Tag: Culture


When Punk Mattered: At the Birth of the Neoliberal City

A critical appreciation by Chris Carlsson

Punk rock, hip-hop, reggae/dub and world music burst forth simultaneously and marked the receding waves of worldwide revolt that, in 1968, appeared on the verge of “changing the world.” They were an enunciation of failure and a denunciation of surrender… They carried forward a militance and internationalist spirit into the next phase of musical and political contestation, while exposing jagged rifts left by unsuccessful struggle.

—Mat Callahan, The Trouble with Music

We didn’t know it at the time. The revolution we thought was on the horizon was not going to overthrow capitalism or usher in an era of solidarity and mutual aid. On the contrary, the word “revolution” in the mid-to-late 1970s held a much darker potential. By the time Reagan got elected in 1980, the process of reasserting the power of capital over a recalcitrant and rebellious American working class was well underway. The “revolution” we would experience in the 1980s produced a massive U-turn, a return to the savage dog-eat-dog, everybody-for-herself, go-go capitalism that first emerged in the late nineteenth century. With several decades of hindsight, we can see now that we were at the dawn of the neoliberal city in those bleak days that for some of us felt so full of potential.

In San Francisco, we danced ourselves into a frenzy to the deafening punk rock of the Avengers, the Dils, the Mutants, the Dead Kennedys, and dozens of other bands, including touring British bands like The Clash, the Sex Pistols, the Buzzcocks, Stiff Little Fingers, Gang of Four, and many more. The music—brash, anthemic, compelling, and urgent—was the soundtrack of our time, a time we thought would finally banish the daily banality of pointless work and hollow consumerism, ubiquitous corruption, and imperial hubris that was at the heart of the tottering United States. The shows were in strange lost corners of San Francisco, the Deaf Club on the second floor of a Valencia Street building near Sixteenth; the Temple Beautiful, a huge abandoned Synagogue on Geary just west of Fillmore, next door to Jim Jones’s People’s Temple; Valencia Tool & Die, in a basement under Valencia near Twenty-first; the Mabuhay Gardens (Fab Mab), a Philippine eatery tucked among the strip clubs on Broadway in North Beach; 330 Grove Street, a fabled home to radical left and black political groups. But the epic sounds of revolt, the declarations of refusal, the hilarious ridiculing of the powerful and rich, the pointed satire of the emerging technosphere, turned out to be more of a last anguished demand to seize the moment between the lost utopias of the 1960s and early 1970s and the capitalist triumphalism that dominated the rest of the century.

9781623565008Michael Stewart Foley gives us a particular window on that musical revolt in his very enjoyable Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables about the Dead Kennedys’ first album of the same name—Foley’s contribution to Bloomsbury’s 33 1/3 series of “books about albums.” Having their album as the spine of his narrative arc, Foley necessarily puts the Dead Kennedys at the center of the era. I loved the Dead Kennedys and saw them many times between 1978 and 1981, but I remember them rather differently than his account has it. They were part of a much larger and strongly politicized culture that flourished in San Francisco during that mostly forgotten interregnum between what we might call the “long sixties” and the Reagan restoration. The punk/new wave scene was a very visible and dynamic element, but radical politics were percolating in many forms and places alongside the punk music scene. Copying machines were finally becoming cheap and accessible, and many people began putting their collages, screeds, and cartoons on the poles and walls of San Francisco. Underground radio gained new life on local college stations KUSF and KALX, providing vital airtime for obscure bands from near and far. DJs like George Epileptic filled three hours every weekday morning with the biting satire and the angry sounds of dozens of new bands basically saying “Fuck you” to mainstream America. Meanwhile, the antinuclear Abalone Alliance was mobilizing thousands to block PG&E’s plans to build a nuclear power plant on the coast at Diablo Canyon; Nicaraguan revolutionaries and Iranian students crisscrossed the Bay Area urging support for the overthrow of the US-sponsored dictators in their respective countries; tenants were organizing for rent control in the wake of the violent eviction of the I-Hotel in 1977; and strikes at local oil refineries, trucking operations, insurance offices, and restaurant chains dovetailed with a national coal miners’ strike. President Jimmy Carter moved steadily rightward throughout his presidency, and being a former Navy nuclear engineer, in fact, rather than the “peanut farmer” of his mythology, he was increasingly seen, at least in our circles, as a deeply reactionary tool of the military-industrial complex. For many of us, the prospect of Carter losing to Reagan was inconceivable, the country having slid so far right under his regime that there was no way it could go further—add this to a long list of our badly off-the-mark prognostications! One local street theater group took the name “Reagan for Shah” to dramatize the absurdity of his campaign.

Reading Foley’s Dead Kennedys book brought me back into those first years of my life in San Francisco. It’s hard to imagine now.

I arrived in San Francisco from Sonoma County where I had tried “country living” during a couple of years in college, after growing up in Oakland. In the last days of 1977, I was fired for trying to start a union at a Books Inc. store in Santa Rosa, so I decided to move to San Francisco where I was spending a lot of time anyway, and I found a job canvassing for an environmental group. Like a lot of young adults I’d grown up listening closely to rock ‘n’ roll, but was weary of the overproduced stadium bands and glam-rock sounds that dominated mainstream radio and album sales. New Wave was breaking, and whether one preferred edgier “punk” or peppy, exciting, and minimalist new wave, the music germinating in small clubs and on tiny labels in San Francisco wasn’t just fresh and pleasingly “unprofessional.” Bands went nowhere if they didn’t also have something angry and subversive to say, and in late 1970s San Francisco most of them did.

In January 1978, I moved to the Haight-Ashbury. Like many twenty-year-olds, I gravitated to that neighborhood because I figured that’s where it was “happening,” unaware that whatever was happening there had petered out years earlier. I discovered I was in a relatively derelict part of town, living near the corner of Haight and Cole in winter 1978. The “upper Haight,” close to Golden Gate Park, was about 50 percent boarded up, and the street was dominated by alcoholics and junkies. A few cafes, restaurants, and shops traded on the neighborhood’s reputation, and the I-Beam was a popular night spot for disco, but by all accounts the Haight was in bad shape.

I found an apartment to share via the index-card-based Roommate Referral Service, an indispensable resource in those pre-Internet days. My rent was $125 a month for half a large one-bedroom apartment, and my windows opened onto a view of the three-story, graffiti-and-poster-covered wall of the abandoned Haight/Straight Theater. At the corner on the topmost part of the facade was a blue and red Vietcong flag, it being only three years since the United States ignominiously decamped from its embassy in Saigon as Vietnam was finally reunified under communist North Vietnam. Across Haight Street I could see the Theater Club, a grungy bar from which patrons would spill out nightly into often brutal and sometimes fatal fights.

The lower Haight between Divisadero and Market in those days was considered part of the Fillmore and was overwhelmingly African American. The east-west Page Street was mostly black from Market Street all the way to Golden Gate Park. The 1960s urban “renewal” bulldozers had leveled a large swath of the Fillmore, displacing thousands—and many of them ended up in the dilapidated Victorians of the Haight. I was part of the first trickle of young whites, many of us students, who were enthusiastically moving back into cities because we liked city life. In the following years, it became a trend and then a torrent. In the wake of this demographic shift that became gentrification, the black population of San Francisco fell from its 1970 peak of about 100,000 to less than 40,000 today—and the exodus/eviction continues.

The year I landed in The City, 1978, was also the year that President Jimmy Carter announced that he would reestablish draft registration. I, like most of my peers, had anxiously watched the ping pong balls of the draft lottery bounce during the early 1970s, imagining if we were old enough that the lottery number would matter. By the time it would have been my turn in 1975, the draft had been halted, and the war had been definitively lost. Thus, I was never subject to the draft, nor the registration that started three years later, a lucky window through which all of us 1957 babies fell—around 3.2 million young men.

President Gerald Ford had told a bankrupt New York City to “drop dead” in 1975, refusing to rescue the scourge of middle America from the crescendo of landlord arson, racist redlining, epidemic drug abuse, soaring violent street crime, and its collapsing industrial economy. The emergence of the “Rust Belt” in the once mighty industrial heartland had pushed organized labor into xenophobic reaction as unions scrambled to defend their members’ vanishing status as “middle class Americans.” In San Francisco, a parallel process was underway, exacerbated by more than a decade of urban renewal engineered by a modernist, social engineering philosophy at the city’s Redevelopment Agency with the support of big capital and local unions. Social movements erupted to oppose the neighborhood wreckers, movements that were augmented by radicalized students from the bloody San Francisco State Strike in 1968 and 1969. Earlier campaigns to block freeways and stop nuclear power seeded strong citizens’ organizations with ecological and Jane Jacobs–like urbanist values. Campaigns to block high-rises and prevent “Manhattanization” merged with neighborhood and architectural preservation efforts. Combined with elements of the New Left and community organizations, a progressive majority elected George Moscone mayor in 1975 and a year later voted in district elections for the city’s Board of Supervisors. With district elections, gay activist Harvey Milk finally won election, as did the first elected black supervisor, Doris Ward, and also an unrepentant conservative horrified at the changing city, a former cop and former fireman, Dan White.

By the late 1970s, the powerful dockworkers union had seen its former control of San Francisco’s port disappear when shipping moved across the bay to the new container port in Oakland. Coffee, beer, bread, canned produce, and most of the city’s once-thriving industrial economy were closing down, too, leaving empty factories and warehouses from North Beach through the South of Market to the Mission and farther south. These spaces, emptied of their original uses, were repurposed by the gay leather scene, the punk scene, the lesbian community, artists, computer pioneers, musical innovators, small theaters, and cross-pollinating communities of dissenters and radicals of many stripes.

Punks rallied to support striking coal miners in March 1978 with a big benefit at the Mabuhay Gardens. There was an instinctual solidarity with working class movements at the time, even though the local economy, dominated by the rising tourist and finance economy, was barely unionized. President Carter had ignored his support from labor and done nothing to stop the wave of plant closures across the country while he embraced the “solution” of deregulation. Locally, the restaurant workers in Local 2 carried out a successful insurgency against a corrupt union boss in 1978 and elected a rank-and-file slate only to see the old guard co-opt the newly elected officials.Within a couple of years, the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union had put Local 2 into trusteeship, derailing the bottom-up democratic surge that threatened the status quo. In 1981, newly elected President Reagan broke the Air Traffic Controllers Union, declaring open season for capital to attack long-entrenched unions. A new wave of defeats and rollbacks accelerated from which organized labor has never recovered, a key element in clearing the field for the neoliberal restructuring of the economy.

In fall 1978, I enrolled at San Francisco State, a campus still haunted by the dramatic and violent student and faculty strike a decade earlier. I joined up with some other student leftists, and we realized the state budget shortfall imposed by the reactionary tax revolt embodied in the passage of Proposition 13 that summer was going to shrink available resources for the university. This was during Jerry Brown’s first governorship, and his flip-flopping embrace of the tax revolt fueled a visceral rejection of his pusillanimous politics (one of the Dead Kennedys best tunes was “California Über Alles,” in which Governor Jerry Brown “always smiles and never frowns” and would employ the “suede denim secret police” to engineer a new fascism).

We organized against cutbacks in state university budgets, not realizing that we were at the dawn of a systemic shift to eliminate low-cost higher education. The new, much more expensive model would establish years-long debt peonage for students who took the loans that would allow them to attend college, trapping graduates into accepting any paid work they could get as soon as possible. Meanwhile, the tax revolt became an ideological and populist foundation for the privatization of public goods that is the heart of neoliberalism. The global counterpart imposed as the “Washington consensus” by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank was precipitated by the so-called “debt crises” in the Third World. Privatization and public asset stripping proliferated around the world under the satisfied guidance of multinational capital with strong US military backing.

At San Francisco State in the fall of 1978, we felt far removed from the city and its politics. The Third Worldist shift of left politics meant we paid closer attention to Chile, Nicaragua, Southeast Asia, and Iran. The campus’s location at the far southwestern corner of the city keeps it physically and politically separated from the rest of town. Commuting through the gray Sunset district in my bumper sticker-covered VW bug, I was a college student like the rest; but unlike the rest, I was already committed to avoiding the careerism that dominated curricular choices for most. I read Marx, studied Spanish, and organized with other members of the tiny chapter of the Union for Radical Political Economics to create a minor in political economy, a coded label for a Marxist approach to social sciences. I don’t know if it ever was established, since I quit school after May 1979 and never looked back. By the time I quit college, I was thoroughly dismayed by my fellow students, who, in my view, were sleepwalking toward an empty life. In the wake of the November 1978 People’s Temple Jonestown massacre, many people began to use the expression “drinking the Kool-Aid” to characterize people who were willingly going to their own deaths (which we now know was largely false about the victims of Jim Jones). On my way out of the university, I began calling it “Jonestown State,” for the zombie-like way most of the student body seemed to be pursuing business degrees.

It was during that dark fall of 1978 that San Francisco was traumatized by the Jonestown tragedy (hitting San Francisco’s black and left communities hardest—many of the more than 900 dead were well known former allies), and just days later the world really did seem to spin out of control when Dan White murdered Mayor Moscone and Harvey Milk in City Hall. Dianne Feinstein, the rich matron politician who had come in a dismal third in the 1975 mayoral contest and was considered to be finished politically, was president of the Board of Supervisors, and thus ascended to the now vacant mayor’s office. Her regime quickly changed directions from Moscone’s liberalism. Feinstein wasted no time in shifting mayoral support to downtown interests, opposing renter protections, and supporting a new office building boom. Foley is good on how much we all hated Feinstein (unlike David Talbot’s weirdly hagiographic treatment of her in his best-selling Season of the Witch), and how the Dead Kennedys’ political lyrics were partly inspired by that vitriol:

By the late summer of 1979, Dead Kennedys fans churned and bounced to any number of favorite songs, including “Let’s Lynch the Landlord.” Given the context of the time and place, though, it might as well have been called “Let’s Lynch the Mayor.” On the one hand, the song, which grew directly out of experiences Jello Biafra and Klaus Flouride had with a landlord when they lived together, provides a description of living in an apartment where nothing works—not the water, the heat, the oven—where the ceiling leaks, there are roaches and some asshole is “blasting disco down below.” On the other hand, it is not a stretch to imagine the mayor lurking in the lyrics as Biafra sings “I’m doubling the rent … you’re gonna help me buy City Hall.” The chorus about lynching the landlord is, therefore, both transgressive and cathartic, particularly if the landlord might have been Dianne Feinstein. In the wake of her brutal crackdowns on punks and open shilling on behalf of real estate interests (including her own), playing a song like that provided a momentary sense of freedom from the kind of cynical, corrupt, and sclerotic political system the mayor represented.

On 21 May 1979, the trial of Dan White culminated in a shocking “voluntary manslaughter” verdict, in what had appeared to everyone as a clear-cut case of premeditated first degree murders. (According to Talbot, White confessed to his former police colleague Frank Fanzon in 1985 that he had intended also to kill Supervisor Carol Ruth Silver and Assemblyman Willie Brown—all in defense of a city that only existed in his tortured imagination.) When the news of the verdict broke, a crowd of angry protesters gathered in the Castro and soon several thousand were marching down Market to City Hall. The “White Night Riot” ensued, hours of violent confrontation between protesters and police, fifteen squad cars up in flames, City Hall windows smashed, small fires around the Civic Center, and finally, late that night, an organized police attack on the gay Castro neighborhood that included dragging people out of their homes and invading the Elephant Walk bar at Eighteenth and Castro.

