Roman Polanski’s “Chinatown” remains perhaps the quintessential neo-noir. Set in the 1930s, the movie depicts Los Angeles and its surrounding suburbs awash in property disputes, farmer unrest, and water battles, overseen by a shadowy municipal structure that appears rotten from corruption. The movie’s fictionalization of early California’s land use fights and water disputes remind viewers of the geographical and economic diversity of Los Angeles County.
Urban, suburban, and rural all at once, today’s suburban icons — Orange County and San Fernando Valley — remained largely rural in these early decades, and though envisioned as predominantly white enclaves, each displayed greater human diversity within its boundaries than popular culture often gives them credit. Yet ironically, as California scholar and Yale University American Studies Professor Laura R. Barraclough argues in her book “Making San Fernando Valley,” without Japanese and Mexican American labor, the Valley’s image of whiteness would not have been possible. “[I]n both the central districts of Los Angeles and the suburban farming districts of the San Gabriel and San Fernando Valleys, Asian American and Mexican American laborers were the engine of economic growth,” points out Barraclough. 1
In 1960, 90 percent of San Fernando Valley residents were white; yet, stretching back to the turn of the century, pockets of minority populations existed and served as central factors in the Valley’s then largely agricultural economy. In contrast to Northern California, where wheat emerged as the dominant crop, and the central portions of the state, where livestock husbandry dominated the economy, Southern California’s agricultural economy depended on labor-intensive products — olives, vineyards, and citrus. “[A] veritable sea of citrus groves orange, lemon and grapefruit … ran from the interior counties of Riverside and San Bernardino into Los Angeles, heading for the coast,” notes historian Kevin Starr, resulting in “an aesthetic reshaping of the landscape” as the “intensive farmer, educated, middle class, capable of making a living on forty acres” came to embody husbandry in San Fernando and Imperial Valley. 2While the idea of the white farmer proliferated in the Valley and elsewhere in the Southland, so too did minority populations that proved essential in the construction of the Valley’s economy and agricultural ideal. 3
The combination of corporate agriculture and the idea of the “gentleman farmer” — the small scale “suburban farmer” — created a need for field labor. Earlier, the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882 had resulted in a labor void, which was subsequently filled by Japanese workers. As of 1905 only 23 Japanese immigrants resided in the Valley, but over three hundred lived in nearby Tropico (Glendale). By the 1930s, small concentrations of Japanese and Japanese American workers and farmers settled in the Valley, numbering 3,177 on the eve of internment. This reshaping of the landscape with middle class white farmers also included Mexican laborers, who found their way to the Valley in the 1920s and 30s, working in the citrus orchards and fields. By the 1930s, 1,500 Mexicans lived in the Valley; Pacoima and San Fernando served as the de facto “minority district,” where large agricultural interests and “gentlemen farmers” provided employment. 4
From the late nineteenth century to the end of the 1920s, Los Angeles boosters and real estate interests pushed the idea of the “gentleman farmer” as a critical factor in local economies, settlement, and citizenship. Los Angeles leaders believed that they had cracked the urban planning code by creating a new type of city with a unique brand of urbanism. “Planned decentralization, featuring low density and semirural landscapes, was a major element of this land use vision,” points out Barraclough. Developers, builders, and city planners promoted an ideal of urban expansion that conceptualized Los Angeles as “a patchwork quilt of relatively independent decentralized communities complete with industry, commerce, and home lots, as well as social and cultural activities.” 5
What Barraclough labels “rural urbanism” took form across L.A. County, and partially as a result of such built environments, “rugged individualism” and “semi-rural existence” came to define large swaths of San Fernando Valley. Jeffersonian ideals of political freedom and economic independence were embedded in the gentleman farmer image, as “Cultivators of the earth are the most virtuous and independent citizens,” Thomas Jefferson wrote in his late eighteenth century work, “Notes on the State of Virginia.” 6 Jefferson’s ideas regarding a nation of independent white farmers, free from the coercion of industry and other exploitative businesses, undergirded the city’s embrace of gentlemen farming.
The move toward gentlemen farming related not only to the kind of decentralized small plot division of the land that would make future suburbanization possible and profitable, but also aimed at blunting labor organization and integration. L.A. boosters embraced this vision of the Southland, arguing that property ownership in the form of suburban farms would undermine unionization and encourage individualism. Moreover, as Matt Garcia suggests, agriculture carried with it connotations of scientific and cultural progress. “[T]he agricultural settlement was universally recognized as the line separating civilization from savagery — the domestication of the ‘Wild West’ and the creation of a ‘civilized’ and ‘productive’ society.” 7 In this way, the ideal of the gentleman farmer advocated for independence, racial separation, and anti-radicalism, particularly in opposition to unionization. 8
Of course, the gentleman farmer proved much like the image of Los Angeles as the nation’s “White Spot” — not quite what it appeared. The independence that proponents celebrated still depended heavily on the city’s “willingness and ability to provide adequate infrastructure,” particularly in regard to irrigation. The Valley’s largest landowners, the Los Angeles Suburban Homes Corporation (LASC), partnered with the L.A. Times to initiate a ballot proposal that would build a gigantic aqueduct from Owens Valley to San Fernando Valley. Municipal bonds promised to pay for the construction, enabling the LASC and L.A. Times to subdivide the irrigated land for sale, bringing in substantial profits. 9 The general public easily approved the initiative, though the division of lands had been kept secret from voters.
