With “Postcards,” creative non-fiction stories grounded in place, we aspire to create a new cartography of California. For us, literature and language are as much about marking and representing space, as they are about storytelling.
–After the Dome Fire, August 2020
It’s a hot, late September Day, and I’m driving alone into the East Mojave Preserve from the south, following Kelso Road off of Interstate 40.
I’m on my way to view the impacts of the recent, devastating 43,000-acre Dome Fire, which ripped through the Cima Dome area, formerly home to one of the world’s healthiest and most stunning Joshua tree woodlands.
I’m not intimidated by these vastly remote spaces of the Mojave Desert. In fact, I feel quite at home. Every mile I drive, past granite outcrops, ragged rock peaks, the massive Kelso Sand Dunes brings me closer to the heart of memory and home.
This is where I worked on many wildfires during the late 1980s, based at the Bureau of Land Management California Desert District Apple Valley Fire Station a 2-hour drive to the south. I worked one season on Engine Crew 6365, and a second season as a Helicopter 554 helitack/hotshot crew member.
As the miles melt into one another on this lonely, two-lane road, I’m embraced with memories that are both reassuring and unsettling as I remember firefighting moments and memories from time spent and shared with family and friends in the subsequent years.
This is where I fell in love with my daughter’s father, who I met and worked with on the engine crew, another fire crew member. This is where we battled several vehicle fires, and stopped the spread of any adjacent brush fires, using water hoses from our fire engine and the occasional shovel and chainsaw.
This is where I flew many times during the summer of 1987 on Helicopter 554, dropped off with six other crew members, high up in the Granite Mountains to control a lightning-torched blaze in a pinyon pine forest and spent a surprisingly cold night to make sure the fire was completely out.
Every desert fire, past and present, especially ones I worked on and even now, feels deeply personal to me. As I watched media coverage of the Dome Fire play out online, I reacted as I usually do during every major desert fire event over the years. I was frustrated and felt displaced to not be there in person, doing something to help with fire suppression operations – shovel work cutting fireline, perhaps, or helping with helicopter operations at the makeshift helicopter operations base.
The East Mojave Preserve – a large part of my firefighter turf for two fire seasons – in particular, feels like home to me. My memories and lingering physical presence are seared into the landscape itself. With every new fire, I have felt a familiar rush of adrenaline, a huge responsibility to be there, participating in the teamwork and makeshift firefighter community to help mitigate the damage from the burn. Many of my former desert wildland firefighter friends tell me they feel the same way.
There’s the ruts of the Old Mojave Road heading west towards a harsh area known as the Devil’s Playground, route for many 19th century pioneers heading west to the Promised Land of California citrus and sunshine, layered over a centuries old trail established and used by indigenous people traveling across the Mojave from one rare and precious water source to the next: places such as Marl and ZZYZX Springs, often up to thirty miles apart. My daughter – now a young adult raising a family of her own in Minneapolis – and I explored out here in my Jeep years ago to search for and photograph 30 different species of desert wildflowers for her high school biology class project.
I drive past the Kelso Depot, an historic train station that’s been recently refurbished to its early 20th century glory, and head north towards Cima Road. Slowly, to the west, I begin to see the massive bulge of Cima Dome, a part of the area out here known as the Cinder Cones National Natural Landmark. The remains of eroding granite that formed under the earth’s surface millions of years ago, it rises 1,500 feet (460 m) above the volcanic plain and covers 70 square miles.
It is the color of charcoal today. The size of the Dome Fire slowly reveals itself, and the searing impacts of its black wrath are obvious. Teutonia Peak, once covered with part of one of the world’s most expansive Joshua tree forests, has taken on the tones and look of a cinder cone.
As I slow the car down and pull into the small dirt parking area at the trailhead to Teutonia Peak, I look up: a red-tail hawk circles above, riding on a fit of ash-strewn wind that is spinning into a dark dust devil.
I put the car into park, turn off the ignition. Complete silence. I’m in a desert graveyard, and the most obvious dead appear to be the ghosts of charred Joshua trees.
My mind goes into a sort of firefighter mode as I begin to walk through the ashy remains, grateful I wore my oldest hiking boots, which area already getting charred. I imagine how this fire played out, what it would have been like to have worked on the Dome Fire.
I was, and still am, often asked why I, as a woman, would “do that kind of work.” And to me, it’s always been simple: it is work that I felt incredibly at home with, at one with a working family, and a job that allowed me to express my love and need to nurture and care for the land that I deeply loved. By tending to wildfire, and its immediate and enduring impacts on the land.
First and foremost is a feeling of performing a job that is layered in domestic terminology and structure. The firefighting community is as tightly knit and mutually interdependent as a family unit. Crew members, whose lives depended on the vigilance and support of one another, and who typically
Even many of the terms in the firefighter’s lexicon are domestic: there’s the endless chore known as “mopping up,” which involves spending many slow and tedious hours walking through areas that have burned and stirring and cooling layers of hot ash. There are the times we’d spend “babysitting a fire,” usually at night, when many fires tended to slow down, or “laid itself down,” where fire crews would spread themselves 10 or 20 feet apart along a fireline at the edge of the burn to prevent spot fires from starting up in the green vegetation. And, the activities that include “putting a fire to bed:” wrapping up a wildfire event with a fire under control and operations winding down. There are also the “widow makers,” trees that have partially burned or whose roots are smoldering that occasionally fall down without warning as crews work below, sometimes lethally.
Even though I wasn’t a mother yet then, I operated in a mama bear mode, ready to protect life and limb of my beloved desert and western wildlands, as well as human lives and homes, without hesitation.
We were firmly guided by critical principles, such as the 10 Basic Firefighter Rules, that are imprinted into my brain to this day and often serve as a guiding survival template in day to day living and have informed my work as a parent and educator in many ways.
For example: Be alert, keep calm, think clearly, act decisively. Know your escape route at all times. Give clear instructions and ensure they are understood. Fight fire aggressively, having provided for safety first.
I’ll never forget the scorching summer day working on a desert fire when a crew member, a friend to this day, turned and yelled, “Rattlesnake!” just as I was about to step on a huge Mojave Green.
I learned, through vivid and immediate experience, that sometimes, fires are mostly out of firefighters’ control. That things don’t always turn out the way we would have expected them to. And that we have to learn to live with that. We can’t save everything. And firefighters sometimes get injured. Some even die.
As I and walk along the edge of the ragged, hastily-cut fireline at the edge of the burn zone, I search for what firefighters may have left behind: boot prints in the ashes, not erased by away by rain; fragments of charred fire hose; perhaps a broken boot lace or someone’s crumpled bandana. I can almost hear the whine of Helicopter 554’s rotors and feel the wash of wind and sting of dirt kicking up in my face as I guide it to land for another water bucket refill, a gritty taste in my mouth.
The jagged caw-caw of a raven perched atop a black bristle of burnt Joshua tree pulls me out of my reverie. I look to the sky, which is slowly turning into a hazy brown as smoke from multiple other wildfire events across California and the Western U.S. works its way across the Mojave Desert.
As I survey the hulking charred ruins of the Joshua tree forests stretching beyond me farther than I can see, I can’t help but wonder, like a fretful parent soothing their little one’s feverish brow while trying to work out how their child has gotten seriously ill, what happened out here? Why and how did this desert fire get so big? Why was did it take four days for helicopter support?
It’s a tragedy that the Dome Fire grew to the size that it did. It’s inexplicable to me that H554 didn’t get out here as an initial attack crew and get this fire under control immediately. I know it was possible, had resources been available on August 12 when a lightning strike started this blaze. Then again, there were so many things out of anyone’s control that day. Fire resources were already stretched thin as multiple major fires played out across California, an unfortunate situation worsened by the sharp reduction of available inmate firefighter crews due to the coronavirus pandemic.
I’m reminded, as I look for signs of life, and recovery, and don’t see any yet, that many expectations in my personal life haven’t turned out the way I thought they would.
It wasn’t long after my time working on fires out here that my daughter’s father began his lifelong stints in prison – first working for Susanville fire camp, and later, as his crimes became more serious, time in maximum prison. I haven’t communicated with him in years.
My boyfriend, ten years ago, dying by suicide not long after we took our beauty-love drive through here and added to the stories. My friend I collected soil samples with and bonded over our appreciation for the nuances of how to get unstuck from deep sand, died several years ago in a terrible highway accident.
And so it is that I stand alone out here, embraced in a collective grief that is not mine alone. I also share it with many friends and desert lovers who also express their dismay at the Joshua tree loss on social media.
It’s awkward that the trees are still here, they still stand, and many will soon tumble to the ground, their limbs strewn across a suddenly emptied land space like human bones, and the recovery in this arid land will evolve slowly, as slow as the movements of a desert tortoise, as all ecologies in the desert do. And fire regimes – long-term burn and recovery impacts and adaptations/regrowth in Mojave Desert ecologies are still not entirely known.
But standing in loss is not enough. What will I tell my grandchildren when I bring them here?
Wildfire, one of the four basic elements, even at its most terrible, works its magic in the desert in ways we do not understand. I have enough knowledge from experience to know that fire on the land is both a blessing and a bane, and I’m nourished by my growing understanding, layered atop my firefighting work and my ongoing research for my humanities project, Fire on the Mojave: Stories from the Deserts and Mountains of Inland Southern California, that beauty and restoration will come.
So many desert stories, mine, and those who passed through here before me, those I worked alongside on fire crews. Today, I’m bound to honor these stories, and keep their visages alive, just as the Joshua trees have not simply disappeared – they have been transformed, even if it’s not what I want to see.
I refuse to resign myself to the circulating, apocalyptic idea that climate change has destroyed this place forever. That at the whim of a lightning strike and a resulting massive fire fueled by climate change alone, this cherished and well-tended place, turned into an eternal place of death.
I’ll bring my little grandchildren here next spring, and as with other Mojave Desert wildfire remains, we’ll look for places on this altered landscape that may have been obscured before the fire. Perhaps we’ll find sleeping circles, or petroglyphs on the rocks at one of the area’s springs, now revealed after the underbrush around them has been burned away. We may even discern, and follow, the faint traces of forgotten trails, where so many of our ancestors have walked before us.
And if we come at the right time, we’ll surely see wildflowers carpeting the burn zone, with or without adequate winter rain, purple, yellow, white and orange, as a direct result of the fire – as occurred in the site of the nearby 2005 Hackberry Fire – as well as the resprouting of other native shrubs. We may even see the tiniest of resprouts of some of the Joshua trees, needling their way towards the sun, one slow and sure inch at a time.
And I’ll bring a stack of makeshift fire tools – small, foldable shovels – and teach the kids how to cut a small fireline, how to stir the ashes and make sure the hot coals are completely out, and how to work as a team. We will learn how to tend the land by fighting fire, even it’s a make believe one for them, and how to care for our desert land, together, as a family. Together, we will build relationships with wildfire and the long-established fire ecologies here in the Mojave Desert, where fires will always, inevitably burn, as part of the natural processes of lightning and flame and transformation spelled out upon the land.
Ruth Nolan grew up in California’s Mojave Desert and worked as a wildland firefighter for the Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service during the 1980s. Her California-desert based writing has been published in LA Fiction: Southland Writing by Southland Writers (Red Hen Press;) Women Studies Quarterly; Rattling Wall; Desert Oracle; Sierra Club Desert Report; the Desert Sun/USA Today; News from Native California; New California Writing/Heyday; KCET Artbound L.A. and KCET Tending Nature. Her fiction has been nominated for a PEN Robert J. Dau Short Story Prize for Emerging Writers and received an honorable mention award in Sequestrum’s editor reprint contest. She is curator of the ongoing humanities project Fire on the Mojave: Stories from the Deserts and Mountains of Inland Southern California. Ruth is coeditor of Fire and Rain: Ecopoetry of California (Scarlet Tanager), which placed as a finalist in the 2018 Eric Hoffer Independent Book Awards, and editor of the critically-acclaimed No Place for a Puritan: the Literature of California’s Deserts (Heyday.)She is also the author of the poetry book Ruby Mountain (Finishing Line.) She is the recipient of grants from the California Arts Council; Bread Loaf Writers Conference; Phi Kappa Phi and the California Writers Residency/1888 Center program. Ruth isProfessor of English and creative writing at College of the Desert.
Historically, California’s overhead electric lines have been pushed to the margins of the built environment and, when possible, physically buried out of sight; now, the webs over our heads are central artifacts in the broader struggle to avoid climate catastrophe and enact climate justice.
Power lines are sites of tension. They have simultaneously proliferated electric currents across California and faded in popularity for over a century. In 1913, when Southern California Edison opened the Big Creek Power House No. 1 and sent hydroelectric power at an unprecedented potential of 150,000 volts across 241-miles to the Eagle Rock substation, the Los Angeles Times envisioned “a hand robed with lightning” stretched “across the gulf of valleys and mountains to the doors of this city.” Contemporaries may have viewed the new, soaring steel transmission towers that began in the Sierras, crossed the Tejon Pass, the Newhall Pass, and then descended into the valley as hands, “robed with lightning,” but by the second half of the twentieth century, most Angelinos associated overhead power lines with industrial blight. Wires, poles, and lattice steel towers made aesthetic intrusions on otherwise beautiful California landscapes. In recent years, another negative inflection has been laced onto the lines. Long, energized wires are potential tinder boxes. Instead of hands robed with lighting, the unpredictable arcing of energized lines swaying in the wind and warmed by climate change has unwittingly ignited dry vegetation and sent waves of fire across mountains and valleys to the doors of Los Angeles.
Big Creek, 1913. The first power lines in the United States to use all lattice steel towers. “Stringing wires on the 243-mile long Big Creek to Los Angeles 150,00-volt transmission line,” 1913, Bishop G. Haven, Southern California Edison Archive, The Huntington Library, San Marino, California
However, California’s electric infrastructure will, for the foreseeable future, remain fire hazards and lynchpins of climate justice. Efforts to decarbonize and bring more renewable energy sources online requires wires. Indeed, along with wind turbines and solar fields, long-distance, high voltage transmission lines must be built to “”unlock a renewable energy bounty.” The clean energy transition demands transmission. However, gaining public approval for new transmission projects is difficult, especially as the tightrope of electric transmission spans a physical and political landscape charred by wildfires and threatened by blackouts. What can the history of California’s transmission lines offer during this pivotal moment of energy transitions and climate activism?
One can hope that policy makers and affluent communities fighting for clean energy will not shift the burdens of transmission infrastructure into sensitive ecosystems or onto communities already poised to bear the brunt of climate change. The history of infrastructure in California dampens such hopes, but overhead lines have long evoked ambiguous responses. Select lines have been viewed as safe, controlled “lightning”; however, the majority are unruly and sprawling. Some lines have been framed as beacons of progress, others as icons of blight. The lines in our landscape may be viewed as revolutionary links of a technological wonderland or banal webs choking life from the environment.
The following considers some of the historical forces and visual associations of electric lines around Los Angeles. I am not a power lines apologist and am not certain what might incite utilities to repair the thousands of miles of existing lines or the public to accept the new transmission that might be built. Here, I frame specific lines as emblematic of the isolation, interconnection, and aesthetic conflicts in the broader power network. These lines also happen to be on the route between Santa Barbara, where I lived from 2011 to 2015, and the Huntington Library in San Marino, where I completed research for Power-lined: Electricity, Landscape, and the American Mind.
I recently returned to the area and retraced my regular route. It begins and ends with the 101 and a series of smooth, seaside curves that mirror the silky bottom turns surfers make on breaking waves beyond the rumble strips at Rincon Point. After Ventura, one may continue southeast on the 101, over the Conejo Pass and through Thousand Oaks; or, take the longer route east from Ventura and through the Santa Clara River Valley, the self-claimed “Citrus Capital of the World.” Here, I turn east, make a detour towards Ojai, and then continue towards Pasadena and San Marino. I head back on the 101 through Hollywood and then north to Santa Barbara to complete the circuit.
Isolation: Telegraph Road and the Thomas Fire
In 1853, the first telegraph line on the Pacific Coast was strung across the branches of living pine trees. The single wire spanned 23 miles between the northern mining towns of Nevada, Grass Valley, and Auburn. San Francisco was connected to Los Angeles in 1860, less than a year before the transcontinental telegraph line linked California with the East. The line strengthened coast-to-coast correspondence, but, for most of the nineteenth century, California’s geographically isolated mining outfits, ranch towns, and agricultural settlements sometimes hung together by a mere telegraph thread. Despite growing inter-state communication between San Francisco and other Western cities in the 1850s, the intra-state network remained sparse. In the 1860s that telegraph finally began to spread south in California, reaching Los Angeles in 1860 and San Diego in 1870. James Schwoch’s excellent history, Wired into Nature (2018), considers these environmental pressures. He explains how gold mining and the Civil War spurred the need for telegraph lines in California while difficult terrain and snowstorms in the Sierras hindered this spread. Another challenge was the fact that, even for a state teeming with timber, it was difficult to obtain relatively cheap and easy to move telegraph poles. In the 1860s, groves of Blue Gum Eucalyptus, a species imported from Australia, provided poles for telegraph lines.
California’s relative lack of telegraph lines during the period of late-nineteenth-century occupation and development may be why, in 2020, it appears to have more streets, avenues, and roads with the name “telegraph” than any other state. Over a century ago, a single telegraph line was a noteworthy feature in the middle landscape between wilderness and civilization. Compared to the glut of wires on the Eastern seaboard, a telegraph line in California seemed significant. The lines did not intersect multiple streets of neighboring towns or even connect every district in the cities; rather, the telegraph line was often erected alongside an existing thoroughfare, such as “Telegraph Road” in Los Angeles, which runs diagonally from Beth Israel Cemetery at Olympic Boulevard to Imperial Highway in La Mirada. Collectively, “telegraph” street names may be considered holdovers from an age when new (or at least newly named) dirt roads, stagecoach trails, train tracks, and telegraph wires made collective imprints on the California landscape.
Telegraph Road in Fillmore, CA. Various sections of Telegraph Road connect Castaic Junction to Ventura. Photograph by author.
Twenty minutes after I veer off the 101 and onto Route 126, I reach Santa Paula where West Telegraph Road, turns into East Telegraph Road and then continues as Old Telegraph Road. As it appears and disappears, Telegraph Road splits through orchards and nurseries, sometimes overlapping with 126 to arrive in downtown Fillmore. Here, the Fillmore and Western Railway declares itself “Home of Movie Trains” for film and television productions. The telegraph and railroad arrived here in tandem in the late nineteenth century. Film and television crews from Los Angeles still use the railway’s collection of historic train cars and depot scenes to create the illusion of the past. Of course, real telegraph lines and poles are nowhere to be found, but telegraph poles and wires have been a crucial backdrop and narrative device for the Western genre.
In the first decades of the twentieth century, as Los Angeles was wired for power and the lights of the American movie industry flickered to life, director D.W. Griffith used telegraph lines—and telegraph cutting—to signal a sudden isolation of protagonists in two of his more famous short films, The Lonedale Operator (1911) and The Girl and Her Trust (1912). Wire cutting heightens the tension of a pending attack as the characters can no longer send for help. The trope was repeated in the opening scenes of Stagecoach (1939) as well as Once Upon a Time in the West (1968). In the Western, focusing on the single telegraph pole or wire, which the viewer knows can and probably will be broken, evokes the terror of isolation. Wire cutting, loss of telegraphic communication, and the fear felt by the fictional Western characters seems quaint in comparison to the sudden, widespread, and sometimes deadly loss of electric power that has accompanied some of the state’s recent wildfires.
Instead of continuing on Telegraph, I turn up 150, or North Ojai Road. This two-lane road is flanked by wooden utility poles, ranch style homes, and a blend of fan palms and eucalyptus. The valley widens. Goldenrod and chaparral pour down the hills. Soon, I arrive at my destination—Anlauf Canyon Road. On Monday, December 4, 2017, at approximately 6:14pm, the cables which stretch from the poles lining 150 towards a family ranch in Anlauf Canyon swayed and then struck one another resulting in “line slapping.” According to the Ventura Fire Department Report, “phase to phase contact on several spans of [these] power lines” caused “molten aluminum particles to fall to the ground,” which then ignited sagebrush in the dry streambed.
California is crisscrossed by thousands of miles of power lines. Many intersect difficult terrain, pushed away from parks, schools, family homes and sensitive habitats. For various reasons, electrified lines start thousands of small fires each year. Some rural lines are poorly maintained, some crowded by overgrowth, and some susceptible to being jostled out of position by the warmer, faster winds incited by climate change. In recent years, vulnerable or faulty equipment have ignited California’s most catastrophic blazes.
When an iron hook holding up a 115,000-volt line owned by Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) snapped on the morning of November 8, 2018, it ignited what was later named the Camp Fire, the deadliest fire in California’s history. An investigation revealed that PG&E “knew for years that hundreds of miles of high-voltage power lines could fail and spark fires, yet it repeatedly failed to perform the necessary upgrades.” In October of 2019, after PG&E preemptively shut off power across the northern part of the state, a broken jumper wire started the Kincade Fire. These utility’s culpability for these faulty and exposed lines is part of ongoing lawsuits. To insulate itself, PG&E has filed for bankruptcy. Meanwhile, Southern California Edison—who owns and controls the lines running through this bucolic canyon near Ojai—is fighting its own legal battles regarding the Thomas Fire and the Montecito Mudslides.
Two years after the fire and mudslides, I stand on edge of 150 and look East over Steckel Park towards Anlauf Canyon. No sign or memorial will be placed here. I hear the creek gurgling below, see rich and verdant shrubs, and watch the waxy leaves of the Cottonwoods flickering like an organic strobe. This quiet canyon seems like the scene for a Western, a garden seemingly detached from the sprawling metropolis to the south or the devastation wrought in the rich hamlet to the northeast. I know the isolation is illusory. The sensation of being “cut off” from the beautiful vistas of the 101 and the bustle of Los Angeles can be almost instantly collapsed by a loose cable, especially in this age of dryer winters and warmer winds. Decades of damage has exposed our networks to nature’s wrath.
Charred tree on Highway 150, or North Ojai road. Photograph by author.
From the shoulder, I photograph some of the visible remnants of the fire, including charred poles, some of which are spray painted with an X. It’s unclear if they have simply not yet been replaced or will continue to be ignored. A series of scorched tree stumps line the opposite side of the road and above, I can see the cables with a hint of green, clearly shiny and new. I imagine most of the drivers that zip past me on 150 do not differentiate between the replacement poles and wires and the original, broken infrastructure. When the fires are controlled and the power returns, how do we notice the lines that ignited it? Why should the technological source of our tragedy be replaced? Why not let them hang there like obsolete telegraph poles alongside train tracks? For me, the electric lines, visible and disappeared, are salient. Maybe the locals see them too. Maybe the experience of the Thomas Fire has led them to see overhead wires as threats, as reminders of how easily the landscape around them could ignite and leave each tiny ranch or small town an island isolated by a sea of flames.
These wooden poles, insulators, and cables that run towards the Anlauf Canyon site where, December 4, 2017, power lines swaying in high winds cause sparks to fly and ignited the Thomas Fires. Photograph by author.
Intensification at Newhall Pass
Twenty-five miles east of the Fillmore, California Highway 126 reaches Castaic Junction and U.S. Interstate 5. This north-south interstate parallels the Pacific coast from the Mexico-U.S. border at San Diego to the Canadian border in Washington State. In the rocky landscape around Castaic, the 8-lane artery of I-5 is crossed by distinct packs of overhead cables and flanked by soaring transmission towers. To the north, I-5 rises through the Tejon Pass and continues into the Central Valley. In the span of sixty miles, the interstate is crossed by six major sets of 345 kv lines and three sets of 500 kv lines. The 500 kv lines are part of the Path 26 electric power transmission corridor, which runs from the Vincent Substation in Palmdale towards Midway station near Bakersfield. Midway, an industrial plot surrounded by vineyards and almond orchards, connects Path 26 to Path 15. Midway station is a node in the Pacific Intertie, a gigantic infrastructure that, like Interstate 5, stretches thousands of miles across the entire backbone of the continent. Few Californians likely know anything about the Pacific Intertie, but everyone, it seems, has had an experience with the I-5. One can physically engage the I-5, drive from Mexico to Canada on a border-to-border cannonball run in just about 21 hours or, be stuck in rush hour traffic for what feels like days. Meanwhile, no person travels the Pacific Intertie; instead, electrons move border to border in a matter of seconds.
