Is California the Center of the World?

Joe Mathews
Connecting California Columnist and Editor, Zócalo Public Square, Fellow at the Center for Social Cohesion at Arizona State University and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (UC Press, 2010)

The Center of the World is in California. But California isn’t the center of the world.

This paradox explains how California became so central to the culture and economy of Planet Earth. Since our state is in the middle of nowhere, on the dry edge of a lightly populated continent, Californians have always had to work harder to connect ourselves to other parts of the world.  

I found myself pondering this while visiting the Center of the World, which is in California’s southeast corner, in the desert west of Yuma, Arizona.

The Center of the World is an official designation, bestowed on the tiny town of Felicity, California, by authorities from the French government to the Imperial County Board of Supervisors. The Center of the World is also an invention of Jacques-André Istel and his wife Felicia Lee, for whom Felicity is named.

Jacques-André is a French-born U.S. Marine who became a seminal figure in parachuting (the “father of American skydiving”). Parachutists like out-of-the-way places where there are few neighbors to complain about low-flying planes. Some decades ago, Jacques-André acquired this patch of desert land. In 1985, Jacques-André authored a children’s book about a good dragon at the world’s center. By the following year, the town had been formed, with Jacques-André elected mayor by a 3-0 vote. (Don’t tell voter-fraud conspiracy-mongers, but the third vote was cast by the fictional dragon). 

Over the years, the couple has built Felicity into a settlement that is part shrine, part art piece, and part museum. They started with a pink pyramid that is the world’s exact center. They’ve added a post office, a church, a sundial, and an entry sculpture consisting of a staircase from the Eiffel Tower. 

But the soul of the project is a Museum of History in Granite, which consists of a growing number of stone monuments, arranged in the pattern of a compass rose, that detail human history, including histories of California, the U.S., and French aviation. The histories are concise, learned, and whimsical. In a description of literature, Groucho Marx is quoted: “Outside of a dog, a book is a man’s best friend. Inside of a dog, it’s too dark to read.”

Visitors pay $3 for admission.

That all might sound kitschy, but this is not a tourist trap. It’s a dry, hot, and quiet place that invites head-scratching—and also deeper contemplation about the past and future of humanity.

At the Center of the World, my own thoughts were about California.

We Californians think of ourselves as being at the center of all great human enterprises—from technology, to culture, to space exploration. But in reality, we are faraway from the centers of population and power.

The world’s largest ocean separates us from the 4.5 billion people who live in Asia. Most of North America and yet another ocean keep us from Europe and Africa. The vast continental U.S. and imposing mountain ranges, protect us from our nation’s centers of political and financial power. 

We are closer to Mexico City than we are to Washington D.C, making us a rare place. Other people on earth who reside this far from their national capitals inhabit famously remote places like Siberia, China’s western deserts, and the Amazon. 

One way to look at California history is as an endless campaign to bridge distances created by our unfavorable geography. We are always manufacturing moments and opportunities—the Gold Rush, the oil boom, Hollywood, Silicon Valley—to convince people to make the excruciatingly long journey here. These new California arrivals then create innovations that obliterate the distances between humans. 

Standing in the desert, the idea that Imperial County was the center of anything seemed like a stretch. But then I reconsidered. Is the Center of The World any more contrived than the notion that you could create a capital of moving pictures in a town that lacks water? Or that dingy suburban garages on the San Francisco peninsula would become world-changing technology laboratories? 

It takes fantastical visions to get people to cross borders, especially those policed by hostile guards. At the Center of the World, the only other people I encountered were Border Patrol agents, just a few more obstacles for California’s project of luring ambitious people from elsewhere.

Of course, it’s scientific fact that any point on the earth surface’s might be considered its center, since we live on a near-perfect sphere. The genius of the Center of the World is that it manages to both deny that fact and to ratify it, by its very existence.

We Californians are people who understand that it doesn’t much matter whether you really stand at the center of the world. All that matters is whether you can convince the rest of the world that you do. 

Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square. 

Comment on this article


Please note, statements and opinions expressed on the Fox&Hounds Blog are solely those of their respective authors and may not represent the views of Fox&Hounds Daily or its employees thereof. Fox&Hounds Daily is not responsible for the accuracy of any of the information supplied by the site's bloggers.