Down by the Bay

Down by the Bay: San Francisco’s History Between the Tides, by Matthew Morse Booker (UC Press; 278 pages; $29.95)

Reviewed by Jonah Raskin

Cartographers and historians have long mapped the vast body of water inside the Golden Gate that enabled San Francisco to become a major port connecting California to the world. However, few authors have looked as closely as Matthew Morse Booker looks, in “Down by the Bay,” at the fascinating frontier where land meets sea. Moreover, no one has demonstrated as clearly as he the operation of the law of unintended consequences in our own backwaters and backyards.

For example, Booker shows that the planting of Atlantic oysters in San Francisco Bay altered the bay’s ecology. He also argues convincingly that hydraulic mining for gold in the Sierras sent millions of tons of soil and rock rushing down streams and rivers, such as the Sacramento and San Joaquin, then into the bay, where habitat never recovered.

Booker is certainly familiar with his subject. An associate professor of history at North Carolina State University, he also leads the Between the Tides project at Stanford’s Spatial History Lab.

From beginning to end, his colorful yet unsentimental history delivers a dire message: For almost every action that humans have taken in and around the bay, there have been equal and opposite reactions, usually detrimental to fish, fowl and the fecundity of the environment. “What seemed like good ideas in the nineteenth century created a cascade of consequences in the twentieth century and impossible choices in the twenty-first,” the author writes in a chapter titled “Reclaiming the Delta.”

Dredged and polluted, its shape and depths altered by the hands of men and machines, the bay has shrunk in size while streets, sidewalks and malls have spread. Commuters who cross by bridges and ferries take our greatest treasure for granted, the author suggests, and rarely realize that it’s a construct of both nature and human beings. With ocean levels rising rapidly, time may be running out, Booker warns, for communities that crowd our damaged waterways.

By focusing on the waterfront and on the tidelands, marshes and swamps, Booker gives the city a fresh face; the familiar becomes strange and wonderful. Early on, he traces the demise of sleepy Yerba Buena, a distant outpost of Mexico, and conjures up the rise of raucous San Francisco as the commercial heart of an empire within an empire. Booker allows facts and stories to speak for themselves.

In 1835, he explains, President Andrew Jackson tried to buy the port from Mexico for $5 million. Two decades later, when California was part of the United States, the banker, William Tecumseh Sherman – who would lead Union troops through Georgia – noted of San Francisco, “Everybody seemed to be making money fast.”

Not everyone – as Booker shows. Chinese laborers dredged rivers, constructed levees and carved farmlands from swamps. They didn’t make money fast. The land speculator George Roberts, who hired 3,000 Chinese men to build his levees, observed, “I do not think we could get the white men to do the work. It is a class of work that white men do not like.”

Perhaps because he’s an academic with an eye on learning, Booker sums up his main points as though getting students ready for finals. Then, too, prejudices occasionally interfere with his story. “The symbol of the West,” he writes, is “the pile of tin cans in front of a shanty or the extravagant imported items on the menu of a gold rush restaurant.” Surely, the West is also the majesty of the Golden Gate Bridge, Golden Gate Park, the Golden Gate itself and the San Francisco Wildlife Refuge that Booker touts as a “precious island of waterfowl habitat in the midst of one of the world’s great urban areas.” Indeed, in the superlative and inspiring penultimate chapter, he recounts the dramatic rise of the ecology movement that helped save the bay for future generations.

For those who remember legendary Chronicle reporter Harold Gilliam and his outstanding books about San Francisco and its waters, “Down by the Bay” is a genuine pearl in the sea of contemporary environmental writing.

Jonah Raskin writes regularly for Boom. He last reviewed two new books on the artist Richard Diebenkorn. This review of “Down by the Bay” originally appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle. Photo of oyster beds in the San Francisco Bay in 1889 courtesy of National Archives.


Art from Flotsam

by Robert Sommer

From Boom Spring 2013, Vol. 3, No. 1

“…bashed-in Clorox bottles were transformed into ghoulish heads, a hubcap became a face, and an interesting piece of wood was perfect for an open hand…”
—Art student at the Emeryville mudflats

For several decades, the San Francisco Bay Area was home to a unique form of recycling in which flotsam became public art. Whimsical sculpture made from wood and other tidal materials first appeared on Bay Farm Island in Alameda in 1960, migrating briefly to Golden Gate Fields, before settling for two decades at the Emeryville mudflats by the Oakland-San Francisco Bay Bridge. Other driftwood galleries were created on marshes at the Highway 101 interchange in Larkspur, near the toll bridge station in Hayward, along the shore in Redwood City, at the landfill on the Albany Bulb, and most recently, at a county beach in Rodeo. Each gallery had a start and a finish, several becoming nature reserves or state parks.

Built and displayed near a busy freeway, the sculpture had an appreciative captive audience (Emeryville 1978).

The French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss described the innovative use of available materials as bricolage, in which an artisan finds new uses for what is already present in the environment. Building driftwood sculpture is an ideal activity for a bricoleur and a tidal impoundment a perfect work station. Available materials are varied and replenished daily from urban detritus washed ashore. The discards of Bay Area cities became the materials for creative celebration. The artisans revealed a sense of place in what they built, with wildlife a common theme; I could fill pages with photos of bird, fish, and marine mammal imagery in sculpture built and displayed at the Emeryville mudflats.

The work was anonymous (no pieces were signed), ephemeral (a sculpture might last several days or weeks depending on tide and wind), unremunerated (no one made a dime), and mysterious (it was rare to see anyone building). There were, in addition, imported pieces built elsewhere from new materials, such as Snoopy and the Red Baron and the Chinese Junk built by artist Tyler Hoare in his studio and displayed at the Berkeley pier, some of which still stand. But it was the sculpture built on site that was the most intriguing and, I think, important.

The type of wood suitable for building figurative sculpture is more common in tidal sloughs than on surf-pounded beaches. Ocean wood is hardened by salt and sun, rounded, polished, and difficult to nail. Artisans who employ ocean driftwood tend to arrange intact pieces as monuments or build beach shelters. In contrast, bay wood consists of splintery boards that would not have survived the crashing surf and pounding of ocean waves. Most is not virgin wood from the forest, but pieces of old piers, pilings, and other construction that found their way into the bay and washed up on the shoreline. Unlike ocean driftwood, whose individual pieces are beautiful in themselves, the boards in tidal marshes are not attractive. However, they are thin enough to be nailed together to make representational art. Informal bricoleur rules require a minimalist technology of hammer, nails, and twine.

Halloween sculpture (Emeryville 1977). Many of the two-dimensional pieces were visually most exciting in silhouette against the setting sun (Emeryville 1977).

The existence of informal sculpture galleries around San Francisco Bay resulted from a combination of environmental and human factors that included undeveloped and publicly accessible tidal impoundments with an ample supply of flotsam, proximity to a college or art school, and a major highway with a good view of the shoreline, but not so accessible that vandals could destroy the created work on impulse.

Pieces large enough to be seen by motorists from a busy freeway a hundred feet away required several workers. Even if a lone individual constructed an 8-foot sculpture, other people would be needed to hoist it into place.

I brought several of my Environmental Awareness classes on field trips to the Emeryville mudflats to teach them about the creative use of found materials in a setting where the environment became information and learning was discovery. The following are excerpts from student journals:

“For the privilege of building sculpture, I didn’t have to pay anything. I didn’t need a license or permit. All I needed was the creative urge and the willingness to get dirty. I didn’t feel pressured into being original; it was enough to apply imagination to the available materials…Adding to the carefree atmosphere were the unrestricted space, not worrying about messing up the place, or fear of breaking something.”