I was in the middle of the riot for hours and truly thought it was the beginning of a revolution. We had the cops on the run for a long time and dominated the plaza in front of City Hall. Squad cars burned, their sirens wailing in the smoke-filled night. It was eerie and powerful. The demographics of the rioters changed during the night too, starting with thousands of angry gay men and lesbians but swelling quickly with a big influx of young black men from the adjacent Fillmore district, finally seeing their chance to even the accounts with the racist police. The solidarity on the lines was strong, and the euphoria was incredible.

The next morning, the political fantasy was punctured by a return to mundane daily life. A couple of dozen arrests, mostly young African American men, along with my then-roommate, meant that whatever support might have materialized from the gay community was not forthcoming since none of the arrestees seemed to be gay. Our subsequent efforts to rally support through a “May 21st Defense Fund” fell flat.

My personal life took me to the East Coast from mid-summer to the end of 1979, so I missed the Feinstein mayoral campaign and Jello Biafra’s clownish anticampaign. In general, I didn’t put any faith in electoral politics by that time, so even if I’d been in town, I don’t think I would’ve been particularly interested. In Foley’s account of the time, Biafra’s run for mayor is quite important. He cites Biafra’s article in Damage calling for “Creative Crime for the Sober Seventies” and links that to his campaign for mayor. While most people dismissed it as a joke at the time, Foley characterizes it “as political theater, as serious as a heart attack. It was also another example of the utopian performative, puncturing elaborate lies with comedic needles of truth.” Actually, the 1979 Biafra campaign follows a long line of prank electoral efforts, notably one that saw radical attorney Tony Serra run for mayor in 1972 promoting an agenda of a green, car-free central city, and decriminalization of sex and drug crimes, issues that Biafra’s campaign took up again in 1979, issues that are no longer jokes, but, instead, are now practically taken for granted in the city a generation later.

As a liberal arts college dropout, I had few marketable skills beyond my well-honed ability to work in a bureaucratic environment filling out forms, typing, processing information. I was perfect for the new office world that was expanding rapidly in the Financial District. My first gig was a job at the Downtown Community College Center, a public institution dedicated to producing clerical workers for downtown. I learned word processing on an IBM “Mag II” machine, meaning I used a punch-card-sized magnetic card to store the data I typed into what appeared to be a normal electric typewriter. I worked there for the first half of the year, engaging in radical political street theater with my pals in the Union of Concerned Commies in my spare time. Eventually, I was fired for inserting a satirical flyer in course catalogues.

In late summer 1980, I began “temping.” With my new ability to do “word processing,” my wages nearly doubled. I worked through an agency called Temps, Inc., which found me a months-long gig at the Bank of America data center. I worked on a minicomputer through a glowing green terminal, word processing the manuals that would someday soon teach bank workers around the country how to use the Bank of America system. Mind you, this was before interstate banking had been legalized, but Bank of America was sufficiently confident that they’d be able to take over banks in other parts of the country that they were already preparing the systems they’d need to profit from the process.

As I went to and from the high-security data center, and later in and out of various brokerages and Arthur Anderson accounting offices downtown, I was a cog in a much larger machine. My seemingly pointless word processing was helping to restructure the global economy at the dawn of the 1980s. The financialization of the economy that was triggered by Nixon taking the United States off the gold standard in the early 1970s was now altering daily life in San Francisco, too. Not only had container shipping undercut the Port of San Francisco and driven manufacturing out of the city, but now a burgeoning FIRE sector (Finance, Insurance, Real Estate) was taking over what San Franciscans did all day, putting us to work in the data mines of far-flung corporate networks that aimed to organize and control production on an increasingly global scale. We were the handmaidens of a new neoliberal economic order. But we didn’t see the big picture, sitting in front of Wang computers, using new-fangled software, enduring the unreliability of the new computerized office systems, all before email and the Web. For us, it was an empty charade. From this tortured experience emerged our underground magazine, Processed World, which we distributed throughout the downtown office world where we found our readers and writers. The most typical response from readers was “thank God I’m not alone!” as they discovered a kindred spirit, or as we called it, a “bad attitude.” This stance allowed the creatively stifled photographers, historians, philosophers, poets, musicians, dancers, and countless others toiling in the white collar world to find each other, to share their “tales of toil,” their wild satire, and poignant and heartfelt rebukes to an empty existence in the new cubicles of modern capitalism.

But this sensibility that we put in print did not erupt suddenly from our heads. It had been brewing all around us already for several years, prominently among the punks. This was decades before the saccharine admonition to “do what you love” came to hypnotize so many new workers in the tech and office sectors, a goal that can only be achieved through daily self-deception for the vast majority. Dozens of songs left little doubt about the repudiation and refusal at the heart of the radical subculture during that time. The Dils called for “Class War,” while the Mutants decried the “New Dark Ages;” The Avengers lambasted the country in “The American in Me.”

Writing about the Dead Kennedys, Foley aptly relates,

“Taken together, the songs on Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables added up to a sustained and trenchant critique of not only the familiar New Left target, “the system,” but of mainstream culture. The lyrics show no mercy to any aspect of American life—everything is fair game. It is a no bullshit zone, a place where listeners are confronted to consider their own place in a vapid, venal, and violent society and then ask themselves what they are prepared to do. Will they just insulate themselves from the horrors the way the narrator in “Drug Me” does? Or go off the deep end, as in “Forward to Death,” and “Ill in the Head?” Will they stand by while the poor are drafted, the slums cleared, and while Zen fascists command conformity? Or will they fight back, maybe via some creative crime, the way the narrators do in “Let’s Lynch the Landlord,” “Chemical Warfare,” “Stealing People’s Mail” and “Holiday in Cambodia”? … it’s hard to escape the feeling of being put on the spot.”

Our radical aspirations went unmet. The 1980s unfolded and by most accounts seemed to get worse and worse. When Reagan was shot by John Hinckley early in his first term, the president’s plummeting popularity was restored and from that time on, few criticisms would stick to him. It was as though the national media had made a collective decision to surround the presidency with an aura of moral goodness and invincibility. Reagan’s dirty wars in Central America, arming of Islamic Taliban guerrillas in Afghanistan, support for Saddam Hussein against Iran, and general military belligerence across the planet was protested regularly in San Francisco and the Bay Area. For all its fakeness, the Reagan restoration enjoyed a carefully manufactured popularity in most of the country, much to the chagrin and confusion of radical activists in my circles.

The economy was good to speculators and financiers, but most people saw their standard of living slowly—or rapidly—eroding during the global economic reorganization of the 1980s. When the Cold War ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union and its empire after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, and China fully embraced capitalist modernization, the self-congratulatory triumphalism of the United States was loudly proclaimed, precluding other views. The radicalism that once pulsed in the emptied spaces of late 1970s San Francisco was largely lost in the following decades as those spaces filled with upscale restaurants, boutiques, “lawyer lofts,” art galleries, and million-dollar condos. New radical impulses would emerge from the Zapatistas in Mexico, to the anti-globalization movement at the turn of the twenty-first century, but San Francisco’s once thriving radical scene was no longer at the epicenter. Instead, the city became the center of the misnamed “tech revolution,” which has displaced tens of thousands, while committing the survivors to a world in which work is the center of all meaning and never stops, going on twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, whether you have a job or not. Solidarity and mutual aid are essential to many of us San Franciscans, who survived the past few decades in which a new neoliberal city emerged from the destruction of our hometown. Newcomers seem to inhabit a city in which everything is for sale. If they can’t simply pay for what they want, they react with anger and confusion. This is the city wrought by the brutal marketization of life since 1980—but it feels profoundly fragile. Cracks and fissures are everywhere, waiting for a catalyst that might unravel this dehumanized nightmare.


Photograph of Haight Ashbury in 1980 by Dave Glass, via Flickr.


Parks Are Social

by Jon Christensen

From Boom Summer 2015, Vol 5, No 2

Two years ago, I began a research project with colleagues at Stamen Design to explore social media generated every day in California parks, open spaces and natural areas, from city centers to wilderness areas. We began by setting up algorithms to capture all of the social media content emanating from within the boundaries of these areas on Instagram, Flickr, Twitter, and Foursquare. So far, we’ve gathered social media from more than half a million unique social media users who have shared content in one or more of the 11,628 parks in California.

We discovered two important things in our research. First, parks are social. People do things in parks that they do in the rest of their lives. They take selfies, they share photos, and they meet up. What this means for parks supporters in California is that we don’t have to gin up social media around parks. People are already sharing their love of parks on social media. When I told this story to the deputy director of the National Park Service recently, she said, “Yeah, it’s like people are having a party over there. And they’re talking about us. And we’re not going to the party.” We don’t have to create the party. We just have to figure out how to join the party and bring something to it.

The second thing we found is that diverse Californians will see people like themselves in parks, despite the fact that some groups are, in fact, underrepresented in park attendance. For some, a barrier to going to parks is that they don’t think they will see people like themselves in parks. But if you look at social media, you will see diverse Californians in parks—and people want to see people like themselves in public spaces in order to feel welcome there. So if we can represent that diversity by sharing those images, it is an invitation to California’s parks.

Naturally, we created an app for that: CaliParks.org. As part of the Parks Forward initiative in California, we built a browser-based app for Californians to discover their parks, find out what they can do in a park nearby today, and share their love for parks. Here are some of the images people have shared.

Photograph by Marian Gonzalez via Flickr.

Photograph by Kenda K via Flikr.

Photograph by Markus Spiering via Flickr.

Photograph by Victoria Bernal via Flickr.

Photograph by Krocky Meshkin via Flickr.

Photograph by Wolf94114 via Flickr.

Photograph by Peter Thoeny via Flickr.

Photograph by Eric Gelinas via Flickr.


California: Looking Forward—or Backward?

California by Edan Lepucki (Little, Brown and Company, 400pp, $26)

A critical appreciation

by Josh Stephens

Lepucki coverThe Hollywood & Highland shopping and entertainment complex in Los Angeles is ugly enough to inspire thoughts of violence. The usual chain stores are stacked up behind a facade of ersatz sandstone, with balconies, towers, and escalators running every which way. Its Orientalist motif, replete with hieroglyphics and sculpted elephants, is supposedly drawn from Intolerance, the silent epic by D.W. Griffith, better known for the infamously racist The Birth of a Nation.

A pivotal moment in Edan Lupucki’s recent novel California takes place in the belly of this architectural grotesquerie. Micah, a young revolutionary, detonates a vest of dynamite at the height of the shopping day. Micah’s suicide marks the symbolic end of California’s existence as a state. California reverts to a mere landscape, across which anarchy and chaos are loosed. As in many post-apocalyptic tales, the reasons for the dissolution of government and the breakdown of civil society are vague. We learn of earthquakes, oil shortages, and the day the “Internet stopped working.” The citizens of the former California face three choices: fight it out in the cities; flee into the wilderness; or join fortified, corporate-run “Communities.”

As a journalist covering urban planning in the real California, I can’t help thinking that the modes of living that Lepucki imagines surviving in the state’s ashes can be seen as an extreme exaggeration of the actual choices available to present-day Californians. Even amid the anarchy of California, the central question is the same one that has confounded Californians for generations: where to raise a family?

Micah’s sister Fridah and Micah’s best friend from college, Cal, are the young couple at the center of the novel. They escape the wreckage of Los Angeles, wander northward, and take refuge in a forest. This frontier means little without civilization as its counterpoint. Cal and Frida eke out a safe, but uninspiring existence in the woods. Meanwhile, Los Angeles, beset by violence, bereft of civil society, turns into its own corpse. When Cal tells Frida how “awful” LA has become, Frida imagines all the horrors to which he is referring:

He could have meant LA’s chewed-up streets or its shuttered stores and sagging houses. All those dead lawns…closed movie theaters and restaurants, and the parks growing wild in their abandonment. Or its people starving on the sidewalks, covered in piss and crying out. Or its crime. The murder rate increased every year, and the petty theft was as ubiquitous as the annoying gargle of leaf blowers had once been. The city wasn’t just sick, it was dying.

Lepucki’s Los Angeles suffers in the same way that many real American cities have suffered (some nearly fatally) in the past. From Detroit to Cleveland to New York City to Los Angeles itself, wealthy citizens fled center cities in the latter half of the twentieth century, leaving the poor to hunker down. Lepucki’s apocalyptic vision reads, to this urbanist, like an extreme version of suburbanization and white flight.

Unlike, Micah, who was initially inspired by the chaos, wanting “to rebuild LA, neighborhood by neighborhood,” Cal and Frida believe that the city is beyond salvation.

But the forest inspires no Thoreauvian musings or much pleasure of any kind. Cal and Frida wait out their days, entertaining themselves with a lot of careful sex. But they are not careful enough. When Frida becomes pregnant, they decide that they cannot raise a baby in an empty forest. They set out toward what they can only assume is enemy territory. After many miles, pine trees give way to spikey, threatening totems made of metal and junk. (They remind Frida of LA’s Watts Towers. I imagine them like those cars buried grille-first along Route 66.) These forms create a dense boundary that marks the territory of an unknown tribe of a few dozen refugees eking out a peaceful existence on “The Land,” part-commune, part self-imposed prison, where Cal and Frida are welcomed for one reason: Micah, Frida’s brother and antibourgeois martyr, is their patron saint.

Crescent Meadow, Sequoia National Forest

Photograph via Flickr by Jerry Ting.

Frida and Cal endear themselves to The Land through hard work, participating in daily Labor. But they still stand apart from the rest of the tribe, particularly because of the secret that Frida is hiding. Unsettlingly, the youngest inhabitants of The Land are gawky, college-age boys. There are no children here. Cal and Frida coax from their neighbors tales of raids by Pirates (capital P),kidnappings, torture, killings, vandalism, rape, and indentured servitude. With their children stolen, no one on The Land wants to bring new life into such a world. Behind their barricades, the people of The Land are simply waiting out a death sentence.

This apocalyptic lifestyle is not as far from reality as it may seem at first glance. Americans are having fewer children, and those who do have children, choose to do it later in life. Cities such as San Francisco are now playgrounds for young adults. If this trend were taken to the extreme, cities might simply slide into retirement communities without ever hearing the wail of a newborn.

Cal and Frida are eventually run off The Land when Frida’s pregnancy is discovered. They flee into an affluent Community called “The Pines.” In Lepucki’s California, forest, city, and The Land all scrape by in the enviable shadow of the Communities. By most accounts, Communities fare better than anyone else. But no one can ever leave them, lest they be gored by Pirates. Adults work; children grow up; boards and management companies see that everything runs smoothly. They have names like “Bronxville, Scottsdale, Amazon, and Walmart.”

The Communities’ dirty secret is that they grant refuge to impoverished outsiders who accept permanent second-class citizenship in exchange for security. From the truly desperate, they purchase children, who are committed to lives of indentured servitude. The late Micah hated the Communities; they made him “murderously angry.” Frida, however, is drawn to them—she “had always been fascinated by the Communities, the secret life behind their walls, their riches and beauty all conjecture.”

