The Utopia of the Nuclear Family
The L.A. suburbs that built America’s hard and soft power are filling up with ex-Soviet immigrants. Who won the Cold War anyway?
That Southern California now has its own far-flung diaspora first came to my notice during baseball’s 2020 World Series. For Covid reasons, the Los Angeles Dodgers played the Tampa Bay Rays in a neutral ballpark in the Dallas-Fort Worth suburbs. Traditionally, Californians are not hugely popular among Texans, yet the DFW metroplex fans boisterously rooted L.A. on to the title, suggesting that North Texas is filling up with former Angelenos still loyal to at least one remnant of their past lives, the Dodgers. Californians, past and present, have much to complain about regarding most Golden State institutions, but less so with the Los Angeles Dodgers, winners of at least 100 games in five of their last six full seasons.
Granted, you don’t hear many cheers for the Dodgers from displaced Angelenos when the ballclub is on the road in, say, Milwaukee. But you do in more plausible locations for Southern Californians to exile themselves to.
Much has been written about the exodus from California during this decade. Californians have fled for reasons such as high home prices, intrusive regulations on business and private life (for example, the ban on plastic straws), sclerotic infrastructure (for instance, since 2007 Los Angeles’ Department of Water and Power has been indolently replicating the water main past my house that was originally built in 15 months by William Mulholland of Chinatown legend using pickaxes and mules), stringent mask rules, an unexpected surge of looting by masked bandits, and weak public education.
And yet, the population of Los Angeles County, the city of Los Angeles, and the section I know best, my native San Fernando Valley, have all remained flat since the 2010 Census. So if huge numbers of Southern Californians resident for long enough to become Dodger fans are moving out, who is moving in?
The answer of course is immigrants, typically from countries where, by comparison to the motherlands they helped construct, Los Angeles still looks like paradise. But which immigrants? The hordes flooding across the southern border?
Surprisingly, in the suburban San Fernando Valley in the northwest corner of the city of Los Angeles, immigration has largely taken a different turn. Of the many unexpected developments of the demographic diversification of America, perhaps the oddest has been one so outside our vocabulary that it’s hard to even notice it happening.
It had long seemed inevitable that Los Angeles’ famously white bread suburb, the vast San Fernando Valley, the site of so many Brady Bunch–style sitcoms a half-century ago, would eventually be inundated by Latino immigrants.
But that has slowed. After decades of rapid increase, the Hispanic share of the Valley’s 1.8 million residents only grew from 40 percent to 42 percent from 2010 to 2020. Increasingly, Latinos are losing out in the struggle for the Valley’s expensive turf with immigrants who are officially classified as white.
These newcomers lack any official term with which to conceptually lump them together, but they tend to overlap. I call them the Peoples of the Three Defunct Empires: Persian, Ottoman, and Soviet. In a sour mood, I refer to them as Men with Gold Chains.
Note that almost none of the strangers are fundamentalist Muslims dressing their womenfolk in chadors: Those obsessed with female modesty know enough to stay away from Los Angeles.
The main nationalities are Armenians; Persians (many of them Jewish); Russians (many of them partly Jewish); Israelis (many of them less Jewish than you’d expect); Russian-Israelis who were Jewish enough to be invited to Israel by Ariel Sharon to vote for him, but who find Bibi Netanyahu’s Israel increasingly too Jewish for their tastes when they can bounce to the similar climate of California; Ukrainians; Turks; Copts; Maronites; Tajiks, and so forth. Many are descended from prosperous mercantile minorities of the old empires and can easily economically outcompete Mexicans for houses in the pricey Valley. But others are here for their beauty or bravery, such as the Slavic blondes on the fringes of the entertainment industry and the Russian flatheads who provide security to ex-Soviet oligarchs in Bel-Air.
When Vladimir Putin’s espionage operation to bribe Ukrainian officials into turning over their country to the Kremlin failed in February 2022, I had to wonder how much of Putin’s budget had been diverted into infinity pools in the Hollywood Hills, both by Russia’s corrupt spymasters and by Ukrainian politicians who’d proved even more unethical than Putin had hoped and simply pocketed his largesse.
