Welcome to Calabasas: Home of Drake and the Kardashians, and Cradle of Reality-TV Culture

“This is a gated community, please get the fuck off the property.” —Drake, “Versace (Remix)”

The first reality show to make conspicuous use of the tony Los Angeles suburb of Calabasas, California, was Newlyweds, the Jessica Simpson and Nick Lachey vehicle that depicted the former pop star couple’s daily life in their West Valley mansion. Now, with its ever-expanding roster of past and present celebrity denizens like Justin Bieber, Selena Gomez, and the Kardashians, the town has gained peak notoriety. The West Valley is rife with McMansions like that of Simpson and Lachey’s, many of them built during the last real-estate boom before the recession and housing crash. While the median income for a family living in Calabasas is around $119,624 (according to the 2010 census), the city is not entirely wealthy: 6.2 percent of its population live below the federal poverty line. There are modest neighborhoods and houses in Calabasas, but what you see in the media tends to focus on the suburb’s most lavish estates and expensive gated communities.

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Today, mansions in the West Valley are rented out for reality shows as often as porn shoots. You have definitely seen the inside of one via your television or laptop at some point. They share a general style endemic to wealthy suburbs all over the country: marble floors, dramatic staircases, and giant backyards with nice views. Picture the Sopranos’ mansion in New Jersey, only set in the California savanna. Not every mansion in Calabasas is like this, of course, but this has become the quintessential image in the public consciousness. Agrestic, the fictional wealthy exurb in Weeds, with its look-alike homes and beige aesthetic, used an aerial shot of Calabasas (although the series was shot in the affluent Santa Clarita area of Stevenson Ranch).

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Originally home to the Chumash people, the area was “discovered” by Spanish explorers in 1776. The name “Calabasas” was first noted in 1795 San Fernando mission records. The Leonis Adobe, built in 1844, is one of the oldest buildings in the L.A. area. The oak trees are even older; some are reputed to be 700 years old. There are two competing theories about the etymology of the name Calabasas; it probably derives from either a Chumash word, calahoosa, or the Spanish calabaza, both of which mean “gourd.” (Fittingly, they celebrate a yearly Pumpkin Festival in the land of calabashes.) Beginning in the ’20s, when cars made the most remote parts of the spread-out area easily accessible, Calabasas became a filming location, roadside rest stop, and resort town where studio heads and film stars rented out ranches for the summer. Calabasas boasted one of California’s first subdivisions, the artists’ colony of Park Moderne.

Because Los Angeles is a relatively young city, its architectural history is fairly short and easy to trace. Calabasas is often a last stop, having retained its ranch-land feel over the decades. If it seems particularly Western, that’s because it hasn’t been too long since this was the kind of Deadwood-like town with one schoolhouse, a post office, and a small row of buildings in the area that now houses a Mexican restaurant called Sagebrush Cantina. Or maybe it’s because parts of Stagecoach were shot there.

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Calabasas was only incorporated into Los Angeles County in 1991, which explains why it feels like another world. It has its own film festival and trolley service. It is also home to the corporate headquarters of The Cheesecake Factory. During the first wave of the tech boom in the ’90s, Calabasas tried to model itself as an L.A.-area outpost of Silicon Valley. Almost everything eventually shut down, although the telecommunication giant Ixia is still headquartered there.

Most of the public idea of Calabasas comes from the gated community of Hidden Hills, which is actually considered its own municipality (California is the only place in the U.S. where gated communities have been legally categorized as separate cities). Hidden Hills is one of the oldest gated communities in Southern California, designed and built in the ’50s by landscape architect A.E. Hanson, who also built the wealthy Rolling Hills gated community in Palos Verdes and Harold Lloyd’s “Greenacres” mansion in Benedict Canyon. Hidden Hills is the second-richest (ahead of Bel Air) and whitest (ahead of Malibu) neighborhood in Los Angeles County, clocking in at 92.3 percent Caucasian in the 2010 census.

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Even though its gates promise exclusivity and privacy from cameras, Hidden Hills has hosted lots of reality-TV stars who don’t exactly shun the glare of media attention. In addition to the Kardashians and the formerly married Lachey-Simpsons, it has also been the home of Denise Richards (Denise Richards: It’s Complicated), LeAnn Rimes and Eddie Cibrian (whose VH1 reality show premieres this week), and Ozzy and Sharon Osbourne (The Osbournes); it was the onetime home of then-married Jennifer Lopez and Marc Anthony (¡Q’Viva!: The Chosen). Hidden Hills has also been the home of a few musicians, whose names I love to see together: Drake, Melissa Etheridge, and Jeff Porcaro. In Drake’s verse on “2 On/Thotful,” he says “Crib in Calabasas man I call that shit the safe house / Thirty minutes from L.A., man the shit is way out.”