“Men changing insulators on tower in Kern River Canyon,” 1916, Photographed by Haven G. Bishop, Southern California Edison Photographs and Negatives, Huntington Digital Library, San Marino California
I turn on I-5 south towards Los Angeles. Transmission towers dissect the hills dotted with oak and chaparral. Near the exit for Magic Mountain Parkway, three side-by-side sets of lattice steel towers and two of the “portal” designs carry a cluster of twenty-seven dense cables overhead. Lines and poles repeatedly flicker into view between the palm trees and strip malls that flank the interstate. Two miles behind the Wal-Mart at exit 168 are the remains of the Pico Canyon Oil Field, site of the first commercially drilled oil wells in California and longest operating well in the world, having been tapped in 1876 and capped 114 years later, in 1990. Nearby marks one of California’s first oil refineries and pipelines.
To appreciate the approach to my final destination, I turn east, cut through Santa Clarita, and park at the end of Newhall Avenue near Whitney Canyon Park. The pamphlet for this 442-acre open space boasts “outstanding examples of coastal sage scrub, oak woodland, chaparral and riparian corridor vegetation, with year-round springs and at least ten sensitive species.” While the ecosystem deserves praise, the parks’ hills are visually dominated by lattice steel towers and swooping cables. I ascend the path and stand next to one of these massive specimens. A hawk circles, too close to the lines, I think, and then glides towards the summit.
In fact, wildlife—not wildfires—used to be the cause of California’s power outages. In a fascinating article on the confluence of electrical engineering and ornithology, Etienne Benson tells the story of how, in the 1920s, Southern California Edison employees traced the sudden short circuiting of certain power lines in this area to the streams of feces that hawks released as they launched from their perch on lattice steel towers. The engineers used pans, poles, and shields to break the conductive “streamers” of bird excrement before they draped across the energized lines and caused a flashover.
Note on the negative reads: “There is no evidence of any burning. Farmer has never seen or heard of any arc.” This may have been part of an investigation regarding an outage. In the 1920s, when the line was upgraded to 220kv, a series of unexplained flashovers were eventually linked to bird feces which splayed across lines, causing them to arc and often incinerating any evidence of the effluent. February 23, 1915. Southern California Edison Archive, The Huntington Library, San Marino, California.
The hawk above me does not release—or at least onto me. It continues in an ungeometric gyre. I listen to corona discharge dissipate in the breeze. I remember that the electrons charging these lines were likely generated by falling water in the Sierras and arrived only to dissipate here, in this lush corridor between the Santa Susana and San Gabriel ranges.
Whitney Canyon Variety, Photograph by author
If there were such a thing as a park dedicated to the viewing of power lines around Los Angeles, this could be it. The dirt trails curve up and around small canyons and copses to different perspectives on unique tower designs, some L-5s 500 kv, others with more slender frames, fewer arms, lower voltages. The few mountain bikers, hikers, and families I pass do not seem to mind the towers, but I wonder what other purposes, beyond their function, these forms might serve? I am reminded of Leah Glaser’s claim: transmission towers can be “valuable cultural resources with a crucial story about the impact of long-distance power.” Unsurprisingly, the pamphlet does not tell that story.
The story of these towers would, in my mind, be the story of the “white coal” captured in the Sierras and extended to Los Angeles. Here, in 1906, the world’s first lattice steel transmission towers were used to transmit high voltage power. 1,140 lattice steel towers ranging from 30 to 60 feet tall carried what was at that time a record line with 75,000-volt potential from Kern River No. 1 across 118 miles to Los Angeles. As transmission voltages increased, taller and wider steel structures would replace wooden poles and H-frame structures across the United States and the rest of the world. In fact, California engineers initiated many global advances in power technology during the first decades of the twentieth century. As James C. Williams explains in Energy and the Making of Modern California: “By 1914, their success resulted in California having more long-distance, high tension transmission system that any other region in the world.” Of course, the power systems stretched across the great expanse of the Sierra range, but the bulk of them funneled into San Francisco and Los Angeles. With its natural barriers to the north, lines coming into Los Angeles narrowed into bottlenecks. Nowhere is this more evident than at Newhall Pass.
Newhall Pass was the final gateway on the long journey from the eastern United States to Los Angeles. In 1854, Phineas Banning cut down an existing trail through these mountains by 30 feet to allow wagons the ability to more safely descend. In 1862, Edward Beale acquired a toll road franchise and made another 60-feet gash that was known as “Beale’s Cut.” The Newhall railroad tunnel went beneath the pass in 1876. The new tunnel provided Southern Pacific a direct line to Los Angeles and, with the ensuing and nearby oil boom, Newhall Pass became an inflection point for Los Angeles’s movements of oil, freight, water, and power.
Los Angeles Aqueduct Cascades, 1913, Los Angeles Department of Water and Power.
I return to my car, drive through the corridor, and in seconds I am on the other side of the ridge. The geography is similar, but it feels like a different world. Here, packed into just over one square mile on the northern edge of Los Angeles county are the remnants or active features of the Ridge Route, the Sierra Highway, Interstate 5, the Antelope Valley Freeway and dozens of off ramps, flyovers, and interchanges. These concrete bands overlay two railroad tunnels and pass beside the first and second iteration of the Los Angeles Aqueduct Cascades. When this notable conduit first opened in 1913, 40,000 people gathered to hear William Mulholland dedicate the engineering feat and to release the flow of water with the famous words, “There it is. Take it!”
Flanking these overlapping tunnels, roads, pipes and chutes are sweeping packs of power lines. I follow the lines as they sweep over a hundred or so brand-new condos which have cardboard and plastic packaging hanging from their flawless garages. Besides one of these sparkling new homes, I notice a half acre burnt patch of recently planted sod grass. Here too, nature has reclaimed parts of the plastic buffer. I exit my rental car, climb up beneath a lattice steel transmission tower, and watch the hypnotic gush of the cascade.
From this vantage point near Newhall Pass, one might behold the latest iteration of what Christopher F. Jones calls “landscapes of intensification” which he defines as “material transformations of the natural environment that unlocked a world of ever-increasing energy flows delivered at ever-decreasing prices.” The transport of energy across this intensified landscape includes transmission lines, which transport electrons. A further level of intensification occurs where these lines intersect other infrastructures.
If Whitney Park is a place from which to view power lines that rise and reach across mountains, Newhall Pass and Sylmar—with its substations, pipelines, aqueducts, warehouses, trucking yards, new homes, and array of industrial glut—may be the site to view the consolidation of material and financial power as its siphoned to and from Los Angeles.
After revisiting materials in the Huntington Library stacks, I race through Pasadena towards Hollywood hoping to get beyond the 405-101 interchange before the yellow lines on my map app turn to the thick red of traffic. Like the crowds of isolated drivers around me, I pass countless lines, insulators, poles, and towers. Most are easily ignored and difficult to remember. In fact, in the 1970s, artist R. Crumb created a photo album filled with pictures of California’s street lights, poles, and other overhead infrastructure because, as he explained, “People don’t draw it, all this crap, people don’t focus attention on it because it’s ugly, it’s bleak, it’s depressing…The stuff is not created to be visually pleasing and you can’t remember exactly what it looks like. But, this is the world we live in; I wanted my work to reflect that, the background reality of urban life.”
Amidst the “background reality” of Los Angeles, one series of transmission lines and distribution poles are not as bleak and they do stand out—the Dreyfuss designs. In the late 1960s, in response to consumer outcries against the negative visual impact of power lines, Edison Electric Institute and Southern California Edison pioneered an industry-wide effort to improve the aesthetics of tower designs, to sway public opinions, and to avoid the astronomical costs of undergrounding. They commissioned Henry Dreyfuss, the “father of industrial design” to create a series of aesthetic models to merge the function of high voltage transmission with sleek, modernistic forms. The results initially took the form of a book, Electric Transmission Structures and a short film, Towers of Tomorrow. Both book and film showcase Dreyfuss’s 26 designs for poles and towers. In his introduction, Dreyfuss dreams: “When transmission towers are given the same purity of expression given great bridges, they, too, may be acclaimed as a Twentieth Century art form.” Dreyfuss also narrates Towers of Tomorrow, which features photographs of models against the backdrop of various projected landscapes. Dreyfuss guides viewers with comments related to the innovative features of the new towers such as, “The curve elements are important as they contribute strength as well as well as visual grace.” Overall, the models show Dreyfuss’s preference for “robustness and seamlessness” and structures which would be “sturdy and unified-looking in contrast to their spindly predecessors.”
Dreyfuss and Southern California Edison tried to convince the public that these “esthetic” towers made positive impacts on the visual landscape, but the campaign was not entirely successful. One recent review notes, “[Dreyfuss’s] work was to be the first and the last cooperative attempt by industry to create new aesthetic structure designs.”
While not exactly new, three distinct types of Dreyfuss power lines remain visible in Los Angeles. The “Starburst” for 69 kv poles features six cantilevered insulators spread out like a starfish. Their most famous placement is along Hollywood Boulevard. The “Sunburst” is a more remarkable design and is used for higher-voltage transmission. The “Sunburst” is a sleeker, more streamlined version of the typical lattice steel transmission tower. Two prototypes were erected near El Segundo in 1967 and thirteen more were put into place the following year. These remain the most exemplary of all Dreyfuss’s transmission line designs, although the dull brown variation is more common.
“Sunburst” 66kV double-circuit pole design, Photographed by Art Adams, Southern California Edison Photographs and Negatives, Huntington Digital Library
Today, I visit the third of the Dreyfuss designs that remain in the area; the “portal.” In 1972, Southern California Edison described the portals as having “bold, simple silhouette” which is “very impressive at close-up viewing as well as at a distance. Its vee-string insulators are always orderly, even under minor side loads.” One such example is visible above the Conejo Pass.
The Conejo Pass provides a fitting exit for my discussion of Los Angeles’s wired landscapes. Southbound on the iconic Highway 101 from Ventura, trucks lug up the right lanes of the 7% grade while more nimble vehicles whip by on the left. Older cars, I know from experience, are prone to overheat during this steady, 3-mile ascent. Northbound from Los Angeles, semi-truck drivers must have their brakes inspected before descending. Next to the brake checkpoint, just beyond the peak of this steep pass, two formidable pairs of brown concrete pylons are stamped into a rock outcropping like indestructible carpet staples. Twelve cables span the 1400-foot gap carrying 220 kV over the banking traffic. To the east, the lines extend towards to the Los Angeles suburb of Moorpark. To the southwest, they are crossed under by Edison Road, a dirt path that snakes beneath the lines and allows crews to access these pylons and the subsequent lattice steel towers. The portals help to transmit electricity through the mountains and then slope towards the Ormond Beach natural gas power plant on the edge of the Pacific. With its 1,516 megawatt capacity, Ormond Beach is the third largest power plant in California. Due to its age, and newer energy regulations regarding the use of ocean water, Ormand Beach was supposed to shut down in 2020. However, because of concerns about grid reliability, it may remain open for one to three more years.
I leave the car at a dead end in Newbury Park and take the trail I found online and which was posted by rock climbers who come here to scale the Conejo boulders. After a short hike, I’m standing next to the portals, looking down at the 101.
These structures do more than provide physical support for invisible currents. In addition to their aesthetic posture, the specific context for these portals is also fitting, as they strike at the etymological roots of “pylon.” The word “pylon” comes from the Greek word for “gate,” and French archeologists originally used pylon to describe the monumental, side-by-side gateways placed near Egyptian pyramids and temples. For millennia, massive pylons have flanked and decorated prominent entrances, pathways, bridges, and ports. Presently, “pylon” also connotes smaller markers (e.g. “traffic pylon” and “end zone pylon”), tall poles used by airplanes or ships for navigational guidance, and, especially in the United Kingdom, electric transmission towers.
The pylons above Conejo Pass transmit electricity and mediate a visible exchange with landscape. They are portals. They are thresholds. They are visible tokens of the millions of miles of electric lines that, over the course of a century, helped transform this relatively rustic, arid, inhospitable area into one of the most powerful, diverse, and iconic regions on the planet.
Power lines are sites of tension, physically and culturally. While my interest in the history of technology attracts me to different lines like these, these portals have also come to signal my own entrances and exits, flights and perchings in the state of California. I wonder if others might feel the same. Just before I returned to make this tour, the LA Times published an opinion piece urging the California Public Utilities commission, PG&E, and SCE to come up with a plan for the “immediate inspection of all the power lines in the state, starting with those in the high-fire risk areas.”
This has been more like a strange tour compared to the inspections required to keep residents safe during the next fire season. In addition, convincing the public to accept the transmission lines (and corresponding costs) or new transmission will be difficult. For now, viewing unique single slivers in the vast and complex power systems reminds me of the interplays between California’s history and future of electric power, engineering and environmentalism.
 James D. Reid, The Telegraph in America:Its Founders, Promoters, and Noted Men (New York: Derby Brothers, 1879), 498.
 Alice Bates, “History of the Telegraph in California,” The Historical Society of Southern California Vol. 9.3 (1914), 181-187.
 James Schwoch, Wired Into Nature: The Telegraph and the North American Frontier (Urbana-Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2018).
 James C. Williams, Energy and the Making of Modern California (Akron, University of Akron Press, 1997), 42.
 Some of the most well-known “Telegraph” streets in California are “Telegraph Road” which crosses greater Los Angeles from La Mirada to East Los Angeles and “Telegraph Avenue” which passes from downtown Oakland to the campus of University of California Berkeley. Lesser-frequented telegraph paths are the “Telegraph Road” in a remote stretch of mountains in Midpines, “Telegraph Hill” in El Dorado Hill, “Telegraph Blvd” in Marina, “Telegraph Ave” in Folsom, “Telegraph Place” in San Francisco, and “Telegraph Drive” in San Jose. There are also Telegraph Canyon, Telegraph Peak, Telegraph Hill, Telegraph Ridge, and Telegraph City, named for its location on the line 33 miles east of Stockton and 30 miles west of Sonora.
 Etienne Benson. “Generating Infrastructural Invisibility: Insulation, Interconnection, and Avian Excrement in the Southern California Power Grid.” Environmental Humanities Vol. 6.1 (2015), 103-130.
 Leah Glaser, “Nice Towers, eh? Evaluation a Transmission Line in Arizona,” Cultural Resource Management, U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, Vol. 20.14 (1997), 23-24.
 James C. Williams, Energy and the Making of Modern California, 187.
 Christopher F. Jones, “Landscapes of Intensification: Transport and Energy in the U.S. Mid-Atlantic, 1820–1930” The Journal of Transport History, Vol. 35, No. 2 (Dec 2014).
 Levy, Eugene. “The Aesthetics of Power: High-Voltage Transmission Systems and the American Landscape.” Technology and Culture Vol. 38 No. 3 (July 1997), 575-607.
Towers of Tomorrow. 15 min. New York: Jack Brady Productions, 1968.
 Russell Flinchum, Henry Dreyfuss, Industrial Designer: The Man in the Brown Suit (New York: Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum and Rizzoli, 1997), 174.
 Tikalsky, Susan M. and C.J. Willyward. “Aesthetics and Public Perceptions of Transmission Structures: A Brief History of the Research.” Right of Way (Electric Power Research Institute, March-April 2007), 28-32.
 Southern California Edison, “Design Guide: Aesthetic Guidelines for Electric Transmission Lines,” Southern California Edison, Rosemead, CA, 1972.
Daniel Wuebben Ph.D. is the author of Power-Lined: Electricity, Landscape, and the American Mind(University of Nebraska Press, 2019). His research on floral codes, viral literacy, and surfing has been published in academic journals such as Victorian Literature and Culture, Computers and Composition, and Symplokē. He lives in Segovia, Spain, and in July 2020 he will begin a two-year Marie Skłodowska-Curie Fellowship with the Ciberimaginario Group at the Universidad Rey Juan Carlos. His project on “grid literacy” engages electric rhetoric and transmission’s role in the energy transition.
The Central Pacific Railroad transformed California from an overseas possession to a continental possession of the United States. Chinese railroad labor, organized under contract and disciplined by racial violence, was situated at the war-finance nexus. After completion of the railroad, Chinese exclusion formalized racial violence and labor control on a continental scale, evacuating models of relationship governing the movement of people across Indigenous lands and waters. The railroad, and exclusion, were core infrastructures of continental imperialism.
Racial dimensions of the war-finance nexus manifested in the snarling rhetoric of Leland Stanford’s 1862 inaugural speech as governor of California: “While the settlement of our State is of the first importance, the character of those who shall become settlers is worthy of scarcely less consideration.” Stanford’s fear of an Asian invasion grew out of racial and class anxieties, that California would act as an escape valve for the “dregs” of Asia. Racial, class, and cultural qualities of imagined future Asian migrations threatened Stanford’s vision of California as a space of settler accumulation. He voiced a colonialist anxiety about dispossession, a racial paranoia centering on fears of invasion and divestment. The colonization of California, accomplished by constant, ongoing, and overwhelming violation of Indigenous life, proceeded through relationships with Asia’s “numberless millions,” threatening, in Stanford’s perspective, to undermine the stability of the colonial order. Chinese labor was an instrument, not a subject, of colonialism. Stanford urged the California government to request land and credit from the U.S. federal government, to support the construction of a transcontinental railroad, to remake California as a site of continental imperialism. Stanford’s rhetoric was not without precedent. In his 1851 inaugural speech as the first U.S. civil governor of California, Peter Burnett had called for a “war of extermination” against Indigenous peoples in California. From the base of their “mountain fastness,” Burnett argued, Natives engaged in irregular warfare that made settlers always vulnerable to random attack, and made it impossible for settlers to distinguish Indigenous combatants from noncombatants. Colonialist race war fueled the fears for colonial futures.
Five weeks after Stanford gave his speech, the U.S. Congress approved “An Act to prohibit the ‘Coolie Trade’ by American Citizens in American Vessels.” The act prohibited U.S. citizens and residents from transporting “the inhabitants, or subjects of China known as ‘coolies,’” defined as individuals “disposed of, or sold, or transferred, for any term of years or for any time whatever, as servants or apprentices, or to be held to service or labor.” U.S. law associated coolie status with indenture, a status marked in time, distinct from slavery. A distance from “freedom” was visible through categories of labor and relationships of exploitation rather than geographic origins, a suspicion of not quite being free. The act enumerated conditions for “free and voluntary emigration of any Chinese subject,” requiring men arriving from China to carry a certificate of freedom, issued by a U.S, consular official at the port of emigration. Although the law made it illegal to bring Chinese people to the United States as “coolies,” it would remain practically unenforced.
Two months later, in April 1862, the California state legislature passed an Anti-Coolie Act, instituting a monthly tax on Chinese people working gold mines and owning businesses, a new cost for being identified as Chinese in California. Against the logic of the federal law, which presented “coolie” status as a condition of labor, California legislated in racial terms. “Coolie,” in the logic of California law, meant “Chinese,” a racial status, not a debt and labor structure. Where in the federal anti-coolie law, the U.S. government asserted territorial prerogatives to control borders, in the California law, the state distinguished Chinese people as a significant source of state revenue. The racial logics of California state revenue betrayed colonial origins, echoing an 1847 law mandating that Indigenous people’s employers issue passes and certificates of employment for Indians who wished to trade in California towns.
The Price of a Ticket
In an interview with the historian Hurbert Bancroft, Kwong Ki- Chaou, a California-based representative of the Chinese government, described Chinese migrations to the United States: “Chinese coming to this country are as free as European immigrants- they come here free.” Kwong framed Chinese migrations (and freedom) in relation to the transformation of European provinciality into New World whiteness, distancing from the legacies of slavery on life in North America, claiming participant status in the creation of a New World. Contra Stanford, Kwong presented Chinese people not as alien invaders, but as constituents in the colonial pageant of California. Freedom was a claim to belong, a claim to possession, predicated on the ongoing occupation of Indigenous lands. Kwong continued, saying that Chinese people in North America “have no masters” with one exception: “Only those persons who came to work for the railroad came under contract but most of them ran away when they got here. Those who brought them lost money’ but all others came free.” Were those who came from China to work for the railroad free?
U.S. authorities had inherited labor structures from Spanish colonial California. Toward the end of the 1840s, whites were organizing hunting parties that systematically attacked entire Indigenous communities, a particularly gendered form of violence that targeted Indigenous women. Amidst colonialist race war, with the high cost of labor during the Gold Rush, the California legislature passed one of its first laws, the 1850 Act for the Government and Protection of Indians, legalizing debt peonage to force Indigenous children and adults into compulsory labor for large-scale agricultural interests, under the guise of indenture. The U.S. military government in San Francisco had already begun enforcing compulsory Indigenous labor in 1847. The area north of San Francisco Bay was home to over 100,000 Indigenous people in 1846. Early U.S. military campaigns against communities branded as “horse-thief Indians” established U.S. authority over the region, a point of commensurability between the Mexican ranching elite, newly arrived settlers from the United States, and the U.S. military. Race war and overseas imperialism shaped the development of San Francisco. As a port of arrival, San Francisco was linked to Singapore and Penang, points of entry for Chinese workers to tin and gold mines in southeast Asia. En route to San Francisco, ships stopped in Manila, Guam, and Honolulu. Gold fields near Marysville, as well as Union Pacific construction, drew Chinese people, following Kānaka Maolis who had arrived to a place that was already deeply imbued with Oceanic histories and relationships.
On arrival in California, most of the migrants from China found work through family or social connections, or through district associations, the huiguan. Known in San Francisco as the Six Companies, district associations functioned as mutual-aid societies where new and indigent arrivals could find shelter and basic amenities, following organizational models among Chinese communities in Southeast Asia. The huiguan entrenched the power of merchants in Chinatown communities, institutions to localize and delegate functions of community upkeep and policing, operating through solidarity and control, linking mercantile economy spanning southeast Asia, the Philippines, and Hawai’i.
Chinese camp, Brown’s Station. Photograph by Alfred A. Hart, between 1865-1869. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C.
Sucheng Chan described Chinese merchants’ main assets in California: working knowledge of English and ready access to laborers. Merchants developed business around arrivals to California and departures to China, situated strategically between Chinatown communities and major corporations. Chinese merchant capital in California could not shake off constraints on its reproduction and valorization. Its primary economic function was to provide and provision Chinese labor on demand. Labor contractors recruited and organized Chinese workers into gangs of twenty-five to thirty men. The Central Pacific kept accounts by gang, disbursing wages to a headman, who then divided the wages. Charles Crocker, who oversaw construction on the Central Pacific, told the U.S. Senate, “we cannot distinguish Chinamen by names very well.” According to Crocker, the names of Chinese workers sounded too much alike for railroad authorities to distinguish between individuals, constituting instead a homogenous mass in the railroad company’s wage accounts. “We could not know Ah Sin, Ah You, Kong Won, all such names. We cannot keep their names in the usual way, because it is a different language. You understand the difficulty. It is not done in that way because they are slaves.” To be a Chinese worker on the Central Pacific was definitely not to be a slave, the property of another. It was, however, a reduction to the status of a tool for grading earth and drilling a mountain. It was to be expendable, interchangeable, replaceable. Chinese workers were instruments of labor, constant capital for the Central Pacific Railroad Company. The quality of their lives interfered with their essential function, as a quantity of labor.
State and corporation supplied the organizational basis for colonialism in nineteenth-century California. Neither could be disentangled from the other. Leland Stanford was president of the Central Pacific Railroad while serving as the first Republican governor of California. The first locomotive in service for the Central Pacific was christened the “Governor Stanford.” In 1863, Governor Stanford appointed Edwin Bryant Crocker, elder brother of Charles (the superintendent of Central Pacific construction), as a justice of the California Supreme Court. A year later, E.B., “the Judge,” as his associates hailed him, became chief counsel for the Central Pacific, joining the circle of directors including Stanford, Mark Hopkins, Collis Huntington, and Charles.
