Felicitous City of the Mind Rises in California Desert

"Welcome to the Center of the World!" yells this eagle-faced Frenchman. He jumps out of a car whose number plate reads CTRWRLD. Jacques Andre Istel is about to weave a gossamer world for us, to make sure that by the time we're through it'll be the center of our world, too. He's going to have his work cut out for him. A desert? The center of the world? Is this another Ozymandius, set on building monuments to himself? California is littered with such schemes.

And yet . . . Washington was a swamp, Bangkok a bog, Brazilia a jungle, Canberra a kangaroo paradise. And that's the way they would have stayed if some crazy visionary hadn't come along and somehow persuaded thousands, millions of people to make their lives there.

So, just maybe, it's happening again. In the desert. Near Yuma, Ariz. Of course, no townie could think of any good reason to set up shop here, in a patch of brown nothingness which you'd have to identify by pointing out its special features. Well, there are the Chocolate Mountains a few days' march to the northeast. There are sensuous sand dunes a glare-blinding glance away to the southwest, looking like 15 naked very white women lying down all along the horizon. And then there's the inevitable dotted line cutting through it all, Interstate 8.

And that's it.

Here, for 50 billion years, the most exciting thing happening was what the Aussies call "Willy Willies"--wind-spun columns of dust, belly-dancing across the flats. But now, thanks to Monsieur Istel, there is something else. Sticking up out of the moonscape for no apparent reason, a pair of cream arched gatehouses, a potentially pink pyramid, and the Frenchman himself waving a book about dragons proclaiming this to be the Center of the Earth. Salvador Dali would have loved it.

Don't ask anyone in Yuma about the phenomenon, because they all still think it's a hoax, but the gatehouses and the pyramid here are, in fact, California's newest city, Felicity. And that's official, because the Imperial County Board of Supervisors says so. And the Frenchman waving the dragon book is determined to make it so. He's a dreamer mad enough to see a great Renaissance town springing up here. Where your ordinary humanoid sees stones and sand, Jacques Andre Istel sees a rose-colored city. A true oasis of civilization. Cafes, trees, the Ile-de-France, the Champs Elysees, a quartier of Paris itself perhaps, transported in spirit lock, stock and Bois de Bologne to the California desert. The London Bridge syndrome, writ large.

And why not?

"I've always wanted to do it," said the 57-year-old Istel. "To start a city. Give birth to a town. My father, too. But he never actually got down to it. I'm just a little madder than him. I've given up the good life and come out to the desert to start something that will come to fruition about the time my grandchildren grow up. Right now, of course, it doesn't seem (like) much."

He looks through the builders' rubble to the almost complete gatehouses that face each other, wedged apart by an 18-foot-high series of steel girders forming a pyramid. Welcome to Felicity. Beyond: an unlimited potential for the city. That is, the planet exactly as featureless as God made it, stretching out till the Chocolate Mountains save you from falling off the edge.

But follow Istel around a bit and you'll need a will of iron to resist being seduced into the whole idea, becoming, drip by drip, a believer. He's a combination of whim and passion, never one without the other. He has the kind of insistent enthusiasm of the spoiled child who will have his way. Trouble is, the more you hear, the more you want him to have it.

" 'Istel--you need a psychiatrist!' That's what my banker told me. But I know bankers. I come from a banking family. When a banker doesn't tell me I need a psychiatrist, I know it's too late to do what I want to do!"

He points to where a pipe comes up out of the ground.

"This will be our first fountain. The first of many. Essential in a city. Water will spurt out of a dragon's mouth. And up here," he points toward the right-hand gatehouse, "we shall have our brasserie. A roadside cafe which is really a cafe, in the French style. But we're not having ovens . . . We shall cook outside. Barbecue! Come and I'll tell you why."

He goes outside and looks up at the orange tiled roof. "You see that beautiful roof line? I am not going to spoil it for anything. If we have ovens inside, we'll have to put ugly chimneys through the roof. It will ruin it. If nothing else, this town is going to look good. We have already created the Felicity Historical Society to ensure it. Preservation orders," he says with a twinkle in his eye. "We certainly don't want to be dictatorial planners, but we don't want to be a tacky suburb either. So the Historical Society will be a kind of watchdog, just as they are in the rest of the country. Only it will have the advantage of guarding history while it is being made."

