Point Reyes National Seashore via Flickr user Andrew Seles.
Nathan F. Sayre
Laura Watt’s catchy title, The Paradox of Preservation, doesn’t do her book proper justice. What she terms a paradox is more accurately a contradiction: because landscapes are never static but “actually dynamic, continually shaped by social forces… and similarly affecting the forms those social forces take” (p. 5), they cannot be preserved but only managed. Moreover, it is the politics of land management, rather than any paradox, that makes the case of Point Reyes National Seashore (PRNS) so important. The changes that have occurred there in 50-plus years of preservation, Watt argues, have been “invisible to the public” and “invisible to the managers, who present them to the public as part of what was originally preserved” (p. 5).
This may seem paradoxical, but in the first instance it is some combination of error and deception—if it must alliterate, perhaps perversion is a better word than paradox? We are dealing with a case of collective illusion, akin to the “conspiracy of optimism” that Paul Hirt diagnosed in the Forest Service, but perpetrated in the name of wilderness rather than timber production. Anyone who wonders why rural agricultural producers are so suspicious of environmentalists, or who thinks that ranchers’ complaints about the federal government are nothing more than paranoid delusions, needs to read this book.
Watt opens her account with Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar’s decision, in late 2012, to terminate the lease that permitted the Drakes Bay Oyster Company to operate in Drake’s Estero, an estuary situated within a designated “potential wilderness” in PRNS. She closes by likening the “absolutist environmental organizations” (p. 233) that opposed the oyster farm to the militants who occupied the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in early 2016. But cows and ranchers, not oysters, are the primary focus of Watt’s book, which grew out of her doctoral research at UC Berkeley. (Full disclosure: Watt studied with a former colleague of mine, although she was not a student in our department.)
Point Reyes is one of a handful of national seashores administered by the National Park Service (NPS) but created in places and for reasons quite different from national parks. In 1962, when the enabling legislation for PRNS was passed, the entire peninsula was private land, descended from a Mexican-era land grant that had been finagled into Anglo hands a century earlier. Point Reyes comprised some two-dozen ranches, encircled by a rugged and supremely scenic coastline, all within easy driving distance of the booming San Francisco metropolitan area.
Point Reyes via Flickr user Stefan Klocek.
PRNS was antidote to and offspring of post-war urban sprawl. Congressman Claire Engle claimed in 1958 that public acquisition was the only way to protect Point Reyes from subdivision and development. This was untrue, Watt explains, but also self-fulfilling: speculators seized the opportunity to buy land and demand inflated prices from the federal government. This reinforced a vicious cycle: prices climbed, values rose, property taxes increased, and estate tax exposure exploded. Park Service Director George Hartzog positively exploited the situation by asking Congress to allow his agency to develop home sites to help offset acquisition costs. Congress demurred, but the ranch owners eventually agreed to NPS acquisition in exchange for long-term leases to continue ranching, seeing it as their only way out of the property and estate tax traps they had fallen into. In short, the NPS played “the major role… at Point Reyes, both in pushing to establish the park in the first place, and in driving the threat of development, thereby creating its own justification for acquiring the ranches” (p. 95). If it happened today, scholars would call this a land grab.
Watt portrays PRNS as both relict and bellwether of larger trends. Fee simple ownership gave the NPS ultimate authority over land use and management, even if private uses—including cattle grazing, dairy production and the oyster farm—were grandfathered in and protected by explicit legislative testimony as well as long-term leases. Shortly later, a backlash against perceived government encroachment on private lands and property rights helped propel the Reagan revolution, and in other parts of the country the NPS devised alternative models that permitted more private lands to persist within or around parks. But at Point Reyes the older paradigm held, and tensions mounted over the decades.
Many scholars have critiqued “wilderness” as a tool of colonial exploitation and an ecologically incoherent, environmentalist fetish. Watt adds an intriguing wrinkle to this literature, arguing that the original intent of both the 1964 Wilderness Act and the 1976 statute that created the category “potential wilderness” was to prevent federal agencies from building new roads and developments, not to eliminate previously existing private uses and activities. She shows how an evolving alliance of NPS officials and environmental groups inverted this intent and turned the potential wilderness designation against ranchers and the oyster farm. Only forty percent of the land area devoted to ranching in 1962 remains in that use today, and roughly half of the built environment inside PRNS—including at least 170 buildings—has been demolished. By omission and commission alike, the NPS has worked to produce “the invisibility of the working landscape” (p. 142) in favor of “the appearance of hands-off, ‘wild’ nature” (p. 158, emphasis in original). As Watt pointedly puts it, “the authentic past is that which the authorities have chosen to preserve” (p. 21).
By the 1990s, PRNS and NPS officials viewed the dairies and ranches of Point Reyes as doomed anachronisms, destined to go out of business and thus unworthy of consideration. This again proved both false and self-fulfilling. The ranches persevered and even thrived in the marketplace by going organic, shifting into value-added products, and tapping into the Bay Area’s flourishing local “foodie” scene. But PRNS decisions regarding wildlife—especially the tule elk, which was (re)introduced to various parts of the peninsula in mysterious, seemingly duplicitous ways—depleted the ranches’ forage base, which could void their organic certification by forcing their cattle off of the native pastures. As leases came due, NPS negotiations for renewal or extension were capricious, ad hoc and divisive, further undermining the ranches’ viability.
The Point Reyes shipwreck via Flickr user m01229.
Many of the details of this history are difficult to sift and reconcile from the tangle of conflicting memories, interviews, media stories and NPS documents that Watt assembled in her research. No doubt there are PRNS officials who might dispute some or many of her claims. Suffice to say, first, that Watt’s 20-year effort is undoubtedly more disinterested, sustained and thoroughgoing than any others, and second, that the “official” story has long since passed into a twilight zone of bureaucratic doublespeak and face-saving evasions.
When Watt returns to the battle over Drakes Bay Oyster Company, in her final chapter, it functions as an indirect or proxy validation of her larger interpretation. Starting in 2006, the NPS blamed the oyster farm for various environmental damages. “None of these claims have stood up to scientific scrutiny” (p. 189). A panel convened by the National Academy of Sciences concluded that the PRNS had “selectively presented, overinterpreted, or misrepresented the available scientific information” (p. 189) in evaluating the oyster operation’s effects on Drakes Estero, and the Interior Department’s own Office of the Solicitor “found five NPS officials and scientists guilty of violating the NPS Code of Scientific and Scholarly Conduct” (p. 191) by among other things withholding relevant material and data from the oyster company and the National Academy panel. In short, the credibility of the NPS and PRNS is severely compromised.
Ultimately, Secretary Salazar admitted that he shut down the oyster farm simply because commerce and wilderness are incompatible, not because of any scientific data (p. 199). “A long tradition of cultivation has vanished—in exchange, more or less, for a label, since the estero was already managed as wilderness… environmental activists have sacrificed the relative wild for an idealized one” (p. 213). And in so doing, they have been complicit in many of the same mendacious and duplicitous tactics that they habitually ascribe to big industry.
Watt correctly notes that this outcome is “increasingly out of step” with larger trends locally, nationally and globally, which uphold the value of agriculture, collaboration and heritage. “The NPS needs to recognize that residents have a different relationship to place than do visitors, and particularly that working the land, especially over generations, creates a unique connection that should be respected and incorporated into management practices” (p. 220). Instead, the NPS has “sacrific[ed] their needs to the illusion of pristine nature” (p. 5) and succumbed to environmentalists who “confuse a sense of shared national heritage with actual ownership and control” (p. 23).
In July 2017, a settlement was announced in a lawsuit, brought by environmentalists against the NPS, challenging the ranches’ leases in PRNS. The agreement provides five-year lease extensions to the ranches, during which time the NPS must assess the effects of grazing and formulate an official management plan. There is every reason to suspect that five years will not be enough time for the assessment and planning tasks—after all, the NPS has been pledging to do these very things for more than 30 years. But it is more than enough time for everyone involved to read Laura Watt’s book.
Point Reyes Oyster Farm via Flickr user Ross Mayfield.
 Paul W. Hirt, A Conspiracy of Optimism: Management of the National Forests since World War II (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1994).
 Roderick P. Neumann, Imposing Wilderness: Struggles Over Livelihood and Nature Preservation in Africa (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998).
 William Cronon, ‘The Trouble with Wilderness: Or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature,” Environmental History 1 (1996): 7-28.
Nathan F. Sayre is professor and chair of Geography at the University of California Berkeley. He specializes in the history and politics of rangeland conservation and management. His books include Working Wilderness: the Malpai Borderlands Groupand the Future of the Western Range; Ranching, Endangered Species, and Urbanization in the Southwest; and The Politics of Scale: A History of Rangeland Science.
Orange County flag design, 1968, courtesy of Orange County Archives via Flickr.
Naming a literary depiction of Orange County is no easy task. One or two sitcoms that describe the place may come to mind, along with movies depicting decadent capitalism or theme parks of overly-controlled leisure. Some may know the songs that offer resistance to that glossy, shallow image of Orange County. But novels or poetry? Those seeking literary guides to Southern California have had David Ulin’s magisterial Writing Los Angeles: A Literary Anthology (Library of America, 2002), but now those seeking the literature of Orange County have their own guide: Lisa Alvarez’s and Andrew Tonkovich’s anthology, Orange County: A Literary Field Guide (Heyday, 2017). Drawing from community-college literary magazines as well as literary luminaries, this is a work of impressive research and discovery. Arranged geographically and then, within each region, chronologically, this book portrays an Orange County of consummate surprise.
There are no Stepford wives here. While Michael Chabon’s short story “Ocean Avenue” features a beautiful woman of leisure buying coffee in exercise clothes, she is neither one-dimensional nor docile; she’s unforgettable. And she is not alone. Her neighbor, in this anthology, might be a large Gullah-speaking mother of two football stars, displaced from home and determinedly seeking public space in her red tile roof and white stucco walled condo development, depicted in Susan Straight’s I Been in Sorrow’s Kitchen and Licked Out All the Pots. Beekeepers, bicyclists, day laborers, artists, fishermen, surfers aggressively protecting their turf, Vietnamese immigrants protesting each other, Iranian teenagers desperate to fit in to a gated community painted endless shades of white, a lonely teenager who keeps giving her phone number to undocumented immigrants, the ghosts of an agrarian past, and a nervous young man serving an eviction notice at the beach mansion of his aging rock hero: this is a complex, divided, fractious, and deep depiction of Orange County. It is, in Aracelis Gormay’s poetry:
Santa Ana of grocery carts, truckers,
eggs in the kitchen at 4 am, nurses, cleaning ladies
the saints of ironing, the saints
of tortillas. Santa Ana of cross-guards, tomato pickers,
bakeries of bread in pinks & yellows, sugars.
Santa Ana of Cambodia, Viet Nam, Aztlán
The Orange County in view is a fictional one that many locals will recognize as true. It is also, in Lorene Delany-Ullman’s prose poetry, a space of “wetlands and weapons.” Violence, racism, and “the meeting of boom and loss,” in Tom Vanderbilt’s penetrating expression—all are here, in complicated histories bursting out beneath tidy suburban surfaces, like weeds pushing through sidewalk cracks.
