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.
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 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.
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.”1 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.2 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.3 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.
The flow of the Los Angeles River, ever-precarious and never navigable, attracted settlement along its shifting course for centuries. When the cataclysmic 1938 flood followed on the heels of lesser, recurrent flooding, the straightening and channeling of fifty-one miles of the river began in earnest, until engineers had riven the city with a concrete conduit from the Chatsworth hills to the South Bay. The channel was built to contain the water, measured in cubic feet per second, predicted to flow during a 100-year flood event. This technocratic solution precluded other forms of the Los Angeles River from emerging. Once channelized, only those alternatives in keeping with its infrastructural identity were conceivable. Therefore, when freight traffic congestion at the Los Angeles–Long Beach Port grew intolerable in the 1980s, the new vision promoted for the river was to pave over it to form a truck freeway. A new river wasn’t inscribed in the public imagination until a motley crew of poets, artists, outlaw kayakers, park advocates, cyclists, wildlife advocates, neighborhood activists, and academics turned attention to those fifty-one miles, with all the futurities such a new narrative might permit. Their interventions, ranging from policy proposals to public art actions, opened up the region’s population as well as its politicians to a different spectrum of imagined possibilities—that is, that the LA River is an actual river.
At each stage in the recent history of the LA River, people brought with them motivating ideas about the city—what it is, where nature belongs, what history is inscribed there. These ideas are the foundations for conventional wisdom about practices such as flood control, appropriate levels of risk, how to improve extant conditions, or whose interests matter. The narratives that grow from those foundations govern the spectral array of possibilities. For example, the responses to flooding in the context of a channelized river are unlikely to begin with anything other than a channelized river; the most likely proposal is for a deeper channel. But there is no reason for conventional thinking to remain so constrained. What we call “urban humanities” produce historically grounded conjectures, launched from the present toward an unknown future, that depend on and simultaneously help construct new urban imaginaries.
The Los Angeles Urban Rangers demonstrate that the megalopolis is a habitat for adventurous exploration; here a Ranger leads the LA River Ramble (2010-present). Photograph by Christina Edwards.
The Los Angeles Urban Rangers demonstrate that the megalopolis is a habitat for adventurous exploration; here a Ranger leads the LA River Ramble (2010-present). Photograph by Christina Edwards.
When poets such as Lewis MacAdams staged readings from the middle of the LA River in the last decades of the twentieth century, the public’s historical perception of the river migrated from a concrete site of danger and water-borne pollution risk, toward a place for human creativity and wildlife habitat—even though not a single piece of concrete channel had been removed.1 This example demonstrates the radical power of urban humanities, for which we offer this manifesto. To escape digging deeper channels to solve urban problems, cities instead can be transformed at the creative intersection of design, urbanism, and humanist perspectives. The manifesto is more than a declaration of principles; it is a call to action for scholars to become engaged, creative practitioners.
At the University of California in Los Angeles and in Berkeley, we are working in tandem to develop knowledge about urbanism that weaves together perspectives from architecture, city planning, landscape architecture, and the humanities in order to create much-needed, transformational urban practices. Under the auspices of a Mellon Foundation international program aimed at encouraging multidisciplinary dialogue and pedagogy focused on cities,2 California is one test bed for exploratory intellectual configurations of urban inquiry focused on global metropolitan regions on the Pacific Rim. We propose that a particularly rich terrain for both intellectual reflection and action occurs at this confluence of urban humanities. Two questions that motivate our collaborative efforts warrant further consideration here. First, what conditions spark the desire for new ways of thinking through cities, particularly ways that entrain the humanities? And second, what might a contemporary California-based effort contribute to new urban understandings?
The need for creative practices
The case of the LA River illustrates that the city as an object of study intrinsically carries implications about action and about the future. Questions about the city are fundamentally questions about our situated, collective existence—not only our histories and contemporary circumstances, but how our shared lives could and should evolve. In contrast to many disciplinary objects of study, urban humanist scholars have something at stake. Their epistemologies matter, because the products of their scholarship engender a speculative project concerning possible urban communities and, therefore, hold public significance.
We need creative practices to address the range of issues that confront contemporary cities—issues such as social justice, economic development, and environmental quality. Urban humanities emphasize innovative methods and practices, which evolve along with shifting epistemologies. This view stands in contrast to a current dominant narrative which holds that contemporary cities depend upon attracting a creative group of citizens.3 While blue collar jobs and manufacturing marked the vitality of cities like Detroit at the turn of the twentieth century, and a services-based consumer economy fueled late-twentieth-century growth in cities such as Los Angeles, cities in the coming decades will depend on innovative tech-startup founders, creative designers, and bold eco-entrepreneurs, a population most visible today in the San Francisco Bay Area. But it is now apparent that these populations bring new problems along with new economies.
A wide array of disciplines, from the physical sciences to art history, hold potential for creative urban practices. Such practices involve a disruption of existing ideas and the definitive transgression of boundaries that govern existing urban thought. There have been productive breaches of disciplinary boundaries—urban planning and geography in the form of geographical information systems (GIS), or architecture and computational science in the case of digital design. Now, with big data and the “city science” movement enriching our understanding of urbanism, the absence of a humanist perspective in urban thought is brutally apparent. The number of households living below the poverty line in Mexico City, toxic air emissions in proximity to freeways in Los Angeles, suicide rates among Tokyo’s youth, or miles of subway built in Shanghai over the last decade—such cold metrics need translation via history, narrative, and interpretation if they are to make a meaningful difference and influence creative practice and novel approaches in each city’s evolution.
Experiments in urban humanities
For new structures of knowledge based on multiple disciplines to emerge, two conditions must be met. First, there must be an object of interest that defies conventional logic and resists constructive change. For us, this common object of interest is the city itself, along with the many challenges it poses, such as segregation, congestion, and affordable housing, but also, proximity, precarity, and identity. Second, those who try to collectively address the issue at hand must be willing to transgress boundaries that separate their fields of expertise and modes of urban understanding. It is worth reflecting here upon what we mean by “the city,” which is used synonymously with the urban. Ours is a wide net with a tight weave, one meant to catch material artifacts, cultural nuance, literary accomplishment, social relations, and power struggles that collide in space over time. By “city,” we mean situated collective life emplaced in an urban context, comprised of historical interpretation, material environments, contemporary culture, and speculative futures. Therefore, the name “urban humanities” captures the metropolitan dialectic between space and humanism.
Perhaps the most widely recognized fields of expertise considered relevant to urban concerns are design and planning along with engineering and the physical and social sciences. But what of the humanities? Those fields that aim to understand history, the arts, meaning, expression, and experience make substantial contributions to our thinking about cities and culture. From classicists to contemporary film scholars, humanists enrich an understanding of situated collective life. Yet, we are uncertain about just how that scholarship ought to contribute to urban practices, broadly defined. At least since Plato’s Republic, the tangled web of urban social life comprised utopian narratives. But if the death of this genre has been proclaimed, it gives rise to other kinds of narratives. As suggested by the LA River example, the possibility of the river as a greenway linking diverse neighborhoods throughout the city emerged with humanities-oriented creative practitioners reinterpreting this metropolitan seam and critical site of urban infrastructure.
