Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Dessicated Houses, Under Water: Lake Havasu City, Arizona

You can tell that they’re foreclosure houses if you’re used to looking at the listings.  The teaser—you can own this house for as little as 3% down—is followed by the warning: Property is sold as is.
There’s another hint:  you can click the more pictures link, but there might not be any more pictures.  Just the lone shot from the street up the driveway; it’s likely the photographer didn’t bother getting out of the car.  These days, the banks aren’t paying much for the elements of a listing that might draw the casual shopper in.  Besides, there’s probably not much to attract at closer range. 

Over $140,000, though, you might see some inside pictures.  That’s a good sign:  it means the previous owner didn’t leave everything—plastic bags full of old toys, pilled blankets on the unmade beds, unflushed toilet, showerbath with the dandruff shampoo and the little wire soap rack still there in the corner, a lava-flow of dried soap running down the side of the tub. There aren’t dirty dishes still piled in the kitchen sink, the food crusts petrified by the desert air.  

That’s not to say the place didn’t look like that when the foreclosure finally went through and the eviction notice came with the sheriff or the bailiff or the hired process server.  It means Bank of America or Wells Fargo paid one of the services that have appeared in the online yellow pages of Lake Havasu City, Arizona, services that send an estimator and then, after the bank has chosen which of the levels of cleanup it’s ready to pay for, a crew, with a pickup truck to carry off the leavings if it’s an easy one; if not, a dumpster for the fisted wallboard, the carpeting destroyed by water left on in the sinks, old socks or underwear stuffed in the drain to keep the flow slow and steady, ensuring the maximum damage. 

It gets worse than that, of course—we’ve all read about the crews of scavengers who strip the house of every bit of metal, from the P-trap under the kitchen sink to the electrical wiring in the walls.  With these houses so new, and Lake Havasu City so liberal in its building code during the boom years, there’s not a lot of copper piping—it’s mostly PVC. So there’s not nearly the boom business in scrap to be had here as opposed, say, to Detroit or Chicago or Cleveland, where the Sears houses from the ‘20s and the Cape Cods from the postwar years and the raised ranches and split levels from the ‘60s and early ‘70s are a trove of overbuilding.  Even the porcelain sinks of the prewar places fetch a good price at the salvagers, especially if the faucets are still on them.  

Cleaning the surfaces, ripping up and replacing the carpet, waxing the terra-cotta Southwest themed tile floors, repainting the walls, emptying the swimming pool:  these are the daily activities of the only growth industry in Lake Havasu City, these days.
When the listing opens up to a set of pictures, you can often see the residues the cleaning service left, off in the corner of that photo of the cavernous interior of the four-stall garage— a box of contractor trash bags, super heavy duty, a five-gallon tub of cheap paint, the off-white or ivory or even Desert Tawny that the entire place has been repainted, except for the bathroom.  If it’s a HUD house, there seems to be some regulatory requirement that everything be photographed, and the pictures proliferate, and you can see the halo of slightly darkened, slightly more shiny residue where a thousand, ten thousand  hands fumbled for the lightswitch just inside the front door, or the slight valley in the carpeting from the bedroom to the bathroom. 

Sometimes these HUD houses are on their second or third foreclosure.  When that’s the case, you can see the half-finished work of the buyer or the contractor-crew that started to clean it up, the speculator betting—wrong—that the market had fallen as far as it could. 
The market in Lake Havasu City, Arizona has not fallen as far as it could, not even now.  In a week, the realtor has sent me 60 new listings, all foreclosed.  Read the descriptions and look at the pictures, and you can see why.  Almost all of these places, including some as low as $51,000, have RV garages or RV ports, in addition to the three- and usually four-stall garages. In some of these places, the square footage devoted to vehicles is much more than that allocated for the human dweller and mortgage payer.  

Outside, the yards are desert landscaped, which means the house is surrounded by dirt, with a few shrubs or a scrub oak tree or two. The driveways are empty.

