Remembering the Future of Orange Countys Great Park

"History has shown us that the Great Park of Orange County . . ."

The president of the United States stops in mid-sentence as a gust of wind unsettles the stage bunting, whooshes his hair and lifts the first lady's skirt. Overhead, a mini-tornado of dandelion puffs corkscrews around a GREAT PARK 50th ANNIVERSARY banner. As the wind settles, a confused blue-grey gnatcatcher roosts on the podium. President William A. Pilgrim smiles.

"As I was saying, history has shown us—and I'm sure my little friend here would agree—that this Great Park is the best thing that ever happened to Orange County."

The overflowing crowd hoots and whistles so loud it startles itself. From the twin spires above the Joan Irvine Smith Amphitheater, two hovering cameras zip back to position in a stand of valley oaks that quiver in the after breeze of a Fujicolor-perfect day. Stroking his graying beard before he Tai Chis an arm northward, Pilgrim continues.

"This park—this 4,500-acre dazzling emerald of nature and humanity—reflects the magnificent civic pride and spirit of cooperation that, during its creation, encompassed all of Orange County."

"Bullshit," an athletic, green-haired woman in a short skirt, knee-high all-terrain boots and a "Clone Me" halter top mutters under her breath.

"BULLSHIT!" she says again, louder, tugging at my arm.

"Doesn't anybody want to hear the truth? The dirt? The chthonian booty? Cooperation, my ass. Why doesn't anybody ask me about George Argyros?" she says, scanning the audience with Oliver Stone cynicism.

I ignore her. I already know the story. And so do you.

 

Back in 2001, George Argyros wanted to turn the land where the Great Park now stands into an international airport—and he had the power, money and political friends to do it. Never mind that Orange County was growing more slowly than any adjacent county and didn't need another airport. Never mind that the airport plan would have required shuttleloads of money to destroy and then rebuild the runways from the outdated military base that was once here. Never mind that jumbo jets and cargo planes would have taken off and landed 24/7 over thousands of homes and businesses. Never mind that air pollution, noise pollution and traffic congestion would have transformed a beautiful neighborhood into a chainlinked warehouse yard; that the then-newly remodeled John Wayne Airport—paid for with tax dollars—would have been forced to shut down; that the airline business was in such dire straits at the time that it had to be bailed out by the federal government. Never mind all that. Argyros wanted a shiny new international airport—and he wanted it ASAP. Short, stocky, bespectacled and publicly pleasant, Argyros—a FabergĂ© egg of a man—was the financial and, by default, spiritual guide to a group of Orange County business and political leaders who at the turn of the millennium were stuck in time. This group, regrettably, constituted the majority on the Board of Supervisors. Referred to as the Argynauts, their economic vision was based on the 20th-century business model of cargo and manufacturing. Unfortunately, they failed to realize that Orange County's economy wasn't. Even in the 1990s, Orange County's success was measured by 21st-century high-tech standards. The recession of the early 2000s didn't change that. A new airport in Orange County was simply a bad idea. Cargo planes don't move information. Runways attract baggage handlers, not entrepreneurs and Ph.D.s. But Argyros was in a hurry to have his outdated way. "Patience is for losers," he once said. A California real-estate magnate, CEO of a prominent and savagely diversified investment firm, financial chair of the California Republican Party, onetime owner of AirCal, and President George W. Bush's U.S. ambassador to Spain, the overeager Argyros was a well-connected man about town. Born in Detroit, raised in Pasadena and a respected alumnus of Orange County's Chapman University, he counted mid-20th-century President Richard Nixon and ex-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger (yes, the war criminal) as his friends.

 

"Mr. Callahan. Mr. Callahan." I snap back to the park celebration. President Pilgrim is still speechifying about the beauty of it all.

"Don't you want to talk about Argyros?" the green-haired woman asks.

I ignore her and watch a flotilla of cumulus clouds spooling through the electric blue horizon. As if to mock me, one formation resembles George Argyros' profile.