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Will Smith and his family, Michael Jackson’s children, and Britney Spears have also called Calabasas home at some point or another. But the Kardashians are still perhaps the most well-known Calabasas residents, and they are often credited with bringing Calabasas firmly into the public consciousness. Even though Kim and Kanye shelled out $11 million for a mansion in Bel Air, they’ve already chosen to sell it in favor of moving closer to Kim’s family. Kim Kardashian’s new app game, Kim Kardashian: Hollywood, takes place in a world where it costs more money to get to Calabasas than to Miami.

Drake is not the first rapper to bring up Calabasas, although he may be the first one to brag about living there. Conveniently rhyming with asses, “Calabasas” serves as shorthand for a bougie suburb; it’s the polar opposite of the hood. The town has been name-checked (sometimes pejoratively) by rappers like Tech N9ne, Westside Connection affiliates The Comrads, Ras Kass, gangsta rap legends Above the Law, late-period Wu-Tang affiliate Cilvaringz, Kool Keith, and, uh, Jaden Smith. Ice Cube lived for years in the San Fernando Valley suburb of Encino, but he never once brought it up in a song because it would have clashed too much with his South Central L.A. image.

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Drake has always been open about being from the suburbs of Toronto; his suburbanism, as etched into Degrassi stone, is part of his appeal. He has no street cred to lose by repping for L.A.’s sprawling West Valley. Still, he made the conscious choice to rap about Calabasas instead of Hidden Hills. I would guess he’s self-conscious about living in such a wealthy and white gated community, except he always raps about his condos in Toronto — so clearly Drake is not exactly consumed with shame about his yuppie lifestyle choices. This is a guy who could make any kind of real-estate impulse purchase he wants, but his dream home is in a gated community. In the suburbs Aubrey Drake Graham was raised, and to the suburbs he will return.

The original asking price for Drake’s Hidden Hills house was $27 million in 2009, but the price dropped after the housing market crash, which is how Drake got it for less than $8 mil. For that price, he lives in a home on three acres with six bedrooms, a 28-person movie theater, a spa, wine cellar, stables with an equestrian ring, a volleyball court, 10 bathrooms, a game room, and a massive pool attached to a Playboy Mansion–style grotto with a wet bar inside. Money goes a lot further in the valley because space is not at a premium, which is why stars are willing to give up the cachet of living in Los Angeles proper for the wilds of the West Valley. Building permits are easy to obtain, and part of what drives celebrities to the deep West Valley is the promise of being allowed to build their own dream house. For those celebs who want a lavish mansion designed to their exact specifications, Calabasas is still something of a moldable frontier. It might be 10 degrees hotter a couple of towns inland from the ocean, but it’s also a hell of a lot cheaper. Plus, Malibu is just over the hill, which is why Drake can easily get crab at Nobu.

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Living in the San Fernando Valley is akin to living in New Jersey; what you lose in prestige you gain in space. The celebrity thickets of West Los Angeles are a lot more expensive, and less private. Historically rich neighborhoods like Malibu and Bel Air are overloaded with business magnates, megastars, and entertainment-industry tycoons. The gated communities of Calabasas seem comparatively sequestered and isolated, offering both space and purported security. Paparazzi are forbidden from passing through those gates, though they may have found a creepy way around that with new drone cameras.

The valley is often a subject of disdain, although really, its worst crime is being boringly suburban. But it is home to some of California’s oldest suburbs, and Calabasas, located at the westernmost tip of the San Fernando Valley, is the prototype for that particular type of generic wealthy enclave. Aside from the celebrity influx, it more or less doubles down on any complaint you could ever make about the SFV: more isolated, more tacky, more devoid of character, laden with big-box stores and generic chain restaurants in the “casual dining” mode. But while the greater San Fernando Valley is diverse in terms of class and race, Calabasas is fairly homogenous.

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The suburb’s would-be town center is the open-air mall The Commons at Calabasas — the West Valley outpost of Caruso Affiliated, the real-estate company that also created the popular Hollywood open-air luxury mall The Grove. Calabasas Commons was Caruso’s first major success as a developer, and it established the Disneyland–Little Italy aesthetic that has proven so successful with the nearly identical Grove, as well as the Americana in Glendale. Calabasas Commons is built in the same pseudo-Mediterranean look that dominates the entire area. Santa Barbara shooter Elliot Rodger’s manifesto, “My Twisted World,” which remains online with annotations on Rap Genius, makes numerous references to the Commons.

