Thursday, February 7, 2008

Winnetka, not Illinois

This little suburb of Los Angeles, called Winnetka, is a rather tiny rectangle carved out of the San Fernando Valley. I've been told it has a hundred thousand people in it, which seems a bit high, given that the area is predominately single-family dwellings with a few apartment complexes along the major roads. (Correction: Recent census indicates 50,000. I may have gotten the 100,000 number from an over-zealous chamber-of-commerce estimate.)

It was named in the '60s by the same guy who named Winnetka, Illinois. That area of Illinois is vastly tonier, however. Winnetka, CA is a working class neighborhood filled with what Real Estate agents euphemistically call "starter homes". (For a while there, these "starter homes" were going for a half-million or more, mind you, but I expect that to crash down to the low 200s--or even mid-to-high 100s--in the coming years, as has always happened in the past with real estate price spikes in L.A.)

Other than its name, there is absolutely nothing remarkable about this place. You could easily drive through it without knowing you had done so, and in a fairly short time. Its remarkable characteristics--Caucasian minority, a lot of swimming pools, a scattering of houses on larger properties that are from the days (not too long ago) when the whole area was orange groves--are pretty usual for the San Fernando Valley or even Los Angeles at large. A good many people who live or work in the city have never heard of it.

I do my shopping in Chatsworth or Encino, go to the movies in West Hills, go shooting in Reseda, my dojo was out in Granada Hills, I went to high school in Van Nuys and Canoga Park and College in Northridge, Woodland Hills and Westwood, and I've worked in Burbank, Hollywood, Culver City, Santa Monica and a bunch of other places. I've never worked in Winnetka (unless I was working from home), and this latest house is the first time I've actually lived here. I can't even think of a restaurant I frequent that's actually in Winnetka.

The division of Los Angeles, Orange and parts of San Bernardino into counties, cities and neighborhoods has always seemed particularly arbitrary. There is, essentially, an unbroken sea of developed area from the San Fernando Valley in the north to Pomona and points eastward, down past Long Beach in the south. (The Pacific Ocean being the primary barrier to the west.)

There are differences between actual cities, of course. Santa Monica is very left-leaning and is governed accordingly. It's one of our more third-world-ish areas, with more homeless people than I've seen anywhere else, wandering in-and-out of multi-million dollar real estate areas. Burbank has more lenient tax laws and is where the bulk of the media companies are (more so than Hollywood). West Hollywood and Beverly Hills are their own cities, like an island huddled in a sea of Los Angeles. Yet it's easy to pass between these strange municipalities and the surrounding areas completely unaware that you have done so.

The neighborhoods of L.A. city proper, while less well-defined than the boroughs of New York seem to be, do have different flavors. The west side is very rich--very rich, as is Bel-Air. Westwood is a college town. The San Fernando Valley has traditionally leaned conservative (and tried for independence a couple of times), though I believe it grows less so over time.

Even the Valley has its sub-areas. The Ventura corridor is fairly tony, with people who aren't quite rich enough to live over the hill, or who prefer less congestion. The Hispanic population--starting from around 100% a few hundred years ago--has slowly been encroached on by white people reluctantly spilling out from the city. A black person couldn't rent an apartment or buy a home here in the early '60s, until various laws made it illegal to discriminate.

There is no ethnic majority here now, with Hispanics and non-Hispanic whites in about equal numbers. Our black population is still low, and we still have a few neighborhoods that are fairly segregated, but this is more economics than anything. Living in Winnetka (where three out of four people aren't non-Hispanic whites), I was taken aback at a recent basketball game which featured a team populated by blond-blue-eyed kids. Where'd all the white people come from? I wondered. Turns out they came from neighboring, wealthier Chatsworth (which abuts Winnetka on the northwest) where only about 15% are Hispanic.

A cynical person might suggest that the promulgation of neighborhoods here is simply realtor maneuvering to create neighborhoods that will tack $10,000 on to the price of a house. A cynical person or one who had observed that the latest neighborhoods (West Hills and North Hills) are predominately white non-Hispanic, carved out of areas (Canoga Park and Granada Hills) with much higher Hispanic populations.

There's no particular reason that this should happen here; that Winnetka should gain notoriety by being the first neighborhood to kill a SWAT team member. There were no homicides at all here in 2007. (I believe most homicides in Los Angeles are gang-related, and we have little of that here.)

No reason at all. And yet.

1 comment:

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