Sybil Brand Women’s Jail sits empty, used occasionally for filming they say, at the end of City Terrace Drive. The gate is locked, as a young white couple walks a dog on the median under the trees, beneath the jail’s high brick wall. Last year, a house on this block sold for $650,000. The new owner parks a Mercedes behind a black steel gate. I walk uphill to my 94-year-old mom’s house, going uphill with angels on my shoulders, fierce Japanese nio temple guardians —my brother Paul on one side, my dad on the other (they both died within a few years of each other, still not talking to each other). They’re with me on a smoggy afternoon. Almost there, a car brakes alongside. The driver yells, “Foster! You don’t remember me?” Wraparound black sunglasses, shaved head and full beard gone whiskery gray, slim dude, grabs my hand for a shake, rings on every finger. “Raul Rios! Damn! I’m glad to see you! Still alive!” The last time we talked, after he’d gotten out of jail, was more than thirty years ago. We grew up together, his parents’ house nearby; when he was young he was bearded, bear-like and wild, a man on fire. How did he survive? “I’m sixty-one!” He’s shouting, “I wanna live to retire, at least to about sixty-eight!” I laugh, “What are you doin’?” “I am IBEW, International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, working on the power lines.” I say, “I am United Teachers Los Angeles, we’re getting ready for a strike, like in January!” “Shit, I heard some bullshit about you’re a professor at Cal State L.A.” “Yeah, I do that sometimes too. You don’t live there?”I point two doors down. “Nah, that’s my mother’s house, she still lives there. You remember where Sixto lived?” (He died in 1987.) Yeah, sure! “I live right across the street from Sixto’s place.” Sober, so thin he seems almost shrunken, but a tougher, wiser man than the kid we knew. His own man, he roars off into the smoggy afternoon. Raul Rios lives! I told the spirits, pushing through my mother’s gate. Raul Rios lives!
Sesshu Foster has taught composition and literature in East L.A. for 35 years. He is currently collaborating with artist Arturo Romo on the website, www.ELAguide.org, as well as on the novel,, ELADATL, a History of the East Los Angeles Dirigible Air Transport Lines, to be published by City Lights Books in 2020. His novel, Atomik Aztex, won a 2006 Believer Magazine Annual Book Prize and his hybrid text, World Ball Notebook won a 2010 American Book Award. His most recent book, City of the Future, won a CLMP Firecracker Award.
Sometimes it’s hard to see the shape of the story you’re being told. As I understood it, the plot points laid out by my then-lover Bill went like this:
The earthquake itself wasn’t scary. It was strong enough to wake him up and send a wheeled chair skittering across his bedroom floor. The windows rattled in their panes. The neighbor’s dog howled. A few seconds later the whole thing was over and Bill went back to sleep.
But by the next day, the story had morphed into something sinister. Something was off, Bill complained over the phone. It hadn’t even been earthquake weather beforehand. Listening from a grey morning in New York, my brain snagged on the claim. Southern Californians swore that a sunny, queasy-still air preceded earthquakes, but the phenomenon wasn’t real. Unsure of what it meant to say a not-real phenomenon hadn’t happened, I steered Bill to another subject. How was work? His nurse’s union was in the middle of an anti-fracking campaign, calling out the public health risks of the Los Angeles metro area’s more than 5,000 oil wells. I had never lived somewhere where oil was drilled, but it was 2015, and climate change demanded that I pay more attention to fossil fuels. And so Bill provided an entry point into a political conversation I was trying to join for myself. I followed the ups and downs of my lover’s work as though they were my own.
The campaign was also key to Bill’s earthquake story, though it took some more clues to figure that out. I bumped into them while browsing LA oil news. In the past year, there had been a lot. First came the articles that wondered whether three earthquakes were connected with the fracking residents swore was happening at Inglewood Oil Field. Though seismologists said no, the plot points read uncertainly enough. The cracked curbs and building foundations in adjacent neighborhoods. The much-hyped new study linking fracking with earthquakes in Oklahoma. The oil company’s claim that they hadn’t “recently” fracked the field, plus the fact that, at the time, they weren’t legally required to disclose jobs. One resident said she wanted answers but didn’t “know who[se] to trust.” I guessed that the oil company-sponsored report, which certified fracking safe at Inglewood and blamed nearby damage to slope instability caused by rainfall, wasn’t especially comforting.
