I've lived in two of the country's most ridiculed locales. I was born in New Jersey, the punch line of stand-up comics everywhere. Adding insult to injury, my family moved to the San Fernando Valley in the early '70s. At that time, the Valley was perceived as the end of the earth -- a place you'd need a passport to visit, should you actually want to. Over time, the remaining farmland and orchards gave way to more strip malls and housing tracts, while the Valley retained its reputation as a place where nothing worthwhile happens.
Things change. I now live on the Westside. Hoboken is considered hip. And the San Fernando Valley, well, it's begun to resemble the Westside in ways both positive and negative.
Of course, the Valley is not monolithic. Thirty-one communities make up the San Fernando Valley, including four independent cities. Chatsworth differs from Burbank, which differs from Tarzana. Nevertheless, if taken by itself, the Valley today would be among the six largest cities in the nation, according to Joel Kotkin of the Davenport Institute at Pepperdine University's School of Public Policy. One-third of Los Angeles' population, or more than 1.7 million people, reside in the Valley. Within the United States, the Valley is home to the largest number of aerospace firms, the third largest number of entertainment firms and the fifth largest number of manufacturing firms.
Many Valley residents moved there more out of necessity than choice. When newlyweds Lauren and Eric Rothman decided to look for a house in 2002, they started their search on the Westside.
"We're both absolute city people," Lauren said, "but reality set in quickly."
The Rothmans could not afford the steep Westside prices, and turned, reluctantly, to the Valley. Eric, who'd lived mostly near the beach since moving to California in 1990, admits that, like many Westsiders, his view of the Valley was: "It's hot. It's far from the action. Who'd want to be in the Valley?"
Eventually, the couple found a three-bedroom home in Sherman Oaks.
"While it wasn't inexpensive, it was affordable for us and the same house in West L.A. wouldn't have been possible," Lauren said.
A funny thing happened soon after the Rothmans moved to the Valley: They discovered they liked it.
"Both of us adapted easily," said Lauren, noting that the couple enjoyed the proliferation of restaurants, movie theaters and retail establishments, a Jewish-feeling environment and a more suburban lifestyle.
Many Jewish couples looking to start a family, and those whose families are growing, have increasingly turned to the Valley for more affordable, more spacious housing. And they're not looking back.
"I'm seeing a lot of people coming to the Valley from Beverlywood, West Los Angeles and Westwood. A lot of them come here for the schools," says Michelle Cohan, a realtor with RE/MAX Grand Central in Tarzana, who also noted that the average price per square foot in the Valley is much lower than on the Westside. "You get a lot more land and a lot more house."
"There's no longer just one [Jewish] community in the Valley. There is a strong Jewish presence all along the 101 corridor from the 134 all the way to the Camarillo grade and beyond," added David Cohan, Michelle's husband and real estate partner.
The Valley is home to such Jewish community heavyweights as the Eretz-SIAMAK Cultural Center, Jewish Home for the Aging and the annual Israel Independance Day Festival. It boasts more than 10 day schools and more than 50 synagogues. Kosher butchers, bakeries and restaurants, once scarce, are increasingly noticeable.
According to Carol Koransky, executive director of the Jewish Federation/Valley Alliance, 50 percent of Los Angeles' Jews live within territory served by the Valley Alliance, which also includes the Conejo, Simi, Santa Clarita and Antelope valleys.
"The Valley has become more central," she said. "And there are multiple centers of Jewish life in the Valley itself," she adds.
At the Bernard Milken Jewish Community Campus in West Hills, Federation agencies such as Jewish Family Service, Jewish Vocational Service and Vista Del Mar share space with the New JCC at Milken and the New Jewish Community High School. Everyone from preschoolers to seniors interact in the modern, airy facility, which serves 1,200 people weekly.
It's a major contrast from The Federation's Wilshire high-rise office complex, which does not promote the same kind of community feel, says David Cohan, who serves on the board of the Valley Alliance and co-chaired the Valley's Super Sunday this year. At the same time, Cohan sees The Federation as "Westside-driven. The leadership doesn't recognize the demographic changes that have occurred ... and isn't as responsive to Valley concerns as I'd like them to be."
"There have clearly been attempts to acknowledge the change and the growth in the Valley, and there clearly have been feelings that it could have happened more rapidly," Koransky said. "Those discussions were held and there were changes made. As we continue to grow, we will continue to be able to get the kinds of things that we feel need to be done here."
Like the Rothmans, Bernard May also migrated from the Westside to the Valley. May, his wife, Vanessa, and their two children moved from their 1,400-square-foot home in West Los Angeles to a 2,800-square-foot home in Calabasas three years ago.