CONFLUENCE, a dance piece, performed where the Los Angeles River meets the Pacific Ocean in Long Beach. Photograph by Catherine Gudis.
Only through sharing a common object of interest—the city—are we effectively bridging disciplinary divides. At UCLA and Berkeley, we are integrating the humanities and humanistic social sciences into the epistemological mix. Students and faculty have joined from history, area studies (e.g., Asian Languages and Culture, Latin American Studies), film studies, literature, performance studies, art practice, anthropology, ethnomusicology, architecture, landscape architecture, and planning. Using the rubric “urban humanities,” we have taken global cities of the Pacific Rim as our objects of interest at the broadest level, knowing that they defy conventional logics and need creative practices—and creative practitioners—to instigate new urban possibilities.
Over the past three years of this exploration, we have learned that when designers, urbanists, and humanists come together to explore some particular urban concern, there are no ready terms of analysis, grounds for interpretation, or prescriptive responses. Creative practices for engaging the concern have to be invented. Even the dimensions of any issue must be detected.
When architects consider urban density, for example, they are likely to give it material dimensions (measured in square footage or building mass, etc.) and to consider program (such as density of housing, parks, or commercial space), whereas planners will consider some of the above as well as policy (such as floor area ratio maximums) and metrics (such as residents per acre). What humanists add to the conversation is as vast as the disciplines that comprise the humanities. For example, density might be reformulated as proximity in terms of social relations between neighbors, cultural representations in film and fiction, or tensions around constructs of property. A history of the idea as well as the emplaced idea (proximity in a specific city, such as Mexico City) is informative. By broadening the basis for imagining the city, we intrinsically engage history that imparts a critical perspective on the present, enriching our understanding of contemporary circumstances, which in turn adds new dimensions to our speculations about future conditions. If we learn how proximity, in its relevant forms, is managed in the packed informal settlement zones in Mexico City—whether through the artful orientation of houses or community-based mediation processes for conflict resolution—we might begin to understand the braided system that any new densities must reference and deploy.
At the same time, a focus on the city has the power to reshape the humanist project to at least some extent. Exposed to alternative forms of pedagogy and practice, place-based speculative exploration, and a project orientation, the humanities may bolster their relevance to the everyday and the future. In so doing, they may dramatically disrupt conventional urban approaches and move from the sidelines to the center of urban activism. As the humanities undergo a marked transformation with challenges to postwar area studies designations along with energized alliances from digital to environmental humanists, activism is a distinctive characteristic of urban humanists. Rather than utopian narratives, activism underscores the significance of creative urban practices that have real world consequences and take positions that engender conscientious action. Criticism has not lost its value, but yields an additional dimension—one that bears the risk of speculation about the future. Returning to the river, poems drift out from the poets’ public readings to form collective visions in and about the urban landscape that in turn guide new possibilities for action.
That these experiments are happening in California and focus on Pacific Rim cities matters. When Saul Steinberg created his ironic 1976 “map” for the cover of The New Yorker entitled “View of the World from 9th Avenue,” its westward gaze portrayed everything between the Hudson River and the Pacific Ocean as a deserted wasteland. Indeed, American urban histories have typically looked the other direction, across the Atlantic toward ancient Greece and Rome, and the Medieval and Renaissance cities of Europe. Within the United States, New York and especially Chicago undergird our urban imaginaries; the latter provided the dominant model of the city with a singular commercial-industrial core surrounded by concentric residential rings of decreasing density and increasing socioeconomic status. This model was held to be true even though the twentieth century cities of the Southwest bore little resemblance to Chicago or other earlier gridiron economies and cultures.
Not until the mid-1980s did a group of academics codify this new order—and they were from the West Coast. Building on Michael Dear, Mike Davis (both in this issue), as well as Reyner Banham’s famous “four ecologies,” the Los Angeles School counter-posed a new polycentric suburban logic in which the hinterland organized the center, against the bull’s eye urban form forwarded by the Chicago School. Both of us played some small role in the LA School debates, when it was useful to consider the sprawling Southern California metropolis as paradigmatic.4 Whether neo-Marxist or postmodern in terms of theoretical bent, the future envisioned by LA School scholars involved further racial and ethnic segregation, advancing environmental degradation, fragmented governance, and technology-driven spatial and class divides, with little hope for more optimistic urbanities. Davis’s City of Quartz presaged a bleak future that stemmed from surrounding trauma at the time—from Rodney King and the 1992 LA Uprising to the 1994 Northridge earthquake; from Blade Runner to ballooning homelessness and Reaganomics. The LA School was dominated by planners and geographers with little benefit from architecture or the humanities. However, it is not clear that adding designers and humanists would have changed the tenor. Since that time, several turning points have caused new directions to seem more plausible: the city’s first Latino mayor was sworn into office in 2005, the seemingly endless sprawl of the city reversed when thousands of new housing units were built downtown, and artist-activist Lauren Bon turned thirty-two acres of urban wasteland into cornfields. Her next project, “Bending the River Back into the City,” will create sustainable public spaces along the LA River through the artistic engineering of a spectacular waterwheel and dam. Projects like Bon’s can open a future for the city that was hardly imaginable before, one that lifts up communities, the arts, and the environment simultaneously.
Urban humanities at Berkeley and UCLA are founded on this augmented LA School, taking into account the area’s role in the twentieth century as global producer of urban imaginaries through arts, film, music, and design, from Hollywood to hip-hop to Frank Gehry. Now, urban humanities must ask what the twenty-first century might bring.
Over time, LA scholarship has increasingly emphasized the region’s pervasive links to the Pacific Rim, along with its cultural hybridity, artistic effervescence, and openness to transgressive identities. Humanists contributed to this regional understanding, with the emergence of the digital humanities generating broad (if controversial) interest in big data and multimedia visualization for creating narratives of place and the formation of urban identities. At the same time, the rise of Silicon Valley and the Bay Area’s techno-youth culture is shaping academic ideas about urban futures in a context of deepening inequality, gentrification, and worries about climate change. Drawing on the public arts, creative place-making, design innovation, the DIY “maker” movement, and digital technology powered by big data, speculative ideas about the city have become more nuanced, tactical, political, and material (as illustrated by several of the articles in this issue).
Porciuncula, an installation on the LA River made of balloons filled with the river’s fragrance: ‘‘grass, ocean air, desiccated concrete, industrial zoning, railyards, soda cans, wild animals.’’ By LA-BOR (Jia Gu and Jonathan Crisman), 2015. Photograph by Monica Nouwens.
