If you stand along California 60 east of Riverside on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon, you can see them coming--armies of young families, in compact cars and pickup trucks, searching for a house they can afford to buy in Southern California's newest boom area--the "Inland Empire."
As far as the eye can see, on both sides of the freeway, there are new homes or houses under construction. Real estate banners fly over the housing tracts--one is called "Dream Street," another "Hometown, U.S.A."
So many real estate signs clutter the intersections in Moreno Valley, a newly incorporated city 10 miles east of Riverside, that drivers cannot see stop signs and the weekend accident rate is high.
Builders and real estate brokers thrill to the sight. The oldest among them compare the Inland Empire boom to that in the San Fernando Valley in the 1950s, while their younger colleagues are reminded of the Orange County building surge of the 1960s and early '70s.
Population in the Inland Empire--Riverside and San Bernardino counties--has jumped from 1.1 million in 1970 to more than 1.8 million today, the fastest growth of any large region in the state.
From 1980 to 1984, the two-county area grew 16.2%--faster than Dallas or Houston or Phoenix--according to U.S. Census estimates. By the end of the century the population should reach 2.7 million, a forecast by the Southern California Assn. of Governments said.
Last year the City of Rancho Cucamonga, incorporated only eight years ago, had the fastest growth rate in the state among cities of 50,000 to 100,000 in population, the state Department of Finance has reported.
In 1984, the two-county area led the state in new housing starts for the first time, with 38,400 new units. In Moreno Valley alone, 4,000 new single-family homes and 400 apartments were built last year.
"We're talking major boom here," said Jeff Scarenka, the ebullient marketing manager for Barton Development Co., which is building a large office building complex in Rancho Cucamonga.
Said Ronald O. Loveridge, a political science professor at the University of California, Riverside, and a member of the Riverside City Council: "This is no longer a small town; we've joined the big leagues."
The population explosion, and accompanying economic growth, have not been entirely a blessing for the Inland Empire.
Roads and freeways now are more congested. Schools in some communities are badly overcrowded, while other areas struggle with inadequate sewage or flood control facilities. Air pollution is a constant worry.
Some communities have resisted growth--Redlands, Norco, Alta Loma (before it became part of the new city of Rancho Cucamonga) and, off and on, the City of Riverside.
But most have come to terms with the boom.
"More people are going to move into this county than I would like, if I had my druthers," Riverside County Supervisor Kay Ceniceros said. "But we must accommodate them."
All of this growth, occurring so suddenly, has produced a land of striking contrasts.
New housing tracts and warehouses stand next to abandoned vineyards in Rancho Cucamonga, at one time one of the largest wine-producing regions in the country.
Some citrus packing plants are still operating but most of the fruit now comes from elsewhere. Only a few of the orange and lemon groves that were once a staple of the Inland Empire's agricultural economy still survive.
A handful of Basque shepherds still roam the Inland Empire, but most of the grazing land has been gobbled up for development.
At the Basco Centro Restaurant in Chino, the sheepmen eat huge meals, washed down with red wine, and lament the passing of the old life.
Stock car races, motorcycle clubs (or gangs, depending on one's point of view) and country-Western bars are still a part of Inland Empire life, but so are female mud wrestling, meetings of Young Republican yuppies and expensive, if not altogether satisfying, restaurants.
"The area is still a little bit country, and people like that," said Brent Hunter, manager of the Ontario Chamber of Commerce. "There's a lot of talk about this becoming the 'new Irvine,' but we don't want to be the 'new Irvine'--a sterile place with a lot of traffic problems. There's still a personal touch out here that people like--they don't want a bunch of guys in blue suede shoes taking over."
Some still wonder if the Inland Empire boom is real. For years they have been hearing talk of a surge of prosperity that never quite came about.
"I was predicting this kind of growth 20 years ago, when I taught real estate classes at Chaffey College (a community college in Rancho Cucamonga)," said Mayor Bob Ellingwood of Ontario. "By the textbook, this is where it should have happened a long time ago. But, for whatever reason, the Inland Empire just hasn't clicked until the 1980s."
Why is it happening now?
The main reason is land--available, affordable land.