Inside again in the dust and trestles Istel points out the timber. "See--we're using top-quality materials because these are going to last. See the cross-beams? Six-by-two instead of the normal four-by-two. This side is the brasserie, the other will be a general store . . . But! If by any chance they don't work out, don't make money, then I have designed plumbing into the buildings so they can be broken up into apartments. I may be a dreamer, but I'm also practical. And to show everyone we're serious about this project, we--my wife, Felicia, and I--are going to become Felicity's first citizens. Upstairs."

But what is a guy like this doing in a place like this? Jacques Istel comes from the kind of distinguished French family you'd associate with the literary salons of Paris rather than the desert sands of California. His father was important in banking in France, and when World War II came, rallied with Gen. Charles de Gaulle and was the representative De Gaulle sent to get help for the Free French from the Americans. His family came with him and now all are naturalized Americans. Jacques started out working with his father's stock analyst company, Andre Istel & Co., in New York but soon wanted to bust out on his own.

He decided to make his passion for parachuting into a business and was soon cutting huge holes in his own chutes, to improve their maneuverability. He is now considered the father of sport parachuting. He made radical chutes with radical shapes and holes which shocked the parachuting establishment of the early '50s. He even reduced the standard three-week training course to three hours. He went on to take the world parachuting record in 1961 and to found several schools for parachuting.

But after a while, success started spelling boredom.

"My thoughts went back to starting a town. I just couldn't leave it alone. I already knew where I wanted it to be. My family and I have been buying land around here ever since the early '50s. I saw it on my way from Quantico Marine base in Virginia to the Korean War. I was a second lieutenant in the U.S. Marines. As I passed here down the old U.S. 80 route it suddenly struck me. I remember it as if it was today. I was driving towards the sand dunes when, literally, a shiver ran down my spine. Here! I thought. Here is where I'll build my city! Perfect climate. Clear air. Strategically sited between Phoenix, Ariz., and San Diego, on the California side of the Arizona border, not far from Mexico. It was perfect!"

But why this fixation about starting a town?

"Well, if people are like me they want to put charm and calm and clean air and unpressured living back into their existence. This is the place. I know no other. Also, I believe in crazy ideas. I've been having them all my life. Most of them have come to nothing, some of them have rewarded me wonderfully. My father always said to me, 'Relax. You have many wonderful ideas. Don't worry, in a lifetime, one of them is sure to work.'

"Well, parachuting did, and I'm hoping this will, too. Especially because my father also had this longing to start a town. He even had a spot worked out in Canada. He was going to call his town 'Barriere.' But he never got around to it. He was a banker. Too much to do. Well, I drove on to my ship in San Francisco and went off to the Korean War. But I never forgot this place. 'When I get old,' I thought, 'if I survive this, I'll come back and I'll build my city here.' So I did. And here I am--and here Felicity is!"

What is it going to look like? Where are the plans? Here Istel becomes a little vague. There are plans, he says. In fact, he has sponsored competitions in architectural schools for a town plan for a Felicity of 30,000 souls. He was disappointed with the results.

"They were all so . . . square! The normal layout of grids and shopping malls. I want this place to be different. A place of the spirit, where the already wonderful environment is enhanced by the habitat we create. What I don't want is just another tract-house suburb of Yuma."

But what about this claim to be the center of the world?

The answer comes when some visitors stray off the beaten track and wander into view, staring up at the buildings and across at this crazy pyramid. You can see the questions buzzing in their minds.

"Just a minute!" yells Jacques from a window. He dashes down, picking up a floppy book on the way. This is the bit he enjoys most, the myth, the mystique, the emotion--the base materials for any leader, any inspirer. You can see he has genuinely inspired himself.

"Welcome to the Center of the World!" he shouts. "Welcome to Felicity! You know it's named after my wife, Felicia. And it is the center of the world, officially." He's beside them now. "I wanted something that would make people take notice of this place, and I noticed that others all had some claim to be the center of this and that. The Tomato Capital of the World. The Potato Center of the World, the Culture Capital of the World. I realized that nobody had actually claimed the Center of the World itself!"

He is flying now. "So I staked my claim, through myth. You see, I wrote this children's book called 'COE' (That's Center of Earth) the Good Dragon.' See? It tells of his search across the world for the center . . . till he finds it eventually right here between the Chocolate Mountains and the sand dunes. It's kind of fun . . . so I published this, and at the same time staked a claim, which the county Board of Supervisors have recognized. See their resolution here?"

