The Wild One

How a Harley-riding developer rolled into Santa Ana, raised hell and changed the future.

In 1989, running on serotonins released into his brain by images of people just absolutely hacking at the Berlin Wall with their naked hands and whatever crude instrument was available nearby, by the apparent demise of the Communist Party in the Soviet Union, by fast-rising revenue numbers in the "foreign sales" lines of the ledgers of many U.S. companies, by too much Hegel and not enough Darwin, by the sound of a Beethoven symphony playing in a Japanese department store, Francis Fukuyama wrote "The End of History," his declaration (in the journal The National Interest) that the major social issues in human evolution had been handled—markets are good, government planning bad—and that, sure, there'd still be events—still be, you know, arguments, violence and even the occasional war—but that these were epiphenomena, that the really big question had been settled.

History has a way of chewing up end-of-history projects, of course, and Fukuyama's thesis looks a little less obvious now—not as stupid and vicious as Pol Pot's Year One, but as premature as St. Paul's Jesus Is Coming, Like, Right Now. And I'd look pretty stupid saying Orange County history is over just because the Santa Ana City Council voted 4-1 on a recent Monday night to allow Mike Harrah—a developer who looks, we have noted, like the be-bellied and be-bearded ZZ Top bassist Dusty Hill but whose fortune includes 50 downtown Santa Ana properties (including the building that houses the Weekly world headquarters) and a Newport Beach home with a neighbor named Don Bren, that Mike Harrah—to build the county's tallest building, a 37-story tower so out of scale with the Kansas-flat suburb swirling around it that some—well, I—have compared it to the Simpsons episode in which evil billionaire Montgomery Burns constructs a device to block out the sun in order to boost demand for electricity from his nuclear power plant. It will also, when completed, look like a middle finger aimed in the direction of the suburbs swirling around it.

So, okay, history's not over, but the Orange County we know is finished, and Michael Harrah killed it, or will kill it when he actually begins raising what he says he'll call One Broadway Plaza. The suburban phase of Orange County's development is now officially over, and the urban phase has mercilessly begun.

Harrah is not one to look back; that'll be our joy, yours and mine, when we consider where our county has come from before guessing where it'll go. But there was one moment during the public-comment section of the July 19 council meeting when Harrah actually, literally looked back, and I'll never forget it. More than 70 people had addressed the council, opponents outshouting supporters about two to one; calling the exchange "rancorous" would be unnecessarily hygienic, a word you'd read in a daily newspaper that would not come close to capturing the moment when Harrah stepped up to the podium and (I'll speak only for myself) your body felt like a screwdriver in a socket, the electricity humans seem to generate right before mob violence just surging through the audience. I looked about quickly for exit signs.

Rough sketch: Harrah is taller than six feet—probably about six-three or -four—and has to weigh about 300 or so pounds; his beard is impossibly long, hanging down somewhere near the equatorial line of a belly that is not so much fat as sumo-like. They say he rides Harleys and that on one recent road trip, he spilled his bike and broke his leg; that'd account for the slight kinetic hiccup in his approach to the dais. He wore faded black work shoes, jeans and a blue-denim shirt with the long sleeves rolled up to reveal forearms to shame Popeye, the skin on his limbs burned that deep red you get from toiling endlessly under the sun.

As Harrah began speaking, jeers echoed off the chamber walls; his voice rose, and the jeers followed it upward contrapuntally. And then it happened: Harrah looked back—over his shoulder at the crowd—and people just shut the hell up, I'm guessing for the sudden, terrible knowledge of what the guy could do if raised not by a woman, but by bears, maybe. He proceeded then through silence, telling the City Council in terms that fetishized his building that the building was no mere building, the council's vote not a vote. "This is about the future of Santa Ana and Orange County," Harrah boomed in a gravelly voice that was half-Walter Brennan, half-longshoreman. One Broadway Plaza would transform Santa Ana into "a place to go, not a place to go through."

The council agreed. Harrah finished a little before midnight, but it already felt like a new day. The fourth period in Orange County's history (first Indians, then missions, ranching and suburbs) was about to close, and Harrah had just received clearance to construct the county's future on a decrepit Santa Ana city block. As Harrah walked out of the chambers toward a scrambling press, he smiled. The synchronized powers of assimilation and America's love affair with filling every open space had triumphed again.

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