As such, the urban humanities constitute an emergent epistemology arising from this multidisciplinary confluence in this specific place. It is just this sort of creative discipline-crossing scholarship that can encourage new historical narratives, new contemporary interpretations of culture, and open speculation about urban futurities. In short, a manifesto for urban humanities rests on the conviction that such place-based, engaged scholarship and pedagogy will produce cadres of creative—as well as reflective—practitioners.
We can distinguish between predictable next steps in addressing problems (an urban equivalent of Thomas Kuhn’s normal science) and speculative, engaged approaches. The aim of urban humanities is not to create visionary, utopian schemes or science fiction scenarios, but instead to open new paths of possibility. For thick mapping, see Todd S. Presner, David Shepard, and Yoh Kawano, Hypercities: Thick Mapping in the Digital Humanities (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014); for futurity, see Amir Eshel, Futurity: Contemporary Literature and the Quest for the Past (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2013); for crisis and revolution, see Eric Cazdyn, “Disaster, Crisis, Revolution,” The South Atlantic Quarterly 106.4 (2007): 647–662.
The Mellon Program, started in 2012, is called Architecture, Urbanism, and the Humanities, and has funded a series of related academic projects in over a dozen universities.
The term “creative” seems more ubiquitously applied to new developments than the term “green,” as in creative office or creative class. Popular adoption of Richard Florida’s ideas about the latter have done little to expand our understanding of the metropolis or guide cities toward more humane futures.
Members of the Los Angeles School included Michael Dear, Mike Davis, Ed Soja, Michael Storper, and Alan Scott, among others.
Dana Cuff is a professor, author, and scholar in architecture and urbanism at University of California, Los Angeles, where she is also the founding director of cityLAB, a think tank that explores design innovations in the emerging metropolis.
Jennifer Wolch is professor of urban planning and geography, and dean of University of California, Berkeley, College of Environmental Design. Her most recent work analyzes connections between city form, physical activity, and public health, and seeks to address environmental justice issues by improving access to urban parks and recreational resources.
The efforts in research and teaching that fly under the flag of the “urban humanities” represent one example of a much larger set of phenomena that have emerged across humanistic disciplines for the past two decades. That hybrid initiatives like this have appeared alongside many more broad-based interdisciplinary efforts is telling of the challenges involved in attempting to transform the knowledge and practices that had settled into more or less stable institutional configurations. The existing configurations have proven difficult to change because our institutions are less malleable than we might wish, and because they provide a sense of permanence—some would say a false sense of permanence—in the face of broad shifts in the external conditions surrounding the academic enterprise such as the withdrawal of public support for state institutions and the privatization of higher education across all sectors. But the naturalization of disciplines cannot be a good thing because it leads us to forget that the disciplines are human constructs, and that neither the objects of their study nor their methodological predilections are natural features of the world. It is not that disciplines are intrinsically pernicious, since specialization has led to greater insight and practical interventions, but that academic disciplines have progressively narrowed an appreciation of the meaning of human existence and ways in which it can be bettered.
The creation of interdisciplinary fields has been one way of moving beyond disciplinary specialization toward a more holistic appreciation of the world and its problems. Since the 1980s, interdisciplinarity has given rise to various subdisciplinary “studies” (e.g., women’s studies, gender studies, sound studies). California was on the forefront of this trend. With them there have emerged new departments and centers. Their aim has been to establish areas of inquiry not recognized by preexisting disciplines (or concealed by them) and to create institutional spaces in which they could achieve the legitimacy enjoyed by the “traditional” humanistic disciplines like philosophy, history, and English. At the same time, the very notion of the “humanities” has come under various pressures, some originating from external demands to justify their relevance to contemporary realities, and others originating organically from within the disciplines themselves, motivated by the desire to establish more meaningful connections with a broad range of worldly activity. This has given rise to the hybrid humanities.
Why the “hybrid” modifier? Taken by itself, the term “humanities” carries relatively little meaning for those disciplines internal to it, serving mostly as a convenient abstraction for scholars who need to represent their disciplines externally, or for those on the outside who often demonstrate very little knowledge of the kind of work that humanists do. By contrast, the “hybrid humanities” better describe new areas of inquiry, areas where humanists have been making productive new connections, often outside established disciplines. These connections bridge some of the time-honored questions in the humanities with a set of new and emergent methods, technologies, and materials. The digital humanities, including some of its specific foci such as digital history, are some of the most prominent examples of the hybridization of the humanities. Other fields coalescing as spatial humanities, geohumanities, urban humanities, and global urban humanities represent more recent instances of this same hybridizing effort.
The hybridization reflected in the emergent field of urban humanities has happened with the willing participation of the environmental design disciplines, including architecture, urban and regional planning, and landscape and environmental design. Indeed, some argue that both as a discipline and as a practice, architecture became hybrid early on. In lectures delivered during the 1990s, later published under the title How Architecture Got its Hump, Roger Connah argued that architecture has long been “subject to interrelations with other disciplines. Film, photography, drawing, philosophy, and language are perhaps more familiar and fashionable interrelations. Recent indications suggest that dance, music, opera, physics, chaos theories, the new science of materials, computer science and software, and even boxing and cuisine are now being explored as serious analogical sources and interference for architectural theory, prediction, space, and metaphysics.…”1 Add to this list the new technologies associated with geographical information systems (GIS) plus a renewed interest in place as a means of counterbalancing the anonymizing forces of globalization, and it is not difficult to see how and why an environment hospitable to collaboration would begin to emerge.
The short history of the geohumanities is instructive because it represents a transdisciplinary merger that originated outside the humanities, from geography. The movement has its origins in a 2007 conference at the University of Virginia, organized by the Association of American Geographers (AAG). At that time, the term “geohumanities” had not yet been invented. The conference’s principal presentations were later included in a collective volume entitled GeoHumanities: Art, History, and Text at the Edge of Place (Routledge, 2011). It included critical reflections, empirical analyses, topical vignettes, and artwork from many fields, organized in a four-part structure: creative places (geocreativity); spatial literacies (geotexts); visual geographies (geoimagery); and spatial histories (geohistory). Place emerged as the common analytical focus of the book’s contributors. The editors prized transdisciplinarity, which seeks a fusion of diverse disciplinary approaches into novel hybrids distinct from parent disciplines, because its nonexclusionary openness to all forms of knowing produced a kind of “democratic intelligence” incorporating different ways of seeing and offering a firmer foundation for the shift from knowledge to action. Not until the very last pages of the volume did a tentative definition of the field materialize: “The geohumanities that emerges in this book is a transdisciplinary and multimethodological inquiry that begins with the human meanings of place and proceeds to reconstruct those meanings in ways that produce new knowledge and the promise of a better-informed scholarly and political practice.” 2 A few years later, in 2014, the AAG launched a new journal entitled GeoHumanities, with an editorial board comprised of geographers and representatives of many humanities disciplines, signaling the legitimacy of this maturing discipline.
