Sunday, April 27, 2014

California City vs. AVC: Fancy Schemes and Never-built Dreams

an update on the third-largest city in California

There was a Willet this week in Cal City, that often-forgotten AVC feeder community way up on the 14 there past Mojave, Boron, and Edwards Air Force Base.

What's a Willet?

It's a seaside bird, at least it is for us here in Southern California. If you've been to the beach any month except maybe high summer (when it's too crowded to see any birds), you have come across these. They are basically the largest sandpipers on the beach, seen dozing on one leg in small flocks or maybe running along the water's edge, grabbing sand dabs. They're a New World species, and the Pilgrims called them humilities, since their blazing black and white wing pattern they kept hidden while on earth --- in appropriate Calvinist humility --- and they only showed their brightest patterns when in flight, which is to say, on their way to God.

Here is a picture from the National Geographic Field Guide to Birds of North America.

This is a species one expects along any undisturbed stretch of midwinter beach. It is not a species one expect to see in the Mojave Desert.

But then California City is indeed a place of surprises.

By territorial claim, it's always listed as the third-largest city in California, something I will take on faith since I have never double checked. If you look on a map today, it seems indeed to have been a dream that was partially fulfilled. Here's a page from a DeLorme road atlas. On paper, it looks like a real city.

As a plan, California City was one of those "turn the desert into paradise" mad dreams that the early 1960s were so full of, as is documented by this old issue of Life magazine.

Then as now, the desert was a problem for the mainstream American culture. It was never good enough by itself. It always had to be conquered (or at least improved). Few people even now look out and say, "This place looks like a desert," and means it in a happy, approving way. We have to alter it, tame it, make it "productive." Hmm, well, maybe we do and maybe we don't, but that doesn't stop people from trying. Here is a picture of Hesperia and Cal City at their groundbreakings, from the same issue of Life.

There's what should be the real California motto at work: Dream large, since if you build it, maybe they will come. The initial developers laid the town boundaries out huge, a sort of New Carthage or New Rome. They wanted something like all of Irvine and Mission Viejo combined, or all of Tarzana, Encino, Sherman Oaks, and Lake Balboa.

It did not work out that way.

Cal City is known mostly for the houses that did not get built. The map's tidy boundaries and filled-in color not withstanding, Here's a very typical intersection today --- there are many dozens more just like it.

Some streets never even got this much. This view below of a road to nowhere is well within the "city limits" of California City, not far from the town center (aka McDonald's).

California City was going to be grander and stranger even than Palm Springs, at least on paper. It was going to be water-themed, among other features. Here the central Lake can be seen, as laid out in 1962.

You can do this if electricity is cheap (so it costs little to run pumps) and if the aquifer is close to the surface still and all that Pleistocene-era fossil water has not yet been drawn down.

As a child, I came out here in the mid-sixties, just on a day trip from Los Angeles. One came out Sierra Highway back then; the 14 Freeway had not been built yet. In my memory it took days and days; it's possible we even overnighted in Barstow or Palmdale. My parents had come out to visit family friends, as I think the husband had gotten a job doing something with cement. The kids seemed to like it okay but my memory is of utter desolation. I distinctly remember the mom of the family complaining about trying to keep the sand from blowing inside the house. She described it building up in small drifts, in the corners. It may even have been as a joke, or I may have misheard the grownups completely. I had a childish and horrified vision of their entire house being buried in wind-blown sand overnight, and them waking up in the morning, utterly lost under a dune, with the weight of it all so heavy they couldn't push open the door.

Too many late night sci-fi thrillers on our black and white tv gave me that I guess. Even today, though, parts of the Cal City area still fit that nightmare.

It was really windy when I took this shot: I got a mouthful of sand, as did, I am sure, the innards of my fancy Nikon. This is on the Cantil side of town. Here's another pair of shots.

This shot (above) should have been an embedded video clip (not a still photo) in order to show the sand scooting across the highway in the 30 mph wind. The sign was vibrating in the wind and the wind even had a whooshy, howling sort of sound to it. This next shot below tries to do a forward-and-backward-at-same-time effect.

Please, if you're on the Board of Directors for the Chamber of Commerce, don't email me: I am reporting this with affection, not disrespect. First of all, after that initial childhood visit with my family, I did come back, and often so, because the birdwatching is quite interesting. I even debated buying a house in California City.

Second: I married into it, in that my wife grew up there. Here is Abbey with her brother Raymond.

My wife's folks still live in Cal City, so you can trust that I am very respectful about this place. At the same time, the dreams were so large and grand initially, it's hard not to smile, at least a little bit. A book titled Never Built Los Angeles looks at the museums, freeways, monorail systems, and housing tracts that were proposed but never completed. I just got it at Barnes & Noble in Lancaster, using a birthday gift card from history teacher Matthew Jaffe. Thanks, Dr. Jaffe!