In a region famous for its history of forgetting, to borrow Norman Klein’s title, a place of “willful amnesia” where “a sales pitch… has always been substituted for history,” in D. J. Waldie’s depiction, this is a book startlingly full of what the editors call, in their introduction to Lisa Alvarez’s poetry, “the contentious, unresolved history of Orange County’s suburban milieu, which is never far below the surface—if it’s below it at all.” Too literarily clear-eyed to be called nostalgic, there is still something close to nostalgia here as character after character laments the effects of development on beloved pieces of nature, while story after story faces paved-over land and dreams. In this book’s Orange County, a sense of place comes with a sense of history.
While good, this anthology is not perfect. The editors call the foothills area “the flatlands.” The excerpted stories by Christopher Isherwood and a few others end a bit abruptly. But like any anthology, this one serves up appetizers that may lead readers to investigate the fuller works of authors like James Blaylock, Martin Smith, Kem Nunn, or Anh Chi Pham. Gustavo Arellano’s “Foreword” mistakenly regrets the omission of Tom Vanderbilt’s Baffler piece about the Crystal Cathedral, which actually is included. Orange County’s oral histories, corridos, and church-newsletter literature also might have been included. But there is already so much in this volume that it seems churlish to state that it is unclear why the literature of Richard Henry Dana, Carey McWilliams, and Viet Thanh Nguyen are absent.
This book is for readers who relish knowing that LSD tablets were once dropped from an airplane to a crowd of hippies gathered in Laguna Beach, and that the unobstructed Santa Ana winds were once so strong they wore grooves in the floorboards of Jessamyn West’s house in Yorba Linda by repeatedly pushing the beds across the room. It is for those wanting to know “what’s been lost,” in Edward Humes phrase, or anyone who wants to name the history of what Tom Zoellner calls, in an essay written specifically for this anthology, “The Orange Industrial Complex.” The collection is for residents, students, teachers, tourists, and all who wish to understand America’s complicated suburbia.
This book, filled with empathy and environmentalism, is poetic critical geography. It is wonderful.
 Norman M. Klein, The History of Forgetting: Los Angeles and the Erasure of Memory, new and updated ed. (New York: Penguin Random House, 2008).
Elaine Lewinnek is professor in the department of American Studies at California State University, Fullerton. She is the author of The Working Man’s Reward: Chicago’s Early Suburbs and the Roots of American Sprawl (Oxford, 2015), and is currently working on a bottom-up history of Orange County with Gustavo Arellano, Thuy Vo Dang, and Michael Steiner, titled A People’s Guide to Orange County (UC Press, forthcoming).
July sky at Bahia de Los Angeles, Baja California, Mexico, courtesy of Bill Gracey via Flickr.
Gerald W. Haslam
Growing up in an oilfield community at the southern end of the Great Central Valley, I for many years believed California ended where the Tehachapi Mountains met the Temblor Range. Southern California seemed to be a continent away. Then my parents transferred me to a Catholic middle/high school in Bakersfield, and I encountered many Latino students, some of whom spoke of a mysterious place—perhaps part of California, perhaps not—called simply “Baja” or sometimes “la frontera.”
Few, I recall, claimed to have visited there. Rather it existed for us as a dangerous (but tempting) idea, a no-holds-barred locale that produced “Tijuana bibles” and tire-tread huaraches, and that housed a fabled red-light district. In our imaginations, that frontera was a remnant of the wild west, the sin capital of the west.
The actual place, as Verónica Castillo-Muñoz reveals in The Other California: Land, Identity, and Politics on the Mexican Borderlands, was culturally and economically far more complex than we had imagined. It slipped in and out of the grasp of Yankee capitalists (principally in the guise of the Colorado River Land Company and the International Mexican Company) in the late nineteenth century. Those companies “transformed Baja California from a Mexican backwater territory to one of the most prosperous cotton-producing centers along the U.S.-Mexico border.”
Castillo-Muñoz presents a detailed outline of how Baja California, a region of northern Mexico, was for a time an economic pawn to Mexican politicians, was a Pacific entry for Chinese and Japanese immigrants to the Americas, and was treated as an outlier (it didn’t gain statehood in Mexico until 1952). It was slowly built by hard-working people who came to largely ignore static gender roles and varying racial barriers, thus enriching the cultural landscape of western Mexico. The book traces no utopian society, but rather reveals “how ethnicity and racially diverse communities of laborers changed the social landscape of Baja California,” and does a good job of that.
Social stability and economic viability were by no means quickly achieved. The society detailed by Castillo-Muñoz’s book churned and boiled. Part of that was due to the self-serving influence of absentee owners, especially Yankees. But locals were capable of shooting themselves in the foot, too. For instance,
Chinese and Japanese earned an average of 40 centavos per day, while mestizo and indigenous workers earned average of 1.25 pesos. It was only a matter of time before Chinese and Japanese workers discovered the wage disparity, and they held strikes against the company [Compagnie du Boleo] several times.
Despite discrimination, “By 1920 the Baja California peninsula stood out as one of the most diverse communities in northern Mexico, with a growing population that spoke nineteen languages.”
Although women in Mexico did not get the vote nationally until 1953, their activism played a steady role in the social and economic development of Baja. “Ejido [communal land grant] distribution shaped gender relations and campesino [farm worker] identity in the Mexicali Valley where women saw their role on the ejido equally important to that of men.” World War II solidified that.
In 1942, Mexico entered the war on the side of the Allies. That little-discussed fact (in the USA, at least) led to the Bracero contract that sent male Mexican workers between the ages of seventeen and forty to “fill jobs in the farming and railroad sectors caused by the US labor shortage.” That, in turn, opened jobs in Mexico for women, “Thus both ejido farmers and private farmers in the Mexicali Valley came to rely on women’s labor for the cultivation and picking of cotton.” In 1944, President Manuel Avila Camacho smoothed the path toward gender equality when he “endorsed a campaign for women to join the workforce in northern Mexico to offset the shortage of labor caused by the Bracero Program.”
Castillo-Muñoz’s slim book (113 page text) is literally packed with such information, and is supplemented by 30 pages of valuable notes, a detailed bibliography and an index. For better or worse, the author shows, Baja California reflects many of the same issues that have plagued us here in Alta California—think of water, for instance, or racial tensions or gender discrimination. The Other California’s academic tone might be off-putting to some, but the text is so rich in information that this reader hardly noticed. It is an excellent intro to California’s southern namesake.
Gerald W. Haslam, an Oildale native, is professor emeritus at Sonoma State University, and the author of, among other books, The Other California: The Great Central Valley in Life and Letters (University of Nevada Press, 1994).
Sublime photos of heaven-high cliffs, canyons, and waterfalls have long defined Yosemite. In her book, A Sense of Yosemite, photographer Nancy Robbins builds on this tradition of photography as both an artistic medium and an articulation of the importance of public lands.
Robbins lives within Yosemite’s boundaries, and her familiarity with the park serves as her greatest advantage. She offers her audience a refreshing glimpse of Yosemite beyond familiar black-and-white stock images. Her detailed perspectives treat the landscape with the keen observation that intimacy provides.
Robbins’s eye for detail takes us beyond the usual vistas of the park. She focuses on the textures of scabbed bark, the veins of yellow leaves encased in a sheet of ice, and brilliant waterfalls of fiery light. These rich images guide the reader through the might and brilliance of each season, documenting foxes to cottonwood trees, rivers to gauzy starlight, and more.
By excluding people from her images of the park, Robbins joins other landscape photographers in perpetuating the myth of pristine wilderness. The only noticeable photo of people depicts distant climbers on a cliffside bivouac at night. This image beautifully speaks to the adventurous spirit of Yosemite but fails to tell the whole story. It’s rare to experience the park without people.
While Robbins’s photos of the park through its seasonal cycles are impressive, the book’s structure and written commentary leave us wanting more. Her captions and David Mas Masumoto’s essays convey little about Yosemite’s intricacies. Robbins’s vivid images speak far more powerfully about the park than the text, which in comparison comes off rather bland.
As a farmer living outside of Yosemite Valley, Masumoto provides a perspective that many readers can identify with: a neighbor to Yosemite who feels a connection to the place. However, the relationship between his essays laced throughout the first half of the book and the photos can feel a bit jarring. The reader is pulled from the visual flow of Robbins’s work that frame Yosemite through both the senses and the seasons.
Unfortunately, the book neglects to mention the park’s indigenous history and Yosemite’s central role in the development of the national park system and conservation movement. Nor does it touch upon the grave ecological challenges facing Yosemite precipitated by a changing climate and ever-increasing human visitation. Briefly, Masumoto writes: “We all have a stake in the destinies of these sacred geographies.” But in this narrative of the visual sublimity of Yosemite, an opportunity is lost to prompt readers to grasp its complex, pivotal history, and to contemplate what is at stake for its future.
Although A Sense of Yosemite may not offer such fully discerning reflections upon this iconic park, for any reader wishing to experience Yosemite through a collection of colorful photographs with striking light, this book will satisfy. Robbins’s work celebrates the park in every season, portraying both light and color with a softness that reflects the subtlest moods of the landscape. Through her technical mastery, her access to singular weather phenomena and rare moments, and her obvious affection for Yosemite, Robbins successfully captures the splendor of one of the most inspirational places in North America and the place she calls home.
The Milky Way over Yosemite Valley, photographed from Tunnel View.
All photographs taken by Nancy Robbins. All rights reserved.
Copyright: 2017 The Authors. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/
“An organizer is a leader who does not lead; he gets behind the people and pushes.” —Fred Ross
I doubt Fred Ross would have been the subject of a book length biography had he not recruited United Farm Workers founder and civil rights leader Cesar Chavez to the organizer’s trade. Yet the reasons why a full portrait of Ross’s life is both timely and useful extend far beyond his star pupil.
Gabriel Thompson’s America’s Social Arsonist: Fred Rossand Grassroots Organizing in the Twentieth Century reveals a driven, singularly focused man, who sacrificed family and personal comfort to devote himself to organizing poor people for collective action on their own behalf. Thompson documents the deep positive impact Ross had on working class communities, and on the practices of two generations of organizers. These pages also unveil, often painfully, the personal damage to his loved ones that his priorities inflicted on them.
Ross shunned the limelight, believing an organizer’s role was to find leaders, help them to develop, and get out of their way. He found a lot of them, including Chavez, but others too—bighearted, ambitious, or both—who went on to important roles in the labor movement and electoral politics. Ross developed garden-variety activists as well, training thousands over the course of a forty-year career. But he was also ruthless in assessing and discarding individuals he deemed insufficiently dedicated to the difficult, tedious, mundane, and time-consuming chores—the checklists, the follow-up phone calls, the endless meetings—involved in creating social change.
I share this with Cesar Chavez: both of us were recruited to organizing work by Fred Ross. My initiation occurred during a warm spring afternoon in 1974, underneath a tree next to Campbell Hall at UCLA. My leftist English professor had asked a few politically interested students if they would like to hear about the United Farm Workers from one of the union’s organizers.
I was a senior, contemplating without too much urgency my post-graduation prospects. Ross sat with us on the grass in a circle. He was old (by which I mean exactly the same age I am now) but animated with a quiet assurance about the importance of the work he described. I don’t remember his words but they were effective. After an hour or so my friend Wayne Baron had decided to become a full-time organizer for the UFW boycott effort. I had other priorities—eventually, graduate school—but with the war in Vietnam winding down, I was casting about for another volunteer political activity, and knew I had found it. For the next year and a half I sat behind a table on Bruin Walk piled with UFW literature, buttons, and bumper stickers and accepted donations for the cause. I organized house meetings and film screenings. I stood outside supermarkets and asked shoppers to not buy grapes and lettuce. I caravanned to Delano in the Central Valley to join demonstrations.
