Community character. What the hell is it? Why do we want it? Who cares?
Here is where we step off into the great divide. Technical jargon like ‘Community Character,’ ‘Secondary Economic Impact,’ ‘Urban Decay,’ ‘Significant Unavoidable,’ ‘Consistency Analysis,’ will become commonplace in the argument against the Retail Store formerly known as Dollar General. In the coming days (and, hopefully, weeks, if the County gives us more time with the Initial Study) I’m going to be getting down and dirty with the California Environmental Quality Act, the County Development Code, and the General Plan and Community Plan, the goals, policies, and objectives of which have brought us together today.
In a nutshell, State Law (CEQA) and the County Code (Development Code) both require a consistency finding with the County General Plan and Joshua Tree Community Plan. Technically, the County mustn’t approve the Joshua Tree Retail Project unless they declare the project is consistent with the County General Plan and the JT Community Plan. If inconsistent, the finding can’t be made / the County can’t “find” that the project is consistent.
If you run screaming into the vast desert landscape, I understand. I’ve done my share of the scream-n-run, believe me. But I hope you stay. Not just because I’d like to speak the same language, for a while, anyway, but because I’d like us to be in this together. Because the desert is something worth fighting for. Because we all care about it deeply. Because if we don’t fight for it, who will?
The Morongo Basin corridor stretches across the desert, from Morongo Valley to the Dale Mining District east of Twentynine Palms. Water is scarce and rain is rare. Growth follows a boom-bust cycle; and legend has it that the “boom” phase breeds excess and dishonesty and makes men do things they’d never dream of otherwise.
Money, is it the root of all, or the key to all? The be all end all, or the beginning of the end? The ways and means, or the means to an end?
The Small-Tract (“baby”) Homestead Act passed in 1938 and went into effect a decade later. Homesteaders leased their land from the government until they finally were allowed to purchase it outright in 1948. By that time, the Basin had piped water in some areas, electricity, telephones, schools, stores, a newspaper and a paved highway, but hauling water and driving on dirt roads and was still a way of life for many.
The idea behind “baby homesteads” was to bring men and the Creator closer together, and the Act was viewed by some as a “phenomenon of social release…emblematic of spiritual renaissance” (Ainsworth 1955: 2). The desert economy boomed as the five-acre settlers descended upon the desert in a “joyous mass movement…transforming the face of the desert” (Ainsworth 1955: 2).
An advertisement in the Desert Spotlight stressed the beauty and healing properties of the desert, as well as the economic opportunities awaiting those who invested in hotels, motels and other businesses (Anonymous 1946). People began looking for retirement or vacation homes away from the smog and problems of cities. Because water was more easily available in Morongo Valley and 29 Palms, those areas grew first, but the towns of Joshua Tree and Yucca Valley were heavily promoted. Yucca Valley in 1946 was billed as the “cream of the desert” by Orange County developers.
Col. E. B. Moore, who led the movement to bring veterans to the high desert, established headquarters in Joshua Tree. He helped newcomers file claims, drew detailed maps, and helped people locate their claims (he created the Desert Map for this purpose (Hickman n.d.)). He also spearheaded the movement that opened 172,640 acres of former military base property to homesteaders. By the mid-1950s, well-paved roads connected Amboy on Highway 66 with Highway 99 via Twentynine Palms. The old road through Twentynine Palms eventually became known as the “Roadrunner Route” and was used by southern Californians who vacationed on the Colorado River. During this brief, shining period in American history, the hopefulness of these desert homesteaders must have been palpable.
By the turn of the century, the developers and builders began exploiting the cheap lands available in the desert, building tract homes to replace homestead cabins. The incorporation of Yucca Valley and 29 Palms brought concomitant “civilizing” changes of population growth, including a state highway, a college, a hospital, a police force and fire department. And in between then and now, what happened? Whereforartthou hopeful homesteaders?
Was it real or myth, that “fierce, independent spirit of the hardworking pioneers?” And is it still flourishing or was the flame of hope extinguished long ago? I’d like to believe it still dwells within us, that each of us holds a key that keeps the flame lit, the fire alive. That the story of the desert lives on, lives still. That the someday stories are being written here, being written now.
“Communities and commonwealths, like men, have their childhood, which is the formative period. It is the first permanent settlers who impress themselves and their character on the future. Powerful influences may, in later years, produce important modifications; but it is early influence which is farthest reaching, and is generally decisive. It is easier to form than to reform; easier to mold molten iron than to file the cold cast.”
from Our County, its Possible Future and its Present Crisis, by Josiah Strong
I’d like to believe.