A curious postscript to the Cold War is that ex-Soviets are pouring into places like the east Valley’s Burbank, once home to both Lockheed Aircraft (where my father worked from the 1930s to the 1980s) and studios such as Disney, Warner Brothers, and NBC. Burbank was a major arsenal of American military and cultural power. The Soviets focused intently on the Lockheed Skunk Works, navigating spy satellites overhead, stationing an electronic warfare ship disguised as a fishing trawler out by Catalina Island, and targeting nuclear ICBMs on what is now the Empire big box store mall next to the Burbank airport.
I grew up in the Valley next to Laurel Canyon Blvd., which serves as a synecdoche for the top American rock music of 1969. But to me Laurel Canyon was where my dad’s favorite Sears store was, and if I was, for once, nice to him, he might buy me a Hot Wheels.
There’s now a popular conspiracy theory, outlined in David McGowan’s 2014 book Weird Scenes Inside the Canyon: Laurel Canyon, Covert Ops & the Dark Heart of the Hippie Dream, that tries to link all the local scenes: American rock music was some sort of a CIA psy-op, as proven by how many of the notorious denizens of 1960s Laurel Canyon were scions of the military-industrial complex. For example, Jim Morrison of The Doors was the son of the admiral who commanded U.S. forces in the Gulf of Tonkin incident. Oddly enough, as I was pondering this conundrum last Sunday afternoon, I drove out to Calabasas at the west end of the San Fernando Valley, where, by happenstance, I heard out the car window an outdoor daytime concert by 77-year-old electric guitarist Robbie Krieger playing his classics like “Light My Fire” for elderly Doors fans who want to get to bed by 9 PM.
Or at least I think that was a coincidence, but maybe the CIA had arranged it for me? Then again, that kind of thing happened a lot in the Valley. For example, in 2009 I started considering Barack Obama’s many contacts growing up with the CIA and how I didn’t know anybody with CIA ties. Except, well, now that I thought about it, my mom’s best friend’s husband was the chief designer of the Mach 3 SR-71 spy plane for the CIA.
Basically, I concluded, both the Cold War and rock and roll were extremely well funded, so there was a lot of talent and even more opportunity.
To understand why the San Fernando Valley northwest of downtown Los Angeles is the way it is, it helps to understand its doppelganger northeast of DTLA: the San Gabriel Valley.
Los Angeles is a geographically odd coastal city in that it was founded not on the ocean (it lacked a harbor until it constructed the now vast artificial Los Angeles-Long Beach port), but at the one spot with year-round running water. Hence, city hall is 18 miles inland from the Santa Monica Pier.
In 1887, during Southern California’s first (but far from the last) real estate boom, affluent Midwesterners poured into Pasadena and even further east in the San Gabriel Valley. They wanted to stay away from the cool but damp coast and the threat of tuberculosis. Much as tech millionaires today want to own a Napa Valley vineyard, prosperous Iowans then aspired to be orange growers. Towns like Pasadena, Sierra Madre, utopian San Marino (developed by Gen. George S. Patton’s father), and Claremont became models of late Victorian Protestant small city planning, with famous amenities such as the Rose Bowl.
But then smog arrived in 1943. So the fashionable world largely forgot about the choked inland San Gabriel Valley. When smog vanished late in the 20th Century almost as suddenly as it had arrived, it was rediscovered that the San Gabriel Valley had superb old towns, but they were now increasingly Chinese dominated.
The San Fernando Valley, however, wasn’t ideal for oranges, so it developed less glamorous forms of farming after 1915 when William Mulholland delivered High Sierra water, in return for which the Valley was annexed by the city of Los Angeles.
That same year, just over the Cahuenga Pass from the Valley, the previously itinerant movie industry landed in Hollywood. Interest began to grow in the hinterland of the Valley as a site for Western movies, permanent studios, aircraft factories, and peaceful rural retreats from the big city.
But the San Fernando Valley developed on a different philosophy than the starchy WASP San Gabriel Valley, one modeled upon the needs of its world famous movie star residents for seclusion.
Instead of building a community as in Protestant Pasadena, the San Fernando Valley, with its greater ethnic diversity of Jews and Catholics, developed with the intention of remaining a bucolic privatopia with few public amenities.
