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The Battle of the Bulb: Nature, Culture and Art at a San Francisco Bay Landfill

Susan Moffat

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The Albany Bulb, looking northwest. Photograph by Robin Lasser.

On a misty afternoon in early 2014, you sail into San Francisco Bay under the Golden Gate Bridge, threading the passage between San Francisco’s steep urban slopes on your right and the green hills of Marin County on your left. Gliding between two of the wealthiest peninsulas in the world, you continue past Alcatraz Island on the diminishing swell until the Bay opens up to the north and south. Silicon Valley is a hazy presence on the horizon off to the south, and the peak of Angel Island pokes up to the north.

You spot the industrial shores of the East Bay. The four-legged, skyscraper-sized gantries of the Port of Oakland loom to the right, and the remains of the Richmond shipyards are off to the left.

You continue due east, your boat surfing downwind as the gentle swells of the Bay lift your stern, until the Berkeley Hills get so close the windows of the brown shingled houses glint like flames and you can see the UC Berkeley Campanile.

Dead ahead is what looks like a steep, rocky, thickly wooded island. On the far side of a lagoon, hanging off the bluff like a nightmarish version of a Malibu mansion, is an impressively balanced three-story shack. It’s made of plywood, corrugated tin, and old window frames and encrusted with hubcaps, stained glass, and street signs. It’s topped off with a windsurfing sail and an American flag.

You veer left to the north side of the island and guarding the hillside crouches a giant dragon with reindeer antlers, ridden by a warrior—all made of driftwood. Along the shoreline an iron samurai wields a sword and a fifteen-foot-tall woman reaches to the sky with a beseeching gesture. Her windswept hair is made of branches, her skirts of twisted tin. Painted gargoyle faces stick their tongues out at you from truck-sized pieces of concrete. Tibetan prayer flags flutter in the distance. You can hear the tinkling and squeaking of kinetic scrap metal sculptures spinning in the breeze.

Straight ahead, past cormorants perched on mouldering piers, wetlands glisten with the movements of snowy egrets, curlews, and airborne flocks of sandpipers catching the sun like tossed confetti.

The mudflats are too shallow to navigate by boat, so you turn back and sail around to the south side of the island. Dogs bark, running in and out of the water at a small beach. You smell horses and saltwater and coastal sage. You see that the island is actually a peninsula connected to the mainland by a causeway of debris that rises some thirty feet above the water. An enormous red and yellow and green concrete Rubik’s cube clings to the rocky shore just above the water line, and clouds of pink, magenta, and white valerian, golden California poppies, and crimson roses spill down the causeway’s precipitous hillsides. A castle perches on a pile of rubble with a gothic arch for a window and a small turret. The castle is covered with paintings of human-sized rabbits.

You have discovered the Albany Bulb.1

But you are not the first. Urban explorers have been coming to the Bulb—by land—since the mid-1980s, ducking under what are now fourteen lanes of elevated freeways to this landfill made of construction debris. This peninsula was once open water, but like much of the Bay’s current shoreline, was created by the dumping of waste. Large-scale filling of the Bay was outlawed thanks to the Save the Bay movement of the early 1960s, but the Bulb was grandfathered in. People in the small town of Albany still remember coming here in the sixties and seventies to dump their old furniture and yard waste on top of broken buildings. When nearby cities needed new highways, commuter lines, stores, schools, and houses, what was torn down got deposited at the Bulb. Because the landfill was never completely capped, it is an open-air museum of creative destruction exhibiting huge chunks of brick walls, bathroom tile, highway supports, rebar, and asphalt with yellow highway lines intact.

It is also a thirty-one-acre battleground for the Bay Area’s competing progressive movements for social justice, environmental conservation, and politically engaged art. Street protest, lawsuits, regulatory jockeying, anarchist camp-ins, and art have all been deployed in the name of saving this oddball spit of land from and for its users of many species.

If you had gone ashore a couple of years ago, you would have found a community of more than sixty people living on the Bulb in tents, shacks, and the aforementioned cliffside mansion. The man who called himself Boxing Bob would proudly show off his handiwork on that house, with its million-dollar view of San Francisco and the Golden Gate, as well as the outdoor ring where he practiced his jabs and parries You might have met KC, a white woman with pink hair who lived with her tiny black-and-white dog between a giant eucalyptus and a grove of olive trees and Canary Island palms in a hut where she made jewelry. She might have invited you to her famous kitchen in the adjacent garage-sized tent where she made flaky lemon curd pastry for the whole community. You might not have met Doris, who was shy and had a little fence in front of her secluded home with a sign that read, “Cats—Keep Gate Close Please.”

You’d have seen Saint, a black man who always wore a World War II German-style military helmet, and Little Joe, a welder who came to the Bulb after his young daughter died in a hiking accident and his life went to pieces. Little Joe was not to be confused with Big Joe, who had hip problems and used a walker to get around the rough paths of the Bulb but could travel long distances for supplies on his bike.

Tamara from Southern California was pregnant and said she had lost her first child in a gun accident. She lived not far from a guy called Tom with graying blond dreadlocks in a section of the Bulb people called the Ghetto because it was so densely populated. Tom surrounded himself with shopping carts full of plastic bottles and rebar and bicycle parts.

Nearby, Frank built a teepee suspended from a sprawling acacia that had branches like muscular human arms. At a firepit next to his tent, he and his friends would burn wire and cable they found at the landfill to extract the copper. Frank said he had been a teenage jockey at Golden Gate Fields, the racetrack next to the Bulb, until he went to prison for robbing a bank.

For a while, Jimbow the Hobow—his spelling—lived in the section of the Bulb called the Ghetto. The Bulb’s poet laureate for decades, he lived all over the peninsula at different times. He grew up on a tobacco farm in southern Ohio and had been on the road most of his life. Like a number of landfillians, as they called themselves, Jimbow used to live at People’s Park, the university-owned piece of land in downtown Berkeley, about four miles from the Bulb as the crow flies, that has been disputed territory for even longer than the Bulb. Jimbow said he left People’s Park during the crack epidemic in the 1980s and went to the railroad tracks, eventually settling at the Bulb in the 1990s.

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Amber in her tent. Photograph by Robin Lasser.

The Bulb was last resort for some victims of the economic crisis of 2008. It provided refuge for people struggling with trauma and mental illness who preferred living outdoors to the claustrophobia and social threats of shelters. Amber and her partner, Phyll, built a compound of tents hidden by a scrap metal fence with a Palestinian flag for a front door. “When you live indoors, nothing moves,” said Amber, who had a quick smile with no front teeth, a wardrobe of camouflage and black lace, an archaeologist’s eye for half-buried treasure, and an impressive knack for reviving laptops and mobile phones pulled out of dumpsters. The Bulb’s wind, the tides, and the movement of the grass and trees kept her sane: “The Bulb is the healthiest place I’ve ever lived.”

Some people led conventional lives before ending up here. Stephanie was married with three kids and made flyers for a real estate office in a nearby town. After her divorce and the foreclosure of her house, she found the peace and quiet of the Bulb more soothing than the noisy spot under the BART train tracks that she first tried.

Stephanie’s camp was as tidy as a suburban ranch house, with two stone-ringed gardens with geraniums, iceplant and pink flamingos, and an outdoor kitchen with a spice rack and flowers in a vase. Near her tent she made a bench with a patio firepit where you could look out to Angel Island and Mt. Tamalpais over the low wall she built of flat concrete chunks. She used solar panels to charge her cell phone and saw her grown children at the holidays. With a Monterey pine and a cypress framing her Bay view, her home was picture-postcard perfect.

People lived off the fat of the East Bay land. At the nearby Costco dumpster, pillowtop queen-sized mattresses were there for the taking, still in dented boxes, along with dinged lawn furniture and bags of imperfect bagels. Nearby University of California housing saw families come and go with each semester, leaving behind their books and shoes and kitchenware for reuse. Like a glacial moraine, the consumer goods that came in from China via those Oakland gantries flowed into the Berkeley Hills, down to the flats via estate and garage sales, and finally down to the Bulb.

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Boxing Bob after demolition of his house. Photograph by Robin Lasser.

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Dragon sculpture, San Francisco skyline behind. Photograph by Doug Donaldson.

Everything was transported onto and moved around the Bulb by bicycles equipped with handmade trailers, some of which could carry up to 750 pounds. These trailers carried metal that residents mined from the landfill and sold at Berkeley scrap dealers, as well as five-gallon jugs of water for drinking and bathing. The Bay Trail, designed as a recreational amenity, was a highway for the homeless supply chain.

Mom-A-Bear’s home was a social center. People would hang out in the dark interior of her Bear’s Den, the low-ceilinged wooden hut built under a ngaio tree. Calm and heavyset, Mom-A-Bear used to be a physical therapist and people often went to her for advice. She came to the Bulb after her husband and son were killed when their sailboat was caught in a storm off the California coast. She situated her home on a low bluff with a view of the Bay overlooking the Amphitheater.

The Amphitheater was just one of the many public spaces the residents of the Bulb built or adapted as the kind of agora or marketplace found in any small town. The Amphitheater occupied a bowl-shaped depression in the landfill and was where people gathered for meetings, had parties, and burned trash. The Castle was a kind of church or spiritual vortex built by longtime Bulb resident Mad Marc, designed with fairies in mind, and situated at a numerologically propitious west-facing spot excellent for observing the solstices. There was an outdoor gym and, at one time, a heated bath. There was a horseshoe pit and communally maintained trails like the one called the Yellow Brick Road, as well as a Free Box for exchanging goods. There were two stone labyrinths for meditation. And there was a book-filled Library that, like the ancient Alexandrian one, was destroyed and rebuilt several times.

The people who lived at the Bulb felt it was theirs. But so did a lot of other people. Dogwalkers were some of the earliest pioneers of the landfill. People from Albany and Berkeley and Oakland brought their dogs to the Bulb on a daily basis, and—led by their dogs’ noses—became nearly as expert on its nooks and crannies as the residents. Professional dogwalkers would come mid-day with as many as ten dogs in tow. Birdwatchers loved the Bulb for its 158 species of birds, which thrived among the fennel, coyote brush, broom, and feral wisteria.

Environmental educators brought schoolchildren to study the nudibranchs, tunicates, and bryozoans of the rocky shore. Geocachers, paintballers, cyclocross bicycle racers, parents seeking the ultimate birthday party, musicians, rave-organizers and professional wedding photographers all used the Bulb.

The Bulb was a charnel house of cities, where the skeletons of urban destruction and regeneration were laid bare. It was also a memorial garden for human lives. Painted messages on concrete remembered Suzy, who lived and apparently committed suicide at the Bulb. The place attracted people seeking a place to remember deaths that happened elsewhere. A hand-carved tombstone was marked, “In the Memory of Emily Wagner…33rd homicide in Oakland, 2004.” An abstract metal sculpture at the lagoon memorialized a baby’s death. At the center of the two labyrinths, you would always find a changing array of beer bottles, cigarettes, candy, and other favorites of deceased or departed friends and family, sometimes marked with notes and driver’s licenses.

Of all the park users, artists made the most lasting mark. They came to paint the door-sized slabs of concrete, to assemble sculptures of found materials, to make visual jokes. Someone arranged a pair of stuffed, striped, ruby-slippered legs so they emerged from under a large chunk of a house like those of the Wicked Witch of the East. Somebody else “solved” the Rubik’s cube by painting a single color on each side. An empty gold picture frame hung from a tree to frame a spectacular Bay landscape. A lump on a chunk of concrete became a painted monster’s nose. An elfin door was painted on a huge rock for imaginary sprites to enter and exit.

The art was as changeable as the weather and the tides. Medusa heads were painted over with dinosaurs, and dinosaurs with poetry. Images of Emma Goldman, Che Guevara, and Malcolm X weathered into obscurity. Art depicting manga-style rabbits proliferated all over the Bulb, with the artist riffing off different textures and locations and other people’s art.

The surface of the dump is uneven, with verdant bee-filled gullies slumping between rough peaks of concrete and lichen-encrusted heaths giving way to wildflower-filled meadows sparkling with eruptions of steel slag. Like a botanical garden with sections for Australasian or South American flora, different parts of the landfill provided creative microclimates. Motifs seeded and spread in response to differently fertile substrates: if one person painted eyes in the rubble, soon eyes in many styles would proliferate like dandelions after a rain. If someone hung one mask from a tree, soon more faces would be peering out from the branches. Stencils spawned linear hieroglyphic narratives leading from place to place.

Artists and passersby added to and altered sculptures. The beseeching woman, which some called the Water Goddess, was originally made of orange dock foam and was gradually refined and beautified with metal and wood. Visitors bestowed angel wings, shoes, jewelry, and whiskey flasks on the driftwood sculptures of human figures, and added beads and ribbon to the kinetic sculptures. Change was expected. The art was more performance than object, more personal than material.

Theatrical and musical performance also happened at the Bulb. The topography includes many natural stages that actors found inspiring. In 2006, the theater group We Players animated the entire peninsula with a mobile performance of Shakespeare’s The Tempest that began with the shipwreck scene on the beach and ended with a wedding feast at the Amphitheater. Prosperos’ mutinous winds, green sea, azured vault, and Jove’s stout oak were played by the site itself, and even surly Caliban helped put the audience at ease in the dreamlike, unfamiliar terrain, saying:

“Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises,

Sounds and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.”

Most art was anonymous, but not all of it. In the early 2000s, Bruce Rayburn, Scott Hewitt, Scott Meadows, and David Ryan—members of a collective called Sniff—gathered every Saturday morning to paint barn-door-sized pieces of plywood and flotsam that they erected in an art gallery along a hundred yards of the Bulb’s north shore. The work was collaborative and darkly whimsical, evoking both Bosch and Chagall, thickly populated with revelers, a devil or two, and flying nudes. Sniff gave up their painting after it was falsely associated with a gruesome murder. In a case that was tabloid fodder for three years, a man named Scott Peterson was accused of killing his pregnant wife, Laci, who had gone missing in Modesto in 2002. Her headless body had washed ashore not far from the Bulb. In statements to the media, Peterson’s lawyer pointed to the paintings at the Bulb as evidence that a Satanic cult had murdered the woman. Peterson was later convicted of the crime. But meantime, Sniff’s members were forced to explain to parents of their children’s classmates that they were in fact not Lucifer-worshiping decapitators, and the group was never quite the same.

Not far from the Sniff gallery, Osha Neumann created the Water Goddess sculpture with his son-in-law Jason DeAntonis. The scion of a prominent German Jewish intellectual family (his father was Frankfurt School critical theorist, Franz Neumann; his stepfather, Herbert Marcuse, philosopher of the 1960s New Left), Neumann dropped out of graduate school at Yale and spent his young adult years with an anarchist street gang in New York. He became a painter, sculptor, and lawyer, creating a famous mural near People’s Park about Berkeley’s history of protest.

Despite its physical isolation, the Bulb is very much part of the East Bay’s greater artistic, political and social history. The style of informal sculpture that studded the Bulb occupied much of the East Bay shoreline in the 1970s and 1980s, thriving on the outlaw culture of the garbage-filled mudflats west of the freeway. But the growing conservation movement saw the mudflats as valuable habitat for birds, not art. With more than 90 percent of the region’s wetlands destroyed by human activity, environmentalists were intent on saving and enhancing what was left. Homemade sculptures squatting in the mud were not part of this vision of a restored Bay and were removed. As protections for endangered animal habitats were beefed up, however, human protections were weakening, driving people from cities into open spaces at the urban margin. Starting in the 1980s, cuts in federal spending on affordable housing and the deinstitutionalization of mentally ill individuals sent thousands into underpasses, creekbeds, and parks. Later, the bust and boom of the late 2000s and teens created more human jetsam whiplashed between foreclosures and gentrification. Displaced people washed ashore at the Bulb (at least one literally arriving by boat) and shared the space with bricoleurs squeezed out of their old artistic stomping grounds.

Along this evolving waterfront, the Eastshore State Park was established in 2002 after decades of advocacy by the Sierra Club, Save the Bay, and the Audubon Society, which came together in an organization called Citizens for Eastshore Parks. After fighting off commercial development, the groups envisioned a series of land acquisitions that would connect existing city-owned and regional parkland into a continuous nine-mile swath of habitat restoration and trails stretching from the Bay Bridge to Richmond. The park general plan called for the removal of the remaining art.

