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L.A.’s Lost Valley: When Hollywood Was 'the Pride of the Cahuenga Valley'

cahuenga_valley_from_melrose_c1915_header.jpg
The origins of "Cahuenga Valley" are unclear, but the name ultimately refers to the Gabrieleno village of Cahuenga – once located, somewhat confusingly, in the San Fernando Valley. The village also gave its name to the wind gap linking the valley to the coastal plain (Cahuenga Pass), as well as the summit that towers above (Cahuenga Peak).
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The Santa Monica Mountains loom large in L.A.’s cultural topography, dividing the city into “the Valley" to their north and a sprawling coastal plain to their south.

Residents of the coastal plain in Hollywood or Beverly Hills would never mistake their homes as valley communities.

A century ago, however, they were.

From the early 1880s through the 1910s, the broad drainage basin of the Ballona Creek between the Santa Monica Mountains and Baldwin Hills was commonly known as the Cahuenga Valley.

Likely invented by area boosters, the Cahuenga Valley name first entered the regional lexicon when farmers discovered a frost-free belt along the base of the Santa Monica Mountains. Soon, Cahuenga Valley became renowned as a horticultural wonderland where bananas ripened, lemons glowed, and delicate vegetables were harvested early in winter for frostbitten markets in Denver and Boston.

Later, after the real estate boom of the 1880s deposited townsites like Hollywood, Colegrove, and Sherman in the area, "Cahuenga Valley" became shorthand for a suburban subregion, an equal of the San Fernando, San Gabriel, and Pomona valleys. As with these other valleys, agricultural riches inspired the boosters’ suburban dreams.

“It is the dream of some of the inhabitants of this Piedmont that it will one day be occupied by suburban villas, since here people can not only rest under their own vines and fig trees, but they may luxuriate among banana and mango groves."

“It is the dream of some of the inhabitants of this Piedmont,” the Times wrote in 1887, “that it will one day be occupied by suburban villas, since here people can not only rest under their own vines and fig trees, but they may luxuriate among banana and mango groves, even in this temperate zone.”

Six years later, a travel guide predicted that “the Cahuenga Valley is destined to be one of the most popular and thickly settled suburban settlements of Los Angeles.”

Even as lemon growers organized the Cahuenga Valley Lemon Exchange, land speculators built the Cahuenga Valley Railroad, which steamed across the countryside between Hollywood and Los Angeles beginning around 1888, showcasing the valley's charms to prospective buyers.

Panoramic view of residential Hollywood, ca.1910
Circa 1910 panoramic view of Hollywood, "the pride of the Cahuenga Valley," according to a guidebook issued by the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce. Courtesy of the USC Libraries – California Historical Society Collection. [source]
Panoramic view of Hollywood taken from Lookout mountain, ca. 1906
Panoramic view of the Cahuenga Valley from Lookout Mountain, circa 1906. Courtesy of the USC Libraries – California Historical Society Collection. [source]

Eventually, "Cahuenga Valley" became a victim of its own success.

As lemon groves succumbed to suburban subdivisions and studio lots, so, too, did the sweeping vistas of distant hills that once confirmed the land’s valley-like qualities.

As lemon groves succumbed to suburban subdivisions and studio lots, so, too, did the sweeping vistas of distant hills that once confirmed the land’s valley-like qualities. Today, freeway bridges, apartment buildings, and traffic signals obscure views of the distant Baldwin Hills from most Hollywood street corners.

Moreover, L.A.’s rapid growth in the early 20th century shrank the psychic distance between the towns of the Cahuenga Valley and the city of Los Angeles. Where open countryside once separated them, the valley towns and city merged to form one metropolitan agglomeration – a merger that became a political reality in 1910.

Seven years later, the Times more or less stopped referring to the "Cahuenga Valley" in its pages. As late at 1922, the Hollywood branch of the Savings & Trust Bank published a history of Hollywood titled “In the Valley of the Cahuengas.”

By then, however, the name was but a quaint affectation.

View of Hollywood looking north from Normandie Avenue and Melrose Avenue, California, ca.1900.jpeg
A panoramic view of the Cahuenga Valley, taken circa 1900 from the present-day intersection of Normandie and Melrose in East Hollywood. Courtesy of the USC Libraries – California Historical Society Collection. [source]
Panoramic view of Hollywood, looking west from Laughlin Park, 1903
Panoramic view of Hollywood, looking west from Laughlin Park, 1903. Courtesy of the USC Libraries – California Historical Society Collection. [source] | http://digitallibrary.usc.edu/cdm/singleitem/collection/p15799coll65/id/4076/rec/2
Hollywood real estate map
This early real estate map – an advertisement for Harvey Henderson and Daeida Wilcox's town of Hollywood – emphasized the nearby summits of the Santa Monica Mountains. Courtesy of the USC Libraries – California Historical Society Collection.
Panoramic view of Hollywood showing Orchard Street and Orange Drive, ca.1905
Panoramic view of Hollywood showing Orchard Street and Orange Drive, circa 1905. Courtesy of the USC Libraries – California Historical Society Collection. [source]
Panoramic view of East Hollywood looking northeast from lemon groves, Los Angeles, ca.1905
East Hollywood lemon grove, circa 1905. Courtesy of the USC Libraries – California Historical Society Collection. [source]
Small group of people picking peas on the Hammel and Denker ranch, Bevery Hills, west of Hollywood, ca.1903
Picking peas on the Hammel and Denker ranch in present-day Bevery Hills, circa 1903. Courtesy of the USC Libraries – California Historical Society Collection. [source]
Panoramic view of Cahuenga Pass, looking north from Melrose, Hollywood, ca.1915
Panoramic view of the valley beneath Cahuenga Peak, looking north from Melrose in present-day East Hollywood, circa 1915. Courtesy of the USC Libraries – California Historical Society Collection. [source]

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