Tag: Environment


Photography and Public Lands: Seeing Yosemite

Hetch Hetchy

Stone trail work at Hetch Hetchy Reservoir.

A review of Nancy Robbins, A Sense of Yosemite, with essays by David Mas Masumoto. Yosemite National Park: Yosemite Conservancy, 2016.

Sublime photos of heaven-high cliffs, canyons, and waterfalls have long defined Yosemite. In her book, A Sense of Yosemite, photographer Nancy Robbins builds on this tradition of photography as both an artistic medium and an articulation of the importance of public lands.

Robbins lives within Yosemite’s boundaries, and her familiarity with the park serves as her greatest advantage. She offers her audience a refreshing glimpse of Yosemite beyond familiar black-and-white stock images. Her detailed perspectives treat the landscape with the keen observation that intimacy provides.

Robbins’s eye for detail takes us beyond the usual vistas of the park. She focuses on the textures of scabbed bark, the veins of yellow leaves encased in a sheet of ice, and brilliant waterfalls of fiery light. These rich images guide the reader through the might and brilliance of each season, documenting foxes to cottonwood trees, rivers to gauzy starlight, and more.

By excluding people from her images of the park, Robbins joins other landscape photographers in perpetuating the myth of pristine wilderness. The only noticeable photo of people depicts distant climbers on a cliffside bivouac at night. This image beautifully speaks to the adventurous spirit of Yosemite but fails to tell the whole story. It’s rare to experience the park without people.

Tuolumne Meadows_1843_16x20 copy (2)a_2000While Robbins’s photos of the park through its seasonal cycles are impressive, the book’s structure and written commentary leave us wanting more. Her captions and David Mas Masumoto’s essays convey little about Yosemite’s intricacies. Robbins’s vivid images speak far more powerfully about the park than the text, which in comparison comes off rather bland.

As a farmer living outside of Yosemite Valley, Masumoto provides a perspective that many readers can identify with: a neighbor to Yosemite who feels a connection to the place. However, the relationship between his essays laced throughout the first half of the book and the photos can feel a bit jarring. The reader is pulled from the visual flow of Robbins’s work that frame Yosemite through both the senses and the seasons.

Unfortunately, the book neglects to mention the park’s indigenous history and Yosemite’s central role in the development of the national park system and conservation movement. Nor does it touch upon the grave ecological challenges facing Yosemite precipitated by a changing climate and ever-increasing human visitation. Briefly, Masumoto writes: “We all have a stake in the destinies of these sacred geographies.” But in this narrative of the visual sublimity of Yosemite, an opportunity is lost to prompt readers to grasp its complex, pivotal history, and to contemplate what is at stake for its future.

Although A Sense of Yosemite may not offer such fully discerning reflections upon this iconic park, for any reader wishing to experience Yosemite through a collection of colorful photographs with striking light, this book will satisfy. Robbins’s work celebrates the park in every season, portraying both light and color with a softness that reflects the subtlest moods of the landscape. Through her technical mastery, her access to singular weather phenomena and rare moments, and her obvious affection for Yosemite, Robbins successfully captures the splendor of one of the most inspirational places in North America and the place she calls home.

Milky Way over Yosemite Valley

The Milky Way over Yosemite Valley, photographed from Tunnel View.


  • All photographs taken by Nancy Robbins. All rights reserved.

Reviewed by Jai Bashir, Ayja Bounous, Casey Clifford, Bianca Greeff, Dan Hohl, Kailey Kornhauser, Brooke Larsen, Kathleen Metcalf, Maya Silver, Francesca Varela, and Josh Wennergren, graduate students in the Environmental Humanities writing seminar, University of Utah, taught by Stephen Trimble. Trimble’s publications include, Bargaining for Eden: The Fight for the Last Open Spaces in America (UC Press), The Sagebrush Ocean: A Natural History of the Great Basin (University of Nevada Press), and Red Rock Stories: Three Generations of Writers Speak on Behalf of Utah’s Public Lands (Torrey House Press). Trimble makes his home in Salt Lake City and in the redrock country of Torrey, Utah.

Copyright: © 2017 The Authors. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/


The Deserts of Los Angeles: Two Topologies

Gary Reger

“Night falls quickly in Los Angeles,” observes the narrator of Alison Lurie’s The Nowhere City (1965), “as in the desert which it once was.”[1] “The desert” looms over much fiction set in Los Angeles, from Raymond Chandler’s detective novels to Bret Easton Ellis’s decadent rich of Less Than Zero (1985) or the quasi-future city of Steve Erickson’s Amnesiascope (1996). The desert figures powerfully too in non-fictional treatments of the city, like Carey McWilliams, Southern California: An Island on the Land (1946)[2] or Mike Davis, City of Quartz (1990). These invocations of the desert might strike a positivist geographer as strange. The Los Angeles basin is not arid enough to count as a real desert. The greater Los Angeles region lies nestled in the clasp of mountains: the Santa Monicas north and west, beyond which lurks the little paradise of Santa Barbara; the San Gabriels, just north of the city, which link up, across Cajon Pass, with the towering San Bernardinos, culminating at their east end in the 11,503-foot peak of San Gorgonio; to the southeast, the basin-and-rangy ridges of the Santa Anas; and, beyond the Perris valley, the San Jacintos sheltering Palm Springs, with the Santa Rosas to their south. Beyond those mountains—north of the San Bernardinos, east of the San Jacintos—the great Mojave and Colorado deserts roll across an arid countryside all the way to Las Vegas, and beyond.

Cultural snobbery aside, Los Angeles is no desert.[3] By the standard definition of geographers, deserts receive annual rainfall under ten inches (c. 254 mm); Los Angeles’ average yearly accumulation of about 14.77 inches (c. 375.2 mm) situates the city safely out of the arid fold. Of course, interannual variation is considerable; across the 139 years for which records exist, Los Angeles has experienced a desert-level shortage 39 times, or about 1 year in 3.5. Anton Wagner insisted many years ago that microvariations abound; although the semi-arid steppe climate of the Köppen-Geiger BS classification predominates, topographical variation, coastal influences, and the sea all conspire to impose different climatic regimes across the broad LA basin.[4] Sober observers have known that Los Angeles isn’t desert. Los Angeles occupies, Carey McWilliams observed, “this fortunate coast walled off from the desert by the great arch of mountains….”[5] But the pull of the image is powerful, and fiction need not be bound by the strictures of the geographer. For many writers LA is a desert, not only metaphorically, but also in physical fact. LA as desert clearly has had deep meaning, literal or metaphoric or both, for writers seeking to evoke something of the feel of the city.[6] The desert carries multiple, sometimes opposing valences, both derived in western thinking from tropes in the Hebrew Bible. It is on the one hand a space of austere purification, where sins are atoned and the purified can see the face—or at least, hindquarters—of God, and on the other a vile, useless wasteland; other tropes come out of, or are related to, these two oppositions.


These two valences, I suggest, may explain, in part, the pull of the desert in writing about LA. On the one hand, the desert out east or north, the Mojave of Huxley’s Antelope Valley home or movie stars’ Palm Springs, may represent an escape from LA to something “realer” or “purer” (and see already the contrast between corrupt Hollywood and revivifying country in The Girl from Hollywood by Edgar Rice Burroughs [1923], although his rural setting is the mountains, not the desert[7]). Clay of Less Than Zero may be seeking something like this when he turns in memory to family time in Palm Springs (though in fact his family there is as corrupt and nihilistic as his life in Beverly Hills, as in Norman Mailer’s The Deer Park [1955]). On the other hand, seen as plopped down in a desert, LA can be figured merely as the gaudy disguise of a desert wasteland, ready to reassert its hideous uselessness and, in fact, unable to foster anything genuine (“nothing means anything here,” is the refrain of The Nowhere City)—watered by stolen moisture, it is but an urban Imperial Valley, a faked landscape.[8]

These two topologies stand in dialectical opposition to each other. They demand from a writer a representational choice: is the relation of Los Angeles to the desert one of geographic distance and distinction, such that they occupy two different spaces that only come into conjunction through the movement of characters (whether physically or mentally) or the invasion of the space of Los Angeles by the desert itself or its representatives (the Santa Ana winds, in particular); or is the relation one of superposition, of a Los Angeles on a desert, a unique ecological and ideological phenomenon such that its intrusion into LA may come at any moment, in any place, here but not here, or indeed may shape the whole personality of the city by an invidious but invisible and irresistible presence below the surface? In what follows I would like to explore the play of these tropes, and others, in some fiction set in Los Angeles. Obviously far too much has been written about the city to treat even a modicum of this fiction,[9] and the themes I hope to elucidate hardly exhaust the ways the desert has been used in stories about LA. (I have left film and television completely aside.) But I hope that even such an incomplete, fragmented, and selective exploration may contribute to how we understand the ways the presence of the desert has shaped writers’ conceptualizations about this complex, alluring, frightening city.

 The desert in the American imaginary

Broadly speaking, American ideas about desert space derive from tropes deeply embedded in the Bible. These tropes do not form a coherent picture of desert space; rather, they facilitate a multiplicity of attitudes, some contradictory. In brief, biblical tropes frame the desert first as a blasted, dangerous place, abode of demons and death, abandoned by God. But the biblical desert also figures as a space where one can meet God, like Moses; the desert can be a visionary place. The biblical desert can also be a ground of testing and purification, a necessary preliminary to entrée to the Promised Land; or it can be a refuge, a safety zone for people escaping persecution or simply seeking a godly life. Finally, the desert can be a landscape of redemption: both for fallen people and as a ground that, with care and God’s help, can be made into—or returned to a preexisting—paradisiacal state, a garden in the desert. This cache of tropes served Americans to help make sense of the deserts they encountered as they moved into the arid West. To them was added, in the early twentieth century, by reaction, an insistence on desert beauty: a view that fed into the environmental movement around wilderness preservation.[10]

 First topology—the desert out there

The first topology is the desert out there: beyond Los Angeles, to the east and north, the desert one must cross and endure to reach the Promised Land, and to which one may escape or be exiled, whether to find a place of purity and cleanliness opposed to the corruption that has overtaken the Promised Land, or to serve out a punishment and (hopefully) find redemption. This desert sends its demonic emissaries into the city, borne especially on the Santa Ana winds.[11]

One important and complex role the “desert out there” plays is as a barrier or escape hatch. This theme links to the biblical tale of the Israelites’ passage through the Sinai Desert to the Promised Land, an analogy so blatantly apt to the travails of overland immigrants who suffered the Mojave and Colorado Deserts to reach California that it became a cliché. Desert as barrier or boundary pairs nicely with the Pacific to the west, thanks especially to the long trope of ocean as desert. So in 1897 Frank Norris bracketed San Francisco as between: “to the west the waste of the Pacific, to the east the wastes of the desert.” As another put it, “[t]he blinding blue desert of the Pacific….” Remember (“Mem”) Steddon, heroine of the 1922 Souls for Sale, takes a madcap drive with another actor along the coast highway, north of Hollywood, “‘on the rim of the world’ with desert on one side and the whole Pacific sea on the other.” Rose, the main character of Kate Braverman’s Lithium for Medea (1979), meditates on the boundaries of LA, desert and sea; Cynthia Kadohata’s In the Heart of the Valley of Love (1992) begins with a lapidary reference to “the black desert, beyond reach of Los Angeles.” The “long haul across the deserts” prevents good theatrical companies from playing Los Angeles, and passage over the desert—by airplane—brings F. Scott Fitzgerald’s last tycoon out of the rest of the country and into the inimitable LA.[12]


For a Forty-Niner like William Manly, whose exploits in escaping Death Valley in 1849 and then returning to rescue immigrants stranded there were immortalized in his autobiography, those deserts were a challenge and a test, but they can also serve LA as a protective barrier or a release valve, a safety hatch. The hero of Steve Erikson’s Amnesiascope longs for a thousand-mile wide Mojave to keep crazy eastern evangelicals out of his city. Later, he escapes Los Angeles through that same desert, which, he hopes, will reclaim as its own during his desert passage the “evil spirits” that have bedeviled him. Rose of Lithium for Medea finds in the desert beyond Los Angeles her refuge, her escape, a desert theme found much earlier in John Fante’s Ask the Dust. Indeed, for Mem of Souls for Sale crossing the desert west to east marks a return from the unreality of Los Angeles, that “terrifying city” (yet, simultaneously, “a restoring fountain of health and hope and ambition”), to a realer, and certainly duller, world; indeed, departing, “[s]he had a little of the feeling Eve must have had as she made her last walk down the quickest paths of Eden toward the gate that would not open again.” Mem’s train is even figured as the serpent. The two days it spends passing through the desert—a space which, Mem admits, “had its charms” and stands for the world she has left: a long, level vista of “dead platitudinous levels [that] made going easier,” for “[p]latitudes were labor saving and you went faster and safer over them.”[13] This desert is simply a metaphor for the life Mem left behind, stultifying and ambitionless, cramped, ruled by a rigid father, for the fountain of hope and happiness she found in her Hollywood successes.

In John Gregory Dunne’s True Confessions (1977), Desmond Spellacy is exiled to the desert in Twenty-Nine Palms outside Los Angeles in permanent penance-making after he’s caught up in scandal. Priest and advisor to the Cardinal of Los Angeles, Des had a long relationship with Jack Armstrong, one-time pimp and later corrupt contractor who did most of the building work for the Church. In an act of revenge by Des’s dishonest policeman brother Tommy, Armstrong is framed for the gruesome murder of Lois Fazenda, the “Virgin Tramp”—based on the actual “Black Dahlia” murder of 1947.[14] In Dunne’s dark vision, everything and everyone in Los Angeles is both corrupt and not what they seem: police detectives work as bagmen, nice girls service their bosses in back rooms, upstanding married barbers like to shave prostitutes’ pubes—and kill them.

The desert by Twenty-Nine Palms doesn’t know this corruption. To a parish priest trying to fix his car, Tommy conveys the trick of adding pepper to a defective carburetor learned in the used-car business. Parishioners’ problems run to dysfunctional bowels and young nuns vocationally confused; Des’s housekeeper avers “she had never been in a man’s room alone”—unlike virtually every other woman in True Confessions. (Tommy’s wife, Mary Margaret, is chaste, but she’s also insane.) For Des, the twenty-eight years he spends in desert exile (a little joke on the name of his desert town) provide an opportunity to reflect on his sins, to recognize the role played in his life and career by his lust for power and control—sins far worse than those of the flesh, as Des’s former confessor had known. The Egyptian desert fathers knew this too—they struggled against sexual desire, but were perfectly aware that, as sins go, it was hardly in a league with pride, power, and arrogance. It is living in the desert that helps Des not merely to see his own sinfulness—he has already been thinking about it throughout the novel—but to confront it and, as it were, make peace with it. This would have been impossible in Los Angeles; the contrast between the desert out there and the city could not be greater.[15]

The desert’s proximity, in other words, offers some writers about Los Angeles a convenient locale for the performance of contrition for sins committed in, and often abetted by, the city. In deploying the desert in this way, writers are playing right into that powerful trope of “the desert” in western imagination, the desert as a locus for punishment and expiation. It seems not excessive to propose that the degradation of Los Angeles, depicted in so much of the fiction set in the city as worse by orders of magnitude than that of other cities, should be counterbalanced by a harsh environment suited, in this conceptualization, only to wear away the accumulated filth of the sinful soul. Polar opposites on the moral and environmental meter stand shoulder to shoulder, ready on the one hand to foster husband killers, daughter rapists, and all manner of unspeakable human atrocity,[16] and on the other to redeem, through suffering and deprivation, the souls so befouled.


Another powerful contrast between desert and city plays out in John Fante’s Ask the Dust (1939). Here the articulation between desert and city runs through the figure of Camilla, the object of Arturo Bandini’s lust, envy, anger, despair. Her sometime boyfriend Sammy, a would-be writer whose stories Bandini trashes, lives out in the Mojave Desert 150 miles from Bandini’s Bunker Hill hotel. Camilla moves back and forth between Sammy’s desert shack and Bandini’s dark urban landscape, but she is, in fundamental ways, in her sexuality, her shamelessness, linked to the desert, not unlike another desert woman, Barbara Worth of Harold Bell Wright’s The Winning of Barbara Worth (1911). The ironies in Ask the Dust are more subtle than in Dunne’s novel, for Camilla’s behavior violates—apparently—rules of “civilized” behavior—she sleeps around, she smokes pot, she returns to an abusive boyfriend—but in many respects she is a more genuine person, truer to herself, than Bandini and his city. In the end she abandons herself to the desert, walking off into the Mojave and vanishing over a ridge; her body is never found, and Ask the Dust ends with the startling image of Bandini inscribing a copy of his first book to her and heaving it out into the desert—an admission at once of love, loss, and defeat.

This external desert can, of course, invade Los Angeles, too. In Aldous Huxley’s Ape and Essence (1948) its desert dunes blanket the concrete of the city streets, like Sahara sand concealing the monuments of ancient Egypt; indeed, in this post-apocalyptic LA, the desert has spread everywhere. In The Day of the Locust (1939) Nathaniel West’s narrator Tod Hackett, gawking at a speaker at the “Tabernacle of the Third Coming,” muses that he “was probably just in from one of those colonies in the desert near Soboba Hot Springs where he had been conning over his soul on a diet of raw fruits and nuts…. The message he had brought to the city was one that an illiterate anchorite might have given decadent Rome.”[17]

 The howling Santa Anas

Perhaps no dangerous desert intrusion into Los Angeles has resonated more with many of its writers than the Santa Ana winds, emblem of “the terrible hot season from June to September when a fiery wind blows from the desert and the sky turns blood red.”[18] An early version of their impact appears in On the Lot and Off, the last novel of George Chester and his wife Lilian Chester, published in 1924:

Shrieking and moaning, the wind swept in from the desert to take its eerie part in the life of Hollywood, to wield its mysterious influence on the fourth or fifth or whatever largest industry in the United States. It was one of those summer days rare to the Pacific coast, but poignant, when through the yellow sunlight there sift vague phantom shapes of impalpable dust which bite the skin and smart the eyes, and are the prickling forerunners of a three-day withering heat from out of the very heart of the vast shadeless inferno up yonder in the waste places. It was such a day as lowers the vitality and depresses the spirit and sets the nerves on edge, and when vitality ebbs and depression reigns and nerves are aquiver, both men and women do things which they might otherwise not have done; so no one knows what tremendous extent of folly and of tragedy might be chargeable to this same shrill, shrieking, moaning, sobbing wind from the deadly desert.[19]

The Santa Ana winds act more or less as a deus ex machina, for they effect the dénoument of the plot by driving several characters to actions they might otherwise have abjured, even sometimes against their own best interests.

