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Interviews

Rise Against the Machine: Interview with Adam Goodman

The rampant spread of coronavirus throughout the United States has illuminated undocumented migrants’ role as essential workers as well as their precarious position in this country. Indeed, Trump’s administration continues to find novel measures to expel undocumented migrants and asylum seekers. In The Deportation Machine: America’s Long History of Expelling Immigrants, Adam Goodman traces the United States’ efforts to expel and terrorize migrants as well as people’s efforts to stop the deportation machine. Historian Elliott Young spoke with Goodman about his new book and this long history. 

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Elliott Young (EY): What led you to this particular book project and how do you think it responds to the present immigration crisis?

Adam Goodman (AG): My interest in immigration started to deepen when I was living and teaching high school on the U.S.-Mexico border in the Rio Grande Valley in South Texas. Seeing the ways that migration policies shaped both the region and the lives of my students and their families piqued my interest in learning more about migration history. When I got to graduate school, the historiography and the literature really captured my imagination. That was at the start of Obama’s first term, when there was a lot of attention on his immigration enforcement actions. The issues that have dominated news headlines in recent years are not unique to Trump and they didn’t start with Barack Obama, George W. Bush, or Bill Clinton either; the origins of the deportation machine date back to the late nineteenth century.

EY: One of the big arguments you make in your book is that we need to consider all forms of deportation. That term deportation is used colloquially, but as you show the immigration bureaucracy divides these up into what are “voluntary returns” and so-called self-deportations where conditions are such that people are pushed out, along with formal removals that are done through a legal process. What kinds of insights does this more holistic view of these forms of deportation provide?

AG: Having this broader understanding of deportation sheds light on expulsion’s importance throughout the twentieth century, the fashioning of state power, and how deportation—or the possibility of being deported—shapes people’s lives. It also shifts the chronology. Deportation isn’t something that just emerges after the Immigration Act of 1996, which led to a spike in formal deportations, or after 9/11. There are a tremendous number of people who have been removed through formal deportations—8 million or so throughout US history. (The vast majority during the past 25 years.) But there are 48 million people who have been deported via voluntary departure, and an uncountable number of others who have left in response to self-deportation campaigns. So, if we want to understand the history of deportation, we need to expand our time frame and look at how 85-90% of the expulsions throughout U.S. history have happened. Which, in turn, reveals that Mexicans have been even more disproportionately targeted than we thought.

EY: Given that so many scholars start by looking at formal deportations to make the argument that everything changes in the 1980s and beyond, what do you think the qualitative differences are between the informal or voluntary returns versus the formal and legal deportations?

AG: It’s important to distinguish and delineate the different types of expulsion. I argue that we shouldn’t conflate them, but should instead understand how they work in conjunction with one another, because that’s how the deportation machine functions. Formal deportations, historically, have carried more severe penalties and consequences, including bans on re-entry of five, ten or twenty years, or sometimes even lifetime bans. You also might have to spend an extended or indefinite period of time in detention. Many people recognized that’s not a very appealing option and immigration authorities used the threat of bans on re-entry and of indefinite detention to coerce people into accepting administrative removals via voluntary departure. In the book, I equate this to the role plea bargains play in the criminal justice system. If officials threaten someone with 25 years in prison, they might take a plea for four years to mitigate the risk. It’s somewhat similar as to why someone would accept voluntary departure. I recognize the important difference between types of expulsion, while also arguing that voluntary departures have been punitive in nature. They weren’t simply part of a nod-and-wink system in which immigration authorities let people come and go in a pattern of circular migration while employers were able to maintain a cheap exploitable supply of workers. The stereotype of Mexicans as “illegal aliens” has been created, in part, through repeated apprehension and deportation via voluntary departure.

EY: Why does the government turn to the tactic of voluntary removal in the early twentieth century?

AG: Immigration officials never had the resources they needed to carry out the enforcement actions that Congress charged them with implementing. At different moments officials wanted to apprehend and deport more people, but they didn’t have the resources to do so. Congress wasn’t willing to provide them, and perhaps the United States public didn’t have the stomach for such actions either. This led to voluntary departures and informal means to deport people, which depended on giving discretion to low level immigration authorities who, within the system as a whole, had very little power, but had complete or near total power over any one individual migrant. That’s largely still the same today.

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Activist and organizer José Jacques Medina speaks to a crowd of more than 200 people at the Embassy Auditorium in Los Angeles, March 1977, Courtesy of the Department of Special Collections, Stanford University Libraries.

EY: You show in the book how the well-publicized workplace raids and other kinds of raids that happened in the 1930s, 1950s, and 1970s are calculated campaigns that sowed fear and terror in immigrant communities to provoke them to “self-deport.” Do you think the workplace raids in recent years are done for the same purpose? In other words, are these principally propaganda campaigns to instill fear in immigrant communities?

AG: This administration has ratcheted up the fear campaigns and is doing everything it can to instill fear in immigrant communities. That’s happening through public proclamations by officials; it’s happening by leaking things to the press and carefully placing stories; it’s happening by relying on an extensive network of restrictionist think tanks and policy groups that promote an anti-immigrant agenda within Washington in hopes of making it more mainstream. I should point out here that in spite of such self-deportations campaigns, the majority of people have stayed. When Trump took office there were an estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States. Most of those people are still here. It’s important to recognize the way pervasive fear campaigns not only lead to self-deportation, but also affect and shape the lives of people who remain in the country.

EY: In one of your chapters, you describe the resistance by a group of shoe factory workers in South El Monte, right outside of Los Angeles. They refused to answer immigration agents’ questions and thereby blocked deportation efforts. This led to a lawsuit that in 1992 resulted in the recognition that immigrants are protected by certain elements of the Constitution and that immigration agents have to make immigrants aware of such rights when they’re being arrested. So, it’s a kind of success story in your book. But following that success story is a tremendous rise in the numbers of immigrants deported. I’m wondering whether legal strategies have been successful in protecting immigrants.

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Courtesy of the Department of Special Collections, Stanford University Libraries.

AG: I’m interested in how people have endured, adapted, and fought against the machine. The chapter you’re referring to looks at the 1970s, in particular, what I call the dawn of the age of mass expulsion, when we see the number of deportations rise exponentially and reach 900,000-plus people per year (which continues until the end of the century). This was a different era. Building on the Chicano/a and civil rights movements, they took to the streets. They also took their fight to the courts, and the case of the shoe factory workers is an inspiring story because of how people organized. That was one of the key takeaways: It wasn’t individuals engaging in random acts of resistance, it was the joint efforts of immigrant workers, labor organizers, activists, and lawyers that threatened to bring the deportation machine to a halt.  The deportation machine was vulnerable and it remains so today. Part of the job of undocumented immigrants and their allies is to identify how the machine works and where its points of vulnerability are, and to press on them.

EY: Is the trend we see since 2000 positive, in that we have a decreasing number of total deportations even though formal removals have increased significantly, reaching their height under President Obama? How do you interpret the last two decades of deportation history?

AG:  How many people are deported each year matters, of course, but what also matters is how people are expelled and how the consequences of being deported have changed over time. What we see is that deportation has become more punitive and separation more permanent, because of the militarization of the U.S.-Mexico border, the explosion in enforcement funding, and the rise in formal deportations. I’m interested in the experiences of deportees and understanding things from their perspective. Simply looking at the number of expulsions and stopping there isn’t sufficient.

EY: I want to bring you to the point where historians never want to go, which is thinking about policy. You’ve talked about how deportations have been a bipartisan policy for more than a century. And, you argue that no particular party or president is responsible for the creation of this deportation machine, something I would definitely agree with. That being said, what kinds of immigration policies would you advocate?  And do either the major political parties offer a way to turn the United States into a nation of immigrants, rather than a deportation nation as you described in your epilogue?

AG: The Trump administration has made immigration policy more partisan. Whereas Barack Obama, Hilary Clinton, and Republicans and Democrats in Congress supported policies ramping up enforcement, today we see Democrats trying to stake out a different position. I’m a little skeptical about whether that will lead to real change; I’ll defer judgment. That being said, there are reforms that would solve a lot of the problems related to immigration policy. So much now is focused on national security and the needs of the nation, without reckoning with the fact that the migrants—the people these policies affect most—are very much a part of this nation. Allowing people to reunite with families, allowing people to come fill the country’s labor demands, creating more visa slots for Mexicans and doing away with the one-size-fits-all 20,000-person-per-year country quota are just some common sense proposals. Many people in the United States face real economic hardship, there’s no denying that. But scapegoating migrants is not the answer.

EY: The idea of prison abolition has been a powerful political way of conceptualizing the campaign against mass incarceration. I’m wondering if you think there should be a similar campaign to abolish immigration detention and deportation?

AG: Yes, and people are doing this work already. Groups like Organized Communities Against Deportations (OCAD) here in Chicago, the Detention Watch Network, and many others. A lot of community-based, grassroots organizations across the country are advocating bold policy reforms and their voices need to be heard; those possibilities need to be on the table. Whether or not we see such radical change in our lifetime is up in the air. But one thing history teaches us is that sometimes, when we’re least expecting it, transformative change happens, and it usually isn’t by luck—it’s through organizing and through sustained struggle.

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Adam Goodman teaches in the Latin American and Latino Studies Program and in the Department of History at the University of Illinois at Chicago. His writing on immigration history and policy has appeared in outlets such as the Washington PostThe Nation, and the Journal of American History. Goodman is a faculty advisor to UIC’s Fearless Undocumented Alliance, a co-convener of the Newberry Library’s Borderlands and Latino/a Studies seminar, and a co-organizer of the #ImmigrationSyllabus public history project. The Deportation Machine: America’s Long History of Expelling Immigrants (Princeton University Press, 2020) is his first book.

Elliott Young is Professor in the History Department at Lewis and Clark College. Professor Young is the author of Alien Nation: Chinese Migration in the Americas from the Coolie Era through WWIICatarino Garza’s Revolution on the Texas-Mexico Border, and co-editor of Continental Crossroads: Remapping US-Mexico Borderlands History, and a forthcoming book “Forever Prisoners: How the United States Built the Largest Immigrant Detention System in the World.” He is co-founder of the Tepoztlán Institute for Transnational History of the Americas. He has also provided expert witness testimony for over 250 asylum cases.

Copyright: © 2020 Adam Goodman and Elliott Young. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/.

 

Articles

Power Lines Around Los Angeles: Isolation, Interconnection, and Aesthetics

Daniel Wuebben

Historically, California’s overhead electric lines have been pushed to the margins of the built environment and, when possible, physically buried out of sight; now, the webs over our heads are central artifacts in the broader struggle to avoid climate catastrophe and enact climate justice.

Power lines are sites of tension. They have simultaneously proliferated electric currents across California and faded in popularity for over a century. In 1913, when Southern California Edison opened the Big Creek Power House No. 1 and sent hydroelectric power at an unprecedented potential of 150,000 volts across 241-miles to the Eagle Rock substation, the Los Angeles Times envisioned “a hand robed with lightning” stretched “across the gulf of valleys and mountains to the doors of this city.” Contemporaries may have viewed the new, soaring steel transmission towers that began in the Sierras, crossed the Tejon Pass, the Newhall Pass, and then descended into the valley as hands, “robed with lightning,” but by the second half of the twentieth century, most Angelinos associated overhead power lines with industrial blight. Wires, poles, and lattice steel towers made aesthetic intrusions on otherwise beautiful California landscapes. In recent years, another negative inflection has been laced onto the lines. Long, energized wires are potential tinder boxes. Instead of hands robed with lighting, the unpredictable arcing of energized lines swaying in the wind and warmed by climate change has unwittingly ignited dry vegetation and sent waves of fire across mountains and valleys to the doors of Los Angeles.

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Big Creek, 1913. The first power lines in the United States to use all lattice steel towers. “Stringing wires on the 243-mile long Big Creek to Los Angeles 150,00-volt transmission line,” 1913, Bishop G. Haven, Southern California Edison Archive, The Huntington Library, San Marino, California

However, California’s electric infrastructure will, for the foreseeable future, remain fire hazards and lynchpins of climate justice. Efforts to decarbonize and bring more renewable energy sources online requires wires. Indeed, along with wind turbines and solar fields, long-distance, high voltage transmission lines must be built to “”unlock a renewable energy bounty.”[1] The clean energy transition demands transmission. However, gaining public approval for new transmission projects is difficult, especially as the tightrope of electric transmission spans a physical and political landscape charred by wildfires and threatened by blackouts. What can the history of California’s transmission lines offer during this pivotal moment of energy transitions and climate activism?

One can hope that policy makers and affluent communities fighting for clean energy will not shift the burdens of transmission infrastructure into sensitive ecosystems or onto communities already poised to bear the brunt of climate change. The history of infrastructure in California dampens such hopes, but overhead lines have long evoked ambiguous responses. Select lines have been viewed as safe, controlled “lightning”; however, the majority are unruly and sprawling. Some lines have been framed as beacons of progress, others as icons of blight. The lines in our landscape may be viewed as revolutionary links of a technological wonderland or banal webs choking life from the environment.

The following considers some of the historical forces and visual associations of electric lines around Los Angeles. I am not a power lines apologist and am not certain what might incite utilities to repair the thousands of miles of existing lines or the public to accept the new transmission that might be built. Here, I frame specific lines as emblematic of the isolation, interconnection, and aesthetic conflicts in the broader power network. These lines also happen to be on the route between Santa Barbara, where I lived from 2011 to 2015, and the Huntington Library in San Marino, where I completed research for Power-lined: Electricity, Landscape, and the American Mind.

I recently returned to the area and retraced my regular route. It begins and ends with the 101 and a series of smooth, seaside curves that mirror the silky bottom turns surfers make on breaking waves beyond the rumble strips at Rincon Point. After Ventura, one may continue southeast on the 101, over the Conejo Pass and through Thousand Oaks; or, take the longer route east from Ventura and through the Santa Clara River Valley, the self-claimed “Citrus Capital of the World.” Here, I turn east, make a detour towards Ojai, and then continue towards Pasadena and San Marino. I head back on the 101 through Hollywood and then north to Santa Barbara to complete the circuit.

Isolation: Telegraph Road and the Thomas Fire

In 1853, the first telegraph line on the Pacific Coast was strung across the branches of living pine trees. The single wire spanned 23 miles between the northern mining towns of Nevada, Grass Valley, and Auburn.[2]  San Francisco was connected to Los Angeles in 1860, less than a year before the transcontinental telegraph line linked California with the East.[3] The line strengthened coast-to-coast correspondence, but, for most of the nineteenth century, California’s geographically isolated mining outfits, ranch towns, and agricultural settlements sometimes hung together by a mere telegraph thread. Despite growing inter-state communication between San Francisco and other Western cities in the 1850s, the intra-state network remained sparse. In the 1860s that telegraph finally began to spread south in California, reaching Los Angeles in 1860 and San Diego in 1870. James Schwoch’s excellent history, Wired into Nature (2018), considers these environmental pressures. He explains how gold mining and the Civil War spurred the need for telegraph lines in California while difficult terrain and snowstorms in the Sierras hindered this spread.[4] Another challenge was the fact that, even for a state teeming with timber, it was difficult to obtain relatively cheap and easy to move telegraph poles. In the 1860s, groves of Blue Gum Eucalyptus, a species imported from Australia, provided poles for telegraph lines.[5]

California’s relative lack of telegraph lines during the period of late-nineteenth-century occupation and development may be why, in 2020, it appears to have more streets, avenues, and roads with the name “telegraph” than any other state.[6] Over a century ago, a single telegraph line was a noteworthy feature in the middle landscape between wilderness and civilization. Compared to the glut of wires on the Eastern seaboard, a telegraph line in California seemed significant. The lines did not intersect multiple streets of neighboring towns or even connect every district in the cities; rather, the telegraph line was often erected alongside an existing thoroughfare, such as “Telegraph Road” in Los Angeles, which runs diagonally from Beth Israel Cemetery at Olympic Boulevard to Imperial Highway in La Mirada. Collectively, “telegraph” street names may be considered holdovers from an age when new (or at least newly named) dirt roads, stagecoach trails, train tracks, and telegraph wires made collective imprints on the California landscape.

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Telegraph Road in Fillmore, CA. Various sections of Telegraph Road connect Castaic Junction to Ventura.  Photograph by author.

Twenty minutes after I veer off the 101 and onto Route 126, I reach Santa Paula where West Telegraph Road, turns into East Telegraph Road and then continues as Old Telegraph Road. As it appears and disappears, Telegraph Road splits through orchards and nurseries, sometimes overlapping with 126 to arrive in downtown Fillmore. Here, the Fillmore and Western Railway declares itself “Home of Movie Trains” for film and television productions.[7] The telegraph and railroad arrived here in tandem in the late nineteenth century. Film and television crews from Los Angeles still use the railway’s collection of historic train cars and depot scenes to create the illusion of the past. Of course, real telegraph lines and poles are nowhere to be found, but telegraph poles and wires have been a crucial backdrop and narrative device for the Western genre.

