Tag: Culture


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.



by Beth Pratt

For a lonely cougar

From Boom Winter 2014, Vol 4, No 4

After twenty-five years of campaigning to protect wildlife and the environment, I finally stumbled on a surefire way to break through the noise and get my message across: get a tattoo.

Admittedly, this takes the concept of wearing your heart on your sleeve to the extreme. It also precludes me from ever changing careers. But if you think you’re in the field of conservation for the long haul—and can abide the thought of needles—body art is an option to consider.

Courtesy Flickr user Sally Crossthwaite.

The tattoo started as a personal gesture of commitment. It wound up a clarion call for protecting wildlife that was more effective than any press release I’ve ever sent. It attracted the attention of the BBC, the Los Angeles Times, and the Wall Street Journal.

I discovered this quite accidently. What prompted me to get inked in middle age, one month (sorry, Mom) before my wedding? Earlier this year, I had dinner with Jean and Jerry, two friends and long-time supporters of my employer, the National Wildlife Federation. Both had recently retired from practicing law, but continued to devote time to causes they felt passionate about, including bison conservation.

Conversation with these two friends is invariably fascinating, ranging from Japanese art to wild-bird rehabilitation. But I was completely caught off guard when Jerry, while sipping a fine Cabernet from his wine cellar, rolled up his sleeve to reveal a gorgeous profile of a bison on his upper arm. I was so surprised I almost dropped my glass. “Is that one of those temporary henna tattoos?” He assured me that it was permanent.

At age seventy-five, Jerry had gotten his first tattoo. I asked the obvious question. “Why?”

“It just seemed like a really good way to show commitment to the bison.”

Courtesy Flickr user Cchauvet.

Around the time Jerry made his next-level commitment to the bison, I had begun to develop a campaign in the Santa Monica Mountains to ensure the survival of the area’s mountain lions. In February of 2012, I had come across a news article about a cougar, now known to the world as P22, living in the heart of Los Angeles. Incredulous, I contacted biologist Jeff Sikich, the researcher mentioned in the article. Jeff agreed to take me on a tour of P22’s adopted homeland of Griffith Park. He explained that P22 miraculously crossed two eight-lane highways in a desperate move to find a home. The cat was now marooned in this small urban island of green space surrounded by a spider web of LA freeways and sprawl, facing a lonely bachelorhood for the rest of his days unless he braved the ocean of traffic once more.

Like many Angelenos, I rallied around P22. After all, so many of us can relate to being single and isolated and paralyzed by LA’s traffic problems.

When I asked Jeff how I could help, he answered, “Well, there’s this wildlife crossing we’ve been trying to get built….”

I gave Jeff my word that I would help make it happen.

I’ve worked in both Yellowstone and Yosemite National Parks, and been involved with a myriad of wildlife projects. Yet nothing has inspired me more than helping to build what might be the largest wildlife crossing in the world over one of the busiest freeways in the country to help stave off the threat of extinction for Los Angeles County’s mountain lions and other animals struggling to survive in the midst of the city.

As I became more involved in the campaign, I kept thinking about Jerry’s tattoo. The conservation project that P22 inspired—even though it will not help him directly—had become the largest project I have ever been involved with; I wanted to mark the occasion. Besides, didn’t Stephen Covey or one of those motivational speaker-types say you are more likely to complete your goals if you write them down? Surely, if P22 had the courage to cross two major freeways, I could honor him with a little bravery of my own. This wasn’t a love affair that would fade over time. P22 changed the course of my career and opened my eyes to the importance of urban wildlife conservation. A radical gesture was required to honor my muse.

Courtesy Flickr user Deanna Wardin.

Making this even more poignant for me, the adventurous cat will very likely end up a martyr for the cause. He found a home—and captured the imagination of people around the world—yet he’s no success story. He’s trapped, facing a very risky journey if he tries to leave Griffith Park. Relocation is rarely successful for mountain lions, so that’s not considered a viable option either.
One day after a campaign meeting, I sat in my car and, with the assistance of Yelp, found the Brass Anchor Tattoo and Barbershop in Woodland Hills. It was reviewed as the best place to get a haircut, tattoo, and a brew. While combining those particular activities had never occurred to me, I liked the sound of the place. Yelpers liked that they served Pabst Blue Ribbon; someone tagged the place as “super chill.” Another reviewer wrote, “I took my wife here to get her first tattoo.” I was sold.

If Luis, my tattoo artist, was surprised that a middle-aged woman in business dress wanted to talk tattoos, he didn’t show it. He treated me like any other customer. His body of work was incredible—the pieces were colorful, imaginative, and vivid. I could sense the story behind each one. Any hesitation I had melted away.

I showed Luis the most famous photo of P22 in front of the Hollywood Sign, from National Geographic. Luis designed a tattoo that paid homage to the cat’s spirit—and of such fine detail that his eyes leap out at you from my arm. I couldn’t be happier. It’s a permanent reminder of my life’s work. As a traditional Samoan tattoo artist sings, “Your necklace may break, the fau tree may burst, but my tattooing is indestructible. It is an everlasting gem that you will take into your grave.”

