When Los Angeles Times columnist Gustavo Arellano wrote in his recent headline, “O.C. let its history rot. And the Tustin hangar fire is still burning,” he pointed out how tragic it was that the condition of the hangar had reached this point of immolation.
It is still unclear as to who should have done something to prevent the fire from starting or who should have stopped it from burning completely. Someone thought it was better to let it burn than continue fighting the fire.
We might say the hangar was no Notre Dame—where the firefighters would never have thought to give up. Yet it was the shrine of our wartime culture, an amazing masterpiece of wood frame construction that exemplified our determination not to be dominated by fascism.
Was the Navy that still owned the hangar at fault for not maintaining it properly? Was it up to them to decide what beneficial use it could accommodate? The city of Tustin? The County of Orange?
Were any of the public officials in those agencies almost relieved to see it go up in flames—off the hook for deciding, for funding, for planning? Won’t have to vote in a public meeting to demolish it? No Environmental Impact Report/Statement. No public controversy, hardly any blame to be pinned on any of them. Now everyone’s concentrating on the details of clean up and how it will be managed.
And after all that’s accomplished and all those funds have been expended, we will have nothing left but the memories and the hangar’s twin still surviving. There will be an “Oh well” shrug of our whole region, and life goes on.
Will our public agencies step forward and not allow the area to languish? Will there be a lesson learned to ensure that the remaining hangar lives on and shelters activities that allow us to experience the wonder of the interior of that gigantic arched enclosure? Should there be a “Friends of the Lighter than Air Station Hangar” to push a preservation and re-use plan forward?
In Laguna, instead of an emergency grand inferno, we have a slow burn. Bit by bit, what we treasure about Laguna disappears without a puff of smoke. Not only are historic houses demolished, but the partial demolition and replacement of charming windows and antique siding in the name of “upgrading” removes the details that tell the story of old Laguna. The Digester building at the Village Entrance is still standing unrestored, gradually deteriorating. Mature trees taken down, views blocked by inconsiderately built accessory dwelling units—these are just some of what erodes the beauty and character we cherish.
As we enjoy Hospitality Night and the community spirit that comes with it, let’s resolve to band together to protect our town, make respectful decisions of our own, and support those organizations that work to prevent Laguna’s slow-burn version of the hangar tragedy—Village Laguna, Laguna Beach Historical Society, Laguna Beach Historic Preservation Coalition, Laguna Canyon Conservancy, Laguna Greenbelt.
These hard-working organizations that deeply appreciate our town keep putting out the fires that threaten Laguna’s character and push for “the same but better” so that the Laguna we love will be here tomorrow and beyond.
Ann is a landscape architect and was Laguna Beach’s mayor from 1993 to 1994. She is also a long-time board member of Village Laguna, Inc.