On the great world map in the Palazzo Ducale in Venice, California hangs upside down, close to Cipango. Geographical intelligence was, of course, a foundation of Venetian wealth, so unlike other contemporary maps in European courts, the ducal map correctly depicts the exotic land of Califa as a peninsula, not an island. There is an elegantly inscribed notation in the part that is today Southern California. It reads “Antropofaggi–Eaters of Men.” Perhaps the cartographer was predicting realtors.
A month after admiring the Doges’ map rooms, I was buying mangos from an illegal street vendor on Base Line Street in San Bernardino. West San Bernardino is an older Mexican and black neighborhood at the foot of Cajon Pass. It sits uncomfortably on the San Jacinto Fault, which is almost as dangerous as its nearby big brother, the San Andreas. Coyotes still prowl in the washes, and the Santa Ana winds periodically blow out of the pass like dry hurricanes. Hard times have reigned here since the railroad repair shops closed a decade ago. On most upscale mental maps of Southern California, this is still antropofaggi territory: the wild void that lies east of ethnic cuisine.
In fact, Base Line Street is the Euclidean progenitor, the Ur-line, from which all the glamorous movieland boulevards and drives–Wilshire, Rodeo, Sunset and so on–were originally derived. It was plotted in November 1852 by Col. Henry Washington, working under contract to Samuel King, the Surveyor General of California. The summer before, a survey point had been established on the top of Mt. Diablo, incorporating the Bay Area into the conquering Jeffersonian grid. Now it was Southern California’s turn to submit to the geometry of Manifest Destiny. The colonel and his party of a dozen men first established a cadastral Initial Point on 10,000-foot-high Mt. San Bernardino, then laid down the Base and Principal Meridian lines. They are the absolute coordinates from which Southern California has been subsequently subdivided.
When Washington first ascended his mountain, he could see the smoke from Indian villages as well as the adobe houses of the Mormon pioneers sent to stake a claim on the Pacific for Brigham Young’s independent State of Deseret. Now the lucky hiker who reaches the Washington Monument Initial Point on a smog-free winter day can survey a megalopolis sprawling from distant beaches to the furnace-hearts of the Mojave and Colorado deserts. More than 100,000 named streets have been cloned since 1852 from the platonic ideal of Washington’s Base Line. Meanwhile, the surviving Indians own casinos, and local Mormons can drive to Salt Lake City in a day on high-speed Interstate 15.
From Santa Barbara to San Diego, what one local wag calls “Gross Angeles” is a bigger urban universe than many suppose. According to the 2000 Census, 19.3 million people now reside within Washington’s grid: a population equivalent to Mexico City’s and not far shy of Greater New York’s. Graying “Anglos” are a bare plurality, about 40 percent of the population, and will soon yield demographic leadership to younger Latinos (already 7.5 million in 2000). This Latin Americanization of Southern California has been accompanied by equally epochal shifts in residential and economic geography. The congested coastal zone, where three-fifths of the population lives, is divided between the poor black and Latino flatlands and the lush thickets of white affluence in the foothills and along the beaches. Here land inflation is the most powerful law of nature. There is no more room to build, and the rule of thumb says that if you can smell the Pacific, the land under your feet is worth a million dollars per acre. Even shotgun shacks in Watts can cost more than a palace in Dubuque. So for the past generation, growth has been centrifuged eastward, across the Chino and Puente Hills, into western San Bernardino and Riverside counties. Although many Americans are hardly aware of its existence, this “Inland Empire” has a bigger population (3.2 million in 2000) than the city of Chicago or, for that matter, Detroit, Philadelphia and Seattle combined. By 2025 it will swell to more than 6 million: the entire population of California in 1935.
Two sociologically distinct streams of intra-urban migration are responsible for the boom. First, white-collar and public-sector commuters are ceaselessly moving eastward in search of affordable mortgages. The Inland Empire is the new promised land where “starter” homes, although still expensive by Midwestern standards, are $100,000 to $200,000 cheaper than in older coastal zone suburbs like Westchester, Pasadena or Torrance. The punitive trade-off is the grim three-hour daily commute between new homes and coastal office-parks and factories. As regional planners daintily put it, the Inland Empire suffers from a radical “jobs/housing imbalance.” Long-suffering moms and dads routinely serve two or three years’ aggregate hard time in traffic for each child raised in the sanctum of a spacious Moreno Valley or Temecula tract home. The long ride to work is even more of a burden for those who lack the compensation of a dream home. Soaring rents are relentlessly driving the families of low-wage workers toward the desert and far away from major job concentrations. The hard-core poor–senior citizens, the handicapped, parolees and families cut from welfare–are also being expelled to the hinterlands. This is the second, more pathological source of the Inland Empire’s demographic dynamism. As one local economist complained recently: “What you are seeing is the exporting [of] the coastal communities’ problems to the inland region.” Indeed, during the 1990s individual poverty increased 51 percent in San Bernardino County and 63 percent in Riverside County.
