Civilization dawned on Vista Arriago at 2:45 p.m., Saturday, Sept. 1.
Janette Wong, bringer of the dawn, chose as her chariot a $75-a-day Rent-It truck, which she wheeled south on the Ventura Freeway, west at the Camarillo Springs exit and then up a hill in the freeway's shadow.
On Vista Arriago, all was still--48 empty houses, 48 empty garages, 48 empty driveways. The only sound was the whine of other trucks on the freeway, fighting their way up the Conejo Pass toward Los Angeles.
Wong, a 34-year-old high school teacher and coach, hopped down from the cab with an elastic support on her bad knee. Her housemate, a 28-year-old software engineer named Carole McCluskey, coasted up in a van.
After years of saving, months of negotiations and a welter of exhilarations and disappointments, they approached the house at 846 Vista Arriago. Two bedrooms, loft upstairs. Beige stucco walls outside, blue carpet in the living room, pink in the master bedroom. This was their first home, the first occupied home on the block, the first chapter in the life of a neighborhood.
"Camarillo's kind of a hygienic town," McCluskey had been saying at dinner a few days before. "When I was growing up, I never thought I'd stay here."
But now she climbed onto the rental truck and opened up the back, revealing the couches, the box marked "tax records," the brown La-Z-Boy chair that Wong won in a department store drawing in Champaign-Urbana, Ill. A loose beach chair bounced to the ground and an inflatable Santa Claus, the last item packed, flapped in the summer breeze.
"This," said McCluskey, nodding toward Santa, "is like Christmas for us."
In 1970, the Barclay Hollander Corp. took control of a sizable Camarillo property near the bottom of the Conejo grade. The site was 45 miles northwest of downtown Los Angeles, and the idea that eventually arose was to build a 368-acre "master planned community" called Camarillo Springs.
There would be a golf course, condominiums, mobile homes and perhaps eventually single-family houses. The development would stand at the edge of Los Angeles' ever-widening radius of feeder suburbs and, if all went well, melt quietly and profitably into America's long and varied history of residential real estate development.
There was John Winthrop in 1630, accompanied by a few hundred like-minded British pilgrims, resolving to build a Puritan "city upon a hill" by Massachusetts Bay. There was William J. Levitt 315 years later, buying up a 1,400-acre Long Island potato farm and putting up homes for 17,447 World War II veterans--Levittown, this country's first modern housing tract.
And there, in the spring of 1989, was the final phase of Camarillo Springs. It rose in the shade of the Ventura Freeway, an unhistoric, undistinguished 73-home neighborhood made up of three short cul-de-sacs and a long loop of a street called Vista Arriago.
"Originally, it had been contemplated that the property would have townhouse units on it," said Richard A. Hostin, project manager and vice president at Barclay Hollander. "And the decision was made when I first got here in 1987 to change that from townhouses to a smaller single-family detached home. At the time, townhouses were not particularly popular in Ventura County."
The buyers of the Camarillo houses would have no particular faith to bind them together, no war memories to share. To keep the outside world at bay, they would insulate themselves with fax machines, cellular phones, cable television hookups and videocassettes. They would be, in short, detached home buyers.
But those first residents would have this in common with Winthrop's Puritans and Levitt's veterans: They would constitute a new neighborhood, created from scratch, born into an uncertain hour. Together, they would face buyer's remorse, hedge-top gossip, children, fear of children, love, hatred, landscape envy, birth, death, $163 a month in association fees and every rational and irrational fear that can overtake a new homeowner.
On a midsummer day, Cindy Marks, a psychologist, was explaining how she came to be halfway through the escrow process on a two-bedroom Vista Arriago home. She paused and shook her head.
"Everybody we know just looks at us and nods his head and says, 'Someday, you're going to laugh about this,' " she said. "It's crazy. It's insane."
In mid-September, future Vista Arriago resident Susan Patterson stood in her unfinished living room, looking out at the hills and thinking about her move-in date just three weeks away. Suddenly her paranoia found focus.
"We're not on an Indian burial ground," she asked, "are we?"
The houses of Levittown, sold only to white war veterans, went for $6,990 each. The developers of Camarillo Springs offered four home models in their final phase, available to anyone who could afford them, priced from $190,000 to about $260,000.
"It has a nice view and is on kind of a terrace," Hostin said of the neighborhood. "So we were trying to use names that incorporated 'view' or 'highland.' "
They considered The Summit, Mountain View, Promontory, The Pointe, The Hilltop--and discarded them all.
"For whatever reason," Hostin said, "we liked Las Tierras ." The Lands.
Sales opened March 31, 1990.
"Two- and three-bedroom luxury homes on a promontory with panoramic views," the newspaper ads said. "Gated entrances. One and two stories. Elegant interiors . . . Said to be the best buy in Ventura County."
Soon phones were ringing in a sales office and being answered by a woman saying "Tierras" in a musical voice. In the first weekend, 16 units sold--substantially fewer sales than the developers had posted with subdivision openings in previous years but still enough to allow optimism.