The best of the bad options in California looks a lot like what was considered the best of the best of California post–World War II. Lepucki writes:

Pines was supposed to remind you of a bygone world that no one living had seen firsthand: cookouts and block parties, paperboys and school recitals. Daddies who took the trolley home, mommies who had put up their own wallpaper….all the mothers stayed home to bake cakes and whatever else mothers did at Pines. Women were expected to devote everything to raising a family.

Lepucki crafts this description with obvious irony, simultaneously taking aim at her beleaguered protagonists, the naïve families of the 1950s, and present-day Californians who cling to an outdated conception of the American dream. On that last count, Lepucki is in good company with a new generation of planners, scholars, and activists. On the other hand, Cal and Frida’s choice to join The Pines could be read as a refutation of mountains of literature decrying the shortcomings—aesthetic, environmental, and psychological—of suburbia. Then again, Lepucki suggests that the suburbs may yet be the last, best place to survive the apocalypse. Even so, the ultimate cost of fleeing to suburbia in California, as in California, looms large.

So, do we understand and perhaps forgive Cal and Frida’s retreat to the gated suburbs because they’re in post-apocalyptic survival mode? Or are we all always in survival mode?

James Howard Kunstler, the author of a series of polemical nonfiction books decrying suburban sprawl and the ugliness of the American landscape, offers a contrast in his post-apocalyptic novel World Made by Hand, set on the other side of the continent. In it, Kunstler imagines an upstate New York town that turns into a near-utopia after the nation suffers an enormous but unexplained catastrophe similar to the one that undid California. It’s easy to imagine that the two stories take place simultaneously, with each part of the fractured country reinventing itself in different ways. Unlike Lepucki, Kunstler uses his apocalypse as a meditation on the lost pleasures of small-town life. He suggests that a reversion to old-fashioned ways is so desirable as to almost—almost—compensate for the loss of civil society.

Photograph via Flickr by radcliffe dacanay.

Photograph via Flickr by radcliffe dacanay.

California and World Made by Hand both offer impassioned thought experiments for urban planners, policy makers, and developers who design real cities and shape, to some extent, how they operate. Both novels take current and past planning rhetoric to hyperbolic, though ultimately logical extremes. There is something appealing and useful, especially for an urban planner, in imagining revolutions that reveal, and to some extent are caused by, the tragic flaws in our own urban planning and, particularly, in our enduring penchant for segregation of land uses, ethnicities, and socioeconomic groups.

Ironically, these books appear in the midst of what can only be called an urban renaissance. Planners have been crying out for means to promote diversity, density, and urban vitality for a half-generation. They’re finally making progress, with new general plans, new means of analyzing and controlling traffic, greater demand for urbane living, and, in California, landmark antisprawl laws such as 2008’s Senate Bill 375 and 2013’s Senate Bill 743. The critiques evoked by Lepucki and Kunstler have become orthodoxy, and in many ways we are moving beyond them on the ground.

The question is whether these science fictions are looking forward or backward.


Josh Stephens is contributing editor to the California Planning & Development Report and former editor of The Planning Report, independent newsletters covering land use in, respectively, California and Los Angeles County.

Photograph at top via Flickr by Doc Searls.


CaliMeXina or Bust, Cabrones!

by Gustavo Arellano

Learning to love our Latin-Asian-Pacific future

From Boom Spring 2015, Vol 5, No 1

From 5 May 2115, hologram of the Associated Buzzfeed Times:

Today, California Governor Sofia Miranda-Nguyen signed a historic trade agreement with Chinese Premier Zhou Sanchez-Smith. From now on, China will favor the state with reduced prices for the soy needed to sustain California’s everlasting-tacos industry. In turn, California has agreed to sell everlasting-tacos at reduced rates to China’s remaining 1 billion customers.

“We welcome this historic arrangement between the two regions,” Miranda-Nguyen told the press corps, recently desegregated so that androids could ask questions alongside humans instead of having to wait for the governor’s drone to deliver the news. “We offer our deal as a good-faith present for China not attacking us during the recent Sino-Seattle War, and to apologize for recent geo-engineering experiments that reversed the movement of the Pacific Plate, triggering massive earthquakes and damages on the other side of the ocean we share.”

Sanchez-Smith, for his part, was equally magnanimous. “This represents the latest gesture of friendship between California and China,” he said in English, Spanish, Mandarin, Spanglish, Chinglish, and Chinespañol. “China remains happy to accept California’s gold, in any form, including crispy taco shells, just as it embraced my grandparents from Boyle Heights so many decades ago during the Great Mexican Migration to China.”

Both Miranda-Nguyen and Sanchez-Smith reaffirmed their commitment to wipe Texas off the face of the Earth.

More than a decade ago, I dated a Vietnamese American girl from Irvine. It didn’t work out because I was insufficiently leftist for her (true story: the guy she ultimately left me for called himself Lenin). But that wasn’t the best memory I have of that relationship: that would be her parents, mild-mannered refugees who were horrified that their college-educated daughter was dating a Mexican like me. It didn’t matter that I was a graduate student at UCLA at the time; for them, I was little better than a cholo with glasses.

My parents, on the other hand, embraced my girlfriend, in the way only Mexican immigrants could: they called her a chinita, a little Chinese girl. Even when I’d explain that she was Vietnamese, and that Vietnamese weren’t Chinese, they’d pause for a minute, then exclaim, “¡Que linda chinita!” (“What a beautiful Chinese chick!”)

Illustration by Juan Pablo Baene.

Just another episode in California’s lotería of racism, right? The relationship between California and its Asians has been notoriously fucked up throughout our history, from lynchings to internment, exclusion acts to good ol’ fear-mongering, with nearly every other group getting in on the act. But one group has always embraced Asians more than others in California: Mexicans, and in this unlikely-but-growing relationship lies California’s future, a future already present. Together, we will make California the nexus between Asia and Latin America, with the knowledge and relationships that ensure not only the future of California, but of the United States too—bigoted parents be damned.

It’ll be a beautiful coda to an unlikely pairing of California’s two most loathed ethnic groups. We already have a history: various Asian groups have settled across Latin America—Chinese in Peru, Koreans in Argentina, Lebanese in Colombia, Japanese in Brazil, Indians in Trinidad and Tobago—almost from the moment Cortés and Pizarro went on their merry conquistador ways. While those groups have integrated into their respective countries, integration came after centuries of segregation, exclusion, and even mass killings—let’s not forget that the US Border Patrol was established to guard against the Chinese trying to migrate into the United States, fleeing pogroms in Mexico.

But throughout twentieth-century California, any Latino resentment toward Asians or vice versa quickly disappeared as the two groups realized that they were in the same, nonwhite, discriminated-against boat. Through the decades, Asians and Mexicans joined to fight the good fight, in various battlefields in California (not to mention segregated platoons in World War II). If the following paragraph reads like a bullet-point presentation, it is: these facts need to be recited ad nauseam and entered in the official California record.

In the Central Valley, Sikh men married Mexican women because the era’s xenophobic immigration laws largely prohibited Asian women from coming to this country. Filipinos famously started the grape strike that launched the United Farm Workers, and manongs, such as Phillip Vera Cruz and Larry Itliong, were influential leaders in the union for many years. In the 1940s, when the Munemitsu family of Westminster were sent off to the internment camps, it was a Mexican American farmer named Gonzalo Mendez who tended the land while they were gone; the money earned from that good deed helped Mendez and other families pursue the famous school segregation case, Mendez, et al. vs. Westminster. And this is my favorite story, only because it’s so telling: Guy Gabaldon grew up with a Japanese American family in East Los Angeles, learning how to speak Japanese in the process. His language skills helped the Marines secure the surrender of more than a thousand Japanese soldiers in the Pacific Front during World War II. Hollywood made a movie out of it…and Gabaldon was played by the very gabacho Jeffrey Hunter.

Many more examples exist, of course. But my favorite example of the Asian Mexican partnership is in food. Studies have shown that Mexicans are among the world’s top consumers of dried ramen, and Chinese restaurants are a staple of barrios across the Golden State. The popular seafood dish ceviche came to Mexico via Peru via Japanese immigrants; at any Mexican supermarket, you’ll find cacahuates japoneses, Japanese peanuts, so named because a Japanese businessman introduced the soy sauce–soaked treats to Mexico City during the 1950s. One of my favorite meals growing up was teriyaki bowls, except the stands in my Anaheim neighborhood had essentially Mexicanized the dish by making the beef cuts lean like carne asada, throwing in cebollitas (grilled green onions) instead of scallions, throwing in containers of Tapatío hot sauce with every to-go order alongside the teriyaki sauce, and offering horchata to wash everything down with its sweet kick.

Using food as proof for the future of California might seem trite, but food is always at the vanguard of mestizaje and shows the beautiful possibilities of cultural exchange and fusion. Consider the story of the Kogi Korean BBQ truck, already legendary despite the fact that it’s only eight years old. Chef Roy Choi literally changed America’s perception of what race could be by doing something simple: offering Mexican foods like burritos and tacos with Korean ingredients. He never claimed to have invented that mash-up. Indeed, the Kogi origin story openly admits that the team got its inspiration to open such a truck from a blogger reminiscing about his undergrad days at University of California, Irvine, in the early 2000s, and how during a Korean American frat party, the students began stuffing Korean barbecue into leftover tortillas because all of the carne asada had run out. (How telling about Asian Mexican California is it that Korean students would not only grill up carne asada alongside Korean barbecue, but finish it first?) While the world was taken by the novelty of Korean tacos, Choi just brushed it aside; to him, Asian Mexican fusion was as naturally Southern Californian as traffic on the 405.

“We’re Korean, but we’re American, and we grew up in LA,” Choi told a reporter shortly after unveiling his truck. “It’s not a stigma food; it’s a representation of who we are…that was our goal. To take everything about LA and put it into one bite—it’s Mexican, it’s Korean, it’s organic, it’s California.”

We’re a century away from 2115, of course, but simple demographics dictate Choi’s definition of his food will manifest itself. California will become a living, breathing Korean taco: Mexican in structure, Asian in essence, wholly American, and spicy as hell. The two groups will intermarry, will become neighbors—more so than now, that is. Our respective ties to our ancestral homelands will become more important as the United States seeks closer relationships with the folks we left back home—we did globalization before it became popular. Foreign investment from Latin America and Asia will increasingly turn California into a global crossroad for the world economy, which it has been for a long time already; remittances back home will help modernize countries, while residents here will influence politics there—and here too. Our mutual love of bilingualism and multiculturalism won’t be so exotic by the twenty-second century, but rather the only way for California and America to survive.

Illustration by Juan Pablo Baene.


It’s going to get bumpy before we get to this bright future, of course—but we’re getting there. Last year, two Latinas were convicted of manslaughter in the beating death of Kim Pham, a young Vietnamese American woman who died outside a nightclub in downtown Santa Ana. People on both sides wanted to bring race into the mix to light a fire. Longtime Latino residents complained that out-of-town Asians (mostly students from UC, Irvine) were gentrifying their neighborhoods, while Asians complained that they were making the area “safer” (read: less Mexican) by being there.

A generation ago, such back-and-forth between ethnic groups in Southern California could have led to riots. What happened in the aftermath of the Pham verdict? Absolutely nothing—peace reigned, Asians returned to Santa Ana’s downtown scene, joined by Latino hipsters.

While this was a huge news story in Orange County, the biggest Asian Mexican news for me last year was the marriage of my second cousin to my childhood friend, a son of Chinese parents. I hadn’t spoken to him in twenty-five years.

But how the hell does a chinito marry a girl from my ancestral village?

Only in California, cabrones!


Waiting at the Seal

by Alexis Madrigal

Looking backward to 2015

From Boom Spring 2015, Vol 5, No 1

His son lay asleep on his chest. Several trucks buzzed overhead, but the traffic did not form the steady hum that he’d been banking on to help the boy sleep, and they were both restless in the tent. Each time a vendor’s voice rose above the din, or metal hit metal, the kid stirred.

Everyone wanted to believe the rumors—that this was a place you could make twentieth-century money, even as a human. The insiders weren’t predictable enough for optimization, and they preferred live human contacts on their rumspringa days. That was how it was on the inside: no robots, no AI, a world frozen in 2015. They needed salesmen to sell them things. They needed people.

He could imagine this spot like the rich freaks who’d gone to live in space must see it through their fancy glass. On one side, this side, the blinking, buzzing, bursting world—and on the other, the rectangular strangeness of the Ban Zone, the last refuge for all those who wanted a place to escape all the body hacking and the strange new intelligences of the machines.

The baby’s hand reached up and grabbed his chin for a second, then went limp, asleep again. He’d like life better on the inside—and the sooner the better.

But for now, they were still here, camped outside. The seal was transparent, of course, so they could see the leaves on the trees, the truckless skies, the people walking. Physically, and this was just a gestalt impression, they looked bigger, tanner—and they almost seemed to glow, although maybe that was an illusion. But they also looked old. That was part of the deal. No turning back the clock. No telomere treatment. No upgrades. No enhancements. They were just humans who lived and then died.

There were some people in his camp who’d gone in and come back out, basically starving. There was no coin in there; what you ate was what you could grow or barter for. But the skills they needed were so strange. Occasionally, a drive needed to be fixed or an array cleaned or even some people latched on tending the guts of the seal, but those gigs were roughly impossible to get; thousands of people applied for every position. You’d have about as much a chance of scoring an upload or a Google for life or a residence in a tauroid.

Photograph by Abbruscato.


Tomorrow, statistically speaking, it would be his turn—their turn—to go inside. He was glad she hadn’t come. She couldn’t even bear to hear him cry. She could not have handled this wait on the border, which had gone on for two weeks as they waited for the rate-limiter to let them through. He’d told the form that he wanted his son to see bees. That much was true: he did want his son to see bees.

The weight of him. He’d miss that. This density and realness, how close they felt, his tiny noises, and the way he pointed his finger at whatever interested him. This full human life, in his original skin, unchanged from all the humans who came before anyone with the money could recharge his mortal coil.

He couldn’t raise him on the outside. Not if there was an option. He had to hand him over. You could find what the process was like on the darknets. They’d hand him an extractor, and he’d press it to his boy’s temple and pull all the optimizations they’d bought. It wasn’t much. It wasn’t enough. His boy couldn’t compete in this world with what they could give him. The end.

At the group sessions, other parents turned their backs on them, shielding their children from his son, who had done nothing but stand there, poorly optimized, wobbling on his legs like stilts, pointing, and saying, “Hiiii!” For a while, his mom said things like, “Maybe things’ll turn around, and we’ll be able to get him the brain he deserves.” He’d roar at her, defiantly, that this world was no place for children. He hadn’t even known he could roar.

Every morning, as he’d lay in the tent, he blinked away messages, expecting and not expecting to see one from the seal bot. Every day one didn’t come he was happy to take his boy wandering through the vendors, keeping him close, but letting the kid’s easy charisma make the sad world small and happy. Each day, they’d return with a small bag of gifts from the other unop’ed that they’d play with until bed.

They loved the bee drone. It circled his son’s neck, tickling him into happy tears, then landing on the tip of his nose and buzzing out happy birthday. There were other children, of course, but none of the parents could look each other in the eyes, and they easily steered clear of each other.

The strange thing was, some really were just visiting. Maybe they had some relatives inside. Maybe they would find work on the farms or in the tanks.

