Imperial Valley

Imperial Valley real estate agent Frederic Din is framed by a vacant garage outside a partly completed home at the Springhouse development in Brawley. The builder went bankrupt and left uncompleted homes and empty lots. Audio slideshow >>> (Brian Vander Brug / Los Angeles Times)

The Imperial Valley is accustomed to the spectral look of failure: Houses around the Salton Sea have been abandoned for decades; the Planters Hotel in Brawley stood empty for years before it was destroyed by fire; Main Street in El Centro, the Imperial County seat, remains stubbornly vacancy-pocked.

But even by historical standards, the latest bust in the region's cycle of hardship and hope has been profound.

Never-completed subdivisions resemble movie lots waiting for a picture set in a typical Southern California suburb. Men who had found high-paying jobs building homes are back in the fields -- if they can find work at all.

Not even the dead are immune to the valley's woes. A huge sign warns that Memory Gardens Cemetery and Memorial Park, the final resting place for Imperial Valley residents for nearly a century, is in foreclosure.

"The valley has never seen things this bad, never," said Roy Buckner, Imperial County assessor and a lifelong resident of Brawley. "This is the worst."

Desperation has always had a place in the Imperial Valley's story.

Hard upon Mexico and the Colorado River in California's arid southeastern corner, the valley has never been an easy to place to live, not with its isolation, austere landscape and blistering heat.

Legend holds that a Franciscan friar traveling with early Spanish explorers declared it a "deadly place" and urged the group to move on. Naturalist John James Audubon took a look in 1846 and pronounced it "most melancholy."

Since the early 1900s, when buccaneer capitalists organized the Imperial Land Co. and began large-scale irrigation, its fortunes have depended on the unpredictable farm economy. In recent decades its unemployment rate has remained high -- sometimes the nation's highest -- even when the rest of the state is prosperous.

Name the state statistic, and Imperial County (population: 172,000) is usually near the top or the bottom, whichever is worse: per capita income, welfare recipients, families below the poverty line, elderly living in poverty and so on.

From 1983 to 1999, while unemployment statewide averaged 7%, unemployment in Imperial County was 27%. Last year, the county's year-end average was the highest in the state.

In March, the unemployment rate was 25.1%, the highest in the United States for any area with at least 50,000 people.

Farmworkers have always led the jobless ranks, but others have joined them: truck drivers, construction workers, retail salespeople and service industry employees. Teachers and school employees could be next. Even a repo man, after capitalizing on the economic downturn for months, is facing an uncertain future.

In a crowded classroom in an El Centro strip mall, some of the valley's jobless come to learn new skills and rescue what is left of their dreams.

Tony Arispe and two dozen other unemployed workers are studying to become pharmacy technicians. The 37-year-old Arispe lost jobs as a truck driver and bar manager and lost his home to foreclosure.

"I'm putting my family through misery right now because I'm not working," said Arispe, who is married with a 5-year-old son. His home, once valued at $285,000, he said, is for sale by the bank for $100,000 -- with no takers.

Carla Balbastro, 34, lost her job at a lumber company in August. Then she had to move out of her apartment. "I felt like a failure," she said. "I didn't even know how to tell my parents."Now she lives with them in Calexico.

Jose Gastelum was laid off by a cellular-telephone outfit. "I was planning to get a house," the 23-year-old said.

Instead of shopping for a home, he's worried about not making the next payment on his car. "I get kind of depressed," he said. "I don't have the life I used to have."