One result is a Darwinian competition for the region’s limited supply of low-skill jobs in Ontario warehouses or Perris mobile-home factories. Another is the nomadic homelessness diffused throughout the interior counties. The structurally generated stress levels of long-distance commuting and poverty, not surprisingly, often redline in family breakdown or addiction. The San Bernardino area, with perhaps the nation’s largest concentration of over-the-road truckers and outlaw bikers, has long been the methamphetamine Medellín. It is not surprising, therefore, that some long-distance commuters have taken to starting each day with a booster-rocket of speed or crank with their cappuccino. More alarming, according to the San Bernardino Sun, their kids also consume drugs at almost triple the national average.
But the Inland Empire, if gridlocked and addled by speed, also adds something positive to the balance-sheet of civilization in Southern California. It may not have beaches, but it has the most democratic and racially mixed neighborhoods in the state. If you blended the 2000 California census in a Cuisinart, the result would resemble the multiethnic student bodies of Fontana or Perris high schools. Unlike much of Los Angeles, where diversity is often the transitional artifact of ethnic replacement, the blue-collar interior is a true rainbow. Affordable and, for once, racially unrestricted housing has attracted working-class whites following the eastward migration of warehouses and trucking companies, as well as African-American families trying to save their kids from the carnage of LA’s gang wars. Chicanos, more than a third of the population, follow in the footsteps of their grandparents, who toiled in the Inland Empire’s orchards and railroad shops.
Base Line Street, from San Bernardino to Ontario, provides a fascinating cross-section of this new society. Unlike in the wealthy planned communities of the Ventura plain or southern Orange County, land use in western San Bernardino County has the capricious quality of a Chinese encyclopedia. Thus pager sales shops, Bible stores and barbecue places alternate with long lines of storage sheds, the ruins of 1920s chicken ranches and new subdivisions advertising “Still Low 100s.” If some blocks now look like Levittown, others are still defiantly Appalachia. Enough debris, meanwhile, remains exposed–derelict cars, farms and steel mills–to suggest a Nochian flood event sometime in the area’s recent past.
Cruising Base Line, in fact, is rather like watching a Jim Jarmusch movie. The dull moments are always promptly relieved by some new enigma or unexpected absurdity. The landscape here is fractally strange. At first glance, for example, a corner mini-mall looks like any other until you notice the hand-chalked sign promising “Fresh Gator” on its way from Lafayette, Louisiana. (Hard times along the Gulf Coast have propelled thousands of Louisianans to the Inland Empire, where Cajun accents and creole cooking now spice local culture.) Likewise, the dusty bramble next to a Mexican Pentecostal church on closer inspection reveals itself to be a ghostly fragment of a famous vineyard, once the world’s largest, first planted in the 1850s. Exiled “Rollin’ 60s” Crips graffiti, meanwhile, brazenly tags the protective wall of a new tract development preposterously called “The Village of Heritage.”
In other suburban belts, artificial reality eventually smothers all intelligent life. But the Inland Empire’s new commuter lifestyles must contend with a formidable quotient of traditional grit. The old blue-collar culture of the region, forged in the great Henry Kaiser steel plant in Fontana and in the freight yards of Colton and San Bernardino, has survived plant closure and deunionization. Harleys are still more common than Lexuses, and there more gun shops than Merrill Lynch franchises. Although white-collar commuters during the week shelter inside their walled compounds in Rancho Cucamonga or Ontario, on Friday nights they mingle with the working classes at the local gridiron. High school football is the Inland Empire’s ecumenical religion. The corridor of communities along Base Line compete in the famed Citrus Belt and Sunkist leagues. These are deceptively genteel names for some of the meanest prep football in the country. The pioneer generation of Kaiser steelworkers transplanted the gladiatorial football traditions of the Allegheny valleys to Fontana in the 1940s. Although the blast furnaces are long cold and dead, FoHi and its local rivals–A.B. Miller, Kaiser, Eisenhower, Rialto and Colton–still play ball with milltown passion. These Homeric battles over town honor frequently continue after the final whistle. In 1999, for example, FoHi players avenged themselves on an arrogant opponent by beating up the visiting coaches. Adults on both sides were scandalized, but many kids relished the payback.