Testifying later before the U.S. Senate, Charles Crocker would stress wages to argue that Chinese labor in the Central Pacific was free labor. “You cannot control a Chinaman except you pay him for it. You cannot make a contract with him, or his friend, or supposed master, and get his labors unless you pay for it, and pay for him.” The Central Pacific recruited Chinese labor through labor contractors, combining wages with coercion, resting on the power of contractors to control mobility and immobility at the same time. According to Crocker’s Senate testimony, the Central Pacific procured Chinese workers through the services of Chinese and white labor contractors alike. One firm, Sisson, Wallace & Co., eventually “furnished pretty much all of the Chinamen that we worked.” Clark Crocker, brother of Charles and E.D., was the “& Co.” in question.
Leland Stanford, in his 1866 report of the president of the Central Pacific, assured investors there was no system similar to slavery among Chinese workers, whose wages and provisions were distributed by independent agents: “We have assurances from leading Chinese merchants, that under the just and liberal policy pursued by the Company, it will be able to produce during the next year, not less than fifteen thousand laborers.” Employing Chinese workers as a racially distinct labor force, whose labor was cheaper than white, was not inevitable for the Central Pacific. The directors arrived at these hiring strategies only after considering other sources of labor, such as Confederate prisoners working under guard. Across the South, African Americans competed with Confederate veterans for railroad jobs. In Virginia, in August 1865, such competition sparked violent confrontation between Black workers and white workers (the latter backed by a Maryland militia sent to break up the fighting). That October, the Committee on Industrial Pursuits at the 1865 California State Convention of Colored Citizens forwarded a resolution to send three representatives to present to Central Pacific directors “the expediency of employing from twenty to forty thousand freedmen on the Great Pacific Railroad” and to petition members of the California state legislature and congressional representatives for aid. The Central Pacific directors did not receive the message, or they chose to ignore it.
A few months earlier, in May 1865, at the outset of the summer construction season, Mark Hopkins had written to Collis Huntington, “We find a difficulty getting laborers on the railroad work.” According to Hopkins, workers would come and go as they pleased, like “tramping journeymen.” Labor recruiting and labor control posed major obstacles for Central Pacific construction, and Hopkins saw Chinese workers as essential to managing both of these issues. “Without them,” he worried, “it would be impossible to go on with the work. But China laborers are coming in slowly so that Charley thinks the force will steadily increase from this time on.” A report from the Sacramento Daily Union a little over a year later, in June 1866, provides a sense of the rapid increase Chinese labor as Central Pacific construction proceeded. Between Colfax and summit, the railroad employed 11,000 Chinese Workers:
Almost the entire work of digging is done by Chinamen, and the Directors of the road say it would be impossible to build it at present without them. They are found to be equally as good as white men, and less inclined to quarrel and strikes. They are paid $30 per month and boarded, and a cook is allowed for every twelve men. They do not accomplish so much in a given time as Irish laborers, but they are willing to work more hours per day, and are content with their lot so long as they are promptly paid.
The value of Chinese labor is accounted, here, in terms of racial comparison, involving a give and take between productivity and control, indispensable for making accurate predictions of the future. “If the work on this road continues to progress as fast as it has done during this season,” the Union continued, “there is little doubt that the cars will be running from Sacramento to Salt Lake inside of three years.” Accurate predictions could stimulate investment. The ethereal relations of finance capital took flight from land grants, and the racial and gendered control of bodies and space.
Although celebrated for their supposed docility, news circulated in California of different modes of Chinese being. In December 1866, the Sacramento Daily Union reported that six Chinese miners working a placer on Bear River had defended themselves from four white men, killing two of their attackers, and causing the other two to flee for their lives. A second report, from Shasta County, relayed information about an attack on a group of miners near Rock Creek, which the Daily Union writer blamed on growing racist sentiment against Chinese miners. The attack at Rock Creek resulted in three wounded miners, and in the days afterwards, “the Chinese in the various camps around town have been purchasing arms to protect themselves with.” Although mining life shaped the context for Chinese labor, it had already been superseded by the industrial transformation of the regional economy. As a Daily Union writer baldly stated a day after the reports of violence against Chinese miners, in an article entitled “Railroads and Capital”: “This is emphatically an era of railroads.”
A few days later, on January 2, 1867, Stanford and Judge Crocker attended a banquet at the Occidental Hotel to celebrate the departure of the first steamship bound for China and Japan from San Francisco. In his remarks that evening, Stanford made no explicit mention of Chinese workers, but he had China on his mind. Projecting forward to an anticipated completion of the transcontinental in 1870, Stanford prattled:
Then will the “ligament be perfect that binds the Eastern Eng and Western Chang together.” Then, Mr. Chairman, behold the result! For America, the chief control of the developed trade of the better part of Asia with Europe and America. Our Pacific slope, and particularly California, filling rapidly with a hardy, enterprising and industrious people mostly of our brethren and sisters of our old Atlantic homes.
Stanford had slightly revised his inaugural speech from eight years before, imagining a putatively national body assembled from distinct colonial parts, to enable the future development of California along desirable lines. For Stanford, Chinese people were not, themselves, part of the social body of continental imperialism. Instead, this social body acts on Chinese people in North America, and beyond.
Stanford’s grandiose visions, however, were not borne out by the unfolding calculations among Central Pacific directors, to recruit and control a labor force at wages and work conditions that would maximize their profits. Just days after Stanford spoke, Judge Crocker and Collis Huntington debated how large of a work force to maintain through the slower winter construction, Huntington favoring cutting the work force down to seasonal size. Discharge experienced Chinese workers, Crocker worried, and they would move into mining, putting the Central Pacific at a decided disadvantage during the short summer season. The previous summer, construction managers had difficulty keeping workers at the grueling hard rock tunnel work. Those currently employed by the Central Pacific had already experienced the conditions at the summit, and the judge felt them to be “dependable.” Crocker asked Huntington to test his own powers of forbearance and accept a relatively higher level of employment during the winter. “We hope you will strain every nerve bringing everything to bear to keep along, and not ask us to discharge a man.”
Huntington remained skeptical, or perhaps his nerves could not bear the strain, and he asked for an accounting of the cost of excavating one cubic yard at the summit tunnel. Judge Crocker obligingly explained that construction directors projected working three men on each drill, at the excruciating pace of a 13/4 inch hole one foot, per hour, organizing the work in day and night shifts of eight hours. Construction managers experimented with new tools, such as “gunpowder drills” and nitroglycerin, to speed up and cheapen construction. The tools met the rock, of course, through the application of the worker. And the worker was a category with distinctions. Closer to the status of tools, of drills, gunpowder, and nitroglycerin than white workers, Chinese railroad workers gave the directors of the Central Pacific a chance to squeeze more profit from a hard place. The judge calculated, “Each white man costs us in board and wages $2 1/2 each 8 hours, but Chinamen cost us $1.19 each 8 hours, and they drill nearly as fast.” Chinese railroad labor was a quantity measuring time in relation to price, and the price was lower than that of white labor. Where the Central Pacific covered housing and food costs for white railroad labor, the reproduction of Chinese labor was free. By the end of the month, the directors doubled down, printing and circulating a Chinese language recruiting notice throughout California and in China. The judge was not entirely sure what the notice said. “The Chinamen all understand it,” he explained to Huntington, “but it is hard for them to translate it back into English.” Behind the bluster of corporate control lurked countersovereignty, a reactive dependence on others.
Reproducing Racial Control
The shared culture of Chinese workers and merchants functioned simultaneously as a sphere of pleasure and sustenance and a sphere of constriction. Railroad workers’ corporate wages supplanted the shared profits of miners in the gold fields. Chinese workers’ isolation in temporary work camps, scattered along the line of railroad construction, bound them to relationships cementing their control. A separate system of disbursing wages and provisioning food and housing reflected these distinctions. Charles Nordhoff visited a Chinese railroad work camp on the San Joaquin River, where he found seven hundred Chinese men and one hundred white men. The Chinese workers were supposed to receive $28 for working twenty-six days each month, paying for food, tents, and utensils, with labor contractors paying the cooks. Several railroad cars at the end of track acted as a store for Chinese workers. According to Nordhoff, most of the items sold in this store were imported from China. Organizing and provisioning a male society, the Central Pacific took on a military structure. This was the organizational form of the war-finance nexus, in which class formation occurred through the structures of war. Merchants handled the distribution of food, and workers were captive to their supplies and profits. Collectively, Chinese railroad workers had no future. The success of their labor would ensure the obsolescence of their lives.
Planning in relation to Chinese labor, Central Pacific directors balanced the temporality of seasonal work conditions with temporalities of Chinese laborers’ lives. In early February 1867, recruiting delays during lunar New Year left the Central Pacific short of at least 1,500 workers for immediate work, threatening to jam up the progress of construction after the snow melted. In the howling winter, according to Judge Crocker’s report, 1,500 Chinese men were already at work on the summit, and 1,000 on the approach. The Chinese calendar, with its festivals and feasts, helped Chinese workers on the Central Pacific maintain a sense of connection to their homes and families and to their ancestors. It also ritualized their connection to the merchants and contractors who continued to profit from both their employment and their social reproduction. Calendar time blended into labor time for Chinese workers along the railroad’s line of construction. The formation of a Chinese merchant class in North America, both provisioning and supplying labor, revolved around relationships to Chinese workers as both consumers and producers.
As Judge Crocker explained to Huntington in mid-February 1867, nearly all of those drilling for the Central Pacific were Chinese men whose work was “fully equal to white men,” but they were employed at a rate requiring them to work twenty-six days a month, covering the cost of their own food and housing, unlike their white counterparts. Huntington remained unconvinced, and the judge emphasized the relative value of Chinese railroad labor two days later:
We have had a chance to compass the merits of our Chinese laborers and Cornish miners, who are deemed the best underground workers in the world, and the Chinese beat them right straight all along, day in and day out. We have a large force of well-trained Chinese tunnel workers, and they can’t be beat. They cost only about half what white men do, and are more regular in labor, and more peaceable. They are not men who get drunk and pickup rows, but can be relied upon for steady work.
Laborers and rocks, near opening of Summit Tunnel. Chinese camp, Brown’s Station. Photograph by Alfred A. Hart, between 1865-1869. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C.
Empirical observation of racial competition settled the question. For Central Pacific Railroad Company directors, race was a calculus of profit maximization.
Mark Hopkins gave another perspective on this racial calculus, laying out three conditions whereby he and the other directors should “never be financially troubled hereafter,” including an early spring melting off the Sierras, $250 per month of investments coming in from the eastern United States from June through November, and “increased numbers of Chinamen come into the work.” Weather, investments, and Chinese labor were the legs of a platform on which Hopkins and his associates planned to build their personal fortunes. For the first, they could pray. For the second, they could bluster and impress. For the third, they had to rely on others. How could anyone imagine this to be stable, to imagine that the men perched atop could be in control?
Late in May 1867, as the snow finally began melting between Cisco and the Truckee River, the Central Pacific directors prepared a full push on the summit. As the weather cooperated, and funds for equipment and wages flowed, it was suddenly difficult to find workers. Judge Crocker explained to Huntington,
The truth is the Chinese are now exclusively employed in quartz mills and a thousand other employments new to them. Our use of them led hundreds of others to employ them, so that now when we want to gather them up for the spring and summer work, a large portion are permanently employed at work they like better. The snow & labor questions have our progress quite uncertain.
Five days later, the judge notified Huntington of plans to raise the Chinese workers’ wages almost 13 percent, from $31 to $35 per month. Chinese workers were finding work in quartz mills, building roads and canals, and many were going to Idaho and Montana, looking for work. “Our supply,” he cautioned, “will be short unless we do something.” And so the Central Pacific directors responded, at a loss of “$100,000 in gold on this season’s work.” By early June, the judge was panicking, “Our force is not now increasing, and the season has come when it ought to increase.” He understood the Central Pacific as a victim of its own innovation: “We have proved their value as laborers, and everybody is trying them, and now we can’t get them.”
In late June, Mark Hopkins notified Huntington of “an unexpected feature.” After the Central Pacific had raised Chinese workers’ wages in the hopes of quickly increasing the drilling work force for the summer construction season at the summit, news arrived that the Chinese workers had gone on strike, demanding $40 per month and a ten-hour day, instead of the current eleven-hour work days. The strike demands would tip over the platform upon which the directors had imagined profit. As Hopkins put it, “if they are successful in this demand, then they control, and their demands will be increased.” It was a war for control. It was not only a class war over the conditions of work. It was also a war to decide who would colonize California, and on what terms, echoing Stanford’s gubernatorial address. Hopkins expressed hope in a Central Pacific “application for 5000 Freedmen from the Freedmen’s Bureau.” It was a lesson in political economy. “When any commodity is in demand beyond the natural supply, even Chinese labor, the price will tend to increase.”
The Sacramento Daily Union printed a telegram attributed to Huntington, dated June 28, stating, “There will be no trouble in getting all the laborers you want. How many thousand shall I send? You can contract for passage at low rates.” He was bluffing. The next day, Judge Crocker wrote with more honesty: “The truth is, they are getting smart.” However, he doubted the workers’ intelligence: “Who has stirred up the strike we don’t know, but it was evidently planned and concerted.” The strike was a bid for direct accountability between individual workers and the Central Pacific, directed against the railroad directors and construction supervisors. While it forced the Central Pacific directors to reckon with their workers as a unified group, it was also a bid to force the bosses to consider them as individuals.
The Central Pacific directors were inclined to reinvest in a racial division of labor. Judge Crocker notified Huntington of a man named Yates, a ship’s steward who had met with Stanford in San Francisco. William Henry Yates had arrived in San Francisco in 1851 from Washington, DC, where he had been active in the Underground Railroad, and had worked as a steward on river steamers and ferry boats in California. Yates had played a leadership role in the 1865 Colored Citizens’ convention. “His plan was to get a large number of freedmen to come to California under the Freedmen’s Bureau, and under the aid of the government, that is a sort of military organization crossing the plains.” The judge understood that Yates was then in Washington, trying to find support for the idea. The racial organization of labor, for the Central Pacific Railroad, was situated squarely at the nexus of war and finance. The social reproduction of continental imperialism is the social reproduction of war. The judge understood the strike as a skirmish in a deeper war.
The only safe way for us is to inundate this state and Nevada with laborers. Freedmen, Chinese, Japanese, all kinds of labor, so that men come to us for work instead of our hunting them up. They will all find something to do, and a surplus will keep wages low. It is our only security for strikes.
Racial importation was a means to control the price of labor. Hopkins reinforced Crocker’s earlier message about Yates, whom he described as “a man of integrity and good abilities.” According to the plan, the Central Pacific would be responsible for expenses to bring freedmen to San Francisco, but “a Negro labor force would tend to keep the Chinese steady, as the Chinese have kept the Irishmen quiet.” Hopkins saw this as a worthwhile investment in labor control. Judge Crocker fired off another note to Huntington that day. The strike was “the hardest blow we have here,” he sighed, and Charles had informed leaders of the Chinese community that the Central Pacific would pay no more than $35. Chinese community leaders had sent messages to the work camps, advising the workers to return to work. Something is left unwritten in the judge’s letter, which refers to more desperate measures, closing with the sentence, “It is the only way to deal with them.”
Three days later, Hopkins sent word of Capital triumphant. The strike was broken, the workers returned to their jobs in the same conditions as before the strike. Curiously, after their victory, Hopkins speculated that “the strike appears to have been instigated by Chinese gamblers and opium traders, who are prohibited from plying their vocation on the line of the work.” Hopkins imagined continuity between railroad workers’ collective voice and the lurid visions of an underground Chinese vice economy, specters perhaps, of the English and American opium traders who had helped set trans-Pacific Chinese migration patterns into play, under the banner of free trade. If nothing else, his statement contradicts the image of docile, hardworking, and clean-cut pets that Hopkins and the judge had imagined these Chinese workers to fulfill, just months before. The lives of their workers threatened the security of their profits.
On July 2, Judge Crocker relayed details of how the associates broke the strike:
Their agent stopped supplying them with goods and provisions and they really began to suffer. None of us went near them for a week. We did not want to exhibit anxiety. Then Charles went up, and they gathered around him, and he told them that he would not be dictated to, that he made the rules for them and not they for him.
The destruction of the workers’ solidarity brutally reinscribed a hierarchy of exploitation driving Central Pacific construction, proceeding with the active participation of Chinese merchants who stopped supplying food and provisions to the work camps. The participation of Chinese merchants and labor contractors in breaking the strike clarifies their investments in the organization and management of labor on Central Pacific construction. There was no mutual aid, no principle of racial solidarity here. The Daily Union printed a more detailed account of the strike action and demands, clarifying the demand for eight hours from those working the tunnels, and ten hours from those on open ground. The report conveyed core strike demands:
We understand that a placard printed in the Chinese language was distributed along the line of the road a day or two before the strike occurred. This placard is said to have set forth the right of the workmen to higher wages and to a more moderate day’s work, and to deny the right of the overseers of the company to either whip them or to restrain them from leaving the road when they desire to seek other employment.
The workers struck over wages and the length of the working day. But they also struck for an end to physical punishment, and for the right to leave employment when they wanted to. These are not the hallmarks of free labor.
From the perspectives of the Central Pacific directors, the situation improved after the strike. On July 6, Judge Crocker surmised to Huntington of the Chinese workers’ shame, predicting, “I don’t think we will ever have any more difficulties with them.” Visions of worker docility had perhaps been reinforced with a confidence in racial hierarchies that had been reproduced by means of brute violence. A few weeks later, this turn coincided with workers, “arriving from China in large numbers,” according to Judge Crocker, who projected that the Central Pacific would soon meet its labor target. Recruiting and controlling labor seemed to be resolved. While he imagined that the Chinese workers felt ashamed, the judge informed Huntington, “we feel a good deal encouraged.”
 Peter Burnett, “Message to the California State Legislature,” January 7, 1851, California State Senate Journal (1851), 15; Leland Stanford, Inaugural Address of Leland Stanford, Governor of the State of California, January 10, 1862 (Sacramento: B. P. Avery, 1862); June Mei, “Socioeconomic Origins of Emigration: Guangdong to California, 1850–1882,” in Labor Immigration under Capitalism: Asian Immigrant Workers in the United States before World War II, ed. Lucie Cheng and Edna Bonacich (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984); Iyko Day, Alien Capital: Asian Racialization and the Logic of Settler Colonialism (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2016), 48–53; Moreton-Robinson, The White Possessive, 144, 152.
 U. S. 37th Cong., Sess II, Chs. 25, 27, 1862, pp. 340–41; Robert Schwendinger, “Investigating Chinese Immigrant Ships and Sailors,” in The Chinese American Experience: Papers from the Second National Conference on Chinese American Studies, ed. Genny Lim (San Francisco: Chinese Historical Society of America, 1980), 21; Robert Irick, Ch’ing Policy toward the Coolie Trade, 1847–1878 (China: Chinese Materials Center, 1982), 153; Moon-Ho Jung, “Outlawing ‘Coolies’: Race, Nation, and Empire in the Age of Emancipation,” American Quarterly 57, no. 3 (September 2005): 677–701; Moon-Ho Jung, Coolies and Cane: Race, Labor, and Sugar in the Age of Emancipation (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006), 36–38; Lowe, The Intimacies of Four Continents, 25.
An Act to Protect Free White Labor Against Competition with Chinese Coolie Labor, and to Discourage the Immigration of the Chinese Into the State of California, April 26, 1862; Moon Ho Jung, “What Is the ‘Coolie Question’?” Labour History 113 (2017): 3; Albert Hurtado, “Controlling California’s Indian Labor Force: Federal Administration of California Indian Affairs during the Mexican War,” Southern California Quarterly 61, no. 3 (1979): 228. Taxes on Chinese miners provided at least 10 percent of total state revenue from the early 1850s through 1864. Chinese people in California faced additional, racially targeted taxes in California during these years. Mark Kanazawa, “Immigration, Exclusion, and Taxation: Anti-Chinese Legislation in Gold Rush California,” Journal of Economic History 65, no. 3 (September 2005): 781, 785–87, 789.
 Moreton-Robinson, White Possessive, 5; Kwong Ki-Chaou, interview by H. H. Bancroft.
 Combined Asian American Resources Project: Oral History transcripts of tape-recorded interviews conducted 1974–76, p. 3; Albert Hurtado, Indian Survival on the California Frontier (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1988), 93; Albert Hurtado, “California Indians and the Workaday West: Labor, Assimilation, and Survival,” California History 69, no. 1 (Spring 1990): 5–6, 8; Tomás Almaguer, Racial Fault Lines: The Historical Origins of White Supremacy in California (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994), 29–32; Yong Chen, “The Internal Origins of Chinese Emigration to California Reconsidered,” Western Historical Quarterly 28, no. 4 (Winter 1997): 520–46 at 540; Richard Steven Street, Beasts of the Field: A Narrative History of California Farmworkers, 1769–1913 (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2004), chaps. 6, 7; Michael Magliari, “Free Soil, Unfree Labor,” Pacific Historical Review 73, no. 3 (August 2004): 349–50, 352–53; Michael Magliari, “Free State Slavery: Bound Indian Labor and Slave Trafficking in California’s Sacramento Valley, 1850–1864,” Pacific Historical Review 81, no. 2 (May 2012): 157; Brendan C. Lindsay, Murder State: California’s Native American Genocide, 1846–1873 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2012), chap. 5; Kornel Chang, Pacific Connections: The Making of the U. S.-Canadian Borderlands (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012), 12; Stacey L. Smith, Freedom’s Frontier: California and the Struggle over Unfree Labor, Emancipation, and Reconstruction (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2013), 23–24; Hurtado, “California’s Indian Labor Force,” 219, 220, 222; Kwee Hui Kian, “Chinese Economic Dominance in Southeast Asia: A Longue Duree Perspective,” Comparative Studies in Society and History 55, no. 1 (2013): 21–22; Mei, “Socioeconomic Origins of Emigration,” 488–89; David Chang, The World and All the Things upon It: Native Hawaiian Geographies of Exploration (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2016), 163–84.
 Rev. A. W. Loomis, “The Chinese Six Companies,” Overland Monthly 1, no. 3 (September 1868): 221–27 at 222–23; William Hoy, The Chinese Six Companies (San Francisco: Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association, 1942); Him Mark Lai, Becoming Chinese American: A History of Communities and Institutions (New York: Alta Mira Press, 2004), 46, 58–59; Mei, “Socioeconomic Origins of Emigration,” 499–500; Kian, “Chinese Economic Dominance,” 8, 16–19; Mae Ngai, “Chinese Gold Miners and the ‘Chinese Question’ in Nineteenth-Century California and Victoria,” Journal of American History 101, no. 4 (2015): 1096.
 Karl Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Vol. 1 (London: Penguin, 1976), 317. “. . . it is the wear and tear, the loss of value which they suffer as a result of continuous use over a period of time, which reappears as an element of value in the commodities which they produce”: Hilferding, Finance Capital, 245; Sucheng Chan, This Bittersweet Soil: The Chinese in California Agriculture, 1860–1910 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986), 347; Day, Alien Capital, 44; Vijay Prashad, The Karma of Brown Folk (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000), 90–91; Street, Beasts of the Field, chap. 12; Mae Ngai, The Lucky Ones: One Family and the Extraordinary Invention of Chinese America (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010), 30, 74; Report of the Joint Special Committee to Investigate Chinese Immigration, 44th Congress (New York: Arno Press, 1978), Charles Crocker testimony, p. 675.
 Biographical Sketch of Edwin Bryant Crocker (manuscript). Judges played a central role in the California “apprenticeship “ system, which amounted to a trade in indigenous children to wealthy landowners. Magliari, “Free Soil, Unfree Labor,” 357.
 Charles Crocker testimony, Committee to Investigate Chinese Immigration, 674, 723–28; Chang, Pacific Connections, 30; Jung, Coolies and Cane, 61.