In September 2014, #SaveLACougars had its official launch in Agoura Hills, the site of the proposed crossing Jeff Sikich mentioned to me back in 2012. It’s a vibrant wildlife corridor in northwestern Los Angeles County, but it’s about thirty miles from P22’s home in Griffith Park. My muse will never benefit from it, yet it will help ensure that the extended family of mountain lions he left behind will have access to wilder places and, perhaps, not have to brave the same kind of dangerous journey to find room to roam by sneaking through Bel Air and Beverly Hills and dodging traffic on major highways.

I’ve since learned that I am a relative lightweight when it comes to using body art to show commitment to cause. I recently discovered Carl Zimmer’s book Science Ink: Tattoos of the Science Obsessed along with multiple blogs and Pinterest boards showcasing the people who ink their passions. One lonely mountain lion seemed rather small potatoes when compared to the entire solar system spreading across a person’s back, or the molecular structure of fulvic acid covering an entire arm.

Courtesy Flickr user Mez Love.

Still, the striking visage of a mountain lion offers an easier conversation starter than a molecule. About a month after getting the tattoo, I learned my personal pledge had potential as a public relations tool. I was standing in a café about three hundred miles outside of LA, waiting for my lunch when a complete stranger, conservatively dressed, approached me.


“How’s he doing?” she asked and gestured to my tattoo. “I read that he had mange.”

“You know P22?”

“Sure. He’s the mountain lion in National Geographic. Loved the story. Nice tat.”

“He’s doing better now,” I said, “though he’s still lonely. But we’re working on that.”


The End of Camping

by Terence Young

From Boom Fall 2014, Vol 4, No 3

Coming home to the city

Making tea on the summit of Liberty Cap on a Sierra Club outing to Mt. Ritter in 1909. Photograph by Edward Taylor Parsons. Courtesy of the Bancroft Library.

When twenty-nine-year-old John Muir first disembarked at San Francisco in March 1868, he was a man with a mission. On the road for nearly a year, Muir had walked 1,000 miles from Indianapolis to the Gulf Coast, sailed south to Cuba and Panama, where he crossed the Isthmus, and then sailed north to California. Legend has it that once off the ship, Muir asked a passing stranger which was the shortest route to any place wild. Without hesitation, the man directed Muir east to the Sierra Nevada where for the next twelve years he more or less made Yosemite and the nearby mountains his home.

A Romantic in the mold of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, Muir questioned the value of an urban-industrial life and praised the state’s wilder areas as God’s handiwork, the antidote for those who had to toil in California’s cities. “Climb the mountains and get their good tidings,” wrote Muir in 1901. “Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop away from you like the leaves of Autumn.”¹

Many Californians heard Muir, and took him at his word when they headed out of San Francisco, Sacramento, Los Angeles, and other cities to pitch their tents in Yosemite, Sequoia, and other wild settings. Over the next century the annual number of recreational campers swelled into the millions as more and more Californians, as well as other Americans, escaped their everyday lives to enjoy the premodern conditions of camping that they were told by Muir and others would restore and refresh them before returning to their permanent residences. These campers, just as Muir had recommended, became pilgrims to California’s natural “cathedrals.”

Pilgrimage is never straightforward nor simply a matter of traveling somewhere. Regardless of whether the ultimate destination is Lourdes, Gettysburg, Disneyland, or wilderness, a pilgrim does not begin to journey unless he is dissatisfied with life’s customary places, people, and social relations. Something in his or her life must “push” the pilgrim away from the profane, everyday world before the journey can begin. At the same time, the pilgrim must desire some exceptional outcome in order to be “pulled” toward and into a sacred, transformative place during pilgrimage and then, hopefully, return to the everyday world satisfied.2

Pilgrimage is generally arduous, forcing pilgrims to endure challenges as a part of their journeys. One of the world’s foremost religious pilgrimages, the hajj to Mecca, has traditionally been seen as so difficult that devout Muslims are expected to perform it only once in a lifetime. In Spain each year, thousands of pilgrims, the majority of whom are not Roman Catholics, hike hundreds of miles to kiss the statue of Saint James in his cathedral in Santiago de Compostela. Of course, one could simply fly into Santiago or drive there from St. Jean Pied de Port, a traditional starting point on the French border, but people who do so are dismissed as “tourists” by those who, like innumerable pilgrims before them, walk the traditional path.3

“No American wilderness that I know of is so dangerous as a city home ‘with all the modern improvements.’ One should go to the woods for safety, if for nothing else.” —John Muir, Our National Parks

Camping is not a religious practice, nor is it usually as arduous as the great pilgrimages, especially these days, but it does share this pilgrimage pattern.4 Campers perceive great power at a place—”nature”—which when tapped can counteract the “evils” of urban life and “restore” them mentally and physically. This restoration will occur only if the camper travels to where nature’s power is readily accessible and there resides temporarily. Not just any location will do—and then there’s the pilgrimage itself, from the preparations that must be made before setting off to the journey itself. At the same time, what qualifies as “natural” and how one engages it turns out to be highly flexible among campers as a whole. Parking a large motorhome along the Pacific Coast Highway on the Ventura County shoreline can satisfy some. Others have long preferred to car camp in Yosemite. While for still others, only a backpacking trip along a remote stretch of the Pacific Crest Trail will suffice. Wherever it is, it must be a place where the pilgrim-in-the-wild will cede some element of control and let nature take over.