In the first decades of the twentieth century, as Los Angeles was wired for power and the lights of the American movie industry flickered to life, director D.W. Griffith used telegraph lines—and telegraph cutting—to signal a sudden isolation of protagonists in two of his more famous short films, The Lonedale Operator (1911) and The Girl and Her Trust (1912). Wire cutting heightens the tension of a pending attack as the characters can no longer send for help. The trope was repeated in the opening scenes of Stagecoach (1939) as well as Once Upon a Time in the West (1968). In the Western, focusing on the single telegraph pole or wire, which the viewer knows can and probably will be broken, evokes the terror of isolation. Wire cutting, loss of telegraphic communication, and the fear felt by the fictional Western characters seems quaint in comparison to the sudden, widespread, and sometimes deadly loss of electric power that has accompanied some of the state’s recent wildfires.

Instead of continuing on Telegraph, I turn up 150, or North Ojai Road. This two-lane road is flanked by wooden utility poles, ranch style homes, and a blend of fan palms and eucalyptus. The valley widens. Goldenrod and chaparral pour down the hills. Soon, I arrive at my destination—Anlauf Canyon Road. On Monday, December 4, 2017, at approximately 6:14pm, the cables which stretch from the poles lining 150 towards a family ranch in Anlauf Canyon swayed and then struck one another resulting in “line slapping.” According to the Ventura Fire Department Report, “phase to phase contact on several spans of [these] power lines” caused “molten aluminum particles to fall to the ground,” which then ignited sagebrush in the dry streambed.[8]

California is crisscrossed by thousands of miles of power lines. Many intersect difficult terrain, pushed away from parks, schools, family homes and sensitive habitats.  For various reasons, electrified lines start thousands of small fires each year. Some rural lines are poorly maintained, some crowded by overgrowth, and some susceptible to being jostled out of position by the warmer, faster winds incited by climate change.[9] In recent years, vulnerable or faulty equipment have ignited California’s most catastrophic blazes.

When an iron hook holding up a 115,000-volt line owned by Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) snapped on the morning of November 8, 2018, it ignited what was later named the Camp Fire, the deadliest fire in California’s history. An investigation revealed that PG&E “knew for years that hundreds of miles of high-voltage power lines could fail and spark fires, yet it repeatedly failed to perform the necessary upgrades.”[10] In October of 2019, after PG&E preemptively shut off power across the northern part of the state, a broken jumper wire started the Kincade Fire. These utility’s culpability for these faulty and exposed lines is part of ongoing lawsuits. To insulate itself, PG&E has filed for bankruptcy. Meanwhile, Southern California Edison—who owns and controls the lines running through this bucolic canyon near Ojai—is fighting its own legal battles regarding the Thomas Fire and the Montecito Mudslides.

What started with this seemingly simple line spread, scorched 282,000 acres over forty days. The fires directly caused two deaths and destroyed hundreds of structures. The tragic catastrophe and heroic effort to fight the fire has been explored, both in gripping journalism and stunning multimodal photoblogs.[11] Meanwhile, locals on the outer edges of the fire footprint are planning a memorial to the many victims and heroic first responders to the mudslides that ripped through Montecito on January 9, 2018.

Two years after the fire and mudslides, I stand on edge of 150 and look East over Steckel Park towards Anlauf Canyon. No sign or memorial will be placed here. I hear the creek gurgling below, see rich and verdant shrubs, and watch the waxy leaves of the Cottonwoods flickering like an organic strobe. This quiet canyon seems like the scene for a Western, a garden seemingly detached from the sprawling metropolis to the south or the devastation wrought in the rich hamlet to the northeast. I know the isolation is illusory. The sensation of being “cut off” from the beautiful vistas of the 101 and the bustle of Los Angeles can be almost instantly collapsed by a loose cable, especially in this age of dryer winters and warmer winds. Decades of damage has exposed our networks to nature’s wrath.

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Charred tree on Highway 150, or North Ojai road.  Photograph by author.

From the shoulder, I photograph some of the visible remnants of the fire, including charred poles, some of which are spray painted with an X. It’s unclear if they have simply not yet been replaced or will continue to be ignored. A series of scorched tree stumps line the opposite side of the road and above, I can see the cables with a hint of green, clearly shiny and new. I imagine most of the drivers that zip past me on 150 do not differentiate between the replacement poles and wires and the original, broken infrastructure. When the fires are controlled and the power returns, how do we notice the lines that ignited it? Why should the technological source of our tragedy be replaced? Why not let them hang there like obsolete telegraph poles alongside train tracks? For me, the electric lines, visible and disappeared, are salient. Maybe the locals see them too. Maybe the experience of the Thomas Fire has led them to see overhead wires as threats, as reminders of how easily the landscape around them could ignite and leave each tiny ranch or small town an island isolated by a sea of flames.

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These wooden poles, insulators, and cables that run towards the Anlauf Canyon site where, December 4, 2017, power lines swaying in high winds cause sparks to fly and ignited the Thomas Fires. Photograph by author.

Intensification at Newhall Pass

Twenty-five miles east of the Fillmore, California Highway 126 reaches Castaic Junction and U.S. Interstate 5. This north-south interstate parallels the Pacific coast from the Mexico-U.S. border at San Diego to the Canadian border in Washington State. In the rocky landscape around Castaic, the 8-lane artery of I-5 is crossed by distinct packs of overhead cables and flanked by soaring transmission towers. To the north, I-5 rises through the Tejon Pass and continues into the Central Valley. In the span of sixty miles, the interstate is crossed by six major sets of 345 kv lines and three sets of 500 kv lines. The 500 kv lines are part of the Path 26 electric power transmission corridor, which runs from the Vincent Substation in Palmdale towards Midway station near Bakersfield. Midway, an industrial plot surrounded by vineyards and almond orchards, connects Path 26 to Path 15. Midway station is a node in the Pacific Intertie, a gigantic infrastructure that, like Interstate 5, stretches thousands of miles across the entire backbone of the continent. Few Californians likely know anything about the Pacific Intertie, but everyone, it seems, has had an experience with the I-5. One can physically engage the I-5, drive from Mexico to Canada on a border-to-border cannonball run in just about 21 hours or, be stuck in rush hour traffic for what feels like days. Meanwhile, no person travels the Pacific Intertie; instead, electrons move border to border in a matter of seconds.

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“Men changing insulators on tower in Kern River Canyon,” 1916, Photographed by Haven G. Bishop, Southern California Edison Photographs and Negatives, Huntington Digital Library, San Marino California

I turn on I-5 south towards Los Angeles. Transmission towers dissect the hills dotted with oak and chaparral. Near the exit for Magic Mountain Parkway, three side-by-side sets of lattice steel towers and two of the “portal” designs carry a cluster of twenty-seven dense cables overhead. Lines and poles repeatedly flicker into view between the palm trees and strip malls that flank the interstate. Two miles behind the Wal-Mart at exit 168 are the remains of the Pico Canyon Oil Field, site of the first commercially drilled oil wells in California and longest operating well in the world, having been tapped in 1876 and capped 114 years later, in 1990. Nearby marks one of California’s first oil refineries and pipelines.[12]

To appreciate the approach to my final destination, I turn east, cut through Santa Clarita, and park at the end of Newhall Avenue near Whitney Canyon Park. The pamphlet for this 442-acre open space boasts “outstanding examples of coastal sage scrub, oak woodland, chaparral and riparian corridor vegetation, with year-round springs and at least ten sensitive species.”[13] While the ecosystem deserves praise, the parks’ hills are visually dominated by lattice steel towers and swooping cables. I ascend the path and stand next to one of these massive specimens. A hawk circles, too close to the lines, I think, and then glides towards the summit.

In fact, wildlife—not wildfires—used to be the cause of California’s power outages. In a fascinating article on the confluence of electrical engineering and ornithology, Etienne Benson tells the story of how, in the 1920s, Southern California Edison employees traced the sudden short circuiting of certain power lines in this area to the streams of feces that hawks released as they launched from their perch on lattice steel towers. The engineers used pans, poles, and shields to break the conductive “streamers” of bird excrement before they draped across the energized lines and caused a flashover.[14]

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Note on the negative reads: “There is no evidence of any burning. Farmer has never seen or heard of any arc.” This may have been part of an investigation regarding an outage. In the 1920s, when the line was upgraded to 220kv, a series of unexplained flashovers were eventually linked to bird feces which splayed across lines, causing them to arc and often incinerating any evidence of the effluent. February 23, 1915. Southern California Edison Archive, The Huntington Library, San Marino, California.

The hawk above me does not release—or at least onto me. It continues in an ungeometric gyre. I listen to corona discharge dissipate in the breeze. I remember that the electrons charging these lines were likely generated by falling water in the Sierras and arrived only to dissipate here, in this lush corridor between the Santa Susana and San Gabriel ranges.

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Whitney Canyon Variety, Photograph by author

If there were such a thing as a park dedicated to the viewing of power lines around Los Angeles, this could be it. The dirt trails curve up and around small canyons and copses to different perspectives on unique tower designs, some L-5s 500 kv, others with more slender frames, fewer arms, lower voltages. The few mountain bikers, hikers, and families I pass do not seem to mind the towers, but I wonder what other purposes, beyond their function, these forms might serve? I am reminded of Leah Glaser’s claim:  transmission towers can be “valuable cultural resources with a crucial story about the impact of long-distance power.”[15] Unsurprisingly, the pamphlet does not tell that story.

The story of these towers would, in my mind, be the story of the “white coal” captured in the Sierras and extended to Los Angeles. Here, in 1906, the world’s first lattice steel transmission towers were used to transmit high voltage power. 1,140 lattice steel towers ranging from 30 to 60 feet tall carried what was at that time a record line with 75,000-volt potential from Kern River No. 1 across 118 miles to Los Angeles. As transmission voltages increased, taller and wider steel structures would replace wooden poles and H-frame structures across the United States and the rest of the world. In fact, California engineers initiated many global advances in power technology during the first decades of the twentieth century. As James C. Williams explains in Energy and the Making of Modern California: “By 1914, their success resulted in California having more long-distance, high tension transmission system that any other region in the world.”[16] Of course, the power systems stretched across the great expanse of the Sierra range, but the bulk of them funneled into San Francisco and Los Angeles. With its natural barriers to the north, lines coming into Los Angeles narrowed into bottlenecks. Nowhere is this more evident than at Newhall Pass.

Newhall Pass was the final gateway on the long journey from the eastern United States to Los Angeles. In 1854, Phineas Banning cut down an existing trail through these mountains by 30 feet to allow wagons the ability to more safely descend. In 1862, Edward Beale acquired a toll road franchise and made another 60-feet gash that was known as “Beale’s Cut.” The Newhall railroad tunnel went beneath the pass in 1876. The new tunnel provided Southern Pacific a direct line to Los Angeles and, with the ensuing and nearby oil boom, Newhall Pass became an inflection point for Los Angeles’s movements of oil, freight, water, and power.


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Los Angeles Aqueduct Cascades, 1913, Los Angeles Department of Water and Power.

I return to my car, drive through the corridor, and in seconds I am on the other side of the ridge. The geography is similar, but it feels like a different world. Here, packed into just over one square mile on the northern edge of Los Angeles county are the remnants or active features of the Ridge Route, the Sierra Highway, Interstate 5, the Antelope Valley Freeway and dozens of off ramps, flyovers, and interchanges. These concrete bands overlay two railroad tunnels and pass beside the first and second iteration of the Los Angeles Aqueduct Cascades. When this notable conduit first opened in 1913, 40,000 people gathered to hear William Mulholland dedicate the engineering feat and to release the flow of water with the famous words, “There it is. Take it!”

Flanking these overlapping tunnels, roads, pipes and chutes are sweeping packs of power lines. I follow the lines as they sweep over a hundred or so brand-new condos which have cardboard and plastic packaging hanging from their flawless garages. Besides one of these sparkling new homes, I notice a half acre burnt patch of recently planted sod grass. Here too, nature has reclaimed parts of the plastic buffer. I exit my rental car, climb up beneath a lattice steel transmission tower, and watch the hypnotic gush of the cascade.

From this vantage point near Newhall Pass, one might behold the latest iteration of what Christopher F. Jones calls “landscapes of intensification” which he defines as “material transformations of the natural environment that unlocked a world of ever-increasing energy flows delivered at ever-decreasing prices.”[17] The transport of energy across this intensified landscape includes transmission lines, which transport electrons. A further level of intensification occurs where these lines intersect other infrastructures.

If Whitney Park is a place from which to view power lines that rise and reach across mountains, Newhall Pass and Sylmar—with its substations, pipelines, aqueducts, warehouses, trucking yards, new homes, and array of industrial glut—may be the site to view the consolidation of material and financial power as its siphoned to and from Los Angeles.

The Portals

After revisiting materials in the Huntington Library stacks, I race through Pasadena towards Hollywood hoping to get beyond the 405-101 interchange before the yellow lines on my map app turn to the thick red of traffic. Like the crowds of isolated drivers around me, I pass countless lines, insulators, poles, and towers. Most are easily ignored and difficult to remember. In fact, in the 1970s, artist R. Crumb created a photo album filled with pictures of California’s street lights, poles, and other overhead infrastructure because, as he explained, “People don’t draw it, all this crap, people don’t focus attention on it because it’s ugly, it’s bleak, it’s depressing…The stuff is not created to be visually pleasing and you can’t remember exactly what it looks like. But, this is the world we live in; I wanted my work to reflect that, the background reality of urban life.”[18]

Amidst the “background reality” of Los Angeles, one series of transmission lines and distribution poles are not as bleak and they do stand out—the Dreyfuss designs.[19] In the late 1960s, in response to consumer outcries against the negative visual impact of power lines, Edison Electric Institute and Southern California Edison pioneered an industry-wide effort to improve the aesthetics of tower designs, to sway public opinions, and to avoid the astronomical costs of undergrounding. They commissioned Henry Dreyfuss, the “father of industrial design” to create a series of aesthetic models to merge the function of high voltage transmission with sleek, modernistic forms. The results initially took the form of a book, Electric Transmission Structures and a short film, Towers of Tomorrow. Both book and film showcase Dreyfuss’s 26 designs for poles and towers. In his introduction, Dreyfuss dreams: “When transmission towers are given the same purity of expression given great bridges, they, too, may be acclaimed as a Twentieth Century art form.” Dreyfuss also narrates Towers of Tomorrow, which features photographs of models against the backdrop of various projected landscapes. Dreyfuss guides viewers with comments related to the innovative features of the new towers such as, “The curve elements are important as they contribute strength as well as well as visual grace.”[20] Overall, the models show Dreyfuss’s preference for “robustness and seamlessness” and structures which would be “sturdy and unified-looking in contrast to their spindly predecessors.”[21]

Dreyfuss and Southern California Edison tried to convince the public that these “esthetic” towers made positive impacts on the visual landscape, but the campaign was not entirely successful.  One recent review notes, “[Dreyfuss’s] work was to be the first and the last cooperative attempt by industry to create new aesthetic structure designs.”[22]

While not exactly new, three distinct types of Dreyfuss power lines remain visible in Los Angeles. The “Starburst” for 69 kv poles features six cantilevered insulators spread out like a starfish. Their most famous placement is along Hollywood Boulevard. The “Sunburst” is a more remarkable design and is used for higher-voltage transmission. The “Sunburst” is a sleeker, more streamlined version of the typical lattice steel transmission tower. Two prototypes were erected near El Segundo in 1967 and thirteen more were put into place the following year. These remain the most exemplary of all Dreyfuss’s transmission line designs, although the dull brown variation is more common.

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“Sunburst” 66kV double-circuit pole design, Photographed by Art Adams, Southern California Edison Photographs and Negatives, Huntington Digital Library

Today, I visit the third of the Dreyfuss designs that remain in the area; the “portal.” In 1972, Southern California Edison described the portals as having “bold, simple silhouette” which is “very impressive at close-up viewing as well as at a distance. Its vee-string insulators are always orderly, even under minor side loads.”[23] One such example is visible above the Conejo Pass.