“Visually the eye is assaulted by the mundaneness of the whole place—dirty browns, boards patterned into muck, broken glass, cans, cast-off plastic bits, moldering cloth, forlorn bushes—even the greens look brown—olfactory sense numbed by decaying organic matter…to touch the mud itself is a must. Squishy cool, sometimes slimy. To reach for a stick, to find its apparent firmness already softened, fringed and blending with the earth.”

The Band (Emeryville 1974) was one of the few composites whose pieces were repaired or replaced when they collapsed.

“As I progress along the marsh I begin to notice the various stages of decomposition of the more degradable paper, wood, and cloth, and the resolute unyielding nature of plastic and styrofoam, aluminum, steel, and glass…I know now that my total experience of the objects I initially saw as trash can be enhanced and enriched to the extent to which I can take their essence into myself and communicate through their manipulation and combination to others.”

The large size needed to be seen from the freeway made this a cooperative art form (Emeryville 1981).

Art museums exhibit sculpture in a consistent light. It doesn’t make any difference whether one visits in the morning, afternoon, or evening, or in winter or summer; the art will look the same. A changing visual panorama awaited the visitor to a mudflat gallery. The appearance of the sculpture changed as the sun set and color disappeared. Pieces that were relatively invisible during the day, due to the predominant gray-on-gray quality of wood against bay, become vivid silhouettes against a pink-hued sky. The flowering plants at ground level added color and verve. A first visit to a mudflat gallery brought home images of impermanence and mortality. Most of the wooden creatures still standing were in stages of decrepitude. Arms and legs missing, heads fallen off, everywhere was rubble where now-unrecognizable figures had stood erect until brought down by wind and tide. The center post embedded deep in the mud with a few dangling boards was the last to fall.

Plastic beer can holders became fish scales (Emeryville 1974).

The practice of making art from recycled materials continues in many forms and venues, including the creative reuse depot in Oakland and the artist-in-residence program at the San Francisco dump. What made the mudflat galleries so special was their connection to place. The sculptures not only creatively reused found materials, they were not portable, not intended to be moved, and therefore had to be displayed where they were built at a scale intelligible to distant passersby. Often this required a several-foot elevation with a false front facing the highway. The large size called for multiple hands and made this a cooperative and anonymous art form. There was no plaque to acknowledge the multiple participants.

Driftwood sculpture had its heyday in the 1970s. It belonged to a time, place, and culture. When these changed, the practice waned. Professional art can survive lean times on the continuing interest of commercial galleries, dealers, critics, patrons, and collectors, art schools, and museums. Non-professional public art without monetary value lacks this support system. Yet to mourn for the driftwood sculpture would be short-sighted, Organizing to preserve tidal marshes as galleries seems equally foolish without a cadre of artisans interested in building sculpture. There was not an organized campaign to save the flagship Emeryville gallery. When the proposal was made to turn it into a state park, there had been more than a decade of mediocre or no new sculpture. The time has passed, the people have changed, and the places have become nature reserves. I would have preferred co-existence between artists and wildlife–I have many photographs of shore birds in and around the sculpture. America has not been particularly kind to its artists, but it has been genocidal to its birdlife. Happily, the Emeryville Crescent and the Albany Bulb are now part of a linear shoreline state park. The sister gallery to the north on Arcata Bay became a national waterfowl reserve. These areas will remain undeveloped and a protected habitat for local and migratory birds.

The Arcata Marsh was located across the road from the local airport. This wooden airplane was constructed by students from a nearby community college (Arcata 1974).

Still, there is a certain nostalgia about the mudflat sculpture among artists and observers. Photographs of the sculpture continue to be a matter of civic pride and have been featured in films, videos, newspaper and magazine articles, book chapters, postcards, calendars, and exhibitions. The Bay Area is temporarily without a mudflat gallery. But given the fact that there have been already seven sculpture sites around San Francisco Bay, besides sister galleries on Arcata Bay and another near North Bend, Oregon, it is likely that future artisans will find another shoreline site to exercise their creative impulses.

Tree bark gave texture to the egret’s feathers (Arcata 1974).

The art world has expanded beyond studio lofts, museums, and galleries. Murals bring color to building exteriors and performance art enlivens city streets. The driftwood galleries presaged these developments with a noncommercial cooperative art form suited to a shoreline habitat and a public interest in recycling urban detritus.

Huge dinosaur towered over passing motorists on Highway 101 (Arcata 1975).

For art classes, an outing to the marsh was a refreshing contrast to studio work. Scavenging was essential, and those who wanted to build had their chance while others collected materials. Decision-making was consensual rather than individualistic or authoritarian. A division of labor developed naturally and was nonhierarchical, with one person leading first, then a second and a third, each feeling connected to the total effort in the sense of accomplishment that completion brought. With each tentative and hesitant placement, the group decides “perhaps” or “let’s try it another way.” Time runs out sooner than expected and finishing touches must be added, the base strengthened, a prop put into place as support against wind and tide. Departing the marsh at the end of the workday, students saw the flotsam strewn about in a new light, imagining how it fit into new sculpture. No longer litter, it was art material waiting….waiting.


A Moment for Diebenkorn

Richard Diebenkorn, From the Model, 117 pages, edited by Chester Arnold and Bart Schneider, and Abstractions on Paper, 123 pages, edited by Schneider. Kelly’s Cove Press, $20.

Reviewed by Jonah Raskin

Richard Diebenkorn (1922-1993) achieved success as an artist in his own lifetime, but 20 years after his death, a big Diebenkorn moment has finally arrived with two major exhibits of his work and two new, lavishly produced books published by Kelly’s Cove Press that highlight his diverse styles and showcase his irreverent philosophy of art. Novelist, poet and publisher Bart Schneider edited both books with help from the acclaimed painter Chester Arnold, who’s known for his wry sense of humor and grim landscapes of environmental disaster. The quality of the color reproductions is excellent, though the size of the books — 6 inches by 8 inches —don’t do justice to the size of Diebenkorn’s canvases, some as large as 121 inches by 93 inches. Still, there are pleasures in holding these two small, elegant books in the palms of one’s hands and viewing work that has never been previously published or exhibited.

Abstractions on Paper includes two-dozen works that Diebenkorn did in Ocean Park, California, from 1967 to 1988, when he taught much of that time at UCLA. The lavish colors and the sharp lines are spectacular. Abstractions on Paper also offers work that Diebenkorn created in Albuquerque, Urbana, Berkeley and Alexander Valley, California, where he died in 1993. Like Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, his literary contemporaries, Diebenkorn made art almost any place and at almost any time, albeit with less bravado than the self-dramatizing Beats.

“Diebenkorn was an artist of quiet generosity and enormous creative energy, both visible at every level of his work,” Chester Arnold writes in an inviting introduction to From the Model that is both personal and historical. Arnold adds, “The charged artistic environment of the Bay Area in the 1940s and 1950s, combined in a creative nexus that stood in opposition to the prevailing Abstract Expressionist winds from the East.” A cultural throwback and a pioneer as well, Diebenkorn looked anew at familiar California landscapes. The most abstract of his paintings often suggest colorful cityscapes and urban forms. The human touch isn’t ever far removed, even when it’s only hinted; his canvases feel more peaceful and less frenetic than Jackson Pollack’s.

