Hipsters, hermits and acres of hush

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Against a stark setting in Joshua Tree, artists and musicians make their homes near high-desert loners. Mainstream buyers may find it all too hip. But where else in Southern California can you pick up a home on 2 acres for $250,000?

Beginnings

Named after its plethora of Joshua trees, the unincorporated community in San Bernardino County has grown gradually in the last century.

In 1938, the federal government passed the Small Tract Act, which sold homesteaders low-cost plots of up to 5 acres — generally in dry or unproductive areas inhabited only by jackrabbits. But because of gas rationing during World War II, distant desert areas — including Joshua Tree — had few takers. In fact, the community's population was a mere 426 in 1946. Lots were sold as "buy one, get one free."

Drawing cards

Shhhhhh. It's really quiet here. There are also incredible views, a nearby national park, tons of stars and a Southern California rarity: four seasons.

But given the land, which remains affordable by California standards, and its proximity to 794,000-acre Joshua Tree National Park, watch for Joshua Tree to claim its place on the map. The area has already been discovered by artists and musicians including Eric Burdon, Johnette Napolitano and the band Gram Rabbit — all of whom make their homes here.

Insiders' view

Lawanda Whipple, 52, moved here in 1981 from Eureka to be closer to her ailing father and stayed because her children seemed to blossom in the rustic land. "We've had a great influx of artists and musicians," she said. "They started coming about 10 years ago, and more and more are coming all the time."

Despite the newcomers, little has changed in the local psyche. People aren't pretentious, said Mark Bowling, who owns the Joshua Tree Rock Climbing School. "People here don't drive elaborate cars, and [they] seem more down to earth."

Bowling, 47, who grew up in Gardena, has lived in the area since 1987. He said the sheer vastness of the Mojave Desert is a primary allure. "I like the privacy," he said. "I've lived in places where the houses are about 10 feet apart from each other and you can hear everything your neighbors are doing. Here, your neighbors aren't going to know all about you."

However, both Whipple and Bowling said that, for many people, Joshua Tree is an acquired taste.

Inconvenience is a consideration. There are no local grocery stores and the nearest big-box store is 50 miles away in Palm Desert. Although staples can be bought in nearby Yucca Valley, most people travel about 45 minutes to the Coachella Valley for shopping, Whipple said.

Summer temperatures can top 100 degrees, and "you need to use an ice chest in your car to keep your food cold," Bowling said.

And much of Joshua Tree is crisscrossed by dirt roads that wash out easily in the rain and are only partially maintained.

Historical values

Residential resales:

Year...Median Price

1990...$52,000

1995...$50,000

2000...$45,500

2004...$95,000

2005...$135,750*

*Year to date

Housing stock

Homes vary from tiny homesteader shacks built before World War II to larger, more sweeping Spanish-style desert hideaways close to the national park. Eclectic and eccentric homes are embraced in Joshua Tree, although the line between scrap-metal sculpture and rusted trucks in someone's frontyard is sometimes a bit blurry.

Housing costs have risen dramatically in the last few years, and parcels of 2 acres or more are becoming more difficult to find.

Asking prices for single-family resale homes range from $39,980 for a 192-square-foot cabin on 5 acres to $1.2 million for a 3,300-square-foot, three-bedroom, three-bath home sitting on an acre. The bulk of current listings fall in the low to mid-$200,000s.

Report card

There are only two schools in Joshua Tree, which is part of the Morongo Unified School District. According to the 2004 Academic Performance Index Base Report, Friendly Hills Elementary scored 739 out of a possible 1,000 points, while Joshua Tree Elementary scored 692. Joshua Tree students attend La Contenta Junior High in Yucca Valley, which scored 656, or Twentynine Palms Junior High in Twentynine Palms, which scored 694. Twentynine Palms High scored 681; Yucca Valley High, 708.


Sources: DataQuick Information Systems; "The Morongo Basin: Its Roots and Its Branches," by Joan Wilson and Bob Stephenson; "Hi Desert Dreaming," by Joan Wilson and Charleen Grubb; http://www.realtor.com ; http://www.joshuatreechamber.org ; api.cde.ca.gov; http://www.nps.gov/jotr and http://www.cr.nps.gov .

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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