The Bulb today is in the process of being incorporated into that state park, now named after the late Save the Bay hero, Sylvia McLaughlin. This troublesome peninsula is land nobody wanted—neither the City of Albany, nor the State Parks, nor the East Bay Regional Park District relished the headaches caused by the homeless people, the hazardous waste, the art, the dogs. In preparation for transfer of the land from the City to the State (with management provided by the Regional Park District in place of the cash-strapped State Parks), the encampments at the Bulb were swept out in 1999 and again in 2014. Frustrated that this jewel in the necklace of parks remained a shantytown years after it was designated a state park, the environmental groups were key lobbyists for evicting Bulb residents. Osha Neumann, the artist and lawyer, was a leading advocate for Bulb residents, and along with some Albany residents, brought an unsuccessful anti-eviction lawsuit on their behalf. It was one of a number of lawsuits at the Albany waterfront, where advocates for the environment faced off with advocates for social justice and for the human—and canine—right to public space. The conservationists argued that the garbage, drugs, and residents’ dogs made visitors feel unsafe and damaged the habitat.

Short-term housing assistance was offered by the city, and some people were able to move into subsidized apartments. But some Bulb residents didn’t want to move and others said the amount of assistance was inadequate to find permanent homes. Several Bulb residents found housing but lost it for the same reasons they became homeless in the first place: mental illness, substance abuse, orneriness, family tragedy, medical disasters, poverty. In April 2014, Albany agreed to pay $3,000 each to twenty-eight residents to leave and never set up camp again. Many of those people moved directly to a freeway underpass nearby. Others occupied a restored habitat area in another part of the state park, hiding among the bushes planted as homes for birds. Today, the community is scattered around the East Bay, living out of cars, under highways, and in ephemeral constellations of Bulb alumni roommate groups that migrate from cheap apartments to the street and back again.

At this green lump on San Francisco Bay, the central narratives the Bay Area likes to tell about itself collide, and the histories of its environmental, social, and creative cultures converge. The Bay Area thinks of itself as an environmental leader, protecting endangered habitat and saving the Bay. It insists that it is committed to equity and support for the downtrodden. It sells itself as a bohemian home for artists and touts its anything-goes creativity as an economic as well as a cultural resource.

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We Players’ production of the Tempest. Photograph courtesy We Players.

Yet the Bulb lays bare the contradictions and inconsistencies in these stories and provides an ongoing laboratory for exploring the complexities of these nature-culture conflicts. It is a novel ecosystem in social as well as environmental terms. As a modern-day midden, it is a fertile site for contemporary archaeologists to unearth ways that discarded people make use of society’s material discards and to ponder our culture of disposability. As rising tides inch ever closer to the skirts of the Water Goddess, the Bulb has a front row seat to the climate consequences of that consumption.

The Bulb was, in human terms, an island of misfits, but it was a community that was a relatively safe, surprisingly sociable haven. In terms of natural systems, it represents the opposite of the Galapagos Islands—it’s a place completely invaded by exotic species that have blossomed into a botanical gallery of some of the toughest plants on the planet. For art, the Bulb is the last remnant of creative spaces along the East Bay shoreline that have now been almost completely wiped out, an endangered habitat as rare as homes for the salt marsh harvest mouse. As public space, it has been a park designed by its users, who built trails and vista points and benches where the authorities provided none.

The Bulb is a misfit in terms of park categories—neither a pristine wilderness nor an urban park, nor a typical regional or county park defined by picnic tables, trails, and bathrooms. Amid the tempests of the politics of park planning, it’s a place that asks whether we should listen to the unruly, ground-level Caliban wisdom of its everyday, often unsanctioned, users as well as the top-down visions of the Prosperos who wield their power as organized advocates, professional planners, and elected officials.

What does it mean to preserve “nature” at a man-made pile of rubble overrun with invasive species? Does art belong in a state park conceived of primarily as a conservation site rather than a recreation area? Do state park rules and policies developed for old-growth redwood forests work at an urban landfill? How can a habitat-oriented park be managed in a densely populated, highly urban area? What is “public” in public land? What rights do nonendangered wildlife have relative to threatened species—is displacement of undervalued species a kind of gentrification? What rules should apply in a park that has been so neglected by the agencies in charge of it that the users have taken over maintenance and established their own norms?

The Bulb is a place in transition—to what, it is not clear. If you were to sail around it today, you’d see that it is gradually being smoothed over and erased, with clean fill and lawns calming the rubble. Jungly vegetation is being cut down to improve sight lines, Mad Marc’s castle is crumbling and the Library is gone. There are still sculptures and dogs and birds, but new rules are domesticating this last bit of wild on the East Bay shoreline. This process of change is worth studying, because the lessons learned here apply anywhere that water, land, people, art, wildlife, and politics come together.

For a time, the Bulb presented a utopian vision of a user-designed, user-made public space—full of dysfunction, to be sure, but also possessing a vitality rare in public parks. That vision has not yet been snuffed. Some people see an opportunity for the narratives of ecosystem protection, social justice, and human creativity to be woven together instead of being pitted against each other. The Bulb could be a park that is both laboratory and performance, as dynamic as the human and natural forces that buffet its shores.

Note

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In researching this article, I have been involved at times as a participant and an engaged resident of the City of Albany, rather than a neutral observer. I am currently working with a group of artists and local citizens to make the Bulb a site for ongoing art, environmental and social research, and performance. Information in this article was collected over sixteen years of visits to the Bulb, including scores of hours of interviews beginning in 2013. Starting in that year, I worked with an interdisciplinary team of UC Berkeley students and Bulb residents to apply techniques of ethnography, contemporary archaeology, oral history, participatory mapping, mobile apps, botany, architecture, landscape architecture, and urban planning to the study of the Bulb. We presented this work as The Atlas of the Albany Bulb (albanybulbatlas.org), part of the Refuge in Refuse exhibition (http://www.somarts.org/refugeinrefuse/) at the SOMArts Cultural Center in February 2015 which was curated by Robin Lasser, Danielle Siembieda, and Barbara Boissevain. The Bulb has been an important testing ground for the interdisciplinary methods of the Global Urban Humanities Initiative. The methods and the issues they raise are described in “Albany Bulb,” GroundUp Issue 4 (http://groundupjournal.org/albany-bulb).

Susan Moffat is project director of the University of California, Berkeley, Global Urban Humanities Initiative. An urban planner and curator, she has worked in journalism, affordable housing, and environmental planning in the United States and Asia. She is currently organizing an arts festival at the Albany Bulb.

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Sculpture by Osha Neumann and Jason De Antonis. Photograph by Susan Moffat.

Interviews

A Boom Interview: Mike Davis in conversation with Jennifer Wolch and Dana Cuff

Mike Davis

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Editor’s Note: Chronicler of the California dark side and LA’s underbelly, proclaiming a troubling, menacing reality beneath the bright and sunny facade, Mike Davis is one of California’s most significant contemporary writers. His most controversial books led critics to label him anything from a left-wing lunatic to a prophet of gloom and peddler of the pornography of despair. Yet much of his personal story and evolution are intimately touched by his experience and close reading of deeply California realities: life as part of the working class, the struggle for better working conditions, and a genuine connection to the difficulties here. His most well-known books, City of Quartz and Ecology of Fear are unsparing in their assessments of those difficulties.

Remaining a central figure of a discipline at the intersection of geography, sociology, and architecture known as the Los Angeles School of Urbanism, Davis is now in retirement from the Department of Creative Writing at UC Riverside. Earlier this summer, he invited architectural educator and director of UCLA’s cityLAB Dana Cuff and dean of UC Berkeley’s College of Environmental Design Jennifer Wolch into his San Diego home to discuss his career, his writings, and his erstwhile and ongoing efforts to understand Los Angeles.

Dana Cuff: You told us that you get asked about City of Quartz too often, so let’s take a different tack. As one of California’s great urban storytellers, what is missing from our understanding of Los Angeles?

Mike Davis: The economic logic of real estate and land development. This has always been the master key to understanding spatial and racial politics in Southern California. As the late-nineteenth century’s most influential radical thinker—I’m thinking of San Francisco’s Henry George not Karl Marx—explained rather magnificently, you cannot reform urban space without controlling land values. Zoning and city planning—the Progressive tools for creating the City Beautiful—either have been totally co-opted to serve the market or died the death of a thousand cuts, that is to say by variances. I was briefly an urban design commissioner in Pasadena in the mid-1990s and saw how easily state-of-the-art design standards and community plans were pushed aside by campaign contributors and big developers.

If you don’t intervene in the operation of land markets, you’ll usually end up producing the opposite result from what you intended. Over time, for instance, improvements in urban public space raise home values and tend to become amenity subsidies for wealthier people. In dynamic land markets and central locations, nonprofits can’t afford to buy land for low-income housing. Struggling artists and hipsters inadvertently become the shock troops of gentrification and soon can’t afford to live in the neighborhoods and warehouse districts they invigorated. Affordable housing and jobs move inexorably further apart and the inner-city crisis ends up in places like San Bernardino.

If you concede that the stabilization of land values is the precondition for long-term democratic planning, there are two major nonrevolutionary solutions. George’s was the most straightforward: execute land monopolists and profiteers with a single tax of 100 percent on increases in unimproved land values. The other alternative is not as radical but has been successfully implemented in other advanced capitalist countries: municipalize strategic parts of the land inventory for affordable housing, parks and form-giving greenbelts.

The use of eminent domain for redevelopment, we should recall, was originally intended to transform privately owned slums into publicly owned housing. At the end of the Second World War, when progressives were a majority in city government, Los Angeles adopted truly visionary plans for both public housing and rational suburban growth. What then happened is well known: a municipal counter-revolution engineered by the LA Times. As a result, local governments continued to use eminent domain but mainly to transfer land from small owners to corporations and banks.

Fast-forward to the 1980s. A new opportunity emerged. Downtown redevelopment was devouring hundreds of millions of dollars of diverted taxes, but its future was bleak. A few years before, Reyner Banham had proclaimed that Downtown was dead or at least irrelevant. If the Bradley administration had had the will, it could have municipalized the Spring-Main Street corridor at rock-bottom market prices. Perhaps ten million square feet would have become available for family apartments, immigrant small businesses, public markets, and the like, at permanently controlled affordable rents.

I once asked Kurt Meyer, a corporate architect who had been chairman of the Community Redevelopment Agency, about this. He lived up Beachwood Canyon below the Hollywood Sign. We used to meet for breakfast because he enjoyed yarning about power and property in LA, and this made him a unique source for my research at the time. He told me that downtown elites were horrified by the unexpected revitalization of the Broadway corridor by Mexican businesses and shoppers, and the last thing they wanted was a populist downtown.

He also answered a question that long vexed me. “Kurt, why this desperate, all-consuming priority to have the middle class live downtown?” “Mike, do you know anything about leasing space in high-rise buildings?” “Not really.” “Well, the hardest part to rent is the ground floor: to extract the highest value, you need a resident population. You can’t just have office workers going for breakfast and lunch; you need night time, twenty-four hour traffic.” I don’t know whether this was really an adequate explanation but it certainly convinced me that planners and activists need a much deeper understanding of the game.

In the event, the middle class has finally come downtown but only to bring suburbia with them. The hipsters think they’re living in the real thing, but this is purely faux urbanism, a residential mall. Downtown is not the heart of the city, it’s a luxury lifestyle pod for the same people who claim Silverlake is the “Eastside” or that Venice is still bohemian.

Cuff: Why do you call it suburbia?

Davis: Because the return to the center expresses the desire for urban space and crowds without allowing democratic variety or equal access. It’s fool’s gold, and gentrification has taken the place of urban renewal in displacing the poor. Take Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris’s pioneering study of the privatization of space on the top of Bunker Hill. Of course, your museum patron or condo resident feels at home, but if you’re a Salvadorian skateboarder, man, you’re probably headed to Juvenile Hall.

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Dingbat in rear next to fenced-in modern complex.

Cuff: Would you include architecture in your thinking about real estate? Weren’t you teaching a course about this at SCI-Arc [Southern California Institute of Architecture] some years back?

Davis: When I was first hired at SCI-Arc in 1988, I confessed to Michael Rotondi [then Director] that I knew nothing about architecture. He replied: “Don’t worry, we do. Your job is to teach LA. Get the students out into the city.” It was a wonderful assignment and over the course of a decade, I participated in a number of remarkable studios and site studies, working with the likes of Michael Sorkin, Joe Day, Anthony Fontenot, and other radical architects.

My own vanity project was demonstrating the feasibility of a community design studio that addressed the problems of older neighborhoods and suburbs. With the support of a leading activist in the Central American community, Roberto Lovato, now a well-known journalist, we focused on the Westlake [MacArthur Park] district just west of Downtown.

I knew the area fairly well, since in the late 1960s I had lived there while briefly managing the Communist Party’s bookstore on Seventh Street, oddly near the FBI’s old office building on Wilshire. This was right after the final evictions from Bunker Hill and most of its residents had been dumped in tenements near MacArthur Park. Walking to the bookstore I several times encountered the bodies of these elderly poor people on the sidewalk—who knew what dreams had brought them to LA in the 1910s and 1920s?

We finally settled on studying Witmer Street, between Third and Wilshire, because it had an almost complete declension of multifamily building types: a single-family home from the 1890s, a bungalow court from the 1920s, dingbats from 1960, even an old masonry apartment building that was used as a set for Hill Street Blues.

Students divided up into teams, training themselves as building and fire inspectors, and we took the neighborhood apart molecule-by-molecule over two semesters. One group studied fire safety issues and other hazards such as unprotected roofs where small children played. We looked at the needs of home workers, seamstresses and auto mechanics; studied problems of garbage collection; looked at issues involving gang rivalries and elderly winos. With Lovato’s support, we got inside apartments—typically studios for three to five people—and analyzed how families organized their tiny spaces. We researched who owned the buildings, calculated their rental profitability, even visited and photographed the homes of the Downtown slumlords who were living in Beverly Hills and Newport Beach.

The only form of housing that was generally popular, where the tenants had been there for a long time—everybody else was in and out—was the one courtyard apartment complex, with its little gardens and a fountain. The most despised were not the older 1920s tenement fire traps but the dingbats—low-rise six- to twelve-unit apartment buildings with tuck-under parking, built in the fifties and sixties on single family lots. They were designed to become blight in a few decades and constitute a major problem everywhere in Southern California. The other multi-unit types were still durable but it was hard to imagine any alternative for the stucco rubble other than to tear it down—which in fact developers have done, only to replace the dingbats with four- and five-story “super-cubes” that are just larger versions of the same problems.

Our goal was to bring all our findings together in a kind of Whole Earth Catalog set up as a website, and then invite everybody in the world to write and contribute ideas around generic issues of working-class neighborhoods like trash, play, working, graffiti, gangs, social space, parking, and so on. Our point was not to create a miniature master plan but to build up an arsenal of practical design solutions based on careful, realistic analysis that could help residents frame demands of landlords and the city. We imagined collaborations of architects, artists and artisans, acting as toolmakers for community self-design and activism. I still believe in the idea but my own tenure at SCI-Arc ended when our merry prankster and guiding light, Michael Rotondi, left.

Cuff: The idea of toolmaking instead of master planning is useful. A group of urban humanities students at UCLA focused on Boyle Heights, which, like Westlake, is experiencing development pressure. The tools that the community partners asked for were pretty straightforward, like a manual about how to turn abandoned spaces into parks. It was an interesting conversation with the humanities, architecture, and planning students about their own agency. Could you not deliver what they wanted and still be a socially responsible partner with community groups? The discussion was interesting because the agency of the students came into play, from architecture students who are ready to do something even if they don’t have much information, to the humanities students who are reluctant to act since they feel like they don’t know enough or have the right to intervene.

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Davis: That kind of conscience might be good for some of the senior architects in LA who regard the city as a free-fire zone for whatever vanity they happen to come up with, regardless of urban context or history. In City of Quartz, I criticized Frank Gehry for his stealth designs and over-concern with security. It really pissed him off, because he comes from a social-democratic background and hated my tongue-in-cheek depiction of him as architecture’s “Dirty Harry.”

One day, a few years later, he called me in to see him. “Okay, big shot, look at this.” And he showed me the latest iteration of his Disney Concert Hall design, which had park space wrapped around its non-Euclidean perimeter. “You criticized me for antidemocratic designs, but what is this?” And of course, it was clever integration of the elitist concert hall with space for local kids to play and homeless people to relax. It invited rather than excluded residents from the poor Latino neighborhoods like Witmer Street that surround Downtown. This was more or less unprecedented, and he had to wage a long battle with the county who wanted the Disney fenced and off-limits. In this instance at least, celebrity architecture fought the good fight.

