A few months after Who Are the People? closed, I ran into keyboardist Bob Harris as I was leaving a phone booth that doubled as my office on Fountain in Silver Lake. I knew him from the days when we hung out with John Beck, lead singer with the Leaves, while he was in a relationship with folk singer/songwriter Judee Sill. We talked about what we were doing and I told him about the musical I’d just staged. He had just returned from touring with Zappa, I think it was the Billy the Mountain tour. I told him I’d met Frank a few years earlier, and he suggested we pay him a visit, since Frank and I both seemed to be on a rock theater kick.
As we drove up Laurel Canyon I had flashbacks of working at Chicken Delight back in ’66. We passed the notorious Log Cabin where Zappa and his clan once lived along with the GTOs (Girls Together Outrageously, about whom I’ll say more later). I don’t know how I survived speeding around those curves, stoned and in the rain, delivering boxes of chicken. But hey, it meant at least a couple bucks tip if you got the chicken there hot. So now, just a few years later, I’m on my way to see the wild wizard of rock. Life’s a stone trip, all right.
We got to his tree-shrouded home, and surprisingly he answered the door himself. “We met a few years ago at the Shrine for the Cruising with Ruben & the Jets album release show,” I said. “Yeah, I remember you. You’re Rubén.” “Right. Sorry I never took you up on your offer to drop off some demos, but I went back to college. I wanna write music for films.” He didn’t say anything, just “Come on in.” We walked into his studio, which burst with guitars and sound equipment.
“So, you used to sing a little R & B, huh?” “Yeah in high school in the ’50s, then I put together a trio, the Apollo Brothers. We cut a single in ’61, sang around town, and did a little TV. We played the Legion once.” “The El Monte American Legion Stadium?” “Yeah, with Richard Berry, and the Olympics too.”
That led to an all-night session of listening to his collection of R & B oldies. Here we were, a couple of grown men tripping on old records like we were teenagers. That was the beginning of our bond: our love of L.A. rhythm and blues.
Then we talked about my discovering modern music composers at LACC, Bartók and Stravinsky in particular. We talked about how they weaved ethnic folk music into new musical and theatrical forms, which was how I interpreted his Ruben & the Jets garage doo-wop band. I saw it as Mexican American rock-theater, though in a very primitive form, which was cool with me.
I took a copy of Billboard with me that had reviews of Who Are the People? and his recent collaboration with the L.A. Philharmonic at UCLA next to it. That got his attention. As the sun was coming up he made a proposal: “How would you like to stage a real Ruben & the Jets? I’ll produce the album, and you can tour with the Mothers as an opening band to promote it.” I told him, “Thanks, man, that’s a damn groovy offer, but I’m not interested in going back to rock ’n’ roll. I don’t want to move backwards, and besides, too many detours.” He stared at me for a few long seconds with those dark eyes, then said, “Take what you know and build your own roads.”
I said I’d think about it and get back to him. It sounded cool, but still, the question kept coming up: could I trust rock musicians to pull off this great opportunity? Could I even work with flaky rockers again after working with serious classical cats? Then again, it wasn’t like I’d be starting from scratch. There was already an audience for Zappa’s Ruben & the Jets. To have an album produced by him and a spot on a tour sounded too good to resist. And I’d be creating a rock-theater piece right in line with my new direction. However, another burning question kept coming up: Was I honoring my sister’s memory with this project? Was I keeping my word to create art as a spiritually educating experience? Could I use it as a launching pad that would take me closer to my promises? My conclusion: Fuck, yeah! Give it a try.
I called m’ man “Flash,” who had just returned from Vietnam. “Hey, man, get your boogie-woogie fingers warmed up. We’re gonna audition for a once-in-a-lifetime shot!” We went into his bedroom at his parents’ home and rehearsed on the old upright piano that we’d used when we started the Apollo Brothers in high school.
The session with Frank started out a little bumpy. At one point “Flash” stopped playing, and Frank said, “Come on, Flash, this ain’t Carnegie Hall.” “It is for me,” he replied, then nodded that he was ready to play again. That time, we got into it and nailed it. Frank smiled, nodding his head up and down. He asked me to put a band together. I said, “I can have a band together in a few weeks.”
Courtesy of Rubén Funkahuatl Guevara
So I called bass player and vocalist Bill Wild of the Du-Vals, who had backed up the Apollo Brothers at Pandora’s Box and my Shindig! audition. I was reluctant to hire him, what with his history of drugs and booze, but he could play a funky bass and had a soulful voice that I needed for the harmonies. For the sax section I contacted former LACC classmate Clarence Matsui, a Japanese American alto sax cat from Boyle Heights. I also recruited another classmate, tenor sax player Bob “Buffalo” Roberts, and Frank suggested Jim “Motorhead” Sherwood, a former Mother, for the baritone sax parts.
Clarence had been playing with a band from East L.A. that he highly recommended, so I went to hear them play. I was impressed and invited them to come to the audition. They included vocalist and Hammond B-3 player John Martinez, probably the best all-around singer ever to come out of East L.A. Not only could he sing bass and falsetto parts, but he was also a killer lead singer. Then there was vocalist–rhythm guitarist–songwriter Robert “Frog” Camarena and vocalist–lead guitarist–songwriter Tony Duran, formerly of East L.A. ’60s greats the Premiers (“Farmer John”). Drummer Bobby Zamora was called in at the last minute. The band sounded great, and Frank dug it.
Zappa was in a wheelchair during this time with a broken leg and other injuries from being pushed off the stage at a concert in London by a jealous fan. This gave him plenty of time to work with the band.
It was my understanding that the members of the band would be signed as “sidemen” and that I would be the leader, sole composer, and lead singer on all material. The band members could be replaced at my discretion. It was also agreed that the project would be a collaboration between Frank and me that would feature original L.A.-style rhythm and blues/doo-wop, jump blues, along with straight-ahead rock ’n’ roll and blues—a kind of musical history and repository of Black and Brown L.A. music all wrapped in Mexican American rock-theater. The band didn’t get the theater part, though, as I would later discover.
Courtesy of Rubén Funkahuatl Guevara
I modeled the Jets’ harmonies on those of the Jaguars, a classic L.A. doo-wop group from Fremont High School. The multiracial vocal group of Blacks, an Italian, and a Mexican American epitomized the L.A. doo-wop style for me. Their recording of “Just the Way You Look Tonight” was the template I used to build on.
My recent composition experience writing gospel parts for Who Are the People? and my early work with the Apollo Brothers gave me the chops to arrange the vocal harmonies for the Jets. Since there were songwriters and great singers in the band, I decided to utilize their talents as much as possible, as both a democratic and a practical musical move. I didn’t realize I was also relinquishing my power. Frank wrote two songs for the band, the up-tempo doo-wopper “If I Could Only Be Your Love Again” (with George Duke sitting in on piano for the recording) and a crazy doo-woppish rocker, “The Weenie-Back Wino Walk,” which unfortunately didn’t make it to vinyl.
We rehearsed the material for the album for several months, then tested it out playing at Louis Stevenson Junior High in Boyle Heights, Garfield High School in East L.A., and at the Montebello Bowl. My plan was to create a buzz in East L.A. first, then bring the new fans to the Whisky in Hollywood for the debut.
In Queer Space: Architecture and Same Sex Desire, Aaron Betsky writes, “The queerest space of all is the void, and AIDS has made us live in that emptiness, that absence, that loss…. It is not a queer space any of us would want to inhabit, but many have been forced to make it their own.” In many ways, Danny Jauregui’s work goes beyond just inhabiting the void, that queer space separate from society. It is about identifying it, reclaiming it, and giving it a permanent spatial location in the decades following the crisis. People cruised within communities, within neighborhoods, at local parks, bars, and shops. A single location can be so many places at once.
“I wanted to show that these locations once existed here,” he says.
The photos used in the artist Danny Jauregui’s project document a history that generations of young gay men might not be familiar with. Chronicling these sites then became a way for Jauregui to recover and graft the memory of gay cruising into the larger sphere of American identity and assemblage. The images are a stark reminder of the transient nature of cruising, allowing for a uniquely queer identity to integrate itself into the very tapestry of the history of Los Angeles.
I wanted to show that these locations once existed here.
I met Jauregui on an overcast mid-May morning at La Monarca Bakery on Cesar Chavez Boulevard in Boyle Heights. Danny is a charming and affable man almost a decade younger than me. He’s made a name for himself as an artist whose work encompasses many different media including photography, drawing, and sculpture. The son of immigrants from the state of Jalisco, Mexico, he grew up in South Central L.A. before his family moved to Whittier. Like me, Danny is an artist and academic; he teaches art and photography at Whittier College. Like me, he’s Latino. Like me, he is gay and in a long and stable relationship with a partner. Like me, he spent the past academic year chairing his department. Over sips of piping hot coffee, we commiserate over the challenges—and, yes, the rewards—of serving as heads of our respective units. We share a great deal in common, and I find it comforting to be sitting down and having an enlightening conversation about art and activism and the pressures of academic life with someone so similar to me.
“My brother was a trouble maker when we were growing up,” he says. “My parents decided to pour all their energies into making sure I wasn’t. They indulged my curiosity. If I was into something, they got it for me. When I was interested in art, my father went out and bought me colored pencils and a sketchbook.”
Danny’s work first came to my attention when I ran across an article featuring him and a project he had undertaken to map the cruising sites and locations around the city using Bob Damron’s Address Book as guidepost. When I ask what led him to put the two together, he smiles.
“I was living in Silverlake with my partner during the whole Proposition 8 battle,” he explains.
“Prop 8,” as it was more commonly known, was a statewide ballot aimed at eliminating same-sex marriage in California. The measure eventually passed, with 52.3% of the population voting not to protect the rights of gay couples to marry. The “No on 8” campaign had rented out a building where a local gay bathhouse once stood. When Danny discovered this, it became the impetus for his work. It was such an ironic thing, he recalls, that the headquarters of a grassroots effort to secure the right for same-sex couples to marry had its office in what was once a place where men flocked to meet and have sex in public. In the 70s we’d gained our sexual liberation. We were free to have sex with whomever, whenever, and (pretty much) wherever we wanted. But 80s and 90s brought AIDS, cutting short the party, forcing so many to rethink such “hedonistic” lifestyle choices. Now, in the aftermath of so much loss, many who remained craved marriage and monogamy—grand symbols of heteronormativity. For his part, Danny also embarked on a project that resulted in a map-based documentary of Damron’s Address Book. In doing so, Danny’s work investigated the spatial memory of gay cruising sites, of connection and intimacy that once played out in these locations—spaces no longer in use for that purpose, but also not completely erased either. They exist as reminders of an era of sexual liberation both before and during the AIDS crisis.
Danny explained that his work aims to preserve and document these sites as places of community building, where gay men once upon a time forged bonds and created a sense of shared belonging through the most intimate and secretive of acts. “I’m interested to know then if cruising is the result of a closeted culture?” he says. “Or another means of maintaining the integrity of a subculture that is uniquely our own.”
A good friend once told me that the only time he ever felt truly alive was when he was out cruising. At the time he carried what he jokingly called a “roadside hazard kit” in his car that contained towels, condoms, bottles of lube, poppers, and a few worn out porno magazines (back before porn could be streamed on a smartphone).
“I’d spend hours driving around in my car,” he recalled, with a reverence that was almost spiritual. “I’d get lost in the whole ritual of it.”
Once he watched as cops arrested a man in a park bathroom. But that never stopped him. It worked to heighten the arousal, he said. It provided a thrill that he felt was otherwise missing in his life. His preferred spot to cruise was Griffith Park.
Author John Rechy situates Griffith Park in several of his novels like City of Night and Numbers. In the latter, handsome and charismatic Johnny Rio has come to Los Angeles after years in Texas. Faced with the certain reality that his age is catching up to him, Johnny returns to his former haunt, a place of past conquests, for ten days of sex before his beauty and looks fade away forever. Upon reaching the park, Rechy writes: “[It] is much vaster than Johnny expected. It sprawls over several thousand acres—threatening to spill out into Los Angeles, Hollywood, Glendale, invading even the sky; its various roads spiral up hills high above the city.”
Here, the space of cruising sprawls, opens up, invades, and ruptures the larger environs. It interrupts the space contained by artificial impediments. The writer, like singer George Michael, arrested in a Beverly Hills park bathroom, brazenly calls attention to the location as a site of sexual exchanges that exist within the larger mesh of American culture. But this is a site that operates outside the boundary, a site that challenges greater notions of exchange and connection. He writes, “The branches of so many trees droop so thickly here that the sun filters through only in tiny shifting sequin points and jagged patches.
Perhaps Johnny’s fading good looks, his various exploits, and his frenzied attempts to recapture the glory days of his cruising jaunts could be seen as a commentary on the threats posed on this rare and little-known ecosystem. And like many delicate ecosystems, perhaps Rechy is making a commentary on the fading phenomenon surrounding such places as married couples with kids and dogs push in and the vast clearings that pocket the park, canopied by trees, go from being prime cruising spots to places for cyclists and joggers.
A 1997 L.A. Times article titled “Neighbors Tackle Gay Cruising” tells of neighbors, both newly arrived and longstanding, getting sick and tired of the cruising scene in the areas around Griffith Park. “In the enduring subculture of men cruising for sex with other men, a few pleasant residential blocks of Griffith Park Boulevard had become hot. A nearby sex club had drawn crowds, as did the boulevard’s mention in gay guides” the article reported. The crackdown led to undercover police stings and road signs that read
TWO TIMES PAST SAME
POINT WITHIN 6 HOURS
Back in 2011 the Los Angeles city council unanimously voted to have the signs removed claiming them to be pointless and offensive. And though this might initially seem like a progressive and bold step on behalf of residents, one that looks to embrace the long history of homosexuality and gay cruising in the community, it’s actually not. The establishments that once attracted such activities have all packed up, replaced by pressed juice bars and yoga studios. “Today, residents say those type of clubs have closed and the neighborhood has changed. They believe the signs ‘stigmatize’ and embarrass the neighborhood,” one website stated.
