Dream for Sale
The largest lake of California has a person thinking of lush green landscapes with a rich flora and fauna. It was the desertlike surroundings that struck me most when I first arrived. Ruinous houses everywhere, old piers indicate former water levels, stranded boats now only fit for scrap, inhabitants that seem a lot less euphoric than the postcards from the 1950’s promised. Wandering around in this wasteland words like desolate and barren come to mind. Why do people hold on to this place? For what reason do they stay and fight against nature although there is no recovery in sight?
The American Dream is a theoretical construct which serves as the base upon which an entire system of beliefs was built. Independence, freedom, the possibility to cultivate land and the conviction to be able to achieve everything by hard work are at the core. These agents have beckoned people to the new world for centuries.At times the American Dream can be adventurous, even hazardous. It may appear to be a path gone astray, even to be a lost cause. Considering the frontier spirit one might critically bring into question at which point holding on to a chosen path turns into an aberration. Does a secluded life in a desert qualify as a dream come true?
Dream for Sale is a story about people living in a lost place. Salton Sea in the midst of a desert is a saltlake surrounded by a hostile environment. Originally, the Salton Sink was a part of the Gulf of California and the Pacific Ocean. It was separated by sediments of the Colorado River. Thus, Lake Cahuilla was created. Due to the climate it dried up hundred of years ago.In 1905 a dam of the Colorado River broke. For two years the river changed its course and emptied itself into the deepest point of the Salton Sink. The largest lake of California, Salton Sea, was born. During the 1950’s major touristic development plans existed for Salton Sea. Investors became interested, infrastructure was built, even celebrities took part in the promotions. Plenty of lots were sold and the area experienced a great boom.Many people from the surrounding cities like Los Angeles or San Diego spent their free time at the lake. Boatraces became popular and a sport fishing scene was established due to best weather conditions and a broad variety of marine life. There were numerous motels and even a golf court. An ever growing number of celebrities from Hollywood attracted more and more people. The idyll did not last long, however. In the mid 1970’s two tropical storms swept across the area. Since Salton Sea does not have an outlet it bursted its banks considerably. Many buildings close to the shore were flooded and essentially destroyed. The initial elation to create a French Rivera in California was ruined.
As a result of the devastation long term ecological problems grew as well. In the following years the waterquality consistently declined and the salinity rose. As a result several mass die-offs of fish and birds occurred in the 1990’s. Nowadays only one species -The Nile Tilapia- is able to survive in the water conditions. Furthermore, the lake had over decades evolved into a wildlife refuge for migrating birds on the Pacific Flyway, which are now also endangered.The lake’s water supply is fed by three rivers, which first provide freshwater for the surrounding fields, take the agricultural runoffand finally find their way into the lake. Over the years large amounts of heavy metals contained in agricultural fertilizers have thus accumulated on the bottom of the lake. These heavy metals are not too dangerous while underwater, but due to a slow drying up of the lake, more and more of the lake’s bed is exposed. The wind picks up the soil, the heavy metals are airborne and consequently the air quality is lowered. The area’s child-asthma-ratio is up to three times higher compared to the rest of the United States. Salton Sea dries up because of the hot climate. Additionally the lake suffers from a reduction in the water supply system. In the near future the drying-up is expected to hasten its pace due to a new regional water contract. The agricultural runoff is supposed to be transferred to San Diego from 2018 on. The main water supply of the lake will be cut off and the fight over water will heat up in this highly indebted State during the biggest drought ever.
Today a lot of houses in the area are vacant - a place where plans for the future and their decline are omnipresent. A vast infrastructure had been constructed, the horizon is spiked with power lines, but only isolated homes were built. A dream of an eternal vacation turned into a collecting pond for dropouts and outcasts of America`s prosperous society.
The motivation of these people are manifold, some of them stay there because of the sheer lack of alternatives, some of them because they belief in a dream deferred. But at their core the qualities which are inherent in the American Dream are what drive these people: persistence, independence and freedom. Surrounded by a hostile environment these people exist in a place doomed by the workings of nature, constantly struggling to survive by the faith in their own will. A situation which ironically mirrors the situation of the first settlers. In contrast, the inhabitants of Salton Sea do not fight the uncultivated wilderness but the leftovers of civilization itself.
published in brandeins magazine 03/18