Jennifer Wolch: Absolutely. However it’s an important question particularly for the humanities students, the issue of subjectivity makes them reticent to make proposals.

Davis: But, they have skills. Narrative is an important part of creating communities. People’s stories are key, especially about their routines. It seems to me that there are important social science skills, but the humanities are important particularly because of stories. I also think a choreographer would be a great analyst of space and kind of an imagineer for using space.

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I had a long talk with Richard Louv one day about his Last Child in the Woods, one of the most profound books of our time, a meditation on what it means for kids to lose contact with nature, with free nomadic unorganized play and adventure. A generation of mothers consigned to be fulltime chauffeurs, ferrying kids from one commercial distraction or over-organized play date to another. I grew up in eastern San Diego County, on the very edge of the back country, and once you did your chores (a serious business in those days), you could hop on your bike and set off like Huck Finn. There was a nudist colony in Harbison Canyon about twelve miles away, and we’d take our bikes, push them uphill for hours and hours in the hope of peeking through the fence. Like all my friends, I got a .22 (rifle) when I turned twelve. We did bad things to animals, I must confess, but we were free spirits, hated school, didn’t worry about grades, kept our parents off our backs with part-time jobs and yard work, and relished each crazy adventure and misdemeanor. Since I moved back to San Diego in 2002, I have annual reunions with the five or six guys I’ve known since second grade in 1953. Despite huge differences in political beliefs and religion, we’re still the same old gang.

And gangs were what kept you safe and why mothers didn’t have to worry about play dates or child molesters. I remember even in kindergarten—we lived in the City Heights area of San Diego at that time—we had a gang that walked to school together and played every afternoon. Just this wild group of little boys and girls, seven or eight of us, roaming around, begging pennies to buy gum at the corner store. Today the idea of unsupervised gangs of children or teenagers sounds like a law-and-order problem. But it’s how communities used to work and might still work. Aside from Louv, I warmly recommend The Child in the City by the English anarchist Colin Ward. A chief purpose of architecture, he argues, should be to design environments for unprogrammed fun and discovery.

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Wolch: We have a completely different question, Mike. One of your books that we like the most is Late Victorian Holocausts. It’s not about cities or about the West. How did you decide to link up global climate-change history to famine and political ecology? It seems like something of a departure.

Davis: After the 1992 riots, I got a huge advance from Knopf to write a book about the city’s apocalypse. Through my political activities I had gotten to know the mothers of a number of key players in these events, including Theresa Allison, whose son, Dewayne Holmes was a prime mover in the Watts gang truce. I also knew Damian Williams’s mom—he was the chief villain, the guy who almost beat the truck driver to death at the corner of Florence and Normandie. Through their eyes I had acquired a very different perspective on cause and effect, right and wrong, during the course of the explosion. But at the end of the day, I could not find any real justification for the kind of journalism that makes authoritative claims through selective quotations and portraits of people who generally have no control over ultimate manuscript. In the 1930s, this kind of social documentation or second-hand existential narrative—Dorothea Lange’s photographs or James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, for example—could claim that it was an integral part of a crusade, the New Deal or the CIO, that was fighting to improve the lives of the victimized people who were its often unknowing subjects. But now, in our post-liberal era, such work runs the danger of simply being sensational and exploitative. Frankly, as much as I wanted to write the book, I couldn’t find any real moral license for looting folks’ stories and their personal miseries for my greater glory as LA’s voice of doom. So I gave the advance back and moved my base of operations to the Cal Tech earth science library and immersed myself in the research on environmental history and disaster that became Ecology of Fear.

I also discovered another topic where there was no ethical ambiguity—indeed, a project that perfectly aligned conscience and my zeal for research. Tom Hayden contacted me in 1995 or 1996 and asked me to contribute to a volume he was editing on the one-hundred-fiftieth anniversary of the Irish holocaust. At first I demurred. Brilliant young Irish historians were reinterpreting the Famine, and I had no expertise in this area. But he persisted. “Well, maybe there’s something else that happened at the time that you could write about.” Then I discovered the famines in China and India during the 1870s and 1890s that killed some twenty million people but had long gone unmentioned in conventional histories of the Victorian era. The result was Late Victorian Holocausts, a kind of “black book” of capitalism, about the millions of unnecessary deaths that occurred as European powers—above all, England—force-marched the great subsistence peasantries of India and China into the world market with disastrous results.

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Wolch: We have one last question, about your young adult novels. Whenever we assign something from City of Quartz or another of your disheartening pieces about LA, it’s hard not to worry that the students will leave the class and jump off of a cliff! But your young adult novels seem to capture some amount of an alternative hopeful future.

Davis: Gee, you shouldn’t be disheartened by my books on LA. They’re just impassioned polemics on the necessity of the urban left. And my third LA book, Magical Urbanism, literally glows with optimism about the grassroots renaissance going on in our immigrant neighborhoods. But to return to the two adolescent “science adventure” novels I wrote for Viggo Mortensen’s wonderful Perceval Press. Above all they’re expressions of longing for my oldest son after his mother moved him back to her native Ireland. The heroes are three real kids: my son, his step-brother, and the daughter of our best friends when I taught at Stony Brook on Long Island. Her name is Julia Monk, and she’s now a wildlife biologist doing a Ph.D. at Yale on pumas in the Andes. I’m very proud that I made her the warrior-scientist heroine of the novels, because it was an intuition about her character that she’s made real in every way—just a remarkable young person.

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Writing these tales was pure fun. The original inspiration was a trip that my son and I took to East Greenland when he was seven. This became The Land of the Lost Mammoths. Stories like this write themselves, especially because they’re real kids and you’re projecting their moral characters in situations of fantastic adventure and danger (although some of the most outlandish parts of the books are true and based on my life-long obsession with mysterious islands). In a way, it was like the four of us really went on expeditions to Greenland and the strange, bewitched island of Socotra.

But let the kids continue the adventure. I’ve become a homebody in retirement, focused on learning everything I can about nature and geology in Southern California. My only organizational membership in recent years (of nonsubversive groups, that is) is in the American Geophysical Union. My wife enjoys a good novel at bedtime. I read strange tomes on igneous petrology and paleoclimatology. I even have a Stephen King–like text somewhere [about the street I live on] called 33rd Street Ecology because there is nothing natural in this neighborhood, from the Arundo to the Sicilian snails, which if they ever hit the Central Valley could do a few billion dollars’ damage to crops. Crows didn’t exist here, nor did the sinister brown widow spiders who now live in my patio furniture. To me this is great noir stuff—the neighborhood taken over by the aliens and the inhabitants don’t know it.

Note
Photographs of the neighborhood in and around Witmer Street by Matthew Gush.

Mike Davis is the author of more than twenty books, including City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles. He is professor emeritus at University of California, Riverside, in the department of creative writing.

Articles

Relocating Romare Bearden’s Berkeley: Capturing Berkeley’s Colorful Diversity

Lauren Kroiz

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Berkeley—The City and its People by Romare Bearden. © Romare Bearden Foundation/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY.

In 1972, the black artist and writer Romare Bearden traveled from his home in New York to spend ten days in the capital of counterculture—Berkeley, California. He visited on an official commission from the city of Berkeley to create a new artwork for its City Council Chambers. The result was the monumental work Berkeley—The City and its People, which hung for decades until the extensive seismic trouble that plagues City Hall forced its removal to a storage facility. Painted in bright colors, featuring a rainbow and a series of Berkeley’s best-known sites, the complete mural is often read as a celebration of urban harmony. A detail of Bearden’s composition remains visible in Berkeley through the city’s logo, promoting Berkeley’s civic commitment to multiculturalism and diversity on municipal property from trashcans to buildings.1

Composed of photographs montaged together and with colored papers across seven panels, it is Bearden’s largest known work on paper.It is also the first civic commission undertaken by the artist and one of the rare works Bearden created of a place with which he had no biographical connection. Nevertheless, Berkeley—The City and Its People envisions the city’s tumultuous diversity in an irreducibly complex collage that was a product of its time, rather than the symbolic logo of harmony that is more familiar to city residents today.3

Berkeley has changed dramatically since Bearden’s visit. The percentage of Berkeley’s population identifying as black has dropped from almost 25 percent in 1970 to less than 10 percent in 2010. Perhaps this demographic shift, coupled with the full mural’s removal from public view, has made it difficult to remember that Bearden’s Berkeley originated in a moment of racially charged civic conflict.

The 1971 local elections in Berkeley that lead to Bearden’s commission followed more than two years of local battles, riots, and widespread conflict on the campus of the University of California, Berkeley (UCB) and across the city over Free Speech, the Vietnam War, Women’s Rights, and Third World Liberation, the latter championed especially by the Black Panther Party, headquartered in nearby Oakland. Earlier that year a group known as the April Coalition united a mostly white constituency of antiwar radicals with the Berkeley Black Caucus through a single central issue: community control of the police. This demand linked minority communities whose members felt targeted by and underrepresented in the police force with students and other citizens involved in the counterculture and draft-resistance movements who had experienced bloody confrontations with the police and National Guard, particularly during protests over People’s Park that began in 1969.

Two new black city council members D’Army Bailey and Ira Simmons—both civil rights lawyers from the South—took a radical stance for black self-determination. After taking his place on the City Council, Simmons joined the City’s Civic Arts Commission, whose members called for redecorating the City Council Chambers. They wanted to replace a wide-angle photograph of the city from the Berkeley Hills and reproductions of portraits of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln with “décor more relevant to all the citizens of present day Berkeley,” including a portrait of Frederick Douglass.4

At just the moment in the fall of 1971 when Berkeley’s art commission was searching for an artist to capture the city’s diversity, UCB’s art museum was hosting an exhibition of Bearden’s work. Organized by New York’s Museum of Modern Art, Romare Bearden: The Prevalence of Ritual focused on Bearden’s early paintings (1940–1942) and his later collages (1964–1971), deliberately leaving aside the abstract paintings he made in the intervening years. The exhibition’s curator, Caroll Greene, praised the ways Bearden represented rituals of life in black America to convey a shared human emotion, especially his use of collage “to express his particular cultural heritage in a universal art.”The centerpiece of the exhibition was the mural-like painting The Block, a four-by-eighteen-foot collage of photographic enlargements with bright over-painting. The work was accompanied by a tape recording of actual Harlem street noises. The dense composition based on the street outside Bearden’s studio window in New York includes varied encounters of pedestrians on the sidewalk, created from collaged pieces of black-and-white photographs that run the horizontal length of the composition (children play, a person sleeps near a stoop, a funeral procession) and colored-paper storefronts (liquor store, funeral parlor, church, barbershop, grocery) stacked with apartments and interior domestic scenes that nearly fill the vertical expanse. A small crack of bright blue tops the composition, interrupted only by an otherworldly scene of spiritual Ascension on the left, rendered on a red ground. In The Block and in his collages more generally, Bearden collapsed the public and private spaces of African American life along with spiritual practices and encounters, suggesting the multiplicity of black experiences. Art historian Kobena Mercer argues Bearden’s shift to the medium of collage allowed the artist to “disclose an understanding of African American identity as something that has itself been ‘collaged’ by the vicissitudes of modern history.” Mercer’s thoughts echo author Ralph Ellison, who suggested in 1968 that Bearden’s method used “sharp breaks, leaps in consciousness, distortions, paradoxes, reversals” that could also characterize African American history.6

It was Berkeley Art Museum director Peter Selz who recommended Bearden to the city’s Civic Arts Commission. In the early 1970s, Selz had briefly formed a “Committee for Afro-American Art” composed of black artists living in Berkeley to advise the museum on acquisitions and exhibitions. The group consisted of three artists in their thirties: Raymond Saunders, then professor of art at California State University, Hayward; Russell T. Gordon, who taught in the UCB art department; and UCB master’s student David Bradford. Selz also arranged a matching grant with the National Endowment for the Arts, which provided half of Bearden’s $16,000 City Hall commission fee. Along with Selz’s committee, Bailey and Simmons backed the idea of commissioning a black artist to represent Berkeley. Promising a gallery in City Hall to show diverse local artists, the City Council voted unanimously to hire Bearden to represent Berkeley and its citizens.

However, even before Bearden’s mural was installed the progressive coalition had fallen apart, largely along racial lines. Bailey and Simmons clashed repeatedly with others on the council, particularly over the rights of women and students, and Bailey became the subject of an unprecedented and ultimately successful recall election. It was during this “stormy” time that Bearden visited Berkeley, at the invitation of Bailey and Simmons.

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The Block by Romare Bearden. © Romare Bearden Foundation/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

Correspondence and local coverage of Bearden’s mural during the months between his visit in spring 1972 and the final work’s installation suggest divergent understandings of the artist’s intentions. In a letter to Bearden, councilmember Ira Simmons identified himself as both council delegate to the Civic Art Commission and a member of the Black Arts Committee. He praised the plan Bearden had sent, explaining “we as representatives of the Black community are thoroughly satisfied with your proposed sketch for the mural to be completed in the chambers of the Berkeley City Hall. We feel that you have adequately expressed Black people’s status and involvement in the Berkeley community.” However, Simmons warned, “Unfortunately, there is an element within the [Berkeley] community that would see fit to abridge this essential artist’s right, i.e. the right of freedom of expression. Many of these persons are motivated by racist and selfish interests.” He enclosed an article from the Berkeley Citizens United (BCU) Bulletin, a conservative monthly newsletter, to support his point.

Berkeley Citizens United expressed concerns about Bearden’s mural that suggest just how radical Berkeley’s choice of the black artist seemed in 1972. The periodical covered Bearden twice in that year, once in June soon after the artist’s visit and again in September. Both articles noted that the communist newspaper People’s Weekly World had celebrated the commission, praising the social concern demonstrated in Bearden’s art. The first conservative account noted Bearden’s visits to minority communities during his tour, omitting his wide-ranging travels across the University and in the affluent white neighborhoods of the Berkeley Hills, before announcing, “We shudder! Imagine the filth, the degradation of Telegraph Ave., immortalized in a mural that every person attending the City Council meetings would have to look at!”The second article, the one Simmons likely sent to Bearden, speculated “We can’t condemn the mural until it is finished, but from the descriptions of Bearden’s ‘specially relevant’ works, we fear that we may get a collage of Black Panthers waving clenched fists, filthy tent hovels at People’s Park, street revolutionaries tearing down the fence [at People’s Park], drug addicts lying stoned on Telegraph Avenue, Berkeley Communists waving the Viet Cong flag, Berkeley barbarians rampaging through the streets, looting, smashing, burning.”The newsletter argued artwork should instead express a pleasant and timeless image of the city. Berkeley Citizens United praised the large photograph of Berkeley in the city council meeting room, calling implicitly for a view that distanced those attending council meetings from the disparate lived realities of the urban sphere.

When Bearden’s mural was finally unveiled, BCU never published a reaction to it, suggesting they found the final mural less distasteful than they had expected. Turning to examine Berkeley–The City and Its People, we can see that, rather than foreground the contemporary sites and symbols of dissent registered in Black Power, counterculture, and Third World liberation as BCU worried, Bearden represented Berkeley to its citizens by layering representations of people and landmarks, past and present, in photography, paint and colored papers. Bearden’s sprawling composition was intended to be viewed from a distance. Hanging on the chamber wall above and behind the city councilmembers, it presented a chaotic vision of the city’s diversity with the disjunctive medium of collage. With crisply cut, flatly layered photographs and colored fields (rather than items torn or folded, for example), the black-and-white ground of the photograph creates equivalences between persons and groups. For example, Ohlone Native Americans and early white settlers on bottom right suggest an early moment of intercultural contact, while just above them across center from right to left we find university graduates and football players whose identity is obscured by their turned backs. These groups are followed by a study circle of five collaged students, including the features of a white woman and man, a black man, and another two men of indeterminate ethnicity, and a white man. Next to this group, the heads of a racially diverse group of mostly female activists with open shouting mouths are interspersed with arms and hands raised in the various versions of a peace sign. Finally, masked and costumed participants in a Lunar New Year parade, give way to local religious leaders (including Buddhist and Catholic) and everyday citizens. As these examples demonstrate, Bearden’s composition alternates between constructing scenes that highlight the cooperation of individuals of various ethnic groups and denying easy or fixed identification in racial terms. Bursts of local color, such as red in the rose on far left, across faces in the center, and in flat shapes of graduation caps and stoles on the right, lead the eye back through the mural linking disparate places and individuals.