Begun by visual artist Carlos Motta and writer and dramaturge Joshua Lubin-Levy, Petit Mort: Recollections of a Queer Public is a visual art project that charts the experiences of gay men cruising around New York City. Each account presents detailed drawings by men and brief accounts of their experiences. Deeply personal and culturally significant, these accounts draw strong links between gay subculture and public spaces. Extending beyond the engaged sexual encounters, their project reinforced the idea of cruising as not just a frivolous act, but one with deep political roots, recognizing the foundation of resistant and sexual liberation in the gay community by giving permanence and legitimacy to these spaces in their art. The culture of gay cruising is threatened by gentrification, laws that limit such behaviors, and an overall stigma associated with sex in public. As the makeup of neighborhoods change, the secret cruising goldmines that once existed are slowly being converted or threatened with extinction.
In Los Angeles, Pershing Square was the central locus of gay cruising and hustling in the decades prior to the crisis. A central location in what was known as “The Run” from the 1920s to the 1960s, Pershing Square was the anchor around which gay men could cruise and visit friendly locales like the bathrooms at the Central Library and the Subway Terminal Building, and bars like the one in the Biltmore Hotel.
Many of these places have since vanished and, though remnants of the physical locations might remain—the restroom of a local park, a building that once housed one of the most popular sex clubs in Silverlake, a seedy adult bookstore now fallen into disrepair over the years—they are but subtle traces of what used to be. Finding new cruising hotspots is a little easier now with smartphones equipped with geolocation features, websites, and apps. As these new modes of communication become more ubiquitous, the line between privacy and intimacy also blurs. And given the rise of gentrification in certain regions of Los Angeles as well as other metropolitan cities, the factors that threaten the subculture of cruising come not only from AIDS and other STDs, but also from a long string of new pressures.
Alex Espinoza earned his MFA in Fiction from UC Irvine and holds the Tomás Rivera Endowed Chair in Creative Writing at UC Riverside. He’s the author of the novels Still Water Saints and The Five Acts of Diego León, both from Random House. His newest book is Cruising: An Intimate History of a Radical Pastime (Unnamed Press, June 2019). He has written for the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times Magazine, Virginia Quarterly Review, and NPR’s All Things Considered. The recipient of a fellowship in prose from the NEA and an American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation, he lives and teaches in Los Angeles and is completing a new novel. www.alexespinoza.com
Essential Los Angeles: Revisiting the Automobile (Eric Avila)
Just when we thought we knew everything about Los Angeles and the automobile, Genevieve Carpio delivers Collisions at the Crossroads, not just a model of rigorous, empirically-driven, theoretically sophisticated scholarship, but a critical intervention into a canonical body of knowledge that explains the enduring love affair between Angelenos and their automobiles. The story is familiar: Los Angeles grew up with the automobile. Its vast expanse of flat arid land—partitioned by mountains, arroyos, and rivers—provided an ideal setting for the mass adoption of the automobile during the early decades of the twentieth century. Even in the depths of the Great Depression, southern Californians purchased automobiles in record numbers, creating an impetus for the construction of new streets, boulevards, and highways. These arteries and the cars they served fattened the coffers of oil, rubber, glass, steel, trucking, and construction companies, and furthered the sprawling, decentralized pattern of urban development that typified a broader pattern of ‘sunbelt’ urbanism.
This history became the basis of a full-blown myth about Los Angeles as ‘Autopia,’ penned by a British expat who roamed the L.A. grid in a convertible Mustang in the swinging Sixties. First published in 1971, Reyner Banham’s Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies generated a new appreciation of Los Angeles, furthering a broader ‘postmodern’ sensibility that drew inspiration from the commercial landscapes of a car-oriented, hyper-consumer society. Much in the same vein as contemporary artists working in the Pop aesthetic (think Andy Warhol, Ed Ruscha, and David Hockney, another British expat in L.A.), Banham recognized the centrality of the automobile in a new suburban way of life unfolding in southern California. To him, the automobile symbolized mobility, autonomy, convenience, and free choice—the attributes of a consumer society and the underlying values of a new model of democratic urbanism. Banham thought little of recent conflagrations like Watts, which he dismissed as a “fashionable venue for confrontations.” Instead, he saluted the automobile and its role in making a city where “all parts are equal and equally accessible from all other parts at once,” concluding that “freedom of movement is the prime symbolic attribute of the Angel City.” Yet in challenging these accounts of L.A.’s autopia that assert a universal mobile subject, Carpio reminds us of the divergent claims to mobility by diverse groups who navigated the metropolitan landscape and their racial positions within it.
Banham and his predecessors had important insights about the automobile and its impact upon Los Angeles’s development. Their narrative makes important contributions to understanding why Los Angeles is the way it is and why the city “bleeds” (as Carpio evocatively puts it) into its hinterlands. Her book Collision at the Crossroads tells a different story about the automobile, and about spatial movement more broadly, reminding us that the old story is dated for its failure to address issues of inequality, immobility, and injustice—issues that L.A. historians can no longer ignore.
Workers and their Cars.
Washing a Car.
In the two centuries of its relatively brief existence, Los Angeles sustains (thanks to a recent generation of historians who align with social justice movements) a not-so-hidden history of violence, oppression, and injustice, but also of resilience, struggle, accommodation, hybridity, and mestizaje or mixed-races. The city’s track record of mob violence and racial uprisings, not to mention its history of mass incarceration and police brutality, forces a need to rethink both the city and the technology that made it, including the car, but also emergent forms of police enforcement, public policies aimed at diverse movers, innovative strategies to navigate metropolitan space by the aggrieved, and claims to the right to mobility. In Collisions at the Crossroads, Carpio tells this story from the vantage point of inland southern California, where claims to mobility have been complex and always contestable. The automobile made Greater Los Angeles, as did streetcars and railroads in their day, but its arrival and accommodation benefitted some groups of people at the expense of others.
As with many technological advancements, white men usurp the privileges they afford themselves and deny those same benefits to everyone else (with some brilliant exceptions). This includes the automobile, one of the most consequential inventions in human history. Not just the automobile as object, but especially its meaning as a symbol: the promise of unfettered mobility, autonomous movement, and mastery over time and space at high speeds on the open highway. Reyner Banham exalted these qualities and rightly expressed their seemingly universal appeal (at least in his time). So many of us love the automobile: we wash their bodies, clean their engines, quench their thirst for oil, air, water, and gasoline, polish their glass and chrome, register their possession with state authorities, insure them against damage and destruction—we eat, drink, argue, bond, and think thoughts in automobiles. We love these damn things so much that those of us written out of autopia’s dominant scripts—women, people of color, immigrants—forget that we often relinquish our autonomy, will, even safety, by surrendering to the automobile’s allure.
What Banham and other apologists for the automobile also ignore is a counterstory of how the automobile became a powerful tool of state surveillance and discipline. As demonstrated in the larger chapter from which the excerpt to follow draws, the car’s pleasures are accorded selectively by a repressive police force that incorporated the automobile into its arsenal, enabling new forms of enforcement in which they could “invoke the eyes of fellow police cruisers over the radio, track car owners through vehicle registration, and erect traffic checkpoints to distinguish criminals from the law-abiding mobile public.”
LAPD Classic Cruiser, 1958.
Watts Riots, 1965.
Carpio’s work provides early insights into emerging forms of state surveillance that would mature into the postwar period. During the 1950s and under the leadership of Los Angeles Police Chief William Parker, local law enforcement invented the squad car, equipped with short-band radios, sirens, rifles, shotguns, spotlights, and powerful engines. Parker revolutionized law enforcement in an age of mass suburbanization, effecting greater control over disparate working class Black and Latino communities that took shape throughout the five-county urban region. The police arrest of Marquette Frye, who was pulled over on a hot summer day in early August 1965, illustrated the lethal consequences of ‘driving while black.’ His arrest sparked the Watts Riots, the most violent episode of urban racial violence during the mid-1960s, resulting in thirty-four deaths and hundreds of millions of dollars in property damage.
Chief Parker realized the automobile’s potential on a new highway system that took shape during his tenure. During the 1950s and 1960s, federal money poured into the construction of a massive highway system, linking disparate suburban communities to the historic core of Los Angeles. Orange County now linked to the San Fernando Valley, and they had new links to the inland communities of Claremont, Pomona, and Ontario. This sprawling network of freeways converged just east of the downtown core, in the neighborhood of Boyle Heights, which bore the brunt of state and federal highway construction projects. Today, Boyle Heights stands at the center of L.A.’s expansive freeway system, quarantined from the rest of the city by massive highway interchanges built in conjunction with slum clearance efforts. A redlined neighborhood since the 1930s, Boyle Heights earned the official distinction of being “hopelessly heterogeneous” by the Homeowners’ Loan Corporation, identified as “an ideal site for a massive slum clearance project” which turned out to be two massive highway interchanges, built less than two miles apart from each other in the late 1950s.
In this deracinated landscape, ravaged by white flight and highway construction; in the shadows and din of new freeway interchanges, a new ‘Chicano’ culture took shape, a hybrid mix of Mexican cultural traditions, shaped by the cosmopolitan influences of a polyglot, glamorous, and dangerous society. Zoot Suits came from Boyle Heights, murals too, and lowriders, which fashioned an alternative car culture that had nothing to do with the very qualities of speed and mobility that Banham celebrated. They embraced ‘low and slow’ as their aesthetic, indulging in a new suburban pleasure that drew upon urban traditions of showmanship and technological mastery, and gave a big middle finger to the ideals of efficiency, speed, mobility, and productivity built into the object and symbol of the automobile itself. Lowriders were not 9-to-5 commuters and they re-fashioned these machines for their own sensory and aesthetic pleasure. Their spatial claims evoked strong responses from the viewing public and local authorities, contests that Carpio argues have continued to play out over symbolic landscapes like Route 66. Lowriders chose boulevards over freeways as the primary venue for their motorized brand of chrome-polish swagger, and enthralled sidewalk spectators who marveled at these machines. Are lowriders the victims of a ‘false consciousness’ sponsored by a corporate-consumer car culture? Or are they subversive agents of a technological counterculture? Drawing on the history of contested claims to mobility appearing across the twentieth century, Collisions at the Crossroads suggests the latter.
Today, we stand at another crossroad. Like most every aspect of technological modernity, the automobile is a blessing and a curse. It remains the dominant mode of transportation in the southland, yet its false premise of unfettered, autonomous mobility seems to have hit a wall of its own making. We Angelenos suffer from a chronic addiction to oil and gasoline. Too many people, too many cars: the concept of rush hour is obsolete. Every hour is rush hour; traffic is at a standstill on most freeway arteries, at most times of the day. Although new systems of mass transit are providing alternatives to the automobile and the freeway, there is little relief from the congestion and pollution that cars inflict upon our daily lives. Like red meat, our insatiable appetite for oil accelerates global warming, sparking what will become a desperate search for new alternatives to fossil fuels. Whether or not the automobile will remain the dominant mode of transportation in the region depends upon a clear-eyed assessment of its costs and benefits. Carpio implicates that machine in a broader history of racial and class inequality that now poses an existential threat to the survival of the species.
The Automobile in Mexican Immigrant and Mexican American Life (Genevieve Carpio)
By World War I, the automobile was already an integral part of life for Mexican agricultural workers in Southern California. Prominent citrus ranchers provided laborers garages alongside bathrooms, running water, electricity, and other utilities they deemed fundamental to worker housing. As described by Archibald Shamel, a USDA scientist who wrote extensively on Mexican citrus workers, “[the automobile is] an essential part of the household equipment.” Local cooperative associations occasionally provided vehicles for their workers, but more often than not individual pickers and their families purchased their own. Like the Japanese bicyclists who preceded them, Mexican motorists used vehicles to maximize their work opportunities, and for fashioning themselves as modern citizens. Although at the national level cars at that time were largely owned by the white middle class, for use in leisure activities like tourism and cross-country travel, in the Mexican communities of Southern California automobiles were a working class item used to traverse uncertain economic and social landscapes.
Disrupting national trends that linked whiteness and driving, period sources suggest that ethnic Mexicans owned automobiles at far higher rates than the Southern California population as a whole. A 1933 Heller Committee cost of living study, by the University of California, sheds light on patterns of automotive proprietorship, expense, and usage. In a survey of a hundred Mexican-descent families living in San Diego, the Heller Committee found twenty-six percent of households owned and operated their own automobile. A similar survey taken in San Fernando, about thirty miles north of Los Angeles, found that nearly forty percent of families residing in the “Mexican district” owned a vehicle. These figures are particularly significant when we consider that the automobile ownership rate in California as a whole was only seventeen percent, about half of the rate for the Mexican communities of San Diego and San Fernando.
Far from elite toys of the rich, automobiles were regularly a necessity for Mexican laborers. Only two percent of the vehicles counted in the Heller study had been purchased new. Rather, families typically bought their cars and trucks secondhand, often as an essential expense. Purchasing a vehicle was a financial hardship that required cutting back elsewhere, sometimes even on food. Nevertheless, for their drivers, automobiles’ economic and cultural value exceeded their costs. Mexican respondents reported they used their vehicles for a variety of functions, including searching for work in surrounding towns, informal outings, and travel to family events.
Joe Hernandez (third from left) and crew on work truck, 1938. Courtesy of Inland Mexican Heritage.
Car and truck ownership often translated into direct economic gains for Citrus Belt workers. Groves were spread throughout the region and laborers commonly lived in towns adjacent to large farms, moving among them as the crops matured. Families who owned automobiles could leverage this location gap between housing and the groves to earn extra income. Former citrus worker Howard Herrera remembered, “In those days you had to pay for your ride. Sometimes the house would pay it. If the house would hire a truck to take the crew to work they’d pay the driver for all the heads that would drive and arrive in the truck.” By transporting their neighbors to the fields, truck owners not only solved the problem of spatial dissonance, but also identified workers for the citrus cooperative in exchange for pay. In these roles, they served as recruiters, translators, and transporters. Women were often key in the relative success of these efforts. The son of one citrus foreman recalls that his mother provided warm lunches for riders as extra incentive to choose his father’s crew over others. For these services, Mexican families were financially rewarded, receiving a small payment for each rider or a portion of the profits from the harvest.
If Mexican motorists could increase their wages by providing a vital service to ranchers, their automobility could also be used to challenge employers’ control over workers’ livelihoods. Mobility enabled Mexican-descent workers to determine which employment opportunities—agricultural or otherwise—offered the most competitive wages. Those with access to private vehicles identified opportunities at a range much larger than previously possible, aided by a growing network of roads, their ability to carry multiple passengers, and the incentive of hauling cargo for additional payment. While vehicles widened the geographic scale and types of employment available to Mexican drivers, vehicles were also beneficial in times of collective action. Even if primarily used for daily transportation, a truck could moonlight as a mobile picket line, stage for mobile theater, or emergency shelter. During times of direct action, vehicles helped to galvanize workers and prolonged their ability to strike. In this sense, automobility could quite directly contribute to the collective’s economic mobility.