The Conejo Pass provides a fitting exit for my discussion of Los Angeles’s wired landscapes. Southbound on the iconic Highway 101 from Ventura, trucks lug up the right lanes of the 7% grade while more nimble vehicles whip by on the left. Older cars, I know from experience, are prone to overheat during this steady, 3-mile ascent. Northbound from Los Angeles, semi-truck drivers must have their brakes inspected before descending. Next to the brake checkpoint, just beyond the peak of this steep pass, two formidable pairs of brown concrete pylons are stamped into a rock outcropping like indestructible carpet staples. Twelve cables span the 1400-foot gap carrying 220 kV over the banking traffic. To the east, the lines extend towards to the Los Angeles suburb of Moorpark. To the southwest, they are crossed under by Edison Road, a dirt path that snakes beneath the lines and allows crews to access these pylons and the subsequent lattice steel towers. The portals help to transmit electricity through the mountains and then slope towards the Ormond Beach natural gas power plant on the edge of the Pacific. With its 1,516 megawatt capacity, Ormond Beach is the third largest power plant in California. Due to its age, and newer energy regulations regarding the use of ocean water, Ormand Beach was supposed to shut down in 2020. However, because of concerns about grid reliability, it may remain open for one to three more years.

I leave the car at a dead end in Newbury Park and take the trail I found online and which was posted by rock climbers who come here to scale the Conejo boulders.[24] After a short hike, I’m standing next to the portals, looking down at the 101.

These structures do more than provide physical support for invisible currents. In addition to their aesthetic posture, the specific context for these portals is also fitting, as they strike at the etymological roots of “pylon.” The word “pylon” comes from the Greek word for “gate,” and French archeologists originally used pylon to describe the monumental, side-by-side gateways placed near Egyptian pyramids and temples. For millennia, massive pylons have flanked and decorated prominent entrances, pathways, bridges, and ports. Presently, “pylon” also connotes smaller markers (e.g. “traffic pylon” and “end zone pylon”), tall poles used by airplanes or ships for navigational guidance, and, especially in the United Kingdom, electric transmission towers.

The pylons above Conejo Pass transmit electricity and mediate a visible exchange with landscape. They are portals. They are thresholds. They are visible tokens of the millions of miles of electric lines that, over the course of a century, helped transform this relatively rustic, arid, inhospitable area into one of the most powerful, diverse, and iconic regions on the planet.

Power lines are sites of tension, physically and culturally. While my interest in the history of technology attracts me to different lines like these, these portals have also come to signal my own entrances and exits, flights and perchings in the state of California. I wonder if others might feel the same. Just before I returned to make this tour, the LA Times published an opinion piece urging the California Public Utilities commission, PG&E, and SCE to come up with a plan for the “immediate inspection of all the power lines in the state, starting with those in the high-fire risk areas.”[25]

This has been more like a strange tour compared to the inspections required to keep residents safe during the next fire season. In addition, convincing the public to accept the transmission lines (and corresponding costs) or new transmission will be difficult. For now, viewing unique single slivers in the vast and complex power systems reminds me of the interplays between California’s history and future of electric power, engineering and environmentalism.

Notes

[1] Jeff St. John, “7 Transmission Projects That Could Unlock A Renewable Energy Bounty,” GreenTechMedia, 9 April 2020, https://www.greentechmedia.com/articles/read/9-transmission-projects-laying-the-paths-for-cross-country-clean-energy

[2] James D. Reid, The Telegraph in America:Its Founders, Promoters, and Noted Men (New York: Derby Brothers, 1879), 498.

[3] Alice Bates, “History of the Telegraph in California,” The Historical Society of Southern California Vol. 9.3 (1914), 181-187.

[4] James Schwoch, Wired Into Nature: The Telegraph and the North American Frontier (Urbana-Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2018).

[5] James C. Williams, Energy and the Making of Modern California (Akron, University of Akron Press, 1997), 42.

[6] Some of the most well-known “Telegraph” streets in California are “Telegraph Road” which crosses greater Los Angeles from La Mirada to East Los Angeles and “Telegraph Avenue” which passes from downtown Oakland to the campus of University of California Berkeley. Lesser-frequented telegraph paths are the “Telegraph Road” in a remote stretch of mountains in Midpines, “Telegraph Hill” in El Dorado Hill, “Telegraph Blvd” in Marina, “Telegraph Ave” in Folsom, “Telegraph Place” in San Francisco, and “Telegraph Drive” in San Jose. There are also Telegraph Canyon, Telegraph Peak, Telegraph Hill, Telegraph Ridge, and Telegraph City, named for its location on the line 33 miles east of Stockton and 30 miles west of Sonora.

[7] Richard Verrier, “In Hollywood, All Trains Lead to Fillmore,” LA Times, 20 July 2010 http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/entertainmentnewsbuzz/2010/07/in-hollywood-all-trains-lead-to-fillmore.html

[8] Joseph Serna, “Southern California Edison Power Lines Sparked Deadly Thomas Fire, Investigators Find,” LA Times, 13 March 2019. Ventura County Fire Department Report,  https://vcfd.org/images/news/Thomas-Fire-Investigation-Report_Redacted_3-14-19.pdf

[9] Alejandro Borunda, “Climate Change is Contributing to California’s WildFires” 25 Oct 2019, https://www.nationalgeographic.com/science/2019/10/climate-change-california-power-outage/

[10] Katherine Blunt and Russell Gold, “PG&E Knew for Years Its Lines Could Spark Wildfires, and Didn’t Fix Them” Wall Street Journal 10 July 2019, https://www.wsj.com/articles/pg-e-knew-for-years-its-lines-could-spark-wildfires-and-didnt-fix-them-11562768885

[11] American Wildfire Experience, “Thomas Fire,” Accessed at https://www.mysteryranch.com/thomas-fire

[12] Stan Walker, “Brief History of Oil Development in Pico Canyon,” http://www.elsmerecanyon.com/picocanyon/history/history.htm

[13] Mountain Recreation and Conservation Authority. “Whitney Canyon Park.” CA.gov, https://mrca.ca.gov/parks/park-listing/whitney-canyon/

[14] Etienne Benson. “Generating Infrastructural Invisibility: Insulation, Interconnection, and Avian Excrement in the Southern California Power Grid.” Environmental Humanities Vol. 6.1 (2015), 103-130.

[15] Leah Glaser, “Nice Towers, eh? Evaluation a Transmission Line in Arizona,” Cultural Resource Management, U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, Vol. 20.14 (1997), 23-24.

[16] James C. Williams, Energy and the Making of Modern California, 187.

[17] Christopher F. Jones, “Landscapes of Intensification: Transport and Energy in the U.S. Mid-Atlantic, 1820–1930” The Journal of Transport History, Vol. 35, No. 2 (Dec 2014).

[18] Reznik, Eugene. “R. Crumb’s Snapshots: Source Material of the Legendary Comic Artist.” TIME, 30 Sept 2013. http://time.com/3802766/r-crumbs-snapshots-source-material-of-the-legendary-comic-artist/

[19] Levy, Eugene. “The Aesthetics of Power: High-Voltage Transmission Systems and the American Landscape.” Technology and Culture Vol. 38 No. 3 (July 1997), 575-607.

[20] Towers of Tomorrow. 15 min. New York: Jack Brady Productions, 1968.

[21]  Russell Flinchum, Henry Dreyfuss, Industrial Designer: The Man in the Brown Suit (New York: Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum and Rizzoli, 1997), 174.

[22] Tikalsky, Susan M. and C.J. Willyward. “Aesthetics and Public Perceptions of Transmission Structures: A Brief History of the Research.” Right of Way (Electric Power Research Institute, March-April 2007), 28-32.

[23] Southern California Edison, “Design Guide: Aesthetic Guidelines for Electric Transmission Lines,” Southern California Edison, Rosemead, CA, 1972.

[24] “Conejo Boulders Climbing,” MountainProject.com, https://www.mountainproject.com/area/105850674/conejo-mountain

[25] “Power Lines Are Still Starting California Wildfires” LA Times, Opinion, 29 Nov. 2019, https://www.latimes.com/opinion/story/2019-11-29/fix-california-wildfires-utlities-and-fire-starting-power-lines

Daniel Wuebben Ph.D. is the author of Power-Lined: Electricity, Landscape, and the American Mind (University of Nebraska Press, 2019). His research on floral codes, viral literacy, and surfing has been published in academic journals such as Victorian Literature and CultureComputers and Composition, and Symplokē. He lives in Segovia, Spain, and in July 2020 he will begin a two-year Marie Skłodowska-Curie Fellowship with the Ciberimaginario Group at the Universidad Rey Juan Carlos. His project on “grid literacy” engages electric rhetoric and transmission’s role in the energy transition.

Copyright: © 2020 Daniel Wuebben. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/.

Postcards Series

Acts of Grace: Memory Journeys through the San Joaquin Valley

With “Postcards,” creative non-fiction stories grounded in place, we aspire to create a new cartography of California. For us, literature and language are as much about marking and representing space, as they are about storytelling.


 

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Original Art by Fernando Mendez Corona

Brynn Saito with photographs by Dave Lehl

Places are alive like ghosts are alive: subtle, unpredictable shape-shifters, infused with memory and emotion. The spirit of a place—the genius loci, as the ancients called it—rises from the land’s stories, its unique matrix of weather, struggle, celebration, and blood. There are places we return to again and again to find our stories. We change; they change. The stories we tell take on lives of their own.

The story of my Korean American and Japanese American families begins in Dinuba and Reedley—two rural towns in the heart of California’s agricultural basin, each about 13 miles east of Highway 99, which runs midway between the Pacific and the Sierras. Sometimes, the tale begins in the aftermath of war and incarceration: my father’s parents, Alma Teranishi and Mitsuo Saito, returned to California to resettle in Reedley after their release in 1945 from the Gila River concentration camp in southern Arizona—the place where they met, married, and gave birth to their first child. My mother’s father, Samuel Oh, returned from the European frontlines to his hometown of Dinuba where a divorce awaited him—a separation that, ultimately, set the stage for his meeting and marrying my grandmother, Marilyn. Sometimes, the story begins earlier than that: the first generation arriving on Angel Island then laboring their way to the southern San Joaquin Valley—a place that would, over the course of the 20th century, become the source of 25% of the nation’s harvested food. Almonds, olives, stone fruit, citrus, vegetables, berries alfalfa, winter wheat: crops planted and picked by migrant and immigrant workers, generations of laborers making their lives in the shadow of the distant Sierras.

On a gray, post-rain November morning, I travel with my folks from our home in Fresno back to Reedley and Dinuba. Rows of vine fruit wind along a diverted Kings River and mountain slopes sport majestic, white-painted letters signifying small farming towns: the “R”, the “S”, the “D.” We visit the church where my mother grew her faith; the stadium where my father captained his high school football team; the side lot location of the tree my father and his older brother set fire to—with a boy still in the branches (who, luckily, survived the prank); the old home, where Dad’s dad carved, in their front yard, a stone pond for koi.

What follows is a reflection in prose and photographs tracing the morning’s journey.

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Gregg Saito, downtown Reedley, CA.

“In the summers, your dad used to run barefoot through the streets to get to the town pool,” says my mother as we drive the streets of Reedley, my father’s hometown. I imagine Dad young and running, his little-brother spirit, his charming, mischievous smile—all of the energy of someone totally beloved by his mother, occasionally scolded by his volatile father, teased by his older brother. High school football captain, eventual P.E. teacher, basketball ref, football, basketball, track, and golf coach—and trainer of two, lazy teenaged daughters: I remember my dad up at dawn, cheering us into shape. At 72 years old, my father still runs—many miles each week in the morning’s winter cold. My father has been running his entire life.

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Janelle Oh Saito, Iglesia Nueva Esperanza on K Street, Dinuba, CA.

There are close to 20 churches in less than two square miles in Dinuba. My mother came of age in the Dinuba Presbyterian Church, now the Iglesia Nueva Esperanza. Graced by palms and pistache trees, the formidable building towers above us, as we wander along K and Merced Streets. My mother’s grandfather, Tai Eun, fled Korea for America at the height of the brutal Japanese occupation, eventually establishing himself as a lay leader in Dinuba’s tight-knit Korean Christian community. After it disbanded, my mom and her two brothers started their Sundays at Dinuba Presbyterian, a mostly white congregation. In her day, the Korean American population in Dinuba was larger than in nearby towns, though much smaller than in urban centers like LA or San Francisco. As the decades passed, my mother’s faith continued to anchor her—eventually, she became a lay leader in the Japanese American Christian church (a story for another essay). “Mother, I watch,” begins a poem I wrote for her. “Strong, you walk tall reflecting mountains. / Water grows more sure of its strength as rain rushes beneath / cool elm winds. / You are not / anymore a shard; history’s strong song makes us whole.”

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Gregg Saito, Reedley Buddhist Church, 15th Street.

Dad, storytalking in front of the Reedley Buddhist Church on 15th Street, the church where he was raised. The story of Buddhism in North America reaches further back than the zen and meditation movements of the 1970s. First-wave Asian immigrants in early 20th century brought with them Buddhist belief systems rooted in the Jōdo Shinshū, or “Shin” (True Pure Land) tradition—the tradition of my father’s family. The Reedley Buddhist Church was built in 1936, then rebuilt, in 1952, after the wartime incarceration of the west coast Japanese American community. Neither my father nor I remember what exactly he was pointing to beyond the church gates—most likely, a story of some prank or mischievous behavior—though I do learn that, as a young person, my father was the president of the Young Buddhist’s Association (YBA), the youth group of the Buddhist Churches of America. Both of my parents were shaped early on by spiritual traditions anchoring the lives of the first, second, and third generations; both continue to live lives grounded in service to community.

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Janelle Oh Saito, Grandview Elementary School, Dinuba, CA.

“That’s where I had to sit when I got in trouble for talking too much!” says my mother, pointing at the ledge where her and her girlfriend sat giggling, punished by their teacher for their classroom disturbances. Eventually, both of my parents earned their teaching credentials at Fresno State—education, another inherited legacy.

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The farm where my mother was raised, Avenue 400 and Road 64, Dinuba, CA

Sometimes, my mother walked alone from the family farm to Grandview Elementary—days when her mother, a professional social worker, was working in the nearby town of Visalia and her father was deep in the fields. She’d dive into the side ditch to avoid being sighted by oncoming cars, ashamed to be seen walking alone like that. Her father grew grapes; my mom and her two brothers were often left to their own devices, making their way through the ups and downs of ranch life. As we drive down Avenue 400, my mother points out the location of the surrounding family farms, many once owned by Japanese Americans: the Kawanos, the Nagatas, the Yamamotos, and so on—families who, I imagine, labored hard in the post-war years to rebuild their economies. Always, my mother’s two wishes were: (1), to never marry a farmer, and (2), to move to the city suburbs, both of which she accomplished.

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Jefferson Street, Reedley, CA.

We slowly approach the home on Jefferson street where my father was raised, where his parents—Alma and Mitsuo—settled and lived following their release from the Gila River concentration camp. Grandpa worked for Otani’s market, a farming supply store; Grandma managed the home and children, worked in the local department store; everyone worked in the packing sheds in the summer. Neither of my Japanese American grandparents spoke much about their time in the camps or their reentry into civilian life; it’s taken me decades to understand the shape and nature of this silence. Many families lost everything—farms, homes, land, assets—and returned to communities that were, at best, indifferent to their reappearance. While driving by the Jefferson street house, we glimpse the outline of the koi pond dug out in the front yard—commissioned by my grandfather. It looks just like the pond remnants my father and I witnessed at the Gila River camp this past summer: dusty, stone-specked ghosts from another era, signifying beauty, tradition, struggle—life.

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Janelle Oh Saito and Brynn Saito, Reedley Cemetery

Under a bright gray sky, we wander the Reedley Cemetery grounds on Reed Avenue, paying tribute to the dead, lingering at each marker for more storytalk. Three times more Korean immigrants and Korean Americans are buried in the Reedley Cemetery than in Dinuba’s Smith Mountain Cemetery, despite the fact that Dinuba had a much larger Korean community. This was, in part, due to Smith Mountain’s policy of segregating minorities into designated blocks, which discouraged burials there. My mother’s parents, Marilyn and Samuel, are buried beside their son, Timothy—my mother’s oldest brother, who was killed in a car accident at the age of 25. “He died on Raisin Day,” she says, Dinuba’s annual harvest festival, September of 1976. “Raisin Day didn’t have the same meaning after my brother died.” Nine months after that, my parents were married. “Life is short, we realized,” says my mother. “Why don’t we just get engaged now, and get married? My Auntie Marie would always say: it’s so good that you’re getting married, your mom and dad are so happy, and it gives your mom something to focus on,” those months following Tim’s passing. “42 years later,” says my mother, through tears. “Didn’t work out so bad…”

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Gregg Saito, Reedley Cemetery

Grandmother Alma Teranishi Saito (my father’s mother) is also buried in the Reedley Cemetery, along with her parents and siblings. Her husband’s—Mitsuo’s—ashes were scattered by my father in the Sierras. Both of my parents have already secured their lots there, “overlooking the Kings River,” says my mother. Three generations, one resting place.