It wasn’t this way six years ago, when I came through on the Freeways project.  Then the yards were desert landscaped, the stones were arrayed in geometric patterns, or tasteful arcs that led from one cactus to the next. In the late afternoon light, the cars gleamed:  an SUV, usually a Ford Explorer or Expedition, plus a smaller car, a Honda Accord or a Toyota Camry. If the door to the RV garage was open, or if the RV was parked outside, the garage having filled to capacity with other things—boats and their trailers, half-restored Corvettes, or just the neatly organized metal shelves filled with someone’s historic radio collection, or boxes marked with their contents (Hummel I, next to Hummel II, above Barbie I and Barbie II)—you could see the heavy-duty trailer hitch where that smaller car was attached on the trip from here to other places, places older, with longer histories and more seasons than hot and hotter

Lake Havasu City does have a history stretching back to the Great Depression, though to look at the houses for sale, you'd not guess it-- every one of the foreclosures in the last month’s listings was built between 1985 and 2008, and all of them look more-or-less the same:  open plans inside, wall-to-wall mixed with Southwest tiling; hollow-core Lowe’s or Home Depot doors; windows without frames; great planes of drywall leading from entryway past kitchen and dining area, through the living room to the wall separating the bedrooms from the public areas;  the bedroom ceilings often sprayed with popcorn, so that they look, in the pictures, more like motel rooms stripped even of the anonymous furniture that you find in a Red Roof Inn or a Best Western. The kitchen cabinets aren’t built in—they box out from the walls, and where they show their ends, there’s rarely an effort to disguise the cheap panelboard.  

These are houses that were built on spec; real estate speculators bought the acre lot of an older subdivision, bulldozed the adobe ranch house with the desert chiller left over from 1948 or 1955 or even 1970, subdivided the lot into four or six or eight, and crammed the houses in with no concern for their permanence, beauty, or even functionality.  There’s usually a swimming pool taking up much of the small back yard—it’s a swimming pool too small to actually swim in; it’s more like a large bathtub. In June, the average high is 1060; in July, it’s 1110.  You don’t sit on the veranda or in the cabana drinking a margarita after taking a dip when, at 7pm, it’s still sunny and 980.  Inside, the kitchens aren’t made for real cooking.  The stoves are pristine in the listing pictures; it’s the microwave that shows the signs of protracted use. There’s not much wear in the carpets, outside the master bedroom, that is. These don’t look like houses that were lived in. 

Lake Havasu City was an invented place, invented by waves of speculation, dating back to the building of the Parker Dam in the mid-‘30s, flooding the Colorado River.  From the first, the area was an epicenter for wild-eyed utopian schemes, schemes that emerged as the latest in a succession of spectacular misreadings of the landscape, the climate, the ecology.  Exporting water across hundreds of miles to Los Angeles, San Diego, and the irrigation-dependent agriculture of the Imperial Valley, the Colorado River Aqueduct required half of the electric power generated from the Parker Dam to power the pumps pushing the water up and around mountainsides that cut across the desert wasteland. Traced on satellite photographs, the Aqueduct emerges and disappears as it’s piped through minor elevations; at Iron Mountain, though, north of Desert Center (average high temperature in July: 104o; average high for the year: 84o; total average annual rainfall: 4.4 inches), a massive pumping station shoves the water up one mountain, the rush downmountain providing the momentum to carry it all the way to Coxcomb Mountain, where it disappears under the harsh, vegetation-free rockfaces, returns as an on-again-off-again open ditch, then sinks beneath Eagle Mountain, emerging to the west to run parallel with the fantastically misnamed Hayfield Road.  Along these stretches, the satellite pictures show dry washes under which the Aqueduct is piped. 

The Aqueduct is well-sealed;  that’s evident.  No river-loving willows or cottonwoods grow on either side of the waterway.  The air is so dry that evaporation from the water’s surface is so quickly wicked up and dissipated that it fails even to provide a modicum of humidity for a plant to exploit.  West of Eagle Mountain, it’s running north of Interstate 10 and south of Joshua Tree National Park until, a few miles east of Chiriaco Summit, another massive pumping station sends it back into the Eagle Mountains.  There the remnants of the Hayfield Reservoir are etched on the land. In 1939, the Southern California Water District dug a small auxiliary holding reservoir, filled it, and watched the water disappear, sucked down by the porous desert soil that quickly cracked and dessicated, leaving an imprint of white like the ghost of a water-dream.
Hayfield is the last pump lift; after that, the water descends through a long string of tunnels bored into the San Bernardino Mountains, then emerges to water the Quail Ranch Resort and Country Club, passes the Perris Reservoir, and terminates in what was once the Cajalco Reservoir, now Lake Matthews, southwest of Riverside. 

By then the desert has ended;  the satellite images show not a grey-brown shading to the hard white of the alkali desert but a brilliant irrigated green.  Rancho Mirage, Cathedral City, Palm Springs:  these are the oases that served as the fantasy models for Lake Havasu City, Arizona.  Golf courses with names like the El Dorado or Indian Wells are surrounded by densely packed housing subdivisions, many with swimming pools behind each sprawling house, and all of them with green lawns fed by irrigation water.  