Automotive culture permeated not only the lives of those who moved, but also those in the communities that were passed. The largely Mexican Westside of San Bernardino is exemplary of this synergism. Later designated as Route 66, Mount Vernon Avenue provided residents with entrepreneurial opportunities to offer services to long distance travelers, such as managing motels, bars, gas stations, and restaurants. Consider Mitla Café. In 1927, its owners, Lucia and Salvador Rodríguez, migrated to California, and soon after this Lucia opened a small taco stand. The side business grew into a local landmark where the Rodríguez family catered to Mount Vernon residents, including workers from the nearby Santa Fe railroad repair shop, and passing motorists looking for something warm and affordable to eat. A combination of its location on Highway 66, its homey atmosphere, and foremost its Cal-Mex cuisine even earned Mitla Café a mention in the popular Duncan Hines travel culinary guide, Adventures in Good Eating. Business leaders along the busy Highway 66 corridor often became community leaders and their businesses popular sites of community organization and place making.
In addition to their economic value, vehicles held an important symbolic role for their drivers. Analysis of photographs collected by grassroots recovery efforts, such as Inland Mexican Heritage (IMH), further sheds light on the cultural significance of vehicles in Mexican agricultural communities. Looking to these personal family records adds a new perspective to those of the period’s social worker reports, which erroneously equated Mexican automotive practice with those of white middle class families. In public events held by IMH throughout the 1990s and 2000s, residents of former citrus communities near San Bernardino were invited to contribute family photographs and oral histories as part of a recovery project focused on Mexican American communities. Among cherished images of weddings, returning veterans, and family gatherings, residents frequently submitted family portraits in which cars and trucks figured as prominent features of the image.
Unlike government or professional photographs from this period, examining the function of automobiles within these self-selected compositions helps reveal the ways Mexican American people themselves positioned vehicles in their everyday lives. While members of the family and their friends occupy the focal point, they were often staged in the photographs sitting or standing on vehicles. On the one hand, this positioning points towards the frequent presence of automobiles in Mexican American life, which were conveniently present during both special family events and mundane daily passings. On the other, the frequent appearance of cars as a central part of the photographs’ compositions underscores the subjects’ desires to craft particular self-identities. Automobiles represented more than vehicles for travel. Rather, they held distinct social significance for those involved at the moment of a photograph’s creation. Where a group of youth dressed in their best outfits and standing in front of a car might represent the subjects’ identity as a modern subject immersed in leisure culture, workers posing with a truck filled with boxes of oranges could emphasize a strong work ethic, upward mobility, or traditional links between masculinity and labor. Historian Phil Deloria has examined the ways images of both American Indians and automobiles have been used by non-Indians to signify important elements in American culture. When brought together, these signifiers have conjured a “palpable disconnection between the high-tech automotive world and the primitivism that so often clings to the figure of the Indian.” Where automobiles seemed anachronistic or unmerited when driven by nonwhites, photographs produced by Mexican American drivers were all the more powerful for the ways they disrupted normative expectations and bolstered self-representation in complex ways.
Jessie Ortiz and friend posing on fender of car near San Timoteo Canyon, 1928. Courtesy of Inland Mexican Heritage.
Where photographic records help to uncover symbolic systems attached to vehicles by multigenerational Mexican American populations, songs emerge as an archive of the meanings produced by Mexican immigrants. Corridos—poetry set to music—are cultural artifacts that archive artistic expressions of daily life. In these songs, vehicles held an important symbolic role in conveying immigrants’ experiences in the United States. As described by Mexican anthropologist Manuel Gamio, Mexican rates of vehicle ownership grew markedly among immigrants who had worked for a period in the United States. A close reading of popular corridos collected by Gamio and reprinted by the Social Science Research Council in the 1920s uncovers an ambivalent attitude among Mexican immigrants towards cars—and by extension, an ambivalent attitude towards U.S. life in general.
A consistent note among corridos was nostalgia for life in Mexico, and the internal tensions generated among immigrants when pursuing American economic mobility. The lyrics of “El Dónde Yo Nací,” for example, use the car to signify dissatisfaction with U.S. consumer culture. The protagonist sings:
No me gusta coche ni autómovil
como al estilo de por aquí.
A mi me gusta carreta de bueyes
como en el rancho dónde yo nací.
(I do not care for the cars or the automobiles
like those found around here.
I prefer the oxcart
like on the ranch where I was born.)
In this instance, the singer rejects the extravagant automobiles he views in the United States in favor of an old oxcart he owned in rural Mexico. At a literal level, his dissatisfaction indicates the singer’s longing for the ranch where he was born, land owned by his family and free from the empty consumerism he observes in the United States. Seemingly nationalistic, the singer’s nostalgia may also be read as a critique of political changes in Mexico, where privatization drastically transformed the countryside and large agricultural operations displaced many of the migrants. Dispossession pushed them to seek work in the United States.
In a variation of this critique, another corrido titled “El Renegado” focused its criticism on Mexican immigrants seduced by U.S. markers of social status. The automobile in this corrido signals an immigrant who, upon gaining some profit, looks down upon his fellow countrymen who have not adopted a U.S. lifestyle. The ballad disapproves of the renegade’s “dandy” attire and his conceit when driving a flashy car, “andas por hay luciendo gran autómovil.” Where the driver seeks attention by wielding control over the ultimate symbol of social mobility, the singer critiques this ostentatious display of wealth. The song discredits those immigrants who would negate their homeland and working class origins. In both “El Dónde Yo Nací” and “El Renegado,” the automobile represents a U.S. lifestyle that stands in opposition to a Mexico envisioned as rural, homeland, and anticapitalistic.
Roque Family and their car, 1930s. Courtesy of Inland Mexican Heritage.
Looking to these creative expressions of Mexican immigrant life helps reveal illicit uses of automobiles unaccounted for in most oral histories. Further, they recast as autonomous subjects the drivers who might otherwise be considered deviant. For instance, the car is often described with fondness for the freedom it offers its driver. “El Fotingo,” which can be loosely translated as “The Jalopy,” is one such example. Although the jalopy is worn down and without seats, doors, or even lights, the song’s lyrics recall moonlit nights when the driver’s speeding Ford could be mistaken for a Willys-Overland. Where the old Ford represented economy and utility, the Overland had relatively more luxurious associations. By playing with the symbolic systems attached to the two models, the driver himself seems transformed in the moonlight from a worn-down laborer to a playboy bootlegger. The singer proudly describes flirting with women, smoking marijuana, and evading U.S. custom’s officers while smuggling liquor across the border. The mobility enabled by his vehicle is a fitting metaphor for the intersections between Mexican and American life, particularly as the increasing ease of automobility blurred the boundaries between the two, just as migrating bodies and smuggled booze could disrupt the apparent solidity of national boundaries.
Rising automobile registration rates in Mexico rose with Mexican American and Mexican immigrant vehicle ownership in the United States. Before 1910, there were no more than 3,000 vehicles registered across the Mexican nation. This quickly changed when Francisco Madero replaced Porfirio Díaz as president of Mexico in 1911. Fifteen years after abolishing a prohibitive tax on automobile ownership, registration increased from half a million to 17.5 million. A continuing rise in vehicle registration was fostered by the arrival of the Ford Motor Company in Mexico City in 1925 and the construction of a vast new factory in 1932.
Migration between the United States and Mexico further contributed to the growth of automotive ownership among ethnic Mexicans on both sides of the border. In December 1926, Mexico exempted repatriates from paying duty on U.S. items, including vehicles. Upon their return, thirty-eight percent of all repatriates owned an automobile. The widespread resale economy in Mexican border towns may have further boosted Mexican Americans’ ability to purchase low-cost Fords, creating a synergy between automotive manufacturing and policies in Mexico as well as Mexican Americans’ automobility in the United States.
Surveys, oral histories, photographs, and corridos each provide insight into the internal significance of automobiles for Mexican Americans and Mexican immigrants living in the United States. Vehicles were significant for increasing one’s economic mobility, and served as important social symbols used in self-fashioning as well as lyrical devices used to describe immigrant life in Mexican America. Focusing on reports by social scientists and others begins to reveal more of the external values placed on Mexican mobility at the economic crossroads of the 1920s and the Great Depression—an important background for understanding how we got where we are today with the Automobile and Mexican American life.
 Scott L. Bottles, Los Angeles and the Automobile: The Making of the Modern City (Berkeley: University of California Press,1987); Richard Longstreth, City Center to Regional Mall: Architecture, the Automobile, and Retailing in Los Angeles, 1920-1950 (Boston: MIT Press, 1997); Jeremiah Axelrod, Inventing Autopia: Envisioning the Modern Metropolis in Jazz Age Los Angeles (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009); David Brodsly, L.A. Freeway: An Appreciative Essay (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983).
 Reyner Banham, Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies, 2d ed. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009), 18.
 Genevieve Carpio, Collisions at the Crossroads: How Place and Mobility Make Race (Oakland: University of California Press, 2019), 75.
 Inclusive of Los Angeles, Ventura, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino counties.
 Brenda Jo Bright and Liza Bakewell, Looking High and Low: Art and Cultural Identity (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1995); Denise Sandoval, “Bajito y Suavecito/Low and Slow: Cruising Through Lowrider Culture,” unpublished Ph.D. diss. (Claremont Graduate University, 2003); Ben Chappel, Lowrider Space: Aesthetics and Politics of Modern Custom Cars (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2012).
 This section excerpted from Genevieve Carpio, “‘An Essential Part of the Household Equipment’: The Automobile in Mexican Immigrant and Mexican American Life,” in Collisions at the Crossroads: How Place and Mobility Make Race (Oakland: University of California Press, 2019): 144-150.
 Archibald Shamel, “Housing Conditions of the Employe[e]s of California Citrus Ranches,” typescript, undated, p. 4, Archibald Shamel Papers, Tomás Rivera Library, University of California Riverside.
 On automotive cultures in this period, see Thomas Weiss, “Tourism in America before World War II,” Journal of Economic History 64 (2004); Marguerite S. Shaffer, See America First: Tourism and National Identity, 1880-1940 (Washington, DC: Smithsonian, 2001); Virginia Scharff, Taking the Wheel: Women and the Coming of the Motor Age (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico, 1992).
 Constantine Panunzio and the Heller Committee for Research in Social Economics of the University of California, “Cost of Living Studies V. How Mexicans Earn and Live: A Study of the Incomes and Expenditures of One Hundred Mexican Families in San Diego, California,” University of California Publications in Economics, 13 (1933). In their report, the Mexican Fact-Finding Committee cites the San Fernando figure from an unpublished report by the Los Angeles County Health Department. See Mexican Fact-Finding Committee, “Mexicans in California,” 178. See also Scott L. Bottles, Los Angeles and the Automobile: The Making of the Modern City (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987). Statewide statistics for Mexican American motorists are unavailable.
 Panunzio and the Heller Committee, “Cost of Living Studies v. How Mexicans Earn and Live”; Mexican Fact-Finding Committee, “Mexicans in California.”
 Howard Herrera interviewed by Robert Gonzalez, transcript, 13 April 1994, Inland Mexican Heritage, Redlands.
 In an interview conducted with my paternal grandfather, Vincent Carpio Sr., he recounted his experience as a foreman and the bonus he received for identifying and transporting workers to the fields surrounding Pomona in the 1940s. He described the effective role of “incentives,” such as warm food prepared by my grandmother Consuelo Carpio and cold beer on payday, in retaining workers. Vincent Carpio interviewed by Genevieve Carpio, Spring 2001, Pomona, CA.
 On the connection of migrant workers, automobiles, and collective action see Don Mitchell, The Lie of the Land: Migrant Workers and the California Landscape (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996).
 Rick Martinez, “Co-Founder of Mitla Lucia Rodriguez Dies,” San Bernardino County Sun, 13 January 1981; “Route 66 Special,” Access Rewind [film], IE Media Group, 2011.
 For more on Latina/o restaurant owners as place-makers, see Natalia Molina, “The Importance of Place and Place-Makers in the Life of a Los Angeles Community: What Gentrification Erases from Echo Park,” Southern California Quarterly 97 (2015): 69-111.
 Author has worked in consultation on various IMH projects since 2004.
 A selection of these photographs can be found in Antonio González Vazquez and Genevieve Carpio, Mexican Americans in Redlands (Charleston: Arcadia Publishing, 2012).
 Phil Deloria, Indians in Unexpected Places (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2004), 138.
 For the continuing significance of the corridor in Los Angeles, see “The Corrido of LA,” an exhibition by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 2010, http://www.lacma.org/art/installation/corrido-la; for sound recordings, see the Strachwitz Frontera Collection of Mexican and Mexican American Recordings, UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center and UCLA Digital Library, http:// frontera.library.ucla.edu.
 Manuel Gamio, Mexican Immigration to the United States (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1930).
 Translated by author. Original printed in Gamio, Mexican Immigration to the United States.
 Veronica Castillo-Muñoz, “Historical Roots of Rural Migration: Land Reform, Corn Credit, and the Displacement of Rural Farmers in Nayarit Mexico, 1900-1952,” Mexican Studies/ Estudios Mexicanos 29 (2013).
 “You go around showing off in your big automobile.” Translated by author. Original printed in Gamio, Mexican Immigration to the United States, 93.
 Rita Urquijo-Ruiz writes that El Renegade was a character in a popular comedy routine in teatro de carpa, or traveling tent theater, used to poke fun at assimilated Mexicans. See Rita Urquijo-Ruiz, Wild Tongues: Transnational Mexican Popular Culture (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2012), 23-25.
 Original printed in Gamio, Mexican Immigration to the United States, 31; the term “fotingo” was often synonymous with Ford motor cars, which Mexican farm laborers frequently owned due to their affordability.
 Ricardo Romo,“Work and Restlessness: Occupational and Spatial Mobility among Mexicanos in Los Angeles,” Pacific Historical Review 46 (1977): 176.
 See digital archive of Ford’s Mexico City plant at “Ford Mexico City Plant Photographs,” The Henry Ford, Dearborn, MI, accessed July 2018, https://www .thehenryford.org/collections-and-research/digital-collections/sets/11598/. See also Ford Motor Company, “Historia de Ford de Mexico,” accessed 29 March 2013, http://media.ford.com/article_display.cfm?article_id = 4166.
