Sailing Across the Ocean to Catalina Island

Out of all the field method trips my class took last year, none was more anticipated than the three day stay at Catalina Island.  This island is a popular tourist destination with buffalo, deer, hiking, beautiful water, sailing, scuba diving, and other mostly water-related activities.  As geography students though, our main goal was to observe people in cafe settings.  Yeah, not as exciting, but we did get to see some interesting places while we were there.  Plus it is a perfect place for photography.

While I was also excited about the trip, I was dreading having to take a boat to get there.  I do not like boats, mainly because I get seasick to the extreme.  So for a couple of hours I had to endure the tossing, bobbing and fear of death as we sailed the 20-something miles to Catalina, which took about 2-3 hours.  Far too long for me.  Luckily the motion sickness medicine held out and I arrived without vomiting.  Always a good thing.

Before we go further, here is some background history on Catalina Island.  According to the Catalina Chamber of Commerce, the island has been inhabited for at least 8,000 years.  The Native Americans there called the island Pimu and themselves Pimungans.  The Spanish visited the island in 1542 and later in 1602.  The 1602 visit included the explorer Sebastian Viscaino, who renamed the island Santa Catalina in honor of Saint Catherine. Other explorations of the island included people hunting otters, smugglers and military, ranching and mining operations.  In 1846, the island was deemed a Mexican land grant and given to Thomas Robbins by the Mexican Governor Pio Pico.

The island’s reputation as a tourist destination was created by William Wrigley, Jr. (yes, the chewing gum owner).  He also used the island as a training area for the Chicago Cubs from the 1930s to the 50s (he owned them).  In the 1970s, Wrigley deeded 88% of the island to the Catalina Island Conservancy, leaving the majority of it undeveloped (and looking beautiful as my many photos can attest to).

Even more interesting is how the island was used for filming by Hollywood back in the early 20th century.  Remember the buffalo I mentioned earlier?  Well they were brought over in the 1920s by a film crew and then just left there after the filming was over.  Originally there were 14 but now there are about 150.  According to my professor Paul Laris, there are strict population control measures in place to make sure there are not more buffalo there than the land can handle, which was the case before the measures were in place.  I even got to see some of the buffalo while I was there though you have to be careful and keep your distance or they will feel threatened and attack you.  Not good.

So back to my journey.  The main city on the island is Avalon, but since my class was there for education purposes, we landed and stayed on the other side of the island at the USC Wrigley Institute for Environmental Studies.  They have lots of equipment for studying marine life as well as other aspects of the island.  My class stayed in these dorm-like buildings (though they have nicer apartments for non-students).  After we got settled in Professor Laris took us on a short hike around the area just examining the landscape.

Later we hopped into the WORLD’S DUSTIEST VANS, which caused me to choke and gag the whole way there, nearly vomiting several times because my lungs could not handle the dirt.  I almost had to quit and tell them to let me out.  If you have sensitive lungs or suffer from breathing problems then do not go there and ride those vans.  Just stick to Avalon, which is somewhat less dusty.

Because the island is all hill and mountain, driving there is long, slow and constantly curving.  The beauty of the landscape is amazing though and I enjoyed Laris’ extended tour of the island as he showed us places that had been fenced in for research purposes (keeping the buffalo out).  We also stopped at the tiny town by the Wrigley Institute for supplies (aka snacks).

The next day was our big research day.  We all got into those horrible vans and drove the several hours to Avalon.  At the halfway point, we stopped at the Airport in the Sky, the island’s only airport and it is only for small planes.  This spot sat at the top of a hill and offered panoramic views of the island.  I felt like I was practically in the sky and I got one of my best photos there too.  They also had a few special small planes on display.

Once there we split into groups and went off to complete our research, which you can read about where it says “Introduction”.  Basically we were transitioning from doing physical geography to human geography and so we set out to observe the people and activities going on at different cafes there.  Avalon has many cafes for such a small town, so it was interesting to see how they all coexisted and thrived in such a small space.

After we completed our research, we could do as we pleased for the rest of the day, so my group decided to rent a golf cart and ride around the city.  Yes, I said golf cart.  In fact, everyone in Avalon has a golf cart as their main means of transportation because the city is so small.  Just imagine homes with all kinds of decked out golf carts sitting in front of them instead of cars.  And that is Avalon.  Cars are only rarely allowed with permission within the city.

After renting our golf cart, we drove up to the Wrigley Memorial Garden, a botanical garden featuring unique cacti, succulents and endemic plants from around the world as well as the California islands.  Some of them are only found on Catalina Island.  At the end of the garden is the actual Wrigley Memorial, a tall structure, which was very beautiful.  I loved taking photos of it.  The view from the top was amazing as well, looking out over all of Avalon.

