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Mapping the Local Landscape of Power

Lecture: Orange County is forever erasing its past, social historian Mike Davis tells a Huntington Beach Art Center audience.

June 11, 1996|CATHY CURTIS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

HUNTINGTON BEACH — The ideal community art center is more than a place to hang art; it's a place that helps give a focus to the larger issues shaping the lives of the people it serves.

The Huntington Beach Art Center once more proved its value last week, when it brought social historian Mike Davis down from Pasadena to talk about what he called the "invisible landscape of power" responsible for creating and transforming the visible landscape of Orange County.

A soft-spoken, gray-haired man whose seriousness is inflected with a droll sense of irony, Davis is best known for "City of Quartz" (Vintage Books, $14), a bleak, passion-filled study of the powers that shape Los Angeles.

At the art center, he ignored the microphone and lectern to deliver a low-key, intimate talk without notes to the small, youthful audience.

Easily reeling off dates and statistics, Davis took his listeners on a roller-coaster tour of Orange County's dubious evolution from a near-primeval wilderness (a coastline "of almost continuous marshland") to a locale where the bountiful landscape of yesteryear exists largely as an amusement-park simulation.

"So many of us live in a land we so little understand," he said. "It's getting harder and harder to establish contact with the metabolism of the region."

Despite the ersatz quality of "Mediterranean style" architecture in Orange County, the term does apply to the land, Davis said. "Underneath the red tile roofs is something very real. . . . This is MGM-type nature. Every five, 10, 15, 20 years there is an extreme burst of energy. As Anglo-Americans, we don't accept that nature should work that way. We call it disaster."

For almost a decade in the mid-19th century, the Southern California rancheros flourished, thanks to an "explosive demand for beef." But during the Civil War, massive flooding killed tens of thousands of cattle. That was followed by three years of drought.

In the late 1860s and '70s, nouveaux riches Northern Californians with names such as Bixby, Baldwin, O'Neill, Flint, Flood and Irvine swooped down on the region, buying up haciendas for virtually nothing. They replaced the cattle largely with sheep, and "for a few years, Orange County looked like Australia."

The carpetbaggers lobbied to make Los Angeles--then a sleepy backwater--a primary destination on the new transcontinental railroad lines. When the Santa Fe Railroad route was completed in 1887, the next task was to find a high-value commodity to ship.

The magic word was "citrus." The citrus crop "was a wonderful way to get wealthy investors to settle in Southern California."

Citrus also was "California's first science-based industry," Davis said, involving "the continuous integration of scientific research by the University of California." The results were as diverse as the generation of hydroelectric power used to light homes and power the interurban railroad system, and the development of the electric pump.

For the average American, suffering through the harsh winters of the 1880s, Southern California suddenly became a mecca, a cheerful and bounteous place that looked, in the advertisements, very much like descriptions of the Holy Land.

The darker side of this sunny story involves the lives of the people who actually picked the crops, Davis said. By World War I, Japanese, Chinese and poor white pickers were largely replaced by imported colonies of Mexican workers. It was, Davis said, "a social system little different from cotton peonage in the South," and it involved then-legal discrimination in education and housing.

The 1936 citrus strike of 2,500 Mexican workers in Orange County was "organized labor's rite of passage in Orange County," Davis said. In a few weeks' time, it was crushed by vigilantes, including 500 hired college students.

By then, Orange County was the second largest agricultural county in the U.S. in terms of product value. After World War II, the agricultural landscape of Orange County was a lure for home buyers. But the vision had an inevitable flaw.

"You move there so the kids can see cows," Davis said, "but suburbia destroys [rural landscape], so you move on."

The turning point came in 1960. Housing became a hot commodity, turning a whole generation into speculators.

"You could make more money staying in your house than from years of ardent savings," Davis said. "Land inflation had a profound and mysterious role in changing California."

The impact was particularly dramatic in south Orange County, which had virtually the only developable coastal plains. There was enormous incentive for developers to turn as much land as possible into lucrative real estate. Protests by older residents, who had bought homes when there was still much open space, led to the slow-growth movement.

The developers' response was simply to come up with "suaver, more sophisticated ways of manipulating" the public's contradictory impulses to save open space and to live in it.

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