History of the San Fernando Valley - Charlotte Laws

Charlotte Laws, Ph.D.
Member of the
 Greater Valley Glen Council
21781 Ventura Blvd.
Suite 633
Woodland Hills, CA 91364
Tel.  818.346.5280
Fax.  818.985.1690 

Dr. Charlotte Laws - Councilperson Valley Glen

History of the San Fernando Valley

The evolution of the San Fernando Valley reflects both great accomplishments and a record of lost opportunities. From a small population base in the 19th Century, the Valley emerged over the first half of the 20th Century as one of the largest metropolitan areas in the country.

If taken by itself, the Valley today would be among the six largest cities in the nation.

Yet, unlike many great metropolises, the San Fernando Valley was never designed to be a city. It is a region of many places covering some 345 square miles, over an expanse 31-miles long and 13-miles wide. Within its geology lies the source for the Los Angeles River, explaining why the Valley was so important to the City of Angels in the early years of the 20th century. This supports the assertion that the rapid growth and success of Greater Los Angeles would not have been possible without the annexation of most of the San Fernando Valley.

Access to water made the Valley an ideal site for the region's Mission San Fernando, founded in 1797. The Valley grew largely as an agricultural area around the mission. Most of its residents were Native Americans. The conquest of California by the United States in 1847 placed the Valley squarely in play for subsequent real estate speculation and development.

Under American tutelage, the Valley was seen as an area for livestock and for growing wheat. Early speculators, such as Isaac Lankershim and Isaac Newton Van Nuys, left their legacies and their names on communities, streets and landmarks still recognizable to Valley residents. By the 1870s others saw the region, particularly the area around what was to evolve into the City of San Fernando, as a Garden of Eden that would attract large numbers of new residents.

Now connected by railroad to both San Francisco and Los Angeles, the Valley was no longer isolated from the periodic speculative land fever that swept through Southern California through the late 19th and much of the 20th Centuries. The 1880s expansion ushered in the existence of many early Valley settlements, including North Hollywood, the City of San Fernando and an area that came to be known as Chatsworth Park.

Throughout the 19th Century the focus of economic development, and locus of political power, lay in the City of Los Angeles. Without intervention from across the hills, the bulk of the Valley would have likely evolved into a series of independent separate cities, much like Burbank, Glendale and San Fernando are today.

This was not to be. The growing City of Los Angeles needed to tap into the water supplies of the Valley and, more importantly, to access the Valley lands beneath which the new Los Angeles aqueduct waters would flow. The region's future would now be shaped by LA's need to derive water from the Owens Valley 250 miles to the North. For Los Angeles' ambitious business and political leaders, annexing the Valley became a necessity.

Although orchards and ranches would comprise the majority of the Valley for several more generations, Los Angeles development interests—including the Chandler family, who controlled the Los Angeles Times—increasingly saw the area as a logical place for a bedroom suburb for their ever-growing metropolis. Even before the annexation of most Valley lands in 1915, the Chandlers and their allies—including suburban railway developer Moses Sherman and William Whitsett—were eyeing areas that would later become Van Nuys, Reseda, Sherman Oaks and Canoga Park.

Aided by the new water sources, the Valley shifted from a largely grain - growing area to an orchard/agricultural base, which tends to promote more intensive development. In the long run, however, using water for the maintenance of intense orchard agriculture was deemed too expensive; one acre of irrigated orchard land needed the same amount of water as one acre of property divided into fifty-foot units with homes built on them

Yet, if the expansion of Los Angeles into the Valley was in large part a usual tale of developer avarice and booster ambitions, the City also brought with it an element of idealism. Under the Progressive movement of the early 20th Century, Los Angeles sought not only to grow large, but also to develop into a forward thinking metropolis—an archipelago of what may now be seen as urban villages connected, at that time, by the nation's largest metropolitan railway system.

Part of the vision was to create a new city, of which the Valley would be part—that would avoid the overcrowding, unsanitary and often dangerous aspects of the typical industrial city. Critical to this process was the development of Henry E. Huntington's Pacifi c Electric Railway, which made Los Angeles, in the words of the 1909 edition of Baedeker's United States, "a city of small trips." Los Angeles was to become an archipelago of communities where each community was more a town or village than a city neighborhood.

This ambitious vision was codified in 1908 when the City created the first comprehensive urban zoning ordinance in the nation. Los Angeles was designed to be a large city, made up of smaller communities of detached middle-class single-family homes, comfortably clustered in village-like settings. By the 1930s this vision had been realized with astounding efficiency; single-family residences accounted for 93% of the City's residential buildings—almost twice that found in Chicago—spread over an area that, in terms of land, made Los Angeles the world's largest city.

