Utopia Modern: Palm Springs in the American Imaginary
Sitting at the foot of the majestic San Jacinto mountain, one of the highest peaks in Southern California, Palm Springs and adjacent Coachella Valley townships have brought together, perhaps more than any other small-size township in the United States, an extraordinarily broad range of constituencies. The indigenous Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians have inhabited the valley for centuries and continue to be an important presence. Anglos began settling in Palm Springs in the 1880s, marginalizing the tribe on its own land, and soon the warm and dry climate identified the site as ideal for the treatment of consumption. Proto-hippies, some coming out of the Wandervogel movement in Germany, also moved in, bringing a different approach to health utopia. Soon, the railway brought other newcomers, particularly those associated with the Hollywood entertainment industry. The “culture of leisure” that backgrounded these early visitors’ quests was the first manifestation of the utopia that brought many subsequent waves of newcomers, a utopia that inevitably rubs shoulders with dystopia. Subsequent waves of newcomers or visitors have included college party-seekers in the 1960s; people living with HIV in the 1980s; gay men and lesbians in search of hedonism; straight and gay retirees from all over North America; snowbirds from Canada; New-Agers fascinated by the special nature of the surroundings; architecture buffs renovating the city’s signature mid-century modern homes in exacting detail; workers employed by the Indian Tribe’s mega-casinos; Latino/a workers who build homes and clean rich people’s houses, pools, and yards under the unforgiving sun; Hasidic Jews; and the homeless.
This project seeks to understand how these various groups come to inhabit Palm Springs. In contrast to the voluminous literature on Palm Springs, this project stays away from the glamour of the city’s past, which today figures centrally in its branding, to focus instead on the daily lives of residents and their struggles to live alongside one another despite differences in social class, ethnicity, sexuality, and political affiliation, whether in the hotels and shops busy with weekenders, in gated communities, or in homeless encampments. A particular focus is on how different groups interact with the ecological infrastructure of the valley, such as the water supply and the climatic conditions, as well as the built environment. The method is ethnographic, consisting of participant observation, interviews, and document analysis.
I began this project in 2009 but had to put it aside in 2011 because of other commitments (the GLOBALSPORT project in particular) and returned to it in 2019–20. In 2020, however, the Covid-19 pandemic seriously affected Palm Springs, where about a quarter of the labor market is involved in the hospitality industry. What consequences the pandemic will have for the near and distant future remains to be investigated when and if I am able to resume field research.