And then there was the 10,000-gallon oil spill in the middle of the night in Atwater near Griffith Park. Videos shot creeping close-ups of the oil as it blanketed the concrete, and reports lingered on an evacuated strip club in a way that suggested something archetypically sullied was going on. Other news stories adopted the same tone as strange happenings unfolded around town. In oil-producing neighborhoods, children suffered chronic nosebleeds, adults were plagued by migraines, and garden plants withered and died. At Redondo, Manhattan, and Hermosa beaches, armies of sticky tar balls washed up on the sand, so many the city closed them down for clean-up. Though an observer might guess tar balls are the result of the more than 100,000-gallon oil spill about 100 miles up the coast in Santa Barbara a couple weeks earlier, a Department of Fish and Wildlife rep urged calm. The public should reserve judgment until tests could trace the oil’s “fingerprints.”
With a bit of research, in other words, the scattered stories began to feel less scattered. Eventually an arc of sorts emerged, a narrative chain linking Bill’s earthquake to “natural slope instability” and bloody noses and oily fingerprints. The narrative sounded paranoid and shadowy, like a noir, and Angelenos seemed to be voicing it without especially meaning to. As I began to connect fossil fuel politics to my everyday life, I felt pulled in, too. What did it mean to tell an LA oil noir? What could a New Yorker, observing from three thousand miles away, bring to the plot? I’d see how it all played out.
“Los Angeles CA — An Oil Well in Every Yard,” unknown date 1900-1909, DPC7775, Detroit Publishing Company Collections, Newberry Library, Chicago, Illinois.
For most cultural critics, noir begins with German expressionism, detective potboilers, and the Hollywood film set. But that history, while in some respects correct, downplays the local politics that forced the genre to the fore. At the turn of the 20th century, real estate boosters sold Los Angeles as a sunny paradise, a place where everyone might own a home and some land. Sometimes those profits involved oil; prospectors had struck it in Whittier, Montebello, Richfield, Newport Beach, Huntington Beach, Signal Hill, Santa Fe Springs, Torrance, Dominguez, Inglewood, Seal Beach, and Wilmington. For a time Southern California produced 20% of the world’s supply. Real estate ads teased buyers with the promise of instant liquid wealth. Postcards featured derricks against hopeful, rosy skies. A person didn’t even need to own land to get in on the boom. Every day, free chartered buses drove hundreds of Angelenos to an oil field-cum-investment opportunity. Under a big-top tent, they were treated to music and hot dogs and invited to become fabulously rich.
It wasn’t long before the mood began to turn. Oil flowed between property lines, so a legal precedent called “the rule of capture” gave rights to whomever sucked it up first. Prospectors and producers rushed up derricks everywhere, crowding streets, homes, and beaches without thought to the people living nearby. If drill jobs loosed a gusher that slopped crude, shale, and sand on Signal Hill houses, that was the collateral damage of a cutthroat business. Same went for the river of burning oil that blazed for six hours down a Long Beach thoroughfare, the explosion that set 2.25 million barrels aflame and smoked out the sun in Brea, and commonplace accidents that sent oil rushing into the ocean, slicking city harbors with a four-inch layer of crude.
If this devastation didn’t sour people, the corruption did. Many residents had invested in flat-out fraudulent stock. The most infamous scam was run by C. C. Julian, who leveraged new print and radio media to offer “Gold Bonds” to “Mr. Thoroughbreds” smart enough to smell a deal. When the company collapsed, robbing 40,000 LA residents of $150 million, the subsequent investigation uncovered a knot of scandals and touched off a spree of cover-ups and revenge. Scores of prominent bankers and businesspeople had profited, and a grand jury indicted fifty-five of them, but, after bribes to DAs and jurors ruined the first trial, the rest of the charges were dropped. For months, LA residents woke to a daily stream of shady Julian news. A former exec lived a lavish European life while on the run from police. A man lost his left eye in a melee at a company shareholder meeting. And a banker at the center of the pools was shot dead during the fifth trial mounted to hold him accountable for his crimes. The banker, a once-beloved philanthropist, had $63,000 in his pocket at the time of his death.
Enter the noir novel, which deployed what urbanist Mike Davis calls a “transformational grammar” to comment on the state of the Southern California dream. Sunny days became earthquake weather. Single-family homes became claustrophobic prisons. City patriarchs became a criminal overclass, crooked and poisonous and prone to fits of violence. A century later, it’s easy to read the genre as fantasy instead of a stab at realism in a particular time and place. It is easy to forget that every noir is an LA noir, and every LA noir is touched by the seep of oil.
In the early days of my investigation, I often felt obtuse: too clumsy to be the detective at the helm of a noir. I was nothing like Philip Marlowe, the protagonist of eight of LA writer Raymond Chandler’s novels. Marlowe has a quick wit and a sharp tongue and drinks to forget the sleaze he’s seen. Chandler developed his own suspicion at Dabney Oil, where he worked for 13 years, first as a junior accountant and then, after catching his boss embezzling, as the department head. Eventually he rose to vice-president. The work fascinated him; it let him study all manner of bad behavior. He learned to spot the abuses of the people passing through his company, and became obsessed with anticipating cheating in other areas of his life. But he never forgot the industry that jaded him first. When Dabney finally fired him for alcoholism, he started working on The Big Sleep, a drama that swirls around the corrupt Sternwood family, who’d made a fortune in oil.
