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The Vision Thing

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Photo by Allie_Caulfield | CC BY 2.0

Planning documents describe how our world will be shaped and how it will be destroyed.

The Spanish arrived in California in 1769 with such a plan: it was to protect the lands along the west coast north of their colonial holdings in Mexico and the Southwest from the threatened incursions of the Russians, by establishing a series of Missions, each a day’s ride from the other, and along this royal road would journey the holy fathers and their accompanying military support. Their endeavors were planned to be economically supported by the establishment of agricultural estates surrounding the Missions which would be worked by the indigenous peoples of the area acting as serfs in an essentially medieval agricultural system. The surplus wealth of these estates would flow back first to Mexico City and thence to the Spanish crown. In the event, there was no surplus and the lands became killing fields as the Indians succumbed to European diseases, mistreatment, hunger and the overwhelming grief of lands and cultures lost.

Between 1834 and 1836, some years after the Mexican War of Independence, the Missions were secularized and their lands distributed by the Mexican government to political favorites and victorious military commanders as spoils of war (after initially agreeing to redistribute the lands to the local Indians) who created vast ranchos where remnant populations of the indigenous peoples became peons or vaqueros. The Mexican-American War, the discovery of gold in 1848, and the coming of the railroads led to the Wild West – where privately held land became foundational to fortunes made in farming, minerals, oil, real estate and commerce. Not much has changed since, although beginning in the late nineteenth century, municipal planning codes now delineate how these stolen lands may be developed.

The County of Ventura in Southern California, covering territory that was ground zero in the Anglo-Spanish destruction of the most populous and technologically advanced indigenous communities in North America, is now working on a comprehensive update to its General Plan for the first time since 1988. In a recent meeting of the Municipal Area Council (MAC) that serves the unincorporated area in which I live, local residents gathered to review the opportunities for helping shape the plan. The meeting was held in Oak View, some dozen miles from the coast and on the way, if not to nowhere, to nowhere very significant – it is one of a gaggle of small communities that dot the road through the Ojai Valley, between the foothills of the transverse Santa Ynez mountain range and the Sulphur Mountain ridge, towards the valley’s eponymous city.

My reasons for spending time in Oak View are limited to attending MAC meetings and getting my car’s tires rotated at Fred’s Tireman. Enough time, however, to wonder at the works of entrepreneurial humankind; to wonder at the survival of an odd selection of stores that eke out a living for their owners in the harsh economic climate of this beleaguered township. Right in the middle of the commercial strip, exactly in a row, as in some sort of ecological climax community of the tawdry are Donuts and More; Nails Forever; Herbs of Hope; 805 Vapes Vapor Lounge; His ‘n’ Hairs; Gold ‘n’ Essence Tanning Salon; and anchoring the eastern end of this block, the newly opened Coffee Connection (which is attempting an injection of hipsterism into what is an avowedly working-class enterprise zone). Across the street is the newly opened Jack’s Dollar Plus. Then – in the next block – it’s Ojai Valley Muffler; Rte. 33 Laundry; and Ojai Valley MAMA (Modern American Martial Arts) before the stand-alone, red-trimmed Ojai Valley Glass which sits next to Fred’s.

On this stretch of State Highway 33, which runs east from the 101 Coast Highway, and winds through Casitas Springs (Bait and Liquor), Oak View and Mira Monte, the commercial presence must be considered woeful to those of bourgeois tastes and twenty-first century proclivities (pilgrimaging, perhaps, towards their Mecca) but the very persistence of its stores and services and the unfailing optimism of the owners of the new ones that replace the failed – gambling against the economic odds – possesses a kind of grandeur. Their openings and closings represent the ongoing process of transformation, in which all things arise and pass away, a concept that is at the very heart of the Taoist understanding of the cosmos which lightly graces the consciousness of the Venice and Silverlake (Los Angeles) diasporas that will crowd the markets, yoga gyms, vegan restaurants and coffee shops that await them a few miles on.