Like the indexical aerial photograph of Berkeley it replaced, Bearden’s mural depicts the city from the hills out toward the bay evading the visual mastery of a bird’s eye view and taking a more abstract relationship to geography and history. For example, the bay in the upper third includes a freighter, a sixteenth-century galleon flying a Spanish flag with a pasted white paper wake, a nineteenth-century brig topped by an American flag, and a cluster of recreational sailboats on the far right. These historical moments are punctuated by boldly colored designs: abstracted doves, a rainbow with a setting sun, and esoteric symbols including the half eye and circular design in center. Would viewers have understood or recognized all of Bearden’s references? The lower two-thirds of the composition have a density that transforms the university town of Berkeley into a densely packed locale like Bearden’s native Harlem, pictured in The Block. Identifying places and faces in the tumult might make those attending council meetings feel like experts on their community, while not recognizing others or seeing architecture and individuals newly constellated could encourage citizens to consider their involvement in the wider reaches of Berkeley. In the ruptures and odd collisions, they might see difference and varied viewpoints as constitutive of their community rather than threatening its harmony.

Berkeley residents remarked on the play between the “symbolic” and the “particular” facilitated by Bearden’s use of photography and collage. As one period newspaper reported “Photographs of real people are used to typify students, workers, teachers, and citizens. But the blown-up photographs of these real people have features from other faces collaged to them, so that individual noses and eyes find themselves on other faces.”10 Presenting a layered composition with specific geographic anchors, Bearden’s collage nonetheless performed the destabilizing work of collage on both individual and group identity.

Bearden’s mural for the city could be read—or misread—in varied ways. One newspaper noted the figure at the bottom center of the composition, a black woman holding a young boy, “probably alludes to the black poor in Berkeley, but her image is one of strength and determination, not sullenness or hopelessness.”11 Nothing about the woman’s image indicates class. She is collaged behind a photograph of the Niehaus Villa, an opulent Victorian landmark in southwestern Berkeley built in 1889 by a wealthy Prussian immigrant mill owner and located in the 1970s in a portion of the city predominately housing African American residents. The roofline of the home obstructs part of the woman’s cheek, but frames the direct stare of her eyes, a geographic and formal link suggestive of a layered, nuanced, and potentially ruptured relationships of past and present, race and place, class and power. Rather than the raised black fist, Vietcong flag, or any of the other symbols conservatives including Berkeley Citizens United had feared, Bearden’s mural remained open to varied understandings of the community’s “strength.”

This complex layering of potential meanings extends to the portion of the mural that became Berkeley’s logo, a section that Bearden described as the “four races of mankind and blueprint for a better world.”12 The city’s logo was created in the 1980s in order to “reflect the sexual and racial diversity” of the city in an easily reproducible image.13 Simplifying the design by eliminating the blueprint, the logo creates a static image that recalls early “science” that divided humanity into four essential races, usually hierarchized from white to black.14 However, the logo also has formal links with Soviet propaganda for international workers and 1960s decolonialization movements, for example the poster of Viktor Koretsky, which Bearden may or may not have seen directly. 15 These images circulated in Eastern Europe, Cuba, and Africa, as well as in the United States among the communist, socialist, and Third World movements that were present in New York (where Bearden likely encountered them) and in the Bay Area during the late 1960s and early 1970s. The layered profiles in Bearden’s mural offer multiple readings of race relations, but his inclusion of the blueprint suggest an ongoing process. This vision of the hard work of achieving equitable diversity has been effaced in the city’s static logo.

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This illustration is based on the ideas of French doctor François Bernier (1625–1688), suggesting that human beings can be separated into four major groups.

A 1972 letter from the Arts Commission to Bearden celebrated his sketch for its “apparent contradiction.” The work, they remarked, achieved “a very happy feeling…in spite of the strife which it indicates and which is so much a part of Berkeley.” This optimistic tone in the face of conflict could have a “unifying influence” by helping all who attend city meetings “feel that it is worthwhile being a Berkeley citizen in spite of or because of this strife.”16 This letter makes clear that, despite the rainbow-colored harmony of Bearden’s mural visible at first glance, Berkeley was historically marked by dissention and civic chaos. By the time the work was installed in Berkeley’s City Hall, Bailey, who had been instrumental in bringing Bearden to Berkeley, had been recalled from office. Although the National Bar Association among others opposed the special recall election in August 1973, the vote forced Bailey (and two years later Simmons) out of Berkeley politics.17 In retrospect, the aesthetics of Bearden’s collage were uniquely suited to represent the breaks, ruptures, and hopeful strife of the profoundly contested landscape of the city.

Bearden ignored the one suggestion offered by the Arts Commission. They urged the artist to reduce the number of local sites in the mural to achieve the “simple forcefulness” that characterized his images of Harlem. They suggested that he might have misunderstood his commission to require that “so many of Berkeley’s features need to be incorporated.” Bearden persisted with including sites and many types of people from across the city, rather than reducing his image to focus on the city’s black neighborhood, on a single street as in The Block, or one unified scene. Rather than see the chaotic composition as a series of clichés about a California city inventoried by a New York artist to satisfy locals, Bearden’s disregard of the suggestion to simplify underscores the intriguing, productive ways Berkeley differs from his prior work. Bearden’s characteristic depictions of African American experience that stirred universal emotion gives way in Berkeley to an even messier picture of an entire diverse city, rendered with the ruptures and breaks of collage. The complicated history of Bearden’s commission and the complexity of the monumental image itself points to the ways the collage refuses to be a symbol of unity. Berkeley–The City and Its People creates a moving portrayal of urban diversity precisely by accommodating breaks, ruptures, difference, and disagreement, layering references to the ongoing (and sometimes dissonant) efforts of many individuals and groups across the city’s space and history to live with each other.

In 2016, with longtime residents having been pushed out by rising rents and housing prices, is the multilayered Berkeley (and Bay Area) that Bearden represented gone? Locked away today in climate-controlled art storage, Bearden’s 1973 mural may indeed be a time capsule of a long-gone historic moment. If so, the artwork serves as a tool, something of a blueprint, for a better future in California. As we struggle with complex issues of gentrification and urban displacement across the Bay Area, Bearden’s vision belongs in City Hall as a backdrop for government action. Bearden created Berkeley not in a perfect period of unity and equality between blacks and whites in the city, but in a fractious and fleeting moment. In addition to the dramatic decline in the percentage of black Berkeleyans between 1970 and 2010, statistics show the percentage of city’s population identifying as white also dropped since 1970, with the increasing presence of census categories of Asian, Hispanic, Latino, and those belonging to two or more races—a trend mirrored across California.18 Bearden’s mural may not represent this shift or our present moment, but it refracts them to suggest how we might live together now.

Bearden’s Berkeley envisions how the California city is built from and on shifting histories of encounter and settlement by many groups with different backgrounds, interests, and beliefs. The nonnarrative mural implies history is not always a story of progress, but its contours may help us to see possibilities for the present and suggest a path to more equity and inclusion in the future. The ability of our eyes to make meaning from the collage’s cuts and juxtapositions point to ways we might also make meaning from the irreducible differences among us, as individuals and as groups. Looking closely at Berkeley–The City and Its People, through the rainbow and doves, Bearden forces us to recognize that the promise of equity and diversity comes with friction and difficulty as it forces us to make sense of the world anew. Ultimately, Bearden’s mural resonates in the present by suggest that it is only through this ongoing work of assembling the incongruent that we will devise a blueprint to a better urban future together.

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City of Berkeley logo.

Notes

1
When Berkeley briefly introduced a new logo in the early 1990s, the city employee newsletter reported that the Bearden-inspired one remained in circulation because it was “distinctly Berkeley with all its diversity.” Michael Caplan and Norma Hennessey, Berkeley Matters, 9 July 1993, Berkeley History Room clipping files, Berkeley Public Library.

2
Correspondence and primary source materials indicate this visit occurred in 1972, a year earlier than the date given in Rocío Aranda-Alvarado and Sarah Kennel with Carmenita Higginbotham, “Romare Bearden: A Chronology,” in Ruth Fine, The Art of Romare Bearden (Washington: National Gallery of Art in association with Harry H. Abrams, New York, 2003), 231.

3
“D’Army Bailey: ‘If You’re in a Minority, You Have to Be Rough,’” The Daily Californian, 23 July 1973.

4
Charles Shere, “Berkeley Unveils Portrait of a City and Its People,” Oakland Tribune, 13 Jan 1974, 26EN. Others coverage of the mural includes Thomas Albright, “Berkeley’s Life Style: Impressive New Mural,” San Francisco Chronicle, 3 January 1974, 40; and Mary Ellen Perry, “On the Art Scene,” San Francisco Post, 4 May 1972, 4. For suggestion of Douglas, see Berkeley City Council Meeting Minutes, 13 January 1972, 3. All minutes available at http://www.cityofberkeley.info/recordsonline.

5
“Advance Fact Sheet: Romare Bearden: The Prevalence of Ritual,” The Museum of Modern Art, Press Release, 10 February 1971. Available at: http://www.moma.org/learn/resources/press_archives/1970s/1971.

6
Kobena Mercer, “Romare Bearden, 1964: Collage as Kunstwollen,” Cosmopolitan Modernisms, Kobena Mercer, ed. (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2005), 125.

7
Ira T. Simmons [on behalf of the Black Arts Committee] to Romare Bearden, 3 October 1972, Romare Bearden papers, 1937–1982, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

8
“An Unorthodox Mural for Berkeley Council Chambers,” Berkeley Citizen United Bulletin 8, no. 6, June 1972, 6.

9
“Berkeley Mural,” Berkeley Citizen United Bulletin 8, no. 8, September 1972, 1–2.

10
Shere, “Berkeley Unveils…,” 26EN.

11
Shere, “Berkeley Unveils…,” 26EN.

12
Bearden’s description of the mural is available at http://berkeleyplaques.org/e-plaque/city-logo/.

13
Berkeley City Council Meeting Minutes, 14 October 1980, 7.

14
This illustration is based on the ideas of French doctor François Bernier (1625–1688), who argued that human beings could be separated into four major groups, becoming one of the first to argue for making racial distinctions on physical characteristics. Augustine Fouillée, Le Tour De La France Par Deux Enfants (Paris, 1900 [first edition 1877]), 188.

15
Thanks to Anneka Lennsen for this suggestion.

16
William Clifford, President, Civic Art Commission, and Ira Simmons to Bearden, 17 October 1972, Romare Bearden papers, 1937–1982, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

17
Bailey left the city for his hometown of Memphis where he eventually founded the National Civil Rights Museum.

18
Census data available at http://www.bayareacensus.ca.gov/.

Lauren Kroiz is assistant professor of twentieth century American art at University of California, Berkeley. She is particularly interested in race and ethnic studies, and the relationships between regionalism, nationalism, and globalism.

Articles

Outselling the Beatles in 1966: LA’s forgotten musical genius

Peter Cole

As music critics release “best of 2016” lists, who can name the most popular musician in America fifty years ago? The Beatles? The Rolling Stones? Wrong. The Supremes or another Motown act? Nope. Bob Dylan? Johnny Cash? The Beach Boys? No, no, and no.

Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass Brand sold about fourteen million LPs in 1966. Anyone who has rifled through old records at thrift stores and rummage sales has seen his albums. Most famously, Whipped Cream and Other Delights featured a young woman covered in (apparently) nothing but whip cream.

No musician sold more records in 1966 than this pop trumpeter. His first ten albums, all released in the 1960s, reached the Top 20. Even more impressive, in 1966 Alpert had five albums in the Billboard Top 20 simultaneously, a Guinness World Record never since repeated. For one week, four of the Top 10 albums were Alpert’s and three of the top four!

Alpert blended multiple sounds perhaps only possible in his native Los Angeles, a city connecting diverse cultures for a century now, though the cover art didn’t hurt.

The origins of Ameriachi

Alpert combined surf rock, West Coast cool jazz, and Mexican mariachi to create a new pop sound. In the late 1950s, surf emerged as a southern California subgenre of the still-emerging rock ’n’ roll. Think Dick Dale, who graduated high school in El Segundo near Los Angeles, and his scorching, staccato guitar riffs on “Misirlou” (1962).

Cool jazz, especially its West Coast variant, also influenced Alpert. Miles Davis defined the sound on albums like Kind of Blue (1959). A growing Los Angeles-based jazz scene, including Stan Getz and Gerry Mulligan, adapted cool just as Alpert started playing professionally.

However, those Mexican horns, so distinctive and, at that time, so unusual for non-Mexicans to hear, probably were what listeners heard first.

In 1962 Alpert visited Tijuana where he attended a bullfight and heard a mariachi band. Inspired, he took that sound back to the studio. Playing all the parts himself, he quickly released The Lonely Bull under the name Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass. After achieving some success and tour requests, he hired musicians to populate his band.

His style quickly became known as “Ameriachi,” a perfect name for his transnational music. In one 1966 interview, Alpert described it as, “a sort of fusion of the mariachi sound of Mexico with a jazz undercurrent.” His songs included “Mexican Shuffle” and “Spanish Flea,” but “A Taste of Honey” typifies his iconic sound.

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Herb Alpert, 1966, via Wikimedia

Perhaps shockingly, neither Alpert nor anyone in the Tijuana Brass Band was Mexican or Mexican American. In fact, he joked in concert that his band consisted of “four lasagnas, two bagels, and an American cheese.” Four Italian Americans, two Jewish Americans, and one Anglo American. Alpert was a bagel.

Los Angeles: cultural borderland

Alpert hails from Los Angeles, home to a rich and diverse set of cultures. In the 1950s, that included a thriving, multiethnic community in Boyle Heights, on LA’s eastside. Alpert’s parents, Eastern European Jewish immigrants, gave birth to Herbert there in 1935. Boyle Heights was known as a multicultural, working class enclave with many Mexican Americans and Japanese Americans cheek to jowl with Jewish folks. The sort of place where Jews in the socialist Workmen’s Circle and garment workers’ union advocated a leftist politics that embraced the diversity of immigrants and working class peoples. Historian George Sanchez goes as far as to argue that Boyle Heights maintained this diverse, radical culture into the 1950s, when Alpert came of age.

Though not literally on the Mexican border, Los Angeles might as well be. Just a few hours drive south sits Tijuana, the definitive border town in the American imagination. Of course, the Mexican-US border is an arbitrary line drawn by politicians far removed from this region. People have crossed and recrossed this border endlessly and still do. Or, as some Mexicans declare, “We didn’t cross the border, it crossed us.”

Los Angeles always has been culturally, demographically, and economically tied to Mexico. The Southern Pacific Railroad—the “Espee” Line—terminated in LA with connections to Sonora down to Jalisco. In his book Becoming Mexican American, Sanchez notes that Spanish-language radio stations broadcast to Mexico from Los Angeles as early as the 1920s. LA remains the unofficial capital of Mexican Americans in El Norte.

Alpert in 1966

Undeniably, Alpert stood at the top of the heap in 1966. Record sales don’t lie. Whipped Cream and Other Delights sold six million platters, the best-selling LP that year. “A Taste of Honey” won the Grammy for “Best Record of the Year.” Also in 1966, Going Places, featuring “Spanish Flea,” and a third album, What Now My Love, all went to #1, the latter for nine weeks. All told, Alpert sold around fourteen million albums in 1966—way more than, yes, the Beatles.

Confirmation of his domination of the pop charts came when Alpert recorded the title track (composed by Burt Bacharach) for the first-ever James Bond film, Casino Royale, in 1967.

Selections from My Jazz Album Collection

Cultural Appropriation?

For this success, what “right” does Alpert have to “take” Mexican music, shear it of some of its native authenticity, and repackage it for non-Mexican audiences? It’s an important question.

Clearly, Alpert merged Mexican horns into his own sound; but artists incorporate elements of different cultures all the time. Picasso and Gauguin did it. The Talking Heads did it. Dizzy Gillespie and countless other jazz artists did so. Commercial success should not be the measure by which such “mashups” are considered theft or respectful.

As a native Los Angeleno born and raised in culturally diverse Boyle Heights, his neighborhood included countless Mexican Americans and was inextricably twined to Mexico. His visit to Tijuana in 1962 was not his first to that city, but was when it inspired him to incorporate Mariachi horns into his own music.

Alpert’s music even gained some popularity in Mexico. His album Whipped Cream and Other Delights was reported as, “One of the top 10 records in sales in Mexico City.” In 1967, he played a benefit concert in Tijuana before a sold-out crowd of 14,500 people, where he and his band recorded a one-hour program for television’s CBS.

