For much of the past quarter century, the San Fernando Valley has been treated and often thought of itself as the stepsister of Los Angeles, the butt of jokes and the place the rich and famous chose to avoid. Such resentments have been one of the key drivers behind the drive for Valley secession.

Yet now, perhaps it's time to rethink the idea of the Valley as perennial also-ran and consider a novel notion: the Valley as the vital new center of the city.

Indeed, if you look at Los Angeles as a region, the Valley, not downtown, is rapidly becoming the fulcrum around which the economy turns. With the most rapid population and economic growth, particularly in technology and high-end services, occurring on the suburban fringe, the Valley is increasingly the one place that is convenient to both the historic core, the Westside and the burgeoning Nerdistan on the periphery.

The Valley's renewed strength can be seen in its office vacancy rates, which are in the single digits roughly half the rates in central Los Angeles. It can be seen in new development that is rising from the eastern edges of Burbank and Glendale to the western fringes of Calabasas. It can be seen in the fact that the Valley, in contrast to downtown, actually is adding companies to its array of Fortune 500 firms.

This emerging status as what I describe as a "midopolis" is critical to understanding the incipient new role of the Valley. With the Red Line extension to North Hollywood set to open later this month, the Valley now has easy access to Hollywood and the immigrant-dominated central city. It has an emerging cultural district in NoHo, and a growing archipelago of sophisto hangouts from Studio City down to Encino that are turning Ventura Boulevard into an ersatz nouveau Beverly Hills.

The new Hollywood

Along with Burbank and Glendale, these areas are actually emerging as the center as well of Los Angeles' entertainment district. The expansion of Disney's facilities in the Valley, plus the increasing likelihood that DreamWorks SKG will settle permanently there, fuel this growth.

Activity is also growing along the midsection of the Valley, as epitomized by a new 33-acre industrial project near the Van Nuys Airport. Gradually, once-empty buildings in the area's industrial and warehousing heartland along such boulevards as Sherman Way and Victory Boulevard are being filled up.

At the same time, the west Valley is bristling with new development, reduced vacancy rates and young companies, in everything from technology to the Internet to business services. One key advantage there is easy access to the expensive, safe, sanitized places nerds like to inhabit; Westlake Village, Agoura Hills and Calabasas, for example, now rank among the 200 wealthiest communities in the country.

But the Valley is not really about wealth; only four of L.A.'s 50 richest people live there. What it still represents, in an urban scene increasingly bifurcated between rich and poor, is the great repository of the middle class. At a time when only Shaq can afford a shack in much of the Westside, and the average home in the Conejo Valley goes for nearly $400,000, the San Fernando Valley continues to offer housing options that less-stellar folk can afford.

This has sparked much of the growth in particular sections of the Valley such as Studio City, Sherman Oaks and Valley Village where people, including recently myself, have found housing options simply not available on the swanky Westside.

But to make this ascendancy complete, the Valley now needs to impose its middle-class persona on the city's political culture itself. Some may argue that the Valley already has had its chance, being the key region powering Richard Riordan's two successful runs for mayor; he reciprocated by providing more access for Valley activists to the levers of municipal power.

Yet Riordan was never a Valley guy. He lives in Brentwood and simply provided the hard-pressed homeowners, taxpayers and small businesspeople of the Valley an alternative to almost a generation of control by a downtown-dominated clique. In essence, Riordan was more of a successor to Tom Bradley's coalition than a true break. His natural ties are to the longtime power brokers of the Westside, not the homeowners of the Valley. He is still Big L.A.; the Valley is Little L.A.

Time for Wachs?

Looking at the 200l field, most of the candidates owe their backing to elements of the Big L.A. south of the hills. Few reflect Valley concerns, either.

James Hahn is the second-rate scion to a South L.A. political legacy with a liberal and African-American orientation. Antonio Villaraigosa and, to an even greater extent, Xavier Becerra, reflect East Los Angeles and the emerging Latino political elites' own search for civic dominance, as well as powerful connections to organized labor. Steve Soboroff is essentially Riordan Lite, a wealthy Westsider with a similar focus and political base.

Mayoral aspirant Joel Wachs, however, is another story. He is Valley-bred and epitomizes the homeowner and taxpayer orientation of the place. He has a sharp eye for government waste and backroom deals, and little weakness for the municipal delusions of grandeur that seem natural on the south side of the hills.

The time may be right for Wachs. If he holds the Valley's vote, which accounts for close to half the total, and makes some inroads on the Westside, particularly among Jews, gays and small businesspeople, he could construct an unbeatable coalition. As mayor, he could consolidate the real gains made during the Riordan years while challenging the power of many entrenched City Hall interests.

If Wachs can be elected mayor in 200l, the Valley's political ascendancy will match its demographic and economic rise. Perhaps then, the Valley can end its war against the rest of Los Angeles. It can simply declare victory and go on to building a new, more middle-class-friendly L.A. in the Valley's own image.

For reprint and licensing requests for this article, CLICK HERE.