I’ve been thinking about sleaze and corruption lately. It’s hard not to. Out here in windy, sun-baked Victorville, underhanded swindles are about as common a sight as the tumbleweeds blowing around the Mojave Desert.
The biggest scam now is the revelation that the city of Victorville is probably going to end up paying $9 million to Goldman Sachs, and as much as $175 million to GE, after reneging on a crappily planned power plant project pushed on it by a huckster real estate development/energy company called Inland Group. This “friend” of the city spent half a million paying its staff, and another quarter mil to various people, for “legal services” on a project everyone knew was not going to happen. Now Victorville owes two big scary companies (both of which were bailed out by the government) more than its annual budget. Despite this, Inland Group is still here, advising Victorville on a few more projects, and all the local politicians love it. Campaign funds are getting harder to come by these days, after all. Now Inland Group is involved in plans to build a private train—called DesertXpress—connecting one stagnating nowhere to another: Las Vegas to Victorville.
In other news… in the nearby city of Spring Valley Lake, the richest part of the Victor Valley, a city board member stole an undisclosed—but large—amount of cash. And Victorville’s city council members have been getting questioned by a Grand Jury over potential conflicts of interest and shady bookkeeping practices that led to hundreds of millions of dollars worth of debt owed to just about everyone in California.
But there’s a different, more Eisenhower-era type of conspiratorial sleaze blooming in the desert, too. This sleaze is all about grease, as in fast food.
By my low-ball count, there are a minimum of 35 restaurants representing America’s biggest fast food chains here. Jack in the Box has five. McDonald’s has six. Burger King has four. Del Taco has six. Taco Bell has four. KFC has three. Carl’s Jr. has five. And Wendy’s has two. Might not sound like much, but for a city like Victorville, which has 104,00 people occupying an area of 72 square miles, it is.
Doing the math, I come up with 0.6 fast food restaurants for every square mile, or at least 1 fast food joint per 1.7 square miles. Breaking it down by population shows that every single fast food location services just under three thousand people (3,000 people/fast food)… And, like I said, my estimate is lowball to the extreme, and does not take into account good fast food joints like In-n-Out (there are two), and non-traditional/non-American franchises like Panda Express (of which there are at least two) and a whole lot of lesser-known joints like Sonic Burgers. Adding those up would easily get us closer to one fast food location per square mile, a statistic more in tune with the sheer number of fast food places I see occupying every major intersection around town.
But these numbers won’t say much without a comparative analysis. How does VV’s fast food density compare to other cities? For instance, Los Angeles? Let’s do the math:
LA has a population of about 3.9 million. According to McDonald’s website, there are 58 locations within the city of LA. Here’s the calculation:
3,900,000 people / 58 McD = 67, 241.48 people per McD
58 McD / 3,900,000 people = 0.0000148 McD per person
Here’s the equation for Victorville:
104,000 people / 6 McD = 17,333.33 people per McD
6 McD / 104,000 people = 0.0000577 McD per person
The data clearly shows a 1 to 4 ratio. Yep, Victorville’s per capita McDonald’s density is nearly quadruple that of Los Angeles.
So what does all this have to do with scams? Well, it has to do with McDonald’s pioneering business strategy.
“We are not basically in the food business. We are in the real estate business. The only reason we sell fifteen cent hamburgers is because they are the greatest producer of revenue from which our tenants can pay us our rent.”
—Harry J. Sonneborn, a McDonald’s executive
You heard him right. McDonald’s is a real estate company. Because of Sonneborn, McDonald’s made a decision early on to buy, not rent, all of the properties its franchises sat on. From then on, they didn’t just franchise their food and logo, they also franchised their real estate by charging exorbitant rent on their restaurants. According to some estimates, McDonald’s makes nearly 90% of its economic earnings off its real estate.
Driving around the cul-de-sac mazes of Victorville, I can’t help but wonder if suburb commuter cities like this one are another creative way for fast food monsters to get people to buy even more burgers so they can charge rent. Is Victorville just a cash farm to feed McDonald’s’ executives and shareholders?