Indeed, there is a populist element in the Inland Empire that bitterly resents the partial gentrification of once happy badlands. A few years ago, I visited the little house on Montgomery Street in Fontana, a half-block south of Base Line, where I was born in 1946. The current resident and his sons were in the backyard vigorously stripping down an automobile. I knocked on the door and was quickly confronted by big glaring men with socket wrenches in their hands. They became friendlier when I explained that I had stopped on sheer impulse to revisit my Fontana early childhood. As his sons returned to their demolition work, the dad shared his views about the population explosion in the Inland Empire.
“This used to be a good neighborhood.” He gestured toward the sagging bungalow shaded by an elderly pepper tree across the street. “There was bikers and truckers. Regular people. Now,” he said fiercely, “there’s goddamn yuppies everywhere.” He was obviously referring to the new “Falcon Pointe” subdivision a few blocks away. Although the dental assistants, schoolteachers and paralegals who live there are scarcely “yuppies” by West LA standards, I took his point. The new Fontanans do tend to be intolerant of the old-timers’ penchant for junk cars and biscuits and grits. “What’s to be done?” I asked.
“Move to Victorville. I’m movin’ to Victorville,” he responded with the certitude of a new convert. Victorville is the nearest edge of the high desert, half an hour up the steep ramp of Cajon Pass from San Bernardino. Once a town of tough cowboys and gandy dancers, it is picturesquely sited where the railroad tracks (and now I-15) cross the mysterious Mojave River. Hollywood screenwriters with a tight deadline or a drinking problem used to be exiled to Victorville to finish their scripts without urban distractions. Herman Mankiewicz wrote the first draft of Citizen Kane there, although only a handful of English eccentrics like J.B. Priestley and Aldous Huxley genuinely seemed to have liked the Mojave and its relentless, howling wind. Now Victorville is the suburb of a suburb, the overflow basin for a rapidly urbanizing Inland Empire.
Most of the homes in the desert have space between them, the Jeffersonian antidote to the claustrophobia of folks like my Fontana informant who fear living cheek to jowl with “yuppies.” For the moment, Victorville is still a sanctuary for loners and good old boys attached to a ramshackle sense of personal freedom and the right to squalor. For culture they have had the Roy Rogers-Dale Evans Museum and the Striptease Hall of Fame, not to mention gun shows and swap meets. But even the high desert–on the outer limits of LA commuter space–is rapidly growing strip malls and grassy subdivisions. Soon will come the day when the yuppies move in next door and a Starbucks replaces the Deadwood Saloon. Then it will again be time for the hardcore to load up the family Peterbilt and move further out, to Barstow, Baker or even Death Valley.
Indeed, Victorville is just one of the many pseudopods that the amoebic megalopolis is currently extending into its far-flung hinterlands. At the base of Grapevine Canyon, ninety miles north of downtown LA, developers have already used Washington’s ancestral Base Line to plat thousands of home footprints on the dusty San Joaquin floor. Likewise, the chronic housing shortage in San Diego is turning agricultural Imperial County, two hours away over rugged mountains, into a dormitory for its blue-collar families. Without the rail infrastructure that weaves Greater New York together, and lacking any regional coordination of housing and employment, the outward expansion of Southern California–as urbanists have warned for a generation–becomes intolerably destructive of family life, community health and the natural environment.
Yet it also seems unstoppable. Opinion surveys consistently confirm that Southern Californians’ hunger for affordable single-family homes remains insatiable, and that they are willing to endure truly purgatorial commutes to attain suburban heaven at the end of each workday. It matters, of course, that they have so few real alternatives to choose from. The celebrated “New Urban” vision of pedestrian-scale villages on light-rail lines has had negligible impact on local building culture. Regional planning, Southern California’s eternal will-o’-the-wisp, remains little more than the desperate race to add more lanes to a rapidly petrifying freeway system. This side of the apocalypse, at least, the future belongs to the desert suburbs and their simmering discontents. Greater LA’s deepest impulse is still infinity.