 

Someone once said (and for the life of me, I can't remember who) that if you want to know a person's religion, you don't ask them what it is, you just wait and watch what they worship. Argyros had religion. His god was money. By 1981, at the age of 44, he had enough of it to buy baseball's Seattle Mariners. Yet, in his tenure as owner, he was never given the keys to Seattle. In fact, Argyros spent his time tweezing off Seattle. When the Mariners didn't become the mother lode he was expecting, he raised ticket prices and threatened to move the team. Then, as if to outblow Mount St. Helens, he jacked up the sticker price of his best players, selling them off one by one before cashing in on the sale of the whole franchise. The reaction was not favorable. "Seattle gave everything in the world to George Argyros,"Seattle Times columnist Steve Kelly said. "And George Argyros gave Seattle the bird." Kelly described Argyros as "a clever, deceitful fraud." A major-league baseball executive offered a more pragmatic summation: "Argyros doesn't view himself in terms of winning, only in terms of profit." That myopic fiscal perspective followed Argyros everywhere. In Orange County in the 1990s, when he served as chairman of Apria Healthcare Group, the company allegedly shorted Medicare at least $103 million. In 2001, Argyros' real-estate investment firm, Arnel Management Co., was accused of illegally withholding renters' deposits and overcharging for repairs. Suffice it to say that the word "unscrupulous" was a likely association when George Argyros' name came up.   "Nathan. Naaaaythin. Are you a'ight?" It's Greenhair again. I'm jangled back to the present. President Pilgrim is still rambling, and this woman is now in my face. "Everything okay?" Greenhair asks. "Can you hear me? Argyros. ARE-JI-RUS. You remember your old buddy George, don't you?" I pretend to be hard of hearing. In fact, before my prosthetic eardrum implant, I was. (It's a RC240 eardrum developed by Assam Industries Research Center, adjacent to the Great Park.) "ARE-JI-RUS. ARDUOUS. ARE-JI-RUS." Greenhair has now taken up a slow, dissonant chant. I am unresponsive. I am a century old. I deserve a little fun.   Argyros was only 63 when he became a billionaire at the turn of the millennium. Back then, he lived in lavish excess on Harbor Island in Newport Bay. I'm sure there were days when George would sit on the deck of his 100-foot Liberace-white yacht and dream about bottom-line expectations. He probably believed that the money an international airport at El Toro would have generated for the Argynauts—money from air cargo, leasing warehouse space, and perhaps withholding security deposits from tenants—would have been wholly gratifying in a mid-20th-century robber baron kind of way. Though the $3 million Argyros gave to political campaigns to promote his dream of an international airport was only a fraction of his wealth, it was a significant political investment by Orange County standards. That is, unless you count his compatriots on the Board of Supervisors, who spent more than $40 million in tax money on what they referred to as an "airport educational campaign." (As if the people of Orange County didn't know what an airport was.) Argyros described his airport as a "gift." He should have contemplated the gift that Colonel Griffith J. Griffith gave to Los Angeles on Dec. 16, 1896. "I consider it my obligation to make Los Angeles a happier, cleaner and finer city," Griffith, a California gold mine speculator, said when he gave 3,015 acres of his Rancho Los Feliz estate to the people of Los Angeles. They later named the gift Griffith Park. There would be no Argyros Park. Instead, pamphlets and letters promoting the airport arrived in the mail as regularly as carpet-cleaning coupons. Remember, those were the days of paper mail. A steady stream of mailers claiming the Great Park was a bad idea thought up by naive aristocrats hit every mailbox in Orange County. The Argyros strategy was simple. Pit the North County against the South. Tell the predominantly blue-collar citizens of the North that the predominantly white-collar citizens of the South were selfish, privileged, parochial ingrates who wanted money to build a pleasure garden. It's "a classic case of class warfare," Argyros himself said. "The South County is all spanking-new, and they live behind their guarded gates. It's almost the working people of the North against the haves in the South." I imagine Argyros concocted that grammatical abomination and his working man vs. privileged class strategy while sitting on the deck of his yacht. While the airport opposition supported its efforts with money raised from thousands of Orange County citizens, Argyros simply wrote big checks and counted on the support of the Board of Supervisors.  "I'm amazed how he ever got a memorial here," Greenhair says, snapping me back to real time. "Memory is the enemy of wonder," I answer and drift back.   