The front cover of From the Model offers an ink and gouache sketch of a seated woman, arms folded, eyes looking straight ahead. Inside there are three stark portraits of women, followed by two-dozen intriguing nudes most of them either ink or charcoal on paper, many of them strikingly original — not an easy feat. Erotic, sensual, and perhaps pornographic by the standards of 1955 and 1956, when many of them were completed, they seem now like tributes to the grace of the female form, though they might be deemed obscene today in communities that still outlaw nudes and nudity.

In the color portraits of women fully dressed, which follow the nudes, Diebenkorn pays homage to Henri Matisse, the modern French painter, friend and rival of Picasso who covered his canvases with the brightest of Mediterranean colors. In the 1960s, Diebenkorn studied Matisse’s work, first in Moscow and later in Los Angeles. The influence of Matisse shows up in the “Ocean Park” series that helped to revolutionize American landscape painting and that still captivate the eye.

Publication of Abstractions on Paper and From the Model coincides with “Richard Diebenkorn: The Berkeley Years, 1953-1966,” an exhibition at the de Young Museum in San Francisco from June 22 through September 29, 2013, which has its own sumptuous catalog. Another exhibition, “The Intimate Diebenkorn: Works on Paper, 1949-1992,” opens at the College of Marin on September 28 and runs through November 14, 2013. And Bart Schneider will be in conversation with Chester Arnold and Peter Selz on July 10 at University Press Books in Berkeley.

The books and the exhibits offer a rare opportunity to reexamine the creative life and the experimental work of a California artist who showed that there were many ways to be an innovative abstract expressionist, and that one could live and work far from New York and still make breathtakingly beautiful paintings that invigorate forms and feelings.

Jonah Raskin’s “Homage to Raymond Chandler” was published in the Winter 2013 issue of Boom.

Photographs courtesy of the Richard Diebenkorn Foundation. “Untitled,” 1978, Cut-and-pasted paper, manufactured colored paper, printed paper, gouache, and graphite on paper, 13 1/4 x 9 1/4 in. (33.7 x 23.5 cm), Estate no. 1604.


Putting LA Back Together

by Lynell George

From Boom Spring 2013, Vol. 3, No. 1

Lovers and detractors agree: navigating life in Los Angeles is mostly a matter of interpretation. Those “72 suburbs in search of a city” that Dorothy Parker so indelibly defined and dismissed in one quick laceration is one way to characterize Los Angeles and its meandering sprawl, and a roots-deep Angeleno might read the Parker analysis not as insult but elucidation. That difficult-to-pinpoint character is what makes many die-hard Angelenos stick it out, despite the perpetual swirl of bad press that surrounds LA. Some see their city as episodic, others as a series of situational non-sequiturs. You can’t sum up Los Angeles in a sentence; it always demands a deeper look.

It isn’t easy to jack-hammer through LA’s glossy surface-story, the beamed-to-the world simulacrum the world thinks it knows because they’ve seen it on TV. Yet Lynn Garrett, is attempting to do just that. She didn’t just step into the fray but in a sense created one, a necessary forum of her own design—a place to explore and talk about the city without qualification or apology. Her lively blog and website, Hidden Los Angeles, along with its corresponding Facebook page (nearly 300,000 members strong) is dedicated to the daily endeavor of “going deeper”—in a city where people often interpret the very word “deep” as spurious: an oxymoron or the lead-in for a late-night comedian’s joke. To Garrett, Los Angeles is a serious subject for analysis and a constant source of surprise.

“Oftentimes, when people come to Los Angeles, they really don’t see it,” she observes. “They think they have an solid, informed opinion of it. Even though they only stayed one night. At a hotel. At the airport. What on earth would you learn about any city that way?”

Since 2009, Hidden Los Angeles has presided over a lively 24-hour virtual town square—linking current city-dwellers and expat, multi-generational natives to the casually curious from around the globe, feeding them into conversational threads that explore both place and perception, past, present and future.

Part old-school news editor and part 21st century content curator, Lynn Garrett single-handedly offers a regular flow of informational/conversation-prompting posts—video, photographs, news links—that fold in breaking news, history, cultural studies, recreation, city planning, conservancy, and nature/ecology. She has transported a famously elusive city into a virtual place, and attempted to give it shape and form.

Over three decades (on and off) kicking around Los Angeles, Garrett, an accomplished artist and graphic designer, has worked variously as a jazz singer and tour guide, for Disney Consumer Products as a senior designer of toy packaging, and for a time, as a senior art director at Mattel, where she designed board games. You see a little bit of all of those incarnations in the range of content explored on Hidden Los Angeles—in the online environment she’s created and the improvisational flow of ideas that dovetail to the next big thought.

Taken as a whole, Hidden Los Angeles is a fully interactive community—a virtual tour/online magazine of the city. It doesn’t ignore Hollywood as an industry but puts it in the context of the rest of Los Angeles—its ethnic communities, its flora and fauna, the curious factoids about LA in its earlier incarnation (a “horizontal” city, suburban sprawl, the old sky-scraper limits)—in other words, what it really means to live here.

The real city, Angelenos know, blooms along the edges of outsiders’ perceptions of it. What might appear arbitrary is actually the many chambers of its complex, working heart and how it fits into the world. That was the big question Garrett asked herself when she began her inquiries.

Part of really seeing Los Angeles, she has learned, is a simple act of shifting one’s perspective. “When we go to visit other places, we seek out and are often attracted to the cultural things. The history. It’s as if we have different expectations for Los Angeles.”

That’s been the case since its inception. The city was often seen as an antidote: a cure for the body and soul; a site of reinvention, a launching pad for dreams. Its own story—its indigenous riches, how it came to be, who shaped it—took second billing. For frequent visitors, the city is a palimpsest upon which to write their own story. “People think the past is gone, but it’s around every corner—it’s there, and so is meaning,” Garrett says.

“Go Deeper.” Logo for Hidden Los Angeles website and blog.
Logo designed by Lynn Garrett.

Excavating this tangible sense of place in a virtual world means that, in the day–to-day, Garrett is a bit of the ringmaster overseeing layers of fervent back-and-forth opinions and assessments, first-person recollections and sometime virtual “filibusters in real-time. Ostensibly, her hours stretch from dawn to dusk—but often in the wee hours you might catch her logging on to set a thread of conversation back on track. “I just have to be really careful that people aren’t using the site to promote themselves,” she says, pausing to acknowledge one of the truest clichés about LA. “Yeah, we’ve got a lot of self-promoters here. I wanted it to be about Los Angeles, not a giant press release.”

Garrett mediates much of the content from home via the various keyboards and handhelds strewn across her dining room table or tossed into her handbag. The online wordplay of her vast online community has an arc of its own; it’s sometimes shrill, sometimes snarky. It’s often passionate and frequently playful. But all of it—even in its polarizing disagreements—is an attempt to get beyond the easy clichés and assumptions about Los Angeles.

Lynn Garrett at Farmers Market, at the postcard stands.
Photo courtesy of Lynell George.

What might Hidden Los Angeles feel like to a first-time visitor? Well, imagine having several thousand highly opinionated Angelenos sitting at yourdinner table—often talking all at once—sometimes informed, sometimes not so much—but no matter; they discourse with authority about LA history, the LA River, the best east/west routes, downtown gentrification, the Valley’s old strawberry farms, childhood earthquake memories, riots (both of them), The Olympics, the elusive borders of neighborhoods—and quite often, one of longtime Angelenos’ favorite topics—which lost architectural treasure stood at the corner of some long -vanished intersection often rebuilt many times over.

