There is science, logic, reason; there is thought verified by experience. And then there is California.–Edward Abbey
Poking around this jumble of ramshackle trailers lined up along a dozen dusty, unpaved roads on the outskirts of the Torres-Martinez Indian reservation, surrounded by the barren and baking Southern California desert on three sides and a fetid, smoking rubbish dump on the fourth, you’d think naming this place Duroville was nothing short of a cynical, deliberate joke. Duro, in Spanish, means “hard” or “tough.” Duroville. You know, Hard Times Town.
Instead, it’s just a cutting coincidence. A decade ago, sensing opportunity amid a severe housing shortage for Mexican-born farmworkers who toil in the nearby fields, local resident Harvey Duro opened up this land for any campesino willing to park his trailer for about $500 a month. So what if there was no running water, no plumbing, no health regulation of any sort and if, in general, Duroville was really no better than the Dust Bowl-era labor camps described in The Grapes of Wrath?
Yet the 3,000 or so mostly Purépecha Indians (from the Mexican state of Michoacán) who populate this outpost between posh Palm Springs and the near-dead Salton Sea have fought relentlessly–and successfully, thanks to a recent court order–for the right to keep building this hardscrabble hamlet and are adamantly grateful for the modest haven it offers them and their families. Especially on a summer day like this, when the mercury tops 112. “Thank God for Duroville,” said 45-year-old farmworker Elias. “Without this, where would we have to live?”
Elias knows of what he speaks. Just a few miles up the road, in the preposterously named flyspeck town of Mecca, several dozen of his co-workers simply sleep in their cars in the parking lot of El Toro Market. Riverside County officials, resigned to this degradation, are caring enough, or at least are realistic enough, not to evict them and instead provide toilets and weekly portable showers. “Things here are worse, worse, worse than ever,” said Emanuel Benitez, a community outreach worker at the local office of California Rural Legal Assistance. “These people make about $13,000 a year. They have no money for rent. And anyway, there are no places here to rent.”
All this, a mere two hours southeast of 90210.
As recently as a few years ago, it would have been an easy reporter’s trick to juxtapose the Fourth World conditions of Mecca and Duroville with the lush golf courses, seven-figure mansions and glittering casinos thirty minutes away in the Palm Springs valley in order to prove that two very different Californias coexist, blithely ignorant of each other.
Nowadays, that seems too facile. Certainly, the socioeconomic distance between the two extremes remains vast, if not immeasurable. But now we are talking about degrees of pain and comfort rather than separate social universes. The city of Cabazon, for example, home to one of those mega-rich casinos, recently clocked in with a 30 percent unemployment rate. The wealthiest enclaves of California have hardly been driven into misery, but no social stratum is exempt from the crash of The Dream. A morning’s ride west of Palm Springs, on the shimmering Orange County coast, the $500-a-night St. Regis-Monarch Beach resort, where AIG sponsored a free-spending bash last fall, just days after getting a federal bailout, has been seized by Citigroup. Like a record number of properties in California, the St. Regis has an “underwater” mortgage, owing $300 million on a hotel now worth maybe a third of the debt. Up the same coast, the ritzy San Francisco Four Seasons resort just defaulted on a $90 million loan. The rich, it turns out, aren’t that different from us anymore. Even they are traveling less and cutting back on hot stone massages.