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I Street, downtown Reedley, CA

Driving the South Valley streets, much has changed and much hasn’t. Don’s Shoe Store is still Don’s Shoe Store; the site of the old library is now Rose Ann Vuich Park; Otani’s market is now Valley Foods Supermarket, a carniceria and taqueria. I’m curious about life in Dinuba and Reedley in the present, so I ask a couple of friends and former students to share memories with me. “I loved to stop at Table supply in downtown [Dinuba] and grab my monster energy drinks, and then go to Mega Video for a frito boat and a Diablito, which is shaved ice with chili, lime, and chamoy,” says Aidan Castro. “It’s really good. A lot of my memories are in the back yards of my friends’ homes, but I would have to say Rose Ann Vuich park was the place we went to the most. We would go there so often that whenever the cholos would show up to have a smoke session, they would just come up to us and greet us before they went their own way.” If you were to describe Reedley to someone not from California, how would you describe it? “If I had to tell them what Reedley is over all, I would say tradition,” says Edgar Medina. “Reedley values tradition among many things as well as spirit. The people in Reedley work hard to make our name be known around the US, not just from school sports but also for the work we put in growing fruit for the world.” “It’s a beautiful place,” says Alex Flores, of Dinuba. “The view of the Sierra Nevada mountains on a clear day is astounding. It used to be more common; every time the view is clear people talk about how you used to be able to see it all the time.”

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Janelle and Gregg Saito, Iglesia Nueva Esperanza (formerly the Dinuba Presbyterian Church)

On July 23, 1977, my parents were married at the Dinuba Presbyterian Church, with over 300 people in attendance. A reception at the Dinuba Memorial Building on Alta Avenue followed. People—those who know the history of Japan’s occupation of Korea—often ask me how my grandparents felt about my parents’ relationship. No animosity reported, according to my folks—perhaps a testament to generational change, or a swiftly growing Asian America, or the card games hosted by each set of grandparents, where smoking and laughing and storytalking diffused any possibility of cultural tension.

Fresno was the big city my parents escaped to; the place where they met, in college, and made a home; the place from which my sister and I fled for even bigger cities; the place I’ve returned to, decades later, to make life. “Dinuba feels so far away,” my mother said once, despite the relatively short, straight-shot drive down the 99. But I think I’m beginning to understand what she meant. We grow far from the lands of our childhoods, expanding our inner and outer geographies with each day, place, and decade. We become doorways to memory; though so much lies dormant in us—each former self, sparked to life by a place’s spirit, animated again by the scent of a riverbed, the sight of a winter orchard.

I love how my father eventually proposed to my mother—so much so, that his proposal made its way into a poem.

Acts of Grace

Young in the Central Valley
recovering from football season
and summer fires, your mother
and father linger in the lot
outside his apartment.

“Maybe we should go
look at rings,” says your father
and the river is set
the road unwinding.

In a small valley town
twenty miles east of here
your mother as a girl
cut grapes, braved spider fields
in the harvest heat.
Your father in the meantime
rumbled through boyhood
on the heels of war and his mother
and father’s swift incarceration.

How is it they made their way
into each other’s futures—
two tough, bright souls
enduring the crush of July
each in their own child ways?

They found each other.
They decided on each other
and a life with a garden
and two little girls practicing freedom
there in the walled space
with the jasmine and sparrows.
Notes:

The phrase “ignite the silence” is from “Flint and Tinder – Understanding the Difference Between ‘Poetry of Witness’ and ‘Documentary Poetics’,” by Sandra Beasley

Thanks to writers and Fresno State students, Aidan Castro, Alex Flores, and Edgar Medina for sharing their south valley memories with me.

 

Brynn Saito MA, MFA, is the author of two books of poetry, Power Made Us Swoon (2016) and The Palace of Contemplating Departure (2013), winner of the Benjamin Saltman Award from Red Hen Press and a finalist for the Northern California Book Award. She’s the curator of an online project and chapbook entitled, “Dear—” and she co-authored, with Traci Brimhall, the poetry chapbook, Bright Power, Dark Peace (Diode Editions, 2016). Brynn teaches in the Creative Writing program at California State University, Fresno and co-directs the Yonsei Memory Project (YMP) with Nikiko Masumoto. Brynn was recently featured in Vogue.com in “The Memory Keepers.”

Copyright: © 2020 Brynn Saito. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/.

Postcard Series:

  1. Jenise Miller, “We are our own Multitude: Los Angeles’ Black Panamanian Community”
  2. Toni Mirosevich, “Who I Used To Be”
  3. Myriam Gurba, “El Corrido del Copete”
  4. Jennifer Carr, “The Tides that Erase: Automation and the Los Angeles Waterfront”
  5. Melissa Hidalgo, “A Chumash Line: How an old email and five PDFs revealed my Native Californian Roots”
Poetry

Abecedarian Love Song for Street Food

Image

Original art by Fernando Mendez Corona

Lee Herrick

“Street food, I believe, is the salvation of the human race.”

—Anthony Bourdain

All praise for the pozole glistening in midday light
by the grace of the woman near the comal. In southern
California, Raul Martinez unveiled a mobile
downtown goldmine of al pastor by a bar in
East LA for the drunk, the artists, the necessary
future waiting in line. Praise be to the ice cream truck,
glory of the van’s slow roll, so praise the van,
hut, cart, booth, tent, stall, stand, bike, or truck.
I once devoured a tlayuda in Oaxaca City, broke down
just as the sunlight burst through the heart of a woman
kissing her baby’s forehead by the plaza. When I say
love, what I mean to say is I dream of you through disaster,
malady, drought, or this nightmare anxiety pandemic.
Now, even in this late dying, let us praise the 20,000
open-hearted vendors in Bangkok and the glorious
pupusas in San Salvador I ate on a bench near a dove.
Quesadilla. Arepa. Tteokbokki. Hallelujah. The banh mi
right on the outskirts of Hue, the chili pepper, the cilantro
songs, praise the Zocalo saints who brought me
to tears with a taco so full of music I almost wept.
Under the Beijing moonlight, bao zi is made by angels,
vendors with wings if you know where to look. On
West 53rd and 6th Ave, NYC, halal, or in Fresno, no
xenophobe is welcome. Tell me what to eat—
your chuan, your eloté, your mouthful of pure
zen, like savory, surprising flashes of heaven.

 

Lee Herrick is the author of Scar and Flower and two other books of poems, Gardening Secrets of the Dead and This Many Miles from Desire. He is co-editor of The World I Leave You: Asian American Poets on Faith and Spirit (Orison Books). His poems appear widely in literary magazines, textbooks, and anthologies such as One for the Money: The Sentence as Poetic Form; Indivisible: Poems of Social Justice; Here: Poems for the Planet, with an introduction by the Dalai Lama; California Fire and Water; and Dear America: Letters of Hope, Habitat, Defiance, and Democracy, among others. Born in Daejeon, Korea and adopted to the United States at ten months, he served as Fresno Poet Laureate from 2015-2017. He lives in Fresno, California and teaches at Fresno City College and the MFA Program at Sierra Nevada University.

Copyright: © 2020 Lee Herrick. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/.

 

Interviews

Revisiting Joan Didion’s California: An Interview with David L. Ulin

Ryan Reft
David L. Ulin

“One difference between the West and the South, I came to realize in the 1970s, was this: in the South they remained convinced that they had bloodied their land with history. In California we did not believe that history could bloody the land, or even touch it,” Joan Didion wrote in her 2003 memoir, Where I Was From. In it, Didion spends a great deal of time re-evaluating her earlier work. After all, Didion documented the era that reshaped and initiated California’s transformation from its golden, hermetically sealed mid-century “idyllic” years as a symbol of the “American Dream” into the global, more complex, racially diverse, quasi-nation state that it is today representative of globalization.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the new collection from the Library of America: Joan Didion: The 1960s & 70s. Comprised of her first five works, Run, River, Slouching Toward Bethlehem, Play It As It Lays, and The White Album, the volume, a mixture of fiction and non-fiction, offers a window into a transformative period in American and Californian life, documented by Didion. Over the course of her five books, the two formats, the real and the imagined, intertwine to produce a distinctly Didion-esque narrative of the era: detached, intrigued, and clear-eyed. Author, literary critic, and editor of the new volume, David L. Ulin spoke with Boom by phone about the famed California writer, her disbelief in ideologies, and how he thinks about Didion’s work then, in the context of today.

This interview has been edited for length and content. 

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Ryan Reft: In a volume like this, what do you think an 18-year-old reader might take from it, as opposed to someone older such as a 32 year old? What do you think each might take from it, in terms of Joan Didion’s writing, and California and so on?

David L. Ulin: I think that’s a really good question and I don’t know the answer to it. I was drawn to her at 18 because I was a particular kind of 18-year-old, in a sense that I spent a lot of time in my own head. When I started reading her, my first thought was one of connection because I thought “this is someone who spends as much time in her own head as I do or maybe more.” I was really drawn by the interiority of it and the self exposure, even in material that wasn’t necessarily inherently autobiographical. Like “Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream” where she basically is tipping her hand about a whole sensibility instead of attitudes and social postures, but it’s woven into the body of the text. So there was that. Also at 18, I was already kind of self-identifying as a writer. So, although I don’t want to say that I was thinking about it as programmatically as I would later come to think of it, I was definitely on some level thinking about sentences and paragraphs and structure and sentences. I do remember opening the book Slouching towards Bethlehem having never read her and “Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream” is the first essay in the book, and what I do remember is quickly within a few pages thinking, “Wow, I’ve never read somebody write sentences like this.” I mean, I was really intrigued by the language. So that was the first impulse. I think for an 18-year-old reader with those same kind of sensibilities or that same kind of wiring, I could see them coming to her work in all sorts of ways. It’s interesting because I don’t necessarily think of this collection as the gateway for that kind of reader. Only because it’s an expensive, hardcover with five books in it. I have to imagine most 18-year-olds are getting their books online or the cheapest possible used copy. I think in terms of California, it’s interesting because a lot of what she says about California is still relevant. A distinction that we see in terms of reading her work now is that the California she’s describing leaves out large parts of the California we live in. She’s not intentionally leaving them out, she’s focusing on other areas. So I think that for someone reading her now, to get a handle on California or Southern California in particular, she would be missing a lot. Her racial politics or racial vision, deals with a vision of black and white. In the ‘50s and the ‘60s, that was the frame and mechanism for how we wrote and thought of America. But even then it was a narrow way of looking at California, and certainly now it’s an extremely limited lens on California. She’d have to be supplemented now in terms of really digging into what the persuasion of the state is.

Reft: You make a very good point about the much broader, non-binary, multi-racial nature of California as the way we think about the state today. I wanted to ask you about race because you know some people, as I’ve read her, and others such as Lorraine Berry, she mentioned that in her review of Didion’s had South and West, she had said that “Didion contently treats people of color as objects of observation, they are objects of discussion, but never once do they get to offer Didion their views of the states they live in.” I think this is broadly true but also I do think Didion was sympathetic. You’ve already said you’d supplement it but what would you supplement her work with?

Ulin: Yes, I’ve read that piece that you’re citing, and I don’t disagree with it, I think it’s complicated. I think that the whole issue of Didion and –I don’t mean to package these two things together though I do think they overlap –say, race and class, is complicated because Didion is writing out of a particular demographic position. And that demographic position is certainly a position of privilege, but a nuanced kind of privilege. She’s writing out of class privilege in a sense that her family came over on the Oregon Trail, so she is a kind of a first California family, she’s writing out of that similar position of those old roots because of having been raised in Sacramento and the state politics component, you know playing in the governor’s mansion when she was a kid and that sort of stuff, but also the kind of nostalgia of what that California means. It’s a very Anglo vision of California. The so-called “First Californians” in this construct are not so much the Chumash or the Tongva, they are the Anglo settlers who came from Iowa and Missouri or whatever, and who came before the railroads were built and pioneered it over to California. So that’s a very particular sensibility. I think that’s a valid sensibility in terms of thinking about California but again as we are talking about in terms of the non-binary discussion of race, it is now finally commonly acknowledged and accepted as it should be as simply one of the theories of overlapping perspectives or visions of California as opposed to the only one or even the central one. There are dozens and dozens of others. This is a long way of saying that I think she is sympathetic. I think in large measure the sense of distance is not so much a political or social posture for her as it is a psychological or personal posture for her. I think that Didion’s was always at a distance. Didion famously said style is substance. She very interested in the surfaces of things because she wants to see what they signify, but also because she is always approaching others from the surface. She keeps a distance and is either not trying or not able to be intimate with them in a different way. Another thing that really fascinates me about her is the kind of collapsing distinction between the personal and the social. She always has the posture of an outsider, as someone who is looking at other people as objects, as someone operating from the outside in.

Reft: I actually find that her detachment attracted me to her writing.

 Ulin: Me too. I think that is something I psychologically share with her, and I think it’s one of the reasons when I read her as a teenager, I felt myself moving through the world. I don’t think I’d ever come across that  kind of detached sensibility.

Reft: In Where I Was From, she’s spent a great deal of time talking about the ’60s or ’70s when California came out of this hermetically sealed existence and started becoming celebrated as a symbol of what America’s promise was, whether one believes in that or not.  I think that that’s an interesting dynamic, particularly in the fact that she’s still in California when you get the rise of Ronald Reagan and the New Right, which you could argue is not so outward-looking.

Ulin: She was highly critical of Reagan, (and particularly of Nancy Reagan) and justifiably so, but I also think she understood him. Reagan is interesting, because he’s not a product of the ’60s.  But as a political figure, he’s as much a product of the ’60s as Mario Savio. In some ways without Mario Savio we don’t get Ronald Reagan. Now that’s a broad generalization. Without the Free Speech Movement in Berkeley in 1964 and 1965 maybe there’s not a kind of Silent Majority backlash. There’s so much interesting overlap in terms of the kind of pendulum of history, and I think Didion is aware of that. I don’t think Didion is particularly surprised by Reagan, but Reagan really comes out of that Old California, that pioneer California or that insular California trying to reach out and grab its territory. I think that tension is embodied in a lot of Didion’s writing about the ’60s because you know she started off the ’60s as a conservative, she voted for Goldwater in 64. One of my favorite pieces of information about her is that in 62 she flew back from New York to vote against Nixon in the Republican Gubernatorial Primary because he was not sufficiently conservative. She is in her own way very socially conservative. The entire essay “Slouching Towards Bethlehem,” which is a masterpiece, is built in part around the notion that traditional social narratives have eroded and that nothing has replaced them. These little things we take for granted like “how do we set a place at a table,” we think are not that important, but she’s arguing that in fact they are extremely important as pieces of social fabric or the social narrative. That’s a very socially conservative point of view. At the same time, because of what she is going through and living through, her head is sort of exploding with ideas and possibilities and I think that there’s a real tension in Didion between a kind of innate social conservatism on the one hand and the wildness of what she’s observing and also, in some way, living through in Southern California. The uncertainty if it, the breakdown of narratives. For her, narrative is both a necessity and also something that she grows not to trust. And I think that that’s really, really important and it grows out of the overlap of all of these elements and influences.

Reft: Eric Avila wrote an essay about how she had anticipated a rising conservative critique of cultural decline in the US. But it’s weird because when I read her, I never felt that it was ideological.

Ulin: She starts out ideologically when she’s like 28 or 30 in 1962 and 1964. I don’t think that the ideology crosses into the work, but she is ideologically conservative. Then she kind of loses a sense of faith in ideology. It’s one of the narratives that collapses for her because the ideologies are inconsistent, and situations are too complicated. She is very good because she is a dread junkie in her way, which is also something I share with her. She’s really good at focusing on how the narratives collapse and desert us and leave us bereft, and that isn’t an ideological issue, really because the narratives on both sides are doing that, or at least that’s Didion’s position. It’s a position I also share with her. So all narratives are up for grabs and you end up with everyone being kneecapped by the collapse of whatever their chosen narrative is.

Reft:In a 2017 interview with you, she made a comment about narratives being atomized even in her novel, Play It As It Lays, as almost imagistic. It seems like that kind atomized essay form speaks to the current moment. In your 2019 interview with the Library of America, you say, “Didion is drawn to disruption, social, cultural, and personal.” What I find particularly noteworthy about that description is how it fits the current rhetoric of disruption that came out of Silicon Valley and the tech industry. The larger point being that the comment that she made in 2017 about the atomization of narratives, and your comment, speak to the way we encounter narratives today. I wonder if this collection, even though it is from the ’60s and ’70s, actually speaks in its physical form to how we think about these things today. Does that make sense?

