Articles

Tahoe Blue

by Scott Herring
From Boom Summer 2011, Vol. 1, No. 2

Around 130 years ago, a man visited Lake Tahoe looking for a bargain.

The Comstock Lode, that sublimely rich vein of silver near Virginia City, had made Elias “Lucky” Baldwin a man of wealth and property. The old-growth forests of the Tahoe Basin had provided wood for his mines. Much of the forest was gone, and he bore responsibility for its destruction. Now he turned his sights to the south shore. He walked among trees so big they were like monuments to a passing era. Something inside of him moved.

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Speeding across the lake on a chilly day, June 1958. photograph courtesy of Jim French.

He bought a south shore hotel, and later built his own resort here, named Tallac for a nearby peak. Over the next years he bought land, far more than he needed—eight thousand acres in all. He issued a statement that hardly makes sense for a Comstock millionaire: “My land acquisition will save this vast forest from the beauty-destroying ax of the woodsman so that the magnificent pines and cedars may be admired by generations to come.” He seems not to have understood the irony, but he was not the first man to experience a conversion once his fortune was made.

Baldwin wasn’t lying, and he cared nothing for public relations. In future years he would suffer severe financial reversals, but he never logged his eight thousand acres. Scarcely educated, Lucky Baldwin was a frontier rogue, a product of the pre-railroad West, and a great lover of opulent display. Yet the magnificence of the south shore tamed him. The resort he built at Tallac was a model of elegance, decorum, and restraint. His private residence was a one-story cottage with two pines growing through the roof, literally; he had his builders work around the trees, a gesture that perfectly symbolizes his attitude toward “his” forest.

Recently, I found myself on the south shore often, because a publisher I was working with thought a book about Tahoe might be worth printing. The book would explain why controversies about the lake are so harsh. During my research, I came to believe that the landscape itself has a say.

Nature, even in this century, controls us more than we think. At Tahoe, nature allows us to live only within its own margins, which limit how we think about the place. Take Baldwin’s resort. The location made his design choices for him, led him to build a low-key resort in classic rustic architecture: steep shingle roofs, walls of unpainted wood, nearly all materials of local origin. Yes, he was copying earlier styles—but why those styles, out of all the others available? Why not something more garish? Baldwin could have built a comic opera nightmare, a castle like Mad King Ludwig’s in Bavaria. Yet the forest led him in another direction.

To understand Tahoe is to understand that it was, early in its history, deemed a work of art. Along with Yellowstone, Yosemite and other masterworks, it was placed at the top of an aesthetic scale and made the subject of comparison. John Muir commented that “its waters are everywhere as keenly pure as any.” Joseph LeConte, stopping by the lake while returning from Yosemite—and so having seen a few natural wonders lately—said that the lake created in him “a never-ceasing and ever-increasing sense of joy, which naturally grows into love.”

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Lake Tahoe around 1908. photograph by Geo. R. Lawrence Co., courtesy of Library of Congress.

Compare another deep blue lake not far away. The lake is not famous, but its name is: Donner, named for the emigrant party that spent the winter of 1846 trapped there. The Donner Party was short of food from the start, and eventually, as one of them recalled, they were “without anything to eat but the dead.”

If only they could have eaten the irony their story represents. The town of Truckee has grown to reach out and lasso the lake with vacation homes. Most of the lakeshore is somebody’s backyard, with docks for jet skis or boats engineered for maximum speed, noise, and pollution. Donner Lake is totally given over to human consumption, overwhelmed by recreation. “Keep Tahoe Blue” is a common sticker on California Jeeps and Volvos, yet rarely will you hear of environmentalists targeting Donner Lake, or see a bumper sticker that says “Don’t Cannibalize Donner.” Tahoe is special, and not just because of its size. It is more esteemed, nearer the sacred, even though the two lakes are not radically different. But here, expectation is crucial.

“I measure all lakes by Tahoe,” Mark Twain wrote in The Innocents Abroad. He compares Tahoe to Lake Como and the Sea of Galilee, and finds both wanting. He visited the Tahoe basin in the early 1860s, and honors the lake, in Roughing It, as a magnum opus: “The view was always fascinating, bewitching, entrancing.” He elsewhere called Tahoe the “masterpiece of the universe.” The lake does what landscape paintings did, in his era at least. It teaches, enriches, relaxes, and inspires.

It is easy to look at Tahoe today and wonder what all the fuss (“Keep Tahoe Blue”) is about. Given that most of the shore was logged flat long ago, and given its present heavy development, the slogan makes as much sense as a bumper sticker that demands we “Keep Vegas Wholesome.” The shore of Tahoe, crowded with gambling joints, mostly looks about as wild and pure as Disney World.

The Tahoe that Twain and other pioneers saw was as pure as a North American landscape could be, and their way of seeing it has never died. Parts of the basin still resemble what they saw, but some people have higher ambitions for Tahoe. The political brawls that happen here arise when those ambitions are frustrated.

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Relaxing on the shore with a beer, 1960. photograph courtesy of Olivia Warnecke.

Recreation managers sometimes talk about “purist” versus “social” visitors. Purists go to the outdoors as to a museum, to relax, to learn, to be inspired and enriched. The social camper is there for fun, and may see nothing special in the setting. The landscapes of North America can be set on a scale, depending on whether they appeal to the purist or the social visitor. Among the remote national parks, Denali and the backcountry of Yosemite and Yellowstone weigh in at the purist end. National Recreation Areas like Lake Powell and Lake Mead, heavy on the houseboat parties, are wholly social. Every wild landscape finds its spot on the continuum. We instinctively place artwork on this same kind of scale: difficult, expensive, quality art for the purist; “low,” easy-to-comprehend art for everyone else.

Tahoe started at the top, along with the art of Thomas Hill and Albert Bierstadt, or to go farther afield, Rembrandt and Shakespeare, and is now near the level of the airport thriller and Dogs Playing Poker. For most visitors, contemplation is not on the agenda. Tahoe is a place of adrenaline-soaked thrills, gambling, skiing, parasailing. The purist objects to the heavy development of places like South Lake Tahoe, but objects all the more to its recreational purposes. Bad enough that there are high-rises here; worse that they are casinos.

The factional battles would look mythic if they didn’t rage so often in everyday reality. The border between Nevada and California, running down the center of the lake, marks the no-man’s-land between two characteristic American philosophies. Nevada is the purest bastion of frontier libertarianism, a place of legalized everything, swinging uneasily between admirable self-rule and wretched excess. California is the national center of tree-hugging progressivism. On one side, there’s not enough government; on the other, too much. The two sides shake hands over Tahoe and come out fighting.

Let’s take opening a business as one example. In California, the new business operator needs a squad of lawyers and a reinforced platoon of tax accountants. In Nevada—to borrow from a Tahoe realtor’s website—there is “No Sharing of Information with IRS. No Corporate Income Tax. No Gross Receipts Tax. No Franchise Tax. No Inventory Tax.” The general attitude in Nevada is, Have at it.

But Tahoe is not a postmodern construct. It is a real place, and it has a say in these matters. The life in these glacial mountains is as seasonal as it ever was. Humans have had to adapt. And thinking back to Lucky Baldwin, we know that Tahoe can change people so deeply that their behavior completely departs from anything they’ve done before.

On a June day, just before my Tahoe research project blew apart for lack of funding, I stood on the beach at Camp Richardson, near the town of South Lake Tahoe. A local garage band, hired to play there, burst upon the scene. The music must have been audible ten miles out to sea. Halfway through the set, the band slammed into Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song,” giving the lyrics a local spin: “On we sweep with threshing oar / Our only goal will be the Tahoe shore!”

At that moment, I no longer cared if Tahoe stayed blue. This region was, I decided, a quarantine zone, my private term for those places in the wild parts of our country where all the tourists go. Old Faithful is a quarantine zone; so is Niagara Falls; so is the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. There, people and cars and “visitor facilities” are held together like atoms in a molecule, because, in fact, people enjoy being jammed together. In the California Sierra, Tahoe is the greatest quarantine zone, rivaled only by Yosemite Valley.

The garage band drove me down shore, toward old, less-developed Tahoe. The remains of Baldwin’s Tallac Resort, removed by his daughter Anita in the 1920s when it became a financial drain, lie near Camp Richardson. The Forest Service maintains that the resort’s ecological impact disturbed her; Anita had, perhaps, inherited her father’s unusual priorities. The demolition crew did a thorough job, but traces remain. I kicked around like a tourist at a Greco-Roman dump, trying to piece it together. I ignored the forest until an odor crossed my path. Butterscotch, or vanilla—always hard to say. That meant Jeffrey pines. The Jeffrey is common in the Sierra, and identifying one is easy: bury your nose deep in the bark and inhale. If it smells like butterscotch or vanilla, it’s a Jeffrey. I always check over my shoulder to see if anyone’s watching when I make this test, because it must look odd.

I entered a stand of the trees. They got bigger as I walked away from the shore. I thought there must be some other species involved, but each individual proved to be a Jeffrey, until I found myself within a stand of giants. The trees were three or four hundred years old. They looked like sequoias, but they were all Jeffreys. I walked on, disbelieving, as if I had found a temple in that Greco-Roman dump. Quarantine areas are often beautiful, in places—frustrating for purists.

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Jumping into Tahoe’s Sand Harbor, 2010. photograph © David de la Peña.

They are the only old-growth Jeffrey pines I have ever seen. They are here because of Lucky Baldwin. He bought this tract in 1880, when forest nearly everywhere else around the lake was going or gone. Because of his foresight, parts of the Tallac Historic Site look like Redwood National Park. Baldwin’s jaundiced eye was an unlikely place to have found anything but dollar signs, and standing there, I could only imagine what spoke to him, what made him see this place differently. I suspect it was the place itself. It had power once. It still does. Tahoe is in the eye of the beholder. It’s a museum, playground, business, or church, depending on who you are.

In Tahoe, the environment shapes humanity, not just vice versa. Think of it as a conversation. We tell the place that it will have to change, but the place tells us where and how to build our houses. When we ignore its demands, we pay the price. During one of my research trips, I drove up Fallen Leaf Lake and over the high ground to the east, where I seethed again at the sheer sprawl of greater South Lake Tahoe, and the perfect sameness of its vacation homes, done in a style I think of as Total Wood. And one week later, all those homes were swept away in the Angora Fire, a terrifyingly intense blaze that destroyed over 300 structures. Total Wood burns, and the only way to stop it from doing so is to cut down all the trees around the houses. Or not build in the forest in the first place.

Let us also consider the habit Tahoe people have of building into the sides of slopes. It is a source of grim mirth among geologists, for an undercut slope always collapses eventually. No matter what Rube Goldberg bulwark you have constructed to protect your house, the mountain is coming inside. If the bulwark has held for twenty years, check back in another twenty.

Up here, ice and gravity and fire call all the shots. It can be rough, yes. But some people find that roughness beautiful.

I started by calling Tahoe art, and ended by making it sound like a plague-ward. While the most gaudy works of art that nature produces usually turn into quarantine zones, it’s also true that the tacky tourist trap can keep the backcountry—starting twenty feet past the last dumpster—as unpopulated as that grove of Jeffrey pines. So I would simply like to say a word in favor of those relatively small, compact nuthouses: they serve to keep the rest of the landscape relatively sane—and as unshaved as it was when Lucky Baldwin strolled through it, checkbook in hand.

Articles

Foreclosures

by Susan Straight
photographs by Lucy Puls
From Boom Summer 2011, Vol. 1, No. 2

Susan Straight is Boom writer-in-residence for 2011.

The empty houses I see everywhere—foreclosures that happened to my friends and neighbors and family—left me for many mornings bereft. That is the word. Reverse mortgages gone wrong, refusals to renegotiate bad loans given to people who kept getting turned down for regular loans, and again and again, people who lost their jobs—teachers, air conditioning salespeople, pest control men, custodians, contractors, landscapers, day laborers. My neighbors and relatives—gone.