All of which is to say that Ventura County serves a very heterogenous population. From the Oaxacan Indian, non-Spanish speaking Mixtec farm laborers and fruit pickers on the fertile plains of Oxnard, the upper-middle class bohemians of Ojai, Latinos everywhere, Asians, African Americans, wealthy white conservatives and the red-necked, blue-collared legions between, the County runs the ethnic and socio-economic gamut. Those attending the MAC meeting were mostly aging, liberal whites – a societal spectrum much involved in officially sanctioned politics. One outlier was the young, local representative of S.U.R.J. (Showing Up for Racial Justice, a multi-racial movement dedicated to undermining white support for white supremacy) who semi-officially tagged the number of non-whites in the crowd of fifty plus, at two, an Asian and a Latina. The muti-racialist was a ginger-haired Anglo. So it is that input into the County’s visioning process is chromatically challenged, at least based on this showing. But there are even more serious limitations to its attempts to incorporate the will of the people.

Despite a member of the County’s planning department avowal that they had conducted an exhaustive sweep of public opinion in order to shape their General Plan they had, after a dozen community workshops across the county, a booth at the County Fair and an on-line questionnaire, garnered a mere thirty-two participants from the Ojai Valley, which has a population approaching 30,000. Results were similarly sparse elsewhere in the County. Out of this statistically irrelevant sample the County and its consultant had fashioned a crude matrix that featured the top five responses to ‘What I love most about Ventura County’; ‘Our biggest challenges’ and ‘What could make our community better’. Stock responses such as ‘Agriculture and Farms’, ‘Beaches’, ‘Water’, ‘Roads and Transportation’ and ‘Open Spaces and Greenbelts’ were distributed meaninglessly across the matrix. Residents of the Ojai Valley were given a scant one-week notice of the MAC meeting addressing these results.

Since I believe I have been defrauded of my rights to legitimately provide input to the process by a patently specious outreach program conducted as window dressing to the machinations (and low-grade word-smithing) conducted in the vape-filled rooms of the County Planning Commission on a document initially drafted by a planning consultant, I feel empowered to propose a draft of my own five-point Guiding Principles for The People’s Paradise (F.K.A. County) of Ventura.

1) Residents’ inalienable human-rights (at a minimum nourishment, shelter, security, and access to health care, education and wild spaces) shall be privileged over property rights.

2) Native flora and fauna, as the visible expressions of underlying native ecosystems, are to be privileged over all exogenous plantings (except for food production) and exogenous fauna (except for food production and licensed recreational and therapeutic purposes). Native fauna shall have priority access in wild-land corridors between their remaining and future habitats.

3) All the developed lands of Ventura County are to be regarded as a safe space – a sanctuary for all, regardless of Federal immigration status.

4) The County’s beaches and coastal waters are to be freely accessible but otherwise sacrosanct (for they are wild places) – there shall be no commercial fishing or oil drilling in its waters nor new development within the traditional areas of wetland and sand-dune succession. Restoration of this liminal zone shall be a priority.

5) Reduction of energy use (along with the on-going replacement of fossil fuels with renewables) will be the first principle in assessing the viability of future development and applied with equal primacy, in the re-shaping of existing infrastructures.

That’s right! I am so up for a re-visioning that adumbrates the Proudhonian concept that privately owned property is essentially theft from the common wealth and Thoreau’s epiphany that in wilderness is the preservation of the world – fiercely focused on a local level, on the grass roots, on (or in) the trenches, even on the entirely powerless but menacingly named Municipal Area Council; and actively targets the hide-bound, reactionary County bureaucracy. The alternative is to quietly accede to the milquetoast, verdant radicalism of our local Green Council and the estimable C.F.R.O.G. (Citizens for Responsible Oil and Gas) who have taken for their alternative model the vision statement and planning guidelines of the uber-liberal Marin County, north of San Francisco. Neither injections of realism into the continuing, but ultimately entirely unsustainable status quo so fiercely protected by the County and its political supporters is likely to pierce, at the present time, the heavily armored skin of this institutional dinosaur.

The day awaits when County leadership acknowledges the illegitimacy of private land ownership in Ventura County entwined as it is with the Native American holocaust unleashed (not altogether deliberately) by the Spanish, the sham of Mexican land grants and the subsequent depredations of the majority Anglo hordes who invaded the State in the second half of the nineteenth century. Left, are picturesque Spanish colonial Mission buildings, built by native labor – essentially the architecture of the holocaust – that are again centers of the Roman Catholic faith, now significant tourist attractions and icons in the mythology of California, surrounded by the massive infrastructures of a militarized global capitalism – forever impinging on the remaining wild-lands of California.

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John Davis is an architect living in southern California. He blogs at Urban Wildland

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