Ulin: Yeah, it does, and I don’t know if I can speak to how the collection addresses it for contemporary readers, only because I think that’s for each contemporary reader to figure out. First of all, I agree with her that narratives become atomized, I mean if you watch the latest Democratic Presidential Debate, you got an atomized series of versions of what essentially is a shared narrative. Right? And so we can’t even agree on how we are going to agree at this point, or what our common ground is. And I’m not only talking in terms of political narrative. I think there are a lot of reasons for this, some of them have to do with politics and ideology, and some of them have to do with education. Some of them have to do simply with cultural overload, the breakdown of authority. I actually think that that’s not a terrible thing, you know, the breakdown of traditional gatekeepers, and of that kind of structure by which stories went out into the world. I think that it does come back to technology in some way because technology is disruptive, and social media in particular is disruptive. It can be disruptive in really useful ways, and one of those useful ways is by giving everyone an unfiltered platform by which they can speak without being curated by somebody else. So I think that we live in that kind of universe already. When I talk to students, they’re gathering information, as we all are, but they’re gathering information from all sorts of overlapping sources that don’t on the face have anything to do with each other. Students understand that they’re different sources, but they’re not necessarily concerned about those distinctions. So you’ll have a social media post, a novel, something from a film or streaming video, conversations they might have had, a photo of someone’s food –they all kind of overlap. We are all collaging it now as we go along. I don’t want to make a claim for her prescience but again I do think this has to do with Didion’s sensibility and her emotional and psychological framework. I think Didion identifies this really early. In a lot of ways it all grows out of the Haight Ashbury essay in Slouching Towards Bethlehem  because that essay is the first of what we can call a concrete example of one of her atomized narratives. That’s an essay written entirely of fragments. None of the fragments are very long. They do add up in the sense that they move chronologically through a period of time, so we have a sense of time progressing and we run into some of the same characters over and over again. But there’s no real movement. Those characters aren’t doing anything different. There’s no change or progression in their behavior or their attitudes. At the same time, there are these anonymous or secondary characters who are interchangeable and drop in and out. Like the kids she buys the burgers and Cokes for –the sort of “clueless young” is what we can call them in the concept of the essay. So that essay, the only way to tell that story, which is essentially a story of stasis and chaos, is for her to create a structural form, a fragmentation that allows her to mirror in the structure of the writing the fragmentation that she’s trying to describe. As a critic, I trace a direct line from that essay to Play It As It Lays which is essentially the atomized narrative writ large, it’s an atomized novel. It’s a 200 page novel with over 100 chapters, and some of those chapters are a sentence long, and there’s something really, really interesting about that as a formal move. And then she moves from that into the essay “The White Album,” which is also an atomized, fragmented narrative. There’s “Los Angeles Notebook’ which also operates that way. She’s playing around really early with this idea of using fragmentary structures to reflect or illuminate the fragmentation of personal and collective narrative that she’s observing in the culture around her. At one point 10 or 12 years ago I wrote an essay saying that in some way, her description of 1968 was highly relevant to 2008, because if you wanted to break down an atomized or fragmented narrative approach you have Barack Obama’s narrative on one hand, and Sarah Palin’s narrative on the other, and they both were American narratives, but they were utterly divergent with no point of intersection. Didion was aware of this 40 years before. So I think that that’s a really interesting and important part of these writings in particular, because these are the books that she is staking out that territory content-wise, but even more importantly where she’s developing narrative and structural strategy to illuminate and illustrate through the movement of the language on the page.

Reft: Despite my saying that, I also think that when you read through the collection from Run, River and the rest all the way through, it almost reads like a big sprawling conversation. It starts with the story of this august California family, and its failure to adapt to postwar realities in the States, and then in the essays she discusses California’s larger history in this way.  In The White Album, in her essay on motorcycle films in Slouching Toward Bethlehem, then in Play It As It Lays, in which the main character Maria Wyeth is trying to get a role in such a film, and in the “Bureaucrats” in The White Album. You could even look at A Book of Common Prayer, where Marin is basically a symbol of a kind of student unrest. Do you think that her fictional work and her nonfiction writing intertwine? And when they do, what do you think that does for the narrative? Does it muddy it, or do you think that it brings it into clearer focus? Or does it do something completely different all together?

Ulin: I think that the relationship between her fiction and nonfiction is really interesting. To be totally honest, for years, decades, I completely gave her fiction short drift. I wasn’t particularly interested in it. After I first read Slouching, I went and read The White Album and then I basically went and got all the nonfiction that was available and read it. As new nonfiction books would come out I would buy them, in hardcover and read them instantly. But the fiction… I think the only novel for a long time I had read was Play It As It Lays. I have to say I think it’s a really interesting novel, though I also think it has a bunch of problems. I wasn’t that interested in Hollywood at that point. I was still living on the East Coast. So it didn’t resonate with me and I really thought the fiction was somehow secondary. That changed prior to my getting involved in this project. But the work on the project has been interesting in kind of exactly the way you are asking about, because one of the things that the work of the project required at the beginning was the kind of end to end rereading of the entire body of work. Over the years, I had ultimately come to read all of the novels, and I think a couple of them are quite good. I think Democracy is a really spectacularly good novel. And I’m a big fan of Run, River. I really think it’s a really good novel and particularly for a first novel. I’ve always kind of liked A Book of Common Prayer for a variety of reasons. But I do think that in the context of the whole career, the fiction seems a lot more essential to me than it did when I was thinking simply book-to-book. And partly for the reasons you are talking about, it makes sense because as a writer and as a human, she’s not addressing certain concerns in fiction and certain concerns in non-fiction. She’s writing out of  whatever it is she’s wrestling with. And she’s wrestling consistently over a period of years. So I think that it’s absolutely the case that the novels are in conversation with the essays; that they’re learning things from each other about style and structure; that they are learning things from each other about content and angle of attack. I think we really see it in Where I Was From, where she doubles back and basically takes apart Run, River. In Where I Was From, she uses her reevaluation of Run, River to make a larger reevaluation of California mythology and narratives, you know, narratives she bought into, that she’s now no longer buying into. It’s really an interesting pair of bookends, if the career had ended with Where I was From. It would have been a kind of perfectly arched structure in a certain sense with a conversation taking place between a book of fiction and a book of nonfiction. I don’t think she is mapping it out that way, but you know as a writer, she is clearly aware on a cellular level, if nothing else, of how these books are informing each other. But one of the great pleasures of doing this project and there have been many, is that it has allowed me to think about and contextualize her fiction as an essential part of her body of work. And that is something that as a reader of her, I’ve had to grow into that perception.

Reft: I can’t end this interview without asking a question about gender. Famously, in her essay from “The Women’s Movement,” from The White Album, she wrote, “I’ve also often wondered about gender. And then, at the exact dispirited moment when there seemed no one at all willing to play the proletariat, along came the women’s movement, and the invention of women as a ‘class’ … To read even desultorily in this literature was to recognize instantly a certain dolorous phantasm, an imagined Every Woman with whom the authors seemed to identify all too entirely. This ubiquitous construct was everyone’s victim but her own.’” Now that sounds like a dismissal of feminism. But then when you read this volume, you’ve got women in a constellation of roles and positions. You’ve got Lily Knight in Run, River as an adultress stuck in a complicated marriage. You’ve got Maria Wyeth, who at first may seem like a victim of Hollywood’s toxic culture but by its conclusion is revealed to be much more complicated and perhaps much more problematic than the reader realizes. And then Charlotte Douglass and her daughter Marin are these independent and emotional elusive figures; Marin a literal criminal. So how do you think readers will wrestle with this aspect of her writing in terms of gender, because on the one hand it seems dismissive, and on the other hand when you actually read through it, it’s not at all. 

Ulin: I think that’s a key question. I will say “The Women’s Movement” essay is not one of my favorites, it feels to me not fully formed in some way, like that’s an essay I would love to have seen her revisit in some fashion. But I do agree with you, though she’s not dismissing, she’s critiquing the movements. She’s always writing about strong women characters. For me, it’s not necessarily feminism or what feminism entails or means or activates that she is resisting. I don’t even think that’s true. I think that on practical terms, she’s a feminist. A strong working woman who put her career first, always did. She wanted to go to Saigon and report on the war, and no one would send her because she’s a woman. She and Dunne were going to bring Quintana as a baby to Saigon. I think you know the idea of a kind of strong, self-directed woman is not something she feels she has to champion because it’s just who she is. She’s natural. That’s the first part. I do think that’s true. I also think it’s more of her resistance to the idea of a movement, rather than going back to what we were talking about. She’s not a “joiner.” So the idea that to be actualized or activated, she needs to be part of a movement, I think that’s what she’s resisting. And I also think she’s resisting a certain kind of flattening of language and rhetoric that comes out of movement ideology and movement thinking. I think that across the board whatever that movement is, and that’s true not just of progressive or liberal movements, it’s also true for conservative movements. I think she’s rejecting the idea of group think in favor of a kind of individual consciousness. Now the trick about that or the catch is that that is a position of a class privilege. Only a human who is in a position to be able to self-actualize, who has the resources, whether they are financial or professional or whatever, to do what she needs to do can step away. The value of a movement is that it works for everybody. It’s not about the individual, it’s about making everybody rises on the tide. Only someone who has already risen can stand  askance from the movement. Didion is not someone who is struggling to get a job, she’s not struggling to get recognition or respect, she’s not someone struggling financially, or any of these things. But by the same token, that is who she is. That is what her experience is, that is her social positioning, and so there’s no way for her not to operate out of that social positioning. It’s her context. And so I think it’s really complicated, particularly around the women’s movement, because she is emblematic of many of the things that the women’s movement stands for, but she’s suspicious of movements in general. She’s privileged enough that she hasn’t had to be part of that collective process. I think there we see a lot of the impulses and contradictions that come together in some way. Again, with Didion, it comes back to personal positioning and and personal sensibility first, and the political or social positioning or sensibility grows out of that.

 

 

Ryan Reft is a historian of 20th and 21st-century American history at the Library of Congress. His work has appeared in several journals, including Souls, The Sixties, California History, Planning Perspectives, Southern California Quarterly, and the Journal of Urban History, as well as in the anthology “Barack Obama and African American Empowerment: The Rise of Black America’s New Leadership” and “Asian American Sporting Cultures.” He is the co-editor of East of East: The Making of Greater El Monte. The opinions expressed by Reft are solely his and not those of the Library of Congress. He can be reached on twitter at @ryanreft.

David L. Ulin is Associate Professor of the Practice of English. He is the author or editor of a dozen books, including Sidewalking: Coming to Terms with Los Angeles, shortlisted for the PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay, and Writing Los Angeles: A Literary Anthology, which won a California Book Award. The former book editor and book critic of the Los Angeles Times, he has written for The Atlantic MonthlyVirginia Quarterly ReviewThe Paris Review, and The New York Times. He has received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, Black Mountain Institute, and the Lannan Foundation. Most recently, he edited the Library of America’s Didion: The 1960s and 70s, the first in a three volume edition of the author’s collected works.

Copyright: © 2020 Ryan Reft and David L. Ulin. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/.

Reviews

Lunch Ladies and the Fight for School Food Justice: A Superhero Origin Story

Christine Tran

Plagued by unsavory stories in American popular culture, the lunch lady has been a mocked and villainized figure for decades. Yet, as the COVID-19 pandemic unfolds in real-time, lunch ladies across the country are emerging as unassuming superheroes feeding millions across the United States.

Because of school closures and an economic downturn, school food is assuming a major role in providing emergency meals for their communities. Some are doing so independently and others have partnered with local food banks, faith-based organizations, and the Red Cross. With nearly 75 million children under the age of eighteen across the country,[1] coupled with families losing their incomes at a startling rate, more and more people are in need of food. In the first three weeks of shelter-in-place orders, sixteen million Americans filed for unemployment[2] while in nearly the same three-week period, the Los Angeles Unified School District served five million meals to children and adults.[3]

Arroyo Knights. El Monte.

Arroyo High Schools in El Monte, California

Yet unlike the origin stories of comic book heroes, the history of the lunch lady has been almost entirely erased. Moreover, their collective stories have fallen victim to historical amnesia. As a result, school food, as a sector, is invisible to and undervalued by society. For decades, most lunch ladies held some of the lowest paying jobs in school systems, making hourly wages with little to no benefits—creating a lasting impact on their economic and social worth. This is the underappreciated workforce that the United States now looks to for support.

More than ever, it is important to elevate the origin story of the lunch lady. As comic books have taught us, we can’t undo the past but we can learn from it as we move on to create future narratives, where lunch ladies (and gentlemen, or more gender non-conforming “food folks”) are acknowledged and respected for the essential workers that they are, during and outside of a pandemic. To bring those narratives to light, Jennifer Gaddis gives us their origin story in The Labor of Lunch: Why We Need Real Food and Real Jobs in American Public Schools (UC Press, 2019).

In her book, Gaddis addresses implicit biases the reader may hold about lunch ladies by guiding us through a richly-layered history of school food and labor. Using archival photos and first-hand stories, she connects us with narratives that have been withheld from our collective consciousness. She addresses the inequities of this work head on by laying out the historic role that racial and economic discrimination, capitalism, and patriarchy played in perpetuating stereotypes of school food service workers.

Gaddis sets the stage for the book not in faraway time or even in a cafeteria. She starts the book in 2004 with Lisa, a 48-year-old assistant cook, testifying in front of a local school board: “Good evening, distinguished board members and all in the room who have an ethical obligation to our children. I see some faces whose children I have had the honor of personally feeding. I use the word honor because it is the highest trust a parent can give, letting someone else care and nurture their children” (1). In her own words, Lisa addresses the board as an advocate and labor union member, identities not often associated with lunch ladies.

Gaddis_Fig3

UNITE HERE Local 1 workers gather in protest outside Chicago Public Schools head-quarters in April 2012 as part of a series of actions in their real-food, real-jobs campaigns.Courtesy UNITE HERE

Further so, she aptly titles the first chapter of the book, “The Radical Roots of School Lunch.” This foundational section to the book disaggregates the history you may find on the internet when you search for “school lunch.” Gaddis tells a history of a movement that began half a century before the passing of the 1946 National School Lunch Act, by firmly rooting school food history alongside feminist history, calling it a “product of generations of women’s activism.” In fact, school lunch started out in the 1890s  as a localized “penny lunch” program as part of a “nonprofit school lunch movement.” It was born out of a public necessity to feed extremely poor children, “not as private, gendered responsibility” (18). School lunch, along with kindergarten and public kitchens, were just some approaches advocates used to create new forms of public caregiving to support the changing roles of women during this industrializing era.

A federal policy that paves the way for the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) can appear to be a win, but who is actually benefiting from the program? Gaddis examines the systemic racial inequities that excluded many populations of color under the federal school lunch program. In the chapter, “The Fight for Food Justice,” Gaddis discusses the role of the Black Panther Party in organizing local support for poor black communities whose needs were unmet by the government. In 1968, a group of Oakland mothers worked alongside the Panthers to start the very first Free Breakfast for Children Program. This program resulted in a national movement of localized expansion in poor black communities that would feed tens of thousands of poor black children across the country while exposing inequities, and demonstrating to the American public “a working example of how social reproduction could be collectivized at the neighborhood scale in a truly egalitarian fashion” (62).

In addition to social and political movements, the chronology of school food is also heavily influenced by the industrialization of food and rise of the cheap food economy, as well as the government’s role in regulating what goes into school meals. In 1981, the Reagan administration reduced the school food budget by one-third, resulting in the need to cut costs by changing regulations to include cheaper substitutes. A task force was convened to discuss cheaper alternatives to certain meal components: “Suddenly corn chips, pretzels, doughnuts, and pies could all pass as ‘bread’ in the NSLP” (98). Gaddis also describes the shifting labor of school lunch, as more central kitchen models were being constructed and for-profit Big Food factories began receiving more contracts to turn commodity foods like chicken into nuggets. These shifts led to reheating already prepared foods and diminishing a school cafeteria’s capacity to cook from scratch. This period, according to Gaddis, had a stark effect on the school food programming across the country.

Gaddis_Fig1

Workers making prepack sandwiches in a central kitchen facility. Records of the Office of  the Secretary of Agriculture, 1974-ca. 2003, National Archives and Records Administration.