Five on my own block, twelve more on my way to work. Yes, I counted them, because I was so shocked at the boarded-over windows, like blank eyes, and the milkweed and foxtails standing in the front yards, tall as purposefully grown crops. And then the countless others I saw while driving around southern California—all those homes that were no longer home broke my heart.

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Marquette 24, 2009 © Lucy Puls

I became obsessed with looking at them. In my inland community, as in Lucy Puls’s haunting, elegiac farewells to rooms once lived in, the houses range from contemporary mansions to old wood-frame bungalows. Foreclosure, toxic loans, bundled mortgages, underwater, short sale, repo—such clinical, bloodless words, an entire language now familiar to Americans, and it doesn’t matter whether wealthy or not. Abandoned is the word. The empty shell.

Rich, poor, in the middle—wholesale blind-eyed windows for everyone because of “robo-signed” foreclosure papers, because banks so often lent inattention and indifference. Recently, a couple trashed their sumptuous custom-built home in a brand-new tract northeast of San Diego; they had been foreclosed on, and they stripped the house of fixtures, bashed holes in the walls, destroyed the rock façades, filled the pool with uprooted trees and bushes, and even took off the garage door. The house had resembled a castle, the drawbridge gone now.

But down my street, no one had bought beyond their means. The longtime owners lost their jobs. These were two-bedroom homes built in the 1920s and ’30s and’40s, and my neighborhood looked like every other older community in a California city—narrow streets lined with bungalows and stucco cottages, gravel or cement driveways, fruit trees and porches and palm trees wearing shaggy girdles of ivy.

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La Canyada 18, 2009 © Lucy Puls

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Idola 10, 2009 © Lucy Puls

I peeked inside the house next door to me, and it looked exactly like some of Puls’s photos. Hard living had made the carpet into earth, and the haunting of pictures left clean rectangles on the dirty walls. Curtains like gauze shrouds.

All over southern California, people left behind black plastic bags in driveways and rooms, like slugs piled upon themselves. Inside had to be clothing, pots, toys—things I’d seen held, worn, and loved. Choices made to leave them behind.

I felt a feral conquering was just at hand. In the dead brown yards, where sprinklers were turned off and the lawns and tended shrubs withered, the neo-native, invasive plants of California began to assert themselves in the winter rains. Filaree with tiny purple flowers and corkscrew seeds; wild oats like shivery spangles of green and then gold in the wind; tumbleweeds big as Volkswagens that were no longer parked there.

Then an entire shadow corps began to descend upon the homes—mattresses on the porches (pillows stolen over and over off my own porch furniture) and homeless men sleeping on back steps. Wild cats inside the crawl spaces. New industry—the caretakers of the discarded—came in trucks with men who hauled off dead trees, cut man-high weeds and drained black-water pools. On the next block, a squatter sold off a rock wall, stone by stone. Who bought them?

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Longbranch 120, 2009 © Lucy Puls

Next door, the century-old avocado tree lived because I watered it over the fence; the foxtails were so lush they sent thousands of sharp gold spurs over the sidewalks, a few always attaching to my dog’s paws. Sometimes, I took the dog up a cement walkway, past the filaree gone to seed, saying the word in my head—filaree! My favorite wildflower in the vacant lots of my 1970s childhood, when no houses around me were ever empty, when California was building mile after mile of modest ranch houses like mine and all were filled with children. My dog and I walked around the porch so I could see into a side window, see the inside of the house where my neighbor lived for thirty years, a woman who bought Girl Scout cookies from my daughter, just so that I could remember the built-in china hutch from the 1930s, from the last Depression, from a different time.

Articles

Silicon Valleys

by Margaret O’Mara
From Boom Summer 2011, Vol. 1, No. 2

Making the wars that never came

In June 2010, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev came to the United States with two big priorities in mind: meeting with President Obama and touring Silicon Valley. Earlier in the spring, Medvedev’s government unveiled plans to build its own version of California’s high-tech capital in a woodsy area outside Moscow. The announcement made a splash, with slick presentations of buildings designed by celebrity architects and an appearance by Hollywood actor and prolific Twitter user Ashton Kutcher. For a Russia whose economy remained heavily dependent on oil-and-gas extraction, and who had lost its brainiest engineers to the more entrepreneur-friendly tech regions of the US and Europe, coming to Silicon Valley to learn its secrets became a first, essential step towards economic transformation.

Fifty years before, another foreign leader made the same kind of Silicon Valley pilgrimage. Visiting the United States in 1960, French President Charles de Gaulle asked to tour the research parks emerging amid the farms and orchards south of San Francisco. As his motorcade rolled through the California sunshine, de Gaulle noted the area’s distinctive combination of science-based industry, university research activity, and quiet suburban neighborhoods that formed a self-contained innovation ecosystem. By the last year of de Gaulle’s presidency, France had established its own high-tech city, Sophia Antipolis, along the Côte d’Azur.

From de Gaulle to Medvedev, California’s Silicon Valley has been a place to which the world has looked for inspiration. The runaway economic success of a region that venture capitalist John Doerr once called “the largest legal creation of wealth in the history of the planet” has spawned countless imitators. Many have tried to reproduce the look and feel of the low-rise, lushly landscaped world of Silicon Valley in unlikely places. The globe has become dotted with nouveau Silicon Valleys, Forests, Hills, Orchards, Seaboards, and Fens. In the process, the Valley joined Hollywood as a powerfully alluring symbol of California, becoming global shorthand for innovation, entrepreneurship, and striking it rich.

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Stanford officials display model of the university’s research park to a potential tenant, c. 1951. © Margaret O’Mara

Some of these overseas efforts to recreate a little piece of the Golden State became successful, although success came slowly. Many others did not. And despite a half century of attempts to build the next Silicon Valley, no other region has managed to dislodge the original Valley from its place atop the high-tech food chain.

Silicon Valley’s preeminence springs from its origins in a very particular time (the early Cold War) and place (northern California), where a combination of national military spending and suburban infrastructure investment brought huge new flows of money and people to what had been a sleepy landscape of orchards and commuter towns. Add into this mix the presence of powerful research institutions—most notably Stanford University—and an unusually risk-tolerant business culture that welcomed and nurtured iconoclasts and dreamers, and a high-tech capital was born.

Others, not fully recognizing the importance of these cultural and historical frameworks, have assumed at their starting point that all they had to do was “build a research park, and they will come.” Yet no government or individual consciously set out to build a science city in Silicon Valley; it was the result of national economic transformations, local capacities, and a few lucky accidents. It’s little wonder that its magic has been so difficult to replicate.

What the quixotic global quest to build the next Silicon Valley has managed to do, however, is to export a distinctive architectural aesthetic and business culture to other parts of the world. In doing so, the process has underscored the degree to which the Valley’s success was not only an American phenomenon, but a Californian one—rooted in this state’s history, its politics, and its culture.

Take all those research parks, for example. The reflexive first step in building any would-be high-tech capital has been to develop self-contained and verdant industrial real estate, preferably adjacent to or affiliated with a research university. Research parks are not a California creation, but the idea of creating a university-connected park certainly is. It sprang from the minds of Stanford University administrators in the early 1950s, who concocted the idea in large part because the university owned a ranchero-size parcel of adjacent land that it was unable to sell.

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Global headquarters of Chinese networking giant Hua Wei, outside Shenzhen, China. © Margaret O’Mara

The architecture in the Stanford research park echoed both the Mission Revival campus buildings and the sun-drenched, Eichler-style modernism of adjacent residential neighborhoods. The manicured grounds and their ample parking channeled the automotive golden age of mid-century California. The park’s success as an early incubator of technology firms led other regions and nations to adapt this particular design aesthetic, often with few alterations. Red- tile roofs and palm trees dot the global technology landscape today, from Southern England to Southern China, evocative visual cues that these are places where innovation happens.

Global Silicon Valleys have encouraged the adaptation of a Californian aesthetic beyond the research park as well. Taking note of the Valley’s location amid an affluent residential suburb, many imitators of the past six decades have incorporated similarly deluxe residential developments of single-family villas and ranch houses into their plans. Today, subdivisions catering to high-tech workers, like Bangalore’s Palm Meadows and Shenzhen’s Mission Hills, not only evoke California in their nomenclature but also in the appearance of their houses, the layout of their streets, and the amenities offered their residents. Upstart Silicon Valleys are hardly the only places worldwide that feature these landscapes of wealth, but they often functioned as the leading edge of this type of development, and they reinforced the powerful cultural connection between the affluent California suburb and the technology economy.

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Palm Meadows residential subdivision, outside Bangalore, India. © Margaret O’Mara

Another California export is the laid-back, egalitarian, and highly networked business culture for which the Valley is famous. This, too, has deep roots. From the San Francisco Gold Rush on, the Bay Area has been a magnet for the brilliant and the odd. By the time commercial opportunities for technology began to open up in the late 1960s, it was home to a cohort of investors who were unusually tolerant of risk and willing to bet on untested talent. No other place in the country or the world has been able to reproduce this entrepreneurial ecosystem on the same scale. Top-down, government-fueled efforts to build silicon cities proved notoriously bad at doing so. Instead, the fluid, rapidly moving, technophile ethos of the Valley spread through the movement of people and the globalization of firms.

Again, characteristics unique to the Golden State played a role here. California’s significant Asian and South Asian populations, a large number of whom came here as foreign students, played a major role in the blossoming of the original Valley and in exporting its products and its culture elsewhere. As India and China liberalized their economies after the 1980s, immigrant entrepreneurs increasingly moved back and forth across the Pacific, playing instrumental roles in “new Silicon Valleys” from Shanghai to Chennai. Ultimately, the regions that have been among the more successful in creating high-tech clusters of their own are ones with a little bit of California—and quite a few Californians—in them.

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Mission Hills, a residential golf resort in Guangdong Province, China. © Margaret O’Mara

They also are places that entered the high-tech race with a set of regional advantages much like the Bay Area’s. Take Bangalore, for example. Long before it became known as “India’s Silicon Valley,” Bangalore already had a reputation as a low-rise garden city with a pleasant climate, strong technical universities, and a concentration of public- and private-sector research activity—the result of two generations of concerted government effort to make the Bangalore region a hub of scientific activity. Bangalore isn’t alone. Other high-tech success stories have urban histories with strikingly similar characteristics. In California and beyond, new-economy triumphs usually have old-economy roots.

The bad news for those who would like to become “the next Silicon Valley” is that the Valley has proven remarkably resilient. Ultimately, the secret of Silicon Valley is that it wasn’t a consciously planned silicon city. It exists because of big things—like Cold War spending patterns, sustained GDP growth, and large-scale migration and immigration. It also exists because of unique local characteristics like risk-tolerant capital, entrepreneurial leadership, and good weather. It grew organically. It had room for happy accidents and lucky breaks.

The good news is that it is no longer the 1950s. Technologies that came out of the Valley allow global communication and collaboration on an unprecedented scale. There is no longer a lone high-tech capital where all stages of production occur. Silicon Valley is a network. It is a global supply chain in which many different cities play a critical role—from Bangalore to Bucharest, São Paulo to Stockholm.

These cities also happen to be doing some exciting things to reinvent the silicon city model. For Silicon Valley may be a unique ecosystem for technology creation, but it falls short on many fronts in terms of functioning well as an urban place. It is haphazardly planned and economically polarized. It is crowded and car-dependent to a degree that lowers its quality of life and degrades the natural beauty that lured people there in the first place. Effectively, Silicon Valley succeeded because it created a bubble of high-tech prosperity that kept other uses and other people at a safe distance. It also succeeded because it was good at disguising the less attractive and more polluting aspects of its business.

