Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Southern California: Paved Paradise


The Soul of Southern California


What is it about Southern California? What special magic attaches to the name, acting as a magnet to draw people from all over the world? Well let’s start with a definition. Even though Southern California can be defined in a number of ways, this essay asserts that the real (or classic) Southern California goes from the ocean to maybe 75 miles inland all along the coast south of Point Conception to the Mexican border.

This extract posits that Southern California, that magical, magnetic place as defined above and as seen by the rest of the world, exists as the result of 6 primary influences:

1) Its unique set of physical attributes

2) Its early Spanish and Mexican culture

3) Its agricultural past (especially citrus fruits)

4) The motion picture industry (Hollywood)

5) Surfing (the true sport of kings)

6) Disneyland

One by one, these factors transformed a semi-arid wasteland into one of the most popular, influential and trend-setting places in the world. Here we take a short look at the essence of each of these six determinants and their role in shaping the region. The years between about 1955 and 1969 are identified as epitomizing the image of Southern California that most people around the world have. Finally, this story ends with a brief look at the sad commercialization of the region, which has essentially turned Southern California into an overpriced caricature of its old self.

(Much of this article’s value is found in its beautiful photographs, which unfortunately don’t show up here. Email me for an original copy with photos!)

Paved Paradise

July, 2003

Chapter 1: Introduction

There are lots of nice places to live, in many different parts of the world, and yet Southern California is perceived to be among the best and the most special places of them all. Despite the area’s overcrowding, people still just can’t stay away, swelling the region’s population daily and sending spiraling home prices to ever higher levels. As recently as 40 years ago, housing prices in San Diego were below the national average. Yet today, prices there, and in the other counties south of the Tehachapi Mountains are some 50% higher than home prices elsewhere in the nation. As of July, 2003, only 22% of Southern Californians could afford to buy the average priced home, compared to 57% of Americans who could afford the average house nationwide.

What is it about Southern California? What special magic attaches to the name, acting as a magnet to draw people from all over the world? Well let’s start with a definition. Southern California can be defined several ways. Just looking at a map, one might say it’s the whole area south of an imaginary line from San Luis Obispo to Death Valley, from the Pacific Ocean to the Nevada/Arizona border. Traditionally, though, many folks have defined Southern California as the area that makes up Santa Barbara, Ventura, Los Angeles, Orange, and San Diego counties, along with the western half of Riverside county and the southwestern part of San Bernadino county. Let’s take that idea just a bit further, and say that the heart and soul of Southern California essentially exists in the relatively narrow swath of land that extends south and east from Point Conception in Santa Barbara County to the Mexican border. Palm Springs is on the eastern edge of this somewhat nebulous and arbitrarily identified region; but for the most part, the real (or Classic) Southern California goes from the ocean to maybe 75 miles inland all along the coast south of Point Conception.

The crux of this extract is that Southern California, that magical, magnetic place as defined above and as seen by the rest of the world, exists as the result of 6 primary factors:

1) Its unique set of physical attributes

2) Its early Spanish and Mexican culture

3) Its agricultural past (especially citrus fruits)

4) The motion picture industry (Hollywood)

5) Surfing (the true sport of kings)

6) Disneyland

Southern California c. 1955

Each one of these factors, or influences, played a key role in creating Classic Southern California, or the image that most people have of the region. This image of Classic Southern California was probably epitomized by the area as it was from about 1955 to


By that time, all six of the aforementioned defining features of the area were in place, giving the region a distinct look and feel relative to other parts of the world. Southern California in those times was not particularly overcrowded or expensive; rather, it was a laid-back and affordable place that residents considered nice, but nothing special.

Classic, uncrowded California, c. 1965

But today, the malls, the fast food joints, the amusement parks and so much more of Southern California are just like the malls, fast food joints, and amusement parks found throughout the nation and, increasingly, the world. And today’s living conditions, with the outrageously high cost of housing (despite wall-to-wall suburban communities that have erased the area’s gentler farming memories), the packed freeways, and all the social ills that come with overcrowding, seem increasingly less like what Classic Southern California was all about. Southern California today is too much just a sad caricature of its golden past. And so this story is as much a tribute to the Southern California of memory as it is a look at why Southern California is what it is today.

II – Nature’s Blessings

Nature has blessed Southern California in a variety of ways, most notably with its geographic variety, its location on the Pacific Ocean, and its famously mild climate. All along the coast, one can look to the east and see mountains.