 Indeed, the vast majority were Ford cars and trucks, at twenty-seven percent of all automotive objects (a category including automobile types and auto parts) brought to Mexico by repatriates. See Gamio, Mexican Immigration to the United States, esp. Appendix 5, 224-225; for more accounts of Ford automobiles moving back and forth across the U.S.-Mexico border, see Alice Evans Cruz, “The Romanzas Train Señora Nurse,” The Survey 60 (1928): 468-469, 488; Cara Finnegan, Picturing Poverty: Print Culture and FSA Photographs (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Books, 2003).
Gentrification has increasingly become a significant issue in contemporary Los Angeles, especially in bohemian and so-called “ethnic” neighborhoods like Venice, Echo Park, Chinatown, and Boyle Heights. The Arroyo Seco neighborhoods of Northeast LA (NELA) such as Highland Park and Eagle Rock are significant flashpoints in the urban restructuring process that draws new white middle-class entrepreneurs and residents while displacing established immigrant and working-class people. Highland Park exhibits some features of “gentefication” that involve the participation of middle-class Latino/a residents and business entrepreneurs along with whites in the neighborhood transition process. But Latino/as are more commonly regarded as casualties rather than agents of gentrification as evidenced in the stark experiences of immigrant working class evictions and displacements primed by a hot real estate market driven by speculative flipping and growing corporate investment. Recently the gentrification and displacement frontier has shifted from York Boulevard to the main commercial district of Highland Park along North Figueroa Street and the Metro Gold Line. Here the troubling side of gentrification has intensified as larger developers are converting multi-unit apartment buildings and vacant lots into new market rate housing with the support of city officials and urban planning incentives from the City of Los Angeles.
The neighborhood transition process had been more gradual for decades from the 1970s to the 2000s as pioneering homebuyers, artists, and mom and pop entrepreneurs restored properties and culturally revitalized the NELA neighborhoods that had become disinvested in the wake of suburbanization and white flight. As the revitalization stage gave way to the gentrification stage in urban restructuring, investment accelerated in NELA in the wake of the great recession after 2010, when there was growing entry of speculator-flippers, corporate developers and architects, and governmental housing and urban development programs including transit-oriented development (TOD) and transit villages. The demand-side social agency of pioneers and risk-averse single-family home buyers increasingly shifts to the supply-side forces of capitalist investment and neoliberal public/private partnership.
As the urban growth machine propels gentrification forward in NELA, it exhibits sharpening socioeconomic and racial overtones as immigrant working-class Latino/a families are increasingly threatened with displacement by rent increases, mass evictions, and social uprootedness. Working class households and multi-family networks are even subject to secondary displacement as property transactions and new construction in neighborhood hotspots stimulate broader property value shifts in surrounding blocks and block groups. The creative frontier of urban restructuring in NELA exhibits a growing destructive violence that illustrates what David Harvey describes as capitalism’s tendency to foster “accumulation by dispossession” through privatization of public lands and public housing, slum clearance, property foreclosure and marginalization of the urban poor. He furthermore reflects upon how marginalized and dispossessed people around the world have ignited social resistance and insurgent movements to demand their “rights to the city” as urban inhabitants, despite their lack of property rights.
As the urban growth machine propels gentrification forward in NELA, it exhibits sharpening socioeconomic and racial overtones as immigrant working-class Latino/a families are increasingly threatened with displacement by rent increases, mass evictions, and social uprootedness.
The emergence of the NELA Alliance with their first protest march and demonstration along Highland Park’s York Boulevard in November 2014 seemingly gave public voice to the neighborhood’s opposition to gentrification and displacement, as well as the need for more affordable housing. With their robust calls that “Gentrification is the New Colonialism,” and that “Housing is a Human Right,” the largely Latino/a constituency of the NELA Alliance expressed their frustrations as a disenfranchised minority against the appropriation of its neighborhood homeland and culture by powerful outsiders. They have held organizational meetings, tenant’s rights workshops, panel discussions, testimonials and theatrical events to educate and mobilize the immigrant low-income community. Another organization named Friends of Highland Park emerged to contest the development of a transit village along the Metro Gold Line that neighborhood activists felt did not well serve the immigrant residential and business community. These movements have generated significant journalistic reports in the Los Angeles Times and other major online media.
There is a sense of class struggle amidst the relentless economic violence of capitalism reminiscent of Karl Marx and Frederick Engel’s famous description in “The Community Manifesto” of the global power of the bourgeoisie to revolutionize the mode of production and force the capitulation of the proletariat and their cultural traditions until “all that is solid melts into air.” The production of urban space is crucial to the continued expansion of capitalism, yet this process is full of tension and struggle. The contradictions of urban capitalism as a force of creative destruction has been described by David Harvey and Marshall Berman through epic historical cases. Some of these cases include a few from the public works prefect Baron Haussmann and his destruction of dense working-class neighborhoods to create the boulevards in mid-eighteenth century Paris and power broker Robert Moses and his clearing of dense working class communities in New York City in the mid-twentieth century in favor of bridges, intercity expressways, and the opening up of the suburbs. Fast forward to the twenty-first century, and the malevolence of gentrification is described by Jason Hackworth as the material and symbolic “knife-edge” of neoliberal capitalism amidst the government retrenchment from the Keynesian egalitarian liberalism of the twentieth century. The capitalist city is a main battleground for neoliberal transition as local governments “roll back” Fordist-era housing programs and social services while “rolling forward” post-Fordist incentives for investment and urban entrepreneurialism. Under neoliberal gentrification we see the opposing clash of capitalist struggle between exchange value interests for investors, property owners and state tax revenues versus use value interests for residents, workers and urban inhabitants.
Northeast LA (NELA) Alliance members stage their first major action Procesión de Testimonios: Evicting Displacement on 3 November 2014 including mock evictions on twenty-two businesses. Protesters can be seen at left with a realtor crossing York Boulevard to the right (Credit: John Urquiza/Sin Turistas).
The Troubling Side of Gentrification: Displacement, Root Shock, and Neighborhood Trauma
Less visible than the outward economic signs of gentrification is the social uprooting and traumatic displacement process that takes place behind the scenes after new owners and developers have secured their properties and start vacating residents through dramatic rent increases or direct evictions. Even when eviction is legally implemented with relocation stipends, the monies hardly make up for the abrupt involuntary loss of a home and loss of extended family networks that were built up over the years to help low-income immigrants and minorities share child care responsibilities and confront the economic challenges of urban life. In L.A. neighborhoods like Highland Park, which are on the gentrification frontier, the good and bad aspects of the urban growth machine work simultaneously to display the innovative and cruel nature of urban capitalism as a double-edged force of creative destruction. The housing markets in gentrifying areas like NELA reveal how innovative investors and architects build smart and trendy new housing to attract affluent millennial homebuyers of the creative economy and technology sector while removing working-class immigrant and minority families.
In L.A. neighborhoods like Highland Park, which are on the gentrification frontier, the good and bad aspects of the urban growth machine work simultaneously to display the innovative and cruel nature of urban capitalism as a double-edged force of creative destruction.
The impacts of secondary displacement through increases in property value play out more slowly than primary displacement evictions and high rental increases, but they create financial strains on families that further aggravate the physical and mental health of communities. Financial strain and/or displacement can cause chronic stress-related physical and mental illnesses, including hypertension, heart disease, obesity, diabetes, depression, anxiety, and sleep disorders. Serial displacement among multi-generational families can lead to a condition of “root shock.” Black and Latino families escaping racial discrimination and political violence carry previous traumatic experiences that can be aggravated by housing displacement.
Root shock is the traumatic stress reaction to the loss of a community’s multi-family and inter-generational social networks previously built up as emotional and social eco-systems to help low-income minority and immigrant communities survive when confronted by economic challenges and social marginalization. The concept was adapted from the practice of gardening by Dr. Mindy Fullilove, professor of clinical psychiatry and public health at Columbia University, to describe the experiences of people she interviewed about their displacement in cities like Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Roanoke, Virginia. She addresses the concept of “serial displacement” or repeated upheavals caused by disinvestment, gentrification, HOPE VI, mass incarceration, and natural disaster. The concept of root shock helps one understand both the effects of displacement and also formulate ways to mitigate urban trauma and community recovery from natural and man-made disasters.
“El Capitalista” puppet made by NELA Alliance members in silent procession on 12 December 2014 (Credit: John Urquiza/Sin Turistas).
Friends of Highland Park vs. the Highland Park Transit Village
Transit oriented development (TOD) is a growing tool of urban public policy to stimulate economic development and housing near mass transit stations like the Highland Park stop on the MTA Gold Line. The City of Los Angeles-owned vacant land is operated by the Department of Transportation as surface parking lots and plans gradually progressed over several years for a transit village of three buildings with eighty residential units comprising twenty market rate condos and sixty affordable apartment housing units. The Highland Park Overlay Zone board approved the project in early 2013 and the L.A. Planning Commission granted developer McCormack Barron Salazar conditional usepermits for taller more densely-built housing which then sparked some outcry and debate in the community with regard to the transit village’s size, aesthetics, congestion, and loss of public parking. The L.A. City Council backed the Planning Commission’s decision for higher density and furthermore approved the project to be released from lengthy review of impact on the environment, traffic and city services.
Community opposition to the project organized its campaign as the Friends of Highland Park and was led by a trio self-described as the “three musketeers,” including business leader Jesse Rosas; Lisa Duardo, a fierce speaker with close ties to the arts community; and Lloyd Cattro who is familiar with environmental issues. The movement gained support from respected N. Figueroa Street business leaders like Miguel Hernandez of Antigua Bread, Carlos Lopez of Las Cazuelas Restaurant and William Yu of California Fashion. Duardo attended legal workshops conducted by Advocates for the Environment jointly sponsored by the Sierra Club at Loyola Marymount University. With counsel from land-use attorney Dean Walraff, the Friends of Highland Park retained fiery attorney Vic Otten to file a California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) lawsuit against the transit village. An initial trial court judgment dismissed the CEQA filing. It was reversed by the California Court of Appeal in December 2015, in a decision that set aside the City’s Mitigated Negative Declaration and Notice of Determination and thus required the preparation of an environmental impact review (EIR) that complies with CEQA requirements. Described by Friends of Highland Park as a “David vs. Goliath” victory, the ruling sent City agencies and the developer back to the drawing board. To pay for such legal costs, the Friends of Highland Park fundraised some $30,000 through initiatives at local restaurants and bars, business events, and the NELA Alliance.
Jesse Rosas is the leader of the Northeast Business Association, which represents some fifteen to twenty business owners, a newer constituency than the Highland Park Chamber of Commerce currently led by Yolanda Nogueira that has existed for forty to fifty years, separate from the N. Figueroa Association that represents property owners and the Business Improvement District. Rosas has good business networks through his work on N. Figueroa Street events like the annual Christmas Parade and Highland Park Car Show. He doesn’t believe that the higher-income commuters the transit village would attract will patronize local businesses, which will instead be hurt by two years of construction and the loss of the public parking lots for their long-time customers. He’s highly skeptical of statements from Councilman Gil Cedillo’s office that there will be one-to-one replacement of public parking spots in new subterranean parking since many spots will be dedicated to transit village residents, monthly parking, and commuters. Questions also remain about whether the affordable housing units planned will really be financially viable for low-income households.
“Housing is a Human Right” projection during the course of silent procession on 12 December 2014 (Credit: John Urquiza/Sin Turistas).
Eviction Order and Rent Strike at Marmion Royal
Another contentious housing situation emerged right next to the Highland Park Metro Gold Line station at the sixty-unit Marmion Royal apartments. In May 2016, the building sold to Skya Ventures and Gelt Inc., a development company owned by a married couple Gelena Skya and Keith Wasserman, who announced plans to clear the apartments to renovate and rebrand the building as Citizen HLP and increase rents by more than $1,000 a month. Seven families voluntarily relocated, while nineteen were served with evictions. Others felt harassed by water shut-offs. Extended multi-family networks among the tenants are under threat of being broken. The property managers working for the Wassermans, Moss & Company repeatedly told residents they had to leave when their leases expire. The residents were majority working-class Latino/a families and included several Section 8 tenants at risk of homelessness without their housing vouchers. The Marmion Royal was built in 1987 and was not covered by the Los Angeles Rent Stabilization Ordinance, which applies to multi-unit apartments built before 1978, limiting rent increases to three percent and requiring landlords to provide relocation expenses for evicted tenants.
On 19 July 2016, a demonstration of about one hundred people was held next to the Marmion Royal apartment building, led by the NELA Alliance. The Occidental College Students United Against Gentrification (OSUAG) also participated. Adolfo Camacho, a resident for three years at the Marmion Royal and thirty years in Highland Park, said six people would be evicted from his household, including four children. His sister-in-law lived in another apartment. Chris Alvarez, who worked at the KTLA television station in Hollywood, said he would likely have to move to Monrovia or Lancaster and endure a much longer commute to his job. He grew up in Highland Park and had lived fifteen years at the Marmion Royal. He said that he and his wife were seven months pregnant and he fretted about moving when she was in her third trimester. He worried that he would be separated from his mother and sister who lived two blocks away during this crucial time. After more testimonies, the participants proceeded to march in the streets chanting, “Save Our Homes,” and “Housing Now,” to the office of Councilman Gil Cedillo where they demonstrated for a while before returning to the Marmion Royal. Erick Berdejo said, “I grew up here. I’ve been here ten years since the age of nine. We’re decent people, we work to pay rent, and for them to tell us we got to move because we can’t afford the rent ‑ that’s wrong!” David Canecho, a resident for twenty years at the Marmion Royal, said “we’re not the only ones in L.A. going through this. I went to high school in Highland Park then to college at Chico State and came back but now I can’t live here. It’s up to us to stand up and stick together!”
With educational workshops and organizational support from the NELA Alliance, the Los Angeles Tenants Union and legal advocacy from attorney Elena Popp of the Eviction Defense Network, forty-seven of the remaining residents signed a petition to fight their evictions and organize the Marmion Royal Tenants Union. They called for a rent strike to try to pressure the Wassermans into a collective bargaining agreement, putting their rent money into a blind trust while they negotiated with Skya Ventures. Over the next few months demonstrations, testimonials and candlelight vigils helped to publically dramatize the struggle of the Marmion Royal Tenants Union. In August, NELA Alliance sponsored an educational panel at Avenue 50 Studio, an exhibition, a performance and artistic procession through the streets titled, “Dancing Cantos of an Evicted Pueblo.”