No matter how it is practiced, the patterns of modern camping are closely tied to the long-standing divisions of urban and wild California. According to one powerful strand of our national myth, a free and democratic America was forged on the wild frontier, not in the country’s “over-civilized” cities, which have long been perceived as unhealthy and hazardous environments. Frederick Law Olmsted, the famous landscape architect involved in the origins of Yosemite as a park and the creation of Central Park in New York, subscribed to this view as he justified his 1866 plan for San Francisco’s “Public Pleasure Grounds.” The city’s population, he warned, was “wearing itself out with constant labor, study and business anxieties. . . Cases of death, or of unwilling withdrawal from active business. . . cause losses of capital in the general business of the city, as much as fires or shipwrecks.” What the city needed, offered Olmsted, was a woodland park with “beautiful sylvan scenes” where exhausted San Franciscans could escape the city and relax in nature.5

Americans may earn their fortunes in cities, but they don’t really belong there. Instead, their true home is wilderness, which Muir declared, is safer than any urban residence. The expressions of this tradition of urban skepticism have been pervasive and monumental, spawning America’s great urban parks, its sprawling suburbs, and camping.

Unsurprisingly, most campers have been from urban areas. For more than 100 years, those who preach the benefits of camping have sounded like Olmsted—bemoaning everyday urban places as burdensome, polluted, and irritating. “We want to emphasize here and now,” began the Sierra Club’s David Brower in Going Light with Backpack or Burro, “even to the point of being evangelical in our emphasis, that one gains a great deal by getting just as far from exhaust fumes and ringing telephones as his feet will let him. . . and that so long as one can walk. . . it is possible to use the wilderness as a sanctuary.”6 Again and again, for more than a century, camping has been offered as a positive escape from stress, overwork, in-laws, and other everyday irritations.

Camping, however, also has a darker side. Paraphrasing historian William Cronon, to the degree that campers have seen themselves as somehow displaced from their “true” homes in nature and have turned to nature to find solace, they have missed opportunities to amend their cities environmentally and to place them on more sustainable paths.7 Camping is not just a pleasant form of leisure. It can also be interpreted as an escape from campers’ responsibilities for their cities. Is city life too noisy? Backpack through the quiet of the Sierra Nevada high country. Is the air polluted? RV camp in fresh air along the Pacific shoreline. City streets too harsh? Car camp out in a lush redwood forest. By escaping cities to find nature, campers have been evading the environmental challenges of a truly supportive and humane urban life.

John Muir, circa 1902.

But camping is in trouble. After more than a century of increasing popularity, the number of campers is declining. Although camping remains among the top-five outdoor recreations in the United States, the rate of participation by Americans sixteen and older is down from its peak in the late 1990s. Automobile, trailer, and motorhome camping at “developed” locations (with drinking water, tables, restrooms, etc.) and at “primitive” locations (without such amenities) has decreased approximately 7 percent overall. Only backpacking’s popularity has held steady, although at much lower numbers than other forms of camping.8

Predictably, perhaps, given how much significance has been invested in camping, some observers interpret this diminution in camping as a menace to our civilization. Oliver Pergams and Patricia Zaradic argue that the decrease in camping and other forms of outdoor recreation indicates that Americans are shifting away from an appreciation of nature and toward “videophilia,” which they define as a “tendency to focus on sedentary activities involving electronic media.” Such a shift, they conclude, “does not bode well for the future of biodiversity conservation.” In an even gloomier piece, author Richard Louv argues in Last Child in the Woods that American children increasingly suffer from “nature-deficit disorder” because fewer of them are camping, playing in streams, and generally enjoying themselves outdoors. This deficit must be reduced, Louv warns, because “our mental, physical, and spiritual health depends upon it.”9

But instead of immediately taking such a sentimental and alarmist view, let’s recall the history and cultural significance of camping, which present at least two potential explanations for its decline:

First, most forms of camping are losing their ability to function as a pilgrimage. As campers embrace the latest in modern, high-tech gear, they transmute “roughing it”—a distinctly antimodern activity—into something comfortable and too much like everyday life. Car campers, for example, no longer have to experience many of camping’s customary hardships. Campers may still sleep on the ground, but it is no longer so uncomfortable when using a microfiber sleeping bag rated to 35 degrees and a self-inflating mattress pad. The culinary limitations of camping have likewise moderated with the use of coolers, propane stoves, and an explosion of gourmet freeze-dried meal options. The physical challenge of hiking vanished when a paved road allowed campers to drive to scenic overlooks. When camping with a trailer, motorhome, or other recreational vehicle, adversity recedes even further. Without its physical and psychological challenges, the transition from daily life to camping can become so “smooth” it’s barely a transition at all. With no bright line between the wild and the urban, how can camping be the refreshing and restorative break it’s meant to be? Like those who fly to Santiago de Compostela to visit Saint James’s cathedral, comfortable campers slide from being pilgrims to “tourists.” By contrast, backpacking’s appeal continues because no matter how much backpackers may adopt the latest in gear, they still have to walk and carry their load. In a fundamental way, it remains “rough.”