According to this book's text, the planned civic center would have rivaled the Getty Museum. My scans have a lot of "blow back" of reflected light, but I hope you can make out some details anyway. Here is the from-above view and, below, the "inside-looking-out" view.

Here's the other picture.

What the book says is this. The project was titled "California City Civic Center," and was designed by Konrad Wachsmann. His "technologically elaborate design for the civic center would have used high-tension cables strung between massive abutments to form a 192-foot-long floating roof. The 1.5 inch cables, each tensioned at 105,000 pounds, were secured by steel anchorages, able to resist a thrust of 1 million pounds. According to Wachsmann's calculations, the cables could resist winds of 100 miles an hour."

I know what you're thinking: that the winds really do get up into that range out there. The design isn't strong enough. "100 mph" sounds exotic and safe, but isn't adequate. I found a source on the Internet that claimed gusts to 90 in nearby Mojave, and I myself have been there when the wind was doing 60 (as verified by the National Weather Service). Well, never mind all that, let's get on with our fantasy tour.

"Ten roof panels, made of fiberglass and filled with urethane foam, would be stitched together using a neoprene expansion joint, forming a roof skin that was incredibly light yet strong. Wachsmann wrote that 'the insertion of essentially unlimited variations of enclosed spaces' was possible under the open, plastic roof. Public and private spaces could be built, expanded, and rearranged as the city saw fit."

Ah, such is the stuff dreams are made of, indeed. In contrast, here is the City Hall as it actually exists today. It features that stucco-tile-storefront look, a look vaguely quoting Mission Revival but diluted nearly beyond recognition. At least the parking lot has been newly repaved, and the grass, more or less, is greening up nicely.

Before we mock them, it pays to remember that the Lancaster Campus of AVC dates from the same time. Indeed, oral tradition holds that when it was laid out here at 30th and K, locals all scratched their heads. "Watcha building it all the way out there, fur?? Ain't no roads even go all the way out thar."

And even though main campus has turned out fine, we still have our own private fantasy dream, the undeveloped parcel adjacent to the San Andreas Fault that is supposed to be the Palmdale Campus. Here's the actual site:

Will this be a college campus ever?

I have my doubts, and the seismic issue is just one of many to deal with.

Meanwhile, despite the empty roads I showed above, California City did build its central park. Some of the Cal City lake complex is still there, hence the rare ocean bird, that Willet, that showed up this week. Here are photos I took with my wife just a few days ago.

On a recent visit, and unlike previous trips, even the waterfall on the park's central hill was "on," or at least (like George Harrison's guitar), weeping gently. It is hard to get a shot of it, due to the many sections of the park that are fenced off due to disrepair, that arching pedestrian bridge included. The waterfall is the smeary green bit, in the middle of the frame below. Birds like to drink from it, and if you listen hard, it generates a soothing trickling sound.

Alas, some of the park has not done well at all. I remember the Lake Shore Inn, where my wife's family once worked. $4000-per-person birdwatching tours used to stay there. Times change, and it resembles a sort of Detroit kind of situation now, or parts of besieged Syria. Other than as a hideout for illicit raves, it remains in a grim state indeed.

 I have to agree with an elderly resident, out to walk her dog. She saw my fancy camera when I was here recently, and she assumed I was from the AV Press or some very august and powerful investigative organization at that level. (60 Minutes? The NSA?) She hoped the images could be linked to a forceful editorial, demanding that the eyesore be taken down.

Consider this blog to be on your side on this, madam. Speaking for myself and not the AVC Board of Trustees, I hereby call on Cal City to DO SOMETHING with this site. It faces the lake: even just a gravel parking lot and a few benches would be fine.

You can't fault the initial City Fathers from trying, though. Shakespeare's own Globe theatre should never have thrived --- and indeed, without Shakespeare himself and the language-drunk, sexualized, anything-goes delirium that was Elizabethan England, it later failed as well. True, it burned down, was rebuilt, and initially did okay, but in the end, it too failed, just like the Lake Shore Inn.

There's a common roadside plant of our rural roads here in the high desert, the sacred datura or jimsonweed. Here shown below is one that I saw in California City, on the road to the airport. Another word for them is angel trumpet, and yet another, moonflower. This is a toxic, highly poisonous plant that Native Americans at times used for hallucinogenic trances. DO NOT TRY IT. It is lethally poisonous: don't mess about with this, even a little bit. It can be fatally toxic, even in minute doses. Shamans knew what they were doing; you do not. But I mention it since it seems to be an appropriate plant for us, given our history of dreaming big and wanting to connect Palmdale to LAX by 300 mph bullet trains, wanting to deliver mail by dirigible, hoping to turn California City into the Venice of the High Desert, or any of the other wild dreams that have been proposed, partially built, and later abandoned.