Given the vast spectrum of strongly-held opinions, what keeps Hidden Los Angeles from swerving into the thicket of troll-infested shock talk—all noise and emotion but no grist—is Garrett’s quick, decisive and hands-on facilitation. Hidden Los Angeles has a guiding voice and point of view, and it is fully Garrett’s. She can keep conversation aloft like a vigorous match of volleyball, but knows when to spike and shut it down if it’s edging toward nasty. (“Just this morning,” she says, “I had to tell a guy to stop being a ‘dick’—he was just making rude remarks about other members.”) She’s quick to right some toppled bit of logic or break up heated exchanges edging toward virtual fisticuffs. “I don’t like to, but I ban people if they get too out of hand,” she admits. “But every year I do a ‘turkey pardon’ and give them another chance. This is for them. They need to be respectful of others and their opinions.” In many ways, what Garrett has mapped isn’t simply a website, but a milieu, an online replica of those 72 suburbs—a distinct “neighborhood” unto itself.

We walk into the stark white light of an August afternoon—the first break in a three-week, three-digit heat wave. Garrett has agreed to walk away from the screen (one smartphone in her bucket bag, just in case) to let her community “talk among themselves.” Though sometimes it’s difficult for logistical reasons to do so, getting out is it is precisely what she prescribes to her followers. In fact, she encourages people to move out into the world. She’s been hosting meet-ups under the Hidden Los Angeles banner almost since the site’s inception—cocktails at the venerable Musso and Frank, late grunion runs, kayaking the LA River and just recently she’s launched a series of participatory philanthropic events ,working with Downtown’s Los Angeles Mission and the Hollywood-based My Friend’s Place, focused on assisting the homeless—as a way for the community to experience one another as well as Greater Los Angeles.

It’s a postcard day in a neighborhood studded with tall, listing palm trees and a handsome collection of 1920s stucco and red-tile duplexes. Picking one of the main thoroughfares, she moves with the purposefulness of a seasoned tourguide—two steps and pivot, to explain the terrain. before us: past the high-end boutiques on 3rd Street, Mid-City, scouting for a coffee and a quiet chat. Despite her LA Doyenne status, she’s dressed casually in a pair of jeans and a simple, black, V-neck T-shirt. Garrett points out the French place and the Greek place and the Spanish place and the neo-all American diner place. And all of those languages drift out of open doorways and swirl above the small sidewalk patios—packed even in the pause between breakfast and lunch. She settles on the French place, where the ceiling is painted a vivid cobalt and the waiter knows her well enough to ask her only to specify her drink’s size. “You can find a little bit of everything you want here, depending on your desire or mood,” she says, “but that’s the key. You have to look for it.”

A native Californian, born in San Diego, Lynn Garrett spent a lion’s share of her early life in Los Angeles. She lived for a time with her maternal grandparents and grew to love LA through their eyes. “When you’re from San Diego, the default is to hate Los Angeles. But I had history here. My great-grandfather and grandfather painted murals at Charlie Chaplin’s house and at Pickfair [Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford’s mansion]. My grandmother, when she was 19, preached with [the evangelist] Aimee Semple McPherson, and used to babysit her kid. My grandma Beulah. So I had a huge family in LA.” Consequently, she interacts with the city like a native, finding pieces of her past everywhere, a vivid sense memory—an old traffic light on Sunset Boulevard or the spinner-racks of artichokes and postcard stands at Farmers Market—just around the corner.

Her appreciation grew even stronger as she began to navigate the neighborhoods on her own and without a plan or map. Eventually, for a time in the 1980s, she set down roots here and began to map her own personal version of the city. She let serendipity lead her: “I’d fill my tank with gas and just drive around. No destination in mind She’d let herself be pulled by whim or the itch of curiosity. But truly finding her heart connected to the city was a more complex affair; it didn’t happen overnight.

By the 90s, burned out on LA in its post-riot, post-earthquake-post-O.J. Simpson murder trail period, she picked up and moved for work to San Francisco, but there she was struck by the persistent chorus of anti-LA sentiment. “It just seemed like a one-sided conversation,” she recalls. She found herself routinely defending Los Angeles. Her San Francisco acquaintances recommended that she needed to get a sense of humor, “but instead I started writing all the things down that people hated about LA.”

It got so bad that for expedience and sanity’s sake, she began to keep her origins and alliances close to the vest. She believed you should be allowed proud of where you come from. And so, her thinking was, “If you don’t like it, change it.” Not the place, but the conversation around it.

That list in hand, she returned to Los Angeles with an idea to write a tour book—one targeted at the people who think they don’t like LA. The guide would focus specifically on LA as a culture, what makes it move—the art, the literature, architecture, the distinct neighborhoods. To get herself into the writing rhythm, she designed a blog to help work out theme, tone and voice. A friend suggested Facebook as a way to promote the blog, to which Garrett recalls responding, “I’m not 13. I don’t need to be on Facebook.” But the social-networking site would change everything. Creating a Facebook page, Hidden Los Angeles, to publicize the blog , Garrett circulated invitations among her Facebook community, her friends, acquaintances, and her network of jazz contacts. The fan page then moved, she laughs, through the Burning Man community—“and, well, they have verystrong following.”

As it turned out, lots of Angelenos felt the way she did. In the spring of 2010, her fan page went viral, spiking to 137,00 from 3,000 in four weeks. “Once you get over 60,000 members it’s like having a monster in your garage,” she says a little ruefully. “No one else has a monster in their garage, so there’s no one to talk to about it. And there’s no book to tell you how to do it. I had to figure it out.” And while Garrett would like to also “figure out” a way to monetize the site and hire a fulltime staff, she wants to do it in a way that makes sense and is in the spirit of the site and its goals.

For a virtual place, Hidden Los Angeles has done a real service. In a subtle yet indelible way, it attests that our sprawling, anonymous city isn’t always so. “I’ve watched the craziest, random things happen online,” she says. “I might post a picture of some event or place from thirty, forty, fifty years ago and suddenly people are tagging one another and [these people]—who haven’t seen each other in years—begin having a reunion online.”

In this respect, Garrett sees the site as a corrective and a colloquium that allows the city’s story to be shaped from the ground up by residents who actually experience it. A flowing, people’s history. And the interesting thing, she says, is that “forty percent of the people who are on Hidden LA don’t live here. Some of them used to, some of them are curious about visiting so they begin to get a sense of what it is by watching the posts. Some of them have been in the military serving in both Iraq and Afghanistan. So many of them come here when they are feeling homesick and they want a dose of home. Something I really wanted when I lived away.”

While reminiscing is key to her page’s allure and success (other LA pages—like have Vintage LA or Decaying Hollywood Mansions, or Who Remembers in East L.A? have grown up in the months she has been in operation), Garrett is committed to a mix that isn’t simple nostalgia. She wants Angelenos to get up and go out and experience their city—so that the places and events that we enjoy now don’t go the way of the vanished mom-and-pop shops we so romanticize. These conversations reveal the layers, the many cities Los Angeles has been over time, and what has been built on top of them.