Despite the challenges that exist in school food, Gaddis positions a lofty goal for the school food sector: “Empowering school kitchen and cafeteria workers to cook real food from scratch using locally sourced and school-grown ingredients can transform the entire culture of [NSLP]” (174). Rather than one-off solutions or one-size fits all approaches, Gaddis offers several examples to realize this “real food economy.” One approach is farm-to-school, by which schools can connect and buy directly from local farmers. This type of programming effectively builds relationships with food so that we know where it comes from. This requires coordinated efforts and investments: “Establishing comprehensive farm-to-school programs that combine local food procurement, school gardening, and classroom education takes significant effort that is difficult to sustain without grant funding and personal donations” (196). Identifying and working with local partners is key to making this change. Gaddis reminds us of this shared responsibility: “The NSLP is a public program. And we, the public, can reimagine and ultimately transform it into an engine for positive social and economic change” (214). We must remember that to feed children, we must also employ people to serve, cook, transport, and grow food. In effect, this would stimulate the economy, not take away from it.

Making these sweeping changes to the school food system requires a greater shift in society. Gaddis positions the notion of a real school food system into a new economy of care. How do we care about school food and the labor behind it? Gaddis reminds us that the value of school food and labor is dependent on our collective respect for it: “It’s up to us to change the paradigm. Cheapness is not synonymous with public value.” (228). Now more than ever, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, food service workers across the country need this paradigm shift as they risk their own health to feed millions of children. By valuing their labor and school food we can better support them on the frontlines of this public health crisis.

Notes

[1] https://www.childtrends.org/indicators/number-of-children

[2] https://apnews.com/20a7e14dada836862b250b54a11305dd

[3] https://civileats.com/2020/04/07/with-schools-closed-some-districts-are-feeding-more-people-than-food-banks/

 

Christine Tran is a food and education advocate from South El Monte, California. She is passionate about people, places, food, and stories that connect us all. Her diverse background in education, food justice, communities, and policy has taken her across the country and around the world. As a multimedia storyteller, she aspires to spark dialogues to deepen our understanding of each other, the food we eat, and the world we share. Christine is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Washington studying Educational Leadership, Policy & Organizations. She obtained her bachelor’s degrees in Asian American Studies and English, as well as a Master of Education from UCLA. She also holds a Master of Arts in sociology from Columbia University in the City of New York.

Copyright: © 2020 Christine Tran. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/.

Poetry

After

IMG_5389

Original art by Fernando Mendez Corona

Chiwan Choi

at best
we will lose each other
at something we have been taught
to call the end.

but look
not beyond the rubble of los angeles
the destruction that became
of our lives
but in it, in the heart of it

the skeleton that rises
into silence
bones of apartments and arms

don’t believe them
when they tell you
there is nothing above us
but god

go
climb up
and find the room
and you will see what is left of our city
our home
the life we had
promised to
each other

look around
do you see the bricks on the floor

rebuild it and call this place immaculate

there will be no god
nor angels
nor anything invisible they asked us
to believe in

instead
on the balcony
you will see a body
walking toward you
and a face that peeks in
with a smile

and you will say
i know your name
i have known your name

and one by one
we will arrive
and gather
and rebuild all of it
with our names

rejoice
we will rejoice
sing the songs
of our names
and fill the skies
with laughter.

 

Chiwan Choi is the author of 3 books of poetry, The Flood (Tía Chucha Press, 2010), Abductions (Writ Large Press, 2012), and The Yellow House (CCM, 2017). He wrote, presented, and destroyed the novel Ghostmaker throughout the course of 2015. His poems and essays have appeared in numerous journals and magazines, including The New York Times MagazineONTHEBUS, Esquire.com, and The Nervous Breakdown. He is currently at work on My Name Is Wolf, the follow up to The Yellow House. Chiwan is a partner at Writ Large Press, a Los Angeles based indie publisher, focused on using literary arts to resist, disrupt, and transgress, and a member of The Accomplices. Chiwan was born in Seoul, Korea, spent his early childhood in Asunción, Paraguay, and now splits his time between Pittsburgh and Los Angeles.

Copyright: © 2020 Chiwan Choi. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/.

Excerpts

Chinese Workers and the Transcontinental Railroad

Manu Karuka

The Central Pacific Railroad transformed California from an overseas possession to a continental possession of the United States. Chinese railroad labor, organized under contract and disciplined by racial violence, was situated at the war-finance nexus. After completion of the railroad, Chinese exclusion formalized racial violence and labor control on a continental scale, evacuating models of relationship governing the movement of people across Indigenous lands and waters. The railroad, and exclusion, were core infrastructures of continental imperialism.

Racial dimensions of the war-finance nexus manifested in the snarling rhetoric of Leland Stanford’s 1862 inaugural speech as governor of California: “While the settlement of our State is of the first importance, the character of those who shall become settlers is worthy of scarcely less consideration.” Stanford’s fear of an Asian invasion grew out of racial and class anxieties, that California would act as an escape valve for the “dregs” of Asia. Racial, class, and cultural qualities of imagined future Asian migrations threatened Stanford’s vision of California as a space of settler accumulation. He voiced a colonialist anxiety about dispossession, a racial paranoia centering on fears of invasion and divestment. The colonization of California, accomplished by constant, ongoing, and overwhelming violation of Indigenous life, proceeded through relationships with Asia’s “numberless millions,” threatening, in Stanford’s perspective, to undermine the stability of the colonial order. Chinese labor was an instrument, not a subject, of colonialism. Stanford urged the California government to request land and credit from the U.S. federal government, to support the construction of a transcontinental railroad, to remake California as a site of continental imperialism. Stanford’s rhetoric was not without precedent. In his 1851 inaugural speech as the first U.S. civil governor of California, Peter Burnett had called for a “war of extermination” against Indigenous peoples in California. From the base of their “mountain fastness,” Burnett argued, Natives engaged in irregular warfare that made settlers always vulnerable to random attack, and made it impossible for settlers to distinguish Indigenous combatants from noncombatants.[1] Colonialist race war fueled the fears for colonial futures.

Five weeks after Stanford gave his speech, the U.S. Congress approved “An Act to prohibit the ‘Coolie Trade’ by American Citizens in American Vessels.” The act prohibited U.S. citizens and residents from transporting “the inhabitants, or subjects of China known as ‘coolies,’” defined as individuals “disposed of, or sold, or transferred, for any term of years or for any time whatever, as servants or apprentices, or to be held to service or labor.” U.S. law associated coolie status with indenture, a status marked in time, distinct from slavery. A distance from “freedom” was visible through categories of labor and relationships of exploitation rather than geographic origins, a suspicion of not quite being free. The act enumerated conditions for “free and voluntary emigration of any Chinese subject,” requiring men arriving from China to carry a certificate of freedom, issued by a U.S, consular official at the port of emigration. Although the law made it illegal to bring Chinese people to the United States as “coolies,” it would remain practically unenforced.[2]

Two months later, in April 1862, the California state legislature passed an Anti-Coolie Act, instituting a monthly tax on Chinese people working gold mines and owning businesses, a new cost for being identified as Chinese in California. Against the logic of the federal law, which presented “coolie” status as a condition of labor, California legislated in racial terms. “Coolie,” in the logic of California law, meant “Chinese,” a racial status, not a debt and labor structure. Where in the federal anti-coolie law, the U.S. government asserted territorial prerogatives to control borders, in the California law, the state distinguished Chinese people as a significant source of state revenue. The racial logics of California state revenue betrayed colonial origins, echoing an 1847 law mandating that Indigenous people’s employers issue passes and certificates of employment for Indians who wished to trade in California towns.[3]

The Price of a Ticket

In an interview with the historian Hurbert Bancroft, Kwong Ki- Chaou, a California-based representative of the Chinese government, described Chinese migrations to the United States: “Chinese coming to this country are as free as European immigrants- they come here free.” Kwong framed Chinese migrations (and freedom) in relation to the transformation of European provinciality into New World whiteness, distancing from the legacies of slavery on life in North America, claiming participant status in the creation of a New World. Contra Stanford, Kwong presented Chinese people not as alien invaders, but as constituents in the colonial pageant of California. Freedom was a claim to belong, a claim to possession, predicated on the ongoing occupation of Indigenous lands. Kwong continued, saying that Chinese people in North America “have no masters” with one exception: “Only those persons who came to work for the railroad came under contract but most of them ran away when they got here. Those who brought them lost money’ but all others came free.”[4] Were those who came from China to work for the railroad free?

U.S. authorities had inherited labor structures from Spanish colonial California. Toward the end of the 1840s, whites were organizing hunting parties that systematically attacked entire Indigenous communities, a particularly gendered form of violence that targeted Indigenous women. Amidst colonialist race war, with the high cost of labor during the Gold Rush, the California legislature passed one of its first laws, the 1850 Act for the Government and Protection of Indians, legalizing debt peonage to force Indigenous children and adults into compulsory labor for large-scale agricultural interests, under the guise of indenture. The U.S. military government in San Francisco had already begun enforcing compulsory Indigenous labor in 1847. The area north of San Francisco Bay was home to over 100,000 Indigenous people in 1846. Early U.S. military campaigns against communities branded as “horse-thief Indians” established U.S. authority over the region, a point of commensurability between the Mexican ranching elite, newly arrived settlers from the United States, and the U.S. military. Race war and overseas imperialism shaped the development of San Francisco. As a port of arrival, San Francisco was linked to Singapore and Penang, points of entry for Chinese workers to tin and gold mines in southeast Asia. En route to San Francisco, ships stopped in Manila, Guam, and Honolulu. Gold fields near Marysville, as well as Union Pacific construction, drew Chinese people, following Kānaka Maolis who had arrived to a place that was already deeply imbued with Oceanic histories and relationships.[5]

On arrival in California, most of the migrants from China found work through family or social connections, or through district associations, the huiguan. Known in San Francisco as the Six Companies, district associations functioned as mutual-aid societies where new and indigent arrivals could find shelter and basic amenities, following organizational models among Chinese communities in Southeast Asia. The huiguan entrenched the power of merchants in Chinatown communities, institutions to localize and delegate functions of community upkeep and policing, operating through solidarity and control, linking mercantile economy spanning southeast Asia, the Philippines, and Hawai’i.[6]

1s00615v

Chinese camp, Brown’s Station. Photograph by Alfred A. Hart, between 1865-1869. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C.

Sucheng Chan described Chinese merchants’ main assets in California: working knowledge of English and ready access to laborers. Merchants developed business around arrivals to California and departures to China, situated strategically between Chinatown communities and major corporations. Chinese merchant capital in California could not shake off constraints on its reproduction and valorization. Its primary economic function was to provide and provision Chinese labor on demand. Labor contractors recruited and organized Chinese workers into gangs of twenty-five to thirty men. The Central Pacific kept accounts by gang, disbursing wages to a headman, who then divided the wages. Charles Crocker, who oversaw construction on the Central Pacific, told the U.S. Senate, “we cannot distinguish Chinamen by names very well.” According to Crocker, the names of Chinese workers sounded too much alike for railroad authorities to distinguish between individuals, constituting instead a homogenous mass in the railroad company’s wage accounts. “We could not know Ah Sin, Ah You, Kong Won, all such names. We cannot keep their names in the usual way, because it is a different language. You understand the difficulty. It is not done in that way because they are slaves.” To be a Chinese worker on the Central Pacific was definitely not to be a slave, the property of another. It was, however, a reduction to the status of a tool for grading earth and drilling a mountain. It was to be expendable, interchangeable, replaceable. Chinese workers were instruments of labor, constant capital for the Central Pacific Railroad Company. The quality of their lives interfered with their essential function, as a quantity of labor.[7]

State and corporation supplied the organizational basis for colonialism in nineteenth-century California. Neither could be disentangled from the other. Leland Stanford was president of the Central Pacific Railroad while serving as the first Republican governor of California. The first locomotive in service for the Central Pacific was christened the “Governor Stanford.” In 1863, Governor Stanford appointed Edwin Bryant Crocker, elder brother of Charles (the superintendent of Central Pacific construction), as a justice of the California Supreme Court. A year later, E.B., “the Judge,” as his associates hailed him, became chief counsel for the Central Pacific, joining the circle of directors including Stanford, Mark Hopkins, Collis Huntington, and Charles.[8]

Testifying later before the U.S. Senate, Charles Crocker would stress wages to argue that Chinese labor in the Central Pacific was free labor. “You cannot control a Chinaman except you pay him for it. You cannot make a contract with him, or his friend, or supposed master, and get his labors unless you pay for it, and pay for him.” The Central Pacific recruited Chinese labor through labor contractors, combining wages with coercion, resting on the power of contractors to control mobility and immobility at the same time. According to Crocker’s Senate testimony, the Central Pacific procured Chinese workers through the services of Chinese and white labor contractors alike. One firm, Sisson, Wallace & Co., eventually “furnished pretty much all of the Chinamen that we worked.”[9] Clark Crocker, brother of Charles and E.D., was the “& Co.” in question.

Leland Stanford, in his 1866 report of the president of the Central Pacific, assured investors there was no system similar to slavery among Chinese workers, whose wages and provisions were distributed by independent agents: “We have assurances from leading Chinese merchants, that under the just and liberal policy pursued by the Company, it will be able to produce during the next year, not less than fifteen thousand laborers.” Employing Chinese workers as a racially distinct labor force, whose labor was cheaper than white, was not inevitable for the Central Pacific. The directors arrived at these hiring strategies only after considering other sources of labor, such as Confederate prisoners working under guard. Across the South, African Americans competed with Confederate veterans for railroad jobs. In Virginia, in August 1865, such competition sparked violent confrontation between Black workers and white workers (the latter backed by a Maryland militia sent to break up the fighting). That October, the Committee on Industrial Pursuits at the 1865 California State Convention of Colored Citizens forwarded a resolution to send three representatives to present to Central Pacific directors “the expediency of employing from twenty to forty thousand freedmen on the Great Pacific Railroad” and to petition members of the California state legislature and congressional representatives for aid.[10] The Central Pacific directors did not receive the message, or they chose to ignore it.

A few months earlier, in May 1865, at the outset of the summer construction season, Mark Hopkins had written to Collis Huntington, “We find a difficulty getting laborers on the railroad work.” According to Hopkins, workers would come and go as they pleased, like “tramping journeymen.” Labor recruiting and labor control posed major obstacles for Central Pacific construction, and Hopkins saw Chinese workers as essential to managing both of these issues. “Without them,” he worried, “it would be impossible to go on with the work. But China laborers are coming in slowly so that Charley thinks the force will steadily increase from this time on.”[11] A report from the Sacramento Daily Union a little over a year later, in June 1866, provides a sense of the rapid increase Chinese labor as Central Pacific construction proceeded. Between Colfax and summit, the railroad employed 11,000 Chinese Workers:

Almost the entire work of digging is done by Chinamen, and the Directors of the road say it would be impossible to build it at present without them. They are found to be equally as good as white men, and less inclined to quarrel and strikes. They are paid $30 per month and boarded, and a cook is allowed for every twelve men. They do not accomplish so much in a given time as Irish laborers, but they are willing to work more hours per day, and are content with their lot so long as they are promptly paid.

The value of Chinese labor is accounted, here, in terms of racial comparison, involving a give and take between productivity and control, indispensable for making accurate predictions of the future. “If the work on this road continues to progress as fast as it has done during this season,” the Union continued, “there is little doubt that the cars will be running from Sacramento to Salt Lake inside of three years.”[12] Accurate predictions could stimulate investment. The ethereal relations of finance capital took flight from land grants, and the racial and gendered control of bodies and space.

Although celebrated for their supposed docility, news circulated in California of different modes of Chinese being. In December 1866, the Sacramento Daily Union reported that six Chinese miners working a placer on Bear River had defended themselves from four white men, killing two of their attackers, and causing the other two to flee for their lives. A second report, from Shasta County, relayed information about an attack on a group of miners near Rock Creek, which the Daily Union writer blamed on growing racist sentiment against Chinese miners. The attack at Rock Creek resulted in three wounded miners, and in the days afterwards, “the Chinese in the various camps around town have been purchasing arms to protect themselves with.” Although mining life shaped the context for Chinese labor, it had already been superseded by the industrial transformation of the regional economy. As a Daily Union writer baldly stated a day after the reports of violence against Chinese miners, in an article entitled “Railroads and Capital”: “This is emphatically an era of railroads.”[13]

A few days later, on January 2, 1867, Stanford and Judge Crocker attended a banquet at the Occidental Hotel to celebrate the departure of the first steamship bound for China and Japan from San Francisco. In his remarks that evening, Stanford made no explicit mention of Chinese workers, but he had China on his mind. Projecting forward to an anticipated completion of the transcontinental in 1870, Stanford prattled:

Then will the “ligament be perfect that binds the Eastern Eng and Western Chang together.” Then, Mr. Chairman, behold the result! For America, the chief control of the developed trade of the better part of Asia with Europe and America. Our Pacific slope, and particularly California, filling rapidly with a hardy, enterprising and industrious people mostly of our brethren and sisters of our old Atlantic homes.[14]

 Stanford had slightly revised his inaugural speech from eight years before, imagining a putatively national body assembled from distinct colonial parts, to enable the future development of California along desirable lines. For Stanford, Chinese people were not, themselves, part of the social body of continental imperialism. Instead, this social body acts on Chinese people in North America, and beyond.

