Tag: History


Fair Labor

by Abigail Markwyn

Constructing an idealized Pacific city

From Boom Spring 2015, Vol 5, No 1

The message was supposed to be simple and clear: San Francisco was the new queen of the Pacific world and a flagship city for commerce in an empire that extended west across the ocean. Planners and publicists for the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition depicted the fairgrounds as an ideal city, an efficient place where everything hummed smartly along and businessmen could not help but invest in its future. This ideal city would embody the ideals of their Progressive Era. But to make it so, they had to carefully control the tensions and politics at the center of the Progressive Era, as these tensions were expressed in the production of the fair, at a time when challenges to the lines delineating class, race, and gender were steadily gaining traction in the United States.

The boosters set themselves up for an impossible challenge. San Francisco might have been queen of the Pacific, but the city was part of the United States. Conflicts emerged at the fair almost from day one. To construct their ideal city, officials placed stringent restrictions on fair employees. But workers often had different ideas about what was right. Culinary workers clashed with traditional union bosses, white female cashiers pushed the boundaries of propriety, black female washroom attendants fought for tips and personal respect, and immigrant performers in the fair’s midway Joy Zone faced deportation after demanding back wages and fair treatment.

Why look back at these tensions during the centenary celebration of the Panama-Pacific International Exposition? The fair was supposed to celebrate all that was new, hopeful, and inspiring: technology, light shows, global connections, trade, and the nation’s new Pacific-spanning empire. But underneath the surface celebrations were deeper tensions. Looking back at this distant mirror, we might see anew some of the tensions today in technology, gender, labor, and immigration. As we continue to try to reframe and redefine California’s place in the Pacific world, some of the very close-up, personal, even mundane seeming conflicts on an ideal fairground a century ago are a reminder that constructing California’s image abroad entails real work at home, with real costs.

Modeling crew at work on Panama-Pacific International Exposition. Courtesy of the San Francisco Public Library.


In 1915, boosters dreamed of establishing San Francisco as the undisputed economic center of the Pacific world. To make it so, the leading businessmen who composed the exposition board realized that they needed an agreement with labor leaders to ensure smooth construction of the fair and to keep labor upheavals from scaring away exhibitors, visitors, or future investors. National manufacturers dedicated to antiunion, open-shop conditions feared doing business in a city with potential for labor unrest, high wages, and union shops, while union leaders were afraid low-paid workers would flood the grounds, undercutting their power in San Francisco. The city already had a burgeoning antiunion, open-shop movement, brought to greater prominence by the founding in 1914 of the Merchants’ and Manufacturers’ Association of San Francisco. To alleviate concerns and to demonstrate their support for a venture that would bring business and jobs to the city, the city’s two leading labor organizations, the Building Trades Council and the San Francisco Labor Council, entered into an informal accord with the fair.

Labor made numerous concessions, most importantly agreeing not to disrupt the fair with labor stoppages.1 This was never a formal legal agreement, despite rumors to the contrary.2 Nonetheless, the accord was widely publicized and soothed the nerves of both manufacturers and labor unions concerned about unrest at the exposition, as did extensive publicity that depicted the city as unmarred by labor disputes. The pact was dubbed the “Pax Panama Pacifica.”

The peace prevailed during construction, but a month after opening day, trouble was already beginning to brew on the fairgrounds. Dan P. Regan of the local culinary workers union complained that restaurants in the Joy Zone were failing to pay their workers and resisting employing union labor. “The papers have been lauding to the skies that the Fair was built under union conditions, but it does not state the rotten conditions under which the members of the culinary crafts have to work.”3

Unfortunately for culinary workers, pre-fair negotiations focused on the workers involved in physically constructing the exposition. Culinary workers soon learned that the fair was not, in fact, friendly to unskilled labor. By mid-March, union organizers complained that very few culinary workers were being paid on the grounds, and one local had gone so far as to “levy attachments” on vendors to force payment of wages to members. Moreover, some employers actively refused to allow their workers to unionize. Regan pleaded with John O’Connell, secretary of the San Francisco Labor Council, for aid in publicizing the problem. “It is all very well,” he argued, “for the men…that helped to build the fair [to] crow about how thankful Labor should be…but how about the unskilled man that has to work under the rotten conditions imposed upon them by the concessionaries.”4

The problem persisted even after fair officials got involved.5 In mid-April the labor council considered a request from the Cook’s Union to declare three cafes on exposition grounds “unfair.”6 The next week, the joint board of culinary workers requested a boycott of several cafes on the grounds.7 By late April, union organizers were becoming frustrated. The waitress local lodged a complaint against the Waffle Kitchen because the manager had let “all the union help go and gives our Business Agent no encouragement in regard to straightening out the house and enforcing Union conditions.”8

In early May 1915, local labor leader, former mayor, and fair director Patrick McCarthy finally stepped in to address the issue. Reminding fair officials that many labor groups were meeting in San Francisco during the fair, he threatened that the labor council would ask union supporters to stay away from the offending concessions if labor concerns were not resolved.9 Not long after his intervention, the Labor Clarion reported that the Waiter’s Union secured a raise for workers at banquets at the Old Faithful Inn and that the restaurant was employing union members only, and the union was working to win the same conditions at the Inside Inn.10