After that we missed the deadline to return our golf cart so we continued driving around Avalon finding photo perfect spots and enjoying the Art Deco architecture of the Catalina Casino (not an actual casino).  The building houses a movie theater, ballroom and island art/history museum.  We also came across some very cute baby deer and an overprotective mother deer.  Plus a very serious looking tour bus style golf cart/almost looks like mini jeep.

The drive back was much the same, saw more buffalo that almost started fighting and took beautiful photos of the setting sun, while in a moving van covered in dust so I think I did pretty damn well.  Once back we just rested and hung out but then disaster struck.  Literally. Me. In. The. Head.

Basically a towel rack fell and hit me in the head when I pulled my clothes off of it.  Blood was gushing from my head in a way I had never experienced before.  I thought I was going to die or have to be airlifted to a hospital.  I went running from room to room looking for someone to help me and finally found a fellow student who calmed me down and bandaged my head.  He then took me to the professor who examined my cut and said I would be ok; I just had to wait and see if I had a concussion.  Great.  I wasn’t going to die, but I might have a concussion.  And this is when I finally threw up.  In front of the whole class and my professor.  Nobody ruins class trips like me.

So after that fine display, I carefully made it back to my room with the help of the same student and sat in my bed willing my cut to stop bleeding.  The student checked up on me every few hours to make sure I wasn’t showing any signs of a concussion.  I eventually did go to sleep and my roommate made sure I was just sleeping and hadn’t lost consciousness or anything like that.

The next day because of my injury, which had mostly stopped bleeding by then, I was able to leave early with the other professor and a few students rather than stay and wait for the evening boat as everyone else was doing.  The ride back was a thousand times better because we took the Catalina Express, which is a much larger vessel that makes the trip in one hour rather than the 2-3 hours we had in the small Wrigley Institute vessel.  Because it was larger, there was far less tossing and bumping about, so I could almost enjoy the ride back.  Minus the head pain.

Once back to the mainland, I was greeted by the glorious sight of solid ground (aka the Port of Long Beach) and my wonderful boyfriend, who after hearing about what happened, came to pick me up early.  And that concludes my long, fun yet also terrifying trip to Catalina Island.  I don’t think I’ll ever go back, but at least I visited it once.  Good enough.  My head couldn’t risk another trip anyways.

The following comes from a report my group and I wrote for the research assignment for October 2014.

Human geography has undergone a great deal of metamorphosis since the 19th century. “Contemporary human geographers study people, places, bodies, discourses, silenced voices, and fragmented landscapes” (Rofe 2010, :3). Qualitative research allows for direct observation of people and the ways in which they interact within landscapes. Such observation can be defined as “strategically placing oneself in situations in which systematic understandings of place are most likely to arise” (Kearns 2010, :246). Born from social anthropology, observation of this sort has been adapted so as to help geographers to better understand place meanings and the experiences of people (Kearns 2010). “Cafés are places where we are not simply served hot beverages but are also in some way partaking of a specific form of public life.” (E. Laurier 2001, :1). The authors of this report sought to observe the place of cafés in public life in Avalon, on Catalina Island utilizing both quantitative and qualitative methods.  According to demographic information for Avalon there is an almost equal racial distribution of White and Hispanic (Department of Economics 2014). We hypothesize that this pattern will be mirrored in cafés in Avalon and that the racial distribution will be directly correlated to social class.

People who are aware that they are being observed are likely to conduct themselves in an a-typical manner. Participant observation provides an opportunity to witness people and setting in an (almost) unaltered form. Kearns (2010) notes that observation allows us to count, to find complementary evidence and to gain contextual understanding. There are several stages in participant observation, including choice of setting, access, field relations, talking and listening, recording data, analysis and presentation, and ethical obligations. A mid-point of familiarity is recommended to avoid having to do extensive research on an area beforehand or becoming too involved thus biasing one’s results (Kearns 2010). This mid-point can be seen as the status of a stranger or marginal, which could mean being “socially, and possibly spatially, on the edge of a community or group” (Kearns 2010, :250).

Entry access to highly diverse public locations is usually not a problem; one can blend in easily without disturbing anyone. Having a role that goes with the area of study can also make access easy, but sometimes being the obvious stranger can have benefits (Kearns 2010). Talking and listening are at the heart of participant observation, allowing the researcher to engage with the community being studied to gain a better understanding of it. Participation further allows the researcher to blend into the scene, thereby contributing to the natural flow of the landscape. Kearns (2010) notes that such engagement can produce more comprehensive data.