In many ways, this turned out a massive success, as seen by how the Valley that emerged after World War II continues, due to its role in countless movies and TV shows, to haunt the dreams of the world as the utopia of the nuclear family, where everyone had their own house, two-car garage with a workbench for Dad, enclosed backyard, and, perhaps, their own swimming pool. Daughters had their own phone lines for talking endlessly to their friends, by means of which they collectively developed the notorious Valley Girl accent.
But the Valley, with the exception of its influential southern edge, wasn’t for the rich. I can recall running into Robert Downey Jr. a few times 20 years ago when he, briefly, tried life in the slow lane after his drug imprisonment. The more typical local celebrity, though, would be Stephen Tobolowsky, that insurance salesman in Groundhog Day.
The Valley offered a novel standard of living for the masses. The historian Kevin Starr defined the “California Dream” as “the highest possible life for the middle classes… a better place for ordinary people… family life in a sunny climate.” Benjamin Schwarz noted:
In 1959, wages paid in Los Angeles's working-class and solidly middle-class San Fernando Valley alone were higher than the total wages of 18 states.
But nobody thought too hard back then about how many people would eventually move to the Valley to enjoy this world famous lifestyle (current population: over 1.8 million, or 15 percent more than Philadelphia) or how much the land would be worth someday (in today’s soft market, the Valley’s typical 1,600 square foot home sells for $900,000).
Chicago’s urban planning maxim was “Make no little plans.” Hence Chicago, for all its problems, has a spectacular 18-mile-long lakefront park. And you can be sure that anywhere you go in Chicago, the sidewalk will be generously wide enough for pedestrians to walk abreast holding a conversation.
The Valley’s motto, in contrast, must have been: “Make no big plans.” Urban planning was left up to each subdivider. So, sidewalks are narrow when not nonexistent. Your sidewalk will often end arbitrarily, leaving you to trudge in the now busy street until it randomly starts up again.
I blame the unfortunate example set by actors. Mountain streets in the Hollywood Hills where the stars live almost never have sidewalks, in part to make it harder for the public to pester their idols. So down in the flat Valley, the existence of sidewalks depended upon the guess of each developer about whether or not sidewalks would make his offering look more celebrity-worthy.
Similarly, the architects of the Valley assumed that there’d be little need for public transit in this Shangri-La of private cars. And what use would be community swimming pools when many families would have their own pool? And with pools dotted all around, every backyard needed eight-foot walls to keep neighborhood kids from sneaking in and drowning. And if you have an eight-foot wall, you can feel free to practice your personal predilections in your backyard out of the sight of nosy neighbors, such as nudism. Or shooting pornographic movies, for which the Valley became notorious until the porn industry recently decamped to Florida.
But the worst problem with the Valley being annexed by Los Angeles in return for Mulholland’s water might have ultimately turned out to be the vast Los Angeles Unified School District, the nation’s second largest, which has a monopoly on most public schooling in the Valley.
While the San Gabriel Valley is divided up into numerous small school districts all competing to attract young families (e.g., Arcadia, where my cousins grew up, has been taken over by Chinese immigrant millionaires, who believe they deserve high-quality schools paid for by American taxpayers; hence, Arcadia High School has been molded into a Tiger Mother’s dream), most of the San Fernando Valley is part of LAUSD. Therefore, the schools don’t have much incentive to try hard to do better.
We Valley girls and guys ought to do something about this. But a community founded on an ethos of privacy and minding your own business will find it hard to mobilize politically. Hence, the San Fernando Valley tends to attract ethnic groups who traditionally prosper by keeping their heads down politically and avoiding pogroms.
Perhaps the Armenians might someday have the numbers and the nerve to lead politically. Armenian parents protesting submission to Pride Month recently got into a brawl with leftists outside a Glendale school board meeting. But it’s more likely that bourgeois Armenians will follow the European-Californian tradition of bailing out of public schools for their own growing network of Armenian private schools. That’s what Valley Ashkenazis did in large numbers when forced racial busing between the Valley and South-Central was briefly imposed at the end of the 1970s. LAUSD has never recovered from this Jewish flight.