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University Town, Shenzhen, China. © Margaret O’Mara

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Microsoft campus, Redmond, Washington. © Margaret O’Mara

The exciting thing about the globalization of technology is that it is opening up space for new kinds of urban models—ones that are in turn shaping the original Silicon Valley’s urban future. Denser, walkable high-tech corridors in Singapore and Seoul are providing design inspiration for policymakers and planners in Palo Alto and San Jose. Architects are joining techies and CEOs in moving back and forth between California and the rest of the high-tech world, and redefining the technology workplace in the process.

So while other countries should not give up on the quest to become the next Silicon Valley, they should take its history seriously. And they might want to look to places other than the Valley for design inspiration. High-tech innovation doesn’t need a sleek suburban office building, and the knowledge worker might not want to live in a California-style subdivision. True high-tech magic comes from other things.

ArticlesPhotography/Art

Concrete in Paradise

by Rebecca Solnit
photographs by Alex Fradkin
From Boom Summer 2011, Vol. 1, No. 2

Et in Arcadia ego says the famous inscription on the tomb in Nicholas Poussin’s paintings of that title. Even in Paradise there am I. He painted this tomb twice, surrounded by a group of shepherds and a woman (possibly a goddess), as though he himself were wrestling with the meanings. The assertion is sometimes thought to be spoken by Death itself; or perhaps the speaker is the dead shepherd whose tomb is being inspected. Whether the text refers to death or to one dead friend, the tomb is two kinds of intrusion into the landscape.

Growing is also dying, even in Arcadia, even in springtime, when the new grass pushes through the old, when the trees and flowers feed on the soil made out of life and digested deaths, where mortality itself, of lambs and shepherds alike, gives life the poignancy that heaven lacks. Poussin’s Arcadia is a little rough and rustic—not tender shoots but lean trees, and in the distance, sharp crags. And in the middle of it all, the architectural intrusion of the big, heavy, rectilinear stone monument in the landscape—a trace of industry, of a labor far harder than herding, of something permanent in a landscape of change.

We have our own tombs throughout the coastal Bay Area, each of which could readily be inscribed et in Arcadia ego. In the paradises I have hiked so often—among the deer carcasses, squashed salamanders, the pellets of coyote and fox spoor in which the fur of mice and rabbits is compressed—there are seventy or so bunker complexes whose blunt concrete forms are an apt modern echo of that shepherd’s tomb. These bunkers commemorate the violent death of war, in thought if not in deed.

There they are, along the beaches, roads, and the trails of the superlatively beautiful Marin Headlands, to be stumbled upon by hikers and day trippers who will stop for a moment to think more somber thoughts, pause like Poussin’s shepherds to contemplate monuments and death. Outdated even as they were being built, the bunkers are monuments to a particular imagination of danger and fear. In a way, they are honorable monuments to the idea that wars involve direct confrontation, and that the US could face the same threats it has imposed on other nations. Soldiers sat in the bunkers waiting for ships to appear on the horizon, waiting to receive orders to fire on those ships and to be fired upon. No ships arrived, however, and the nature of modern warfare rendered the bunkers obsolete.

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Ammunition Casement #1 Battery East: Fort Winfield Scott, 2005 © Alex Fradkin

“We are here because wars are now fought in outer space,” said Jennifer Dowley, Director of the Headlands Center for the Arts in the 1980s, when the center was still a fresh arrival in what was a fairly new national park, the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. Not far away, the Star Wars missile defense system was being actively pursued at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. The park is unusual because it’s a large amount of open space, almost 75,000 acres, in one of the major metropolitan areas in the country. It’s also unusual because its focus is neither historical nor natural, but an uneasy melding of the two. The history is rarely examined, though its evidence is everywhere in the chunks of concrete embedded throughout the landscape of the park. These are the dozens of bunkers and related structures, crumbling souvenirs of the wars that never were or that were waged elsewhere. And yet, war is here in California in a thousand ways. Even in the Headlands there is war.

Dowley spoke in Building 944, a spacious military barracks built in 1907, when the Headlands was an adjunct of the Pacific headquarters of the US Army across the Golden Gate at San Francisco’s Presidio and Fort Mason. From those headquarters US military action from the Indian Wars to the Korean and Vietnam wars was directed; during the Second World War alone, more than a million soldiers were said to have embarked from Fort Mason for the Pacific theater of war. The barracks, with the other handsome buildings arrayed in a horseshoe that fits into the hillside, were used for training soldiers who’d be deployed across the Pacific. The Bay Area has always been militarized, always involved with wars, though most of the actual wars were fought elsewhere.

If you walk down Building 944’s worn, handsome, wooden staircase, out the big doors, and head west past the old bowling alley and chapel, the eucalyptuses and the Monterey cypresses, you come to a Nike missile launch site tucked into a depression that the road curves around. It was designed to fire nuclear-tipped weapons at incoming missiles launched from overseas. In the 1950s the threat was thought to be Russia, but by the late 1960s the nuclear war fantasies that generated the preventative architecture and weapons included China. By then, the idea that a missile could take out a missile was itself something of a fantasy. There was no particular reason to situate missile depots directly on the coast. The Marin County Planning Department put together a staff report (probably written by my father) in 1969 that questioned “whether the probable risk of accident isn’t greater than the probable risk from the kind of attack these missiles are supposed to defend against.” Fortunately, neither accident nor attack ever came before the warheads were taken away. What remains are busily unaesthetic structures surrounded by cyclone fencing.

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Untitled #4: Battery Townsley, Fort Cronkhite, 2005 © Alex Fradkin

So ignore the Nike facility and keep walking. You can choose the narrow, uneven trail that takes you through tall green banks of willows, coyote bush, brambles, and poison oak, on past the lagoon that pelicans, ducks, seagulls and other birds frequent, to the sand of Rodeo Beach, the cove beyond the lagoon and between two high shoulders of coastline. If you go left, or south, you’ll come to the bunkers. If you go north, you’ll pass the many buildings of Fort Cronkhite and arrive at the old road that leads to more bunkers. They are embedded in the landscape like shrapnel or buckshot in a body, the ruins of old fears and old versions of war, the architecture of a violence that was first of all a violence against the earth, with concrete poured dozens of feet deep into slopes that were also home to rare species and prone to erosion when disrupted.

These welts of concrete have shifted, cracked, crumbled, and in some cases slid down eroded hillsides into the surf, but the majority of them are still in place. If you imagine them as an assault on the earth, then the earth has fought back, with foliage that has half-hidden and choked some of them, with the forces of water and temperature that drove cracks in the massive structures, with erosion that has dislodged and tilted some at crazy angles. But they have a harsh beauty of their own, in the simple geometry of the domes and semicircular walls and cylindrical pits of the gun emplacements, in the steps that take you up to the roofs of some of the structures, and particularly in the long tunnels that frame views of land, sea and sky.

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Base End Station, Construction #243, North Elevation: Fort Funston 2006 © Alex Fradkin

They have the shapes of art-school exercises in drawing cubes, spheres, cones, and cylinders with shading, and they are the color of old pencil sketches. Poussin, with his passion for simple monumental form, would have loved them, though he would have inscribed them all et in Arcadia ego lest the hasty hiker miss the point. And they have the seduction of all ruins, the seduction of the past, of lost history, of irrecoverable time, of the sense that something happened here and then ceased. (In Poussin’s landscape it’s the tomb, not the trees, that invites contemplation.) It’s only when you imagine the dreary discomfort of soldiers stationed in them, the actual big guns that pointed toward the bay, and what a war might have looked like on these shores, whether like the bombardment of Fort Sumner at the beginning of the Civil War or the Normandy Invasion toward the end of the Second World War, that the romance diminishes. Or does it?

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Gun Encasement No. 2 Battery Construction 129: Fort Barry, 2008 © Alex Fradkin

As Jennifer Dowley put it, wars are now fought in outer space. A nation under attack is usually attacked inside its national borders. Troops may surge across a border, as they did at the outset of both of the Bush wars on Iraq—across their border, not ours—but both those were accompanied by the kind of aerial bombardment that ignores national boundaries to go far inside the country. And aerial bombardment is often directed at civilians. Thus war, from Mussolini’s bombing of North Africa and the fascist bombing of Guernica, became profoundly asymmetrical. The old idea of a confrontation between two sides is blown away; in its place is an attacker whose blows can be parried but who cannot be attacked directly.

Missiles and more monstrous new inventions, like pilotless drones, are even directed from afar, often from within the attacking nation. Afghanistan cannot fire missiles back at the headquarters of the drone operators near Las Vegas, Nevada, though in the all-out nuclear wars imagined during the Cold War, both the US and the USSR would send nuclear bombs to strategic targets, military and civilian, within the other nation’s boundaries while trying to intercept incoming missiles. The heroic idea of combat, of bodily skill and equal engagement, of Achilles or Roland, or even Wellington and Grant facing risk with physical courage, has some relevance to the ground troops in some places, but nothing to do with the death rained from the skies by men whose daily lives more resemble those of video gamers. The Headlands bunkers are, among other things, an old daydream of an enemy you would face, one who could only hurt you by confronting you, by showing up.

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Gun Encasement #1 Battery Townsley: Fort Cronkhite, 2009 © Alex Fradkin

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Gun Emplacement #2 Battery Dynamite: Fort Winfield Scott, 2005 © Alex Fradkin

The bunkers were built to defend us from wars that never quite arrived on these shores. Central California has been attacked by foreigners a few times, starting with invading Spanish and Mexican attacks on the native peoples, which consisted largely of skirmishes and one-sided brutalities (the big campaigns against Native Californians were elsewhere and later, run by Yankees in events such as the Modoc War and the Bloody Island Massacre). The indigenous peoples responded with attacks on the Missions, raids on ranchos, and other acts of self-defense and survival, including an incursion on Mission San Rafael. Events resembling European war with all its pageantry and weaponry came later, when the Spanish-speaking nominal citizens of Mexico had become part of the population to be invaded and displaced.

Commodore Thomas ap Catesby Jones’s fleet arrived in Monterey—then the capital of the Mexican province—on October 19, 1842. He demanded surrender and got it without firing a shot. Perhaps the fearsome arsenal of the five ships with a total of 116 big guns convinced the small population that resistance would be unpleasant. The next day, 150 Marines marched up the hill to the fort while the bands played “Yankee Doodle.” The invasion was premature and based on rumors of British competition for the northernmost portion of Mexico. A couple of days later, Jones withdrew his proclamation and acknowledged Mexican sovereignty before the soldiers dispatched from Los Angeles could make much progress up the coast.

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Base End Station GB-1, West Elevation: Battery Townsley, Fort Cronkhite, 2004 © Alex Fradkin

Less than four years later, the Bear Flag Revolt began inland with the attack on Sonoma and the raising of a primitive version of what would become the California state flag. A few weeks into skirmishes by invading Yankees against resident Mexicans, Army Captain John C. Frémont—one of the few government men involved in the revolt—took twelve men with him on an American ship, the Moscow, that sailed south in the bay to the Presidio of San Francisco. The fort had been abandoned and there was no conflict, though there were some squabbles when they marched onward to the hamlet of Yerba Buena and took a few captives. There were larger battles further south as the revolt merged with the war on Mexico, but the Bay Area remained unscathed by major conflict. The newly American region was prepared for defense against coastal attack in the 1850s and 1860s, but the Civil War led to no violence—beyond duels such as the Broderick-Terry duel of 1859—in the locale. The fortifications then and a century later were built for conflicts that never arrived. They are the architecture of grim anticipation, of imagination of things to come.