Noir conveys much of its narrators’ wariness through setting and atmospherics. Interior spaces are shabby and cramped, or nauseatingly opulent, or suffused with their inhabitants’ truculent neuroses. Outdoor spaces are ominous no matter the weather. Even the LA sun is a sign of trouble. Early noir writers portrayed it as oppressive, suggested that a fundamental violence simmered beneath. Chandler paid special attention to climate. Earthquake weather and the Santa Ana winds haunted his characters’ days and served as symbol of a city in physical, psychic, and moral decline. In The Big Sleep, oil infrastructure does some of this work. Derricks show up in key scenes at the beginning and end of the book. Chandler describes them as stained and falling apart. They stand near tepid pools of dirty water. They dribble out last dregs of oil or stand stilled amidst a litter of rusted drums. Eventually Marlowe discovers that one of the Sternwoods killed a man and buried him in the family oil fields. The site summed up an entire fallen city. “Oil and water were the same as wind and air to you,” Marlowe says in the book’s final lines. “You just slept the big sleep, not caring about the nastiness of how you died or where you fell. Me, I was part of the nastiness now.”
For disillusioned Angelenos, identifying the nastiness became a favorite narrative stance. After Hollywood popularized noir in the 1930s and 1940s, the genre resurfaced regularly as a way of shooting down buoyant city myths. In the 1960s, Joan Didion processed the Manson murders with an anxious noir slant. In the 1970s, Roman Polanski used the form to explore corrupt water politics. In the 1980s, Bret Easton Ellis brought noir to bear on malls and materialism. The literary theorist Lauren Berlant says genre provides “an expectation of the experience of watching something unfold, whether that thing is in life or in art.” Certainly this was a good way of describing what I saw noir doing in LA. What struck me was the subtlety with which the dynamic surfaced. Bill blipped about earthquake weather, a sidewalk looked buckled, a nose dripped a bit of blood. The story shaded into paranoia, but from one angle, for just a second. Blink and you could miss it.
On one trip to Los Angeles, I almost did. Time had passed and life had changed since my first oil noir. I’d moved from New York to Tucson, and Bill had cut me loose. Still, my friends Andrew and Paige lived in town, too, so I visited and the three of us went tooling around in Andrew’s car, a light-lemon vintage Mercedes with crisp leather seats. The car was a sort that can only exist in Southern California, and I felt the same about our morning. We’d spent it drinking coffee and eating panaderia pastries and watching scrub jays swoop into his winter garden, a space filled with persimmon trees, succulents, and trailing flowered vines. As Andrew put Stevie Wonder in the tape deck and eased onto the freeway, I threw my arm out the window and said what I thought we all had to be thinking: God, the weather was nice.
Hmm, said Andrew, unconvinced. He didn’t know. Sometimes all the sunny weather struck him as oppressive.
Early LA was also terrible for labor. Besides open land and oil, boosters touted a cowed workforce as a signature Southern Californian perk. One of the most powerful, Colonel Harrison Grey Otis, used his business connections to lockout and blacklist union members with the help of local police. Otis considered himself at war with the labor movement and waged it on the ideological front, too, filling the L.A. Times, which he owned, with open-shop vitriol. Across Los Angeles, Otis helped set the tone. The city’s workers, branded “rowdies,” “ruffians,” and “pinheads,” were treated like dirt.
LA oil workers got no special relief. They labored at a hazardous job. Men were burned to death by steam lines and fires. Others fell from the tops of derricks, or fainted from fumes and drowned in oil tanks covered by a thin layer of tarpaper. At least one had his arms pulled off when they got caught in a machine. During World War I, California oil workers had won concessions, including better wages, a switch from 12- to 8-hour days, and union negotiating rights. But by the early ‘20s, oil companies hit back, forcing union members to sign yellow-dog contracts or be fired. 8,000 oil workers in Central California went on strike, but the effort failed. Wages dropped drastically across the state, and industry workers didn’t regain a toehold until well into the ‘30s.
Blocked in economic channels, labor leaders poured energy into political organizing. In places like Long Beach, Huntington Beach, and Torrance, union organizers threw events, founded broadsheets, and turned out voters in the push to regulate oil. They also formed coalitions with residents and conservationists, at times gathering under the umbrella of newly formed property owners’ associations. In a Los Angeles disenchanted with oil, the language of property and property values became a major way residents fought back. When one oil company proposed new wells near downtown LA, the Wilshire Community Council called it “inimical to the esthetic development of the city as a home-owners’ haven.” In a noir-ish oil landscape, real estate was becoming central to the complaint.