Automobiles, and the growth of freeways to accommodate them, further accelerated the centrifugal process. As early as the 1920s Angelenos were four times as likely to own a car as the national average, and ten times as likely as a Chicago resident. This alone accelerated the outward migration of commercial and industrial facilities, which established themselves along the periphery to accommodate the sprawling population.

It was literally a new vision of city-making. In Los Angeles, however, downtown would never hold the reins as the downtowns of other cities did; it began to lose its importance almost simultaneously with the emergence of the City. Some fought the centrifugal trend, as they still do today, but others embraced a new dispersed and bucolic vision of urbanity.

Los Angeles will retain the flowers and orchards and lawns, the invigorating free air from the ocean, the bright sunshine and the elbow room. It will not be congested like the older cities, for the transportation lines built in advance of the demands, have made it possible to get far out in the midst of orchards and fields for homemaking.

As Los Angeles' pastoral backyard, the Valley seemed an ideal place to realize these new notions of metropolitan community. Yet ultimately Los Angeles failed to capitalize on them. Some Progressive ideas were incorporated into the development of the older sections of the City—as the parks west of downtown will bear witness—but by the 1920s, these increasingly began to fall by the wayside. The costs of the aqueduct, and other infrastructure, were part of the problem; so too was the desire of developers, in the Valley as elsewhere, to maximize the profits on their land.

As a result, Los Angeles grew, and the Valley most notably, with a shocking lack of parks, green space or attractive public areas. The developers ignored the advice of city officials to designate parklands for their subdivisions, and by 1928, parks took up a mere 0.6% of the City. Later attempts to re-fashion the City—notably the 1930 Olmstead Plan—that would have placed park, river, and open space development at the center of the city plan, never materialized.

This opportunity to create more livable communities was squandered not just because of perfidy on the part of city leadership, but also the shortsightedness of landowners in the Valley who did not want to pay for the creation of a park system. The depression, followed by the Second World War, ended all hope of funding any such model community.

One casualty of this shift was the very thing that brought Los Angeles to the Valley—the River. In reaction to the occasional flooding that devastated the area, the Army Corps of Engineers dammed the River and concreted its banks, starting in the 1930s. The exhuming and paving over of the Los Angeles River was finally completed in the late 1950s, taking nearly two decades. Today, the River is concrete over 94% of its 52-mile length. It wanders through the Valley, a shadow of what it once was, and little more than a receptacle for urban runoff that accumulates from storm drains.

Yet these environmental tragedies did not seriously erode the Valley's appeal. In the 1930s much of the growth came from the expansion of the motion picture industry. Farmlands were quickly converted into movie studios and lots, including those operated by Republic Pictures, Columbia Pictures, Disney, and Warner Brothers. Stars, entrepreneurs and workers all flocked to the area.

With the onset of the Second World War, the aircraft industry provided thousands of new jobs and prodded the creation of more new housing. The San Fernando Valley, whose population was 112,000 strong by 1940, had already surpassed 175,000 by the end of the war.

Los Angeles experienced severe growing pains, with its ever-expanding population. The land of the great City and its San Fernando Valley neighbor was becoming far too valuable for farming and ranching purposes. By 1950, these lands became tract homes, offered to residents at low prices and with attractive terms, as the City became the first to remove wartime rent controls. This tract boom resulted in the construction of tens of thousands of new homes, going to young couples just starting out in the postwar era, trying to create a new life. The establishment of new churches, school, and other local amenities followed.

The boom that came after the war—when the San Fernando Valley population quintupled between 1944 and 1960 didn't conform to the model planned by Progressives, but the existing, more rapid version of suburban development. The Valley, in an era before environmental impact statements and organized NIMBYs, grew too quickly to do so in an ordered, or well-thought-out manner.

In this sense, the Valley reflected the growth patterns of many other areas of the time, only perhaps more so. Through the media, its music and habits, the Valley became, as Kevin Roderick has put it, America's Suburb. The Valley seemed to exemplify everything we identify with the 50s and 60s epoch of community building—The Brady Bunch, auto-dominated retail centers, smog, and cheek-to-jowl communities spreading, often helter-skelter, over the landscape.

Whatever distaste this model may have for contemporary urbanists, it would be a mistake to see the Valley as an unalloyed disaster. For many newcomers—arriving from the crowded, transit-oriented cities of the Northeast and Midwest—the freedom, mobility and even the autonomy of Valley living was highly attractive.

Indeed, it is important to see that the Valley's evolution was not a complete failure by any means. In the end the Valley achieved some of what the Progressives sought— the creation of a largely decentralized middle-class community of homeowners—but at the same time failed to create the quality of environment suggested by the early visionaries. For all of its problems, the Valley, according to a recent Rose Institute survey, still provides a quality of life that most residents find comfortable, albeit with growing reservations.

British & French History The Treaty of Paris, 1783.