Stanford’s grandiose visions, however, were not borne out by the unfolding calculations among Central Pacific directors, to recruit and control a labor force at wages and work conditions that would maximize their profits. Just days after Stanford spoke, Judge Crocker and Collis Huntington debated how large of a work force to maintain through the slower winter construction, Huntington favoring cutting the work force down to seasonal size. Discharge experienced Chinese workers, Crocker worried, and they would move into mining, putting the Central Pacific at a decided disadvantage during the short summer season. The previous summer, construction managers had difficulty keeping workers at the grueling hard rock tunnel work. Those currently employed by the Central Pacific had already experienced the conditions at the summit, and the judge felt them to be “dependable.” Crocker asked Huntington to test his own powers of forbearance and accept a relatively higher level of employment during the winter. “We hope you will strain every nerve bringing everything to bear to keep along, and not ask us to discharge a man.”[15]

Huntington remained skeptical, or perhaps his nerves could not bear the strain, and he asked for an accounting of the cost of excavating one cubic yard at the summit tunnel. Judge Crocker obligingly explained that construction directors projected working three men on each drill, at the excruciating pace of a 13/4 inch hole one foot, per hour, organizing the work in day and night shifts of eight hours. Construction managers experimented with new tools, such as “gunpowder drills” and nitroglycerin, to speed up and cheapen construction. The tools met the rock, of course, through the application of the worker. And the worker was a category with distinctions. Closer to the status of tools, of drills, gunpowder, and nitroglycerin than white workers, Chinese railroad workers gave the directors of the Central Pacific a chance to squeeze more profit from a hard place. The judge calculated, “Each white man costs us in board and wages $2 1/2 each 8 hours, but Chinamen cost us $1.19 each 8 hours, and they drill nearly as fast.” Chinese railroad labor was a quantity measuring time in relation to price, and the price was lower than that of white labor. Where the Central Pacific covered housing and food costs for white railroad labor, the reproduction of Chinese labor was free.[16] By the end of the month, the directors doubled down, printing and circulating a Chinese language recruiting notice throughout California and in China. The judge was not entirely sure what the notice said. “The Chinamen all understand it,” he explained to Huntington, “but it is hard for them to translate it back into English.”[17] Behind the bluster of corporate control lurked countersovereignty, a reactive dependence on others.

Reproducing Racial Control

The shared culture of Chinese workers and merchants functioned simultaneously as a sphere of pleasure and sustenance and a sphere of constriction. Railroad workers’ corporate wages supplanted the shared profits of miners in the gold fields. Chinese workers’ isolation in temporary work camps, scattered along the line of railroad construction, bound them to relationships cementing their control. A separate system of disbursing wages and provisioning food and housing reflected these distinctions. Charles Nordhoff visited a Chinese railroad work camp on the San Joaquin River, where he found seven hundred Chinese men and one hundred white men. The Chinese workers were supposed to receive $28 for working twenty-six days each month, paying for food, tents, and utensils, with labor contractors paying the cooks. Several railroad cars at the end of track acted as a store for Chinese workers. According to Nordhoff, most of the items sold in this store were imported from China. Organizing and provisioning a male society, the Central Pacific took on a military structure. This was the organizational form of the war-finance nexus, in which class formation occurred through the structures of war. Merchants handled the distribution of food, and workers were captive to their supplies and profits. Collectively, Chinese railroad workers had no future. The success of their labor would ensure the obsolescence of their lives.[18]

Planning in relation to Chinese labor, Central Pacific directors balanced the temporality of seasonal work conditions with temporalities of Chinese laborers’ lives. In early February 1867, recruiting delays during lunar New Year left the Central Pacific short of at least 1,500 workers for immediate work, threatening to jam up the progress of construction after the snow melted. In the howling winter, according to Judge Crocker’s report, 1,500 Chinese men were already at work on the summit, and 1,000 on the approach.[19] The Chinese calendar, with its festivals and feasts, helped Chinese workers on the Central Pacific maintain a sense of connection to their homes and families and to their ancestors. It also ritualized their connection to the merchants and contractors who continued to profit from both their employment and their social reproduction. Calendar time blended into labor time for Chinese workers along the railroad’s line of construction. The formation of a Chinese merchant class in North America, both provisioning and supplying labor, revolved around relationships to Chinese workers as both consumers and producers.[20]

As Judge Crocker explained to Huntington in mid-February 1867, nearly all of those drilling for the Central Pacific were Chinese men whose work was “fully equal to white men,” but they were employed at a rate requiring them to work twenty-six days a month, covering the cost of their own food and housing, unlike their white counterparts.[21] Huntington remained unconvinced, and the judge emphasized the relative value of Chinese railroad labor two days later:

We have had a chance to compass the merits of our Chinese laborers and Cornish miners, who are deemed the best underground workers in the world, and the Chinese beat them right straight all along, day in and day out. We have a large force of well-trained Chinese tunnel workers, and they can’t be beat. They cost only about half what white men do, and are more regular in labor, and more peaceable. They are not men who get drunk and pickup rows, but can be relied upon for steady work.[22]

1s00510v

Laborers and rocks, near opening of Summit Tunnel. Chinese camp, Brown’s Station. Photograph by Alfred A. Hart, between 1865-1869. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C.

Empirical observation of racial competition settled the question. For Central Pacific Railroad Company directors, race was a calculus of profit maximization.

Mark Hopkins gave another perspective on this racial calculus, laying out three conditions whereby he and the other directors should “never be financially troubled hereafter,” including an early spring melting off the Sierras, $250 per month of investments coming in from the eastern United States from June through November, and “increased numbers of Chinamen come into the work.”[23] Weather, investments, and Chinese labor were the legs of a platform on which Hopkins and his associates planned to build their personal fortunes. For the first, they could pray. For the second, they could bluster and impress. For the third, they had to rely on others. How could anyone imagine this to be stable, to imagine that the men perched atop could be in control?

Strike

Late in May 1867, as the snow finally began melting between Cisco and the Truckee River, the Central Pacific directors prepared a full push on the summit. As the weather cooperated, and funds for equipment and wages flowed, it was suddenly difficult to find workers. Judge Crocker explained to Huntington,

The truth is the Chinese are now exclusively employed in quartz mills and a thousand other employments new to them. Our use of them led hundreds of others to employ them, so that now when we want to gather them up for the spring and summer work, a large portion are permanently employed at work they like better. The snow & labor questions have our progress quite uncertain.

Five days later, the judge notified Huntington of plans to raise the Chinese workers’ wages almost 13 percent, from $31 to $35 per month. Chinese workers were finding work in quartz mills, building roads and canals, and many were going to Idaho and Montana, looking for work. “Our supply,” he cautioned, “will be short unless we do something.” And so the Central Pacific directors responded, at a loss of “$100,000 in gold on this season’s work.” By early June, the judge was panicking, “Our force is not now increasing, and the season has come when it ought to increase.” He understood the Central Pacific as a victim of its own innovation: “We have proved their value as laborers, and everybody is trying them, and now we can’t get them.”[24]

In late June, Mark Hopkins notified Huntington of “an unexpected feature.” After the Central Pacific had raised Chinese workers’ wages in the hopes of quickly increasing the drilling work force for the summer construction season at the summit, news arrived that the Chinese workers had gone on strike, demanding $40 per month and a ten-hour day, instead of the current eleven-hour work days. The strike demands would tip over the platform upon which the directors had imagined profit. As Hopkins put it, “if they are successful in this demand, then they control, and their demands will be increased.” It was a war for control. It was not only a class war over the conditions of work. It was also a war to decide who would colonize California, and on what terms, echoing Stanford’s gubernatorial address. Hopkins expressed hope in a Central Pacific “application for 5000 Freedmen from the Freedmen’s Bureau.” It was a lesson in political economy. “When any commodity is in demand beyond the natural supply, even Chinese labor, the price will tend to increase.”[25]

The Sacramento Daily Union printed a telegram attributed to Huntington, dated June 28, stating, “There will be no trouble in getting all the laborers you want. How many thousand shall I send? You can contract for passage at low rates.” He was bluffing.[26] The next day, Judge Crocker wrote with more honesty: “The truth is, they are getting smart.” However, he doubted the workers’ intelligence: “Who has stirred up the strike we don’t know, but it was evidently planned and concerted.” The strike was a bid for direct accountability between individual workers and the Central Pacific, directed against the railroad directors and construction supervisors. While it forced the Central Pacific directors to reckon with their workers as a unified group, it was also a bid to force the bosses to consider them as individuals.

The Central Pacific directors were inclined to reinvest in a racial division of labor. Judge Crocker notified Huntington of a man named Yates, a ship’s steward who had met with Stanford in San Francisco. William Henry Yates had arrived in San Francisco in 1851 from Washington, DC, where he had been active in the Underground Railroad, and had worked as a steward on river steamers and ferry boats in California. Yates had played a leadership role in the 1865 Colored Citizens’ convention. “His plan was to get a large number of freedmen to come to California under the Freedmen’s Bureau, and under the aid of the government, that is a sort of military organization crossing the plains.” The judge understood that Yates was then in Washington, trying to find support for the idea. The racial organization of labor, for the Central Pacific Railroad, was situated squarely at the nexus of war and finance. The social reproduction of continental imperialism is the social reproduction of war. The judge understood the strike as a skirmish in a deeper war.

The only safe way for us is to inundate this state and Nevada with laborers. Freedmen, Chinese, Japanese, all kinds of labor, so that men come to us for work instead of our hunting them up. They will all find something to do, and a surplus will keep wages low. It is our only security for strikes.[27]

Racial importation was a means to control the price of labor. Hopkins reinforced Crocker’s earlier message about Yates, whom he described as “a man of integrity and good abilities.” According to the plan, the Central Pacific would be responsible for expenses to bring freedmen to San Francisco, but “a Negro labor force would tend to keep the Chinese steady, as the Chinese have kept the Irishmen quiet.”[28] Hopkins saw this as a worthwhile investment in labor control. Judge Crocker fired off another note to Huntington that day. The strike was “the hardest blow we have here,” he sighed, and Charles had informed leaders of the Chinese community that the Central Pacific would pay no more than $35. Chinese community leaders had sent messages to the work camps, advising the workers to return to work. Something is left unwritten in the judge’s letter, which refers to more desperate measures, closing with the sentence, “It is the only way to deal with them.”[29]

Three days later, Hopkins sent word of Capital triumphant. The strike was broken, the workers returned to their jobs in the same conditions as before the strike. Curiously, after their victory, Hopkins speculated that “the strike appears to have been instigated by Chinese gamblers and opium traders, who are prohibited from plying their vocation on the line of the work.”[30] Hopkins imagined continuity between railroad workers’ collective voice and the lurid visions of an underground Chinese vice economy, specters perhaps, of the English and American opium traders who had helped set trans-Pacific Chinese migration patterns into play, under the banner of free trade. If nothing else, his statement contradicts the image of docile, hardworking, and clean-cut pets that Hopkins and the judge had imagined these Chinese workers to fulfill, just months before. The lives of their workers threatened the security of their profits.

On July 2, Judge Crocker relayed details of how the associates broke the strike:

Their agent stopped supplying them with goods and provisions and they really began to suffer. None of us went near them for a week. We did not want to exhibit anxiety. Then Charles went up, and they gathered around him, and he told them that he would not be dictated to, that he made the rules for them and not they for him.[31]

The destruction of the workers’ solidarity brutally reinscribed a hierarchy of exploitation driving Central Pacific construction, proceeding with the active participation of Chinese merchants who stopped supplying food and provisions to the work camps. The participation of Chinese merchants and labor contractors in breaking the strike clarifies their investments in the organization and management of labor on Central Pacific construction. There was no mutual aid, no principle of racial solidarity here. The Daily Union printed a more detailed account of the strike action and demands, clarifying the demand for eight hours from those working the tunnels, and ten hours from those on open ground. The report conveyed core strike demands:

We understand that a placard printed in the Chinese language was distributed along the line of the road a day or two before the strike occurred. This placard is said to have set forth the right of the workmen to higher wages and to a more moderate day’s work, and to deny the right of the overseers of the company to either whip them or to restrain them from leaving the road when they desire to seek other employment.

The workers struck over wages and the length of the working day. But they also struck for an end to physical punishment, and for the right to leave employment when they wanted to. These are not the hallmarks of free labor.[32]

From the perspectives of the Central Pacific directors, the situation improved after the strike. On July 6, Judge Crocker surmised to Huntington of the Chinese workers’ shame, predicting, “I don’t think we will ever have any more difficulties with them.”[33] Visions of worker docility had perhaps been reinforced with a confidence in racial hierarchies that had been reproduced by means of brute violence. A few weeks later, this turn coincided with workers, “arriving from China in large numbers,” according to Judge Crocker, who projected that the Central Pacific would soon meet its labor target.[34] Recruiting and controlling labor seemed to be resolved. While he imagined that the Chinese workers felt ashamed, the judge informed Huntington, “we feel a good deal encouraged.”[35]

Notes

This is an edited excerpt from Manu Karuka’s Empire’s Tracks: Indigenous Nations, Chinese Workers, and the Transcontinental Railroad (Oakland: University of California Press, 2019)

[1] Peter Burnett, “Message to the California State Legislature,” January 7, 1851, California State Senate Journal (1851), 15; Leland Stanford, Inaugural Address of Leland Stanford, Governor of the State of California, January 10, 1862 (Sacramento: B. P. Avery, 1862);  June Mei, “Socioeconomic Origins of Emigration: Guangdong to California, 1850–1882,” in Labor Immigration under Capitalism: Asian Immigrant Workers in the United States before World War II, ed. Lucie Cheng and Edna Bonacich  (Berkeley:  University  of  California  Press, 1984);  Iyko  Day,  Alien Capital: Asian Racialization and the Logic of Settler Colonialism (Durham, NC: Duke University Press,  2016),  48–53; Moreton-Robinson, The White Possessive, 144, 152.

[2] U. S. 37th Cong., Sess II, Chs. 25, 27, 1862, pp. 340–41; Robert Schwendinger, “Investigating Chinese Immigrant Ships and Sailors,” in The Chinese American Experience: Papers from the Second  National  Conference  on  Chinese  American  Studies, ed. Genny Lim (San Francisco: Chinese Historical Society of America, 1980), 21; Robert Irick, Ch’ing Policy toward the Coolie Trade, 1847–1878 (China: Chinese Materials Center, 1982), 153; Moon-Ho Jung, “Outlawing ‘Coolies’: Race, Nation, and Empire in the Age of Emancipation,” American Quarterly 57, no. 3 (September 2005): 677–701; Moon-Ho Jung, Coolies and Cane: Race, Labor, and Sugar in the Age of Emancipation (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006), 36–38; Lowe, The Intimacies of Four Continents, 25.

[3] An Act to Protect Free White Labor Against Competition with Chinese Coolie Labor, and to Discourage the Immigration of the Chinese Into the State of California, April 26, 1862; Moon Ho Jung, “What Is the ‘Coolie Question’?” Labour History 113 (2017): 3; Albert Hurtado, “Controlling California’s Indian Labor Force: Federal Administration of California Indian Affairs during the Mexican War,” Southern California Quarterly 61, no. 3 (1979): 228. Taxes on Chinese miners provided at least 10 percent of total state revenue from the early 1850s through 1864. Chinese people in California faced additional, racially targeted taxes in California during these years. Mark Kanazawa, “Immigration, Exclusion, and Taxation: Anti-Chinese Legislation in Gold Rush California,” Journal of Economic History 65, no. 3 (September 2005): 781, 785–87, 789.

[4] Moreton-Robinson, White Possessive, 5; Kwong Ki-Chaou, interview by H. H. Bancroft.

