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Felicitous City of the Mind Rises in California Desert

March 20, 1986|BILL MANSON

FELICITY, Calif. — "Welcome to the Center of the World!" yells this eagle-faced Frenchman. He jumps out of a car whose number plate reads CTRWRLD. Jacques Andre Istel is about to weave a gossamer world for us, to make sure that by the time we're through it'll be the center of our world, too. He's going to have his work cut out for him. A desert? The center of the world? Is this another Ozymandius, set on building monuments to himself? California is littered with such schemes.

And yet . . . Washington was a swamp, Bangkok a bog, Brazilia a jungle, Canberra a kangaroo paradise. And that's the way they would have stayed if some crazy visionary hadn't come along and somehow persuaded thousands, millions of people to make their lives there.

So, just maybe, it's happening again. In the desert. Near Yuma, Ariz. Of course, no townie could think of any good reason to set up shop here, in a patch of brown nothingness which you'd have to identify by pointing out its special features. Well, there are the Chocolate Mountains a few days' march to the northeast. There are sensuous sand dunes a glare-blinding glance away to the southwest, looking like 15 naked very white women lying down all along the horizon. And then there's the inevitable dotted line cutting through it all, Interstate 8.

And that's it.

Here, for 50 billion years, the most exciting thing happening was what the Aussies call "Willy Willies"--wind-spun columns of dust, belly-dancing across the flats. But now, thanks to Monsieur Istel, there is something else. Sticking up out of the moonscape for no apparent reason, a pair of cream arched gatehouses, a potentially pink pyramid, and the Frenchman himself waving a book about dragons proclaiming this to be the Center of the Earth. Salvador Dali would have loved it.

Don't ask anyone in Yuma about the phenomenon, because they all still think it's a hoax, but the gatehouses and the pyramid here are, in fact, California's newest city, Felicity. And that's official, because the Imperial County Board of Supervisors says so. And the Frenchman waving the dragon book is determined to make it so. He's a dreamer mad enough to see a great Renaissance town springing up here. Where your ordinary humanoid sees stones and sand, Jacques Andre Istel sees a rose-colored city. A true oasis of civilization. Cafes, trees, the Ile-de-France, the Champs Elysees, a quartier of Paris itself perhaps, transported in spirit lock, stock and Bois de Bologne to the California desert. The London Bridge syndrome, writ large.

And why not?

"I've always wanted to do it," said the 57-year-old Istel. "To start a city. Give birth to a town. My father, too. But he never actually got down to it. I'm just a little madder than him. I've given up the good life and come out to the desert to start something that will come to fruition about the time my grandchildren grow up. Right now, of course, it doesn't seem (like) much."

He looks through the builders' rubble to the almost complete gatehouses that face each other, wedged apart by an 18-foot-high series of steel girders forming a pyramid. Welcome to Felicity. Beyond: an unlimited potential for the city. That is, the planet exactly as featureless as God made it, stretching out till the Chocolate Mountains save you from falling off the edge.

But follow Istel around a bit and you'll need a will of iron to resist being seduced into the whole idea, becoming, drip by drip, a believer. He's a combination of whim and passion, never one without the other. He has the kind of insistent enthusiasm of the spoiled child who will have his way. Trouble is, the more you hear, the more you want him to have it.

" 'Istel--you need a psychiatrist!' That's what my banker told me. But I know bankers. I come from a banking family. When a banker doesn't tell me I need a psychiatrist, I know it's too late to do what I want to do!"

He points to where a pipe comes up out of the ground.

"This will be our first fountain. The first of many. Essential in a city. Water will spurt out of a dragon's mouth. And up here," he points toward the right-hand gatehouse, "we shall have our brasserie. A roadside cafe which is really a cafe, in the French style. But we're not having ovens . . . We shall cook outside. Barbecue! Come and I'll tell you why."

He goes outside and looks up at the orange tiled roof. "You see that beautiful roof line? I am not going to spoil it for anything. If we have ovens inside, we'll have to put ugly chimneys through the roof. It will ruin it. If nothing else, this town is going to look good. We have already created the Felicity Historical Society to ensure it. Preservation orders," he says with a twinkle in his eye. "We certainly don't want to be dictatorial planners, but we don't want to be a tacky suburb either. So the Historical Society will be a kind of watchdog, just as they are in the rest of the country. Only it will have the advantage of guarding history while it is being made."

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