While these disputes were apparently successfully resolved, waiters and waitresses enjoyed no ongoing labor peace at the exposition. The agreement between the fair and the labor and building trades councils, informal as it was, applied to the powerful building trades unions, not the unskilled workers on the grounds. Lower wage cooks, waiters, and waitresses wielded little power in San Francisco’s labor community. An influx of workers to the city, drawn by the promise of fair jobs, limited the bargaining position of unskilled workers. Socialist influence in culinary unions may have motivated labor leaders to ignore their interests, since the traditional trade unionists had their own internecine battles with the socialists.11

The Labor Clarion briefly reported on these disputes, but overall reporting on the fair continued to be unrelentingly positive, indicating the warm relationship between labor elites and the exposition. Even the editors of the Labor Clarion did not see fit to indict fair management for failing to keep the grounds friendly to organized labor, nor did they call for action in support of the culinary workers.

The story of labor at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition reflected the story of labor across America in 1915. Progressive Era politics sought to limit the power of unions, but often did so by fashioning agreements with union leaders, bringing them into the fold of the technocratic elites that Progressives believed could best manage an increasingly complicated society run by big institutions.

The work that went into producing the fair day-to-day also provides a window into the changing role of gender and race at work in the early twentieth century.12 The exposition espoused progress as the highest value, and the artwork and rhetoric of the fair often symbolically encoded many of the central ideas of social Darwinism and scientific racism, which were rampant in America at the time. The employment structure of the fair reflected these gender and racial hierarchies. White men regulated behavior, white women upheld moral order, and people of color performed menial jobs—janitors, washroom attendants, drivers—or performed as exotic attractions in the Joy Zone.

On a cool February morning in 1915, more than nine hundred young white women reported for work to sell postcards, silver spoons, and refreshments to the throngs of tourists and locals who soon poured onto the fairgrounds from the huge opening day parade. Clad in simple blue, asexual serge suits, they served as symbolic foils to the sexualized and racialized women who performed on the Joy Zone.13 Like the white, male exposition guards, their appearance reassured visitors that despite the multitude of foreign people and products, the fair was a safe space with a recognizable racial and moral order.

Telephone switchboard in service building at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition. Courtesy of the San Francisco Public Library.


Still fair officials closely scrutinized the women’s comportment, worrying that any misbehavior among the cashiers might call the moral order of the fair into question. Less than a month after opening day, the department of concessions and admissions found it necessary to remind female cashiers of the expected standards of behavior. No “animated or extended conversations” with either employees or guests in front of their booths would be tolerated. Most importantly, cashiers were not to “be seen arm in arm with Male employees” or to frequent any of the numerous dance halls of the fair. They should spend their break times “eating their meals and attending to their personal comfort.” They were absolutely forbidden from associating with other fair employees or visiting other concessions, either while on duty or during their lunch and supper hours. This memo suggests that male and female employees in the Joy Zone had been consorting and perhaps even visiting dance halls together. The guards also received a copy of the memo, along with a note reminding them that these rules would “save these young ladies some embarrassment,” and that “cooperation upon the part of male employees would perhaps save these young ladies their jobs.”14

If these young women wandered the fair dressed in their work uniforms, dancing, drinking, and flirting with the male guards, they would reaffirm the concerns of those who feared a debauched and immoral fair in San Francisco. San Francisco’s reputation as the home of “the notorious Barbary Coast, where the lowest forms of vice and sin, show themselves, in all their hideousness and deformity” concerned fair officials and made them vigilant to emphasize San Francisco’s safety, both from physical danger and notions that might upset the social order.15 Such reassurances helped to maintain a boundary between the sexually suggestive shows of the Joy Zone, and the rest of the fair and city. If young white cashiers could work near these shows and continue to act as chaste young women, then the racial and gender lines of the fair remained in place. If they did not, then the exposition’s carefully constructed image of a respectable world’s fair might begin to crumble, and San Francisco could regain its reputation as an uncivilized frontier outpost, unsuited to be the global economic center leaders yearned to create.

But young women did not always accept these restrictions on their behavior. As more young men and women entered the urban labor force in the early twentieth century, new sexual mores emerged that challenged old ideas about female chastity and public sexuality.16 Away from their homes and families, young working-class women spent their hard-earned money on dance halls, movies, and fashionable attire, often to the horror of middle-class reformers.17 Reformers targeted brothels, prostitutes, and dance shows, and rushed to regulate the behavior of unchaperoned young people in cities across the United States.

Simmering conflicts over public sexuality and gender roles erupted at the fair as some young white female employees engaged in behaviors that shocked reformers and flouted the rules set out by officials. Exposition guards twice discovered one young Joy Zone employee occupying a back room at the ’49 Camp. Although she claimed to have permission to sleep there, after a guard discovered a man in the adjourning room the second time, the woman was escorted to the chief of concessions and immediately dismissed.18 She had failed to live up to expectations of female moral behavior at the fair. The incident revealed both the high degree of surveillance under which fair employees lived and worked, and the ways that some women attempted to circumvent the expectations of fair directors and reformers.