Think about it. Companies like McDonald’s have all the incentives to create a society of commuters; they couldn’t ask for a better setup than Victorville. It’s a city crammed with suckers who spend their mornings and evenings glued to their car seats, listening to Jesus and Rush on the radio. A good chunk of them spend four hours each day commuting to and from work. That’s 20 hours a week, almost one full day! That does not leave them much time to hang out at home and prepare their meals. So for kids and parents alike, it’s off to Mickey-Dee’s or Jack in the Crack every morning and evening.
In a way, Victorville is like a Happy Meal experience for adults. Instead of a Ronald McDonald playpen and bright toys, Victorville residents were lured in with big flashy houses and the glorious myth of homeownership. Life in beefy homes was going to be fun and rewarding, but it was only available with constant purchases of beef burgers, fries and supersize colas. People came here for the starter homes and stayed for the fat.
And let me tell you, obesity is outta control in Victorville. You can see the morbidly overweight everywhere you turn. Even the strip club here, Roxy, the only strip club in town, is not immune. Its dancers look like Eric Cartmen in fishnet stockings; every girl in there could lose 50 lbs. and still be considered overweight.
Victorville’s pointless maze of cul-de-sacs and curvy streets lined with identical homes even looks like it belongs in a fast food joint, their disposable prefab and imitation Martha Stewart-inspired fake luxury is the architecture of a fast food society. The houses with two floors are the Big Macs; the single-story homes just plain ol’ hamburgers.
Fast food corporations pushing a drive-thru culture with drive-thru cities in order to sell drive-thru cuisine–the notion isn’t as out there as it seems. Car manufacturers and oil companies pushed hard to create an America that was good for their bottom line. They worked behind the scenes to take out all and any competition to the personal automobile and the combustible engine, killing trams and cable cars in cities while lobbying for federal funds for highway construction.
Fact is, automobile and fast food industries have a lot in common: they both owe their success to highways, plenty of taxpayer subsidies, and suburban land developments. But unlike cars, the fast food industry seems to thrive in harsh economic environments.
A look at the price of McDonald’s stock shows that while the rest of the finacial market goes into a tailspin, it steadily inches skyward. In the past three years, McDonald’s stock has posted a 100% growth, while most of the stock market indexes dipped into the red. Yep, McDonald’s thrives on misery and poverty. And that means it thrives in Victorville.
Within walking distance of my house, a coffee shop/bakery recently closed down, and a strip mall down the street is empty except for a liquor store. Businesses are closing shop for good all over the city, but the fast food joints are expanding. On top of the Jack in the Box, McDonald’s and Carl’s Jr. restaurants located within a mile radius from me, a Panda Express with a drive-thru window has just opened up. They are taking over.
The other day, I was driving back from Roberto’s, the kick-ass 24-hour drive-through Mexican joint I haunt about five times a week, and passed a Jack in the Box that’s around the corner. It was just past midnight. The Jack in the Box’s drive-thru had about ten cars lining up to order, while the Mexican restaurant had none. A delicious vegetarian burrito, bulging with rice, beans, avocado, cheese, and all sorts of crunchy vegetables, was resting on the passenger seat next to me. And it only cost $3.00, as cheap as anything comparable Jack in the Box had to offer. Yet, these idiots were shunning it. In this kind of economy, Roberto’s was hanging on by a thread. It needed all the business it could get…
Maybe these people deserve whatever stroke or type II diabetes is coming their way. Or maybe their warped taste buds should be pitied. I don’t know. But what I do know is this: the day Roberto’s gets put out of business by Taco Bell is the day I abandon everything I can’t carry and get the hell out of here as fast as I can, muttering the wise and oft-repeated words of Mr. Kurtz: “The horror. The horror. Exterminate all the brutes!”
Would you like to know more? Check out the rest of Yasha Levine’s Victorville adventures…
This article first appeared on Vice’s blog
Yasha Levine is a McMansion inhabitin’ editor of The eXiled. He is currently stationed in Victorville, CA. You can reach him at levine [at] exiledonline.com.
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