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Writing Reseda: Hillside versus flatland

San Fernando Valley in 1917 (Image from Wikimedia Commons)

Here’s the first thing you should know about the San Fernando Valley: The Valley Girl from the “really good part of Encino” doesn’t represent all of us. In fact, there are parts of the Valley where she’s despised.

That’s because of the second thing you should know about the San Fernando Valley: Its communities are not alike, and they don’t always like each other. There is a clear divide between the hillside and flatland communities of the Valley. Flatland communities like Reseda, Van Nuys, and Canoga Park are older and are homes for the lower and middle class. Hillside communities like Chatsworth, Porter Ranch, and Granada Hills are newer and are homes for the middle and upper class. But the division is especially strong in the communities south of Ventura Boulevard: Woodland Hills, Tarzana, Sherman Oaks, and most especially Encino. That is where the wealthy and celebrities live.

The Valley’s geography makes this class division visible. Hillsiders look down on flatlanders with disdain (and often use the word flatlander as an insult). People from flatland communities look up at hillsiders with resentment. And in the middle are the movie theaters, restaurants, malls, and schools where the two uneasily interact.

Consider the most famous movie about Reseda, The Karate KidDaniel’s love interest is Ali Mills, a girl from Encino. In addition to her douchy Cobra Kai ex-boyfriend, Daniel also has to contend with being a poor boy from the wrong side of the 101 trying to win the affections of a wealthy, popular girl. The challenge isn’t only whether Daniel can crane kick his way to victory but whether he feels he’s good enough to be with the girl he desires.

And when we Resedans look towards the hillsides, we never feel good enough. In fact, some years ago, part of Reseda between Victory Boulevard and Topham Street was lopped off and given to Tarzana. The powers that be reasoned that property values and rents would rise if that section was associated with a hillside community instead of a flatland one.

Even though the community I live in today would be Orange County’s equivalent of Chatsworth or Granada Hills, I still have that same awareness of class division I did when I lived in Reseda.

That’s why I tend to write about underdogs, those who the system puts at a disadvantage. Professional women whose skills aren’t enough to get respect from male bosses and colleagues. (Just look at Google.) A girl orphaned by war, and her country that finds itself a pawn of superpowers. Even a rich kid who becomes homeless and his father whose professional success can’t overcome years of childhood tragedy and abuse.

They struggle against those who have wealth and power — with doubts about whether they truly deserve them. Some are revealed as frauds. Some as weaklings. Some when confronted by the underdog’s moral courage are forced to back off. And when the underdogs don’t defeat their wealthy, powerful foes, they still score moral victories for themselves by preserving their principles and self-respect.

It doesn’t surprise me that Resedans today are standing up for the underdog and speaking truth to power.

But moral courage isn’t enough to protect us from physical danger — and tragedy. In the next installment, I’ll talk about horrible events that took place in Reseda that had a profound effect on me and my writing.

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  1. Writing Reseda: Introduction | Matthew Arnold Stern