Eventually I moved to San Francisco for graduate school. Wayne had gone there before me, and now ran the city’s boycott effort out of a former church dormitory. He was extremely proud of the article written about his work by an undercover John Birch Society reporter that began, “Where nuns once prayed and slept, now filthy mattresses lie four abreast, supporting communist subversion.” He pinned it to the bulletin board next to his office and showed it to everyone who visited.
I continued to volunteer a few hours a week for la causa after starting school, plugging into Wayne’s impressive boycott operation. Few stores carried non-union grapes or lettuce, and the ones that did faced lively picket lines each weekend. On the other hand, many storefront windows sported the black and red UFW eagle, pledging fealty to the boycott. And wherever I walked with Wayne, we could not go more than a few hundred feet without being stopped by someone—store owners, union members, community activists, students—who knew him through his indefatigable UFW boycott organizing.
Multiply this situation in San Francisco by scores around the country in major urban centers—there were four hundred full-time organizers on staff, receiving $5 a week plus room and board—and you have an idea of the reach and effectiveness of the boycott in the mid-70s. Polls showed that 10–12% of the American population had stopped eating grapes and lettuce in sympathy with the struggle of California farm workers for a better life.
I didn’t connect the dots at the time, but much of this was ultimately traceable back to Fred Ross, through a combination of the serendipity of his meeting and resulting relationship with Chavez, and the unbelievably hard work Ross devoted to organizing on the way to that meeting, creating the conditions for it to occur, and afterward, nurturing conditions for the movement to flourish.
Thompson’s book begins, fittingly, with the well-known story of Ross visiting Chavez’s house in the barrio of East San Jose, Sal Si Puedes, in late spring 1952. Although a full treatment of Ross’s life had to wait for Thompson’s book, the UFW itself is the most well documented labor movement in United States history; within that literature the meeting at Chavez’s house with Ross remains the stuff of legend. Outside that moment, though, many of the now aging cohort of activists who came up through the farmworker movement knew relatively little of Ross’s pre-Chavez life. In extending our knowledge about the master organizer, Thompson’s book holds his subject beneath an unblinking wide angled lens, and what we learn, not entirely pretty, explains a lot about both men.
Fred Ross was born in Los Angeles in 1910, product of the unhappy marriage of Frederick Ross and Daisy Crowell. Ross’s later political development was not nurtured in his early home environment. Frederick Ross worked in newspaper advertising and later for the National Association of Manufacturers—a trajectory his employer at the Los Angeles Times, the virulently anti-union Harrison Gray Otis, would have found commendable. Thompson notes that young Fred’s parents shared racist attitudes, and referred to poor people as “trash.” Daisy was incensed when the school district boundaries near their Echo Park neighborhood home changed and she found her son going to school with black children. She raised such a stink he was allowed to transfer back to his former school.
Ross the senior probably cheated on Daisy, according to Thompson, precipitating their divorce when Fred was ten and his brother six. Her job as a secretary barely paid the bills, even with child support payments. Eventually Daisy couldn’t handle Fred’s continuous bad behavior. Her parents, who owned a modest hotel in San Pedro, took Fred in on the weekends and gave him the attention Daisy could not. They also provided him with a structured religious upbringing, schooling him in the Bible so deeply he was anointed junior pastor in their Methodist church.
Ross did less well in actual school, disinterested in academic achievement or classroom decorum. His wild antics (example: setting off fireworks at his elementary graduation rehearsal) led Daisy, at considerable expense, to send him to a military school in San Diego, but after getting sick he returned home and finished high school with a C average.
After a few years enduring low paying jobs and taking some classes at Los Angeles Junior College, Ross enrolled at University of Southern California, subsidized by Daisy’s lover, a judge. Here things began to change. His friendship with fellow student Eugene Wolman, a Jewish Communist from New York, opened Ross’s eyes to the Great Depression and its impact on the working class. He became active in student political organizing, took a class from a socialist professor that made a deep impression on his intellectual development, and allowed himself to be recruited to lead the campus chapter of the Communist Party-inspired National Student League.
After graduation Ross remained at USC for another semester to get a teaching credential, while Wolman went to work in a nearby factory, hoping to organize a CIO (Congress of Industrial Organizations) union. He invited Ross to come to the first organizing meeting, at which but one worker showed up. Thompson notes, “For Ross, it wasn’t the most inspiring introduction to organizing. But it did offer a useful lesson: to organize, you needed energy and passion, which Wolman had in abundance, but you also need a solid plan.”
Wolman went on to fight and die in the Spanish Civil War. This, too, had a big impact on Ross, according to Thompson, “an example of how, no matter what sacrifices he might make as an organizer—the long hours, the low pay, the constant travel—others had sacrificed much more.”
Despite his recently acquired teaching credential, history teachers were more plentiful than jobs in 1937, and when Ross was offered a position as a social worker he took it. California had set up the State Relief Agency (SRA) a couple years before, ostensibly to help the unemployed get through hard times. Ross found that in the agricultural counties surrounding Los Angeles its other purpose was to supply cheap labor for growers. It enforced this function by removing its destitute clients from the relief rolls if they refused to go to work at any price.
Here Ross began to develop the work habits he maintained throughout his life, including long hours, careful note taking, and leaving behind his young wife for days—or weeks, or months—at a time. Ross gained some real world details to fill out the incomplete picture his college radicalism had painted of the working class. At first outraged to discover that some of his clients had lied and were actually working in the fields while drawing unemployment compensation—because, as they told him, the piece rates they were being paid could not sustain them, let alone their families, and they needed the extra income—he determined to prove that they must not be working hard enough.
Ross and family on porch. Photo courtesy of the Ross family.
But his meritocratic ideology taught him something different than what he had expected. Going to work one day in disguise tying carrots, where growers needed workers so badly they were always hiring, he labored twelve hours and emerged bone tired with eighty-four cents. After he was disfraciplined by his supervisor when he described what he had done, Ross quit the SRA and got hired by the federal Farm Security Administration (FSA). Renowned today for the photographs by Dorothea Lange, Ben Shahn and others that burned the faces of the Dust Bowl refugees Ross worked with into the nation’s conscience, the agency hired Ross for a job in a warehouse distributing dry goods in the Coachella Valley.
As Thompson records, Ross discovered that “The poor were complicatedly human, as three-dimensional as anyone else; they just happened to have more roadblocks thrown up in their way.” One Okie migrant in particular, a sixty-two year old man who lost his farm, became Ross’s friend. As a result of his storytelling—what one transplanted southwestern woman called their “migracious stories”—he and people like him were no longer “political abstractions, neither the right’s lazy creatures prone to ‘chronic dependency’ nor the left’s flawless victims.”
Early in 1939 Ross accepted more responsibility and stepped into what ultimately became one of the few other well-known—if not entirely accurate—elements of the Ross legend. The FSA had set up nineteen model farm labor camps around California’s central valley. As Thompson points out, these were meant to provide an alternative to the filthy and oppressive conditions found in most camps set up by growers for their low paid labor force: these were clean, relatively well-run, featured laundry facilities, and contained showers in their bathrooms. They also demonstrated that with some encouragement, the campers—mostly migrant Okies—might find some dignity beyond personal hygiene in cultural activities (for example, camp newsletters, dances and concerts, film screenings, theatrical productions, etc.) and participation in camp governance.
Ross served a four month apprenticeship in the Visalia camp, and then became manager of his own, outside the feudal town of Arvin, where Joseph Di Giorgio, pacesetter capitalist in the newly-named “agribusiness” flourishing despite the Great Depression, held sway.
The way I had heard the story from Wayne and other UFW activists, Fred Ross was the inspiration for the kindly government camp director in John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, which appeared later that year in 1939. I always thought the timing wasn’t right, and Thompson sets the record straight: it was an earlier director of the same camp, Tom Collins, who had modeled that role for Steinbeck. In any case, Ross didn’t waste the opportunity he had been handed.
In addition to the Okie workers and their families, the Arvin camp served as temporary quarters for left wing troubadour Woody Guthrie, who played and sang for the migrants on numerous occasions, as well as two hard-bitten state organizers for the United Cannery, Agricultural, Packinghouse and Allied Workers of America (UCAPAWA-CIO). These men, Luke Hinman and Wyman Hicks, took the opening willingly provided by Ross to utilize Arvin Camp as a base for organizing field workers residing there and in the surrounding area.
This was a tough row to hoe, but one in which Ross would make a large contribution himself in later years. At this point he simply watched, learned, and bent the FSA rules to accommodate his guests as they built the will among his campers to go on strike in October, 1939. He also became acquainted at this time with Carey McWilliams.
McWilliams had been appointed by Culbert Olsen, the first Democrat elected California governor in the twentieth century, to oversee agricultural labor as the state commissioner of immigration and housing. His book Factories in the Field, a well-researched non-fiction flip side to The Grapes of Wrath, came out the same year, strengthening the growing public understanding that something was very wrong in the sprawling farm districts of California. Unlike his predecessors at the top of California government agencies dealing with farm labor, McWilliams did what he could to help migrant farmworker families. Ross, as Thompson reports, was still assigning Factories in the Field to his organizer trainees decades later.
In camp Ross did not hide his sympathies. Thompson notes, “His partisanship was so overt that one resident would pen a letter to Ross’s supervisor complaining that the camp was “practically run” by the union, that Ross was a “strong member” of the CIO, and that the camp was no longer a place for “us honest and non-communists to live in.”
The strike, however exhilarating at the start, lasted two weeks before being efficiently and violently crushed by the growers; their weapon, the Associated Farmers, had been described without hyperbole by McWilliams as a fascist organization. The job action, involving thousands of workers in dozens of farms, turned out to be the last hurrah in the fields for the UCAPAWA, heir to communist-led organizing for the previous decade. Rethinking its strategies after the defeat, it retreated to canneries and packing sheds, where its leaders planned to rebuild a structure in the agricultural supply chain that would eventually allow them to return to field organizing.
Brawley meeting. Photo courtesy of Department of Special Collections and University Archives, Stanford University Libraries.
That never occurred, as McCarthyism ultimately destroyed UCAPAWA along with a dozen or so other left wing CIO unions by the early 1950s. Ross, moved by his experience during the strike and conversations with Hinman and Hicks, eventually played a major role in a different farmworker organization’s attempt to organize field workers. But first another formative moment awaited him during World War II, when he left the FSA to work for the War Relocation Authority (WRA), with Japanese-Americans interned in concentration camps.
While in some respects the WRA represented continuity for Ross—working with a stigmatized social group in rural America—it also demonstrated conclusively to him the limits of a model of social action emphasizing service to victims. Although he didn’t understand it at the time, it set him inexorably on the path to his calling as an organizer.
Initially believing the government’s justification for relocation—that the Japanese Americans threatened national security—working closely with them changed his mind. Stationed in Minidoka, Idaho, Ross learned that nothing he attempted to do on behalf of the nearly ten thousand detainees would be approved by his superiors. His experience provided him with insight into the deep wellspring of racism in American politics and culture, which suffused the WRA bureaucracy, nearby towns, and, after Ross got transferred to Cleveland to work on relocation efforts, the attitudes of white workers within war industries desperate to hire any workers—except “dirty Japs.”