Proceedings of the California State Convention of Colored Citizens, 1865, 92; Central Pacific Railroad Company, Report of the President, 1866, p. 33; Alexander Saxton, “The Army of Canton in the High Sierra,” in Chinese on the American Frontier, ed. Arif Dirlik (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2001), 29; William Thomas, The Iron Way: Railroads, the Civil War, and the Making of Modern America (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2011), 181–82.
 Hopkins to Huntington, May 31, 1865, Huntington Papers.
Sacramento Daily Union, December 18, 1866; Sacramento Daily Union, December 19, 1866. Archaeological research from a Chinese community in 1880s Truckee, California, found evidence that residents carried firearms for self-defense; R. Scott Baxter, “The Response of California’s Chinese Populations in the Anti- Chinese Movement,” Historical Archaeology 42, no. 3 (2008): 33–34. Evidence from bodies of Chinese workers disinterred in Carlin, Nevada, suggest distinct patterns of cranial and facial trauma; Ryan P. Harrod, Jennifer L. Thompson, and Debra L. Martin, “Hard Labor and Hostile Encounters: What Human Remains Reveal about Institutional Violence and Chinese Immigrants Living in Carlin, Nevada (1885–1923),” Historical Archaeology 46, no. 4 (2012): 98, 100.
 Mark Hopkins to Collis Huntington, January 2, 1867, Huntington Papers; San Francisco Evening Bulletin, January 2, 1867; Cynthia Wu, Chang and Eng Reconnected: The Original Siamese Twins in American Culture (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2012).
 E. B. Crocker to Collis Huntington, January 10, 1867, Huntington Papers.
 E. B. Crocker to Collis Huntington, January 14, 1867, Huntington Papers; Day, Alien Capital, 44, 47.
 E. B. Crocker to Collis Huntington, January 31, 1867, Huntington Papers.
 Charles Nordhoff, California: For Health, Pleasure, and Residence—A Book for Travellers and Settlers (Berkeley: Ten Speed Press, 1973; original 1873), 189–90; Ngai, “Chinese Gold Miners,” 1089; Day, Alien Capital, chap. 1.
 E. B. Crocker to Collis Huntington, February 12, 1867, Huntington Papers.
 Chen, “Internal Origins of Chinese Emigration,” 118–21; Chang, Pacific Connections, 31. On the queer domesticity of urban Chinese life in California during these decades, see Nayan Shah, Contagious Divides: Epidemics and Race in San Francisco’s Chinatown (Berkeley: University of California Press), chap. 3; Hobson wrote of Chinese workers, who were “introduced into the Transvaal as mere economic machines, not as colonists to aid the industrial and social development of a new country. Their presence is regarded as a social danger”: Hobson, Imperialism, 276.
 E. B. Crocker to Collis Huntington, February 15, 1867, Huntington Papers.
 E. B. Crocker to Collis Huntington, February 17, 1867, Huntington Papers.
 Mark Hopkins to Collis Huntington, February 15, 1867, Huntington Papers.
 E. B. Crocker to Collis Huntington, May 22, 1867; E. B. Crocker to Collis Huntington, May 27, 1867; E. B. Crocker to Collis Huntington, June 4, 1867, Huntington Papers.
 Mark Hopkins to Collis Huntington, June 26, 1867, Huntington Papers.
 E. B. Crocker to Collis Huntington, June 27, 1867, Huntington Papers.
 Mark Hopkins to Collis Huntington, June 28, 1867, Huntington Papers; Du Bois, Black Reconstruction, 569.
 E. B. Crocker to Collis Huntington, June 28, 1867, Huntington Papers.
 Mark Hopkins to Collis Huntington, July 1, 1867, Huntington Papers.
 E. B. Crocker to Collis Huntington, July 2, 1867, Huntington Papers.
Sacramento Daily Union, July 2, 1867. Whipping was standard practice in the management of Indigenous labor in California. Magliari, “Free Soil, Unfree Labor,” 374.
 E. B. Crocker to Collis Huntington, July 6, 1867, Huntington Papers.
 E. B. Crocker to Collis Huntington, July 23, 1867, Huntington Papers.
 E. B. Cocker to Collis Huntington, July 30, 1867, Huntington Papers.
Manu Karuka is an Assistant Professor of American Studies, and affiliated faculty with Women’s, Gender & Sexuality Studies at Barnard College, where he has taught since 2014. His work centers a critique of imperialism, with a particular focus on anti-racism and Indigenous decolonization. He teaches courses on the political economy of racism, U.S. imperialism and radical internationalism, Indigenous critiques of political economy, and liberation. He is the author of Empire’s Tracks: Indigenous Nations, Chinese Workers, and the Transcontinental Railroad (University of California Press, 2019). With Juliana Hu Pegues and Alyosha Goldstein he co-edited a special issue of Theory & Event, “On Colonial Unknowing,” (Vol. 19, No. 4, 2016) and with Vivek Bald, Miabi Chatterji, and Sujani Reddy, he co-edited The Sun Never Sets: South Asian Migrants in an Age of U.S. Power (NYU Press, 2013).
Sometimes it’s hard to see the shape of the story you’re being told. As I understood it, the plot points laid out by my then-lover Bill went like this:
The earthquake itself wasn’t scary. It was strong enough to wake him up and send a wheeled chair skittering across his bedroom floor. The windows rattled in their panes. The neighbor’s dog howled. A few seconds later the whole thing was over and Bill went back to sleep.
But by the next day, the story had morphed into something sinister. Something was off, Bill complained over the phone. It hadn’t even been earthquake weather beforehand. Listening from a grey morning in New York, my brain snagged on the claim. Southern Californians swore that a sunny, queasy-still air preceded earthquakes, but the phenomenon wasn’t real. Unsure of what it meant to say a not-real phenomenon hadn’t happened, I steered Bill to another subject. How was work? His nurse’s union was in the middle of an anti-fracking campaign, calling out the public health risks of the Los Angeles metro area’s more than 5,000 oil wells. I had never lived somewhere where oil was drilled, but it was 2015, and climate change demanded that I pay more attention to fossil fuels. And so Bill provided an entry point into a political conversation I was trying to join for myself. I followed the ups and downs of my lover’s work as though they were my own.
The campaign was also key to Bill’s earthquake story, though it took some more clues to figure that out. I bumped into them while browsing LA oil news. In the past year, there had been a lot. First came the articles that wondered whether three earthquakes were connected with the fracking residents swore was happening at Inglewood Oil Field. Though seismologists said no, the plot points read uncertainly enough. The cracked curbs and building foundations in adjacent neighborhoods. The much-hyped new study linking fracking with earthquakes in Oklahoma. The oil company’s claim that they hadn’t “recently” fracked the field, plus the fact that, at the time, they weren’t legally required to disclose jobs. One resident said she wanted answers but didn’t “know who[se] to trust.” I guessed that the oil company-sponsored report, which certified fracking safe at Inglewood and blamed nearby damage to slope instability caused by rainfall, wasn’t especially comforting.
And then there was the 10,000-gallon oil spill in the middle of the night in Atwater near Griffith Park. Videos shot creeping close-ups of the oil as it blanketed the concrete, and reports lingered on an evacuated strip club in a way that suggested something archetypically sullied was going on. Other news stories adopted the same tone as strange happenings unfolded around town. In oil-producing neighborhoods, children suffered chronic nosebleeds, adults were plagued by migraines, and garden plants withered and died. At Redondo, Manhattan, and Hermosa beaches, armies of sticky tar balls washed up on the sand, so many the city closed them down for clean-up. Though an observer might guess tar balls are the result of the more than 100,000-gallon oil spill about 100 miles up the coast in Santa Barbara a couple weeks earlier, a Department of Fish and Wildlife rep urged calm. The public should reserve judgment until tests could trace the oil’s “fingerprints.”
With a bit of research, in other words, the scattered stories began to feel less scattered. Eventually an arc of sorts emerged, a narrative chain linking Bill’s earthquake to “natural slope instability” and bloody noses and oily fingerprints. The narrative sounded paranoid and shadowy, like a noir, and Angelenos seemed to be voicing it without especially meaning to. As I began to connect fossil fuel politics to my everyday life, I felt pulled in, too. What did it mean to tell an LA oil noir? What could a New Yorker, observing from three thousand miles away, bring to the plot? I’d see how it all played out.
“Los Angeles CA — An Oil Well in Every Yard,” unknown date 1900-1909, DPC7775, Detroit Publishing Company Collections, Newberry Library, Chicago, Illinois.
For most cultural critics, noir begins with German expressionism, detective potboilers, and the Hollywood film set. But that history, while in some respects correct, downplays the local politics that forced the genre to the fore. At the turn of the 20th century, real estate boosters sold Los Angeles as a sunny paradise, a place where everyone might own a home and some land. Sometimes those profits involved oil; prospectors had struck it in Whittier, Montebello, Richfield, Newport Beach, Huntington Beach, Signal Hill, Santa Fe Springs, Torrance, Dominguez, Inglewood, Seal Beach, and Wilmington. For a time Southern California produced 20% of the world’s supply. Real estate ads teased buyers with the promise of instant liquid wealth. Postcards featured derricks against hopeful, rosy skies. A person didn’t even need to own land to get in on the boom. Every day, free chartered buses drove hundreds of Angelenos to an oil field-cum-investment opportunity. Under a big-top tent, they were treated to music and hot dogs and invited to become fabulously rich.
It wasn’t long before the mood began to turn. Oil flowed between property lines, so a legal precedent called “the rule of capture” gave rights to whomever sucked it up first. Prospectors and producers rushed up derricks everywhere, crowding streets, homes, and beaches without thought to the people living nearby. If drill jobs loosed a gusher that slopped crude, shale, and sand on Signal Hill houses, that was the collateral damage of a cutthroat business. Same went for the river of burning oil that blazed for six hours down a Long Beach thoroughfare, the explosion that set 2.25 million barrels aflame and smoked out the sun in Brea, and commonplace accidents that sent oil rushing into the ocean, slicking city harbors with a four-inch layer of crude.
If this devastation didn’t sour people, the corruption did. Many residents had invested in flat-out fraudulent stock. The most infamous scam was run by C. C. Julian, who leveraged new print and radio media to offer “Gold Bonds” to “Mr. Thoroughbreds” smart enough to smell a deal. When the company collapsed, robbing 40,000 LA residents of $150 million, the subsequent investigation uncovered a knot of scandals and touched off a spree of cover-ups and revenge. Scores of prominent bankers and businesspeople had profited, and a grand jury indicted fifty-five of them, but, after bribes to DAs and jurors ruined the first trial, the rest of the charges were dropped. For months, LA residents woke to a daily stream of shady Julian news. A former exec lived a lavish European life while on the run from police. A man lost his left eye in a melee at a company shareholder meeting. And a banker at the center of the pools was shot dead during the fifth trial mounted to hold him accountable for his crimes. The banker, a once-beloved philanthropist, had $63,000 in his pocket at the time of his death.
Enter the noir novel, which deployed what urbanist Mike Davis calls a “transformational grammar” to comment on the state of the Southern California dream. Sunny days became earthquake weather. Single-family homes became claustrophobic prisons. City patriarchs became a criminal overclass, crooked and poisonous and prone to fits of violence. A century later, it’s easy to read the genre as fantasy instead of a stab at realism in a particular time and place. It is easy to forget that every noir is an LA noir, and every LA noir is touched by the seep of oil.
In the early days of my investigation, I often felt obtuse: too clumsy to be the detective at the helm of a noir. I was nothing like Philip Marlowe, the protagonist of eight of LA writer Raymond Chandler’s novels. Marlowe has a quick wit and a sharp tongue and drinks to forget the sleaze he’s seen. Chandler developed his own suspicion at Dabney Oil, where he worked for 13 years, first as a junior accountant and then, after catching his boss embezzling, as the department head. Eventually he rose to vice-president. The work fascinated him; it let him study all manner of bad behavior. He learned to spot the abuses of the people passing through his company, and became obsessed with anticipating cheating in other areas of his life. But he never forgot the industry that jaded him first. When Dabney finally fired him for alcoholism, he started working on The Big Sleep, a drama that swirls around the corrupt Sternwood family, who’d made a fortune in oil.
Noir conveys much of its narrators’ wariness through setting and atmospherics. Interior spaces are shabby and cramped, or nauseatingly opulent, or suffused with their inhabitants’ truculent neuroses. Outdoor spaces are ominous no matter the weather. Even the LA sun is a sign of trouble. Early noir writers portrayed it as oppressive, suggested that a fundamental violence simmered beneath. Chandler paid special attention to climate. Earthquake weather and the Santa Ana winds haunted his characters’ days and served as symbol of a city in physical, psychic, and moral decline. In The Big Sleep, oil infrastructure does some of this work. Derricks show up in key scenes at the beginning and end of the book. Chandler describes them as stained and falling apart. They stand near tepid pools of dirty water. They dribble out last dregs of oil or stand stilled amidst a litter of rusted drums. Eventually Marlowe discovers that one of the Sternwoods killed a man and buried him in the family oil fields. The site summed up an entire fallen city. “Oil and water were the same as wind and air to you,” Marlowe says in the book’s final lines. “You just slept the big sleep, not caring about the nastiness of how you died or where you fell. Me, I was part of the nastiness now.”
For disillusioned Angelenos, identifying the nastiness became a favorite narrative stance. After Hollywood popularized noir in the 1930s and 1940s, the genre resurfaced regularly as a way of shooting down buoyant city myths. In the 1960s, Joan Didion processed the Manson murders with an anxious noir slant. In the 1970s, Roman Polanski used the form to explore corrupt water politics. In the 1980s, Bret Easton Ellis brought noir to bear on malls and materialism. The literary theorist Lauren Berlant says genre provides “an expectation of the experience of watching something unfold, whether that thing is in life or in art.” Certainly this was a good way of describing what I saw noir doing in LA. What struck me was the subtlety with which the dynamic surfaced. Bill blipped about earthquake weather, a sidewalk looked buckled, a nose dripped a bit of blood. The story shaded into paranoia, but from one angle, for just a second. Blink and you could miss it.
On one trip to Los Angeles, I almost did. Time had passed and life had changed since my first oil noir. I’d moved from New York to Tucson, and Bill had cut me loose. Still, my friends Andrew and Paige lived in town, too, so I visited and the three of us went tooling around in Andrew’s car, a light-lemon vintage Mercedes with crisp leather seats. The car was a sort that can only exist in Southern California, and I felt the same about our morning. We’d spent it drinking coffee and eating panaderia pastries and watching scrub jays swoop into his winter garden, a space filled with persimmon trees, succulents, and trailing flowered vines. As Andrew put Stevie Wonder in the tape deck and eased onto the freeway, I threw my arm out the window and said what I thought we all had to be thinking: God, the weather was nice.
Hmm, said Andrew, unconvinced. He didn’t know. Sometimes all the sunny weather struck him as oppressive.
Early LA was also terrible for labor. Besides open land and oil, boosters touted a cowed workforce as a signature Southern Californian perk. One of the most powerful, Colonel Harrison Grey Otis, used his business connections to lockout and blacklist union members with the help of local police. Otis considered himself at war with the labor movement and waged it on the ideological front, too, filling the L.A. Times, which he owned, with open-shop vitriol. Across Los Angeles, Otis helped set the tone. The city’s workers, branded “rowdies,” “ruffians,” and “pinheads,” were treated like dirt.
LA oil workers got no special relief. They labored at a hazardous job. Men were burned to death by steam lines and fires. Others fell from the tops of derricks, or fainted from fumes and drowned in oil tanks covered by a thin layer of tarpaper. At least one had his arms pulled off when they got caught in a machine. During World War I, California oil workers had won concessions, including better wages, a switch from 12- to 8-hour days, and union negotiating rights. But by the early ‘20s, oil companies hit back, forcing union members to sign yellow-dog contracts or be fired. 8,000 oil workers in Central California went on strike, but the effort failed. Wages dropped drastically across the state, and industry workers didn’t regain a toehold until well into the ‘30s.
Blocked in economic channels, labor leaders poured energy into political organizing. In places like Long Beach, Huntington Beach, and Torrance, union organizers threw events, founded broadsheets, and turned out voters in the push to regulate oil. They also formed coalitions with residents and conservationists, at times gathering under the umbrella of newly formed property owners’ associations. In a Los Angeles disenchanted with oil, the language of property and property values became a major way residents fought back. When one oil company proposed new wells near downtown LA, the Wilshire Community Council called it “inimical to the esthetic development of the city as a home-owners’ haven.” In a noir-ish oil landscape, real estate was becoming central to the complaint.
Center for Land Use Interpretation, THUMS islands (Island Grissom) at sunset, 2010.
Andrew’s genre slip was apt, because we weren’t only cruising. Earlier that morning, I’d convinced him and Paige to join my investigation, to ride along on a two-building tour. We took the car down the I-10, headed north on La Cienega, and arrived on busy Pico Boulevard to our first site.
The meters in front of the building were all open, so we parked at random and got out for a look. Ivy climbed the windowless stone walls. The door was industrial-looking and locked. From the center of the otherwise low structure rose Cardiff Tower, trimmed elegantly in white. The architects who built it in the late ‘60s hoped people would think it was a synagogue serving the neighborhood’s Orthodox Jews. In this they were somewhat successful. It was hard to imagine that the building hid forty oil wells, at least until we walked around to the side street and read the gold placard warning about carcinogens. And stopped long enough to notice the mechanical humming coming from inside. And caught a whiff of the faint but acrid smell. Paige scrunched her nose and tongued the roof of her mouth in disgust. “Ugh,” she said, “You can taste it.”
A mile and a half down Pico, the Packard Drill Site pretended to be an office building. Inside, a moveable derrick tracked around on a mechanical grid between fifty-one wells. Apparently, it lacked a roof. Before leaving home, Andrew and Paige and I had pulled up satellite photos and gaped into a weird shadowed hole. Once onsite we did as at Cardiff: We circled, stopped, listened, sniffed. Landscaped palms and jade plants described neat swaths in the front and along the sides. The glass-doored entrance revealed a dusty, shuttered public lobby display. In back houses abutted it a cozy 125 feet away.
Some thought Cardiff and Packard a sign of progress. The buildings were examples of an odd class of camouflage architecture that evolved in the mid-twentieth century as LA residents pushed back against oil drilling. Perhaps the strangest of these structures were the Astronaut Islands in Long Beach. Also known as THUMS — for Texaco, Humble, Union Oil, Mobil, and Shell, the oil companies originally partnered there — the Astronauts were made of hundreds of tons of quarried rock and several million cubic yards of dredged harbor mud and sand to serve as offshore drilling sites. After the derricks and pipes and tanks went up, the THUMS planning team brought on Joseph Linesch, who’d helped design Disneyland, to hide the purpose of the place. He opted for palms, decorative towers, a waterfall, and a series of sculpted concrete walls to ring the island. At night, spotlights bathed the walls in brilliant neon hues.
The Astronauts were closed to the public. I knew because I’d trawled the internet trying to figure out how to visit. As a back-up, I packed a pair of binoculars, and, after dropping Paige and Andrew back at home, took them out with my rented car as dusk fell. By the time I reached the Long Beach shoreline, it was dark and had begun to rain. I found a parking lot on the harbor and pointed the binoculars out my windshield at the islands, which glowed a foggy pink and orange. Under the clouded night sky, they reflected a phrase I encountered over and over in my research. In contrast to the spectacular violence of the early 20th century, LA oil production was now hidden in plain sight.
Los Angeles is a famously fragmented place; as one oft-quoted quip has it, it is “seventy-two suburbs in search of a city.” Early oil development played a central role in making this so. Many neighborhoods and suburbs grew up around drilling or refining sites or as residential communities for workers. Oil revenues allowed some of them to incorporate separately from Los Angeles, while cheap oil gave them further independence in the form of power plants, paved roads, and fuel for cars. I felt it while trying to tour more after THUMS. I started the morning in Beverly Hills, site of a derrick hidden under a shell decorated with children’s art; then watched rusted pumpjacks bob along the fences of the Inglewood Oil Field; then stopped to see rigs looming over houses in West Adams and University Park. In between I took wrong turns, stopped for directions, and inched painfully along in a rush hour that never seemed to end. By the time I was casing the perimeters of the giant refineries in Wilmington, I had passed through five independently incorporated towns, traveled thirty-five miles, and driven away a significant portion of the day.
Homeowners associations helped fragment Los Angeles, too. If early groups helped restrict oil production, many were also obsessed with another agenda: locking Black and Asian residents out of their blocks and streets. Over the course of the ‘20s, homeowner activists helped establish 95% of housing stock within LA city limits as white-only. Mike Davis calls this period the “white-supremacist genealogy” of what would become “[t]he most significant ‘social movement’ in Southern California…[:] affluent homeowners, organized by notional community designations or tract names, engaged in defense of home values and neighborhood exclusivity.” By the middle of the 20th century, that movement had gained incorporation laws and zoning rules to pursue a whole host of demands. At times the new tools were wielded to racist, classist, anti-busing and anti-renter and English-only kinds of ends. At other moments they were used to stand down corporate developers and win environmental regulations. As their political power grew, homeowners expanded their attention to a scattershot list of small-scale NIMBY concerns. They fought against mini malls, diamond highway lanes, a fancy bistro, the shaving of a hill, and, in a campaign that galvanized a thousand activists and left a local councilman branded a “Dog Nazi,” dog owners who let their pets shit in a park.
The jumbled protests shared a tone. It saw threat everywhere and betrayed an often-inflated, noir-ish sense of risk. By the ‘80s, local politicians learned to bow to the homeowners, or at least fake it lest they get kicked out of office, and middle- and upper-class concerns came to dominate LA politics just as state- and federal-level neoliberal policies were hitting working-class communities of color hardest. The results were predictable. Helped along by homeowner noirs, neighborhood-based inequities grew and compounded in risk and resources.
The pattern was obvious in the metro landscape I’d been investigating. Though a full third of LA-area residents lived within a mile of a drilling site, more protections were won, and safety standards more strictly enforced, in affluent and majority-white neighborhoods than in working-class neighborhoods of color. The faux buildings at Cardiff and Packard — elaborate compared to the beige walls that hid oil operations elsewhere— were one example of the accommodations wealthy residents had won. Others included limited drilling hours, restrictions on trucking, lower-polluting electric drills, weekly emissions tests, 24-7 noise monitoring, and dedicated community liaisons.
Contrast that with University Park in South LA, whose residents are mostly working-class and of color; in 2010, when the AllenCo oil site began emitting dense, obvious fumes, it took them years to get heard. Sometimes the air smelled like petroleum, other times like fruity chemicals. People got nosebleeds, migraines, and stomachaches. Then Monic Uriarte was out taking photos for a photography class with her daughter Nalleli and found the gate to the beige-walled compound ajar. Uriarte hadn’t known anything about what was behind the walls; now a worker showed them around, touring past oil pipes and oil tanks and signs for toxic gas. The worker gave Nalleli a baby food jar filled with water and a heavy, sinking layer of crude. Oil and water don’t mix, he said: She should take it to school to show the other kids the site was safe.
And so the University Park investigation had begun. Uriarte talked to neighbors, and they talked to more, and soon they’d hooked up with Esperanza Community Housing and launched a campaign. Residents flooded the regional air quality complaint line with messages while Esperanza researched AllenCo and interviewed people about their symptoms. Together they dropped banners, held protests and press conferences, and, because AllenCo leased their land from the Catholic archdiocese, sent a video starring Nalleli to the Pope. They dug up record of hundreds of environmental violations and learned that AllenCo had upped production 400% around the time the fumes showed up. Still it took three years before an L.A. Times exposé and a visit by then-Senator Barbara Boxer forced the city to act. They shut the site down, but the damage was done. A set of more long-terms threats had been seeded. Though their nosebleeds and stomachaches were gone, University Park residents had a heightened risk of cancer, reproductive anomalies, and other illnesses. Chemical exposure had left Uriarte, for one, without a sense a smell.