By May 25, two dozen "SOLD" buttons dotted the office map and a solemn young couple hunched over the desk of sales manager Sherryanne Renker, close to a deal.
"If you can't qualify for a loan . . ." began Renker, running through a catalogue of possibilities.
The couple hunched forward. He had once sold cars for a living and she had a Ph.D. in psychology, but weeks later they were still talking about the anxiety that overtook them in that office, and throwing around words like "scum" and "hell."
"We didn't sleep well that whole week," Cindy Marks said.
"I'd get up and look at the floor plan . . ." said her husband, Jon LeConey.
". . . And I'd get up and look at our tax returns," Marks said.
On the construction site, 16 subcontractors plied their various trades.
"Typical tract," sniffed one laborer while the Food Factory lunch truck made its daily stop on May 30.
"The models are nice," plumber Guy Love said, sitting in what would become the Marks-LeConey garage. "But it's too crowded for me. Look at the sidewalks and the garages," he said. They were all within a few feet of each other.
"But this project," Love continued, "for first-time buyers, I think it's a good deal."
The market had changed plenty since 1970. First for the better when real estate boomed, and then for the worse when California's economic momentum finally slowed earlier this year. By the time the Tierras homes went up for sale in late March, 1990, the housing market had begun to soften.
"I'd like to think that I'm not buying into a recessive market," fretted Carole McCluskey after she had laid out nearly $30,000 in deposit, down payment and closing costs.
"I am buying into a soft market, certainly . . . It's definitely a nervous, cautious time. But I don't think it's a true recession."
Five months after sales opened, all the least expensive homes in Las Tierras were gone, but the project was still less than half sold. On Vista Arriago, 34 of the 48 homes were still awaiting buyers.
"That could be bad for us," said Kelly Patterson, 27, who with his wife was among the first buyers. Still, Patterson said, "the market was waiting for us to grab something up. I don't know if we could have done this any other time."
By then it was clear, to Patterson and others, that profound ambivalence would be as much a part of the home-buying experience in 1990 as planting the back yard and paying your own plumbing bills.
Nevertheless, Carole McCluskey and Janette Wong, renters for their adult lives, were ready for that ambivalence. They were tired of getting no equity from their rent payments, they said, tired of concealing their forbidden pet cat, Sherbert, from the landlord, tired of having no control over the color of their carpet.
They laid down a $5,000 deposit in early May and drew on financial help from two relatives to pull together enough for a down payment.
"It was fun for about the first five minutes. And that's when it went into crisis," sighed Wong before the move-in.
"There were probably five or six times we thought we weren't going to get the house," McCluskey said.
"Or . . ." Wong continued, "we thought, 'We don't want it.' "
For the last two weeks of August, while McCluskey and Wong waited for clearance to move in, their dishes and books sat in boxes, stacked all around their $770-a-month Camarillo apartment.
Two nights before the official move-in, they sneaked into the new place and tiptoed upstairs to plug in their telephone and answering machine.
"Carole's probably on the 17th or 18th hole by now," Wong dictated into the microphone, "and Janette's probably coaching some poor young child . . ." Their neighbors-to-be, meanwhile, were bouncing toward the end of their own wild rides.
Jon LeConey and Cindy Marks, waiting for their financing to come through, were still in their rental unit along Silver Strand Beach in Oxnard. About once a week, they would drive out to Camarillo and stare at their house-to-be.
"I'm embarrassed," Marks confided--not about the house, she meant, but about her preoccupation with it.
Marks, 31, works at the California Youth Authority's facility near Camarillo. LeConey, 37, is head waiter at the restaurant in the Oxnard Mandalay Beach Hotel. She comes originally from Philadelphia and he from Ohio. In negotiations, they agree, she was more likely to be outspoken, he to be cool.
By the time Marks came across the Tierras ad in the May 13 Ventura Star-Free Press, they had been looking more than a year for a house to buy. Aside from an unsuccessful bid on a 30-year-old Ojai home--"We bid ridiculously low and they didn't dicker," Marks said--they hadn't come close.
"Throughout, we were constantly struggling and considering going back to Colorado," she said. "I mean, we make enough money that we ought to be able to live well."
If they took the Vista Arriago house, they wanted to be sure of living well. One day, while rush hour honked and whined on the freeway overhead, LeConey sat in his car where his driveway would be, assessing the sound effects. Quiet enough, they decided.
Then came their hard-fought week of negotiations. Finally, when they made their deal with the Tierras salespeople, they went out to eat and celebrated with Heineken, fish and chips.
But just five weeks later, on the muggy afternoon of Friday, July 6, Marks and LeConey were again grappling with frustration.
They sat in the offices of Builders Showcase Interiors in Agoura, the Tierras project's official supplier of carpet and tiles. Marks and LeConey were there, a design consultant in tow, to choose their colors.
The office was immaculate, with rows of handsome marble tile samples, hardwood floor panels and carpet patches in a rainbow of colors. But the options available to Marks and LeConey without extra charge were substantially more limited.
"You don't have anything to work with," complained Elizabeth Mulcahy, their adviser, looking down at eight colors of carpet, about two dozen vinyl flooring patterns and about a half a dozen tile patterns.
