The Orange County Great Park exhibited "Farmers to Flyers: Marine Corps Air Station El Toro and Mid-Century Orange County" through March 2013. It tells the story, in pictures, words, video and sculpture, of how the OC grew in a century and a half from vegetable fields and citrus orchards to a Marine air base, and ultimately to a bursting-at-the-seems megalopolis.
The exhibition's initial display documents in photographs and words the agrarian nature of Orange County of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Here are descriptions of the massive Irvine Ranch and of three members of the Irvine family who ran that successful empire. Also profiled is Japanese-American Roy Sakioka who settled and farmed in OC, was later interned at Manzanar Internment Camp, and then returned to his farm, eventually moving on to working as a successful real estate developer. Here are displays about the proliferation of citrus crops and their scenic fruit box logos, each a work of art itself.
Core of Farmers to Flyers
The core of the exhibition is the development of MCAS El Toro (carved out of land originally owned by the pioneer farmers). Along with the requisite accounts of military training and paraphernalia are portrayals of life on this base, as this city within a city was occupied by hundreds of thousands of marines and their families over decades. These depictions include visuals and stories about the schools, playgrounds, churches, dances, performances, sports teams, beach outings and shopping at the base "shopping mall" for military gear, pots and pans, women's and children's clothing and more. Particularly informative are panels about female Marines, handsome in their uniforms, working on aircraft and engaging in team sports. There are also written accounts by Marines from disparate parts of the country about the bucolic base, the perfect weather, the orange scented air and the nearby farmland.
This Orange County Great Park exhibit further explains that OC's massive expansion, starting in the 1960s and continuing to the present day, occurred partly due to many of the service people who resided at El Toro, who loved the area and eventually settled here. Adding to this human influence was the considerable amount of land developed into tract housing, business and shopping centers all over the county, and the construction of a major university and one famous amusement park. Here is a picture of President Johnson at a University of California, Irvine dedication in 1964; another of a family moving into the first Mission Viejo Company home in 1967; one of Disneyland being constructed in the 1950s; and a shot of OC native President Richard Nixon landing at El Toro Marine Base during the Viet Nam War. To this exhibition’s credit, a few panels are devoted to the emergence here of the ultra-right wing John Birch Society.
Final Exhibition DisplayThe final display is about the closing of MCAS El Toro in the 1990s, about its proposed changeover to an airport, the ensuing battle with residents about its fate, and the citizens’ vote to turn the base into a park in 2002. Implicit in this final display is that it is to OC’s credit that this Orange County Great Park is even being built — in a region that a decade ago seemed lost to the ravages of over-development. This pastoral area now features acres of indigenous trees and vegetation, sports fields and an arts complex, all surrounded by an extraordinary amount of undeveloped space, much of that space slated to become the park. And this is where this exhibition ends.
"Farmer to Flyers" is a splendid example of art addressing environmental opportunities. But it does not address the fact that in 2011, Governor Jerry Brown targeted redevelopment agencies to balance the budget, resulting in the Orange County Great Park taking a major financial hit.
Today, the future of the parkland with its proposed major environmental and cultural amenities is undecided.
A slightly different version of this article appeared in ArtScene magazine in December 2012.
(See The Legacy Project.)