Earth to Palmdale

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)

Hello, Palmdale. Planet Earth calling. You ever coming back here?

You, a struggling working-class exurb of 160,000, may be located in the Antelope Valley, in north L.A. County’s. But your civic head lives in outer space.

Is it your hot desert air, your elevation (2,657 feet), or all your psychedelically orange poppies? I don’t know, but you are always madly charging toward some grandiose goal line—building an “intercontinental airport,” becoming a high-speed-rail hub, or commanding space warfare—but never quite reaching kicking the football. You’re the Charlie Brown of California cities.

Your latest face-plant speaks volume about the combination of space-age nostalgia and futuristic myopia that afflict you.

You just spent 18 months telling the world that you should be the new, permanent headquarters of the U.S. Space Command—which handles the space operations of all military branches, including the newly formed Space Force. You pursued Space Command even though momentum for a new headquarters, came from President Trump, who hates California, and even though you weren’t on the initial list of top prospects.

This did not deter you, because you think your generations-old aerospace history—the SR-71 Blackbird, Edwards tests pilots, building space shuttles, your still active Plant 42 classified manufacturing facility—will define your future. You don’t seem to recognize that California long ago lost its dominance of aerospace, or that the future of warfare is in cyberspace, not aerospace.

It shouldn’t have been a surprise when you weren’t among the six finalists just announced in this Space Command beauty pageant. If a California site were chosen for Space Command, Vandenberg Air Force Base, in Santa Barbara County, would make more sense. But no California facility made the list; Space Command’s interim headquarters in Colorado is a near lock to be the permanent site.

But none of that has stopped Palmdale from promoting itself for Space Command. After all, it gives real estate interests the chance to juice speculation in Antelope Valley land and homes from Rosamond to Ridgecrest. 

Palmdale might look down from starry skies and do more for its own people, who face all the costs of California life, with few of the benefits. Poverty rates are above statewide averages, and just 15 percent of adults have bachelor’s degrees. 

Palmdale’s civic leaders have often been distracted by a bitter feud—fueled by economic development competition over retailers and car dealerships—with neighboring Lancaster. Palmdale’s aerospace obsession also produced a scandal: longtime mayor Jim Ledford faces charges for accepting secret payments from the AERO Institute, a nonprofit that contracted with the city to produce more aerospace workers. 

Space is hardly the only windmill at which Palmdale has tilted. For a half-century, L.A. strung the Antelope Valley along with the promise of  build a great new international airport in the high desert. And Palmdale has been waiting in vain for two decades for California’s High-Speed Rail Authority to bring its trains to the city. 

This devotion to big projects is rooted in an illogic: that the desert is full of space to do something big. But the Antelope Valley now has nearly 500,000 residents—more than Sacramento. These people, not square acreage, are the region’s greatest assets.

Rather than seeking command over space, Palmdale and the Antelope Valley should  invest in its people instead. Why not experiment with universal basic income, like in Stockton, or put more into job training, integrating ex-cons into the workforce, or boosting healthcare jobs and institutions? The region also needs to improve the dangerous, outdated highways—14 and 138—that connect it with Southern California

And if the Antelope Valley is going to lobby for outside help, its focus should be on higher education. The region needs more than a small satellite of CSU Bakersfield; it would be an ideal place to establish a third Cal Poly campus, which could help produce the more educated and technically skilled workforce that the region is lacking.  

One irony of the contest for Space Command is that the military, in assessing potential homes, was looking for far more than proximity to an air force base or aerospace companies. It prioritized areas where Palmdale does not rank high: the quality of local schools, an affordable cost of housing and living, and plentiful jobs for military spouses.  

It’s a Shakespearean irony that ought to echo around the high desert: The fastest way to the future lies not in our stars, but in ourselves.


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

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