Asserting San Francisco’s preeminence in the Pacific world also meant demonstrating that racial lines remained firm in a newly imperial United States. In California, on the edge of the continent facing the Pacific, sexual relationships between white women and nonwhite men were a source of great anxiety. When a black employee made “insulting remarks” to a white female worker, he was sent to the exposition guards for disciplinary action.19 Another young male Hawaiian Village employee accused of paying excessive attention and making “insulting remarks” to white women also lost his job.20 Fair officials refused to tolerate racial transgressions by nonwhite men, which, like sexual transgressions by white women, threatened the public image—and potential profits—of the fair.

African Americans had hoped to use the fair to demonstrate their status as US citizens and to establish pride in their race.21 But the entry fees were high, jobs were few, and no collection of exhibits at the exposition honored their heritage or place in California. The Progressive Era—and the year 1915 in particular—was one of heightened anxiety about race relations across the country, with the release of the film Birth of a Nation and the rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan. African Americans were relegated to the position of primitive “other” at the fair either in sideshows or as menial laborers. They demanded the meager benefits their demeaning positions offered, using everyday actions to resist white supremacy.22

In late July, an exposition guard brought Helen Castro, a black matron in the women’s lavatory in the Palace of Horticulture, and Lovinia Johnson, a white employee of the building’s Pine Apple Concession, into the guard headquarters.23 The two women had engaged in a physical dispute over payment of a restroom fee.24 Johnson claimed that she had paid the fee, but Castro demanded another payment. Johnson refused and Castro “caught her arm” and Johnson “then struck the maid in the face.” Castro maintained that Johnson had refused to pay and that she only grabbed her after Johnson had hit her in the face. In response, Castro’s employer, the Western Sanitary Company, vowed to fire her.25

This odd conflict over personal space in a public washroom was not an aberration, but one of a number of similar incidents that point to racial tensions on the grounds.26 Just a week before, Castro had been reported for overcharging and insulting an army captain’s wife, a charge for which she was supposed to have been fired.27 During the nine months of the fair, white patrons accused black lavatory attendants of hitting them, grabbing them, accusing them of not paying, or insulting them, in toilets in the Fine Arts Palace, Education Palace, Horticulture Palace, Palace of Mines, the Liberal Arts Building, and in locations near Van Ness Avenue, the Tower of Jewels, and in the Joy Zone.28 Both male and female visitors reported similar conflicts, demonstrating the strange prevalence of these incidents. No other conflict between employees and visitors was reported to the guards with such regularity. The relatively large number of these encounters suggests that they should not be dismissed as simple misunderstandings, but were rather manifestations of larger racial tensions.

Japanese tea pickers inside the Palace of Food Products, Panama-Pacific International Exposition. Courtesy of the San Francisco Public Library.


Although service employees like the cashiers and washroom attendants engaged with visitors daily, Joy Zone performers were some of the most visible laborers at the fair and the most prone to being policed for transgressing their prescribed roles. Although fair visitors might have viewed them solely as performers, they were workers, subject to the same kinds of regulations as the exposition guards, cashiers, and washroom attendants. Hundreds of people worked in the Joy Zone, many appearing to visitors as living exhibits rather than workers—the Indians of the Grand Canyon concession, the Somalis of Somaliland, and the Samoans of the Samoan Village among others. Although their work might have been disguised as traditional dances or traditional ways of living, these workers faced, in many cases, more intense restrictions on their behavior than did those employees whose work was more recognizable to contemporaries as actual labor.

Remarkably, one group of performers went on strike, although the race and immigrant status of the participants obscured the nature of their protest for contemporaries. During the spring of 1915, after their employer failed to pay their wages, thirty-one Somali men and women of the Somaliland concession stopped working and refused to vacate their houses. The concession was already floundering just a month after opening, so the concessionaire canceled his contract with the villagers. The exposition took over the show, but the Somali workers refused to perform because they had not been paid. After the exposition disbanded the show, the impoverished Somalis insisted on remaining on the grounds. In mid-May, the Examiner reported that fair officials had ordered them to vacate the premises. But Ahaoun, their representative, told the paper: “I sent word to Mr. Bryan that if we were removed they would have to call upon the Exposition guard to do it. They haven’t put us out yet, but of course they will tear our houses down.”29 As Ahaoun predicted, immigration officials assisted the exposition in forcing the Somalis out. Exposition guards “loaded the dark strangers on a Fadgl train, and escorted them to the Yacht Harbor, where a Government tug awaited them for Angel Island, whence they were…deported.”30

The Somali labor conflict demonstrates the difficulties that faced the employees of many Joy Zone concessions. As immigrant workers, often colonial subjects brought to the United States solely as performers, these men and women depended on their employer for everything from wages to housing. If their act was unpopular, they had no choice but to follow the concessionaire when he closed up shop. As poor African immigrant performers, the Somalis had little to no bargaining power. Despite their attempt to stage a strike—to both refuse to dance and to vacate their dwellings on the grounds—they proved no match for the power of the exposition and the US government. The exposition controlled the land they occupied and had the authority to tear their houses down once their presence became an obstacle to the spectacle of the exposition.