In 2001 the political earth shifted in Orange County. A petition to replace the airport plan with the Great Park was signed by more than 170,000 Orange County voters. The issue would soon be decided at the polls. It wasn't the first time that the suggestion had been made to transform a military base into a park. On May 29, 1977, Sand Point—a former Naval Reserve Air Station in Seattle, Washington—became Warren G. Magnuson Park. And on Oct. 1, 1994, the Presidio—a U.S. Army post in San Francisco—became part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. But history and the efforts of more than 170,000 Orange County voters didn't stop the stream of the Argynauts' propaganda. They claimed that jobs would disappear if a Great Park were built and that pollution left behind by the Marine Corps base would require the site to be paved over and fenced off (presumably for an airport). It was all nonsense, and the people of Orange County knew it. On March 5, 2002, they went to the polls, rejected Argyros' airport and voted "yes" for a park.  "Nathan, it's time to take your medication." Greenhair is talking nonsense again. I stare blankly ahead and applaud the president's speech, which is meandering to its metaphor-laced conclusion. "There were times when people only considered the short term," Pilgrim says. "Accomplishments were born and measured in nanoseconds. But 50 years ago, the courageous and insightful people of Orange County knew that it takes time for anything meaningful to come to fruition. "The beauty of the park that surrounds us is the harvest of their patience," Pilgrim continues. "For their perseverance, we owe a great debt. Like our country's forefathers, they understood the sentient nature of time." On cue, a skyrocket lifts off into the sky behind the president. "I say thank you, Orange County. God bless you, and God bless America." KA-KABLOOM. As the rocket blast punctuates the end of Pilgrim's speech, the Orange County Chorale breaks into "God Bless America." "Nathan. Naaaaaythin, it's time to take your medication." Greenhair is bobbing a black and white capsule in front of me. "MR. CALLAHAN. DRAMASPORIN TIME." "From the mountains to the valleys. Open up and say ahhhhh." I swallow. "What a wonderful windbag Pilgrim is," she says. "I'm surprised you didn't fall asleep. You know, Nathan, your Alzheimer's will soon be less than a memory." Thanks to the capsule and modern pharmacology, things begin to jell in my mind. The clouds have passed. Next week, I'll get my permanent Brainwire at the El Toro Neuro Center on the Great Park's Eastside. Soon I'll be processing data like a Mac G50. "Were you drifting?" Greenhair says. I smile and wave to the president. He waves back as I settle into the seat of a shuttle. Our chauffeur tips his hat as Greenhair, my obscenely young gerontologist/companion (what's her name? Linda? Maureen? Miranda? Miranda) and I cruise slowly through the parade route behind the Orange County supervisors' float. They're all doing the royal wave, perched on the branches of a giant oak-shaped hovercraft. Jesus Nguyen. Kenneth Agran Jr. Martina Park. Mohammed Dacron. Mickey Fuentes. Behind us is Newport Beach's parade entry—a giant inflated sailboat whose bow reads, "Still in Love With the Great Park After 50 Years." "I bet this is what they used to call 'irony,' huh, Nathan?" Miranda says. "Everybody all bone up for the park. The cities, the supes, the mayors, even Argyros—God rest his soul—went out waving the banner. You must have told me a thousand times about how back in the day, they pissed on the idea of a park. What do you think now?" "You don't want to know what I think," I say. "Of course I do. You know more . . . Aieeee!" Miranda screams in mock horror at a giant puppet of Tom Fuentes looming over our shuttle's sunroof. Fuentes was the chairman of the Orange County Republican Party in the late 20th century. In 2008, he lobbied Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to change the name of the Great Park to "The Richard Nixon Memorial Recreational, Cultural and Wildlife Corridor." It almost came to be in 2010, but the whole idea quietly went away after The Secret Letters of Pat Nixon was published. With the Fuentes puppet close behind, our shuttle charges up the Park's Westside. It's the place to live—commanding the highest property taxes in Orange County—since the Life Online feature story. In the 2010s, the Westside fed off the prestige of the park and vice versa—just like Manhattan. In fact, Dewey Trump, Donald's test-tube son, tried to develop the area in the 2020s but was taken to the bank by his fourth wife. Thank God. His taste in architecture was about as refined as his father's. Our shuttle makes a left out of the Westside at the Dick Sim Botanical Gardens and moves toward the Central Concourse. The parade crowd lines the street in front of the Orange County Central Library, the Sherwood Rowland Exploratorium, I.M. Pei's Natural History Museum, Frank Gehry's post-post-postmodern