Gary Horton | I’d Pick Our Large Town Any Day

Gary Horton

One day last week at our daily gray hair Starbuck coffee clutch, an irregular stopped by. He didn’t sit in our circle as is our protocol, but called out from the gallery behind the chairs. Leaning inwards, he suddenly changed the subject with a question and his immediate answer: “Do you think this town has peaked out? I do. It’s going downhill, fast.” And with that, a vibrant discussion erupted. 

Our town, Santa Clarita, used to be a small town. No longer a small town, we’re up over 275,000 and are the third largest city in L.A. County, the largest county in the nation. 

So, have we “peaked?” Should we lament the passing of our “small-town” past? Most old-timers in our group felt we have peaked. Their lamentations were predictable: “There’s so much crime.” “Homeless people have invaded our public spaces.” “Traffic is terrible.” “Folks don’t know each other anymore.” (This last one particularly funny for a group of six to 15 people who meet up almost every morning for 30 years …) 

I voted vehemently the other way. “NO WAY!” We’ve not peaked at all. Indeed, our city is visibly getting better year over year. Yes, we’ve grown tons, but we’ve grown far more to the good than the bad … 

When Carrie and I first got to our small town here 40 or so years ago, the Santa Clarita Valley was a sleepy place known for wooden roller coasters and a golf course off the side of the freeway, and some master-planned community no one had heard of, just getting its wheels on. White flight, largely fueled by the L.A. Unified School District’s busing, in turn, initially fueled our growth. Most new areas were very much white areas. 

Back then, if you wanted to shop you went to Kmart, the Tru-Value, Thrifty’s, the Hughes, or Albertsons, and for appliances, you went to the McKeons’ store in Canyon Country. We had drive-through dairies and a 99-cent theater. Most of the roads led to nowhere, with as many dead ends as not. We were a bedroom community where almost everyone commuted past the sheep on the hills into the valley or L.A. Yes, folks were close in their neighborhoods, and we were folksy. There wasn’t much else to do but to chat over the fence or throw a block party. There’s some nostalgia for simple things like this. 

But in our small town, we also had some serious issues going down. Cross burnings on lawns put up by fading KKK members. Highway patrol officers tragically slaughtered. Homeless folks hung out here then, too, and we personally know it because Carrie and I took a couple in for a time. Dead folks were too often found in the riverbeds; we had a run of prostitution under bridges, and as The Signal earnestly reported, tons of DUIs noted in their notorious Sunday “Demon Rum” column.  

And we had our own messianic local cult, the Tony and Susan Alamo, “Alamo Christian Foundation.” The one that put all the crazy fliers on your car windshield every other month. The one that scared the folks up Sierra Highway witless from time to time … including me, when I rode through their parking lot on a motorcycle and a crazed looking zombie menacingly lurched toward me … (Another story.) 

If you wanted any culture, it was off to L.A. proper. If you wanted college education, again, it was off to the San Fernando Valley or L.A., again, as College of the Canyons was but a collection of four lonely tilt-ups on a largely dirt lot. And suffering serious medical condition? Back on the road or by helicopter to the SFV or L.A. again … 

Back then, in our small town we lived in our cars … just to get to everything our little town didn’t have. 

So, have we “peaked?” Hell no! I wouldn’t move back to that small town for anything. Instead, today, just 40 short years since, our small town might just be the most vibrant, energetic, economically successful, diverse and collaborative town of our size in California, if not much of the nation. 

This year alone, our city has over $90 million budgeted to recreation, public space, parks, trails and services. We own ice rinks, skate parks, aquatic centers, huge community centers, senior centers, well-paved, tree-lined streets, more parks than you can count, public tennis courts everywhere and almost all the recreation opportunities you might imagine.  

Still, some of the best public K-12 schools in the state. And without a doubt, the most dynamic community college, also offering bachelor’s and master’s degrees on campus, without the need for a miserable commute. California Institute of the Arts remains a national leading art school. Our city still boasts one of the lowest crime rates across all categories in the nation. Henry Mayo Newhall Hospital has grown up, and with ever-expanding private care, most all your health needs can be well met here locally, again, without a commute. The Newhall Land and Farming Co. was ingenious, building industrial parks along with housing, and today all that has built on itself, and, with the help of the SCV Economic Development Corp., our city is host to hundreds of large businesses and thousands of smaller, family enterprises. No need to drive far for a good job here. The SCV means serious business as much as bedrooms. 

And, with the upcoming potential for the significant Shadowbox Studios entertainment production campus, thousands of great, high-paying film jobs will become available for even more residents. The SCV, already known for film and TV production, will cement its role as Hollywood North. 

No longer a “white flight” town, we also notice that SCV has become quite a diverse place, full of folks from all over country, the world, and of all nationalities, races, religions and views. Politically, we’re purple, not red, and wonderfully, inside this mix, we all seem to get along rather nicely, thank you. 

Want entertainment? There’s the Performing Arts Center at COC. The Laemmle, and other theaters, live and film. Restaurants abound – with ethnic flavors for nearly every whim and taste. Wine bars, bar bars, 3.5 golf courses, and youth sports, sports, sports. OK, if you want to see the Rams you still must go over two hills and shell out hundreds, if not thousands … 

As to the complaint, “We don’t know each other anymore.” That one is on you. Join a club. Throw a block party. Get off your duff and get to know your neighbors. Community is what we make it. You determine the closeness of your contacts. 

SCV has peaked? That’s funny on its face. If you really want a small, insular, backwater town, Tennessee is advertising them. But if you want to do something interesting, build a dynamic career, educate and raise a family with modern skills and literacy, well, since we have a lot of Latter-Day Saints in the SCV, let’s steal a famous saying from Brigham Young: “This is the place!” 

Gary Horton’s “Full Speed to Port!” has appeared in The Signal since 2006. The opinions expressed in his column do not necessarily reflect the opinions of The Signal or its editorial board.

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