On the Lot and Off has a potboiler of a plot, but the central thrust is just the efforts of the protagonist Izzy Iskowitz to gain control of his own motion picture studio. For this to happen, many unpredictable, evidently impossible things must occur, and it’s the Santa Ana winds that do the trick. So, for instance, the winds cause the owner of the Producer and Distributors Trust Company to place his wholly incompetent son Tennyson in charge of the bank at the very moment that the financially toppling Sam Black of Luna Pictures is begging for an extension on his loan:

but at that moment an exotic gust of wind from right out of the blistering pit of the dust whistled around the corner and between the classic gates and through the leaded-glass windows of Sam Black’s office, and smote him hip and thigh and blue-tipped nose with such an excruciatingly shivering blast that he yelled into the phone—insulting Tennyson and sealing his fate.

Later, in a crucial move in his plans, Izzy gets his boss David Schusshel to buy Luna, and again the wind is key: “On a cooler, less enervating day, David might have withstood…. But outside howled the desert wind, and through the screens there blew a steady stream of hot, enervating air, and David’s resistance was low; and he fell.” And Prudence Joy, the actress Izzy loved but could not marry, in thrall to a no-good husband and desperately in need of money, swallows her pride and begs Izzy for advice, sitting in his office “perfectly motionless while that gale from the desert shrieked and moaned and shrilled its mournful dirge outside, while the stinging heat which came from it seemed to dry up the very life in her.” The winds are determinative—except for Izzy, who’s immune to their effects.[20]


The Chesters don’t call their “desert wind” specifically the Santa Ana, but that’s clearly what they meant. In any case, these winds then howl through much subsequent LA fiction, especially what evolves into the noir detective story in the hands of Cain, Chandler, and others. Chandler’s own most famous description of the Santa Anas, which appeared in 1939 in the story “Red Wind,” has taken on an emblematic role, thanks in part to Joan Didion’s citation of it in her essay “Los Angeles Notebook.” Two years later Earl Stanley Gardiner, writing under the pseudonym A.A. Fair, cooked up an even more “extraordinary two pages” on the winds:

In the spring and late fall southern California has peculiarly violent desert windstorms known as “santanas,” sometimes called “Santa Anas.” For hours before such winds start, the sky will be clear and dustless. The air will be warm, listless, devoid of life. The details of objects can be seen with startling clarity. Silk or rayon garments will crackle with static electricity.

Then suddenly a blast of wind comes sweeping down from the east and north, a hot, dry wind which churns particles of dust so fine they filter between dry lips, grit against the surfaces of teeth. As a rule, those storms blow for three days and three nights. Those sections which are protected from the wind itself nevertheless feel the dehydrating effects of the dry, hot air. People’s nerves get raw. They are listless and irritable. Perspiration is sucked up by the dry air so the hot skin becomes gritty with dust.


One look at the star-studded sky, and I knew a santana was coming. Stars blazed down with such steady brilliance the heavens seemed filled to overflowing. The air out of doors seemed as close as it was in the study—warm, dry, devitalizing air that made one’s nerves stand on edge.


When I had finished the third chapter, the wind struck. It struck with the force of a solid wall. The house swayed with the force of that first terrific gust. All over the place I could hear doors slamming, could hear people running, and the sound of closing windows….

My nerves are always on edge during those windstorms.[21]

The effect of the Santa Anas—both the physical impact of dusty, obscured vision, a “dryness [that] is fairly stinging, like a slightly sour amphetamine,” and the psychological disorientation they bring—match well the mood of noir; “the evil,” Norman Klein notes, “is still in the atmosphere.”[22]

In Frederick Kohner’s Gidget (1957), it is “one of those icky desert winds we call the Santa Ana” that sparks “real drama” in the plot, “that very important element labeled by [Gidget’s high-school English] teacher Glicksberg as the ‘clincher’ or climax.” Gidget has earned herself a back-handed invitation to a luau on the Malibu beach, despite warnings that it would be an “orgy” (a word she has to look up in the dictionary). During the party “a creepy wind was blowing… like something coming right out of a furnace.” This Santa Ana, rushing down from the mountains and the desert and out to sea, turns back on the land and whips sparks carelessly spread by the revelers onto the sagebrush beyond the highway, fanning up a great roaring brush fire. The desert-spawned fire serves as a blatant metaphor for Gidget’s own raging but misdirected sexuality, for in the confusion, as police and fire trucks swoop down to contain the blaze and enlist the help of the partying surfers whose drunken carelessness caused the fire, Gidget cannot get home and ends up seeking shelter in the Kahoona’s beach hut. On his return he insists that it will be impossible for her to pass the cordon of police cars and fire trucks before morning; she can, he offers, sleep in his bed, while he takes the chair. Gidget, out of a mix of guilt—after all, he’s exhausted, having just spent several hours battling the flames while she dozed in his hut—and desire, voices a daring invitation: “‘Maybe you’re not comfortable in that chair. There is room enough in the bed for both of us here.’” He accepts, and Gidget reckons “this was the moment I had been waiting for. Now it would happen. He would make me a woman.” Instead, like the sudden rains that had just doused the brushfire, the Kahoona douses Gidget: “‘[W]hen it happens between you and a man it must be beautiful…. And it must be all for love, Franzie.’” (He uses her real name—a marker that this is serious.) “‘The time must be ripe. When the time is ripe—you’ll know. You’ll be trembling the way you tremble now—but it’ll be right. This isn’t.’” The desert brings a whirlwind of endangered virtue; luckily, a good patriarchal figure is there to protect Gidget from herself.[23]


In one of the “tales” called “Sirocco” in Eve Babitz’s collection Slow Days, Fast Company, her narrator[24] repudiates the trope of the evil Santa Ana winds. “From earliest childhood,” she insists, “I have rejoiced over the Santa Ana winds…. Every time I feel one coming, I put on my dancing spirits.” As with Gidget, the Santa Anas spell for Babitz’s narrator a potent sexual compulsion—but unlike with Gidget, there’s no “grown up man” around to hit the brakes. The narrator recounts two experiences, both connected with her “just friend” William, both involving other women, both prompted by the Santa Anas, however much she “hate[s] blaming things on the weather.”

The first, narrated with a certain coyness, revolves around an Italian named Isabella Farfalla, “bored with the ancient decadence that her own country provided” who, “like the Santa Anas” “was a devastating force… it was her nature to interject chaos at the very time things had about ossified.” At the opening of a new club Isabella and the narrator engage in some heavy petting:

“You two really looked beautiful,” William sighed about me and Isabella, “kissing each other like that.”

“Well, at least we looked beautiful,” I said. “Now what do I do?”

“Maybe you really like women better,” he suggested. “Maybe that’s been it all along.”

“But what does one do with women?” I said, imagining at once exactly what one would do. “It was probably just the Santa Ana,” I said.

“You never kissed me like that,” he replied.

Her second experience came later, in October: “It was a Sunday and the Santa Ana had been afoot since the night before. It was so dry that the bougainvillea, picked, would embalm in the heat and last forever like Japanese paper flowers.” She gets a phone call from a friend, Day Tully, and invites her over; in the Santa Ana aridity Day’s “brown hair crackled from the lightning in the air.” The narrator suggests a walk to William’s; Day agrees, but cautions: “I hear this wind changes people into maniacs.” Indeed—soon after arrival at William’s and the consumption of “freezing-cold, green jigger glasses of vodka,” the narrator

was the first to pounce. What I wouldn’t do with Isabella, who knew what she was doing, I now smoothly instigated between Day and William and myself. Passion from boredom and vodka flashed through my veins, passion and fanned curiosity toppled us, Santa Ana-ed, down upon William’s bed. Only not William. I wouldn’t let William touch me, and we almost tore poor Day in half.

For Babitz’s narrator—or shall we drop the pretense and just call her “Eve”?—the Santa Ana madness brings happy release: “if we didn’t have the Santa Anas,” she concludes, “how straight we would all be.”[25]


In her celebration of the Santa Anas as a blatant catalyst for sexual experimentation Babitz plays a field she has mostly to herself. But the underlying trope remains the same; there’s no questioning of Day’s observation that the winds change folks into maniacs—they do indeed for Eve too, and fundamentally, she’s really no different from Gidget: both open themselves up to sexual experience under the influence of the winds, both indeed welcome the cover the Santa Ana mania grants to do something they have been wanting for a long time. And neither sees anything wrong with what they want—the swirling desert invitation to sexual adventure outside the bounds of marriage or heterosexual coupled conformity.

The Santa Ana winds, then, bring in the desert: a dangerous, unpredictable, socially destructive or disruptive force of nature. They are emblematic of the “dangerous desert” trope that sits at one of the two poles of desert imaginary discussed above. Corrosive, corrupting, disorienting, debilitating, the winds block thought, dissolve morals, wreak devastation; they are, so to speak, Satan and his desert demons embodied in a howling rush of air.

 The second topology—“underneath it all” [26]

The second topology clashes with a beloved trope about Los Angeles: that it is a paradise, an Eden set in a bedizened landscape; as such, the city becomes a sort of “Ellis Island of beauty” where people flock to join the American dream. This is the LA of the promotional literature churned out by the ream by California boosters in the nineteenth century (and in the recent series of California tourism ads starring celebrities) in which Los Angeles figured not as desert but an Edenic landscape, a paradise on Earth: “if not the original Eden, then a simulacrum that excelled the model.” Berthold Brecht, writing in his journal during his sojourn in LA, saw through the falsity, or so he thought—through the glittery surface of palm trees and hydrangeas, Art Deco office buildings and iconic hamburger stands, Hollywood back lots and ribbons of freeway: “as for culture: it decays unbelievably fast (like California’s artificial flora, planted on desert ground, when not watered),” for “all this greenery is wrested from the desert by irrigation systems, scratch the surface a little and the desert shows through.” Or, as Eve Babitz remarked, a propos a graffito, “In Los Angeles it’s hard to tell if you’re dealing with the real true illusion or the false one.”[27] This works, of course, because of an environmental trope about Los Angeles itself: that it sits in an arena of bountiful good health, beneficent climate, and easy living. Many years ago Carey McWilliams encapsulated this trope in a few lapidary pages of Southern California he called “The Folklore of Climatology.” Boosters like Samuel Stoney, writing in 1889, believed they’d “found a Paradise on Earth” where “lungers”—sufferers of tuberculosis—found relief, flowers and fruits proliferated, and the only fear possible enervation from living in paradise.[28]

This trope developed early in the city’s history. A proleptic Los Angeles as paradise appears already in Horace Bell’s 1881 memoir Reminiscences of a Ranger: Early Times in Southern California, retrojected deep into the Spanish past. He imagines a trio of Spanish soldiers perched on a hill, enchanted by the scene below:

The plains and rolling hills had discarded their mantle of green and donned their sere robes of summer. Gazing toward the sun, which had now marked the first segment in the circle of its journey, plains, hills, forests, lakes, rivers, valleys, and towering mountains in a splendid panorama met their wondering vision. To the rear of where the three warriors sat… lay in silent beauty the shimmering waters of a beautiful lake sheltered from the rude blasts of the ocean by a rampart of kind and protecting hills. To the left for leagues could be traced the serpentine windings of the river…. Obliquely to their rear and looking southward to the sea the waters of the Porciuncula [River, later the Los Angeles River] swept by like a silver stripe in a ribbon of green, shaded by the umbrageous white-armed sycamore and the more verdant cottonwood, under whose protecting shades gamboled countless herds of deer and antelope, while still beyond are to be seen rocky islands in the ocean posted like knights in armor guarding the portals of Paradise.

One of the soldiers, shaking off his bedazzlement at “this vision of beauty,” thanks his commanding sergeant for “shar[ing] with us this foresight of Paradise.” It is, of course, the site of the future Los Angeles, chosen by “our Blessed Lady, the Angel Queen” herself.[29]

Standing in fervent opposition to this happy talk is what J.U. Peters has called “The Los Angeles Anti-Myth,” well represented by Dunne’s True Confessions. This Los Angeles of corruption, violence, fornication, debasement, and falsity Peters traces to the city’s decenteredness, its agglutination of suburbs, a “spatial disorder” that “suggests a deeper spatial implication: the jarring and dehumanizing shock of sudden displacement which the characters in many novels undergo.”[30] Indeed—but another contributor to this condition surely is also the “false tinsel” that lurks below: “Los Angeles was a desert to begin with….” and remains part of “this western desert.”[31] Remarkably similar language in novel after novel evokes the desert qualities of the Los Angeles scene: its “hot sun” in True Confessions or the “hot dry air” of Less Than Zero; the “parched and arid heat of Los Angeles” in See’s Golden Days, a “heat like a flat pan in the High Desert.” In Huxley’s After Many a Summer Dies the Swan the Englishman Jeremy Pordage first perceives LA as “mountains—ridge after ridge as far as the eye could reach, a desiccated Scotland, empty under the blue desert sky.” Ross MacDonald’s cynical Lew Archer sees LA simply as “an urban wilderness in the desert.” And when an economic recession grips the film industry, “[t]he garden of Los Angeles had reverted to the desert.”[32] Not, be it noted, a desert, but the desert: the desert that had always been lurking there.


The Los Angeles desert frames Gavin Lambert’s 1954 novel The Slide Area from the first pages. Introducing his Los Angeles, Lambert’s narrator—a Hollywood script writer—stresses the city’s “impression of unreality”, reinforced by the “neurotic” “behavior of the air.” In fact “nothing belongs except the desert soil…. Because the earth is desert, its surface always has that terrible dusty brilliance.” The city rests on “land dried and crusted into desert… a quagmire under a hot sun”; it is, he insists, “difficult to settle in a comfortable unfinished desert” where “buildings lie around like nomads’ tents in the desert” and a motel stands “solitary in the desert of its parking lot.” Lambert isn’t completely consistent in seeing LA as built on a desert, for sometimes he remarks on the role of the “gritty mountains” in separating the city from “the dry Mojave desert” and he starts and ends his tale with electrical storms “near Palm Springs… out over the desert.” The predominant theme, though, is certainly Los Angeles as desert, and the desert fact of the city, its aridity, original emptiness, sterility, shape the stunted lives of the novel’s characters. The link is explicit in Lambert’s description of his friend Mark’s beach house after he has left for the South Pacific: it presents “[a] little desert of emptiness and stillness that people seem instinctively to avoid.”[33]

This theme is especially prominent in See’s Golden Days. The protagonist Edith Langley grows up “in the parched and arid heart of Los Angeles.” Returning after a sojourn in New York, she imagines LA as a plant in the desert, its extension from downtown “a thin stem, the Santa Monica freeway, heading due west and putting out greenery, places in this western desert where you’d love to live—if things went right.” Desert vegetation is tough, thorny, resistant to drought and abuse, but likewise not easy to approach—perhaps, in contrast to Edith’s initial impression, not so easy to live with. The house she buys on her return is tucked deep up Topanga Canyon, the “Old Canyon,” which “[s]ome people say… is the desert part”—although, in fact, “Los Angeles was a desert to begin with….” Yucca grow, taller than Edith’s daughters; there are rattlesnakes, neighbors warn, and Edith later watches two boys wrangle over possession of a three-foot long snake—but surely no rattler—that had unwisely slunk into the neighborhood market. The Canyon bakes in 120 degree heat, and, like all southwestern deserts, is subject both to flood and fire. The desert of LA impinges even on Edith’s wardrobe, as she switches from flannel shirts to silk blouses, “raw silk” being, she supposes, “the flannel of the desert.”[34] In other words, the desert does not simply frame See’s LA, offering a counterpoint out east, or north, over the passes, to serve as a locus for redemption or despair; the desert is LA, and living in the city becomes, for See’s protagonists, an adaptation to a desert world. In ways both blatant and subtle, the desert compels her characters to react to it—be it by shedding flannels for silk (the same projected persona, a different skin) or, eventually, by adapting to a nuclear-devastated landscape, a final act of desertification performed on a desert wasteland.[35]

While the deserts of Los Angeles barely inflect Aldous Huxley’s first LA novel, in his second novel written in California and set in Los Angeles, Ape and Essence (1948), the desert does not merely serve as a setting, but plays a central role in both plot and message. Two screenwriters, Bob Briggs and Huxley’s narrator, discover a rejected script in the slush pile submitted by a certain William Tallis. Intrigued, they travel out to see the author, a recluse living “on the southwest fringe of the Mojave desert.” Huxley draws a contrast between the “tough ascetic lives of the desert” and the cottonwoods and willows along irrigation ditches, “clinging precariously… to another, easier, more voluptuous mode of being.” Huxley’s desert outside LA immediately invokes the tension between the city itself, which can only exist by importation of water and thus promotes a morally corrupt way of life (already evident in the scripts Bob and his partner paw through), and an ascetic, and so purer, desert life—a framing that evokes also the role of the desert in Dunne’s True Confessions. Then, as Bob and the narrator approach Tallis’s house:

Out there, on the floor of the desert, there had been a noiseless, but almost explosive transformation. The clouds had shifted and the sun was now shining on the nearest of those abrupt and jagged buttes, which rose so inexplicably, like islands, out of the enormous plain. A moment before they had been black and dead. Now suddenly they had come to life between a shadowed foreground and a background of cloudy darkness. They shone as if with their own incandescence.

I touched Bob’s arm and pointed.

