Wonder Valley's white underclass

August 12, 1994|By Paul Ciotti

Los Angeles -- IN 1965, WHEN Daniel Moynihan drew attention to the fact that one-quarter of all black children were born out of wedlock, he took so much heat for it that all discussion of the matter was squelched for the next 20 years. Today two-thirds of black children are born out of wedlock, and in the nation's capital the illegitimacy rate for teen-age moms is 96 percent.

Even so, the black underclass isn't our worst problem today. Whatever the pathologies of this group, even on its worst day the black underclass never amounted to more than a small percentage of the population. A potentially much greater problem today is the growing white underclass -- 22 percent of white children are born to single moms (up from 4 percent in 1985). Furthermore, unlike the black underclass, which is almost entirely confined to the inner city, the white underclass has the ability to destabilize the entire country once it fully emerges. And one of the places it is emerging first is Wonder Valley.

Don't feel uninformed if you haven't heard of Wonder Valley. It's located 150 miles due east of Los Angeles, one mountain range to the north of Palm Springs in so blasted and desolate an area that pilots from the nearby Twentynine Palms Marine Air Base occasionally mistake it for a bombing range. The valley is 20 miles long and eight miles wide, rimmed by distant jagged peaks, with crystalline air, suffocating summer heat, frigid winters, alkaline water that comes out of the ground at 120 degrees, innumerable creosote bushes, marauding coyotes and dozens of dry lakes.

It's easy to tell when you've reached Wonder Valley driving east from Twentynine Palms. Suddenly the road is cracked and broken, and then off on either side of the road, you see these battered cabins set back from the road, with bullet holes, smashed doors and missing walls. Others, obviously occupied, are surrounded by battered trailers and junked cars. There are no water lines, no sewage system, garbage collection or law enforcement (one local law enforcement official claims he doesn't have the manpower to patrol the area even if he wanted to. And besides, he says, the residents are "a bunch of drunks who don't want us out there anyway").

Because the area is both cheap and remote (a sign at the edge of Wonder Valley warns eastbound motorists -- "No services next 100 miles"), the community has become a refuge for convicted felons and sex offenders from Los Angeles and Orange counties. Abandoned shacks and cabins are available for the taking and others can be rented, one resident told me, for as little as $100 a month. Some people buy little 400-square-foot cabins and then build additions as finances permit, usually without the benefit of a building permit. "You build what you want," says local lawyer Don Kemby. "Put a fence around and get yourself a mean dog."

The problem is, there's no work in Wonder Valley -- half the 4,000 residents of Wonder Valley are on public assistance or disability; an additional 40 percent are retired; only 10 percent actually have jobs. With so many parents crippled by alcohol or drugs, the children of Wonder Valley roam the desert like feral animals stealing cars and breaking into unoccupied cabins.

Once when I visited Wonder Valley, I took a tour with Jack McConaha, the irrepressibly voluble former fire chief who now runs a one-man security service. Every time we would pass a desolate bullet-ridden cabin, he would rattle off its capsule history -- "guy got drunk here and burnt up his girlfriend's car;" "that family has six or eight kids, all involved in burglaries;" "the man who lived here was mental. He lived on dog food."

People drive 70 and 80 mph on these little dirt roads. Their cars aren't registered. They drive into town on back roads and then park at the food store with the front facing out so the cops can't tell they don't have license places. They can't afford to have water hauled ($40 for 1,800 gallons.) Instead they live off of 2 1/2 gallon plastic bottles that they fill up for free in Twentynine Palms.

"People are living in conditions that are worse than a Third World country," says Wonder Valley roads commissioner Jim Copeland. running water. No electricity. They lack fundamental hygiene."

"It takes a certain mind-set to live up here," says Jack Shay, a former Marine pilot who runs a tire dealership in nearby Twentynine Palms. "There's no opera, no symphony, no sporting events. Unless you live in the city itself you have to haul your own water."

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