Lynn Garrett’s dog, Zoe, who is the Hidden LA mascot, at Olvera Street, Downtown Los Angeles: Photo courtesy of Jinna Kim Photo (

To really unearth and understand Los Angeles requires that you not be passive but be a participant. “I’m just lighting a fire under them, inspiring them to get out in it,” Garrett says. “Just sitting at your keyboard giving the stink-eye honestly is not helping the cause.” But in common with her online community, she is well-aware that LA has its rough edges, its doggedly singular take on what it is to be a city. “LA is messy. It’s like a hot mess of a T.J. Maxx. Not organized. Not neat. But if you lift something up, you’ll find some wonderful, unexpected treasure. LA is like that when you turn the corner. You’ll be surprised. But no one is going to point that out to you, you have to go out and find it.”


Boom Time?

“The best academics and smartest journalists should be natural allies in the effort to bring new ideas to the public square,” writes John Mecklin in the Columbia Journalism Review. And “Boom has made a nice start toward fostering such an alliance.” Boom is an example of a promising new model in the growing nonprofit publishing ecosystem, Mecklin writes in a wide ranging article that recounts the origins and history of the journal, probes its business model, and examines the visions of editor Jon Christensen and University of California Press publisher Kim Robinson for the quarterly journal.

Boom was conceived as an interdisciplinary ‘scholarly magazine’ that would translate the best ideas of academics in the UC system, making them accessible to the general public,” Mecklin writes. “Boom includes journalists and photographers among its contributors because it is consciously ‘not just another academic journal,’ Robinson says. ‘It is this hybrid, but it’s still an experiment.’

Boom started as a way for researchers to converse with the public about California studies,” Mecklin writes. “But, Christensen says, he hopes to expand the magazine’s reach, so it speaks to people outside the state as well, addressing the idea of ‘California in the world.’ He also hopes the journal can help break down, if not do away with, the mutual suspicion—some might say disdain—that often characterizes the relationship between academics and journalists.”

To read more of Mecklin’s insightful look at Boom, visit the Columbia Journalism Review.


The Tomato Harvester

by Carolyn de la Peña

From Boom Spring 2013, Vol. 3, No. 1

If you’ve driven the highways and back roads of the Central and Sacramento Valleys in the summer, when the tomatoes are at their ripest, you may have seen them. And maybe like me, the first time you saw them you had to stop and watch for a while. It’s difficult not to be mesmerized by the strangeness of a tomato harvesting machine. “Factories in the field” is what some scholars have called them, and it’s easy to see why.

The most visible component of the harvester is the men and women on its sorting crew, who work on each side of the machine, almost as if they’re on a stationary assembly line. Yet the machine itself is constantly moving. Up and down the rows of tomato plants it travels, pulling with its giant blade whole tomato plants into its body, shaking them to free fruit from vine, tossing the vine back out into the field while pushing the fruit up onto conveyor belts, where human hands and machine processes merge as the sorters quickly separate bad fruit (along with the occasional snake or mouse) from good fruit, allowing only the good to move into waiting bins that will eventually be transported to processing plants.

The individual elements of the harvester seem incongruous. The object, as a whole, appears unstable. And yet, somehow, it achieves something that is difficult to imagine. It pulls ripe tomato plants from the earth, subjects them to blades, shakers, conveyor belts, and metal bins, and, at the end of this violent process, delivers not field-made gazpacho—but piles of ripe, intact, harvested tomatoes.

There are many stories we could tell about the harvester and its impact on California agriculture, California eating habits, and California’s farm labor. One of them would explain how it displaced thousands of mostly Mexican-American farm laborers in the 1960s, and then became the subject of a major lawsuit against the University of California, ultimately resulting in a new ethos of worker-impact-centered agricultural research on our campuses. Another would illuminate the lightning-fast implementation of the machines and the rapid changes they brought to farming and consumer practices.

In 1963 about one percent of California’s industrial tomato harvest was picked by about 60 machines. By 1968, there were over 1,450 machines across the state delivering 95 percent. Almost as quickly, tomato growing shifted geographies, moving from the small fields of the Sacramento Delta and the Davis/Woodland/Sacramento region to towns around Fresno, in order to find the flat land and consistent irrigation possibilities required by the machine.

With its price tag reaching $200,000, the farmer using the harvester needed higher tomato acreages. Small side-line tomato farmers were pushed out and mega-farms moved in. Farmers in search of higher yields layered on new pesticides, beefed up irrigation, and eliminated competing crops. The proliferation of tomatoes for processing enabled food companies to produce cheap sauces, catsups, and pastes. These things, in turn, fueled the ever-expanding industry of fast and convenience foods.

Still, watching a harvester in motion, it’s difficult to avoid pondering the machine itself. And this is good. We should spend time thinking about the machines that have industrialized our food supply and displaced field labor in California. Thanks to the work of scholars like Deborah Fitzgerald, Julie Guthman, and Michael Pollan, we understand that industrialized agriculture has had negative environmental, human, and health consequences. Matt Garcia and William Friedland explore in depth the devastation mechanization brought to farm worker families across the state. These are important stories of consequences. Still they do not fully illuminate the human motivations that created the objects—like the harvester—which enabled our agricultural systems in the first place. This can more easily come into view if we study the machines. If we want to create a better agricultural system we need not only to advocate for what we want; we need to also understand the human motivations that delivered what we have to us. Tomatoes, it turns out, have not been the only things made in these fields.

Building the Machine and the Tomato

When UC Davis seed specialist Jack Hanna began to work with aeronautical engineer Coby Lorenzen in 1949 to create a machine that could pick and sort tomatoes, no one seems to have thought they would succeed. As one professor who worked with them during those years put it, the two men were “kind of the laughing stock around here” for nearly a decade.1

The main problem was the tomato. While varieties could be easily manipulated through seed selection and cross-breeding, no tomato existed that could withstand the violence of mechanized cutting, separating, sorting, and loading. Hanna, a vegetable crops researcher with previous experience in asparagus crops, spent years traveling the US, exploring variations on tomato seeds, creating new hybrids, and raising the seeds to plants, only to fail time and time again when the fruits came into contact with Lorenzen’s prototype harvesting machines. Some tomatoes were too soft, and squished on contact with the cutting blades that detached the stalks from the ground just below the soil. Others were too fixed on the vine, and refused to separate when pulled into the machine’s internal shaker, turning to sauce instead. Even when a tomato could make it through those rigors, it failed to move regularly up the conveyor belt, or its skin thickness wasn’t quite sufficient to withstand the eventual hurl off the harvester into the tight compression of waiting bins. Well into the 1950s, few people took their efforts seriously. They had limited funds, no research assistance, and an industry that in spite of rumblings about the end of the Bracero Program, did not yet prioritize a push to develop tools for automation. For colleagues at UC Davis, the repeated attempts and failures continued to be “highly amusing.” 2

It’s hard to know exactly what kept Hanna and Lorenzen working through these apparently insurmountable problems. One thing we do know is that both of them were fascinated by the requirement that they think about tomatoes through the machine.Historical evidence lets us imagine what the two might have experienced on one of their typical annual road trips to El Centro to test the latest model harvester in a field of experimental tomatoes. The date might have been 1956. Hanna, after six months of hybrid seed development and months of waiting for the plants to mature, has just watched the latest prototype fail with each of the varieties. Some tomatoes refused to separate from the stem. Others smashed on contact. Others made it through the process, only to collapse under the weight of their fellow fruit in the bins. Lorenzen, an aeronautical engineer by training, has just watched his machine, perhaps his eighth or ninth prototype, liquify the fruit. It’s a long drive back to Davis. Nevertheless, Hanna remembered years later, that these drives—with hours on the road and nothing to distract them—was when their most fruitful collaborative thinking took place. They’d analyze the problem, reconsider the plants and the machine process, and come up with their next set of modifications. Gradually, as the years passed, Hanna knew nearly as much about the machine as Lorenzen did. He understood the limits of what the machine could do in the field, and, with this machine perspective, set about finding the fruit that could succeed. The key was a change in perspective. Instead of looking for flavor, texture, or even color or appearance, as he would have otherwise, he had in this project to learn to “look at a plant mechanically.” Flavor, liquid content, shape, and appearance were secondary to finding the properties that could be run successfully through the harvester. For Lorenzen, who in 1949 knew “nothing about tomatoes,” exchanges with Hanna, and years of watching tomatoes, allowed him to build machines that bent ever closer to the specifications of nature. In 1959 the team at last discovered, in tandem, a tomato whose thicker skin and oval shape could survive an automated harvest and a machine that could pick it. Called the vf-145 (sometimes referred to as the “square tomato”), this valuable seed proved that an unlikely and imperfect collaboration had finally blossomed.