“Now do you understand why Tallis chooses to live at the end of this road?”[36]

Tallis’s script imagines a Los Angeles in 2108 after a nuclear war has devastated the United States. LA, “the great Metrollopis [sic] is a ghost town… what was once the world’s largest oasis is now its greatest agglomeration of ruins in a wasteland…. Dunes of sand have drifted across the concrete.” The plot of Tellis’s movie revolves around the arrival in Southern California of an expedition from New Zealand that includes a botanist named Poole. Captured by the gang that rules the ruined city, he meets a young woman named Loola; they fall in love, but strict eugenics rules imposed by the gang forbid their relationship. Eventually Poole and Loola escape into the desert, across the San Gabriel Mountains, headed north for a supposed paradise where love is free and children can be conceived; to do so, they seek refuge and invisibility in the “enormous expanse of the Mojave desert,” the desert beyond the desert of Los Angeles.[37]


Thus the desert plays a multiplicity of roles in Ape and Essence: it is at once the “desert underneath,” the ecological reality of Los Angeles concealed—only temporarily, and always precariously—by an overlay of water and fakery; it is that ecological reality not created but simply revealed by the nuclear bombs that stripped away the “false tinsel”; it is a more genuine ecology “out there,” where Tallis lives and through which Poole and Loola escape; it is refuge.

Perhaps we are invited to imagine a better LA had its desert never been gussified with Hollywood falsity, or perhaps the desertified Los Angeles tyrannized by the Archimandrite and his acolytes is what it deserves. In any case, the “natural” desert is clearly the better place, even if it is tough and unforgiving. Poole and Loola, in the end, must serve an apprenticeship of suffering and purgation during their desert trek north, sore feet, little food, and thirty miles and more of painful walking. It is the desert as test, another desert sojourn to reach the Promised Land—California, love, happiness, children. Ape and Essence, then, may stand for a type—prefigured almost presciently in Philip Wylie’s 1943 short story “The Paradise Crater,” which government officials feared represented a leak in the Manhattan Project—scenarios of the Los Angeleno apocalypse, especially those predicated on nuclear annihilation, which evoke a return of the repressed when the LA underlying them has been figured as masked desert.[38]

In After the Bomb (1985) young Philip Singer, his brother, and his brother’s girlfriend Cara survive a thermonuclear blast over LA because they happened to be lounging in an old bomb shelter in the brothers’ back yard. The book tells the story of Philip’s efforts to save his badly burned mother while moving through a ruined, post-nuclear landscape. The desert of After the Bomb bears, however, two valences, opposite and ironic. On the one hand, that Santa Ana which launches the plot adumbrates the desert-like destruction of the hydrogen bomb to come; on the other, it, and the desertification of the bomb itself, strip away the falsity of Los Angeles: Philip’s apparently omni-competent brother Matt proves hopeless, clueless, and almost useless, while Matt’s girlfriend Cara, whom Philip had hoped to snag for himself before his brother lured her away, now sees who’s really reliable in an emergency. In the end Matt’s redeemed, more or less; whether Cara will switch brothers remains undisclosed. But fundamentally it’s the falsity of the LA world that’s worn Philip down in his ordinary life that’s stripped away by desert wind and desertifying bomb—LA both invaded and revealed.[39]

The fundamental falsity of the desert materializes—deceptively—in its mirages, and Los Angeles is all mirage. So when Paul, a protagonist of Lurie’s The Nowhere City, drives through an LA cityscape “for once swept clear of smog by the desert winds”—the Santa Anas, as Lurie’s allusion to the season makes clear—“[t]he city shimmered in the dry, warm air, every detail sharp, but all colors bleached out by the intensity of the light, like a mirage.” Paul fears lest this mirage “wasn’t the harmless decorative sort, but one of those false visions that hover just above the horizon of the desert, luring travelers on to exhaustion and despair.”[40] So too people: in Chandler’s Farewell, My Lovely (1940) “Helen Grayle”—in fact Velma Vanelto—started life as a sexually promiscuous chorus girl, but after eight years has succeeded—it seems—in burying her sordid past. The reinvented Helen is a “true product of Los Angeles, a city of resplendent surfaces”; she is “a figment, inspired by a culture that glorifies illusion….”[41] That is to say Helen is a mirage: that deceptive, fatal emanation of the desert, a confection of shimmering air with no more tangible reality than a passing breeze. This image suits perfectly Hollywood, that emblem of Los Angeles in so much fiction, whose primary function (that is, aside from coining profits for its studios) is simply to deliver a gullible public confected falsity as if it were something real.

Some final ruminations and unanswered questions

The whole congeries of desert imagery and Los Angeles fiction was captured succinctly in an essay by Charles Crow, who, evoking Joan Didion’s Play It As It Lays, writes of

the desert, that vast and troubling presence which most Angelenos would like to ignore. The paradox of Los Angeles, geographically, is that it is both a seacoast and a desert city…. [T]he ecology of the city is so fragile that it cannot hope to survive very long; at some point that aqueducts that are its arteries will fail… and the city will disappear…. The desert, lurking in the east, is the city’s doom. Out of the desert blow the Santa Ana winds, drying the hillsides and spreading the brush fires…. Deserts have always been places of prophecy and truth-seeking, and the message of this desert, “the hard empty white core of the world,” is annihilation, nothingness… [a place where] a man walked into the desert seeking God and was killed by a rattlesnake.[42]

Which is not to say, of course, that the man in question failed to find God; he may just not have found the God he thought he was looking for.[43]

Desert redemption, desert evil, the desert out there, desert demons borne into town on the Santa Anas—desert barrier, the desert below, the desert remade in nuclear annihilation, desert truth, desert falsity, abhorrence, fascination, attraction—so many deserts shape the city, in its fiction; without the desert, indeed, there is no fictional Los Angeles. Before we conclude, however, it behooves us to consider, briefly, some non-fictional treatments of Los Angeles, for the desert tropes—whether “out there” or “below”—seem often less prominent in such works. A certain tension between Los Angeles as desert and not-desert features in Mike Davis’s two dense and remarkable books about the city. The earlier City of Quartz (1990) starts with a tour of the desert ruins of the utopian community of Llano del Rio, which he calls explicitly “desert”; here and there in the book the notion recurs, although without much emphasis, yet with implicit approval. Everything has changed in Ecology of Fear (1999), which begins with a stark rejection of the desert trope as a self-serving notion designed to justify the continuing theft of water from the Colorado River and the Owens Valley. Instead, the Los Angeles region is seen as a Mediterranean climate—although, again, Davis sometimes reverts to the possibility of desert resurfacing or desert invasion, as when he notes that the last 150 years have been “anomalously mild, and therefore atypical”; the desert, we are warned, encroached on what is now Los Angeles during the “epic drought periods” of the Middle Ages. This Mediterranean trope—which we also touched on above in a passage from Harold Bell’s book—is abundantly clear in the booster literature of the later nineteenth and earlier twentieth centuries, in which Southern California in general is a land of abundant good health, sunshine, and pleasure. Much of this literature figured Southern California as “our Mediterranean”—a view captured explicitly in the title of Peter Charles Remondino’s 1892 encomium, The Mediterranean Shores of America: Southern California: Its Climatic, Physical, and Meteorological Conditions.[44]


Of course, Davis is right in Ecology of Fear, as were the old-time boosters: Los Angeles sits not in a desert but in a Köppen-Geiger BS climate, a steppe, as we noted at the start of this essay, and as Glen M. MacDonald argued cogently in a recent contribution to Boom.[45] Why, then, have the desert tropes of “out there” or “underneath” exercised such a magnetism on so many writers of fiction about LA? I have no definite answer to the question, which would require a much longer discussion than can be accommodated in a few words at the end of this essay. It does seem to me, however, that at least three drivers may be at work.

First, there is moral coding. Since LA is so often figured as corrupt, decadent, and unnatural, the desert, whether a space “out there” or a hidden underbelly to the city, can be figured as a moral opposite. The long-standing trope of desert redemption and purity, seen perhaps most blatantly in True Confessions of all the books studied here, can then serve as a space of purgation and moral repair. This moral opposition, however, can work in another way too: the desert can come into or rise up from underneath the city and sweep away its corruption, sterilizing an urbanscape subject to vile putrefaction. So Ape and Essence, much of the “LA holocaust” literature, Golden Days, and even Watkins’s recent Gold Fame Citrus.

Not unrelated, perhaps, is the sense of the desert as an escape hatch—a refuge, a place to escape the city, to find a more genuine life, or at least a chance to start over. This driver seems connected with a very powerful sense of the West in general as a place to “start over,” where you can shed old identities and baggage and become a new person; and certainly this notion is fundamentally intertwined with the myth of California itself, as a Promised Land where the new covenant can be struck.[46]

And then there is the simple distaste for Los Angeles as a city—a kind of revulsion that seems to infect an extraordinarily large proportion of literature about the city. Reyner Banham observed some decades ago that Los Angeles “gets attention, but it’s like the attention that Sodom and Gomorrah have received, primarily a reflection of other people’s bad consciences…”, abused by the “pedestrian litterateur who finds the place ‘a stinking sewer’ and stays only long enough to collect material for a hate-novel.” It would be easy to draw up a lengthy catalogue. For such writers there may be no better fate for Los Angeles than desertified obliteration; for, even a desert, repulsive as it may be, is still better than Los Angeles.[47]

This is all rather speculative and certainly incomplete. I have begged other important questions, too. Desert spaces (and the West more generally) have figured often in the American imaginary as emplaced on our continent for the express purpose of “white redemption”: the white male, emasculated or in danger of emasculation thanks to his exposure in urban space to dangerous “others,” especially the racially or ethnically different (not to mention women), may find his hope of recovery of his masculinity by lighting out for the desert, whose harshness tests, refines, and redeems him, themes well explored by Richard Slotkin and David Teague. The “whiteness” of this narrative trope brings up another unexplored question: the degree to which the whole framing of LA and the desert is entirely, or mostly, a white and/or upper-middle class preoccupation. Finally, there is the matter of “nature.” The desert trope carries an implicit dichotomy between urban LA as “not nature” and the desert as “nature.” But of course this whole construction—of the “wild,” the “natural” in opposition to the human “artificial”—has been thoroughly challenged by scholars as diverse in their interests as Roderick Nash, William Cronon, and for Los Angeles itself Jenny Price, in her now-classic essay “Thirteen Ways of Seeing Nature in L.A.” In other words, much of the literature I’ve examined here (and no doubt much I have missed) rests and depends on an opposition itself a confected dualism—not unlike the dichotomy of “desert out there” and “desert underneath” that I have suggested form the two topologies of the desert in LA.[48]



  • All photographs taken by and used with permission of Matt Gush (www.mattgush.com). All rights reserved.

[1] Alison Lurie, The Nowhere City (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1997), 12. On The Nowhere City in particular and Lurie’s fiction in general, see Julie Newman¸ Alison Lurie: A Critical Study (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2000); Susan Watkins, “‘Women and Wives Mustn’t Go Near It’: Academia, Language, and Gender in the Novels of Alison Lurie,” Revista Canaria de Estudios Ingeles 48 (2004): 129-146; Patrick O’Donnell, “Postwar Los Angeles: Suburban Eden and the Fall into History,” in The Cambridge Companion to the Literature of Los Angeles, ed. Kevin R. McNamara (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 65-67. Kevin Starr, Golden Dreams: California in an Age of Abundance, 1950-1963 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 173, praised The Nowhere City as “the best fictive portrait to capture Los Angeles as it made the transition to supercity.”

[2] In a recent essay, Eric Avila claims Southern California “reads like a subtle case for ecological determinism” (“Essaying Los Angeles,” in McNamara [ed.], Cambridge Companion to the Literature of Los Angeles, 178), but McWilliams insisted on the mistake of seeing Southern California as wholly determined by its ecology; the cult of climate was, for him, “folklore” (Carey McWilliams, Southern California: An Island on the Land [Salt Lake City: Peregrine Books, 2010], 96-112): although McWilliams admits that the climate there does indeed change people, he also insists that “the miraculous qualities of the climate were invented, not by the cynical residents of the region, but by the early tourist” (98).

[3] Although some working from smaller circumferences insist in continuing to call it one: most recently Vanessa Friedman, “Dior in the Desert,” The New York Times, 12 May 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/05/12/fashion/dior-cruise-2018-maria-grazia-chiuri.html?smid=tw-nytfashion&smtyp=cur&_r=0 (accessed 20 May 2017).

[4] From data at http://www.laalmanac.com/weather/we13.htm (accessed  19 May  2017). Anton Wagner, Los Angeles: Werden, Leben und Gestalt der Zweimillionenstadt in Südkalifornie (Leipzig: Bibliographisches Institut, 1936), 23, gives 379.7 mm as the annual average. On the European settlement-era ecosystems of the Los Angeles Basin, see Paula M. Schiffman, “The Los Angeles Prairie,” in Land of Sunshine: An Environmental History of Los Angeles, eds. William Deverell and Greg Hise (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2005), 38-51. D. J. Waldie, Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1996), 140, rightly writes, “[T]he Los Angeles plain is semiarid. It’s not exactly a desert.” Of course, with climate change, all bets are off.

[5] McWilliams, Southern California, 110 (originally 1946). See David Fine, “Introduction,” in Los Angeles in Fiction, ed. David Fine (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1984), 17, characterizing Los Angeles as “a city almost literally carved out of a desert,” paraphrasing (I suppose) Richard Lehan, “The Los Angeles Novel and the Idea of the West,” in Los Angeles in Fiction, 30, for whom “Los Angeles was crafted out of the desert.”

[6] In this essay I leave aside largely the literature treating Los Angeles as an eco-disaster—greedily gulping water from the Owens valley, degrading the sere landscape with acres of cheap, ugly houses, inviting deserved eco-obliteration or sheer decay (say, the now clichéd city of the film Blade Runner) or the eco-collapse of Claire Vaye Watkins’s Gold Fame Citrus (2015) or the milder but sadder critique of Waldie’s Holy Land. I do examine some of the literature of nuclear annihilation where such disaster evokes or uncovers desert LA.

[7] And see Edgar Rice Burroughs’s The Moon Maid (1919), in which Earth’s salvation from Martian domination entails, among other things, the obliteration of Los Angeles; Michael Orth, “Utopia in the Pulps: The Apocalyptic Pastoralism of Edgar Rice Burroughs,” Extrapolation 27 (1986): 226.

[8] See many of Joan Didion’s essays in Slouching Towards Bethlehem (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008), The White Album (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1979), and Play It As It Lays (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005).

[9] Indeed: sixty years ago Carolyn See catalogued already 500 books set in Hollywood alone and read 300 of them for her dissertation “The Hollywood Novel: An Historical and Critical Study,”  unpublished dissertation (University of California, Los Angeles, 1963), a study more often cited, I suspect, than read (p. 1 for the numbers; 485-516, for the bibliography).

[10] For a thorough discussion of the Hebrew biblical tropes, see Laura Feldt, “Wilderness and the Hebrew Bible Religion—Fertility, Apostasy and Religious Transformation in the Pentatuch,” in Religion and Society: Wilderness in Mythology and Religion: Approaching Religion: Spacialities, Cosmologies, and Ideas of Wild Nature, eds. Laura Feldt, Gustavo Benavides, and Kocku von Stuckard (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2012), 55-94; see also Gary Reger, “Making the Desert American,” Cultural History 2 (2013): 167-174, and Diana K. Davis, The Arid Lands. History, Power, Knowledge (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2016), 23-47.

[11] So, perhaps, the winds were even responsible for the Watts Riots: Eve Babitz, Eve’s Hollywood (New York: New York Review of Books, 2015), 143-144.

[12] Frank Norris quoted in David Fine, Imagining Los Angeles: A City in Fiction (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2000), 3; Rupert Hughes, Souls for Sale (New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1978), 183 (“blinding blue”), 314 (madcap ride; originally published 1922); Kate Braverman, Lithium for Medea [A Novel] (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2002), 83; Cynthia Kadohata, In the Heart of the Valley of Love (Berkeley: UC Press, 1997), 1; Hughes, Souls for Sale, 340 (William R. Gowen, “Hoo-ray! ri! ro! row! roo! rah! Rupert Hughes and his ‘Dozen’,” Newsboy [November-December 1995]:13-16, offers a brief biography; Hughes served with the US Army Mexican Border Service in 1916 [p. 14], perhaps a source for some of the desert images in Souls for Sale?); F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Love of the Last Tycoon, ed. Matthew J. Bruccoli (New York: Scribner, 2003), 18. See, “Hollywood Novel,” 58-61, alludes to the sense that crossing “the great desert” (58) “often functions as a rite de passage” (57), but without developing the analogy to desert purgation in the exodus to the Promised Land; she quotes Dorothy Hughes, Dread Journey (New York: Duell, Sloan, and Pearce, 1945), 138, on the three-day trip through a “wasteland.” See does, however, argue that the trip west marks “a period of penance” which “divests [the traveler] of his past and all its appurtenances”; he “metaphorically dies and is born again in the long eerie train trip across the Great West to Hollywood….” In an ironic twist, the Promised Land into which such travelers are reborn is not a land of milk and honey but the locus of “sins… so rarified and vile that in his old life he has perhaps never even heard of them…” (58).

[13] Steve Erikson, Amnesiascope: A Novel (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1996), 80, 217; Braverman, Lithium, 358-362; Hughes, Souls for Sale, 372-375. William L. Manly, Death Valley in ’49: The Autobiography of a Pioneer (Crabtree: The Narrative Press, 2001), 141, for a classic evocation of the desert as worthless space.

[14] George Pelecanos, “Introduction,” in John Gregory Dunne, True Confessions (New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 2006), v. See Kevin Starr, Embattled Dreams: California in War and Peace, 1940-1950 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), 213-222, for a brief discussion. There have been multiple book-length studies of the case; the most recent is John Gilmore, Severed: The True Story of the Black Dahlia Murder (Los Angeles: Amok Books, 2015).