"I don't like it," Marks said at one point, rationalizing a choice, "I hate it least."
While his wife leaned forward to probe and negotiate, LeConey leaned back, on the edge of disengaging himself from the scene entirely. Eventually, the matter was settled: The Marks-LeConey household would feature 128 yards of carpet in an off-white shade known as "Chrome," 17 square feet of gray tile with "DeLorean Gray" grout and 20 yards of sheet vinyl flooring in a pattern of gray and blue. The carpet padding would be upgraded, at an added cost of $448, from 3/8 of an inch to 9/16.
"On the Tierras buyers, I'm finding that the expectations are pretty realistic," said Rochelle Calderone, the Builders Showcase manager. "They realize, if they have looked at houses before, that most builders offer a . . . limited package," But, Calderone added, "it's an emotional thing --the aesthetics and the looks of the house versus the construction. Sometimes their dreams and their hopes do not match their pocketbooks."
On Labor Day, Marks and LeConey drove over to Vista Arriago to peek at their place.
Strolling the neighborhood, they noticed that Wong and McCluskey had moved in. The foursome struck up Vista Arriago's first neighborly acquaintance, trading horror stories and best wishes. Cindy Marks, her stint as a carpet critic still fresh in mind, sneaked a look at Wong and McCluskey's floor covering. Blue and pink. Hmmm.
Next door to the Marks-LeConey household and around the corner from the Wong-McCluskey residence, the floor of Kelly and Susan Patterson's two-bedroom home lay carpetless. The young owners stepped across the concrete, explaining that carpet would come when their escrow closed, probably in about three weeks.
Kelly Patterson, 27, interrupted himself in mid-sentence, stepped to the wall and fingered a small new imperfection in his living room wall. This was the wall the stereo and the 27-inch Sony Trinitron would stand in front of but, still, you pay $190,000 . . .
"One of the drawbacks of coming out here," Patterson was saying a moment before, "is that you see how it's being built . . . It's just all anxiety-producing."
Patterson, a wiry man with shoulder-length brown hair and a pack of Marlboros in his pocket, grew up near The Avenue in Ventura. For 10 years, he has worked at the Camarillo State Hospital, most recently as a psychiatric technician, supervising juvenile wards of the hospital.
Susan Patterson, 25, grew up in Santa Barbara County, then moved south and took a job at the same hospital. She's usually in the health records department.
The Pattersons married a year ago in September. Together, their state pay and benefits aren't bad, they said, but it took financial help from her father for them to scrape together a down payment, even after Kelly briefly took a second job selling Mazdas. Once they move in, the economizing will continue: Kelly Patterson's brother will probably live as a boarder in the second bedroom, paying $300 a month to defray the mortgage bills.
Until they move in, they make the same pilgrimages that their new neighbors have been making.
On one of those, when the house was still a bare frame, the young couple found the master bedroom, calculated where they would put the head of the bed and inked their initials into the wood.
They were planning on a similar ceremony in the concrete of the back patio, but sometime between Friday the 7th and Tuesday the 11th of September, the workers put down the concrete and saw that it set unblemished.
Now it was Tuesday afternoon and Susan Patterson scowled down momentarily at the dry concrete, then perked up again. Eventually they would put in a Jacuzzi off the bedroom. They were thinking of bricks in the back and roses in the side yard. Before too long, they would probably have a child and make the second bedroom into a nursery.
They would also learn some local history--including the fact that there was indeed Chumash holy land in their new neighborhood. Four mountainside caves lie just east of the suburban development's Morningstar Canyon tract, and complaints from Chumash descendants led the developers to leave two nearby home sites unbuilt. The caves are still occasionally used, it is said, for ceremonies on spiritual occasions.
But that bit of knowledge, like many others, lay ahead. This was a time for an American ceremony of more recent invention. A visitor stepped forward with a camera, and the Pattersons moved into position for a back-yard portrait. Beyond the wall, another dozen unfinished yards stretched down the block.
"Smile," Susan Patterson said to her husband, "and say 'homeowner.' "
VENTURA COUNTY HOUSING MARKET The new neighbors of Vista Arriago in Camarillo now have the satisfaction of owning a new home in the suburbs -- but this year, that distinction comes with the uncertainty of a soft market.
The following numbers are based on sales in July, 1990, compared with reports from July, 1989. The figures include new and existing detached single-family homes and condominiums, and the information was drawn from county records. It was compiled for The Times by TRW Real Estate Information Services.
Change Change Area Units sold from '89 Avg. price from '89 City of Ventura 101 -25.7% $210,992 +0.7% Ojai, Santa Paula, Fillmore 103 -14.9% $210,528 -1.4% Oxnard, Port Hueneme 154 -13.0% $202,362 -19.7% Camarillo 68 -37.0% $287,404 -8.0% Thousand Oaks 200 -0.5% $279,289 -9.5% Moorpark, Simi Valley 234 -18.2% $225,058 +4.8% Ventura County 875 -16.5% $236,269 -5.2%