It’s 5 AM in Victorville, California. I haven't slept in 48 hours. Outside my second-story window, the sun is rising up over the jagged mountains across the desert. In the three months I've lived here, I've seen more sunrises than I have in my 28 years. There is something about living in a barren house in a half-empty suburb out in the middle of a sun-baked nowhere that brings out the tweaker in me—and judging by daily news reports, most of my neighbors, too.
It's a perfect lifestyle for a subprime city. Located on the edge of the Mojave Desert 100 miles east of LA, Victorville got higher and crashed harder, in terms of real estate, than almost any other place in California. In less than ten years, this place grew from an isolated hick outpost into a booming commuter suburb filled with the cheapest McMansions in California. It doubled its size to 100,000 in just eight short years.
But the boom is gone. A quarter of the houses on my street stand empty and most strip malls around me stand vacant too. I can go for weeks without saying more than, “Hey, how are you,” “Paper, please,” “No cash back,” and “Thanks,” to the fat kid with the greasy face who mans the check-out machine at my local megamarket during the late-night shift. Sometimes the isolation gets too strong though, and I start craving human contact. When that happens, a bout of public drunkenness at some grimy local dive is sure to follow. And so is some sinister realization. This is Victorville, after all, the taint of the High Desert.
That’s exactly what happened tonight. About five hours ago, I decided to meet up with CJ, a Victorville native I sorta know, at a seedy lounge located in a motel lobby a few miles from my house. I was expecting it to be the same depressing redneck dive bar atmosphere I saw not too long ago: shriveled old men in trucker hats and saggy white women nursing gin and tonics praying for a lay. But I walked into a scene straight outta Hustle and Flow. As it turned out, Sunday nights at the lounge were “old-skool hip-hop dance party nights,” featuring two dance-floors, two DJs mixing rap and R&B classics, and a mini swap meet.
We paid the $15 entrance fee, got padded down by a security guard dressed in all-black full-combat fatigues, and started making our way over to the bar. We shouldered our way through a hot, dark, sweaty room filled with ass-jiggling and grinding, past a hallway where vendors had set up an upscale and scaled-down version of a flea market with assorted bags, shoes, shirts, skirts, canes, jewelry, and other assorted shit for sale, all laid out on tables and squeezed in at the bar right next to a guy in a pimp-white three-piece suit, white shirt, white tie, and thick gold chain who was leaning on his cane and hitting on a chick.
The bar was packed. Two old barmaids struggled to keep up with demand. The DJ was playing some soulful slow-grind tune I couldn’t place. To my left, two beautiful black girls in short summer dresses were ignoring my underdressed white ass. Behind me, the dance floor was filled with couples getting their freak on. Looking around, I realized I was the only white patron in the place.
“What, you scared, white boy?” CJ said, laughing at me when he saw me swiveling my head to take in the room.
“No, not scared,” I replied. “Just fucking shocked.” A hick bar filled with black folk—it’s not a scene I expected to find out in an isolated desert city historically known for its military bases, angry white people, and meth labs. But there it was anyway, a reminder that there are two sides to Victorville: the old and the new.
Before its stint as a dirt-cheap suburban paradise, Victorville was a tiny God-fearing community populated by white conservatives living an isolated frontier lifestyle. But these days, Victorville is more ethnically diverse than nearby Los Angeles. In 2008, African Americans made up about 12% of Victorville's population compared to LA’s 9%. The racial mix has been growing every year and that has not been going over too well with Victorville’s old-timers who restrict their hatred for their new, non-white residents on internet forums and comment section—for now.
But I couldn’t be happier. I quickly found three outside-the-house activities I enjoy here: shooting my gun, sucking down Vietnamese Pho soup, and eating amazingly authentic 99-cent tacos from the 24-hour drive thru. And now I could add a fourth: getting plastered at the Sunday night R&B party.
Looking around, it was clear that the lounge was the most happening spot in town. All the other bars and clubs here were grandma's house compared to this. Just looking around the bar, I could spot a half-dozen, seemingly available babes in hot pants, short shorts, or tight jeans. It was obvious that in a hundred-mile radius a guy couldn’t find better chick action than what was assembled in front of me. This night was going to be a bright spot on my calendar, I thought. But then, 15 minutes later, I noticed the club had beefed up its security.
For no apparent reason at all, about five security guards stormed onto the patio where CJ and I were enjoying a smoke. Most of them were white, all decked out in SWAT-like uniforms with lace-up army boots and flak jackets. A few of them had pistols strapped to their chests like they were in the Navy Seals. It seemed a bit much to guard such a small crowd of no more than a 100 people.