NELA Alliance member Arturo Romo and Lis Barrajas leads other participants in silent procession to La Culebra Park where rites were held burning sage and palo verde to honor the native Tongva who were the original residents of region before their displacement (Credit: John Urquiza/Sin Turistas).
Fundraising efforts with support from local businesses like Las Cazuelas restaurant helped to raise nearly $8,000 for legal fees and court costs. Some white professional residents came forward to assert they thought management was more willing to negotiate with them on rent increases, giving Elena Popp an avenue to argue for a case of discrimination against the Latino/a and black residents. But in December 2016, a Los Angeles Superior Court judge, Rupert A. Byrdsong, ruled against a claim of discrimination against five tenants being evicted. The Skya Ventures attorney Jeffrey B. Endler argued that “white people were allowed [to] negotiate, maybe because they were more aggressive” and asked the judge to end the hearing. But Byrdsong allowed the defense to bring in more witnesses before ordering the remaining evictions. Elena Popp implied that there was also class discrimination, saying a representative of Skya Ventures told her the company wanted to bring in “higher-caliber tenants.” But Byrdsong ruled her testimony not admissible since it was akin to a negotiation between the parties. When the hearing resumed, Popp offered a settlement that called on the tenants to leave by 30 January. However, Skya Ventures wanted an earlier date. The firm said it would not ask for unpaid rent. “All we want is possession,” said their attorney Jeffrey Endler.
They do not go down without a fight against their impending dispossession, and they reveal the striking contradictions of the process of urban capitalist accumulation.
The Marmion Royal Tenants Union legal team is appealing the judge’s ruling under the claim it didn’t follow normal procedures of a jury decision. With support from attorney Noah Grynberg of the Los Angeles Center for Community Law and Action, the legal team is negotiating to consolidate the other eighteen cases. Remaining members of the tenants union vowed to continue their support. NELA Alliance members appealed through neighborhood social networks to find new housing for tenants facing eviction. Candlelight vigils helped to nourish their solidarity amidst the trauma of actual or impending displacement during the Christmas holidays. They staged a candlelight vigil at the residence of Gelena Skye and Keith Wasserman in Sherman Oaks on the evening of 30 December 2016. The evictions proceeded into the spring of 2017, however, and the last tenants were out by June 2017. The renovated building is now called Moxie + Clover Apartments.
The struggles of the Marmion Royal Tenants Union ended with the eviction of the final family in June 2017, but the NELA Alliance has kept up its neighborhood activism as it monitors incipient displacement and eviction situations at other multi-family apartment buildings in Highland Park along the N. Figueroa Street and the Metro Gold Line corridor. NELA activists give their support to anti-gentrification struggles in nearby communities like Boyle Heights, Lincoln Heights and Elysian Park, which exhibits striking investment and gentrification dynamics associated with lively arts scenes, and proximity to the Metro Gold Line and the campaign to revitalize the Los Angeles River. Interaction between activists in different neighborhoods helps generate a broader organizational capacity and political pressure for addressing homelessness and affordable housing policy in an era of continuing federal retreatment from Fordist-era public housing and social services. In the post-Fordist era, local governments increasingly shoulder the burden through neoliberal mechanisms of public/private partnership. The struggles of immigrant and working-class displacement and eviction in Highland Park dramatize the more troubling aspects of City and County of Los Angeles public policies like transit-oriented development and transit villages to generate new housing that is mainly market-rate and unaffordable for the working poor. They do not go down without a fight against their impending dispossession, and they reveal the striking contradictions of the process of urban capitalist accumulation.
The victims of the redevelopment and gentrification process in Highland Park and their supporters protest their right to the city as a touchstone for social inclusion. They assert their sense of ownership over their communities and rights as urban citizens, a cry and demand for political belonging in urban residency rather than national citizenship. They appeal to the sense of collective and human rights. In the words of David Harvey:
But new rights can also be defined: like the right to the city which … is not merely a right of access to what the property speculators and state planners define, but an active right to make the city different, to shape it more in accord with our heart’s desire, and to remake ourselves thereby in a different image.
Over 200 NELA Alliance members and Highland Park residents demonstrate at the office of Councilman Gil Cedillo following a solidarity rally with the families of the Marmion Royal Apartments and a march through the streets on 18 July 2016 (Credit: John Urquiza/Sin Turistas).
All photos are by John Urquiza, a Northeast LA photographer and founder of Sin Turistas photography collective that runs classes, exhibitions and community film screenings in Highland Park. He is also photographer and member of the Northeast LA Alliance that leads protests against gentrification, community organizing for tenants’ rights and artistic documentation of social actions for neighborhood change. His website is http://theironyandtheecstasy.me.
 David Harvey, Rebel Cities: From the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution (London: Verso, 2012).
 Tim Logan, “Highland Park Renters Feel the Squeeze of Gentrification,” Los Angeles Times, 21 December 2014, A1; Nathan Solis, “Highland Park Residents Share Stories of Gentrifiation During Saturday Night Demonstration and Vigil,” Eastsider, 15 December 2014, www.theeastsiderla.com.
 Henri LeFebvre, The Production of Space, translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith (Cambridge: Basil Blackwell, 1974, reprinted 1991).
 Marshall Berman, All That is Solid Melts into Air: The Experience of Modernity (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1982); David Harvey, The Condition of Postmodernity (Cambridge, MA: Basil Blackwell, 1989).
 Jason Hackworth, The Neoliberal City: Governance, Ideology, and Development in American Urbanism (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2007).
 Neil Brenner and Nik Theodore, “Cities and the Geographies of ‘Actually Existing Neoliberalism,’” Antipode 34 (2002): 349-79.
 Mindy Fullilove, Root Shock: How Tearing Up City Neighborhoods Hurts America, and What We Can Do About It (New York: One World/Ballantine, 2005).
 Doug Smith, “A Flashpoint in L.A.’s Gentrification Drama: Protesting Highland Park Tenants face a Mass Eviction,” Los Angeles Times, 11 October 2016, A1.
 Doug Smith, “Judge Rejects Discrimination Clain in Highland Park Evictions,” Los Angeles Times, 14 December 2016.
 David Harvey, “The Right to the City,” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 27 (2003): 939-41.
Jan Lin is Professor of Sociology at Occidental College. This article is an edited excerpt from Chapter 5 of his book, Taking Back the Boulevard: Art, Activism and Gentrification in Los Angeles(New York University Press, 2019). His stories on neighborhood transition and gentrification and students’ Young Voices features have appeared with KCET-Departures online. This excerpt’s research is drawn from interviews with Lisa Duardo, Jesse Rosas, Miguel Ramos, John Urquiza and Marmion Royal tenants, participant observation at demonstrations and public forums, and newspaper and online media articles.
UC Berkeley. Photograph by Charlie Nguyen via Flickr.
University of California President Janet Napolitano’s troubles over the State Audit are not a one-off case of mismanagement or bad governance. They are symptomatic of a larger and longer term problem: dramatically shrinking revenues have made the UC’s task increasingly impossible, triggering the fancy footwork by an Office of the President trying to safeguard its reserves and simultaneously manage the politics of what has become an untenable position. No doubt Napolitano is undermined when the constituent parts of the UC sing a different song to herself and the regents. No doubt also, the legislature and the public must know where things stand. But the real issue is that the University of California, and also the CSU, no longer have the public financing to fulfil their far-reaching public mandates.
It is a crisis that has been forty years in the making. The table (below) summarizes the funding trend from 1960 to 2010. The tax revolt and Proposition 13 in 1978 ensured that despite some good years in the 1980s the public funding of public higher education would never be as strong again as it had been in the great days of the 1960 Master Plan.
The table illustrates the rapid rise in total funding in the first two decades of the Master Plan as enrollment grew more rapidly than planned in the community colleges. In the 1970s the University budget slowed due to the combined effects of Governor Reagan’s opposition to UC Berkeley, and demographic factors. Nevertheless, the economy was up in the 1980s, and Governor Deukmejian made higher education a priority, granting the University of California a 30 per cent increase in its operating budget in 1983. Despite the gathering fallout from Proposition 13, the 1980s were on the whole a good decade for the University. State support increased for the CSUs and the community colleges also. However, Proposition 13 meant that in some years, community colleges had to turn away applicants, a sign of things to come. Also, the share of total state expenditures going to the UC and CSU fell, from 11.3 per cent in the Master Plan year of 1960, to 7.8 per cent in 1995. (Over the same span funding for prisons rose from 2.4 to 7.1 per cent of state spending).
The 1990s saw the end of funding growth in the UC and CSU, though the enrollment grew by 8.5 per cent in the UC and 2.5 per cent in the CSU. The final decade in the Table (below), 2000-2010, was considerably tougher. It saw a major reduction in fiscal support, much of it concentrated at the end of the decade, reflecting the effects of the 2008-2010 recession. State funding of the University of California fell by 24.7 per in real terms between 2000 and 2010, while the enrollment increased by a massive 40.2 per cent. There was a 14.8 per cent decline in California State University funding over the same 2000-2010 period, while the enrollment rose by 28.2 per cent. The funding of the community colleges increased by 14.2 per cent, which almost matched the enrollment growth of 16.2 per cent, but the community colleges had less opportunity to raise non-state revenues than did the CSU and UC campuses.
Student enrollment in public higher education, andstate and local government financial support, California, 1960 to 2010 (constant 2010 prices)
The 2008-2010 recession generated havoc in state revenues and was especially bad for the unprotected areas of the state budget. Douglass reports a cut of $813 million in the funding of the UC system in 2009 and 2010. Public funding, the bedrock of long-term planning in the early decades of the Master Plan, is now more volatile and less predictable than tuition revenues and other private sources. UC campuses are beginning to imagine a future in which state funding is negligible. In the decade between 2002-03 and 2012-13, state revenues received by University of California Berkeley declined from $497 to $299 million in current dollars, a reduction in constant price terms of 54 per cent. Successive state governments have learned that they can reduce university funding without a severe public backlash, but there is more likely to be public opposition if they sanction the tuition increases necessary for institutions to make up the shortfall. From the 1990s onwards, a new pattern was established, in which the years of funding recovery were insufficient to compensate for years of reductions. Small cuts were not undone and tended to accumulate. In this asymmetrical policy framework, and given the continued legal/fiscal constraints on the state, California’s recession-induced cuts now look to be largely irreversible.
Royce Hall, UCLA. Photograph by Praytino via Flickr.
Like their public sector counterparts in many other states, the UC and CSU finds (and will continue to find) it extremely difficult to secure state support to raise tuition so as to compensate for the effects of state cutbacks. Nevertheless, tuition increases sufficient to plug the gap in spending also carry problems. Public institutions depend on public support, both to secure favorable state policies and more generally, to function effectively in a highly networked society and economy. Public support is no doubt undermined by rising tuition, and this also eats into the access mission of the University of California, which so far has been largely maintained despite the circumstances. On the other hand, public support is weakened also by reductions in service quality due to insufficient funding, and the access mission needs to be subsidized. In 2013, after the recession, the student-to faculty ratio in the University of California was 24 to 1, compared to 19 to 1 a decade earlier, and 15 to 1 in the 1980s. The public university campuses find themselves positioned between the Scylla of a resource decline that would undermine all objectives, including the research outputs and quality on which so much else depends, and the Charybdis of public unpopularity and mission compromise. They feel forced to become more like a private university, so as to uphold their public mission effectively in social competition with the real private sector. They have limited options, with only research funding, foreign students and noncore revenues as potential sources of much needed additional resources. In this setting the University of California campuses have no clear-cut forward strategy.
The problem is specific to public higher education rather than general to higher education as a whole. The effects of the recession differentiated between the University of California, which depends partly on the Californian state budget and whose tuition is state regulated; and private universities such as Harvard, Yale, Stanford, and Princeton, which are free to manage their prices and carry significantly larger endowments than Berkeley, UCLA, and UC San Diego. Though both state funding and university endowments fell sharply in value in the first two years of recession, the recovery in each case was different. By 2014 endowments had been largely restored in value but the state funding cuts seemed at least partly permanent.
While the UC campuses and the beleaguered UCOP are struggling to cope, right now, the deeper effects of today’s crisis will play out over decades. Of all the jewels of American science, California public education has shined the brightest. As I discuss in my book published last year, The Dream is Over: The Crisis of Clark Kerr’s California Idea of Higher Education, the UC still houses four of the world’s top twenty research universities, in terms of the amount of high quality science produced—Berkeley, UCLA, San Francisco, and San Diego—and seven of the world’s top sixty. Not if present trends are maintained.
Money matters in research and education, as it does in most everywhere else. Past patterns show this. In a study of American science , James Adams finds that in the 1990s there was an overall slowdown in the output of the public universities. Though their share of federal research grants grew their revenues from their respective state governments fell, which ate into the capacity to sustain research infrastructure and faculty time on research. It is a sign of what is to come. The drop in state support across the country in the 1990s, studied by Adams, was nothing compared to what happened after the 1990s in California. Between 2002-03 and 2012-13 the proportion of Berkeley’s revenues coming from state sources dropped from 34 to 13 per cent. That decline is continuing. Unless the state, and ultimately the taxpayer, have a change of heart the UC position is going to get much worse.
Sather Gate, UC Berkeley. Photograph by John Morgan via Flickr.
 Clark Kerr, The Gold and the Blue: A Personal Memoir of the University of California, 1949-1967, Volume 1: Academic Triumphs (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001), 189.
 Patrick Callan, “The Perils of Success: Clark Kerr and the Californian Master Plan for Higher Education,” in Sheldon Rothblatt, ed., Clark Kerr’s World of Higher Education Reaches the 21st Century: Chapters in a Special History (Dordrecht: Springer, 2012), 67, 69.
 John Wilton, data supplied by Vice-Chancellor, Administration and Finance, University of California, Berkeley, October 2014.
 Neil Smelser, Dynamics of the Contemporary University: Growth, Accretion and Conflict (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013), 44-48, 85.
 John Aubrey Douglass, To Grow or Not to Grow? A Post-Great Recession Synopsis of the Political, Financial, and Social Contract Challenges Facing the University of California. Research and Occasional Paper CSHE 15.13 (Berkeley: Center for Studies in Higher Education, University of California Berkeley), 7.
 James Adams, “Is the United States Losing its Preeminence in Higher Education?” in Charles Clotfelter, ed., American Universities in a Global Marketplace (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010), 44-66, esp. 65.