Among the newcomers, Russians first made a splash in Southern California after the unfortunate events of 1917 sent White Russian aristocrats into exile. More than a few found work as extras in ballroom scenes in Hollywood movies because they had waltz training, refined manners, and full sets of evening wear. Golden Age Hollywood’s most popular exiled Russian royal, restaurateur Michael Romanoff, was actually a Lithuanian pants presser. But that he was an obvious impostor only added to the con man’s legend.
Emigration from the Soviet Union was largely banned by Moscow in the middle of the 20th century, but American neoconservatives forced an opening for Soviet Jews in the 1970s. By then, after a half century of state-imposed atheism, numerous Soviets were part-Jewish by ancestry and less than pious by religion.
This started a confusing era in which many in Russia who qualified as Jews left, but not all of them stuck it out in Israel. In the 1990s, Ariel Sharon, who was descended on his mother’s side from ethnic Russian subbotniks who had converted to Judaism, organized a great recruitment of vaguely Jewish Russians to emigrate to Israel and vote for him. This worked out well for Sharon, but many of his emigres from Russia grew tired of Netanyahu’s increasingly Jewish Jewish State and have traded in Tel Aviv for the similar Mediterranean climate of Los Angeles.
Hence, Southern California now has a lot of people who are various combinations of sort-of-Jewish, sort-of-Russian, and sort-of-Israeli. Plus many Russian, Ukrainian, and Belarussian gentiles have Jewish cousins and in-laws. It’s all rather confusing, especially to L.A.’s old-fashioned liberal Ashkenazis who can’t understand why the new Jews don’t tend to be as hostile to Russia as they are.
The first Armenian-American landed at Jamestown in 1618, but migration out of the Ottoman Empire accelerated from the 1890s, culminating with the 1915 genocide. By the postwar era, Armenians had largely assimilated into the white majority: when George Deukmejian beat the black Democratic mayor of Los Angeles Tom Bradley in California’s 1982 gubernatorial election (perhaps denying Bradley the vice presidential spot on Walter Mondale’s 1984 diversity-seeking ticket), the Republican was simply known as the white guy in the race.
In the 1970s, the Lebanese civil war and the Iranian revolution impelled many affluent Armenians toward Southern California topography they found comforting: sunny cities at the base of steep mountains, like Burbank, Pasadena, and especially Glendale.
These three adjacent municipalities had been idyllic WASP destinations in the 20th Century: Burbank was Johnny Carson's “beautiful downtown Burbank,” Glendale was the home of James M. Cain’s Mildred Pierce, and Pasadena was the setting of The Graduate with Dustin Hoffman bizarrely cast as uber-WASP Benjamin Braddock. They’ve since become the center of Armenian-America, which is a little odd, but not extremely so, because Armenians tend to be enterprising and conservative folk.
Well, most of them.
Meanwhile, an outflow of less genteel Armenians from the Soviet Union had begun and accelerated with the fall of the Berlin Wall. Mark Krikorian, head of the Center for Immigration Studies, pointed out to me that the names of respectable Armenians from the Ottoman Empire typically end in “-ian,” while the more troublesome ex-Soviet Armenians, raised under the communist gangster ethos, end in “-yan.”
Indeed, in 2010 at an Armenian restaurant in otherwise sedate Valley Village where my dad once lunched (he figured it was a front for drug dealing), four shady Armenian businessmen were murdered. Sure enough, the killer’s name ended in “-yan” as did three of his four victims.
At Grant High School in Valley Glen, Armenians and Mexicans in 1975 began holding an annual race riot on an agreed-upon day each October, which became an annual school tradition.
Persians began showing up in Westwood, Beverly Hills, and the Valley in large numbers when the Shah of Iran used the 1973 Yom Kippur War as a pretext for OPEC to raise oil prices. Suddenly flooded with cash, the Shah’s cronies began buying properties in and around the Hollywood Hills, introducing a new level of luxury. For example, Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills only ascended to its status as a tourist attraction of comic expensiveness in the 1970s after Iranian boutique owners like Bijan arrived. This ancient Persian concern for luxury manifests itself in how well the Iranian ladies at the Fantastic Sam’s at the corner of Ventura and Laurel Canyon cut my hair.