Many critics have called out the history of the noir protagonist, how most have been middle-class and white. That fact is not abstract. It trails consequences for everyday space and behavior; it is tangled in the inequalities of mundane, material LA. An oil executive, speaking to West Adams activist Richard Parks about their local drilling site, illustrated the reality with terrible, careless ease. West Adams residents are also predominantly working-class and of color, and when the activist relayed his neighbors’ complaints, including a day where the site rained a mist of oil on the entire surrounding block, the oil exec shrugged. “Look, this isn’t exactly Laguna Niguel,” he said, meaning a well-off beach community. In the landscape of the Los Angeles oil noir, West Adams didn’t register in the plot.
Like the University Park activists, I didn’t stay clumsy. In time, I became my own Marlowe, ready with a meticulous mental map of policies, perps, and case studies. But my competence only mattered so much. However good one gets at reading noir, the story is always fragmented, its through line hard to grasp. Information in a Marlowe novel is imparted, in the words of cultural theorist Frederic Jameson, like “glimpses through a window” and “noises from the back of a store.” This quality was heightened by the secretive realities of oil production. Industry reps stonewalled and gaslit. In Beverly Hills, where a camouflaged derrick pumps oil next to Beverly Hills High School, Venoco loosed a sharky legal team on a thousand-some graduates who’d developed rare cancers, discrediting their class-action lawsuit. In Porter Ranch, which sits beside an oil field and giant gas storage facilities, SoCal Gas downplayed the size of a massive gas leak and said science hadn’t “definitively” found gas dangerous. In Wilmington, whose toxic concentration of oil refineries have led to abysmal health outcomes for residents, Warren E&P gave out gas gift cards as a paltry gesture of remuneration.
Porter Ranch Protest, photo by Elijah Hurwitz. Courtesy of Hurwitz
Changing production techniques muddied the informational waters, too. Los Angeles’ oil fields are old and over-pumped. To stay profitable, companies fracked and acidized, shooting sand and chemicals into wells to force the dregs out. A quarter of wells used some enhanced technique, and the government agencies tasked with overseeing them showed neither the will nor the ability to keep up. Residents had little help if they wanted to know what was going on. In West Adams in 2015, a church group called Redeemer Community Partnership filmed volunteer Niki Wong staked out beside the beige wall of the local oil site. “It’s like 6:35am,” Wong said to the camera quietly, crouching, as birds chirped the morning awake. “We got a tip that they’re going to be doing an acidizing maintenance job.” Two to four tankers, each filled with five thousand gallons of chemicals, would soon be driving through the neighborhood. By law Freeport McMoRan, the site owners, had to give neighbors just a day’s notice for the job, but Wong had kept tabs and organized a group to rapid-respond. When the tankers rolled towards the site, they planned to mass up into a blockade. In the video, Wong pointed above her head to a surveillance camera she’d been ducking, then looked down to catch a text on her phone. “Oh, shoot,” she frowned. Freeport had cancelled the job.
There were still other layers of obfuscation at work. When a site stopped serving oil companies, they could simply sell their land and whatever responsibility it might entail. At Inglewood Oil Field, site of the earthquake rumors that made Bill paranoid, owners PXP Oil funded their study showing fracking to be safe and soon after, perhaps tired of answering to resident concerns, sold their holdings to Freeport McMoRan. For their part, Freeport McMoRan held the fields for a stint before palming them off to Sentinel Peak Resources, which had been buying up sites around LA.
Allenco Oil site. Photo by Sarah Craig. Courtesy of Craig
And that was just the fate of active wells. Responsibility could be an even murkier question for the metro area’s thousands of abandoned wells. Near downtown, the Edward Roybal Learning Center, a high school, was built on top of nineteen old wells and surrounded by hundreds more. Many were capped before the ‘50s, when government agencies first created rules for doing so, and workers stopped them with anything they could find: garbage, rocks, telephone poles. School construction took two decades, and even costly remediation didn’t fix the site’s problems. Around the school grounds, imitation lampposts vented the methane that kept belching from the wells. But some days fumes still filled campus, and some days students and teachers still got headache-y and sick.
These were the sorts of rabbit holes one fell into when sleuthing around the oil industry. Eventually, even dedicated detectives were likely to get lost. It had happened to me, but the real story lay with longtime LA residents. “We never know what is going on,” Lillian Marenco, who’d lived in West Adams for thirty years, explained through a megaphone to a gathered crowd. Though Wong’s stakeout hadn’t worked, the protest went on as planned. A few dozen people marched and carried signs and sang a call-and-response song. Staaand together — Against neighborhood drilling! Staaand together — Against neighborhood drilling! Then they gathered for a press conference. “If they just come to get the money and leave us with all the nuisance,” Marenco asked her neighbors and the press, “Then what is the benefit of my community? I wonder.”
Back home in Tucson, I kept poking around online. The 2015-2016 Porter Ranch gas leak was especially easy to learn about; for the four months from the moment the leak was discovered to when it was plugged, the story had gotten tons of coverage. Many stories cited a video taken looking down into the foothills where the leak had been found. Taken by the activist group Earthworks, the video deploys a straightforward transformational grammar. At first it’s a regular LA day: just sun, hills, cars. Five seconds later, the camera switches into infrared view and you are watching a thick cloud of — something billowing over the exact same spot. The film toggles between the two frames in chunky cuts. Sunny day. Thick cloud. Sunny day. Thick cloud. Even without context — knowledge of the size of the leak and the methane and benzene and other toxic compounds billowing everywhere — the image is unnerving. With context, it is a precise and succinct depiction of the mystery of living next door to the oil industry. How that cloud might be invisibly menacing you. The video struck me as an ingenuous oil noir.
But, whatever its strengths, the genre hadn’t yet lived up to its more radical political promise. This was true of the noir of books and films as well as the noir that filtered into oil activist storytelling. Historically speaking, its stars had been too white and middle-class, its sense of injury too stuck on property and other individually minded dreams, its understanding of power too piecemeal and vague. Historically speaking, it had fashioned a politics from eerie atmospherics and an impoverished sense of what geographer Edward Soja called spatial justice. In my online wanderings I found a GIS map that captured it well. The map uses black dots to represent active oil wells in the LA metro area, to unsettling result. As I scrolled around, zooming in and out, the city looked riddled with bullet holes. Some well-off neighborhoods were shot up, in danger, making a lie of the kind of activism that treats oil production like a quality-of-life annoyance. On a map shaped by that activism, these endangered neighborhoods sat beside poorer neighborhoods that were under full-on siege, buried under and erased by wells.
That tension echoed in Porter Ranch, which became a flashpoint for local environmental justice advocates tracking disparities in oil industry protections. The neighborhood’s affluent residents garnered local and national attention and secured concessions other neighborhoods hadn’t gotten, including relocation to hotels on SoCal’s dime. At times their public testimonies reflected the homeowner-activist playbook and its class-bound complaints. People fretted about property values. They lamented disrupted Christmas plans and the expense of nannies hired when parents got migraines. In the face of a giant, dangerous leak, some residents dramatized the real injustice of their situation as that of lost middle-class normalcy.
Still, there seemed no reason noir couldn’t be more politically astute. Chester Himes used it to express the nightmarishness of being a Black longshoreman in the 1945 novel If He Hollers Let Him Go. The sometimes-Communist writers of early noir films smuggled in the occasional systemic critique. And I was sure that other examples lurked in literary and filmic back catalogues. But it seemed less important to unearth those than to hear the new noir insights brought forth by those battling LA oil today. They could be found everywhere, including in Porter Ranch, where neighborhood activists in noir-ish gas masks carried signs that amended an early slogan, Shut It Down, to the more spatially capacious Shut It ALL Down. A protester named Matt Pakucko pushed the thesis further, called out the lopsided attention trained on his neighborhood: “There’s other communities with probably worse problems than us, for decades longer …. Do they get relocated? No. Because it’s a poor neighborhood.”
Further insight came from STAND-LA, a coalition formed to agitate for citywide drilling standards. Esperanza Community Housing was a member and brought its experience in University Park, which it read through the lens of economic and health justice. In an interview about the campaign, Esperanza director Nancy Halpern Ibrahim complicated the point. Though they’d suspected the company was fracking, they didn’t know the technical specifics and were sure it would take forever to find out. And so, though the specter of fracking drove oil rumors across the city, they took AllenCo’s deception as baseline, didn’t fixate on the injustice of being lied to, and kept health at the center of a simpler message on traditional drilling. To these new noir suggestions — transforming stories about property into stories about collectivity, treating corporate dishonesty not as shocking betrayal but as systemic truism — the West Adams video added one more. After Niki Wong’s stakeout dramatized Freeport McMoRan’s secrecy, it noted that most of the information that had been discovered came from resident photos and reports. Here was an edit to one of noir’s most beloved premises: There was no such thing as a solo detective; there were only many.
Another update peeked out during a 2015 strike at the Tesoro Refinery in Wilmington. A worker named Melissa Bailey told a journalist that she’d just worked twelve to fourteen hours nineteen days in a row. For another article, colleagues explained how they survived such grueling schedules: with coffee, energy drinks, and sugary snacks. That plus fatigue left them dazed and drunk and led to injuries, which workers often hid so as not to miss out on safety bonuses. The practice was called, viscerally, “bloody pockets,” conjuring a sinister work atmosphere while offering a reminder that fields and refineries and storage plants didn’t just have neighbors. They were also populated with workers.
A final noir revision surfaced in Culver City, a small town incorporated in the middle of Los Angeles. Culver City sits beside the Inglewood Oil Field and is part of a Community Standard District, a special zoning designation whose drilling regulations were celebrated as the region’s most stringent. The 2008 planning text that brought the district into being opens with a legalistic preamble that defines fifty-eight words whose meanings Inglewood owners might dispute. The words include “drilling,” “fluid,” “derrick,” “well,” “gas,” and “oil.” The anticipation of a doublespeak so fundamental begged a conclusion that in the end took ten years to gel. In 2018, Culver City launched a study to figure out they could legally shut their portion of the oil field down. The town’s vice-mayor cited a long history of damage at the field, then said it sat atop a fault that was due a big earthquake any day. In the unequal landscape oil had made of the Los Angeles metro region, Culver City had been a privileged squeaky wheel. But if a more radical approach to land use could surge up around it, the logic of their gambit would be powerful. Zoning isn’t enough to limit harm to residents’ health, that logic says. The drilling would have to stop.
“We are invested not only in talking about what we don’t want but also in making the case for a meaningful, just transition,” Nancy Halpern Ibrahim told me over the phone. I’d called to hear a about Esperanza and STAND-LA’s work moving forward, and, though I felt silly relating the flimsy anecdote that had propelled me to her work in University Park, Ibrahim wasn’t fazed. After an hour of her own rambling — “I don’t speak in sound bites,” she said, appealingly not sorry — we’d reached what seemed the conversation’s upshot. She and coalition colleagues had convinced the mayor’s office to form a Climate Emergency Mobilization Department, which opened in 2019; given its oil history, they thought, Los Angeles had nationally relevant ideas on how to transition away from oil. What would become of the department remained to be seen, but we’d scaled out to an essential question: not just how Los Angeles could overcome its spatial injustices, but what that fight had to do with those elsewhere.
I wondered about that, too. For the moment, my encounter with Inglewood and West Adams and Porter Ranch seemed to be wrapping up, and the task seemed to be to turn towards the rest of the maps I shared with others. I thought of my dad’s family in Texas, where the oil stories to be reckoned with had less to do with noir than the lure of the rich oilman as hero and villain. In North Dakota’s Bakken Shale, where some friends had been spending time, the myths of the Western frontier lived on. And though it was less obvious which genres bound fossil fuel politics in New York and Tucson, I knew I didn’t have to dig alone. As in LA, my two homes were surely peopled by activists who might help teach me the plot.
Author’s note: Thanks go to Morgan Adamson, Aaron Bady, Stefano Bloch, Bill Gallagher, Raquel Gutiérrez, Nancy Halpern Ibrahim, Andrew Knighton, Ava Kofman, Ruth Nervig, Paige Sweet, and workshop participants in UA’s creative nonfiction program.
 James Sadd and Bhavna Shamasunder. “Oil extraction in Los Angeles: Health, Land Use and Environmental Justice Consequences” Drilling Down: The Community Consequences of Expanded Oil Development in Los Angeles. (Los Angeles, Liberty Hill Foundation, 2015.)
 Zahira Torres and Laura Nelson. “Baldwin Hills-area quakes not linked to oil operations, experts say,” LA Times. 3 May 2015. See also Carlos Granda, “Baldwin Hills resident concerned fracking may be causing earthquakes,” ABC7 News. 4 May 2015; “3.5 earthquake rattles Los Angeles,” LA Times. 12 April 2015.
 “Raw Footage: 10-K Gallon Oil Spill in Atwater Village,” NBC Southern California, 15 May 2014; Ashley Soley-Cerro, 10,000-Gallon Crude Oil Spill Prompts Evacuation of L.A. Strip Club,“ KTLA 5, 15 May 2014; Jason Wells. “10,000-gallon crude oil spill in Atwater Village looked ‘like a lake,’” LA Times. 15 May 2014.Village
 Carly Dryden. “South Bay beaches remain closed as officials investigate source of apparent oil spill,” The Daily Breeze, 28 May 2015. See also Kelly Goff and Gadi Schwartz. “Beaches Closed Due to Mysterious Petroleum Globs,” NBC Southern California, 27 May 2015; Veronica Rocha. “Tar balls in South Bay: Beaches closed until further notice,” LA Times, 29 May 2015.
 Mike Davis. City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles. (New York: Verso, 1990), 36-7.
 Nancy Quam-Wickham. “An ‘Oleaginous Civilization’: Oil in Southern California,” Southern California Quarterly, Vol. 97, No. 3, p 285; “Fred Viehe. “Black Gold Suburbs: The Influence of the Extractive Industry on the Suburbanization of Los Angeles, 1890-1930.” Journal of Urban History, Vol. 8 No. 1 (November 1981), p 6.
 Jules Tygiel. The Great Los Angeles Swindle: Oils, Stocks, and Scandal during the Roaring 20s. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994), 37-9.
 Nancy Quam-Wickham. “‘Cities Sacrificed on the Altar of Oil’: Popular Opposition to Oil Development in 1920s Los Angeles.” Environmental History, Vol. 3, No. 2 (Apr. 1998), 192.
 Tom Hiney. Raymond Chandler: A Biography. (New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1997), 58; Jules Tygiel, The Great Los Angeles Swindle, 40.
 Jules Tygiel. The Great Los Angeles Swindle, 213-257.
 Nancy Halpern Ibrahim. Personal interview, 11 October 2019; Barbara Osborn, “When Regulators Fail,” Drilling Down: The Community Consequences of Expanded Oil Development in Los Angeles. (Los Angeles, Liberty Hill Foundation, 2015.)
 Barbara Osborn, “‘How are these Chemicals being used?’” Drilling Down, 18.
 Kaitlin Parker. “Concerns arise as Inglewood Oil Field plans for increased activity,” Intersections South LA, 4 January 2012; Susan Taylor, “Freeport-McMoRan Sells Inglewood Oil Field to Sentinel Peak,” Culver City Crossroads via Reuters. 14 October 2014.
Miranda Trimmier is from Milwaukee, lives in Tucson, and writes about land-use politics. She holds an MFA in creative nonfiction from the University of Arizona and has published with Places Journal, The New Inquiry, Terrain, and other outlets.
A drive through contemporary Los Angeles reveals American empire embedded throughout its urban landscape. “Imperial capital” likely conjures visions of eighteenth or nineteenth century European cities—London, Paris, Madrid—rather than twenty-first century Southern California. However, from Lisbon to London to Los Angeles, we encounter empire in the architecture, monuments, and even suburban gardens of these imperial centers. In Los Angeles, nineteenth-century Mexican resources, extracted through imperial schemes, are fixed in the city’s iconic sprawl. This wealth, extracted through imperial plans and regimes in Mexico over the past century and a half, became manifest in the Los Angeles landscape. As explored in my recent book, Imperial Metropolis: Los Angeles, Mexico, and the Borderlands of American Empire, 1865-1941, white investors and settlers in Los Angeles believed that for their newly acquired western city to grow, they needed an expansive hinterland or empire. Los Angeles would boom, they argued, if it took in “tributary territories,” from Southern California, to Nevada, to Arizona, and, notably, to Mexico. Angeleno investors who sought opportunity in Mexico also bequeathed the city with tangible remembrances of their wealth.
Before turning to the city’s imperial landscapes, how did early Anglo migrants to Los Angeles envision the role of their new city in the world at the end of the nineteenth century and dawn of the twentieth? Take, for example, Harrison Gray Otis, publisher of the Los Angeles Times and enthusiastic investor in Mexico. With his son-in-law Harry Chandler and a small group of other investors, he owned almost a million acres of agricultural land in Mexico at the turn of the century and counted Mexican President Porfirio Díaz a close personal friend. In the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, Otis and his newspaper also served as some of the staunchest and most vocal proponents of regional growth, north and south of the border. As he built a newspaper and real estate empire, Otis imagined a spectacular and distinctly imperial future for Los Angeles. In his words, the city would become “a mightier Pacific empire, with a population numbering millions where now we see only thousands, and possessing a measure of wealth, civilization and power now inconceivable.”
In keeping with this belief, Otis embraced American empire and its corollary racial hierarchy, in which Anglo American purveyors of empire argued it was their burden to govern and “uplift” nonwhite peoples. From Los Angeles, he requested an army appointment immediately after the outbreak of the Spanish-American War in 1898 and won his military ranking of brigadier general during his tour in the Philippines, where he helped oversee a bloody repression of Philippine nationalists and vocally declared his distaste for the territory’s nonwhite population. Bellicose editorials penned by Otis and his staff supported the expansion of American commercial interests and political control into Hawaii, Puerto Rico, Cuba, and Panama. During his time in the Philippines, Otis declared to readers of his newspaper that the archipelago “must remain absolutely under American control…some of them [are] still in a state of savagery.”
Otis exported a portion of this imperial vision to Mexico, where he bought a substantial investment property in 1904. With a syndicate of other Los Angeles investors, he purchased the Colorado River Land Company (CRLC), directly south of the California-Baja California border. Otis also leveraged support from the Mexican federal government through his friendship with Díaz, who welcomed American investment dollars in Mexico during his tenure, between 1876 and 1910. They corresponded regularly about the advantages of U.S. investments in Mexico and shared a perspective on the strict control of labor. Both were staunchly anti-union. After observing Diaz’s brutal suppression of several strikes in Mexico, Otis suggested utilizing Díaz’s union busting tactics in California and the West. Otis also regularly welcomed high ranking officials in the Díaz administration to his home, which he dubbed the “Bivouac,” in reference to his days in the military.
Image of Otis’s home just after its completion in 1898. The house was completed at the same time Otis was serving in the Philippines and he dubbed the home the “Bivouac” or military encampment. Image 000100, Los Angeles Times Company Records, The Huntington Library, San Marino, California.
Otis imbued his imperial outlook into the buildings he constructed in his hometown. In military parlance, “bivouac” refers to a temporary camp constructed by soldiers. Although his home was a solid and permanent structure in the then-fashionable MacArthur Park neighborhood, Otis imagined it as his military encampment. In it he created a “war room” where he proudly displayed weapons and memorabilia collected during his time in the military, including rifles, knives, swords, a pith helmet, and a large framed photo of himself in uniform. The architecture of the “Bivouac” also bears significance. The façade is distinctly mission revival, an early example of the architectural style that would sweep across Southern California and allow Anglos to link “Spanish architecture, the suburban good life, and racial hierarchy.” In the naming of his newspaper headquarters, Otis also inscribed his imperial and militaristic worldview on the Los Angeles landscape. The Los Angeles Times building, from which he vociferously advocated for an American and Los Angeles empire, he dubbed the “Fortress.” Otis ruled his economic and publishing empire from this building, reinforced with granite against an attack he was sure lurked outside its walls. In case of conflict with labor unions, Otis stored fifty rifles in a tower room and a case of loaded shotguns next the managing editor’s desk. He also conducted military drills in Times offices.
Otis even incorporated his imperial and martial mentality into his home decor. Pictured here is the war memorabilia room at the “Bivouac.” Image 000092, Los Angeles Times Company Records, The Huntington Library, San Marino, California.
Image of the Los Angeles Times building just after it was bombed by trade unionists in 1910. Otis dubbed the headquarters of his newspaper “The Fortress.” C. C. Pierce Collection of Photographs, The Huntington Library, San Marino, California.
Unfortunately, neither Otis’ home nor the original Times building still stands. Labor activists bombed the Times building in 1910, hoping to undermine Otis and the city’s rabidly anti-union newspaper. Union activists sought, through dynamite and fire, to literally blow the Times building out of the city’s topography. The ties of empire, labor, and dissent are also intricate here—Job Harriman, the defense lawyer for the Times bombers, would also defend Mexican revolutionaries Enrique and Ricardo Flores Magón. Credited as the intellectual spark for the Mexican Revolution, the Flores Magón brothers critiqued American investment in Mexico generally and Harrison Gray Otis directly and were arrested and imprisoned in Los Angeles at the urging of the Times owner. The other building, the Bivouac, Otis donated to Los Angeles County with the stipulation that it be used in perpetuity to “promote the arts.” The county founded the Otis Art Institute in the general’s former home but eventually tore down the building to construct a bigger facility in the 1950s.
The street corner in front of Otis’ former home, however, still bears witness to his martial mentality and imperial aspirations. Shortly after his death in 1916, son-in-law Harry Chandler organized a group of friends to raise $50,000 to hire an artist (and Russian prince) to immortalize Otis in a statue, placed just steps from the “Bivouac.” Cast in bronze, Otis wears his military uniform and, reminiscent of conquistadors and adventurers who preceded him, points vigorously at landscapes beyond his street corner.
Statue of Otis, center, dressed in his military uniform. The statue stands across the street from the location of his former home in MacArthur Park. California Historical Society Collection, University of Southern California Libraries.
Other figures in Los Angeles history also staked out commercial empires in Mexico and then marked their imperial exploits on the city’s landscape, including oil titan Edward Doheny. Doheny was at one point the largest oil producer in the world, one of the world’s wealthiest men, and was one of the first to drill for oil in Mexico. By 1894, Doheny controlled the largest portion of Los Angeles’ emerging oil industry. Due in large part to his efforts, in the first two decades of the twentieth century the Los Angeles region became one of the world’s most important oil producers. Wells sprinkled across Southern California produced 20% of the world’s supply by World War I. 
Eager to apply his petroleum knowledge in other locales and to reap further fortunes, Doheny looked eagerly to extend his corporate empire beyond the environs of Southern California. In fact, it was Doheny who first exported the oil expertise developed in Southern California’s oil industry to Mexico. In 1900, Doheny took his first trip to Mexico to prospect for oil near Tampico in the State of Tamaulipas on the Gulf of Mexico. In his first decade in Mexico, Doheny produced 85 percent of the oil extracted in the nation and emerged as the largest independent oil producer in the world.
He also held that pulling the fuel of the modern era out of the earth was an endeavor that would propel Mexico towards modernity and civilization. Like many American empire builders, he saw his investment in Mexico and dealings with Mexican workers as both a civilizing force and a way to enrich himself. His job, as he saw it, was to make a fortune while simultaneously “uplifting” the non-white workers he employed in Mexico. As he testified to congress regarding his treatment of his Mexican employees: “We must be patient with the ignorance and the lack of initiative in the Mexican peon. They do not learn by instruction but must be taught by example…the greatest thing we can do in Mexico is the example which our workmen present to the Mexican of how to work, how to live, and how to progress.”
Doheny brought the bulk of his fortune back to Los Angeles and became integral to its development. He had already sparked the city’s oil boom and helped establish one of the region’s most lucrative industries. He helped to develop the City of Beverly Hills. He gave generously to the University of Southern California, located just a few blocks south of his lush complex of mansions at Chester Place, the city’s first gated community. A devout Catholic, Doheny also gave millions of his oil dollars to various Catholic churches and causes in Southern California—as much as $100 million over the course of his life in Los Angeles.