Learning to Master the Machine

If the tomato was the puzzle for the engineer and plant hunter to solve, the machine was the puzzle for the grower. In the early years of production, the harvester broke down almost as often as it ran. First, there was the night before its big debut, when journalists and growers from all over the state were invited to see the harvester process the vf-145 on a real farm near Davis. One of the conveyors broke, and no one had a replacement part, and, as one machinist on the scene recalled, “it didn’t matter who you were, you jumped in with a monkey wrench” to get it going again. In the first year of the machine’s mass production, nearly all of them had to be brought back to the machinist for repairs and imperfections.

The first commercial harvesters were produced by Ernst Blackwelder, a local machinist who became one of the project’s later but crucial collaborators. By 1965, when the machines were mass-marketed, their imperfections had been recast as appealing challenges for prospective buyers. Advertisements featured growers like Al Fornaciari, of Roberts Union Island in the Delta, who had harvested an “amazing” 4,290 tons of tomatoes over 36 days without a single breakdown. It was Fornaciari’s skills as a machinist (not as a farmer) that made the difference. Only with “preventative maintenance” could the machine stay in the field. In another ad, Steve Arnaudo looms large in front of his harvester, weeds held authoritatively in his hand, with the statement “weeds didn’t stop my UC-Blackwelder” stamped over the scene in bold. In spite of following extension agents’ recommendations for irrigation, row spacing, and heavy fertilizing for weed control, weeds controlled his field, threatening repeatedly to down the machine. Arnaudo’s skill directing the harvester and navigating the weeds meant the difference between epic failure and his successful “four to five loads a day.” 3

The truth, really, was that no one knew how to grow for the machine or how to run it successfully through the fields once that crop was grown, universally ripe, and in need of immediate picking. At $50,000 to $200,000, each machine was an enormous investment, and risk, for the growers who bought it. To get their money back, growers had to expand their holdings. Many had to move to new fields where irrigation was more constant. All had to learn new pesticide practices and adjust to timetables in seed planting and harvesting so that as many fruits as possible could be picked in a single pass through a field. As one extension agent put it, in the early years of harvester experimenting, “we are all going to have to re-learn how to grow tomatoes.” The “we” here was, not so subtly, the growers, in a trial by fire. By 1967 most farmers who were growing tomatoes in 1960 had been pushed out. Those few who succeeded commanded not only fleets of machines and acreage quadrupling their old holdings, but respect as leaders. Tomatoes had become a crucial industry for the state. For Ernst Blackwelder, the reason other farmers failed is because they just couldn’t get the machine. If you could not “grow for the machine,” he explained, you simply “fell by the wayside.” 4

At each phase of its development, the tomato-harvester project threatened to collapse and to take its human participants down with it unless they learned to think for the machine. In the end, a sufficient number of those humans did just that, thereby turning probable failures into success. They did this because the complexity of the task—the need to alter one’s way of thinking entirely about machines, tomatoes, harvesting, and irrigation—demanded that they tie their personal and professionalidentities to the success of the harvester. Yes, the goal was to make money, keep the tomato crop in California, and address what many believed was a permanent labor deficit because of the end of the Bracero Program. But on the way to those practical goals, farmers, seed specialists, machinists, engineers, plant hunters, and extension agents also enhanced their opinion of themselves as innovators, risk takers, and leaders in California agriculture. This, as much as the industrial tomato, was what was made in the fields.

And maybe this is at least part of what we see when we’re hailed from the road. Watching the tomato harvester at work, marveling at the synchronicity of metal and fruit, and puzzling over how such a thing can be even possible, we become simply the latest in a long line of believers thinking ourselves into this machine.


*A fuller version of this piece is forthcoming in Food, Culture, and Society, volume 16.3.

1. Interview with Ray Bainer, A.I. Dickman, The Oral History Accounts of the Development of the Mechanization of the Processing Tomato Harvester and of the Breeding of the Machine-Compatible Tomato, Oral History Office, Shields Library, The University of California 1978, 29. See also 38.

2. Interview with Charles Rick, Dickman, 27.

3. For advertisements see The California Tomato Grower(March 1966; November 1966)

4. Interview with Ernst Blackwelder, Dickman, 67.


Showdown at Glendale Narrows

by Laurie Glover

From Boom Spring 2013, Vol. 3, No. 1

The intransigence of water

At their westernmost end, the Santa Monica Mountains scrape straight up from the Pacific, Highway 1 precariously strapped to their sides. Like the abyssal batholith of the Sierra, except on a smaller scale, these mountains are one mass of rock, thrust up and eroded above ground, deeply rooted, impervious below. Water does not flow past them.

At their eastern end the mountains seem to get smaller, shrink down to hills at Griffith Park, but in fact the ridge has sounded, diving underground. Bedrock lies only forty feet below the surface.

Say you are water. From mountains’ ridgelines, you flow down. From the San Gabriels, by which you were raked by snow from winter storms, from the Santa Susanas and the Verdugo Hills as spring rain, you flow southwards, toward the sea.

You erode and carry stone. You rush down. When you emerge from steep canyons, you lose your carrying power, leaving your offerings of boulders and other large stones at the feet of the mountain slopes, sweeping sand, clay, and silts farther along.

All the waters moving among the sediments of the San Fernando Valley floor come up against the mass of the semi-submerged Santa Monicas and are pushed upward to the surface, begin to move with greater force. Those waters are the Los Angeles River. When they come to the end of the bedrock that holds them from their progress toward the sea, they curve around it, moving faster.

Concrete cannot hold this upwelling.

Almost every late 20th century newspaper article you might read about the river refers to its use as a Hollywood movie set, but what is used in that way is not the river itself but the container made for it. Many other nouns used in place of the river—“sewer,” “sea of cement,” “storm drain”—also refer to this container. Writers who speak of the river being “crammed into a cement suit,” or “corseted,” separate the river waters from the structures of their containment, but don’t seem to agree about the river’s gender.

Engineers from the Army Corps contemplate their final solution in 1948.
Courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library.

The more articles you read, the more you would learn about encounters in earlier centuries between humans and the river: how the Franciscans were fooled into establishing their mission next to what were placid, wide waters in the late summer of 1769; how Californios naively followed suit and built their pueblo near the riverbank two years later.