Pasadena, looking northeast

So there are beautiful beaches and, about an hour’s drive away, forested mountains. Another half hour or so to the east are the deserts.

Mountains near Palm Springs

Southern California offers all three starkly different types of geography in a compact area, each with its own characteristics and beauty: beaches, mountains, and deserts. Add to the mix the proximity to Mexico, with its distinctive culture, music, and foods; what other place in the world offers as much variety in so compact an area?

California beaches are world famous for their clean, sandy beaches and relatively warm waters. Above Point Conception, water temperatures dip enough to keep out most casual bathers. Similarly, and surprisingly to many people, the waters of northern Baja California are also fairly cold. The best beaches along the entire West Coast of the United States and northern Mexico are those in Southern California.

Fruits of the sea, San Clemente, 1942

The area’s mountains, some over 10,000 feet high, present an entirely different environment. These are real mountains, with heavy snows that support a major ski industry in winter. This gives locals the chance to pull a rather unique “double” – it’s not that hard to go surfing in the morning, and then snow skiing in the afternoon. Campers have any number of options for a genuine forest experience, as chaparral characterizes the lower levels, giving way to oaks, then pines, then firs and cedars as one goes up in elevation.

Snow Valley, San Bernadino Mountains

Fishermen can choose from numerous lakes and streams, some of which still harbor wild trout populations, and even a few steelhead. Hunters find healthy populations of deer and bears, along with smaller game such as rabbits, squirrels, and quail. Nature lovers of every stripe enjoy the wildflowers, berries, ferns, raccoons, birds, butterflies, and all the other wildlife that is native to Southern California’s mountains.

Palomar Mountain

The Pacific Ocean is an integral part of the Southern California reality, providing as it does many recreational opportunities such as sunbathing, swimming, surfing, boating, diving, or just strolling along its shores.

La Jolla, c. 1925

Additionally, the ocean is partly responsible for the area’s mild climate. Located between 32.5 and 34.5 degrees north latitude, Southern California shouldn’t be expected to be either very cold or very hot – and that is generally the case. But the ocean helps make sure that this is so, as all large bodies of water serve to moderate the temperatures of nearby land. San Diego’s average high temperature during the summer is only 77 degrees, and during the winter the average high is a very bearable 66 degrees; winter’s lows average 49 degrees.

Further, the cool Japanese Current that runs along Southern California serves to limit rainfall in the region. The result is a Mediterranean, semi-arid climate with temperatures rarely below 40 degrees in winter and above 85 degrees in the summer along the coast,

and rainfall totals averaging only 10 inches (in San Diego) to 16 inches (in Santa Barbara) per year. Rainfall generally increases as one moves inland (and up in elevation), as do temperature ranges.

Laguna Beach

In fact, an interesting phenomenon is that during much of the year, high temperatures are about 1 degree greater for every mile further inland, up to about 20 miles. This means that on a typical day it might be 70 degrees on the beach at Santa Monica, but 75 degrees 5 miles away in west Beverly Hills, 80 degrees 10 miles away in downtown L.A., and 90 degrees just 20 miles from the coast in Whittier. And so, the choice of where to live in Southern California can go a long way to accommodate a person’s temperature preferences. Before the mid-1970s, houses near the beaches sold at only modest premiums to inland properties, and regular people could actually afford to live within walking distance of the Pacific! But even today, Southern Californians at least have the option of escaping the inland summer heat via a short drive to the coast.

Southern California is all about freedom: freedom from cold and heavy snow in winter, but access to it if you want. Freedom from stifling heat in the summer, but hot temperatures a short drive away if the craving hits you. Palm trees or fir trees, cactus or seaweed, fishing for mountain trout or deep-sea tuna, surfing or snow skiing, mountain vistas, ocean views, or both if you’re lucky (or rich) enough. Above any other single factor, Southern California’s incredible natural blessings are responsible for attracting people over the years.

A day’s albacore catch, 1999

III - Spain/Mexico

Spain claimed California as its own in 1542 when Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo landed in the bay he called San Miguel, and continued on up the coast to as far as present day Santa Barbara. The next Spanish visitor, Sebastian Vizcaino, arrived 60 years later, changed the name of San Miguel bay to San Diego bay, surveyed the coast along San Diego, and proceeded to explore the entire coast of California. It was Vizcaino gave many California locations the names by which we now know them.