But he was a realist. That’s what the last century had taught him. Don’t pretend you’re bringing that kid back out. Savor these last moments, this breathing matching yours, these feet tucked up under his body. Store it away.

The baby was sweating. He pulled the kid from his chest, held him in the air for a second, just to look at him, and then dropped him onto his side, arms straight out, head nestled on the cheap superfoam.

He could still turn back. Maybe he could start a stall, or go migrant, following the pings, being eyes, being hands. They could make it.


In the Ban Zone, they’d take care of him. They needed people for their muscles and their minds, for their labor, and—he liked to hope—to tell them jokes and sing songs. It was the last place on Earth that needed humans.

And he really did want his son to see bees.


On Becoming a Historic Resident of Oakland

by Brock Winstead

When knowing your history doesn’t help

From Boom Winter 2014, Vol 4, No 4

In March of 2011, after signing our names so many times that our wrists ached, my wife and I took into our weakened hands the keys to a modest wooden rectangle on a slightly larger rectangle of dirt in Oakland’s Golden Gate neighborhood. Never mind that we bought it with borrowed money, we now “owned” a home.

This was something we never thought we’d be able to do when we moved to California in 2004, each from states with far lower costs of living. By the time we finished graduate school and found satisfying but not extravagantly compensated jobs, we’d consigned buying a house in the Bay Area to the same category of laughable impossibilities as commuting to work in a flying jet car or playing the harp.

The messy pop of the housing bubble changed all that. As sources of easy money shriveled and foreclosures swelled, home prices dropped precipitously. We came out okay; our jobs were stable. The crash—that is, the collective misery of those around us—gave us the opportunity to join one of California’s long traditions: the land grab.

We’d been renting in this neighborhood in Oakland’s northwestern corner for more than four years before we bought. We’d seen the area change and mostly, we felt, for the better. Three cafés had opened since we arrived in 2006, followed shortly by a cupcake shop, then a knitting and fabric store. When the latte-drinking, cupcake-eating knitters arrive, you know your neighborhood has arrived, too.

We watched these changes accrete happily, first as renters who were glad to have a spot to grab coffee or a beer just a short walk from our place. Later, as owners, we were excited to see this process of change continue south along the main thoroughfare from the cottage we’d rented toward the house we bought, reassuring us in our investment with every half block’s advance.

This process of change, of course, has a name. “Gentrification” is a dumb word, in the same way that a hammer is a dumb tool, and likewise it must be used with special care. To a lot of people who use the word, everything looks like a nail. It floats in a cloud of imprecise definition, like “middle class” or “pornography.” But we know it when we see it.

http://maps.burritojustice.com/oakland/Click here for full screen map.

So we knew that what gentrification meant in our neighborhood wasn’t just coffee shops opening in long-vacant storefronts. In April 2010, the national brokerage firm ZipRealty named our zip code the second “hottest” in the entire country, as measured by the percentage over asking prices that houses were fetching. This new rebound boom, like those that had come before, was producing winners and losers. We happened to be on the winning side, almost entirely owing to forces beyond our control: the timing of our lives with respect to the crash, the untimely death of a relative whose modest bequest constituted our down payment, and the fact that we’d been born white and able-bodied and the beneficiaries of good educations at great universities. Even that good fortune, however, would not have been sufficient had many others not lost their homes, savings, and livelihoods in the crash.

Plenty of others could see the changes in our neighborhood. To some, these changes spelled opportunity. Actually, they spelled “NOBE.” In the fall of 2012, local real estate agents attempted to brand our area “North Oakland/Berkeley/Emeryville.” One agent produced a video cataloguing the virtues of “NOBE,” interviewing beaming local residents, all relatively recent arrivals like us. It was as if the neighborhood had been a blank spot on the map prior to 2009 and had now been christened by its discoverers in the language of their aspirations.

I wasn’t the only one who found the tone (and tone-deafness) of the NOBE video off-putting. A contingent of local activists had been working to slow displacement and keep the neighborhood affordable and livable for the people who were already there, not just the café-and-cupcakes set that was growing with every “SOLD” sign. These activists saw the rapid increase in housing prices in the area not as opportunity but as oppression, a further kick to a population that was already down. The video was like cold water dropped onto their hot skillet.

The reactions and counter-reactions boiled up, among other places, on our neighborhood email lists and web message boards. I was only an observer to the impassioned debates that followed—I try to avoid arguing on the Internet for my own mental health—but they gave me a lot to chew on. I thought of myself as someone who cared about affordable housing and creating neighborhoods that are accessible to everyone. I agreed, I believed, with the local activists about the problem, and I shared their despair at a lack of substantive local solutions.

I thought I was on their side, but here they were talking about people like me—people who had moved to the neighborhood fairly recently, who had bought houses in the depressed post-crash market, who enjoyed and supported new local businesses—as if we were the enemy. Our presence was an offense. Our individual and collective actions, we were told, were leading to the displacement of the neighborhood’s “historic residents.”

I knew what they meant by that phrase: the mostly lower-income African Americans who had predominated in the neighborhood before people like me started moving in. But that rested on a very narrow definition of history. The loudly denounced NOBE video pretended the neighborhood sprang to life fully formed from the head of the god Re/Max around 2009. The antigentrification activists were doing the same thing, except they’d set the dial on their time machine to about 1970. While I remain wholly sympathetic to those struggling to remain resident in this community, the “historic resident” phrase brought home a more complicated truth about gentrification. This place was not always thus. Neighborhoods are constantly in flux, and change itself is not necessarily where the problem lies.

Watercolor and ink map showing settlements and geographical features of Rancho de San Antonio, 1852. Courtesy of the Bancroft Library.

About six months before the neighborhood shouting matches reached peak ALL CAPS online, the Census Bureau released the full archive of the 1940 census. My wife and I dug into the forms to find out who had lived in our house seventy-two years before we moved in. We also scanned through the records for the rest of the neighborhood to get a sense of the area’s demographics. The vast majority of residents were working-class laborers and craftspeople. There were some middle-class professionals and a few wealthier outliers. And they were almost all white.

This made me want to know more than the census’s seventy-two-year-old snapshot could tell me. The papers we’d signed said our house was built in 1905. Who lived in our house in the century before us, and who lived on the land before the house was built? Who was displaced when they moved in? If this neighborhood had seen demographic and economic shifts many times before, was the present wave of change just part of a long pattern?

Of course, I had some self-interest in this investigation. If the local antigentrification crowd could use history as a cudgel, perhaps I could use it as a shield. I’m not a historian, but I could play one on the Internet. So that’s what I did. I spent the better part of six months, in-between real work, researching this history. I learned where and how to find old property transfer records. I massaged archival newspaper databases to find traces of long-dead real estate speculators. I located and interviewed the great-grandson of the man who built my house. I had a great time.

By the time I was done playing historian, I’d answered all of the questions that I had started with. But I also realized that history raised even more questions, and it didn’t provide many of the answers I really needed.

The story of my house starts like the story of most of California. The original historical residents of this area, at least as far back as we have any archaeological and historical records, were the Huchiun band of the Ohlone people, whose ancestors migrated here tens of thousands of years ago. They ate from the land and drank from the creek that flows just 750 feet south of my house, now buried underground in a culvert. Their territory bordered areas held by other Ohlone groups with whom they traded, married, and occasionally fought. They had no system of individual land ownership, but this place was theirs—until it wasn’t.

In the first decades of the sixteenth century, Spanish explorers made their way across Mexico and claimed the land to the north for the Spanish crown—even though they had no idea what it was they were claiming. They thought this part of the world was an island, and they named it accordingly after a mythical island from a novel published in 1510: California. By the middle of the 1500s, California was firmly a part of Spanish territory, part of the larger Nueva España. Nobody had the courtesy to inform the Huchiun Ohlone that their neighborhood had been renamed. The Spanish didn’t know they existed. Their earliest explorations up the Pacific coast missed the San Francisco Bay entirely.

It wasn’t until the late 1760s that Spain began settling the northern part of its claim, by then named Alta California. Spanish settlers developed a tripartite pattern of Franciscan missions, forts (presidios), and towns (pueblos). They treated native populations such as the Huchiun Ohlone as cogs in their engine of empire: they were removed from the land, forcibly converted, and put to work in the missions’ agricultural and craft operations. Missions, presidios, and pueblos were small polygons of order in the great unruly geometry of Alta California, with wide stretches between largely ungoverned by the Spanish. They wanted a way to control the rest of the territory and put it to productive use. In the 1780s, they began granting vast tracts of land to prominent men, often as a reward for military service. They called these grants ranchos.

Luis María Peralta, an ex-military and later civilian official in Pueblo San José, was the recipient of one such grant. One warm mid-August day in 1820, Peralta rode north with a small party of companions and a bag lunch. He marked out a claim of nearly 45,000 acres bounded by creeks on the north and south, hills on the east, and the bay on the west, with views of the San Francisco peninsula on the other side. The land would one day comprise all of the present-day cities of Albany, Berkeley, Emeryville, Oakland, Piedmont, Alameda, and part of San Leandro. Peralta called it Rancho San Antonio.

The next year, after a decade-long war, New Spain became the independent Empire of Mexico. Peralta’s claim on his rancho was secure, but he never moved there himself. Instead, his four sons made Rancho San Antonio their home. They moved up from San José during the 1820s and 1830s, bringing their families, building houses, barns, and corrals, and establishing a bustling ranch, with over 2,000 horses and 8,000 head of cattle spread across the land at its peak. Their father had helped clear the land of its previous inhabitants in his soldiering days. But it was the sons who first truly gentrified my neighborhood, in an etymologically literal way not seen since. For twenty-five years after Mexican independence, as far as we can tell, the vast rancho of this landed gentry was largely untroubled by anything but the vicissitudes of weather and perhaps the usual quarrels between brothers and their families.

The fictional island namesake of California was rich in gold, but Spanish settlers never found the precious yellow metal here. James Marshall fulfilled that aspiration when, on the morning of 24 January 1848, he spotted shining nuggets in a mill trace in the Sierra foothills. News spread slowly in the days before widespread telegraphy, but by 1849 the Gold Rush was on.

Another rich nugget of news was also creeping across the continent. Just nine days after Marshall’s find, Mexican and American authorities signed the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in Mexico City, ending the war between their nations and ceding a huge swath of the West, including Alta California, to the United States. The negotiated treaty included an article guaranteeing the validity of Spanish and later Mexican land grants. When the US Senate ratified the treaty in March, however, Senators struck that provision, throwing those claims into a legally unsettled area. A new set of rules now governed this land, and another wave of displacement was about to begin.

By 1878, the subdivision of north Oakland was well underway. Page from the Thompson & West Atlas of Alameda County from the David Rumsey Collection. © 2000 by Cartography Associates.

California was admitted to the union in September of 1850. As people from all over were still streaming into the Golden State hoping to strike it rich one way or another, the Gold Rush soon produced a land rush. One of the first laws passed by the brand-new California State Legislature allowed squatters to claim up to 160 acres of unoccupied public lands by continuously occupying and cultivating it for a period, with the definitions of both “unoccupied” and “public” often stretched for the benefit of new arrivals.

In 1851, Congress created the Public Land Commission, charged with settling the Spanish and Mexican rancho titles left in the lurch by the amended 1848 Treaty. The grantees were required to present documentary proof of ownership, lest their lands pass automatically into the public domain in two years. Brothers Vicente and Domingo Peralta presented joint claim documents for their half of their father’s ranch—the half that included the land where I now live—in January of 1852.

Not long after the Peralta brothers filed their documents, a wagon arrived on their land bearing George and Lucena Parsons. Tilling the soil on his northern Illinois farm, George learned of the far more lucrative harvest that could supposedly be found with ease in California dirt in late 1849. He developed a powerful case of gold fever. He ditched the farm and headed to Janesville, Wisconsin, where wagon trains were assembling for the journey west. There he met Lucena Pfuffer, the cousin of another member of his still-stationary traveling party. They married on 18 March 1850 and left the next day for California.

Lucena kept a diary for most of their journey, and from that diary we know how she and George wound their way to Utah, wintered in the Salt Lake Valley, and then in February of 1851 resumed their journey through Nevada and into California. By the time they made it to the source of George’s fever dream of easy riches, the Gold Rush had moved into a more established phase, one nearly impossible for newcomers to enter. They traveled on, eventually making their way to a spot on the eastern shore of the San Francisco Bay, about three miles north of the brand new town of Oakland, which was incorporated in 1852. It was here, on land they had no right to occupy, that they established a farm. They grew beans and onions. They grew peaches that won awards at the fair. They grew children.

All over the East Bay, farmers like the Parsons were squatting on Peralta land. Rustlers were stealing Peralta cattle and felling Peralta timber, all to feed the appetites of the growing boomtown across the bay. Even as they submitted their Public Land Commission claim, the Peraltas were watching their estate disappear bit by stolen bit. Political power at every level was shifting to the English-speaking newcomers, and Spanish-speaking Californios found themselves on the losing side of that change.

A much wealthier and better-connected group had been scheming for portions of the Rancho San Antonio well before the Parsons arrived. These men convinced Vicente and Domingo Peralta to begin selling their land, in part to pay their legal bills, even before the Public Land Commission made its ruling. By 1853, both brothers had sold the majority of their holdings to a group of squatter-investors that came to include San Francisco Sherriff John C. Hays, US Senator William Gwin (coincidentally, author of the law that created the Public Land Commission), and William Tecumseh Sherman, who managed a bank on our Pacific shore a decade before he marched across Georgia and burned Atlanta down.

After lengthy appeals, Vicente and Domingo Peralta’s land claim wound up before the US Supreme Court in 1856. The Court ruled that they had rightfully owned all the land that they had already sold away. Through all the legal turmoil, George and Lucena Parsons had continued building a family and a farm on their parcel, now labeled Plot Number 40 on the official map of the Peralta lands. They failed as squatters, but they did well enough as farmers to purchase the full seventy-four acres from its post-Peralta owners in 1858 for $2,590.

Vicente and Domingo Peralta, meanwhile, had been left with only a few hundred of the roughly 9,400 acres their father had deeded each of them. Their cattle were stolen, their patrimony was lost, and the Californio ranch culture was fading rapidly. They were historic residents, but that counted for little in the new order.

In the late 1860s, newspaper advertisements in this area shifted from offering prime farmland to touting tracts suitable for subdivision. As the growing city of Oakland spread northward and local transit lines sprang up, the Parsons began to cash in. In 1869, Oakland became the western terminus of the transcontinental railroad. The same year, George and Lucena sold a seventeen-acre portion of their farm—the land that now contains my house.

The new owner of this parcel was DeWitt Clinton Gaskill. He had made his fortune selling mining supplies in the northern gold fields. He bought the Parsons land while still living in Butte County, but did nothing with it for several years. When he finally relocated to Oakland in 1877, all around him people seemed to be making fortunes turning the productive farmland into housing parcels. He filed a subdivision map for his seventeen acres and sold most of his lots by the end of that year.

He did so just in the nick of time. The country was still reeling from the Panic of 1873 and the recession that followed. Unemployment in California was high and still rising. The primary cause of the boom around Gaskill’s property was land speculation, not a genuine demand for new houses. The bubble popped and real estate values plummeted.

