The Fire Next Time


The beach brats of The O.C. live more than just a short stroll from the shore—nearly every episode features wet-suited patriarch Peter Gallagher unloading his longboard from the rear hatch of his lawyerly-luxe SUV. So perhaps the most implausible fact of Fox’s newest California idyll is that none of these affluent adolescents owns a car. More decentralized than even neighboring Los Angeles County, without wheels the real O.C. (known to natives as the Orange Curtain, owing to its reactionary politics, but never the O.C.) is as hospitable a living environment as Mars. A terrain transformed during the last 50 years from an agricultural region into the leading example of what some urban historians call the “postsuburb,” Orange County is a loose arrangement of individually self-sufficient bedroom communities united by freeways. While traditional suburbs historically formed in concentric circles of density around an urban hub, Orange County’s cities lack a singular site of public or private activity, instead sharing multiple centers of consumerism (let’s meet at the mall, dude).

As recently as the late 1970s, the county’s titular citrus groves filled the air with an acidic tang, but since the beautiful basin farmland had always been dogged by water source problems anyway (cf. Chinatown), real estate developers, led by the imperious Irvine Company, were quick to dress this uncooperative landscape in concrete and pavement. Up went solitary sets of undetached, stucco-veneer townhouses, each partition protected by its own medieval perimeter wall from the smog-producing traffic of four-lane roads leading only to other homogenous housing tracts, the entrances to the better ones gated. The postsuburb in which I grew up, for example, located at the crossroads of Los Angeles and Orange counties, was originally incorporated in 1956 as Dairy Valley, with a population of 3,500 people and 100,000 cows. Eleven years later, with the 91 freeway under construction, the town reimagined itself as Cerritos (Spanish for “little hills,” a theme resulting everywhere in dwarfish, ankle-high moguls of grass). By the 1980s, the last of Dairy Valley’s 400 farms had been exchanged for the phony fountains of corporate parks and condominiums.

As eyewitnesses to the eyesores of Southern California’s dawning car-centricity, Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer wrote in 1947 that the “new bungalows on the outskirts [of American cities] are at one with the flimsy structures of world fairs in their praise of technical progress and their built-in demand to be discarded after a short while like empty food cans.” These Frankfurt Marxists-in-exile felt baffled by the logic of an emerging architecture that encouraged an insular private life confined to the car and home, while promoting a public life devoted exclusively to conspicuous consumption. Historian Mike Davis retorts in City of Quartz (1992): “Largely ignorant of, or indifferent to, the peculiar historical dialectic that had shaped Southern California, [Adorno and Horkheimer] allowed their image of their first sight to become its own myth: Los Angeles as the crystal ball of capitalism’s future.” Intent on rescuing California from the fatalism of the noir (Cain and Chandler) and post-apocalyptic (Blade Runner) Hollywood representations that Adorno and Horkheimer unwittingly reify, Davis’s defensiveness at the Tocquevillification of his culturally diverse home turf is admirable.

Still, the German critical carpetbaggers who observed that for “centuries society has been preparing for Victor Mature and Mickey Rooney” would not have been surprised last month by the easy election of a certain Austrian immigrant to the governorship of California. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who was inaugurated on November 17, may not have much more political experience than Arnold Drummond, but he’s a shrewd man who, having long ago announced his political aspirations, bided his time until a fading film career coincided with the cakewalk campaign of a voter recall. Ronald Reagan, after all, once became a California governor and then a United States president by championing fiscally irresponsible tax cuts for the wealthy with the snake-charmer salesmanship of the unremarkable B-actor he had been. (In July, Senator Orrin Hatch introduced a proposed amendment to Article II of the Constitution in an effort to permit foreign-born American citizens to serve as president.) A Terminator performing for the same electoral audience as the Gipper, Schwarzenegger capitalized on the charisma of an action-hero persona indistinguishable from himself. Demonstrating in an early debate how synchronized he is with the spirit of the state’s voters, he mocked the size of the loophole in opponent Arianna Huffington’s tax return by boasting that he could drive his Hummer through it. Meanwhile, he spoke vaguely about how he’d solve California’s deepening economic woes—including a budget deficit he admits could run as high as $20 billion. Schwarzenegger insisted he would not raise taxes and, mindful of the voters’ own Hummers, his first act as governor was to fulfill his promise to repeal one of ousted governor Gray Davis’s more unpopular revenue raisers: a tripling of the state’s registration fee for motor vehicles.