When the Somali workers ceased to participate in the spectacle and demanded fair treatment from the exposition, they challenged the fair’s racial hierarchy and colonial message. As colonial subjects, the Somalis’ appearance at the fair justified the imperial system by juxtaposing their “primitive” ways of life with those of white Americans and Europeans displayed in the fair’s exhibit palaces. As colonial subjects, however, by definition, they could not stage a strike, so their actions threatened the fair both financially and ideologically. Although the Somalis’ actions probably went unnoticed by many fair visitors, the episode highlighted the race and class system that governed employment on the Joy Zone. White waiters and waitresses and cashiers might have their own frustrations with their working conditions, but their racial status, nationality, and terms of employment gave them a degree of power not granted to the black Somalis.31

Fair planners staged an international exposition to declare California’s ascendance as an economic stronghold in the Pacific. But the staging itself involved work that was inexorably bound with local, domestic, class, race, and gender conflicts in the Progressive Era.

While exposition officials scrutinized the behavior of all workers—culinary workers, guards, cashiers, washroom workers, and Joy Zone performers alike—to ensure that their actions reinforced the fair’s social hierarchy, the fair did not always work in the way that officials expected. Unskilled workers fought to organize, while their employers fought for an open shop. Young men and women flirted and danced and circumvented the rules laid out by fair officials, therefore threatening the fair’s claim to be a morally clean space. African American men and women fought for the meager profits offered by their employment at the fair and their behavior engendered resentment by angry white visitors. Joy Zone performers, like the Somalis, attempted to live their lives in the public venue and found it impossible to escape racial attitudes and expectations of their behavior and place in society. Progressive Era anxieties about class conflict, the regulation of female sexuality and gender roles, and the maintenance of white supremacy permeated the fair’s veneer of labor peace and threatened to reveal the real contradictions upon which the Pax Panama Pacifica was built.

Samoan dance and the golden Buddha of Japan at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition. Courtesy of the San Francisco Public Library.


This material appears courtesy of the University of Nebraska Press. It is drawn from Abigail Markwyn, Empress San Francisco: The Pacific Rim, the Great West, and California at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition.

1. Frank Morton Todd, The Story of the Exposition, Being the Official History of the International Celebration Held at San Francisco in 1915 to Commemorate the Discovery of the Pacific Ocean and the Construction of the Panama Canal, (New York, 1921), vol. 1, 325–330.

2. Charles C. Moore to Labor Council and Building Trades Council, 7 September 1912, Labor Conditions – corres. re.:, Carton 36, Panama-Pacific International Exposition Company Papers, Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley (hereafter PPIE-BL).

3. Dan P. Regan to John O’Connell, 19 March 1915, Labor Organizations and Trade Associations, Carton 93, PPIE-BL.

4. Dan P. Regan to John O’Connell, 19 March 1915, Labor Organizations and Trade Associations, Carton 93, PPIE-BL.

5. H.D.H. Connick to John O’Connell, 31 March 1915, SF-PPIE, Carton 16, San Francisco Labor Council Papers, Bancroft Library.

6. “Synopsis of Minutes of Regular Meeting Held April 9, 1915, SFLC,” Labor Clarion, 16 April 1915.

7. “Synopsis of Minutes of Regular Meeting,” Labor Clarion, 23 April 1915.

8. Laura Molleda to John O’Connell, 29 April 1915, Labor Organizations and Trade Associations, Carton 93, PPIE-BL.

9. P.H. McCarthy to H.D.H. Connick, 3 May 1915, Labor Associations and Trade Associations, Carton 93, PPIE-BL.

10. “Minutes of SFLC,” Labor Clarion, 21 May 1915.

11. Robert Edward Lee Knight, Industrial Relations in the Bay Area, 1900–1918 (San Francisco: University of California Press, 1960), 270–271.

12. On the imperial nature of the fair, see Sarah J. Moore, Empire on Display: The Panama-Pacific International Exposition (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2013).

13. Todd, The Story of the Exposition, vol. 2 (New York: Panama-Pacific International Exposition Company. 1921), 279.

14. 14 March 1915, copy of bulletin to cashiers, Extracts of Daily Reports of the Guards March-April 1915, Carton 83, PPIE-BL.

15. Frederick P. Church to Moore, 18 February 1913, Liquor and Red Light Abatement, Carton 23, PPIE-BL.

16. On changing public sexuality, see John D’Emilio and Estelle Freedman, Intimate Matters: A History of Sexuality in America, 3d ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012).

17. Joanne Meyerowitz, Women Adrift: Independent Wage Earners in Chicago, 1880–1930 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988); Kathy Peiss, Cheap Amusements: Working Women and Leisure in Turn-of-the-Century New York (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1986); Tera Hunter, To ‘Joy My Freedom: Southern Black Women’s Lives and Labors After the Civil War (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997).

18. “Extracts from Daily Reports of the Guards for August 4, 1915,” and “Extracts from Daily Reports of the Guards for August 20, 1915,” Extracts from Daily Reports of the Guards August 1915, Carton 83, PPIE-BL.

19. “Extracts of Daily Reports of the Guards, March 31, 1915,” Extracts of Daily Reports of the Guards, March–April 1915, Carton 83, PPIE-BL.

20. Frank Burt to Cumming, 3 September 1915, Corres. re: complaints, Carton 8, PPIE-BL.

21. Lynn Hudson,”‘This Is Our Fair and Our State’: African Americans and the Panama-Pacific International Exposition,” California History 87(3), 2010, 26–45; Abigail Markwyn, Empress San Francisco: The Pacific Rim, the Great West, and California at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2014).