Center for Land Use Interpretation, THUMS islands (Island Grissom) at sunset, 2010.
Andrew’s genre slip was apt, because we weren’t only cruising. Earlier that morning, I’d convinced him and Paige to join my investigation, to ride along on a two-building tour. We took the car down the I-10, headed north on La Cienega, and arrived on busy Pico Boulevard to our first site.
The meters in front of the building were all open, so we parked at random and got out for a look. Ivy climbed the windowless stone walls. The door was industrial-looking and locked. From the center of the otherwise low structure rose Cardiff Tower, trimmed elegantly in white. The architects who built it in the late ‘60s hoped people would think it was a synagogue serving the neighborhood’s Orthodox Jews. In this they were somewhat successful. It was hard to imagine that the building hid forty oil wells, at least until we walked around to the side street and read the gold placard warning about carcinogens. And stopped long enough to notice the mechanical humming coming from inside. And caught a whiff of the faint but acrid smell. Paige scrunched her nose and tongued the roof of her mouth in disgust. “Ugh,” she said, “You can taste it.”
A mile and a half down Pico, the Packard Drill Site pretended to be an office building. Inside, a moveable derrick tracked around on a mechanical grid between fifty-one wells. Apparently, it lacked a roof. Before leaving home, Andrew and Paige and I had pulled up satellite photos and gaped into a weird shadowed hole. Once onsite we did as at Cardiff: We circled, stopped, listened, sniffed. Landscaped palms and jade plants described neat swaths in the front and along the sides. The glass-doored entrance revealed a dusty, shuttered public lobby display. In back houses abutted it a cozy 125 feet away.
Some thought Cardiff and Packard a sign of progress. The buildings were examples of an odd class of camouflage architecture that evolved in the mid-twentieth century as LA residents pushed back against oil drilling. Perhaps the strangest of these structures were the Astronaut Islands in Long Beach. Also known as THUMS — for Texaco, Humble, Union Oil, Mobil, and Shell, the oil companies originally partnered there — the Astronauts were made of hundreds of tons of quarried rock and several million cubic yards of dredged harbor mud and sand to serve as offshore drilling sites. After the derricks and pipes and tanks went up, the THUMS planning team brought on Joseph Linesch, who’d helped design Disneyland, to hide the purpose of the place. He opted for palms, decorative towers, a waterfall, and a series of sculpted concrete walls to ring the island. At night, spotlights bathed the walls in brilliant neon hues.
The Astronauts were closed to the public. I knew because I’d trawled the internet trying to figure out how to visit. As a back-up, I packed a pair of binoculars, and, after dropping Paige and Andrew back at home, took them out with my rented car as dusk fell. By the time I reached the Long Beach shoreline, it was dark and had begun to rain. I found a parking lot on the harbor and pointed the binoculars out my windshield at the islands, which glowed a foggy pink and orange. Under the clouded night sky, they reflected a phrase I encountered over and over in my research. In contrast to the spectacular violence of the early 20th century, LA oil production was now hidden in plain sight.
Los Angeles is a famously fragmented place; as one oft-quoted quip has it, it is “seventy-two suburbs in search of a city.” Early oil development played a central role in making this so. Many neighborhoods and suburbs grew up around drilling or refining sites or as residential communities for workers. Oil revenues allowed some of them to incorporate separately from Los Angeles, while cheap oil gave them further independence in the form of power plants, paved roads, and fuel for cars. I felt it while trying to tour more after THUMS. I started the morning in Beverly Hills, site of a derrick hidden under a shell decorated with children’s art; then watched rusted pumpjacks bob along the fences of the Inglewood Oil Field; then stopped to see rigs looming over houses in West Adams and University Park. In between I took wrong turns, stopped for directions, and inched painfully along in a rush hour that never seemed to end. By the time I was casing the perimeters of the giant refineries in Wilmington, I had passed through five independently incorporated towns, traveled thirty-five miles, and driven away a significant portion of the day.
Homeowners associations helped fragment Los Angeles, too. If early groups helped restrict oil production, many were also obsessed with another agenda: locking Black and Asian residents out of their blocks and streets. Over the course of the ‘20s, homeowner activists helped establish 95% of housing stock within LA city limits as white-only. Mike Davis calls this period the “white-supremacist genealogy” of what would become “[t]he most significant ‘social movement’ in Southern California…[:] affluent homeowners, organized by notional community designations or tract names, engaged in defense of home values and neighborhood exclusivity.” By the middle of the 20th century, that movement had gained incorporation laws and zoning rules to pursue a whole host of demands. At times the new tools were wielded to racist, classist, anti-busing and anti-renter and English-only kinds of ends. At other moments they were used to stand down corporate developers and win environmental regulations. As their political power grew, homeowners expanded their attention to a scattershot list of small-scale NIMBY concerns. They fought against mini malls, diamond highway lanes, a fancy bistro, the shaving of a hill, and, in a campaign that galvanized a thousand activists and left a local councilman branded a “Dog Nazi,” dog owners who let their pets shit in a park.