As with the geohumanities, the global urban humanities exert an expansive force over the way the humanities have tended to operate, both at the level of theory and as a set of practices—i.e., it has encouraged expansion of the theoretical and practical fields operative among humanists with global relevance. What specifically are those expansive forces?
The humanities have long privileged texts as their model, even where their primary materials were not texts in the literal sense—for example, musical scores, or easel paintings. The dominant metaphor of the disciplines was “reading,” a term that signaled both the preeminence of texts and the fact that the work of the humanities lay principally in interpretation. But in privileging reading and interpretation, too little attention was paid to lived experience; indeed, most sophisticated theories of interpretation cautioned against making connections between what was available as text and any sense of experience at all. To make the humanities global and urban meant, first of all, attending to conditions that cannot be fully metaphorized as “texts.” They incorporate what is left out in the process of textualization—that is, all the physical, material, social, and geographical factors that happen together in real time and in real space, even if they are recorded textually in ways that can be retrieved post hoc. And second, going global and urban introduced to the humanities a much broader tool kit of representational opportunities and analytical methods—e.g., in mapping and comparative textual investigations. In short, the urban humanities expanded the field of humanistic inquiry by adding new dimensions—of time, space, mapping, method—to the relatively two-dimensional world of textual interpretation.
Photograph courtesy of Margaret Crawford
The urban humanities have also posed previously neglected questions about practice and intervention on top of, or alongside, questions of interpretation. Humanists rarely use the word “intervention,” or have done so principally in the context of discursive engagements in response to a conference paper or lecture. By contrast, profession-oriented fields such as architecture and urban planning embrace questions about what can and might be done. The hovering question—what should be done?—demands a practical response to what is but also creates an opening for speculation about the possibilities of what might be. In the zone where environmental design intersects with the humanities, humanists are drawn to think in ways that are at once more practical and more imaginative than they are accustomed to. That effort, in turn, has consequences that are potentially beneficial for the disposition of the humanities more broadly conceived. Indeed, one of the criticisms leveled at the humanities is that the disciplines are too heavily weighted toward critical analysis and take insufficient notice of the possibilities for positive transformation.3 It has too often been forgotten that “ideology” is only meaningful in contrast to “utopia,” and that bottomless critique will eventually eat away any hope for a constructive view of the world. In engaging with future prospects, the urban humanities have introduced a way of thinking that stands some chance of breaking free from the hermeneutics of suspicion.
Not surprisingly, much urban humanities work has drawn on the creative disciplines—art practice, new media, theatre and performance, etc. But there is an additional reason why the disciplines just mentioned have been so hospitable to this work, which has more to do with method than with subject matter. Conventional humanistic scholarship has by and large been an individual affair. Notwithstanding exemplary efforts of teamwork that have produced magnificent outcomes (e.g., the Chicago Assyrian Dictionary), humanists have operated for the most part as solo practitioners. The dominant model has been the lone scholar in the archive. Because divergence and dominance weigh more heavily than collaboration in the appraisal of humanistic research, there have been few incentives for humanists to collaborate. In the traditional humanities, the important thing is to demonstrate how one’s particular view (interpretation) diverges from those already available, and then to hope for the dominance of that view, which all others will respectfully cite, at least until they can assert some powerful divergence from it. In work coalescing around the urban humanities, where interpretation is not privileged over creativity, design, and intervention, there is greater room—indeed, an imperative—for collaborative endeavors. Because work in theater and other arts is also open to the participation of multiple actors, the convergence between these disciplines and the urban humanities is not difficult to understand. At the same time, exposure to the kinds of studio work and field study that are familiar in environmental design challenges humanists to experience what it is like to work collectively, hence less proprietarily than they are used to. These pedagogical situations have obliged humanists to explore new ways of working, drawing on skills that they may find new and strange, pressing the need to show work that is preliminary and offered in formal criticism sessions at various stages of finality, and questioned for its practical utility and application.
None of these comments should be taken as a judgment against the traditional humanities. There is simply too much of the world’s knowledge—and experience—bound in books (and musical scores, and works of art) for anyone to forsake the values of reading and interpretation. It should not be forgotten that reading itself generates new experiences. Montaigne wrote, “…there are more books about books than about any other subject.” 4 A master of irony, and endowed with great worldly wisdom brought from experience, Montaigne did not abandon writing, but rather assumed a distanced stance in relation to the book he was writing, which he also claimed was identical with himself.
Looking ahead, gathering researchers in transdisciplinary dialogue may not be as difficult as it first seems. Scholars are already accustomed to engaging simultaneously with multiple viewpoints; this is, after all, the basis of argumentation. We are capable of assessing different kinds of evidence and readily commit to transparency—that is, being forthcoming about how our studies are framed and conclusions derived. Many scholars willingly admit to the provisionality of their findings, and the inevitability that today’s knowledges will be superseded by subsequent discoveries and reinterpretations. Remarkably, we almost always acknowledge the utility of transdisciplinary work, as if the potential of such engagement is self-evident. Given these widespread, seemingly propitious circumstances, what could stand in the way of successful collaborative practice?
Two common hurdles blocking diversity in academic discourse are exceptionalism and exclusivity. The former refers to an assertion that one’s own practice is axiomatically superior because one’s own field or discipline somehow furnishes more fundamental or analytically more powerful insights than all others; and the latter actively elevates my claim for special privilege by diminishing yours. One such expression of privilege—intra-, rather than inter-disciplinary, in this case—is the current spat in physics. It concerns the apparent willingness of many physicists to set aside the requirement for experimental confirmation of a theory, largely on the grounds that empirical verification (or falsification) of today’s ambitious “blue-sky” theorizing is impossible. In a Nature article defending “the integrity of physics,” Ellis and Silk argue against weakening the “testability requirement for fundamental physics,” because this would represent a break with “centuries of philosophical tradition of defining scientific knowledge as empirical.” 5 While not prohibiting the practice of imaginative, evidence-independent inquiry, they warn that legitimacy of the scientific method is at stake, insisting that the “imprimatur of science should be awarded only to a theory that is testable.” 6 The merit of this argument is not at issue here; far more germane is the manner in which their exceptionalism and exclusivity are used to bludgeon peers who search for new ways of seeing.
Collage by Ettore Santi.
These days, the assertions that there is no such thing as a single method or world-view and that there is no Grand Theory of Everything are neither original nor especially provocative intellectual stances. All theories are partial, even though many may possess a topical home domain, which their practitioners claim renders some special insight. British philosopher Isaiah Berlin long ago pointed out that human conflicts over differing values are real and unavoidable, and have little or no potential for satisfactory reconciliation. In the face of such radical incommensurabilities, Berlin concluded that we had better focus on learning how to live with them and how to choose between irreconcilable value systems, rather than construct intellectual conceits and imagined worlds where reconciliation may be feasible. 7 California’s intellectual culture is favorable to this.
