The Wild One

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.


If you doubt the suburban phase of development has finished, please travel with me to what is known quaintly as Rancho Mission Viejo, a 23,000-acre spread stretching from the Cleveland National Forest to Camp Pendleton to San Juan Capistrano that's little changed from the era of Father Junipero Serra. Cattle continue to munch on its rolling hills; miners still quarry for its silica deposits. This is the place where Dick O'Neill, the Pierre L'Enfant of South County, wants to build 14,000 new homes, a project that some regard as the curtain-dropping, door-slamming finale to something like 50 years of go-go development. When the environmental-impact report on the project came out in early June, the Los Angeles Times dramatically declared the days of open space gone in a story headlined “O.C. Near Build-Out With New Project.”

“We are closing one chapter, but we are continuing several others,” a UC Irvine professor told the Times.

And the people who aren't eager to become part of the future? Well, we can thank God or whatever that they'll likely limit their oppositional tactics to the use of lawyers rather than suicide bombings. And we can sympathize with the feeling, expressed by many of them, they're “losing” a city they've loved. Change, any psychologist will tell you, is often a bitch. See, suburbanites—including those in fine homes (some of them collector's items, really) who live around the proposed site of One Broadway Plaza—are anomalies in American history, not the first group of Americans who hate change, but maybe the largest and most powerful. Our immigrant, agrarian and merchant forefathers created the Bill of Rights; suburbanites have created homeowners associations that draft Bills of Wrongs—they call them codes, covenants and restrictions (CC&Rs)—voluminous documents outlining in just brain-deadening detail everything you can't do, which, it turns out, is practically anything that might change the place you live. Their hatred of change rose in the 1950s and crested 30 years later in the victory of Ronald Reagan, a man whose talk of the future (“America's best days are ahead of her”) was always backward-looking; they read The Orange County Register and snatch up Rockwell and Kinkade; if they read Fukuyama, they believed him.

Santa Ana is full of such people, and those people let the City Council know their displeasure.

“I didn't buy my house with the expectation that I would live in downtown LA,” one woman scoffed. Another woman apocalyptically predicted that One Broadway Plaza's construction would set off a boom in the skyscraper-construction business on Broadway that would soon spread to neighboring cities. Both eschatological observations elicited widespread applause.

These Cassandras and Chicken Littles were beaten by members of their own class, by middle-class men and women on the City Council, and a wealthy businessman whose interest is somewhere out there, or rather up there, in the future.

But—and this is key—immigrants, hundreds of whom packed the council chamber, also beat the suburbanites. Much is made of the backward-looking Mexican immigrant, the man so attached to the rancho he wears a tejana and never bothers to learn English, the woman whose presence at daily Mass precedes a four-hour bus ride to and from Newport Beach. Whatever the outward appearances, immigrants are here precisely because they want change. “We've been talking about creating a metropolitan center in Orange County and making Santa Ana that center. I want to live in a city like that,” said one Latina. Others spoke of a “vision,” a chance “to put Santa Ana on the map” and allow the city to reclaim its long-lost stature as Orange County's financial, cultural and political center. “This is not a project to vote on,” said another supporter. “It's a legacy.”

But there is something weird and significant about the particulars of Latino support for One Broadway Plaza. In Santa Ana, the most-Latino city in the United States, Latinos have historically fought against redevelopment, mainly because Anglo city officials have used it as a weapon, eradicating Latino businesses and barrios under the banner of progress. In fact, most of the county's current Latino leadership first earned their activist credentials during the 1970s—when the city tried to condemn the Logan and Civic Center Plaza barrios—and in the 1985 tenement strikes, when city officials operating under the aegis of code enforcement booted immigrant families from their apartments. Such protests, wrote historian Lisbeth Haas in “Grass-Roots Protest and the Politics of Planning: Santa Ana, 1976-88” (included in the superb 1991 anthology Postsuburban California: The Transformation of Orange County since World War II), translated “the struggle for civil rights into the sphere of municipal politics by addressing the economic and political implications of urban development for the city's Latino working class.”


This time, however, Santa Ana's Latino working-class pushed for One Broadway Plaza. Most of the project's supporters—people who waved red-white-and-blue signs emblazoned with “I Support One Broadway Plaza” and an angry-looking bald eagle—were Latinos: some reeking of sweat from the workday, many limited in their English, almost all appearing at the behest of their labor unions who desire One Broadway Plaza and the hundreds of construction jobs it will likely produce. The project's most ardent supporters on the Santa Ana City Council are all Latinos: Mexico City natives Mayor Miguel A. Pulido and Councilwoman Claudia Alvarez, as well as Councilmen Mike García and José Solorio of the República de Los Ángeles and Sahuayo, Michoacán, respectively.

It's now Latinos who dictate the terms upon which Santa Ana will become the leading edge of Orange County's future. It's these Latinos who dare to dream of a county that rises higher than three stories, a region ready to establish itself as one of the world's great metropolitan areas. With the battle over One Broadway Plaza, Latinos finally join the county political mainstream and, in fact, are acting more American than their mostly white opponents.

There's little surprise in that, really, especially if you know anything about the 1893 Chicago Columbian World's Fair, where historian Frederick Jackson Turner presented a paper titled “The Significance of the Frontier in American History.” In what has become known as the Frontier Thesis, Turner asserted that the frontier was a place of assimilation, transforming otherwise feudal immigrants into self-sufficient Americans ready to practice the peculiar craft of democracy. Hacking farms out of forests hundreds, even thousands of miles from governments, the hardy pioneers became democrats.

“The frontier is the line of most rapid and effective Americanization,” Turner proclaimed. “As successive terminal moraines result from successive glaciations, so each frontier leaves its traces behind it, and when it becomes a settled area, the region still partakes of the frontier characteristics.”

Today, the frontier is the declining city. It was white flight that led to Santa Ana's demise and Orange County's suburbanization; now it's the Latinos of Santa Ana who will establish this county anew.

“There is a renaissance in Santa Ana,” Alvarez happily announced before casting the final aye vote on One Broadway Plaza. When Mayor Pro Tem Lisa Bist announced that One Broadway Plaza had passed, the chambers erupted in cheers. And Mike Harrah just sat there, the big boy whose Christmas wish came true thanks to the unstoppable forces of what makes America great.

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