Ross found that getting Japanese-American workers employed within the still fierce “them and us” hothouse atmosphere of war necessitated building and using a big toolbox of tactics. Besides eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation with anger, prejudice and fear, Ross had to establish functional relationships among government agencies, community groups, employers, and unions—including persuading racist southern white workers who had come north for well-paying defense jobs that winning the war on the home front required setting aside ingrained beliefs about others.
Ross gained another perspective on the same set of issues at home. Ross’s second wife Frances (his first wife having divorced him early in the war) got a job in a Cleveland factory, where her efforts helping to integrate African Americans into the plant’s workforce eventually led to a job with Roosevelt’s Fair Employment Practices Commission (FEPA), the federal agency responsible for enforcing a modest standard of racial justice in hiring and promotion in war industries. The FEPA was understaffed and limited in its ability to fulfill its mission. Occasionally other authorities stepped up to fill the vacuum.
For instance, after returning to San Francisco at the end of the war, Ross accompanied International Longshoremen’s and Warehousemen’s Union president Harry Bridges on an expedition to a Petaluma warehouse north of the Golden Gate Bridge, where the radical labor leader, who later married a Nisei, told his members refusing to work alongside a Japanese-American that he would pull their local charter if they did not allow the man to work.
This full immersion program in race and employment relations outside and within his home during and after World War II led Ross in a new direction. Thompson tells us that “Ross the social worker was receding, soon to disappear; the outlines of Ross the campaigner, Ross the organizer, were beginning to take shape.”
The circumstances out of which Ross emerged in his late thirties as a superb organizer have been chronicled elsewhere, notably in Ken Burt’s The Search for a Civic Voice: California Latino Politics. Thompson dives more deeply into the discipline of organizing, using Ross’s experience to demonstrate what Ross felt was necessity for an organizer—full devotion to a cause—but for others could seem like near obsession.
Ross knew how to listen, as he had already shown in his work with the New Deal “alphabet soup” agencies. Despite poor Spanish skills, he began to do that listening in southern California barrios, working first for the American Council on Race Relations and then, crucially, for famed Chicago organizer and author (Reveille for Radicals) Saul Alinsky and what was to become the Community Service Organization (CSO). Prior to their meeting, Ross had spent a couple years bringing together Southern California Mexican American and African American low income communities in coalitions for voter registration drives, successful campaigns to oust racist school board and local city council officials, and efforts to integrate and secure resources for schools and community centers.
These activities had brought him to the attention of the older Alinsky (not to mention the FBI). It was also during these campaigns that Ross realized that the house meeting was the essential building block of community organizing, a method he refined over time with near-scientific precision.
In Thompson’s telling, when Alinsky, founder of the Industrial Areas Foundation based in Chicago, met Ross, he wrote a friend, “I have hired a guy who I think is a natural for our work. It will really be the first time that I have an associate who understands exactly what we are after.” The phrase, ‘what we are after,’ referred to organizing working people in the early years of the Cold War, as anti-communism was corroding longstanding progressive political alliances, poisoning public discourse, and enveloping anyone whose occupation was “organizing,” especially in working class communities of color, within a fog of suspicion.
Swearing in CSO members. Photo courtesy of Los Angeles Daily News, UCLA.
Nowhere did these factors play into the equation more than in the melting pot of Boyle Heights, where immigration combined with radical politics circa 1950 to morph the neighborhood—just east of downtown Los Angeles—from early twentieth-century white working class origins to a diverse international community including Russians, Mexicans, and Japanese. But as Thompson recounts, the area was commonly known as the “lower East Side” of Los Angeles, with a large Jewish working class population, heavily leavened with socialists and communists.
A decade later, fearful working class Anglos fought against and fled integration a few miles away in Watts, other south Los Angeles County neighborhoods, and the downtown. But here, the leftward tilt of this midcentury community was already a couple generations old; Boyle Heights had been a bastion of support for labor organizer Fred Wheeler in the 1910s and 1920s, the first Socialist elected to Los Angeles City Council. Postwar Boyle Heights welcomed a growing Mexican American population and a broader mix of other ethnic groups at the same time as a racist police department and media culture led by TheLos Angeles Times promoted social exclusion via employment codes, blacklists, restrictive housing covenants, and the physical repression of non-whites.
The organization Ross built at the intersection of these many currents of politics and culture was the Community Service Organization (CSO). His work with CSO was the best-known part of Ross’s history, yet Thompson contributes new nuggets of information and interpretation. The CSO emerged from the nuts and bolts organizing techniques and experiences that Ross brought to a circle of Latino Boyle Heights activists around Edward Roybal.
Roybal eventually became a successful career politician, the first Latino to be elected to a citywide position since the nineteenth century; later he was elected to Congress. But when Ross met him, he and his circle were trying to regroup after their first effort, a loss. With Ross’s assistance, and based on the model he had developed over the previous couple of years, the group focused on voter registration in the growing but mostly non-voting Mexicano population. The next time around, Roybal got elected to the Los Angeles City Council.
The CSO, under Ross’s guidance, created a template for the most successful form of progressive alliance in the post war United States, replicating the same strengths and weaknesses many times elsewhere. Focusing on achievable goals in poor and working class communities, Ross relied on direct one-on-one organizing to create building blocks of change from house meetings to broad organizational coalitions to voter registration and turnout. Direct action tactics, like those that the nascent civil rights movement was borrowing from the mass union organizing of the previous two decades, were not first resort but were also not unknown in CSO either. But the deceptively simple thing emphasized by Ross was that to be an organizer meant one had to be organized—before, during, and after any moment in an organizing campaign.
Unions, churches, and civil rights organizations were all welcome to participate and support the CSO, and many did with financial contributions and the loan of organizers. Communists and their “front groups” were not officially banned from taking part, and in this way CSO was virtually unique among organizations in the era of, “Are you now or have you ever been….” Ross also urged Roybal not to vote for a proposed Los Angeles city ordinance seeking to force communists to register with the police.
Perhaps it was Ross’s early tutelage by his student friend or association with UCAPAWA organizers in his central valley farm labor camp that gave him the courage to do these things. He knew who communists were, what they stood for and above all the hard work they put into progressive causes.
But he was a pragmatist too, and when push came to shove Ross was not above figuring out the proper parliamentary procedures for denying communists the floor in meetings, or how to maneuver behind the scenes in coalitions to keep the CSO free from the red stain—enough so that progressive Latino political and community organizers closer to the Party like Burt Corona later accused Ross of red-baiting.
Ross organized CSO chapters in nearby southern California cities and then across California. It was in San Jose in 1952 that the meeting with Chavez took place. Of that moment’s impact, Chavez later said, “I learned quite a bit from studying Gandhi, but the first practical steps I learned from the best organizer that I know, Fred Ross. He changed my life.” Ross did the same for Dolores Huerta, the future co-founder of the United Farm Workers union, whom he likewise recruited to the CSO a few years later in the north San Joaquin Valley town of Stockton.
Dolores Huerta with Fred Glass. Photo courtesy of Fred Glass.
Huerta, who had more formal education than Chavez, soon combined raising children, work for the CSO, and organizing farm workers with the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC), launched by the AFL-CIO with more resources than any previous effort in the fields. Brimming with energy, but not so good on time management, she needed Ross’s direction to focus her passion for social justice; as Thompson put it, “Huerta had a way of careening through life as if she were a football player covered in pads, running straight into challenges with a complete lack of fear.” Over time Huerta grew disenchanted with AWOC’s organizing model, which focused on signing up labor contractors, who in turn would bring workers into the union as a group, but crucially without a sense of their own agency.
Chavez, meanwhile, moved up to national director of the CSO, and eventually had to face two problems that threatened its viability throughout its growth and decline in the early 1960s: lack of a clear mission and shaky funding. Chavez grew more certain over time that he wanted the organization to move into farm worker organizing; its reluctance to fully commit to that goal eventually drove him to resign in 1962. At that point, penniless, and with eight children, he moved with his wife Helen to Delano.
It was here that he and Huerta divided up the map of the great agricultural valley at Helen’s kitchen table and began to put Ross’s organizing methods to work, finding and recruiting farm workers to their association (it wasn’t to be called a “union” until 1965) one house meeting at a time.
Their timing was good. Against the backdrop of a prosperous economy (at least for non-farm workers), ascendant civil rights movement, and a large and supportive AFL-CIO at the apex of its power, Chavez and Huerta could find allies in powerful places as they attempted to do something no one had before: build a farm worker union that lasted.
They almost succeeded. Ross’s contributions were considerable, including overseeing critical early union representation elections, serving as organizing director from 1966 to 1968 and putting in place protocols for the consumer grape boycott. The union organized tens of thousands of workers in several of the most important crops of California’s multi-billion dollar agribusiness empire. Collective bargaining, backed up by strikes and the boycott, forced growers to pay more attention, and higher wages, to farm workers than ever before.
For a decade and a half the union, despite the uneven playing field, contested seriously with the growers for power in the fields and public opinion. At that point, however, the union hit a wall. Much of the problem was not of the union’s making—the receding of the mass social movements of the 1960s and 70s, the ascension of anti-union, small government forces to the highest elected offices in California and the United States, and the long slide of union power and density. The UFW was a clever small fish swimming with larger protectors. When its supporters in labor and politics were assailed with troubles of their own, the small fish found itself facing its predators alone. And it did not survive.
Given the power of California agribusiness, it may well not have mattered what decisions Chavez and the UFW leadership made. Alinsky astutely aphorized the difficulties involved in farm worker organizing: “It’s like fighting on a constantly disintegrating bed of sand.”
Nonetheless, the other part of the problem was indeed the fault of the union leadership: it stopped organizing. Like a revolution, a union movement either organizes and moves forward, or else retreats. The union’s decision in the late 1970s to pull back from the fields to farm worker “advocacy” was compounded by Chavez’s increasingly autocratic and erratic behavior. His unfortunate choice to travel to the Philippines to accept an award from dictator Ferdinand Marcos shocked the UFW’s Filipino members, triggering the resignation of UFW vice-president Philip Vera Cruz. (Chavez’s choice eventuated in another, less historic, but personally significant consequence: I too ended my UFW volunteer activities.)
Thompson efficiently glosses recent revisionist history of the UFW’s decline—a story told at some length by Frank Bardacke and Miriam Pawel, and more succinctly by Marshall Ganz—while injecting his protagonist into the proceedings in order to ask, in essence, the question, “Why did Fred Ross, arguably the only person who Chavez might have listened to, not intervene?”
Ross giving training. Photo courtesy of Ross family.
In the book’s penultimate chapter, “Blind Spot,” Thompson attempts to account for Ross’s failure to confront Chavez’s bad decisions and the union’s retreat from organizing. Apparently only one ugly instance, in which Chavez reportedly orchestrated an anti-Semitic smear against two long-time union leaders challenging his authority, roused Ross to call Chavez on the phone and protest. Numerous purges of union stalwarts who were perceived by Chavez as threats were abetted or ignored by Ross.
Ross’s son, Fred Ross, Jr., an accomplished organizer himself who provided Thompson with extensive access to his father’s documents, told his father at the time, “Dad, this is fucking wrong. You know it’s wrong.” But, he explained, “My dad had a hard time going there. His fallback position was that no one had made the sacrifices that Cesar had made. Except for the anti-Semitism, I don’t think my father ever challenged Cesar.”