His home, particularly the structure of the greenhouse, was a brick-and-mortar paean to his oil empire. Life at his lavish estate in Chester Place included a private bowling alley, a small private zoo, and this greenhouse featuring an indoor pool large enough to float a canoe. Doheny filled the greenhouse with Mexican plant specimens, carefully moving plant samples from Mexico’s oil regions on his private rail car that ran regularly between Los Angeles and Mexico’s eastern coast. Some historians call this practice—transplanting plant specimens from a colony to an imperial center—“botanical imperialism.” In other words, it was not a simply an interest in gardening that led Doheny to transplant botanical specimens from the Tampico oil region to Los Angeles. During the age of empire, cultivating plants from colonial outposts was intimately bound up in processes of conquest, acquisition, power, and ultimately, display.
The greenhouse and pool, including the canoe and Mexican plant specimens, in Doheny’s Los Angeles home. Security Pacific National Bank Collection, Los Angeles Public Library.
The Spanish-language press in Los Angeles did not miss the fact that Mexican resources paid for his opulent presence in the built environment of Los Angeles. In a scathing critique of Doheny published by La Prensa (a Los Angeles-based Spanish language paper), an anonymous author observed in 1919: “Where did his colossal fortune come from? Simply from Mexico…the whole fortune accumulated by the ‘parvenu’ Doheny has come from Mexico without the least benefitting the country. On the contrary, every dollar coming from the Tampico Oil Fields is invested in the United States and especially in Los Angeles where he has a palatial mansion which attracts attention through a lavish display of oriental luxury.” Mexican Americans in Los Angeles were well aware that Doheny’s exploitation of Mexican mineral resources and labor had translated into astonishing displays of wealth north of the border.
Doheny’s Mexican fortune also constructed the library, in Spanish colonial style, at St. John’s Seminary in Camarillo, just north of Los Angeles. In addition to the building’s Spanish colonial architecture, the library’s facade is based on the Metropolitan Cathedral, the church located in Mexico City’s central plaza and the largest cathedral in the Americas. This mirroring of Mexico in Los Angeles, paid for by Mexican resources, is more than just symbolic. Los Angeles is a twenty-first global metropolis because its early promoters and investors oriented the city towards Mexico, the borderlands, and empire at the end of the nineteenth century. That a replica of a Mexican cathedral stands in Southern California, built with wealth wrought from Mexican oil, is the result of imperial design, not chance. It demonstrates the power of changing the landscape as part of strategies of empire—the Spanish built the original cathedral literally on the center of the Aztec empire. Doheny’s fortune replicated it in the seat of his power—Los Angeles.
St. John’s Seminary in Camarillo, California, just north of Los Angeles. The building’s architecture is Spanish colonial and the façade to the right is based on the Catedral Metropolitana in Mexico City. Security Pacific National Bank Collection, Los Angeles Public Library.
The Catedral Metropolitana in Mexico City, the largest church in Latin America. The smaller chapel on the right served as the model for the library at St. John’s Seminary in Camarillo, California. The Doheny family provided the funds for the construction of the library. “Catedral Metropolitana Mexico City (1)” by Carl Campbell is licensed under Creative Commons, CC BY-SA 2.0
While empire is embedded across the greater Los Angeles landscape, we can also find resistance to American imperial projects built into the city’s infrastructure. Take for example, a public art, and in many ways a public history, controversy over Los Angeles and empire that erupted in 1932. Los Angeles city leaders, notably white, had just finished an overhaul of the city’s historic core, known as “Olvera Street.” Chandler, now owner of the Los Angeles Times, and Los Angeles promoter Christine Sterling spearheaded the effort. They remade the oldest part of Los Angeles (a historically Mexican and Asian neighborhood and what they described as a “slum”) into a bucolic and entirely fabricated Mexican village.
Over the course of his life in Los Angeles, Chandler aggressively promoted the region, calculating that a growing city would benefit both his newspaper and his extensive real estate investments. Promoting the city paid—toward the end of his life in the 1940s, the Times estimated that he was the eleventh richest man in the world. Part of his portfolio included holding on to the million acres of property that he and his father-in-law purchased at the turn of the century for almost forty years.
Part of the renovation of Olvera Street, begun in the 1920s, included inviting the famed Mexican artist David Alfaro Siqueiros to paint an 80-foot mural on the side of the neighborhood’s Italian Hall. A veteran of the Mexican Revolution, Siqueiros had worked with Diego Rivera on mural campaigns in Mexico City and considered art a political tool and vehicle of revolutionary thought. Siqueiros also believed that revolutionary art should be truly “public” and had just developed a new type of paint and painting technique that would allow murals to be done outdoors and on the sides of buildings, where anyone could see and appreciate them. Chandler and Olvera Street renovators expected Siqueiros to paint something “exotic and picturesque,” in keeping with the recently revamped neighborhood.
Instead, Siqueiros chose the history of European and American imperialism in Mexico as the dramatic subject for his mural, América Tropical. Through images of toppled pyramids, he gestured to the violent Spanish destruction of indigenous culture and society. A bald eagle, symbolizing the United States, hovers over the crucifixion of an Indigenous man. To the right, revolutionary soldiers crouch, training their rifles on the eagle. Significantly, the mural faced Los Angeles city hall. Aimed at the seat of power in the city, the mural embodied a scathing critique of not just American imperialism in Mexico and Latin America, but a critique leveled at the city itself and its role in promoting the interests of American investors in Mexico.
Siqueiros’ América Tropical shortly after its completion in 1932. Los Angeles Examiner Photographs Collection, University of Southern California Libraries.
Chandler, Sterling, and their partners in the Olvera Street renovation, including municipal leaders, immediately had the mural whitewashed. Critiques of empire had no place in their bucolic reimagining of Mexico in Los Angeles’ historic core. Less than six months after it was unveiled in 1932, the entire mural was covered in a thick coat of white paint. Calls for restoration began in the 1960s with the rise of the Chicano Movement but it was not until the 2000s that restoration work began in earnest. The Getty Foundation (endowed by the oil fortune of the Getty family) funded one third of the project with the City of Los Angeles covering the remainder. Ironies abound here—major funding for the restoration came from just the type of capitalist enterprise that Siquieros, a committed communist, could not stand. And city government, key in having the original covered in 1932, paid for the bulk of the restoration during the early 2000s.
Ultimately, finding empire and anti-imperialism embedded in Los Angeles’ infrastructure is more than simply a reflection of some historical or economic and imperial trends. Instead, the examples explored here advanced certain ideologies and narratives about the past and the present. Public space and urban landscapes became a place of conversation and dialogue and sometimes even violence about urban growth and the advance of American empire and capitalism from the U.S. west and into Mexico. There were military and martial components of this ideology—as seen in Otis’s impact on the Los Angeles built environment. As he and Doheny also asserted through their infrastructure, this advance was racialized. They maintained that empire could unfold from the U.S. West and into Mexico and the Pacific precisely because whites where superior to nonwhites. Finally, labor activists, artists and critics of these imperial projects used or attempted to use public space and urban landscapes to push back against more dominant narratives. The bombing of a building or the south-facing brick wall and a new type of mural paint served as the tools to call the historical and contemporary narratives about a Los Angeles deserving of imperial reach into Mexico into question.
Empire continues to shape Los Angeles landscapes. Take for example that the neighborhood surrounding Harrison Gray Otis’s home and the statue of him is now a center of the Mexican and Central American immigrant community in Los Angeles. It was precisely the type of imperial and commercial ventures that he promoted that resulted in economic displacement of Mexicans and Central Americans over the last century and caused them to seek refuge in the United States. If we consider the history and topography of the MacArthur Park neighborhood, past and present, we unravel the history of empire and its consequences over a century, all within a block. An empire builder and advocate of extracting resources in Mexican and Latin America, stands in the midst of a neighborhood of migrants, many displaced by that history but also creating something new—a vibrant immigrant community in a space suffering from decline and disinvestment since the 1960s.
As Dolores Hayden called for in her pathbreaking book, The Power of Place, it is imperative to “read” or analyze urban landscapes as historical texts, situating ourselves deeply in urban regions and neighborhoods, analyzing urban space as the result of human history and human struggles on particular landscapes. In other words, we must ask questions about how relationships of power or categories and identities of race, class, and gender shape how cities are designed, constructed, occupied, appropriated, desecrated, and admired. In short, social and economic history and urban landscapes are intertwined.
In a moment of intense public debate over historical monuments, historians are interrogating the narratives we tell—or fail to tell—in American landscapes. As in the vigorous recent debate over Confederate statues, historians of California and the West are reconsidering how western monuments and landscapes can tell a fuller and more nuanced story about social conflict and inequality, particularly those rooted in race, ethnicity, conquest, and empire. The remnants of these stories in Los Angeles are all around us—just look up.
 Felix Driver and David Gilbert, eds., Imperial Cities: Landscape, Display, and Identity (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1999). See also Philip J. Ethington, “The Global Spaces of Los Angeles, 1920s-1930s,” in Gyan Prakash and Kevin M. Kruse, eds., The Spaces of the Modern City: Imaginaries, Politics, and Everyday Life (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008).
 Jessica Kim, Imperial Metropolis: Los Angeles, Mexico, and the Borderlands of American Empire, 1865-1941 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2019).
 Robert Gottlieb and Irene Wolt, Thinking Big: The Story of the Los Angeles Times, Its Publishers, and Their Influence on Southern California (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1977).
 “Interview on the Philippines,” Los Angeles Times, October 9, 1902.
 “General Otis Pleased with His Trip to Mexico,” Los Angeles Times, October 16, 1902; Letter from Harrison Gray Otis to Porfirio Díaz, December 19, 1903, document 000430, legajo XXIX, Coleccíon Porfirio Díaz, Universidad Iberoamericana, Mexico City.
 Phoebe S. Kropp, California Vieja: Culture and Memory in a Modern American Place (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006). See also William Deverell, Whitewashed Adobe: The Rise of Los Angeles and the Remaking of its Mexican Past (Berkeley: University of Southern California Press, 2004).
 Errol Wayne Stevens, “Two Radicals and Their Los Angeles: Harrison Gray Otis and Job Harriman,” California History 84, no. 3 (2009) 44-70.
 Martin Ansell, Oil Baron of the Southwest: Edward L. Doheny and the Development of the Petroleum Industry in California and Mexico (Columbus, OH: Ohio State University Press, 1998); Margaret Leslie Davis, Dark Side of Fortune: Triumph and Scandal in the Life of Oil Tycoon Edward L. Doheny (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001); Dan La Botz, Edward L. Doheny: Petroleum, Power, and Politics in the United States and Mexico (New York: Praeger, 1991); Myrna Santiago, The Ecology of Oil: Environment, Labor, and the Mexican Revolution, 1900-1928 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006).
 Rebecca Preston, “‘The Scenery of the Torrid Zone’: Imagined Travels and the Culture of Exotics in Nineteenth-Century British Gardens,” in Imperial Cities, edited by Felix Driver and David Gilbert, 194-214 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1999).
 Translation of article published La Prensa, Los Angeles, April 12, 1919, box 34, Bergman Collection, Huntington Library.
 William Estrada, The Los Angeles Plaza: Sacred and Contested Space (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2008); Kropp, California Vieja.
 Emily MacDonald-Korth and Leslie Rainer, “The Getty Conservation Institute Project to Conserve David Alfaro Siqueiros’s Mural América Tropical,” Getty Research Journal, no. 6 (2014) 103-114.
Jessica Kim is an associate professor of history at California State University, Northridge and the author of Imperial Metropolis: Los Angeles, Mexico, and the Borderlands of American Empire, 1865-1941 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2019).
In 1919, then unemployed Viennese architect Richard Neutra had not yet immigrated to the United States and was disillusioned from his military service in World War I. So the story goes, Neutra saw a bright travel poster in a gray Zurich train station whose text spelled, amidst palm trees and glistening blue water, “CALIFORNIA CALLS YOU.” It was then that Neutra, who would become one of the most influential twentieth century architects in Southern California designing dozens of private homes and public buildings throughout the Greater Los Angeles area, was first called west. Nearly ten years later Neutra, and countless others, ultimately heeded the call to California as a promised land of pure sunshine, curative climate and good health—a place that could cure all your ailments. Lyra Kilston’sSun Seekers(Atelier Éditions) traces the often-intersecting characters who took up this call—architects, artists, designers, sanitorium operators—as well as those involved in the return to nature (Zurück zur Natur), utopian, and healthy body movements in the US and Germany, in order to try to figure out the origins of that quintessentially Californian relationship to health, body, nature and technology.
Richard Neutra, R.M. Schindler, Dione Neutra, and Dion Neutra, at the Kings Road house they briefly shared, West Hollywood, California. Courtesy of the R. M. Schindler papers, Architecture & Design Collection. Art, Design & Architecture Museum; University of California, Santa Barbara
As a self-described fourth generation Angeleno, Kilson’s stake in the game often reads like a reconstruction of a personal history of “California-ness.” As she roots her own familial connection to a California lifestyle based around fitness, diet, celebrity, technology and industry, Kilston looks for the link between these disparate ideas in order to historicize a California whose identity is also seemingly premised on a perpetual quest for the contemporary, the new, the innovative—a certain subconscious refusal to be historicized. Kilston contextualizes Californian lifestyle as part of a larger simultaneous movement in Europe and the United States which found a foothold in California in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Due to its oft-mythologized Spanish colonial-era reputation as a space capable of healing through space and climate alone, people began to congregate in California in order to collectively devote their lives to healthy living. Somewhere between art book and academic text, Kilston’s robustly researched volume is conversational in tone, richly illustrated and accessible to wide audiences, and sheds new light on the inspirations and contexts for the already widely told tale of California modern architecture. Kilston forges a link between health seekers and modern architecture that articulates a construction of California-ness itself, which instead of functioning as merely a happy backdrop to movements around healthy living, demands its own story be told.
Boys sunbathing circa 1928 at an open-air “preventorium,” a school for “pre-tubercular” boys that opened in 1922 in Pasadena. source: Security Pacific National Bank Collection, Los Angeles Public Library.
Early in her research for the book, Kilston discovered references to a ‘Highland Springs Resort’ just outside of Los Angeles, in Beaumont, CA in the pages of a one-hundred-year-old newspaper. The newspaper described a resort which claimed to be based on the austere principles of an obscure German dietician named Arnold Ehret. Dr. Ehret promoted a disciplined personal regimen of “no caffeine, alcohol, meat or processed foods, daily exercise, sun baths, and regular bouts of fasting to clear the body of toxic, disease-causing matter.” With followers claiming cures, Dr. Ehret amassed tremendous popularity and arguably influenced modern health and lifestyle movements. Kilston traveled to the still functioning resort (and one-time summer camp—my own former sixth grade camp!) to look for lingering traces of the early health movements or Dr. Ehret’s teachings, but found it instead transformed to a soon to be wellness center and working educational farm; disappointingly no one there had ever heard of Dr. Ehret. Kilston offers this anecdote to introduce the purpose for writing this text: California may be discursively hyper aware of its existence as a mecca for all things “healthy,” but it has a short, often revisionist, memory when it comes to its own history and formations. Kilston argues that this California story of healthy living begins with the tuberculosis epidemic which primarily affected residents of dense urban areas in continental Europe and the East Coast of the US in the late nineteenth century. She traces a fascinating history of the sanitorium movement in Europe and the northern United States in which doctors promoted healthy lifestyles, natural light, sunbathing, exposure to fresh air and restricted diets as cure for early stage tuberculosis (which, in reality, had mixed success). European architects responded in turn by articulating that buildings too, when placed and designed correctly, could aid in recovery and thus designed dozens of sanitoriums, notably Alvar Aalto’s Paimio Sanatorium in Finland, the Klinik Clavadel in Davos, and Jan Duiker and Bernard Bijvoet’s Sanatorium Zonnestraal (whose name means ‘sunbeam’) in the early twentieth century. This was taken up in the Sanitorium Belt, an unofficial area of land stretching from San Diego to Los Angeles which showcased dozens of sanitoriums believed to have architecturally curative properties (sun roofs and skylights, large windows, local materials meant to connect to nature, planned vistas, and painted in calming colors).
Health seekers from mostly Germany and the US, often doctors or naturopaths who had contracted tuberculosis themselves and believed that California’s climate itself when harnessed through a building could cure the disease, built and operated dozens of these sanitoriums in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in the primarily agricultural Los Angeles area. Kilston notes that Richard Neutra’s later 1929 Lovell Health House was built in the spirit of these European and California sanitoriums for health and also indicated a Le Corbusier-ian desire to design the home as a “machine for living”–the implication for both Le Corbusier and Neutra being healthy and correct living. She marks a rupture in modern architecture when “healthy lifestyles” became linked to daily life and spaces for daily activity, and were no longer just something to think of in the context of disease; healthy, disease-free lifestyles could now be for everyone through means of prevention (like diet and exercise) and through homes, schools and other buildings which would harness the healing powers of the natural landscape and climate. It was in this moment that a healthy lifestyle became foremost preventative as opposed to curative, and therefore accessible to all who sought it. Kilston spends a fair bit of time describing the concurrent trends in modern architecture in both Europe and California and suggests that architect Neutra himself was the link between nearly identical health-related movements within architecture in both Europe and California. The second half of the book is dedicated to a cast of characters crucial in defining the sun seeker movement in California: the hermit in Palm Springs, the Nature Boys, the raw vegetarian cafeteria owners and cookbook authors in downtown Los Angeles, the German Zurück zur Natur movement, eugenics scientists, exercise regimen developers, those with beards and a certain idealized cooptation of indigenous lifestyles as manifest in both German and Californian social organizations. She knits together otherwise disparate characters and groups in Germany and California and suggests their reciprocal relationship is an often unremarked upon component of the California identity of health and the “natural.”
The Nature Boys in Topanga Canyon, California, August 1948. source: Estate of Gypsy Boots
Sun Seekers offers a relatively comprehensive narrative of the construction of the mythologies around “healthy and natural lifestyles” and offers hints at the psychological motives of health seekers flocking to California while proffering a specific reflexive relationship between Southern California and Germany. Kilston acknowledges the grotesque, the obscene, the weird, and the cult-like within the construction of the healthy lifestyle narrative with neither reverence nor disdain. Instead, Kilston suggests that a false dichotomy between nature and civilization creates something special for those who struggle to reconcile it and suggests that this is perhaps essentially Californian; this concurrent search for the “machine in the garden” and the purely “natural” is the paradoxical Californian trope that inspires and repels, and its quite complex lineage and European roots suggest there is actually more to the story, which this text just only begins to scratch the surface of.
As Sun Seekers toes the line between art book and academic text, some might suggest its audience could be more clearly formed were it to more clearly identify as one or the other. On the contrary, though Kilston’s limited framing can feel sparse, it does allow the text to fill a niche in writing about architectural history. That is, it is neither pedantic in tone nor does it assume a cultivated relationship to design itself, but instead offers a reading of architectural spaces which argues for their integral role in social history and in constructing collective mythologies/discourses, while inviting readers to take up the relationship between the built environment and the construction of Californian identity in a clear and joyful tone. Possible extensions of the text might consider a more explicitly political lens through which to consider this relationship between German and American health seeking and architecture movements, particularly their mutually shared relationships with colonial and territorial expansion and racism which are arguably integral to foundations of the respective movements themselves. Likewise, the definitions of “nature” and “the natural” are wholly untroubled and suggest a universalized understanding of how these various actors involved with the narrative interpreted conceptions of “the natural,” which I suspect, is not the case. Kilston does briefly allude to both the roles of race and colonialism and the arbitrary construction of nature in the construction of Californian identity, but her analysis ends there. Instead, Kilston frames and names the ways in which the persistence of a certain kind of California exceptionalism is discursively insisted upon and Sun Seekers offers some clear pathways to unpacking that exceptionalism through making clear the limitations of a supposed a-historicalness of healthy living and relationship to nature. That Californian aesthetic of a sunkissed natural world of innovation, ingenuity and healthy living is a construction much older, and much more complicated than it seems.
 The Lovell Health House was designed by Neutra for physician and naturopath Dr. Phillip Lovell as a house whose spaces themselves would contribute to physical health of inhabitants.
 Leo Marx, The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in America. London: Oxford University Press, 1964. The “machine in the garden” refers to the tension between the pastoral ideal of the natural American landscape with industrialization and its need for land, constant expansion and natural resources.
Leslie Lodwick is an educator, historian and doctoral student in the History of Art and Visual Culture Department at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Her research is concerned with issues of race, gender and education in histories of 19th and 20th-century architecture, planning and design. Her work also explores the visual culture of childhood, school, and play. She is assistant managing editor of Refract: An Open Access Visual Studies Journal.
What is summer in California without adventures under the sunny skies? Incomplete.
This year, with the support of our amazing publisher UC Press, we hosted the Boom California Summer Photo Contest on Instagram so we could venture around the state through the eyes of our readers. We wanted insight from the views of your weekend trips and staycations.
Our readers didn’t disappoint. Breathtaking photographs perfectly captured the calm lakes, rough waves and towering trees that make California our home. Before the autumnal equinox arrives next month, take a moment to appreciate our beautiful state.
“Some views are intoxicating, this is one of them. The Eastern Sierra is home to uninterrupted scenes like this everywhere you look.” – Tim Wiecek
Seacliff State Beach, Monterey Bay, Aptos | Photo by Jane Hammons
“A local favorite, this California beach has an interesting past: and present. The decaying concrete freighter at the end of the pier once boasted a popular dance hall and now provides an artificial reef for sea life.” – Jane Hammons
“I was lucky to have worked as a park ranger in Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park in 2010 and 2011. Every year since then I try and return to the park. I always have to make a stop in the Giant Forest in order to wander through the massive and ancient groves of Sequoia trees. The area is dotted with many meadows where it’s not uncommon to find bears grazing. When some friends saw this image they said that it looked like a small bear, but then I had to point out and say, no it’s just that the massive sequoia log behind the bear skews the perspective. In regards to the Sierra black bears, this one is actually quite large.” – Anthony Bevilacqua
Luffenholtz Beach, Humboldt County | Photo by Kim Nguyen
“Arcata and the surrounding areas of Humboldt County are my absolute favorite places in California to visit, and it’s always the most magical experience any time I can make it up there. After spending the day hiking around the redwoods, finishing the day at the beach and catching the sunset is the icing on the cake.” – Kim Nguyen
“Looking towards Mt. Conness [I think?] from the Twenty Lakes Loop in the Hoover Wilderness of the Eastern High Sierras.” – Kristin Miller
Tenaya Lake, Yosemite National Park | Photo by Laura Watt
“The light is hazy due to smoke from the Ferguson fire.” – Laura Watt
If you’re searching for your next California summer destination, you may find it right here. Search #BoomCaliforniaSummer on Instagram to view more photo submissions from our contest.
Natalie Nuesca is a recent graduate of California State University, Fullerton where she earned her double major B.A. in English and Communications, Journalism. She has previously written for the Daily Titan and served as the editor-in-chief of Tusk Magazine.
For several years, television and computer screens showcase California fire footage, especially during summer months. Flames burn miles of wildland while firefighters battle the advancing front. Aircrafts spew great plumes of orange retardant that descend on the rising smoke. Red and crimson-gold flames light up the night. The news is part of an ancient story. For over 350 million years, wildfires have been shaping and rejuvenating forests, grasslands, and shrublands. New science indicates that imperiled wildlife such as the California spotted owl can greatly benefit from large, natural, wildfires.
The American West experienced about 30-40 million acres of wildfires each year through the drought years of the 1920s and 1930s. That is well over the 10 million acres that burned in 2015, the over 8 million acres that burned in 2017, our biggest fire-years in recent decades. Scientists are discussing predictions about the potential for the increasing size of wildfires due to climate change, while the new science is throwing light on a crucial question: how can we protect the forests that are California’s legacy?
While most scientists agree that fires provide multiple ecological benefits, scientists debate the high value of natural wildfire as opposed to prescribed wildfires. The emerging science shows that prescribed burns, typically designed to burn the forest understory outside the fire season, cannot provide the suite of ecological benefits provided by natural wildfires.