The jumbled protests shared a tone. It saw threat everywhere and betrayed an often-inflated, noir-ish sense of risk. By the ‘80s, local politicians learned to bow to the homeowners, or at least fake it lest they get kicked out of office, and middle- and upper-class concerns came to dominate LA politics just as state- and federal-level neoliberal policies were hitting working-class communities of color hardest. The results were predictable. Helped along by homeowner noirs, neighborhood-based inequities grew and compounded in risk and resources.
The pattern was obvious in the metro landscape I’d been investigating. Though a full third of LA-area residents lived within a mile of a drilling site, more protections were won, and safety standards more strictly enforced, in affluent and majority-white neighborhoods than in working-class neighborhoods of color. The faux buildings at Cardiff and Packard — elaborate compared to the beige walls that hid oil operations elsewhere— were one example of the accommodations wealthy residents had won. Others included limited drilling hours, restrictions on trucking, lower-polluting electric drills, weekly emissions tests, 24-7 noise monitoring, and dedicated community liaisons.
Contrast that with University Park in South LA, whose residents are mostly working-class and of color; in 2010, when the AllenCo oil site began emitting dense, obvious fumes, it took them years to get heard. Sometimes the air smelled like petroleum, other times like fruity chemicals. People got nosebleeds, migraines, and stomachaches. Then Monic Uriarte was out taking photos for a photography class with her daughter Nalleli and found the gate to the beige-walled compound ajar. Uriarte hadn’t known anything about what was behind the walls; now a worker showed them around, touring past oil pipes and oil tanks and signs for toxic gas. The worker gave Nalleli a baby food jar filled with water and a heavy, sinking layer of crude. Oil and water don’t mix, he said: She should take it to school to show the other kids the site was safe.
And so the University Park investigation had begun. Uriarte talked to neighbors, and they talked to more, and soon they’d hooked up with Esperanza Community Housing and launched a campaign. Residents flooded the regional air quality complaint line with messages while Esperanza researched AllenCo and interviewed people about their symptoms. Together they dropped banners, held protests and press conferences, and, because AllenCo leased their land from the Catholic archdiocese, sent a video starring Nalleli to the Pope. They dug up record of hundreds of environmental violations and learned that AllenCo had upped production 400% around the time the fumes showed up. Still it took three years before an L.A. Times exposé and a visit by then-Senator Barbara Boxer forced the city to act. They shut the site down, but the damage was done. A set of more long-terms threats had been seeded. Though their nosebleeds and stomachaches were gone, University Park residents had a heightened risk of cancer, reproductive anomalies, and other illnesses. Chemical exposure had left Uriarte, for one, without a sense a smell.
Many critics have called out the history of the noir protagonist, how most have been middle-class and white. That fact is not abstract. It trails consequences for everyday space and behavior; it is tangled in the inequalities of mundane, material LA. An oil executive, speaking to West Adams activist Richard Parks about their local drilling site, illustrated the reality with terrible, careless ease. West Adams residents are also predominantly working-class and of color, and when the activist relayed his neighbors’ complaints, including a day where the site rained a mist of oil on the entire surrounding block, the oil exec shrugged. “Look, this isn’t exactly Laguna Niguel,” he said, meaning a well-off beach community. In the landscape of the Los Angeles oil noir, West Adams didn’t register in the plot.
Like the University Park activists, I didn’t stay clumsy. In time, I became my own Marlowe, ready with a meticulous mental map of policies, perps, and case studies. But my competence only mattered so much. However good one gets at reading noir, the story is always fragmented, its through line hard to grasp. Information in a Marlowe novel is imparted, in the words of cultural theorist Frederic Jameson, like “glimpses through a window” and “noises from the back of a store.” This quality was heightened by the secretive realities of oil production. Industry reps stonewalled and gaslit. In Beverly Hills, where a camouflaged derrick pumps oil next to Beverly Hills High School, Venoco loosed a sharky legal team on a thousand-some graduates who’d developed rare cancers, discrediting their class-action lawsuit. In Porter Ranch, which sits beside an oil field and giant gas storage facilities, SoCal Gas downplayed the size of a massive gas leak and said science hadn’t “definitively” found gas dangerous. In Wilmington, whose toxic concentration of oil refineries have led to abysmal health outcomes for residents, Warren E&P gave out gas gift cards as a paltry gesture of remuneration.