[15] Dunne, True Confessions, 340; see Des’s reflections on his fantasies about Mary Ginty, a parishioner whose husband went to prison: “He dreamed about her. That was all. He would awake in a state of arousal, his bedding wet from the nocturnal emission…. The impulses of the flesh were the darkest sins in Tommy’s canon. How wrong he was. Those impulses could be sublimated. Pride was a substitute. Power. The urge to manipulate. Vices that I have in abundance, Desmond Spellacy thought” (191). See, briefly but cogently, Michael Adams, “Sin and Guilt in the Fiction of John Gregory Dunne,” Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction 25 (1984): 156. Timothy J. Meaghan, “Cops, Priests, and the Decline of Irish America: True Confessions (1981),” in Catholics in the Movies, ed. Colleen McDannell (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), 245, sees Des’s exile as situating him in “the desert… the empty space where relationships can be constructed,” but Des’s desert space is not in fact empty: it is full of people and pre-existing relationships.

[16] Husband killer: Phyllis Nirdlinger in Cain 1992 (original 1936); daughter rapist: Noah Cross (John Huston) in Chinatown (1974).

[17] Aldous Huxley, Ape and Essence (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1992), 62, 123. Norman Klein, The History of Forgetting: Los Angeles and the Erasure of Memory (London: Verso, 2008), 98, suggestively remarks that in the film Blade Runner the city invades the desert, LA “smog finally destroying the desert climate itself.” Curiously, Hughes, Souls for Sale, 70 and 73, refers to a movie being made of Charles Kingsley’s novel Hypatia, whose climax comes with the vicious assassination of the pagan woman mathematician by an enraged crowd of monks in from the desert.

[18] Gavin Lambert, The Slide Area: Scenes of Hollywood Life (London: Serpent’s Tail, 1998), 56. Wagner, Los Angeles, 26, calls the Santa Anas “föhnartige Wüstenwinde,” which seems about right; also Didion, Slouching, 218-219. McWilliams, Southern California, 10-11: “desert winds.” On the causes of these winds, see Mimi Hughes and Alex Hall, “Local and Synoptic Mechanisms Causing Southern California’s Santa Ana Winds,” Climate Dynamics 34 (2010): 847-857, and Sebastien Conil and Alex Hall, “Local Regimes of Atmospheric Variability: A Case Study of Southern California,” Journal of Climate 19 (2006): 4308-4325.

[19] George Randolph Chester and Lilian Chester, On the Lot and Off (New York: Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1924), 267. Briefly Chester’s life and career, Jenny E. Robb, “From the Periodical Archives: Winsor McCay, George Randolph Chester, and the Tale of the Jungle Imps,” Periodical Comics and Cartoons 17 (2007): 249-251. It should be noted that the Chesters’ book is saturated with the anti-Semitism so common in Hollywood novels.

[20] Chester and Chester, On the Lot, 285, 298-299, 275, 268; later, Meyer, Tennyson’s father, violates his own ethics by foreclosing on Luna: “it may have been the enervating wind from the desert” that did it (304).

[21] Raymond Chandler, Stories and Early Novels: Pulp Stories / The Big Sleep / Farewell, My Lovely / The High Window (New York: The Library of America, 1995), 368 (originally published 1938); Didion, Slouching, 218-219; “extraordinary two pages”: Klein, History of Forgetting, 239; A.A. Fair [Earl Stanley Gardner], Double or Quits (New York: William Morrow and Company, 1941), 21-23. Chandler’s famous passage reads: “There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands’ necks. Anything can happen. You can even get a full glass of beer at a cocktail lounge.” As so often with Chandler, a mocking, ironic deflation at the end.

[22] Klein, History of Forgetting, 239, 240. For Joan Didion (White Album, 172), those days when “the wind is coming up” presages the onset of a migraine.

[23] Frederick Kohner, Gidget (New York: Berkeley Books, 2001), 124, 110 (orgy), 109, 124 and 128, 140-142; Klein, History of Forgetting, 81-83, on LA as “the city burning.” Gidget’s agonized sexual meditations are pretty blatant: “As I was lying in the darkness I felt real alone and helpless like never before in all my fifteen years. There wasn’t enough woman in me yet, and the gidget in me didn’t know how to handle it. Will it always be like this, I thought unhappily, will I always be scared of it and scared of being scared?” (140). Ironically, the Kahoona’s refusal denies Gidget the “climax” she expected. See Ilana Nash, “‘Nowhere Else to Go’: Gidget and the Construction of Adolescent Femininity,” Feminist Media Studies 2 (2002): 348, on the implications of this passage, and in general on the Gidget phenomenon and the patriarchy; but Nash exaggerates when she claims that Gidget never turns to her mother “for support and camaraderie” (352); at least in the first book, Gidget’s mother is the one who divines immediately that her daughter’s problems stem from sexual desire (see their conversation at Kohner, Gidget, 58-60), and her mother sides with her against her father by okaying her date with Moondoggie (91). For a brief account of Kohner’s career, Gerhard Mack, “Frederick Kohner,” in Deutsche Exilliteratur seit 1933. Band I. Kalifornien. Teil I, eds. John M. Spalek and Joseph Strelka (Bern-Munich: Franke Verlag, 1976), 762-770; John M. Spalek, Joseph Strelka, and Sandra H. Hawrylchak (eds.), Deutsche Exilliteratur seit 1933. Band 2. Kalifornien. Teil 1 (Bern-Munich: Franke Verlag, 1976), 68-71, for a bibliography of Kohner’s work (to 1976). Kohner died in 1986. He does not figure in Erhard Bahr, Weimar on the Pacific: German Exile Culture in Los Angeles and the Crisis of Modernism (Berkeley: UC Press, 2007), the most recent study known to me of the German colony in 1930s and 1940s Los Angeles, which included Thomas and Heinrich Mann, Berthold Brecht, Theodor Adorno, and many others; another account in Kevin Starr, The Dream Endures: California Enters the 1940s (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 342-396 (Kohner and Gidget, very briefly, at 388-389); see also now Johannes Evelein, Literary Exiles from Nazi Germany (Rochester: Camden House, 2014) on German exile literature more generally. Didion White Album, 210-211, on a 1975 Santa Ana that blew “in off the Mojave for three weeks and set… 69,000 acres of Los Angeles County on fire” and another, in 1978, that fanned a brush fire and “[w]ithin two hours… had pushed this fire across 25,000 acres and thirteen miles to the coast, where it jumped the Pacific Coast Highway as a half-mile fire storm generating winds of 100 miles per hour and temperatures up to 2500 degrees Fahrenheit. Refugees huddled on Zuma Beach. Horses caught fire and were shot on the beach, birds exploded in the air. Houses did not explode but imploded, as in a nuclear strike” (White Album, 222-223).

[24] Eve Babitz, Slow Days, Fast Company: The World, the Flesh, and L.A. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1977), 71-83. “Tales” from the coyly ambiguous “Tales by Eve Babitz” on the title page: while categorized as “fiction,” it is hard to know whether Babitz’s narratives are invented at all, or just lightly disguised recountings of her own experiences.

[25] Babitz, Slow Days, 76 (italics in original); 74-75 (“just friends”); 76 (blaming weather); 79; 78 (long quotation, original italics—“it” because William wants the narrator but she’s refused to sleep with him; so like a man, to find relief in evidence that it’s not his own deficiencies that have turned a woman off); 80-81; 83.

[26] I steal my heading from the title of Traci Lords’ autobiography (Underneath It All [New York: Harper Entertainment, 2003]). Though exploration would take us much too far from Los Angeles and images of the desert, the same trope of “uncovering” the glitz to reveal something else, usually (but not always) sordid, vapid, arid, and sterile underneath, plays out in analogous ways in the pornography industry. Pornography itself relies literally on “uncovering,” by making visible bodies and sexual couplings, but is at the same time a false uncovering, in its meretricious depiction of sex and its urgent need to cover up the abuse, sexism, and violence that accompanies so much of its production. The San Fernando Valley was the epicenter of American pornographic filmmaking in the heydays of the 1970s and 1980s; with the spread of digital photography and cheap, high-quality cameras, the product has been democratized. Still, Laura Pulido, Laura Barraclough, and Wendy Cheng, A People’s Guide to Los Angeles (Berkeley: UC Press, 2012), 224, claim that “[a]ccording to one source, 90 percent of all legally distributed pornographic films are made in the San Fernando valley,” without, however, citing the “source.”

[27] Douglas C. Sackman, “A Garden of Worldly Delights,” in Land of Sunshine, 247, with further references to scholarship of boosterism at 329-330 n. 5; especially notable: Richard Orsi, “Selling the Golden State: A Study of Boosterism in Nineteenth-Century California,” unpublished dissertation (University of Wisconsin, 1973); Kevin Starr, Inventing the Dream: California through the Progressive Era (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985), 128-175 and Americans and the California Dream, 1850-1914 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1973), 365-414; William Deverell and Douglas Flamming, “Race, Rhetoric, and Regional Identity: Boosting Los Angeles, 1880-1930,” in Power and Place in the North American West, eds. Richard White and John Findlay (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1999), 117-143; and Mike Davis, Ecology of Fear: Los Angeles and the Imagination of Disaster (New York: Vintage Books, 1999), 59-91. Bertolt Brecht, Arbeitsjournal. Zweiter Band, 1942 bis 1955, ed. Werner Hecht (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1973), 293, entry for 9 August 1941, and 733, entry for 20 March 1945. This theme comes out especially nicely in Liahna Babener, “Raymond Chandler’s City of Lies,” in Los Angeles in Fiction, 109-131. On Brecht in LA, see Bahr, Weimar on the Pacific, 69-147. Babitz, Slow Days, 8.

[28] See Starr, Inventing the Dream, 44-63, for an overview (Material Dreams: Southern California through the 1920s [New York: Oxford University Press, 1990], 90-119, on Los Angeles in particular), and Orsi, “Selling the Golden State,” for a detailed study of booster literature. Samuel Stoney, To the Golden Land: Sketches of a Trip to Southern California (London: Walter Scott, 1889), 30, quoted without attribution in McWilliams, Southern California, 98; floral magnificence, 105; enervation, 107.

[29] Horace Bell, Reminiscences of a Ranger: Early Times in Southern California (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1999), 55-57.

[30] J.U. Peters, “The Los Angeles Anti-Myth,” in Itinerary: Criticism. Essays on California Writers, ed. Charles L. Crow (Bowling Green: Bowling Green State University Press, 1978), 24; see also Babener, “Chandler’s,” 115, and “Chinatown, City of Blight,” in Los Angeles in Fiction, 243-244. Lambert, Slide Area, 18, calls Los Angeles “not a city, but a series of suburban approaches to a city that never materializes.” Edward Soja, My Los Angeles: From Urban Restructuring to Regional Urbanization (Berkeley: UC Press, 2014), 21-23, argues that this view of Los Angeles is now outdated.

[31] Mark Royden Winchell, “Fantasy Seen: Hollywood Fiction Since West,” in Los Angeles in Fiction, 148 with 166 n. 6; Carolyn See, Golden Days (Berkeley: UC Press, 1996), 121 and 6.

[32] Dunne, True Confessions, 203; Bret Easton Ellis, Less Than Zero (New York: Vintage Books, 1985), 67; See, Golden Days, 4 and 7; Aldous Huxley, After Many a Summer Dies the Swan (New York: Harper & Row, 1965), 8: The contrasts between “nature” and “urban artifice” that surface in a few passages (see 10, 60, for example) are never developed. The inspiration for Swan, “his Hollywood novel” (Peter Munro Jack, “A New Novel by Aldous Huxley,” New York Times Book Review [28 January 1940], 2), came from the antics of William Randolph Hearst and Marion Davies: Franz Baldanza, “Huxley and Hearst,” in Itinerary, 35-47. David King Dunaway, Huxley in Hollywood (New York: Harper & Row, 1989), 106-110, on the writing of Swan. J. Ross MacDonald, The Drowning Pool (New York: Knopf, 1950), 19; Hughes, Souls for Sale, 369. See, “Hollywood Novel,” 178-180, sees artificiality of setting as a fundamental structural feature of the Hollywood novel, though without mentioning the desert (but see also her more extended discussion of the role of climate at 388-402).

[33] Lambert, Slide Area, 15, 16-17, 35, 94, 15 and 211, 52.

[34] See, Golden Days, 4, 6, 9, 121, 10-11, 13. When Edith brings her business partner to be, Skip, home for the first time, her house, lights ablaze, looks “charmed, with golden light pouring from every window like a just-landed space ship” (21): a flying saucer touched down, appropriately, in the midst of the desert. On See’s fiction, see Davis, Ecology of Fear, 316-318; Fine, Imagining Los Angeles, 251-255; O’Donnell, “Postwar Los Angeles,” 70-72. In Dunne, True Confessions, 82, Tom complains of his wife Mary Margaret, good Catholic girl: “It could be a hundred degrees with a hot dry wind off the desert and still she would wear flannel” to bed.

[35] See had already foreshadowed this desert beneath in her dissertation, where she wrote of a “parched” geography, “the constant assumption” in the Hollywood fiction she studied “that Southern California is a desert,” indeed a space that, after rain, “as soon as the sun comes out… again turns into an incipient desert” (“Hollywood Novel,” 388, 398, 392).

[36] Huxley, Ape, 17-18. Kerwin Lee Klein, “Westward, Utopia: Robert V. Hine, Aldous Huxley, and the Future of California History,” Pacific Historical Review 70 (2001): 474, makes the important observation that Ape and Essence “aired Huxley’s nostalgia for his lost desert years….”

[37] Huxley, Ape, 62, 202.

[38] On nuclear devastation in Los Angeles’ fiction, see David Seed, “Los Angeles’ Science Fiction Futures,” in Cambridge Companion, 123-134; a brief survey of Los Angeles literature in Davis, Ecology of Fear, 311-318, with a focus on See, Golden Days. For “The Paradise Crater,” see P.D. Smith, The Doomsday Men. The Real Doctor Strangelove and the Dream of the Superweapon (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2007), 294. In The Nowhere City, Paul is awoken at 4 am one morning by terrific noise; “[h]e thought it was, first, a nightmare; then, an atomic war.” But it was just another instance of the constant re-invention of LA: a house being moved to make way for a freeway (Lurie, Nowhere City, 256). “For [Raymond] Chandler,” observes Liahna K. Babener in a trenchant essay, the “falsity is so prevalent that the truth, if it surfaces at all, is neither redeeming nor ameliorative” (“Chandler’s,” 111). If the underlying desert truth of Los Angeles in Ape and Essence be desert, then Babener’s observation becomes chillingly true.

[39] Gloria Miklowitz, After the Bomb (New York: Scholastic, Inc., 1985), 2. Note, of course, the patriarchal trope: “Who will rescue me,” is the real question in Cara’s mind, “when true danger looms?”

[40] Lurie, Nowhere City, 285.

[41] Babener, “Chandler’s,” 120-121. “Helen Grayle” summons up “Holy Grail”—the unattainable object of unending search—and Helen of Troy, destroyer of men through sexual allurement and, in the Odyssey, memory-erasing drugs; Chandler, Stories, 767-984.

[42] Charles L. Crow, “Home and Transcendence in Los Angeles,” in Los Angeles in Fiction, 194-195. The embedded quotation comes from Didion, Play It as It Lays, 162.

[43] As indeed Edward Abbey, writing of Datura meteloides, another desert hazard, remarked: “The correct dosage is said to be spiritually rewarding, but the problem is that a microgram too much may lead to convulsions, paralysis and death—also rewarding, perhaps, but usually considered premature” (Beyond the Wall: Essays from the Outside [New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1984], 88).

[44] Mike Davis, City of Quartz: Excavating the Future of Los Angeles (New York: Vintage Books, 1990), 3-14 (Llano del Rio); 50: “Yet not all Europeans were estranged by either the façade or the desert behind it” (an implicit endorsement, I think); 82-83. Davis, Ecology of Fear, 10-14, 17-18 (Mediterranean climate); 25, 23 (quotations); 202 (LA now bordered by deserts and mountains rather than farms). Peter Charles Remondino, The Mediterranean Shores of America: Southern California: Its Climatic, Physical, and Meteorological Conditions (Philadelphia: F.A. Davis Co., 1892). I am indebted to Boom’s anonymous reader for reminding me of the importance of this literature.

[45] Glen M. MacDonald, “The Myth of a Desert Metropolis,” Boom: A Journal of California 3 (Fall 2013): 86-94; see also https://boomcalifornia.com/2017/05/22/the-myth-of-a-desert-metropolis-los-angeles-was-not-built-in-a-desert-but-are-we-making-it-one/.

[46] See Patricia Nelson Limerick, Desert Passages: Encounters with the American Deserts (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1985).

[47] Reyner Banham, Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies (New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1971), 235 and 243; perhaps Banham had in mind something like The Flutter of an Eyelid, by Myron Brining (1933), or Evelyn Waugh’s The Loved One (1948). Much the same judgment on Huxley’s After Many a Summer Dies the Swan in See, “Hollywood Novel,” (1963), 39, but of course Huxley never left.

[48] Richard Slotkin, Regeneration through Violence: The Mythology of the American Frontier (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1973) and Gunfighter Nation: The Myth of the Frontier in Twentieth-Century America (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1998); David W. Teague, The Southwest in American Literature and Art: The Rise of a Desert Aesthetic (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1997). Also useful: Catrin Gersdorf, The Poetics and Politics of the Desert: Landscape and the Construction of America (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2009). Roderick Nash, Wilderness and the American Mind (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001); William Cronon, “The Trouble with Wilderness, or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature,” in Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature, ed. William Cronon (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1995), 69-90; Jenny Price, “Thirteen Ways of Seeing Nature in L.A.,” in Land of Sunshine, 220-244. I owe many thanks with this essay. A previous version was presented in Reno, Nevada, at the 2015 Annual Conference of the Western Literature Association; my fellow panelists, Joseph William Morton and Sarah Nolan, and our moderator, Tyler Austin Nickl, made this a memorable occasion and contributed many suggestions for improvements. Kate Bergren and Heather Dundas read a draft, offered excellent comments, and encouraged submission to Boom. The anonymous reviewer read the text with remarkable care and sensitivity, and made many suggestions (including bibliography) for strengthening my argument. Any remaining idiocies are mine.