In Spring 2015, I followed a team of scientists through one ‘burn’ after another. The 2013 Rim Fire had burned through the path ahead, and affected over a quarter of a million acres of forest, conifer plantation, scrubland, and meadow—most of them within Stanislaus National Forest. Some 80,000 acres of Yosemite National Park also burned.
The DEIS declared that “thousands of acres of critical habitat,” had been lost to imperiled wildlife, including California spotted owls and northern goshawks.
The Rim Fire was initially declared to be the largest fire on record for the Sierra Nevada, described as “a catastrophe.” By May 2014, the Forest Service drafted an Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS), proposing logging operations to clear-cut over 40,000 acres across parts of Stanislaus that were now dominated by blackened, dead trees called ‘snags.’ The DEIS declared that “thousands of acres of critical habitat,” had been lost to imperiled wildlife, including California spotted owls and northern goshawks. Written soon after the fire, the DEIS also documented little plant regeneration in the burned soil. The plan was to remove the snags and then spray a cocktail of herbicides to inhibit the growth of natural shrubs, and install conifer plantations. Operations were to begin in the summer of 2015.
In June 2015, the scientists on the path ahead of me were Dr. Derek Lee and Monica Bond—a husband and wife team with an abiding interest in the fate of spotted owls after wildfire. We hiked through the soon-to-be-removed burn areas west of the Highway 120 entrance into Yosemite National Park. Much of what looked dead was really alive. Overhead, ponderosa pine branches were roasted to the color of dark toast—looking otherworldly in the bright blue morning glow. Dr. Chad Hanson, leader of our walk, pointed out new pine needles, emerald-greens peeping out through the layers of burnt brown. Like the tree overhead, thousands of mature, charred pines were in the throes of ‘flushing,’ bursting with new growth. New oak leaves were rising from the ground where their parent tree once stood. We had to watch our steps. The forest floor was alive with seedlings of pine, fir, cedar, lupines, saffron-bright wallflowers, and, in more remote patches, Clarkia australis, farewell-to-spring flowers, among the rarest of ‘fire followers’ in Stanislaus.
Just after the Rim Fire DEIS was released in 2014, a friend offered to fly me there in his Cessna. Below, Stanislaus National Forest looked like a rolling patchwork quilt—bright green expanses, great swaths featuring a blend of green and brown, and patches of darker, more severely burned forest. For the first time, I could see variations within the burn.
Large wildfires that burn through unlogged forests burn with a natural mix of low, moderate, and high severities, levels I could distinguish from the aircraft. Low severity burns through the forest’s understory, leaving over three quarters of the treetops green. Tree trunks are scorched around their base, and over 75% of all the trees remain alive. Moderate severity burns more intensely—with anywhere between one and three quarters of all the trees surviving the fire. High severity burns hottest; flames torch the tree crowns. Over 75% of all the trees burn into ‘snags,’ or standing dead trees—scientists call these areas ‘snag forests.’ High severity may range between 15% and 40% of the total area burned, and can be higher in areas that have been previously logged and turned into plantations.
Evergreen Lodge California Spotted Owl sitting in a part of Stanislaus National Forest that burned with low-severity during the 2013 Rim Fire. A few minutes after the photograph was taken, the owl flew to a snag within a high severity area, and foraged there until well after dusk.
Photographs taken immediately after a wildfire can be misleading. Following the Rim Fire, the Forest Service estimated a record 35% high severity fire in the burned parts of Stanislaus National Forest, since most of the trees looked dead. One year after the fire, a second survey brought the high severity number down to 19.9%, less than half of the earlier estimate, and well within the range of high severity observed in historic wildfires within mixed-conifer forests of the American West. Given a year, many trees were showing signs of life, new greens mixed in with the browns and blacks.
While I was flying over the Rim Fire in 2014, dedicated Forest Service field biologists were deep in the throes of surveys for California spotted owls across the post-fire forests below. The owls are recognized as sensitive species by the Forest Service. The biologists detected a record thirty-three pairs occupying historical owl territories. Most were living close to patches that had burned with high severity. Their surveys marked the beginning of a groundbreaking study.
Spotted owls are known to favor old growth forests, remaining faithful to territories they use for nesting and roosting year after year. They are growing increasingly rare across the state. I had assumed they would be long gone from the burn. But Bond had a different story. In the late 1990s, she joined a demographic study of spotted owls that had begun in the mid-eighties. Bond used fifteen years of data to see if owls were inclined to return and breed in their old stomping grounds after a wildfire had swept through. The study included four sites in New Mexico, Arizona, and northern California.
“I discovered to my surprise that the Forest Service typically did not survey for spotted owls in heavily burned areas,” Bond said. “So we actually had very little data from forests outside our demography study sites. There was an assumption, ‘of course, the owls aren’t going to be there.’”
Bond and her colleagues conducted long-term spotted owl research in post-fire forests that had recently burned one or more well-established spotted owl territories. The study included the three subspecies: northern spotted owls (listed under the Endangered Species Act), based in the forests of northwestern California, California spotted owls in San Bernardino National Forest, Southern California, and Mexican spotted owls in New Mexico and Arizona.
Once the records were compiled, the team was in for a second surprise. All across the burned forests, they found the owls “fared well after wildfire.” The year after each fire, most returned to the same, now burned, territories they had occupied before, remained with the same mates, and reproduced with remarkable success—comparable to their lives before each burn. Essentially, the raptors were thriving in undisturbed burned forests.
“That first study got my creative juices flowing,” Bond admitted with a chuckle.
News about the results hurled a big question at managers and at the public, essential owners of our national forests and national parks. Do burned forests have value? The question is heavily burdened with a fact of our time. Severely burned forests are routinely clear-cut in “salvage logging” operations.
2016 Regen 3 Solitaire Nest where a snag and sprigs of new growth, pines, cedars, and firs frame the ground nest created by a pair of Townsend’s solitaires.
A decade after Bond’s first study, she and Lee teamed up with other scientists for a second, spanning eleven years, this time focusing on California spotted owls being surveyed by Forest Service biologists. By this point, and after scrutiny from conservation groups, the agency had begun surveying heavily burned areas for owls prior to salvage operations. The research team compared burned and unburned habitats up and down the state, from Lassen National Forest in the southern part of the Cascades Mountain Range to Sequoia National Forest in the southern Sierras. Their results told a similar story: spotted owls were continuing to occupy burned territories at the same rates as unburned territories, thriving in burned forests after wildfire. Subsequent studies revealed that the most productive, higher-quality territories were still occupied even when the owls’ entire core area burned at high severity. Post-fire ‘salvage logging’ caused the owls to leave in what scientists call “territory extinction.”
The abundance of growth springing up after fire attracts all manner of squirrels, voles, shrews, mice, and gophers—all high quality food for raptors like the owl. Witnessing the prolific growth of the burned forests she studied, coupled with the vibrant small mammal life Bond was no longer surprised at the quick return of California spotted owls she and her colleagues found. Wildfire brings the forest’s own fertilizers back in contact with soils, and the rapid pace of natural regeneration draws in the animals.
“As long as there are trees still standing for the owls to swoop down from, they can use these burned areas for foraging,” she told me.
Walking through the Rim Fire areas of Stanislaus National Forest, Bond and Lee asked themselves similar questions about the fate of resident California spotted owls. It was a hot spring and the mosquitoes too were evidently doing well. Once we were quiet and watchful, the air grew full of bird sounds. Woodpeckers drummed on bark. Lazuli buntings, seed-eating birds the size of sparrows, chittered as they eyed me from a blackened snag. Lazulis are on a long list of ‘fire birds,’ developed by Dr. Richard Hutto, a distinguished ornithologist. At the top of his list are black-backed woodpeckers, another bird rare to California.
Early morning Sunday, 14 June 2015, biologist Tonja Chi woke me up. “Follow me.”
Half an hour later we were driving through Stanislaus National Forest along a road southeast of the Highway 120 entrance into Yosemite. We parked and crunched into an adjacent forest that had burned with low severity, immediately adjacent to a high severity part of the burn. Tonja walked with her eyes pinned to the ground. Not twenty minutes later, I discovered the logic. She was eyeing splotches of ‘white-wash,’ chalky white raptor scat under a large cedar tree. Looking up from the scat, she pointed to a limb high in a fir tree that was charred to about knee level, and alive. Two pairs of wide eyes were trained on us. Backlit by the rising sun, the fledgling California spotted owls looked haloed with fiery down feathers. The larger of the two fledglings stood about seventeen inches tall, the height of an adult. They moved their heads in circles, curious. Tonja found the male parent less than a hundred feet away, nodding off to sleep after a night of hunting and feeding his young.
By 2016, two independent teams had reported California spotted owls reacting to wildfires in completely different ways—one negatively, and the other positively. Gavin Jones and his colleagues reported dramatic declines in owls one year after a ‘megafire,’ the 2014 King Fire, which burned over 98,000 acres in Eldorado National Forest. Meanwhile, Lee and Bond had worked with Forest Service data from Stanislaus National Forest, and found the owls were making a good living for themselves in the burn one year after the Rim Fire. Their discoveries pointed in the direction of the earlier work. Within the forty-five historical owl sites in the Rim Fire forests, the probability of a site being occupied by owls was 92%. These were the highest California spotted owl occupancy levels ever found anywhere in the Sierra Nevada, counting landscapes that had not experienced recent fire. Spotted owls were even settling down close to high severity burn areas.
Because the Jones study in Eldorado National Forest pointed in the opposite direction of most previously published work, it piqued much interest. Bond and Lee examined the trends and realized the California spotted owl population in Eldorado had been steadily declining for decades before the King Fire, partly due to intense logging and forest-thinning efforts on both public and private land. The trend of the population decline lined up perfectly with the lower number of owls after the fire, indicating that the fire itself was an unlikely cause.
2016 image showing clear-cuts in Eldorado National Forest that burned in the 2014 King Fire. Shortly after the clear-cutting, these areas were sprayed with herbicides to inhibit the growth of shrubs.
Now Bond and Lee joined Hanson to pore over the field-based data with care. They realized the study had considered approximately half the King Fire area. Within that half, five spotted owl territories had been reported as “extinct” due to the King Fire, when in fact those pairs had disappeared by 2011 or earlier—well before the King Fire began to burn. A single owl and another pair were reported as gone when they had in fact moved a few hundred meters away, within their existing territories. Two other pairs of owls that were present in post-fire areas went unreported. When the results were considered along with all the data that had been excluded from the study, the owls showed an overall trend of preferring undisturbed post-fire habitat rather than avoiding it – which was consistent with all the previous long-term studies. Puzzled, the team alerted the authors, the editor of Frontiers in Ecology, and the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, with a package of ground-truthed data.
But their alerts came in on the heels of major logging efforts. Assuming the snag forest patches within the King Fire area of Eldorado National Forest were of no use to the spotted owls, or other wildlife, the Forest Service systematically removed those patches in the spring and summer of 2016. Working on similar assumptions, managers in Stanislaus National Forest followed their original plans and began clear-cutting snag forests within the Rim Fire area, citing the Jones study as part of their justification.
Snag patches within the King Fire areas of Eldorado National Forest are largely gone, and they continue to be removed from the Rim Fire areas of Stanislaus. Thousands of conifer seedlings per acre, which were sprouting up from the fire-enriched soils, have been squashed under equipment within the clear-cutting footprint—along with the native wildflowers, morel mushrooms and other native fungi. Snags that served as homes for woodpeckers and other wildlife have disappeared from Eldorado and from much of Stanislaus.
The husband and wife team and others could no longer explore longer-term effects of the Rim Fire on owls in Stanislaus National Forest. “The old paradigm—a lot of what we once thought—isn’t right,” Monica reflected. “Our spotted owl studies showed us: species that rely on old growth forests can also thrive in severely burned forests.”
Scientists standing along the new frontier of knowledge agree that natural wildfires are the ancient agents of change, with high severity fire being a key component. Fire typically chars the outermost layers of trees, and leaves the interior intact, valuable. Hanson calculated the economic losses and gains from logging efforts across post-fire habitats. The revenue gained from selling burned wood ranges between $15 to $20 million per year. A conservative estimate of costs to taxpayers ranges between $50 million to $100 million. And there are inestimable costs to the wild.
Attempting to work with fire, agencies like the National Park Service have routinely set low severity fires that primarily burn the forest understory. An increasing number of studies indicate that natural wildfires, with their distinct blend of low, moderate and high severity, offer greater ecological benefits. Well over a hundred peer-reviewed papers have spoken volumes about the benefits of wildfire, the high biodiversity of post-fire forests, and their history in the American West and other parts of the world. A growing number agree that post-fire ’salvage logging’ has disastrous consequences.
“The overwhelming diversity and superabundance of native plants and animals in severe burned forests tells us that this kind of fire is natural,” Bond says. “Not only is it natural, it’s necessary for western forest ecosystems.”
Fire science is still relatively new, and the current management practices are geared towards fire suppression in the wild. Modern fire suppression efforts began in earnest in the mid-1930s. Smokey the Bear came into being in 1944, warning against forest fires. By the mid-nineties, Bill Clinton agreed to a ‘salvage logging rider.’ The rider trotted in on the back of an anti-terrorism bill, and was passed into law—allowing for massive logging and related post-fire operations across burned forests. In addition, many fuels reduction projects began thinning the forests in attempts to decrease their potential for high severity wildfires. Recent studies suggest that most fuels reduction projects within forests selectively remove mature trees and do little to decrease high-severity wildfire. Current level of fire suppression efforts need to be more focused.
During 2016, Chi and I revisited the area where she had found the young owls in 2015. Just a few hundred meters away, swaths of post-fire habitat were gone. We could not find the owls. May 2017, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development approved a $70 million grant to the State of California—to remove most of the remaining snag forests within the Rim Fire Area of Stanislaus National Forest. The wood is to be burned by the biomass industry, to produce energy and pollute the air above Yosemite with emissions, a process which Congress is hoping to define as renewable, though burning biomass emits more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than burning coal. And yet there is hope—as forests and wildlife continue to thrive with the natural wildfires that shaped their evolution—that the management of our public forests will someday catch up with the science.
Yosemite Highway 120 Entrance 2, Autumn colors appear in a part of Yosemite that burned with moderate severity during the 2013 Rim Fire. The burned pines above now thrive.
 S. H. Doerr and C. Santin, “Global trends in wildfire and its impacts: perceptions versus realities in a changing world,” Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B 371 (2016): 0345.
 M. L. Bond, R. J. Gutierrez, A. B. Franklin, et al., “Short-term effects of wildfires on Spotted Owl survival, site fidelity, mate fidelity, and reproductive success,” WildlifeSocietyBulletin 30 (2002):1022-1028.
 Douglas S. Powell, Joanne L. Faulkner, David R. Darr, et al., “Forest Resources of the United States,” General Technical Report RM-234 (Fort Collings, CO: United States Department of Agriculture, 1992).
 In California, the fire season extends through the summer and fall seasons.
 US Forest Service, “Rim Fire Recovery (43033): Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS),” Stanislaus National Forest, R5 MB-270, May 2014.
 Chad T. Hanson and Malcolm P. North, “Post-fire survival and flushing in three Sierra Nevada conifers with high initial crown scorch,” International Journal of Wildland Fire 18 (2009): 857-864.
 Roy Buck, personal communication, 30 May 2017.
 Center for Biological Diversity and the John Muir Project of Earth Island Institute, “Letter to the Forest Service,” 11 January 2016.
 Derek E. Lee and Monica L. Bond, “Occupancy of California Spotted Owl sites following a large fire in the Sierra Nevada, California.” The Condor: Ornithological Applications 117 (2015): 228-236.
 M. E. Seamans and R. J. Gutierrez, “Habitat selection in a changing environment: The relationship between habitat alteration and Spotted Owl territory occupancy and breeding dispersal,” The Condor: Ornithological Applications 109 (2007): 566-576. United States Fish and Wildlife Service, “U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Announces Findings on Petitions to List Species in California and Nevada” 17 September 2015.
 Interview with Monica Bond, 20 May 2016, Stanislaus National Forest.
 Bond, M. L., R. J. Gutierrez, A. B. Franklin, at al., “Short-term effects of wildfires on Spotted Owl survival, site fidelity, mate fidelity, and reproductive success,” Wildlife Society Bulletin 30 (2002): 1022-1028.
 Interview with Monica Bond, 20 May 2016, Stanislaus National Forest.
 M. L. Bond, D. E. Lee, R. B. Siegel, and J. P. Ward, “Habitat use and selection by California Spotted Owls in a postfire landscape,” Journal of Wildlife Management 73 (2009): 1116-1124.
 D. E. Lee and M. L. Bond, “Previous year’s reproductive state affects spotted owl site occupancy and reproduction responses to natural and anthropogenic disturbances,” The Condor: Ornithological Applications 117 (2015): 307-319.
 D. L. Lee, M. L. Bond, M. I. Borchert, and R. Tanner, “Influence of fire and salvage logging on site occupancy of Spotted Owls in the San Bernardino and San Jacinto mountains of southern California,” Journal of Wildlife Management 77 (2013): 1327-1341.
 Interview with Monica Bond, 20 May 2016, Stanislaus National Forest.
 Collard B. Sneed, Fire Birds: Valuing Natural Wildfires and Burned Forests (Missoula, MT: Mountain Press, 2014).
 Gavin M. Jones, R. J. Gutiérrez, Douglas J. Tempel, at al. “Megafires: an emerging threat to old-forest species,” Frontiers in Ecology (2016): 301-306.
 Derek E. Lee and Monica L. Bond, “Occupancy of California Spotted Owl sites following a large fire in the Sierra Nevada, California,” The Condor: Ornithological Applications 117 (2015): 228-236..
 M. L. Bond, D. E. Lee, R. B. Siegel, and J. P. Ward, “Habitat use and selection by California Spotted Owls in a postfire landscape,” The Condor: Ornithological Applications 119 (2017): 375-388.
 John Muir Project of Earth Island Institute and Wild Nature Institute, “Letter to the United States Fish and Wildlife Service,” 29 August 2016. Center for Biological Diversity and the John Muir Project of Earth Island Institute, and Wild Nature Institute, “Letter to the United States Fish and Wildlife Service,” April 2017.
 United States Forest Service, “Rim Fire Project Decision,” August 2016.
 Interview with Monica Bond, 20 May 2016, Stanislaus National Forest.
 Interview with Dr. Chad Hanson, 11 August 2016, Big Bear City.
 Richard L. Hutto, Robert E. Keane, Rosemary L. Sherriff, et al. “Toward a more ecologically informed view of severe forest fires,” Ecosphere 7 (2016): e01255.
 Morgan W. Tingley, Viviana Ruiz-Gutiérrez, Robert L. Wilkerson, et al., “Pyrodiversity promotes avian diversity over the decade following forest fire,” Proc. R. Soc. B 283 (2016): 1703. Dominick A. DellaSala and Chad T. Hanson, eds. The Ecological Importance of Mixed-Severity Fires: Nature’s Phoenix (The Netherlands: Elsevier, 2015).
 Interview with Monica Bond, 20 May 2016, Stanislaus National Forest.
 Curtis M. Bradley, Chad T. Hanson, and Dominick A. DellaSala, “Does increased forest protection correspond to higher fire severity in frequent- fire forests of the western United States?” Ecosphere 7 (2016): 1-13.
Maya Khosla is a Wildlife Ecologist with Ecological Studies and has written in Flyway, Yes Magazine, Humansand Nature, and other journals. Her work has been collected in Keel Bone (Dorothy Brunsman Poetry Prize) and Web of Water: Life in Redwood Creek (non-fiction). Her new book of poems is forthcoming from Sixteen Rivers Press. Searching for the Gold Spot is her new film.
It is a Saturday evening in April and Celerina Chavez is making albondigas—Mexican meatball soup. In a heavy pot, the soup simmers gently, sending the smell of carrot and cilantro throughout the house. With an oven mitt, Celerina lifts the hot lid. “The soup needs more water,” she says.
On the tiled bench beside the sink sits a large container of purified water, the five-gallon kind found in office buildings. Smaller bottles of water sit on the table, ready to drink with dinner. Celerina fills a pitcher from the five-gallon jug and pours a dash into the soup. She stirs it, then tastes it. Dinner will be ready soon.
Earlier that afternoon Celerina and her husband Bartolo made the trip from their home in Arvin to the Costco in Bakersfield. Every week they drive more than twenty miles to buy bottled water in four heavy pallets. Tomorrow, Bartolo will go to Arvin’s water district to use his two tokens, provided by the city, and refill that five-gallon jug at a purified water station.
They cannot drink the water that runs from the faucet.
Arvin is one of more than ninety public water systems across California having water contaminated with 123-Trichloropropane, or 123-TCP. The chemical originated as a by-product of two soil fumigants, D-D made by Shell Oil and Telone from Dow Chemical. These products were used heavily in agriculture from the 1940s until they were discontinued in their original formulation in the mid 1980s. During that time, however, they leached into the groundwater, contaminating the wells that most of the Central Valley relies upon.
Kern County is the most affected in the state. While Bartolo and Celerina have lived in Arvin, a town in Kern, for more than twenty years, they only discovered their water was contaminated three years ago. Before that, they and their three children unknowingly drank the contaminated tap water.
“We’re in the United States, it isn’t just any country, so why is the water bad, why is the water so contaminated?
“We’re in the United States, it isn’t just any country, so why is the water bad, why is the water so contaminated?” Celerina says in Spanish, her and Bartolo’s native tongue.
Bartolo Chavez leads the way through his three bedroom home to the bathroom. There, he turns on the shower and lets the water run. It is warm but not hot enough to be steamy. The overhead fan whirrs. They are cautious about bathing too—short and cold showers are routine in their household, although not in others.
“The warmer the water, the more dangerous,” he says. “In the community, the people do not know that.”
For more than twenty-five years the State of California has classified 123-TCP as a known carcinogen. Yet the chemical was only regulated earlier this year. July 2017, following a public and stakeholder comment period, the State Water Board set the maximum contaminant level for 123-TCP in drinking water at five parts per trillion. With the contaminant at this concentration, communities still have an increased risk of developing cancer compared to those with uncontaminated water, but that risk is less than one case per 100,000 people. It comes as good news for communities across the Central Valley, many of which have 123-TCP concentrations of more than seven parts per trillion, meaning higher cancer risks.
“This new health-protective regulation for 1,2,3-TCP is a victory for all the Californians… seeking to secure for themselves and their families what most of us have the luxury of taking for granted—the basic human right to safe drinking water,” said Jonathan Nelson, Policy Director for Community Water Center in a press release shortly after the announcement.
But treating water is also an expensive undertaking and the burden of cost may be placed upon consumers who live in smaller water markets and already pay higher rates. Because of this, many public water utilities, including Arvin’s, have filed lawsuits against Shell Oil and Dow Chemical for damages. Most complaints claim the products’ problems outweighed the benefits and that the companies failed to disclose 123-TCP as an ingredient.
“We have internal documents that show they [Shell and Dow] knew from a very early point in time that 1,2,3-TCP was in the products and not doing anything to help the farmers but yet, it remained,” said Jed Borghei, an attorney representing Arvin’s public water utility.
Some, such as Clovis, have already received some recompense, settling a lawsuit against Shell Oil in 2016 for $22 million.
Treating the water also takes time—anywhere from a few months to a few years. Meanwhile, residents of affected communities, like Bartolo and Celerina, still shoulder the burden of procuring clean water.
“It is something good they are going to do,” Bartolo said of the regulation prior to its adoption. “But they need to act fast because if they wait more time, that is more harm to humanity.”
 From video interview with Jed Borghei of Robins Borghei LLP, conducted by Alessandra Bergamin and Briana Flin, 26 April 2017.
Alessandra Bergamin is a freelance journalist who reports on agricultural communities, environmental justice and inequality. Her work has been published in Bay Nature, Misadventures and Flint Mag. She is a former Harper’s Magazine intern and current student at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. Follow her on twitter @AllyBergamin.
Briana Flin is a Bay Area-based multimedia journalist interested in culture, immigration and social justice. She’s produced stories for Rewire.org and Oakland North and her work has been shared by PBS. She’s currently a new media student at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. Follow her on twitter @BrianaFlin.
