LANCASTER, CALIF. -- On one side of Lancaster Boulevard is utter desolation -- a sage and mesquite plain with only occasional flecks of trash to suggest any connection to civilization.
On the other side of this narrow road is a shiny, bustling Wal-Mart, part of a vast expanse of fresh asphalt and new restaurants, theaters and discount stores that seems to have landed inexplicably on the raw desert like a huge ship from outer space.
This is how California grows, not in a slow march of homes and shops outward from an urban core but in sudden invasions by backhoes and carpenters into remote wastelands, this old railroad stop in the arid Antelope Valley being a prime example.
Lancaster, 45 miles north of Los Angeles over the San Gabriel Mountains, had 48,027 residents 10 years ago. Last year, according to new Census Bureau data, it had 97,291. The neighboring city of Palmdale, the Antelope Valley's other instant metropolis, grew even faster -- from 12,277 to 68,842 over the decade.
To Glenn and Sara Brueckner, a couple in their twenties who moved here 13 months ago, there is nothing surprising in these statistics. Both grew up in Los Angeles's crowded San Fernando Valley suburbs, with schools in crisis and no decent home to be found for less than $200,000. They seized the chance to buy a three-bedroom house on three-fourths of an acre for only $100,000, even if it meant more than a one-hour commute back over the mountains to their jobs in Los Angeles.
"There is none of the crime and violence out here," Brueckner said as he carried his Wal-Mart purchases to his car. "We can have a home of our own, and the schools are supposed to be a lot better."
With the long commute, Brueckner, a laboratory technician, is gone from 2 a.m. to 3 p.m., and his wife, Sara, a telephone operator, is gone from 7:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. "We have almost no time together," he said. But the valley is good for their baby son, Justin, so they plan to stay, Sara said, "until it gets too crowded, and then we may have to go up into the mountains."
Lancaster Mayor William G. Pursley, 62, a real estate broker, remembered visiting the Lake Los Angeles housing development, where the Brueckners live, when it opened in the 1960s. It seemed to him a classic "suede-shoe operation," a euphemism for hucksters: A loudspeaker barked out "Attention all salesmen: Lots 29 and 31 have just been sold," and signs in the dry, dusty landscape announced "Future Service Station" and "Future Motel."
Now, 15,000 people live in Lake Los Angeles. "They've got a school and a lot of other things," Pursley said. "It's a real community."
Settlers began coming to the Antelope Valley after the Southern Pacific Railroad line between San Francisco and Los Angeles was completed in 1867. In 1898, gold was discovered in the hills north of Lancaster, and miners would ride the winds across Muroc Dry Lake on wagons fitted with sails.
Those winds and the flat, high ground attracted the Air Force and aircraft industry in the 1930s. Edwards Air Force Base and aerospace facilities were built. But the area still suffered several economic slumps until the Los Angeles population boom began to spill into the deserts to the north and northeast. The northeastern surge created overnight communities such as Moreno Valley and Cathedral City in Riverside County, and the northern surge came here, the farthest reach of Los Angeles County.
Many state officials initially scoffed at the valley's energetic boosters. A crusading local newspaper editor forced construction of Route 14 as a highway to Los Angeles, but road engineers predicted that few people would use it. Today, Pursley said, when he leaves home at 5 a.m. for Los Angeles International Airport, he finds it "stop-and-go traffic all the way." Highway engineers are returning to open a third lane in each direction.
Houses in new developments such as Rosamond still are selling briskly. Route 14, now called the Antelope Valley Freeway, is lined with signs promoting "Big Homes, Big Lots" and "Luxury Homes on Estate Sized Lots," as well as new malls and car dealerships.
Plans continue for a major regional airport in Palmdale. A new performing arts center is scheduled to open in Lancaster this year.
Pursley said he vividly remembers his poverty-stricken boyhood in a family of Missouri sharecroppers and does not want to interfere with economic growth. Land remains relatively cheap, an aqueduct from northern California provides water and some economists have said the valley, with a population of 280,000, could handle as many as 600,000 people.
But several residents, including Lancaster City Council member George Lee Root, are not so sure. Soil studies, Root said, indicate that the valley may be losing the rich underground aquifer that guarantees water even if the aqueduct shuts down.
Gangs and drugs are invading the valley, and housing costs are rising. Root, 60, an administrator for the Jet Propulsion Laboratory facility at Edwards, lives in a trailer and has fought for an ordinance to protect elderly mobile-home residents from painful rent increases. The trailers, he said, also be "the last real source of low-cost housing here."
Jerry Coffe, 27, a heavy-equipment operator, lives in a Lancaster trailer with his wife and three-month-old son. He said it was an improvement over his life back in the Canyon Country suburbs of Los Angeles. But Harry Gagen, who came here 30 years ago to work as an electrician in the aircraft industry, said he has tired of the crowds and increasing crime.
"We're thinking of moving to Washington state," he said.