Mission San Diego de Alcalá

But the Spanish had little interest in an area so far from their other colonies and lacking in advanced native populations (read: gold and silver). And so they ignored California for more than 150 years. By the 1760s, however, Spain was concerned about Russian explorations and settlements in northern California, and decided to establish a series of forts and missions along the coast to protect their claims to the area - beginning in San Diego. In 1769, they built a mission and a presidio (fort) in San Diego, and then proceeded to establish 20 more missions over the next few decades, each about a day’s walk from the other, northward as far as Sonoma.

The californio society and culture developed during this time. It was an agrarian system, centered on the missions with their crops and Indian converts, and – later - large estancias or ranchos of land (some as large as 100,000 acres or more) that were eventually granted to the soldiers as reward for their service, and to others for their political connections. The ranchos, mostly situated near the coast, produced wheat, corn, grapes and other crops, but mainly focused on raising cattle. Cattle gave the californios meat, leather, and tallow for making candles and soap. They also provided a major source of income, mainly from the hides and tallow that ships’ traders would periodically come to pick up in exchange for the items that californios could not produce themselves.

Mission life, c. 1845

Californio horseman, c. 1845

californios gained renown as expert horsemen, and by all accounts, life in Southern California was fairly easy and pleasant for them. The native Indians, of course, suffered from the same types of abuse, illness, and loss of their lands as native Americans everywhere. But they did intermingle with the Spaniards in California as they had in Mexico, the result of which was a californio population of mestizos, or persons of mixed blood, along with pureblood Spaniards.

Mexico’s independence from Spain in 1821 allowed mission lands to be parceled out to individuals, creating the huge ranchos and the distinctive lifestyle they allowed. But otherwise the language, legal system, and overall life was essentially the same under the Mexican flag as it had been under Spain’s. Richard Henry Dana’s personal narrative, Two Years Before the Mast provides perhaps the most comprehensive look at the bucolic, idyllic Californio life of the mid-1830s. At that time, the entire state contained only a few thousand Spanish speaking persons, and perhaps 150,000 native Indians.

But things started changing rapidly in the late-1840s, beginning with the Bear Flag revolt of 1846, accelerating with the discovery of gold, the Mexican-American War and the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848, and ending in California becoming the 31st U.S. state in 1850. Americans came to California in droves, joined by Chileans, Peruvians, Europeans, Hawaiians, Chinese and a great many Mexicans, especially those from nearby Sonora. These Sonorans had extensive experience in the mines of Mexico, and crossed the desert to the California gold fields in such numbers that the county seat of Tuolomne County still bears the name: Sonora.

By 1852, California was a U.S. state, with an estimated population of 260,000, only a tenth of who were native Indians. http://www.museumca.org/goldrush/curriculum/ 1stcalifornians/resourcesix.htm) Treaty terms assured that Mexican landholders would retain their property, but the reality was markedly different. By the 1870s, virtually all californio lands had been taken over by the Anglos, through chicanery and the passage of laws biased against “foreigners” which, amazingly, is what the californios were considered in their own land!

Yet the californios, with their Spanish and Mexican roots, made immense and lasting impressions on the state, especially in the southern part. Take the names of Southern California’s major cities: Santa Barbara, Ventura, Los Angeles, San Bernadino, and San Diego. Countless smaller cities follow the same pattern of bearing Spanish names: Del Mar, Chula Vista, Buena Park, La Mesa, El Cajon, Camarillo, Coronado – the list goes on and on. Street, park, and county names are similarly often Spanish in origin.

Olvera Street, Los Angeles c. 1880

Spoken Spanish is more likely to be heard than English in many neighborhoods, although that is more a function of the huge increase in Latino residents over the last few decades than a residual effect of the old californio days. Be that as it may, Spanglish (a mixture of Spanish and English) is gradually becoming.the language of choice for more and more Southern Californians.

Mexican/Americans combine Christmas customs, c. 1940

Southern California’s Spanish past still shows itself in much of its architecture. Older buildings like Santa Barbara’s city hall, and the museums in San Diego’s Balboa Park were consciously built in the classic Spanish/Moorish style.

San Diego train station, c. 1930

And all throughout Southern California you can see homes and businesses constructed with at least a touch of the old style that testifies to the Californios’ lasting influence.

