At Rose's Caffe Luna, Hartig introduces me to Dave Forman, a local architect. He doesn't use the word reactionary when he talks about the local architecture, but it's not a happy discussion. He notes that each new shopping center, one after the other, is designed with the same elements: sandstone-hued exterior, red plastic signage, exposed redwood beams and vaguely Moorish corner turrets. To "vary" subdivisions, which also are slavishly stucco, builders simply bend the streets a bit or alternate tile roofs among different tones of pink.
"It's not just Rancho," says Forman. "All the cities out here start off saying Mediterranean even though they know all the others are doing the same. They use this mythical past as a cover for the fact that they don't have a current vision for their city. And what is sad is that they have the freedom to do anything, because they are virtually inventing these communities on paper. But there is no imagination."
Randall Lewis, the Lewis Homes executive who helped develop the area and might be counted on to defend it, actually agrees. "We're all asking, 'Is there life after stucco?' " he says, quoting a participant in a recent home builders' conference. But, he explains, "housing is a fashion business, more so than even autos, and popularity rules. We put up different models, a Tudor, French, ranch, and the brokers come back to us and say, 'More of the Mediterranean. That's what buyers want.' "
He adds that developers must build the same house over and over to keep prices affordable. Anyway, insists Lewis, the new tracts won't always look like cookie-cutter communities. Over time, trees will grow up and owners will landscape their homes according to individual taste. "Some of these will be really good-looking communities."
Lack of aesthetic vision isn't the only reason some find edge cities creepy. There is the absence of urbanity, of culture, of, say, five-, four-, three- or even two-star restaurants to complement the lone espresso bar in Rancho Cucamonga. Lewis says he'd like to see a foreign-movie house. But then he shrugs. "The things you and I might miss, many people don't miss. And actually, the area is over-screened for Hollywood movies." Other defenders like to point to what they see as aesthetic successes and harbingers of culture: the Orange County Performing Arts Center and the Jewel Court of South Coast Plaza, where 5th Avenue stores are packed cheek by luxurious jowl.
The one nasty charge against edge cities that Lewis adamantly denies is that their development tends to divide people along racial lines. Not in the Ontario area, he says. In fact, from Lewis' point of view, the new subdivisions give people the reassurance they need to come together. Lewis describes the prospective buyers that show up at his company's open houses: "Middle class. Working people. All races. They want a back yard, a quiet street, a safe place to take their kids trick-or-treating. You want to know who we sell a lot of homes to? Law enforcement. Cops from L.A. County. They're trying to get away."
If it's flight, then Lewis is right that it's multiracial flight. The Ontario area is now 44% black, Asian and Latino. During the '80s, when tens of thousands of Angeleno families bought into the area--paying anywhere from $80,000 for townhouses to $200,000 for four-bedroom, two-bath, 2,000-square-foot houses--71% of the area's growth was nonwhite. Even Rancho Cucamonga, with its Irvine-like reputation for elitism, is 43% nonwhite. But whatever the ethnic population in San Bernardino County, registered Republicans have increased 135% since 1980, compared to a 75% increase in Democrats.
Lewis, who grew up in the area, is proud that it has retained the feel of a solid, middle-class set of communities despite two decades of relentless growth. "At night and on weekends, when people get back from work, there's a sense of community. Somehow, almost by happenstance, the region is developing as we like, as a place I want to live."
Even Forman, the architect, ends up admitting that his aesthetic disappointment doesn't keep him from enjoying the area. He grew up in the San Fernando Valley. "God, it was a relief to get out here, to the slower pace, less hassle getting around." When told that the area is projected to get as crowded as the Valley, he denies it. "The Valley is all in the city of L.A., and the politicians were letting any development through. Here there are too many political units, and planning is still tied to individual cities and their controls. People will holler if it gets too bad." That conceit is well known to Angelenos.