Beyond the academy, opposition to transdisciplinarity can be traced to the current political climate associated with neoliberal austerity and its seemingly universal mandate to “Do More With Less.” Facing intrusive performance measures, diminished support for public universities, increased emphasis on grant-getting, and proof of relevance in teaching and research, academicians of all stripes are circling their disciplinary wagons as a prelude to launching fierce counteroffenses against any and all exogenous attacks. In defense of their solipsistic worlds, scholars have invented an extraordinary vocabulary for passing judgment, and one can only marvel at the variety and nuance that we have invented to credit or discredit our peers. It’s up to practitioners of the hybrid humanities, together with their allies in the digital humanities, geohumanities, and elsewhere to reveal the gains made through their transdisciplinary collaborations. In short, they need to demonstrate the superior outcomes of collaboration.
To give two indications: classical social theory is founded in a distinction between structure and agency, or between the enduring, deep-seated practices and institutions that undergird society (such as markets, law) and the everyday voluntaristic behavior of individuals. In the past, despite the best intentions, the cleavage between structure and agency seems to have done more to separate disciplinary camps than to act as a fulcrum for articulating the connections between the two. Our experience has been that urban humanities produce superior understandings of the structure/agency connection by its self-conscious, simultaneous engagement with social theory, human experience, and social action. In addition, humanities students hitherto steeped in the “lone scholar” ethos have blossomed intellectually and creatively in response to the collective experience of the studio setting, direct community engagement, and immersion in the “maker” culture of real-world environmental design.
This is only a beginning, and much work and persuasion remain to be done. The greatest imminent challenge facing the emerging urban humanities is how it can be absorbed into the institutional setting of the university without becoming just one more programmatic emphasis in a cross-disciplinary curriculum, or even a new subdiscipline in its own right. Fortunately, examples abound of how to proceed effectively without capitulating to institutional rigor mortis. They include myriad forms of creative commons abundant in the tech world, and the blaze of experimental learning settings spreading like wildfire across campuses. It is no coincidence that many of these teaching and research start-ups include the appellation Design in their titles and manifestos.
Centuries ago the great Montaigne practiced distancing himself from his writing in order to find perspective and generate new experience. These days, perspective and innovation are more readily realized through the surprising transdisciplinary collaborations of the kind envisaged in the urban humanities.
Roger Connah, How Architecture Got Its Hump (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2001), xv-xvi.
Michael Dear, J. Ketchum, S. Luria and D. Richardson, eds., Geohumanities: Art, History & Text at the Edge of Place (New York: Routledge, 2011), 312.
See Michael Roth, Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015).
Michel de Montaigne, Essays, Donald Frame, trans. (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1958), 818.
George Ellis and Joe Silk, “Defend the Integrity of Physics,” Nature 516 18.25 (December 2014): 321–322.
John Gray, “The Case for Decency,” New York Review of Books, 13 July 2006, 20–22.
Anthony J. Cascardi is dean of Arts and Humanities at the University of California, Berkeley, and professor of comparative literature, rhetoric, and Spanish. He is former director of the Townsend Center for the Humanities and of the Arts Research Center.
Michael Dear is professor emeritus of city and regional planning in the University of California, Berkeley, College of Environmental Design. His most recent book is Why Walls Won’t Work: Repairing the US-Mexico Divide.
They may change the names, but they can’t take Yosemite from us.
Or can they?
I’ve come back to Yosemite regularly since I was a young California kid in the 1950s. Yosemite never disappoints, as one of my friends says, though it is becoming increasingly difficult and expensive for some of us to experience Yosemite.
I’ve camped in many of the park’s campgrounds, stayed in Camp Curry’s tent cabins, played cards in the Ahwahnee Hotel lobby, spent New Year’s Eve in a cheap room in the Wawona Hotel, and nearly frozen to death in a camper in the parking lot of Yosemite Lodge.
All those names have been changed and, still, Yosemite endures. But how long will the Yosemite experience be accessible for an average Californian, visiting on the cheap what seemed our park but seems increasingly less so now, even as the valley is crowded for another high season in the Sierra?
Photograph by Flickr user mjmonty.
The problem with names in Yosemite did not start with the Delaware North corporation and their now infamous trademark claims. It started when the valley’s indigenous people were pushed out and the profiteers moved in.
In 1851, a group of white militiamen calling themselves the Mariposa Battalion, led by the aptly named James D. Savage, invaded what is now known as Yosemite Valley. They came on a mission of conquest, aiming to either remove the local natives or exterminate them in order to make the surrounding territory safe for miners, settlers, and profiteers.
The militiamen mostly focused on rounding up Indians and burning their homes and caches of food. But a few militiamen were impressed with the scenic wonders of the valley and took the time to name them. The first thing they had to name was the valley itself. The Indians called the valley Ahwahnee—at least that is how it was rendered in English. Ahwahnee has been variously translated as “Deep Grassy Valley” or as “Place of the Big Mouth.” But the invaders wanted to treat the place as their own, so they renamed it Yosemite. The etymology of the name remains in dispute, but it has stuck.
Many years later in 1927, when a certain majestic hotel was named the Ahwahnee, it was without any payment to the people who named the valley. It took a certain corporate entity named Delaware North to make a monetary claim to the original name of the valley nearly a century later.
At one point in the war waged by the Mariposa Battalion, an encampment of Indians was found on a lake northeast of the valley, not far from what is now known as Tuolumne Meadows. The militiamen told Chief Tenaya, the leader of the group, that they were going to name the lake in his honor. Tenaya protested that the lake already had a name. “We call it Pyweack,” he is reported to have said, as he pointed to a group of nearby glistening peaks and told the militiamen that the name meant the lake of shining rocks. The militiamen had other shiny rocks in mind, particularly gold. They disregarded Tenaya’s claim to name the lake.
Nobody ever found gold in Yosemite Valley, not in the ground anyway. But it did not take long for profiteers to realize that there was money to be made from tourists here. Long before there were any roads, even wagon roads, there were gutsy tourists ready to take a long and difficult saddle ride to see the old haunts of Tenaya’s people—and they had money to spend.
One of the first hotels to be set up, in 1858, was called the Upper Hotel, built near Yosemite Falls. In 1864, the Upper Hotel was taken over by James Mason Hutchings and renamed Hutchings House.
The ensuing struggle over Hutchings House was the beginning of the legal battles over property and names in Yosemite.
Neither Hutchings, nor those who preceded him, nor any of the other hoteliers in Yosemite Valley ever paid for the land they appropriated. In the spirit of the day, the land was there for the taking by homesteaders. It wasn’t until 1864, when President Abraham Lincoln signed the Yosemite Grant Act, that ownership of the land became an issue. The Yosemite Grant Act set aside Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Big Tree Grove to be managed by the state of California “for public use, resort, and recreation… inalienable for all time,” although “leases not exceeding ten years may be granted for portions of said premises.”
Hutchings and other squatters in the valley took umbrage at the idea that they did not own the land on which they operated. They mounted a legal challenge to the new state of affairs, a case that went all the way to the US Supreme Court. In 1872, the court ruled that Hutchings and his allies had no valid claims to the land.