Santa Barbara courthouse, c. 1925

Then there’s the food! New Mexico has its distinctive Hispanic cuisine, Texas has their Tex-Mex food, but the tacos, burritos and other Mexican foods of Southern California have become the standard by which all others are measured. Mexico itself produces a great variety of cuisine, but the “Mexican” food everyone is familiar with (antojitos) comes from the Sonora, Sinaloa, and Jalisco, nearby Mexican states that sent the most immigrants up north. Just about every Southern Californian loves Mexican food, and there’s no problem finding it, with a Mexican restaurant on virtually every block. In the typical little town of Imperial Beach (population: 27,000) for example, there are 12 Mexican restaurants!

Spanish/Mexican influences persist also in Southern California clothing, music, and art; the bottom line is that the area’s lifestyle and culture are a (mostly) happy blending of the Anglo and Latino worlds.

IV – Citrus farming

Early settlers grew oranges and other citrus fruits in their 18th and 19th century California yards, crops which benefited from the mild Mediterranean climate. The completion of the Transcontinental Railroad in 1869, and connecting lines in the years thereafter, soon brought thousands of immigrants to the state, many of whom became farmers. The railroad also made it possible to transport vast quantities of fresh fruits and vegetables to the big cities back east in refrigerated cars, which themselves had first come into use only a few years earlier.

California’s first commercial citrus producer was a Kentucky trapper by the name of William Wolfskill. He planted orange and lemon trees acquired from nearby San Gabriel Mission in what is now downtown Los Angeles in the 1840s. Over the years, his fruits became famous throughout the state. By 1875, his original 2 acres of trees had expanded to over 70 acres and 17,000 Valencia orange trees. Two years later, in 1877, he sent a railroad car of oranges to St.Louis, where they arrived nearly a month later, still fresh – and immediately sold out! (http://www.sunkist.com/about/history-citrus.asp)

Also in the 1870s, a husband and wife team (Luther and Eliza Tibbets) experimented with a new variety of orange sent them by the U.S. Department of Agriculture: seedless “navel” oranges from Brazil. Their grove in Riverside produced delicious, seedless fruit that were soon in very high demand, and before long they were making almost as much money by selling cuttings from the trees as they were from selling the fruit itself! Supposedly, each of the millions of Washington navel orange trees in California is a descendant of one of the original navel trees the Tibbets planted.

Orange grove, c. 1930

Southern California experienced a land boom during the 1880s, but most of the action centered around lots, rather than farm land. Nevertheless, more and more of the area came under cultivation, likely as not for the production of oranges, lemons and, to a lesser degree, tangerines and grapefruit. This so-called “second Gold Rush” lasted well into the early-1900s; the state’s population soared, from 560,000 in 1870 to 1.2 million in 1890, and 2.4 million by 1910. Citrus groves sprang up everywhere from Santa Barbara to the Mexican border, from the coast to the foothills. Chula Vista, a city now with nearly 200,000 residents, was once covered with lemon trees; so was nearby Lemon Grove. Then there was Valencia, and the city of Orange, in Orange County; it’s easy enough to figure out what was going on in those places.

This second Gold Rush had peaked by the 1930s, with most of Southern California covered by citrus groves, and some 2000 separate brands of fruit, each with its own distinctive (and now –very collectible) label. http://www.lnholt.com/citrus_labels/

Several factors combined to create the great housing

boom in the 1940s, a boom that only accelerated throughout the 1950s and beyond. The end result was, in any event, a gradual but persistent reduction in acreage dedicated to citrus fruits. In Los Angeles and Orange Counties, for example, citrus trees covered a total of 330,000 acres in 1946, but only 230,000 acres in 1956. In the early 1960s, it was still possible to stop at a number of orange groves and “pick your own” for a modest price on the way to Los Angeles from San Diego, or most anywhere else in Southern California. Of the 56 citrus packing houses in Orange County in 1932, only 3 were still in business by 1966. By the 1980s, commercial citrus production had been all but eliminated from Southern California, except in a few outlying areas. With the intense demand for housing acreage, the land had, quite simply, become just too valuable to farm.

Other crops were terribly important in Southern California to be sure: avocados, tomatoes, and strawberries especially come to mind. But the orange is to Southern California what wheat is to Kansas, potatoes are to Idaho, and pineapples are to Hawaii. The orange is the area’s defining product, or at least it was for many decades, and it is the crop that the rest of the world immediately associates with Southern California. The fragrant citrus blossoms and the beauty of bright yellow and orange fruit on deep green trees against a backdrop of the ocean on one side, snowcapped mountains on the other, is mostly a memory now, but it is a wonderful and uniquely Southern California one.