[5] Combined Asian American Resources Project: Oral History transcripts of tape-recorded interviews conducted 1974–76, p. 3; Albert Hurtado, Indian Survival on the California Frontier (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1988), 93; Albert Hurtado, “California Indians and the Workaday West: Labor, Assimilation, and Survival,” California History 69, no. 1 (Spring 1990): 5–6, 8; Tomás Almaguer, Racial Fault Lines: The Historical Origins of White Supremacy in California (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994), 29–32; Yong Chen, “The Internal Origins of Chinese Emigration to California Reconsidered,” Western Historical Quarterly 28, no. 4 (Winter 1997): 520–46 at 540; Richard Steven Street, Beasts of the Field: A Narrative History of California Farmworkers, 1769–1913 (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2004), chaps. 6, 7; Michael Magliari, “Free Soil, Unfree Labor,” Pacific Historical Review 73, no. 3 (August 2004): 349–50, 352–53; Michael Magliari, “Free State Slavery: Bound Indian Labor and Slave Trafficking in California’s Sacramento Valley, 1850–1864,” Pacific Historical Review 81, no. 2 (May 2012): 157; Brendan C. Lindsay, Murder State: California’s Native American Genocide, 1846–1873 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2012), chap. 5; Kornel Chang, Pacific Connections: The Making of the U. S.-Canadian Borderlands (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012), 12; Stacey L. Smith, Freedom’s Frontier: California and the Struggle over Unfree Labor, Emancipation, and Reconstruction (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2013), 23–24; Hurtado, “California’s Indian Labor Force,” 219, 220, 222; Kwee Hui Kian, “Chinese Economic Dominance in Southeast Asia: A Longue Duree Perspective,” Comparative Studies in Society and History 55, no. 1 (2013): 21–22; Mei, “Socioeconomic Origins of Emigration,” 488–89; David Chang, The World and All the Things upon It: Native Hawaiian Geographies of Exploration (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2016), 163–84.

[6] Rev. A. W. Loomis, “The Chinese Six Companies,” Overland Monthly 1, no. 3 (September 1868): 221–27 at 222–23; William Hoy, The Chinese Six Companies (San Francisco: Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association, 1942); Him Mark Lai, Becoming Chinese American: A History of Communities and Institutions (New York: Alta Mira Press, 2004), 46, 58–59; Mei, “Socioeconomic Origins of Emigration,” 499–500; Kian, “Chinese Economic Dominance,” 8, 16–19; Mae Ngai, “Chinese Gold Miners and the ‘Chinese Question’ in Nineteenth-Century California and Victoria,” Journal of American History 101, no. 4 (2015): 1096.

[7] Karl Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Vol. 1 (London: Penguin, 1976), 317. “. . . it is the wear and tear, the loss of value which they suffer as a result of continuous use over a period of time, which reappears as an element of value in the commodities which they produce”: Hilferding, Finance Capital, 245; Sucheng Chan, This Bittersweet Soil: The Chinese in California Agriculture, 1860–1910 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986), 347; Day, Alien Capital, 44; Vijay Prashad, The Karma of Brown Folk (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000), 90–91; Street, Beasts of the Field, chap. 12; Mae Ngai, The Lucky Ones: One Family and the Extraordinary Invention of Chinese America (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010), 30, 74; Report of the Joint Special Committee to Investigate Chinese Immigration, 44th Congress (New York: Arno Press, 1978), Charles Crocker testimony, p. 675.

[8] Biographical Sketch of Edwin Bryant Crocker (manuscript). Judges played a central role in the California “apprenticeship “   system, which amounted to a trade in indigenous children to wealthy landowners. Magliari, “Free Soil, Unfree Labor,” 357.

[9] Charles Crocker testimony, Committee to Investigate Chinese Immigration, 674, 723–28; Chang, Pacific Connections, 30; Jung, Coolies and Cane, 61.

[10] Proceedings of the California State Convention of Colored Citizens, 1865, 92; Central Pacific Railroad Company, Report of the President, 1866, p. 33; Alexander Saxton, “The Army of Canton in the High Sierra,” in Chinese on the American Frontier, ed. Arif Dirlik (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2001), 29; William Thomas, The Iron Way: Railroads, the Civil War, and the Making of Modern America (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2011), 181–82.

[11] Hopkins to Huntington, May 31, 1865, Huntington Papers.

[12] Sacramento Daily Union, June 18, 1866.

[13] Sacramento Daily Union, December 18, 1866; Sacramento Daily Union, December 19, 1866. Archaeological research from a Chinese community in 1880s Truckee, California, found evidence that residents carried firearms for self-defense; R. Scott Baxter, “The Response of California’s Chinese Populations in the Anti- Chinese Movement,” Historical  Archaeology 42, no. 3 (2008): 33–34. Evidence from bodies of Chinese workers disinterred in Carlin, Nevada, suggest distinct patterns of cranial and facial trauma; Ryan P. Harrod, Jennifer L. Thompson, and Debra L. Martin, “Hard Labor and Hostile Encounters: What Human Remains Reveal about Institutional Violence and Chinese Immigrants Living in Carlin, Nevada (1885–1923),” Historical Archaeology 46, no. 4 (2012): 98, 100.

[14] Mark Hopkins to Collis Huntington, January 2, 1867, Huntington Papers; San Francisco Evening Bulletin, January 2, 1867; Cynthia Wu, Chang and Eng Reconnected: The Original Siamese Twins in American Culture (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2012).

[15] E. B. Crocker to Collis Huntington, January 10, 1867, Huntington Papers.

[16] E. B. Crocker to Collis Huntington, January 14, 1867, Huntington Papers; Day, Alien Capital, 44, 47.

[17] E. B. Crocker to Collis Huntington, January 31, 1867, Huntington Papers.

[18] Charles Nordhoff, California: For Health, Pleasure, and Residence—A Book for Travellers and Settlers (Berkeley: Ten Speed Press, 1973; original 1873), 189–90; Ngai, “Chinese Gold Miners,” 1089; Day, Alien Capital, chap. 1.

[19] E. B. Crocker to Collis Huntington, February 12, 1867, Huntington Papers.

[20] Chen, “Internal Origins of Chinese Emigration,” 118–21; Chang, Pacific Connections, 31. On the queer domesticity of urban Chinese life in California during these decades, see Nayan Shah, Contagious Divides: Epidemics and Race in San Francisco’s Chinatown (Berkeley: University of California Press), chap. 3; Hobson wrote of Chinese workers, who were “introduced into the Transvaal as mere economic machines, not as colonists to aid the industrial and social development of a new country. Their presence is regarded as a social danger”: Hobson, Imperialism, 276.

[21] E. B. Crocker to Collis Huntington, February 15, 1867, Huntington Papers.

[22] E. B. Crocker to Collis Huntington, February 17, 1867, Huntington Papers.

[23] Mark Hopkins to Collis Huntington, February 15, 1867, Huntington Papers.

[24] E. B. Crocker to Collis Huntington, May 22, 1867; E. B. Crocker to Collis Huntington, May 27, 1867; E. B. Crocker to Collis Huntington, June 4, 1867, Huntington Papers.

[25] Mark Hopkins to Collis Huntington, June 26, 1867, Huntington Papers.

[26] Sacramento Daily Union, July 1, 1867.

[27] E. B. Crocker to Collis Huntington, June 27, 1867, Huntington Papers.

[28] Mark Hopkins to Collis Huntington, June 28, 1867, Huntington Papers; Du Bois, Black Reconstruction, 569.

[29] E. B. Crocker to Collis Huntington, June 28, 1867, Huntington Papers.

[30] Mark Hopkins to Collis Huntington, July 1, 1867, Huntington Papers.

[31] E. B. Crocker to Collis Huntington, July 2, 1867, Huntington Papers.

[32] Sacramento Daily Union, July 2, 1867. Whipping was standard practice in the management of Indigenous labor in California. Magliari, “Free Soil, Unfree Labor,” 374.

[33] E. B. Crocker to Collis Huntington, July 6, 1867, Huntington Papers.

[34] E. B. Crocker to Collis Huntington, July 23, 1867, Huntington Papers.

[35] E. B. Cocker to Collis Huntington, July 30, 1867, Huntington Papers.

 

Manu Karuka  is an Assistant Professor of American Studies, and affiliated faculty with Women’s, Gender & Sexuality Studies at Barnard College, where he has taught since 2014. His work centers a critique of imperialism, with a particular focus on anti-racism and Indigenous decolonization. He teaches courses on the political economy of racism, U.S. imperialism and radical internationalism, Indigenous critiques of political economy, and liberation. He is the author of Empire’s Tracks: Indigenous Nations, Chinese Workers, and the Transcontinental Railroad (University of California Press, 2019). With Juliana Hu Pegues and Alyosha Goldstein he co-edited a special issue of Theory & Event, “On Colonial Unknowing,” (Vol. 19, No. 4, 2016) and with Vivek Bald, Miabi Chatterji, and Sujani Reddy, he co-edited The Sun Never Sets: South Asian Migrants in an Age of U.S. Power (NYU Press, 2013).

Copyright: © 2020 Manu Karuka. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/.

 

Poetry

City Terrace Postcard

City Terrace. Fernando Corona

Original art by Fernando Mendez Corona

Sesshu Foster

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.

Copyright: © 2020 Sesshu Foster. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/.

Articles

LA Oil Noir: Genre, Activism, and Spatial Justice in a City Made by Fossil Fuels

Miranda Trimmier

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.[1] 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,[2] 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.[3] 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.”[4]

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_(NBY_432173)

“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.[5] 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.[6] 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.[7]

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.[8]

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.[9] 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.[10]

Enter the noir novel, which deployed what urbanist Mike Davis calls a “transformational grammar”[11] 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.[12] 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.[13] 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.[14] 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.”[15]

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.[16] 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.”[17] 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.

 

**

Views_of_oil_fields_around_Los_Angeles_LOC_2006627695

Forncrook, C.S. and E. M. Views of oil fields around Los Angeles, Map, 1922. 2006627695, Library of Congress, Washington DC, http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.gmd/g4361h.ct001874

 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,”[18] 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.[19] 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,[20] but the effort failed. Wages dropped drastically across the state, and industry workers didn’t regain a toehold until well into the ‘30s.[21]

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.[22] 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.”[23] In a noir-ish oil landscape, real estate was becoming central to the complaint.

**

THUMS Island(s) at sunset

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.[24] 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.”[25] 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.”[26] 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.[27]

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.[28]

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.[29]

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.[30] 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.”[31] 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.[32] 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.[33] 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.[34]

Porter Ranch Protest

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.[35] 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.[36]

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.[37]

15226111610_d265f89d1f_k

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.[38]

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.”[39]

**

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,[40]  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[41] 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.

DOGGR LA Co Oil Well Map

Well Finder, Screenshot, California Geologic Energy Management Division (CalGEM), formerly Department of Oil, Gas, and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR). https://maps.conservation.ca.gov/doggr/wellfinder/#openModal/-118.03211/33.98398/12

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.[42] 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.[43] 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.”[44]

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.[45] 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.[46] For another article, colleagues explained how they survived such grueling schedules: with coffee, energy drinks, and sugary snacks.[47] 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.”[48] 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.[49] 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.

Notes

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. 

[1]            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.)

[2]           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.

[3]           “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

[4]           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.

[5]           Mike Davis. City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles. (New York: Verso, 1990), 36-7.

[6]           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.

[7]           Jules Tygiel. The Great Los Angeles Swindle: Oils, Stocks, and Scandal during the Roaring 20s. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994), 37-9.

[8]           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.

[9]           Tom Hiney. Raymond Chandler: A Biography. (New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1997), 58; Jules Tygiel, The Great Los Angeles Swindle, 40.

[10]         Jules Tygiel. The Great Los Angeles Swindle, 213-257.

[11]         Mike Davis, City of Quartz, 38.

[12]         Tom Hiney, Raymond Chandler, 51-7.

[13]         Mike Davis, City of Quartz, 38.

[14]         “The Oil Pumps in The Big Sleep,” https://www.shmoop.com/big-sleep/oil-pumps-symbol.html.

[15]         Quoted in Tom Hiney, Raymond Chandler, 69.

[16]         Mike Davis, City of Quartz, 44-5.

[17]         Lauren Berlant. Cruel Optimism. (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011), 6.

[18]         Dennis MacDougal, Privileged Son: Otis Chandler And The Rise And Fall Of The L.A. Times Dynasty. (New York: Hachette Books, 2009), 46.

[19]         Nancy Quam-Wickham. “An ‘Oleaginous Civilization,’” 287.

[20]         John Laslett. Sunshine Was Never Enough: Los Angeles Workers, 1880–2010. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012), 98-9.

[21]         John Laslett. Sunshine Was Never Enough, 99.

[22]         Nancy Quam-Wickham. “‘Cities Sacrificed on the Altar of Oil,’” 197-202.

[23]         Sarah Elkind. “Oil in the City: The Fall and Rise of Oil Drilling in Los Angeles.” The Journal of American History, Vol. 82 (June 2012), p 86.

[24]         This visit took place in 2017; Google Maps now lists the site as closed, though I found no news stories to confirm or give detail.

[25]         This quote is often attributed to Dorothy Parker; it is actually a distortion of Aldous Huxley, who called LA “nineteen suburbs in search of a metropolis” in his 1925 book Americana. Adrienne Crew, “Misquoting Dorothy Parker,” LA Observed. 22 August 2013. http://www.laobserved.com/intell/2013/08/misquoting_dorothy_parker.php

[26]         Mike Davis, City of Quartz, 153.

[27]         Mike Davis, City of Quartz, 184-204.

[28]         Community Health Councils. “Oil Drilling in Los Angeles: A Story of Unequal Protections,” (Los Angeles, 2015). http://www.climateaccess.org/sites/default/files/CHC-Issue-Brief-Oil-Drilling-In-Los-Angeles.pdf

[29]         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.)

[30]         Barbara Osborn, “‘How are these Chemicals being used?’” Drilling Down, 18.

[31]         Quoted in Cornelius Fitz. “disclosing being – on raymond chandler: the detections of totality by fredric jameson,” 3am Magazine. 6 December 2016. http://www.3ammagazine.com/3am/disclosing-raymond-chandler-detections-totality-fredric-jameson/

[32]         Joy Horowitz. Parts Per Million: The Poisoning of Beverly Hills High School. (New York: Penguin Books, 2008)

[33]         Jane Yamamoto. “Outrage Builds in Porter Ranch Over Gas Leak,” NBC Southern California. 12 December 2015.

[34]         “Warren E&P, Wilmington.” Stand-LA. https://www.stand.la/wilmington.html

[35]         Molly Peterson. “Oil and gas regulators admit to massive oversight failures in new report,” KPCC. 8 October 2015. https://www.scpr.org/news/2015/10/08/54934/oil-and-gas-regulators-admit-to-massive-oversight/

[36]         Redeemer Community Partnership. “The Jefferson Drill Documentary,” 2015. https://vimeo.com/133806931

[37]         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.

[38]         “Echo Park Wells,” Stand-LA. https://www.stand.la/echo-park-wells.html

[39]         Redeemer Community Partnership. “The Jefferson Drill Documentary”; Susan Abram. “How These Neighbors Took On The Oil Company In Their Backyard And Won,” Huffington Post. 27 July 2019. https://www.huffpost.com/entry/oil-drill-site-protest-california_n_5d3911a0e4b004b6adbab9c6

[40]         Pete Dronkers. “SoCalGas Aliso Canyon, CA,” https://earthworks.org/blog/what_i_saw_in_porter_ranch/

[41]         DOGGR Well Finder. https://maps.conservation.ca.gov/doggr/wellfinder/#openModal/-118.03211/33.98384/12

[42]         Laura Bliss. “L.A.’s Slow-Moving Oil and Gas Disaster,” City Lab. 3 February 2016. https://www.citylab.com/equity/2016/02/california-porter-ranch-gas-leak-oil-environmental-justice/425052/

[43]         Elijah Hurwitz, “Poison Ranch: The Porter Ranch Gas Blowout,” Pacific Standard. 5 May 2016. https://psmag.com/news/poison-ranch-the-porter-ranch-gas-blowout

[44]         Sarah Parvini and Tony Barboza. “No relief in sight for Porter Ranch residents,” LA Times, 3 December 2015. Proquest. https://search-proquest-com.ezproxy2.library.arizona.edu/docview/1738673342?accountid=8360&rfr_id=info%3Axri%2Fsid%3Aprimo

[45]         Nancy Halpern Ibrahim. Personal interview, 11 October 2019.

[46]         Haya El Nasser. “Striking California oil refinery workers demand better safety, wages,” Al Jazeera America, 4 February 2015. http://america.aljazeera.com/articles/2015/2/4/workers-strike-at-california-oil-refinery.html

[47]         Tiffany Hsu. “At L.A. oil refinery, striking workers vent about long hours and stress,” LA Times. 26 February 2015. https://www.latimes.com/business/la-fi-refinery-strike-20150227-story.html

[48]         Los Angeles County Department of Planning. “Baldwin Hills Community Standards District” p 8. http://planning.lacounty.gov/assets/upl/project/bh_title22.pdf

[49]         Christian May-Suzuki. “City Council meets to continue discussion on Inglewood Oil Field,” Culver City News. 18 July 2019. https://www.culvercitynews.org/city-council-meets-to-continue-discussion-on-inglewood-oil-field/

 

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 JournalThe New InquiryTerrain, and other outlets.

Copyright: © 2020 Miranda Trimmier. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/.