Robert Binnewies, a former park superintendent at Yosemite who recently wrote a book entitled Your Yosemite: A Threatened Public Treasure, states:
“[While] Hutchings was reduced from presiding as presumptive landowner of… some of the most prized scenic real estate on earth to becoming a tenant functioning under permit at the pleasure of the [State] Board of Park Commissioners… this stalwart trailblazer was not left empty handed. He was compensated by the State of California for the structures and bridges he had constructed, receiving $24,000 [a princely sum in those days] and the right to continue to operate his hotel as a public benefit, a decision that set the stage for concessionaire services in national parks that continues to this day.”
Photograph by Christina B Castro, via Flickr.
That was no small precedent. It established the right of private, profit-seeking concessionaires to operate in national parks. It ultimately brought Delaware North to Yosemite. It also laid the foundation for the current dispute between Delaware North, the park’s new concessionaire Aramark, and the National Park Service over naming rights in the park.
Binnewies’s book is full of insights into the history of Yosemite, particularly commercial development in the park. Binnewies, who was superintendent between 1979 and 1986, describes Yosemite Valley as “the seat of the largest commercial operation in any national park, anywhere in the world.” He writes that there is “a constant push by commercial vendors for more profit centers” and “a constant resistance by park administrators and environmental advocates to further development.”
Ed Hardy, head of the Yosemite Park and Curry Company, is the chief villain in Binnewies’s story. “Hardy’s responsibility was to maximize profits for his corporate employer,” writes Binnewies, “while mine was to maximize preservation for my public employer; the scale on which our conflicting agendas rested was unsteady.”
Mixing his metaphors, Binnewies later writes, “Hardy and I were in the same canoe but attempting to paddle in opposite directions, making it difficult to avoid capsizing.”
Hardy had come to Yosemite several years before Binnewies when the Music Corporation of America bought the Curry Company in 1973. MCA was a holding company that was involved not only in the music recording industry, but also in film by virtue of its ownership of Universal Pictures. MCA had additional holdings in television, book publishing, and more.
As Binnewies described it, the Curry Company was now managed “from afar, sometimes by executives who never had or would visit Yosemite.” One of Hardy’s first moves was to propose an aerial tramway from YosemiteValley to Glacier Point, “allowing customers to be dramatically levitated through 3,000 feet of airspace amidst breathtaking scenery,” writes Binnewies. According to Hardy, this would be a means of providing alternative transportation that would relieve visitors from their dependence on automobiles. The tramway also would have transported guests to a rebuilt Glacier Point Hotel, which had burned down in 1969.
Neither of these proposals ever got significant traction, but MCA had more plans. Their next “gambit to cash in on Yosemite” was a television series entitled Sierra, featuring “crime-busting Yosemite Rangers,” Binnewies writes. The production crew, “not liking the natural color of some rocks in a scene shot in Yosemite, decided to paint them.” Mercifully, the show lasted only three months, so the damage was limited.
The funniest story Binnewies tells about his time in Yosemite is about a visit by James Watt, Ronald Reagan’s Secretary of the Interior from 1981 to 1983. When visiting Yosemite in 1982. “Watt made clear that he always wanted me by his side when photos were taken,” Binnewies writes. “He knew of the good image that park rangers had nationwide and wanted to be so associated, but only for the photo opportunities.” When Binnewies tried to talk to Watt about development in the valley, “Watt quickly cut me off by saying ‘the more hotels, the better—fill up the whole valley.’”
The Curry Company didn’t just want to fill the valley with hotel rooms. It wanted wilderness areas drawn so that the rim of the valley would also be open to development. Imagine standing in Yosemite Valley today and looking up at hotels and restaurants on the rim. The Curry Company also wanted to expand the area on which the High Sierra Camps in the Yosemite backcountry stand, from about two acres to thirty acres each, “allowing the tiny camps to ultimately morph into alpine villages of a sort.”
All these plans were defeated eventually, and Binnewies tells the tale well, including the decisive interventions of the late, great Congressman Philip Burton. In the end, however, this reader was left wondering about the stories Binnewies didn’t tell, the names left unnamed.
Photograph by Ray Krebs, via Flickr.
Another author who has written a lot about Yosemite, historian Alfred Runte, complains about how in 1983, near the end of Binnewies’s time in Yosemite:
“A spacious lounge at Yosemite Lodge was gutted, subdivided, and wholly replaced by a $262,000 bar, conference meeting rooms, and lodge store annex… Park Superintendent Robert Binnewies further applauded its brightness and spaciousness, noting that for once problem drinkers would be ‘forced into the light.’ The old location, he explained, was very cramped and too dark, making it difficult for park rangers to monitor everyone’s behavior.”
I remember that lounge the way it used to be—a space where visitors could warm themselves by a fire without having to buy anything—and what it became: one more “profit center,” as Binnewies describes it in his book.
Binnewies eventually capsized himself. In 1986, he was transferred out of Yosemite to a new post in the park service when it was revealed that he had secretly recorded a conversation with Chuck Cushman, a property owner in Wawona, who went on to found the American Land Rights Association, a national organization dedicated to “protecting private property rights” inside national parks and on other federal lands.
Binnewies eventually left the park service but remains passionate about Yosemite. Today, he serves on the advisory board of Restore Hetch Hetchy, a group working to remove a dam and reservoir that filled a valley in the park said to be the equal of Yosemite Valley before it was destroyed to provide water storage for San Francisco.
In his book, Binnewies relates the events that brought Delaware North to Yosemite after he left.
In 1990, a Japanese company, Matsushita Electric Industrial Company, bought MCA. Matsushita, now known as Panasonic, is one of the largest consumer electronics firms in the world. This created a furious, chauvinistic uproar about Yosemite concessions being managed by a foreign company. Matsushita agreed to sell the Curry Company, including about 800 buildings, to the nonprofit National Park Foundation for $49.5 million.
The deal transferred all Curry Company assets to the National Park Service. This meant that ownership of all the hotels, restaurants, and associated concessions in the park became public property. This could and should have been an opportunity for the National Park Service to take direct control of almost all of the commercial activities in Yosemite National Park. Why not run Yosemite accommodations for the benefit of visitors and the public at large, instead of the benefit of a handful of corporate profiteers?
Instead, a “nonprofit idea was sparked to life,” Binnewies writes. Conceding that there should be competition among nongovernmental entities for the right to run Yosemite’s accommodations, an impressive group of movers and shakers put together a bid for a concession contract to be managed by a new nonprofit called the Yosemite Restoration Trust Services Corporation.
The National Park Service under President George H.W. Bush ruled that the Yosemite Restoration Trust Services Corporation was “not qualified” for the contract, Binnewies writes, “supposedly due to a lack of sufficient cash in the bank and no prior resort-management experience.” The Bush administration “was not wresting the [Curry Company] contract from Matsushita in order to convert National Park Service concession activities to not-for-profit status… [The administration] was simply eager to pass along those activities at Yosemite to the next private vendor and the next group of shareholders.”