Over the next decade, the economy recovered, development accelerated, and houses began to replace the farms on the Gaskill tract and neighboring parcels. By 1890, the area wasn’t yet fully developed, but the farmers were almost entirely gone. (George Parsons, the farmer who had owned my land before Gaskill, had died from a terribly metaphorical blow in August of 1882: he was thrown from his wagon against a car of the new railroad connecting a neighborhood station to the San Francisco ferry pier.) Once more, historic residents were giving way to new arrivals: middle- and working-class residents commuting by rail to downtown Oakland and via ferry to San Francisco. It would take an unexpected cataclysm, though, to finalize the neighborhood’s transition to something resembling what it is today.

In July of 1905, railroad worker John Kavanagh and his wife Johanna bought a 50-by-91-foot lot in the Gaskill tract. A small house occupied the lot’s western half. The previous owners had rented it to a succession of working-class tenants for the previous decade. John and Johanna moved into that house with their two teenaged sons, John, Jr. and Matthew. The neighborhood, which had been annexed into the city of Oakland in 1897, was still sparsely developed, with as many empty lots as houses on most blocks.

Home Owners Loan Corporation map, 1937. Courtesy LaDale Winling.

Less than a year later, on the morning of 18 April 1906, the Kavanaghs’ investment received a tremendous boost when a 7.8-magnitude earthquake clapped just off the coast of San Francisco, shaking the city apart and setting much of it on fire. Oakland and the East Bay fared much better, and roughly 200,000 suddenly homeless San Franciscans fled on eastbound ferries. Three quarters of the refugees decided to stay. The aptly named but sparsely developed Golden Gate neighborhood would not remain that way for long.

In 1907, John Kavanagh built a new, larger house on the eastern half of his lot. A few years later, in 1911 or 1912, he tore down the old house and built a duplicate of the newer one in its place. His twin houses still stand today. The slightly younger twin is my home. John, Sr. would go on to build a third house next door. When John, Jr. married, he moved into one of the houses with his wife, Marie. They eventually had two sons of their own, William and John.

All around the Kavanaghs, lots were filling in. By 1925, the neighborhood had taken the form that it still holds: a streetcar suburb with a central commercial strip; relatively close transit connections to downtown Oakland and San Francisco; a mix of Victorian houses and early Craftsman bungalows, some apartment buildings, and, here and there, a reminder of a previous age in the form of a larger estate home or old farmhouse.

This is the neighborhood captured in the 1940 census files that my wife and I pored over in 2012. We found Marie Kavanagh (widowed by the 1936 death of John, Jr.) living in what is now our house with her sons, William and John, then in their twenties. The Kavanaghs were surrounded by people of mostly similar incomes, backgrounds, and race.

We found another description of the area in the same period prepared by the federally backed Home Owners’ Loan Corporation in 1937: “occasionally there are several blocks which are practically free of coloreds or Orientals, but…certain blocks…are nearly 100% Negro and constantly spreading.” Based on that assessment, the section of Oakland including my neighborhood had been assigned the HOLC’s worst loan risk grade, and on the corporation’s maps, the area was colored red.

“Redlining,” as it became known, meant that people in the area couldn’t qualify for federally guaranteed loans, or pretty much any loans, to buy, build, or renovate a house. Redlining operated in concert with racially restrictive covenants that prohibited property owners from selling or leasing to certain groups, especially African Americans. As the Huchiun Ohlone and then the Peralta family had learned, the law does not serve everyone equally. It’s usually not designed to.

By 1940, these mechanisms were already prompting those who could afford mobility—mostly whites—to move out of the area, but it was war that led most directly to my neighborhood’s next major shift. World War II shoveled great heaps of federal money into defense industrial centers, including the Bay Area. Like the Gold Rush nearly a century before, the bonanza of jobs in shipyards and factories drew people here from all over the country, especially African Americans from the South. Redlining and other systems set up before the war meant that these black immigrants and those who came after them, through the 1950s and 1960s, were largely restricted to living in certain neighborhoods, such as the band sweeping north from West Oakland into South Berkeley, which includes my Golden Gate neighborhood.

In 1940, the census tract containing my neighborhood was 96 percent White. The HOLC area captured in that 1937 description was larger than the census tract, and included more African American residents south of where I now live. By 1950, the tract was 70 percent White and 28 percent “Negro.” Over the next ten years, those numbers flipped: the 1960 census showed the tract as 69 percent Black and 28 percent White. By 1970, it was 85 percent Black and 12 percent White.

“Historic residents” like the Kavanaghs, who helped give this neighborhood its shape, fled. Marie was one of the last. She left in 1970. A few years later, the family sold her house—now my house—to Willie and Maud Turner, an African American couple. Willie had migrated here from the South, probably for a wartime manufacturing job, and he was working as a janitor. He and Maud had been renting in the neighborhood for several years before they bought this house.

This was the era of the historic residents that our neighborhood antigentrification activists refer to when they use that phrase. From there, it’s a short hop to the present—and to the period of their displacement, which we are now in.

Maud Turner eventually sold the house to Charlotte Rose, whom everyone around here called Lottie. Lottie owned more than two dozen properties in the area through the 1990s and into the 2000s, operating a quiet rental empire, and earning the respect of her neighbors for her support for local organizations, the library, and neighborhood beautification. After Lottie died, and in the wake of our modern Great Recession and the real estate speculation that followed, her son David took the house off the rental market, renovated it, and sold it to my wife and me in 2011.


And there my research came full circle. I had found most of what I was looking for when I started this project. I had found many of the documents and the maps, the names and dates, and some of the personal and family stories that comprise the history of human habitation—at least for the last few centuries—of the place where I now live.

I found in that history the pattern that I expected. One group pushes out another group, often aided by forces much larger than themselves: a royal army, a Gold Rush, an earthquake, racism, the law, or the gears of capitalism turning. Those gears grind some people to dust. Others manage to harness their power to make fortunes large and small. Whether a person ends up as the machine’s operator or its input is often not determined by anything resembling merit or even by individual decisions, however much we might like to pretend otherwise.

I could conclude that this is the way of all the earth. It’s tempting, really, to see myself as simply a mote swept along in a wave of change. Displacement isn’t my fault. I’m just a particle man, “doing the things a particle can.” When I started this project, part of me was looking for that kind of absolution.

I didn’t find it, and I realized eventually that I was foolish to have ever gone looking. Instead, I found a growing discomfort with the pattern of our history. I found a deeper connection with this place and with the people who had been here before. I found more empathy for those who had wound up on the losing side of the changes that have swept through this place time and again, including the changes happening now, of which I am a part, not just a particle.

The author’s house in Oakland’s Golden Gate neighborhood.

And that, for me, is the rub—now.

I still think “historic residents” is the wrong way to talk about this very real problem. We can’t and shouldn’t pin a neighborhood or a city to a particular historical period. Even if the buildings stay in place, people don’t. The sense of who constitutes the historic residents of a neighborhood can change in a few decades; an individual’s name—George Parsons, Maud Turner, Brock Winstead—can disappear even faster.

I don’t want to dismiss the possibility of righting the wrongs of the past. But when my neighborhood has a shouting match or, perhaps more productively, when we talk about housing and development policy in the city, the region, or the state, we’re talking about addressing the problems of the present. Knowing that this cycle repeats through history doesn’t absolve us from building cities that are inclusive and accessible to as many people as possible, not because they’re “historic residents,” but because they’re people. Our responsibility is not just to the residents here now, who suffer when change displaces them, but also to those of the future, here and elsewhere.

It’s likely too late for my neighborhood’s historic residents. Barring a seismic or economic cataclysm, the gentrification of Golden Gate will continue until the neighborhood is remade. I walk out of my front door every day and push that process forward one more step. When the hammer comes down again—and we know it will—how do we protect those most likely to get squashed? Learning the history of this place did not lead me to an answer, but it taught me that we must find one, because the question will be posed again, here and all around us, as long as California continues to change.


Image at top: Hand-drawn map of the Peralta Rancho San Antonio land grant, 1840s. Courtesy of the Bancroft Library.


Saving the Quantified Self

by Yeesheen Yang

How we come to know ourselves now

From Boom Winter 2014, Vol 4, No 4

Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt of Yeesheen Yang’s “Saving the Quantified Self” from our Winter 2014 issue. 

My grandmother recently had a pacemaker implanted. Major surgery and its aftermath are frightening at any age, but for a ninety-three-year-old and her family it is a particularly scary tightrope to walk. Had her recovery been filmed for a montage in a family drama, there would have been reassuring doctors and smiling nurses with encouraging words as the liveliness returned to her eyes and activity to her arms and legs—but this wasn’t a movie. This was the information age. As we gathered around her hospital bed in the days after the procedure, I could tell that my grandmother was worried, and I was worried, too.

Then my mother slipped a small portable pulse oximeter over my grandmother’s finger to measure her blood pressure, resting heart rate, and blood oxygen saturation. We all tried it. The quick readout and the ensuing conversation about my grandmother’s thrice-daily ritual of checking her numbers were comforting. As her recovery progressed, a pedometer measured her daily walks, and this information was even more fortifying: 650 steps one day, 800 steps the next. It is satisfying to imagine her circling her tiny backyard, amid the small fruit trees and high stone walls, tracking her own progress. And it brings a smile to my face knowing that this fragile nonagenarian is so in sync with the zeitgeist.

In modern times, self-tracking like my grandmother is doing is how we’ve come to satisfy the exhortation to “know thyself.” In this conception of the self, we are not beings made in the image of our god, animals with intellect, or finely calibrated machines; we are fields of data. To know ourselves is to mine, map, and analyze that data and make adjustments where necessary. We quantify ourselves using pedometers, oximeters, stopwatches, obsessive journaling, and increasingly sophisticated technology to track every knowable piece of data that our bodies and our selves can spit out. These numbers can bring comfort, and they can bring real understanding, not just of REM cycles and caloric intake, but of what it means to be, precisely, us.

This concept—which we might call the algorithmic body, a body built from data—is gaining traction in Silicon Valley, where big names are attaching themselves to ideas, products, and services that aim to exploit all the data we are generating about our bodies for a range of goals. Some, like the wearable fitness tracker Fitbit or the genomic testing company 23andMe seek to arm users with the data they need to improve their health, vitality, and, possibly, longevity. Others, like Google cofounder Larry Page and his California Life Company (Calico), have something grander in mind: immortality. All of these ideas are rooted in the idea of a body that can be understood and even preserved through data—the Quantified Self.

Quantified Self—which is actually a company and a movement—was founded in 2007 by Kevin Kelly and Gary Wolf, two editors at Wired magazine. It promotes the idea that gathering quantifiable data about oneself and one’s life through practices of self-tracking allows us to know, rather than guess, how well we are living our lives. Am I really keeping under the caloric limits I need to meet in order to lose weight? How much time do I actually spend on Facebook in one day? How much time do I spend writing? Well-framed questions, together with the increasingly powerful self-monitoring tools, can transform the nebulous experience of life into hard data, allowing us to engage in informed and effective interventions. Self-trackers believe in “self-knowledge through numbers”—a phrase proclaimed in big type on the Quantified Self website.¹ Practitioners now meet in over one hundred cities around the globe, from New York to Milan, Mexico City, Chennai, and Helsinki, to share and reflect on the ways they are using numbers to understand and improve themselves.

Self-trackers are a well-educated, engaged, relatively affluent, and technically inclined demographic. They are deeply serious about this form of self-reflection.² Many are hobbyists, who use existing apps to capture self-data. Others are practitioners who build their own tools to share with or sell to the larger community. One presenter at a recent Quantified Self meetup in San Francisco talked about learning to reduce the duration of incidents when he felt upset during the day by logging alerts from his heart-rate monitor. The data allowed him to pinpoint his emotional triggers and assess the effectiveness of various coping strategies. He reported that he reduced the amount of time he spent upset by 23 percent over the course of his self-study.³

For over a year, Laurie Frick tracked her activities in a daily journal. To turn data into art, she looks for patterns that are at once organic and ordered. Courtesy Laurie Frick.

Commercially available wearable monitors are some of the simplest tools in the kit of the modern self-tracker, and they epitomize the emerging relationship between data, self-monitoring, and our sense of self. The rich data of tracking, real-time feedback, and the minute experiences of one’s body can blend together to generate a new, data-informed sense of one’s own body. Anthropologist Dawn Nafus suggests, in her work on self-tracking, that “one learns how to feel one’s body through the data.” Sociologists including Deborah Lupton suggest that the quantified data of self-tracking can lead to an enriched qualitative practice of self-reflection. Data becomes part of a process of telling oneself stories about one’s progress in life. Lupton argues that self-tracking is narrative and performative, a practice that produces and reflects upon who we are becoming: “I walk fourteen thousand steps each day; ergo, I am a walker.”4

I see something more here: an algorithmic body emerging from this ongoing project of building oneself up through data. The algorithmic body is established as the object of surveillance and monitoring for the purpose of intervention and it is the object of intervention as much as our physical bodies, and perhaps even more so someday. It is instructive that relating to, reflecting upon, and producing oneself today is performed through data. Data is the idiom of the biotechnological age and, increasingly, now the language of the self.

Throughout history, scientific trends have had a profound effect on perceptions of the self and body. In the second half of the nineteenth century, for instance, a mechanistic rather than an algorithmic view of the body was on the rise. This understanding of the body flourished alongside the rapid proliferation of mechanical technologies in the form of industrial machinery, transportation, and medical knowledge. Notions of the body began to focus on issues of efficiency, fatigue, and the cycles of a closed system. Historian Anson Rabinbach traces the idea of the human motor—the body as machine—in relation to the articulation of the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which specifies the rule of conservation of energy.

The second-to-last in a 52-week series of collages tracking the artist’s weekly walking. Courtesy Laurie Frick.

The algorithmic perspective has been influenced by increasing interest in big data and data mining, and it has been fueled by the rapid development in personal surveillance technology, which has over time built up big data about human bodies and human lives in the aggregate and individually. But at least one branch of the roots of the algorithmic body has a longer history, dating back to mid-century speculative work on longevity, transhumanism, the idea of transcending the human condition, and cryonics.


Image at top:  Each colored block represents a GPS location visited by the artist over a ninety-day period in Making Tracks. Greater color saturation represents more frequent visits to that location. Courtesy Laurie Frick.

1 The Quantified Self website can be found here: http://quantifiedself.com.

2 Self trackers have their own history and legacy. Many note that before smartphones, there were pens and paper, which Benjamin Franklin used in his obsessive daily self-chronicling.

3 Paul LaFontaine’s writing on his self-study can be found here: http://quantselflafont.com/2014/07/13/improvement-results-in-upset-recovery/.

4 Deborah Lupton, “Beyond the Quantified Self: the Reflexive Self-Monitoring Self,” This Sociological Life, http://simplysociology.wordpress.com/2014/07/28/beyond-the-quantified-self-the-reflexive-monitoring-self/.


Peering Through the Cracks in the California Dream

by Anjali Vaidya

Bangalore’s nostalgia for our manufactured past

From Boom Winter 2014, Vol 4, No 4

A good rule of thumb in Bangalore, India is that one should not visit shopping malls on Sunday afternoons—particularly not on a rainy Sunday afternoon, when nobody inside the mall is going to be inclined to leave, and everyone out on the wet pavement will see the climate-sheltered building as a welcome relief. I have avoided malls on weekends these last ten years as they have mushroomed across my adopted city. I have avoided them so assiduously that I have forgotten my own rule, and here I am at Mantri Mall on a Sunday afternoon, attempting not to succumb to the general stampede of humanity.