This is what Lake Havasu City was supposed to have been.  Look at the satellite pictures, though, and a very different process can be seen hidden in the archaeology of land, its color, its overlays with the grids of building and farming, its striving toward an orderly domesticity of human use subordinating the imperatives of climate, topography, soil.  There are three golf courses—two of them carved out of the same small area near the city’s “center”, though the city has no center:  Lake Havasu Golf Course, and London Bridge Golf Course.  Further north along the lake's edge is the Refuge Golf Course.  These are the spots of green you can read, inserted in the complex weave of subdivision streets.  From a wide angle, at low magnification, the city seems ever-so-slightly greener than its surroundings.  Bring the picture down, and you see why—almost every house has one, or perhaps two, green plantings—shrub palms, mostly, or perhaps mesquite or junipers, usually close to the house, where they can be watered with the garden hose early in the morning or late at night when the temperature drops below 95. And of course, the greens and blues of those small pools, spa pools, they’re called, contribute to the shift in color.  

Along the lakeside, there’s a thin band of greenery, sometimes as narrow as two or three trees deep.  That’s as far as the water can sustain life. Beyond that, the street views confirm what those of us who’ve patrolled the citys know too well:  this is a landscape beyond arid.
What possessed those real estate agents, those speculators, those contractors and subcontractors, bank mortgage agents, those snowbirders and speculative landlords and city boosters:  what did they see that isn’t here?  Palm Springs, California, perhaps, where freely flowing water assured irrigation ditches for the golf courses, sprinklers for the lawns and parks, free-flowing water from the Colorado for as long as it might flow.

Not so Lake Havasu.  By the doctrine of prior claim, it came too late to get more than a tiny stake in the water right beside it.  What the foliage might steal from lake’s edge was about all that could be expropriated;  upriver and downriver claimants were vigilant to keep their rights and slake their own desires for greenswards and golf courses, parks and playing fields.  In Lake Havasu City, even the high school’s baseball and football fields are sparse and parched. 

What Lake Havasu City doesn’t have in greenery or scenery, it more than makes up for in houses.  Houses whose mortgages went under water at the very earliest moments of the Great Bust, and now are dessicated with the drought of interest, attention, fantasy that might bring buyers and dwellers.  The spa pools are dry, the scrub palms are dying;  inside the walls, behind the thin veneer of stucco, the 2x4s are twisting in the absolute dryness, for the air conditioner and the humidifier have long been turned off.  

When this happens to a city in a temperate climate—in Detroit, say, or Cleveland, or Philadelphia—over time the land and its primordial occupants claim back their portions, their rights.  Camilo Vergara, my old friend, has been photographing these sites for decades.In one sequence, we watch as the dome of a library crumbles.  It collapses.  Then the compost of leaves and branches accumulates on the tiled floor.  A tree grows up, rising through the ruined remnants of a Carnegie-funded American monument.  Soon the neighborhood, the city, is a Piranesian  fantasy, only it is American civilization that has had its time, its flowering, and its decay, and is now disappearing from view and from memory.

Not Lake Havasu City.  There’s no foliage to reclaim this land.  There’s no rainfall to hasten the decay, to return plaster to earth, wood to dirt. Instead, it will stand for centuries, perhaps millennia, until, finally, a great wind will come and brush it away, dust to dust.


  1. This is the second of three essays on Lake Havasu City; the third traces the development of the city as a planned community in the ''60s and '70s, its boom years, and its bust.

  2. Hello Peter ! This is Sebastien, FASI 2004. As a historian AND geographer, i loved your article. And it reminded me so many things of the American myths you explained to us. How fascinating to see the levittonian dream of suburban home ownership trying to be fulfilled in such a place, beyond arid as you said... There is something of a stunning melancholic beauty in that urban landscape, haunted by decay, a little bit like those pictures of Detroit in ruins which are so trendy nowadays (and equally mesmerizing i must admit). I have the feeling that an era of urban development is coming to an end, but is that feeling relevant in such a vast country ? In France there's a wave of books coming out about assesments of the liberal (in the european meaning) urban policies, its excess and sometimes, some solutions to step out of it. I'll def use that example for my urban geography classes about a sustainable city and the problem of water supply in the world. Can't wait for the last part of it. Thanks again for those insights on this fascinating country that you helped me to understand better a few years ago ! By the way, i wish you the best for the coming year and i hope to see you one of those days if i ever come back in Chicago (which i did several times since FASI).
    PS Sorry for the English mistakes, i am still not at my best when i write...

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