Porter Ranch Protest, photo by Elijah Hurwitz. Courtesy of Hurwitz
Changing production techniques muddied the informational waters, too. Los Angeles’ oil fields are old and over-pumped. To stay profitable, companies fracked and acidized, shooting sand and chemicals into wells to force the dregs out. A quarter of wells used some enhanced technique, and the government agencies tasked with overseeing them showed neither the will nor the ability to keep up. Residents had little help if they wanted to know what was going on. In West Adams in 2015, a church group called Redeemer Community Partnership filmed volunteer Niki Wong staked out beside the beige wall of the local oil site. “It’s like 6:35am,” Wong said to the camera quietly, crouching, as birds chirped the morning awake. “We got a tip that they’re going to be doing an acidizing maintenance job.” Two to four tankers, each filled with five thousand gallons of chemicals, would soon be driving through the neighborhood. By law Freeport McMoRan, the site owners, had to give neighbors just a day’s notice for the job, but Wong had kept tabs and organized a group to rapid-respond. When the tankers rolled towards the site, they planned to mass up into a blockade. In the video, Wong pointed above her head to a surveillance camera she’d been ducking, then looked down to catch a text on her phone. “Oh, shoot,” she frowned. Freeport had cancelled the job.
There were still other layers of obfuscation at work. When a site stopped serving oil companies, they could simply sell their land and whatever responsibility it might entail. At Inglewood Oil Field, site of the earthquake rumors that made Bill paranoid, owners PXP Oil funded their study showing fracking to be safe and soon after, perhaps tired of answering to resident concerns, sold their holdings to Freeport McMoRan. For their part, Freeport McMoRan held the fields for a stint before palming them off to Sentinel Peak Resources, which had been buying up sites around LA.
Allenco Oil site. Photo by Sarah Craig. Courtesy of Craig
And that was just the fate of active wells. Responsibility could be an even murkier question for the metro area’s thousands of abandoned wells. Near downtown, the Edward Roybal Learning Center, a high school, was built on top of nineteen old wells and surrounded by hundreds more. Many were capped before the ‘50s, when government agencies first created rules for doing so, and workers stopped them with anything they could find: garbage, rocks, telephone poles. School construction took two decades, and even costly remediation didn’t fix the site’s problems. Around the school grounds, imitation lampposts vented the methane that kept belching from the wells. But some days fumes still filled campus, and some days students and teachers still got headache-y and sick.
These were the sorts of rabbit holes one fell into when sleuthing around the oil industry. Eventually, even dedicated detectives were likely to get lost. It had happened to me, but the real story lay with longtime LA residents. “We never know what is going on,” Lillian Marenco, who’d lived in West Adams for thirty years, explained through a megaphone to a gathered crowd. Though Wong’s stakeout hadn’t worked, the protest went on as planned. A few dozen people marched and carried signs and sang a call-and-response song. Staaand together — Against neighborhood drilling! Staaand together — Against neighborhood drilling! Then they gathered for a press conference. “If they just come to get the money and leave us with all the nuisance,” Marenco asked her neighbors and the press, “Then what is the benefit of my community? I wonder.”
Back home in Tucson, I kept poking around online. The 2015-2016 Porter Ranch gas leak was especially easy to learn about; for the four months from the moment the leak was discovered to when it was plugged, the story had gotten tons of coverage. Many stories cited a video taken looking down into the foothills where the leak had been found. Taken by the activist group Earthworks, the video deploys a straightforward transformational grammar. At first it’s a regular LA day: just sun, hills, cars. Five seconds later, the camera switches into infrared view and you are watching a thick cloud of — something billowing over the exact same spot. The film toggles between the two frames in chunky cuts. Sunny day. Thick cloud. Sunny day. Thick cloud. Even without context — knowledge of the size of the leak and the methane and benzene and other toxic compounds billowing everywhere — the image is unnerving. With context, it is a precise and succinct depiction of the mystery of living next door to the oil industry. How that cloud might be invisibly menacing you. The video struck me as an ingenuous oil noir.
But, whatever its strengths, the genre hadn’t yet lived up to its more radical political promise. This was true of the noir of books and films as well as the noir that filtered into oil activist storytelling. Historically speaking, its stars had been too white and middle-class, its sense of injury too stuck on property and other individually minded dreams, its understanding of power too piecemeal and vague. Historically speaking, it had fashioned a politics from eerie atmospherics and an impoverished sense of what geographer Edward Soja called spatial justice. In my online wanderings I found a GIS map that captured it well. The map uses black dots to represent active oil wells in the LA metro area, to unsettling result. As I scrolled around, zooming in and out, the city looked riddled with bullet holes. Some well-off neighborhoods were shot up, in danger, making a lie of the kind of activism that treats oil production like a quality-of-life annoyance. On a map shaped by that activism, these endangered neighborhoods sat beside poorer neighborhoods that were under full-on siege, buried under and erased by wells.