Alpert, of course, was hardly the only American to embrace Mexican and other Latin musical traditions. “Tequila,” a Cuban-mambo slash instrumental rock song by the Champs, a LA session group, reached #1 in 1958 and has been repeatedly covered ever since. The LA-based rock music group, Love, channeled Alpert’s Ameriachi sound to create an iconic hit with “Alone Again Or” (1967), which continues to amaze. Further north, in San Francisco, Mexican-born Carlos Santana had a big hit covering Puerto Rican Tito Puente’s “Oye Come Va.” The long list of country singers, from Marty Robbins to Johnny Cash, who incorporated Mexican horns also springs to mind. Arguably, doing so is an acknowledgement of the impact of and respect for Mexican culture in the United States.

Music hardly is the only site of cultural “mashups,” as the recent LA creation, Korean tacos, confirms. They are a product of a city in which vastly different peoples live near each other and increasingly come together. Who doesn’t love the very idea of the Korean taco? But that mélange does not happen just anywhere. Rather, it emerges in cities like Los Angeles, where peoples and cultures meet and mesh.

Though Alpert’s music was very commercialized—i.e. wildly successful—we need popular musicians pushing boundaries. Whether such efforts are considered “appropriation” or respectful integration remains an ongoing conversation.

After the Sixties

Alpert continued to record, successfully, but perhaps more importantly created and managed a music label, A&M Records, with business partner Jerry Moss. A&M signed, recorded, and distributed an impressive array of musicians including Wes Montgomery, Joe Cocker, Quincy Jones, the Carpenters, Carole King, Cat Stevens, The Police, and many more. He even met his wife, who sang backup for Sergio Mendes & Brasil ’66, via A&M, which first brought Mendes to American audiences.

After selling A&M to Polygram in 1989 for half a billion dollars, Alpert became a philanthropist. He has donated tens of millions of dollars, especially to promote music education in his hometown. According to his website: “The UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music focuses on cross-cultural experimentation and musical diversity with an emphasis on music and influences from around the world.” Earlier this year, he donated another ten million to Los Angeles City College that will provide all music majors with tuition-free education, additional private lessons, and additional financial support. In his words, “I love that LACC has helped so many low-income students who have financial challenges but have a strong commitment to education and to self- improvement.” Through such generosity Alpert strives to keep music, the arts, and education alive, accessible, and evolving in his native Los Angeles.

herb_alpert_obama_medal_2013

Herb Alpert receiving the Medal of Honor for the Arts, 10 July 2013. Photo by Pete Souza via Wikimedia Commons.

Long-forgotten but shouldn’t be

Today, when considering the greatest American musicians of the 1960s, many spring to mind. The Doors in LA. The Jefferson Airplane and Grateful Dead in San Francisco. Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix in New York. Stevie Wonder and the Jackson 5 in Detroit. These and many others, much loved and respected, have seen their stars continue to shine.

Still, none were nearly as commercially successful as Alpert in 1966. So, despite John Lennon’s legendary boast that the Beatles were “bigger than Jesus,” Alpert actually was “bigger” than the Beatles if only for a moment. No doubt, he has faded from popular memory. The proof, today, lies in record bins across the land, where it is rare to not find a Herb Alpert album. Believe me, I’ve tried.

So, though every collector has seen—and passed—his LPs, let us not condemn him to the dustbin of music history, “easy listening.” Instead, think of Herb Alpert’s stunning popularity, fifty years ago, as confirmation of Los Angeles as a vibrant city where cultures come together to produce something new and wonderful. Alpert represents the best of an increasingly multicultural America arguably defined, since the 1960s, more by Los Angeles than New York. Proof that borders are meant to be crossed or sometimes even ignored. Proof that it’s better to tear down walls than build them.


Peter Cole is a professor of history at Western Illinois University. He is the author of Wobblies on the Waterfront: Interracial Unionism in Progressive Era Philadelphia and currently at work on Dockworker Power: Race, Technology, and Unions in Durban and the San Francisco Bay Area. He writes extensively on the history of labor unions, port cities, race matters, and politics. He tweets from @ProfPeterCole

Copyright: © 2016 The Author(s). This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

Articles

Practicing the Future: Exercises in Immanent Speculation

Jonathan Crisman

Los Angeles is a city made from an assemblage of speculative practices. Spain colonized the region, surmising it was unsettled territory to be conquered—ignoring, of course, the Tongva who had lived here for thousands of years. Later on, as part of the United States, the region went through a stuttering period of growth as boosters proclaimed the magic of Southern California throughout the Midwest and elsewhere, fueling land speculation wherein gullible investors would repeatedly and blindly bid up land prices only to discover more often than not upon a first visit that the real estate was essentially worthless. And, of course, it became ground zero for all the imagination of Hollywood, projecting moving images of fantasy plotlines onto screens around the world. Across from La Placita, the mythical origin point of Los Angeles, is Union Station. The last of the grand train stations built in the United States, it was approved in 1926 and completed thirteen years later during the throes of the Great Depression and a world war. What was then Chinatown was demolished in the process, whitewashing the site of the largest mass lynching in US historywith gleaming art deco construction. It is the terminus of a city upon which it seemed almost anyone could project their own minor utopia. Sure enough, in 1938, a bigger, better Chinatown was built about a mile away under the guidance of community leader Peter Soo Hoo and with the help of Hollywood set designers in designing its core, Central Plaza. As Edward Soja has noted, subverting the boosterist claim, “It all comes together in Los Angeles.”

To speculate might mean to assume rather than to know based on facts (as in Spain’s assumption of the tabula rasa of California, and later again with Manifest Destiny), or it might mean to envision historical or fictional realities (as in the imaginative work of Hollywood). There are, of course, endless varieties of financial speculation, such as land speculation or the mining speculation in the goldfields of Northern California and the oilfields around Los Angeles. We might read into Chinatown’s destruction an element of racial speculation: that the sullied, foreign, Chinese landscape was envisioned by city boosters as bleached clean, transformed into a gleaming beacon of Anglo LA. But we might also see the inverse of that in a work of speculative fiction: Karen Tei Yamashita’s Tropic of Orange, where, again, it all comes together in Los Angeles—“it” being a stunning kaleidoscope of new ethnic formations.

Decades of Anglo hegemony in LA literature gave us Chandler’s hard-boiled noir and Didion’s upper-middle-class neuroses. Yamashita gave us Bobby: “Chinese from Singapore with a Vietnam name speaking like a Mexican living in Koreatown. That’s it.” The book spans seven days, with seven narratives moving between Mexico and Los Angeles, just like its eponymous orange, which a character named Arcangel brings across the border (and, along with it, the Tropic of Cancer). It straddles magic realism and speculative fiction, suspending our disbelief about any number of perfectly plausible alternative realities for Los Angeles: palm trees as flags for the poor instead of street ornamentation for Beverly Hills, a traffic jam on the Cahuenga Pass as a meticulously conducted symphony, NAFTA as a luchador being defeated by el gran mojado…

In the university, speculative work most often involves theoretical development, from physics to philosophy. But there are some today who eschew conventionally understood “academic speculation” for something closer to what Yamashita practices. This form of speculation has something to do with race insofar as it aims to decolonize, and little to do with jumping through the hoops of theory. What we might call immanent speculation, this is the practicing of an inherently unknowable future in order to create the conditions for that future to unfold. In contrast to theory-laden speculative philosophy, or to the incrementalism of design in the built environment, or even to the extreme opposite of ungrounded utopianism, immanent speculation rigorously pulls out latent alternative realities embedded in a place through the method of making. It does so with the consequence that these other worlds—whether or not they are fully realized—expand our notion of what could be. It aims to decolonize the future from the forward march of time, from the imperfect conditions of the present, freeing it to become something just beyond what we imagine to be possible. It is called immanent because it is not pulled from thin air, but rather from the sites and places in which we live. It is undisciplined yet rigorous, intellectual yet artistic. In fact, an imperfect immanent speculation recently found its way into where we began: Union Station and Chinatown.

In October of 2013, the experimental opera company The Industry staged a performance based on Italo Calvino’s book Invisible Cities. Performed in collaboration with the LA Dance Project, the characters were embedded in Los Angeles’s Union Station. Some 100,000 people commute through the station every day, and they continued to do so as the opera was performed. The characters moved fluidly through the building, exploring imaginary spaces and playing out a war of words between Kublai Khan and Marco Polo. Viewers were given wireless headsets that played the full opera with live orchestra, but were given no instructions on how to view the piece. You could sit down and experience it motionless, you could attempt to catch every exciting moment by recklessly following where you assumed the action was, you could take your headset off to mute the orchestra and listen to the ambient noise, you could share your headset with a curious passer-through, and sometimes you could find yourself in the way of the performers. Donning a headset transported you to a different world that was overlaid on top of this one, in real time.

The opera was lauded by critics. Christopher Cerrone was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for composing the opera, while director Yuval Sharon’s spatially sophisticated interpretation won great acclaim. The performers miraculously transformed from anonymous commuters to fully costumed period characters. Dancers deftly maneuvered between audience members and passers-by like some feat of spatial jazz. Using postmodern techniques of fragmentation and nonlinear space-time, the opera traversed the present world, the age of Marco Polo’s exploration, and the many worlds he described. The technological novelty of listening to the fragmented bits of opera on wireless headsets, synthetically mixed into a whole, was equally impressive, blending the excitement of a full, live orchestra and the contemporary remix-mash-up sensibility of a DJ set.

Most striking of all was the opera’s site-specific deployment of Union Station. Each of the other elements played out in particular relation to the space, history, and essence of the site. Tropes of the traveler, of the explorer, of the grand hall versus everyday spaces were played out in the train terminal. This demonstrated immanent speculation because it was at once speculative—it imagined and performed an otherworldly fantasy—as it was embedded in the messy reality of urban space. At one point, a homeless person noticed the captive audience and began singing her own tune before a nervous stagehand awkwardly ushered her away to receive her own headset. And, of course, the inversion of who is watching and who is being watched cannot go unstated: as much as we privileged theatergoers invaded this space and tried to watch as much of the frenetic and fractured performance as we could, so too were we being gawked at by passers-by. We were a funny-looking mob of confused people with wireless headsets on, providing our own free show. There was none of the unidirectional comfort of a darkened theater. In this strange, ambivalent way, the audience’s discomfort with being implicated by the performance’s dynamics—of power, of privilege, of post-modern obtuseness—became absorbed into the opera, suggesting an alternative, immanent reality that had the potential to come into being.

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A performance of Hopscotch.

In 2015, The Industry took on an even more heady and complex project. Titled Hopscotch, the opera was broken into thirty-six scenes that were repeatedly performed at a variety of sites across Los Angeles. Members of the audience could as easily be called participants: they viewed the opera by choosing one of three routes, and starting with a small group of actors, facilitators, and other participants, they would drive to eight of the sites before congregating with the entire cast and audience at a “central hub” for the finale. One of the participants would be responsible for capturing the experience on video, live broadcasting to one of thirty-six screens at the central hub where anyone could drop in and watch the live video for free. To complicate things considerably, the opera was written by multiple playwrights and composers, a few scenes consisted of lines shouted between cars or long quotes from French Marxist theorist Guy Debord, and multiple actors played single roles to manage the logistics of multiple locations—all in the service of a relatively straightforward love story. Loosely based on Julio Cortázar’s 1963 novel—which shares the title and nonlinear structure—Hopscotch follows a woman named Lucha who moves through a star-crossed romance only to discover her true love for her longtime coworker instead. As one could imagine, if Invisible Cities was on the verge of crashing down under the weight of its postmodern tendencies, Hopscotch casually blew past any nod to such concerns.

Hopscotch also blew past its predecessor in the cost of a ticket. While there is easy justification for the expense, given the opera’s incredibly intensive resource needs and limited number of seats, with prices in the hundreds of dollars it nevertheless catered only to an elite audience. This was partially remedied by the free viewing experience at the central hub, but the discrepancy between the segregated experiences was striking. In one, you were a participant in an immersive experience, while in the other, you had to wait in line to view a set of screens that could have almost as easily been broadcast online. The central hub was deftly designed by two SCI-Arc (Southern California Institute of Architecture) faculty and located on its campus but was almost certainly underfunded for its wider purposes. The design effectively deployed shape and interior sheathing to create the conditions necessary for both the broadcasting of the various scenes and the culminating act in which numerous cars pulled through the structure. Ticket-holders emerged from the vehicles like awards show attendees walking a red carpet, while many non-ticket-holders were unable to enter because of capacity issues. Their only view was of the exterior of the hub, which was literally wrapped in trash—no doubt the only affordable material after value engineering went its course. A group of musicologists in Los Angeles went so far as to boycott the performance—though tickets still sold out almost as soon as they went on sale. My own viewing experience was possible only by hacking the machine: by analyzing hashtags on social media, I was able to discern where the most popular nonmobile scenes were performed, and I staged my own complimentary private viewing tour. With stops at Angel’s Point in Elysian Park and the Bradbury Building downtown, my tour culminated in a scene that unfolded in Chinatown. That Peter Soo Hoo’s Central Plaza, designed like a movie set, now was the stage for an opera seemed fitting.

The scene involves Lucha, the heroine, receiving some kind of message from a soothsayer, amidst flutists, a pair of characters who bore an uncanny relation to the twins from Kubrick’s The Shining, and handfuls of raining rose petals. While the narrative wasn’t immediately clear, I could certainly sense a bit of the supernatural in it all. A limousine bearing a handful of ticket-holders would roll up to the plaza and the scene would begin, moving throughout the plaza and reaching its apex as Lucha sings them back into the vehicle, which whisked them to their next site. As in Invisible Cities, one of the most powerful elements of the opera was its site specificity, transforming the mundane space of the everyday into one that held speculative possibility. There was no set constructed apart from the preexisting set of the plaza, so characters aptly used benches, lamp posts, and steps to their blocking’s advantage. Bystanders who expected to do little more than buy lunch were presented with this otherworldly performance, generating curiosity and discussion between these happenstance strangers who bore witness to the opera. While this was, for the most part, the standard reaction to these pop-up opera segments, there were instances in which the fourth wall was more violently broken. One segment, which was to be performed in Hollenbeck Park in Boyle Heights, a historic immigrant community in Los Angeles currently under severe threat of gentrification and displacement, was regularly overtaken by shouting protestors demanding that these operatic outsiders leave their neighborhood.

Yet here there was another curious phenomenon that made Hopscotch, for all its issues, the beginnings of a work of immanent speculation. The logistical complexity of the opera made the kind of control found in a theater impossible, and this had the effect of opening up a discursive space within the performance. In between location changes, repeated scene resets, and the space between sites and participant vehicles, conversations between performers, participants, crew, and bystanders unfolded about the opera, the experience of performers and participants, and about Los Angeles itself. This also had the effect of making the plotline—something which oscillated between simple love story and overwrought reflection on postmodernity with the main characters in search of abstract centers—strikingly touching. It made an impact precisely because its simple narrative stood in such stark contrast to the numerous other complexities reflecting and reproducing the tropes of Los Angeles—that it demonstrated underneath all of the postmodern geography was an earnest and hopeful desire for connection. And beyond the narrative, the opera itself performed this relationship through the creation of a network of producers, actors, participants (intentional and unintentional), and places. It drew from this network, looking past and forward, simultaneously creating and suggesting potential for creation, expanding the margins of the possible.

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Viewers at Hopscotch’s central hub.

Returning to the university, there are two additional examples worth noting, which demonstrate the budding of immanent speculation within the university. During the summer of 2014, two teams of urban researchers in the UCLA Urban Humanities Initiative produced short videos about Chinatown that delved into ethnography, fiction, space, time, narrative, and the future. The first, titled “en-Counter Chinatown,” is composed of a relatively disjointed set of rapidly cut shots of Chinatown, much in the spirit of the early city symphony films of the 1920s. Yet here the subject matter is not frenetically moving transportation systems and flashing urban lights—instead, there are decidedly slow subjects: smoke wafting up from sticks of incense, the gentle sway of red lanterns, old men sitting in a public park, slow pans of a mostly horizontal landscape, a feeding fish. The most intense movement comes from a rapidly spinning seat, part of a twenty-five-cent children’s ride in front of a shop, which instructs, “Enjoy The Ride !!!” We return to this shot several times, suggesting that the ride is, in fact, the video and we its riders. There are subtitles in the film though we hear no dialogue. “How are you connected to Chinatown?” “Those terms don’t apply to us.” A repeated exchange between typical ethnographic interview questions and apparently nonsensical answers devolves to the point where even the questions start to lose stability: “Who is Chinatown?” Indeed, the only audible sounds come from the ambient noises indicative of some kind of commercial space, punctuated with the regular chiming of a singing bowl. Toward the end of the video, a traditional song is played or, perhaps, performed—we aren’t sure because the soundtrack is utterly asynchronous with the image.