“D. A. Stivers and Thor arrive in camp, Camp Kitmear, 1915,” from Panama Pacific International Exposition and Yosemite Camping Views. Courtesy of the Bancroft Library.

A second explanation for the decrease in camping’s popularity brings us back to California’s rapid and destructive form of urbanization, where for more than a century cities, farms, resource extraction sites, and pristine areas grew increasingly discrete and isolated from one another. Now, however, the distinctions between these landscapes are beginning to fade as they slowly blend back into one another. “Urban agriculture” is no longer an oxymoron; a billion dollar plan to restore the Los Angeles River has been embraced by the US Army Corps of Engineers; and “rewilding” California’s cities with native flowers has thousands of supporters. Distributed, renewable energy, onsite rainwater retention, xerophytic gardening, the greening of alleys, protecting urban mountain lions, and much, much more are increasing the sustainability of California’s cities and decreasing the differences between them, agricultural tracts, protected wildlands, and natural resource areas. Californians are beginning to bring their cities and nature back together.10

As these landscapes become less sharply separate and as California’s cities become more “natural,” campers are decreasingly feeling a need to heed Muir’s call to climb the mountains in order to get the “good tidings.” Instead, they are finding and making it around themselves in everyday life. And, to the degree that camping is decreasing because Californians feel less distressed by their urban homes, these are all signs that we are embracing where we really live, which are good tidings in their own way.

Glenola and Robert E. Rose, 1938. Courtesy of the Bancroft Library.



1 John Muir, Our National Parks (NY: Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1901), 56.

2 The anthropologist Barbara Myerhoff once characterized pilgrimage as simply “in-out-in with a difference.” The pilgrim begins in everyday society, steps out of that society and then returns to her/his society transformed. See Barbara Myerhoff, “Pilgrimage to Meron: Inner and Outer Peregrinations” in S. Lavie, K. Narayan, and R. Rosaldo, Creativity/Anthropology (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1993), 218.

3 See Nancy Louise Frey, Pilgrim Stories: On and Off the Road to Santiago (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998), 26–27.

4 Gwen Kennedy Neville, Kinship and Pilgrimage: Rituals of Reunion in American Protestant Culture (NY: Oxford University Press, 1987) has identified a variety of anti-urban pilgrimage patterns in American life.

5 Frederick Law Olmsted, “Preliminary Report in Regard to a Plan of Public Pleasure Grounds for the City of San Francisco” in Victoria Post Ranney, Gerard J. Rauluk, and Carolyn F. Hoffman, The Papers of Frederick Law Olmsted, Volume V: The California Frontier (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990), 522.

6 David Brower, Going Light with Backpack or Burro (San Francisco: Sierra Club, 1951), 6.

7 William Cronon, “The Trouble with Wilderness; or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature” in Uncommon Ground: Toward Reinventing Nature (NY: W.W. Norton and Co., 1995), 81.

8 The current popularity of camping is ranked in Outdoor Foundation, “Outdoor Recreation Participation Report 2012” (Boulder: The Outdoor Foundation, 2012), 14. The decreasing participation rates for “developed” and “primitive” camping and the steady appeal of backpacking were revealed by the 1999–2001 and the 2005–2009 National Surveys on Recreation and the Environment. See H. Ken Cordell, “Outdoor Recreation Trends and Futures: A Technical Document Supporting the Forest Service 2010 RPA Assessment” (Asheville: US Forest Service, Southern Research Station Gen.Tech.Rep. SRS-150, 2012), 33, 35, 37–38.

9 Oliver R.W. Pergams and Patricia A. Zaradic, “Is Love of Nature in the US Becoming Love of Electronic Media? 16-year downtrend in National Park Visits Explained by Watching Movies, Playing Video Games, Internet Use and Oil Prices,” Journal of Environmental Management 80 (2006), 387, 392. See also Oliver R.W. Pergams and Patricia A. Zaradic, “Evidence for a Fundamental and Pervasive Shift Away from Nature-Based Recreation,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 105 (2008), 2295–2300. Richard Louv, Last Child in the Woods: Saving our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder, Updated and Expanded E-Book Edition (Chapel Hill: Algonquin Books. 2008), paragraph 13–13.

10 The idea that cities need not be sites of degeneration, but can be places for the mutual regeneration of nature and society is increasingly explored by scholars and students. See, for instance, the John T. Lyle Center for Regenerative Studies at the California State Polytechnic University, Pomona. Their website is located at http://www.csupomona.edu/~crs/.


The Death of the City?

by Rachel Brahinsky

From Boom Summer 2014, Vol 4, No 2

Reports of San Francisco’s demise have been greatly exaggerated.

Editor’s Note:This is an excerpt of Rachel Brahinsky’s essay “The Death of the City?” from our Summer 2014 issue. 

