Los Angeles Eats Itself: “Infrastructure Noir” and the Revisionist History of the San Fernando Valley

illustration by Brianna Ashby

I’d avoid traveling back to Los Angeles if I could help it, but as a native, holidays and birthdays warrant an appearance. Should you find yourself in the same position, may I recommend booking your flight into Burbank—pardon, I mean Bob Hope—Airport. Bob Hope offers an increasingly rare experience at an American airport: deplaning on the tarmac just like a movie star, matched luggage, fumes and all.

To step off the plane in Los Angeles is to step through the looking glass. When Johnny Carson still manned the desk at the “Tonight Show,” Los Angeles was shorthand for “Beautiful Downtown Burbank.” The tourists arriving at Burbank every day must ask themselves: Where are the mansions, the glistening pools, the mile-long Rolls-Royces? What is this flatland, densely populated by Korean donut shops and low-slung economy apartments?

Capital-H-Hollywood has been rewriting its history since the Wilson administration; hell, even the idea of pictures made in “Hollywood” is a misnomer. The first “movie towns” were little more than caravans of flatbed trucks and pop-up tents, renting their locations from orange farmers in present-day Studio City. That unassuming sprawl before you is the Man Behind the Curtain, the realest iteration of “Hollywood”: the San Fernando Valley, with a history as malleable as the primordial silt of the Arroyo Calabasas.

After a century of retelling the Greatest Stories Ever Told™, how does Hollywood recall its own humble origins? You may be surprised to learn what makes the final cut.

“Los Angeles is a desert community,” warns Sam Bagby, the fake mayor in a fake story about a town that produces fakery. Fourteen minutes into Chinatown, Jake Gittes—a paint-by-numbers Private Dick—has trailed Hollis Mulwray—the DWP’s chief engineer—to a stifling midday council hearing. It’s 1937, and, as if the Depression weren’t enough (note the giant, ominous portrait of FDR in the courtroom), Los Angeles is in the middle of a drought. There’s hope in a new dam—the Arroyo Vallejo—with the promise of “shovel-ready” jobs and fresh water. Mulwray, a sort of overgrown boy genius, is the only one who can build it. He publicly refuses and, shortly thereafter, his battered corpse turns up in the L.A. Reservoir. From then on a cut-and-dry matrimony job expands, cancer-like, into a story of rape, corruption and collusion.

It’s a testament to Robert Towne and Roman Polanski that, forty years later, audiences are still mistaking Hollywood noir for gospel. Even I, to the Ranch House born, would flip the bird driving past a DWP building in my parents’ Prius. In grammar school, we had approximately one semester of “California studies” between Christopher Columbus and the Civil War. Sure, we were hip to the Missions and the Gold Rush, but what about the ground beneath our feet—or, more likely, beneath our favorite mall?

The story of the Valley, as told by Robert Towne, was an admixture of real, ecological betrayal and scandalous fictional politicking. In the 1937 of Chinatown, proud-but-poor shepherds and their citrus farming brethren are driven from their land and hastily bought out by Noah Cross, a Robber Baron of the old school. The unglamorous truth is that, by 1937, much of the San Fernando Valley had been purchased for a quite handsome price by the decades-old San Fernando Mission Land Co. Sure, a few old hands had held out as late as 1930, but none so dramatically as the poor schmucks in the film. The real story of how Los Angeles seemingly conjured up billions of gallons of drinking water is far more nefarious, but lacks that star quality, babe. Which film would you rather see? A glamorous epic about a tortured detective, a beautiful widow, her husband’s cruel murder, and a dirty land grab? Or an unsexy downer about an aqueduct, a dried-up lake, and a bunch of farmers from Flyover Country?

The source of L.A.’s water, the Owens Valley, is about 225 miles northeast from Los Angeles. For the last hundred years, it has provided my hometown with nearly 75% of its available water (that’s a lot of lawns!). Since 1924, it has also been ground zero for one of the longest-running feuds in California history. When the Los Angeles Aqueduct opened in 1913, the city was just beginning to stretch its limbs: cinema, aerospace, oil. These industries, then in infancy, were only a few years away from becoming economic bedrocks. Los Angeles’ power brokers couldn’t have done it without water, and they couldn’t have that water without stealing it from the people of the Owens Valley.

By the time Chinatown was written, it looked as though the “California Water Wars” would remain a historical footnote. Of course, no one counted on the Owens Valley to become a veritable pet cause among the Sierra Club set. After the completion of a second aqueduct in 1970, the Owens Valley Committee sued the second largest city in the country. After a few false starts, the Owens River was finally “re-watered” in 2008. By that point, the initiative was purely symbolic. After a century of resource theft, the agricultural economy of the Owens Valley—and its tenuous ecosystem—were beyond repair. Today, Owens Valley is better known for its proximity to Manzanar, the notorious WWII-era Japanese internment camp, than for its long-gone fecundity.

