There’s a road named “Private Road” in my home region of Ubo which, appropriately, I never noticed much or at all until I came back to live there for four months in the fall of 2012. I was in a sleuthing and investigating mode then, à la Nancy Drew. A secret lake, a lost Indian spring, the provenance of my brother’s illness, mysterious culverts that crisscrossed the two cities of Ubo: all of these things pre-occupied me with their unknown origins. And when I thought I could neither discover nor query anything else, I found a street entitled “Private Road”. How stupid, I thought irritably. Who names a road “Private”?
A real estate developer, working in the frontier of early suburban development in Orange County, that’s who. It’s likely that it was this kind of guy (it was probably was a guy) who looked over the bluffs of the neighboring estuary and saw a view, which was, and is, a prized feature. The view was public and thus un-monetized, a situation that could not stand. It was transformed into a private view, on a private street, something rare and exclusive. (How do you make money from the intangibles of space? Ask any Newport Beach land developer. They’ll tell you.)
The name worked like a charm. I had never noticed the road. Had I noticed, I would have obeyed its finger-wagging admonition to Stay The Hell Out. Private Road stayed off my radar of the many locales, destinations, spaces and sites that, when assembled, created the geographical and social space I called home.
Private Road is on a grade, and curves up from Irvine Avenue, a long street that starts in the uplands and ends at the western bluffs of Ubo. Standing at the bottom of Private Road, you’re forced to look up, an aspirational gaze which symbolizes the effort it would take to purchase a house there. The view is tantalizing. The street ends in the sky, making it look mythic: heaven-bound and unapproachable for those of us with no money.
Private Road is in a wealthy neighborhood, like most neighborhoods in Ubo. The median house prices are stratospheric and the spatial dimensions of the houses are similarly unbound: they’re large and getting larger. The pseudo-Eichler houses built after the Second World War with their modest square footages are being ripped down as their original owners die and the property is sold. Bigger house with more square footage and ersatz French Chateau-like exteriors are replacing them.
This is an old complaint and not a very interesting one: I came home and everything was different, cries the adult, who left while they were young, and so inadvertently imprisoned the place they left in an inflexible memory.
I don’t know, exactly, how a road that was built and maintained with state and county money could be considered legally private. It’s protected from my memory by the simple expedient of naming it “Private”. Perhaps this name-as-inoculation was the most important magic to be worked. I, like many others, had knowledge of other spaces, some of them very different, like Santa Ana, for instance. It has small pink and blue houses with many people living in them and chickens in the front yard.
I lived on Croftdon Street as a small child. When I was 7, my parent’s friends brought their children with them on a visit, thinking we would get along nicely and play well together. Sadly, their children were total assholes. There was a South East Asian family across the street, and a Mexican family living next to us, and a Japanese family further down. This unsettled them. “What does it feel like to live in a ghetto?” one of them asked us sneeringly.
The developer of Private Road would never have asked this question because he wanted never to know. His query was more complex, his concern different: how could any space in Newport Beach— well on its way to attaining the sort of agonized and self-conscious air of exclusivity it has today— co-exist both in my consciousness and the consciousness of the well-heeled Newport Beach homeowner, given that I played with Raj, the brown-eyed boy whose mother was from Ireland and whose father was from Gujarat? The road was less than half a mile from the Costa Mesa City limits! Borders needed to be set. Privacy accomplished this.
The gap in my memory is a deliberate and purposive act of segregation, frustrating not only my physical presence, but preventing me from making a commons in my memory, an association of Private Road as a part of the place I lived, with the images of Raj or Mr. Leon, an elderly Mexican man who lived next door to us on Croftdon.
Today there is a white, slightly rusted sign affixed to the neatly trimmed hedge that marks the entrance to the road. I want to be alone, the sign seems to sigh in an exhalation of weary ennui. The streets that border Private Road don’t have this attitude. They’re friendly tree-lined streets that I traversed as a child, going here and there between the beach, or the dentist on Balboa Island, or my grandparent’s house on Aliso, or our bookstore on 17th street. Santiago Drive, 23rd Street and Tustin Avenue: I know them and love them all, especially Tustin where, in the dusky evenings of the nineteen-forties cars would speed recklessly and sometimes crash into the swamp at the end of the street.
Anyone with a computer can look at Private Road now. Go ahead. Type in the words “Private Road, Newport Beach, CA” into the Google search field, select the little Google manikin and drop it squarely on the entrance to Private Road. See the cunning little red bridge next to the private pagoda? It’s adorable— a wonderful example of the Orientalist decorating craze so common in Newport Beach back in the fifties. Please notice the stand of bamboo just to the right. Click some more and proceed. At 2317 Private Road, two women stand chatting in the driveway, having what could have been a private conversation, were it not for the omniscient gaze of a Google camera.
Hey! Yeah, we just thought we’d drop in! Where’s your icebox? Where’s the punch?
Moving on, you can see the house next to them, with its cute rose-bedecked bower and small grove of aspen trees. Swing around sharply to your left and look at the kidney-shaped pool. Legions of happy, sun-tanned Newport Beach children grew up in this pool, safely shielded from the public gaze which would surely have burnt their tender skin with all that avid public curiosity.
Have the inhabitants of Private Road given up the battle to maintain their privacy? The space opposite them, the Upper Newport Bay, isn’t private. Through the efforts of Frank and Francis Robinson, the bay was rescued from the same obliterating vision of private development, and was instead restored and opened up to public access. Not so for the historic site called “Cherry Lake”. What used to be a spring — a democratic place, surely— that provided fresh water for the Tongva, the Native American tribe who had been in residence since they sprang into being as a people, is now a private lake.
What were the inhabitants of Private Road rejecting? What did they think was being kept at bay? What did they want to keep hidden, shielded from scrutiny? Was Precious getting bombed?
The other day, as my mother and I were out, I told her I had something new to show her, in a familiar neighborhood she once lived in as a young mother. I turned down Irvine and made a left, heading up the road and into the secret cul-de-sac. My mother gaped at the pagoda.
“My god,” she said. “I never knew this was here!”
“You weren’t meant to, “ I replied. “It’s private.”