One Corner of the City

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LA is so big and amorphous that some corners of the city  just tend get overlooked.

One of the most interesting of those forgotten areas for me is up in the far eastern corner of the Valley.

Sylmar has been around for more than a hundred years, long before the San Fernando Valley became part of the city. It was once covered in olive groves – you can still find remnants of the orchards along some streets and when you peek over backyard fences.

The pioneer movie director DW Griffith used to have a ranch out in the Sylmar area. He made “Birth of a Nation” not too far away, much of it on the hillside across the Valley where the Forest Lawn cemetery is located now next to the semi-wild canyons of Griffith Park.

Sylmar’s corner of the city is so far from the center of LA that it was also known for its clean air. It’s where tuberculosis patients went to recover.

Sylmar is also the name attached in popular lore to the last big, killer earthquake before Northridge to shake right under LA’s streets.

This past week was the 40th anniversary of the quake, which killed 65 people and woke up about 10 million others at 6:01 in the morning.

Most of the deaths occurred when two hospitals partly fell down. The Olive View medical center was one of those old TB recovery facilities, a place where easterners came to get well in the warmth of the Sylmar.

The San Fernando Valley VA Hospital was located almost up in the San Gabriel Mountains where the quake originated. It took the full force of the quake, and what remained standing had to be torn down.

Across the Valley, freeway bridges toppled. Fires broke out in the streets. But it could have been worse. Schools were empty, a good thing after teachers came to work and saw how badly their classrooms were trashed.

The quake offered lessons in our vulnerability and need to prepare that it’s good to remind Angelenos about every so often.

The other recent reminder about that corner of LA is a more personal story that every Angeleno should learn about in school.

Feb. 3 was the 52nd anniversary of the plane crash that claimed rock stars Buddy Holly and The Big Bopper.

A couple of miles from Sylmar, in Pacoima, the more painful news was that Ritchie Valens also died on the plane that crashed in the Iowa corn field.

Valens was a budding rock star too, the singer of hits such as “La Bamba” and “Come On, Let’s Go.” He’d been on “American Bandstand” and played at the Apollo in Harlem.

What’s remarkable about that is that Ritchie Valens was just 17 years old. He had only dropped out of San Fernando High School eight months before to make records.

Pop music has had other juvenile sensations – Stevie Wonder and Michael Jackson come to mind.

Valens, though, represented something else. He was a Mexican American from the Valley. The first Chicano from Pacoima to achieve any real status in white America.

That’s why Pacoima still has a parade in his name, and a park. And one of the reasons why flowers still show up on his grave at the San Fernando Mission Cemetery.

For KCRW, this has been Kevin Roderick with LA Observed.