Calzona, California: Possible Futures for Forgotten Lands

An essay reframing traditional spacemaking ideologies at the intersection of art and social engagement.

About five hours east of San Diego sits a town brimming with possibility. Amidst the scorching desert heat and a beautiful sense of isolation, the unincorporated territory of Calzona, California calls itself home to two men, a dog, and a quasi-imaginary marijuana dispensary. Long dirt roads leading nowhere seem to wind endlessly toward the horizon, and dry dust permeates the air. With nothing but arid desert for miles around, Calzona seems to have an atmosphere that invites a calm sense of isolation. It seems impossible that an abandoned and antiquated subdivision (with an estimated population of two) could epitomize the idea of a landscape full of possibility and hope. However, in rethinking the ideologies of “possibility” and “value” as they are attached to the capitalistic economic system, the empty town of Calzona reveals itself as a space with value that transcends that of the commercial. While land in Calzona is worth almost no money, its true worth lies types of possible futures that the land itself imagines for us.

In this paper, I will explore the ways in which Calzona imagines for us the use of art as a vehicle for an alternative future landscape. Within Calzona, the place of private homes, commercial properties, and government regulated buildings is replaced by extraordinary conceptual art installations that will both critique the world and inspire those who inhabit it. As an open space for land art, Calzona provides a new culture of land use that stands in opposition to that which is set up by current capitalist modes of living. The value of the Calzona landscape, therefore, is not contingent on what sorts of profit it may generate for its “owner”; rather, its value is dependent on its role as an endless font of artistic inspiration. The land itself provides inspiration for artists, who in turn inspire their audiences. However, the value of the Calzona landscape is not limited to an unending cycle of inspiration. It is important to realize the ways in which inspiration will inevitably promote action and critique. In this way, a previously “useless” antiquated subdivision can become a powerful tool in reshaping the world.

As unincorporated territory, the denomination of Calzona has little to no recorded history; this means that the majority of its history relies on the educated guesses of those who currently help shape the space. However, it is still pertinent to understand as clearly as possible the history of problematic land use within the area that has led to its state of quasi-existence. What we call Calzona today was originally theorized to be the byproduct of the Arizona and California Railroad (ARZC), which began its Phoenix to Cadiz operations in 1991. Although it intended to stop at major cities between Arizona and California, its limited fuel capacity required more frequent stops. In the 1970s, during construction of the railroad, Calzona was one of the first unincorporated territories to be named and subdivided with the intention of providing refueling stations. Sitting on the California side of the borderline between the two states, Calzona seemed to have a location that naturally lent itself to use by the ARZC route planners. Thus, bulldozers were brought out to carve roads through the desert land, and lots were parceled out to be sold to prospective residents. Calzona was (presumably) advertised as a luxurious desert escape akin to nearby Parker, Arizona and Big River, California. Although the roads were properly named and land parcels sold, Calzona never became the town that it was promised to be. The unincorporated territory had never been included in plans for irrigation vis a vis the nearby Colorado River (as neighboring cities were), and landowners too late realized that they had become victims of fraudulent land practices.

Over the past century, Calzona plots have been sold over and over again, diminishing in value until it is now worth next to nothing (and in cases where the property taxes paid are in higher dollar amount than the amount the land is worth, negative value). It is extremely easy to allow the history of land fraud within Calzona to allow it be dissipate in memory as just another piece of forgotten land; however, it would be just as short-sighted to ignore the ways in which these faulty practices have allowed the space to become limitless with the potential to transform, inspire, and educate. The land that was once forgotten can now provide a new culture for the way that we shape and represent spaces.

As mentioned prior, looking at Calzona land through a capitalistic lens means seeing land that is valueless and commonplace. However, it is this exact ideology surrounding the desert landscape that allows it to be an endless wealth of resources for artists and innovators. The relatively cheap costs of owning Calzona land renders it an ideal space for artists to utilize when creating artworks; in fact, many artists have already taken it upon themselves to create site-specific installations as part of the emerging Calzona Collective. The Calzona Collective, created in 2015 by artists and educators Brett Stalbaum (Associate Teaching Professor, UCSD) and Cicero Inacio da Silva (Professor of Digital Media, Universidade Federal de São Paulo), “aims to transform preconceived notions about land, specifically desert landscapes”. The artists “wish to destroy the idea that the desert is an empty space by highlighting the lives, landmarks, and history of desert regions.” In other words, the members of this collective actively utilize art as a powerful tool in reshaping the conceptions of an otherwise forgotten space. The art of the Calzona Collective, therefore, stands as a prime example of the ways in which artistic ingenuity can provide an alternative future for forgotten spaces.