Ross’s other blind spot related to similarly disastrous circumstances, but within the personal sphere of his family. Two wrecked marriages and alienated children represent just the headline over numerous ‘are you kidding me?’ stories recorded by Thompson, the result of Ross’s choice, nearly every time, of work over family life. One instance will suffice to paint the picture. Frances, pregnant, and suffering from polio, was in the hospital for three months. On the day she was to finally return home, Ross failed to show up at the appointed time, because he was at an organizing meeting.
Ross had some insight, albeit limited, into the damage caused by his prioritizing organizing over all else. He later admitted, “When you start organizing, that’s it. You’re not working any nine to five job anymore. You’re not working just six days a week. That’s the end of family life. I didn’t know that. Not that that would have stopped me.”
Thompson’s assessment of Ross’s legacy is astute, concise, and mostly accurate. In addition to closing a gap in UFW historiography, America’s Social Arsonist is a compact synthetic history of the social justice movements in which Ross played an important part. And Ross certainly deserves the credit Thompson gives him for pulling together key elements—especially putting house meetings at the center—during the early post-World War II fights to create an effective modern organizing playbook.
The book is not without a few questionable calls. Were house meetings as an organizing tool invented by Ross? It’s probably best to call this a reinvention. CIO unions utilized the tactic, especially in company towns where the public sphere as well as the workplaces were dominated by powerful employers. Due partly to a substantial presence of Communist Party members on staff and in leadership of a number of these unions, house meetings, like cell meetings, were traceable to underground organizing in Czarist Russia, clandestine meetings linked one to another away from the eyes of the hated government or company spies.
Beyond this, the occasional errant factoid mars Thompson’s otherwise scrupulously accurate narrative—e.g., the Ludlow Massacre of 1913 occurred in a Colorado mining town where John, not his son David Rockefeller (who wasn’t yet born) employed the miners. It might have also been useful to at least refer to the work of Ernesto Galarza. Although Thompson mentions the pioneering National Farm Labor Union staffer briefly, his contributions to the anti-Bracero fight and stubborn attempts to organize California farm workers in the 1950s were unfolding at the same time that Ross and Chavez were building the model in CSO that ultimately succeeded, for a time, in doing what Galarza could not.
In the historical moment following the recent Bernie Sanders presidential campaign, which managed to propel the concept “socialism” back into mainstream political discourse, the question facing the thousands of young people (and older ones) inspired by his vision of a “political revolution” is, what next? If they are to sustain a mass movement for social justice into the Trump era, amid its effort to roll back social justice to the nineteenth century, effective organizing will have to anchor the otherwise ephemeral passions of the moment.
Organizing has also clearly moved into the digital age. It is data driven (although it actually always has been; as Ross said, “If you can’t count it, it doesn’t exist”—we just have better ways to count now). Social media can spread the word for a meeting or demonstration faster than it seemed possible in years past. Beyond these superficial differences between the past and present of organizing, however, Thompson’s book provides a clue about what’s next: people talking with people, taking the inspiration and data and doing the hard work of using the tools, old and new, to organize. There are no short cuts. Fred Ross’s life provides an example—with both positive and negative lessons for organizers—pointing toward what is to be done.
Bernie Sanders rally at Cubberly Community Center in Palo Alto, California, 1 June, 2016. Photo courtesy of Dawn Endico via Flickr.
Fred B. Glass is the author of From Mission to Microchip: A History of the California Labor Movement (Oakland: University of California Press, 2016), recently reviewed in Boom California. He serves as Communications Director for the California Federation of Teachers and Instructor of Labor and Community Studies at City College of San Francisco. He wrote and directed Golden Lands, Working Hands, a ten-part documentary video series on California labor history.
Copyright: 2017 Fred B. Glass. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/
In this comprehensive look at California workers—their job experiences and living conditions, antagonisms among them and with the powers that be, their leaders and the rank and file, politicians who claimed to speak for them and some who actually did, their unions and allies, and much more—Fred Glass does for this history what Taylor Branch did in his trilogy account of major portions of the civil rights movement, The King Years. From Mission to Microchip is filled with stories, analysis, history and data. It is a good and important story, well told.
In Glass’s telling, the Franciscan Fathers, often portrayed by others as benign protectors of California’s Native Americans, are anything but. Shepherded into the string of California Missions along the state’s coast, Indians were exposed to diseases to which they were not immune, removed from their villages, forced to work long days at tasks foreign to them and their way of life, denied the right to practice their beliefs, and exploited in many other ways. Their numbers quickly dwindled to a shadow of their pre-colonization presence. When the Fathers were not directly the exploiters, they provided the direct abusers with the rationalization for treating “heathens” as less than human.
The Gold Rush is a similar tale of woe for many. Contrary to the myths, most of those who rushed to the mountains to pan its streams and rivers for riches ended up working for others, and receiving a pittance for their labors.
Glass takes us through other major moments in the state’s labor history: the struggle for the 8-hour day; the Workingmen’s Party, which briefly governed San Francisco and then rapidly declined in corruption; the growth of the Los Angeles labor movement, and its demise as a result of the bombing of The Los Angeles Times building by labor union activist James B. McNamara who confessed to the event that killed two dozen people; the 1930s farm labor organizing history; the growth of the Hollywood unions, and the anti-Communist campaign that dramatically weakened them; the San Francisco and Oakland general strikes; the growth of public employee unions; the revolt of women workers, the development of “equal pay for equal work” campaigns, and the formulation of “comparable worth” as a strategic idea for organizing women at work; the decline of industrial work and unions in the state; the dramatic SEIU “Justice for Janitors” campaign… and more.
Throughout most of this history, ethnic and racial antagonism divided California’s working class and made it easy for employers to play one group against another. Among the contending groups: Chinese, Japanese, Mexicans, Irish, “Okies,” African-Americans, Filipinos. Glass emphasizes how destructive these divisions were for organizing.
There are moments when racial and ethnic rivalry and hostility are overcome, largely as a result of visionary labor organizers and leaders who persuade workers that they will not win justice without solidarity. Among the examples: the International Longshoremen’s & Warehousemen’s Union (ILWU) and the United Farm Workers of America (UFW). Glass provides rich stories and analysis on how these moments of unity, sometimes stretching into years, were achieved.
Like the Taylor Branch trilogy, this book has its weaknesses. No book attempting to cover such a span of history can do so without omissions, exaggerations, errors and other problems. I found some of these particularly in the areas where I have the greatest expertise and direct experience. A significant bibliography directs those wanting to delve more deeply into particular pieces of this history.
Although Glass does mention the religious factor, the book exhibits a strange tone-deafness to the role religion plays and played in California (and other) labor history.
For example, during World War II, it was Catholic leadership in ILWU Local 10 that led efforts to maintain earlier won and contractually agreed upon workplace rule gains. There is no mention of Fr. Andrew Boss and the Jesuit University of San Francisco’s Labor-Management School. Ditto for the Association of Catholic Trade Unionists’ ILWU member James Kearney who won ten single year terms as president of Local 10 (by constitutional rule, elected officials can hold full-time office for only two consecutive years before returning to waterfront work). The ironically named Boss challenged Harry Bridges and other leadership close to the Communist Party, and kept that leadership on its toes in the protection of workplace gains by offering a rival center of leadership training.
Missing in Glass’s ILWU account is the fact that the International supported urban renewal (known as “Negro removal”) in San Francisco’s Western Addition, and that a rank-and-file Local 10 vote overcame Bridges post-World War II recommendation against accepting temporary African-American workers into “A-Book” (first class) union membership. (Bridges feared major post-war layoffs.)
In the case of the United Farm Workers, the problem is greater. There is no mention of the Protestant California Migrant Ministry, and the roles played in UFW by Reverends Chris Hartmire, Jim Drake (who led the union’s boycott division), Gene Boutillier (who was, for a period, the union’s legislative lobbyist) and other of its staff members who were important full-time workers for the union. Nor is there mention of Marshall Ganz as UFW’s director of organizing and his rootedness in the Jewish social justice tradition and faith.
Flags at César Chávez National Monument: U.S, California, UFW, and a César Chávez banner. Jim Galvin via Flickr.
The controversy caused within UFW by Chavez accepting an award from Philippines’ dictator Ferdinand Marcos is acknowledged, but its devastating impact on church support for UFW is not. (It also alienated Chavez from key Filipino leaders and other rank-and-file union members, as well as from many of the student volunteers.)
The meaning for Chavez of “the march” from Delano to Sacramento is also misunderstood in its portrayal by Glass. It was an important factor in the passage of state collective bargaining legislation for farm workers. However, “Peregrinación” (pilgrimage) and “Penitencia” (penitence for sins) were intended for exactly what the words mean. It was secular people who called it a “march.”
Frank Bardacke’s book, Trampling Out the Vintage: Cesar Chavez and the Two Souls of the United Farm Workers, is central to understanding the union. Bardacke explains why: “What many of the liberals and radicals on the staff of the union could never understand was that all the fasts, the long marches and the insistence on personal sacrifice…were not publicity gimmicks, they were essential Chavez.”
Chavez emerged from the Community Service Organization (CSO), where he started as a rank-and-file member and became Executive Director. CSO, Glass tells us, “was supported by the Catholic Church….” The conservative Los Angeles Archdiocese, whose Archbishop was characterized by Saul Alinsky as a “pre-historic muttonhead,” was anything but supportive. However, local priests, religious women and lay leaders were. That distinction is central to understanding Chavez’s training.
Alinsky’s central role in all this history is only tangentially mentioned by Glass. In addition to hiring Fred Ross and funding CSO, Alinsky’s training was the underpinning of the Migrant Ministry’s support for the union. And other bishops did support Chavez. Unfortunately, Bardacke’s book doesn’t help much in clarifying Alinsky’s role either.
Recognizing the impossibility of gaining official church sanction for CSO, and having had an earlier negative experience with a “coalition” organization, Alinsky-staffer Fred Ross developed an “individual membership” organization, rather than Alinsky’s usual “organization of organizations.” It was the discipline of one-to-one conversations, followed by house meetings, then a large membership meeting that taught Chavez how to build the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA)—predecessor to the UFW.
Glass is in good company. There are small, and some large, errors in the aforementioned King years trilogy by Taylor Branch. No single writer of broad histories like this can master all the facts. No matter. Both Glass and Branch make major contributions. And from these rich resources, those interested in particular aspects of the histories can dig more deeply into various periods, organizations, campaigns, and histories.
Thank you, Fred Glass, for this important book.
Mike Miller directs ORGANIZE! Training Center (OTC). His organizing background includes almost five years as a field secretary for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and directing a Saul Alinsky organizing project. In 1972, he started OTC. He has taught organizing within the University of California, at Stanford, San Francisco State University, Lone Mountain, Notre Dame, and University of Wisconsin (Milwaukee). He writes and lectures in the field. His books include, The People Fight Back: Building a Tenant Union, A Community Organizer’s Tale: People and Power in San Francisco, Community Organizing: A Brief Introduction, and the co-edited People Power: The Community Organizing Tradition of Saul Alinsky.
