Many say closure of George Air Force Base caused cultural, economic earthquake

By RENE RAY DE LA CRUZ | Daily Press | Published: February 11, 2018

VICTORVILLE, Calif. (Tribune News Service) -- Though the High Desert has seen steady and at times rapid population growth over the past 30 years, many longtime residents point to the closing of George Air Force Base in 1992 as the pivotal moment in the region's history.

"When the base closed in the early '90s, thousands of people were unplugged from churches, schools, businesses, neighborhoods and community groups," said Joe Manners, 71, a native of Oro Grande and now the community's unofficial mayor. "That's when we lost our economic footing, our pride as a community and our identity."

Manners said the base closure caused the cultural and economic earthquake that shook the High Desert to its core.

He and others said the region never fully recovered. They believe the vacuum created by the closure -- along with the growing liberal influence from Sacramento, higher taxes, fewer well-paying jobs and affordable housing -- created a fertile ground in the High Desert for crime, more traffic, unsafe neighborhoods and droves of residents wanting to escape.

The region began "deteriorating" when it lost its "soul and identity" after longtime residents began moving away and were replaced by "strangers."

That's the opinion of many residents who either moved or want to relocate.

Retired insurance agent Jack Archer, 72, who moved to Glendale, Arizona in 2007, said the High Desert has been trying to find its purpose and identity since the base closed.

"Every time I drive back to visit family, I notice more homeless people, graffiti, trash and buildings in disrepair," said Archer, who lived in the High Desert for more than 30 years. "I moved for family reasons, but after seeing what the High Desert has become, I'm glad I moved when I did."

After living in Apple Valley since the mid-'60s, Holly Noel and her husband moved to Georgetown, Texas, about 30 miles north of Austin, where they now enjoy local theater, music events, dining and "the feeling of safety."

A retired air quality specialist for the Mojave Desert Air Quality Management District, Noel said many factors have changed the culture and economics of the High Desert, with a return to "old school" values and economics "highly unlikely."

The High Desert's "dysfunctionality" and people desiring to relocate stems mainly from "a lack of community" caused by the 82,000 High Desert commuters who make daily trips down the hill, Noel said.

"Most people in the High Desert drive up and down the hill, park their cars in the garage, eat dinner, watch TV, go to sleep and start the cycle all over again," Noel said. "When you're always gone, there's no chance of building community or a sense a camaraderie. From a sociological point of view, this is how many problems begin."

The high cost of living in California and lack of jobs in the High Desert are two other factors causing people to flee, said Noel, who revealed that "now hiring" signs are plentiful in her area and 30 percent of her yoga class includes former residents from Southern California.

"Wages are lower here across the board, whether people are working at Dairy Queen or in a profession," Noel said. "But the cost of living is also lower, so your dollar is going to go a lot further."

"You'll never walk into a Kohl's in the High Desert and find a kind employee asking if you need help," Noel said. "But you'll find that everywhere in Texas because that sort of gentility has been handed down from generation to generation."

An Apple Valley native who worked in the construction trade most of his life, Ernie Rodriguez said the High Desert began turning into a "hell hole" soon after George Air Force Base closed.

"Back when I was 40 years old, I planned to retire in the High Desert," said Rodriguez, 68, who moved to Scottsdale, Arizona two years ago. "I decided to move out of Victorville after my house kept getting tagged, my windshield was busted and I couldn't get out of the car without transients asking for money."

Rodriguez believes the High Desert "lost its sense of identity and pride" when "waves of military families" left the area.

"Back in the day, everybody knew everybody. Now, nobody knows each other because people keep moving away," said Rodriguez, who believes the High Desert "won't improve" because people are "too self-absorbed in their own lives," or "just trying to survive day-by-day" to even try to make a difference.


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