Gary Reger is Professor of History and Classics at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut. His work on the ancient Greek and Roman economy began with Regionalism and Change in the Economy of Independent Delos and continues with a project, based on case studies, surveying Greco-Roman economic history, for which he received an NEH grant for 2017-2018. His other main interest is the history of human interaction with deserts broadly conceived across time and space. He has published essays on the southwestern deserts in Extrapolation and Cultural History and has in press a study of Roman reaction to the Sahara Desert.

Copyright: © 2017 Gary Reger. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/


The Myth of a Desert Metropolis: Los Angeles was not built in a desert, but are we making it one?

Glen M. MacDonald

The question is posed like this. You’ve probably heard it or asked it yourself. Perhaps at a cocktail party. Probably not in LA—but hey, maybe even here in the heart of the folly.

Why on Earth would you build a city for millions of souls in a desert?

Someday, and maybe sooner rather than later, the water is going to run out, and Los Angeles will dry up and blow away.

Alex Prud’homme, author of Ripple Effect: The Fate of Water in the Twenty-First Century, prophesied that Perth, Australia, “could become the world’s first ‘ghost city’—a modern metropolis abandoned for lack of water.” And, he warned, “similar fates may await America’s booming desert cities: Las Vegas, Phoenix, or Los Angeles.”[1] Prud’homme’s description of Los Angeles as a “desert city” has a distinguished lineage. Boyle Workman, a 1930s booster, recalled Los Angeles’ “desert” beginnings when he described the Los Angeles Aqueduct as a triumph of human ingenuity and engineering. Workman praised “the men who diverted streams into ditches and fed waving fields of grain, vineyards, glossy orange groves and rich gardens that blossomed where once desert brooded.”[2] A 1977 article by the famed aqueduct critic Remi Nadeau was headlined “Los Angeles is by Far the Largest City Ever Built in a Desert.”[3] And nine years later in Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water,[4] Marc Reisner referred to Los Angeles as being second only to Cairo as the most populous desert city on earth.

The myth of desert Los Angeles suggests that if not for the Los Angeles Aqueduct—and if the city were ever to lose the water that comes from Owens Valley—LA could be Ozymandias: that “colossal wreck, boundless and bare,” around which “the lone and level sands stretch far away,” in the immortal words of the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. But is Los Angeles the once and future desert? And should the LA Aqueduct be seen as Mulholland’s greatest gift? Or a curse because it gave rise to an ultimately unsustainable metropolis?

That Los Angeles is a “desert city” is, in large part, a myth. Writers have chipped away at the myth of the desert metropolis before.[5] Here my objective is not simply to dispel the myth but to explore the history that underlies the mythology and to consider its potential for becoming true—because sometimes myths have a strange way of becoming true. Could we, through our own actions, be transforming the myth of desert LA into a self-fulfilling prophecy? It turns out, we have in fact gone a long way down that road.


Mojave Desert and creosote bush on the outskirts of Lancaster, California. Photograph by Glen MacDonald.

“A very pleasing spot in every respect”

The term “desert” has specific meanings. But how well does Los Angeles fit the bill? According to the venerable Köppen-Geiger Climate System, deserts typically receive less than 10 inches of precipitation a year.[6] Los Angeles gets around 15 inches.[7] However, it is not quite that simple. The real mark of a desert is the ratio of potential evaporation and transpiration (evapotranspiration) to precipitation. This ratio is dependent on temperature, and when the ratio is taken into account we find that a Southwest city such as Tucson, with its high temperatures, is classified as desert despite its average annual precipitation of around 11.6 inches. LA’s higher rainfall and milder temperatures place it in the Mediterranean climate zone. Climatologically, Los Angeles’ sister cities are not places like Cairo but Rome, Lisbon, Madrid, and Athens.

What else defines a desert? Ecologists and biogeographers delineate deserts as regions in which aridity produces sparse and treeless plant cover.[8] Typically, in deserts there is more bare ground than vegetation. Consider the creosote bush-dominated Mojave Desert that extends from Lancaster to beyond Las Vegas. Here we see a generally treeless landscape where creosote bushes often occur at densities of less than one plant for every 100 to 200 square feet of land. Did Los Angeles ever look like this?

It can be hard to imagine what Los Angeles, with its pervasive built and irrigated landscapes, was like prior to Mulholland’s aqueduct, let alone in a state of nature. But glimpses of LA long before the deluge can be found in the written accounts of Padre Juan Crespi who accompanied the Gaspar de Portolà expedition in 1769.[9] Crespi’s descriptions challenge the notion that Los Angeles was a desert. On 2 August 1769, Crespi described what is now the heart of Los Angeles: “The river flows on down nearly at ground level through a very green, lush and wide reaching valley of level soil some leagues in extent from north to south; upon one and the other side of the river, which runs continually onward with a great amount of trees[,] lie very large, very green bottom lands, looking from afar like nothing so much as large cornfields.” Crespi called it “a very pleasing spot in every respect.” He went on to express his views about the potential for European settlement: “And good, better than good, though the places behind us have been, to my mind this spot can be given the preference in everything, in soil, water and trees of which it has a good amount as I have related. A grand spot to become in time a good-sized mission of Our Lady of the Angels and La Porciúncula.” Instead of a mission, Governor Felipe de Neve established a civilian farming settlement on arable land that had once sustained the Tongva Indians. On 4 September 1781, a party of forty-four colonists and their military escort founded what was to become Los Angeles. The pueblo was established not in the middle of a desert but where colonists found water, lush vegetation, and good soils.

The Portolà expedition also crossed into the SanFernando Valley, a region generally hotter and drier than the site of future downtown LA. On 5 August 1769, near present day Encino, Crespi found another “grand spot for a good-size mission.” He wrote that “there is no bettering the vast amount of level soil in this valley, dark and friable.” Encino took its name from the Spanish word for live oaks, and Crespi commented on the many trees in the vicinity.[10] “There are a great many walnut trees and white oaks here on the slopes of the mountains belonging to this plain, with a great deal of trees visible to eastward.”

Was Crespi overselling the Los Angeles region? It is not all lushness in his accounts. He does note burned grasslands, coastal sage, and prickly pear cactus consistent with semi-arid vegetation, but he does not describe a desert.

We have other glimpses of early days in the so-called “desert city.” In the nineteenth century, precipitation supported rich range lands and early cattle ranches surrounding Los Angeles, and farmers in the San Fernando Valley produced wheat without irrigation. River water irrigated vineyards, orchards, and market gardens near the pueblo. Shallow groundwater and spring water that collected in the basin’s substrates provided additional water for pumping. A picture from 1863 of a water wheel taking irrigation water from the Los Angeles River against the background of verdant fields and green trees tells the story, as do maps of agriculture in the late nineteenth century. As Crespi had observed earlier, it was “a very pleasing spot in every respect.” The natural local water of the Los Angeles Basin’s streams, rivers, and groundwater allowed Los Angeles to become by 1910 the top agricultural producing county in the entire United States.[11]


Water wheel along the Los Angeles River in the 1860’s. Courtesy of Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection.

Water Wars, Real Estate and the Birth of the Desert City Myth

So, where did the “Los Angeles is a desert city” myth originate? Historian Ralph Shaffer has laid the blame on Harrison Gray Otis, the Chandler family, and their use of Los Angeles Times as a propaganda vehicle to secure water and ensure development.[12] However, I think it’s a little more complex than that. In the writings of city boosters during the first real estate boom in the 1880s, one finds no overt reference to Los Angeles as a desert. The following assessment in Los Angeles Times comes from 15 August 1886: “The water supply of Los Angeles is abundant, and while not everything that it should be or can be made, it is better than the water of Boston, Philadelphia, and other Eastern cities.”

There were, however, other forces at work that may have contributed to conceptions of Los Angeles as a desert at the time. The 1877 Desert Lands Act classified as desert those tracts of land that “will not, without irrigation, produce an agricultural crop.”[13] Private citizens could be granted title to such lands if they intended to “reclaim” them through the provision  of  irrigation  waters.  The area  of  Rancho  Cucamonga in San Bernardino County east of Los Angeles was a region of such activity, although it is arguably not a true desert either.[14]

Closer  to  Los  Angeles,  the  San  Fernando  Valley  in  the 1880s was explicitly referred to as desert that could be made to bloom with irrigation.[15] Here is one example from Los Angeles Times, on  4  June  1886:  “It  was  said  by  somebody years  ago,  that  the  man  who  made  a  blade  of  grass  grow where none grew before was a public benefactor. What can we say of the man who brings water from the bowels of the earth and causes a fresh, pure living stream to flow where there never was  one  since  the  world’s  creation?  Streams shall break out in the desert, and the thirsty lands become pools of water.” We begin to see the desert city myth taking hold in what would become the greater Los Angeles area, appropriately  enough  in  the  San  Fernando  Valley, where water from the LA Aqueduct would enable urban development in the twentieth century.[16]

The image of  Los  Angeles  collapsing  and  returning  to desert can be seen in a remarkable Los Angeles Times article, “When  the  Desert  Came  Back,”  which  was  published29 May 1927, just twelve years after the aqueduct first brought water to the city. Nathaniel Davis’s ostensible subject was the Roman ruins at Timgad, Algeria, but he used the occasion to warn about the potential environmental collapse of Los Angeles and the need for the conservation of water and surrounding forest lands. Uncannily, his voice can seem to speak directly to us from over eighty years ago about topics starkly relevant today. As many would do after him, Davis employed the desert motif in his plea: “I stood on the heights of Hollywood’s hills and looked seaward and then toward the mountains. It is a stirring panorama, a drama in orchards, steel and stone, and brawn and brain and heart. And I was pessimistic enough to imagine that self-confident Los Angeles had forgotten Babylon, Palmyra, Palestine, China and Timgad. What I now saw was our own beloved land. And I saw sand dunes, sage brush, aridity, stately ruins, idle derricks, desolation.” Much of what has since been written about Los Angeles’ fated return to desert echoes this refrain.


Maps to accompany report on irrigation and water supply, by William Hammond Hall, California Department of Engineering, 1888. Courtesy of davidrumsey.com.

What About William Mulholland?

But what about William Mulholland, the father of the LA Aqueduct? Did he ever subscribe to this view of the desert city? Or use it to sell the aqueduct? In 1905, Mulholland claimed that he originally thought the city would never need water from anywhere else. “Thirteen years ago Fred Eaton first told me that Los Angeles would one day secure its water supply from Owens Valley,” Mulholland told Los Angeles Times. “At that time the Los Angeles River was running 40,000,000 gallons of water daily, and we had a population of less than 50,000. I laughed at him. ‘We have enough water here in the river to supply the city for the next fifty years,’ I told him. ‘You are wrong,’ he said, ‘You have not lived in this country as long as I have. I was born here and have seen dry years, years you know nothing about. Wait and see.”’ Mulholland concluded: “Four years ago I began to discover that Fred was right. Our population climbed to the top and the bottom appeared to drop out of the river.”

The cause was drought. Mulholland’s case for the aqueduct was not built on making a barren desert bloom, but accommodating population growth and providing protection against drought, arguments that have been used to justify importing more water to the city ever since.[17]

In 1907, Mulholland urged voters to support bonds that were critical to building the aqueduct, arguing: “Our population has doubled since 1904, while our water supply has diminished. At times we have faced a veritable water famine.”[18] Drought, of course, was no stranger to Angelenos even prior to Mulholland’s arrival. A devastating drought from 1862 to 1865 eviscerated the region’s cattle-based economy.[19] A prolonged dry spell from 1893 to 1904, coupled with dramatic population growth—the city tripled in size during that period—motivated Mulholland’s quest, not a vision of creating a city in the desert.


MODIS satellite image of the urban area of greater Los Angeles and the surrounding desert. Courtesy of Glen MacDonald.

Myth Made Real?

But are we turning the city into a desert? To see, let’s get a view from on high, above the city, from a satellite orbiting Earth, which gathered data to create an image while I was writing this piece. What has Los Angeles become since the pastoral eighteenth and nineteenth century views we encountered earlier?

Now we see the gray tones of our metropolitan area blanketing the entire Los Angeles basin, San Fernando Valley, Santa Clarita Valley to the north, and Inland Empire to the east. The San Gabriel and San Bernardino Mountains, which seem so imposing from the ground and separate us from the true desert to the east, appear like tiny green islands in a sea of city and desert. Indeed, because it now veritably merges with Palmdale, Lancaster, Victorville, and Palm Springs, it is the growth of the megacity that encroaches upon the Mojave Desert and not vice versa. The cities merge physically and in terms of the daily flows of people, energy, and commerce. Taken as a whole, Greater Los Angeles has grown from its Mediterranean core outward and has merged with the true deserts to the east. The “fertile vales” that once separated city from desert are no more. This image shows a huge city that blends in with vast deserts to the north and east.

That is not all. Increasing concentrations of greenhouse gases, to which Los Angeles has contributed directly, threaten to bring the true desert climate closer to the city’s core. A recent projection of the impacts of climate change shows the city of Los Angeles warming by some 3 to 4 degrees Fahrenheit by the middle of this century, while foothill, mountain, and desert regions could warm even more.[20] At the same time, other models suggest that precipitation patterns are likely to change in ways that will reduce the snowpack in our mountains and diminish our water supply. The result is likely to be increasing general aridity in the Southwest, Southern California, and the Los Angeles region coupled with longer droughts that will tax an already stressed water system.[21] Neither the Sierra Nevada nor the Colorado River are likely to be able to provide the imported water to which we have become accustomed. Unfortunately, the phrase “desert city” could soon accurately describe Los Angeles. As we move further into the twenty-first century, not only are the outer boundaries of the Los Angeles megacity sprawling into the true desert, we are also bringing the desert climate inexorably closer to the heart of the founding plaza of El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Ángeles de Porciúncula.

And just so we come to the end of a chapter of our history that William Mulholland began, “There it is. Take It.” Now we must write a new chapter of our history, and in the process perhaps create a new myth for our metropolis.


[1] Alex Prud’homme, “Drought: A Creeping Disaster,” The New York Times, 16 July 2011.

[2] Boyle Workman, The City That Grew (Los Angeles: The Southland Publishing Company, 1935).

[3] Remi Nadeau, “Los Angeles: A City That Water Built,” Los Angeles Times, 26 June 1977.

[4] Marc Reisner, Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water (New York: Viking Press, 1986).

[5] Mike Davis, Ecology of Fear (New York: Vintage Books, 1998); Ralph Shaffer, “That desert myth: will it ever dry up?” LA Observed, 10 November 2003, http://www.laobserved.com/archive/2003/11/la_is_not_a_des.php; Glen MacDonald, “Los Angeles Water––Myths, Miracles, Mayhem and William Mulholland,” AAG Newsletter, December 2012.

[6] M.C. Peel, B.L. Finlayson, and T.A. McMahion, “Updated World Map of the Köppen-Geiger Climate Classification,” Hydrology and Earth System Sciences 11 (2007): 1633–1644.

[7] http://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/land-based-station-data/climate-normals/1981-2010-normals-data.

[8] Glen MacDonald, Biogeography: Space, Time and Life (New York: John Wiley and Sons, 2002).

[9] Juan Crespi, A Description of Distant Lands, Alan K. Brown, trans. (San Diego: San Diego State University Press, 2001).

[10] In the San Fernando Valley, Crespi describes grandes enzinos y ròblez, meaning large evergreen live oaks (Quercus agrifolia) and deciduous valley oaks (Quercus lobata). The neighborhood of Encino in the San Fernando Valley takes its name from this. The modern Spanish spelling for live oak is encina.

[11] Quoted in: J. Cohen, “Agricultural Land Is Growing Scarce: Nursery Plants Are Now the Top Crop in Los Angeles County,” Los Angeles Times, 10 May 1987.

[12] Ralph Shaffer, “That desert myth: will it ever dry up?”

[13] “‘Instink’ and Desert Lands: The Act of Congress in Such Cases Made and Provided,” Los Angeles Times, 7 July 1883; J.T. Ganoe, “The Desert Land Act in Operation, 1877–1891,” Agricultural History 11: 142–157.

[14] “Improving the Waste Places: The Work of Settlers on the So Called Cucamonga Desert,” Los Angeles Times, 17 November 1883; “Cucamonga,” Los Angeles Times, 20 July 1883.

[15] “San Fernando Valley: A Fertile Region with a Prosperous Future,” Los Angeles Times, 25 November 1883.

[16] See for example: “The San Fernando Water Case,” Los Angeles Times, 22 August 1904; “Bright Days in the Valley,” Los Angeles Times, 10 August 1905.

[17] Robert W. Matson, William Mulholland: A Forgotten Forefather (Stockton: University of the Pacific, 1976); Margaret Leslie Davis, Rivers in the Desert: William Mulholland and the Inventing of Los Angeles (New York: Harper Collins, 1993).

[18] “Truth About Owens River: Mulholland Talks to Sixth Ward Property,” Los Angeles Times, 30 May 1907.

[19] Workman, The City That Grew; Lynn Bowman, Los Angeles: Epic of a City (Berkeley: Howell-North Books, 1974); Gordon DeMarco, A Short History of Los Angeles (San Francisco: Lexikos, 1988).

[20] A. Hall, F. Sun, D. Walton, S. Capps, Q. Xin, and H-Y. Huang, “Mid-Century Warming in the Los Angeles Region”––Part I of the Climate Change in the Los Angeles Region (UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability Peer-Reviewed Report, http://escholarship.org/uc/item/6v88k76b).

[21] IPCC, 2007: Climate Change 2007: Synthesis Report: Contribution of Working Groups I, II and III to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, eds. R.K. Pachauri and A. Reisinger (Geneva, Switzerland, IPCC); Glen M. MacDonald, “Climate Change and Water in Southwestern North America Special Feature: Water, Climate Change, and Sustainability in the Southwest,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 107, 21256–21262; doi:10.1073/pnas.0909651107, 2010.