The Anglo Angelenos grew tired of replacing their washed-out bridges; how Progressive Era believers in the social benefits of parklands hired the sons of Frederick Law Olmstead in the 1930s to create a plan for seventy thousand acres of open space along the river. That plan was ditched after floods killed 130 people. You would read about the “final solution”—a loaded term for containment in the late 1930s—to enclose the waters in concrete. A photograph from 1948 shows businessmen with white shirtsleeves rolled up, ties dangling as they lean over what are called “models of proposed channel improvement.” In another photo, huge bulldozers diminish the men. Behind them, a channel is cut in sand for the river that, despite the conversion it is even at that moment undergoing, is flowing on in its own way.

A Studio City bridge washed out by the 1938 floods.
Courtesy of the USC Digital Library.

Along the three-mile reach called the Glendale Narrows that curves around the base of Griffith Park, where the waters come to the corner of the Santa Monican bedrock, the river is uncontainable. While walls were built to direct the river’s path, the waters come up through the sand and silt, cobble and gravel with such force that they displace any cement suit they might be corseted in.

Accounts agree that the Army Corps of Engineers went on enclosing the river and its above-ground tributaries in concrete through the 1960s and that even as the Corps built, runoff from development in the San Fernando Valley—paving, roadbuilding, homebuilding, freeway-raising—outstripped the system’s carrying capacity by twenty-five percent. To keep up with the river they created, the Corps began to develop plans to raise the walls higher to contain it.

When the rains returned at the end of the drought of the 1990s, waters raged through the channels at 35 miles per hour; storm drains backed up, trapping motorists; lives were lost. In 1996, a writer at the London Guardian, who has the river beginning in the San Gabriel mountains on the east side of the basin (the hydrological story) and emerging 20 miles away on the west side, in Canoga Park (the Corps’ story), tells a made-for-TV-drama story about a maintenance worker helicoptered out of the riverbed when a raging torrent spawned by heavy rains deluged the cab of his machine. In 1997, Canadian and Australian newspapers picked up a story of three teenagers who were drowned when an Alhambra box culvert was filled by a wall of water that started as a downpour miles away, but they mis-locate where that rain fell; neither those lost local kids nor the far-flung journalists were able to parse the illegible scrawl of culverts and channels through which the waters move.

Floodwaters rushing along the Narrows southward under the Los Feliz Bridge in 1978.
Courtesy of the Clarence Inman Collection.

And water was rising elsewhere. State Supreme Court Justice Broussard had declared in 1983 that the value of diverting Mono Lake’s water to thirsty Los Angeles was to be balanced with the lake’s environmental and recreational value. The net result: LADWP was required to take less water in order to allow the depleted lake to rise again. Some people began to think of all that water in the culverts as running wasted into the sea; others, inspired by the Mono Lake success story, began to think of the river. Still others, people whose property would be damaged should the structure fail, supported plans to strengthen it and approved of the bulldozers that regularly cleared the channel of the vegetation that made for habitat.

In a flush economy, voters with money in their pockets passed a park bond. A state with a surplus in its coffers established a new park on former railyards adjacent to the river. More money went to converting more sides of the waterway into bike paths. The City of Los Angeles hired a Pasadena consulting firm to develop a plan to revitalize the river. That plan became part of the city’s Master Plan in 2007. All the money spent on planning ran wasted into the sea in 2008, when the economy tanked.

Meet the river. Stand on one of those paved paths, shaded by the Hyperion Bridge arching over the Narrows where, in the uncorseted river below, an egret stalks in reeds growing between cobbles. You might talk to a cyclist who brings his bike on the back of his car from Mt. Washington to ride from Los Feliz to Burbank and back. To get to the bike path he drives the freeway that follows a boxed-in tributary to the river, Arroyo Seco Creek, named for the canyon it flows through.. He does not live next to the river, which is dry most of the time. He cannot ride next to the creek from his home to the river because the confluence is buried beneath the freeway junction. He takes off in his neon gear, shoulders up, head down.

The river is scenic under the Glendale-Hyperion Bridge in this 1939 postcard but is quietly disappeared from the scene as it heads south toward downtown Los Angeles.

Were you to talk to folks up and down the river, their stories might seem to add up to a class divide: People who can afford to recreate in and along the river want it to have water in it. People who live downriver, who can’t afford increased flood insurance costs, don’t. This could just as well look like an upstream-downstream divergence. If you consulted other experts, however, you would hear other stories: of upstream Asians and Latinos of lower economic standing supporting the greening of the river, of river advocates seeking environmental justice for those low income people pushed to the edge.

Were you to walk where cyclists ride, you would see vacant warehouses, weedy triangles of lot ends, buckling parking lots, sycamores in rectangles of dirt, back fences of backyards of houses. Through some of those fences, you might see vegetable gardens, dark citrus and saw-leaved loquat trees, unraveling lawn chairs, pinwheels. Over the rush of the freeway, you might hear train bells, rumbling of engines, the clatter of coupling. You might hear the people who live in the tight-packed houses that back up to the Narrows express fears that increasing access makes their homes more vulnerable to crime.

The Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy has converted a few of the weedy, asphalted lot ends into pocket parks. The newer ones seem as much parodies of parks as the river does of itself. The “Steelhead Park” is comprised of a series of concrete terraces planted with native shrubs and a fence embellished with metal fish cutouts. The plants are overpowered by the concrete poured to contain them. However, in another park, saplings have grown high enough to create inviting shade. Two paths diverge. On the lower, two homeless men sit on a bench. They might offer a welcome. Most of the time, the water will flow placid in the channel below.

Between the two parks, where the engineers decided the river bottom could be covered again, where the Glendale Narrows comes to its end, the river, quiet in summer, noses at the rough, broken concrete triangles tilting above the flow, oblique peaks around which the water creases. On one of these, someone has spray-painted “BURIED IN A CONCRETE,” and on another, the eroded word “COFFIN” is split into its syllables. The force of the river wrenched the concrete in two. On a third slab, dragged by those same waters even further away over the cracked concrete bed, the imperative “BREAK AWAY” is nearly rubbed out. The river’s way of commenting on its container.

In July 2010, the Environmental Protection Agency declared the river navigable. This releases it from the control of the Army Corps of Engineers and puts its waters under the protection of Federal Clean Water Act. The following summer, a limited number of people received weekend permits to paddle a short stretch of the river. The 280 spots sold out in ten minutes.

River activists have targeted another rail yard to convert into a public park made up of grassy playing fields laid over gravel beds, which would serve as a flood basin in rainy years, a tiny emulation of the river’s old ways. The land in question is owned by the Union Pacific Railroad, who uses it to transfer shipping containers between semi-truck trailers and rail cars. They claim the yard is in use 24/7; those who want the park claim the site is underutilized and assert that the transfer yard is “not the highest and best use of the land.”

Back in the 1920s, wilderness lovers protested LADWP’s plans to take water from the Eastern Sierra streams that fed Mono Lake. The Water Commission of the time, even acknowledging the harm the diversions would cause, followed state policy that use of water for domestic purposes was the “highest use.” Since Justice Broussard’s 1983 landmark decision, environmental and recreational uses must be balanced with domestic and commercial. Arguing against the railroad, the river advocates appropriate the very term that has justified a century of environmental harm.

Conflicting agendas swirl and eddy. Union Pacific asserts it will continue to use the rail yard. An LA City Council member describes the potential transformation as “converting dead space into something that’s lucrative.” The site may be environmentally compromised and perhaps recreationally useless, but it is not economically dead. The transfer of goods is as essential to California’s vitality as water is its lifeblood. And its river neighbor is not merely the “product” the revitalization designers have come up with. In their progress from headwaters to the sea, its waters drop further in elevation, in one-fortieth of the distance, than the Mississippi. When in flood, they move with four times the force.

