Darrell in the Desert: Desert Hot Springs residents proud
to call city home
Wouldn't trade their town for anything else
Desert Hot Springs
Did you know?
It's clear in places like Sidewinder Cafe, a low-lit diner set off Pierson Road and a stone's throw from Desert Hot Springs City Hall, the better to hear the latest on the city's political goings-on.
And in people like salon owner Regina Robinson-Scruggs and Eddie and Marie Campbell who love their town for what it is - and isn't - warts and all.
"Desert Hot Springs means love," Robinson-Scruggs said. "That's what it means to me, because I've had nothing but success here."
It's nothing fancy or puffed up, just a sense that people here love their town no matter what anyone else says.
"Desert Hot Springs is still like a small town. I wouldn't trade this for Orange County for nothing," Eddie Campbell said. "If I have to go past Riverside on the 91, I dread it."
"They don't think they're better than anyone else," Campbell, a 48-year-old SunBus employee said of Desert Hot Springs residents. "They're down-to-earth people trying to make a living."
It reads simply on the city's welcome signs: People, pride, progress.
In this town of 22,011 nearly 1,200 feet above the valley floor, the words mean a lot to people who call Desert Hot Springs home.
"The town's starting to look nice. Hopefully this will be a better city than it already is," Eddie Campbell said, then, "People always want to pick on Desert Hot Springs."
Places like the Sidewinder are Small Town, U.S.A. too, a place that he says, "feels like the right place to come," and that reflects the people who live here.
The walls here are covered with black-and-white photographs of the Desert Hot Springs of the past, the spas and the old downtown, the First Street Motel and the El Pueblo Market; another photo that shows some things don't change: a sign that reads "Invest in Desert Hot Springs real estate. Start a business in a growing community."
More are doing just that, judging from people like Jeff and Judy Bowman. They're taking rundown motels like the old Kismet Lodge, blocks off the main drag on Mountain View, and transforming them into examples of a revived desert chic; judging from the rooftops that are appearing on Pierson just up the road from the Sidewinder or across town on Hacienda Avenue.
And the ones who've already done it, surviving the city's darker days.
It's a busy morning at Just Gina's Hair and Nail Salon on Palm Drive, but the atmosphere is loose and fun.
Owner Regina Robinson-Scruggs is finishing a special birthday manicure and nail set for a customer and friend; three other women are under the dryers waiting their turn.
"The Young and the Restless" is on the TV and we talk about what's happened to Victor, whether the baby is Jack's or Nick's.
And we talk about Desert Hot Springs. It's been more than 20 years since Robinson-Scruggs moved up the hill from Palm Springs, just north of a dozen since she opened her salon on Palm Drive.
She moved to the city as a single parent, says it felt nice to raise her children in a small city and in a place where she felt she she belonged.
"It's always known as 'Desperate Hot Springs,' but it's never been desperate for me," Robinson-Scruggs said.
It's counter to popular beliefs about the city, the product of a legacy of bad decisions and a star-crossed history; a city that only a few years ago teetered on the brink of bankruptcy.
Robinson-Scruggs knew her way around the salon business, having worked for years before at a Cathedral City salon, but Robinson-Scruggs, a devout woman, still needed help.
"I asked God, 'Was this the right time? I feel like I'm ready to walk in the faith.'"
More than 12 years later, her question has been answered, taking it as a sign to give back, volunteering and donating her time to Palm Springs and Desert Hot Springs' black communities.
Last Thanksgiving, she and her mother, Susie Berry, turned the salon into a kitchen to feed the homeless.
"She's very community-minded. She believes in giving back," says friend Ora Roberts. "The community helped her become a beauty operator, so she feels she should give back to her community."
After all these years on Palm Drive, Robinson-Scruggs looks at her salon's name on the plate glass window with a sense of pride and gratitude.
"I'm not bragging, not boasting, just grateful," she said. "I'm just Gina."
The sign on the entrance says it all about the place:
"There is no place just like this place anywhere near this place so this must be the place."
Drive up the aptly named Desert View Avenue and you'll find the place, Cabot's Desert Museum.
The uniquely sprawling homestead of desert pioneer Cabot Yerxa, it's now a city-owned museum and cradle of the city that would become Desert Hot Springs.
"This is the history of the city," said the museum's curator Edna Wells. "(Yerxa) homesteaded here. He was the discoverer of the hot and cold springs. It's not only important to Desert Hot Springs but to the Coachella Valley. It preserves the history of the first homesteader out here."
On a clear day it's beautiful, Wells offers, almost an apology, but even through the desert haze, we can see why Yerxa picked the spot.
From here, the city and the valley floor stretch out below, Mount San Jacinto framing the horizon.
We think about what this view must've been like before the buildings and subdivisions.
"It's very peaceful. It's like taking a step back in time when it was slower, a little less hectic," Wells says.