Observations may be noted with pen and paper, computer, or audio recording devices. This approach does run a risk for disrupting the flow of interactions with people in the study; mental note taking may run the risk of diminishing the clarity of details observed (Kearns 2010). For the purpose of this study, we used a combination of both techniques. Ethical obligations exist in relation to the depth of engagement with study subjects. For instance, the intention of the researcher to continue contact with the observed would warrant further disclosure (Kearns 2010). It is important for researchers to consider their personal behavior as it relates to cultural or regional differences.

Study Site
Avalon is situated on the easterly portion of Catalina Island, 22 miles south/southwest of the Los Angeles Harbor breakwater. Avalon is a little over 2 2/3 square miles in size. The island itself is 76 square miles in area, 85% of which is in a conservancy area to be maintained in its natural state in perpetuity (City of Avalon 2014). The picturesque and leisurely seaport village of Avalon has a permanent population of around 3,500, with an annual visitor count of close to one million. The Island’s primary industry is tourism (City of Avalon 2014).

George Shatto founded Avalon in 1887 and pushed to make it a tourist destination (County of Los Angeles Public Library 2011). He planned and built the town to be the attraction of the island and this tradition continued on as others built hotels, golf courses and other outdoor attractions, such as fishing and hunting (County of Los Angeles Public Library 2011). Today Avalon offers a range of attractions and activities ranging from ocean and land tours to hiking, diving, zip lining, and snorkeling. About one million people visit Avalon every year (City of Avalon 2014).

In 2010 the US Census Bureau noted Avalon’s population to be 3,728, with males accounting for 1,890 and females accounting for 1,838.  Those over 18 totaled 2,768. Hispanic or Latinos accounted for 2,079 and non-Hispanic or Latino accounted for 1,649. The Census showed the largest racial category to be Whites at 2,313. All other categories were significantly low: 50 or less except for two or more races, which accounted for 174. As for housing status, renters far outnumbered owners with 2,920 renting and only 801 owning houses (United States Census Bureau 2010). The estimated per capita income for 2012 was $26,948 while the estimated median household income was $49,904 (City Data 2014). The most common industries and occupations relate to tourism and include such things as accommodation and food services (31%), real estate (10%), arts/entertainment/recreation (9%), transportation (8%) and retail trade (5%) (City Data 2014).

There are several cafés in Avalon, though it is hard to say exactly how many as some may have closed down but remain listed online. Our group visited two cafés, Cafe Metropole and Catalina Coffee & Cookie Co. Cafe Metropole is located in the Metropole Marketplace on Crescent Ave. It advertises itself as having a healthy alternative menu, including options for vegans, vegetarians and those who are gluten-free. It has an outdoor patio and can accommodate private parties. Pam Albers founded the café in 2008. She was inspired by the healthy and fresh food she saw in Italy. Only recyclable and compostable materials are used as the flatware (Cafe Metropole).

Catalina Coffee & Cookie Co. is also located at Metropole Marketplace on Crescent Ave. It sits behind Café Metropole. This café offers an assortment of traditional coffee shop beverages and pastries, as well as the only frozen yogurt bar in Avalon. The Soloman family originally founded the cafe in 1980. It has been owned and operated by the Eubank family since 2003 ( Catalina Coffee & Cookie Co. 2014).

Participant observation was used for this study. For purposes of this study our group took on the role of tourists. One group member was experiencing these locations for the first time, while the other members were somewhat familiar with them. Our manner of dress and individual demeanor were reflective of female tourists during our café visits. We visited two different cafés in Avalon, Cafe Metrople and Catalina Coffee & Cookie Co. The public space of cafés made access easy, as cafés are usually open to anyone who wants (and can afford) to use them. We spent an hour at each location observing and participating in the landscape. Each of us purchased food and/or beverages at each location, which allowed for interaction with café staff. Two group members used Excel spreadsheets on their laptops to make observational notes, while the third member used pen and paper. In this era of technology the use of computer devices in cafés is a common place. If at anytime during this study anyone were to express discomfort or object to our study, our group would have respectfully left the café. Fortunately, we received no complaints. Our very limited contact with the observed means that no future contact is necessary.

Observational notes were made for demographic data, such as race, gender, and age, as well as for other physical and observed information. Individual group members tried to listen to as much of the background noise and conversations as they could to better understand the types of people who visited the cafés.  One member also talked to a patron of Catalina Coffee & Cookie Co. out of interest in the conversation the observed was having with a passerby. This allowed our group to gain a deeper insight into not only this person but also his relationship with other café visitors and passersby.

We deliberated with one another to discuss our interpretations of observations both during and after our observational periods. For our final analysis, we compiled our field notes (one from each group member) for each of the two cafés visited. This allowed us to sort our quantitative data into measurable demographic data, including residency and social status.  We used an excel spreadsheet to calculate the averages for demographic data: gender, race, and age. This same method was repeated for residency (local or tourist) and perceived social status (working class and middle-upper class). As a group we discussed our individual perceptions and interpretations of the place of cafés in public life in order to supplement our quantified results with qualitative data.