V – Hollywood

A new entertainment form started about a hundred years ago, an industry that the United States was soon to dominate: motion pictures. Early efforts at creating motion pictures took place in England, France, and the U.S. during the 1870s and 1880s. William Dickson shot the first celluloid film in the U.S. in 1889, and throughout the 1890s, Thomas Edison’s studio used Dickson’s technology to produce a number of “movies” shot on indoor sets. But Europeans took the lead in the late-1890s, led by Auguste and Louise Lumiere, who shot most of their movies outdoors. (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1984, Vol. 12, pp. 512-3)

The country’s first motion picture theatre, the Thomas Talley Theater, opened in Los Angeles in 1902. At that time, most films were produced in and around New York City and Chicago. But the increase in outdoor filming created problems for filmmakers during those areas’ harsh winters, and Southern California, with its mild climate and varied geography, soon convinced movie makers to relocate there. William Selig started a small studio in Los Angeles in 1907, and established Hollywood’s first permanent motion picture studio on Sunset Boulevard in 1911.

Hollywood's first studio, c. 1912

Other early Hollywood pioneers Jesse Lasky, Cecille B. DeMille, and Samuel Goldfish (later – Goldwyn) in 1913; Carl Laemmle’s Universal City in 1915. D.W. Griffith, Mack Sennett and Tom Ince created Triangle Studios, also in 1915; by 1924 it had merged twice and became Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM Studios). Stuart Blackton and Albert Smith created Vitagraph Studios, one of the largest during the silent film days, in East Hollywood in 1917, and Harry and Jack Cohn started Columbia Pictures in 1920.

Cecil B. DeMille, c. 1925

By 1920, then, the American movie industry was firmly established in Hollywood and nearby areas. Hollywood” became synonymous with the industry, even as it is today. Movies and movie stars brought glamour and magic to Hollywood, a bit of which rubbed off on the entire region. Hollywood’s new royalty, stars like Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford, built lavish homes just west of Hollywood, and transformed Beverly Hills into the region’s premiere residential area.

"Pickfair", Beverly Hills c. 1920

Further west, Hollywood’s early elite, including Gloria Swanson, Clara Bow, and Harold Lloyd, bought up most of the lots when the Rindge’s huge Malibu Ranch was finally offered to the public in 1928, and the area quickly became known as the Malibu Movie Colony

Paramount Studios,

c. 1930

To the east, Palm Springs became world famous as a winter playground for Hollywood stars, as well as European royalty and business tycoons, between the two World Wars.

Early Palm Springs resort, c. 1925

100 miles or so south of Hollywood, Bing Crosby led a group of investors in building the Del Mar Race Track, where Seabiscuit won his famous 1938 race against Ligaroti, and which regularly attracted Hollywood’s biggest stars in the 1940s and 1950s. There are lots of places in the world with mild climates, lots of places that grow oranges, and some of them even have lovely beaches and nice scenery. But there’s only one Hollywood, one world capital of entertainment. And that was Tinseltown, right in the middle of Southern California. During the first half of the twentieth century, Southern California – home to Hollywood, as well as Beverly Hills, Malibu, Palm Springs, and Del Mar – came to distinguish itself in the eyes of the world as a very special, one of a kind place.

Art Walker, Sr. in silent

movie, c. 1928

VI - Surfing

Polynesians throughout the Pacific Ocean developed the art of riding waves over many hundreds of years. Africans, and probably other peoples who lived along the coasts, also knew how to ride the ocean’s waves – as a practical matter and perhaps for fun as well. They rode waves in their canoes, outriggers, and fishing boats; they sometimes body surfed, and in some cases rode small wooden “boards” on their bellies. But it was in Hawai`i that the sport of stand-up wave riding, surfing as we know it, arose and developed into an important component of the culture. Christian missionaries sought to eliminate this frivolous activity, as they strove to stamp out all vestiges of the Hawaiians’ “pagan” past. By the end of the 19th century, surfing was all but a lost art in the land of its birth.

