Joe Mathews: The real California divide is one of height

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Reseda Blvd. crosses the Los Angeles River in Reseda, Los Angeles, California. Photo by Eric Shalov

Zocalo commentator Joe Mathews says California’s often overlooked class divisions often come down to two words: “hills” and “flatlands,” with the state’s wealthier residents literally looking down on those less fortunate. Mathews was pleased to see the hillside-flatlander divide emerge as a theme in the new series “Cobra Kai,” which follows characters from “The Karate Kid,” 30 years later. Mathews - who counts himself a proud flatlander – says the otherwise-flawed show makes a relevant point about the two very different worlds that Californians inhabit.

 Read Mathews’ column below:

Altitude adjustments 


Pick a side, Californians. Will you elevate with Encino or roll with Reseda?

You may not know these two neighborhoods, which border each other in L.A.’s San Fernando Valley. But if you’re a Californian, you should be familiar with the divide they represent—between those who live in the hills (or aspire to) and those who occupy flatter precincts (and love them).

You don’t hear much about this hillsiders-vs-flatlanders dynamic. We prefer obsessing about our polarizing divisions over politics and race. But California’s most important divides lie within our hometowns, not between them. In this uneven place of mountains and valleys, our communities often perch on slopes, putting hillsiders and flatlanders in close proximity, but somehow still in different worlds.

In most places, the hill people have more money, more privacy, and ore power. In California, our socioeconomic betters literally look down on us, from Los Altos Hills to Beverly Hills.

I found myself thinking about the hills-flatlands divide anew while watching the Netflix series Cobra Kai, which brings the characters from the 1980s Karate Kid films into California’s unequal present.

Almost everything has changed in the 30-plus years between the old films and new series: from the greater inclusiveness of the San Fernando Valley, where these stories are set, to the teenage bullying, which has migrated online. But what remains wholly intact is the class line between the lovely hills of Encino, and the rougher precincts of Reseda’s flatlands.

When The Karate Kid premiered in 1984, the teen protagonist, Daniel, lived in a shabby Reseda apartment and was bullied by rich Encino kids, including karate rival Johnny. In Cobra Kai, the characters have crisscrossed the hill-flatlands line. Daniel, a car dealer, owns an Encino mansion, while Johnny, a drunken handyman, lives alone in a Reseda flat.

Cobra Kai, while shot in Atlanta, reflects Encino-Reseda realities. Encino people are wealthier, whiter, and older than other Angelenos. Reseda is average in wealth, younger, and more diverse (with a slight Latino majority). Reseda has twice the population density of Encino (and a COVID-infection rate twice as high).

There is a political divide, too. Encino is in a city council district that includes Bel Air and other hyper-rich basin neighborhoods. Reseda is in a Valley-only council district that includes Canoga Park and Winnetka.

Reseda is lucky to have separate representation. Many California cities elect council members “at large,” meaning they could come from anywhere in town and represent the entire city—a setup that has led to overrepresentation of wealthier hill people in local politics. That’s one reason why lawyers have pressured cities to switch to district elections.

There’s other good news for us flatlanders, all across the state. With California’s hill communities controlled by NIMBYs, our flatland neighborhoods are more dynamic, and thus more likely to support new housing, new entertainment, and new transit options. (Yes, our—I’m a proud flatlander, afraid of hillside houses ever since Mel Gibson literally pulled a mansion off the Hollywood Hills in Lethal Weapon 2.)

Reseda Rising, a $100 million-plus investment project spearheaded by Councilmember Bob Blumenfield, is transforming the long-neglected Sherman Way corridor; plans include a skating rink, new park, and the restoration of the Reseda Theater (famous from Paul Thomas Anderson’s 1997 film Boogie Nights).

Visiting the two neighborhoods recently, I didn’t see any kids doing karate, but I couldn’t miss the contrast. Encino was quiet, while Reseda was bustling. While eating delicious La Michoacana Mexican Ice Cream, I walked down Victory Boulevard—the border between the two neighborhoods—and noticed a traffic wall on Encino’s side of the street.

I understand why some Californians prefer the relative emptiness of our state’s Encinos, especially in the pandemic. But once we’ve controlled COVID, California’s Resedas should recover and grow. They’re more walkable and affordable places, where it’s easier to meet new friends, even if you don’t know karate.

Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square



Joe Mathews