With a rapidly expanding city and a seemingly limitless water supply, Los Angeles attracted millions of new residents in the years after the Second World War. By 1947, its population exceeded 3.5 million.

Unfortunately, Census data doesn’t indicate what percentage of residents identified as “‘toons.” In the universe of Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, L.A.’s population is divided along metaphysical (as opposed to racial) lines. Robert Zemeckis’ live action-meets-golden-age-animation “neo-noir” was unleashed upon the world in 1988 (same as yours truly) as a seemingly innocuous family flick with a hardboiled plot just wacky enough to warrant a “hard” PG-rating.

Gumshoe Eddie Valiant is hired by oily studio executive R.K. Maroon to tail Jessica Rabbit, wife of Roger Rabbit, Maroon Studios’ biggest star. Valiant stakes out the Missus at her place of employ, the Ink and Paint Club—think the Copacabana by way of Tex Avery—where human sleazeballs go to ogle the cartoon staff. Valiant snaps a few salacious photos of busty Jessica playing “patty-cake” with Marvin Acme, the owner of Toontown and owner of the ACME gags fortune. A sign at the entrance (guarded by a baritone-voiced gorilla, no less) reads “HUMANS ONLY, NO TOONS.” The implication is clear: the ‘toons of Toontown know their place, and living to entertain mankind is their highest ambition. The next morning, Marvin Acme is a stiff and Roger Rabbit, cuckolded and hysterical, is the number one suspect.

Why would anyone want to frame America’s ‘toon heartthrob for the gruesome murder of a prominent human? Like any great film noir, all is revealed: Marvin Acme’s Toontown—a technicolor ghetto—is primed to be replaced by a freeway. Who Framed Roger Rabbit?shares a common—if apocryphal—history with its cinematic predecessor. Originally conceived as a triptych, writer Robert Towne had planned two sequels to Chinatown, each centered around the large-scale corruption of a city utility. The first, The Two Jakes, was such a notorious flop that it effectively eliminated any interest in the saga’s final installation: a fictionalized account of the dismantling of Los Angeles’ Pacific Electric Railway trolley system, and its subsequent replacement with the I–110, L.A.’s first freeway.

Fortunately, Roger Rabbit is a children’s movie, where good ultimately trumps evil and Toontown is returned to its rightful owners, who are free to let their freak flags fly. Even the “Red Car,” L.A.’s original public transportation system, is spared. The Los Angeles of “Roger Rabbit” is reborn, free of the Robert Moses-ing that turned so many of America’s thriving “urban villages” into sprawling car parks. And we, the audience, are left pining for what could have been: a movie-making paradise free of eminent domain-shrouded bigotry and gasoline dependence.

Growing up in Los Angeles, pile-ups and sig alerts occupied my earliest memories. I vividly recall squirming in the backseat while my parents scanned the radio for traffic reports. My sister and I would get antsy, and my dad would distract us by pointing out—nearly every time—that we were idling on the Roger Rabbit freeway. Interstate 10, as it is known, was built over three decades with the express purpose of connecting Downtown L.A. with Santa Monica. The years leading up to its completion, in 1965, were turbulent ones, fraught with protests from local church groups and community organizations. Noise, pollution, the surgical splitting of schoolyards and neighborhood blocks—just a small price to pay for the convenience of careening across town on five concrete lanes.

By mid-century, San Fernando Valley residents were no longer isolated from the big-city bustle of Los Angeles Proper. The transition from rural outpost to squeaky-clean bedroom community was complete: there was water enough for countless lawns, and a freshly-paved path from your doorstep to the office. Property values continued to grow as Angelenos, wary of “inner-city life,” vaulted themselves over the Hollywood Hills and into a little patch of paradise.

By the time I’d arrived on the scene, in the late 1980s, the Valley had morphed from a ticky-tacky collection of subdivisions into something all together bland—strip mall after strip mall, each with its own combination of nail salon/donut shop/7–11. School-sanctioned tales of Spanish Alta California and the ghee-whiz boom of the late 1940s held no appeal. I plugged my ears at the truth, preferring instead a history born on the backlot at Paramount. By now, I’m sure I’ve seenChinatown and Roger Rabbit a hundred times apiece. For years I conflated their plotlines with historical fact, despite knowing in my hearts they were purely fictional. The annexation of the San Fernando Valley was a pyrrhic victory—not the bitter, brilliant ending of Chinatown, or Roger Rabbit’s utopian alternate universe. Decades of bureaucratic collusion and mendacity, of unholy unions between private interests and public initiatives: this is our story. Thankfully, Hollywood’s insatiable desire to rewrite its own history provides Angelenos and filmgoers alike with a far more exciting alternative.