Art Museum and Michael Graves' Longevity Research Complex. On the horizon, framed by a row of pink cherry trees, the bell tower of Cal State Fullerton's extension campus chimes noon. Just after the end of the 19th century, wealthy Manhattanites tried to outdo one another in a contest of architectural philanthropy for New York's Central Park. A similar spirit of competition settled easily among Orange County's well-to-do. This benevolent oneupmanship wasn't anything new to us. In the 1980s, our Performing Arts Center was built through donations. All of the Great Park's structures were constructed through subtly self-promoting generosity—that is, except one. Curiously, the only park structure paid for with tax dollars is a statue of Cynthia Coad. Coad, a supervisor in the early 2000s, was pro-airport to the bitter end. Her view of the Great Park was abnormally limited. "A park would create a lot of grass-cutting jobs," she once said, trying to downgrade the prospects of park employment as opposed to the airport. On the day her statue was unveiled, some doctors from the Great Park Medical Research Center contributed to Coad's legacy by hoisting a lawnmower into the statue's oversize granite hands. I stick out my tongue as our shuttle swings by Coad, makes a right on Tom Rogers Parkway at the Smithsonian West (now under construction) and cruises under the Tim Carpenter Torch of Peace near the hydraboat dock at the 100-acre Lake Michael Pinto. We loop into the main parking lot on the old military airport's runway and make our way on foot past the hangars that now house the Colonel Bill Kogerman Veterans' Memorial. By the time we arrive at Bren Exhibition Hall, workers are putting the finishing touches on a sign that reads, "2054—THE GREAT PARK GOLDEN ANNIVERSARY EXHIBIT—ORANGE COUNTY'S BIG BACK YARD." Miranda leads me past nodding VIPs into the "It Happened at the Great Park" hologram exhibit. As we stand at the back of the crowd, the opening strains of Ingram Marshall's "Orange County Suite" fill the auditorium and phantom images shimmer by: • A group of smiling voters outside a polling place at the 2002 election that put the Great Park on the map. • A catheter shot of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers sucking the last drop of pollutants out of the Park site (circa 2004). • An aerial cruise through R.J Brandes Equestrian Woods. • A long tracking shot of the Walkie Ray Science Center at the Great Park Exposition of 2010. (That's where I got my turbo prostate.) • Crowds cheering at the Re-elect President Hillary Clinton rally. • Crowds cheering at the Impeach President Hillary Clinton rally. • A ride on the Zephyr light-rail line at the 2015 Panama-California Exposition. • President Bill Gates declaring the Great Park a National Historic Monument. • A doddering Larry Agran and Tom Fuentes hugging at the Great Park 25th Anniversary. • Inside-the-ball action from the 2032 World Cup. • A time-lapse shot of construction at the 2035 Pacific International Exposition, where union laborers smile and wave at high speed. • A helmet view of the Streetluge competition at the 2040 Olympics. • George Argyros cutting the ribbon at the opening of the James Doti Center for Statistical Research. "It's funny how Argyros re-packaged himself. I never trusted him. Once an asshole, always an asshole," Miranda says to a group of uninterested tourists standing near us. "Shhhh." I try to quiet her. "Don't talk like that. George Argyros turned out fine." "Greedy people make a life's goal of convincing themselves that they're not in it for the money," says Miranda. Meanwhile, the holographic display continues with a collage of artists at the recent 44th annual Great Park Music Festival. "Not since Frederick Law Olmsted designed New York's Central Park," a narrator's voice says, "has the public been as visionary. As true 21st-century romantics, the people of Orange County believed in the power of nature to cleanse our spirits of the toxic drudgery of urban life and created the first 21st-century park." "Enough of this," I say to Miranda. But she ignores me. She's glassy-eyed, still screeching about Argyros and airports and politics and greed ad infinitum. I think the combination of 3-D nostalgia and the Rhinorama atmospherics wafting from Bren Hall's Dolby Digital nasal enhancers have turned my caregiver into an opinionated dervish. Maybe she has allergies. "Miranda, pleeeeeeese shut up," I say. But it's my caregiver's turn to be unresponsive—adrift in the holograms, the artificially generated fumes, the imagery and the careening course of her own monologue. "Goddamn lucky we didn't get an airport here," she says to anyone who'll listen. "Remember the close call at LAX? Some screwed-up flaky fundamentalist all duct-taped up with a buttload of C4? Who'd have thunk they'd try to evacuate LA County? It was nearly Karma-fucking-geddon." With that remark, a cluster of surrounding dignitaries gives Miranda the "one more