Here, much like in The Industry’s operas, we are presented with an everyday space made unfamiliar. And with our estrangement comes the ability to see things previously unseen, to imagine another world very much overlapped upon the one we knew. A question like “Who is Chinatown?” which on first blush sounds ridiculous now begins to make some sort of odd sense. Aren’t these the questions that any critically minded scholar first asks of a situation? For whom is this neighborhood meant? And who else is excluded? There is, again, a touch of the supernatural. Between shots of incense and prayers, the video’s rhythm is maintained only through a Buddhist monk’s tolling of the bells. It asks us to slow down, to read between the lines. Is there another Chinatown present, one that we looked past before? This immanent speculation is easy to brush past because it lacks the didactic quality of a futurist’s homily or the spectacle of an opera on wheels, but given time it is perhaps even more effective, more seductive, because we are the ones who are compelled to complete the task of speculation. We are given time and space with which we can attempt to make sense of the swirling assemblage of images before us.

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Scenes from Encounter Chinatown. Courtesy of J. Lee, W. Ren, C. Robertson, A. Shrodes, and E. Yen.

Another video, titled “Welcome to Chinatown,” is perhaps the previous film’s opposite. When the team attempts to explore what the future might hold for the neighborhood, they are met by community members who only have the capacity to look to the past. They turn the film on themselves, setting out to explore the neighborhood. What they capture is a place ensnarled in decrepitude, bereft of life apart from cars passing through, and an octogenarian or two. Deploying the motifs of horror films, the filmmakers find one abandoned shop and empty lot after another in this ghost town, only to flee the neighborhood, running to the safety of a departing train. This narrative was less successful insofar as it presented a singular and straightforward reading of Chinatown as haunted and abandoned. It lacked the interpretability and openness found in the previous film, or even in the operas. Nevertheless, the decision to present Chinatown in this way was certainly an act of speculation: Chinatown, for anyone who has visited, is a largely bustling neighborhood, despite its declining Asian population. You are just as likely to see a hip art opening at one of its many galleries, or foodies photographing their lunch for social media, as the imported tchotchke shops of old. And it was grounded in trends immanent to the site: the Chinese population that remains is one that is in many ways stuck in the past, aging in run-down facilities with little drive for change. The collection of stunningly framed shots of abandoned malls, walkways, and plazas was more than an intentional decision: it was one that most certainly was difficult to fulfill. While this immanent speculation might be a weaker form, it still presents a visually striking narrative that pushes past the static boundaries of description and analysis to which most scholarly work timidly abides. This video may have a reserved view of the future, but it presents it with surety, again forcing us to reconcile this vision with the assumptions we have collectively thought as fact.2

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Scenes from Welcome to Chinatown. Courtesy of C. Huang, L. Phan, G. Pugh, and S. Yoshida.

It seems appropriate for immanent speculation, this act long practiced by a subset of artists and storytellers, to find its way into the academy in California’s public university. The city of Los Angeles and, indeed, the state at large were shaped by a network of actors who were practicing the future, so that it would become their reality. Judged on the empirical and positivist terms common to education, immanent speculation might be seen as a trifling waste of time. Yet it is these speculative trifles, appearing ungrounded while actually utterly immanent to the spaces and places from which they rise, which have the capability to construct not only what we imagine to be our future but, moreover, what we might even conceive of as possible in the future. It is this speculative practice that Percy Bysshe Shelley saw in poetry when he proclaimed, “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” In a day when cynicism and fear appear to shape public discourse in a way not seen in decades, it seems ever more important to have intellectuals at all levels of society—in the university and out—practicing the future.

Notes

1
The Chinatown massacre of 1871 is widely believed to be the largest mass lynching in American history, where a mob of around five hundred white men chased down and killed around twenty Chinese immigrants. While the purported cause was vigilante justice after a local rancher was killed by a Chinese gang, the massacre coincided with increasing anti-Chinese sentiment throughout California, culminating in the Chinese Exclusion Act passed eleven years after this event. A trial was held for some of the killers, but no punishment was ever served out.

2
These videos are available at https://youtu.be/aREUa4lhxTs and https://youtu.be/G5wgshwQ_xU, respectively.

Jonathan Crisman is project director for the Urban Humanities Initiative at University of California, Los Angeles; director of No Style, a design and publishing practice; and with Jia Gu he forms LA-BOR, an interdisciplinary art and architecture studio.

Interviews

A Boom Interview: In conversation with Jonathan Crisman and Jason S. Sexton

A Boom Interview In conversation with Jonathan Crisman and Jason S. Sexton
Karen Tei Yamashita

Editor’s note: Karen Tei Yamashita is an American author and professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz, where she is affiliated with the Literature Department, the Creative Writing Program, and Critical Race and Ethnic Studies. Her novels and plays are difficult to define by genre: they have been called science fiction, speculative fiction, postmodern, postcolonial, magic realist, and most certainly experimental.

Between her transnational history, her role as a maker, and the strong spatiality of her writing, Yamashita’s insights have shaped the way urban humanities are practiced. Her landmark 1997 novel, Tropic of Orange, has become a key text and model for creative practice for urban humanists based in Los Angeles.

This interview was conducted by Boom editor Jason Sexton and Jonathan Crisman, one of this issue’s guest editors, over email amid summer travel in Yellowstone National Park, London, Paris, and California.

Jonathan Crisman: Your early book Tropic of Orange was the book that sparked our thinking on an alternative form of urban engagement—partly because it was set in Los Angeles, but also because its structure allowed for a “thickness.” Time and space get interwoven in a new way, various voices—sometimes conflicting—coexist in a single narrative, and it created a kind of fissure in what we knew about LA—it opened our imagination to an LA, or multiple LAs, that could unfold in the future, or in the present, or maybe these already coexist. The book was published in 1997—almost twenty years ago. Could you characterize the LA you knew up to that time, sharing what led to Tropic of Orange, and what the book would look like if written today.

Karen Tei Yamashita: My parents were San Francisco Bay Area nisei who came to LA in the 1950s. My father was a pastor assigned to the Centenary Methodist Church near Jefferson Blvd. and Normandie Ave. in the middle of an old Japanese American neighborhood. That church I understood to be the largest Japanese American congregation on the US mainland. I point this out because, in the postwar, Japanese American institutions such as temples and churches became centers of community and hostels to receive Japanese Americans returning from wartime incarceration. My father ran such a hostel/church in Oakland, then came to continue his work in LA, largely to minister to a community of young nisei families trying to get a jumpstart on new lives. With the wartime evacuation of Japanese Americans out of LA arrived the influx of African Americans who came to work in wartime industries and occupied our abandoned neighborhoods. In the postwar 1950s and 1960s when I grew up in LA, our neighborhood around the church and along Jefferson reflected a cultural mix of working class folks of color, confined to circumscribed areas of the city through housing covenants. I didn’t really know any of this as a kid, but my family moved from the Jefferson neighborhood to the Crenshaw and then to Gardena, and the differences in the houses, gardens, streets, and schools, and the idea of upward mobility were apparent to me. I lost friends who moved to go to “better” schools. Growing up in LA, you couldn’t/can’t not know the color lines that divide and spread through the city’s geography.

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Photograph of Karen Tei Yamashita by Mary Uyematsu Kao.

In 1975, I began research in Brazil and was mostly away from the US for the next nine years. In 1984, I immigrated back to LA with my Brazilian family, and it was evident that LA had become what theorists had predicted: a majority “hispanic” city. It was that city, created by migrating populations of people, their cultures and history, that fascinated me. However, this city seemed nowhere really written about in canonized LA literature, which featured white detectives noired by their undercover presence on colored streets. Tropic was perhaps a question and an experiment. What if the colored characters/caricatures spoke?

I don’t think much about how the book would be different if written today. The technology would be updated, cellphones ubiquitous, and terrorism and religious fundamentalism intrinsic to the plot. Someone else needs to write the update. It surprises me that the book continues to have reach and readership, but it is satisfying to know that, even with all the pop culture references stuck in time and the changes in LA’s landscape, new readers get it and find it possible to navigate. For example, your conversation about “thickness” and time and space help me to see why and how constructing the book works. Writing it was an organic process, the meaning of which I could not at the time articulate outside of the creative work itself. And believe me, twenty years ago no one wanted or understood that book. Prospective editors and agents turned it upside down to try to shake out meaning. One editor asked me to turn it into a love story; another said she could not represent a book with an agenda. I’m indebted to Coffee House Press who took the risk.

One writer I’ve felt close to these many years and whose work for me defines LA is Sesshu Foster. I first read his poetry in the journal High Performance, edited I think by Wanda Coleman, as a response to the LA riots in 1992. I have long admired Sesshu’s work, especially Atomik Aztex. While I grew up in African American/Japanese American neighborhoods in Central LA and the Westside, Sesshu grew up on the Eastside with the Mexican and Latino folks pressing up against the tracks and the LA River.

Jason Sexton: Do you think of yourself as a California writer?

Yamashita: I’m California-born, in Oakland, and raised in LA, and the history of my family begins in San Francisco turn of the century 1900. I’ve also lived and studied in Minnesota, Japan, and Brazil, but we raised our family here. My dad was a romantic idealist, liked to talk about “world citizenship” long before the transnational was a trend. While I may have set my sights beyond California, when I came back to LA and the San Francisco Bay Area, I thought that in order to really belong, I needed to study these geographies, not just to claim a birthplace but to understand a history during my own growing up. You can be born and grow up in a place and have no idea of the meaning of being there. I wanted to see and sense the arrival and labor of my folks and my generation, to know why and who we’ve become. I hope I’ve done the work to claim a place in California, but like so many of us come to hang our hats at home, I think it’s best to think I’m just passing through.

Crisman: You mentioned Sesshu’s work, which is fantastic—definitely in the spirit of Tropic, it seems. When you mention your book as an experiment in which people of color speak, I am reminded of the young artist, Ramiro Gomez, who has repurposed canonized (white) visions of LA, like Hockney’s A Bigger Splash, painting in the maids and gardeners that actually make such an LA possible. It seems that while race, nationality, and politics play an important role in your earlier work, these issues are presented in even more direct ways in your recent work. I’m thinking of the political struggles narrated through the fictional nonfiction of I Hotel, but also through the embodied performances in Anime Wong. Are there political realities today that drive you toward these more unequivocal narratives? Or is it part of your creative development as you grow older? Or perhaps something else?

Yamashita: Ramiro Gomez, yes. I heard a story on NPR about Lawrence Weschler, who’s written about Hockney, taking Gomez up into the Hollywood Hills to meet Hockney. My memory of the report is that the visit was cordial and generous, but I wondered what that would be like to encounter another artist whose work you satirize. Weschler, whose writing and thinking I so admire, must have known what he was doing. The erasure that Gomez’s work points to in Hockney’s paintings has always irked me, too.

By “unequivocal narratives,” perhaps you mean narratives tied to history or real events? I don’t think anything I write is not researched as history or cultural anthropology. I’m rather picky about getting this right even though it’s employed for fiction. But I do understand your query if it is about why the projects seem over the years to move from what’s been defined as transnational to more personal subjects of local community and home. Maybe I’ve been circling these issues and honing in. My next book is based on a family archive of correspondence between seven siblings, the core of which dates from 1938 to 1948, those war years when my family was incarcerated in the Utah desert at Topaz and dispersed across the country. You ask about growing older, and it must be that too, because I couldn’t really read or think about this project until everyone was dead. I didn’t want the sadness of this loss, but maybe it was necessary, having all those ghosts in the room.

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John and Asako Yamashita (and Karen), Santa Monica pier. Photograph provided by Karen Tei Yamashita.

You asked about politics, and yes, writing about the Japanese American wartime internment and about the Asian American movement has been a political gesture, to make evident an injustice related to current issues of undocumented immigration, anti-Muslim policies, race-based policing and incarceration, to ask how movements succeed and fail from the grassroots, and to tell a longer history of the ongoing struggle for fair housing and employment. With Anime Wong, I’ve been curious about the relationship between technology and race, how the imagination of the future retains the same old representations of gender and race.

Crisman: I wonder if you could elaborate a bit about your view on fiction, its nature, its role in the world. I always liked the anthropologist Clifford Geertz’s description of his work as a fiction, where he goes on to describe that it isn’t fiction as in “false,” but rather like the Latin, fictio, something fashioned, something made. I would like to think that the same is true for your work: though you write fiction, your work involves “getting it right.” The importance of the reality held inside any one of your books is clear because of the care with which you construct it. When the current issues you list are at stake, what is the importance of writing fiction?

Yamashita: I teeter between thinking with urgency that fiction is the most critically significant creative work we do and, then, totter back to its utter uselessness, a foolish waste of time. Your reference to Geertz’s idea of fictio, especially coming from an anthropologist, makes me hopeful. Long ago, I thought I would go into anthropology, but then while in Brazil researching the Japanese Brazilian community, I felt I could not properly attend to the research required as I can’t read Japanese. So I opted to tell the story (in English) in what I thought was historic fiction, like fiction was some kind of protective vapor and came with a license to kill. What did I know? Writing fiction is harder than telling the facts because really you have to tell the truth. Sounds like nonsense I guess, but getting it wrong means you lose your reader. Italo Calvino in one of his essays talks about meaning that hovers above the narrative text, idea and thought captured by the reader in a manner that fiction and poetry can achieve. Maybe the reader gets zapped with understanding and change happens, and maybe that’s a reason for doing it.

Sexton: On this notion of helping readers reckon with truth, getting zapped, etc., I’m reminded at one point in Tropic where Buzzworm refers to metaphor as straight-talk, which seems to be what you believed about fiction in the sense mentioned above. Elsewhere in the book Arcangel tells Rafaela that some things, again what I reckon as truth, “cannot be translated.” But if with your other work you’re connecting the past to present issues, aiming to provoke and move readers to action, you’re addressing enormous themes: homelessness, temporality, contingency, justice, love, victimization, and humanness. Your writing style leaves readers on edge with little place to stand—like the shifting world in Tropic—but so do the themes you explore. What is the process for how you lay out these themes in your writing? And are there any themes you have not yet explored but hope to later, like say the next book based on the 1938–1948 family archive? Do you plan to bring back characters from your early writing to do this?

Yamashita: I know this is an “interview,” so I’m doing my best to answer questions, but with my work, I’m usually the one asking to know. That said, I so appreciate your thoughtful reading and the feeling of reading together—ha!—rereading that old book. I can’t speak for other writers, but I don’t think writers necessarily choose themes; themes seem to choose the writer. I think about writers like Salman Rushdie or Claudia Rankine, whose work became or has become so involved with and tuned to the political current, and I imagine the exhaustion and stress that comes with having to become a public personage, even though the writing may have begun with an image, a sentence, a story, or a scene and a question about why. So speaking about “enormous themes” makes me nervous. I didn’t set out to write about homelessness or temporality, but in writing about LA, I suppose I couldn’t not write about these issues. Okay, that sounds naive since I also think that experimental and speculative writing is more often about ideas, rather than real full-dimensional characters. So maybe it’s about characters inhabiting ideas. A few of the characters in Tropic (Manzanar and Emi) were taken from characters in the performances produced previously in LA (published much later in Anime Wong), but I haven’t thought about regenerating them again in another project. As for new work and what’s yet unexplored, the family archive project seems to be an epistolary meditation. On the big side, it’s about war and race and the philosophical trajectory of civil rights and reconciliation, but that sounds boring and pompous. I hope the letters read personally, intimately.

Sexton: Reading Tropic for the first time recently, I found myself ebbing and flowing with personal interest and connection to the writers one moment, after which I’d be deeply troubled in another, experiencing something of the effect of what’s happening with your characters. Do you generally want your readers to be hopeful about our world, or troubled by it? To deal with it as real, or as utter foolishness, or something else?

Yamashita: I think you realize from that spreadsheet at the beginning of Tropic, that the structure of the book was laid out over seven days and seven characters who performed seven narrative genres in seven timeframes and moving geographies. I chose that structure and stuck with it, and it produced a kind of literary kaleidoscope that described, for me, LA and troubled, as you suggest, all our narratives by placing them side-by-side. I feel I’m a hopeful and positive person, but I’ve also been very blessed and untested. I’m not sure how much pain I’m capable of living through. I want to think that when I fail, I take responsibility and get up and try again, and that going to where it hurts is real, is necessary to know. Writing is probably an easy way of learning by imagining. What readers do with all this is their business, though one hopes that the integrity of the writing is passed along.

