by Susan Straight
Photographs by Douglas McCulloh
Between the 60 and the 10
Is it a ghost town when haunting and beautiful stone buildings sit between two of the busiest freeways in California? Is it a ghost town if the rows of ancient houses are shrink-wrapped in white plastic so that they actually look like a blinded row of what used to be homes for the men and women who picked grapes and made them into wine, and packed the barrels onto railroad cars?
There was once a city here in Southern California, a lovely replica and reimagining of a village from the Piedmont area of Italy. It was the center of life for hundreds of families who came from the mountains of southern Italy to work for Secondo Guasti, who picked grapes and made them into wine and packed the barrels onto railroad cars. Secondo Guasti built an entire little world here, with a town named for himself. The surrounding land was planted in vineyards, grapes famous for sacramental wines, communion wines, and a world-famous dark red port. The Italian Vineyard Company was the largest vineyard in the world in 1917, with 5,000 acres of grapevines that produced 5 million gallons of wine a year, vintages that were sent all over the world.
Today, between the 60 Freeway, which connects Riverside and Los Angeles, and Interstate 10, which runs from the Pacific Ocean at Santa Monica to the Atlantic Ocean in Florida, you can see, just beyond the railroad tracks, a vast stone building with arched windows and the skeletal remains of a wooden roof. That was where the wine was put into barrels and stored. My father remembers being inside the dark, cool warehouse, smelling the grapes. Nearby, the workers’ homes are wrapped incongruously in shiny white plastic, even the chimneys, like some piece of modern art. Lemon trees full of bright yellow fruit stand here and there, sole survivors of what were once backyards.
My father taught me to drive on Guasti Road, amid the acres of vineyards that, back in the 1970s, still covered some of Rancho Cucamonga and Mira Loma.
In the kind of convergence that happens over and over in Southern California, Guasti Road heads through CentreLake, an industrial park of structures with white walls and blue glass that house for-profit colleges and businesses, the Guasti post office, an old brick schoolhouse, and across from there, one of the loveliest churches I’ve ever seen anywhere in the world: San Secondo d’Asti.
Secondo Guasti left Italy, went to Mexico, and arrived in Los Angeles in 1878. He had no education or money. In Los Angeles, he worked in a restaurant and eventually married the owner’s daughter. He saved enough money to start a small winery in LA, and he bought a small vineyard in Glendale. But according to legend, he visited the sandy Cucamonga Valley and thought there might be water under the dry land. He also found a single vine growing, which could have been a straggler from other grapevines, wild or even domestic—we know Tiburcio Tapia planted the first domestic grapes in 1838 on his rancho there in Cucamonga, and others grew grapes all around the region.
Stories say Guasti dug down twenty-four feet with a shovel and found water. Back in LA, he went to his fellow countrymen and sold shares for his Italian Vineyard Company. He bought eight square miles of desert land and planted a hundred varieties of grapes, and soon San Bernardino County had 20,000 acres of vineyards, more than present-day Sonoma and twice as many as Napa.
Guasti created a village based on work, family, and beautiful architecture—the values he’d brought from Italy. He built an inn, a school, firehouse, post office, hundreds of homes for workers, and his own narrow gauge railroad that ran twenty-two miles along the vineyards so that workers could send the harvest to the huge stone packing houses where barrels of wine were produced and stored.
Then in 1924, Guasti and his wife decided to build their own church, to replicate a seventeenth century church from Asti, his native village. He brought woodworkers and stonemasons from Mexico and Italy to work for two years. It feels as if those two countries are still alive in the stone courtyard lined with rock walls, in the garden where white statues and roses are vivid against the surreal backdrop of a huge electrical tower.
Inside, the sanctuary is cool and dark, as if worshippers are in mountainous Italy. The carved wooden beams hold wrought-iron chandeliers; copper reliefs decorate the brown plastered walls; and the stained-glass windows show the martyred St. Secundus, beheaded in Asti during Hadrian’s rule.
San Secondo d’Asti is as beautiful as any of the famous missions of California, surrounded by the ancient past and the glossy present, which obscure its history of debt and worry. Prohibition, drought, development, and water shortages led to Guasti’s haunting. Urban sprawl, history erased, housing tracts and warehouses are common in California now. But Guasti Wines still sells sacramental and altar wines all over the world, through Joseph Filippi Winery & Vineyards, still in Cucamonga, where it began in 1922. And Guasti remains a vision. No—no one could build a warehouse or a church like that now.
One afternoon, I took my father to San Secondo d’Asti. He remembers Guasti from the 1950s, when most of the Italian workers had been replaced by Mexican immigrants, who lived in small wooden houses throughout the area.
My father went with his brother-in-law, who sold televisions to the men who tended the vineyards.
Later, I went to the post office for stamps. The sign reads “Historic Guasti,” but it’s really not; the original post office is a shuttered building of yellow and red brick, near the empty schoolhouse. A long line of people waited, including several elderly men and women—black, white, and Mexican American—who have been using this post office since the 1940s. A notice on the wall identified it as one on the list for closure, but on 15 May 2012, there was a reprieve.
The actual population of Guasti is one. One man. Father Louis Marx, who has lived here since 1997, in the church. He is mayor, fire captain, and priest. At night, I wonder what he hears, there between the freeways, between the electrical towers and CentreLake development, and the white-shrouded history of a dream that could be revived and made beautiful again, if someone, a new Secondo Guasti, fell in love.