The classic picture of suburbia is that of white picket fences, the family Chevy in the driveway, and Mom in an apron beckoning her children to abandon the baseball and glove for a home-cooked dinner. Of course, there is nothing wrong with this picture, per se. Nothing wrong except for the fact that it is now becoming more of the exception than the rule among American suburban communities, memorialized best in cultural artifacts like reruns of "Leave It to Beaver."
Over the past sixty years, the idealization of this traditional, Rockwell-esque habitat has slowly eroded, leaving only structural-skeletal remains of that old community – the single-family houses, the neighborhood streets, the shopping malls.
In southern California these remains exist where one might least expect them: eight miles from downtown Los Angeles. The town is Glendale, California, and it's not what you would imagine, both currently and throughout its history. It is here where you see the fusion of the new suburbia; a new blended reality, part suburb, part city.
Glendale started out as a farming community, much like the rest of Los Angeles, writes Juliet M. Arroyo in her book Early Glendale. However, it experienced an economic boom in the '20s with neighboring LA, becoming a bedroom community in the utmost sense of the term. Yet as the town grew, more people lived but also worked in Glendale, creating a relatively independent suburb.
This independence differentiated it from its neighbors in both lifestyle and demographics. By the time the Civil Rights Movement was beginning its upswing in the late '50s and early '60s, some strong and distasteful local reaction resulted. "I heard legends of Nazi factions camped out on the streets leading into [Glendale], oh yes. They made their presence known on Colorado Boulevard, where they had a sort of pseudo-headquarters across from the landmark Bob's Big Boy restaurant, " recalls a forty-seven year resident. This intimidation created a de facto boundary between the urban and suburban.
Over time such extreme behaviors diminished here as they did in much of the rest of the country. Yet even until the early 1990s, Glendale remained a predominantly WASP middle class community, a Republican stronghold in the House of Representatives, maintaining a picture of that comfortable American lifestyle, complete with 75 year-old camphor trees lining side streets.
Demographic changes in the '90s played a substantial role in transforming this traditional town that had remained static for so long. A major increase in Hispanics and Asians, but chiefly peoples of the former Soviet Union – Armenians in particular – have risen to take central stage in Glendale's recent history.
After the dissolution of the USSR, many Armenians sought refuge in the United States, and a prominent section of their population made their way to Glendale. With three foreign cultures now robustly represented (Armenians, Russian-Armenians, and Iranian-Armenians), the city was transformed. The city's Armenian population surged, noted the Daily News, by 65 percent between 1990 and 2000, with more than one in four of Glendale's residents now claiming Armenian descent.
A new set of challenges emerged with this change. The immigrant groups impacted the community economically, as lower incomes and more people per housing unit (apartments, houses) lowered tax revenues, while increasing demands on public services like the school district. During this time, many of the older residents began to move to Orange County and the Santa Clarita Valley, northwest of the city, following children and grandchildren to areas offering a lower price per square foot. In many cases, they were replaced a third type of resident: the urban commuter.
Los Angeles had always been nearby, of course, but remained a somewhat distant, urbanized neighbor. Glendale saw low turnover rates in its housing market as original owners held onto their properties. "They liked the community, and didn't want to leave," claims longtime Glendale real estate agent Phyllis Cotton. She recalls that the mid-1990s saw a boom in home sales and prices. An attractive feature unique to this market is the existence of "character homes" as opposed to the "cookie-cutters" found in housing tracts in the suburbs further removed from LA. The intrinsic value of these unique homes built in the '30s is due to the fact that they were usually well-maintained (often sold by the original owner), and situated just minutes from the job markets of Los Angeles and Burbank.
The local market's boom attracted a more affluent resident. The neighborhoods where these character homes existed now had three primary types of residents: the remaining original owners or their offspring, immigrant families making their way up the economic ladder, and young(er) professionals looking for a slower paced, more suburban quality of life.
Yet as the town comes into its own in the 21st century, it offers a lifestyle that is almost anything but quiet and relaxed. Today, Glendale is becoming increasingly reminiscent of an urban center itself than the tranquil suburb it once was. Brand Boulevard, one of its main streets, is lined with local hotspots such as the historic Alex Theater, Porto's Bakery with its patio chock-full of patrons from all over Los Angeles, as well as the newly minted Americana at Brand. This development is a multi-use property of trendy stores, upscale restaurants, and luxury apartment and condominium residences. With dancing fountains similar to those at the Bellagio in Las Vegas (though admittedly on a much smaller scale), the Americana relates more to the more diverse, younger, affluent population than the profile of Glendale's original residents.
Today there is room for just about every type of person in the new Glendale – those seeking both a more urban experience and the more traditional suburban one. "Buyers and sellers are still confident in this market," asserts Phyllis Cotton, previously introduced above. Homes are retaining their values better than those in other suburbs of Los Angeles. Also, the city's website reports higher test scores, higher per capita incomes, and lower crime rates than all of its closest neighbors - Burbank, Pasadena, and Los Angeles proper.
Still, recent growth and its proximity to Los Angeles leads to one important question: when will the line between urban and suburban become so blurred that the two become indistinguishable? If Glendale is the case study, it may be impossible to tell. What we are seeing is something new: an urbanized suburb that offers the diversity and tempo of the big city alongside good schools, safe streets, and single-family homes on relatively large lots. But this transformation may not yet be complete. The challenge for the future may be maintaining Glendale’s character despite the growing urban influence.
Laura Jean Berger is a senior at Chapman University studying Political Science and Communication Studies. A lifelong resident of Glendale, she is an avid classical pianist and a self-diagnosed political junkie.
Photo by Renee Silverman