Given our ambitions for our recent book, Water and Los Angeles: A Tale of Three Rivers, 1900-1941—that it will carry readers through documents and ideas back to a river and urban past that Californians must grapple with in order to fully understand the present—we would be remiss if we did not at least contemplate the future of metropolitan Los Angeles in terms of exactly those riparian places and spaces. The future, unknown and unknowable, is nonetheless inextricably tied to what has come before—which roads or paths were taken or not and how the history of rivers moves and shifts and changes course like a river itself.
Los Angeles celebrated, in 2013, the hundredth anniversary of the opening of the Los Angeles Aqueduct. It was an anniversary that prompted a wide variety of responses—from celebration to antipathy and everything in between. For many, the century’s mark passed without notice or care. For some, the moment offered an opportunity to celebrate all that metropolitan Los Angeles had become since 1913, watered in part (in large part) by the snowmelt waters of the Owens River. For others, however, the centennial offered the chance to look again at the “water grab” performed a hundred years earlier. The anniversary meant that Los Angeles, or its municipal Department of Water and Power, was yet again trying to wrap a bold and ultimately imperial play and ploy in adjectives that speak to legacy, growth, inevitability, vision, and ambition.
To be sure, the hundred-year history of the Los Angeles Aqueduct is fraught and deeply complicated. Nothing is simple about moving a river hundreds of miles from its bed. It wasn’t simple in 1913, and it is certainly not simple today; and we could say that the matter grows more complex with each passing year. For one thing, there are two aqueducts now, two giant metal straws of cavernous diameter sucking on the melted Sierra snowpack and hustling it southwest to a thirsty global metropolis. Atop all the engineering and physics and hydrology issues at stake—and they are legion—there remain issues of upkeep and maintenance and environmental impact.
That is but the tip of an aqueduct iceberg. Long-simmering resentment and anger in the Owens Valley (especially vociferous there, for obvious reasons, but not only there) about the creation of the Los Angeles Aqueduct has, as we might have expected, found its way into courtrooms and litigation. Remarkable legal decisions have resulted, in more than one instance, that have altered the perceived, if misleading, simplicity of two big straws stuck into a flowing river. Citing history (as in the case of a once-full, now-dry Owens Lake) and health concerns tying dust to pulmonary and respiratory disease and difficulty, antagonistic individuals and organizations took on the city of Los Angeles and its chief water agency and won a series of important battles and concessions. These amount essentially to Los Angeles leaving water in the Owens Valley or putting some of it back. The city is now responsible for a series of mitigation exercises that is putting water back into the ancient lakebed of Owens Lake, as well as into Mono Lake as a protective measure for the fragile geologic structures within it. Legal action is not likely to abate in the short term, and it is entirely possible that climate-change ramifications (most specifically the depleted Sierra Nevada snowpack) will add to the complexities of mitigation and further legal disputes between entities in the Owens Valley, or their proxies, and the city of Los Angeles.
Dry Owens Lake and blowing alkali dust, 2008. Courtesy of Eeekster (photographer Richard Ellis) via Wikimedia Commons.
Climate change is undoubtedly going to play a huge role in determining the future of the Metropolitan Water District’s place in supplying water from the Colorado River to its client entities, with the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power being chief among them. As the water district’s ability to draw from the state water project (a largely north-south conduit bringing water to Southern California) evaporates—its allotment has gone down dramatically in recent years— the role of the Colorado River becomes even more prominent. The legal issues attendant on this situation are, if anything, more complex than those in dispute regarding the Owens River, the Owens Valley, and the thirsty giant metropolis far to the southwest.
So, too, is the fate and future of the Colorado River a complex, tangled tale of water, climate change, international treaties, and widespread thirst. Asked to water great chunks of seven states, as well as parts of northern Mexico, the Colorado River watershed is the most important in the United States, perhaps even in North America. Recent onslaughts of drought across the American West have resulted in drastic changes in the ways in which Colorado River water is stored and delivered to a divergent and far-flung customer base of agencies, municipalities, and entire states and nations. By virtue of long-standing agreements, Southern California is entitled to a lion’s share of the Colorado River (always dependent on the annual wintertime Rocky Mountain snowpack on the western slope of the Continental Divide). This legal allotment amounts to over four million acre-feet of water (an acre-foot is a standard water measurement: one acre spread with water to a depth of one foot, or three hundred thousand gallons of water). Because the state-to state agreements were formulated in especially “wet” years, and because California threw its considerable weight around back in the early 1920s, when the most important agreements were signed, the Golden State can keep drawing water while states such as Arizona and Nevada will lose water . . . all from a water source that is itself losing water to climate change at a fast (and accelerating) rate.
As drought and climate change alter the snowpack levels from year to year in the Colorado high country, the cities, states, and water agencies will continue to struggle with the consequences. And these consequences will of course affect individuals at every point along the Colorado River’s watercourse. Preservation and conservation efforts will and must continue. These will take many forms, and undoubtedly new innovations will come to the fore. Water restrictions—how much, how often, aimed at what, and at what times—will become more common. Water reuse will rise in popularity—household water will find its way more and more often into outdoor and gardening use. Roofs will be better fit with water catchment devices for rainwater capture. Drain spouts will catch water instead of rushing it off to storm sewers and the ocean. Trees will be planted in places, such as school playgrounds, once covered in asphalt or concrete (trees catch water and hold it around their roots).
Broader innovations will have to be implemented as well. Individual efforts— which will include smartphone technology applied to, for example, household irrigation systems and timing (off it goes when it rains)—will make some difference. But bigger actions, on a statewide or even a federal scale, with regulatory or enforcement teeth, are needed. Water trading between states will rise in importance, and these innovations will have to be carefully modeled and regulated. Water pricing will be intricately related, of course, and it is likely that disparate water costs, which are now the rule rather than the exception, will be leveled out (though allowed to fluctuate in times of relative abundance or relative scarcity). Perhaps most important, the rural-urban divide regarding water use will need to be addressed and hard decisions made, backed up by legislative innovation. Rural users account for most of the water use—by far—across California and the entire American Southwest. Demand is rising in urban centers, but so much water is being used on agricultural crops that the urban demand—however modest by comparison—is not being efficiently met. What kinds of crops are grown, and how they are irrigated, will and must change, lest Southern California face even worse conditions born of water scarcity, drought, and the loose and inefficient “water culture” that has been allowed to develop over the past century.
Environmental awareness and environmental sustainability will go hand in hand with greater awareness of water’s preciousness and scarcity. We think historical knowledge is required in order to gain that kind of critical perspective. One of the key features of changing cultural and environmental attitudes will be simple “river awareness” in California cities, which, at this writing, we can say is growing. Los Angeles is and will be the most important locale for this, and all attention will be focused on the rivers of the Los Angeles basin. Ironically, perhaps (given its puny size in relation to far bigger rivers and watersheds), none will be more important than the Los Angeles River.
The Los Angeles River is the riparian canary in the coal mine of Southern California sustainability. It has, in just over one hundred years, gone from promise to problem and now again to promise in the regional imagination. After 1941, postwar floods, spilling out across the basin, led to more concrete being poured into and up the banks of the river. Still a vital cog in the machine of flood control—the concrete that encases the body of the river is critical to corralling floodwaters—the Los Angeles River is simultaneously the central focus of a great deal of environmental reimagining of green space and greenbelts throughout the metropolitan Los Angeles basin. From biking paths to kayaking and possible reintroduction of steelhead trout, the river is being rethought in very large terms and scales as the twenty-first century opens; much of this is due to the long-standing advocacy and activism of groups, none more critical than the Friends of the Los Angeles River. “Greening” the Los Angeles River, pulling out some of the concrete straitjacket, and becoming more aware of the riparian environment at the very center of a global metropolis of millions of people, is a large-scale effort—of imagination, of money, and of engineering and environmental know-how. Each innovation, each step forward, will further the collective knowledge about rivers and about water, and this consciousness change (from “what Los Angeles River?” to “our Los Angeles River”) can only lead to further benefits in conservation, preservation, and “waterwise” awareness. That path to a differently imagined riparian future will be complicated, with political, fiscal, and hydrological hurdles of daunting scale strewn hither and yon at each step of the way. We suggest optimism about the Los Angeles River, a faith born of diehard grassroots activism and a level of renewed political leadership gazing on a river too-long ignored or expected to provide but a single, flood-control purpose across the landscape it traverses. Perhaps now more than ever, the Los Angeles River is a site of dreams and disagreements, as various constituencies imagine what it could or might become; and as such futures are pondered, so, too, are questions about where the money comes from and who and how people (and nonhumans) benefit from riparian changes large and small.
Photograph by Matt Gush.
This is not to say that the other two rivers are any less important. They are hugely important. But the symbolic burden placed on the Los Angeles River is, especially within the Los Angeles Basin, palpable and magnetic. “How are we doing?” people ask, wondering about water, water shortages, water conservation. And the answer, for many at least, will be found with reference to the Los Angeles River. However, to the north and east, the fate of the Owens River, and especially the Owens Valley, dry and getting drier, will provide additional perspective. And much of that will be colored by controversy: what can Los Angeles do, what should Los Angeles do, as environmental penance for its century-old role in desiccating a landscape? The questions can and will be asked regarding “how are we doing?” up there, up in the Owens Valley. That site, since midcentury, has prompted lawsuits against the city of Los Angeles for water loss and the resulting environmental damage. What can people—through advocacy and activism—claim or insist, and what can various courts or legal decisions obligate the city of Los Angeles to do? These are not issues that will go away, either; on the contrary, as dryness accelerates and snowpacks retreat, these issues will creep up in the headlines and in the lists of imperatives for the region and its populace. We simply urge that such awareness go hand in hand with appreciation of the interlocking histories and meanings of, for example, Los Angeles and the Owens River.
So, too, with the mighty Colorado. Entire careers are forged out of figuring out the dynamic realities of that river’s place in the American West. Where does the river go? Who gets to decide? Which state or agency or nation gets to dip the largest buckets into it? And where to they get to dip? Where do the rights of states come into dialogue or conflict with the rights of indigenous people whose ancestral or reservation homelands sit alongside the river? How does Mexico interact with the various states that, in their thirst, deplete the Colorado so that it now peters out far from its former mouth on the Gulf of California?
Southern California lives because it can take so much Colorado River water to satisfy the thirst of its people and the thirst of what it grows. What happens if that gets shut off, or, more likely, what happens if the flow gets cut back, by law, by drought, by climate change? Major international decisions reached by treaty in the years since 1941 have reduced the amount of water Southern California can take from the Colorado River, in favor of other states, indigenous polities, or Mexico. One thing is sure: the Colorado River cannot supply all the water that treaties or other agreements promise, and this has been true for decades. It carries a great deal of water. But not enough to meet demand, unless that demand is cut by conservation or other water-saving practices. Furthermore, what happens if the region’s reliance upon water from Northern California, by means of the state water project (a “fourth river,” which we do not take up in this book), becomes ever more compromised by state decisions that cut off supplies going to Southern California through the Metropolitan Water District’s systems? Less Colorado River water, less Northern California water—where will those roads take us?
Amid all the uncertainties of rivers and waters, one thing is incontrovertible: the Colorado, the Owens, the Los Angeles: these are not infinite bodies of flowing water. They wax and they wane, they dry up (in actuality, or relatively, in response to wetter years). Legal decisions act as dams, shutting off water that used to go from “here” to “there.”
Arid times have long been upon us in Southern California. And despite having experienced one of our wettest winters on record, drought times loom. Exceptional drought looms. These times may be interrupted by more rain and floods, testing our various technological innovations and water infrastructure. But new rivers will not arise to solve the problems. We are stuck with what we have, and we want Californians to know what we have—what you have—and how we got from there to here, from then to now. This is a history we all share, just as it is a future we must all help to make better.
William Deverell is Professor of History at the University of California and Director of the Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West. He has written Whitewashed Adobe: The Rise of Los Angeles and the Remaking of Its Mexican Past, and Railroad Crossing: Californians and the Railroad, 1850-1910, both published by UC Press.
Tom Sitton is a curator emeritus of history from the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. Together, with Bill Deverell he is co-editor of California Progressivism Revisited and Metropolis in the Making, both published by UC Press.
At its lowest points, the levee ringing the former naval station of Treasure Island clears the lapping brackish waters of San Francisco Bay by about four feet during the highest tides.1According to current sea-level-rise projections, the bay could overtop the levee sometime this century. The return of Treasure Island to the bay whence it came would start with a few exuberant splashes during storms and extreme high tides, then more routine flooding at very high tides, and then flooding every day, twice a day, beginning a slow conversion of the island to tidal wetlands, and finally history.
Of course, that will happen only if the levee isn’t built higher or if Treasure Island doesn’t rise up to match the encroaching waters. That’s exactly what’s planned as part of a long-awaited redevelopment on the island, set to get underway later this year. Solving the problem by raising the levee alone would wall off the island from its spectacular views of downtown San Francisco, the East Bay, and the Golden Gate, which planners deemed unacceptable (and future residents would likely agree). Instead, they’ve assembled a mix of mitigation measures. They’ll increase levee heights a few feet in some places and truck in fill to raise the elevation of the developed parts of the island. They’ll build a robust new storm-drain system and require that the base floors of all new buildings and transportation infrastructure sit three-and-a-half feet above the projected 100-year water level. They acknowledge that even in the near term, during certain high-water events like storms, some of the open spaces may develop temporary ponds—a preview of coming attractions, perhaps.
Sea level rise is something developers are now required to consider when planning new projects along the shore of San Francisco Bay. But it wasn’t on the minds of the people who began filling in a stretch of shoals in the center of the bay to create Treasure Island in 1936. They had no idea that a warming planet and rising waters would one day threaten the mile-long chamfered rectangle they were “reclaiming.” They were focused instead on a much more foreseeable challenge: building Treasure Island so that it could host a World’s Fair, the Golden Gate International Exposition of 1939.
Into the Void Pacific, by University of California, Berkeley associate professor of architecture Andrew M. Shanken, undertakes a detailed examination of the politics and processes of design that produced the layout, monuments, and buildings of the 1939 fair, and how those buildings were executed and received. Within his design history, Shanken considers the fair as an expression of identity and ambition, a projection of power—America’s, California’s, and San Francisco’s power—into a new Pacific world order.
Shanken’s book is also about how we try to build for a future that we think is coming, and how we frequently get it wrong.