In the 2009 preface to the new edition of his book Water and the West, Norris Hundley, Jr. wrote: “Water is today, as it was when the first edition of this book appeared thirty-five years ago, among mankind’s greatest concerns, a problem that remains a crisis of worldwide importance. Scientists, statesmen, environmental groups, and people everywhere recognize that water is a resource not to be taken for granted. Even those areas with considerable water are struggling with pollution and problems of management that worsen yearly as population grows and industry and agriculture expand.”
“No area of the world is more aware of the current water crisis than western America,” he asserted, “a vast arid and semiarid region embracing nearly half the continent of North America. Except for a strip along the north Pacific coast and isolated areas in the high mountains, the West is a region of sparse rainfall and few rivers. The implications of these facts of geography have been enormous. From the time of the first settlers to the present, few westerners have failed to comprehend that control of the West’s water means control of the West itself—its industry, agriculture, population distribution, and, withal, the direction of the future. Because the West has always had a water problem, its experiences provide valuable insights into the crises faced by other water-shy areas; and they also offer a preview of the even more serious problems that must involve the entire nation and the rest of the world as population grows.”
A Dutch photojournalist recently visited my office to talk about “disputed waters.” That’s actually the title of a project he is working on with colleagues—journalists, photographers, and videographers—around the world. They’re exploring stories about transboundary rivers—the Nile, the Mekong, the Jordan, the Danube and Rhine, and the Colorado—rivers that are a source of conflict because of climate change and increasing populations of people dependent on their waters. They’re working on a multimedia website, a book, and a traveling exhibition.
I’ve written about water in the American West for going on thirty years, and I did my best to help him, knowing all along that the person he really should have been talking to is no longer with us. But his books are.
If you’re like me, you probably have people you feel like you know through their work, although you’ve never gotten to know them in person. I wish I had had the opportunity to get to know Norris Hundley in person before he died in 2013. I’m deeply grateful that I’ve had not just the opportunity, but the necessity of getting to know him through his work. Because you cannot claim to care about understanding water in California and the broader American West—and, I daresay, understanding the state and region as a whole—without knowing the work of Norris Hundley, Jr. And there is, I believe, no way to read and know his work without getting to know a great deal about the man.
So I’d like to share with you what it is like to know a great historian through his great work.
Let’s start with the boundary waters the Dutch journalist was interested in, since that is where Norris started. (Because I feel as though I have come to know him through his work, I’d like to call him Norris here.)
Norris’s first book, Dividing the Waters: A Century of Controversy Between the United States and Mexico, came out of his dissertation at the University of California, Los Angeles, and it was published by UC Press in 1966. We historians treasure objects that give us a feeling for a particular time and place. I have an inscribed copy that looks and feels and, I like to think, even has the smell of a small, personal, scholarly library of someone, I imagine, who loved Southern California and the West, but also wanted to understand it critically, to be a part of it. It is a book I like to think I might have found in my grandfather’s home in Pasadena when we came to visit when I was just a kid in the sixties. He owned and ran Vroman’s bookstore with his cousins. I’d sit on the floor there and pull books off the shelf and read. But what I remember more is my grandfather’s personal library stuffed with books about California and the West.
Looking back, I realize I’m letting time slip. Norris’s book would have been brand new then, not the copy I now hold in my hands nearly fifty years later. Although this book is burnished by time, it still speaks to me now of our history, of this moment even, and of the man who wrote it.
“This has been a difficult book to write,” Norris states in the preface, “not only because the subject matter is often technical, but also because it deals with events that were—and still are—highly controversial.”
Note that “still are” remains true today.
He continued: “The great need for water in the arid southwestern United States and northern Mexico understandably prompted sharp conflicts between the countries as well as among the citizens within each country. For this reason, objectivity on the part of participants in the story has been almost impossible to find, and, obviously, it has not been easy—and sometimes has been impossible—to determine which side had the stronger case on a particular domestic or international issue. Nevertheless, judgments have been rendered where it was thought possible, and I candidly admit that some of them will not please everyone.”
There it is: the clear voice of the historian, aware that his sources come with strong points of view, to say the least, and aware that while he has done his best to practice objectivity—be faithful to his sources and present their arguments fairly, even as a debate of vital importance to his own region continued to rage around him—the historian has a point of view too, and will render judgment, openly inviting continuing debate.
Norris concluded Dividing the Waters with these words: “The United States and Mexico have made significant headway in the nearly century-long battle over their border streams, and, hopefully, their record of successes and failures will benefit other nations faced with similar problems. But any benefits that have been achieved should not be marred by neglecting to solve newer points of controversy.”
Here we have, in his first book, what I think of as the Norris Hundley point of view: broad-minded—he’s thinking about other places in the world facing similar challenges that might benefit from his history; fair about the progress, that “significant headway,” that had been made in the face of all kinds of problems; and aware of the challenges ahead—in the sentence before this conclusion he pointed to two of them: water quality and the vagueness of treaty provisions regarding the meaning of “extraordinary drought”—words that have an eerie resonance today.
Water and the West
Dividing the Waters examined the history of three rivers shared by Mexico and the United States: the Rio Bravo del Norte or Rio Grande, the Colorado, and the much smaller, but still very complicated Tijuana River. In his next book, Water and the West: The Colorado River and the Politics of Water in the American West, Norris took hold of the most vexing river’s history and wrestled it to the ground, mostly. I say “mostly,” because he would return to this history again and again.
“This book is about the greatest conflict over water in the American West,” he wrote. “To be more precise, it is primarily a book about an alleged peace treaty, the Colorado River Compact. But like most books about peace, it is really an account of war. No bullets were fired in this war, yet the life and death of cities and states in an enormous area were at stake. The Colorado River drains the entire left-hand corner of the continental United States. It is not a particularly heavy-flowing stream (ranking about sixth among the nation’s major rivers), but it is virtually the sole dependable water supply for an area of 244,000 square miles, including parts of seven western states—Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, Nevada, Arizona, California—and Mexico. Its influence is also felt far beyond its own watershed, for its waters have been diverted hundreds of miles and used to stimulate and sustain the urban, industrial, and agricultural growth of other areas such as eastern Colorado, western Utah, and the coastal plain of Southern California, a vast megalopolis stretching from north of Los Angeles to the Mexican border.”
I’ve come to wonder what Norris really thought about Los Angeles, which he called “the West’s most notorious water hustler.” I would have liked to talk with him about what seems, from his writing, to have become something of a love-hate relationship with this city and the role it has played in shaping California and the American West.
Norris was born in Texas, but California became his home from a young age. He met his wife Carol at San Gabriel Mission High; they fell in love and were married a year before Norris graduated from Whittier College in 1958. After receiving his Ph.D. in History in 1963 from UCLA, he taught at the University of Houston for a year before returning to UCLA, where he would spend his entire, enormously productive career, a career that helped shape not just the history of water in the West, but several other fields, as an advisor, mentor, colleague, and editor of the Pacific Historical Review for three decades.
In Water and the West, Norris worked several important veins in Western history. First, he put the Colorado River Compact in the context of federalism: “the attempt,” as he wrote, “of the Colorado River Basin states to work out their shared destiny in concert with the government in Washington. The attempt has been dogged almost from the start by conflicting notions of sovereignty, as each side has sought to assert its supremacy in areas jealously coveted by the other.”
In Western history, we sometimes say that the modern American West is a child of the federal government. You know the trope: the college student revels in the freedom, but still emails the parents to “send money.” As Norris wrote of his own work, “a prominent theme is the western desire to tap into federal largesse without incurring federal control.” But, as he noted, “the attempt to get the purse without the purse strings proved an impossible task” in the creation of the compact, as well as in a host of other projects that required the federal government to help build the American West.
The second vein that Norris continued to work in Water and the West was international. “Mexico is present in the Colorado River Basin,” he wrote, “though denied participation in the compact negotiations. Another international dimension,” though beyond the scope of his book, he continued, “emerges from a realization that other countries (most notably Egypt, Sudan, India, Pakistan, Israel, and Jordan) have looked to the compact for insights into the handling of their own water problems.”
Norris was well aware of what we now like to call the “transnational” dimensions of much of our history. The compact, he wrote, was “the first and most significant treaty of its kind, and one that has inspired a host of similar pacts.” The history of the American West, as he wrote it, is not a history of exceptionalism, a history told in isolation. It is a history tied to world.
There was one more significant prospect that Norris opened up in Water and the West, which would continue to shape his work. Historians had tended to see the conflict over water from the Colorado River, and other water conflicts in the West, “in simplistic terms,” he wrote, “in which advocates of cheap public power battled with the monopolistic forces of private industry—the ‘power trust.’ There was such a battle,” he continued, “but public agencies—federal, state, local, and municipal—also battled among themselves, as revealed in the conflicts among groups such as the city of Los Angeles, the state of Arizona, the Interior Department, and powerful chartered agencies such as the Imperial Irrigation District and the Salt River Valley Water Users’ Association.”
It’s not for nothing that we often talk of western water wars. What Norris showed is that at times this looked not so much like the imperial, all-knowing conquest of a hydraulic society in the American West, but instead like a chaotic war of all against all, in which, as he wrote, “no bullets were fired,” “yet the life and death of cities and states in an enormous area were at stake.” Or, what we might just call democracy, messy democracy, a theme to which Norris would return, again and again.
A reviewer in the Western Political Quarterly, called Water and the West “vivid…. A well-documented case study of how not to go about making public policy.”
We’re taught to resist the temptation of responding to reviewers, at least in print, but I like to imagine Norris, in private, saying something like “perhaps the worst way of going about making public policy on the Colorado River, except for all those other ways that were tried before the compact.”
Which is not to say that Norris was not critical of the compact. He was very critical of the compact, from its foundation on lousy data, which estimated average river flows based on a series of the wettest years on record, to the way apportionment was mandated, which guaranteed that upper-basin states would have to deliver flows to the lower-basin states even during dry years, to the lawsuits that resulted, and the ways in which the compact has limited innovation.
Norris Hundley, as far as I can tell from reading his work, resisted simplification, which is not the same as clarity, I hasten to add. His prose was clear and direct, even as he waded into some of the most complex situations imaginable—and water in the West is nothing if not complex.
In his next book, The Great Thirst, a magnum opus for those of who know and love and hope to understand California, Norris fully integrated two more complexities in this history: Native American water rights and the environment. The first, he had already begun to explore in Water and the West, as tribal rights to water figured in Arizona v. California, the key Supreme Court case that settled compact claims in the lower basin, although, as Norris showed, the decision was based on a misreading of the historical record. Moreover, while the Supreme Court could decree peace, it could not end water wars in the West.
“‘Basin of Contention’ would be an apt name for what generations have called the Colorado River Basin,” he wrote in a new epilogue to Water and the West in 2009. “A limited supply of water in a vast arid and semiarid region is hardly a recipe for tranquility among those who covet that water. The drafters of the compact were clearly aware of that truism, but they nonetheless failed to determine with reasonable accuracy the long-term annual flow of the Colorado River…. They had a glaring need for sound information, but no concerted effort was made to call on the scientific community for help. The drafters were mesmerized by their desire for haste and their political and personal goals. Without authoritative information, they had an opportunity to pick and choose information that best suited their interests and uncertainties—and that is what they did. The situation would not change significantly until others recognized and studied the importance of tree-ring data—data that revealed a distinct pattern, going back centuries, of severe and lengthy droughts, and the probability that this pattern will continue in the future. The consequences of the compact remain with us.”