The demographic here is hard to place: families on outings, teenagers, students, IT professionals, seniors escorted by grandchildren. The commonality seems to be a combination of spending power and shopping frenzy. “Even your wallet will find our cuisine irresistible,” reads a large poster for a new restaurant. Multihued streamers echo the colors of the Indian flag: they hang from high above in green, saffron, and white, drawing the gaze upward and away from the crowds toward layers of shops rising out of sight—a many-storied, surreal homage to consumerism.

Swensen’s Ice Cream lies tucked away in a corner of the first floor of Mantri Mall. Boston-based Au Bon Pain once sat right beside it, but it has vanished, as stores have a way of doing in Bangalore. Outside Swensen’s, a sign proclaims that the chain has been “America’s favorite ice cream store for sixty years.” Having spent half my life in various corners of the United States, from the Pacific Northwest to the Northeast, and most recently Southern California, I ought at some point to have seen a place that sold “America’s favorite ice cream,” and yet I have never heard of Swensen’s outside India.

My husband and I seek refuge from the Sunday crowd inside the ice cream parlor, where we are greeted by a picture of Earle Swensen himself. The man is diminutive and white-haired, a broad smile on his face. He holds an ice cream scoop in one hand, arms open wide in welcome. Swensen opened the first branch of his ice cream parlor in San Francisco in 1948, an era and place that every piece of the store’s décor is designed to evoke. Stained-glass lampshades hanging above the counter spell out “Swensen’s” in exaggerated old-style lettering. On the walls, alongside brighter-than-life photographs of ice cream sundaes, hang sketch-like depictions of the Golden Gate Bridge and a row of Victorian houses. American pop music plays from the speakers, muddling the 1950s atmosphere with songs from the 1980s and 1990s.

The menu lists ice cream combinations with names like “Earthquake” and “Gold Rush,” with the inclusion of flavors such as lychee and mango as a brief concession to the store’s actual Indian location. We order “Ring-a-Ding,” a name that evokes San Francisco’s cable cars and Frank Sinatra’s crooning. Our order looks impressive as it arrives in a tall glass, three scoops high and drenched in chocolate syrup, but the ice cream proves unexceptional. Bangalore has many better and cheaper options for sweets. As is increasingly common with multinational chains across India, the price of ice cream here is about the same as in the United States. Nonetheless, Swensen’s is packed with teenagers and twenty-somethings. Why is it so popular?

Swensen’s is a relative newcomer to India, one of the latest in a growing stream of American brands that are carving out niches and spawning hybrids across Asia. In the mid-1990s, when my family moved from rural Washington to Bangalore, this trend was just beginning. Pizza Hut was a novelty when it opened here, the year after we arrived. The line to get in stretched all the way down through the building on Cunningham Road. Now, there is little from across the Pacific, be it language or cuisine or branding, that cannot be found in this city.

Bangalore has morphed from the Garden City of India to the Silicon Valley of India, in the process becoming overwhelmed by gridlocked traffic beneath the yellow of an eternally smoggy sky. Bangalore’s skyline has lost the gentle contours of tree-lined avenues, replaced by jagged high-rises and new buildings under constant construction. Here, the only constant seems to be a yearning for imagined futures, alongside a burning nostalgia for a vanished past.

Swensen’s tastes of a nostalgia for a past that I have never seen. The ice cream parlor is filled with cultural cues meant to comfort the consumer with signs of a period of economic stability and general prosperity in post-war America. “Remember these good memories of childhood,” the décor seems to whisper, with photographs of children smiling at us in the California sun as we eat our ice cream in 1950s-style booths. “Remember the soda fountain down the street? The chime of the cable cars? Old Blue Eyes? How good things were back then.”

I can imagine those things, but I certainly cannot remember them. I have never been to San Francisco. Those are not my memories, and this is not my nostalgia. Nor does this nostalgia belong to the vast majority of the ice cream parlor’s patrons.

Swensen’s has shops all over Asia and South America. Bangalore alone has seven Swensen’s ice cream parlors. The ice cream that markets itself as America’s favorite, however, has largely disappeared from the United States. Although the chain once spread across the country, by the 1980s it was in retreat in its homeland. A friend of mine recently told me about a Swensen’s on Bristol Street in Santa Ana, California, where he grew up: “Of the ice cream places nearby, it was by far the best quality,” he said. “It had a premium reputation, and a lot of that was bound up with it being old-fashioned and old-style.”

Only four outlets remain in the United States today, one of which is the original Swensen’s in San Francisco. During the Great Recession, Swensen’s, like so many other American brands, looked toward growing markets in the developing world. And as it crossed the ocean, the meaning of Swensen’s 1950s semiotics fundamentally changed. Details that signified an imagined comforting past were transformed into signs of an imagined shining future.

Bangalore is replete with nostalgia for a world that never existed. The Krispy Kreme on bustling Church Street has walls decorated with sepia-toned photographs of small-town Depression-era Americana. Cheerful employees in anachronistic aprons manage a conveyer belt that shines in the warm lights, carrying lightly fried donuts that receive a final perfect touch, a decadent waterfall of sugar icing. “Remember back when you could walk down the street to your neighborhood donut maker?” this place seems to ask. “Remember the time before malls and chain stores took over the world?”

I don’t, actually. Neither would any of the other customers here, many of whom are younger than me. But Bangalore is replete with imagined pasts, as commercial establishments and the popular media claim pieces of nostalgia for themselves. This sometimes makes the ever-changing present seem strangely out of reach.

Cornerhouse ice cream parlor was founded in Bangalore thirty years ago; enough time has passed since then to have seen the expanding city change several times over. On its walls are black-and-white pictures of a Bangalore that predates the store by decades. Here are the gentle curves of colonial-era architecture in pre-independence India, broad promenades where long-dead figures meander, dusty roads, and spreading trees. “You remember,” the images whisper. “This is what you’ve lost.” I recognize few landmarks in these black-and-white photographs, which also line the walls of seventy-year old Koshy’s Restaurant, nearby. Between the two, the India Coffeehouse gives the impression with spartan blue paint and dated coffee ads that it has not changed decor in fifty years, despite the fact that this particular outlet is scarcely five years old.

My own memories are no bulwark against this deluge. I cannot tell you what stood where Krispy Kreme now stands, nor Starbucks, nor Swensen’s, nor Taco Bell, another California import. I do not remember what was here before the India Coffeehouse. In five years or ten, these too will be gone.

Walking through the chaos of Bangalore, a city filled with newly minted nostalgia for an imported American dream, what I find myself looking for is a world that I have never known. I peer through the cracks in barred-up gates to find abandoned lots overgrown by spreading trees and crumbled buildings revived by squatters. Lonely artwork painted on walls speak of lives that spill outside the story’s bounds. There is a world here beyond nostalgia, where I catch glimpses of other pasts, and perhaps alternative futures.


Photograph at top by Flickr user com4tablydumb.


California Son

by Alison Powell

The offstage life of Chris Stevens

From Boom Winter 2014, Vol 4, No 4

The United States is a country with two west coasts, separated by three thousand miles. Technically, there are three west coasts if you count the westward shores of Hawaii. In 2012, my bedroom in Tampa, Florida, faced the first of the three bodies of water standing between the Gulf and me. It is a coast, but not the coast. There’s water here, but no waves. The Gulf is neither sea nor ocean. It is a ragged basin with no clear territory. I am from the real West Coast, and this lesser western light won’t play for me. It has nothing to say, and its sunsets are merely warm-ups for California’s three hours later.

When I woke up in Tampa, as I did for two years, I knew that I faced west because my bedroom window had faced the sunset the night before. Outside of the house, however, I was often lost. Florida is flat, with no mountain to offer a point of reference. Water lies on all sides and wends its way through the city in disordered channels. These channels form no pattern to me as they slip quietly under bridges, disappear around bends, and creep distractedly toward land. During severe storms, floodwaters rise perilously at intersections. Drainage citywide is poor, thanks in part to the lack of sloping land. Lightning strikes are measured in the hundreds every fifteen minutes, and we are warned that we may be the tallest objects the bolts find. Perhaps it is not surprising then that my sole orientation points are from the air: the commercial airport, Tampa International Airport, at the northern end of town, and the military airport, MacDill Air Force Base, to the south. These north and south points help to orient west and east and form a mental terrain without a center, but on paper they comprise a series of peninsulas. MacDill interests me some, as I had a very good friend who, at the time I moved to Florida, promised to come through the base—a California friend. When he came, there would be little talk of north and south, unless it was to differentiate between the two parts of California. We would talk, I knew, of the West.

On the morning of 12 September 2012, sometime around 7:00 a.m. East Coast time, my brother, Tony, who lives in New York—another westerner exiled in the East—texted me. I was awake, but just. Forgetting that we were in the same time zone, I was confused. I saw the light outside my window, but no direct sun. It is a daily squaring up of the longitudes. The text read, “Chris Stevens and three others have been killed in Libya. In Benghazi.” I saw only “Chris Stevens.” My mind fragmented, as our minds sometimes do in such circumstances, and went to the part it understood. Oh, news of Chris, I thought. I was happy to see his name. Chris Stevens, US Ambassador to Libya. We had known each other for much of our lives. Our families had been friends even longer than that. He and I had talked of seeing each other in Tampa, when he next stopped in at MacDill. He is the friend who might have visited.

This news, though, came from Tony, which was odd. He wasn’t the usual source of news about Chris. In our family, my mother and I are the sources of news about Chris, and that news travels from west to east, from California outward. I phoned Tony, and he explained in short sentences. I replied in long cries. Now that CNN is the source of news about Chris, there is nothing I need say here about the story behind my brother’s text. Even with CNN, ABC, NBC, CBS, PBS, NPR, and the New York Times, plus every international paper and network, reporting probingly and from every conceivable angle, I feel too stupid to understand either the subtle shadings or the glaring implications. Of course, I understand what was lost on the field of diplomacy. This is clear immediately. It is an enormous loss, and for several weeks this gave me a point on which to fix. But simultaneous to this global paroxysm, there was a personal story for every person who knew Chris, a small, local loss that does not leap as easily across borders. This was the central, contained, internal end of the world that sits like a pin holding the dial of the compass to its face. The dial spins, and one spins with it, facing each direction, facing each scene and, looking for true north. Each direction I face offers a scene I don’t recognize. I don’t know what I’m looking at and frankly do not want to know.

At the time of Chris’s death, I had recently reread Lady Chatterley’s Lover, by D.H. Lawrence, written in response to the trauma of World War I and published in 1928. I am a writer and a bookseller. I process things in my life through literature. And so, in my journal I reacted to Chris’s death by copying out the first lines of Lawrence’s novel: “Ours is essentially a tragic age, so we refuse to take it tragically. The cataclysm has happened, we are among the ruins ….” The quote and my pen trailed off there, but not before I noted that D.H. Lawrence was born on September 11. Memory and time are not, as we have long thought them, sequenced in a linear fashion, the scenes and their meaning strung one after another like pearls. According to Einstein, Stephen Hawking, and others, time is more like a loaf of bread and can be cut into slices that contain the ingredients of our full history. Nothing came first and nothing came later, because our experiences are playing simultaneously, like the wall of model televisions at Best Buy. Each is set to a different channel; the wall will make you sick if you try to see the whole wall in one look, so you don’t.

All families have their creation myths and ours is that Chris’s father, Jan Stevens, introduced my mother and father to each other in Berkeley, California, in 1956. Jan invited—tricked really—my parents to have coffee with him and then left. They’d all gone to Cal together—my mother and father, Jan and Chris’s mother, Mary. Perhaps Stephen Hawking is right. Time, place, and other sensory elements form a weft that begs not to be disentangled. Jan Stevens was my father’s fraternity brother. Mary was a member of my mother’s sorority. Jan had known my mother since she was seventeen, and they were freshmen together on The Daily Cal. In the eighties, Chris and I were at Cal together, wrapped in our own Greek affiliations, our lives bounded then by Telegraph and Piedmont Avenues. It was impossible in Florida to communicate what these coordinates mean. Our local orienteering doesn’t translate.

The flag-draped coffins of Chris Stevens and the other Americans killed in Benghazi arrive in the US. Courtesy Getty Images.

Along with the quote from Lady Chatterley, in my journal that September I wrote, “We are Californians.” Then I added, “We’re sons of California, a loyal company…,” the lyrics of one of Cal’s football fight songs, “Sons of California.” It was the phrase I repeated to myself over and over in order to stand firm in the middle of utter and devastating chaos. It was the phrase that allowed me to show solidarity with Chris’s family. It was the phrase that gave me access to a Chris that was being subsumed by the Rube Goldberg–styled machinery of global politics. Rube Goldberg, now that I think of it, went to Cal, too.

The story in the press took place in Libya. Naturally. All one saw was the loop of the consulate, close-ups of gates, the map and floor plan of the compound. In time, one saw photos of the interiors. These images narrowed Chris’s wide life down to this one spot. But Chris lived a big life. So big, in fact, that I sometimes thought of him as a kind of a diplomatic Zelig, as he popped up in the news in Paris, Stockholm, Jerusalem, Damascus, Washington, Benghazi. But for me, he only really showed up in California. Always, California. According to Chris’s father, Chris was a romantic about California. “Mushy,” Jan says, and he is right. It’s easy to go down that road in the Golden State.

In public, Hillary Clinton referred to Chris’s “California cool.” I remember feeling great gratitude for that, a fist pump for our home state. Depictions of Ambassador Chris in shorts and flip-flops bolstered the chill image of him that Secretary of State Clinton brought to the bureaucratic stage. Chris can’t be parted from California in fact or imagination, and yet so much of Chris’s life took place at a far remove from California, and in seemingly so many places at once that over time it felt as if he lived nowhere at all. Instead, he inhabited a series of conveyances: government planes, helicopters, unmarked cars, burros, ferries, trains, and eventually, secreted away on a cargo ship off the Libyan coast.

At the memorial held at San Francisco City Hall, October 2012. Photograph by Justin Sullivan. Courtesy Getty Images.

When we met up once in 2007, I calculated that he had made it to Sacramento from Tripoli faster than I’d made it up from Los Angeles. I knew there had to be a mistake somewhere in my math and time zones, but he came and went so casually. One minute so distant. The next minute, there he was, walking in the door to our house in Tahoe, bringing with him a piney freshness from the lake, dressed in a flannel shirt, and ready for a martini.

I spent many years picturing that dense and confusing foreign world of Chris’s. In those same years, I saw him only when he had left that world behind in favor of our comparatively ironed-out world. Chris’s history is, and is not, on the Berkeley campus. It is, and is not, at a reception at the end of summer in Sacramento, with the tufts of grass burned amber by the sun. It is, and is not, in San Francisco, where he went to law school. His life may never have taken him to Los Angeles for very long, though we once joked that he would one day move into some studio executive’s guesthouse and do nothing but play tennis. Instead, the great mosaic of Chris’s life played to a vaster audience: in Tripoli, Cairo, Riyadh—all the places at which Chris arrived every time he left us in California. I am reminded of Tom Stoppard’s play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, in which the perspective is of the action that takes place offstage in Hamlet. The “main play” of Chris’s life was staged over there, but I knew him best offstage. The main action of his life was most often left to my imagination.