God bless plucky and beat-up California City, perhaps the most accurately named township in all of the Golden State.


Photographs not credited to an outside source were taken by the blog curator, Charles Hood, Language Arts. He can be reached at This blog does not represent the views of the Board of Trustees nor the District as a whole. To leave comments, you need to be logged into some kind of blogspot or gmail account, or so it seems. Sorry about that: it's just how the system is set up. Hood also can forward comments through email.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Fun Things to Do in the Middle of the Night

(at least when there is an eclipse---as there soon will be)

We have a total eclipse of the moon coming up, and here in the Antelope Valley, we have great skies for just such an event.

I am always a big fan of spectacular experiences, especially when they are free. Mark your calendars because we have a big, fun, spectacular, free sky show due to come our way next week.

Courtesy of Griffith Observatory (and more about them in just a moment), here is the schedule for what we can expect.

If you have binoculars or any kind of beat up telescope, that's even better. But just with one's own eyes, this will be overhead, and this time of year, odds are, it will be a clear night. For the best effect, go a few minutes out of town, away from the brightest lights. If you're in your own backyard, be sure to turn off the house lights (or close the blinds) and turn off the porchlights. Give yourself a few minutes so your eyes adapt, but soon you'll be able to see just fine. Most people way over-illuminate their nighttimes; as primates, we evolved to see fairly well in the dark, if we can just give ourselves a chance to try it out.

As you can see from the chart, the best action is around midnight. Unlike during a solar eclipse, no filters are needed: it's safe to look at the uneclipsed or the eclipsed moon all you wish.

There is a lot of debate about the exact mechanics of how eclipses happen.

Here is a diagram from a book called Discovering the Universe by Neil Comins and William Kaufmann.

Looking closely you can see the process is basically like this: the sun is a very round, ripe lemon; the Heavenly Father / Mother shines a flashlight down, causing the dragon to swallow its tail. When enough people beat pots and pans in their front yards, the dragon gets scared and runs off, knocking over the flashlight. The eclipse is then over.

For an alternate perspective---oh geez, everybody has to get out an opinion---you can go down to Griffith Observatory that night and use the telescopes there. They will no doubt have some fairy tale about the shadow of the earth and all of that: well, it's a free country and you may believe whatever you wish. From their website, here is more information:

Griffith Observatory Hosts Public Viewing of Lunar Ecipse
April 14-15, 2014 / 7:00 p.m. to 2:00 a.m.
Admission is Free 


  •     Building, roof, and Zeiss telescope OPEN
  •     Lawn telescopes, binoculars, and naked eye viewing from lawn, sidewalks, and terraces
  •     Shows in the Samuel Oschin Planetarium (7:45 p.m., 8:45 p.m., 10:15 p.m., 11:15 p.m.)
  •     Café at the End of the Universe and Stellar Emporium OPEN (starting at 7:00 p.m.)
  •     LiveStream of the eclipse live from the Zeiss dome on Griffith Observatory's LiveStream page.
  •     Special presentation about the Moon with Griffith Observatory Curator, Dr. Laura Danly, and Griffith Observatory Astronomical Observer, Anthony Cook. Joint program with the Los Angeles Astronomical Society.
What if there's a snow storm or a sudden flurry of dragon poop? See their website for more contingency plans, but trust me, they've thought of everything. One prediction I can make is that it will be crowded; you can see more details about which access roads will be open on their web page, but be prepared to have to park a bit of the way down the hill and walk up to the summit. Given the possibility of a marine layer in Los Angeles proper (and the huge amount of light pollution), if you have binoculars and a lawn chair, this might be a fine event just to watch from home. It's too soon yet to know what the weather will be like: both L.A. and Palmdale show a 10% chance of rain on Monday.

The eclipse will be visible across almost the entire continental United States, most of Canada and Central America and parts of South America.  You could always go out to Death Valley --- if we are statistically more likely to be clear than L.A., think how much better Death Valley's odds are compared to ours.

We may be in a drought year water-wise but not for eclipses: if you sleep through your alarm for this one, you have another shot this coming October.

To repeat what Alan MacRobert said in the Los Angeles Times, "Whether you have a small telescope, a pair of binoculars or even just your naked eye --- you'll be seeing part of the geometry of the cosmos happening right in front of your eyes."

I do agree with him on that, but of course we have another vantage point to imagine. At some point in the future, humans will be watching a different series of eclipses . . . from the surface of the moon.


The AVC Blog is curated by Charles Hood, Language Arts, and he can be reached at This blog does not represent the views of the Board of Trustees or the District as a whole. To leave comments, you need to be logged into some kind of blogspot or gmail account, or so it seems. Sorry about that: it's just how the system is set up. Hood also can forward comments through email.