I recently had the unique opportunity to interview Ron Oden in the coffee shop at the new and hip ARRIVE Boutique Hotel. Ron Olden has lived in Palm Springs for over 25 years and served as the first openly gay, African-American mayor of Palm Springs (2003 – 2007) and in the US. This spirited man, with a voice that commands attention, gave us a snapshot into what makes this city one of the most popular and most famous resort communities in the world, welcoming thousands of visitors and snowbirds every year.
Ron began by explaining to me that “people first came to Palm Springs due to the clean, warm and dry desert air that provides those with respiratory illnesses a break from congested and industrialized cities. Soon those people learned of the healing waters that sit in wells and aquifers under the city, which further enhanced the idea of building the famous boutique hotels and spas that Palm Springs has become so famous for. There are more boutique-style hotel rooms and luxury B&Bs in Palm Springs than in the rest of the Coachella Valley cities.”
“The city soon became the secret hideaway for the rich and famous, from actors to politicians, who found solace in this desert oasis. Palm Springs is close enough to Hollywood for actors to have the opportunity to live here and not break their contracts, many of which stated they had to live less than 100 miles from the studios. They also had an escape from the paparazzi, who are still frowned upon here.”
Ron went on to say that “they felt safe riding their bikes around town, or walking freely down the city’s Strip, shopping in stores that catered to their needs. Boutique-style shopping became so famous that people actually bragged about having been here.”
It’s a fact that Palm Springs was the secret hideout for gay Hollywood, a place where they were free to love whomever they wished without judgement. Hollywood stars, such as Rock Hudson, Liberache, George Nader, Cary Grant, Montgomery Clift, Tab Hunter, Greta Garbo, and Marlene Dietrich, all flocked to the desert to love one or many, making Palm Springs well-known for its parties and for creating a community open to alternative lifestyles. “The city is still an open community, where people are accepted for who they are, not for who they love,” Ron said. “One person told me that ‘Palm Springs is a place where you feel not just safe for being gay but normal as well.’”
As the former mayor continued to talk about the city’s past, he reflected on what life was like in Palm Springs when he first arrived. “Every block was filled with homes owned by the rich and famous. They were treated like every-day people in the city. They were free to live life without any limitations they normally had; locals greeted them, waved, and smiled at them, and they didn’t treat them any differently due to their status. Here they were allowed to be normal people, even past presidents roamed around freely.”
Though many of Tinseltown’s icons from the silver screen have long passed away, Ron said it has made for an exciting real estate market. “People are arriving in droves to buy one of the hundreds of condos or homes that once belonged to someone famous. Next to Beverly Hills, I’m not sure if there’s a more condensed area of homes formerly owned by a prominent person.”
Of course, Hollywood’s influence wasn’t all that positive. “This was a rich and powerful group of people, and they weren’t fond of anyone that didn’t belong to their tribe, so to speak. This created a problem for the native Indians of the area who were forced out of their homes and businesses to create room for the new residents. It became a long and strenuous battle for the Agua Caliente Indians who went all the way to the Supreme Court, ultimately leading to a land act so powerful and famous, known as Section 14, that it now has a place in the Smithsonian Institute in Washington DC. The influence of the Agua Caliente Indians is still present in Palm Springs today, with many of them owning nearly half of the land and giving them one of the only Native-American-owned casinos (Agua Caliente Spa Casino) in the middle of a city.”
Due to the hot, dry climate, swimming pools became a necessary luxury for every home and hotel in the Coachella Valley. “Palm Springs is famous for it pools, and hotels take great pride in making theirs a center piece of the property, with cabanas, luxury poolside chairs, fire pits, bars, and restaurants with full service to the pool. They’re often salt water pools (a safe alternative to chlorine pools) that are heated in the winter and cooled in the summer, with hot tubs big enough for the whole bridal party. Most of the hotel pools are free for all to enjoy if you’re eating or drinking at the hotel, unlike most hotel pools that are for guests only. There are even pool-party weekends. A bus takes party-goers from one pool party to the next, with live bands, drink and food specials.”
On Thursdays and Fridays, a free bus, called the Buzz, runs every 15 minutes and stops at or near most of the hotels in Palm Springs. Pools are so common here that wearing your swimsuit around town is common, and you’ll never be asked to leave a restaurant for wearing flip flops.
The entire Coachella Valley has also become a mecca for the finer things in life, including food, and you can find cuisine to suit any palate and price range. “Eating out is a way of life for locals, but health is just as important. Almost all the restaurants here accommodate all different dietary needs, from dairy-free to gluten-free. The city has one of the first vegan restaurants in the country called Native Foods, which helped create the vegan food craze all over the country.”
Ron also reminded me that “Palm Springs and the entire valley boast some of the best golf courses in the country. Rafe Botts, the second African-American golfer to play professionally for the PGA, said that Palm Springs is famous as the premier place for golf on the West Coast, with literally hundreds of golf courses that range in price and views. However, it’s just as well-known for tennis, with private and public courts everywhere, begging even the most novice player to take a swing or two. If that’s not for you, bicycles are everywhere. Most hotels offer free bikes to their guests to use and with little car traffic, it’s a fun and safe way to get in shape and view the beautiful homes at the same time. Also, don’t forget Palm Springs sits against a beautiful mountain range, with some peaks as high as 10,000 feet, with hiking trails for all fitness levels.”
He went on to say that “if you go from the lowest point of Palm Springs to the top of Mount San Jacinto, you actually get to experience 12 different ecosystems. Plus, with some of the most unforgettable views of the valley—hiking is a must for all visitors. If you’re up for a little adventure, a night hike is ideal. No matter what time of the year, people love to don headlamps and hike the mountains.”
Since locals and visitors alike love the outdoors here, exploring the city’s palm-lined streets leads from one architectural treasure to the next. “There are more mid-century homes in Palm Springs as well as some of the most famous private and public art collections than anywhere else in the world, making the city a must-see for anyone who loves art and design.”
The former mayor and I ended our conversation talking about the future of Palm Springs. He believes that the future is bright for this small resort city. “It’s healing, it’s surreal, it’s calming, and it welcomes all to experience its magic. Plus, it’s the only place where you can sit by the pool sipping a martini in your bikini while looking at snow-capped mountain in January.”