Glen M. MacDonald is Director of the White Mountain Research Center and a UCLA Distinguished Professor. He is a former Director of the UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability and holds the John Muir Memorial Chair in Geography at the University of California, Los Angeles. He is the author of Biogeography: Space, Time and Life. His research focuses on climatic and environmental change.


Water and Los Angeles: What’s Next? What’s the Future?

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Photograph by Matt Gush.

William Deverell
Tom Sitton

Given our ambitions for our recent book, Water and Los Angeles: A Tale of Three Rivers, 1900-1941—that it will carry readers through documents and ideas back to a river and urban past that Californians must grapple with in order to fully understand the present—we would be remiss if we did not at least contemplate the future of metropolitan Los Angeles in terms of exactly those riparian places and spaces. The future, unknown and unknowable, is nonetheless inextricably tied to what has come before—which roads or paths were taken or not and how the history of rivers moves and shifts and changes course like a river itself.

Los Angeles celebrated, in 2013, the hundredth anniversary of the opening of the Los Angeles Aqueduct. It was an anniversary that prompted a wide variety of responses—from celebration to antipathy and everything in between. For many, the century’s mark passed without notice or care. For some, the moment offered an opportunity to celebrate all that metropolitan Los Angeles had become since 1913, watered in part (in large part) by the snowmelt waters of the Owens River. For others, however, the centennial offered the chance to look again at the “water grab” performed a hundred years earlier. The anniversary meant that Los Angeles, or its municipal Department of Water and Power, was yet again trying to wrap a bold and ultimately imperial play and ploy in adjectives that speak to legacy, growth, inevitability, vision, and ambition.

To be sure, the hundred-year history of the Los Angeles Aqueduct is fraught and deeply complicated. Nothing is simple about moving a river hundreds of miles from its bed. It wasn’t simple in 1913, and it is certainly not simple today; and we could say that the matter grows more complex with each passing year. For one thing, there are two aqueducts now, two giant metal straws of cavernous diameter sucking on the melted Sierra snowpack and hustling it southwest to a thirsty global metropolis. Atop all the engineering and physics and hydrology issues at stake—and they are legion—there remain issues of upkeep and maintenance and environmental impact.

That is but the tip of an aqueduct iceberg. Long-simmering resentment and anger in the Owens Valley (especially vociferous there, for obvious reasons, but not only there) about the creation of the Los Angeles Aqueduct has, as we might have expected, found its way into courtrooms and litigation. Remarkable legal decisions have resulted, in more than one instance, that have altered the perceived, if misleading, simplicity of two big straws stuck into a flowing river. Citing history (as in the case of a once-full, now-dry Owens Lake) and health concerns tying dust to pulmonary and respiratory disease and difficulty, antagonistic individuals and organizations took on the city of Los Angeles and its chief water agency and won a series of important battles and concessions. These amount essentially to Los Angeles leaving water in the Owens Valley or putting some of it back. The city is now responsible for a series of mitigation exercises that is putting water back into the ancient lakebed of Owens Lake, as well as into Mono Lake as a protective measure for the fragile geologic structures within it. Legal action is not likely to abate in the short term, and it is entirely possible that climate-change ramifications (most specifically the depleted Sierra Nevada snowpack) will add to the complexities of mitigation and further legal disputes between entities in the Owens Valley, or their proxies, and the city of Los Angeles.

Fig 37 Deverell-Sitton

Dry Owens Lake and blowing alkali dust, 2008. Courtesy of Eeekster (photographer Richard Ellis) via Wikimedia Commons.

Climate change is undoubtedly going to play a huge role in determining the future of the Metropolitan Water District’s place in supplying water from the Colorado River to its client entities, with the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power being chief among them. As the water district’s ability to draw from the state water project (a largely north-south conduit bringing water to Southern California) evaporates—its allotment has gone down dramatically in recent years— the role of the Colorado River becomes even more prominent. The legal issues attendant on this situation are, if anything, more complex than those in dispute regarding the Owens River, the Owens Valley, and the thirsty giant metropolis far to the southwest.

So, too, is the fate and future of the Colorado River a complex, tangled tale of water, climate change, international treaties, and widespread thirst. Asked to water great chunks of seven states, as well as parts of northern Mexico, the Colorado River watershed is the most important in the United States, perhaps even in North America. Recent onslaughts of drought across the American West have resulted in drastic changes in the ways in which Colorado River water is stored and delivered to a divergent and far-flung customer base of agencies, municipalities, and entire states and nations. By virtue of long-standing agreements, Southern California is entitled to a lion’s share of the Colorado River (always dependent on the annual wintertime Rocky Mountain snowpack on the western slope of the Continental Divide). This legal allotment amounts to over four million acre-feet of water (an acre-foot is a standard water measurement: one acre spread with water to a depth of one foot, or three hundred thousand gallons of water). Because the state-to state agreements were formulated in especially “wet” years, and because California threw its considerable weight around back in the early 1920s, when the most important agreements were signed, the Golden State can keep drawing water while states such as Arizona and Nevada will lose water . . . all from a water source that is itself losing water to climate change at a fast (and accelerating) rate.

As drought and climate change alter the snowpack levels from year to year in the Colorado high country, the cities, states, and water agencies will continue to struggle with the consequences. And these consequences will of course affect individuals at every point along the Colorado River’s watercourse. Preservation and conservation efforts will and must continue. These will take many forms, and undoubtedly new innovations will come to the fore. Water restrictions—how much, how often, aimed at what, and at what times—will become more common. Water reuse will rise in popularity—household water will find its way more and more often into outdoor and gardening use. Roofs will be better fit with water catchment devices for rainwater capture. Drain spouts will catch water instead of rushing it off to storm sewers and the ocean. Trees will be planted in places, such as school playgrounds, once covered in asphalt or concrete (trees catch water and hold it around their roots).

Broader innovations will have to be implemented as well. Individual efforts— which will include smartphone technology applied to, for example, household irrigation systems and timing (off it goes when it rains)—will make some difference. But bigger actions, on a statewide or even a federal scale, with regulatory or enforcement teeth, are needed. Water trading between states will rise in importance, and these innovations will have to be carefully modeled and regulated. Water pricing will be intricately related, of course, and it is likely that disparate water costs, which are now the rule rather than the exception, will be leveled out (though allowed to fluctuate in times of relative abundance or relative scarcity). Perhaps most important, the rural-urban divide regarding water use will need to be addressed and hard decisions made, backed up by legislative innovation. Rural users account for most of the water use—by far—across California and the entire American Southwest. Demand is rising in urban centers, but so much water is being used on agricultural crops that the urban demand—however modest by comparison—is not being efficiently met. What kinds of crops are grown, and how they are irrigated, will and must change, lest Southern California face even worse conditions born of water scarcity, drought, and the loose and inefficient “water culture” that has been allowed to develop over the past century.

Environmental awareness and environmental sustainability will go hand in hand with greater awareness of water’s preciousness and scarcity. We think historical knowledge is required in order to gain that kind of critical perspective. One of the key features of changing cultural and environmental attitudes will be simple “river awareness” in California cities, which, at this writing, we can say is growing. Los Angeles is and will be the most important locale for this, and all attention will be focused on the rivers of the Los Angeles basin. Ironically, perhaps (given its puny size in relation to far bigger rivers and watersheds), none will be more important than the Los Angeles River.

The Los Angeles River is the riparian canary in the coal mine of Southern California sustainability. It has, in just over one hundred years, gone from promise to problem and now again to promise in the regional imagination. After 1941, postwar floods, spilling out across the basin, led to more concrete being poured into and up the banks of the river. Still a vital cog in the machine of flood control—the concrete that encases the body of the river is critical to corralling floodwaters—the Los Angeles River is simultaneously the central focus of a great deal of environmental reimagining of green space and greenbelts throughout the metropolitan Los Angeles basin. From biking paths to kayaking and possible reintroduction of steelhead trout, the river is being rethought in very large terms and scales as the twenty-first century opens; much of this is due to the long-standing advocacy and activism of groups, none more critical than the Friends of the Los Angeles River. “Greening” the Los Angeles River, pulling out some of the concrete straitjacket, and becoming more aware of the riparian environment at the very center of a global metropolis of millions of people, is a large-scale effort—of imagination, of money, and of engineering and environmental know-how. Each innovation, each step forward, will further the collective knowledge about rivers and about water, and this consciousness change (from “what Los Angeles River?” to “our Los Angeles River”) can only lead to further benefits in conservation, preservation, and “waterwise” awareness. That path to a differently imagined riparian future will be complicated, with political, fiscal, and hydrological hurdles of daunting scale strewn hither and yon at each step of the way. We suggest optimism about the Los Angeles River, a faith born of diehard grassroots activism and a level of renewed political leadership gazing on a river too-long ignored or expected to provide but a single, flood-control purpose across the landscape it traverses. Perhaps now more than ever, the Los Angeles River is a site of dreams and disagreements, as various constituencies imagine what it could or might become; and as such futures are pondered, so, too, are questions about where the money comes from and who and how people (and nonhumans) benefit from riparian changes large and small.


Photograph by Matt Gush.

This is not to say that the other two rivers are any less important. They are hugely important. But the symbolic burden placed on the Los Angeles River is, especially within the Los Angeles Basin, palpable and magnetic. “How are we doing?” people ask, wondering about water, water shortages, water conservation. And the answer, for many at least, will be found with reference to the Los Angeles River. However, to the north and east, the fate of the Owens River, and especially the Owens Valley, dry and getting drier, will provide additional perspective. And much of that will be colored by controversy: what can Los Angeles do, what should Los Angeles do, as environmental penance for its century-old role in desiccating a landscape? The questions can and will be asked regarding “how are we doing?” up there, up in the Owens Valley. That site, since midcentury, has prompted lawsuits against the city of Los Angeles for water loss and the resulting environmental damage. What can people—through advocacy and activism—claim or insist, and what can various courts or legal decisions obligate the city of Los Angeles to do? These are not issues that will go away, either; on the contrary, as dryness accelerates and snowpacks retreat, these issues will creep up in the headlines and in the lists of imperatives for the region and its populace. We simply urge that such awareness go hand in hand with appreciation of the interlocking histories and meanings of, for example, Los Angeles and the Owens River.

So, too, with the mighty Colorado. Entire careers are forged out of figuring out the dynamic realities of that river’s place in the American West. Where does the river go? Who gets to decide? Which state or agency or nation gets to dip the largest buckets into it? And where to they get to dip? Where do the rights of states come into dialogue or conflict with the rights of indigenous people whose ancestral or reservation homelands sit alongside the river? How does Mexico interact with the various states that, in their thirst, deplete the Colorado so that it now peters out far from its former mouth on the Gulf of California?

Southern California lives because it can take so much Colorado River water to satisfy the thirst of its people and the thirst of what it grows. What happens if that gets shut off, or, more likely, what happens if the flow gets cut back, by law, by drought, by climate change? Major international decisions reached by treaty in the years since 1941 have reduced the amount of water Southern California can take from the Colorado River, in favor of other states, indigenous polities, or Mexico. One thing is sure: the Colorado River cannot supply all the water that treaties or other agreements promise, and this has been true for decades. It carries a great deal of water. But not enough to meet demand, unless that demand is cut by conservation or other water-saving practices. Furthermore, what happens if the region’s reliance upon water from Northern California, by means of the state water project (a “fourth river,” which we do not take up in this book), becomes ever more compromised by state decisions that cut off supplies going to Southern California through the Metropolitan Water District’s systems? Less Colorado River water, less Northern California water—where will those roads take us?

Amid all the uncertainties of rivers and waters, one thing is incontrovertible: the Colorado, the Owens, the Los Angeles: these are not infinite bodies of flowing water. They wax and they wane, they dry up (in actuality, or relatively, in response to wetter years). Legal decisions act as dams, shutting off water that used to go from “here” to “there.”

Arid times have long been upon us in Southern California. And despite having experienced one of our wettest winters on record, drought times loom. Exceptional drought looms. These times may be interrupted by more rain and floods, testing our various technological innovations and water infrastructure. But new rivers will not arise to solve the problems. We are stuck with what we have, and we want Californians to know what we have—what you have—and how we got from there to here, from then to now. This is a history we all share, just as it is a future we must all help to make better.


Photograph by Matt Gush.


This excerpt is revised from the “Epilogue” in, William Deverell and Tom Sitton, Water and Los Angeles: A Tale of Three Rivers, 1900-1941.

William Deverell is Professor of History at the University of California and Director of the Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West. He has written Whitewashed Adobe: The Rise of Los Angeles and the Remaking of Its Mexican Past, and Railroad Crossing: Californians and the Railroad, 1850-1910, both published by UC Press.

Tom Sitton is a curator emeritus of history from the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. Together, with Bill Deverell he is co-editor of California Progressivism Revisited and Metropolis in the Making, both published by UC Press.



A California Requiem

Dana Gioia

I walked among the equidistant graves
New planted in the irrigated lawn.
The square, trim headstones quietly declared
The impotence of grief against the sun.

There were no outward signs of human loss.
No granite angel wept beside the lane.
No bending willow broke the once rough ground
Now graded to a geometric plane.

My blessed California, you are so wise.
You render death abstract, efficient, clean.
Your afterlife is only real estate,
And in his kingdom Death must stay unseen.

I would have left then. I had made my one
Obligatory visit to the dead.
But as I turned to go, I heard the voices,
Faint but insistent. This is what they said.

“Stay a moment longer, quiet stranger.
Your footsteps woke us from our lidded cells.
Now hear us whisper in the scorching wind,
Our single voice drawn from a thousand hells.

“We lived in places that we never knew.
We could not name the birds perched on our sill,
Or see the trees we cut down for our view.
What we possessed we always chose to kill.

“We claimed the earth but did not hear her claim,
And when we died, they laid us on her breast,
But she refuses us—until we earn
Forgiveness from the lives we dispossessed.

“We are so tiny now—light as the spores
That rotting clover sheds into the air,
Dry as old pods burnt open by the sun,
Barren as seeds unrooted anywhere

“Forget your stylish verses, little poet—
So sadly beautiful, precise, and tame.
We are your people, though you would deny it.
Admit the justice of our primal claim

“Become the voice of our forgotten places.
Teach us the names of what we have destroyed.
We are like shadows the bright noon erases,
Weightlessly shrinking, bleached into the void.

“We offer you the landscape of your birth—
Exquisite and despoiled. We all share blame.
We cannot ask forgiveness of the earth
For killing what we cannot even name.”


*Dana Gioia, “A California Requiem,” 99 Poems: New & Selected (Graywolf Press, 2016).

Photograph by Matt Gush.

Dana Gioia is the ex-chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts and Poet Laureate of California. He received an MA in comparative literature from Harvard University and has published five full-length collections of poetry between 1986 and 2016.


The Smell of Gold: On the Yuba River

Caitlin Mohan

My son and I sit on a boulder in the Yuba River when he asks if the river looked this way a hundred years ago. Since I have been visiting this same place for the last forty-five summers and with the exception of a new wash of gravel or a fallen tree that changes the depth of a hole, I tell him that the river will remain the same. Probably.

The river’s granite boulders and jade waters teach firsthand how water takes the path of least resistance. In fact, this small radius of my childhood, Highway 49 running past Nevada City over the south fork and up a dirt road, looks from a dusty car window as it always has—a red earth, scrub brush landscape that curves away from pressures of modern life even as it pulls the imagination back to gold miners and a hundred years later to the rednecks, retirees, and back-to-the-land types.

What’s different today is that when I roll down the window a sirocco of marijuana saturates the car—the new smell just beyond the road that will become the scratch-and-sniff memory for my children’s recollection of this place.

When I was a kid, summer’s first swim began with my nose skimming the water’s surface in an effort to rediscover that familiar scent of river, rock, dragonfly—whatever it was that brewed Gold Country smell. My father, for whom “odors” were of paramount importance, a gateway to memory and feelings, taught me to register the smells of Highway 49. He would hang his head out the car window, shouting into hot wind, “Can you smell it?” For a New Jersey transplant by way of Greenwich Village and Berkeley, California was a land of Lotus Eaters. He never could get over the place and the smell of (what was it?) witch hazel, cedar, manzanita—it drove him wild.

Yes, I could smell it, though we could never name the intoxicating elixir of plants, animals, and dirt, for we were East Coast in origin, summer visitors and hedonists, not scientists. We would leave the diagnostics to people like Gary Snyder who lived year round on the ridge and actually studied the super biodiversity of California in general and this watershed in particular. My father was a romantic and so to smell and to feel, void of precise nomenclature, were enough—were everything.


Late afternoon glisten, Yuba River.

Perhaps it was his sense of romance that brought my father to purchase eight and a half acres and a cabin on the Middle Fork. Its scrap-wood walls and buddy-taped electrical wires called to his inner yearning for Walden. He was an English teacher, so this wasn’t just a cabin; it was a sanctuary in the way of Robinson Jeffers’s Tor House or Jack London’s Wolf House—a place to slow if not stop time, a place to shelter his kids from the crap of the world. There was no TV, no phone, and for the first two decades, no toilet or hot water. It was a place to play ping pong, eat fudgesicles. It was a place to swim in the clear, moving water that taught me most of what I know about force and abeyance, and set my life’s course so that it feels sacrilegious to mention it in passing. It was a place to preserve what was best in ourselves through reading, watching, and talking under the stars.

In 1972, people were doing this sort of thing. We weren’t the only people who had copies of Whole Earth Catalogue and Shelter magazine, which reprinted today can be found on any earthy boutique shelf in Nevada City. Perhaps sparked by his particular desires to escape the harangue of Berkeley politics and soothe his marriage, he was fueled too by the larger Californian and American consciousness to get back to the land—or get back to something. As a kid, I saw this idea on the cover of The Band album, in a group of musicians who looked as if they had crawled out of a mine shaft in patina leather. What were they digging for? I saw it in the films like Easy Rider and Sam Peckinpah’s The Ballad of Cable Hogue—individuals leaving home, setting up watering holes in the middle of the desert, always with dirt-encrusted beards. I heard it in Joni Mitchell’s directive to “get back to the Garden.” And so the Gold Country, like places of the imagination across time, became an El Dorado for those traveling from something to something, and ultimately looking for a return to Eden, even as they looked forward to the precipice of enterprise and fortune.

