Recently, RFT Editor Anne Weaver had to travel for business to Southern California and asked if I’d like to come along. Being a professional travel writer, it’s hard for me to travel without an assignment so I cooked up an idea for a story about visiting four major theme parks—California Adventure Park, Disneyland, Knott’s Berry Farm, and Universal Studios—in four days for a national magazine. So Anne loaded up her camera gear and off we went. It’s a trip that’s left me wondering, “What have we done? And where are we going?”
I was born in Southern California—Culver City to be exact, birthplace of California’s burgeoning movie industry. I have fond memories as a child of seeing major studio backlots, skeletons of cities, Western towns, and other landscapes that appear in films. When we moved to Anaheim, I could see Disneyland’s Matterhorn Mountain from my backyard and, during warm summer nights, we watched fireworks explode over its peak. On weekends, Mom would drop us off at Knott’s Berry Farm with a few dollars in our pockets to spend the day. Back then, Knott’s was surrounded only by a split rail fence, there was no admission charge and we’d ride burros and eat too much caramel corn.
At the time, Anaheim and all of Orange County were still relatively rural, its base largely agricultural. I recall walking through orange groves on my way to grade school with the sweetness of orange blossoms on the wind. Vast fields of strawberries stretched between roadways and we’d buy flats of these sweet crops from the Japanese farmers who tended them.
My grandmother, ever the financial visionary, had purchased a rundown house on a couple of acres on Ball Road, now a major thoroughfare. The people who rented the house kept chickens and a few goats. Just down the street, my grandmother bought eggs from a local egg farm and milk in bottles from a small dairy.
Armed with these memories, it’s not surprising that I was completely shocked to see that Orange County has been completely consumed by chain stores, hotels, and restaurants. The area around Disneyland and California Adventure Park is lined wall-to-wall with high-rise hotels. All the corporate restaurants, including Denny’s, Carl’s, MacDonald’s, California Pizza Kitchen, Bubba Gump’s Shrimp, and more, are represented along Harbor Boulevard, the gateway to Disneyland. Ball Road, where my grandmother’s mini-farm was, is now five lanes wide and filled with gas stations, mini-marts, chain stores, hotels, and fast food eateries.
As food lovers, Anne and I felt adrift. Where to eat? Greasy pizza? Denny’s cheddar scramble? Yes, we ate both. One night we opted for McCormick and Schmicks’s Grille, a restaurant formerly started by locals in Portland, Oregon, and now owned by a restaurant conglomerate. Anne’s salmon was relatively tasty, but my portion of halibut for $34 was downright stingy. The bill, without wine or even an iced tea, came to $80+.
Another night, we went to Morton’s Steakhouse. We knew Morton’s pricey reputation, but they boast the best steaks on the planet. My $47 boneless ribeye, which included no sides, was definitely not the best piece of meat I’ve ever eaten. In fact, it was a bit tough. Even worse was the haughty, slightly irritated air the waiter adopted when, shocked by the exorbitant prices ($12 for a handful of asparagus?), we opted for no wine and no dessert. Regardless, our bill came to more than $115, not including gratuity.
Surprisingly, our best meals were at the amusement parks. At Disneyland, we enjoyed tasty salmon sandwiches and terrific fried chicken at their Plaza Inn café, both at reasonable prices. At Knott’s Berry Farm, the rather down-at-the-heels Knott’s Chicken Dinner Restaurant still serves massive portions of home-style fried chicken with mashed potatoes, country gravy and pie for the bargain price of $17.99.
Oranges No More
There are no farm fields left in Orange County. The orange groves that gave this area its name are long gone. We discovered a remnant of one of the groves at Orangeland RV Park. While they paved over most of the land when they built the RV park in 1971, they left a number of orange, lemon, lime, and tangerine trees and the owners encourage guests to pick and enjoy the fruit. We helped ourselves to a few of the oranges and ate them side-by-side with oranges from breakfast at the Embassy Suites where we stayed. There was no comparison. The Orangeland oranges, allowed to ripen naturally, were sweet and juicy; the corporate fruit from the hotel had little juice and almost no sweetness.
Anaheim’s neighborhood streets have been replaced with mega-streets six lanes wide. I watched an old man hobble across one of these streets, a worried look on his face, as he furtively glanced again and again at the steadily downward ticking time on the walk sign. He made it across, but just barely. Modest two and three–lane freeways are now eight lanes wide. Multiple freeways snake over and around and merge together in a tangle of concrete that hasn’t relieved auto congestion. A trip from Anaheim to downtown Los Angeles to visit the La Brea tar pits should have taken 45 minutes; instead it ate up more than 2 hours, most of it crawling along the freeways at 4-5 miles per hour. My return trip to John Wayne Airport, a 12-mile jaunt from my hotel, took 35 minutes and the skill of a jet fighter to navigate amongst Southern Californians hell-bent-for-leather on their way to work.
Southern California’s love affair with cars and their resulting infamous traffic creates smog so thick the surrounding hills are barely visible through a brown haze. The air made my eyes burn. Anne Weaver developed a nasty summer head cold.
And, oh yes, Southern California’s tap water is practically undrinkable. The only place we could actually drink tap water instead of water in plastic bottles was at McCormick and Schmick’s restaurant. They told us they triple filter the water to make it palatable.
Fifty years of unchecked development since I lived in Southern California has created a cultural desert, a wasteland where people live in too-expensive houses and eat food produced from mega-corporations that is unhealthy or so expensive most can’t afford it. Southern Californians drive cars at breakneck speeds, never allowing others to merge or take time for a wave of thanks to one another, on freeways choked with backups most times of the day. Concrete and blacktop have replaced fields and farms; open space has been taken over by hotels, malls, and other businesses operated by corporate conglomerates. The air and water are fouled beyond recognition. Yet visitors flock here by the millions to visit theme parks like Universal, Knott’s, and Disney, the “happiest place on earth.”
And yes, those theme parks are fun in a strange, crowed, plastic sort of fashion.
What’s Our Future?
I expect change; I know that development happens. It’s inevitable. But is Southern California’s model what we want? Is this where we want our communities to go? I don’t really think so.
If you want your own community to have a future that’s different from the one Southern California is already facing, get involved and speak up. If you want your children and your children’s children to breathe clean air and drink water that doesn’t taste like chemicals, it’s up to you to keep mega-corporations from dictating the future. If you treasure real food made by local chefs instead of corporate meals made with factory farm ingredients, we have to protect our farmland from those who would pave it over. Buy local and organic whenever possible. Support chef-owned restaurants that use local ingredients. When you can, opt for public transportation and support efforts by your representatives and environmental organizations to keep your community’s environment healthy. Together we can make a difference.
My journey to Southern California was an eye-opener for me. I hope it will be for you too. –Bobbie Hasselbring, RFT Editor