That tension echoed in Porter Ranch, which became a flashpoint for local environmental justice advocates tracking disparities in oil industry protections. The neighborhood’s affluent residents garnered local and national attention and secured concessions other neighborhoods hadn’t gotten, including relocation to hotels on SoCal’s dime. At times their public testimonies reflected the homeowner-activist playbook and its class-bound complaints. People fretted about property values. They lamented disrupted Christmas plans and the expense of nannies hired when parents got migraines. In the face of a giant, dangerous leak, some residents dramatized the real injustice of their situation as that of lost middle-class normalcy.
Still, there seemed no reason noir couldn’t be more politically astute. Chester Himes used it to express the nightmarishness of being a Black longshoreman in the 1945 novel If He Hollers Let Him Go. The sometimes-Communist writers of early noir films smuggled in the occasional systemic critique. And I was sure that other examples lurked in literary and filmic back catalogues. But it seemed less important to unearth those than to hear the new noir insights brought forth by those battling LA oil today. They could be found everywhere, including in Porter Ranch, where neighborhood activists in noir-ish gas masks carried signs that amended an early slogan, Shut It Down, to the more spatially capacious Shut It ALL Down. A protester named Matt Pakucko pushed the thesis further, called out the lopsided attention trained on his neighborhood: “There’s other communities with probably worse problems than us, for decades longer …. Do they get relocated? No. Because it’s a poor neighborhood.”
Further insight came from STAND-LA, a coalition formed to agitate for citywide drilling standards. Esperanza Community Housing was a member and brought its experience in University Park, which it read through the lens of economic and health justice. In an interview about the campaign, Esperanza director Nancy Halpern Ibrahim complicated the point. Though they’d suspected the company was fracking, they didn’t know the technical specifics and were sure it would take forever to find out. And so, though the specter of fracking drove oil rumors across the city, they took AllenCo’s deception as baseline, didn’t fixate on the injustice of being lied to, and kept health at the center of a simpler message on traditional drilling. To these new noir suggestions — transforming stories about property into stories about collectivity, treating corporate dishonesty not as shocking betrayal but as systemic truism — the West Adams video added one more. After Niki Wong’s stakeout dramatized Freeport McMoRan’s secrecy, it noted that most of the information that had been discovered came from resident photos and reports. Here was an edit to one of noir’s most beloved premises: There was no such thing as a solo detective; there were only many.
Another update peeked out during a 2015 strike at the Tesoro Refinery in Wilmington. A worker named Melissa Bailey told a journalist that she’d just worked twelve to fourteen hours nineteen days in a row. For another article, colleagues explained how they survived such grueling schedules: with coffee, energy drinks, and sugary snacks. That plus fatigue left them dazed and drunk and led to injuries, which workers often hid so as not to miss out on safety bonuses. The practice was called, viscerally, “bloody pockets,” conjuring a sinister work atmosphere while offering a reminder that fields and refineries and storage plants didn’t just have neighbors. They were also populated with workers.
A final noir revision surfaced in Culver City, a small town incorporated in the middle of Los Angeles. Culver City sits beside the Inglewood Oil Field and is part of a Community Standard District, a special zoning designation whose drilling regulations were celebrated as the region’s most stringent. The 2008 planning text that brought the district into being opens with a legalistic preamble that defines fifty-eight words whose meanings Inglewood owners might dispute. The words include “drilling,” “fluid,” “derrick,” “well,” “gas,” and “oil.” The anticipation of a doublespeak so fundamental begged a conclusion that in the end took ten years to gel. In 2018, Culver City launched a study to figure out they could legally shut their portion of the oil field down. The town’s vice-mayor cited a long history of damage at the field, then said it sat atop a fault that was due a big earthquake any day. In the unequal landscape oil had made of the Los Angeles metro region, Culver City had been a privileged squeaky wheel. But if a more radical approach to land use could surge up around it, the logic of their gambit would be powerful. Zoning isn’t enough to limit harm to residents’ health, that logic says. The drilling would have to stop.
“We are invested not only in talking about what we don’t want but also in making the case for a meaningful, just transition,” Nancy Halpern Ibrahim told me over the phone. I’d called to hear a about Esperanza and STAND-LA’s work moving forward, and, though I felt silly relating the flimsy anecdote that had propelled me to her work in University Park, Ibrahim wasn’t fazed. After an hour of her own rambling — “I don’t speak in sound bites,” she said, appealingly not sorry — we’d reached what seemed the conversation’s upshot. She and coalition colleagues had convinced the mayor’s office to form a Climate Emergency Mobilization Department, which opened in 2019; given its oil history, they thought, Los Angeles had nationally relevant ideas on how to transition away from oil. What would become of the department remained to be seen, but we’d scaled out to an essential question: not just how Los Angeles could overcome its spatial injustices, but what that fight had to do with those elsewhere.