During the Second World War, there were grounds to fear Japanese attack; in the wake of the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, seven enemy submarines patrolled the Pacific Coast. But Japan decided against a mainland attack for fear of reprisals. A false alert the following May caused the USS Colorado and the USS Maryland to sail out from the Golden Gate to defend the bay from attacks that never came. Late in the war, a Japanese fire balloon—a kind of incendiary device that floated across the Pacific—was shot down by a Lockheed P-38 Lightning fighter plane near Santa Rosa with no major damage reported. (Others landed in various places in the American West, and a few inflicted actual damage and a total of six deaths—a pregnant woman with her five children, out on a picnic: et in Arcadia ego). War was in the skies, and coastal fortifications were anachronistic.

The P-38 Lightning fighter was made by Lockheed when it was based in Burbank on the fringes of Los Angeles, back when Los Angeles was producing the airplanes to fight the war and the Bay Area was turning out a warship a day in its furiously productive shipyards. If we think of war as combat and casualties, then it has, with small exceptions such as the Ohlone and Miwok resistance to the Missions and the land grabs, been fought elsewhere. But if we think of it as a mindset, an economy, a way of life— a lot of things that add up to a system—then two things become as evident as a thirty-foot-thick chunk of concrete embedded amid the sticky monkeyflower and fragrant coast sage of the Headlands.

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Base End Station B2S2 Battery Construction No. 129, South Elevation: Devils Slide, Milagra Ridge Military Reservation, 2006 © Alex Fradkin

One is that the Bay Area is entrenched in and crucial to this system, with the University of California, Berkeley running the nation’s nuclear weapons programs since their inception, with defense contractors such as Lockheed Martin (makers, once upon a time, of the Nike missile) clustered in Silicon Valley, and with the ring of old bases around the bay—Mare Island, Hunter’s Point, Alameda, Treasure Island, Hamilton, and the Presidio.

The other is that this system is mad. Its madness was perhaps most perfectly manifested in the soldiers or National Guardsmen in camouflage who patrolled the Golden Gate Bridge at one phase of the GWOT, the Global War on Terror, a war that in its very name declared hostility not to a group or a nation but to an emotion, while seeking—with heavily armed men in civilian spaces such as Pennsylvania Station or the Golden Gate Bridge—to induce that very emotion in the public. That their desert camouflage only made them stand out, and that the threats to the bridge were sketchy and remote, while the men with semi-automatic weapons were evident and unnerving, articulates something about war as a state of being. The enemy may be remote, invisible, or even conceptual, but we, as a society devoted to war, see ourselves in a thousand mirrors, of which the bunkers are one.

The bunkers were both prophylactics against physical damage by an alien military and part of the damage that is the mindset of war—the mindset that induces fear and suspicion, that countenances sacrifices, destructions, and the willingness to engage in acts of violence, that damages a society before the enemy ever touches it. The military left radioactive waste behind at Hunter’s Point Naval Shipyards; rusting, leaking warships in the Mothball Fleet near Benicia; PCBs at 100,000 times the acceptable level, along with dioxins and other chemicals, on Treasure Island; and more. The Headlands and much of the rest of the GGNRA got off lightly, larded only with cement and rust, not with chemicals and radiation.

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SF-88 Radar Installation for Nike Missile Site, East Elevation: Wolf Ridge, Fort Cronkhite, 2010 © Alex Fradkin

What all these areas have in common is their status as monuments to public expenditure by those in charge of protecting us. There is, for example, the Sea Shadow, a stealth ship built at extraordinary expense in the 1980s and then abandoned without ever being used or being useful. The upkeep of the Mothball Fleet, the prototype, is a corollary to the lack of money for libraries and schools in towns like Richmond, whose African-American population mostly arrived during the Second World War for shipyard jobs and stayed even when the economy withered. It remains a depressed area, despite the growth of the Chevron refineries there that have been refining Iraqi crude since early in the current war. Chevron, whose board member Condoleezza Rice became our Secretary of State and led us into that war, Condoleezza who is back at Stanford, Stanford that helped generate Silicon Valley, Silicon Valley which has done so much to develop the new technologies of war. War is everywhere for those who have eyes to see, but in some places it’s hard to miss.

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Base End Station B4S4, Interior West Elevation: Fort Cronkhite, 2005 © Alex Fradkin

It is good that the bunkers are in the beautiful open space of the coast, and good that one of the region’s native sons, Alex Fradkin, has photographed them so eloquently. They should be there. We should pause amid the myriad pleasures that this Mediterranean climate and protected landscape afford to contemplate the presence of death and our own implication in the business. Until something profound changes in the United States, war will never be far away, and even on the most paradisiacal meander we do well to stop to remember this.

Reviews

Backs to the Well

by Michael Ziser
From Boom Spring 2011, Vol. 1, No. 1

David Carle, Introduction to Water in California, 2nd ed., California Natural History Guides series. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009, 292 pp. $19.95

Brenda Hillman, Practical Water. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2009, 124 pp. $22.95

William T. Vollmann, Imperial. New York: Viking Press, 2009, 1,344 pp. $55

boom-2011-1-1-66-ufigure-1The preeminent California missionary Father Junípero Serra (1713-84) is famous for his erudition and religious zeal, but we might never have heard of him (or been here to hear) had these qualities not been combined with a keen nose for water. Serra, who spent decades in the arid expanses of Baja California and Querétaro (home to a massive aqueduct) before coming north, applied the hydrological wisdom he had acquired to finally make a success of Spanish colonization efforts in the upper part of the state. As records of his labors reveal, he was careful to site his California missions to take maximum advantage of the comparative abundance of fresh water that poured into the Pacific from coastal rivers, even going so far as to relocate the San Carlos Borroméo mission from Monterey to a better spot along the Rio Carmel. Irrigation was as much on Serra’s mind as salvation, and these twin obsessions have come to define the territory and state whose mythic purpose is to water the parched hopes and germinate the dreams of wave after wave of immigrants from north, south, east, and west. From the hydraulic mining that underwrote the gold fever of the 1850s to the massive drainage, flood-control, and irrigation projects that commandeered vast human resources and laid the groundwork for the agricultural fortunes of the twentieth century to the ongoing legal and political contests by municipalities, developers, and agribusiness for shares of a water empire that now extends far into the territory of other states, the Golden State has always been understood through its other official color: blue.

That we are utterly dependent on the presence and proper management of freshwater resources is something Californians have frequently been told, in tones by turn bureaucratic, boosterish, and apocalyptic. The explorer John Wesley Powell, surveying the far western territories in the 1860s and 1870s, was clear-eyed about the value of surface water for transport, power, and limited irrigation, only to be outlobbied by the railroad barons, who stood to profit from more optimistic views of the habitability of their vast landholdings (over 180 million acres). The writer Wallace Stegner, historians Donald Worster and Norris Hundley, Jr., and journalist Marc Reisner have since drawn upon Powell to tell widely read cautionary stories about violence, graft, and disenfranchisement associated with struggles to control water in the West. Collectively, these authors and others like them were responsible for a shift in conventional wisdom away from the boom mentality that fueled nineteenth-century projects of drainage and levee-building and massive twentieth-century investment in the Central Valley Water Project. From them we are fortunate to have inherited a growing cultural emphasis on conservation of both water resources and the often wild lands where they originate.

It remains for twenty-first-century water writers to find a means for the state’s citizens to come to terms with damage that has already been done, to learn how to live in the hydraulic mess that now defines contemporary California. The best place to begin that task is with David Carle’s contribution to the California Natural History Guides series, Introduction to Water in California, which offers the most concise summary available of the state’s current water situation. Helpfully laying out the entire story in fewer than three hundred small and copiously illustrated pages, Carle presents the fundamental geological and ecological facts underlying our waterscape before conducting an eye-opening tour of the reengineered system we have built atop it. All of the major water issues are here-from giardia parasites to global warming, soil subsidence to selenium contamination-briefly but accurately conveyed in accessible prose. Want to know what water supplies your community depends on? Check Table 3, which lists them in order of importance for the 400 or so largest cities. Ever wondered how water from the far northern part of the state makes it over the mountain ranges south of Bakersfield? Carle includes graphic charts and photographs detailing the massive penstocks that use 7.5 billion kilowatt hours per year to pump water to southern coastal and Mojave communities. If California high-school students were required to study this inexpensive treasure as part of their fundamental curriculum, the state would be well on its way to more effective water policy.

For more advanced courses, though, we need the humanities. The poet and teacher Brenda Hillman’s most recent collection is the third installment (after Cascadia, 2001, and Pieces of Air in the Epic, 2005) in her series of meditations on the four elements. Practical Water is just what its title proclaims: a staged confrontation between our traditional and even mythic understanding of water and the reality of California’s endlessly plumbed, intensively managed, and anxiously watched water systems. Mindful of the powerful vision of untroubled human oneness with an interfluent Nature— “whate’er / I saw, or heard, or felt, was but a stream / That flowed into a kindred stream,” wrote Wordsworth—Hillman starts by establishing the conventional connection between the stream of consciousness and the flow of water:

The mind was split & mended
Each perception divided into more

& there were in the hearts of the water molecules
little branches perpendicular to thought

But this commonplace analogy (linked by Hillman to the Romantic version of modernism favored by Wallace Stevens) quickly transforms itself into a dare to take the metaphor with utter literalism, to accept the often tragic and absurd career of those water molecules as they flow around the geological, architectural, historical, and political facts that are conventionally excluded from the poetic page. As Angela Hume Lewandowski has elaborated in her penetrating discussions of Practical Water and the phenomenon of “contaminated” poetic form, the reader of Hillman’s poem is asked not to indulge in a flight of fancy but to face facts: to prepare, in Hillman’s words, to be “Uncomfortable & act like you mean it.”

Hillman embraces this challenge most directly in the longest poem in the collection, “Hydrology of California: Toward an Ecopoetical Alphabet,” in which she travels across the state watershed by watershed, meditating on the future of poetry while coming to grips with the environmental and historical details of its rivers, the Klamath, the Smith, the Mattole, the Navarro, the Trinity, the Sacramento, the Feather, the American, the Putah, the Cache, the Cosumnes, the Napa, the Tuolumne, the Merced, the Owens, the Mojave, the Kern, the San Joaquin, the Fresno, the San Gabriel. . . . Along the way, the speaker of the poem limbers up her mind and tongue to cope with the paradoxes and complexities of the hydroscape before her.