Delaware North won the contract.
The roots of today’s fight over Delaware North’s claim to own the trademark rights to Yosemite place names—including the Ahwahnee Hotel, Yosemite Lodge, Curry Village, the Wawona Hotel, Badger Pass, and even Yosemite National Park itself—lie in the fine print of that contract.
But a dispute over names, as revealing and irksome as it may be, is only a sideshow to the real issue involved in the commercialization of Yosemite. The real issue is why our national parks are used as profit centers for private corporations in the first place.
In the words of Alfred Runte, the “fundamental flaw” in how Yosemite is run is “the privatization—for profit—of the sale of food, lodging, supplies, and transportation to incoming visitors.”
In March 2015, Derrick Crandall, a spokesman for the National Parks Hospitality Association, an organization that represents concessionaires, told the online National Parks Traveler that there is “an opportunity to enhance the ability of visitors to enjoy the park experience.”
How? The one concrete example Crandall gave was this: “…when you look at Yosemite Valley, and you have 1,500 rooms [including tent cabins]… I’m not afraid to say at some point we should look at how we upgrade those rooms so that 1,500 rooms have 1,500 bathrooms.”
Crandall’s math is a little suspect. According to the National Park Service, there are only 1,053 “lodging units” in Yosemite Valley, plus 640 campsites, not Crandall’s 1,500 rooms.
But you get the idea. It is not more bathrooms that Crandall and his constituents want. It is more hotel rooms. They don’t care about tent cabins, bathrooms, or visitors who may not be able to pay hotel rates. What they really want are more customers with more money to spend.
Photograph by Flickr user Jasperdo.
Crandall also testified before a House subcommittee last year that the National Park Service should allow “dynamic pricing of services”—that is, higher charges for visitors at times of higher demand—in order to “increase franchise fees to the NPS by 50 percent within three years” and, not coincidentally, provide bigger profits for concessionaires.
Chris Belland, CEO of Historic Tours of America, told the same House subcommittee, “Recreation and tourism are a trillion dollar industry, and national parks are widely regarded as a top asset of this industry.”
Photograph by Flickr user Chris D 2006.
Just how and when did our national parks become an asset of industry?
The concessionaires are not the only ones who have dollar signs in mind. The National Park Service developed a plan to tear down the 245 rooms at Yosemite Lodge and replace them with 440 units in four new three-story structures, plus a new parking lot for 395 more cars. The same plan called for all of the tent-cabins in Curry Village to be replaced with permanent lodging. This plan was called Alternative 6 in the Merced River Plan, adopted in 2014.
The park service created Alternative 6 for the Merced River Plan and then rejected it in favor of Alternative 5, which calls for replacing fifty-two tent cabins in Curry Village with new hard-sided “cabin/hotel rooms” in two-story structures. This plan has gotten little publicity, but it could change Curry Village much more than renaming it “Half Dome Village.”
John Muir once wrote:
“Nothing dollarable is safe, however guarded. Thus the Yosemite Park, the beauty, glory of California and the nation, Nature’s own mountain wonderland, has been attacked by spoilers ever since it was established, and this strife, I suppose, must go on as part of the eternal battle between right and wrong.”
And, yet, even in 1880, a visitor to Yosemite named Lieutenant Colonel William Francis Butler could observe:
“They have written much about it; they have painted and photographed it many times. They have made roads and bridle-paths to it, built hotels and drinking saloons in it, brought the cosmopolite cockney to it, excursioned to it, picnicked in it, scraped names upon its rocks, levied tolls by its waterfalls, sung Hail! Columbia beneath the shadows of its precipices, swallowed smashes and slings under its pine-trees; outraged, desecrated, and profaned it, but still it stands an unmatched monument hewn by ice and fire from the very earth itself.”
Yosemite never disappoints—by any name. Be sure to visit while you still can.
Photograph by Flickr user TVZ Design.
Marc Norton is a union member, political activist, organizer, and writer in San Francisco. His website is http://www.MarcNorton.us.
At its lowest points, the levee ringing the former naval station of Treasure Island clears the lapping brackish waters of San Francisco Bay by about four feet during the highest tides.1According to current sea-level-rise projections, the bay could overtop the levee sometime this century. The return of Treasure Island to the bay whence it came would start with a few exuberant splashes during storms and extreme high tides, then more routine flooding at very high tides, and then flooding every day, twice a day, beginning a slow conversion of the island to tidal wetlands, and finally history.
Of course, that will happen only if the levee isn’t built higher or if Treasure Island doesn’t rise up to match the encroaching waters. That’s exactly what’s planned as part of a long-awaited redevelopment on the island, set to get underway later this year. Solving the problem by raising the levee alone would wall off the island from its spectacular views of downtown San Francisco, the East Bay, and the Golden Gate, which planners deemed unacceptable (and future residents would likely agree). Instead, they’ve assembled a mix of mitigation measures. They’ll increase levee heights a few feet in some places and truck in fill to raise the elevation of the developed parts of the island. They’ll build a robust new storm-drain system and require that the base floors of all new buildings and transportation infrastructure sit three-and-a-half feet above the projected 100-year water level. They acknowledge that even in the near term, during certain high-water events like storms, some of the open spaces may develop temporary ponds—a preview of coming attractions, perhaps.
Sea level rise is something developers are now required to consider when planning new projects along the shore of San Francisco Bay. But it wasn’t on the minds of the people who began filling in a stretch of shoals in the center of the bay to create Treasure Island in 1936. They had no idea that a warming planet and rising waters would one day threaten the mile-long chamfered rectangle they were “reclaiming.” They were focused instead on a much more foreseeable challenge: building Treasure Island so that it could host a World’s Fair, the Golden Gate International Exposition of 1939.
Into the Void Pacific, by University of California, Berkeley associate professor of architecture Andrew M. Shanken, undertakes a detailed examination of the politics and processes of design that produced the layout, monuments, and buildings of the 1939 fair, and how those buildings were executed and received. Within his design history, Shanken considers the fair as an expression of identity and ambition, a projection of power—America’s, California’s, and San Francisco’s power—into a new Pacific world order.
Shanken’s book is also about how we try to build for a future that we think is coming, and how we frequently get it wrong.
Treasure Island and the new bridges, looking west. Courtesy Oakland Public Library, Oakland History Room.
The 1939 fair was, as Shanken points out, a “pretext” to accelerate the creation of Treasure Island itself, where San Francisco planned to build a new major airport after the exposition’s end. By the early 1930s, civic leaders looking for the next engine of development turned their gazes skyward. They saw a future in which airborne transportation would determine a city’s fortunes, and they set about building the infrastructure necessary to seize it for San Francisco’s benefit. Adjacent to the natural Yerba Buena Island, where the two spans of a newly proposed Bay Bridge would meet, Treasure Island was thought to be an ideal place for a new airport, providing easy access to San Francisco and Oakland. Build the bridge, and a new island airport begins to seem practical. Propose a fair to celebrate the new bridge. Use the fair to speed up the creation of the island for the airport. It helped that federal funding through the Works Progress Administration was available for this audacious building spree.