22. See Robin D.G. Kelley, “We Are Not What We Seem: Rethinking Black Working Class Opposition in the Jim Crow South,” The Journal of American History, 80 (1993): 75–112, for a discussion of the ways in which African Americans in the Jim Crow South asserted their identities through these kinds of interactions.

23. The report describes Castro as “colored,” a term that could mean African American. Nonetheless, given that her surname was a Spanish one, it is also possible that she was of Hispanic descent. Nonetheless, it remains clear that she was perceived as nonwhite, like the other attendants whose actions are described below. “Extracts from Daily Reports of the Guards, 25 July 1915,” Extracts from Daily Reports of the Guards, Carton 83, PPIE-BL.

24. A system of free and pay restrooms existed on the grounds, with quite a few more pay than free toilets, causing confusion for visitors as to whether or not they should pay for use of the facilities.

25. “Extracts from Daily Reports of the Guards, 25 July 1915,” Extracts from Daily Reports of the Guards, Carton 83, PPIE-BL.

26. It is worth noting that washroom attendant was one of the few positions available to blacks on the grounds, and these reports suggest that a large number of these attendants were African American. The same was true at the 1893 Columbian Exposition. Christopher Robert Reed, “All the World is Here!” The Black Presence at White City (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2000), 76.

27. “Extracts from Daily Reports of the Guards, 18 July 1915,” Extracts from Daily Reports of the Guards July 1915, Carton 83, PPIE-BL.

28. See Extracts from Daily Reports of the Guards, Carton 83, PPIE-BL.

29. “Somali Natives at Fair ‘Broke,'” Examiner, 14 May 1915.

30. Frank Morton Todd, The Story of the Exposition, Being the Official History of the International Celebration Held at San Francisco in 1915 to Commemorate the Discovery of the Pacific Ocean and the Construction of the Panama Canal, vol. 2 (New York, 1921), 375.

31. Todd, Story of the Exposition, vol. 2: 375.


The Lotus and the Rose

by Elizabeth Logan

Californians plant a world in 1915

From Boom Spring 2015, Vol 5, No 1

In June 1914, Golden Gate Park Supervisor John McLaren and his team of landscape engineers placed an enormous order: 7,000 rhododendrons, 200,000 daffodil bulbs, 158,000 tulips, 45,000 anemones, 23,000 ranunculus, and 15,000 hyacinths.1 Those flowers and the thousands more they would order over the following eighth months were needed to meet an audacious goal: to re-create the entire world within the grounds of the Panama-Pacific International Exposition that would open in February 1915. They aimed to construct “a microcosm so nearly complete that if all the world were destroyed except the 635 acres of land within the Exposition gates, the material basis of the life of today could have been reproduced” from the examples. California’s soil and climate would provide the connective tissue.2

The project was a rousing success. Between the blooms McLaren and his team nurtured and the other gardens and exhibits on site, flowers and plant life defined the experience of the exposition for many; after the fair, novelist and lecturer Peter Clark MacFarlane of New York City reflected on his visit: “The Exposition was a perfect flower.”

Courtesy of the California Historical Society.

To re-create the world in microcosm on the exposition grounds was ambitious enough—and it eerily prefigures some of today’s efforts to protect samples of seeds and DNA in case the “life of today” on Earth should need to be reproduced. But fair planners had another message they wanted to convey to visitors, through plants and flowers, about San Francisco’s changing place in the United States and the world. The fair strived to put The City at the center of it all.

The Spanish-American War in 1898 had greatly expanded the imperial and territorial ambitions of the United States of America, making Californians middle-westerners at the edge of the Pacific Ocean, part of an empire stretching from Maine to Manila. San Francisco’s political leaders understood early on that a world’s fair would give them an opportunity to reposition their city from an outpost at the end of the continent to a place central to the nation’s interests.

Courtesy of the Biodiversity Heritage Library.

In January 1904, department store tycoon Reuben B. Hale wrote in a letter to potential investors in the Panama-Pacific International Exposition: “Horace Greeley said, ‘Go West, young man’; but when he goes west from San Francisco he goes east. It is the beginning of the east, and the ending of the west. We are the center around which trade revolves between the United States and all European countries that are looking for trade with the Orient and other Pacific Ocean points.”3

It sounds like something Lewis Carroll might have written: west was east and east was west. But redefining space was key to the fair. Six years later in an article promoting San Francisco as the host city for the exposition, Rufus M. Steele concluded: “San Francisco is remote only to that American whose consciousness has failed to keep pace with the expansion of his country. Measured laterally, the United States presents five capital cities marking the westward course along which empire has taken its way. They are New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Honolulu, Manila.” Continuing his pitch, he teased, the “city’s blood is red, its heart clean, its hospitality as rich and undiscriminating as the breath of its flowers.”4

Courtesy of the Biodiversity Heritage Library.

Much has been written about the exposition as a showcase for San Francisco’s recovery from the great earthquake and fires of 1906, and as an opportunity to promote trade in the wake of the opening of the Panama Canal. Less well-studied are the messages that fair planners hoped to convey to the millions of visitors who strolled the grounds. The physical embodiment of those goals could be found on the grounds and among the floral exhibits, which conveyed subtle arguments about the nature of California and its new place in the wider world. Their success was mixed; reading fairgoers’ descriptions of their experiences—of the exposition more broadly and the grounds specifically—the limitations and unintended consequences of the planners’ visions are as apparent as their triumphs.