Yet a few kanakas kept the sport alive, joined by a handful of Americans. Mark Twain wrote about surfing in Hawai`i in 1872, and Jack London briefly took it up during his visit there in 1911. In fact, it was perhaps London who first popularized surfing as the “sport of kings” or, as he put it: A Royal Sport in his book The Cruise of the Snark. In his chapter on surfing, London mentions one “Freeth” – that being George Freeth. Although three sons of Hawai`i’s Queen Kapi`olani surfed during a visit to Santa Cruz in 1872, their efforts failed to ignite any real Californian interest in the sport. Henry Huntington, in promoting an oceanfront project of his, brought George Freeth to Redondo Beach in 1907 to display his “surf-riding” abilities. Thousands of Southern Californians came to watch in amazement as he paddled out into the ocean on his 200 pound wooden board, and then rode waves in while standing up. Surfing had come to the United States to stay, and had done so in Southern California.

George Freeth, Redondo Beach, 1909

A few boys and young men picked up the sport as a result of Freeth’s visit, but surfing remained relatively unknown in Southern California, and everywhere else, until the late-1920s. Numerous improvements in surfboard construction, led by transplanted Southern Californian Tom Blake, and scattered pilgrimages to surfing’s birthplace (Hawai`i) with reports of the great waves there, combined to increase interest in the sport, and in 1928 the Corona Del Mar Surf Board Club sponsored the first Pacific Coast Surf Board Championship.

Tom Blake surfboard ad, c. 1932

Surfboards got lighter and more maneuverable, and surfing spread along the coast – to hotspots like Malibu (importantly, the movie industry’s second home), Palos Verde, San Onofre, and La Jolla. In the years just before World War II, Southern California came to rival Hawaii in its importance to the sport.

Malibu locals, 1939

After the war, surfing’s popularity continued to grow in Southern California, fed by the thousands of adventurous young war veterans who relocated there and a steady stream of advancements in surfboard technology.

Surfwagon at San Onofre, 1938

Southern California innovators introduced lightweight balsa boards, and then polyurethane foam and fiberglass boards, along with numerous other design improvements in the decade following WWII.

Dale Velzy and Hap Jacobs, with state-of-the-art balsa board c. 1954

In little more than ten years, surfboards went from 150 pounds to 60 pounds to 30 pounds in weight; the number of surfers soared in inverse relationship to the weight of a board. Southern California’s manufacturers such as Hobie Alter, Dewey Weber, Dale Velzy, and Greg Noll produced the vast majority of the world’s surfboards, while its surfers led the sport’s stylistic progression. Hawai`i still had the best waves and would always hold a special place in all surfers’ hearts, but by the late-1950s, Southern California had become the center of the surfing world.

The rest of the world got its first good look at surfing in 1959 when Sandra Dee and teen heartthrob James Darren starred in Gidget, a movie about a young surfer girl who hung out at Malibu during the summer of 1956.

Malibu beach scene, 1955

Surfing’s popularity ratcheted up another notch or two, and in the following years the numbers of surfers and Hollywood “surf” movies rose in tandem.

The early-sixties saw the arrival of “surf music”, led by Dick Dale, The Chantays, The Surfaris and, of course, The Beach Boys and Jan and Dean – all Southern California performers. The whole country was surf crazy, and everyone knew that Southern California was where it was all happening.

1964 movie poster

Though not particularly relevant, it’s interesting to note that most serious surfers were greatly dismayed by much of the early-60s “surf music”, especially the corny, falsetto-voiced Beach Boys (only one of whom actually surfed). Be that as it may, Britain's MOJO magazine created a panel of some of the most successful musicians, songwriters and producers in rock music in 1995 to identify the top 100 albums in rock history. Against albums by the likes of The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, The Doors, and Bruce Springsteen, The Beach Boys’ 1966 masterpiece Pet Sounds was selected as “The Greatest Album Ever Made.”

Not everyone from Santa Barbara to San Diego was a blonde-haired surfer who drove a “woodie” station wagon playing Beach Boys tunes, but this was the image that much of the world had of Southern California by the mid-1960s


Road trip ready! c. 1965

Even though only about half a million of the region’s current 20 million residents surf, the surfing culture remains an integral part of how Southern California developed and what it is today.

VII – Disneyland “The Mouse House”

Walt Disney joined thousands of Midwesterners when he relocated to Southern California in 1923, in this case to put his animation abilities to work in Hollywood. Disney created Mickey Mouse 5 years later, and from that point on, he experienced one great success after another. Walt Disney received an Academy Award for his film “Flowers and Trees” in 1932, the first of his 32 total

personal Academy Awards!