In May of 2016, a group of nine artists teamed up amidst the scorching summer desert heat to realize the idea of the Calzona Chinatown installation. The roughly nine foot tall signage constructed of two by fours was symbolic of a more traditional diverse Chinese neighborhood full of people, shops, and homes. The entrance of the Calzona Chinatown leads its audience between two red two by fours, atop which sits a dark brown sign with “中国城” (Chinatown) inscripted in gold. Behind the grand and gestural entrance of the site sits a white projection screen supported by two red posts. Beyond that, sits the wide expanse of the open desert.

The Calzona Chinatown is constructed of simple, sparse structures that allow the openness of the desert landscape to permeate its boundaries. Its man made construction does not work to dominate the landscape; instead, its use of negative space allows the structure to work as a frame for the vivid blues of the sky and the mellow browns of the dry earth. The installation is exceptional in its ability to work with the landscape and the environment; it does not subordinate the natural to the man made. The result is a structural and site-specific artwork that lends gravity to an otherwise seemingly limitless space. In other words, the Calzona Chinatown works to create the idea of a specific “space” in the middle of the desert, transforming what I have been describing as a forgotten land into a space of importance vis a vis the artist, the audience, and eventually the world. The artwork’s ability to co-exist with the land it occupies ensures that the space will not be eventually forgotten in the shadow of the artwork itself; a piece of Calzona land has been imbued with an artistic value that is unresponsive to capitalistic pressures.

Additionally, the cultural references of the installation lead the viewer to question and critique the histories of the land on which it was built. In this way, the art and the land work in conjunction to inspire critical thought processes neither could achieve alone. While histories of Chinatowns across the United States are mired in racism, xenophobia, and general social injustice, that of the Calzona Chinatown is noticeably absent of such horrific events. However, the injustices attached to the histories of Chinatown as a cultural phenomenon allow us to empathize, and therefore recall the specific injustices embedded within the history of Calzona. The histories of land fraud, false advertisement, and government corruption are what moulded Calzona into the empty desert landscape that exists today; the conscious choice of artists to create the Calzona Chinatown will ensure, through parallel associations, that the histories of the space are never forgotten (obscure though they may be). Not only, then, does the Calzona Chinatown provide artistic and cultural value to the land on which it stands, but it also provides educational and historical value through the preservation of the past.

At the same time that the Calzona Chinatown was conceptualized and built, artist Jose Quintero was realizing the concept of a similar site-specific installation involved in the discourse of space making and social commentary. The Calzona Uber Station was built with the intention of inspiring critical thought vis a vis current capitalist modes of living. The simplistic (perhaps a theme of installations built with limited resources in the middle of the desert) artwork is comprised of two structures that work together in formal harmony. The first structure is a minimalistic wooden bus stop bench painted in gleaming white with bright red accents; its rectangular and geometric shapes stand in stark contrast to the barren naturalism of the desert landscape. Adjacent to this bench is a tall, thin wooden bus stop marker painted a matching red and white, atop which (somewhat idiosyncratically) grows a spindly desert shrub.

The Calzona Uber Station exists in a state of tension with the land on which it resides. The bus stop itself, as a societal structure, is indicative of infrastructurally advanced space, designed to provide efficient modes of transportation for large groups of people; the very existence of such infrastructure implies that the land on which it was built holds enough capitalistic value to merit use by hundreds, if not thousands, of people. Furthermore, the Calzona Uber Station in specific not only recalls states of strong capitalistic infrastructure, but extends this state by introducing the progressive idea of ride-sharing technology. The basic ideology surrounding the isolated structures of the site-specific installation, however, is at stake when one considers the space in which it exists. The economic foundation of the bus stop ideology is put at stake when the bus stop is built on the barren, “worthless,” desert landscape. In Calzona, there is seemingly no reason for a bus stop to be built; those who choose to wait to be unceremoniously ushered out of the unincorporated territory will inevitably be left in an infinite wait.

The effect of this juxtaposition is that the Uber Station reimagines the past while simultaneously imagining a future for Calzona. A useless bus stop in the middle of nowhere draws the viewer to critically evaluate the histories of land on which it was built. Perhaps there once existed a sizable town with enough people to justify a a public transportation system, or perhaps the stop was built in hopes of attracting traffic from nearby Parker, AZ or Big River, CA. Inspiring viewers to re-imagine Calzona’s past is crucial to building the imagination in order to construct possible futures. New, personal, and unique theories surrounding Calzona’s past allow each viewer of the Calzona bus stop to create their own possible future for the space. Maybe they imagine fantastic, modern infrastructure built around the existing Uber Station, or maybe they propose a small town with a bus stop to the nearby cities. The Calzona Uber Station is an artwork that imagines a future for the landscape that hinges on creativity and imagination. It sees beyond, and in many ways criticizes the lack of, economic value of land and recognizes the alternate ways in which value can be created.