Using flowers to represent California as a refined part of the Euro-American world was old hat by 1915. From their beginnings in the 1850s to their establishment as fixtures in the societal and intellectual life of San Francisco in the early twentieth century, flower shows in San Francisco attempted to provide the same enriching experience that visitors enjoyed in refined cities across the continent and in Europe. San Francisco’s flowers were pleasing in their own right, but they were also always compelled to convey the superiority of California’s climate and soil, which promised exciting possibilities for growing non-European plants such as cacti and tropical plants, some of which were often not native to California either. Flowers were at once decoration, commodity, and symbol through which local, national, and imperial meanings were created and conveyed, although not always internalized.

Courtesy of the Biodiversity Heritage Library.

Even though they sometimes used language that positioned themselves as “westerners,” San Francisco floriculturists more often demanded that the state—and more specifically their city—be seen as not west of center, but as the center of an inclusive whole defined in reference to Chicago and New York, but also to England and Europe, as well as China and Japan. San Francisco was the middle point in the US empire. Sometimes the language ventured into hyperbolic space as San Franciscans announced, “Hong Kong or Manila or Yokohama seem nearer to us than Chicago or St. Louis.”5 Sometimes the dialogues forecasted tensions between northern and southern California, as when a business in 1913 remarked, “Los Angeles is western…we are not. We are ‘the Coast.'”6

These notions of California’s abundance and of San Francisco as the emerging center of the American Empire were central to the fair planners’ vision—and they said it with flowers. The organizers recognized the importance of horticulture and floriculture to the success of the exposition, even though the business leaders backing the endeavor were not particularly interested in the commercial growing of flowers. The Panama Pacific was the first international exposition to create a separate and independent department of horticulture. Chief of the Horticultural Department G.A. Dennison and Chief Landscape Engineer John McLaren worked together to landscape the fair focusing not only on fruits and flowers but the methods and tools for their successful culture.7

Courtesy of the Los Angeles County Arboretum.

These messages about California’s role come to life in three settings at the fair: McLaren’s expansive grounds, Carl Purdy’s California Garden, and Dennison’s exhibits for the department of horticulture. Taken together they paint a picture of San Francisco, and California more broadly, as a place that was emerging from a European past into a more worldly future.

John McLaren was hired as landscape engineer for the exposition in February 1912 and tasked with gardening twenty-six separate areas, landscaping more than seventy-three acres, with a budget of $620,784 (approximately $14 million in current dollars).8 Portraying the nature of California, it turned out, required a significant investment of money and labor. The mammoth undertaking required gardeners to transform dunes, swamps, and wetlands into verdant, natural-appearing landscapes.9 Thirty thousand cubic yards of fertilizer and fifty-five thousand cubic yards of loam were brought in to prepare the ground. McLaren’s team turned swamp into land, displacing water by pumping up mud from the floor of the San Francisco Bay and depositing eighteen inches of soil over the filled in bayshore.10

Courtesy of the Los Angeles County Arboretum.

Once this new land was complete, McLaren tackled plans for diversifying the scene. He and his team brought in seeds and bulbs from Japan, Holland, Belgium, and England to supplement thousands of blooms bought from local growers.11 While the Panama-Pacific International Exposition welcomed the world, fair planners had to ensure that foreign exhibitors did not put California’s horticultural interests and growing industries at risk. Plants began arriving from abroad in October 1913, more than a year before the official opening of the fair. To ensure no import threatened California’s plants and industries, state inspectors built an inspection shed and fumigating room and demanded all foreign horticultural materials pass through it. Non-offending plants received a certificate. Japan and the Netherlands earned unofficial prizes for sending the cleanest specimens. Every Japanese sample passed inspection, as did all but one from the Netherlands.12

Courtesy of the Los Angeles County Arboretum.

McLaren and his team prepared by growing flowers and “bedding plants” in greenhouses years in advance of the exposition.13 Just a month after he was hired, McLaren began collecting and nurturing seedlings, and set up a temporary nursery in Golden Gate Park. A permanent one followed in November of 1912 in the Presidio, with six greenhouses and thousands of flats of seedlings transplanted from Golden Gate Park.14 McLaren “rehearsed the whole floral scheme” for three seasons before the exposition opened. Day by day, he “knew the time that would elapse between the planting and blooming of any flower he planned to use.”15

The fairgrounds, under McLaren’s supervision, showcased San Francisco’s ability to nurture abundant flowers from every corner of the world, demonstrating the city was at the center of the map. The Court of Flowers featured fifty thousand yellow pansies, and the same number of red anemones, red tulips, and red begonias.16 The South Garden re-created “a formal French garden.”17 Moving past yellow-themed blossoms, visitors encountered twenty thousand pink begonias “blended” into a floricultural “old-rose carpet around the Fountain of Energy.”18 Orchids, lilies, and bulb begonias surrounded the Palace of Horticulture, as well as alternating beds of plants and ponds, including a Japanese garden.19

Courtesy of the Biodiversity Heritage Library.

