Urbanist Observations On A Bachelor Spring Break

[I apologize that I have not gotten pictures for this post, unlike the one about my San Andreas road trip two years ago. That I took with three friends; this one I went by myself. So I took very few pictures.]

During the last week of March of this year, we had been through some major events including my mother-in-law’s death, my son was back at college, and my wife was traveling. So I decided to take for myself a little paddleboarding spring break. Interestingly enough, the two places I chose to stay were both “planned communities,” of a very different nature than Irvine, The Woodlands, Reston, or Columbia.

Lake Havasu City was built from scratch according to a plan starting in 1963. On maps older than that, the place is called Site Six. The plan was made by Robert P. McCulloch, a successful millionaire who made airplanes and boats, but actually made most of his money on chainsaws. Then, of course, in 1968, McCulloch arranged to buy the London Bridge and have it shipped over, and dug the Bridgewater Canal to make a peninsula into an island, and put the bridge over the canal. A lot of people were a bit disappointed, because they had the London Bridge confused with the much more visually spectacular Tower Bridge, which isn’t going anywhere. The real London Bridge, whether in Havasu or the newer one in London, is nice but not that spectacular.

What is really audacious is that the other famous “planned communities” that I mentioned were suburbs of existing cities, whereas Lake Havasu City is 150 miles from the nearest major airport, McCarran Las Vegas, and from the nearest city, Las Vegas, which in the 1960s was already “Sin City” but was not very large in terms of its permanent population. I wasn’t there long enough to get inspired to do research, so I don’t know if Lake Havasu City has CC&Rs there or compulsory homeowners associations or any of that, but the houses were mostly stucco and “lawns” are of stones. [Ah, Arizona, where brown or stones are “green” and green isn’t “green.”]

I arrived on Monday evening at the Nautical Inn, where my then-fiancee, now wife, and I had stayed in 1985. Many of the rooms were occupied by partying young people who, the last time I was there, had not even been born. The room beside me was occupied by a few from San Diego State; the one above me, by University of Colorado students who had hung a university banner on their balcony. It never occurred to me to ask how they had gotten there. The nearest airport of any size is Las Vegas, but kids that age can’t rent cars; so either they might have arranged for a bus to pick them up at McCarran Airport, or they might have made a road trip of 15 hours from Boulder, Colorado. My bed was well inside the room, and the only real noise I heard while trying to sleep was some thumping. It could have been a lot worse. There were a few older people in the hotel itself, and many more on the island walkway that makes a circle; the town does a good job of making the older vacationer feel comfortable despite the spring breakers, who tend to stay in the area near the Bridgewater Canal. As a matter of fact, I went to a bar-restaurant some way inland up McCulloch Boulevard the next night, and it was dominated by people of Gen X and older. I noticed, also, that there were at least two regular shuttle bus services in the town – given the composition of the bloodstream of the average spring breaker from about noon on, alternatives to the automobile are a great idea – I didn’t investigate their schedules or routes, but it is entirely possible that Lake Havasu City has a jitney system!

That day, I had taken my stand-up paddleboard to explore the empty California shore and eventually to circumnavigate the island, which was a considerable journey and required me to stop to rest my feet several times. In all, I was on the water about four to five hours. The northern entrance to the canal was not easy to spot until I got close to it, but once I got under the London Bridge I found myself in quite a hangout scene – people, mostly but not entirely of college age, hanging out on both sides of the canal. I never made it to Copper Canyon, the Holy Grail of the lake – it might have been at least as long a journey as circumnavigating the island, if not longer. [Most people use powerboats to go that distance; I saw very few paddleboards. While there were plenty of fast boats, oddly enough I saw very few water skiers, either. BTW, the way to deal with boat wakes is to position yourself perpendicular to them when you see them coming.]

Next day I had to leave for Boulder City and Lake Mead. But first I drove to the south end of the lake, near Parker Dam, where there are red hills and a few saguaros [which cross to the California side only near Parker Dam and near Imperial Dam just north of Yuma]. I didn’t try to launch, because I had been out too long in the sun the day before, I thought. It is from Parker Dam, by the way, not from the more famous Hoover Dam farther up the river, that great aqueducts drain large parts of the Colorado River to the water taps of Los Angeles, San Diego, Phoenix, and Tucson.