Shanken argues that the bridge-fair-airport scheme was San Francisco’s gambit in a competition for West Coast economic dominance. San Francisco saw itself in a race with other cities, in particular Los Angeles, but its growth was constrained by its peninsular geography. The Bay Bridge and the Golden Gate Bridge, both built in the 1930s, were attempts to escape those confines, and they helped the city expand its influence over the wider region. Its state-spanning and region-serving water system, its railroad connections, and its then-robust seaport had also been critical to San Francisco’s growth.
Like the bridge and the island airport, the 1939 fair was a tool for expressing and, city leaders hoped, realizing San Francisco’s goals for the future its elected and business elite saw coming. Shanken explains that, with the fair, San Francisco was willing itself to become “the hub of what civic leaders imagined as an emerging Pacific civilization that would supplant the Atlantic world.” That no such “Pacific civilization” existed seemed not to bother the fair’s designers; they would create one. They would “transplant and synthesize” elements of the distinct cultures ringing the great ocean and make California “the melting pot of the Pacific.”
Shanken attempts to make sense of the Golden Gate International Exposition’s muddled program and ideology. The design of the fair’s buildings and their contents, he writes, aimed to position the city as the center of a vast western region that extended across the Pacific. The City’s regional consciousness had imperial ambitions. The rhetoric of the GGIE tapped into this idea, extending the reach of imperial San Francisco to the Pacific in a moment when air transportation promised to shrink the oceans and make such a plan possible. The immense symbolic power expressed by the China Clipper landing at Treasure Island brought these associations into plain view. The name of the island itself echoed the sentiment. And so would the architecture become an accomplice of this fantasy.
Into the Void Pacific is rich with drawings, photographs, and passages from documents and correspondence by the fair’s designers, visitors, and critics that document this fantasy-abetting architectural enterprise. Shanken re-creates the look and experience of the fair as it was at the time—which is helpful, since almost none of its buildings are standing today. Visiting Treasure Island now, it is almost impossible to picture the Golden Gate International Exposition as it stood in 1939 and 1940, because it left so few traces on the ground.
Even before the fair opened in February 1939, its fever dream of a unified “Pacific civilization” was being undermined by reality. Japan, which had occupied Manchuria since 1932, launched a full-scale invasion of China in 1937. (Reflecting its own grand Pacific ambitions, Japan set up an ornate, 50,000-square-foot pavilion at the fair—the largest of any foreign country. China had no official participation.) By the fair’s end on 29 September 1940, Japan had taken control of French Indochina and signed the Tripartite Pact with Italy and Germany, creating what would be called the “Axis” powers. There was no Pacific world in contrast with an Atlantic world, as the fair had offered. There was simply one world, and it was at war.
Detail of construction of the “nave” of the Federal Building. From the Visual Resources Center, University of California, Berkeley.
When the fair ended, the United States was still more than a year from formally joining that war, but the momentum of global events was clear. In early 1941, the Navy leased Treasure Island from San Francisco and opened a receiving center there, and in the spring of 1942 it acquired the island from the city outright (though not without protest from San Francisco over the low price paid).2As it transformed the island from playground to training ground, the Navy demolished or paved over most of the exposition’s buildings, monuments, and formal courtyards.
Today, only four original buildings remain. They include two large hangars and a semicircular administration building, aligned on the island’s southern edge, which had been designed to serve the airport that never was. (The administration building is even topped with a small control tower in anticipation of its intended use.) The fourth, a model home from the fair called the “California Home of the West,” has been altered significantly and now houses a restaurant and banquet space called the Oasis Café.3
The rest of Treasure Island is covered with a hodge-podge of open spaces and structures built during its use as a naval station from 1942 to 1997: warehouses, classroom buildings, offices, apartments, and other buildings in various states of occupancy, disrepair, or outright abandonment. About 2,000 people live in the apartments today. There’s plenty of parking, though some lots are chained off with regularly spaced red, white, and blue shields bearing the words “US GOVT PROPERTY NO TRESPASSING.” The word “NO” is the largest element. Other parts of the island are closed to entry with a different kind of sign: yellow rectangles warning of radioactive contamination—another legacy of the Navy years, though not as tangible as the buildings.
This utilitarian, decrepit, partly toxic landscape is a far cry from the spectacle that the fair must have presented, and that is captured in the photographs and diagrams of Into the Void Pacific. Shanken’s book can help us with the difficult trick of seeing Treasure Island’s past. But it’s harder to see its future.
The plans for Treasure Island’s redevelopment call for razing most of the structures on the island and replacing them with, among other elements, up to 8,000 housing units, 140,000 square feet of commercial space, 100,000 square feet of offices, three hotels, 300 acres of open space, and a new ferry terminal.4Demolition of some existing structures has begun, but the full project is expected to take about twenty years to complete. (Given the nature of California planning and environmental laws, this may well prove optimistic.) The plans approved to date give a rough idea of what will be built where, but later phases will add details to this new small city in the middle of the bay. Right now, it’s a gauzy rendering.
Part of the difficulty of imagining the past and the future of Treasure Island may have to do with the island’s fundamental impermanence. Buildings burn, fall apart, are demolished and replaced. Land, though—we’re not used to land going away. Perhaps we should work to accustom ourselves to this idea, but for now, our senses struggle to accommodate it.
Painting of the Tower of the Sun, Golden Gate International Exposition, by Chesley Bonestell. Collection of the Oakland Museum of California. Gift of Heather Fowler.
Thanks to Burrito Justice for his map of the Treasure Island fair site.
Editor’s note: Photographer Noé Montes knows the Imperial Valley of California as few do. His long relationship with the land began in childhood, first taking it in through the car window as his family looked for work in the fields of the vast valley bordering Mexico south of the Salton Sea. In his twenties, Montes crisscrossed the valley when he worked as a farm equipment repair technician.
Though possessed by a desire to photograph the Imperial Valley since he first learned to use a camera, Montes hadn’t acted on that desire until recently. Last year, with a journalism fellowship from the Alicia Patterson Foundation, he began a project to document the valley’s landscapes and people. He continued that work in this photo essay for Boom.
Montes sees the valley’s spare environment as not just aesthetically compelling, but also saturated with meaning—meaning that has changed over time, and that continues to change as California agricultural changes.
“I thought about the pictures I would make here for many, many years,” he says. “I am, of course, seeing the same things that have always been there, but these things are now imbued with much more history and meaning. They speak to me now of systemic, historic, abuse of power.”
The Imperial Valley “is very rich in resources, but the people who live there are almost all very poor,” Montes says. “This needs to change.”