"Like everyone else, I thought of the Valley as a place I'd seldom go to -- it was too suburban and not particularly exciting," says May, who is from South Africa and has lived in London and New York. "But we wanted a better quality of life --better schools, less congestion and a slower pace."
May says the family loves its new community. Both the children's public school and the family's synagogue are within walking distance. Despite taking on a commute of about an hour, May says, "Every time we go back to the Westside, we wonder why we didn't move to the Valley earlier."
And while its suburban features tend to attract families, the Valley is shedding some of its reputation as a wasteland for hipsters. As a Los Angeles Times Calendar Weekend cover story noted, "An eclectic group of new clubs -- from high style to funny -- have surfaced among the Wienerschnitzels and lamp stores."
When Mona Jacobson moved as a single woman to Los Angeles from Vermont six years ago, she wanted to live in the Pico-Robertson area, but found the rents too high.
"I got so much more in the Valley than I would have on the Westside," she said. "I lived in a great area in Studio City."
Although living in the Valley wasn't always conducive to dating ("I wasn't averse to dating guys from the city or the South Bay, but I found sometimes they were averse to going out with me," she said), Jacobson chose to purchase a condo in Valley Village two years ago.
"You go out on Shabbat and you see people walking to shul," she said. "It gives that Pico-Robertson feel in smaller terms."
And despite her Valley address, she met a nice Jewish guy from Torrance. They married last year.
For Sharon Barkan, the community of Israelis made the Valley attractive. Barkan moved to Los Angeles from Israel two years ago. Initially living in Beverly Hills, Barkan says she was proud of her address, but felt isolated. She'd thought of people in the Valley as arsim [sleazy], but soon realized all of her friends, as well as her students and their parents "who were very nice and very normal, chose the Valley for smart reasons."
Once she moved into a tiny studio in Van Nuys, Barkan said, "It was like my life started." She doesn't need to leave the Valley for coffee houses, restaurants and stores frequented by Israelis. There's even a Hebrew library and Israeli films.
"You can do whatever you want for less money, with less stress," she said.
When it comes to Valley life, realtor David Cohan sums it up this way: "There's no question that the weather is preferable on the Westside, but for livability, the Valley is clearly attractive."
That's right folks. My former home, land of the "Valley Girl," "Boogie Nights" and scorching temperatures, is now highly sought out. But here's the irony: transplanted Westsiders might eventually find the Valley taking on the very qualities they sought to escape.
Prices, once affordable, have risen dramatically.
"It's hard to get anything under $400,000, and that doesn't buy you much," says realtor Michelle Cohan.
In May of 2003, the median price for homes sold in the Valley was $330,000. By May of this year, that number jumped to $430,000. Median home prices such as $850,000 in Studio City and $795,000 in Tarzana rival some Westside communities.
"Thirty-five years ago ... the Valley was a suburb -- a bedroom community," said James Allen, professor of geography at California State University Northridge. He says the Valley is no longer comprised of "just pools, barbecues and single-family houses. Now it's become highly urbanized so that it's just about equivalent of a Westside area."
Transformation of the Valley's demographic landscape is one sign of this phenomenon. The Valley's population is less than 50 percent white, and one-third of its residents are foreign born.
The appearance of more restaurants, theaters and retail establishments has been accompanied by increases in traffic, congestion and development. Ninety percent of residents surveyed last year for the Economic Alliance of the San Fernando Valley indicated that traffic was getting worse. (Commuters may get some relief when construction of the MTA's Orange Line, a 14-mile busway connecting Warner Center in Woodland Hills to the North Hollywood Metro Rail Station, is completed.) Air quality is worse in the Valley, which has higher ozone pollution levels than the westside.
Further, CSUN's San Fernando Valley Economic Report notes a lack of significant open spaces for new single-family developments, so construction of multiple-family units -- and a tight housing market -- are likely future trends.
The Rothmans, who moved to Sherman Oaks two years ago, now want an even more "suburban" experience. The couple recently had a second child, and are feeling squeezed in their 1,600-square-foot home.
"I want cul-de-sacs and a safe place for my kids to ride bikes and go to public schools," Eric said.
The couple eventually plans to look in such areas as Woodland Hills, Agoura or Simi Valley.
Many couples have already made that move. The Federation's Koransky notes that Woodland Hills is no longer the outer limits of Los Angeles' Jewish community. The same qualities that drew Jews to the Valley are attracting them to the Conejo, Santa Clarita and Simi valleys in droves.
Despite any potential downfalls to living in the Valley, hearing so many residents extol its virtues made me wonder about returning there some day. My husband says, "No way."
I'm sure that has nothing to do with the fact that my parents still live there.