Treasure Island and the new bridges, looking west. Courtesy Oakland Public Library, Oakland History Room.
The 1939 fair was, as Shanken points out, a “pretext” to accelerate the creation of Treasure Island itself, where San Francisco planned to build a new major airport after the exposition’s end. By the early 1930s, civic leaders looking for the next engine of development turned their gazes skyward. They saw a future in which airborne transportation would determine a city’s fortunes, and they set about building the infrastructure necessary to seize it for San Francisco’s benefit. Adjacent to the natural Yerba Buena Island, where the two spans of a newly proposed Bay Bridge would meet, Treasure Island was thought to be an ideal place for a new airport, providing easy access to San Francisco and Oakland. Build the bridge, and a new island airport begins to seem practical. Propose a fair to celebrate the new bridge. Use the fair to speed up the creation of the island for the airport. It helped that federal funding through the Works Progress Administration was available for this audacious building spree.
Shanken argues that the bridge-fair-airport scheme was San Francisco’s gambit in a competition for West Coast economic dominance. San Francisco saw itself in a race with other cities, in particular Los Angeles, but its growth was constrained by its peninsular geography. The Bay Bridge and the Golden Gate Bridge, both built in the 1930s, were attempts to escape those confines, and they helped the city expand its influence over the wider region. Its state-spanning and region-serving water system, its railroad connections, and its then-robust seaport had also been critical to San Francisco’s growth.
Like the bridge and the island airport, the 1939 fair was a tool for expressing and, city leaders hoped, realizing San Francisco’s goals for the future its elected and business elite saw coming. Shanken explains that, with the fair, San Francisco was willing itself to become “the hub of what civic leaders imagined as an emerging Pacific civilization that would supplant the Atlantic world.” That no such “Pacific civilization” existed seemed not to bother the fair’s designers; they would create one. They would “transplant and synthesize” elements of the distinct cultures ringing the great ocean and make California “the melting pot of the Pacific.”
Shanken attempts to make sense of the Golden Gate International Exposition’s muddled program and ideology. The design of the fair’s buildings and their contents, he writes, aimed to position the city as the center of a vast western region that extended across the Pacific. The City’s regional consciousness had imperial ambitions. The rhetoric of the GGIE tapped into this idea, extending the reach of imperial San Francisco to the Pacific in a moment when air transportation promised to shrink the oceans and make such a plan possible. The immense symbolic power expressed by the China Clipper landing at Treasure Island brought these associations into plain view. The name of the island itself echoed the sentiment. And so would the architecture become an accomplice of this fantasy.
Into the Void Pacific is rich with drawings, photographs, and passages from documents and correspondence by the fair’s designers, visitors, and critics that document this fantasy-abetting architectural enterprise. Shanken re-creates the look and experience of the fair as it was at the time—which is helpful, since almost none of its buildings are standing today. Visiting Treasure Island now, it is almost impossible to picture the Golden Gate International Exposition as it stood in 1939 and 1940, because it left so few traces on the ground.
Even before the fair opened in February 1939, its fever dream of a unified “Pacific civilization” was being undermined by reality. Japan, which had occupied Manchuria since 1932, launched a full-scale invasion of China in 1937. (Reflecting its own grand Pacific ambitions, Japan set up an ornate, 50,000-square-foot pavilion at the fair—the largest of any foreign country. China had no official participation.) By the fair’s end on 29 September 1940, Japan had taken control of French Indochina and signed the Tripartite Pact with Italy and Germany, creating what would be called the “Axis” powers. There was no Pacific world in contrast with an Atlantic world, as the fair had offered. There was simply one world, and it was at war.
Detail of construction of the “nave” of the Federal Building. From the Visual Resources Center, University of California, Berkeley.
When the fair ended, the United States was still more than a year from formally joining that war, but the momentum of global events was clear. In early 1941, the Navy leased Treasure Island from San Francisco and opened a receiving center there, and in the spring of 1942 it acquired the island from the city outright (though not without protest from San Francisco over the low price paid).2As it transformed the island from playground to training ground, the Navy demolished or paved over most of the exposition’s buildings, monuments, and formal courtyards.
Today, only four original buildings remain. They include two large hangars and a semicircular administration building, aligned on the island’s southern edge, which had been designed to serve the airport that never was. (The administration building is even topped with a small control tower in anticipation of its intended use.) The fourth, a model home from the fair called the “California Home of the West,” has been altered significantly and now houses a restaurant and banquet space called the Oasis Café.3
The rest of Treasure Island is covered with a hodge-podge of open spaces and structures built during its use as a naval station from 1942 to 1997: warehouses, classroom buildings, offices, apartments, and other buildings in various states of occupancy, disrepair, or outright abandonment. About 2,000 people live in the apartments today. There’s plenty of parking, though some lots are chained off with regularly spaced red, white, and blue shields bearing the words “US GOVT PROPERTY NO TRESPASSING.” The word “NO” is the largest element. Other parts of the island are closed to entry with a different kind of sign: yellow rectangles warning of radioactive contamination—another legacy of the Navy years, though not as tangible as the buildings.
This utilitarian, decrepit, partly toxic landscape is a far cry from the spectacle that the fair must have presented, and that is captured in the photographs and diagrams of Into the Void Pacific. Shanken’s book can help us with the difficult trick of seeing Treasure Island’s past. But it’s harder to see its future.
The plans for Treasure Island’s redevelopment call for razing most of the structures on the island and replacing them with, among other elements, up to 8,000 housing units, 140,000 square feet of commercial space, 100,000 square feet of offices, three hotels, 300 acres of open space, and a new ferry terminal.4Demolition of some existing structures has begun, but the full project is expected to take about twenty years to complete. (Given the nature of California planning and environmental laws, this may well prove optimistic.) The plans approved to date give a rough idea of what will be built where, but later phases will add details to this new small city in the middle of the bay. Right now, it’s a gauzy rendering.
Part of the difficulty of imagining the past and the future of Treasure Island may have to do with the island’s fundamental impermanence. Buildings burn, fall apart, are demolished and replaced. Land, though—we’re not used to land going away. Perhaps we should work to accustom ourselves to this idea, but for now, our senses struggle to accommodate it.
Painting of the Tower of the Sun, Golden Gate International Exposition, by Chesley Bonestell. Collection of the Oakland Museum of California. Gift of Heather Fowler.
Thanks to Burrito Justice for his map of the Treasure Island fair site.
Mt. Hollywood Congregational Church was in trouble. Its congregation had become too small to sustain the decaying Los Feliz building that had once been the spiritual home for a community of about 300 people. Its pastor had resigned in poor health.
So it fell to Jim Burklo, chair of the church’s building committee, to state the obvious to the remaining seventy-five or so members: “We got no pastor. We’ve got a building that’s a wreck. And there’s no money.”
Burklo said later of his fellow congregants: “These are all teachers and actors and musicians. You know, these people don’t have any money. There were maybe three people in the whole group who could cough up more than a standard pledge. So it’s like, forget it.”
So in 2011, the congregation decided to sell its building, a century-old outpost of a rapidly declining Protestant denomination, and rent space from a nearby Lutheran church that was also becoming a shadow of its former self. For some, a minority of members, Mt. Hollywood’s identity was inseparable from its historic home, and they chose to leave the fold rather than move into the Lutherans’ renovated Sunday School space.
Click here to explore an interactive map of the religious landscape of Los Feliz.
Burklo cast Mt. Hollywood’s transition in a positive light. “Some of the people who quit were kind of very traditional,” he said. “I think the most important aspect of this transition has been that we did not wait until we completely evaporated before we decided to make the change.” The congregants who remained, he said, “were loose, free-spirited characters who were like, this is great. It was like a millstone dropped off the neck. Let’s focus on our community and not on the churchy stuff. The whole group just felt light.”
Mt. Hollywood’s willingness to divest itself of some of its institutional trappings—in addition to selling its physical plant, the church dropped many elements of its formal liturgy—was a prerequisite for Anne Cohen, who accepted a call as minister to Mt. Hollywood a few months after the congregation made its move.
“If they had not sold the building I would not have applied for the job,” Cohen said. “They had such an amazing reputation of being world-changers and community service people, and they couldn’t do it anymore, because that building was a mess and they didn’t have the money to fix it. I didn’t want to serve a church where maintenance was the main issue.”
At first glance, Mt. Hollywood’s story seems to affirm the broader narrative that dominates news about religious affiliation in the United States. We’re living in a time of great religious flux. Nearly a third of young adults in the United States have left organized religion altogether. Survey data from Pew and other national polling organizations show that mainline Protestants are losing the numbers game, and that most of those who are still drawn to established communities are far less attached to traditional institutions than were their parents and grandparents.1Many traditional institutions—particularly mainline Protestant denominations like the Lutherans and Congregationalists—are edging toward extinction.
Still, the news of religion’s imminent demise is more than a little premature. Our research on religious innovation and change in Southern California suggests that understanding how Mt. Hollywood and other diverse congregations fit into the vibrant religious ecology of their neighborhoods yields a far more complex—and dynamic—picture of the potential future of American religion than those reports suggest.
“We were doing a food pantry with them every week here on this site,” said Reverend Dr. Neil Cazares-Thomas as he stood in the basement of the building that had formerly housed Mt. Hollywood Congregational Church. Over the buzz of saws and the thump of hammers, he said, “They contacted me just before Christmas and said look, you know, we’re in decline. We can’t afford the building. Would you be interested in buying it from us? And I thought for two seconds and said absolutely.”
Cazares-Thomas’s congregation, Founders Metropolitan Community Church, had outgrown its facility in West Hollywood and purchased a former Methodist church in Los Feliz in 2008. Five years later, Founders MCC—a “radically inclusive” Protestant denomination founded in the late 1960s by a gay, former Pentecostal pastor—was already bursting at the seams of its new home. Mt. Hollywood’s church, about a mile away, was just the right fit. “We’re now averaging about 300 folks over three services on a Sunday,” said Cazares-Thomas.
Founders MCC’s former home was in turn bought by the Kadampa Meditation Center-Hollywood in 2013. KMC-Hollywood, one of eight Kadampa centers in California, has become a sort of neighborhood Buddhist temple, typically attracting forty to fifty people to the classes and guided meditations they offer most days of the week, according to resident teacher Gen Kelsang Rigpa.
“It’s really local,” Rigpa said. “I would say literally 95 percent of the people that come here say the same thing: ‘I’ve been driving by this place for a year. I’ve seen it, I live around the corner, I just wanted to check it out.'”
In Los Feliz, in neighboring Silver Lake, and across the rest of Southern California, our research team—two sociologists, an anthropologist, and a journalist—found a dramatic proliferation in the number of choices available to those who are looking for both spiritual practice and community. To our surprise, we did not come across many religious mashups—few Muslafarians or Buddangelicals in the mix—though we have come across a few. But if you want a self-help take on Tibetan meditation, a godless recovery group, gay-friendly Catholic mass, hipster Bible study, socially conscious evangelicalism, or freeform mainline Protestantism, you are living in the right era. Far from being vitiated by the overall religious disaffiliation trend evident in the United States, religion in Southern California is being revitalized by it, as religious “nones” create new forms of purposeful community and spark innovation among groups that may have never before experimented with rituals, worship styles, or modes of organization.
Indeed, in our research, we are not finding a spiritual wasteland but, rather, a wild, wild West of religion.
Los Feliz is a small neighborhood—about two square miles, bounded by the Los Angeles River, Griffith Park, and Western Avenue to the east, north, and west. The neighborhood’s southern boundary is subject to some debate. Depending on whom you ask, Los Feliz is a rectangle completed by Sunset or Santa Monica Boulevard, or an inverted triangle with its bottom angle composed of the intersection of Heliotrope and Melrose (known to the local hipsters as “Hel-Mel”).
More than 40 percent of its roughly 40,000 residents are foreign born—an unusually high statistic, even by Los Angeles standards. Among the diverse array of immigrant groups, the most common countries of origin are Armenia (21 percent) and Mexico (10 percent). At $50,000 a year, the average household income in Los Feliz is in the middle of the bell curve for Los Angeles County, but that unremarkable number belies a very atypical range of incomes in such a small area. Tony hillside mansions between Los Feliz Boulevard and Griffith Park attract A-list actors, rock stars, and movie producers. Dense, pedestrian- and transit-friendly areas along Vermont and Hillhurst are popular with young creative types. The “flats” below Sunset are much poorer and denser than areas farther north.
This dramatically varied cultural and socioeconomic mix makes Los Feliz a microcosm of the diversity of Greater Los Angeles. Within the neighborhood’s two square miles, there are no fewer than fifty religious groups, including Catholics, Mormons, Pentecostals, Buddhists, Jews, Self-Realization Fellowship, the Church of Scientology, and Atheists United, which although it is irreligious, functions as a type of “church” of unbelief. Los Feliz’s eclecticism is also remarkably dynamic. Gentrification is rapidly reshaping its cultural landscape, along with its religious ecosystem.
Los Feliz and neighboring Silver Lake combine to form one of the “coolest” areas in Los Angeles, putting it in the running for one of the coolest places on Earth. How do you measure cool? In 2012, Forbes magazine analyzed neighborhood data such as walkability scores, the prevalence of coffee shops, the percentage of residents who work in artistic occupations, and access to food trucks. Once the numbers were crunched, they named Silver Lake as the “Best Hipster Neighborhood” in the United States. The writers at Forbes are not the only ones measuring cool. In late 2013, the Los Angeles County real estate website PropertyShark.com crowned Los Feliz as LA’s “Most Rapidly-Gentrifying Neighborhood.”
Whether it is called urban renewal or gentrification, the process is fairly straightforward. Artists, recent college grads, yuppies, and empty-nesters—largely but not exclusively white—move into strategically situated urban neighborhoods like Los Feliz. The new arrivals open coffee shops and restaurants, renovate their homes, and attract improved city services, all of which increase the demand for housing and cause home prices and rents to spike.
Although gentrification in and around Los Feliz has had a predictable impact on the cost of housing, the impact on religious congregations is not as clear. Some congregations have been immune to the demographic shifts. At first glance, Centro Cristiano Pentecostal seems vulnerable to the exodus of working-class Latino residents from the area. The Spanish-speaking Pentecostal church sits only a few blocks from vintage clothing stores and bars offering “hand-crafted” cocktails on Vermont Avenue, but it isn’t going anywhere. Its three weekend services followed by potluck meals served in the parking lot draw over 400 worshippers, and the building buzzes with activity nearly every day of the week.