crack like that, and we're calling security" stare. At this point, the girl would talk to a dead tree. "Let's go outside for some fresh air," I say. "My little cousin thinks that 911 emergency number was named after the World Trade Center. . . ." she says to no one in particular. I feel like I'm in lockdown at a psychedelic day-care prison and it's time to make my break from this ball and chain. As Miranda continues her hallucinatory tirade, I lose myself in the crowd and head for the exit. Outside, I'm surrounded by a garden's deep photosynthetic green. The sun is high on the horizon. I join the flow of a crowd moving toward the Allergan Concert Shell, where a neo-Ethiopian noise band is about to take the stage. "Ladies and gentlemen," an MC says. "A big roundhouse for the man who put the funk in dysfunction, the hardest-working clone in show business, Mainstreet Media recording artist Piggy Boy Simon." A seven-foot, pretzel-thin man of indeterminate ancestry steps up to the mic. "Heeey, Yaba, daba, gashi, heinie ho!" he shouts. The crowd echoes his sentiments, and Piggy Boy responds, "Satchel Paige once said, 'Work like you don't need the money. Love like you've never been hurt. And dance like nobody's watching.' Well, today nobody's watching." The Pig Boy headbutts his guitar—KAWANG—and launches the band into "Greed Lunchbox." World slowed down caught up with us. Last cool hunter in a lunchbox truss nothing left inside his skull wanks and moneyblanks think parks are dull.As the music continues, I stroll among white alders into the square, where a cross-section of Orange County's young, old and in-between dance circles around the George Argyros Memorial Fountain. At this off-center moment, I am certain that the park is the most beautiful place on earth. There, with his permanent smile, eyes to the sky and arms akimbo—a carousel of water twirling around his proud Greekness—Argyros, chiseled in Carrare marble, offers stoic approval of the park and the people. Our Great Park is not Yosemite or Belize or the Greek Islands. It's better. Here, the sublime is accessible, tangible, evergreen, humane. The beauty of its landscape and architecture can't be measured by accountants. It's a proud public place unbound by commerce—its essence not to be found in business journals or travel magazines. When the construction of New York's Central Park began, it was said, "If well done, the park will be the work of long time and will embody the work of many minds by the patient toil of human hands." The same is true of the place in which I stand today. After 50 years, the Great Park has matured into a place of jubilant reverence. Not just a museum or an event center or a statue named after another prominently dead person—it's where Orange County came together and where the future will go to see itself young. I think that's what George Argyros came to realize at the time of his conversion. In 2002, right around when he was appointed U.S. ambassador to Spain, Argyros disappeared from the park vs. airport debate. No more fat checks for direct mail. No more grammatically inferior pro-airport quotes. No more Trojan-horse gifts to Orange County. The reason Argyros vanished remains a mystery. Some say he was hit on the head (and had some sense knocked into him) by a baseball off the bat of a Seattle Mariner at Anaheim Stadium. Some say he struck a deal with the Ambassadorship Committee and agreed to stop giving money to the airport campaign in exchange for a smooth confirmation. Others say his close friend Donald Bren simply convinced him that it was better to be a visionary than a loser. But I like to think that George Argyros found a better god. Whatever. A few years later, Argyros re-emerged in Orange County as a changed man. In 2004, when the ground was broken for the Great Park, Argyros donated a shuttleload of money—not for an airport but to build the Great Park's Central Concourse. I remember him saying at the dedication ceremonies, "It will not come by watching for it." I'm not quite sure what he meant by that, but it's a far cry from "patience is for losers." SWIIIIISH! Above me, a 12-year-old Afro-Cambodian boy on a new Nokia spacescooter zips by and speeds around the stage where Piggy Boy is delivering a long-ass power chord—bringing "Greed Lunchbox" to a beautifully reverberating end. I hear a familiar voice. "Mr. Callahan. Mr. Callahan." It's Miranda. She seems to have recovered from her histamine-induced soapbox frenzy. "What are you doing out here?" she asks. "Enjoying the park," I say. Then she asks me again why anyone would want to build a monument to George Argyros here, at the Great Park. I ignore her. I already know the story. And so do you.   Nathan Callahan is a contributing writer to theOC Weekly. His bookSuburban Manners: A Guide to the Politics, Wealth and Culture of Orange County, California will be released in the spring of 2002 by MacGregor Publishing.
 
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