The demographic data, shown in figures 4 and 5, show the race and genders of customers and staff members combined at Metropole and Catalina Coffee & Cookie Co. Figure 4 clearly illustrates the dominance of females present as opposed to males. There were a number of women led families with no male father figure present as well as groups of female-only friends. The only males observed were either alone or part of a male-female partnership. We observed women, accompanied by men, to uphold stereotypical gender roles by clearing and wiping down their own tables before leaving. Females who were not in the presence of a male were not observed to participate in this behavior. It is unclear if this was just a coincidence or if the women who cleaned their tables were echoing the roles they play at home.

Figure 5 shows the frequency of each of the races observed at both cafés. At Metropole the clear majority was White, outnumbering Hispanics by nearly three-to-one. The only Hispanics present in this café were staff. There was no data collected for Black. The racial data collected for Catalina Coffee & Cookie Co. is much more diverse. Here we observed the presence of Black people and a greater presence of Hispanics. While some of the Hispanic data collected accounted for staff there were Hispanic customers here, unlike Metropole.

The data for residency and working-class aligns almost perfectly. Figures 6 and 7 show these variables at the two cafés. It is clear that tourists are directly correlated with middle-upper class and control most of the space they occupy. Looking at this data, the most intuitive assumption to make is that locals are typically working-class and tourists tend to be wealthier. The only exception to this assumption based on our analysis was one older gentleman. During the course of causal conversation with a group member it was discovered that this man was a local homeowner. He was also overheard, in conversation with a passerby, to own other properties and a boat. The reality of the situation was that he owns a home on the island and those who passed by that he knew were other white, middle-upper class homeowners on their way to a home owner’s association meeting in a room behind Catalina Coffee & Cookie.

Demographic data shows gender to be equally distributed. However, our data is inconsistent with this as the female population far exceeded the male population. This may be the result of gender specific habits. We only observed individuals within café settings; it is possible that women frequent these cafés more than men.  There was a stronger presence of Black individuals observed than would be noted on another day (City of Avalon 2014). We assume this was a phenomena associated with a jazz festival that was being held on the island the day this study was conducted. It is also important to note that this observational study was conducted during the island’s tourism off-season.  It is unlikely that this bias impacted the results.

The role of cafés in public life is very apparent in the behaviors observed at the two different places. Metropole, which is advertised as a healthy food café, had an overrepresentation of Whites. They were all lean, fit, and looked well taken care of. Their accessories (bags, gadgets, backpacks, etc.) and appearance (healthy skin and well-dressed even though casual) fit the demographic of middle-upper class tourists. Even if Metropole was foreign to them there appeared to be no issue ordering items due to the fact that all menu items were familiar. It is important to note the gated patio seating served as a social-class barrier of sorts. The White customers sat comfortably within the confines of the gate, while seating outside the gate perimeter provided a space for “others”, in this case clearly local working-class Hispanics.

Catalina Coffee & Cookie Co. served as a unifier in the area. The coffee shop clientele was far more diverse in terms of race and age. Coffee, as a commercial product has little variance in price or beverage options, which provides a strong sense of familiarity for visitors. The patio here was not closed off and seating was not designated for customers only, however, there were only customers occupying this space. We concluded that this is because people feel uncomfortable occupying commercial space when they did not make a purchase. It is a universal social behavior that is present in commercial space everywhere. The commonality of cafés in lives of individuals of any race, gender, age, and social class echo the findings of Habermas (E. Laurier 2001).

The frequency of café visitors, despite being few, held a higher distribution of White and Hispanic individuals, which aligns with Avalon census data (Department of Economics 2014). However the distribution was not equal, which does not support the first part of our hypothesis. That being said our analysis illustrates a clear correlation between race and social class, primarily the Hispanics present in the cafés were working-class locals. This correlation supports the second half of our hypothesis.

Participant observation was a beneficial geographical method for this study because it provided first hand data of interactions that would have been impossible to determine by simply looking at census data. This study could be improved upon by observing these locations during various times of the day, and during the high season, for longer periods of time. This would provide a stronger representation of those who occupy this space and a greater pool of data from which to draw. The use of a video recording device would also augment data by capturing phenomena that may not have been observed in real time.

The findings of this study show participant observation to be an effective geographic method. Our demographic results are not entirely representative of Avalon’s demographic make-up. However, the use of qualitative data provided us with greater insight to the place of cafés in public life. Although Hispanics account for almost half of the local population their presence was limited almost exclusively to staff. Our results show a definite correlation between race and social-class. This was most apparent in the fact that all staff members in both locations were Hispanic.


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