Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Future Past

A Malibu family races to greet 2014 at sunset on Zuma Beach on the last day of the old year. © 2014 S. Guldimann

“I think Divination seems very woolly. A lot of guesswork, if you ask me.” 
—J.K. Rowling, Prisoner of Azkaban

What will 2014 bring Malibu? I’ve heard a lot of prognostication this week, ranging from the fate of the wildly unpopular development plans in the Civic Center area and at Trancas, to the upcoming city council election. The threat of wildfire continues to overshadow predictions for 2014. Some are expressing concerns that debris from the Japanese tsunami, including radiation from the Fukushima nuclear power plant, will be impacting the coast this year, others say a crash in the sardine population will impact sea birds and marine mammals. But there are pleasant things, too: predictions that record numbers of gray whales will arrive this spring, and rumors of additional park acquisitions in the Santa Monica Mountains. However, the future inevitably takes one in unexpected directions, no matter how many tea leaves or crystal balls are consulted.

The fact that this community isn't named “Billowbay,” “Midocean,” “Happyland,” Hygenia Park,” “Puritan,” or “Zumaland” is a reminder of some of the near misses, the alternative futures, that Malibu has avoided.

Frederick Hastings Rindge, who purchased the entire Rancho Topanga Malibu Sequit in 1892, gazed into the future with dreams of his own city. Equal parts poet, evangelist and real estate developer, Rindge called the process of inventing a “mental city” a “privilege peculiarly Californian,” and shared the list of heartfelt but truly dire names he dreamed up for Malibu. Here’s an excerpt from his 1898 book Happy Days in Southern California:

Did you ever, in your mind, build a town, or lay out a city site on land you owned? It is very interesting, — even if it should not come true. About the sitting-room table did your household ever consider that matter, and all agree that John should lead the Christian life of the place, and Douglas should be president of the bank, the best bank of course, and Ruth should teach the school, and every one should have a place ? Open sin would be kept out, and happiness would be found in ever so many places beside the dictionary; and lots would be worth so much, and so many at such a price would amount to — dear me, what a prodigious sum! What great good you could do with it! And then we discussed our city's name. What a task it was, to be sure; what merriment the various propositions caused! The business member of the group wished our city to be called Port Pasadena, Sunnyside, Summershore, Wonderland, Happyland, Safehaven, Glenhaven, Resthaven, Safeport, Seabright, Stillwater, Bestbay, Billowbay, Bluewavebay, or Stirling. " Take your choice," said he.

The poet wanted the name to be either Foothill Park, Mountainside Park or Canyonside Park, Runningbrook, Deerbrook, Seabrae or Braemar, Edgewood, Midocean, Contentment, Peacedale, Waverley, Serenity, Diadem, or Switzerland. I should have said we had two or three town-sites, in different localities ; hence the great variety of descriptive names. We had not decided which city we would build first, don't you see? The practical member said, " Oh, let us name it something that means something; let us call it Enterprise or Industry or Recreation." Hereupon the poet sighed. And he sighed again when the facetious member remarked, "Why don't you call it Sunshine or Seek-no-further, or best of all, Climate, and then you'll catch the Eastern crowd." To counteract the uncalled-for levity on the part of this last destroyer of sentiment the classical scholar then said, " Now to give it true dignity its cognomen should be Hygeia Park, Ozone, or Aristos." Then the member who had been studying Spanish upspoke and said, "It seems to me we should call it Gloriosa or Marina." The historian slowly said, "Would not history suggest the name Zumaland?" 

Cattle mill in corrals beneath a massive railroad trestle built as part of the Hueneme, Malibu and Port Los Angeles Railway, circa 1915. The railroad, one of many visions of Malibu that didn't come to pass, was never completed.

There was but one more to speak, and he was the student of truth. Said he, "Among so many it is hard to choose, but there are still some good ones left. Permit me to propose Christland, Palestine, Puritan, Archangel, Evangel, — and Hopehaven for my preference next to the first; since there is no hope for man save in Christ. Neither is there ultimate haven for man save in heaven. Thus the name Hopehaven stands for all that is dearest to mankind." 

If you have never laid out a town in your mind, begin now. You will never regret it. Even if the trolley never comes your way, you will say to yourself, "Well, how I did enjoy my mental city in anticipation; the realization could never have been so joyous, so it is all right that the plough still turns up my city's streets, and that those great, tall office buildings are still only castles in the air." By all means build a mental city. That is a privilege peculiarly Californian.”

After days of sun and Santa Ana winds, coastal fog returned during the first days of the new year, blanketing the coast and reminding residents that the weather, like the future, is difficult to predict. © 2014 S. Guldimann

In the end, the name Malibu, not Zumaland or any of Rindge’s other flights of fancy, stuck and became the name of the community.  The name, shortened from the title of the original Spanish land grant, is a Spanish version of a Chumash place name meaning “where the surf sounds.” 

Rindge wasn’t the only one with visions of what Malibu would become. In 1925, real estate promoter John Russell McCarthy, in his book “These Waiting Hills,” predicted:

 “Homes, of course, will rise here in the thousands. Many a peak, perhaps, will have its castle. Far back from every road, on crest, slope and canyon rim, homes will rise on green estates...Lawns will displace toyon and sumac. Cedar and pine and maple and pittosporum will send down tractable roots in appointed places. That mighty Australian family, the Eucalyptus, will bring forth their flowers nearly all the year round. Slopes that have known water only in the days of winter rains will find their thirst quenched.”

 “These changes the hand of man will effect in the Santa Monicas, but the essentials—height, outlook, sun and sea—will remain,” wrote McCarthy. “Wide slopes of chaparral will remain...gardens of sage will still invite bees. Deer will still feed...squirrel and coyote and hare will follow their ancient custom by day and night...Here in the midst of beauty old and new, people from all over the world will come to live, bringing with them the best thought and custom that their old communities provided. Is it altogether vain to think that, given such people and such a place, a new and better kind of community will arise?”

At that point, McCarthy’s prognostication takes wild flight:

 “The airplane will soon become common; may easily predominate within a few years.  Green landing fields will checker the summits. Hangers will hide under green vines and trees. Sedate business men will ride in five minutes from their hilltop homes to their city offices. Mother will take the kids for a spin before breakfast, out over Russell Valley and down by the sea at Malibu. The family blimp, even, will not be a stranger to these hills.” 

Later developers have dreamed of local lunacy that has included multiple marinas—one at the Malibu Lagoon, a second at Big Dume Cove; a super-highway; a nuclear power plant; multiple offshore oil rigs; and more recently, a giant, floating liquefied natural gas terminal.  People with a different vision of Malibu's future fought to make sure those things didn't happen. They wrote a vision statement for the city  that states: 

Malibu is a unique land and marine environment and residential community whose citizens have historically evidenced a commitment to sacrifice urban and suburban conveniences in order to protect that environment and lifestyle, and to preserve unaltered natural resources and rural characteristics. The people of Malibu are a responsible custodian of the area’s natural resources for present and future generations.

That fight continues.

I’m waiting for my personal dirigible, but the future could still turn out all right. We won’t know until we get there.

Happy 2014! May it bring happiness, peace and all good things.

One of the first sunsets of the new year sets the sky on fire. © 2014 S. Guldimann

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