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Karen, John, and Jane Tomi (sister) at the 5th Avenue parsonage, Los Angeles. Photograph provided by Karen Tei Yamashita.

Crisman: I wonder if we can shift the focus of the conversation a little bit. As you know, the theme of this issue of Boom is the urban humanities—a set of academic programs, scholarly approaches, and research agendas emerging at UCLA and UC Berkeley. You gave a very compelling talk at the Knowledge Design: Making Urban Humanities symposium at UCLA a couple of years ago, providing insight into your writing methods as a kind of speculative scholarly practice. I would be interested in revisiting this conversation a little bit, in part because the methods that gave rise to your novels (particularly, Tropic and I Hotel) were so delightful and unexpected. But before rehashing anything, I would also be interested in hearing your thoughts about the teaching side of things: pedagogical approaches, means for allowing that speculative possibility found in your books to manifest in the classroom, and so on. I think reflecting on your role as a professor of creative writing within the contemporary university is part of this, but also, of course, might the relatively unique structure of the Literature Department at UC Santa Cruz, I imagine, also play a role?

Yamashita: I want to answer in the spirit of being useful, but teaching creative writing is tricky, and I really have no tricks up my sleeve. There are books by writers about writing, and they are revealing, but nothing seems to really provoke writing except reading. So in the beginning, I match student writers to each other, usually by what they read and the genres in which they write, to create conversations and community, to connect intellectual colleagues. After that, I spend a great deal of time listening to and reading the work, starting with what is there, what is interesting, then mostly asking questions that may be rhetorical or formed out of honest curiosity, but hoping to challenge the thinking embedded in the writing. There is a process of working through things with each individual writer; with one writer, it might be at the level of the sentence, with another, the question of audience. More than talent, writing requires a kind of creative, playful, and stubborn resilience. Not sure how one teaches this except to facilitate the doing and the matching of minds.

But I think you want me to say something more specific. Okay. What I have experimented with for many years is working with Italo Calvino’s novel, If On a Winter’s Night a Traveler, which is a novel explored by “you” the reader who must navigate the beginnings of ten different novels in which Calvino imitates and reveals the narrative conceits of each novel genre. I use Calvino’s novel as a text, parsing out each section into ten weeks, partnering students in panels to present and decipher the work for their fellows, and creating writing prompts to write it yourself. This has been more or less successful over the years, and I’ve had to add a reader with the beginnings of ten women-authored novels to balance out Calvino’s first-person male protagonists, all in pursuit of the female character. Even when students protest, I stubbornly continue to teach this text. This is the closest I get to my own speculative writing experiments, but I’m not interested in whether students know this. What I want to convey is the rich possibility of genre and narrative voice, that no matter what story you tell, you create a character who speaks and imagines for you.

I’m a fiction writer in a literature department. Maybe my creative writing colleagues and I are the oddballs, but we are perhaps the necessary right brain of the place. I figure creative writing is another door to the meaning of literature; you can critique the writing, but having to try your hand at it yourself makes you humble. The most fascinating scholarship of my colleagues is creative and formulated with the same imaginative processes of any new ideas. As you suggest about its unique structure, the Literature department at UCSC encompasses a diverse program of languages, geographies, theoretical discourses, and interdisciplinary thinking, and I have benefited from and grown in this way.

Karen Tei Yamashita is professor of literature at University of California, Santa Cruz. Her novels include I Hotel, Circle K Cycles, and Tropic of Orange.

Articles

Urban Humanities and the Creative Practitioner

Dana Cuff
Jennifer Wolch

The flow of the Los Angeles River, ever-precarious and never navigable, attracted settlement along its shifting course for centuries. When the cataclysmic 1938 flood followed on the heels of lesser, recurrent flooding, the straightening and channeling of fifty-one miles of the river began in earnest, until engineers had riven the city with a concrete conduit from the Chatsworth hills to the South Bay. The channel was built to contain the water, measured in cubic feet per second, predicted to flow during a 100-year flood event. This technocratic solution precluded other forms of the Los Angeles River from emerging. Once channelized, only those alternatives in keeping with its infrastructural identity were conceivable. Therefore, when freight traffic congestion at the Los Angeles–Long Beach Port grew intolerable in the 1980s, the new vision promoted for the river was to pave over it to form a truck freeway. A new river wasn’t inscribed in the public imagination until a motley crew of poets, artists, outlaw kayakers, park advocates, cyclists, wildlife advocates, neighborhood activists, and academics turned attention to those fifty-one miles, with all the futurities such a new narrative might permit. Their interventions, ranging from policy proposals to public art actions, opened up the region’s population as well as its politicians to a different spectrum of imagined possibilities—that is, that the LA River is an actual river.

At each stage in the recent history of the LA River, people brought with them motivating ideas about the city—what it is, where nature belongs, what history is inscribed there. These ideas are the foundations for conventional wisdom about practices such as flood control, appropriate levels of risk, how to improve extant conditions, or whose interests matter. The narratives that grow from those foundations govern the spectral array of possibilities. For example, the responses to flooding in the context of a channelized river are unlikely to begin with anything other than a channelized river; the most likely proposal is for a deeper channel. But there is no reason for conventional thinking to remain so constrained. What we call “urban humanities” produce historically grounded conjectures, launched from the present toward an unknown future, that depend on and simultaneously help construct new urban imaginaries.

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The Los Angeles Urban Rangers demonstrate that the megalopolis is a habitat for adventurous exploration; here a Ranger leads the LA River Ramble (2010-present). Photograph by Christina Edwards.

The Los Angeles Urban Rangers demonstrate that the megalopolis is a habitat for adventurous exploration; here a Ranger leads the LA River Ramble (2010-present). Photograph by Christina Edwards.

When poets such as Lewis MacAdams staged readings from the middle of the LA River in the last decades of the twentieth century, the public’s historical perception of the river migrated from a concrete site of danger and water-borne pollution risk, toward a place for human creativity and wildlife habitat—even though not a single piece of concrete channel had been removed.This example demonstrates the radical power of urban humanities, for which we offer this manifesto. To escape digging deeper channels to solve urban problems, cities instead can be transformed at the creative intersection of design, urbanism, and humanist perspectives. The manifesto is more than a declaration of principles; it is a call to action for scholars to become engaged, creative practitioners.

At the University of California in Los Angeles and in Berkeley, we are working in tandem to develop knowledge about urbanism that weaves together perspectives from architecture, city planning, landscape architecture, and the humanities in order to create much-needed, transformational urban practices. Under the auspices of a Mellon Foundation international program aimed at encouraging multidisciplinary dialogue and pedagogy focused on cities,2 California is one test bed for exploratory intellectual configurations of urban inquiry focused on global metropolitan regions on the Pacific Rim. We propose that a particularly rich terrain for both intellectual reflection and action occurs at this confluence of urban humanities. Two questions that motivate our collaborative efforts warrant further consideration here. First, what conditions spark the desire for new ways of thinking through cities, particularly ways that entrain the humanities? And second, what might a contemporary California-based effort contribute to new urban understandings?
The need for creative practices

The case of the LA River illustrates that the city as an object of study intrinsically carries implications about action and about the future. Questions about the city are fundamentally questions about our situated, collective existence—not only our histories and contemporary circumstances, but how our shared lives could and should evolve. In contrast to many disciplinary objects of study, urban humanist scholars have something at stake. Their epistemologies matter, because the products of their scholarship engender a speculative project concerning possible urban communities and, therefore, hold public significance.

We need creative practices to address the range of issues that confront contemporary cities—issues such as social justice, economic development, and environmental quality. Urban humanities emphasize innovative methods and practices, which evolve along with shifting epistemologies. This view stands in contrast to a current dominant narrative which holds that contemporary cities depend upon attracting a creative group of citizens.3 While blue collar jobs and manufacturing marked the vitality of cities like Detroit at the turn of the twentieth century, and a services-based consumer economy fueled late-twentieth-century growth in cities such as Los Angeles, cities in the coming decades will depend on innovative tech-startup founders, creative designers, and bold eco-entrepreneurs, a population most visible today in the San Francisco Bay Area. But it is now apparent that these populations bring new problems along with new economies.

A wide array of disciplines, from the physical sciences to art history, hold potential for creative urban practices. Such practices involve a disruption of existing ideas and the definitive transgression of boundaries that govern existing urban thought. There have been productive breaches of disciplinary boundaries—urban planning and geography in the form of geographical information systems (GIS), or architecture and computational science in the case of digital design. Now, with big data and the “city science” movement enriching our understanding of urbanism, the absence of a humanist perspective in urban thought is brutally apparent. The number of households living below the poverty line in Mexico City, toxic air emissions in proximity to freeways in Los Angeles, suicide rates among Tokyo’s youth, or miles of subway built in Shanghai over the last decade—such cold metrics need translation via history, narrative, and interpretation if they are to make a meaningful difference and influence creative practice and novel approaches in each city’s evolution.

Experiments in urban humanities

For new structures of knowledge based on multiple disciplines to emerge, two conditions must be met. First, there must be an object of interest that defies conventional logic and resists constructive change. For us, this common object of interest is the city itself, along with the many challenges it poses, such as segregation, congestion, and affordable housing, but also, proximity, precarity, and identity. Second, those who try to collectively address the issue at hand must be willing to transgress boundaries that separate their fields of expertise and modes of urban understanding. It is worth reflecting here upon what we mean by “the city,” which is used synonymously with the urban. Ours is a wide net with a tight weave, one meant to catch material artifacts, cultural nuance, literary accomplishment, social relations, and power struggles that collide in space over time. By “city,” we mean situated collective life emplaced in an urban context, comprised of historical interpretation, material environments, contemporary culture, and speculative futures. Therefore, the name “urban humanities” captures the metropolitan dialectic between space and humanism.

Perhaps the most widely recognized fields of expertise considered relevant to urban concerns are design and planning along with engineering and the physical and social sciences. But what of the humanities? Those fields that aim to understand history, the arts, meaning, expression, and experience make substantial contributions to our thinking about cities and culture. From classicists to contemporary film scholars, humanists enrich an understanding of situated collective life. Yet, we are uncertain about just how that scholarship ought to contribute to urban practices, broadly defined. At least since Plato’s Republic, the tangled web of urban social life comprised utopian narratives. But if the death of this genre has been proclaimed, it gives rise to other kinds of narratives. As suggested by the LA River example, the possibility of the river as a greenway linking diverse neighborhoods throughout the city emerged with humanities-oriented creative practitioners reinterpreting this metropolitan seam and critical site of urban infrastructure.

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CONFLUENCE, a dance piece, performed where the Los Angeles River meets the Pacific Ocean in Long Beach. Photograph by Catherine Gudis.

Only through sharing a common object of interest—the city—are we effectively bridging disciplinary divides. At UCLA and Berkeley, we are integrating the humanities and humanistic social sciences into the epistemological mix. Students and faculty have joined from history, area studies (e.g., Asian Languages and Culture, Latin American Studies), film studies, literature, performance studies, art practice, anthropology, ethnomusicology, architecture, landscape architecture, and planning. Using the rubric “urban humanities,” we have taken global cities of the Pacific Rim as our objects of interest at the broadest level, knowing that they defy conventional logics and need creative practices—and creative practitioners—to instigate new urban possibilities.

Over the past three years of this exploration, we have learned that when designers, urbanists, and humanists come together to explore some particular urban concern, there are no ready terms of analysis, grounds for interpretation, or prescriptive responses. Creative practices for engaging the concern have to be invented. Even the dimensions of any issue must be detected.

When architects consider urban density, for example, they are likely to give it material dimensions (measured in square footage or building mass, etc.) and to consider program (such as density of housing, parks, or commercial space), whereas planners will consider some of the above as well as policy (such as floor area ratio maximums) and metrics (such as residents per acre). What humanists add to the conversation is as vast as the disciplines that comprise the humanities. For example, density might be reformulated as proximity in terms of social relations between neighbors, cultural representations in film and fiction, or tensions around constructs of property. A history of the idea as well as the emplaced idea (proximity in a specific city, such as Mexico City) is informative. By broadening the basis for imagining the city, we intrinsically engage history that imparts a critical perspective on the present, enriching our understanding of contemporary circumstances, which in turn adds new dimensions to our speculations about future conditions. If we learn how proximity, in its relevant forms, is managed in the packed informal settlement zones in Mexico City—whether through the artful orientation of houses or community-based mediation processes for conflict resolution—we might begin to understand the braided system that any new densities must reference and deploy.

At the same time, a focus on the city has the power to reshape the humanist project to at least some extent. Exposed to alternative forms of pedagogy and practice, place-based speculative exploration, and a project orientation, the humanities may bolster their relevance to the everyday and the future. In so doing, they may dramatically disrupt conventional urban approaches and move from the sidelines to the center of urban activism. As the humanities undergo a marked transformation with challenges to postwar area studies designations along with energized alliances from digital to environmental humanists, activism is a distinctive characteristic of urban humanists. Rather than utopian narratives, activism underscores the significance of creative urban practices that have real world consequences and take positions that engender conscientious action. Criticism has not lost its value, but yields an additional dimension—one that bears the risk of speculation about the future. Returning to the river, poems drift out from the poets’ public readings to form collective visions in and about the urban landscape that in turn guide new possibilities for action.

That these experiments are happening in California and focus on Pacific Rim cities matters. When Saul Steinberg created his ironic 1976 “map” for the cover of The New Yorker entitled “View of the World from 9th Avenue,” its westward gaze portrayed everything between the Hudson River and the Pacific Ocean as a deserted wasteland. Indeed, American urban histories have typically looked the other direction, across the Atlantic toward ancient Greece and Rome, and the Medieval and Renaissance cities of Europe. Within the United States, New York and especially Chicago undergird our urban imaginaries; the latter provided the dominant model of the city with a singular commercial-industrial core surrounded by concentric residential rings of decreasing density and increasing socioeconomic status. This model was held to be true even though the twentieth century cities of the Southwest bore little resemblance to Chicago or other earlier gridiron economies and cultures.

Not until the mid-1980s did a group of academics codify this new order—and they were from the West Coast. Building on Michael Dear, Mike Davis (both in this issue), as well as Reyner Banham’s famous “four ecologies,” the Los Angeles School counter-posed a new polycentric suburban logic in which the hinterland organized the center, against the bull’s eye urban form forwarded by the Chicago School. Both of us played some small role in the LA School debates, when it was useful to consider the sprawling Southern California metropolis as paradigmatic.4 Whether neo-Marxist or postmodern in terms of theoretical bent, the future envisioned by LA School scholars involved further racial and ethnic segregation, advancing environmental degradation, fragmented governance, and technology-driven spatial and class divides, with little hope for more optimistic urbanities. Davis’s City of Quartz presaged a bleak future that stemmed from surrounding trauma at the time—from Rodney King and the 1992 LA Uprising to the 1994 Northridge earthquake; from Blade Runner to ballooning homelessness and Reaganomics. The LA School was dominated by planners and geographers with little benefit from architecture or the humanities. However, it is not clear that adding designers and humanists would have changed the tenor. Since that time, several turning points have caused new directions to seem more plausible: the city’s first Latino mayor was sworn into office in 2005, the seemingly endless sprawl of the city reversed when thousands of new housing units were built downtown, and artist-activist Lauren Bon turned thirty-two acres of urban wasteland into cornfields. Her next project, “Bending the River Back into the City,” will create sustainable public spaces along the LA River through the artistic engineering of a spectacular waterwheel and dam. Projects like Bon’s can open a future for the city that was hardly imaginable before, one that lifts up communities, the arts, and the environment simultaneously.

Urban humanities at Berkeley and UCLA are founded on this augmented LA School, taking into account the area’s role in the twentieth century as global producer of urban imaginaries through arts, film, music, and design, from Hollywood to hip-hop to Frank Gehry. Now, urban humanities must ask what the twenty-first century might bring.

