THE BLAND CANYONS : The Flight From Fear Creates Relatively Safe Communities That Lack the Spices of Life


I think I found what passes for the California dream a couple of weeks ago: a swath of green Brady Bunch suburbia stitched into a remote corner of the red-rock desert, eight interstate hours east of the four-level, 10 mountain ranges and two states away. Everywhere you look there are clean shopping centers, nationally advertised theme restaurants, blond children playing in front of gleaming cul-de-sac ranch houses.

The air is clean, the water pure, the crime rate just this side of nonexistent--people you’ve only just met make a point of telling you that they never lock their front door, just before they invite your family to spend the night. (If a stranger in Culver City confided that he left his front door unlocked, even you might be tempted to rob the place.) The surrounding mountains invite you to car-camp and hunt for venison. If it weren’t for the pink, corrugated mesas and the Orrin Hatch bumper stickers on the station wagons, you could imagine yourself in the nice part of Fullerton instead of somewhere south of Provo--this place is a boring L.A. suburb a two-hour drive from the nearest big city.

Not so long ago, the town was a speck of a settlement, a place off the highway to stop for groceries and a diner meal, a cluster of motels on the way to national parks and points north. Now the area is booming, thanks to the family-values crowd and those who would hire them. There are plenty of jobs, not the groovy kind held down by telecommuting software designers in Taos but decent, no-future, lifestyle-maintenance stuff: $8-an-hour back-office gigs, $300-a-week warehouse things; burger-flipping jobs at every imaginable kind of fast-food franchise. Wages aren’t high in this sparsely unionized state, but houses go for about a third of what they would in the L.A. area, and it seems like a friendly place to raise kids. I’m not sure whether it’s a capital of white flight, but you won’t see a whole lot of minorities around.


Some of the town’s natives drifted out to California after World War II to take jobs in the aircraft plants and steel mills and drifted home again when those factories began to close in the ‘70s. It was part of the great reverse migration that drained places the white guys from places like Rosemead and Fontana back into pickup-truck exurbia. Many of the newer residents are former Californians bent on recapturing their Ozzie-and-Harriet youth. Sometimes the place can seem like the Far West equivalent of those small towns in Michoacan where every resident has lived in Los Angeles, has relatives in Los Angeles and knows precisely how many hours it takes to get to Los Angeles by car. If the town has a soul, it is that of Downey, 1963.

Popular culture, for example, seems very far away. The closest stop for Lollapalooza is three hours away--if your mom will let you go (she probably won’t), and the only radio stations you can tune in play Mantovani and Garth Brooks. Soundgarden CDs are passed around from teen-ager to teen-ager like samizdat Joseph Brodsky poems in pre-Gorbachev Moscow. Rap music is treated by grown-ups as a bad smell from a world far away. Espresso and subtitled movies don’t make it within 100 miles of here. The closest decent restaurant is probably in Las Vegas.

And somehow, it is hard to spend any time in this town without sensing that opportunity has been swapped for safety, the beauty of diversity for pretty scenery and the security of not feeling out of place. This is where the growth seems to be now in America: bland industrial-park centers in Florida, North Carolina, Arizona and Utah, defined as much by their distance from major urban centers as they are by proximity to capital--cities where a flight from fear can be interpreted as a journey toward community.