One night, between Christmas and New Year’s in 1991, our two families were having dinner together at the Stevens’ condo in Incline Village, on the edge of Lake Tahoe. Chris was about to begin his first diplomatic posting, in Riyadh. My mother looked across the table and said, “Chris, don’t you want to serve at embassies in London or Paris?” He smiled. There was a little talk of the Far East, Thailand, or Cambodia, perhaps. Still, my mother tried to sell him on Brussels, Berlin, or Amsterdam. Chris said nothing, and in the momentary silence something occurred to me. “He wants to be where others are not. Where others might not go.” He looked up and admitted, steadily and without embellishment, to a belief in something that had become a punch line in a culture feasting on irony: peace in the Middle East. Then he changed the subject to plans for the next day’s skiing.

It was a moment that stood out then and in the intervening years. From my perspective, Chris was always departing. But he was always returning to his life’s work, which could not be done at home. His life appeared distant to me, and in that distance, there was serious work to be done. This is what it meant to go far.

It was impossible to see the details, especially in the decades before Facebook. Once there was a Facebook, I could get a small window onto just what he had built, and the vastness of his world became less abstract. He wants to go where others are not? How small of me. How Western. Chris had moved consciously to the center, not away from it. His orientation spun outward to the future, not inward to the past. He had gone where millions lived and breathed and hoped for a day when they could simply live, as people, rather than in the narrow confines of diplomacy and politics.

Of course, diplomacy and politics are anything but narrow. I only say “narrow” because wars, dislocations of entire populations, redrawn boundaries of power and control, and crowds that gather in swelling numbers in city squares are often also refusals to be ruled by diplomacy and politics. As absorbing as these are, they are not the full life. The goal of diplomacy and politics is—or at least should be—to enable people to live freely, however living freely might express itself. That was the main action of Chris’s life, which I watched offstage

Despite the warring within our own government over what really happened that night in Benghazi, and the political alchemy that turned dead Americans into political symbols, it is the personal that prevails for me. And as tempting as it is to start casting a bronze statue to the friend I love, Chris’s true self—the self that would laugh at the mention of a bronze statue—is ever-present. And that self, for me, is knit into the landscape of California, a place of pioneers to this day, a place where the pioneering spirit has the capacity to come about, like a ship sailing into port, then turning and traveling in another direction, outward from California.

The day I said goodbye to California, leaving for Florida, I drove through the San Joaquin Valley. Chris would have crossed it countless times, from the San Francisco Bay to the High Sierra. He would have driven its length between the north and south of the state. Mountains and hills to the east and west would have oriented him no matter which direction he traveled. This certainty in his place in the world surely accompanied him wherever he went. It surely formed some of the character that sent him to the ends of the earth. On the early January day I last crossed the valley, one could sense, as if eternally, the presence of the summer apricots, ripe almonds, and cotton to come. It was easy to anticipate the day a few months from then, when the leaves would again turn waxy and green, and the boughs heavy and ready to be picked. The scent of growing things drifted across the rows of trees and rich, dark soil.

Like the almond blossoms, we go away to come back. We return and return, if only in our memories, and in returning we may possess. But it is not enough simply to possess the past. There is work to be done, and Chris would not want us to slip backward, retreating from the challenge of living. The lines that open Lady Chatterley return and return, offering a way forward. For months I was snagged on the beginning, caught by the fingers of tragedy, and unable, or unwilling, to tear free of them: “The cataclysm has happened, we are among the ruins…” But the passage does not end there. It continues, and I can now allow the rest of Lawrence’s thought to bud: “We start to build up new little habits, to have new little hopes. It is rather hard work: there is now no smooth road into the future: but we go round, or scramble over the obstacles. We’ve got to live, no matter how many skies have fallen.”


Photograph: The caskets of U.S. Ambassador to Libya J. Christopher Stevens, Foreign Service officer Sean Smith, and security officers Tyrone S. Woods and Glen A. Doherty are escorted through an honor cordon on Joint Base Andrews, Md., Sept. 14, 2012. The appearance of U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) visual information does not imply or constitute DoD endorsement.



by Marta Maretich

From Boom Winter 2014, Vol 4, No 4

Burying my family’s history in Bakersfield.

“Please go away,” the handwritten sign says. “It’s not worth getting a bullet in your ass.” The sign is taped to the wall in the kitchen of the house my family abandoned in Bakersfield.

“I guess they couldn’t read,” my neighbor Mario says and laughs nervously. The house has become a magnet for criminals, a mid-century, ranch-style fortress to be defended by Mario. “Right here’s where I shot through the door.”

He points to a spot on the wall of the front hallway where a spray of buckshot scored the white plaster. The front door itself has been replaced—Mario installed a new one with the same care he’s looked after everything since my father moved away four years ago. He walks me around the side of the house and shows me the old door, leaning up against the side of the garage. The burglars drilled a circular hole around the deadbolt then jimmied the latch with a crowbar. Mario surprised them on the way out and shot at them with both barrels of his shotgun, tearing a ragged hole in the wood at chest-height.

Examining the wreckage, I stand with my neighbor in the weak spring sunshine. It strikes me with a sense of old shame that my family is very bad at cleaning up our own messes.

“What happened to the burglars?” I ask Mario.

Neither of the criminals was badly hurt, he tells me. One “took a little shot” and was arrested. The other got away, running down the street without his shoes. The one they caught got seven years because he had priors. Nothing happened to Mario.

“The police said it was too bad I didn’t kill them,” he says.

I am thinking of all the things inside the house—forty years of my parents’ lives—but then again, not quite that. My mother moved out in the mid-nineties, taking the things she cared about—the art and the antiques she bought with her own money. My father lived there alone until his deteriorating health forced him to move to Oregon to be near my brother. When he left, he took almost nothing with him because he had never cared about houses or their contents. He always said he’d like to live in a tiled room with a drain in the middle to hose it down.

“Is the dump still in the same place?” I ask Mario. I am due back at home in London in two weeks. By that time, the place has to be empty.

“Are you talking about the landfill?” he says.

This change in nomenclature jars me more than it should. When I was planning this trip, I reassured myself that at least I still knew where the dump was. At least I had a starting place for a task I had no idea how I would complete.

Mario sees my face and says immediately, “I’ll help you. Don’t you worry about a thing. We’ll use my truck.”

The cabs of pickup trucks are confessional spaces.

My mission is obvious to everybody I meet on this trip to Bakersfield. People come out of the woodwork to help me, bringing their pickups and their stories. They know my story, so I am free to listen as we go to and from the landfill.

Mario has a ‘58 Chevy pickup he’s owned since high school. It’s metallic blue with the pleasing roundness of trucks from this era, more like a shell than a machine. He rebuilt it himself using parts from the scrap heap when he returned from service in the Vietnam War. “It’s a Frankenstein truck,” he says.

The interior has no seatbelts, but it has a Virgin on the dashboard and a rosary hanging from the rearview. “Sin cinturón, pero con santa,” is my weak joke, one I immediately regret making since I am not a Catholic. Like everything in Mario’s house and garden, the truck is immaculate and runs well.

We pack the bed with the first load: huge black plastic bags full of translucent sheets and rotten food from the kitchen cupboards. My father had walked out leaving everything as it was. We cover the load with a crackling blue tarp, which Mario explains is now a requirement. I feel outraged by this news, more than I should. Covering your load? Despite years of living in European cities and seeing the need for all kinds of civilizing regulations, I am still a Bakersfield girl at heart. I still have a surly reaction when I think some official is telling me what to do.

Instead of going down the main street and turning straight onto Edison Highway, Mario takes a back route which threads through the neighborhoods south of College Avenue. This route, which I will take many more times over the course of the next two weeks, reminds me that our house and Mario’s are set on an important Bakersfield fault line: above College Avenue the neighborhood is prosperous, even rich. The country club is up there, one of the good high schools, the big houses. There is even a house designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. As if metaphorically, the land slopes upward, leading to better things.

South of College, the slope is distinctly downward. Mario angles the truck through gridded streets of tiny, pimpled stucco houses with penned-in yards, dirt driveways, drifting children, and stray dogs. Eventually, we cross the train tracks and turn east on Edison Highway, heading in the direction of the Tehachapi Mountains. The road runs between vast citrus fields, past the fruit packing sheds with names I know. They look run-down, with their open weighing floors and conveyor belts standing idle. It strikes me that they haven’t changed at all since I was a teenager. Neither has the labor force in the fields. Out in the orchards, I see groups of pickers at work filling crates with orange-green fruit.

“Picking time,” Mario says. “Glad I’m not doing that today.”

That surprises me for some reason. I’ve never really considered Mario’s past, possibly because I met him when I was a child, before I understood that people have pasts. I was twelve when he and his wife, Gracia, and their two children moved in next door, taking over the house from a family of Basque sheep herders.

Mario was a mailman, and in all my early memories of him, he’s dressed in the white pith helmet, sharp blue-gray shorts and short-sleeved shirt of his uniform. I know from my dad that Mario is also a Vietnam veteran. He is very active in Marine Corps veterans’ groups, and he tried hard to involve my father, a veteran of World War II, but with no success.

As we drive, he points out particular fields that he and his family harvested. They came up from Texas originally, first to pick San Joaquin Valley fruit and later to settle. He tells me how he and his five siblings would attend school in the winter and then spend the summer traveling up and down the Valley with their parents, living in camps. They’d go where the work was, up to Fresno, Marysville, or as far as Oregon. It was all families, he tells me, with parents and children of all ages. Even the tiny ones pitched in.

Mario is a fifth-generation American, yet he speaks with a clipped, upward-tending accent that has its roots on the other side of the Mexican border. “Mexican,” in Bakersfield, when I was growing up there, was a purely pejorative term, so much so that even today I can hardly bring myself to use this adjective. I still hear it hissed through the teeth of white people: “Messican.”

I look more carefully at the pickers in the field. Like the packing sheds, they don’t seem to have changed at all. They’re wearing what they have always worn: padded, Pendleton plaid shirts over hooded sweatshirts, hoods pulled up to protect their heads, baseball caps on top of that. They’re a familiar sight to me, but I’d forgotten about them, or maybe I believed that agriculture had moved on in the San Joaquin Valley and there would no longer be any need for them. I almost never see a human being bent double in the fields of England, Germany, Spain, or France. It’s true that some Poles, Romanians, and Roma people still follow the fruit harvest, but in dwindling numbers.

I asked Mario when he stopped picking.

“When I went into the Marine Corps, after high school.”

Mario doesn’t go into detail about his time in Vietnam, not then or at any point during the two weeks he spends helping me clear the house. We work side by side for days at a time—he won’t hear of letting me do this hard job alone. He looked after my father when he was on his own, treating him like a comrade, a platoon mate, bringing him plates of food for every holiday. Now, for my father’s sake, he’s looking after me. He poisoned the rats in the garage before I even knew they were there. He gassed the black widow spiders. His daily help makes what I am doing possible. He’s demonstrating to me the meaning of Semper Fi. Although we talk about a lot of other things, Vietnam is not the conversation Mario will have with someone he still thinks of as a child.

I know the story, though, because he told it to my husband who was also a soldier when he was young. Mario returned from Vietnam wounded, doused with Agent Orange, jungle sick, and decorated with the Congressional Medal of Honor. He also brought back a bad case of post-traumatic stress disorder. This he does talk about with me because it bears on our situation.

On the way to the landfill, he tells me about his PTSD support group and the counseling he gives to other veterans. He talks eagerly, energetically, like a man describing a beloved hobby or a precious collection. No note of complaint or blame or regret ever creeps into his voice. He is a patriot in the classic mold, with no sense of having been wronged by the US military or being let down by society. As he talks, I begin to feel that he’s trying to make me understand something I may have missed. When I hear him say the burglary put him right back in the theater of war with a gun in his hand and an enemy in front of him, I finally understand: Mario is telling me how close we all came to disaster.

“It was a good thing I only had those two shells with me!” he says.

We are turning onto the frontage road that leads to the landfill. The road curves around a hillside lined with more citrus groves and an old stand of eucalyptus trees. Mario is joking, but now I know what he already knows: if he had had more ammunition, he would have continued shooting until both the burglars were dead.

Gracia, his wife, later told me privately how she had gone out to him after the incident and taken the shotgun out of his hand and hid it where he couldn’t find it. He sat on the steps of our house, she said, shaking, waiting for the police to come, saying he should have done more, saying he should have finished the job.

A friend of mine who lives out of town mobilizes her sister, Laura, who comes down from her ranch in Tehachapi eager to help. She has fine, sun-bleached blonde hair, bright blue, round eyes, and darkly tanned skin. Laura has spent her life crisscrossing the valley floor in her truck, driving between ranches and farms and processing operations, striding around fields and orchards and feedlots. She’s an inspector for the California Department of Food and Agriculture. Her truck is midnight blue and serious.

We fill the bed with things from the garage, and I watch Laura sheet it down with a practiced hand, crossing the cord over the top of the tarp, tucking the edges down around the load like a woman making a bed, before finally securing the cord with hooks hidden at points inside the bed of the truck. We climb up into the cab.

Like Mario, Laura avoids the main route and steers the truck through the neighborhood south of College. Her family used to have a house down there, before they moved up the hill, much higher than us, into a perfect fifties’ jewel of a split-level ranch house, the kind of house Rock Hudson might have lived in with Doris Day. My parents’ house is uninhabitable after the break in, so I’m staying there now, with Laura’s parents, in a little guesthouse behind the main house. The family calls it La Casita.

I don’t know Laura that well and feel a little awkward in the privacy of the cab with her. She’s several years older than my friend, her sister, and wasn’t around much when we were young. She went off the rails as a teenager and ended up involved in drugs, living an unimaginable life on the coast in Cayucos. Once, she sold her sister’s horse for drug money, a crime I always thought was the lowest thing I had ever heard of.

Laura turned her life around. She had a child and, with help from her parents, she straightened herself out. Her son is now in his twenties and working as a bomb disposal engineer for the Army. He was living in La Casita until he shipped out to the Gulf. I sleep on the memory foam mattress he bought with the proceeds of his previous job as a bartender in a strip club beside Highway 99.

Laura is a great source of information about everything we see on the way to the landfill and about the landfill itself. She explains the activity we see in the orchards. Every grower wants to get that first, lucrative crop of oranges to the market as soon as possible, she explains, and it’s her job to check that the sugar content and acidity levels are right. If they’re not, the grower has to send the whole pick to juice, or just throw it away, since a bad crop “sours the market.”

I’m amazed at the level of state oversight that goes into oranges. I ask more questions and learn that Laura does a lot of other things, too, from regulating the quality of produce at farmers markets to monitoring the work of slaughterhouses and feedlots in the area. She is knowledgeable about all the agriculture issues of our time: genetically modified crops, migrant labor, sustainability, government subsidies, and the role of huge multinational corporations. Her work puts her in the middle of the Valley’s business, and she likes it.

As she talks, she begins to remind me of her sister, whom I may not get to see on this trip. The tiny fragment of my heart that has never forgiven Laura for the stolen horse slowly gives way to admiration for her.