You may have heard that the wave of gentrification that’s crashing through San Francisco these days has brought “the end of San Francisco.” You may have heard that the cool city of fog and freaks is over and done with, run over by Google buses filled with techies who have no sense of community or history. At the risk of being very unpopular, I’m going to tell you this isn’t quite true. The “Google bus,” which is what people in the Bay Area call the mass of private, tech commuter buses that fill the rush-hour streets, is not essentially the problem. In fact, it may be the seed of the solution.¹

The San Francisco Bay Area is undergoing a period of rapid transformation. In many ways, we’ve seen this boom before. Yet the unsettled atmosphere of the current moment—in which the middle class fears eviction alongside the most vulnerable—has refueled another familiar Bay Area process in the fight against displacement. The San Francisco you love exists because, as capitalism’s “creative destruction” tears through the urban landscape, community advocates fighting for what I call an “ethical city” try to reshape that destruction²—and sometimes they win.

This latest wave of advocacy has been centered around tech wealth and motivated by the great, white shuttle buses. Defended as a way to keep the tech industry “green,” even as it blocks public transit and weighs heavily on city streets, the Google bus has become a metaphor for life in an age of seemingly warp-speed urban change. Neither gentrification nor real estate flipping—in which investors buy and resell property for quick profit—were invented in San Francisco, and neither of them are new. See New York’s SoHo and Lower East Side in the 1980s and 1990s, and see cities around the globe, which have produced enough variants on the theme that academics have created an advanced taxonomy of gentrification.³ Even so, the rumble of urban change has been deeply jarring on many levels, threatening to transform what’s left of San Francisco’s beloved quirks into what Rebecca Solnit has aptly termed an urban “monoculture.”4

It’s true that, amid rising inequality, the regional culture has become more predictable, more formula retail. Even its offbeat places have aligned with similar districts in other cities, the chain-store hipsterisms of Brooklyn’s Williamsburg and many others. The monoculture matters not just for the loss of the unexpected or the creative, but because it rises alongside the forced displacement of people.

Bound with the homogenization of culture, tech wealth has flushed through the real estate market, with harsh impacts on small businesses and longtime renters. Though the relative numbers of evictees are small in terms of the greater population, the steep rise in residential evictions has caused thousands of personal tragedies, and storefronts have seemed to flip at an ever-faster pace. San Francisco’s no-fault evictions, in which tenants have not broken rules or laws, are rising, with Ellis Act evictions rising 175 percent in the last year, according to the city’s rent board.5 (The state Ellis Act allows evictions in cases where owners take properties off the rental market.6) Meanwhile, the fallout from the foreclosure crisis continues in the East Bay, drawing capital investments that spill over the edges of the San Francisco market.7


The effects are so widespread that, in a city where 65 percent are renters and where landlords are aggressively using all measures to flip houses to take advantage of the flow of tech wealth before the bubble bursts, it’s safe to say that more than half the city feels insecure in its tenancy.8 In many ways it feels like a moment of “one-percent” power; Wall Street’s Gordon Gekko might be very happy in today’s San Francisco. Each week, it seems, we hear about the impending closure of yet another fixture on the urban landscape that will soon lose its place in the city, another hard-fought mural that will soon be losing its face. Meanwhile, the reports flow about realtors knocking on doors in places like the Mission and Bayview Hunter’s Point, offering cash buyouts for homes that are not for sale.

Even so, another quintessentially San Franciscan story is emerging in the activist challenge to the Gekko-inspired “greed is good” mentality that is gripping The Valley.9 In early December 2013, the first tech-shuttle protests burst into the news. At the time, critics challenged whether protesters had chosen the right target by blocking buses of workers who were simply trying to get to work. Yet by the end of February, the issues that the protesters wanted to push into the mainstream had traveled the globe through dozens of high profile media reports. Locally, the concerns from the streets morphed into a clear set of policy prescriptions, from the resurrection of slain supervisor Harvey Milk’s proposed antispeculation tax and other disincentives to slow displacement, to the proposed creation of a new city office that would be charged with aggressively protecting tenants.

Suddenly, the once-sacrosanct Ellis Act, which is often used to flip properties for profit, was on the table for reform in Sacramento. Silicon Valley’s prominent financiers and the politicians who are close to them are publicly supporting this shift.10 Suddenly, after negotiating a “handshake agreement” to use public bus stops for its private shuttle program, Google Inc. was offering $6.8 million to support a free public bus program for kids.11
Of course, for Google this is a cheap externality. Still, by the time you read this, there may be more stories like this, as the appeal against Google’s use of public stops moves forward.

It has been hard to see that real positive change is afoot amidst the hyperventilation in the media and the cacophony in blogs and comment sections about this war for San Francisco. Real lives are at stake as the private pain of evictees has revealed the timidity of public policy when it comes to addressing the needs of vulnerable communities. Rents and home prices have peaked and then peaked again, each rise bringing news of displacements. First, it was seniors on fixed incomes and people dying of HIV/AIDS, and then it was middle-class families, then teachers, and then came reports of shuttered art galleries, evicted musicians, and so on.12

Sometimes it feels as if the tech-capital influence is a force of nature barreling through the region in ways we couldn’t have imagined. It can be easy to forget that we didn’t have to imagine it. Many of us lived through this story in the late 1990s and stories like it in the 1980s, and in the years before.13 As chroniclers of the Bay Area’s ebb and flow often point out, this is a region born of booms, so we have lots of experience. If we were paying attention, we also saw the counterpoint in, for example, the housing activists who convinced Dianne Feinstein to install emergency rent control in 1978. Then, as now, a key ingredient helped fuel significant policy changes: the middle and upper classes now feel housing stress too.14

Although there is much to be mourned in the loss of places and people that this boom has wrought, we cannot miss that the response to it that has come over the recent winter is also shaping the cultural-political-geographic landscape of the region. The rise of multipronged organizing, where we’re seeing street protests bolstered by deep data gathering and policy advocacy, has shifted the debate at a moment when many people who love San Francisco for its quirks and queerness—particularly those who cherish its remaining anticorporate zeitgeist—thought it might be time to give up.

