I hate it when people ask me where I’m from. I hesitate. These are always tenuous waters to tread. Los Angeles, I always say. But, it’s tricky gauging someone’s knowledge of a city you’re not sure they’ve ever been to but have only heard about through notoriety or seen pastel-colored depictions of in La La Land. It’s also more than that.
“Uh, the San Fernando Valley.” I make my wager. Either their eyes light up in recognition, a blessing? A curse? Or they smile and say they don’t know it.
My identity crisis from my roots isn’t inherently because I spent my weeks in one part of the greater Los Angeles area toiling away in the valley and the weekends down in the South Bay in the beach cities with my dad. It’s because I’m not really from Los Angeles. Yeah, I went to elementary school in an LAUSD school and I had the occasional day off due to Santa Ana Wind induced fires, but I’m not from a city. I’m from the San Fernando Valley, or, as more people know it, just The Valley.
It’s because I’m from a characterless void, something I realized only once I moved out of that place. It’s something I realize even more now that I’m living in Spain. The culture is endless here, evident just by walking down the street.
Woodland Hills, California is where I was born and raised (well, technically I was born in a hospital in Santa Monica, you know, the place with the pier, but let’s not get bogged down in specifics). Have you heard of it? Unless you’re one of my hometown Facebook friends, I didn’t think so. It’s part suburb part half-baked city mostly comprised of strip malls and, well, real malls. It sounds beautiful, right? Wrong. Woodland Hills has hills, sure. It’s nestled under the chin of the Santa Monica mountains right in the basin of the San Fernando Valley. But the hills are bathed in scrubby grass and, more often than not, recently charred earth.
It’s better known for its proximity to the now-famous Calabasas, California. The two are neighbors, Woodland Hills slowly gets ritzier the closer it gets to Calabasas. The lawns get greener despite the pressing drought and the fences get taller and more pronounced. Once you hit those city limits, though, the building facades are neatly trimmed and newly painted, there’s a Mercedes at every stoplight, and a chance you’ll see a Kardashian in the wild. That’s not true, I didn’t even know who the Kardashians were until high school. And my high school, oh my high school, is my least favorite part of telling people about my upbringing. I went to Calabasas High School. With this new notoriety, people assume I stepped directly out of an episode of Gossip Girl or something. I didn’t. CHS hasn’t been remodeled since the 1960s save for a new performing arts center which verges on gaudy. We probably still haven’t won a soccer game in the last 10 years.
Woodland Hills was my stomping grounds more or less, except you didn’t really walk anywhere. It was my driving grounds, I guess you’d say. I didn’t know my neighbors, my family’s favorite restaurants when we’d eat out were chain restaurants, and I spent my weekends loitering in the Topanga Westfield Mall or the AMC Promenade 16 (also where I had my first job and my first kiss!). There was no town-like feeling, nothing unique about my city/town/suburb (??) that produced any kind of “home” besides it’s familiarity and my ability to drive most places without getting lost. If I was a contestant on the Bachelor, I’d struggle to come up with anything to do for a hometown date. We’d probably end up at the In-N-Out on Ventura or we could spice it up by hitting the newer In-N-Out on Canoga.
I ventured into the heart of Los Angeles occasionally, a place that still feels like a riddle to me — is it Downtown? Hollywood? Santa Monica? Maybe it’s Glendale. When I did it was a quick trip to Hollywood Boulevard, a place I’m sure countless dreams have died, or a brief venture into Downtown LA. The only prolonged visit I had there was my senior year of high school when my mom and I joined a charity group to hand care packages out to the homeless people on Skid Row. I’d seen street life in my time in and around LA, but I’d never been close to street life. That is, until I moved to Seattle.
Seattle was a whole different ballgame. For once, I was situated within a city. Each neighborhood had color, had character. I reveled in the richness of not just city living, but living in a community. Adjusting to a more urban living situation from my suburban lifestyle wasn’t difficult for me, however, when my dad saw the alley behind my house he bought me pepper spray. There were rats in my walls, homeless men sleeping on my porch, and strange noises of people rifling through my trash at night. My walk home was down University Way, a stretch of the University District notorious now for its street dwellers. Catcalls and requests for money became routine. I’d been offered drugs occasionally, I’d even been followed to Safeway. It added perspective.
Now, I’ve moved to another city across continents and oceans in the northern part of Spain. I’m living and learning in León, Spain for the next three months and it’s my intention to immerse myself in the same aspect of Seattle I enjoyed so thoroughly and the parts of my childhood I missed out on. The streets here are old, older than I can fathom, and it adds to their culture. Each day I venture down these cobbled streets I see something new. Just the way people walk down the streets here, a gentle amble, is a stark contrast from the hurried fast walk back home (LA? Seattle? Both.) From the homeless population to the café culture I want to know what makes León a city so many people have called home for generations.