My argument thus far has asserted the ways in which art has allowed previously empty landscapes, such as Calzona, to take on value outside of those which are traditionally recognized. However, it is important to address issues that art, as an influencer and a culture, may raise when analyzed in conjunction with landscapes such as Calzona. The most problematic discourse raised by integrating art into a habitually marginalized space is that of gentrification. The simplest definition of gentrification describes it as the process through which a space is renewed and rebuilt, prompting an influx of an upper-middle class population. What this colloquial definition omits, however, are the ways in which socio-economic forces work in conjunction with institutionalized oppression to displace traditionally underrepresented peoples. Gentrification, in other words, is a process that utilizes art as a vehicle to monopolize the physical spaces of minorities, the poor, and the working class in favor of upper-middle-class white populations. As much as the art world would love to push aside the thought that art is often created hand in hand with the marginalization and displacement of underprivileged peoples, it has already made a significant impact on neighborhoods such as Boyle Heights, Los Angeles, and the Lower East Side of New York City.

It would be unsurprising to imagine that the artists working within the Calzona landscape would, like the artists that came before them, sweep the issue of gentrification under the rug, and continue to monopolize a space that meant little to them. What is surprising, therefore, is that the young artists of the Calzona Collective have taken it upon themselves to educate and inspire through art – while simultaneously addressing the issue of gentrification and actively working to minimize its impacts on the landscape. Not only has founder Brett Stalbaum introduced and discussed the future of the Calzona Collective with the residents of Calzona, but artists are creating relevant, topical artworks that ensure the death of gentrification within the beloved desert landscape.

Calzona Collective member Isaac Fehr’s 2018 photomontage Calzona Coming Soon directly addresses the issue of gentrification by satirizing the ridiculous form of spacemaking that gentrification tends to support. The poster-sized photomontage depicts the beautiful Calzona landscape obscured by capitalistic, chain-style storefronts such as Jamba Juice and Starbucks. The only part of the town’s original space that can be seen peeks through the geometric supports of the passenger railroad. This aerial railroad travels in the space above what is essentially a strip mall to provide public transportation to the citizens of the gentrified town. The one structure that seems to stand out amongst the “new and improved” Calzona is an old-fashioned mailbox sitting on the street corner in front of the imaginary Jamba Juice; its out-of-date style seems seems out of place within the hustle and bustle of the new Calzona.

This photomontage is a striking critique of gentrification in that its mode of construction highlights just how ridiculous the physical process of gentrification is. The slightly awkward and out of place elements of the montage really impress on the viewer that something is not quite right. There are multiple lighting sources, for example, giving the entire scene a sense of the unreal. The flat, shadowed lighting of the building facade clashes with the brightly illuminated aerial tram. In addition, the lack of a consistent vanishing point creates a physical space that seems to defy logic: the strip mall vanishes to the left of the image, yet the right side of Jamba Juice turns a corner and also vanishes right (this would be more obvious if the montage continued outside of its current frame).

The seemingly misplaced mailbox also plays a key role in rendering the scene unrealistic, as it draws to the viewer’s mind images the Calzona as it should exist, and allows a comparison between the two disparate versions of the town. Overall, the effect of the montage’s construction allows the viewer to realize how the spaces of gentrification tend to overtake the existing cultural spaces of a landscape, and realize just how detrimental the process of gentrification can be to a culture and a people. The satirical representation of a busy strip mall in the middle of nowhere calls to mind thoughts akin to “Psh, that would never go there!” However, further critical thought would reveal that ways in which the processes of gentrification have already decimated other similar physical spaces, and call upon the audience to be aware of how it could happen to Calzona.

Calzona, California currently exists as a beautiful desert landscape overlooked and undervalued by the capitalistic standards of modern society. The land is dry, lacks irrigation from the nearby Colorado River, and there is little to no infrastructure set up for its population of two people and one dog. However, the attributes of the land that render it worthless to most of society are exactly what allows it to become full of possibility for artists and creative spacemakers. As members of the thriving Calzona Collective have demonstrated through various art pieces, the land’s lack of monetary value allows it to become a vehicle for artistic exploration. This, I think, is something more valuable than currency, as it allows both people and culture to flourish in a world that hopes to tie them down.

Full essay with citations.

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