Over time, LA scholarship has increasingly emphasized the region’s pervasive links to the Pacific Rim, along with its cultural hybridity, artistic effervescence, and openness to transgressive identities. Humanists contributed to this regional understanding, with the emergence of the digital humanities generating broad (if controversial) interest in big data and multimedia visualization for creating narratives of place and the formation of urban identities. At the same time, the rise of Silicon Valley and the Bay Area’s techno-youth culture is shaping academic ideas about urban futures in a context of deepening inequality, gentrification, and worries about climate change. Drawing on the public arts, creative place-making, design innovation, the DIY “maker” movement, and digital technology powered by big data, speculative ideas about the city have become more nuanced, tactical, political, and material (as illustrated by several of the articles in this issue).

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Porciuncula, an installation on the LA River made of balloons filled with the river’s fragrance: ‘‘grass, ocean air, desiccated concrete, industrial zoning, railyards, soda cans, wild animals.’’ By LA-BOR (Jia Gu and Jonathan Crisman), 2015. Photograph by Monica Nouwens.

As such, the urban humanities constitute an emergent epistemology arising from this multidisciplinary confluence in this specific place. It is just this sort of creative discipline-crossing scholarship that can encourage new historical narratives, new contemporary interpretations of culture, and open speculation about urban futurities. In short, a manifesto for urban humanities rests on the conviction that such place-based, engaged scholarship and pedagogy will produce cadres of creative—as well as reflective—practitioners.

Notes

1
We can distinguish between predictable next steps in addressing problems (an urban equivalent of Thomas Kuhn’s normal science) and speculative, engaged approaches. The aim of urban humanities is not to create visionary, utopian schemes or science fiction scenarios, but instead to open new paths of possibility. For thick mapping, see Todd S. Presner, David Shepard, and Yoh Kawano, Hypercities: Thick Mapping in the Digital Humanities (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014); for futurity, see Amir Eshel, Futurity: Contemporary Literature and the Quest for the Past (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2013); for crisis and revolution, see Eric Cazdyn, “Disaster, Crisis, Revolution,” The South Atlantic Quarterly 106.4 (2007): 647–662.

2
The Mellon Program, started in 2012, is called Architecture, Urbanism, and the Humanities, and has funded a series of related academic projects in over a dozen universities.

3
The term “creative” seems more ubiquitously applied to new developments than the term “green,” as in creative office or creative class. Popular adoption of Richard Florida’s ideas about the latter have done little to expand our understanding of the metropolis or guide cities toward more humane futures.

4
Members of the Los Angeles School included Michael Dear, Mike Davis, Ed Soja, Michael Storper, and Alan Scott, among others.

Dana Cuff is a professor, author, and scholar in architecture and urbanism at University of California, Los Angeles, where she is also the founding director of cityLAB, a think tank that explores design innovations in the emerging metropolis.

Jennifer Wolch is professor of urban planning and geography, and dean of University of California, Berkeley, College of Environmental Design. Her most recent work analyzes connections between city form, physical activity, and public health, and seeks to address environmental justice issues by improving access to urban parks and recreational resources.

Articles

Vol. 6, No. 3, Fall 2016

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URBAN HUMANITY

Read the latest from Boom California, Volume 6, Number 3, Fall 2016.  All articles from this issue are free and open to read.


Contributors

From the Editor’s Desktop
Jason S. Sexton

The Boom List
What to do, see, read, and hear this fall in California
Boom Staff

What Are the Urban Humanities?
Anthony Cascardi, Michael Dear

Urban Humanities and the Creative Practitioner
A manifesto
Dana Cuff, Jennifer Wolch

A Boom Interview
In conversation with Jonathan Crisman and Jason S. Sexton
Karen Tei Yamashita

Practicing the Future
Exercises in immanent speculation
Jonathan Crisman

The 43
Remembering Ayotzinapa
Maricela Becerra, Lucy Seena K. Lin, Gus Wendel

Monumental Hydraulics
Diego Rivera’s Lerma Waterworks and the water temples of San Francisco
Rafael Tiffany, Susan Moffat

Relocating Romare Bearden’s Berkeley
Capturing Berkeley’s colorful diversity
Lauren Kroiz

A Boom Interview
In conversation with Jennifer Wolch and Dana Cuff
Mike Davis

The Battle of the Bulb
Nature, culture and art at a San Francisco Bay landfill
Susan Moffat

Waves of Data
Illuminating pathways with San Leandro Lights
Greg Niemeyer

Hanging Out with Cyclists
Noam Shoked

Seeking Literary Justice

La Caja Mágica in Boyle Heights
Maricela Becerra, Cat Callaghan, Will Davis, Grace Ko, Benjamin Kolder, Alejandro Ramirez Mendez

Neither Here Nor There
Engaging Mexico City and Los Angeles
Dana Cuff, Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris

Learning the City
Developing new networks of understanding

Jonathan Banfill, Angélica Becerra, Jeannette Mundy

The Inside-Out Museum/The Inside-Out University
A Conversation
Walter Hood, Shannon Jackson

Urban Humanities Pedagogy

The classroom, education, and New Humanities
Jonathan Banfill, Todd Presner, Maite Zubiaurre

Photograph by Craig Kohlruss.
Articles

Come See California’s Future

by Aris Janigian

In beautiful Fresno

From Boom Spring 2016, Vol 6, No 1

You might find it hard to picture Fresno. Many Californians, not to mention people elsewhere, have no idea what our city looks like or what goes on here. You might imagine things of an agricultural nature on a big scale. But that’s probably it.

When you live in a state with cities like San Francisco, Los Angeles, Newport Beach, and Napa, Fresno barely registers. Very few people come here to get away from anywhere else, although plenty pass through on their way to Yosemite and Sequoia national parks.

For the longest time, Fresno has barely even registered to itself. Even today, with so much going on here—yes, there is a lot going on here—most well-off Fresnans ditch the city on weekends for second homes on the coast or in the Sierra. The press Fresno gets is mostly just bad: bad air, bad crime, bad poverty—all true.

Now tracks for a high-speed rail are being laid in Fresno to connect us to the rest of the California in a way that some believe could transform our city. But into what? One of many new bedroom communities serving Los Angeles and San Francisco from even farther out? The hub of a new Central Valley megalopolis that will connect all of the small cities along Highway 99 from Bakersfield to Stockton?

It makes sense to start building the bullet train line in the dead center of the state, where dirt happens to be relatively cheap, good jobs are hard to come by, and there are no real topographical challenges to contend with. Fresno is a place “so nearly level,” John McPhee once wrote, “that you have no sense of contour.” And since nobody is keeping an eye on Fresno, starting here may also be a way to gain momentum for a project hammered by controversy. For a city of half a million, the fifth biggest city in the state, Fresno has remained generally off the radar.

Photograph by Craig Kohlruss.

But Fresno doesn’t need the bullet train to get on anybody’s radar or to transform the city. That’s already happening. Fresno is being transformed from the inside out, taking strands from its past, present, and future to build a new kind of California urbanism, dare I say, a more appealing urbanism than anywhere else in the state, and people are starting to notice.

Fresno’s first code was purely agricultural. In the 1870s, a Midwesterner named Thomas Kearney envisioned Fresno as a Jeffersonian yeoman farmer’s paradise. His great plan to shape Fresno into a powerhouse of agriculture, and himself into a kind of Carnegie of farming, began when he purchased 6,800 acres, nearly five miles square, and fashioned a master plan that included a 240-acre park. In the middle of this park, he built a home modeled after the Loire Valley’s Château de Chenonceau, with a footprint of 12,000 square feet. He divided the land surrounding this castle complex into twenty-acre parcels and advertised them at $1,000 apiece.

Accountants, haberdashers, former gold rushers flush with money, retired attorneys, and four ex-schoolteachers from San Francisco were among the first to sign up. They arrived in Fresno intending to fashion a life from the land, and because of that land’s amazing productiveness, it was no idle dream. In 1920, Mary Bartlett wrote of her father, who farmed next door to Kearney: “He started with pumpkins, watermelon, squash, corn, and tomatoes and by the time the young vineyard was at the bearing stage he also had several varieties of peaches, apricots, plums, oranges, lemons, tangerines, kumquats, loquats, quince, crabapples, almonds, pomegranates, walnuts, cherries, artichokes and his great pride and joy…a whole row of olive trees which in no time at all were more fruitful than the ancient branches of Tuscany.”

“California’s Central Valley is one of the seven most fertile valleys in the world,” the Fresno Historical Society’s website claims, “fifteen million acres of land some 450 miles in length and typically 40 to 60 miles wide. Fresno County is located in the heart of this Valley and is the most productive agricultural county in the nation.” But its greatest gift, as Mary Bartlett’s letters reveal, isn’t so much the volume but the variety of crops grown here, some of which, like almonds, pistachios, and walnuts, grow well in only a few places around the world.

This Fresno was still evident when I was growing up here. Back in the days when I walked its alleyways home from school, you could pick enough different kinds of fruit from the trees that hung over fences to start your own stand. This is thanks to the Mediterranean climate, extraordinarily rich and textured soil, the result of millions of years of wind and rain scraping and scrubbing the Sierra on one side and the Coast Range on the other, and water both underground and flowing down from the Sierra—but in truth, the reason things grow here unlike anywhere else in the world is impossible to say.

When I was a kid, the country with all its fertile glory was never more than a stone’s throw away from wherever you lived. It made a terrific place to escape, especially during the winters when the fog was almost as thick as yogurt, providing a kind of natural cover from parents or the law. But beginning in the 1980s, and continuing to this day, the orchard and vineyards that once surrounded the city were handed over to developers who built a never-ending series of neighborhoods with preposterous names such as Liberty Square and Barcelona.

Fresno today feels and acts like a real city, not just a series of misfit bedroom communities, partly because these neighborhoods are tied together by four pretty efficient freeways. Fresno raised itself up around its downtown, where city government is still housed. Skirting the “Frog,” Fresno’s futurist, amphibian-shaped City Hall, is an eclectic mix of buildings that house various city functions, some new but most mid-century variations of the so-called International Style. These structures edge up to Fulton Mall, a three-block outdoor promenade and one of the great urban landscape experiments in America, with playful fountains and geometric sculptures, including a Rodin, and sitting areas under mature trees. Adjacent to the Fulton are some architectural gems like the old Fresno Bee and Guarantee Savings buildings, the extraordinarily beautiful art deco Warner Theater that would rival any of the grand movie palaces in Los Angeles, and many former industrial spaces now tastefully restored as art galleries, boutique clothing stores, and coffee houses.

The city, like so many others, suffered a version of white flight when the well-to-do moved east toward the mountains. But downtown, there are now blocks and blocks of new apartments, put up by a longtime local developer betting on Fresno’s renaissance. His strategy, executed with the city’s cooperation, was to preserve the more handsome older structures that remained and replace the dilapidated ones with mixed-use buildings—retail below and living spaces above—made of glass and steel but painted in playful colors, like three-dimensional Mondrians. The area is called the Arts District, or the Mural District, and up until a few years ago it was moribund, given up for prematurely dead. Now it is turning into an ambitious example of the new urbanism at work. It is also the starting point for the most culturally and architecturally interesting part of the city, one that continues unfolding for five miles up Van Ness Avenue, through the humming Tower district and the Fresno High School and City College neighborhoods, ending in the area called Fig Garden, arguably the most beautiful neighborhood in Fresno, which every year hosts the longest “Christmas tree lane” in America.

Fresno has the bones upon which to construct an appealingly Californian city, but more importantly, it has the conditions that make living here an attractive proposition. It’s become axiomatic that only the wealthiest or those grandfathered in can afford to live in many of our most coveted California cities today, whereas the vast horde of commuters is relegated to a kind of daily guest-worker status. This is not the case in Fresno. A typical commute is fifteen minutes; monthly rent for a large one-bedroom apartment is about $800 a month; the price per square foot for a home around $120. For several years, Fresno, with an average cost per square foot of retail space around $1.50, has actively supported live-work spaces, relaxing the rules about where one can conduct business, which cuts commuting time to nothing.

In a series of pieces on Fresno, James Fallows of The Atlantic took notice of the city’s vibrant art scene, going so far as to agree with many Fresnans’ sense of their city as California’s new Bohemia, which, I think, gets the tone of artistic production here just right. Though there are quite a few orchestrated cultural events in Fresno, the vast majority have a bit of a ramshackle character, including The Rogue Festival, a ten-day artistic free-for-all that features a mindboggling number of events from juggling acts to one-act plays. When I moved to Los Angeles in the eighties, I lived up the street from Tom Solomon’s Garage, a two-car garage where the art dealer showed work by many artists who later became famous. You can find a lot of this same DIY culture incubating in Fresno today.

Every first Thursday of the month, around a hundred artists open their studios to the public for what the city calls “Art Hop.” If the weather is good, several thousand people show up. Though nobody has counted, that I know of, yet, I would guess that the stretch from downtown to the Tower District has more artists’ studios (as opposed to art galleries) per capita than anywhere in California. A good number of fine musicians also use Fresno as a live-cheap-eat-well basecamp where, in a matter of hours, they can be in California’s bigger cities for gigs. On any given night you can walk the Tower District and hear them making beautiful fools of themselves on the streets, in tiny rooms in the back vinyl stores or in private garages with the door flung open.

Photograph by Craig Kohlruss.

 

In Fresno, you are allowed a certain privacy, even solitude, to acquaint yourself with your torments and dreams. Perfect for artists. For years I’ve felt that this reality, along with the energy of the soil, the intensity of the sun and immensity of the fog, explains the remarkable number of writers, and especially poets such as recent American poet laureate Phillip Levine and current poet laureate, Juan Phillip Herrera, who were either born here or came here from elsewhere to live their lives and hone their craft.

On the other end of the spectrum is third-generation restaurateur Jimmy Pardini, who worked with Nancy Silverton of Mozza and La Brea Bakery fame for five years before moving back to Fresno and into a space adjacent to his father’s restaurant to start his own place, The Annex. Despite being surrounded by a mindboggling array of produce, Fresno has been woefully short of restaurants where the food is fresh and tastes are bold, and so Pardini saw an opening—and found success that has so far beaten his expectations. The Annex also features an extraordinarily tasty olive oil produced by Vincent Ricutti, a childhood friend whose family has grown and crushed olives locally for generations.

Even with all this going for it, it is probably “boomerangers”—that is, native Fresnans who fled the city for San Francisco, Los Angeles, and other metropolises, but eventually returned—who will jump-start the city into a new phase of growth and vigor. A good example is Jake Soberal, cofounder of Bitwise Industries, which was featured in Fallows’ reporting on Fresno. Capitalizing on local talent and the fact that Fresno is way more affordable than San Francisco or San Jose, Soborel and his cofounders started a high-tech incubator, which they characterize as Fresno’s “mothership of education, collaboration, and innovation.” Their first campus, a playfully rehabilitated building just off the Fulton Mall, aims to attract the best and brightest minds in the Central Valley with the aim of building another Silicon Valley.

Fresno’s mayor might not put it this way, but cities need holes in their fences. They need to be a bit desperate and welcoming, with ordinances, codes, rules, and regulations loose enough that the average person can get a foot in the door. Fresno is doing this right.

But for this new Fresno to fully encode itself in the Central Valley, the city needs to be more central in the consciousness of old-school Fresnans, too, particularly farmers, who still represent the city’s first agricultural code. Rather than turning their backs on the city, as they tend to do, we need them to join the Bohemians in celebrating the city, to invest in marketing and technologies that add value to their raw products, and in other new businesses that will generate jobs to diversify opportunities in the area. Farmers who call Fresno home might want to ask themselves why it took an Angeleno, Stewart Resnick, to turn clementines, pomegranates, and pistachios, crops all sourced from the valley and grown here for decades, into “Cuties,” “Pom,” and “Wonderful.” And the Bohemians need to figure out how to bring the farmers into town.

Any honest observer must admit that agriculture is among the things that make California the most robust state in the union. In this part of the state, how we treat farmers, how we negotiate water and environmental concerns, has an enormous impact. Fresno County adds nearly $6 billion to the California economy. In the future, that number could grow. Seventy-five-year-old vineyards are being yanked out to make room for almonds that fetch $3 a pound. And farmers have seen their land value quadruple in recent years. The market for hardy, high-protein foods such as nuts is increasing worldwide. And it is becoming harder and harder to wring more productivity out of agriculture around the world. But farmers around here are good at that. And in the not-too-distant future, they may be celebrated the way Silicon Valley executives are today.

Meanwhile, the Bohemians and farmers will keep the wheels spinning in Fresno, for the time being, perhaps until the day when Fresno, too, becomes a prohibitively expensive place to live and work. Then, I suppose, people will move to Modesto just up the road—or maybe just up the tracks on the bullet train.

Photograph by Craig Kohlruss.