In that epilogue, Norris pointed to other issues that would continue to complicate water in the West: the threat of global warming, endangered species, a resurgence of Native American water rights claims, and here in California, the fate of the delta of the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers and the proposal formerly known as the peripheral canal. “As I write this, no one knows when the current imbroglio—which involves much more than a peripheral canal—will end,” Norris concluded in 2009. “But if the past is any clue to the future, there are years of arguing and grumbling ahead.”
The Great Thirst
The Great Thirst: Californians and Water: A History would have been the achievement of a lifetime for any historian. But Norris wrote it not just once but twice. The first version was published in 1992 and instantly became the definitive history of water in California. In 2001, Norris significantly revised the book.
“Even this edition cannot pretend to have the last word on such a complex topic characterized by both fast-breaking and ponderously slow developments,” he wrote. “Such is the fate of any attempt foolish enough to try to keep abreast of history as it is being made. An impossible task, of course, and it is further complicated because water issues are so closely intertwined with the core elements of California’s (and the American West’s) political, economic, legal, and cultural evolution.”
The Great Thirst is a great book, the kind of book that can be written only by a someone in the full confidence of his powers as a historian and a writer, knowing his subject backward and forward, and guided by a vision informed by a lifetime of research, enriched by arguments with his sources, other scholars, and even himself, and based on a foundation of caring, dare I say, love.
Because it’s clear to this reader that Norris Hundley loved California, even as he kept a sharp, critical eye on “the nation’s preeminent water seeker,” or as he modified that in The Great Thirst, “collection of water seekers.” Norris was nothing if not precise in his prose and in his arguments and ideas.
The Great Thirst is guided, much more than his earlier books, by a concern with what he called “the dynamic interplay between human values and what human beings do to the waterscape.” This is no longer a kind of political and diplomatic history brought to the realm of water wars along the United States-Mexico border and on the Colorado River. To be sure, it still has that solid, detailed grounding in politics, economics, and the law, but The Great Thirst is also about a cultural collective. It is, as the subtitle says, a history of “Californians and water.”
This story runs from California before Europeans arrived right up to the twenty-first century. It chronicles the appearance of what Norris called “a new kind of social imperialist whose goal was to acquire the water of others and prosper at their expense, a goal that catapulted California into a modern colossus while also producing monumental conflicts and social costs. At the same time,” he wrote, “this is a story of extraordinary feats of fulfilling basic social needs, in which communities mobilized and focused their political energies on providing abundant clear water to multitudes of people who expressly wanted it done.”
Here Norris took precise aim in an internecine skirmish among historians in these larger western water wars. You know the saying: “You come at the king, you best not miss.” Well, there is another great book, by a friend of mine, a great historian too, Donald Worster, called Rivers of Empire, which argues that our western American hydraulic societies created, as Norris wrote, “a powerful, highly centralized, and despotic ruling elite like that found in the irrigation society of Karl Wittfogel’s classic Oriental Despotism: A Comparative Study of Total Power.”
“The evidence presented here does not reveal” that, Norris argued. And here, I think, as much as I love Don Worster, Norris Hundley does not miss:
“Rather, the California record discloses a wide and often confused and crosscutting range of interest groups and bureaucrats, both public and private, who accomplish what they do as a result of shifting alliances and despite frequent disputes among themselves. Because of their multiplicity of interests, different combinations of them at different times and for different reasons worked vigorously on behalf of particular projects, but each success brought more growth, which intensified hostility and the competition for supplies always perceived as inadequate. Thus, conflict, rivalry, and localism have permeated the development process, exacerbating the human and environmental costs, with the public, until recently, cheerleading with ballots and in other ways the aqueducts, dams, and reservoirs. There is, of course, some system and order to what has been accomplished, but it is found in attitudes toward the environment, in local and regional considerations (especially California’s traditional north-south rivalry), in interest-group pressures, in the give-and-take of political battle, and it is understood within the larger context of American political culture and policy-making and in the ways in which the national culture resonates in California.”
In the view that Norris gives us, we can no longer blame our predicament on despotic elites. To quote Pogo: “We have met the enemy and he is us.”
Or as Norris writes: “When viewed from both local and national perspectives, California’s water achievements have resulted ultimately from the support and encouragement of the people, who have considered themselves participants in a booming economy made possible by great hydraulic projects. These projects have included the ambitious flood control, reclamation, and irrigation programs of the late nineteenth century; the twentieth-century urban aqueducts to the Owens Valley, Mono Basin, and Hetch Hetchy; the massive federal multipurpose ventures pioneered nationally in the Boulder Canyon Project and replicated in the Central Valley Project; and California’s own State Water Project, the largest public enterprise ever undertaken by a state.”
But, but, and here is the key, turning in the lock:
“Just as the electorate has sanctioned these ventures,” Norris writes, “so too have the people of California begun to register second thoughts, especially over the last several decades. Spiraling costs, runaway urbanization, gridlocked streets and highways, environmental damage, a decline in the quality of life, heavy public expense in the exorbitant subsidies to agriculture, inefficient and wasteful water practices, the persistence of poor working conditions for those laboring in California’s fields—all have contributed to mounting demands for reform.”
Norris knew these reforms were “piecemeal, fitful, and frequently more symbolic than real,” but he believed in reform. He also believed, after years of studying the successes and failures on the border, on the Colorado, and in California, that “the lack of informed and consistent leadership in Sacramento and Washington” did not augur well for the state he loved. In a move that mystified Don Worster, who thought that centralization of power was the root of all evil in water, Norris even argued that we need to centralize more control of water at the state level in order to get better management of water statewide. It was a conclusion drawn from deep knowledge about this “collection of water seekers” called California. It makes sense. We are beginning to see that happen in Sacramento, though still in fits and starts, of course. I know I shouldn’t say this as a historian, but some things never change.
“No one has ever argued that democracy is a perfect form of government,” Norris dryly observed as he brought The Great Thirst to a close. In fact, far from perfect, as his life’s work had shown, when it came to water in California and the American West.
I didn’t know Norris Hundley. I wish I had. I would have liked to talk with him about all of this, but also about something that many of us don’t talk about much outside of our profession: his theory of history. Every historian has one, even if they don’t think they do. The best, like Norris, don’t wear it on their sleeves.
I like to try to teach my students to understand and even develop their own theory of history, particularly if they are not going to go on to become historians (if they do, they’ll have plenty of time for that; but for some of my students, my class may be their only chance). I reveal to them my own theory of history as we work through a class I’ve called “Climate Change in the West: A History of the Future,” though it can also be set in California, or even Los Angeles. We work through books like Norris’s, filled with the messy particulars of nations, states, institutions, policies, laws, economy, cultures, rocks and soils, plants and animals, and groups and individuals. We think about the structures of these things, how they endure and are reproduced by all of us as we go about our daily lives, but also how they change because of contingency—things happen, the St. Francis Dam fails, Arizona wins a key decision in the Supreme Court, the Peripheral Canal is voted down, the Mono Lake Committee prevails on the public trust doctrine—and because of agency, people have power to make things happen, especially in a democracy.
That’s what I want the future engineers and lawyers, politicians and environmental advocates, scientists and teachers to take away from my class. I want them to understand the constraints that have been created by our history of transforming California’s landscape, the limitations of politics and institutions, the ways in which power reproduces itself and makes it difficult to change. I also want them to understand the ways things change, as Norris wrote, in ways that are often at the same time “ponderously slow” and “fast-breaking.”
I have a feeling, from reading his work and listening to colleagues talk about his teaching, that Norris and I might have had some good, long conversations about all of this. And I miss them.
To my ear, Norris always had a small-d democratic voice, a small-p progressive voice. A pragmatic, reformist voice. A moral voice. From the beginning to the end. As I read through his life’s work, I hear that voice growing steadily stronger through the years, gaining clarity, confidence, authority, and passion.
It is a voice that represents the very best of our profession. It is a voice that has a strong point of view but nevertheless follows the careful practices of objectivity. It is a popular voice that is accessible to all, judicious in its use of evidence, fair in its presentation of all arguments, and generous in its humanity.
This is a voice our state and our world needs. It is a voice that is missing from our public square today, but a voice that is still here in these books, for others to take up and bring into the world, to do work in the world. I am glad Norris Hundley, Jr. is still with us in his work.
Panorama: Tales from San Francisco’s 1915 Pan-Pacific International Exposition, Lee Bruno (Cameron + Company, 191pp, $29.95) and San Francisco’s Jewel City: The Panama-Pacific International Exposition of 1915, Laura A. Ackley (Heyday, 352pp, $40.00)
A critical appreciation
by Elizabeth Logan
Why does the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition still captivate Californians? The centenary of the fair, which celebrated the construction of the Panama Canal, and showcased San Francisco’s reemergence after the 1906 earthquake and fires, has been greeted with much fanfare in the city including press coverage, museum exhibitions, a dramatic lighting of the Ferry Building, and several new books to mark the occasion. Two of those books, Lee Bruno’s Panorama: Tales from San Francisco’s 1915 Pan-Pacific International Exposition and Laura A. Ackley’s San Francisco’s Jewel City: The Panama-Pacific International Exposition of 1915, offer a kaleidoscope of possible explanations for this enduring interest.
The root of the authors’ fascination is simple to pinpoint. Lee Bruno’s Grandma Ruby piqued his interest early through the stories she shared about her father, Reuben Brooks Hale, a prominent San Francisco businessman and one of the exposition’s masterminds. For Laura Ackley, the draw was less familial; the exposition caught her attention as an undergraduate at Berkeley, where she attended a series of lectures on the Beaux-Arts built environment. Both authors highlight that the fair celebrated innovation, shifting geopolitical power, and commercial opportunity, and that it brought the world together just as it was being ripped apart by World War I.
The draw for Californians more broadly, may be in observing a recognizable past in California’s present. But perhaps collective interest in the fair’s centenary is also symptomatic of an increasingly complicated relationship with the ephemeral.
We live in an age in which we constantly encounter the paradoxical longevity of digital media. When we send an email, tweet, or post something on the Internet, our actions, comments, and photographic achievements endure in a virtual yet permanent space largely available for the world to explore. Even rapidly “vanishing” selfies on Snapchat can be stored forever. With Bay Area and Silicon Beach companies leading the charge toward greater and greater e-innovation, are Californians in the middle of the redefinition of what is considered ephemeral and ephemera? Does some of the fascination with a 100-year-old exposition stem from our own interest in the temporary and the fair’s momentary and fantastical qualities?
Panorama and San Francisco’s Jewel City both approach the exposition’s fleeting nature as well as the details of its day-to-day fanfare through photographs, postcards, tickets, pamphlets, and the written words of planners, visitors, and scholars.
Bruno’s Panorama consists of thirteen sections celebrating the 100-year-old narrative of a reemergent San Francisco and capturing short biographies of the exposition’s visionaries. The exposition springs to life through the story of “Big Alma” Spreckels, who arranged for five Rodin sculptures to travel by sea to San Francisco, and through the stories of builders, such as Bernard Maybeck, and visitors ranging from Helen Keller to Charlie Chaplin. Bruno painstakingly curated the images and created a visually attractive souvenir of the centennial. Panorama personalizes the exposition in a mesmerizing way, and the design and graphics impress.
