Observing Los Angeles

William Finnegan's San Fernando Valley days

barbarian-days-cover.jpgIn his latest book, Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life, New Yorker staff writer William Finnegan writes about developing an interest in surfing while growing up in Woodland Hills in the 1960s. He would take Topanga Canyon to the beach and surf at Will Rogers or go up to Ventura, where his dad acquired a small house near the beach. The San Fernando Valley is a small character in the book. Sample:

But I was, to my enduring shame, an inlander. Woodland Hills, where we lived, lay in the northwestern reaches of Los Angeles County. It was a world of dry hills -- the foothills of the Santa Monica Mountains -- at the west end of the San Fernando Valley, which was a beige lake of smoggy subdivisions. My year-round friends didn't know anything about the ocean. Their families had moved from landlocked regions -- Pennsylvania, Oklahoma, Utah. Their fathers went to work in offices. Except Ricky Townsend's dad, Chuck. He had an oil rig in the hills out toward Santa Paula…That was where Ricky and I sprawled around a transistor radio, listening to Vin Scully call Dodgers games late into the night. Koufax and Drysdale were in their primes, striking out the world, and we thought that was normal.

We lived in a cup of hills. And there was an insularity to our neighborhood, to my elementary school, an atavism that was reinforced by topography. It felt like a small town, a hollow, and it was run by xenophobic hardheads. The John Birch Society was strong. My parents and their liberal, cosmopolitan friends were a minority -- lovers of Adlai Stevenson in a Sam Yorty town. (Yorty was the mayor of L.A. -- a tough, grinning, ignorant Red-baiiter from Nebraska.) My parents subscribed to I.F. Stone's Weekly and passionately supported the civil rights movement. They fought a local ballot measure that would allow housing owners to racially discriminate. No on 22, said the sign on our lawn. They lost. Woodland Hills Elementary remained 100 percent white.

The best part about the hills was the hills. They were full of rattlesnakes, hobos, coyotes. They were where as boys we took long treks out past Mulholland Drive, which was still a dirt road then, to old shooting ranges and horse ranches. We had tree forts and rock forts scattered through the hills and canyons we claimed as ours, and we fought bands of boys from other hollows whom we met in unclaimed lands….

That was the Valley that I and tens of thousands of other baby boomer kids knew, more or less. The details differ based on whether you called North Hollywood or Granada Hills or Reseda home, and whether you roamed in hills or the flatlands. By the way, a few paragraphs later, Finnegan talks about hanging out at the Tarzana Ice Rink and here he gets his historical reference wrong. He writes that Tarzana was "named after an actor resident who was one of the early movie Tarzans." Holy Edgar Rice Burroughs! Tarzana was actually named, rather famously, by Burroughs, the author of the Tarzan books early in the 20th century. Burroughs bought and began to subdivide the ranch retreat of Harrison Gray Otis, the publisher and editor of the Los Angeles Times, who originally acquired his corner of the Valley in the first divvying up of the old Lankershim Ranch -- nearly half of the entire San Fernando Valley -- by Los Angeles interests preparing for the 1913 arrival of water in the aqueduct from the Owens Valley. Burroughs lived on his Tarzana Ranch for more than a decade and got the U.S. Post Office to recognize the beginnings of a town center along Ventura Boulevard as Tarzana, California.

Bonus Woodland Hills note: Like most of the Valley in the 1960s, Woodland Hills was lily white and strongly conservative, as Finnegan writes. But it's also where Martin Luther King spoke in 1961 by invitation at Woodland Hills Community Church.

Bonus LA Times connection: Author Finnegan is the older brother of the Times' political writer Michael Finnegan.

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