He shows a printed sheet of paper. "The Board of Supervisors of the County of Imperial, State of California. . . . Adopted resolution confirming that the Official Center of the World is in the United States of America, State of California, County of Imperial, District No. 1, approximately seven-tenths of a mile west of Sidewinder Road and approximately one-tenth of a mile north of Interstate 8."

"So you see it's official. Here, I'll show you the exact spot."

He leads the bemused group up the steps past where builders are preparing concrete and into the pyramid.

"This is where we laid the time capsule," Istel says. "The resolution is in there forever. Now it will take a challenge in the World Court at The Hague to have our claim disputed!"

He clearly loves the idea. It turns out that the elderly couple from Bend, Ore., read about this Center of the World claim in USA Today. They sometimes winter in Yuma. They may be the right sort of people to pioneer Felicity. If omens are important, their name is Coe, just like the dragon.

"Soon we'll have an automatic camera to take your picture under the pyramid, in the exact center of the world, and a computer to print the distance from your home," says Istel, getting into his stride. "And as for living in Felicity, you can't get cleaner air in the country than here. Plus perfect water for the next century . . . not like Yuma where the agriculture can leave chemical residues in the supply. We are surrounded by Indian reservation. Electricity costs are 35% cheaper here than in Yuma. We're 200 feet higher. And weather? Nine months of the year, it's perfect."

"Well, we're kind of taken with the area," George Coe says.

"At least we've got to buy the book," Louise Coe adds. "Where can we buy one?"

Istel is not fighting this whole battle alone. His friends in Imperial County include Supervisor Jim Bucher. "He's quite a thinker," he said of Istel. "We were charmed by him. His whole fantasy of Center of the World and the dragon and so forth. I mean, it's sort of childlike and attractive. It's good to see someone showing imagination around here.

"The thing is the guy's obviously sincere. Plus he has good connections--hell, he brought a friend along . . . Jean-Marie Daillet, a delegate to NATO. And Jacques is in 'Who's Who in America.' He is not typical, that's for sure. But he's putting life into the county, and anything like that's great. He's a dreamer, but he's practical, too. He's unusual for these parts."

Istel is not just whistling in the wind either: Demographics are with him. Snowbirds are spending longer and longer winters in and around Yuma. Some are here nine months of the year. Property prices in Yuma have gone up sufficiently to make California prices competitive.

"We have three markets here," says Istel. "The interstate delivers 8,000 cars a day, there's Yuma, with 100,000 people in wintertime, and one day when the peso is strong again, there'll be the whole Mexican tourist market. Our problem won't be the older folks wanting to come out and live here. We're going to have to fight to bring in the young, vital people with ideas and joie de vivre.

"But if you're thinking about young people," he reminds the Coes, "in California your children or grandchildren have access to a far better educational choice than in Arizona. It's worth thinking about."

Then, in a flash, he has left them and is negotiating with a landscaper over the fountains and trees and how to lay out car parks. He does everything by feel. Discussion.

"No bitumen parks please. I can't stand them. They would ruin everything we are trying to do here. Some sort of gravel. And let's have logs as stoppers." He talks with builders working on the piping. He's paying out more to put everything underground. Everything must be right for the entranceway.

"We thought this was another case of desert sunstroke, when we first heard about someone trying to start a city and claim the center of the world, but now we think the whole thing is great," says one of the construction workers. "The guy's got imagination. And he cares about the place. He's no property shark. He really wants to create something for his grandchildren, all our grandchildren. It's kind of exciting."

And yet, when you leave the bubble, when you drive away, what there is of Felicity looks just like a couple of bumps in the desert. Town? City? How are you going to get people out there, especially the kind of people who would want to make Istel's kind of Greek-ideal city? Passing by a sprawling caravan park and a greasy spoon--the real flavor of desert life--you can't help taking off your hat to a guy crazy enough to even think of tilting at such a windmill. But the man's tough. And to be tough and to have good ideas is a rare combination.

At the moment, the Center of the World is like the eye of a hurricane. Calm and empty. That's the way Jacques Istel wants it to stay, but with the addition of 30,000 intelligent people and a city of spires. Maybe the Good Dragon Coe can help with a huff and a puff.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
75°