One sign of this shift comes at the wonkish policy level, among organizations like SPUR (formerly the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association), which has classically insisted that simply opening the gates to all development will solve our housing dilemmas. Most recently SPUR began advocating for affordable housing policies that sound increasingly like the proposals coming from street-level tenant advocacy groups. It’s hard to imagine this new vision emerging without the activist pressures that have arisen in the recent crisis; it’s also hard to imagine that vision becoming long-term policy without continued pressure from below.15

Ellis Act evictions (when a landlord can legally evict all tenants in a building to get out of the rental business) first took off during the dot-com boom of the late nineties. Between 1997 and the burst bubble in 2000 there were more than 900 such evictions.

Through the years of the housing bubble, large numbers of Ellis Act evictions continued. By the end of 2007, there had been 2,905 of these evictions in San Francisco— more than 300 in 2007 alone.

Evictions slowed down during the housing crisis, and in 2010 only 89 families lost their homes due to the Ellis Act. By the end of that year total number of evictions going back to 1997 was 3,336.

But the Ellis Act doesn’t tell the whole story. From 1997 to October 2013, there were 11,766 no-fault evictions in San Francisco; 3,693 due to the Ellis Act, 6,952 due to owner move-in, and 1,121 due to demolition.

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All photographs courtesy of Rachel Brahinsky and maps courtesy of the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project.

1 My deep thanks goes to those who read and commented on this essay, including Bruce Rinehart, Joshua Brahinsky, Corey Cook, participants in the “Planning, Revitalization, and Displacement” session of the 2014 Urban Affairs Association meetings, and the generous editors and anonymous reviewers at Boom.

2 “Creative destruction”originates with Joseph Schumpeter, Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy (New York: Harper, 1975). Others have explored its role in the urban context. See Max Page, The Creative Destruction of Manhattan, 1900-1940 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999); Richard A. Walker, “An Appetite for the City,” Reclaiming San Francisco: History, Politics, Culture, James Brook, Nancy J. Peters, and Chris Carlsson, eds. (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1998).

3 Loretta Lees, Tom Slater, and Elvin K Wyly, Gentrification (New York: Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group, 2008); Neil Smith, The New Urban Frontier: Gentrification and the Revanchist City (London: Routledge, 1996). The blog Vanishing New York published this excellent analysis that fleshes out “hyper-gentrification” in more detail than I’ve seen elsewhere. Moss is a pseudonym: Jeremiah Moss, “On Spike Lee & Hyper-Gentrification, the Monster That Ate New York,” Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York, 3 March 2014.

4 Rebecca Solnit, “Resisting Monoculture,” Guernica / A Magazine of Art & Politics, 12 March 2014. Solnit has become the prime chronicler of the disappearance of old San Francisco, documenting the clash of cultures in fine detail in a series of essays including this one.

5 See Delene Wolf, Rent Board Annual Report on Eviction Notices (Residential Rent Stabilization and Arbitration Board, 2014).

6 The city doesn’t track the number of people evicted in each incidence, but the activist Anti-Eviction Mapping Project estimates that the number of evictees could be between 716 and 3,580, assuming one to five evictees per eviction. See antievictionmappingproject.net. This advocacy-project’s data sleuthing has been bolstered by city reports like the one noted in note 5 (Wolf, 2014).

7 On the economic fallout in the East Bay, see Darwin Bond-Graham, “The Rise of the New Land Lords,” East Bay Express, 12 February 2014.

8 Housing stability has been a key concern in a series of surveys, including this one: Cook, Corey, and David Latterman, University of San Francisco Affordability and Tech Poll, December 2013. This is notable across incomes in San Francisco, where the most recent census showed about 65 percent of residents are renters, about twice the national average.

9 This push back by civil society against pressures of market economics is what Polanyi described as a “double movement.” Karl Polanyi, The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 2001).

10 Tim Redmond, “Everyone in Town (except a Few Landlords) Is Supporting Leno’s Ellis Act Bill,” 48 Hills, 24 February 2014; Norimitsu Onishi, “Ron Conway, Tech Investor, Turns Focus to Hometown,” The New York Times, 18 April 2013.

11 Cote, John, and Marisa Lagos, “Google Says $6.8 Million for Youth Muni Passes Just a Start,” San Francisco Chronicle, 27 February 2014.

12 One of too many to include here: Baker, Kenneth, “Art Galleries Swallowed Up by S.F. Real Estate Boom,” San Francisco Chronicle, 26 February 2014.

