Lancaster, CA is really trying.
The last time I drove through this city seventy miles north of Los Angeles, I was in my early twenties. Yes, that’s over twenty years ago. Back then, Lancaster was a military town with a seamy desert-rat underside that was making no attempt whatsoever to appeal to anyone. If you were there, you were stuck there, and everyone knew it.
Last week, I veered off of I-5 in order to check out an infamous April attraction in Southern California – the Antelope Valley Poppy Reserve. The recorded message on the reserve’s “Wildflower Hotline” suggested my timing was good for witnessing the park’s carpet of orange flowers, so I planned my trip to LA to include a detour into the desert.
The poppies were impressive – both in the reserve and outside of it, where teenagers posed for senior pictures and Facebook profile photos amidst seas of California’s state flower. Since I visited on a weekday evening, I managed to avoid the notorious lines of cars that apparently collect outside the entrance gates on sunny Saturdays and Sundays; only forty or fifty visitors wandered the paths with me in the windy dusk of the day.
What impressed me more than the poppies, however, was the facelift that the city of Lancaster had undergone. After making a late evening visit to the park, sleeping in town seemed to make sense. I hadn’t planned to do much besides work in my motel room, but the free tourist magazine on the bedside stand happened to have an article about Lancaster’s recent beautification-through-murals project, leaving me no choice but to hunt down some painted walls.
In 2016, Lancaster participated in a worldwide mural project called POW!WOW! The city funded a mix of twelve out-of-town and local artists who decorated the downtown area with their multicolored visions.
Most of the murals that resulted are concentrated in an area of town called “The BLVD,” ground zero for Lancaster’s 2010 revitalization project. The BLVD is a roughly ten-block stretch of commercial activity along Lancaster Boulevard, a long street in the geographical center of this 170,000 person city. With a landscaped median, healthy street trees, and ample parking areas separated by grassy bump outs, the layout of the street invites ditching your car and strolling.
I parked in front of the 1920’s Art Deco-style post office, stepped out of my vehicle, and heard mellow jazz music. I had assumed it was coming from the neighboring store, so I ignored it and crossed the street – only to find that the music was playing there too. A little searching around revealed multiple dark green outdoor Bose speakers stashed under the bushes. I found them on every block of The BLVD – which meant that the same smooth jazz tune I heard while getting out of my car followed me down the street. I’ve never quite had that experience before – at least, not outside of the confines of my own head.
In addition to finding the new murals I was seeking on The BLVD, I found some older murals commemorating the feats of nearby Edwards Air Force Base’s accomplished pilots – like Chuck Yeager, who broke the sound barrier there in 1947.
I also found two museums, a hipster bowling alley, a performing arts center, a fancy-looking movie theater, and a wide array of restaurants and shops. This was all a far cry from the Lancaster I remembered from the 1990’s – one littered with pawn shops, salvage yards, and convenience stores.
Don’t get me wrong – Lancaster still has plenty of that. It still has ugly strip malls, run-down buildings, gang violence, drugs, and a huge homeless population. And the presence of both a military base and the headquarters of several large defense contractors keeps the tone of the place on the conservative end of the spectrum. But Lancaster is aiming to be the US’s first “net zero community” – one that produces as much energy (through its solar and wind farms) as it uses. And it has this little cultural core at its center that is clearly trying to radiate outward.
The morning I left, I decided I had to experience one of Lancaster’s most touted attractions, “The Musical Road.” You may not know what a musical road is, because the one in Lancaster is one of very few that exist. It is a section of paved highway with grooves carved into it that, when driven over, play a song. In this case, that song is the opening bars of “The William Tell Overture” – more famous in these parts for having been the theme music for the The Lone Ranger. A little research on Yelp suggested that the best way to hear the music was to drive the road at 55mph with the driver’s side window open one-half inch. Needless to say, people do laps to perfect their technique. Thankfully, The Musical Road is now located well outside of town, making the incessant U-turns less of a hazard then they were when the section of pavement was located close to The BLVD, its original – and controversial – first home.
I gave The Musical Road four rounds and made a point of recording one of them. I can’t say the tune really jumped out at me while driving, but after a few sessions of watching the video, I could hear something more like a melody. Regardless of the result, I could appreciate what the attraction was trying to do.
That’s a pretty good metaphor for what is happening in Lancaster, CA. I can’t say I fell in love with the place, and I sure don’t need to move there anytime soon. But I definitely appreciate what they are trying to do. I’ll have to check in on their progress again sometime.