State and regional gardens represented the varied flora of the United States. The Massachusetts Garden captured the colonial era with carnations and gladioli from B. Hammond Tracey one of the “most noted gladioli growers in America.” The Eastern Garden featured roses from Rhode Island and Maryland, heliotropes “of exquisite color and rich fragrance” from New Jersey, and irises and peonies from Pennsylvania.20

Although McLaren and his team worked on the grounds and conveyed the worldliness of San Francisco and the fecundity of its soil, the task of designing the California Garden fell to Carl Purdy, who was widely known for his work on the domestication of California wildflowers.21 Purdy’s vision for the garden was supported by California nurserymen, including noted plant geneticist Luther Burbank, who pitched in to fill the space and draw attention to their stock and seed catalogs.22

Courtesy of the Biodiversity Heritage Library.

The California Garden was nestled inside a cypress hedge surrounding the California Building, designed to mirror the Forbidden Garden in Mission Santa Barbara. Donald McLaren, John McLaren’s son and assistant, explained: “the scheme of the California Building’s exterior and the California Garden together is to epitomize the State as she is known in art and nature. Mission architecture and native flora join in unity of purpose.”23

Here some of the mixed messages of the fair’s landscape conflicted. Fair planners wanted to promote San Francisco as the center of a new empire, yet they fell back on well-worn depictions of the state as a regional, Spanish-mission style folkloric outpost. In an era dominated by Helen Hunt Jackson’s romantic novel Ramona, Charles Lummis’s efforts to “save” the missions, and San Diego’s Panama-California Exposition, it is not surprising that the California Garden leaned on California’s Spanish past. But while McLaren’s grounds sought to demonstrate the richness of California’s climate and ability to support all of the world’s plants and by extension California’s global commercial ambitions, Purdy’s garden offered a nostalgic refuge in a romantic version of California’s past.

Courtesy of the Biodiversity Heritage Library.

Then there were the flowers and plants in the first ever Department of Horticulture at a world’s fair. Chief of Horticulture for the Exposition, G.A. Dennison was a didact, and he wanted his exhibits “to appeal with equal interest” to five target audiences. The tourist needed to see “the pride and glory of the soil” from every corner of the world. The visitor must be “entertained by the beauty and novel wonder of all that is before him.” The student should find “an unequaled opportunity to increase his store of knowledge of all points pertaining to the horticulture of the earth.” The businessman could find every item so perfectly arranged that he could make an order before even leaving the display, and the investor might “discover, through actual living evidence, the productive possibilities of soil from almost every section of the earth.” To show off its wares, the Department of Horticulture built a massive conservatory, with a central dome larger than St. Peter’s in Rome. Contributions from more than fourteen nations and twenty-three states were packed inside.24

Courtesy of the Biodiversity Heritage Library.

So visitors to the fair walked the grounds and took in Dennison, Purdy, and McLaren’s efforts to capture the world and harness the power of flowers to entertain, educate, and inspire, just as they had planned. What was not in the plans was that the fair would open in the early months of World War I. Yet even the war and hopes for peace were reflected in the exposition’s horticulture. In showcasing how California fit into the world, fair planners created a place that visitors might imagine as an ideal, peaceful, harmonious, and diverse world revolving around San Francisco.

After the exposition’s gates closed for the last time, a committee gathered and preserved some of the many letters received from visitors. It is a curated, or even biased, sample. The committee seems to have chosen to preserve many of the letters based on the relative importance of the writers. Nevertheless, this archive allows us to gauge some of the public reactions to the exposition. Overall, the letters reveal that while the message that California was now at the center of the world resonated with many visitors, the dark shadow of World War I loomed over the fair. The letters are dominated by a desire for peace, and recognized the fair as a space where the world was drawn together for a spell.

Courtesy of the Biodiversity Heritage Library.

Some letters point out the value of the exposition for promoting education, industry, peace, and even the “high ideals” that might be found in plants and flowers, at least metaphorically. T. Morey Hodgman, the President of Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota, noted, “The Panama-Pacific International Exposition is the handmaid of civilization, of which the perfect flower is industry and peace.”25 C.A. Tonnenson, the Secretary of the Pacific Coast Association of Nurserymen of Tacoma, Washington, wrote: “Not only was there every opportunity to learn about plants and flowers and their appropriate settings, but there were featured high ideals through this work of landscape art which cannot fail to benefit those who were fortunate enough to visit and see the Exposition, and through their influence future generations will be uplifted by these emblems of purity and truth which can only be portrayed in plant life.”26

Courtesy of the Biodiversity Heritage Library.

Efforts to define California’s role within a newly expanded US empire blended with the rhetoric of peace. Lyman Abbott, editor-in-chief of New York City’s The Outlook concluded: “The Panama-Pacific International Exposition has not only testified to the unity of America, but it has served to bring to the national consciousness the truth not yet adequately realized, that the Pacific Coast with its western outlook is as important as the Atlantic Coast with its eastern outlook, and that it is as essential to the interests of America and to establish and maintain friendly relations with Japan, China and India toward the west as with the European nations toward the east.”27

Courtesy of the Biodiversity Heritage Library.