Schwarzenegger pledged the day after his victory to ask George W. Bush for “a lot of favors.” Although the two met for a photo op in San Bernardino on October 16, Bush offered no money for a state that voted against him in 2000. But two weeks later, when the worst wildfires in state history incinerated more than 3,300 homes, the president instructed FEMA to open its checkbooks to the Left Coast. Furthermore, the Los Angeles Times reported on October 28, as the fires continued uncontained, that House legislators were bipartisanly busy with a previously stalled Bush proposal intended to prevent future disasters by accelerating the logging of forests on federal land in California. Unfortunately, many of these condemned trees are nowhere near the foothill developments destroyed in the recent fires, which fed on the deadwood and brush of domestically planted chaparral. In a separate story that same day, the L.A. Times reported that “new $1 million homes were being carved into the parched hillsides on Tuesday even as firefighters scurried to protect hundreds of those already built.” For those homes that were spared within the postsuburbs now regularly constructed inside the nation’s most dangerous fire corridors, there will always be a fire next time.

In the aftermath of California’s most recent flowering inferno, politicians and their constituents remain unwilling to acknowledge a pattern of willful contempt for ecosystems whose flora requires, among other inconveniences, periodic scorches. Malibu, for instance, may be the most fire-prone community in the United States (the area has hosted 15 major firestorms since 1930), but its millionaire residents aren’t about to abandon their privileged paradise—they prefer to rebuild after every fire or mudslide or earthquake with the generous contributions of federal funds. No wonder then, as native daughter Joan Didion observes in her recent memoir, Where I Was From, that the “extreme reliance of Californians on federal money so seemingly at odds with the emphasis on unfettered individualism that constitutes the local core belief, was a pattern set early on, and derived in part from the very individualism it would seem to belittle.”

Something’s rotten in the state of California, and it’s not just the economy, stupid; it’s a postsuburban way of life that cannot be psychologically or environmentally sustained. In 1991, Orange County demographer William F. Gayk wrote that adjacent “Riverside and San Bernardino counties are now serving as new markets for people unable to afford a home in Orange County,” where they work. “The result is that the volume of vehicle miles traveled surges upward, the transportation system is taxed beyond its limits, and air quality deteriorates.” Gayk’s description of those recent fire epicenters scans statewide, glossing the frustrations of the Gray Davis-haters from San Jose to San Diego who wonder why their diminishing California dream has to be paid for. Predictably, they’ve elected another actor who won’t ask them to settle up. For decades, California has been preparing for Arnold Schwarzenegger.

In the collective consciousness of our celebrity-obsessed nation, California represents the continental last stand of manifest destiny’s westward expansion. The Golden State promises us passage from obscurity to stardom. But as California’s keenest observers, from Nathanael West to David Lynch, have understood, that’s just a Hollywood variation on a Horatio Alger theme. With nowhere left to go but the mall, these all-American ambitions lately drive in circles along a lost highway. Californians once raced obliviously down scenic coastal roads, orange groves to the right, blue Pacific to the left—James Deans, above the speed limit, cheating death. Now they sit in neutral, surrounded by thick traffic and imprisoned inside the vehicle of their deliverance under a smog-brown sky, a power brownout waiting at home.

Benjamin Strong is a fourth-generation Californian born in Hollywood, now living in Brooklyn. He received his master’s degree in English literature from UC-Santa Barbara, and has worked as a book editor in Chicago.