Gentlemen farmers purchased many of these new plots. In other cases, agricultural colonies emerged, such as the Little Landers colony in Tujunga (1913) or the Weeks Poultry Colony in Owensmouth (Winnetka today, established in 1922). Colonies gave white farmers a better chance at self-sufficiency, since members could pool resources in the early years of starting out, particularly as citrus agriculture requires trees to come to maturity.
Weeks Poultry founder, Charles Weeks, believed the county’s rural areas to be a corrective force. After living for a spell in an L.A. apartment, Weeks argued for the virtues of rural urbanism. “Pending the time of building our home we had been stopping at a flat in the city where the foul air, noise and grind, and lack of freedom has left an effect no words can describe,” wrote Weeks, sounding like dozens of other Progressive reformers of the period. “Perhaps this short imprisonment in a city flat was ordained that we might be more able to appreciate the wonderful peace and freedom of our own little garden home and thus have the owner to contrast more clearly the great difference between the artificial, restless, unsatisfying city life with the of the quiet peaceful, healthful life of the country.” 10
For Weeks and other like minded people, San Fernando Valley provided access to all the amenities of urban life without the “dense and noxious land use patterns of the city” and the racial, class, and political diversity that marked life in urban Los Angeles. Rationally, scientifically planned rural communities proximate to L.A. would ensure that Anglo-Saxon culture and America’s “political experiment could be revived and recuperated.”
Despite obvious government intervention, many Valley residents continued to see themselves as independent and self-made. The idea that residents hacked it out for themselves relates to late twentieth century rhetoric espoused by some Valley secessionists that suggested SFV existed as a “tax colony” of Los Angeles, ignoring the numerous ways the city enabled and facilitated the suburb’s growth. 11 The kind of laissez-faire competitive, free market that Jefferson advocated, could only be possibly applied to one group — white males — as racism, sexism, and segregation meant that few non-whites would be able to truly compete with their Anglo counterparts.
Of course, despite the discrimination, Japanese and Latino American laborers also made a go at it. Japanese and Japanese American farmers flourished, amazingly, even in the face of pernicious Alien Land Laws that prevented Asians from owning property. These farmers demonstrated the “Jeffersonian idea of the self subsistent family farm, to such a degree in fact, that they were exciting the envy of many whites.” 12
Agricultural Bureau of the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce, Ross Gast, advised white farmers to not abandon the profitable “bunch vegetables” because of the hard work required and the dominance of the Japanese. Gast even told white farmers to adopt various Japanese methods to improve production and efficiency. Media outlets like the L.A. Times encouraged consumers to buy from white American gentleman farmers rather than their Asian/Asian American competition. “In the first place, the new growers [gentlemen farmers] are Americans, and in their activities they are building up the start of a new vegetable and berry producing industry for Americans … They are demonstrating that they can raise vegetables and berries with profit on comparatively high priced land just as orientals have been doing.” 13
Unfortunately, agribusiness’ dominance and perversion of the market created resentment. Sunkist and others monopolized land and business, making gentlemen farming difficult if not impossible. Even cooperative efforts like the Weeks colony would all eventually falter, if not before, then during the Great Depression. 14 Regrettably many white gentlemen farmers largely directed their anger and frustration toward minorities, particularly Japanese and Japanese American farmers.
Pockets of worker camps were located in close proximity to agribusiness and gentlemen farms throughout the region, but two neighborhoods in particular housed the most minority workers: the aforementioned San Fernando and Pacoima. These two neighborhoods featured a multiracial population made up largely of Japanese and Mexican workers, with a smattering of African American residents. Civil society grew alongside these communities. For example, in 1924, the San Fernando Valley Japanese Language Institute opened in Pacoima, serving Nisei children of farmers and flower growers. The San Fernando Nippons, a Japanese American baseball team, barnstormed across the state, and Mexican American teams like El Paso Shoe Store Zapateros, the Oxnard Aces, La Habra Juveniles, Carta Blanca Cerveceros, played against their Valley rivals, Japanese and Mexican American alike, at parks across Southern California. Segregation in this period really only meant dividing whites from minorities; state and social custom did much less to prevent Asian, Latino, black, and Native Americans from interacting.