The Narrows is a good place to visit, because it’s where the irrepressible river insists on emerging. Water will come out of the sky (we hope). It will gather on the ridgelines and flow into the canyons. It will flow around obstacles in soft creases or in a muddy torrent. We can direct it or make room for it. The issue is perhaps not whether soccer balls or shipping containers or birders or cyclists will circulate along the river banks, but how to take those insistent waters into account.


Jews in the L.A. Mosaic

mainstreet453x342Fairfax and Boyle Heights, movie-making and land development – Jews, the Autry’s most recent exhibition argues, have shaped Los Angeles as Los Angeles shaped them. Featuring objects that stretch as far back as the nineteenth century, curator Karen Wilson provides a story of Los Angeles that places the Jewish community at both the center and margins of LA’s development. Although excluded in the twentieth century from white Angeleno culture due to their racial status as Jewish, Jews were still able to directly influence the social, economic, and political development of LA through their work in some of the city’s key industries, including film and real estate. (After all, when we think LA, movies and housing developments are some of the first things that come to mind. Other than the freeways we love to hate, of course.)

The exhibition companion book, with the same title as the exhibition, contains five essays – including one from Wilson, the curator – that cover a range of topics, from Jewish bakers and Jewish women in politics to Hollywood and pop music. Together, these studies provide deeper analysis of the show’s objects than the exhibition labels are able to give, allowing both the casual reader and the studied academic to find stories of ample interest here. Plus, it’s lushly illustrated – so you can revisit your favorite objects from the show.

“Jews in the Los Angeles Mosaic” also offers an interactive element – encouraging visitors to leave remarks and answer questions like “will LA become a melting pot or a salad bowl?” and “will your grandchildren speak more than one language?” Challenging visitors to place themselves within the Los Angeles mosaic and consider both their past and future, the Autry will post responses monthly at It’s an intriguing project, and we look forward to seeing what comes of it.

The exhibition provides viewers with an accessible narrative studded with charismatic displays that remain with museum-goers long after they leave. Did you know that the Barbie was invented by a Jewish Angeleno? Or that the daughter of Jewish immigrants created the famed anti-war image of a flower with the text “war is not healthy for children and other living things”? There are many more great objects here, but I wouldn’t want to ruin all the surprises!

Jews in the Los Angeles Mosaic is at the Autry National Center of the American West, located in Griffith Park at 4700 Western Heritage Way, Los Angeles, CA 90027. It runs May 10, 2013 to January 5, 2014. An exhibition companion book, Jews in the Los Angeles Mosaic, is edited by curator Karen Wilson.

Artwork above by Lorraine Art Schneider, Primer, 1966, etching. Loan courtesy of Carol Schneider and Family. Photo by Susan Einstein. Originally created for an art competition that limited the work to a four-inch square, this image became the logo of the organization Another Mother for Peace and the most famous anti-war poster of the Vietnam War era. Schneider grew up in Boyle Heights, the daughter of Jewish immigrants.

At top, photograph of stores of Jewish proprietors in the Downey Block on Main Street, circa 1870. Courtesy of Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection.

Photographs courtesy of the Autry National Center.

— Annie Powers


Water Reinvigorates Museum

nhmla-feature-image-453x302This weekend the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles throws open its doors to celebrate its centenary and the completion of a major (and wonderful) renovation. There’s a big birthday bash planned, complete with food trucks and a performance by DEVO, the 1970s New Wave band from Ohio (why not?!), and even a giant gift waiting to be unwrapped—the museum’s glassy new entrance pavilion will be unveiled during Sunday’s celebration.

The museum opened, along with Exposition Park which surrounds it, with great fanfare and two weeks of celebration on November 7, 1913. During the two days before, the city celebrated another momentous opening: that of the Los Angeles Aqueduct, which piped water to the city from the Owens Valley hundreds of miles north. The timing was no coincidence: a Celebration Commission produced a pamphlet promoting the two-day affair in honor of the “completion of two great institutions which are without peers in this or in any other country.” A site across from the museum’s entrance was dedicated that day in 1913 for a fountain, in commemoration of the aqueduct (though the fountain wasn’t actually built until 1929). With its gleaming new monument to arts and sciences and ample water supply now assured the city had not just arrived, but was going places.

Over the decades, the museum has changed names and grown, and evolved away from its watery history. Once closed, the original 1913 entrance is open again, but the primary way into the museum is now on the north side, facing a symbol of LA’s new future: the light rail Expo Line that opened last year. But the connection to water has not been forgotten.

As part of the renovations, an old parking lot has been transformed into three-and-a-half acres of gardens along the museum’s north and east sides. Opened to coincide with the new Expo Line’s opening day in 2012, the plants have had over a year to mature before this weekend’s celebration. One of the garden’s attractions is a large water feature designed to mimic Los Angeles’s water system. A pond on one end and an “urban water feature” where a sheet of water runs over stone are connected by a dry creek bed. The museum says it’s “a metaphor for LA’s waterways, whose seasonal streams disappear underground.” One end has become a popular gathering spot for birds, and the other for splashing children, if a recent visit is any indication.

Water is an integral part of Los Angeles’s natural history, and its place in the museum’s gardens is entirely fitting. It’s also a key part of the museum’s history, and it’s nice to see that link restored.

— Eve Bachrach

Photos courtesy of Elizabeth Daniels,


Help Us Solve a Mystery?

Photo courtesy of The Huntington Library, San Marino, Calif.

Calling all Los Angeles neighborhood connoisseurs, local historians, and amateur detectives!

Where was this photo taken?

While working on our fall issue, which will focus on the 100th anniversary of the Los Angeles Aqueduct, we uncovered a curious photo album about the aqueduct at the Huntington Library. The album ends with this neat photograph of a woman watering her lawn at 1837 Canyon Drive in 1915. But which Canyon Drive? Can you help us pin this photograph to a map? We’d like to rephotograph the site for our fall issue.

Here’s another clue: The photo album features two men, W. H. Frick and J. G. Oliver, who took a car trip along the L.A. Aqueduct just two years after its construction. We think it’s an interesting early example of the evolving attitude of Angelenos toward water, the southern California landscape, car culture, travel and tourism, photography, and even movies, but we’re thirsty for more information. Do you know where in the Los Angeles area we can find this 1837 Canyon Drive? Do you have any idea who W. H. Frick and J. G. Oliver were, or the woman, who is identified only as “the Slacker,” who is “using the water” that came all the way from Owens Valley to water her lawn? Help us crack the case!

Leave a reply here or send editor Jon Christensen an email. See our contact page for his email address. Please let us know what your evidence is, and when we track down the address and re-photograph the site, you’ll get credit here on our blog and in print for helping us solve this mystery!

UPDATE: Mystery solved — and a family member revealed!

Thanks to our readers, we’ve been able to figure out a lot about 1837 Canyon Drive, the aqueduct explorers, and the “Slacker” watering her lawn. The home was in Hollywood, but has since been demolished and replaced with a modern apartment building. W. H. Frick and J. G. Oliver are William Henry Frick and Julius Goodwin Oliver, and the woman watering her lawn is Oliver’s niece, Lillian, who lived with him. And most exciting of all, Ann Campbell, a relative of Oliver and Frick, heard about our search and reached out to us. She has allowed us to share some of her family photographs, including the one above.

Watch for our Fall 2013 issue of Boom, when we will tell more about their photographic expedition and publish the full photo album online!

Annie Powers