“There are three locales that are most likely to attract the fringes of society—the beach, the desert and the Inland Empire.”—Tim Sunderland
This morning David L. Ulin, book critic for the Los Angeles Times, wrote a piece in the Calendar section about stories of the desert. It stuck with me because I live on the edge of the desert (most of Southern California is a desert, but we fool ourselves by stealing water from other parts of the southwest to make it look otherwise). Also, I recently read a crime novel, Saving Xochil, that was set in the Coachella Valley of the Inland Empire, the lower desert of Southern California (think Palm Springs, only farther east and south).
Ulin’s article caused me to think about the importance of location in fiction. As Will Bryant Smith, a writing friend of mine once said, “Location is almost another character in your novel, and if your location is one that few people write about, then you have something new.”
I have mentioned before that I live in the Inland Empire region of Southern California (I’m not happy with the name either). While we are physically separated from Los Angeles by a geographic formation known as the San Jose Hills, Los Angeles County extends about five miles farther east of that point to include Pomona, Claremont, San Dimas and LaVerne. These cities spend a considerable amount of marketing energy making sure they are not considered part of the Inland Empire. They explain that the Inland Empire starts at the dividing line separating Los Angeles County from San Bernardino County.
Making the distinction event more blatant, when you drive across the county line, it is as if you are entering another culture. It is a clash of those moving away from Los Angeles, trying to escape their experience of the violence and squalor of the city, or taking advantage of the lower real estate prices, and those who come from farther out, the desert communities and even out of state, and are trying to get closer to Los Angeles. At times it seems as if everyone in the Inland Empire is either coming or going, or at least it was that way until the bottom fell out of the real estate market. Did I also mention that the Inland Empire has been one of the top foreclosure markets during this recent recession?
Social scientists see the Inland Empire as made up of San Bernardino and Riverside Counties. The two-country region is called a SMA—statistical marketing area. That means that the Inland Empire reaches to within fifty miles of San Diego at its southern end, and to both the east and the north all the way to the borders with Nevada (Las Vegas is only thirty miles further) and Arizona. The majority of people in this region, however, live in the valley in the southwest corner—an acute isosceles triangle formed by the cities on Ontario, San Bernardino and Riverside.
There are some cultural centers in the Inland Empire. Both Riverside and San Bernardino have symphony orchestras. The director of the San Bernardino Symphony is Carlo Ponti. Ponti’s other claim to fame is his mother—actress Sophia Loren. The City of Redlands has the Redlands Bowl. Many of the cities have small playhouses. Riverside County includes Palm Springs. There is an oft-repeated maxim that five percent of the world’s wealth passes through that desert oasis each year.
The classic sixties hit, Wipe Out by the Surfaris, was first recorded in a studio in what is now Rancho Cucamonga, a few miles from the Demens-Tolstoy house, where the expatriate nephew of Russian novelist Leo Tolsoy resided with his wife, the daughter of Russian nobility.
There are also some not-so-cultured places. To the east of Riverside is Moreno Valley, also known as MoVal. San Bernardino County, the largest county in the United States in terms of land mass, includes a major portion of the Mojave Desert. It is the rattlesnake bite capital of the world. The city of Fontana is known among locals as Fontucky. And let’s not forget the controversy about whether Fontana or San Bernardino is the birthplace of the Hells Angels.
Yeah, the Inland Empire is a great place to set a novel. We have the best and we have the worst. I’m working on it.
See ya’ later.
WhatIfYouCouldNotFail.com by Tim Sunderland is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.
Photo by Lee Brimelow from San Francisco Bay Area, USA (Hells Angels) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons