I drove across Southern California to trace my family story. Here's what I found – San Francisco Chronicle

I drove across Southern California to trace my family story. Here's what I found – San Francisco Chronicle

I drove across Southern California to trace my family story. Here's what I found – San Francisco Chronicle

Baseline Street in San Bernardino runs along what federal surveyors in the 1850s set as the north-south meridian line and an east-west baseline of the state.
(This is the second of a two-part series.)
I had already been driving for two hours, as I retraced my mom’s holiday drives on surface streets, in the time before freeways, 80 miles across Southern California. And I was only halfway from Hawthorne, the city where she’d grown up near LAX, to Redlands, the San Bernardino County city where her family had lived.
Imperial Highway, my route for the first half of the journey, would get me no closer; the road, once extending all the way to Imperial County, now expires at the Anaheim-Orange border.
So, I turn north head through Brea Canyon on a dusty, traffic-crammed road paralleling the 57 freeway. Without a map, I’m in search of Baseline, where I’ll turn east.
It was once among the most important routes in all of California.
Indeed, Baseline is older than almost everything around it. In the 1850s, U.S. government surveyors, charged with establishing an “initial point” for Southern California surveys established a north-south meridian line and an east-west baseline to guide future surveys.
That baseline became Baseline, which today goes by various names — Base Line or Baseline, Baseline Avenue or Baseline Street, or, in Upland, 16th Street. Just as the 105 freeway shadows Imperial Highway, the 210 tracks the Baseline corridor it replaced over the past two generations.
The housing is newer here — my mom recalls the Baseline as a strip of development and services, running largely through groves and farms. But the buildings seem sun-bleached and in need of repair — a reminder that California’s housing stock is older than that of the Rust Belt states.
I head through Upland, with ranch houses and a few parks, and then into Rancho Cucamonga, which seems to have a dozen dentists along Baseline. “Why all the dentists?” I ask myself. Then I think: It’s all the doughnut shops!
In Rialto, Baseline becomes a divide. On the south are homes, protected by sound walls. On the north are warehouses, their “Now Hiring” signs getting big as I go deeper into the Inland Empire, now an American center for logistics.
Sidewalks are replaced by dust, and the landscape gets browner, except for the brilliant green colors of Eisenhower High School. I feel like I’m in the country — until I enter the city of San Bernardino.
To this point, the roads have been relatively smooth. But San Bernardino only emerged from municipal bankruptcy in 2017. Baseline here is full of ruts and potholes, and my Prius bounces up and down.
I’ve been driving for more than three hours, and I’m getting close to my destination. A few minutes east of San Bernardino, I reach East Highlands, where my great-grandmother and other relatives worked in the orange groves and packing houses after arriving from Oklahoma during the Dust Bowl.
The packing company provided a small, green house for the family to live in here in East Highlands; that’s where my mom was heading from Hawthorne six decades ago. That green house, in a line of houses once known as the Green Row, is long gone, but I find the spot, on a hillside in a planned community.
Baseline dead-ends at an orange grove, which provides a bit of agricultural respite, and beauty, between the development and a dry hillside crisscrossed with hiking trails. Many of the oranges lay unpicked, rotting on the ground.
My great aunt and uncle, Fern and Don, remain in Redlands, near the 800-square-foot house my grandparents saved up to buy that we would visit on those traffic-choked drives on the 10. I turn south, taking Orange Street through the Redlands downtown and up to the retirement community where Fern and Don now live.
More than eight hours have passed since I started. My total drive time, excluding stops, has been more than four hours. But the journey has felt even longer, with time moving in reverse as I retrace my mom’s family drives from six decades ago, and follow thoroughfares that date to the mid-19th and early 20th centuries.
After navigating the community’s COVID checks, I knock on my aunt and uncle’s door. I hug Fern, and spend a half-hour arguing good-naturedly with Don about what he’s watching on Fox News. But I am eager to get home, without delay.
In less than five minutes of driving, I’m on the 10, heading west toward L.A. This drive will take me only 90 minutes, because of some traffic around West Covina. The route is not particularly scenic. But as I drive home, I suddenly feel fresher and renewed — with new memories of Southern California surface streets and with my mother’s enduring gratitude for our freeways.
Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square.
Joe Mathews is Connecting California columnist and California editor at Zócalo Public Square, an Ideas Exchange that is a project of New America and Arizona State University.

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