For a while, the cabin became a halfway station for such dreamers. One Thanksgiving, a family friend, Bob O’Garbage, as we lovingly called him, rolled up from Virginia in a 1954 pearl-gray Mercedes with his family; he left two years later wearing nothing but a pair of lederhosen and his long beard, and carrying a staff. Bob worked sporadically at the mill; his wife, Blanch, would bathe the kids in a horse trough; and we all had great times together on the weekend. During this time, two parcels of land on either side of the cabin were purchased—one by a Southern California contractor who was rumored to be a Republican and the other by his handsome Paul Bunyan nephew who built a Shwartzwaldian zendo in homage to Yogananda. Both of these men loved the land, raised their families, and earned legal livings. Their eventual schism has always stood vaguely iconic of the larger cultural splits that infuse menacing energy into the region: rednecks vs. hippies, meth heads vs. pot heads, retirees vs. entrepreneurs, and perhaps now a subdivision: certain types of growers vs. other types of growers.

In the eighties, we rented out the cabin to a parade of seekers: a roadie for Supertramp and a less savory family who made a lab of the kitchen with dusty jars of thick mystery and pot galore. We knew they were not part of the Edenic dream when their youngest, a forest troll of about four years old, came running out of the cabin as we rolled up, and yelled, “Dad, fucking Mohan’s here!” This in contrast to our gentlest renter, Carl, with spritely laugh and guitar, who loved the land, planted a vegetable garden, and wrote a song called Hot Shit in Mexico (a local favorite at the time), and whose refrain “Hot shit in Mexico, paraquot shit in Mexico” reminds us where California’s dope used to come from and why there is a market for organic product.

All of the cabin dwellers smoked their share of marijuana. With the exception of Carl, who later set up a teepee on our land and may have had a single plant for his own personal use, none of them were growers. Now, however, everybody’s growing it. Goat people with dreads coiled around their heads, wearing loin cloths, smoking joints the size of corn cobs with names like Star Compost are doing it, and people like our neighbors, who tired of the excess and pace of the Bay Area are doing it. We couldn’t ask for better weed-growing neighbors: educated, ethical, and organic. They are kind people with refined interests who do not smoke their product.

Perhaps some who come to the Gold Country today to live share that dream of living off the land, escaping the rat race, and absorbing the wisdom of the river like Siddhartha. But people have always come here to make money mining gold, logging trees, and now growing pot. And so the question arises: What is California dreaming? Are these pursuits a means to an end? Is gold still and always the dream? Or, is the work itself the dream: the mining, the logging, the growing? Just months ago, the parcel belonging to the Republican uncle was sold to an investor who employs a property manager and farmer. The wooden fence that once corralled a horse is now six feet tall and possibly electrical. We met the hired farmer—a county native—yesterday, the nicest guy who’s traveled the world only to come home. I wonder if his California dream is growing marijuana for somebody else or if he is still searching.


Joy in granite, Yuba River.

With both properties on each side of our cabin owned by growers, my summer cabin is the cream filling in a cannabis Oreo. I am caught between accepting this latest gold rush economy as the antidote for a historically poor area and feeling protective of the land. Not all growers are as ideal as my neighbors; many use harmful fertilizers, leave the land worse for wear, and lure cartel types to the area. All growers siphon from the watershed, and most don’t pay taxes on their crops. But I am also protective of a time when people came here to get back to the land and not for the sake of profit, when people believed we had strayed from Eden but ultimately belonged to it. Of course, these are sentimental notions from a summer visitor who has never had to earn a living in an area that offers few options. And, California dreams are so close to California schemes it is often difficult to tell which is which.

Today on the rock, my son asks if the river looked the same a thousand years ago, and this is where I am stumped. That’s a long time for anything to endure, let alone remain unaltered; but if anything around here will remain, I hope it will be the river and that its water will not become the next form of gold, though of course it already is. I think of how just yesterday at the Nevada City library we learned who might have been the first people here. When we touched the computer display, a song of the Nisenan tribe came out of the kiosk, causing me to wonder why it took me forty-five years to learn this name. Most of the history of this tribe is unknown and misunderstood by those who live near and on their tribal land. The stories of recent, successful financial enterprise have masked their past, just as the odor of weed now covers what I recently learned is a major herbal ingredient in the air of my childhood: mountain misery.

Though my own fourth-grade education favored constructing sugar-cube missions over studying California Indians, I learned a potent lesson in California history by visiting Malakoff Diggins, now a state historic park in Nevada City that preserves California’s largest hydraulic mining site. The eerie lunar landscape—hills blasted bare as skin by massive water hoses between 1853 and 1884—told me of a one-sided relationship between the miner and his environment. The nearby settlement, more of a ghost town than an historical site, appeared to have been left in a hurry or simply wandered off from. In the 1970s, you could simply press your nose against the window and peek over the pharmacy bottles to spy a woman’s shoe in the middle of the silty floor, sitting there as if she couldn’t find it but walked out the door just the same. You could wander into a leaning barn and see, or perhaps imagine, a noose swinging from the rafter, not unlike the make-shift gallows some miles up the North Fork, which hosted the only female hanging in California—Juanita—in 1851. At least the gallows had a crude plaque bearing meager details that belie a story of racism and sexism made obvious with hindsight.

But Malakoff Diggins was just another place, leaving me to wonder what we Californians make of our own history. Perhaps our history is too recent, too dredged in profit rather than ideals to have warranted in the 1970s, a mere 125 years from the Gold Rush, a cordon rope, a plaque, or tour guide with a badge. Perhaps California, like a child, did not have the perspective that comes with a more critical contextual awareness to take itself seriously enough to see itself as a historical subject.

So too, it has taken me a good chunk of my life to inaccurately, incompletely define the smell of this country, partly because of my own ignorance but also because the smell of the Gold Country isn’t only about plants and animals; it’s about the residue of the human endeavor that is palpable in the great piles of mossy boulders that Chinese miners pulled from the Yuba River that now sit on the roadside without ceremony or documentation. The smell is edible apple trees in the orchard, planted an unknowable number of years before my family bought the land, and which survive without irrigation or pruning. The smell is audible in the hush of rapids, momentarily drowned out by the motorcycle shifting into high gear on Highway 49. I suspect every California region from the county of Jefferson to the Imperial Valley provides a synesthesia of evidence to classify particular landscapes, histories, and endeavors, but I wonder if this Gold Country smell isn’t somehow more potent than it is in other areas. I wonder if the heart-cleaving beauty of the area coupled with a desperate drive to unearth a living hasn’t made love of this place more hard won. If California is, in the words of Wallace Stegner, “like the rest of America, only more so,” then perhaps the Gold Country is like the rest of California only more so—the unofficial capital of what the state is about—the always changing dreams, which following complicated labor, birth the next reality.

But odor is not a competition. California doesn’t need to compete with itself to define its character. The state is too diverse to characteristically identify with science or fiction; likewise, it remains impossible to name the smell of the Gold Country. So, I am not surprised when I ask my son as we sit on the rock what he thinks he smells and he says he doesn’t know. I instantly flash on a Gary Snyder poem that intimidated me with his authoritative chronology of the Malakoff Diggins area, citing millions and millions of years of evolution. That poem, “What Happened Here Before,” is one that still appeals to me for its allegiance to defining place using the names of plants and animals while imagining the erstwhile lives of miners, Indians, tax assessors, and a prophetic blue jay who screeches in response to the question of who we are: “We shall see / Who knows / How to be.”

The computerized kiosk at the Nevada City library emitted a Nisenan song, but it cannot produce the smell of the Gold Country, although I recently came across liquid soap in that aforementioned earthy boutique bearing the name Yuba. Its admirable but inadequate attempt to capture the river’s essence displays that no amount of technology will allow one to push a button and smell from the car window those first hits of red earth, stonefly, and mountain misery—odors that are now absorbed into the marijuana growing just feet from Highway 49.

I wonder what the Highway 49 smell will be when my children are grown, if they will bring their own kids here in the summer. I wonder if they will keep the TV, phone, computer, and other technology out of the cabin as we have done in hopes that without these distractions we can read, play ping pong, and eat fudgesicles. What will be the new industry of their time? The one that takes the path of least resistance. What will be the latest technological distraction? Will they have the inclination or grit to tell their kids to turn it off, crawl into bed, and inhale that Gold Country scent that travels through the screen window, the one we can never name that leads them to dreams of the river?


Leaning toward the past.


Yuba Green.

All photographs by Conny Heinrich.

Caitlin Mohan is an educator and writer living in West Marin. She is currently working on a collection of essays and can be found every summer swimming in the rapids of the Yuba River.



David L. Ulin

Andrew Molera State Park. I didn’t know it was the almost perfect midpoint of the California coast when I visited in late May 1980. It was also the almost perfect midpoint of my time living by the Bay. Just days before my roommate was due to leave San Francisco and return east, we drove south, through Santa Cruz and Watsonville, to Big Sur to spend a weekend camping at the sea. What we saw first were naked women, two of them, walking the trail back from the beach loose-limbed and jangly, like the beating of my heart. I was eighteen and mostly inexperienced, but I knew enough to look them in the eye. Down at the water’s edge, my roommate suggested we get naked also; the idea made me uncomfortable, but I didn’t want to say. Instead, I peeled my jeans as if I were shedding skin, averted my gaze as he did the same. Then we smoked a joint and wandered the rocky shore, sporadically crossing paths with other walkers, all of us as bare-assed as if we were newly born. This was not a nude beach, not specifically, although the overall sensibility was When in Rome. I felt titillated but not physically, more in the sense that I was crossing into adulthood…or at least adulthood as I imagined it might be. Later in the afternoon, we stumbled upon a couple having sex behind an outcropping; by then, we had already put our pants back on and were on our way to pitch our tent. I don’t recall much else, just this small sequence of images, all of them taking place over an hour or two between the trailhead and the waves. Oh, and one other thing, one more sensation: that this wasn’t who I was, not quite, not exactly, no matter how I wished it might be so.
Fort Mason. I had a job working for Greenpeace, three evenings a week, canvassing Marin, the East and South Bays, going door to door to ask for funds. The office was in Fort Mason Center, which had only recently been turned over to the National Park Service; before that, it had been an army post, going back to the Civil War. I would take the Fillmore bus, get off in front of Marina Middle School, walk the dozen or so blocks to the office where we would gather like a squadron about to go out on patrol. We would pile into a brown VW bus, listen to the Dead or Public Image Ltd., drive out of the city, stop for dinner, and hit the neighborhoods. The higher end, the better: In Mill Valley once, I was invited into a party, given beer and joints for my fellow canvassers, as well as a $150 check. That was a night’s work, more than one; in certain neighborhoods, I’d be lucky to scrounge up sixty or seventy bucks. Around 8:00 or 8:30, we would meet back at the bus and return to the city where we would add up our donations and cash out. Then I would head into the cool San Francisco night, fog drifting in from the Bay, and wander in great looping arcs from the Marina through Cow Hollow, across Pacific Heights, the Western Addition, Alamo Square, and Hayes Valley, before angling southwest to the Haight. Some evenings I would take Fillmore the whole way, others Divisidero, clinging to the shadows in the darkness like a ghost. What I liked about San Francisco was that it had a history, although I didn’t know it, which left me suspended, in some sense, between the present and the past. That, and the fact that I understood there was no future for me in this place; that like my roommate I, too, would be leaving; that it was unlikely I’d be living here again.


View from Bernal Hill, San Francisco in the 1980s. Photograph by Mimi Plumb.

Marin Headlands. Earlier that year, perhaps in April, we spent a Saturday afternoon climbing in the Marin Headlands. Was this the same day we went to Green Dragon Temple in Muir Beach for tea and lunch? We did not sit zazen or read the sutras, but I can still see us pull up before the square construction of the zendo, piling out of the car as if the journey was much longer than seventeen miles. For as long as we stayed—an hour? maybe two?—I imagined what it might be like to live here, to stay behind when the car left and shed the concerns and ambitions of the world. Even then, however, I knew that I would never be able to sit still long enough. Maybe this is why we ended up circling back to the Headlands, all that dirt and grass. We spent an hour or two crawling over the concrete batteries dug into the hillsides, the residue of two world wars. And yet, was this so different from where we had just been? No, just another place for turning inward, not toward stillness, silence, but to ourselves, our fantasies. That day, I felt like a ten-year-old again, wanting to fit myself through the narrow gun slits, to sit inside, protected, hidden from the city and its claims. Later, I would read a book, Jim Paul’s Catapult, about two friends who get a grant to build a medieval siege weapon and shoot stones from the Headlands into the sea. In a way, what Paul is describing is its own form of meditation, its own mechanism for stepping outside time. This is how I felt a lot during those months, as if time had slowed or slipped or grown elastic, as if there were time enough at last. That this turned out (how could it not?) to be another illusion is, of course, the point—not just of memory but also of all these sites and artifacts, which I could not, which I still cannot, move beyond.

Old Waldorf. Our first weekend in the city, a group of us took blotter acid, ended up in Golden Gate Park. Many hours later, we crept out of the park and meandered from the Haight through Hayes Valley, the Civic Center, deep into the Financial District, where there was a club on Battery called the Old Waldorf, owned by Bill Graham. Battery, batteries, the city and its defenses, military or cultural, through which time moved as liquid essence…or maybe that was the drugs. We went to the Old Waldorf often, that or the Mabuhay Gardens on Broadway, where we heard SVT, Vital Parts, the Dead Kennedys, Jim Carroll Band. We were in the middle, on the seam between two eras, wannabe hippies (we weren’t old enough) lit on fire by punk. My last night in the city, ten weeks after that trip to Andrew Molera State Park, I stood atop the Stockton Street tunnel with my best friend and his girlfriend, smoking cigarettes after one last show. Below us: the crush of Sutter Street, its delis and massage parlors; while up there the three of us, we lingered, shrouded in the fog of leaving, aware that our time had come. Who had we seen that night? It could have been anyone—Jorma, Carroll, even Jerry Garcia who played, when he was in town, once a month in North Beach at the Stone. The next morning, I packed the last few items in my backpack, locked my apartment, and left the keys in the super’s box. The air was chilly, overcast I want to tell you (although that may have been internal weather), and I remember shivering a little as I stepped onto Haight Street and waited for the bus to take me to the Transbay Terminal on Mission and Howard, where I would start my journey home.


Dogpatch, San Francisco in the 1980s. Photograph by Mimi Plumb.

Sutro Tower. I had a dream once, during the months I lived in San Francisco, of dancing underneath the Sutro Tower, that vast three-pronged transmission standard that overlooks the city from a hill not far from Clarendon Heights. I could feel the buzz of all those broadcasts, all those voices, all that electricity pulsing through my body, lines of energy. The closest I ever came to making something like that happen was one night at Twin Peaks, where a group of us came to drink and get high and dance to the boombox someone brought. The Grateful Dead or the Dead Kennedys, Jerry Garcia or Jello Biafra, Sutro, sutra, Freddie Mercury. When Queen played Oakland in July 1980, the singer came to party in the Castro, just over the hill from where I lived. That summer, everybody looked like Freddy: tight jeans, bandannas folded neatly into rear pockets, close-cropped haircuts, mustaches. “Terminal” was still a word we might use to describe a bus station; it had not yet become a harbinger of fear. A decade afterward, Mercury was dead, like so many of the men in that neighborhood, who I’d encountered on the sidewalks or when I took the bus. I don’t mean to offer up an elegy, but I want to remain clear about what I remember, which is this: I remember something that felt like abandon, the sensation that anything I could imagine might come true. I remember grace, or better yet elevation, from the Headlands to the tunnels to the hills. I remember feeling that time had erased itself even as I understood that time kept passing, that it always would. I remember that as much as I wished otherwise—Green Dragon Temple, Greenpeace, Andrew Molera State Park—I was just a visitor here.

David L. Ulin is a 2015 Guggenheim Fellow and the author of Sidewalking: Coming to Terms with Los Angeles, which was shortlisted for the PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay.


Waves of Data: Illuminating Pathways with San Leandro Lights

Greg Niemeyer

On 20 May 2014, Brittney Silva, a student nearing graduation from San Leandro High School, was walking along the train tracks to her home and talking on the phone. She was using her earbuds and did not hear an Amtrak train approach. She was fatally struck, and her body was retrieved fifty yards from the impact site.

That same week, I met with San Leandro’s Chief Innovation Officer, Debbie Acosta, to discuss opportunities for collaboration between the city and University of California, Berkeley. With the tragedy of Brittney Silva’s death fresh in everyone’s memory, Acosta urged me to do something to make the city safer for pedestrians. When I asked, “How many people walk in San Leandro?” Acosta replied, “We can tell you how much water we use, we can tell you how many cars are waiting at red lights, we can tell you how many streetlights are on, but we have no idea how many people walk where or when.”

That conversation inspired a course I developed with my UC Berkeley colleague Ronald Rael that we called Sensing Cityscapes. In that course, which we offered in fall 2015, we aimed to collect data about human activities that are too often ignored. As part of the interdisciplinary UC Berkeley Global Urban Humanities Initiative, we aimed to harness methods not just from city planning, engineering, and architecture (Ron’s field), but from the humanistic disciplines, cognitive science, and art (my territory). Our students came from departments ranging from archaeology to public health to performance studies.

We noted that the growing smart cities movement, which aims to use data and tools including urban sensors to improve the provision of urban services, tends to track machines more than people. In our observation, smart city research is full of asymmetries: Cell phone data is used for traffic studies, but not for pedestrians. Health tracker data is held by individuals, but not aggregated at a community level. Streets are lit for cars, but not for pedestrians. We seemed to know more about what shows residents watched on Netflix (in San Leandro, Game of Thrones is most-watched) than about how they got home every day. Many residents, just like some of us researchers, seem to know more about the politics of the fictional city of Meereen than about their own city.