13 On the rise of street-level urban planning during Dot-com I, see Rachel Brahinsky, Miriam Chion, and Lisa Feldstein, “Reflections on Community Planning in San Francisco,” Spatial Justice/Justice Spatiale 5 (2013). Then head back to the 1980s—no techies, lots of yuppies: Dan Morain, “Gentrification’s Price: S.F. Moves: Yuppies In, the Poor Out,” Los Angeles Times, 3 April 1985.

14 Last fall, after a member of the politically connected Alioto clan found himself facing eviction from his well-appointed Art Deco Nob Hill apartment, tensions rose further with the realization that almost anyone could be evicted, even a politically connected person paying high rent. See Carolyn Said, “Park Lane Tenants Protest Conversion Plans,” San Francisco Chronicle, 28 September 2013.

15 See Gabriel Metcalf, “The San Francisco Exodus,” The Atlantic Cities, 14 October 2013, compared with SPUR report, SPUR’s Agenda for Change, 12 March 2014.


Die [Fill in the Blank] Scum

by Annie Powers

From Boom Summer 2014, Vol 4, No 2

A short history.

DIE TECHIE SCUM—it’s been tagged on sidewalks in Oakland, printed on posters in the Mission, and chanted during protests at Google bus stops. For some, the violence of the phrase is disturbing; for others, it acts as a rallying point, crystallizing the frustration of those displaced by tech-boom gentrification. It’s not the only slogan being used by activists—it’s not even the only one wishing unkind things on new gentrifiers. But it’s memorable and significant because it taps into a long tradition of activism across the country, and indeed around the world.

As the techie is to today’s gentrification battles in San Francisco, the yuppie was to gentrification battles in New York in the 1980s. Inequality in that city was on the rise, and middle and lower-middle class residents were being displaced by a rising tide of young urban professionals. By the late eighties, frustration was beginning to boil over, and in August 1988, during a riot in New York’s East Village, protesters yelled “die yuppie scum” at newcomers to the neighborhood—and a catch phrase was born. Since then, the “die [fill in the blank] scum” construction has been used time and again, most often when class tensions are in play. So it’s no surprise to hear it on the streets of San Francisco in 2014—and really, what’s a techie if not, most often, a young urban professional?

August 1988 in the East Village might not have been the first time the phrase was used, but the protest launched “yuppie scum” into popular culture. “Die yuppie scum” proliferated in places where gentrification was on the rise—it was used in radical newspapers, on T-shirts, in graffiti murals, in comic books, and on bumper stickers. It was even spray-painted on the wall by yuppie-serial killer Patrick Bateman in the early nineties film adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho. It has been used to create unity among the dispossessed, its mutations ranging from an expression of anger at another famed symbol of gentrification (“die hipster scum”) to a rallying cry for transgender individuals (“die cis scum”).



Who You Calling a Techie?

by Leah Reich

From Boom Summer 2014, Vol 4, No 2

Fear and loathing in boomtown

Janet Delaney, Roof Terrace One Hawthorne 645 Howard Street, 2013.

When I tell pretty much anyone outside the tech industry I work at a start-up, there’s usually a pause. I can watch her compose her face, waiting to hear the worst. If I’m lucky, I’ll field questions about foie gras burgers, daily massages, or what it’s like to work with a bunch of clueless bros. I laugh, but I’m careful to say it’s not always like that. Sure, some places are beautifully designed and full of crazy start-up perks, but there are companies that aren’t. Like the one run by people I know, people who spent a year crammed in a tiny two-room office, busy around the clock, emails and messages flying at all hours. In fact, they’ve been going nonstop for a few years now, working on a product they hope will help people be smarter, safer drivers—and maybe even get people to use less gas.

I know those people because they’re my coworkers. I was employee number fifteen. We’ve grown to nearly forty people, and once again we’re working in a space we’ve outgrown. We are a tech start-up, funded by incubators and venture capitalists you’ve probably heard of. We make a lovely piece of hardware. We also make a very cool app—and we hope what we make will fundamentally better people’s everyday lives.

I like to think I am in the tech industry but not of it. One foot in and one definitely out. I have a wonderful job, one that challenges me, with people I think are smart and hardworking and lovely. I work on a product I think is legitimately interesting. I have health insurance through Kaiser and can afford part of a mortgage. I am glad to have these things, especially after the soul-sucking experience of unemployment. Yes, getting a job can be hard here in the Bay Area, if you’re not a developer.

The first time I worked for a start-up was in 1996. I was fresh out of UC Berkeley with a degree in comparative literature and a crippling fear that I had no discernible job skills. I took the first job that came my way, doing marketing at a start-up, and got laid off a year later. I made my way to another job, then was poached by a third, and by the time I got laid off again I was weeks away from what would be a decade in graduate school.

By the time I emerged with two master’s degrees and a Ph.D., it was all happening again. But it was different this time around.

As much as I can, I keep “the industry” at a distance. Life outside the bubble gives me a good perspective on my work, and it’s where I feel most at home. My friends are writers, editors, small business owners, freelancers, engineers, designers, and lawyers. They don’t see me as a “tech person” or a “techie.” I don’t see myself that way either.

