Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Changing Perception

Aerial of Palm Springs
Sometimes if you’re too close to something, it can change and evolve and morph into a new stage of its existence and you don’t notice it at all. Palm Springs is a good case in point. This desert town, long synonymous with mid-century modern architecture, had been the playground of the Hollywood elite and well-heeled retirees for many years. Then gradually as tastes changed and old movie stars passed on, the city grew tired. Now within the last couple of years it’s become a hot spot for hipsters, telecommuters, and members of the LGBT community.

The changes were subtle and gradual at first. It was a transition as fluid and smooth as a river changing course. Other communities down Valley haven’t experienced the changes as much. Their miles and miles of gated communities are well established and reticent for any kind of major change. They’re content with their tee times, Four O’clock cocktail hour and early bedtime.

Palm Springs began its acceleration of changes after the recession of 2008. Sharon and I began coming out here in 2000 and have lived and experienced the changes as we ourselves morphed from vacationers to knowledgeable visitors to homeowners to being a part of our neighborhood and, we hope, a fabric in our community.

Photo courtesy of Melvin Hale

The village of Palm Springs was first developed in the 1930’s as a weekend getaway for the L.A. crowd. But it wasn’t until the 1950’s that it gained a much broader appeal when the Alexander Construction Company built more than two thousand contemporary, stylish and most importantly affordable tract homes. The key then as now lies in its affordability.

Granted, affordability is a strictly California oxymoron as far as housing is concerned. Past reports of outrageous prices for housing are not an exaggeration in many California cities and communities.

As of January of this year, the average price for a single-family home in Palm Springs was about $495,000 and a condominium unit for around $220,000. Compare that to the median price for a single-family home in Los Angeles at about $704,500 with a 2.9 percent projected increase by 2019. Crazy but true, it’s cheaper to live in Palm Springs than L.A.

The most visible changes are taking place downtown. In its heyday, L.A. had its Sunset Strip and Chicago had its miracle mile. Many cities across the country have their own branded tentacles of food, drink, lodging and entertainment. Now Palm Springs has done them one better with its own small-town village atmosphere cloaked as a 21st century hotspot.

Back in its glory days, Palm Springs was a classic example of heighten expectations clashing with the reality of desert stargazing. In reality it was only the well-heeled or coastal-connected that got to hang out with the stars. For the average visitor Palm Canyon Drive was just a welcome respite from the normalcy back home even while it harbored high hopes for seeing one of their favorite stars passing by on the sidewalk. Over the last several years Palm Springs has slowly regained its panache.

West Coast hipsters, designers, remodelers, artists, musicians and actors are all rediscovering what their forefathers knew all along. They’re finding that wrapping those warm blue pools with a healthy shot of alcohol can bring out a hedonistic nature in the best of us.

Saguaro Hotel Pool

While the hint of change had been in the air for a long time, it took the turnover of an old motel to kick-start this new make-over process. Most observers agree it was the conversion of an old Howard Johnson motel on Palm Canyon Drive into the new hip ACE hotel that became the catalyst for the hipsters to start coming to town. Now there is a whole cache of hotels like the Saguaro changing hands and branding themselves as ‘hip.’

Aerial of the Coachella Valley

Palm Springs and its surrounding locales have always attracted an eclectic assortment of artists, musicians, painters and other veterans of the school of hard knocks. It’s a mecca for the rich, the famous and the enfranchised. This new Palm Springs fits in nicely to this new composite form of creativity.

Some chose to express themselves and show their wares in galleries in the valley or in the high desert. Others are off radar and like it that way. It’s as if there is another world just beneath the surface of shimmering pools, lush green golf courses and cloud-less aqua skies. Whispers come from the wastelands surrounding the Salton Sea as do siren calls from the high desert. Like a resistant drug, fatal attraction or sinful thought, it keeps drawing me back for more exploration. It is a world that offers the opposite of the known, contentment and comfortable

The high desert of the Morongo Valley, Yucca Valley, and Joshua tree continue to attract musicians now as it has since the turn of the century. Far from the crystal clear pools of Palm Springs and its emerald green golf courses lies another world of vast nothingness peppered with the sad remnants of past lives. It’s a place where stillness thunders louder than the wind and God did some of his finest paintings. A vast virtual sound studio for the creative musician.

Map of the high dessert

The Salton Sea

The footprint of the Salton Sea edges alongside nowhere which is north of nothing of interest…for the casual outsider.  It is a briny morass of faded real estate dreams and dead fish scales underfoot. The Salton Sea is California’s largest lake measuring more than 35 miles long and 15 miles wide in spots. It has a surface area of over 380 square miles and sits at 332 feet below sea level.

Today the salinity level of the sea stands at 45 ppt. Only the tilapia fish is able to survive in such waters. While fishing is still good for the tilapia, fish kills continue to plague the area with their harsh smells.

Salvation Mountain is one of the premiere examples of folk art in the middle of nowhere America. At least that was what all the travel guides say. The site has become a mecca for those influenced by and intrigued with this kaleidoscope of painted hills, crude cave dwellings, and religious scriptures.

Slab City otherwise known as ‘The Slabs’ is a snowbird campsite used by recreational vehicle owners alongside squatters from across North America. It takes its name from the concrete slabs that remain from an abandoned World War II Marine barracks of Camp Dunlap.

The artists at Slab City describe it as an experimental, sustainable art installation. East Jesus is a colloquialism for the middle of nowhere beyond the edge of services. Made from discarded material that has been reused, recycled or repurposed, East Jesus encourages visitors to imagine a world without waste in which every action is an opportunity for self-expression.

Intertwined with the remote outposts of creativity are other artist colonies such as the one up in Idyllwild or the other mountain enclaves in Big Bear and Arrowhead. Laguna Beach is two hours and a world away from the desert but offers the same kind of mind-expanding atmosphere in which to play.

There is still something magical about the surrounding mountains, desertscape, warm winter months and hip happenings all over town. Palm Springs is now a virtual cornucopia of cultural, artistic, sensual, musical and intellectual stirrings for just about everyone from the art culture-types to the more modest of minds. It all seems to be happening here.

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