only strip mall (Corbin Village) but along the way we picked oranges and pomegranates and stopped to climb trees.
Boredom is an okay thing for kids during the summer break. It stirs the imagination and makes them resourceful. Build a playhouse out of an old cardboard box. Play beauty shop in the pool. Build castles in the sand. Sew clothes for those Barbies out of rags.
Sometimes the down time from camps, vacations, Disneyland, parties and parades can be the most memorable time of your childhood. Only, when you are completely surrounded by commercialism during that down time – block after block after block of stores and businesses, it can be hugely oppressive. It helps to have a little green. And I wish more remained.
I suppose the only upside, which is also a downside, is the recession’s effect on the strip mall – forcing many tenants to abandon their leases and close their businesses. As a builder’s daughter, I empathize with the loss of income from the vacancies. Everyone is hurting. But it makes me wonder if the behemoths could be replaced with absolutely nothing.
Raze the properties. Return the land. Leave it alone. This could restore the valley to a hopeful green place, again. Mom and dad believed development of the valley was the future. Lauren’s mom and dad believe it is now about creating more undeveloped space – the kind a kid on a bike can explore on a boring, summer day.