“Only as life itself grew more complex and man sought refreshment for his spirit by leaving the crowded places and going close to the heart of nature did the American desert reveal itself to him in its true beauty. He saw then for the first time that its fancied harshness was not harshness at all, but simplicity. He saw that its starkness was not starkness at all, but genuineness. He heard, in his inner self, the silence speak to him with the manifold message of the Lord.
The tracts themselves are located largely in a great arc extending through the gigantic counties of San Bernardino and Riverside. These two counties with a combined area of 17,478,400 acres … they contain some of the finest and most scenic desert land on the globe.
One quality is shared by all this diversified desert. Every part of it is remote and tranquil in its silence and detachment. Every part is an invitation to the weary and the worried. It is a proper setting for all the legend and romance which surround it. …
Always, through, the desert lies there brooding in its communion with the infinite and never designs to reveal its hidden secrets. In its heart lie wondrous mineral resources — gold and silver and copper and uranium and semi-precious gems. These are not the concern of the Five Acre Tract people. They seek and nearly always find - a different kind of treasure. It is a treasure distilled of crimson sunsets flaming across the mountain peaks, of breathless dawns born in the flush of rose-hued hills, of gentle winds scented with sage and a restfulness born of contentment and renewed health.
Actually, the land around 29 Palms wasn’t adapted for farming. Most of the people who had taken up homesteads were interested in health rather than in raising crops. … Witmer was astounded. He saw the almost complete lack of crops, but he found a race of hardy, happy people who glowed in their isolated surroundings and valued a sunset more than money and health more than the conveniences of city life. They told him their stories. He became convinced that the desert offered unlimited possibilities for saving sick people – not only physically, but in restoring their mental and spiritual confidence.
Plenty of proof was available… It was in this atmosphere, with tanks rumbling across sand dunes, the smell of crushed sage in the air, the sound of machine guns chattering and howitzers booming that Col. Moore became acquainted with the desert. From the 1st moment, he took to it. The vast distances, the soft lights at sunset and dawn, the simplicity and the beauty all appealed to him. In the few moments of relaxation he was able to steal from his arduous duties… he steeped himself in desert lore. The “high desert” in the area around Joshua Tree, 29 Palms, Victorville, 3000 feet or higher, and therefore a more exhilarating atmosphere. When Col. Moore took the meandering road up from Whitewater through Morongo to Joshua Tree he felt a thrill of “coming home” – of being in the right place where he belonged. The sky was brilliantly blue, the air was a tonic, the silence was a benediction.
“Joshua Tree was the kind of place where you could drive on either side of the street without anybody knowing the difference because there were so few cars around anyway,” Mr. Branthoover said in discussing his own introduction to desert living. “Everybody who was out here was what you would call ‘the desirable element.’” We never thought of locking our doors and it did me good to see people come out here and get the best of their asthma or arthritis.” Mr. Branthoover has aided in the building up of Joshua Tree which is the western entrance to Joshua Tree National Monument. Even thought he misses the privilege of being able to drive on either side of the street nowadays, he finds a satisfaction in sharing the benefits of desert living with so many congenial people. He is proud of the little community park that Joshua Tree has created and of the Community ambiance made possible by the cooperative spirit of the residents.
Colonel Moore, Mr. William Zeitz, Dr. Norman C. Cooper, and many of his friends, … were so enthusiastic personally about the 5 Acre Tracts that they made filings as a group in a section they called “New Horizons,” north of Joshua Tree. This beautiful vision with its spreading panorama and invigorating air appealed to scientists, artists, doctors, authors, professors, engineers, military officers, and a host of others. Plans were made for obtaining water, generating power, and building roads while at the same time preserving the wildness of the primeval desert.
Inevitably, as choice areas were selected for such projects, conflicts arose with real estate dealers who wanted to develop subdivisions. This happened early at New Horizons. Finally, though, the 5 Acre Tract People won out, and Colonel Moore was able to go ahead with his plans for his own Silver Moon Rancho and his hobby of studying solar energy in the clean desert air… (out of the conflict grew certain hostilities).
And out there in the vast American desert a new spirit dwells. It is the multiplied heartbeat of humanity…everything that breathes in the fragrant air, every eye that dwells upon the long sweep of arroyo plain and mountain, and moves to the azure sky of day and the glittering stars of night, every intake of the heavenly odors of sage and the murmuring breeze is symbolic of a boon enjoyed by untold thousands.”
Excerpt from: AINSWORTH, Ed. FIVE ACRES OF HEAVEN. Presented by Col. E.B. Moore and Mrs. Marion U. Moore of Joshua Tree, California, to All Those Who Love the Desert. (Los Angeles: Lithographed by Homer H. Boelter), 1955. 8vo, 30pp, 46 illus., color frontis. after John Hilton painting. Wrappers subtitled “Story of the Great American Desert.”
Historical information culled from Morongo Basin Historical Society and Town of Yucca Valley websites.