The Centro Cristiano Pentecostal owns its building, so the congregation’s operating budget doesn’t need to rise to keep pace with climbing rental prices. As the surrounding neighborhood has changed, fewer members walk or take the bus to church than in the past, but the church offers a sense of belonging and a traditional Pentecostal worship service that is hard to duplicate. Membership has remained steady because congregants are willing to drive from all over the city for the vibrant and intense experience of its Pentecostal service.
Other congregations have recently opened in Los Feliz to cater to the spiritual needs of the creative class that has flocked to the area. Pastors Sam and Priya Theophylus emigrated from India as church planters and were drawn to the neighborhood because, as Pastor Sam says in a video posted on their church’s website, “Los Feliz is a neighborhood that creates. . . people are such seekers here.”2
Their church, the Beautiful Gate, occupies a rented space above a clothing boutique. Pastors Sam and Priya lead weekly services that they have specifically tailored to new and emerging sensibilities in this rapidly changing neighborhood.
Not all religious groups are equally equipped to weather the gentrification process. Pastor Ed Carey built his congregation, Hope International Bible Fellowship, by ministering to the down-and-out living on the area’s grittiest streets. Twice a day the fellowship serves hot meals to local homeless and working poor people, and the church has graduated hundreds of people from its residential, substance-abuse recovery program. The transformation of Los Feliz over the past decade or so has both dramatically decreased the number of local residents in need of a free meal, and increased the number of neighbor complaints about the small crowds that assemble outside the church during mealtimes. Passing by a new, stylish restaurant offering “organic, local, and small-farm produce” Carey recalled that, ten years ago, “People were scared to come here. Now on Sunday mornings they line up all the way down the block waiting in line for brunch.” There was no sarcasm or animosity in Carey’s voice, but, gazing philosophically at the sharply dressed lunch crowd, he asked, “I wonder if our congregation will gentrify, too?”
Founders Metropolitan Community Church is the flagship congregation of the Metropolitan Community Church movement, which was established in 1968 by Rev. Troy Perry. Historically, Founders MCC—and the MCC movement—has served the spiritual needs of the LGBT community, though more recently the church has been attracting straight members who are drawn to its nonjudgmental approach to religion. The church describes itself as “radically inclusive,” which most obviously relates to sexual identity (LGBT and straight), but also encompasses the wide range of spiritual needs and beliefs that people bring through the church door. In addition to telegraphing its openness to an unusually wide range of identities, the phrase “come as you are” at Founders MCC also means that worshipers are invited to shape their own beliefs about what or who God is, and about how “s/he” operates in the universe as well as in their individual lives.
Lisa Arnold, who has been attending Founders MCC for several years said, “I had heard about it and I knew it was a gay church. I didn’t know the history of it, about Reverend Troy. I’ve learned all of that since I’ve been here. But the one thing that I felt was love, acceptance, and worthiness. The fact that you can walk into a place that fully accepts you. . . really is just such a blessing.”
Most of Founders MCC’s members are middle-aged or older, although there are a handful of younger people in the congregation. Its cultural and ethnic mix is remarkably diverse for a Protestant congregation, and the crowds at Sunday services are about evenly divided between solo attendees and couples. Just like many predominantly straight churches, Founders MCC has a big focus on “family.” This emphasis is a part of a broader push to create a deeper sense of community for members, many of whom—both gay and straight—are parents of young children. PJ Escobar, who is originally from Texas and who spends almost all of his free time volunteering at the church, said that when he first came to the church, he realized he had found a home. “I knew that I finally belonged somewhere,” Escobar said. “These people here are my family.”
This keen focus on the cultivation of a sense of belonging points toward one of the most remarkable characteristics of Founders MCC, which is in some respects a “mini-megachurch.” Even though each of the three Sunday services draws no more than 100 people, the church operates as a community center of sorts for Los Feliz. Over the course of any given week, several different community organizations, spiritual and Bible study groups, twelve-step groups, and a pre-school use the church’s meeting spaces. Founders MCC has also nurtured relationships with other churches and organizations in the community, collaborating, for example, with Holy Spirit Silver Lake and a nearby Mormon church on different service-oriented projects. These different groups and activities mean that about a thousand people pass through Founders MCC during a typical week, giving the relatively modest church an outsize cultural footprint in the community.
1 See, for example, the General Social Survey, conducted each year (with a few exceptions) since 1972. See also decennial Religious Congregations and Membership Study. Both the GSS and RCMS are available for analysis at thearda.com.
We are in the midst of a major transformation in the way Americans practice—or don’t practice—religion. Old paradigms are losing their relevance and sometimes disappearing altogether. Religious institutions once at the center of American life have gradually drifted to the margins. It’s not that spirituality matters less to our contemporaries—even famous “new atheists” such as Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris emphasize that they are deeply spiritual people.
Religions are like living organisms, constantly finding new ways to be meaningful by deconstructing and reconstructing practice. Religious movements can’t be understood from a distance. They must be observed in action and judged by the deeds they inspire. They can only be understood fully from the inside, on their own terms. Many people think of California as secular—even post-religious. But they are mistaken. For decades, California has been at the forefront of transformation in religion.
California Zen, the ethos of the hippies and the antiwar demonstrations in the 1960s, the first women’s studies classes—which quickly expanded across the country—the uniquely Californian evolution of transpersonal psychology at the Hutchens School of Sonoma State College: each has articulated a worldview, has urged its members to change the world and themselves, and is rooted in a spiritual connection to people and place. We might even consider plays and musicals—whether traditionally religious such as Godspell, or California-inflected such as Hair, with its proclamation of the Age of Aquarius and its naked call to “Let the sunshine in”—as part of this tradition. Film, art, and architecture could each demand their own separate studies.
I’d like to look at just four California spiritual movements and their leaders in this light: Lonnie Frisbee’s Jesus People, Michael Murphy’s Esalen, Mario Savio’s Free Speech Movement, and Starhawk’s neo-paganism. Each movement reveals a central spiritual dimension, and each leader functions as a sort of prophet for his or her followers, moving out in front of the rest, casting a new vision of better ways forward, breaking out of the mold, and re-creating something new, something with religious dimensions. With all four stories as examples of California religious phenomena, the concept of religion itself begins to bend, grow, and become more interesting. By the end, religion, California-style, may emerge as a new and intriguing area of study, breaking free of old ways and challenging traditional definitions.
I write with a particular love for this topic and with no claim to neutrality or distance. As a religion scholar and fifth-generation Californian, I draw deeply from my own experiences as a participant-observer. My route through these stories is also unashamedly autobiographical: I was born in Berkeley, joined the Jesus People in high school, spent years working with Michael Murphy in research conferences at Esalen, was a colleague and friend of Mario Savio at Sonoma State University, and came to teach environmental ethics through the influence of Starhawk and other ecofeminists.
Reverend Chuck Smith founded the immensely successful Calvary Chapel in Costa Mesa, which, for a time, was a leading fellowship within a larger “Jesus movement” in the 1960s and 1970s. “Jesus People” (or “Jesus Freaks” as even members called themselves) were the product of a California marriage between elements of the hippy counterculture and mainline Protestantism. Calvary Chapel grew slowly at first. Chuck Smith was too straight-laced to build a movement of Jesus People by himself. He needed someone who could give testimony to the transformative power of Jesus for the lost young souls of the 1960s. He needed someone like Lonnie Frisbee. Everything about Frisbee—well, almost everything—suited him perfectly for the role: his long hair, effeminate voice, and Jesus-like appearance; his intelligence, poise, and voracious memory for scripture texts; and above all the simple sincerity of his testimony. As one biographer wrote, “Lonnie Frisbee put the ‘freak’ into ‘Jesus Freak.'”1
Lonnie Frisbee spoke as prophetically for the religious side of the hippie movement as Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, and many others sang and spoke for its secular side. The Jesus People spread from beach baptisms in Orange Country across the United States, and then overseas.
But Lonnie was John the Baptist to another major cultural development as well. In an age (and a religion) that was homophobic, Lonnie was gay. He would party with the underground gay community of Laguna Beach on Saturday nights and preach the gospel to huge crowds of Jesus People on Sunday mornings. When confronted by Chuck Smith and other Calvary leaders, he was upfront about his homosexuality. The leaders of the movement stripped him of his leadership roles and finally cut him out of the movement and its historical narrative altogether. Lonnie later died of AIDS in 1993.
Today, the Calvary Church’s website embraces Frisbee’s hippie ethic but credits it to Chuck Smith: “With a sincere concern for the lost, Pastor Chuck made room in his heart and his home for a generation of hippies and surfers; generating a movement of the Holy Spirit that spread from the West Coast to the East Coast, and now, throughout the world.”2Note the reversal of that quintessentially American doctrine, Manifest Destiny: in the California mind, the Holy Spirit spreads from West to East, not the opposite.
The advancement of gay rights in today’s California would have been unthinkable in Chuck Smith’s Calvary Church half a century ago. Lonnie Frisbee was a prophetic figure for a rainbow of sexual diversity some fifty years before his time—not only in secular but also in religious context. As it was for ancient prophets, being marginalized and ostracized was part of Frisbee’s prophetic experience. Frisbee envisioned a spiritual community to come, even if he himself never fully experienced it.
Photograph courtesy of Pam Portugal Walatka.
No part of the California landscape more aptly expresses the geography of California religion than Esalen in Big Sur. Esalen’s founder, Michael Murphy, had already become part of America’s mythology before he even reached the age of accountability, thanks to his father’s friendship with John Steinbeck. Murphy once told me that Steinbeck based the central characters in his classic American novel East of Eden on Michael and his brother, using Michael as the model for Aron, the good kid, the Abel character, of course. Michael dropped out of Stanford in the late 1950s and went to live on the Sri Aurobindo Ashram in Pondicherry in southern India. When he inherited his father’s coastal property in Big Sur a few years later, Michael formed Esalen. Founded in 1960, Esalen quickly became a hotbed of religious innovation, meditation, drug experimentation, and theorizing about human potential—in short, all things California.3
Jeffrey Kripal’s history, Esalen: America and the Religion of No Religion, puts the Esalen phenomenon in perspective.4In one sense, no retreat center has ever been as inwardly focused, as practiced at navel gazing as Esalen. As Michael Murphy describes it, Esalen’s history brought endless ego battles as different resident leaders sought to “capture the flag.” Esalen remains a place where the impossible happens. I have watched intellectuals transformed by psychic readings, wizened scientists accepting the laying on of hands for a disease, “psi” skeptics bending spoons, and uptight East Coast conservatives luxuriating naked in the baths. Rarely has the quest for inner enlightenment been so closely tied to sexual pleasures and psychedelically induced states of the mind.
But throughout it all, the quest—”to explore into the undiscovered country,” as Murphy put it in the documentary Supernature—remained spiritual.5 The same film also describes the goal in psychological terms: “We all have a second kind of consciousness; that subliminal self is also in touch with the cosmic reality around us.” But repeatedly, today as much as in the past, they are also drawn to use theological terms as well: “There is what Meister Eckhardt called a Divine Ground of Being underlying all reality. So everything in the world lifts up out of this Divine Ground of Being, the way waves rise up out of an ocean.”6
Esalen is about transformative experiences of body, mind, and spirit—and also about the theologies to which they give rise. For most of the half-century since Esalen opened, Murphy has had his finger on the pulse of an emerging California spirituality, which has spread, like the message of the Jesus People before him, eastward across the continent. Through Esalen, Murphy has been a prophet, even while Esalen itself, which remains a vibrant retreat center, has evolved into something of a more stable, not as surprising place, like so many once groundbreaking California institutions.
I gratefully acknowledge the knowledge and research of Elizabeth Singleton, who helped draft the section on Starhawk. My students at Claremont School of Theology, Sinnamon Wolfe and Carmen Moorhadian, located the images and arranged for permissions.
At a party not long ago, I met Nick Stockton, a journalist who had just relocated to San Francisco. A reporter for Wired, Nick said he had come from New York but that he was originally from California.
“Northern California?” I asked. He said no.
“Oh, where in SoCal?” I followed.
“Actually, I’m from the part of the state no one thinks about,” he replied. He was from Shafter, a small agricultural town in the Central Valley.
It was an embarrassing moment. It hadn’t crossed my mind that a professional journalist from California might have come from anywhere other the greater San Francisco or Los Angeles areas. Maybe San Diego. But while that was a prejudiced and dumb assumption on my part, unfortunately it wasn’t entirely unfounded. “Nobody leaves, ever,” Stockton says of his hometown. Heading to New York for journalism school and then taking a job with Condé Nast in San Francisco was not a standard trajectory.
Stockton was talking about leaving town in a literal sense, but lack of mobility is an increasing problem in the United States in more ways than just that. By many measures, socioeconomic mobility—a key component of the American dream—is becoming in America even more of a dream and less a reality.
It’s not just access to magazine jobs that vary by where you live. Numerous things that shape your future are determined by where you were born. Whether a kid has access to a good school and a safe neighborhood where children play outside—these things vary from region to region, even across city blocks. Researchers call these kinds of differences “social determinants of health.”
It’s easy to look at an adult’s life—whether they go to college or stock shelves or spend time in prison—as the result of personal decisions. And that’s not entirely wrong. But our decisions are shaped, and too frequently limited, by where we live. One way to visualize this is by looking at how life outcomes cluster geographically.
In 2012, researchers at Virginia Commonwealth University dug into health statistics for Alameda County, where I live. Alameda is home to the University of California, Berkeley and is just across the bay from San Francisco. Not surprisingly, there are neighborhoods where people are doing quite well. But that’s only part of the story. In their report, part of a series called Place Matters, the researchers found differences in life expectancy of more than twenty years between neighborhoods in the same county. Poverty, education, and income levels all showed huge variations.
You can predict a lot about a person by where he or she lives. Start with life expectancy. If you want to reduce health and quality of life to a single number, it’s hard to do much better. Exercise, diet, income, stress—they all affect how long a person lives. And average life expectancy incorporates the effects of violence, as well; if a high proportion of young men are dying, that can bring down an overall average.
Data sources: per capita income by census tract and race by county from the United States Census 2013 American Community Survey. 2010 life expectancy by census tract from Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) Center on Human Needs (CHN). Count incarceration rates created from the California Department of Corrections “Year at a Glance” 2010 report, which gave the county of commitment, with thanks to the Prison Policy Initiative. I used 2013 American Community Survey population data to generate the rates.