Walt Disney and crew, c. 1930

A string of successful animated classics followed throughout the 1930s: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Pinocchio, Fantasia, Dumbo, and Bambi. Disney’s Burbank studio employed over 1000 artists, animators and others shortly after it was completed in 1940, and it was here that he originally thought of building a “magical park” where parents and kids could enjoy themselves.

Disney Studios, 1932

Disney soon decided that the available acreage near his studio was too small, and paid the folks at the Stanford Research Institute to study potential park sites in 1953. He settled on a 160-acre orange grove on the corner of Harbor Boulevard and Highway 101 in Anaheim (originally a communal settlement of German emigrants), 25 miles south of downtown Los Angeles.

Disneyland, surrounded by orange groves, 1955

Disney’s “magical park”, Disneyland, opened in 1955, after only 12 months of construction at a total cost of $17 million (equivalent to about $110 million in today’s dollars). Funding came in part from the ABC Television Network, which helped finance the park in exchange for a weekly Disney television program.

Disney had created a new type of amusement park, one based on specific themes that showcased his own past, his artistic successes, and his future visions. As any self-respecting Southern California resident can recite by heart, the park originally included:

  • Main Street, which recreated a turn of the century, Midwestern town like those Disney had known as a boy.
  • Adventureland, intended to depict a “far-off, exotic place…in the remote jungles of Asia and Africa (http://www.justdisney.com/disneyland/history.html)
  • Frontierland, which relived America’s pioneer days, and the spirit of Davy Crockett, who was all the rage with children in the mid-1950s thanks to Disney’s new television show on ABC, Disneyland.
  • Fantasyland, the most “Disneyesque” place in the park, included rides and attractions based on Disney movie classics such as Snow White, Alice in Wonderland, Sleeping Beauty, Pinocchio, Dumbo, and Peter Pan.
  • Tomorrowland, where Disney showed what the country might be like in the Space Age future

Opening day, 1955

After a rocky start, the word spread about Disney’s Magic Kingdom, and visitors began pouring in. By 1965, ten years after its opening, Disneyland had already entertained 50 million visitors and the park had become an absolute phenomenon. Local families would visit again and again; “going to Disneyland” became almost a rite (or a right!), a pilgrimage to that most special and happiest of places. The Disneyland TV show made sure that they rest of the country saw what they were missing, and so the locals found themselves sharing “their” park with folks from all over the country and, before too long, all over the world.

Disneyland was the final major element in defining the unique nature of Classic Southern California. Granted, it was just a place, an oversized amusement park, and it came along several years after nearby Knotts Berry Farm. But Knotts Berry Farm never quite came close to Disneyland as a dream park; Disneyland was more than just a place. Walt Disney had in fact been imminently successful in his dream of creating a “magical park” where kids and grownups could enjoy themselves together. The park benefited from its natural ties to Disney’s hugely popular movies, movies that were benign, fantastic, and happy; movies that helped raise whole generations of American kids; movies that became integral parts of the American psyche. Disneyland was safe, it was clean, and it was happy. When people came to Southern California, they wanted to go to the beach, maybe try surfing; drive by Hollywood, maybe see a movie star or take a studio tour. But more than anything else, visiting Southern California required a day at Disneyland.

VIII – Fast Forward

A lot of things have changed since Southern California’s glory days in the 1950s and 1960s. Surfing is practiced in dozens of countries today, on every continent except Antarctica, and on countless islands in the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian Oceans. Huntington Beach, home of the U.S. Surfing Championship contest since the 1950s, still has as much right as anyplace on Earth to call itself “Surf City”,

Dangerous surfing in 1964: Southern Californian Rusty Miller rides Huntington Pier

but today’s top surfers are just as likely to come from the East Coast, Hawaii, Australia, South Africa, or Brazil as Southern California.

Dangerous surfing in 2003: Hawaii's Cory Lopez rides Teahupoo, Tahiti

More and more, surfboards and surf apparel are manufactured elsewhere also, and these days that increasingly means China and other Asian sites.