The changes in the landfill are a measure of how much Bakersfield has moved on—and how much it hasn’t. When I was growing up there in the 1970s, the dump was a series of open heaps at the bottom of the bluffs beside the dry bed of the Kern River. Using it was a simple proposition: you drove up, you shoved whatever it was you didn’t want off the bed of your pickup, and you drove away. There was no charge, no sorting, no regulation that I can remember. Going there felt transgressive, so it was always a treat.

If the packing sheds along Edison Highway are the same as ever, the dump is so radically different now that, once I’ve actually seen it, I can no longer continue to call it “the dump,” which I have stubbornly been insisting on doing because “landfill” seems so euphemistic.

We get a view of the lifecycle of the landfill as we come around the bend. On our right, we pass parts that have already been filled and covered over with a thin skin of valley soil. They form small, soft mountains much like the brown foothills that were here before the landfill arrived. Laura, as knowledgeable about this as she is about everything else, points out the telltale black standpipes and segmented conduits that capture the methane produced by the rotting waste and channel it into underground tanks.

I wonder at the size of these false mountains. This landfill has only been operating since 1992 and already it’s created its own garbage sierra. Its scale testifies to an exploding local population of waste producers: between 1990 and 2013, Bakersfield’s population increased by nearly fifty percent, and it continues to be one of the fastest-growing cities in the country. The far-sighted planners have engineered the landfill to take it. The site currently occupies 650acres, Laura tells me, but it has capacity to expand to 2285 acres to meet the Valley’s escalating need to dump.

There are booths at the entrance where attentive officials in the dusty brown uniforms of California state employees step out and check our load and ask us pointed questions about where it comes from. Once we’ve passed their scrutiny, it’s still a long drive to the active face of the landfill. The unpaved road curves around the hillside with a long view back to the valley floor. Laura’s truck has the suspension of a trampoline, and we shimmy and glide over ruts caused by city garbage trucks and commercial haulers. We are dumping with the big boys now. On our right, we pass a recycling area where there are different heaps for different materials: plastic (colorful), tires (black), appliances (cubic), garden waste (bushy), and metal (spiky).

“Recycling!” I say to Laura. The sight of it pleases me. Maybe it’s because the heaps remind me of one of those baby toys with different, stimulating textures.

“Oh yeah!” she says. “We have to.” I’m not sure whether she means we have to because of state regulation—Laura is crystal clear on regulation—or because there’s a planetary need.

We come around the bend and descend a slope toward a new terrain. Bulldozers have excavated a wide crater between the hills. As we roll into it, we find it already partially filled with a choppy, confetti-colored sea of trash. A young woman in a high-visibility vest and a hardhat ambles toward us across the crater floor and waves us into a spot beside a commercial truck, which splits in two, tilting its bed to slide a load of unopened boxes full of yogurt drinks onto the heap. Bursting open, they fill the air with the sickly smell of artificial strawberry.

We lower the tailgate of Laura’s truck, unleash the tarp, and start unloading what at home seemed like a shameful amount of rubbish. Here it seems paltry, an embarrassment. The recycling heaps we saw, too, are a joke compared to the epic size of the main landfill. This is not disposal, this is terraforming, not “filling” the land (which doesn’t need filling) but making a new kind of land, a land based on the things we do not want.

Trucks and cars swarm into the crater in a steady flow. They find places near us and disgorge. Some men arrive in a Joad-family-style pickup, its bed extended with uprights and wooden panels, and unload a small, sad houseful of furniture. The bulldozers buzz about, the hosts of this party, organizing our rubbish into new forms. I watch my family’s castoffs becoming part of a future land.

We are 150 miles from the coast, but the landfill is swarming with aggressive seagulls. It’s hard to imagine how the birds found out about this place. Who told them? Thousands wheel and settle on the garbage, keeping up a deafening seaside racket here at the edge of the desert. Every so often a bird-scarer lets rip with a loud explosion and the whole flock takes to the air, white and gray against the cloudless blue sky. I jump every time this happens—it sounds exactly like a rocket launcher to me—and it reminds me of Laura’s son, defusing bombs in the Gulf. If the explosions have the same effect on Laura, she doesn’t mention it.

Larry keeps a loaded revolver on the seat of his truck. It’s in a camouflage holster, a riot of forest green and brown that doesn’t do anything to disguise it against the pale-gray seat covering.

The gun sits there between us as we drive to the landfill. “Larry,” I ask him. “What happens if you get stopped by the police?”

“They don’t say nothin’,” he says, as if he’s already tested this, and smiles. He’s Laura’s dad, and he looks a lot like Laura, with big shiny blue eyes and the sort of white teeth most people have to go to the dentist to buy. He was a pipefitter before he retired, a welder. In my California hippie-punk days, he used to give me his pearl-snap denim workshirts when they were too full of spark holes to be of use to him. I wore them at UC Berkeley where other California hippie-punks offered to buy them off my back.

Larry shouldn’t be helping me. He had thyroid cancer a couple of years ago, and now he has a tumor on his spine, pressing the nerves and causing him leg and back pain. As we drive to the landfill, he is waiting for the results from a biopsy that will tell him if the lump is malignant. He shouldn’t be helping me, but he wants to, because he can see I need his help. Today it’s old shelves and cardboard box files (my father seemed to collect these) and lengths of pipe that we will take to the scrap metal pile. A lifetime of pitching in and lending a hand, the habits of long workdays that began before dawn to avoid the worst of the valley heat, seem ingrained in Larry. He works like an automaton, never sitting down, only pausing to look around for the next thing to pick up and heave into the bed of the truck. He drives a big modern rig similar to Laura’s but painted a subtle fawn color.

On the way to the dump, we talk a little about what’s been happening since I went away. Bakersfield people don’t ever talk about just Bakersfield. They don’t think of the city separately from the surrounding land, because until recently almost everyone made their living directly from the land. Bakersfield people talk about “the Valley” and they are always moving around in it, inhabiting the whole area, not just the city.

Larry is the best example of this restless inhabiting I can think of. His two passions in life are hunting and golf, and both pastimes lock him to the land. The hunting has taken him into every wild corner of the state and earned him a national record for the points and spread of the antlers of a buck he bagged. Behind La Casita, like some high-art assemblage, lesser sets of deer antlers are heaped in a huge brown trashcan. Larry tells me when he was a kid they used to drive over to the coast at San Simeon and jacklight William Randolph Hearst’s zebras.

“Don’t you tell anyone about that,” he says and winks. Looking out the window across the fields, I wonder about the other things Orson Welles left out of Citizen Kane.

But these days Larry doesn’t feel like hunting anymore. Every day he puts out seed for the delicious little ringneck doves that moan and flutter around the fruit trees in his backyard. He still loves golf, though, and plays despite the pain in his legs. His golf bag is the identical camouflage of his pistol holster, so it looks like something that could do double duty. “Sometimes it gets lost in the bushes,” he teases.

The trouble, he tells me, is that “Koreans are buying up all the courses.” At first this sounds far-fetched, maybe a little paranoid, but I quickly realize that it is probably true and not really surprising. A California golf course must seem an attractive investment for a Korean businessman. It’s not that Larry minds the owners being Korean. “I mean, someone’s going to own ‘em,” he says. It’s that they let the fairways turn to dust, the greens scab over, and the clubhouses fall down. To Larry this indicates that the Koreans don’t care about them as golf courses. They have some other purpose in mind for the land. He doesn’t like this, but he accepts it as inevitable. Two things have always been true about Valley land: one is that someone else, someone rich, owns it. The other is that they have plans for it that don’t necessarily include you.

In the second week of my stay, Larry gets the news that his tumor is benign and the mood around the house lightens. He is downright bouncy and even happier to help me haul trash to the landfill, especially on the day I find something sinister in the garage. Packed in a wooden crate, insulated by sawdust, is a gallon of sulfuric acid in a glass jug. I know what it is because there is a little handwritten label on it that says “sulfuric acid.” I have no idea what my father could have been doing with this. I don’t really want to know. My problem is how to get rid of it. When I ask, people just say to take it to the landfill, but I know that even in Bakersfield that can’t be right. It’s my husband back in London who comes up with the answer. After a quick internet search, he directs me to the Kern County hazardous waste disposal site.

Larry has never heard of the place. He’s intrigued and so is Mario, who comes with us when we drive out to the facility. It’s down among the industrial businesses on the east side of Highway 99, an anonymous one story aluminum-clad building surrounded by a wide, asphalt buffer zone. We drive up, and I hop out of the cab, eager to explain why I am bringing them a gallon of sulfuric acid. A man wearing a white hooded jumpsuit stops me and instructs me to get back into the cab. He has a little goatee and looks like a grown-up version of the boys who did environmental sciences at Cal—but his demeanor is as grim and official, as if he were an agent for the FBI. He mobilizes other white-suited workers and carefully they lift the crate of acid from the bed of Larry’s pickup while Larry, Mario, and I exchange what’s-going-on-here looks. Then the men in white suits just wave us away. There is no paperwork to fill out. They don’t take our license number. They don’t even look at our faces. We could have handed over the toxic remains of a meth lab or a barrel of nuclear waste, and they wouldn’t have blinked an eye. I realize that this is the point of the hazardous waste disposal facility.

As soon as we are alone, my best friend, Kris, pulls up her T-shirt to show me her breasts. “Ta-dah!” she cries. One of them is familiar to me from our youth—we often got dressed to go out in the same room and skinny-dipped together in the same pools. The other one I don’t recognize: it has a purple scar running from one side to the other and a nipple that shows signs of being cut out and moved to a new location. Kris pushes down the waistband of her jeans and shows me the other scar. This one bisects the smooth brown skin of her abdomen, side to side. It’s the sort of scar a woman might have if the magician sawing her in half took his job too literally.

This bravado is typical of Kris—when we’re alone. Showing me saves so much time. We don’t have much of it and she has so many things to tell me. When I’m in London, we keep in touch through Facebook. But the things Kris shares with me in private complicate the public posting, the life-affirming snapshot, and for this reason, she asks me not to use her real name when I write about my journey home.

In her posts about her reconstructive surgery, Kris wrote of her “new body” and posed in tight dresses with a big smile, looking beautiful. This was the illusion she wiped away the instant she pulled up her shirt to show me how things really were.

This is what I’ve always loved about Kris: she won’t lie to me. I don’t think she’s capable of it. The transition may be abrupt. It may be brutal. But she’ll tell it like it is. Now she’s driven in from out of town to help me, bringing her pickup and more honest pain than I’m prepared for.

Her truck is the biggest and fanciest yet, a professional vehicle, sprayed a classy metallic gray. It has a stretch cab with a full backseat. She and her husband call it the Limo Truck. It is powerful enough to pull a small circus’s worth of trailers across the country. We fill the bed with rolls of carpet stripped from the floors of my parents’ house. I am getting to the end now, down to the bare bones.

Like all my other drivers, Kris chooses the back way to the landfill. On the way, I point out the yard sales. Every few houses, a couple of ladies sit on folding chairs, knees pointing to opposite points of the compass. On a table are videos, sometimes a few pieces of dishware, a blender. Children’s clothes are displayed on the fences, their sleeves and pant legs threaded through the chain-link diamonds, looking like children pinned there by a strong wind.

These yard sales are not weekend affairs. They are permanent. Most of the stores on this side of town are closed, driven out of business by Walmart and Costco. The malls my mother shopped in are empty shells now, with grass growing through the asphalt of their parking lots. All the supermarkets are gone. On the other side of town, near the I-5, a whole new world of big-box stores is going up. Meanwhile, these ladies are selling the sort of stuff I’ve been donating to the Salvation Army and the Men’s Homeless Mission.

“Selling it to whom?” I wonder out loud. Kris shrugs.

Before the breast cancer, there was ovarian cancer. Then came the financial crisis and the business she ran with her husband started to get into trouble. They had been doing well and had a growing reputation—at one point, they employed twenty people—but when the crash hit, a string of creditors failed to pay them and they were finally forced to declare bankruptcy. Kris tells me her husband just gave up at this point. They’d drive past desolate trailer parks, and he’d say, “Well, we can always live there.” For Kris, a born fighter, this attitude was unforgiveable.

I thought of Kris’s husband, a handsome, gentle, hardworking man I have always thought was a good match for her. Now they are separated, and he is roaming around the West, trying to revive their business. Meanwhile, she works a job that at least brings them healthcare and lets her pay their mortgage. She couldn’t bear to lose the house, though it’s now underwater, the monthly payments are huge, and there’s an $80,000 balloon payment waiting at the end of the road. She fears her teenage son might be getting into trouble, and her teenage daughter is trying too hard to be perfect.

This story unfolds during several rides over two days. We go to the landfill and shove the carpet onto the mountain of garbage. We go to the Goodwill with boxes of things too good for the landfill.

When Kris talks, she cries. I have almost never seen her cry, and when she starts up, I cry too. We drive around, two women in a great big pickup, in tears. It doesn’t affect Kris’s driving. Even when we were fifteen and I was still backing my dad’s El Camino stupidly into lampposts, she knew how to handle machines. But at one point, when she tells me about the trailer park, she’s crying so hard I want her to pull over. I want to hug her and explain macroeconomics to her in order to show her that this is not her fault, as she believes it is, and not her husband’s fault either. I want to draw her diagrams and show her articles from The Economist that will prove to her that they have been caught up in the biggest, almighty economic shitstorm in history and no one could have handled it much better than they did.

Kris won’t pull over. The cab is so big I can hardly reach her when I stretch my arm across the space between us. I put my hand on her shoulder, and I keep it there while she drives, not knowing what else to do, how else to show her what I feel. Eventually, she says, “You don’t have to do that.” I take my hand away.

I can hear the appraiser moving calmly from room to room in the empty house. He trains his laser measure at the bare walls, runs its red beam along the stripped floors. He makes notes on a form.

“The good news is, it’s not subsiding,” he tells me. He’s an old classmate of Larry’s. He’s been in the real estate business in Bakersfield for five decades and knows everything.

His words worry me. “Did you think it would be subsiding?”

“Lots of these houses down here are,” he says. “These were barley fields. They used to plough the barley roots back into the soil, so it tends to be full of air pockets. It compacts down over time and then the houses subside.” He pauses. “Not this one, though.”

Barley fields. I savor this unexpected information about the house I grew up in. It strikes me as poetic. It makes me look at the house in a new light. I can’t stop thinking about it as I pack my bags back at La Casita. I mention it when I say my goodbyes to Mario and Gracia.

At the foot of the Grapevine, on my way south to LA to catch a flight back to London, I stop for gas and take one last look across the Valley. I think I can see a haze hanging over the landfill where the trucks are kicking up the dust. Now that landfill contains the remains of my family’s life in Bakersfield. I put them there. The bulldozers move over them, shoving our relics into some kind of shape. Later, they’ll cover everything in dirt. Eventually, someone will build on top of it, just as we built on top of the barley fields.

All through this trip, I have been telling everyone I’ve come to “clean out” my parents’ house. It sounds virtuous, but in truth I haven’t cleaned anything out. I’ve just shifted our mess from one place to another. It’s still a mess. And now I see it is part of an even bigger mess—Bakersfield’s, California’s, the whole country’s. It’s not the kind of mess we can bury, no matter how big we make the landfill site. I get back in my rental car with a feeling like shame and a strong desire to confess this to someone. But there is no one there to confess it to.
Note: All photographs by the author.