Though living in the same community and under segregation, the San Fernando Valley economy remained racially segmented. All non-whites experienced discrimination but the means and severity depended on each group. Over time, through decades of manipulation, restriction, and violence, a racial hierarchy of labor developed. “White absentee ownership, leases to Japanese immigrant tenant farmers, and Mexican manual laborers,” notes Barraclough “defined the racial and labor realities of gentlemen farming in the San Fernando Valley.” 15
Yet, as both Barraclough and Matt Garcia ask, if gentlemen farming was meant to restore virtue and independence to Anglos, what did it mean that immigrant and migrant labor did all the work? In the worldview of men like Charles Weeks, did the sweat from the “unvirtuous” Japanese, Mexican, and other immigrant workers, paradoxically demonstrate white virtue? State, booster, and civic investment in the Valley’s Anglo American gentlemen farmers created a sense of entitlement, “Although individual gentlemen farmers did not experience the ideals of rural urbanism in quite the way the boosters promoted, their expectations was that they should be able to do so,” argues Barraclough. “Gentlemen farming thus cultivated a collective sense of entitlement of among whites to live a rural lifestyle with the urban state’s subsidy and protection, with few strings attached, that remains meaningful to this day.” 16
Economic circumstance and political persecution eventually subverted the efforts of the Valley’s minorities. During the Depression in the 1930s, Mexican American laborers struggled. A 1938 L.A. County Relief Association survey of 188 Mexican families in San Fernando Valley discovered families, six people deep on average, heavily dependent on government agencies, particularly as wages failed to support households. The United States Senate reported in 1939 that growers paid citrus workers too little: 30 to 35 cents an hour for an annual income of $423. Such wages, the Senate admitted, would never enable families to enjoy a “fair standard of living.” 17 As a result, a labor movement developed in the Valley. The Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) tried to organize workers at the San Fernando Lemon Association and the San Fernando Heights Lemon Association’s packing plants, but these efforts foundered and many strikers were prohibited from returning to their jobs after the labor impasse. The national policy of repatriation and Mexico’s proximity surely induced many to vacate the Valley.
In contrast, the Valley’s Japanese Americans faced internment. San Fernando Valley’s semi-rural landscape provided the setting for their imprisonment, as U.S. officials rounded up the Valley’s Japanese and Japanese American populations at La Tuna Canyon in the east Valley, where California Conservation Corps camps held internees until they could be sent to permanent camps throughout the West. Needless to say, internment kneecapped Japanese American efforts at social mobility and economic advancement.
By the 1950s, the Valley had emerged as the “open range of ranch housing,” perhaps one of the most iconic symbols of postwar suburbanization. 18 However, the growth of Valley suburbs and the ideal of semi-rural living fostered not only the region’s physical layout but also its general ethos: part of the city, but not of it. Residents wanted access to city life, but distance from it as well. By the 1970s, racially tinged secession movements emerged, arguing for the Valley’s independence, particularly as L.A.’s population turned darker and browner and urban unrest became more common. Yet, the very whiteness embodied by Valley suburbanization had been built by the minorities that now seemed so threatening to residents. Ironically, by 2002 it would be SFV’s burgeoning Latino population that would prove a critical supporter in secession movements, but not for the same reasons as their white counterparts. 19 The complexity of Southern California continues; the Valley paradox persists.
1 Laura R. Barraclough, Making the San Fernando Valley: Rural Landscapes, Urban Development, and White Privilege, (Atlanta: University of Georgia, 2011), 50.
2 Kevin Starr, California: A History, (New York: The Modern Library, 2005), 150-151.
3 Ibid, 51.
4 Ibid, 53-54.
5 Ibid, 27-28.
6 Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia, (New York: Penguin Classics, 1998.)
7 Matt Garcia in Barraclough, Making San Fernando Valley, 29
8 Barraclough, Making San Fernando Valley, 28-29.
9 Ibid, 35.
10 Ibid, 45.
11 Mike Davis, City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles, (New York: Verso, 1990), 181.
12 Ibid, 52.
13 Ibid, 53.
14 Barraclough, Making San Fernando Valley, 50.
15 Ibid, 54.
16 Ibid, 60.
17 Ibid, 57.
18 John Mack Faragher, “Bungalow and Ranch House: The Architectural Backwash of California”, Western Historical Quarterly, 32 No. 2 (Summer 2001) 170.
19 Michan Andrew Connor, “These Communities Have the Most to Gain from Valley Cityhood”: Color-Blind Rhetoric of Urban Secession in Los Angeles, 1996-2002,” Journal of Urban History 40 No. 1, (January 2014), 48-64.
This article originally appeared under the Intersections column at KCET Departures in June 2014.