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SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA'S ENVIRONMENT At the Crossroads : Southern California mirrors the nation's environmental problems and the future holds both peril and promise. Experts look to the '90s as the Decade of Decision--a time when Southern Californians must choose between reclaming the best of nature or squandering what remains. : A Region Designed to Be Consumed

December 10, 1989|Robert A. Jones | Columnist Robert A. Jones was a Times environmental writer for nine years. His column, On California, appears each week.

"I used to like this town . . . a long time ago. There were trees along Wilshire Boulevard. Los Angeles was just a big dry sunny place with ugly homes and no style, but good-hearted and peaceful. It had the climate they just yap about now. Little groups who thought they were intellectual used to call it the Athens of America. It wasn't that, but it wasn't a neon-lighted slum either."

--Private detective Philip Marlowe talking about his hometown in "The Little Sister," by Raymond Chandler, 1949.

You tell 'em, Marlowe. Sooner or later, I think, we all become Marlowes in this place. Whether you've lived here for 30 years or just rolled into town last spring, you find yourself remembering the way it was. Southern California does that to people.

I have a friend who used to drive out to Newhall on Sunday mornings. He would sit in a small cafe and read the papers. Just soak up the rural stuff. Then one day he had to stop because it was all over in Newhall. A hundred thousand people had moved out there and the city ceased to exist. It got renamed Santa Clarita. My friend remembers Newhall like he would a buddy who died.

And that's the kind of history we live with. Some people remember Newhall, some can remember the old San Fernando valley. I know a 17-year-old kid who surfs every day of his life and says he remembers Santa Monica Bay when it was "pre-sewage." I don't believe him but that's another matter. We all remember something.

In a sense, this ongoing perception of loss was built into Southern California from the very beginning. This was a region designed from its earliest days to be consumed. Whereas San Francisco had mining fortunes and New York had great commerce, Southern California had nothing except sunshine and land. The sunshine was free, so the founding fathers sold the land.

They did it with swagger and style, and they did it better than anyone who went before them. They proved that the winter-worn populations of the Midwest would abandon friends and family by the tens of thousands if you promised them a median January temperature of 62 degrees. Soon Southern California was filled with bewildered Iowa farmers and retired Pennsylvania arthritics. Their money made the founding fathers rich.

Carey McWilliams, the historian who often wrote of the boom years, once listed more than 60 new towns that were established in Southern California between January, 1887, and July, 1889. That was the first boom, and many others would follow. San Francisco may have plundered the gold country for its wealth; New York may have plundered the industrial heartland. Southern California plundered itself.

So we have this history. I have often wondered why the Iowa farmers and all the others did not care enough about their new home to try and save what was left. Did this land seem so strange that it was beyond their deep affections? Did it seem trashy, somehow, and discardable? I don't know.

I do know that you can drive down the California coast from the north and sense the open beauty of the shoreline until you get to a certain point just south of Santa Barbara. Everything changes after that. The coast becomes filled with squalid junk. Why was that invisible line drawn and why are we in the south so different from the rest of the state?

Maybe we inherited the behavior of our predecessors, like some genetic code. But as we are forced to pay the costs of destroying Southern California, as we all become like Marlowe, is there no point where we say enough, and start to defend this place ourselves?

It will be interesting to watch for the answer to that question. The news just might be good. There have been some signs recently of changes, however subtle. The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power has apparently discovered that the destruction of Mono Lake is not included on its list of inalienable rights. And the tonnage of filth flowing into Santa Monica Bay has been reduced by some degree.

There may be a symbol for this progress. Twenty years ago, the brown pelican was written off as a species. DDT had wrecked its egg shells and adults simply could not reproduce. The largest DDT manufacturer in the country was located here and its residues flooded down the sewers and into the coastal waters. So everyone thought the pelican was goners, beyond hope.

Then DDT was outlawed, the plant shut down, and slowly the pelican struggled back. Now they're everywhere, gliding low over the water, their wing tips almost touching the surface. No one worries much about the pelican anymore.

I know it's not much. I know you have to look hard to find the bright spots. But you learn to moderate your expectations around here. This is Southern California, after all. We've got a reputation to uphold.

At the Crossroads

THE STAFF

This section is the result of more than three months of research

on Southern California's environment by a team of Times reporters, editors and other staff members.

* EDITORS: Robert Magnuson, Roxane Arnold

* NEWS EDITOR: Steve Mitchell

* PRINCIPAL WRITERS: Maura Dolan, Larry Stammer, Mark Stein

* REPORTERS: Alan Citron, Steven R. Churm, Catherine Gewertz, Paul Jacobs, Greg Johnson, Myron Levin, Louis Sahagun, Robert Steinbrook, Mike Ward, Jenifer Warren

* PRINCIPAL ARTIST: Paul Gonzales. Contributing: James Owens, Don Clement, Michael Hall

* PHOTOGRAPHER: Jim Mendenhall

* RESEARCH LIBRARIAN: Janet Lundblad

* OTHER CONTRIBUTORS: Stan Allison, Larry Armstrong, Mary Braswell, Mike Castelvecchi, Bob Chamberlin, Robert Harlow, Jim Houston, Burt Irwin, Bruce McLeod, Gary Metzker, Larry Snipes

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