I wondered about that, too. For the moment, my encounter with Inglewood and West Adams and Porter Ranch seemed to be wrapping up, and the task seemed to be to turn towards the rest of the maps I shared with others. I thought of my dad’s family in Texas, where the oil stories to be reckoned with had less to do with noir than the lure of the rich oilman as hero and villain. In North Dakota’s Bakken Shale, where some friends had been spending time, the myths of the Western frontier lived on. And though it was less obvious which genres bound fossil fuel politics in New York and Tucson, I knew I didn’t have to dig alone. As in LA, my two homes were surely peopled by activists who might help teach me the plot.
Author’s note: Thanks go to Morgan Adamson, Aaron Bady, Stefano Bloch, Bill Gallagher, Raquel Gutiérrez, Nancy Halpern Ibrahim, Andrew Knighton, Ava Kofman, Ruth Nervig, Paige Sweet, and workshop participants in UA’s creative nonfiction program.
 James Sadd and Bhavna Shamasunder. “Oil extraction in Los Angeles: Health, Land Use and Environmental Justice Consequences” Drilling Down: The Community Consequences of Expanded Oil Development in Los Angeles. (Los Angeles, Liberty Hill Foundation, 2015.)
 Zahira Torres and Laura Nelson. “Baldwin Hills-area quakes not linked to oil operations, experts say,” LA Times. 3 May 2015. See also Carlos Granda, “Baldwin Hills resident concerned fracking may be causing earthquakes,” ABC7 News. 4 May 2015; “3.5 earthquake rattles Los Angeles,” LA Times. 12 April 2015.
 “Raw Footage: 10-K Gallon Oil Spill in Atwater Village,” NBC Southern California, 15 May 2014; Ashley Soley-Cerro, 10,000-Gallon Crude Oil Spill Prompts Evacuation of L.A. Strip Club,“ KTLA 5, 15 May 2014; Jason Wells. “10,000-gallon crude oil spill in Atwater Village looked ‘like a lake,’” LA Times. 15 May 2014.Village
 Carly Dryden. “South Bay beaches remain closed as officials investigate source of apparent oil spill,” The Daily Breeze, 28 May 2015. See also Kelly Goff and Gadi Schwartz. “Beaches Closed Due to Mysterious Petroleum Globs,” NBC Southern California, 27 May 2015; Veronica Rocha. “Tar balls in South Bay: Beaches closed until further notice,” LA Times, 29 May 2015.
 Mike Davis. City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles. (New York: Verso, 1990), 36-7.
 Nancy Quam-Wickham. “An ‘Oleaginous Civilization’: Oil in Southern California,” Southern California Quarterly, Vol. 97, No. 3, p 285; “Fred Viehe. “Black Gold Suburbs: The Influence of the Extractive Industry on the Suburbanization of Los Angeles, 1890-1930.” Journal of Urban History, Vol. 8 No. 1 (November 1981), p 6.
 Jules Tygiel. The Great Los Angeles Swindle: Oils, Stocks, and Scandal during the Roaring 20s. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994), 37-9.
 Nancy Quam-Wickham. “‘Cities Sacrificed on the Altar of Oil’: Popular Opposition to Oil Development in 1920s Los Angeles.” Environmental History, Vol. 3, No. 2 (Apr. 1998), 192.
 Tom Hiney. Raymond Chandler: A Biography. (New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1997), 58; Jules Tygiel, The Great Los Angeles Swindle, 40.
 Jules Tygiel. The Great Los Angeles Swindle, 213-257.
 Nancy Halpern Ibrahim. Personal interview, 11 October 2019; Barbara Osborn, “When Regulators Fail,” Drilling Down: The Community Consequences of Expanded Oil Development in Los Angeles. (Los Angeles, Liberty Hill Foundation, 2015.)
 Barbara Osborn, “‘How are these Chemicals being used?’” Drilling Down, 18.
 Kaitlin Parker. “Concerns arise as Inglewood Oil Field plans for increased activity,” Intersections South LA, 4 January 2012; Susan Taylor, “Freeport-McMoRan Sells Inglewood Oil Field to Sentinel Peak,” Culver City Crossroads via Reuters. 14 October 2014.
Miranda Trimmier is from Milwaukee, lives in Tucson, and writes about land-use politics. She holds an MFA in creative nonfiction from the University of Arizona and has published with Places Journal, The New Inquiry, Terrain, and other outlets.