And these dicks were pushy, too. Outside on the patio, people stood around drinking and smoking cigarettes. A few clusters were tokin' on blunts. All in all, people seemed peaceful enough. But the guards moved as if they were conducting surprise cell searches in a federal penitentiary, scouring every nook and cranny, staring people down for a sign of guilt. One of them, a beefy white guy, got a whiff of some weed and started sniffing around the patio like a scent dog, retreating only when a couple of girls started giggling and pointing at him.
I asked CJ what the hell was going on. "These guys? Shit, most of 'em are ex-military," he said. "Yeah, they try too hard. But the cops are no better. Last time I was here, there was a fight. A bunch of squad cars barricaded the entrance in the parking lot, arrested a bunch of guys. But the cops overreacted. That’s a fact.”
Cops tend to do that over here. Just last week, cops shot and killed a suspected child molester when they found him hiding in a closet, suicidal and cutting himself. Hey, he was holding a knife—that’s threat enough for them.
The few times I had been to this lounge during regular, mostly-white-folk nights, the security wasn’t like this. But security wasn’t just lighter with only white people around, it was non-existent. This didn’t seem to bother CJ too much but was starting to make me a bit uncomfortable. Race was just too obvious a factor. It was happening only because they were black.
I was starting to get paranoid, so CJ and I moved back to the bar for another round of drinks and some more babe watching. "You should go dance with her," said CJ, pointing to a girl in tight jeans dancing by herself in the corner. "She all alone, she won't mind."
I shook my head. "No man, I'm too drunk right now. I can barely stand up. Besides, I'm a white boy—I got no moves. And that makes me too self-conscious around black chicks. I feel like I got no game."
“Yeah, I know how you feel. I don't know how to pick up black chicks either," he said. "When I was growing up here, I was pretty much the only black kid in my school. No black friends, no black chicks to hit on. I'm way better at picking up white women.” CJ was somewhat of an oddity by Victorville standards. He’s a local, born and raised right here in the High Desert. His parents were in the army, now retired, and stationed at a nearby base ever since before he was born. But most of the people at the lounge that night hadn't lived in Victorville for very long, CJ said. “They moved here recently because it's cheaper.”
It is tempting to think of Victorville as the budding New York of the desert, an inviting “melting pot” where homeownership was accessible to all Americans, regardless of color or creed. At the height of the real estate boom, Victorville had some of the cheapest house prices in California and catered exclusively to low-income families and bottom-of-the-barrel speculators looking to rent their properties until they could flip them for a profit.
In 2007, the average Victorville home sold for nearly $400,000. Now banks are lucky if they get a quarter of that for the massive number of foreclosed properties. Some of the properties are so worthless that some banks have taken the wrecking ball to them. In some cases, paying for upkeep and property taxes was no longer worth it. And these homes had never even been lived in. Yep, this is a glimpse into the American Dream, built on speculation, suckers and fraud, and now in full self-destruction mode.
That's why I moved out here, to see the carnage with my own eyes. I wanted to rent a house in a foreclosure nightmare, one of those brand new neighborhoods that have sprouted from cabbage patches and rocky desert landscapes all across the country in the past few years. I wanted to get in on the debacle, to walk on the freshly paved deserted streets and breathe in the raspy dryness of blocks and blocks worth of yellow lawns, to check out abandoned homes, some of them ransacked by looters, others turned into prime real estate for squatters and all sorts of critters. But not all of the destruction took the shape I expected. The lounge's all-black patronage was part of it.
The real estate boom here was a money-making machine built to enrich bank executives and land developers, but it was a resettlement of lower-income Americans, a forced migration that took the poor out of cities and isolated them in the middle of nowhere, safely out of view. Victorville is built on gentrification. Its newer—and mostly non-white—residents weren’t really moving here by choice. They were here because they were priced out of their homes by rising living costs and real estate prices.
If we were more honest, we’d call gentrification what it really is: segregation by exile to Buttfuckville. It is the redistribution of prime inner-city real estate back to the wealthy, while anyone else is pushed out to seek out a living at the edges of civilization, oftentimes a system of suburban GULAGS window-dressed with spacious, cheap homes and the promise of quality suburban living.
But Victorville is a step beyond, quickly on its way to becoming a prison city, a ghetto in the middle of the desert. There are no jobs and only shitty education. Crime is on the rise, and so are ethnic tensions. There is need for fences. Victorville is set up to make sure it is nearly impossible to leave.
CJ shrugged his shoulders too when I started drunkenly babbling something about people being re-segregated out here. He wasn’t really listening—he knows better than to make Victorville his permanent home. CJ’s trying to get outta here as fast as he possibly can. He’s looking at two options for the immediate future: either get transferred to Afghanistan for better pay or, failing that, move up to the Bay Area, where's he's got some family. Either way, it’s out—forever. Choosing Kabul over Victorville... Hell, why not?