They had to shower / They had to eat  i said to main Brenda
Now don’t start just ignorantly criticizing state  dams  the
whole time
You drink gallons of it you know you do

There have been moments before in nature writing of this kind of unanswerable self-indictment, but Hillman’s goal is not just to register the banality of her (and our) complicity in the disruption of the environment but to steep her poetic practice in it, to really think through the ways that poems are made of stoppages, cataracts, and trickles of breath, the tongue damming and diverting the often polluted spirit like the levees, check-dams, and irrigation ditches that define our physical landscape. Something rare, the voice of poetry here is in sustained alliance not with the pure and wild nature so easily imagined but with the far less picturesque and perhaps ultimately incomprehensible reality of sewage-treatment plants and algal blooms coexisting with sulphur butterflies and fluff grass. The “future of poetry,” a refrain through Hillman’s poem that ties the aesthetic avant-garde to the environmental status quo, lies in imagining the real flowing and pooling of the world we already inhabit:

Future of poetry  there’s a stream  between a & b as i write
this   a dream
of a west   that would outlast us

To judge from William Vollmann’s Imperial, time is already running out on the West our plumbing has created. Sprawling over 1,300 pages, hundreds of informants, and several genres, the most recent book of contemporary American literature’s most excessive author focuses on the precipitous rise and steady decline of the vast agricultural region surrounding Imperial County in the southeastern corner of California. This was a sparsely populated corner until 1901, when the first in a long series of projects diverting water from the Colorado River capitalized on its fertile soil, perpetual growing season, and nearby railway to turn it into a major food-exporting district. Within a decade investors and immigrants—from Japan, China, the Philippines, Mexico, and later Oklahoma—began to pour into the area, launching a classic California boom, this one in lettuce and other warm-season row crops. The All-American, still the world’s largest irrigation canal, was built in 1930 to bring more water to the southern end of the Salton Sink, where it begins a gravity-fed journey northward through ditches and aquifers and two manmade rivers (the New and the Alamo), watering cantaloupe and cotton fields en route to the saline basin of the artificial Salton Sea, 226 feet below sea level. “WATER IS HERE,” crowed the boosters of the time, a phrase Vollmann repeats in lamentation and irony throughout the transcript of his ten-year exploration of the world this water made possible. Within a few generations irrigation projects led to overproduction, soil salinity problems, and labor exploitation and unrest. The consequences of the boom and slow bust are written all across the physical landscape, from the border fence erected to keep out Mexican workers drawn to the onion fields and date groves to the communal ejido farms south of it that are drying up because of water diversions to San Diego to the maquiladora factories and the narcotraficantes that have become stock figures in representations of the borderlands. As a social and environmental experiment, the Imperial Valley has few rivals even in a state as radically transfigured as twentieth-century California. And though Vollmann surely owes some of his popularity to the public’s impulse to voyeuristically consume the misery of the underclass, the true value of a work like Imperial lies in the way it witnesses and documents the human and environmental consequences of our gritty water history.

boom-2011-1-1-66-ufigure-2Vollmann’s accomplishment lies partly in his documentary depth and extensiveness (his report on the longstanding Chinese community in Mexicali deserves its own book-length treatment), but it is also in the perspective that slowly emerges from his disciplined unwillingness to screen out centrifugal personal histories, literary citations, or historical details in surrender to the requirements of argument and narrative. In the numerous and prominent reviews of Imperial there is a shared note of disappointment at the sheer bagginess of the book, its uncouth manner of repeating itself, revisiting its own toxic history apparently without much regard for the patience of its readers. Our understandable desire to round off the problems Vollmann confronts, even if only in aesthetic terms, can breed irritation not just at the interminability of the prose but at its stubborn refusal to dig deeper into causes and possible solutions. But—and here is the lesson that the new writers on California water are bringing to us—there is nowhere left to dig. We have tapped the accessible aquifers, dammed the available rivers, built the impossible canals, tiled the vast marshlands. There is no Carmel River down the way where we may begin again with our grand mission. Imperial does not tediously attend to the minutiae of raw sewage, pesticides, and border crossing in order to prescribe a solution that will rinse them away and allow us to go back to our legendarily carefree form of utopianism. Its unprecedented feat is rather to forcibly immerse us in the turbid waters of our shared California, present and future. Whatever we do after such a rebaptism, there can be no more evasions of the past.

These new writers on California water have begun to recognize that, for all of its age-old associations with the stream of time’s endless renewal, the purification of the body and the soul, and the mysteries of the unknown, water ultimately speaks to us of the inescapability of history, our unavoidable contamination by the world, and the patient accumulation, somewhere, of all that we have pretended to discard. In the world that Father Serra set in motion for us, water molecules descend like a heavenly host to dissolve, transport, and redeposit the unattended truths of our existence—the flushed pharmaceuticals, bits of rubber tire, heavy metals from border factories, the sweat of migrant workers—and then, evaporated by that storied sun, abandon the desert to us. B

Articles

Listening to Art Laboe

by Susan Straight
From Boom Spring 2011, Vol. 1, No. 1

Susan Straight is Boom writer-in-residence for 2011.

For nearly all their lives, since they could first begin to understand the words to the songs playing on the kitchen radio that sits on the window ledge facing north, the deep wooden sill of a room that used to be a laundry porch in a classic California orange-grove bungalow, my three daughters have heard the veteran DJ Art Laboe in the evening, playing Killer Oldies while I cook dinner, clean the counter, do the dishes, pay the bills, and check the homework.

boom-2011-1-1-1-ufigure-2The very first song my middle daughter ever fully comprehended was “Just My Imagination,” by the Temptations. She was about five. In the kitchen, sitting on the floor, she looked up at me and said slowly, “So he never even talked to her? He just loves her?”

“Yeah,” I said. I think I told my child, “He loves the idea of her.”

That’s what Art Laboe’s Killer Oldies show has always been about—love, the idea of love, missing love, remembering love, hoping for love. For many of us who grew up in a certain time, in certain neighborhoods in California, his voice and those songs are as iconic as Route 66 winding through San Bernardino, Valencia orange groves in Riverside and Corona and Pomona, and crowded drive-ins in El Monte.

Now that daughter is eighteen, her sisters twenty and fourteen, and they roll their eyes when 7:00 PM rolls around, saying, “Oh, my God, Mom, do we have to listen to the same songs over and over? The same guy, saying the same things, every single night? Really? Seriously?”

I was born in Riverside, down the street from this house. After long days of working, being a single mother, living on a street where for twenty-two years my neighbors and I have struggled to keep it together, sharing eggs and oranges and babysitting and minor car repairs and major emotional repairs—after funerals and ambulances and foreclosures and new babies and trees that fall on roofs and graduation parties in a front yard with a cousin for DJ, we are all still here.

My street is one of eighty-and one-hundred-year-old houses. This week, two neighbors talked to me about their home additions—both are doubling the size of their houses. It sounds grand, only these are small wood-frame buildings—one is 950 square feet and one 650 square feet—and my neighbors have for two years been building the new parts themselves.

So when darkness falls I am still in the kitchen, making a cake for a neighbor whose truck was wrecked when the flatbed towing it away for repairs flipped. My girls go to the living room and watch YouTube videos of strangers dancing at weddings, falling off coffee tables while singing, and doing whatever else their friends think they should see. I stay in the kitchen; as ever, welcoming me to what must be approaching his millionth show is that deep, reasonable, invariable voice: “This is Art Laboe with another night of Killer Oldies on the Art Laboe Connection.”

Some Californians can’t wait to open laptops and listen to their favorite Beethoven sonata; some Californians in living rooms that I imagine with beige carpets and heavy drapes can’t wait for evening to put on an LP of Frank Sinatra or Tommy James and the Shondells or the Beach Boys.

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Susan Straight’s north-facing kitchen window with lavender radio, June 1, 2010 (photograph © Douglas McCulloh)

 

But the people who live where I do, we wait for Etta James to sing “At Last,” as she does nearly every evening at this time. We wait for Ralfi Pagan “To Say I Love You” and Brenton Wood to declare that “Only the Strong Survive.”

I’m waiting for, yes, the same old songs, the ones that comfort me, remind me of other times. Just like millions of listeners all around California, close to radios in cars and kitchens and yards and factories and prisons and night fields where if things are desperate they pick grapes or oranges by the beams of headlights.

He has to be nearly eighty years old, I thought this week, and so I looked him up. He is Armenian-American; his given name Art Egnoian. The girls think he resembles an ancient gangster, with his dark hair, still-vivid eyebrows, and wide slash of mouth. But I’m amazed by his youthful face.

Art Laboe is eighty-four. He loves playing songs for people. That’s what he does. It’s all he really talks about.

On a 2009 television interview with the newscaster Tony Valdez, who looks thrilled to tell Laboe that he grew up listening to his show, Laboe looks at a photograph of himself taken around 1947 in Pomona, at radio station KPMO, and says with a note of wonder, even now: “I was on Cloud Nine—I was on the radio.” In his voice, you can hear that this was his single-minded dream and obsession. He talks about being seven years old in Salt Lake City, sitting for hours in front of his mother’s radio, “completely enthralled with this box that talked.” When his parents divorced he decided to move to Los Angeles to live with his sister, so he bought a bus ticket: he was nine years old and rode there alone.

In 1951 Laboe built his own “roving radio” truck, a mobile DJ booth that had regular stops on street corners on Jefferson, Manchester, and Crenshaw in South LA, among other places. By 1956, he says, on the Los Angeles radio station KPOP he was the first DJ to play rock and roll on the West Coast. He was the inventor of the term “oldies but goodies,” which he used when kids requested songs by Big Joe Turner and other older R&B stars; he says people wanted “an old song, but it had to be a good one.”

He must reach more listeners, and more kinds of listeners, than anyone outside the mainstream media can imagine in this age of talk radio, satellite broadcasting, and high-definition TV. This morning, when I bought tamales from Angel, Sr., my tamale guy, who was born in LA and lives in Riverside, he said, “Oh, man, I grew up listening to Art Laboe! I was a kid. I listened to Wolfman Jack, too, but Art Laboe was the one. We used to go to Legion Stadium in El Monte and hear him. All the oldies.”

And a few hours later, when I was talking to a class of athletes at a college, one twenty-year-old basketball player grinned wide and said, “Art Laboe! Man, I grew up in Baldwin Park and the whole neighborhood listens to him! The women love him.”

I said, “He’s eighty-four,” and his face fell. “Man, if he dies, there’s gonna be thousands of people at his funeral. I’m not lyin’, man. Thousands.”

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Art Laboe hosts a dance, El Monte Legion Stadium, 1957 (photograph property of Original Sound Sales Corporation)

The thousands live all over California, Utah, Nevada, and even Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, and, given the Internet, all over the world. Growing up, I knew people who called Art Laboe’s show to send greetings and dedications to their families who moved around to harvest grapes in Dinuba and Mecca. And always there have been women who send dedications to family members in prison. It’s a code many of us know: to send a song to someone in Chino, Delano, Calipatria and mention that you got a letter, or are urging your listener to “keep your head up,” to send the Brenton Wood song, means you’re talking to someone behind bars.

Most nights, when I’m listening, more women call than men, but guys call too, to send anniversary wishes, birthday wishes, and sometimes just wishes that a girl will call again.

He has two syndicated shows, the Art Laboe Connection, airing nightly, and the Art Laboe Sunday Special. The Sunday show started in 1991, the year my middle daughter was born, on 99.1 KKGO in Riverside, but I had heard his voice for years before then. The shows have grown; they now play on radio stations around the southwest, wherever people listen to the songs that are part of Chicano and black culture from a certain time, the songs that remind them of high-school dances, of parties in the park or at the beach, of front seats and back seats of cars like my friend Penguin’s Dodge Dart.

Nearly every night I hear what used to be Penguin’s favorite song—it is requested every evening: “Don’t Let No One Get You Down,” by War, the classic California band with members of every color, cowbells, and sweet deep harmonies and even a white guy, Lee Oskar, on flute. War was famous for “Low Rider” but is loved by those of us who grew up on “Slippin’ into Darkness” and “Me and Baby Brother.” I haven’t seen Penguin for years—he’s slipped back into the darkness of drug addiction so many times that he won’t come around now, and I miss him. Hearing this song takes me directly back to a night in 1981 when we sat around in the yard of his first house in the Eastside neighborhood of Riverside, a converted stucco garage. We sat on upended milk crates, eating his first barbecue, with a boombox beside us in the grass.

My children know this, accept this, shake their heads at my fatalism, and my calcified listening habits, and my inexorable sentiment. They think they will never listen to the same songs over and over, or have friends who disappear.

Laboe’s website, KillerOldies.com, is one of the most heavily-trafficked sites on the Internet. On it he reads dedications for men and women in the military serving across oceans, and dedications for loved ones serving prison sentences in other states. Because California exports inmates now, I wonder sometimes if those dedications and goodnight kisses are heard by the intended recipients.

There is a comfort in listening to Laboe’s voice. He’s live six nights a week and he’s always patient. Last week a little girl named Pearl calls in, and he says, “I don’t think I’ve ever talked to you before,” and she says, “Yes, you have,” and Laboe says with a half-smile in his voice, “Really? When?”

“Two years ago!” she says, as if astonished that he doesn’t remember. Laboe asks, “How old are you?” and she replies, “Eleven.” Then she dedicates a song to her grandmother.