Hollywood remains the world’s film capital, while nearby Burbank bills itself as the “Media Capital of the World” and Greater Los Angeles is apparently the “Entertainment Capital of the World”. High costs have driven a lot of the studios and actual movie production out of the area, however, and the old companies ain’t all what they used to be, either. Disney now owns ABC and a bunch of other entertainment companies, Warner Brothers is owned by TIME, which itself is owned by that little piss-ant of a company, AOL, which also owns HBO, Turner Broadcasting, and New Line Cinema. Universal Pictures is still on its own, as is MGM, but Columbia Pictures is owned by a Japanese company, SONY. Nevertheless, both Hollywood and Burbank still draw vast numbers of both aspiring entertainers and tourists, and still mean entertainment! to the rest of the world.

Disneyland still attracts gobs of visitors daily, and is as popular as ever. Disneyworld in Florida is bigger, though, and now there are a great many other high-end theme parks (Knotts Berry Farm, Six Flags, Seaworld, to name a few) that compete with Disney’s Magic Kingdom. A trip to Disneyland is still great fun, but so much more of a scene than it used to be. The area surrounding the park has become almost tragically commercialized, and the huge daily crowds inside the park make visiting it as much an ordeal as a joy.

Oranges and lemons are still found throughout Southern California – in people’s back yards. Almost everyone, it seems, has a citrus tree or two of their own, but that’s about

the only place you’ll find them unless you’re willing to travel some back roads.

Typical SoCal yard, 2003

Strawberry, bean, and tomato fields, once so common, are now just a novelty.

Spanish and Mexican influences remain key defining characteristics of the area; they’ve even increased significantly in recent decades. Latinos now account for 31% of California’s total population, and are

especially concentrated in the southern part of the state. This dramatic growth has not been without its problems, however, as many areas have become “little Mexicos” where English is seldom used and Anglos are not particularly welcome.

Mexico or California?

Be that as it may, Southern Californians still love their Mexican food, still appreciate the Mexican culture and heritage, and still value their Latino friends, even as non-Latinos are quickly becoming the minority in California’s southern counties.

Nature continues her kindness to Southern California, but there’s a less kind side effect for the region. With advances in media and technology, more and more people are bombarded with images of shirt-sleeved residents on palm lined avenues in January, while their own streets are buried under the residue of the latest snowstorm. So folks continue flocking to Southern California, increasing the strain on limited water supplies, adding to the already serious air pollution, and systematically wiping out undeveloped areas along with native plants and animals. Natural beauty has, in a very real way, been replaced by concrete, asphalt, look-alike malls, and endless rows of houses with no back (or front) yards to speak of.

More and more, you fight traffic like this every day…..

Meanwhile, the beautiful Pacific Ocean, historical key to the area’s attractiveness and recreational activities, is often so polluted that favored beaches are closed to bathers and surfers.

This is not a uniquely Southern California phenomenon. The same kinds of things are happening throughout the United States, and to a lesser extent, much of the developed world. Virtually everywhere in the U.S., quiet towns with their own personality and 10,000 residents a mere forty years ago, today have 50,000 inhabitants, a couple of malls (with all the same stores), and at least one of each major fast food chain’s restaurants.

Or you can relax at Disneyland with 30,000 of your closest friends …..

Seemingly everywhere, we’ve traded peace and quiet, individuality, and room to move for commercialism, sameness, development, and fried, fattening fast food. If longtime Southern Californians lament their lost paradise, at least they’re not the only ones with this problem.

And so Southern California isn’t as nice as it used to be: it’s crowded, it’s expensive, and it’s rather a sad shadow of its glorious past. But even today, the larger point is this: There are some nicer places in the world, but not that many, and they’re not that much nicer. If a person can deal with the crowds, the commercialism, and the sky-high housing prices, then there are worse places to be in 2003 than Southern California.

© Jon Strebler

July, 2003

But you live 10 minutes from the beach and it’s 65° in January, 75° in July….

1 comment:

Nicola Moore said...

I agree with most of the points laid out in this paper. The six primary factors discussed capture the main reasons why people move to Southern California. The weather, Spanish influence, beaches, Disneyland, Hollywood and oranges all contributed to make Southern California what it was in its "glory days", as well as what it is today. In addition to the six factors mentioned in the paper I think that Southern California is also known for its open-mindedness and acceptance of different races, religions and backgrounds. This continues to be a major reason why people move there. Lastly, after reading the paper I really wish that I could have lived in San Diego when surfing was just beginning, oranges were everywhere and Southern California was influencing the Nation