Photograph by Greg Niemeyer.

To address such asymmetries, we taught students in the graduate course to collect their own data, to build basic sensing, logging, and data visualization tools. We demonstrated responsible practices in data collection and explored the manipulative potential and relative power of those who hold the data over those whom the data describes. But most importantly, we taught our students to work in the city with a hypothesis-free approach in which the creative response of the artist is as important as the rational assessment of an established hypothesis. This approach often is described as discovery-based science.

We first asked students to quantify aspects of their own home life so they would understand the impact of data on a community including themselves. Then, we asked our students to consider the city of San Leandro as a larger home, to be treated with the same care as their own homes.

Like impressionist artists in plein-air mode, we all visited the city in small teams, without maps and without hypotheses. The walking experiences led to many observations about the city, which converged on pedestrian safety. After a few more need-finding interviews with city staff, we confirmed that the city had a strong interest in pedestrian data, and we studied how best to count people in the urban wild. We learned to train passive infrared sensors on pedestrians to capture their movements but not their identities. We also understood the importance of showing pedestrians that their presence counts by displaying feedback data. Any data about people should be shared with the people the data is about in real time. All projects used lights to communicate statistics to pedestrians about their walking, thereby completing a feedback loop of input, output, and change. We considered hiding or camouflaging the sensors to protect against vandalism, but we ultimately rejected such ideas because we wanted to make it possible for pedestrians to choose if they were counted or not.

Our students deployed four temporary interactive lighting systems in San Leandro. After several lab prototypes, our students were ready to take on real-world challenges including unreliable power and connectivity that often compromise the magic of the Internet of Things (IoT).

Other challenges included weather and vandalism; but in the end, each team was able to light a critical pedestrian passage in a novel, interactive way and measure the number, direction, and speed of pedestrians in real time without exposing the identities of the pedestrians.

One compelling lesson was that pedestrians interpreted visible machines at head height as “unwelcome government intrusions.” At the waist level, pedestrians interpreted the very same machines as “cute.” Collected data showed clear rush-hour patterns including a peak between 8:00 am to 9:00 am, a peak between 2:00 pm to 3:00 pm (when school gets out), and 5:00 pm to 6:00 pm when commuters return. While this is not surprising, it also seems possible to leverage that data for specific campaigns and urban improvement initiatives. Perhaps the high school marching band could rehearse near commuter hubs between 5:00 pm and 6:00 pm to give the city a musical boost. The lights themselves may also expand pedestrian activity past sunset.

Collectively, the students’ fieldwork confirmed that pedestrians were the most vulnerable participants in the urban metabolism, and they were also the least visible. Interviews with pedestrians showed that they felt acknowledged by the interactive lights after dark. Streets were built for cars, but sidewalks were dark and narrow afterthoughts. Walking was an event at the very periphery of an urban culture that focused on speed. Even a small LED light, well-timed, helped pedestrians experience a different city, a place where they could overcome fear and isolation, just like at home.

This field work and a subsequent mini-conference prompted more research. Comparing the various student projects, Pablo Paredes, a teaching assistant in the Sensing Cityscapes course, and I wondered what kind of lighting design might drive pedestrian activity more than generic lighting. We teamed up to study the psychological impacts of various types of responsive lighting. To reduce confounding factors such as external or personal circumstances, we moved the project to a windowless hallway in our research building (the Center for Information Technology Research in the Interest of Society, or CITRIS).

Our setup included up to sixteen colorful LED spotlights illuminating a sixty-foot-long dark hallway path. As test-subject pedestrians walked down this path, sensors picked up their speeds and positions, and a computer controlled the lights and colors as a function of these inputs. With this setup, we could ask how the effect was influenced by the chromatic, temporal, and spatial design of the lights. Which would impact the pedestrians most positively? Having all the lights on? Having selected lights directly before, directly at, or directly behind the pedestrian?

After testing ten lighting regimes with over a hundred participants walking down a dark hallway, we found that a path well-lit ten feet ahead of a pedestrian had a significantly better impact with significantly less energy use than a path that was fully lit or any other regime.

In the resulting research paper, we argued that the positive effect occurred because pedestrians felt acknowledged by the interactive and anticipatory lighting. They felt more in charge of the path and their experience and self-determined their role as an agent with authority who could control the streetlights. Technologically empowered pedestrians, turning lights on ahead and off again through their movement, felt safer, walked with a steadier gait, and had more positive, less lonely walking experiences. We left the system on in a public hallway and learned that several building users made detours just to walk though the lights for a positive experience during the workday. “It’s like walking on a carpet of light,” said one user.

We now are bringing the installation back to the streets of San Leandro with the support of a National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) Our Town grant for a project called San Leandro Lights. The grant funds the permanent installation of responsive IOT lighting in one or more passages in the city that are not currently lit or are lit only by blinding sodium floodlights. Taking our project back to the street, we can build on the validated lighting design tested in the lab, but we have to consider many additional design factors, including greater range of inputs (consider distinguishing a person in a wheelchair from a person using a motorbike), theft-proofing, and easy maintenance.

We will assess the circulation frequency of pedestrians before and after the deployment of the lights to study if lighting alone can increase pedestrian circulation. At the same time, we hope the circulation data will give residents and city officials insights into pedestrian patterns that may help optimize city policies ranging from regulation of store hours to streetlight timing. Other initiatives such as Bike-and-Walk-to-Work day can be validated with the sensor data as well.


Photograph by Greg Niemeyer.

Transferring the project from the lab back to the street, we hope that the positive effect for individuals we observed in the lab will remain, and that responsive lighting will create a dynamic culture of attention.

A tragic moment of misplaced attention ended the life of Brittney Silva. Her memory urges us to ask if we are paying attention to the right things. We should ask that question frequently. The answer changes in the course of a second, a week, a season, and a lifetime. It changes for us individually, as our needs change, and it changes collectively, as the conditions within which we live change. From oncoming traffic to climate change, changing situations should cause us and the cities in which we live to refocus attentions continuously, like a camera in autofocus mode. Yet many aspects of our individual and collective lives are regulated by convention, not by curiosity. The art element in our project enables us to reframe our focus continuously, because we approach our environments in fundamentally creative ways.

We see the potential of the San Leandro Lights project both in the practical and in the metaphorical. The lights yield the direct benefit of illumination, energy savings, and pedestrian circulation data. Metaphorically, the Lights tell a story about how every step we take has consequences beyond our intentions. Every step, just like the butterfly wings in chaos theory, impacts our environment, and our environment modulates every step we take in creative response. Just as the colors of the sidewalk change when anyone walks by, so does the meaning of what we do, in the context of an ever-evolving city.

Every study has a beginning and an ending. The San Leandro Lights began with the tragic end of Brittney Silva’s life. Unlike most studies, the ending of this study takes us to a modified cityscape in which sidewalks, in creative response, bring people home in a different glow every day.

Greg Niemeyer is an associate professor for New Media at University of California, Berkeley. He is deeply involved in the Berkeley Center for New Media, which conducts research and public programming around media innovation.


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

Susan Moffat


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You have discovered the Albany Bulb.1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Amber in her tent. Photograph by Robin Lasser.

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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


Monumental Hydraulics: Diego Rivera’s Lerma Waterworks and the Water Temples of San Francisco

Rafael Tiffany
Susan Moffat


Front of temple looking at one of the faces of Tlaloc, Mexican god of rain and harvest.

The water pouring readily out of our private faucets is a modern production that belies the enormous scale of public infrastructure needed to sustain it. Aqueducts, reservoirs, and pumps have been central to the narrative of modern California as a hydraulic civilization: a society driven by the determination to do whatever it takes to maintain, defend, and expand access to water. Americans built soaring artistic monuments to hydraulic control in the West, creating three-dimensional representations of this will to power that bundle together ancient and modern myth, art, and engineering.


Second face of Tlaloc, Mexican god of rain and harvest.

In California, these shrines to infrastructure closely follow precedents from western antiquity. In the southeast San Francisco Bay Area, for example, upstream along Alameda Creek from the city of Fremont sits the water temple at Sunol, dedicated in 1910 by William Bourne and other members of the San Francisco elite associated with the private Spring Valley Water Company. The temple sits at the convergence of multiple water sources in the Alameda Creek watershed, where the streams were once blended and pumped forty miles across the Bay to San Francisco. Architect Willis Polk modeled the temple after the Temple of Vesta in Tivoli, outside Rome, another monument to a vital aqueduct irrigating an imperial city. The sixty-foot-high Sunol temple has a circular footprint, cast-concrete Corinthian columns, and frolicking sea creatures, and it replaced a wooden shed that was deemed insufficient recognition for what the Spring Valley Water Company quarterly San Francisco Water at the time called “the dignity of water.”Under the terra cotta roof, visitors could look down to the vault through which waters roared into a subterranean pipeline.

Later, when San Francisco needed yet more water to turn its windswept dunes into parks and urban neighborhoods, it dammed the Tuolumne River in the Sierra Nevada’s Hetch Hetchy Valley, drowning a valley as spectacular as Yosemite’s. Starting in 1934, it brought the Sierra snowmelt through 160 miles of aqueducts to a reservoir south of the city and celebrated this marvel of engineering—publicly owned, this time—with the construction of a monument that took its inspiration from the one at Sunol, as well as more ancient antecedents. About two billion gallons of water a year rushed through the Beaux Arts Pulgas Water Temple, where visitors could view the flow from a platform inside the colonnade.

As in California, in Mexico governments commissioned structures to celebrate human hydraulic achievements. But while American engineers and artists looked to Rome for inspiration, Mexican artists turned to indigenous sources to celebrate their own infrastructural triumphs over water scarcity. In Mexico City, the Lerma Waterworks, also known as the Cárcamo de Dolores, commemorates a major aqueduct that feeds the modern city. In the Valley of Mexico, as in the western United States, European settlers forced their water management regimes into local landscapes, feeling thwarted by what they perceived as inhospitable environments. Both San Francisco Bay and the Valley of Mexico were rich in wetlands but their intermittent rainfall patterns frustrated foreign settlers. San Francisco occupied a foggy location on the tip of a seasonally arid Pacific coastal peninsula lacking a major river, while Mexico City was built on islands in the middle of a high-altitude lake with no outlet, with only a short wet season in summer. These conditions compelled European settlers to largely ignore indigenous water management traditions in favor of feats of the latest engineering.


Mural of a man immersed in water among sea creatures.

Since European settlement, water provision throughout Mexico City has been uneven and unreliable, in spite of the city’s lacustrine hydrological identity and regular floods. Having suppressed the traditional water management practices of the valley’s inhabitants, the Spanish substituted them with an approach intent on expelling water from the bottom of the basin that they decided to settle. The lake was gradually drained following major efforts beginning in the seventeenth century, and the Aztecs’ network of waterways evaporated. In both Mexico and California, as in ancient Rome, local resources were considered insufficient to develop cities; water would be acquired externally, stored, distributed, and then flushed away.

Mexico’s largest water infrastructure project of the twentieth century sought to modernize its capital city in this way, focusing on the goal of increasing the drinking water supply for its residents. The urban population explosion throughout the 1930s alarmed city planners, who decided that wells alone would be insufficient to meet growing demand. The decision to tap into external watersheds was also driven by the aim of reducing the sinking of the city caused by the extraction of groundwater. The Lerma System, constructed between 1942 and 1951, conveyed water from sixty kilometers west. The water spends almost a third of the trip underground, gurgling through a tunnel bored through the Sierra de las Cruces mountains, before spilling into the city in the great Chapultepec Park. The Lerma Waterworks is, therefore, a ceremonial entry point, a municipal mouth receiving distant water at a culturally vibrant location in the city.

In 1950, Diego Rivera, then nearing the end of his artistic career, accepted a state commission to design the site in collaboration with the architect Ricardo Rivas. Locating the site at the endpoint of the aqueduct system within the park was itself highly significant for its indigenous value and hydro-geographic role. The Chapultepec district played an important role in ancient Aztec (and pre-Aztec) beliefs and practices as the sacred altepetl, or water hill, its springs supplying the city of Tenochtitlan from an aqueduct running across the former Lake Texcoco. Taking inspiration from the site’s real and symbolic abundance of water, Rivera and Rivas’s intervention deploys a syncretic use of indigenous representation and craft for this modern infrastructure project.

To appreciate this, it’s best to view the monument from the elevated western approach, which follows the path of the subterranean water. A small stone temple faces the plaza, its ochre cantera stone forming a portico of eight columns and crowned by a shallow dome. The building fronts a trapezoidal reflecting pool, covered in mosaic and dominated by a 100-foot-wide sculpture rising from the water in bas relief, more legible by air than from the ground. This is Rivera’s rendition of Tlaloc, Mexica god of rain and harvest. The god is depicted in active stride, sowing corn kernels from one hand and wielding mature cobs in the other; Tlaloc is the medium of growth and life itself. He is two-faced, with one goggle-eyed, jaguar-toothed visage looking skyward, and the other face earthbound, its gaping tunnel mouth facing the temple. On the soles of Tlaloc’s sandals, a series of mosaics adapt Mexica iconography to depict the construction of the aqueduct through the mountains. The story is broadly conveyed and monumentalizes modern Mexico’s technological control over natural resources.


Mural of engineers and planners, and symbols for chemical processed for disinfection of water.

Inside the temple, Rivera covered the walls and floor of the subchamber with the mural Agua, Origen de la Vida en la Tierra. In it, ancient organisms drift through the primordial soup represented in the floor mural: protozoa, amoebae, and diatoms are succeeded by others in a crescendo of complexity that begin on the ground and flow up to the vertical plane of the walls, culminating in two human ur-forms, male and female, facing one another from across the chamber. The other two walls depict the entrance and egress of the water: the source on the west wall is represented by the disembodied hands of Tlaloc, above a tunnel that until recent years conveyed the water from the aqueduct, flanked by paintings of laborers. The east wall depicts the engineers and planners, and the symbols for the chemical processes required for disinfection hang over the gates that previously directed running water into nearby tanks and the purification infrastructure.

While the architecture of San Francisco’s water temples used classical iconography to celebrate both the commercial and aspirationally democratic context of its liquid resource, Rivera’s work in Chapultepec Park used locally rooted images to pronounce and mythologize the state’s manifest water destiny as it was centralized in Mexico City. Images of the indigenous past flow out of the water god’s outstretched hands into the modernity of the Mexican Miracle era of the 1960s, when the country invested heavily in its infrastructure. But the monument fell into disrepair in the last decades of the twentieth century, and its degradation mirrored that of the water infrastructure it memorialized. The flow has been rerouted beneath the site, invisible again, rather than running through it, because the water and the humid environment it created were damaging the murals.Beginning in the 1970s, the Lerma system was augmented by the Cutzamala system, a network that was extended repeatedly to meet growing demands. But the new distribution infrastructure was stretched thin and inadequately maintained, and runs dry before it reaches the poor urban periphery of sprawling Mexico City.


Mural of a woman immersed in water among sea creatures.


Tlaloc’s disembodied hands symbolizing the giving of water, and Tlaloc’s face outside.

While the visible portion of Rivera’s temple to the dream of a modern water system for the city has undergone renovation in recent years, the hidden aging pipes and earthquake-damaged conduits throughout the city leak an estimated 30 percent of their precious medium. Peripheral neighborhoods have intermittent water service, if it reaches them at all. Almost everyone in the city relies on bottled water. The Lerma Waterworks lays bare the contrast between the mid-century promise of comfortable, clean water infrastructure for all and the failing hydro-political systems of today. Its images of an evenly distributed modernity are newly potent, reaching out from a faded moment of the past to the contemporary city, where the government’s neglect of infrastructure hits everyone, but especially the poor.

In California, too, the water no longer flows through the Pulgas Water Temple. Function has trumped symbolism. Following a change in the water treatment system in the early 2000s, the water is purified at a treatment plant over at Sunol, near the water temple on the other side of the Bay. There, the Sierra water is treated with a chlorine-ammonia combination to kill off bacteria, and it is sterile water that flows across the Bay in a pipe to Pulgas. But the disinfectant chemical is deadly to fish and has to be removed before it goes into the Crystal Springs water reservoir.So while the water in Mexico City had to be removed from the temple because it was too erosive, in Northern California it had to be banished because it was too clean.

And while the people of Mexico City clamor to increase the supply of clean water to their metropolis, a citizens’ movement in San Francisco is agitating to redesign the flow of water from the Sierras to the city. These environmental advocates want to demolish the dam at Hetch Hetchy, saying the city shouldn’t be using a scenic wilderness as a storage tub for its drinking water. They see profligate urban water consumption as a shame, not a triumph, and celebrate the cathedral-like granite walls of the submerged valley rather than any human-made temple to engineering.

As the political debates rage on, the water temples of each city stand by, monuments to moments in history, reflecting a time when water infrastructure was seen worthy of artistic veneration, and when artists drew on the iconography of the past to argue that drawing water from the mountains to fuel a growing city was the prerequisite for civilization, not an act of plunder.


1 Rina Cathleen Faletti, “Undercurrents of Urban Modernism: Water, Architecture and Landscape in California and the American West,” dissertation presented to the University of Texas at Austin, 2015, p. 210. See also Gray Brechin, Imperial San Francisco, Chapter 2, “Water Mains and Bloodlines,” University of California Press, 1999.

2 Rivera painted the murals with a polystyrene compound meant to resist constant inundation, but erosion of the paint was visible within years of the monument’s completion. Experts at the Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes have since restored them.

3 When the water gets pumped out of the reservoir, it gets disinfected again before heading into homes. This elaborate system is needed because some of the water goes straight to taps while some gets stored in the reservoir first.


Rafael Tiffany is a master’s of landscape architecture candidate at University of California, Berkeley, College of Environmental Design. He has a background in art history and horticulture.

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