The commercials are embarrassingly cheesy: Smoker’s Savior, a machine that allows people to quit smoking by imitating cigarettes somehow, with smoke rings of steam; Hero Tabs, a new Viagra made of watermelon rinds. But one Sunday night this year, April 12, Antonio Villaraigosa called in—yes, the mayor of Los Angeles, who grew up in East Los Angeles and proudly says he listened to Art Laboe while driving his Camaro through the streets with his friends.

The mayor and Art Laboe talked about the 2010 Census, and how important it was for Killer Oldies listeners to send in their forms and not be afraid that the information would be used for anything but counting them. It was standard stuff. But the mayor’s voice changed when he talked about how he used to cruise at night, listening to Laboe, and he seemed almost abashed—maybe he was remembering how he looked in that car, how he was seeking girls, how the boys beside him must have teased him sometimes.

That night there was a strange timelessness as I listened, looking out the kitchen window at the dark. Even the mayor of Los Angeles must still hope to hear specific songs from his past, evoking comfort and history and, yes, memories of love.

The good-night dedications begin at ten and last until midnight. “This is Pelon from East LA, man, Boyle Heights, and I wanna send out a song to all my boys. Sly Slick and Wicked.”

Alejandra calls from Pomona to wish her boyfriend a happy anniversary—it’s been three years and seven months.

Esperanza calls from LA to tell her grandmother Esperanza that she loves her. She asks for “At Last” by Etta James.

And every night, Betty Johnson calls from Madera, where she listens to KOKO 94, to chant in a breathless mantra variations on the same message: “This is for my husband Randy Johnson, Jr. Baby, I love you I adore you You Are My World and I’ll always be here for you. Don’t worry, baby, I’ll send some money tomorrow. Thanks for your card. I hope you got my letter. I’ll see you soon.” She asks for a different song every night.

I think she is one of the women who used to kiss their loved one goodnight via Art Laboe, who actually made the smooching sound of a kiss right there, live, on the radio.

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Art Laboe in KRLA studio, 1977 (photograph property of Original Sound Sales Corporation)

When my daughters roll their eyes at around seven, when the small lavender boom box we bought ten years ago at Target has trouble tuning in the station, I feel old. I’m forty-nine. But I stand at the sink, looking out the window at the long, dark four-lane avenue that leads directly east, to Colton and San Bernardino and then the Cajon Pass and the Mojave Desert, while hearing “Memories of El Monte,” a song you might only hear on Art Laboe’s show, and I realize that his voice is as totemic and Californian as the missions, each built a day’s journey from the next to unite the whole sprawling state. His voice does the same. I cannot explain that to my daughters, listening to this litany of love and heartbreak and memory in this immense place that many Americans never see. They think we’re all Beverly Hills with sedate, decorative palm trees; but we are the huge silver groves of date palms in Mecca and Indio. They picture the crashing waves and cliffside mansions of Malibu, but we are the strawberry fields of Oxnard and the Marine base of Camp Pendleton, where the ocean mist is full of salt. They see Hollywood and Sunset, but we are also on E Street and Whittier Boulevard; cruising, boxing groceries, welding mufflers, changing tires, sewing prom dresses, picking oranges, teaching kids—and calling after nightfall to request “Don’t Let No One Get You Down.” B

(album cover image property of Original Sound Sales Corporation)

Articles

Undocumented and Unafraid: Tam Tran and Cinthya Felix

Kent Wong
Matias Ramos

The failure of the DREAM Act in the last Congress—by a narrow margin—followed on the untimely deaths of Cinthya Felix and Tam Tran, renowned leaders in the immigrant-rights movement. Two activists and colleagues remember them.

On May 15, 2010, Tam Tran and Cinthya Felix, leaders in the movement to pass the DREAM Act, were killed in a car accident. Their tragic passing has galvanized the movement they left behind.

The Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act proposes to grant United States citizenship to undocumented students or those who entered the country while still children.1 It was first introduced in Congress in 2001 under another name and has been reintroduced several times, most recently in 2010. The effort to get the bill enacted into law has been growing for a decade, and the national campaign for its passage has emerged as one of the most important social-justice movements of this generation. Students who stand to benefit from the law have conducted civil disobedience in the halls of Congress, organized hunger strikes, marched on foot for hundreds of miles from Florida to Washington, DC, as part of the “Trail of DREAMs,” organized a “DREAM Freedom Ride” from Los Angeles to Washington, and held countless press conferences, mock graduation ceremonies, and rallies to advance the cause.

The movement to pass the DREAM Act arose in the hearts and minds of thousands of young immigrants who claim America as their home; it has created powerful bonds among these young activists, who are assuming leadership roles and shaping the nation’s future.

Tam and Cinthya had both grown up in undocumented immigrant families; against the odds, both had graduated from UCLA and entered prestigious graduate schools. Indeed, they were among the very few undocumented immigrant graduate students in the country. Tam was in a PhD program in American civilization at Brown University; Cinthya was in a Master’s program in public health at Columbia University and planned to enter medical school. Both Tam and Cinthya were leading advocates for passage of the DREAM Act, with a national reputation as activists. DREAM students are carrying on their work in their honor and memory.

Of the estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants currently living in the United States, more than 2 million are minors. These young people had no say in the decision to come to this country, but were brought by parents or relatives seeking a better life. The aim of the act is to give them an opportunity to earn legal status by completing two years of higher education or through service in the US military.

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Cinthya Felix, Prema Lal, and Tam Tran demonstrate on behalf of the DREAM Act, Washington, DC, March 4, 2010. (photograph courtesy of DreamActivist)

DREAM activists like Tam and Cinthya became advocates for their own legal status as part of the broader fight for immigration reform. The rise in visibility of such activists challenged the pejorative labels of “illegal” and “law-breaking” frequently used in congressional and media debates on immigration. Tam and Cinthya, and others like them, showed America a different, more accurate image of undocumented youth that exemplified all that we value and hope for in our children: leadership, courage, articulateness, civic-minded commitment, and professional skills. They epitomized the motto of the DREAM Act movement: “undocumented and unafraid.” By breaking the habit of fear and anonymity to share their stories, they advanced a powerful movement for social justice.

Tam Tran was born to Vietnamese parents in Germany on October 30, 1982. After the fall of Saigon in 1975, her family was forced to flee Vietnam by boat, along with hundreds of thousands of other refugees. While many “boat people” were rescued at sea by Americans and relocated to the US, Tam’s parents were rescued by the German navy. They came to live in Germany, where Tam and her brother, Thien, were born.

The Tran family came to the United States when Tam was six years old to join other family members who had settled in California. Tam’s parents applied for political asylum, but their request was denied (after many years waiting) because they had emigrated from Germany, not directly from Vietnam. The family received a “withholding of deportation” exemption, but their status does not lead to legal residency or US citizenship. Tam was Vietnamese, but she had never been to Vietnam and was not a Vietnamese citizen. She was born in Germany, but Germany does not grant citizenship based on birthright. And although Tam subsequently spent more than twenty years in the US, the American government refused to give her legal status. So she was not only undocumented but stateless, trapped in a disgraceful immigration morass.

Tam grew up in Garden Grove, California. She graduated from Santiago High School, attended Santa Ana College, and then transferred to UCLA. She worked multiple jobs while carrying a full course load, and was also a prominent student leader and activist. At UCLA, she found a home with IDEAS (Improving Dreams, Educational Access, and Success), the support organization for undocumented immigrant students. She was a gifted filmmaker who produced acclaimed documentaries that have been screened nationally. The two best-known are Lost and Found and Seattle Underground Railroad (both 2007). Both capture the stories of undocumented UCLA students and celebrate the struggles and accomplishments of young immigrants. These moving, humorous, and insightful films provide a sharp analysis of oppressive immigration laws and their impact on youth.

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In memoriam: a Day of the Dead altar honoring Cinthya and Tam made by fellow activists Gabriela Monico and Uriel Rivera, 2010. (photograph © Elizabeth Leonardo)

Tam graduated from UCLA in 2006 with a bachelor’s degree in American literature and culture and with Latin, departmental, and college honors. After graduation, she worked at the UCLA Center for Labor Research and Education and as a teaching assistant for the first university course ever offered in the United States on undocumented immigrant students. Her story was featured in Underground Undergrads: UCLA Undocumented Immigrant Students Speak Out, a book published by the Center in 2007.2

Tam gave public talks on the DREAM Act, screened her films, and promoted Underground Undergrads throughout the country. She made presentations before the national convention of the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance in Nevada, the first Asian Pacific Worker Rights Hearing in Washington, DC, the 2009 American Sociological Association conference in San Francisco, the 2009 Asian American Studies conference in Hawaii, and the Ford Foundation in New York in 2010. Each time, she spoke with eloquence, grace, and power. And each time, she recruited more allies to support the movement of immigrant youth and students.

As a leading national advocate for the DREAM Act, Tam testified before the US Congressional Immigration Subcommittee on May 18, 2007. Given her own undocumented status, this was an act of considerable personal courage. And sure enough, three days later, ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) agents staged a predawn raid on her family’s home in Orange County and took her parents and brother into custody. Tam reached out to members of Congress and immigration attorneys and was able to have her family released and to stop their deportation. Throughout this ordeal she kept her focus, remarking, “My family is one of the lucky ones. Most immigrants don’t have access to Congress and immigration attorneys, and just disappear.”

Tam applied to top PhD programs nationwide and was accepted to UCLA, the University of California, Berkeley, University of Michigan, Yale University, and Brown University. Although public institutions are legally barred from granting financial assistance to undocumented immigrants, both Yale and Brown, private universities, offered her generous scholarships. Tam entered the PhD program in American civilization at Brown. She joked, “Maybe if I get a PhD in American civilization they will finally let me become an American.”

At Brown, as in California, she swiftly became a leader. She continued to advocate for passage of the DREAM Act, founded the Brown Immigrant Rights Coalition, and helped launch the first statewide network of undocumented immigrant youths and students. She mobilized student contingents for marches in Washington, DC and lobbying visits to the Rhode Island congressional delegation and statehouse. A few weeks after her death, Brown University awarded her a Master’s degree in recognition of her extraordinary achievements.

Cinthya Felix was born in Sinaloa, Mexico on January 23, 1984. At fifteen, she went with her family to Los Angeles for what she thought was a vacation to Disneyland. In reality, it was an economic-survival move by her parents. The Felix family settled in the historic Mexican community of East Los Angeles. In high school Cinthya was a brilliant student as well as an accomplished basketball player. She then matriculated at UCLA, a two-hour commute each way by bus. There, she worked hard, saved money, and bought a car, audaciously giving it the vanity license plate YLLEGAL.

Like other undocumented immigrants, Cinthya was unable to get a driver’s license in California. She understood the contradiction: “The state wants our money, so they let us buy the car, get insurance, and pay for registration. But when it comes to giving us a license, they don’t want to give you one.”3

She could not get a license in California, but she had a plan. She organized a group of students to drive to Washington State, where it is easier for immigrants to obtain a driver’s license. Tam Tran was one of the few students in IDEAS who had a driver’s license, so she joined the trip and brought her camera to document the experience, producing the film Seattle Underground Railroad.

At UCLA, Cinthya was one of the founders of IDEAS, the organization for undocumented immigrant students. IDEAS began as a clandestine support group: undocumented students would gather to share survival tips and assist one another to navigate the frequently unfriendly waters of the big university. As its numbers grew, the group developed into a bold public-advocacy organization that held mock graduation ceremonies on campus, immigrant-youth empowerment conferences that drew hundreds of students to UCLA, and an annual banquet that raised funds for members to complete their education. Cinthya and Tam became leading activists and fast friends. After their death, IDEAS was recognized by the University of California’s president and regents as an outstanding student organization within the university.

Cinthya graduated from college with a degree in English literature and minors in Spanish and Mexican Studies, but her ambition was to have a career in medicine. Fearing that no medical school would accept an applicant without legal status, she instead applied to Master’s programs in public health, eventually choosing that of Columbia University. In graduate school, she conducted research on health-care access within immigrant communities, waiting tables at night to support herself.