Some fraction of the Iranians are Jewish, although, interestingly, they tend to identify in public as “Persian.” Persian Jews are quite prosperous and increasingly dominate Beverly Hills on the south side of the Hollywood Hills. The new Jews (including a smattering of ultra-orthodox) tend to make Jewish political opinion in Southern California less monolithically liberal than it long was. A 2021 Brandeis U. survey of 3,700 Los Angeles area Jews found that Russian Jews are well to the right ideologically and Persian Jews somewhat to the right of Los Angeles's traditionally liberal old-time Ashkenazis. Israel has drifted so far to the right that Israelis in the U.S. likely are more conservative as well.
For example, in the tumultuous year of 2020, Beverly Hills, the mecca of the new Jews, was the safest location in Southern California north of Huntington Beach for Trump supporters to hold public rallies because the Beverly Hills police department, unlike many others in California, deigned to protect peaceful Republicans from violent assault by leftists. This is partly due to Beverly Hills, being rich but close to the ’hood, having always valued order. But it is also because the Persian Jews who now dominate Beverly Hills politics see Trump as their kind of guy. Still, none of this has much impact on politics in Southern California, which remains staunchly Democratic.
Interestingly, the intensity of local foreign policy squabbles are the opposite of what Washington cares about. Local Russians and Ukrainians have done a good job of not causing trouble here during the current unpleasantness. Persian Jews don’t seem to take seriously Ashkenazi paranoia about Tehran’s purported genocidal anti-Semitism. Instead, they attend family reunions back in Iran frequently. What does cause street brawls in L.A., however, is that Old World war that the Beltway can’t make up its mind over: Armenia vs. Azerbaijan.
Why are the peoples of the defunct empires winning in what was once the promised land of middle-class Americans? (The best book on the history of the San Fernando Valley, Kevin Roderick’s, is aptly subtitled America’s Suburb.) One reason is because the Valley’s peculiarly anti-civic culture of privacy derived from celebrities’ need for security from stalkers works better for people from anti-civic cultures, such as the Middle East where houses often present a blank wall to the street. For instance, in the Valley Glen neighborhood, Armenian newcomers took a stand against Mexican property crimes by putting up huge metal security fences topped with lethal finials around their front lawns. By the traditional Jeffersonian aesthetic standards of neighborly openness, these look hideous. But they worked. And is the basic idea all that different from the 30-foot hedges that stars grow around their properties?
Houses in the Valley tended to sell for about the national average price until the mid-1970s when almost all the farmland had finally been developed. When housing prices soared, voters passed Proposition 13 in 1978 to prevent homeowners from being driven from their houses by higher prices driving up property taxes. (It’s staggering to think how much demographic replacement there would have been without this initiative.)
Still, the housing price increase exposed a weakness in a fundamental element of Anglo-American culture: the nuclear family. As Tory MP David Willetts wrote of England (and he could have been writing of the San Fernando Valley in 1970, just dividing its venerability by ten):
Instead, think of England as being like this for at least 750 years. We live in small families. We buy and sell houses. … Our parents expect us to leave home for paid work.
And this worked well for centuries as Anglo people and culture spread west into underpopulated lands, bringing with them anti-nepotistic and anti-ethnocentric traditions of fair play and rule of law. The Valley, for example, was still 33 percent agricultural in 1967, keeping home prices affordable for young nuclear families.
But within another dozen years the Valley was virtually all subdivided. Local realtors could now emphasize their favorite joke: “Real estate: they’re not making anymore of it.”
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And this put old-fashioned Valley-Americans at a disadvantage in being able to afford now expensive single-family homes compared to Eurasian parvenus more willing to crowd multiple families together. I doubt if the Valley’s new whites actually get along better with their relatives than the old whites, but then they don’t expect to.
I can recall looking out my father's apartment window in Valley Village at a backyard where a West Asian entrepreneur was constructing an 8,000 square foot dormitory for his countless relatives, most of whom would have to endure a windowless cell. My dad was welcome to live with me and not pay rent (and thus leave more to me in his will), but ... he was an American, not an Armenian, and thus expected, perfectly reasonably, to be master of his own domain.
Is that too much to ask?