Imagine a welcoming site in the middle of the desert, where you could relax and escape from the stresses of modern day life. Where you could enjoy a cultural and educational center that promoted peace and understanding. Where you could have solitude and be inspired by the natural beauty. And imagine that the language spoken there was Esperanto.
Map of Garden Grove’s location in California.
© User:Arkyan / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA-3.0
That was the dream of J. Tilman Williams when he created the non-profit organization known as Oazo de Esperanto. Jay, as he was affectionately known, was a businessman as well as a former Mayor and long-time City Councilman of Garden Grove, California. He was also a long-time advocate of Esperanto. He had purchased 120 acres in the Mojave Desert town of Hinkley, California, south of Barstow, many years before. He donated that acreage to the non-profit, but still needed funds to construct a building on the site. Thus began a many-year campaign to raise the money. Esperantists and friends of Esperanto made donations over the years and were glad to receive a brochure early in the new millennium showing the building going up. All the funds collected were to go toward construction costs, none to overhead. Perhaps this last part was the undoing of the dream.
The building, with a meeting room and kitchen, was completed and even used a few times. But most people found the location to be just a little bit too far from populated areas to be practical. Then, in February 2008, Jay died.
Close friends were determined to keep Jay’s dream alive. The Oazo Board of Directors at that time consisted of Nina Brazelton, Frank Hoffman, H. B. Corcoran, Wongill Kim, and Tom Summer. Nina was quite ill and unable to continue, and a meeting was called to elect a new Board of Directors. Long-time Esperantist (and friend of Jay) Brian Neil Burg was invited to that meeting and urged to volunteer to be a Board Member. (It should be noted that Board members and officers of Oazo de Esperanto are volunteers only; none have ever taken even a cent for the services they perform.) Brian agreed to get involved, and was added to the list of Board members. At a subsequent meeting, he was elected President. Roy Shlemon was the Treasurer, and H. B. Corcoran the Secretary. All legal matters concerning Oazo had been handled by Frank Hoffman from the beginning.
At first, the Board attempted to determine the status of Oazo and make a decision as to whether or not continuation of the project was feasible after Jay’s death; that is, whether or not Jay’s dream could be realized. Most of the Board members felt that the desert location was just too impractical. Only a few of them had ever been out to the site, and the distance and weather conditions made it difficult to manage.
Earlier there had been a caretaker living on the property, but that person had long since left. Frank Hoffman then explored the possibility of selling the property with a real estate agent, but she wrote back that the property had been heavily vandalized and she wasn’t really interested in pursuing sale of the land.
At first the Board Members thought that maybe the land could be sold, and then a new property could be purchased in a more desirable area where Jay’s dream might be implemented. Ultimately they decided to sell the land and donate the proceeds to Esperanto-USA, to be placed in a fund in Jay’s name to promote Esperanto.
That has been much easier said than done, however. The Board learned that the vandalism involved a door being kicked in, windows broken, and copper pipes torn out. They also came to realize that there was no insurance. (Remember the statement concerning overhead?) Because of the remoteness of Oazo, it was pointless to try to restore what little there was on the land. The decision was made to sell in an “as is” condition, but first attempts at a sale brought no offers. Meanwhile, property taxes had to be paid, and the limited monetary reserves were steadily dwindling.
The Board did not want all of Jay’s work to revert back to San Bernardino County. So the property is now back on the market with a new real estate agent and renewed hope. To add insult to injury, however, it only recently came to the Board’s attention that the property lies just outside the area where massive pollution by Pacific Gas and Electric led to the multi-million dollar lawsuit brought by Erin Brockovich in the 1970s. And a new lawsuit is apparently underway for alleged failure of PG&E to do the clean-up as ordered by the court. That has made the land less desirable and is forcing the listing price to be reduced.
The Oazo Board is still hopeful that someone will want a large chunk of land in the desert. As it turns out, adjacent land is also available for sale. So someone could, if they wanted, purchase approximately 240 contiguous acres in total – an area twice Oazo’s current size. The agent thought that opportunity might be a draw for potential buyers. In fact, she almost had a buyer – until he learned of the lawsuit against PG&E, effectively ending the transaction.
And that is the status of Oazo de Esperanto today. The property is listed for sale, but so far there have been no offers. Enough money remains in the bank to cover property taxes for a few years, but that is all. Maybe an enterprising reader of this article will turn out to be a prospective buyer. Only time will tell.