Tam and Cinthya were pioneers, undocumented immigrant students who had made it into graduate programs at exclusive private universities. This achievement was not without its share of alienation and isolation. As they had done in California, they relied on one another, and their experience on the East Coast only deepened their friendship. To celebrate the end of the school year, Cinthya and Tam decided to take a road trip to Maine to visit lighthouses, eat lobster, and prepare for summer. As they were returning from their trip, they were killed by a drunk driver who swerved into their lane of traffic.

Two days later, more than five hundred students gathered at UCLA for a memorial in their honor. Vigils were held in Los Angeles, Orange County, New York, Washington, Rhode Island, and Florida. Students in Arizona made buttons with their image in their memory. Most importantly, students in many areas of the country commemorated their spirit by carrying on their work, staging sit-ins, street closures, civil disobedience, hunger strikes, a national DREAM Freedom Ride, and other activities. Tam and Cinthya’s untimely death has been mourned and memorialized by members of Congress, the California state legislature, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, and the Los Angeles City Council. In their memory, DREAM activists reaffirmed their commitment to fight for the DREAM Act.4

Although we mourn the passing of Cinthya and Tam, we celebrate their lives. They were sisters; they were kindred spirits, always in sync: planning their next meal, their next act of defiant and optimistic activism, searching for a new adventure, pursuing their next dream. They accomplished more in their short lives than ever could have been imagined. Their spirit lives on in the hundreds of IDEAS alumni, in the thousands of young immigrants who embraced them as role models, and in the millions of immigrants who will one day be empowered to emerge from the shadows. B

 

Notes

1. The Senate version of the bill in its most recent form (S. 729) is published by the US Government Printing Office and may be found at http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/BILLS-111s729is/pdf/BILLS-111s729is.pdf, accessed January 6, 2011.

2. See http://www.labor.ucla.edu/publications/books/underground.html, accessed January 6, 2011.

3. Film, Seattle Underground Railroad, 2007.

4. In the 111th Congress the bill passed in the House of Representatives but the Senate majority was not large enough to overcome a Republican filibuster, and it died with the end of the legislative session. Activists plan to lobby for it to be revived in the next session of Congress.

 

Kent Wong is director of the UCLA Center for Labor Research and Education and taught the class that produced Underground Undergrads: UCLA Undocumented Immigrant Students Speak Out. Tam and Cinthya were his students and Tam also worked as his teaching assistant and intern.

Matias Ramos is a writer, blogger, and founding member of United We Dream, a national network of immigrant student activists. He is a graduate of UCLA and was a friend of Tam and Cinthya as well as a fellow IDEAS member. He lives in Washington, DC.

Articles

Religion by Lottery

by Wade Clark Roof
From Boom Spring 2011, Vol. 1, No. 1

During the holiday season of late November and December a traveler exiting Interstate 5 onto La Paz Road toward Mission Viejo, between Los Angeles and San Diego, is soon greeted with a religious display unlike that found in most American cities. What makes it unusual is the diversity of peaceful messages from Jewish, Islamic, Christian, Bahá’i, and, for the first time this past year, Hindu traditions. Located at the intersection of La Paz and Chrisanta Drive—the so-called Four Corners, itself symbolic of many paths—the display reminds us that there is more to this country religiously than the Judeo-Christian heritage, and that globally diverse faith communities can and must coexist. Despite the media’s violent images of religious populations clashing with one another around the globe, here there are neither swords nor the sounds of battle.

But this display is far more unusual than initially meets the eye. Mission Viejo’s residents offer the vision of—or better, experiment with—the possibility of an amicable religious pluralism and have gone further than most other communities to implement it. Decades ago the Four Corners was host to Christmas trees and Santa Claus, but as this upscale, planned residential community grew into a city of roughly 100,000 residents and became more ethnically and religiously diverse, the situation changed. What had been largely an unquestioned Christian space became a contested public site with religious groups vying with one another for a spot to make public their presence within the community.

This occurred in part because of demographics. The city’s religiously affiliated population is reported as 45 percent, less than California’s overall 54 percent. In California generally, Catholics account for 61 percent of the religious population; evangelical Christians 18 percent; mainline Protestants 9 percent; and “other” religious constituencies—mainly Jews, Mormons, Buddhists, Muslims, and Hindus—amount to 12 percent. Compared with the country as a whole, Catholics and members of eastern religions have a greater representation both in Mission Viejo and in California as a whole; evangelical Christians and mainline Protestants somewhat less. Plus, a large unaffiliated sector includes varieties of agnostics, atheists, privatized believers, nature lovers, and those who identify themselves as spiritual but nonreligious. Overall, the mix is that of an emerging “new religious America” of increased diversity, as Harvard’s Diana Eck describes it.1 California, it is said, stretches the definition of what constitutes the religious and the spiritual, and there is certainly some truth in this claim in Mission Viejo.

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Mission Viejo’s Four Corners, December 2010: at right is a Christian nativity scene, sponsored by a local Evangelical Christian church, with a Bahá’i display in the background. (photograph © Bill Sharpsteen)

Pluralism—that is, a culture that embraces diversity—requires not just believing, but doing: cultivating a spirit of acceptance that moves beyond mere tolerance. Faith groups vary in the ways and degrees to which they buy into a pluralist ideology: exclusivists resist recognition of the truth claims of others; moderates respect others; and the most inclusive celebrate the religious other as contributing to their own spiritual well-being and growth. Of course, always looming in the background of any consideration of the practice of religious pluralism are thorny issues: What are its limits? What defines a group as religious? Where do the nonreligious fit into the scheme of things?

The experiment at Mission Viejo has had its share of challenges. In 2000, city officials decided to allow, for the first time, an Islamic display to accompany Jewish and Christian displays. The following year, there were complaints about including the Muslim decorations (no doubt connected with feelings about the then-recent September 11 terrorist attack) and the planners feared that too many additional groups might demand a presence in the limited space at the Four Corners, so the multifaith display was called off. The city council voted to return to the earlier plan of showcasing Santa Claus, American flags, and a winter scene—all deemed secular and noncontroversial. But they misread the sentiment of the community, and after a week of complaints the city reversed its decision: it would permit religious groups to have displays, but only at a nearby park. But even this was not enough to satisfy the residents. In 2002, pressure from them led to the return of the multifaith celebration to the Four Corners.

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The Bahá’i display marks the holiday celebrating the birth of Bahá’u’lláh (photograph © Bill Sharpsteen)

Over the years concerns have arisen from all sides. “Why should the city recognize these religions?” asks an evangelical Christian pastor. “We are a Christian nation. Why are we embarrassed to proclaim it?” Exclusivists find shared space problematic. Secularists and strict interpreters of the legal separation of church and state question why city property is used to showcase religious exhibits of any kind, and still others have wondered if atheists should be allowed to have a display—some saying yes, because their voice should be heard, but most adamantly opposing the idea. Nor has it gone unnoticed that the timing of the holiday celebrations fit Christian and Jewish calendars far better than those of other traditions. (This led the Hindu community in 2010 to put up and take down their exhibit before Thanksgiving.) There have also been acts of vandalism: once the Baby Jesus was stolen and a year ago the Muslim display was defaced, which led to complaints by Muslim organizations and the American Civil Liberties Union about the city’s failure to patrol the exhibits at night.

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The Jewish holiday display is a giant dreidel (photograph © Bill Sharpsteen)

But despite setbacks, complaints, and vandalism progress has been made. Over the years, as a Bahá’i told me, “dealing with one another became a public matter, pressure was on us to do something that would be as open as possible to all religions.” Public discussion brought forward practical questions about how to be open to all groups, given the limited space at the Four Corners. In effect, how would the city choose which groups could set up holiday exhibits?

The solution: “Religion by Lottery!” Mission Viejo decided to try to accommodate the growing number of religious groups while retaining the Four Corners as the location of the event. Faith groups desiring a presence on this spot would have to apply for one of eight available spaces. In doing so, they agreed to exhibit seasonal messages within a cooperative multifaith event. The spaces would be assigned by a double lottery system in which numbers identifying spaces were drawn at random from one container and matched with applicant groups drawn at random from another container. If there were more applicants than spaces, those unsuccessful in getting a space at the Four Corners would be selected, again by lottery, to exhibit at a nearby park. Minority religious spokespersons played a big part in pushing for the lottery. Hamid Bahadori, an Iranian-American Muslim resident, was reported to say in 2001, “If we want to celebrate our sense of community, then let’s be as inclusive as possible.”2

Asked recently about how well the system is working, David Cendejas, in the city’s Office of Community Development, responds, “Pretty well. People like the fairness of it, although so far it really hasn’t been all that tested since we haven’t had more than eight groups applying in any year.” If that were to occur, the present relaxed tone of the process might not endure. Imagine a December religious holiday display in Mission Viejo without a Nativity scene. This might well occur, should the number of applicants continue to increase. Based upon what both city officials and clergy have told me, this eventuality would most definitely challenge the lottery system.

Yet the mood of the nation may be working in Mission Viejo’s favor. Despite the tensions created this past year with the proposal to build an Islamic cultural center and mosque in lower Manhattan, not far from the site where the Twin Towers once stood, and threats to burn the Qur’an in several places across the country, a recent Pew Forum survey documents a general tendency among Americans not to assert that “my religion is the one, true faith leading to eternal life.”3 This is a shift in mood we might expect in diverse, well-educated communities like Mission Viejo. National surveys point as well to greater openness to gaining spiritual truth from religions of all kinds—perhaps just a matter of curiosity for many, yet for some a genuine interest in learning from other traditions.

Both the city’s effort to embrace religious diversity and the willingness of most religious groups to play by the rules for this holiday celebration signal that a civic-minded culture is widely shared. Despite the unpredictable nature of a lottery—or perhaps because the luck of the draw is perceived as fair to all in the long run—the system appears to be favored by many in the community.

Of course, pluralism is always a fragile culture, easily disrupted by those hostile to it. Yet every year in Mission Viejo, when these rules are followed, when this public experiment is carried out, thousands of citizens and visitors affirm fundamental democratic principles. More than simply trying to avoid conflict, as was the original intention, religion by lottery is a positive force, providing a procedure that reinforces notions of religious equality and freedom; by bringing order and fairness to the process of choosing religious groups to represent the community it also neutralizes fears of Christian dominance and discrimination against other faiths. “I ride up La Paz during the holidays,” says one of the electricians helping to set up the lights at the intersection, “and even though I’m not so religious myself it helps that people here get along pretty well. In fact, I think they are beginning to really like the event.” B

Notes

1. Diana L. Eck, A New Religious America: How a Christian Country Has Become the World’s Most Religiously Diverse Nation (San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 2001).

2. The remark was made in the comments to a newspaper article, “Santa In, Religious Symbols Out at Season’s Exhibit; Mission Viejo: Muslim leaders question decision to end three-decade holiday display tradition,” Los Angeles Times, October 31, 2001, online at http://articles.latimes.com/2001/oct/31/local/me-63863.

3. U.S. Religious Landscape Survey, report of the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, February 2008, 174-75; online at http://religions.pewforum.org/pdf/report-religious-landscape-study-full.pdf.

Photography/Art

Images from the Central Valley

by Tracy Perkins, Julie Sze
From Boom Spring 2011, Vol. 1, No. 1

Above photo: Earlimart, CA, March 7, 2008: Teresa DeAnda stands on the narrow strip of dirt and road that divides her home from the fields next door. Pesticides regularly drift into her yard. (photograph © Tracy Perkins)

When Californians think of the Central Valley, they often think of its problems: poverty, pesticides, disputes over the allocation of irrigation water, farmworker deaths, and, most recently, a cluster of babies born with birth defects in the small town of Kettleman City. These are some of the ways this region makes the statewide news. But the Central Valley also has a rich history of community organizing and its own stark beauty. These photographs by Tracy Perkins and the oral histories she collected to accompany them document an important aspect of life there: environmental-health problems and the diverse network of advocates who are fighting to solve them.

