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California and the West | CALIFORNIA ALBUM

Living With an Ill-Timed Choice to Recall City Hall

Desert: Cabazon boasts some unusual attractions, including two towering stucco dinosaurs. But it is one of the few California cities to have disincorporated--only to see major tax revenue go elsewhere.

August 16, 2000|SCOTT GOLD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

CABAZON, Calif. — It was almost 30 years ago now that the mayor of this sun-bleached town decided the stately stucco dinosaurs overlooking Interstate 10--which are to Cabazon what the Arc de Triomphe is to Paris--needed to go. He couldn't have been more wrong.

The roadside attractions, a brontosaurus with a gift shop in her belly and a tyrannosaurus with a slide on his tail, are still here, grinning sheepishly across the edge of the Riverside County desert. The mayor is gone--recalled, along with the rest of the local government.

In 1972, Cabazon decided that its experiment in cityhood was over. Dingy card halls offering draw poker and low ball were supposed to raise money for street lights and paved roads, but all they brought were hookers and corruption and bickering. Cabazon became one of the few cities in California history to disincorporate--to throw its government away.

This is not, however, a tale about a modern ghost town. It's about a place that, in deciding to be an untown, might have missed the boat. It's about a place that has a genius for character, a gift for bad timing and a knack for survival.

Somehow, among the dead orchards, the burned-out buildings, the legends of outlaws and the cactus, there is now a polished Indian casino bringing in visitors. There is an enormous outlet mall, one of the nation's most successful. There's a new fire station. A new bridge.

And maybe, just maybe, there will come a day when this will be the city of Cabazon again. For now, it's just another address on desolation row, and no one's sure what's going to happen--even the folks who take time to care.

"They say Cabazon's time has come," Jean-Margaret Wiener, a 68-year-old retiree and the librarian for a local civic group, said.

"But they've been saying that for a long time," replied her colleague, 66-year-old Sterling Pierce, a retired projectionist and chairman of the group. "They've been saying it for years and years."

It's true, and those years haven't been particularly kind to Cabazon.

Founded just after the Civil War, Cabazon--wedged in a desert valley between two peaks towering about 11,000 feet--was initially a logging town. Workers were supposed to take trees shot down the mountainside from Idyllwild, then dump them on the freight trains. That didn't last, largely because the mountains were so steep that the logs were literally airborne by the time they got to Cabazon.

So town leaders turned to agriculture and, for a spell, there were bountiful orchards across the town--almonds and olives, apricots and grapes. But a chunk of the orchards burned down after a rail wreck. The rest were neglected and died off during World War I.

Desperate for cash and convinced that gambling would be their savior, civic leaders decided to incorporate in 1955. Among the group's leaders was the legendary L.D. Tallent, a legless man who bulldozed and developed much of the town himself, was elected as a judge and one of Cabazon's mayors and still found time to invent a mechanical bra guaranteed to enlarge breasts.

Under state law at the time, incorporating meant that Cabazon could allow low-stakes gambling houses. In exchange, residents were promised a desert paradise, replete with plush golf courses, a 300-room resort, stocked trout streams.

None of it happened. Instead, chaos reigned: In the first seven years of the experiment, the town went through 18 police chiefs and 21 City Council members, none of whom finished their four-year terms. The casinos, when they weren't burning down or being raided over illegal games, weren't attracting much business. So in 1972 Cabazon became the first California city in 32 years to abandon cityhood.

It was just about that time, of course, that the modern boom in Southern California was blossoming. Developers and the nearby Morongo Indian Reservation noticed that Cabazon was nestled comfortably between Los Angeles and Palm Springs.

In 1990, the $14-million Desert Hills Factory Stores opened on the north side of I-10, introducing names such as Armani and Prada into an otherwise lowbrow area and bringing in tourists from as far away as Japan and Australia.

The casino on the Morongo reservation, meanwhile, which opened in June 1992, continues to draw more visitors to the area--not that any of them stay in Cabazon, where there are no hotels.

The casino and the outlet mall--both of which have undergone expensive expansions in recent years--could provide the foundation of a city, officials say, if Cabazon hadn't disbanded as a city years ago. The outlet mall, for example, generated $1.73 million in sales taxes in 1999-2000 and $1.1 million in property taxes. If Cabazon were still a city, it would have received about $2 million of that, said Riverside County Treasurer-Tax Collector Paul McDonnell. Instead, the tax revenue goes to the county.

"That's a lot of money," McDonnell said. "If they were incorporated, they would have all of that, and it would be a pretty healthy number for a small town."

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