San Francisco’s Jewel City, published in a partnership between Heyday and the California Historical Society,offers a detailed account of the fair, perhaps bested only in its breadth of coverage by Frank Morton Todd’s official five-volume history printed around the time of the exposition. Inserted within Ackley’s nineteen substantive chapters are vignettes set aside in gold and images of printed material fair-goers in 1915 could have hardly imagined would have survived 100 years. Ackley uses narrative to tell the history of the exposition, addressing even the darker “evils of the era” from eugenics to gender and labor battles. Ackley’s discussion of the important role that light played is particularly captivating, as when she describes the colorful light shows projected onto the fog by the Scintillator and the electric kaleidoscope—ephemeral illustrations of the modernity of the entire venture. For those seeking a comprehensive memento of the fair, San Francisco’s Jewel City provides a detailed and compelling account.
By printing some of the exposition’s ephemera and plotting the details of the exposition in print, these two works alter its very ephemeral nature. Just as bits of paper served as physical reminders of the exposition, the two books serve as souvenirs of its centennial. They help change the fair into something more durable that might attract more readers, tourists, anthropologists, historians, visual studies scholars, and collectors not just to these two books, but to the archives that house its sometimes dusty remnants. Expansions in digitization promise increased access to those who might reimagine the event from its remaining pieces. In today’s digital age, it makes a historian smile to see books continue to play such a vital role in this process.
If you wander San Francisco this weekend in search of remnants of the Panama-Pacific International Exposition or any of the many citywide centennial celebrations, your guidebook or iPhone might lead you to the Palace of Fine Arts, the remaining architectural gem from the 1915 exposition—but just start your search there. Keep going. Panorama, San Francisco’s Jewel City,and the city’s archives and libraries dare us to go a little further as we contemplate the ephemeral.
Elizabeth Logan is a historian and assistant editor of Boom. She is currently a postdoctoral fellow at the Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West.
Photograph at top courtesy of the San Francisco Public Library.
California by Edan Lepucki (Little, Brown and Company, 400pp, $26)
A critical appreciation
by Josh Stephens
The Hollywood & Highland shopping and entertainment complex in Los Angeles is ugly enough to inspire thoughts of violence. The usual chain stores are stacked up behind a facade of ersatz sandstone, with balconies, towers, and escalators running every which way. Its Orientalist motif, replete with hieroglyphics and sculpted elephants, is supposedly drawn from Intolerance, the silent epic by D.W. Griffith, better known for the infamously racist The Birth of a Nation.
A pivotal moment in Edan Lupucki’s recent novel California takes place in the belly of this architectural grotesquerie. Micah, a young revolutionary, detonates a vest of dynamite at the height of the shopping day. Micah’s suicide marks the symbolic end of California’s existence as a state. California reverts to a mere landscape, across which anarchy and chaos are loosed. As in many post-apocalyptic tales, the reasons for the dissolution of government and the breakdown of civil society are vague. We learn of earthquakes, oil shortages, and the day the “Internet stopped working.” The citizens of the former California face three choices: fight it out in the cities; flee into the wilderness; or join fortified, corporate-run “Communities.”
As a journalist covering urban planning in the real California, I can’t help thinking that the modes of living that Lepucki imagines surviving in the state’s ashes can be seen as an extreme exaggeration of the actual choices available to present-day Californians. Even amid the anarchy of California, the central question is the same one that has confounded Californians for generations: where to raise a family?
Micah’s sister Fridah and Micah’s best friend from college, Cal, are the young couple at the center of the novel. They escape the wreckage of Los Angeles, wander northward, and take refuge in a forest. This frontier means little without civilization as its counterpoint. Cal and Frida eke out a safe, but uninspiring existence in the woods. Meanwhile, Los Angeles, beset by violence, bereft of civil society, turns into its own corpse. When Cal tells Frida how “awful” LA has become, Frida imagines all the horrors to which he is referring:
He could have meant LA’s chewed-up streets or its shuttered stores and sagging houses. All those dead lawns…closed movie theaters and restaurants, and the parks growing wild in their abandonment. Or its people starving on the sidewalks, covered in piss and crying out. Or its crime. The murder rate increased every year, and the petty theft was as ubiquitous as the annoying gargle of leaf blowers had once been. The city wasn’t just sick, it was dying.
Lepucki’s Los Angeles suffers in the same way that many real American cities have suffered (some nearly fatally) in the past. From Detroit to Cleveland to New York City to Los Angeles itself, wealthy citizens fled center cities in the latter half of the twentieth century, leaving the poor to hunker down. Lepucki’s apocalyptic vision reads, to this urbanist, like an extreme version of suburbanization and white flight.
Unlike, Micah, who was initially inspired by the chaos, wanting “to rebuild LA, neighborhood by neighborhood,” Cal and Frida believe that the city is beyond salvation.
But the forest inspires no Thoreauvian musings or much pleasure of any kind. Cal and Frida wait out their days, entertaining themselves with a lot of careful sex. But they are not careful enough. When Frida becomes pregnant, they decide that they cannot raise a baby in an empty forest. They set out toward what they can only assume is enemy territory. After many miles, pine trees give way to spikey, threatening totems made of metal and junk. (They remind Frida of LA’s Watts Towers. I imagine them like those cars buried grille-first along Route 66.) These forms create a dense boundary that marks the territory of an unknown tribe of a few dozen refugees eking out a peaceful existence on “The Land,” part-commune, part self-imposed prison, where Cal and Frida are welcomed for one reason: Micah, Frida’s brother and antibourgeois martyr, is their patron saint.
Photograph via Flickr by Jerry Ting.
Frida and Cal endear themselves to The Land through hard work, participating in daily Labor. But they still stand apart from the rest of the tribe, particularly because of the secret that Frida is hiding. Unsettlingly, the youngest inhabitants of The Land are gawky, college-age boys. There are no children here. Cal and Frida coax from their neighbors tales of raids by Pirates (capital P),kidnappings, torture, killings, vandalism, rape, and indentured servitude. With their children stolen, no one on The Land wants to bring new life into such a world. Behind their barricades, the people of The Land are simply waiting out a death sentence.
This apocalyptic lifestyle is not as far from reality as it may seem at first glance. Americans are having fewer children, and those who do have children, choose to do it later in life. Cities such as San Francisco are now playgrounds for young adults. If this trend were taken to the extreme, cities might simply slide into retirement communities without ever hearing the wail of a newborn.
Cal and Frida are eventually run off The Land when Frida’s pregnancy is discovered. They flee into an affluent Community called “The Pines.” In Lepucki’s California, forest, city, and The Land all scrape by in the enviable shadow of the Communities. By most accounts, Communities fare better than anyone else. But no one can ever leave them, lest they be gored by Pirates. Adults work; children grow up; boards and management companies see that everything runs smoothly. They have names like “Bronxville, Scottsdale, Amazon, and Walmart.”
The Communities’ dirty secret is that they grant refuge to impoverished outsiders who accept permanent second-class citizenship in exchange for security. From the truly desperate, they purchase children, who are committed to lives of indentured servitude. The late Micah hated the Communities; they made him “murderously angry.” Frida, however, is drawn to them—she “had always been fascinated by the Communities, the secret life behind their walls, their riches and beauty all conjecture.”
The best of the bad options in California looks a lot like what was considered the best of the best of California post–World War II. Lepucki writes:
Pines was supposed to remind you of a bygone world that no one living had seen firsthand: cookouts and block parties, paperboys and school recitals. Daddies who took the trolley home, mommies who had put up their own wallpaper….all the mothers stayed home to bake cakes and whatever else mothers did at Pines. Women were expected to devote everything to raising a family.
Lepucki crafts this description with obvious irony, simultaneously taking aim at her beleaguered protagonists, the naïve families of the 1950s, and present-day Californians who cling to an outdated conception of the American dream. On that last count, Lepucki is in good company with a new generation of planners, scholars, and activists. On the other hand, Cal and Frida’s choice to join The Pines could be read as a refutation of mountains of literature decrying the shortcomings—aesthetic, environmental, and psychological—of suburbia. Then again, Lepucki suggests that the suburbs may yet be the last, best place to survive the apocalypse. Even so, the ultimate cost of fleeing to suburbia in California, as in California, looms large.
So, do we understand and perhaps forgive Cal and Frida’s retreat to the gated suburbs because they’re in post-apocalyptic survival mode? Or are we all always in survival mode?
James Howard Kunstler, the author of a series of polemical nonfiction books decrying suburban sprawl and the ugliness of the American landscape, offers a contrast in his post-apocalyptic novel World Made by Hand, set on the other side of the continent. In it, Kunstler imagines an upstate New York town that turns into a near-utopia after the nation suffers an enormous but unexplained catastrophe similar to the one that undid California. It’s easy to imagine that the two stories take place simultaneously, with each part of the fractured country reinventing itself in different ways. Unlike Lepucki, Kunstler uses his apocalypse as a meditation on the lost pleasures of small-town life. He suggests that a reversion to old-fashioned ways is so desirable as to almost—almost—compensate for the loss of civil society.
Photograph via Flickr by radcliffe dacanay.
California and World Made by Hand both offer impassioned thought experiments for urban planners, policy makers, and developers who design real cities and shape, to some extent, how they operate. Both novels take current and past planning rhetoric to hyperbolic, though ultimately logical extremes. There is something appealing and useful, especially for an urban planner, in imagining revolutions that reveal, and to some extent are caused by, the tragic flaws in our own urban planning and, particularly, in our enduring penchant for segregation of land uses, ethnicities, and socioeconomic groups.
Ironically, these books appear in the midst of what can only be called an urban renaissance. Planners have been crying out for means to promote diversity, density, and urban vitality for a half-generation. They’re finally making progress, with new general plans, new means of analyzing and controlling traffic, greater demand for urbane living, and, in California, landmark antisprawl laws such as 2008’s Senate Bill 375 and 2013’s Senate Bill 743. The critiques evoked by Lepucki and Kunstler have become orthodoxy, and in many ways we are moving beyond them on the ground.
The question is whether these science fictions are looking forward or backward.
Josh Stephens is contributing editor to the California Planning & Development Report and former editor of The Planning Report, independent newsletters covering land use in, respectively, California and Los Angeles County.
Editor’s note: It is no surprise that printmaker Tom Killion’s four decades of work on the wild edge of California were inspired by poetry. As he explains in the introduction to his new book, California’s Wild Edge, it was the “revelatory beauty” that he saw in a Lime Kiln Press edition of Robinson Jeffers’s coastal poetry handset in metal type that drew him to what he now calls the “poets’ coast.” The continent’s end has inspired poets, artists, and travelers for centuries, but the jagged lines of the central coast, its stormy skies, and dynamic seas seem particularly well-suited to the lines Killion cuts in linoleum and wood. Where the collision of land and sea is less dramatic, south of Point Conception, light and color bring his scenes to life.
Killion writes of Gary Snyder, his collaborator in the new book, that his poetry “is the touchstone of what poetry and art can be: grounded in the real world, accessible, thought-provoking and entertaining, and above-all beautiful in its apparently effortless ‘inevitability’ of phrasing, rhythm and purpose.”
We think the same goes for Tom Killion’s prints. It’s a pleasure and an honor to publish some of his new prints for the first time in Boom. California’s Wild Edge: The Coast in Prints, Poetry, and History will be published by Heyday in the summer of 2015.
Seaweed (1979) by Tom Killion.
Santa Monica Mountains from Palisades Park (1985) by Tom Killion.