On this day, the children have taken over. It's the Pueblo Plein Air Arts Academy, where local kids come to learn about art. The mainly elementary school age kids are hard at work and play with their creations: a construction paper bird, a colorful mask or a fish made of plaster.
Scott Burleigh, 8, proudly shows his paper bird, blue and pink and green.
"I made a mask last time," he says. It's a fun place for him, full of friends. Let's see, there's Aaron and Daniel. His brother and sister are here. His mom, too.
"Right there," he says, pointing to a nearby table.
Rogelio Cruz is a 9-year-old who goes to Julius Corsini Elementary School. A multicolored plaster of Paris fish is his pride and joy.
"What's it made of?" I ask.
"It's made out of colors," Cruz said. "I had to fuse purple, yellow, red and green just to make this," he continued. "It's pretty cool, really."
Rogelio is, too. He's a sharp kid, so the next question's an easy one.
"What do you want to be when you grow up?"
He answers without missing a beat.
A few hours later, we run into Rogelio again, one of the dozens who pack into the Boys & Girls Club on 8th Street on a hot July afternoon, swarming the game and drawing tables, playing pool or jockeying for time in the computer room.
For a quarter-century, the club has been a home away from home for Desert Hot Springs' youth, but the building that has seen so many young faces over the years is old and overcrowded.
Adam Sanchez has run the facility the past eight years and hopes for the day outlined in artists' renderings on his desk.
On the drawing board for several years, plans are for a new, much-larger Boys & Girls Club and swimming pool off Cholla Road between Pierson Boulevard and 4th Street and across from Desert Hot Springs that would share space with a new community center and city hall.
"Hopefully it's something we can move in two years," Sanchez said. "We've always been in crisis mode with the kids here."
He talks about a survey the club gave kids who use the facility.
"The number one thing kids want is a building with a gymnasium. There's not enough (basketball) courts in the community to practice or play games," Sanchez said. "They look at the high school and say 'Why can't we have our gym?'"
But you work with the Boys & Girls Club you have and the one on 8th Street is one of the busier ones around.
And that, Sanchez wouldn't have any other way.
"We really want these kids to succeed and we'll do anything we can to make sure they don't fail," he said.
It's more than idle talk. Sanchez was these kids once. He was raised in the San Joaquin Valley's Merced County by his sister and a mother widowed when his father died in a car wreck. The young Sanchez was just 7 years old.
He grew up, going on to earn a degree in recreation and nonprofit studies at Fresno State University, and today sees the club as a refuge for kids in difficult straits.
"For me, to come from a background where I can relate to these kids, mentally, physically, it fits who I am as a person," Sanchez said.
"I've lived their lives. I've been there. They want something to believe in. We're saying no matter what, we're going to work through it. They're going to be successful."
'Living Waters Spa'
It's still 100 degrees-plus in Desert Hot Springs, slightly cooler, but comfortable as I sink into the mineral water pool here at Living Waters Spa.
I meet my new friends - a couple from Australia, another from Northern California, a third from up the road by way of New Jersey and the spa's owners Jeff and Judy Bowman, all seeking the paradise the city's underground waters have promised here for years.
We talk about their vacations, the spa's waters and try to guess the flavor of the dip laid out with the late-afternoon snacks.
Oh, and we're naked.
Clothing-optional spas and resorts are big business in the Coachella Valley, here in spa-happy Desert Hot Springs and down the hill in Palm Springs with popular destinations like Desert Shadows, Terra Cotta and Morningside inns, each garnering national acclaim.
And it's been so for the Bowmans, whose dream three years ago has become a surprising success, a rundown motor lodge turned into a chic, mid-century inspired destination.
"We have been absolutely blown away. We're delivering what we promised," Jeff Bowman says poolside. "We're not the Hyatt - we don't want to be."
What they're delivering is what they've dubbed a "European style" spa experience, taking advantage of the city's abundant mineral waters, a red-hot revival of mid-century architecture and a new type of tourist seeking a different (read: clothes-free) vacation.
The couple - Jeff and Judy are massage therapists; Jeff is also an ordained minister - started with a ramshackle motor inn and a three-part plan to separate themselves from the Palm Springs resorts.
"We wanted to do something a little more holistic," Jeff explained. "We had three purposes: the hot water is awesome; we wanted to (incorporate) massage; and we wanted it to be clothing-optional.
"When we saw this property - it was nothing like you see now - I was able to say 'yeah.'"
Judy, however, wasn't as convinced.
But they took a chance, recruiting volunteers to help refurbish the place with promises of food and a night's stay at the inn once it opened.
The hard work paid off and the local business community took notice with the Desert Hot Springs Chamber of Commerce honoring the Bowmans as its businesspersons of the year last spring.
"It completely surprised us. It was a real honor," Jeff said. "Here's the naked couple coming to town and loving the town and it loving us back."