Practically speaking, the Central Valley is all but invisible to those who live outside it. Over the course of the twentieth century, legislators and growers turned this 500-mile-long stretch of land into one of the most intensively farmed regions in the world, watered by one of the world’s most ambitious irrigation systems. Although California leads the nation in agricultural production, many Californians have little sense of what goes on in the agricultural regions of their state. This invisibility helps to explain why California has located two of the state’s three hazardous-waste landfills and many of its prisons there, while also continuing to allow high levels of toxicity in the air and water.

Nonetheless, the politics of the Central Valley have implications outside the region’s boundaries—as its history shows. From farm families migrating there in search of a haven from the Dust Bowl of the 1930s to César Chávez and the farmworkers’ movement in the 1960s and 1970s, the Central Valley has played an important role in shaping California and the nation. More recently, Central Valley advocates have entered the debate about global warming as part of a statewide coalition that has sued the state on the grounds that its landmark new law, the Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006, would, ironically, increase air pollution where they live. Under the law’s current implementation plan, new energy plants would likely be built in the Central Valley to phase out older, less efficient, and more polluting energy plants in other parts of the state. New incinerators that burn imported wood debris would also be built to create “renewable energy.” Both types of plants would add to the toxic burden residents already bear from pesticide drift, diesel exhaust, toxic waste, drinking-water pollution, and high air pollution levels. You may be surprised to learn that in 2007 the Environmental Protection Agency listed the small Central Valley town of Arvin, population 16,200, as having the worst smog levels in the US. Arvin continues to be smoggier than Los Angeles. Residents already suffering from asthma and other health problems linked to air pollution are unlikely to welcome new pollution sources. This struggle is surely being watched by other states as they consider their own responses to global warming.

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Tulare County, March 8, 2008: Anhydrous ammonia flows into an unlined irrigation canal. Later it will find its way through a sprinkler system onto the fields. It provides nitrogen to the crops, but also seeps into the groundwater that Central Valley townspeople drink. (photograph © Tracy Perkins)

Nor is this the only national issue in which the Central Valley plays an important role. In the 1990s, advocates pioneered the use of civil-rights law to reduce pollution in communities of color. This strategy was first used as part of a campaign to stop the building of a toxic-waste incinerator in the largely Latino town of Kettleman City, which was already neighbor to the largest hazardous-waste landfill west of the Mississippi River. Civil-rights litigation has since been incorporated into environmental struggles in communities of color across the country. Similarly, between 2008 and 2010 pesticide buffer zones were created in Tulare, Madera, Stanislaus, and Kern Counties. All of these counties banned the aerial spraying of restricted pesticides within a quarter-mile of schools, and three counties protected farm-labor camps and residential areas as well. Environmental and farmworker groups have petitioned the Environmental Protection Agency to create similar buffer zones across the nation, and have recorded 42,000 statements of support for the cause.

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Visalia, November 17, 2007: Tap water samples from small towns in the vicinity of Visalia. Their contents include nitrates from fertilizers and cow manure from the area’s mega-dairies, as well as dibromochloropropane, a pesticide banned in 1977 but still present in groundwater, and arsenic. Some of the water smells like sewage. (photograph © Tracy Perkins)

The region also represents demographic shifts that are important beyond its borders. White people became a minority in the Central Valley long before they did so in the state as a whole. However, the racial makeup of Valley politicians has yet to follow suit. According to Jonathan Fox, a scholar at the University of California, Santa Cruz, many Latino citizens in the Central Valley are not yet voting regularly and large numbers of those eligible to become citizens have not yet done so. If both groups became active voters, they could replace many of the area’s traditionally conservative elected officials with more progressive representatives of their interests and have a hefty impact on state politics.

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Earlimart, March 7, 2008: Josefina Miranda shows her daughter how she protects herself when she works in the fields. When Miranda was four months pregnant with an earlier child, she and her coworkers were sent to work in a field still wet with pesticides. By the time they left, her clothes were so soaked that she could wring the pesticides out of them. She miscarried the next day. (photograph © Tracy Perkins)

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Kettleman City, July 18, 2009 (photograph © Tracy Perkins)

The growing advocacy networks in the Central Valley are key to helping people link their everyday problems to the political process. The pages that follow offer a window into their lives and labor, from an activist for prison reform to a woman whose town was poisoned by pesticide drift to a community leader who helped defeat a proposal to build a toxic-waste incinerator just outside her town. These photographs and stories are taken from “25 Stories from the Central Valley,” a multimedia project that documents the women leaders of the Central Valley environmental justice movement. Visit http://twentyfive.ucdavis.edu for additional photographs, stories, and teaching tools to use in college classrooms.

Debbie Reyes, Fresno Central Valley Coordinator
California Prison Moratorium Project

There were folks that came from all over the state to the Central Valley to discuss the issues. It was pretty empowering for our Valley to have something like that in Fresno, the place that I left many years ago because I thought there was nothing for me— “That place will never change,” you know? I’ve seen a tremendous change from the first year I got back, thirteen years ago to now. Then, the Ku Klux Klan was standing on the corner of a gay pride parade; now, in 2007, we have Rally in the Valley, which is like a peace march. We had the Environmental Justice Network Conference. We’re having the Uncaging the Valley Prisons conference, Black and Brown Unity marchers. And now, here I’m sitting at a table with folks that are working to create change in the state to regulate pesticide spraying in communities. So inside I was going, “Yeah, finally!” It’s taken twenty-five years but here we are.

Teresa DeAnda, Earlimart
Central Valley Coordinator
Californians for Pesticide Reform

Our street was the first street to get evacuated [after the pesticide drifted off the fields and into our neighborhood]. I’d driven to Delano, and when I came back there was a sheriff standing at our gate. It had just gotten dark, and my husband said, “We need to get out, because there’s something happening.” I smelled it a little bit, but I didn’t smell it that strong. But I was still very disturbed. It’s a horrible feeling, getting told you’ve got to get out, that there’s something that you shouldn’t be smelling. I got the kids, and we left in the van. My husband got my blind uncle and my 87-year-old compadre, and then we drove. But I was just so fearful for the people that were staying.

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Wasco, CA. January 30, 2009 (photograph © Tracy Perkins)

Days later, we found out what happened to everybody. I had read the newspaper, but it didn’t mention what happened to the people that Saturday night, November 13, 1999. On Wednesday the UFW [United Farm Workers] had a meeting and they had all the agencies there: the county air commissioner, the fire department, an expert on pesticides, Pesticide Watch. It was just packed with mad, angry people. That night, I found out what had happened when we left.

[When the pesticide drifted over the town] the people who were the sickest, they were told to go to the middle school. And at the middle school they told the men, women, and children to take off their clothes and go down the decontamination line. Keep in mind: these people were vomiting and had burning eyes, just coughing and coughing, and so they were scared to death. They were given no privacy, just two tarps on either side, and they were told to take off their clothes. And the people didn’t want to.

One lady said, “Where’s my rights? Where’s my rights?” They told her, “Listen, you have no rights tonight; you’ve lost your rights.” And so she took off her clothes, and she said that that was the worst feeling in the world, because her kids had never seen her without her clothes, and they could see her. This is indicative of how they did the decon [decontamination]. She took off everything, absolutely everything, but she wouldn’t take off her underwear, so they yanked it off. They yanked off her Nikes, and so there she goes through the decontamination line, which was a fire-department water hose, on a cold November night. A fire-department water hose with a guy standing there holding it. She went through one line and then the other, but they didn’t wet her hair. At the end of the decon line they were supposed to have ambulances waiting, but the ambulances weren’t there yet, so they just gave them little covers and told them to sit on the ground.

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Buttonwillow Park, Jan. 30, 2009 (photograph © Tracy Perkins)

So I’m finding all this stuff out at the meeting. All these mad people are just yelling at the agencies, telling them, “How could you do this to us?” And then they told us what had happened at the hospital. The people did get transported to the hospital. Some went to Tulare Hospital, some went to Porterville Hospital, some went to Delano Hospital. Well, the lady with a lot of kids, she was baby-sitting kids too, they couldn’t take all of her kids to the same place, so they wrote their phone numbers on their stomachs, like they were animals. At the hospitals, they took their information, their names, their number, their address, but they didn’t even triage them. The doctor called poison control, and poison control said, “There’s nothing happening to them, just tell them to go back home but to try not to get re-exposed.” That’s all poison control told them. So they were sent on their way and they were given the clothes that they had been in before they got decontaminated. They just gave them back to them. Didn’t have them cleaned.

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Earlimart, May 7, 2008: Orchards in bloom present a beautiful vision of agriculture in the Valley. At certain times of the year, pesticide applicators are required to notify beekeepers within a one-mile radius of their targeted spraying areas so that hives can be moved away. In most cases, however, human residents receive no such notification. (photograph © Tracy Perkins)

So I started learning more and getting more and more angry. I couldn’t sleep at night, ’cause I was so upset at how it had changed my kids’ health and my health. When I was growing up, my dad had always said, “Trust the government. The government’s never going to lie; the government’s good,” and all that. And I thought, “No, they’re not,” because they really let us down that night, they really, really let us down. So much for trusting the government. I couldn’t sleep at night because it bothered me so much that it happened and that still nothing was being done about the people who had gotten sick. I learned a lot about pesticides. And then at press conferences they would always ask me to speak. Even though I wasn’t one of the victims that got deconned, I was one of the ones speaking all the time. They were calling me for meetings and conferences and stuff to talk about what had happened.

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Kettleman City, July 18, 2009: Alejandro Alvarez touches the image of his daughter, Ashley, one of a cluster of children born with a cleft palette and other birth defects in Kettleman City and neighboring Avenal. Residents fear that the hazardous-waste landfill located between their towns may be causing the birth defects. Alvarez got the tattoo shortly after his daughter died in January 2009, age 10 months. (photograph © Tracy Perkins)

What happened in Earlimart was in November, so by September UFW and us, we had formed El Comité Para el Bienestar de Earlimart [Committee for the Well-Being of Earlimart]. All of the people were victims of the accident. They were all mostly farm workers. Just a couple weren’t. We started having meetings, our own meetings without UFW, still supporting UFW in any press conference they wanted us to, but then we started having our own meetings.

And then in September of 2000 we asked the farmer and the chemical applicator to pay the medical payments for the people that had asthma. It was coming out that people had gotten asthma—didn’t have it before that night in 1999—just like that, from that night, that exposure. And it had gotten in their mucus membrane and then in their lungs. And so they needed long-term treatment. We got Wilbur-Ellis [the company hired by the farm to apply the pesticide] to pay for that.

We had a big press conference, right here at the house. And that was a big victory. The State of California Department of Pesticide Regulation gave Wilbur-Ellis the biggest fine that had ever happened. It’s still peanuts compared to other fines for toxic spills and stuff, but it was the biggest for pesticides. [Note: Pesticide specialists later told the activists from Earlimart that the particular chemical they had been exposed to is activated by water and that they should not have been hosed down as part of the decontamination process.]

Mary Lou Mares, Kettleman City
Organizer, El Pueblo para el Aire y Agua Limpio
(People for Clean Air and Water)

I remember people that lived in town, [where a toxic-waste incinerator was planned], they would say, “Well, Mary Lou, if you don’t like it, why don’t you move out?” Because I like it here; this is my town, this is where I bought my house, and I want to be here. You can’t always just move and go away from the problem and just leave it there; it’s going to follow you. No matter where you go, this kind of stuff is going to follow you, so you might as well stay and fight. Can’t do anything else. You have to. B