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A lot of the mansions in Calabasas look like a re-created version of the Beverly House, the storied Hollywood Hills abode where William Randolph Hearst once lived and The Godfather’s horse head sequence was filmed. The Beverly House (which was recently listed at $135 million), with its Cali-Mediterranean look, 29 bedrooms, and 40 bathrooms, is the stylistic inspiration for estates like the Kardashians’, which thrive on excess.

The Beverly House sits alongside mega-mansions built in a variety of international styles meant to convey wealth and lineage: English Tudor, French imperial à la Versailles. In The Day of the Locust, Nathanael West’s protagonist, Tod Hackett, discusses and derides the strangeness of seeing these clashing architectural styles shoulder-to-shoulder, each rich person’s fantasy made manifest in concrete; “But not even the soft wash of dusk could help the houses. Only dynamite would be of any use against the Mexican ranch houses, Samoan huts, Mediterranean villas, Egyptian and Japanese temples, Swiss chalets, Tudor cottages, and every possible combination of these styles that lined the slopes of the canyon.” But if Hackett finds Hollywood to be a nightmare of variety, Calabasas is a different sort of dystopia: architecturally homogenous, slopes filled with nothing but Mediterranean villas.

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That faux-coastal Italian architectural style is associated with wealth, but a specific type of wealth: so-called “new money.” Calabasas draws a certain type of American star, for whom excess itself is a performance. Drake, Bieber, and the Kardashians — and, let’s face it, Kanye — enjoy making a show of their wealth. What better way to display your spending than to live in the modern-day equivalent of a castle, protected by a moat of security guards? Like the Caruso properties, stars’ Calabasas mansions employ signifiers of wealth and tradition that fail to impart the historical gravitas they aim for. Rather than pretend they lust after a minimalist mid-century modern house in the L.A. hills, they’re just being honest about what image they really want to project: an ostentatious display of wealth. Really, it’s no more ostentatious than a Santa Monica millionaire’s fine art collection or a Beverly Hills millionaire’s collection of luxury cars. Kanye and Kim may not be able to live in Versailles, but they can build their own equivalent in the West Valley. If anyone is going to build the Hearst Castle of Calabasas, it is Kanye West.

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Drake and Bieber have young men’s taste; they want flashy bachelor pads. But Kim and Kanye and the other Kardashians are committed to tackiness as purposeful lifestyle choice, in defiance of the idea that there is such a thing as class. If you’re going to show off your wealth, why do it in a boring Gwyneth Paltrow way that involves expensive denim and cotton basics from Barneys when you can wear leopard print, leather, and gold?

In many ways, Kim Kardashian and the town she calls home are at similar points in their careers. No matter how rich Kim gets, her fame is still derided as cheap. She has maintained American public interest in the Kim brand for much longer than anyone thought possible, and no matter how staged, her reality show is sometimes very entertaining. She raises a lot of interesting questions about the nature of celebrity, beauty, talent, and how the media works just by existing. Like it or not, she’s a cultural figurehead for the decade. Kim may not be an actor, but she occupies the same cultural space that sex symbols like Jayne Mansfield, Farrah Fawcett, and Pamela Anderson did in decades past. Kim is the A-list of the D-list. She could write the great American novel and the first line of her obituary would probably still mention her sex tape, Kim Kardashian, Superstar. And that makes it interesting that she chooses to locate herself in the San Fernando Valley, traditional home of the porn industry.

Starting in 1855, Calabasas was ruled for a decade by Miguel Leonis, a Basque man who became known as the “King of Calabasas” before his untimely death by literally falling off the wagon taking him through the Cahuenga Pass. If Kim and Kanye really do move to Calabasas to be closer to Kim’s family, ostensibly splitting their time between Paris, Milan, and Hidden Hills, Kanye may well be the new “King of Calabasas.” By default of Kanye living there, with the Kardashian clan no less, Calabasas might just be the current cultural capital of the country.

Filed Under: celebrity, Los Angeles, Calabasas, Will Smith, Justin Bieber, Drake, Kim Kardashian, Kanye West

Photo on 2014-01-10 at 12.58 #3

Molly Lambert is a staff writer for Grantland.

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