Rather than follow the river, I drove to Oatman and walked around. Oatman is an old mining town that survives on the tourist trade now, but as late as 1920 was probably the largest town in Mohave County, larger than Kingman, the county seat. It is not now. Havasu and Bullhead are the two largest towns in the county now.

Then I headed to Boulder City. Boulder City was a “planned community” by the Federal Government as a place for the people working on Hoover Dam to live, and it restricted originally all kinds of vice. So if the workers wanted vice they went to the nearby small railroad town of Las Vegas, where gambling had been legalized in 1931. One can argue, then, that Las Vegas is a suburb of Boulder City. One could also argue, I suppose, that they are all suburbs of Callville, a town now under the waters of Lake Mead that was in the late 19th century [before the dams were in place] the head of navigation from the Sea of Cortez. One could take a ship from Callville all the way to Mazatlan and Cabo.

Because of the absence of casinos in Boulder City, I had the strange feeling I was in West Texas somewhere, not in Nevada. The Boulder Dam Hotel, I found, is not the fanciest, but it does have an elevator, and it’s less than $90 a night – half the price of the Nautical Inn, and a godsend to the impecunious paddleboarder. The next day I drove down to Lake Mead, and paddled over to the Arizona side and back. There were some boats, but Lake Mead as such does not seem to be much of a spring break destination at least for the college age. That night, after having dinner in Vegas with an old friend of mine, I hopped a couple of the Boulder City bars – yes, they have them now, and one was rather divey and the other one a little bit more upscale. It still doesn’t feel at all like Nevada.

The next day I packed up and drove up to Callville Marina and launched out from there for a little paddling. After which I was on my way home. At Primm I observed a whole line of people waiting to get into the one building that stands on the California side of the state line; they were lined up for lottery tickets. I felt sorry for them. At least Nevada gambling is sort of fun if you’re into that sort of thing – I’m not. And there was a major traffic backup from Primm, on the state line, all the way to Mountain Pass. Though the jam was the opposite direction from how I was going, I got off the freeway and cut through Kelso down to old Route 66 and headed toward home.

But I had two other interesting urban discoveries that evening. Near where I-15 emerges from Cajon Pass and comes into Rancho Cucamonga is a New Urbanist shopping center called Victoria Gardens. It has all the features of, for example, the Irvine Spectrum, but narrow automobile streets run through it and there are actually a few on-street parking spaces – not enough, of course, to eliminate the need for parking lots, but apparently the latest thing is to have real automobiles in the middle of the mall and not just pedestrian passages. It was also crowded with people. I had a Mongolian bowl before I discovered that one of my favorite restaurant chains, California Pizza Kitchen, is represented at Victoria Gardens.

I had heard that the Inland Empire was supposed to be poverty stricken and depressed, but that is not the impression that I got on a Friday night at Victoria Gardens. More than half the people there were not white, but they did not seem to be gang types – and it is quite outdated to associate non-whiteness with utter poverty. And besides, as I have said more than once on this blog, financial stress on the working class comes from the cost of housing, health care, and tuition, and not so much the cost of consumer goods. Though I didn’t check out in detail what they were actually buying. Maybe they weren’t buying all that much.

After dinner I drove over to downtown Pomona. A couple of weeks before, I had been on a tour of Millard Sheets’ works in the Pomona-Claremont area, where this artist and building designer grew up and did much of his work. I had seen, on that trip, the Pomona Mall, which was the first pedestrian mall west of the Mississippi, and which Sheets decorated with a few statues on travertine bases in his own distinctive style. Next to it is one of his Home Savings of America buildings, the only one that was a high rise of several stories. Well, the mall was not one of the most successful, and was re-opened to cars in the 1970s – compare to Victoria Gardens, where they decided it was actually cooler and hipper, or something, to have cars driving through the center. But the city set up an Arts District at one end; and now hipsters, overflowing probably from overpriced and Bobo Claremont, have made downtown Pomona a center for live music. I went and hung around a couple of the bars. It is interesting, if not outrightly ironic, that though less than half the hipsters of downtown Pomona are white, the music that I heard was mostly hard rock; whereas in Havasu, where at least four-fifths of the spring breakers were white, the music I heard was strongly influenced by hip-hop. I wondered what Millard Sheets might have thought about how his dream had been fulfilled 50 years later!

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