But no matter what my friends may think of me, the polarizing forces of pro-tech and anti-tech in San Francisco are very real. People post fliers and wear T-shirts that say “DIE TECHIE SCUM,” and photos of these frequently make the rounds on Twitter and Facebook. When I see these and hear the “Die Techie Scum” anger, sometimes I laugh along with everyone. But sometimes it can be weird. Not because I think it’s directed at me personally, but because it’s a landscape I have to navigate thoughtfully. Is everyone in tech scum? Are all scumbags tech people? No, obviously not. So where, what, who needs to change?

San Francisco has always been a boom and bust town, a place for fortune seekers and entrepreneurs, for those who wish to reinvent themselves. A city defined both by industry and by the wild, wooly power of its people. This isn’t the first wave of change to hit the city, but that doesn’t make it any easier. The current industry that holds San Francisco in its sway is one that regularly mints millionaires and billionaires. It breeds a class of people who feel entitled to high salaries and incredible perks, which feeds into rising inequality across the Bay Area.

Like previous industries and their associated boom times, there is no doubt that the tech industry is complicit in the wrenching changes taking place in San Francisco and around the Bay Area. But what about those of us who work in the industry? What is our responsibility?

Is it enough to educate from within? One night I got into a fight at happy hour with a tall guy, a serial entrepreneur who eagerly discussed the goings on at his newest start-up. He was the embodiment of Silicon Valley stereotypes, who everyone probably imagines when they think “Die Techie Scum.” He told me there was no sexism and racism in tech, and if there were, it wasn’t his fault that 150 years ago people who looked like him behaved badly. I wanted to walk away, enjoy my drink, and not make a scene. But I couldn’t, because if I didn’t say something, who would?

Or like another night, when a girlfriend and I were out relaxing in a mostly empty bar. A swarm of very loud young twenty-somethings from a nearby start-up arrived, jostling people and haughtily directing the bartender. I turned and told them: “You’re entitled to happiness and a good time, but you’re not entitled to happiness and a good time at the expense of everyone else’s comfort.”

Entitlement, I think, is the heart of the matter. But I can shout it at every new bar in town and I know it’s not going to be enough.

I like to think I’m not trying to have it both ways, to benefit from the industry while not being “one of them.” But am I? If I am, is it wrong? I think about what it would be like if I had a similar job in another industry, earning a good living and doing interesting work. Would I feel conflicted? Is it the fact that I work at a start-up? I am uneasy about being complicit in everything that seems to be dividing San Francisco and the Bay Area, putting everyone I know into warring camps.

Janet Delaney, Sales Force Convention, Moscone Center, Howard Street, 2013.

Then I think about how my work is part of my community too. I work with people I care about and value. Work is part of where I live, too, part of where my friends are, part of what home means to me. How can doing thoughtful, meaningful work in a city I love be a bad thing?

Not everyone in this new tech wave is like the guy at happy hour or that group at the bar. But not everyone is like my coworkers and friends either. I hear the tone-deafness among those in the tech industry—the refusal to consider other perspectives and to learn from them, to consider maybe we’re changing the world in negative ways while we change it in positive too.

I’ve heard incredible thoughtlessness from people in the tech industry in nearly every possible setting. But I’ve also heard and seen incredible thoughtfulness, as well as significant involvement in civic issues from people in tech. The conversation about what’s happening in San Francisco and the Bay Area has spiraled into a maelstrom of anger and frustration. It’s hard to talk about the good, the bad, and everything in between without emotions rising. There is denial in the industry, and plenty of it, but there’s also a desire to do better. Sometimes it’s hard to hear the quieter voices. Sometimes it’s hard to be quiet. Sometimes it’s important not to be.

Janet Delaney, Planting Bouganvilla, Yerba Buena Gardens, 2013.

Because look, we all want similar things: affordable property, safety, a chance to be a part of a community in a neighborhood we love. But what do these expectations mean? What about when they become entitlements? What does it mean to “discover” or “improve” a neighborhood, and for whom? Where do the evicted and displaced go? Where can they go? The fact is, buying a house in the Bay Area without a financial windfall or the generosity of parents who have saved over a lifetime is nearly impossible now. Renting is becoming unaffordable for many. In this market, with these policies, the saying goes: that’s just the way it is. Does it have to be? It hit me hard when a friend was evicted from her home.

Other industries have changed the fabric of other cities, while creating unfathomable wealth for some and nothing but disruption for others. I know too that tone-deafness, obliviousness, and other forms of willful ignorance come in many forms and from many corners. Everywhere you go, in the tech industry and beyond, there are people who don’t, or can’t, see what’s right in front of them. These things are true, but I’m not trying to talk myself out of my own conflictedness.

Maybe we should all take it personally when 116 families are evicted from their homes in San Francisco in a single year, when disabled seniors are suddenly turned out of apartments they’ve lived in for decades. Tech people like to say, “We’re changing the world!” How uneasy do we need to get before we think about how?

Janet Delaney, Rincon Greens from 5th Street between Harrison and Bryant, 2014.

But I don’t say this as a member of the tech community. I say this as a member of an actual community: the community I want to live in.


All photographs from Janet Delaney’s “SoMa Now” series, featured in the exhibition Now That You’re Gone. . .San Francisco Neighborhoods Without Us at SF City Hall, February 25 – May 23, 2014. COURTESY OF THE SAN FRANCISCO ARTS COMMISSION GALLERIES AND JANET DELANEY.