Like many so-called “boomerang” millennials, I found myself returning to the Central Valley to set down roots after living away for a decade. Looking at my hometown with new eyes and a burgeoning career as an urban anthropologist, the subject of change in insular Fresno and its spatial politics can be hard to swallow. More so, crisis conditions from the statewide drought had been an alarming yet helpful framing mechanism in which to visualize the physical and communal stratification of Valley life.
Water, or more specifically its absence, has helped shape the built environment of urbanization in Fresno. Such deficit thinking has continued to be a driving force in setting policy and placemaking practices in the City of Fresno, even as the city currently pursues an effort to revitalize its aging infrastructure to meet twenty-first century economic demands. Most interestingly, the production of an imagined future by groups of non-state actors eager to stake their claim on the community is where memory and planning intersect, sometimes painfully.
As much as the Central Valley’s agricultural interests have long positioned themselves as the major economic base for the region, the drought has revealed the lingering dispossession caused by such uneven concentrations of wealth. Regional concerns echo those claims of dispossession, highlighted in the media coverage of dry, unincorporated areas feeling the worst effects of the drought. A 2015 example of this was in the especially hard hit region of rural East Tulare County, where a humanitarian crisis occurred due to major water shortages and a lack of stable infrastructure. Yet it is the City of Fresno and the process of urbanization where such discourses of cultural deficit meet an engaged social placemaking through practices of memory and a general rethinking of the politics of space.
My ethnographic scholarship uses the recent five year drought, and the inequality it has made visible across different cultural platforms of space and place, to understand the Central Valley as a culture of historic extraction, be it natural resources, labor or public space. This social memory of dispossession is exemplified in the ways that nonstate actors in the City of Fresno, and the greater Central Valley, seek to revise social-spatial projects. Specifically, the push to stake a grassroots claim in the revitalization of the inner urban core of downtown Fresno, as well as the reimagining of space in and around the city, is part of this new project of place that small-scale community organizations are using to highlight the sunshine and noir of urban change. My use of the term “urban,” in a region known for its rural life and agricultural economy, is deliberate; “The urban is not a unit, but a process of transformation unfolding in diverse sites, territories and landscapes.”
The subject of water is never far behind when discussing land use policy and the Central Valley’s built environment. Changes in the conceptualization of these two resources—water and space—are the mechanisms of new social projects happening in Fresno. Through the application of a theoretical framework borrowed from urban geography, Henri Lefebvre’s idea of the “right to the city,” the twin issues of water and space are helpful for their potential to assist in making these projects of social construction manifested.
The right to the city is, therefore, far more than a right of individual access to the resources that the city embodies: it is a right to change ourselves by changing the city more after our heart’s desire. It is, moreover, a collective rather than an individual right since changing the city inevitably depends upon the exercise of a collective power over the processes of urbanization.
Urban development and water resource management by competing interests seek different ends to their work, and yet together shape the social and physical landscape of the Central Valley. Two key case studies are the focus of my analysis that convene the spatial politics of place with the histories of dispossession that have become part of the collective social landscape.
Urban development and water resource management by competing interests seek different ends to their work, and yet together shape the social and physical landscape of the Central Valley.
Water and its infrastructure needs in the Central Valley were made material in the dry fountains along the Fulton Mall in downtown Fresno. From initial private investment to haphazard public enjoyment, the fountains once stood as beacons of modernity, offering shoppers a spot to linger as they returned to the revamped “cool” of 1960s urbanism chic. The fountains, all twenty-two of them, were in Fall 2015 mostly dried up and filled with trash or repurposed as planters. Refilled and drained at random, their visible deterioration echoed the nearly empty space of the Mall’s decaying Mid-Century Modern infrastructure. “Emptiness” remains a relative term. In the perception of the mainstream shopping public of Fresno, a lack of middle class shoppers present reads as evidence of emptiness, as ‘empty’ despite the “hundreds of people, mostly of color and of lower socioeconomic status, who walked the Mall each day.” Illegibility, of both a new kind of patron, who is not the white middle-class consumer benefiting and partaking in gentrification processes, and the natural resources like fountains and trees through which water flows on the Mall is inscribed in its initial problematization.
The Fulton Mall’s fountains, part of the initiative to find local artists who could help curate the space for a 1960s consumer base, and their removal as not representing the natural conditions of the Valley environment exemplify the different conceptualizations of public goods and a changing vision for the future. This decline, tracked for decades by The Fresno Bee daily newspaper and local business community newsletters, is part of the contestation of space and place that is underscored by the recent drought conditions that made water a necessary but insufficient condition for change in the Central Valley imaginary.
Blackstone Avenue is another dispirited infrastructural legacy, once the “center of town” where commercial interests were centered below Shaw Avenue away from the civic institutions of the city’s downtown. Similar to how rural space in the Valley has been divided up and intensified throughout the twentieth century, the commercial space on Blackstone has transitioned from retail to a concentration of auto and auto-service related enterprises, owned by non-residents who are seen by many within the transitioning neighborhoods around the central artery as the cause of urban blight that bleeds southward towards the neglected downtown. Both the Mall and Blackstone Avenue are the foci of revitalization efforts by government functionaries led by former Mayor Ashley Swearengin’s “I Believe in Downtown” campaign and community nonprofits who seek to tie physical revitalization with social transformation through engaged electoral participation and economic investment. The phantom force of water—its accessibility, disappearance, ties to nature as key to physical improvement and regulation as part of the broader technologies of power overlapping in downtown—is always present as part of a larger discussion of resources that have helped reproduce histories of dispossession and extraction that leave “ordinary cities” like Fresno a contested social terrain.
California, as a product and site of cultural production, is an outward-facing entity that valorizes a mythic, encrypted self-narrative of opportunity envisioned by generations of booster elites eager to develop the American West. California’s “sunniness” is coupled with its inherent noir, a hidden power phenomena that keeps its less desirable yet essential parts in shadow. The Central Valley is where those dual forces of noir and sunshine intersect, where the issues of urbanization and historical patterns of rural settlement coexist uncomfortably within the California project. An area east of the Coastal Range that includes the San Joaquin and Sacramento Valleys, from Bakersfield to Chico, the Valley has always been socially embattled when not ignored as a political backwater. “Not much about California, on its own preferred terms, has encouraged its children to see themselves as connected to one another. The separation, of north from south, and even more acutely of west from east, from urban coast from the agricultural valleys… was profound, fueled by the rancor of water wars and by less tangible but even more rancorous differences in attitude and culture.” As Gerry Haslam has argued, the Central Valley serves as a liminal cultural space, the “Other California,” left out of a Southern California-centered focus on economic opportunity and cultural production:
I began to look more closely at the physical environment and saw things I should have noticed before. Just north of where I had grown up, I realized, lay a maimed environment, the bed of the largest freshwater lake in the West, now dried, plowed and irrigated: What had happened?
This naturally-occurring ecological event has intensified to unheard-of costs to human development. The statewide drought was deemed a disaster in 2014 by Gov. Jerry Brown and subject to federal intervention by 2015. The drought’s slow burn into the collective consciousness of those not in the business of agriculture has helped unearth some of the more human disasters and longstanding internal contradictions that make explicit the social constructions of place that re-emphasize the Valley’s history as a land of physical and social dispossession and struggle for cultural significance. The research agenda that informs this work is part of a broader focus on the anthropology of Fresno’s downtown redevelopment that informs my preliminary dissertation research on the cultural construction of urban space. Over the course of the last two years, I attended public meetings at the state, city and regional levels (Fresno City Council Meeting, 4 and 27 February, 2014; State Workshop on Water, January 2015; Kings River Irrigation District Board Meeting, August 2015) on urban redevelopment and water policy, as well as conducted unstructured and semi-structured interviews with informants working on these two issues within the city. One key part of this preliminary ethnographic analysis has been the data collected through fieldnotes from participant-observation efforts. I worked on projects, went to meetings and attended special events with various community organizations working outside the confines of political campaigns or government office.
Central Valley farmers have long fought against the movement of water from Northern California to the southern part of the state, using “L.A.” as a euphemism for waste, entitlement and bad planning policies.
The theoretical framework of Lefebvre’s “right to the city” can be used to understand California’s historical spatialization and put the recent water crisis into socio-political context. Henri Lefebvre, the primary member of the Marxist revival in mid-twentieth century cultural geography scholarship, argued that the city’s inherent benefits—social, political, and economic—were made possible by the diversity of people, opportunity and intensification of space and development. These social and economic resources found in cities should not be hindered by privatization as a phenomenon in a city available for public benefit, including the surrounding areas. This call for keeping some things, like economic markets and open urban space, public and publicly-administered was positioned squarely against the creeping privatization and divestment of public resource management that cities sought to systemize in the latter half of the twentieth century. Public goods, Lefebvre argued, were the only things not made into commodities for exchange by the economically-privileged few who gained the most from capitalism’s structural inequities. This idea was part of his more general discussion of the social production of space as something categorized and made into physical and representation modes for the organization and stratification of human development. Thus the built environment, and policies of land use and production, are part of this codification and reinscription of capitalistic social organization, where space makes some welcome and bars others from its production.
City/farm, urban/rural—the dispossession of space and the extraction of resources for a global market is a process that the Central Valley has always taken part in despite competing concerns over growing urbanization and the political economy and industrial concerns of agriculture. A recent focus on water is one of many historical cycles of political attention and eventual obfuscation. Central Valley farmers have long fought against the movement of water from Northern California to the southern part of the state, using “L.A.” as a euphemism for waste, entitlement and bad planning policies. For the last decade, signs along Highway 99 shout slogans like “Food Grows Where Water Flows,” vilifying the names of those legislators who vote for more environmental protections that limit industrial water use. This geographic division of resources and power are part of the political project of the state’s dualism; a shiny attractive Coast and a shadowed hinterland in complete symbiosis, the city’s “contado” that Gary Brechin wrote, “feeds the people,” yet remains unknowable.
Decades of benign neglect of water in the form of a lack of regulatory processes across the Central Valley has led to the depletion of groundwater from local water tables. Water meters that measure and charge for home water use are recent additions to the utility bills of Central Valley residents, a factor that historically increased the illegibility of its importance in the daily lives of residents. This lack of attention, given that other urban areas have for decades worked on multiple levels of governance to limit and control water use, poses questions about water’s centrality and value in Valley life. Was there a simplistic feeling of material abundance in the landscape, or rather, did power elites controlling the development of the Valley landscape see little need to quantify the use of water even as urban areas like Fresno started to compete with industrial agricultural operations for finite material resources? These type of questions about the relationship between the material conditions of Valley life ask questions that efforts like urban revitalization and placemaking seem to want to answer, the social response to physical and natural droughts.
This water crisis, similar to the “urban crisis” of the 1960s in its self-creation mythology, has afforded the social space in which different alternative imaginings of place and the politics of belonging can be articulated. Several groups have taken up the charge of not letting a crisis go to waste, using different but significant points of entry to discuss dispossession in urban form. The role of activism around issues of equity and resource distribution, the special relationship between space and water, development and history, has been ripe for discussion. At a regional level, dry wells in East Tulare County, south of Fresno, have highlighted the lack of infrastructure and muted governmental response to the physical needs of a largely poor community of Latinos. This inattention has spurred efforts by local organizations and non-state actors like the Valley Water Center and California Rural Legal Assistance to organize a disadvantaged community and link their concerns for the continuation of life in a culturally cohesive yet politically unincorporated part of the county to larger variables about representation and engagement in the formal political process. “All local residents should participate for, although corporate boards elsewhere may control the deeds to much land here, they do not know the call of a dove or the chill of river water slicing from the Sierra Nevada or the dawn smell of a freshly mown alfalfa field.” Countering the power of a decentralized planning regime and decades of developmental policy that are exclusive by their very nature is used as the mechanism by which the historiography of the Central Valley organizes its major themes.
The contestation over the revitalization of the Fresno Fulton Mall is where urban space and its complicated place in the cultural imaginings of place are centered in this analysis. An aging twentieth century pedestrian center in the heart of downtown Fresno, the history and cultural narrative of the Fresno Fulton Mall is contentious. Recent efforts to revitalize the three-block area as part of a national post-recession movement to gentrify deindustrialized urban areas, as well as a nod to the market demands of cities’ endless search for tax revenue, have frayed the tempers of longtime denizens who seek to preserve the space according to its ethos of Mid-Century Modern aesthetics.
This project is personal to me, challenging the division between emic and etic approaches to anthropological study. As one born in Fresno and gone for over a decade, the place-memory of home still retains meaning for me, especially in the older areas like the Fulton Mall that are untouched by urban redevelopment. Marx Arax understands this as part of returning home: “The stakes always seemed higher [in Fresno] than when I was writing about L.A. The reasons were obvious in one respect—it was my home—and yet I sensed a deeper explanation that had to do with how we as a society related to place…. It has been a messy affair, but I am still here, trying to put my finger on this place.” As the world urbanizes and the process of urbanization takes varied forms that go beyond the simplistic dichotomies of rural vs. urban, suburban vs. urban, the Mall has become meaningful to me and a new generation of citizen artists, activists, and planners.
Built to much fanfare in the early 1960s, the Mall became one of the first open-air pedestrian malls at the beginning of the suburban mall era. Anchored by J.C. Penny and other major department stores, the mall was the first major site of concentrated consumerism in Fresno, and attracted shoppers with its park-like setting. The choice to redevelop an already urban space was deliberate—planners including the nationally-recognized planner Victor Gruen and landscape architect Garrett Eckbo wanted to bring the suburban shopping experience to downtown Fresno, already in decline as citizens moved northward. Its success at the time of its opening in 1964 was quickly overshadowed by the creation of newer enclosed malls like Manchester Center in 1969 and Fashion Fair Mall on Shaw Avenue in the 1970s. As fewer shoppers came downtown, the Fulton Mall became a place where community events were held in Mariposa Plaza, the largest of the open areas in the three block mall setting, and a free speech stage was created as a commemoration of the site of a labor protest in the 1920s.
The turn from the Mall’s original plan as a place middle-class residents shop into de facto parkland for the urban poor was due to unimpeded and steady decline, as the vast majority of the major department stores left in the 1980s. The Mall’s genesis speaks to a planning ideology of another era, and contemporary proposals that seek to either crystallize its history or revamp it altogether manifest the competing pressures of real estate and community memory that counter each other within the sphere of Fresno planning politics. As it stands today, the Mall is under construction to be transformed into Fulton Street, reopening late 2017. The approved proposal to open the pedestrian mall to vehicular traffic and add over a one hundred parking spaces was stymied by a lawsuit filed by supports of the Downtown Fresno Coalition (DFC), which sought to keep the Mall a pedestrian-friendly place and thus were behind the unsuccessful push to get the site registered as a California Historic Landmark. As such efforts indicate, the mall serves as a place of nostalgia and distinction for many Fresnans despite its diminished state. The DFC utilizes the ideas of walkability, the need for the preservation of democratic public space, as well as green space in an urbanizing world, as the emotional pleas of an underdog argument bent on mobilizing the affective nature of place attachment. The death of several trees by lack of water oft-rumored to be a coordinated effort by the city to encourage blight and make its case for redevelopment stronger, echoing a similar fight over changes in a historic Central American urban space discussed by anthropologist Setha Low:
The sense of loss in these stories is not with the place itself, but with the decoration and social participants, yet the stories communicate a sense of place attachment that has been disrupted physically, but not in memory, by ongoing social change.
The emotionality and use of memory in the argument for preservation touch on issues of aesthetics, in the access to public art and environmentalism, representing the interests of the denizen-activists of the DFC. Decidedly white, upper-middle class and college-educated, very few members live near Downtown and the Mall and most don’t visit its businesses and services. The Mall, to them, is understood as parkland and a place where public art can be enjoyed. The cost and prestige of the public art, led by some of the artists themselves, are often highlighted in the materials produced by the group. The transition from mainstream consumer sites like J.C. Penny to smaller, local retailers as well as the administrative offices of county agencies that cater to a largely Latino audience has been an uncomfortable one. The racial politics of space are deliberately softened by the social memory of postwar prosperity that centers on white consumers. As part of a series of events to mark its fiftieth anniversary of operations in 2014, a local filmmaker created a film that made the Mall its main subject. “We certainly don’t need more botanicas,” one woman commented during a Q&A session after viewing the documentary. Screenings and a series of walking tours were hosted in 2015 and 2016. This was also a response to the walking tours that are offered by a competing business association centering the Mall in a discussion of urban blight, focusing on future development plans in 2017 for the space that include private real estate.
Another significant project of place where space and water play a central developmental role is the A Better Blackstone neighborhood redevelopment project, northward in Fresno’s central core area. Blackstone Avenue serves as Fresno’s High Street, its central North-South conduit that shuttles people into and out of downtown, paralleling the main Highway 41 that intersects with Highway 99, the Valley’s main site of passage. Its demise has been well-documented, echoing concerns for a better investment of place:
No place with even a modicum of self-worth would allow such a disgrace, much less right down its spine. I venture it’s more complicated than that—and more simple. I doubt that anyone in City Hall actually planned on disfiguring Fresno this way. The Boulevard more or less developed, downtown to river, a century of progress, without any countervailing force ever saying “no.” In the process, its belief only got replicated.
A programmatic arm of a local nonprofit giant, A Better Blackstone is a multiyear project that is both ideational and outcome-specific. “We have come together to imagine what it would look like for Blackstone to thrive once again.” In its first months of work, the program sought to collect data on every business on the avenue itself as well as initiate direct contact with residents of the surrounding neighborhoods, no small feat.
At a community event called “Imagine Blackstone,” Summer 2015, local residents were asked to participate in this reimagining, both the possibilities of place in the central district and the realism of its current state of neglect. A photovoice project led by staff was displayed, and viewers were asked to stop and get their event pass stamped along a curated path of projects related to city services, civic education and spatial imagery. A fully stamped event pass meant free tacos and drinks on the hot August tarmac of Susan B. Anthony Elementary School. Pop-up parklets, like those trumpeted by urban civic leaders as solutions to the limited public space of gentrifying cities, were created using rolled up Astrotrurf and DIY park benches. Asked to take the lead on this exhibit display twenty minutes before the gate opened, I gamely tried my hand at curation and was assigned a twelve year old assistant who worked the scotch tape. There was a clear agenda of engagement that was being asked of participants by A Better Blackstone staffers: we as volunteers were tasked to stimulate conversation by asking how Blackstone is popularly and individually conceptualized (“bad” and “ugly” were common answers), and what, if any, factors could improve the thoroughfare (“Trees!”).
Methodologically and logistically, these conversations were happening on several fronts: Participants at the event wanted to know what photovoice as a method was, and second, why did all these photos matter to the redevelopment of their neighborhood? An ethnographic research methodology used by visual anthropologists, photovoice is both empirically sophisticated and immediately accessible. A photovoice project is typically a carefully administered elicitation of visual data collection through initial discussions of themes about a certain phenomenon, then cameras given to those involved as subjects. The ensuing photos and captions are pulled together to gain understanding of one’s emic view of the world-made material by the photographs, and narratives captured that expand discussion on the community-developed central theme in the user’s own voice. Here, local students and their parents were asked to take photos of their neighborhood around Blackstone Avenue that they deemed were either positive or negative depictions of local life, and then asked to write down why they chose those photos, describing them in their own words. Central Valley water, as ever, was omnipresent as a thematic core of the project yet hidden behind an understanding of issues that made it seem only tangential to the goals of placemaking and revitalization. Dead trees, stagnant canals and broken curbs were the problems of infrastructure cited by many participants in their commentary. A lack of water, and lack of nature, or rather, its re-envisionment as pop-up spaces of temporary comfort on the hot summer tarmac of Susan B. Anthony Elementary were evidence of the creativity that such spatial deficits could engender.
Water’s role as the unacknowledged shaper of events, even in its absence, is correlated with the reproduction of a deficit-centric cultural discourse found here in the tactics of Fresno interest groups.
The activism and organizational engagement of A Better Blackstone on issues of space are central to what Michel De Certeau understands as tactics used to make sense of urban planning regimes by residents looking to exert spatial agency in a complex spatial arrangement, and to a larger extent, is “tactical urbanism” in action. The bottom up, self-directed work of A Better Blackstone functions in a liminal space—quasi-governmental due to its close relationship with regional arms of government and public orientation as part of a forty year-old nonprofit, yet privately-funded by larger state and national foundation grants for goals that center on social justice and the promotion of public health.
Imagined landscapes were the goal of “walking audits” of the corridor during the hot summer months. Strollers were pushed by volunteers up and down the street in an effort to collect data and physically embody the imagination of what could be. Infrastructure needs were documented in great detail; wheels stuck in concrete cracks were photographed as evidence of infrastructural neglect. The search for shade in 100 degree temperatures was a constant reminder that nature had been categorically eliminated on Blackstone Avenue. A 10 a.m. walk in August 2015 found two groups of mothers directed in both Spanish and English by A Better Blackstone staffers, upon whom seeing the ten feet of shade found near a bus stop north of Olive Avenue broke out into happy exaltations. Apparently shade is a historic vestige in vehicle-centered planning. Open irrigation canals that crossed the city were noted for being concentrated in older, now poorer parts of town, brimming with dark fast-moving water that seemed to tempt in the summer heat.
The role volunteer groups, political organizations and nonprofit service agencies play in the discussion of urbanization has proved the singular counterweight in the face of the capitalist political economy of city leadership forced to play an unending game of growth liberalism. Whether the aims of the ten year A Better Blackstone project will be fulfilled is an ongoing question, but the actions taken by its leadership and that of the Downtown Fresno Coalition to fight perceived threats of spatial inequality are indicators of deep place attachment by historically overlooked groups. The attachment reproduced by socially-ascribed memory implicitly ties place as the physical bearer of culture within the production of space. Water’s role as the unacknowledged shaper of events, even in its absence, is correlated with the reproduction of a deficit-centric cultural discourse found here in the tactics of Fresno interest groups.
Water is the phantom subject of interest that spurs political movement on space and place in Fresno and throughout the broader Central Valley. The planning regime that produced the Fulton Mall, and the modern effort to revitalize it amidst calls to preserve its significance as a site of history and social memory for many city residents are cyclical development projects that further the production of space, as all states must be productive in the highly privatized spatial project that is the Central Valley. Yet it is this same planning regime that has created the blighted Blackstone Avenue, where water’s disappearance in the form of trees and urban nature are also felt. Understanding the social response to urban physical intervention is my ongoing effort to capture ethnographically the process of change and renewal that stem from these issues of place attachment, and from within a historical framework of deficit that has subsumed conceptions of the Valley for so long. Through the distribution and rethinking of water as a central resource, a human right rather than a commodity, a naturally-occurring resource to be redistributed by humans, its role in reshaping Fresno as a political project and cultural production makes visible the fault lines across which denizens and their institutions must negotiate. For me, it is the price of coming home.
All photos taken by Sydney Santana.
 James Holston, Insurgent Citizenship (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009).
 Paul Connerton, How Societies Remember (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989).
 Neil Brenner and C. Schmid, “The ‘Urban Age’ in Question,” International Journal Urban and Regional Research 38 (2014): 731–55.
 David Harvey, Rebel Cities: From Right to the City to the Urban Revolution (London: Verso Press, 2012).
 Henry Delcore, “Pedestrian Survey,” Institute of Public Anthropology, California State University, Fresno (2010).
 Aline Gubrium and Krista Harper, Participatory Visual and Digital Research in Action (New York: Routledge, 2015).
 Michel De Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984).
 Irwin Altman and Setha Low, Place Attachment: A Conceptual Inquiry (New York: Plenum Press, 1992), 23.
 Yi Fu Tuan, Topophilia: A Study of Environmental Perception, Attitudes, and Values (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1974).
Dorie Dakin Perez is doctoral candidate in political anthropology and urban history at the University of California, Merced. Her research focuses on the cultural meaning-making of urban space and public policy as cultural change. Previously, she worked for the State Legislature and the Google X Self-Driving Car project. Her work can be found at www.dorieperez.org.