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.