When writer Peter Clark MacFarlane described the fair as a “perfect flower,” he added that its “fragrance lingers.” The exposition “helped the world to become acquainted with itself,” he wrote. “It was a revelation of the spirit and genius of many tribes and nations, a lesson in the brotherhood—in the essential neighborliness—of all mankind, which none who saw it, or from afar felt it, can forget.” Although the exhibition had closed, it “passed only out of the gates in order to make the whole world into an exposition of the things for which that institution stood and which it has inspired.” The fair’s “material features,” he wrote, “are buried like seeds, to sprout again—the seeds of this perfect flower—in every country in the world, to grow up in the lives of men, in better houses, better governments, better industry, better art, better life, better ambitions, better everything.”28

Courtesy of the Biodiversity Heritage Library.

MacFarlane captured the universalism of the exhibitions in his florid metaphor. He conjured notions of seeding ideas, sprouting opportunities, and hopeful possibilities for superior regrowth in every aspect of life from politics to commerce to culture. He did not see California as poised at the Pacific edge of the United States ready to capitalize on commercial interests, as the planners probably would have appreciated, but he did see the exposition as a space that contained a world at peace and then pushed that metaphor out into a larger world of “essential neighborliness.” Perhaps MacFarlane and other visitors lost themselves in the world of the fairgrounds, imagining the possibility that the exposition was the world. But the neighborliness he articulated was the representation of human relations that the fair’s landscapers and gardeners consciously created and many living in the turbulent world of 1915 desperately craved.

In the years following the exposition, California lost its place as the center of a vast transpacific American empire, and the century that followed was not scented with the fragrance of peace, as the more optimistic fair visitors had hoped. But McLaren and the exposition planners’ vision of California as a place neither exclusively Eastern nor Western, and well suited to support all manner of diverse living things persists.


Courtesy of the Biodiversity Heritage Library.

Courtesy of the Biodiversity Heritage Library.

Courtesy of the Biodiversity Heritage Library.

Courtesy of the Biodiversity Heritage Library.

Courtesy of the Los Angeles County Arboretum.

For title quote see, Nicholas Vachel Lindsay, “The Lotus and the Rose,” Sunset Magazine, Vol. 32, No. 6 (Jun., 1914), 1288. Seed catalog images courtesy of the Biodiversity Heritage Library, Los Angeles County Arboretum, and California Historical Society.

1. Frank Morton Todd, The Story of the Exposition, Being the Official History of the International Celebration Held at San Francisco in 1915 to Commemorate the Discovery of the Pacific Ocean and the Construction of the Panama Canal, vol. 2 (New York: Panama-Pacific International Exposition Company, 1921), 339.

2. Todd, The Story of the Exposition, vol. 1, 28, 30; John Brisben Walker, “The 1915 Exposition and Education: The Subjects Submitted for Consideration by Educational Congresses During the Panama-Pacific Universal Exposition,” Sunset Magazine 28: no. 6 (June 1912), 751–758.

3. R.B. Hale, Letter to the Directors of the Merchants’ Association from 12 January 1904, reprinted in Todd, The Story of the Exposition, vol. 1 (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1921), 35–37. See also, Sarah J. Moore, Empire on Display: San Francisco’s Panama-Pacific International Exposition of 1915 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2013).

4. Rufus M. Steele, “San Francisco the Exposition City,” Sunset Magazine 25: no. 6 (December 1910), 607–620, 608–609, 620.

5. As quoted in Carl Abbott, How Cities Won the West: Four Centuries of Urban Change in Western North America (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2008), 73.

6. As quoted from Edward Hungerford, The Personality of American Cities (New York: McBride, Nast and Co., 1913), 295 in Abbott, How Cities Won the West, 73. See also, Charles Sedgwick Aiken, ed., California To Day: San Francisco Its Metropolis (San Francisco: The California Promotion Committee, 1903).

7. The Blue Book: A Comprehensive Official Souvenir View Book of the Panama-Pacific International Exposition at San Francisco 1915 (San Francisco: Robert A. Reid, 1915), 12. Todd, The Story of the Exposition, vol. 1, 110. See also, George A. Dennison, Chief of Horticulture of the Panama-Pacific International Exposition, “Horticulture,” California’s Magazine, 1: no. 1, E.J. Wickson, ed. (San Francisco: California Publishers Co-operative Association, 1915), 337–340, 337.

8. Todd, The Story of the Exposition, vol. 1, 307–8.

9. Donald McLaren, “Landscape Gardening,” California’s Magazine 1: no.1, E.J. Wickson, ed. (San Francisco: California Publishers Co-operative Association, 1915), 345–348, 345.

10. Arthur Z. Bradley, “Exposition Gardens: How Landscape Architects at California’s Two Exhibitions Have Kept Pace with Planners of Palaces, Designers of Sculpture and Wizards of Imagination,” Sunset Magazine 34: no. 4 (April 1915), 665–679, 668.

11. Todd, The Story of the Exposition, vol. I, 308, 339.

12. Frederick Maskew, “The Work of the Quarantine Division in Connection with the Panama-Pacific International Exposition,” The Monthly Bulletin of the California State Commission of Horticulture 4: no. 8 (August 1915), 351–360.

13. Lela Angier Lenfest, “Interesting Westerners: The Landscape Gardener of the Panama-Pacific International Exposition, 1915,” Sunset Magazine 31: no. 6 (December 1913), 1,215–1,217.

14. Todd, The Story of the Exposition, vol. 1, 308–9. Maud Wotring Raymond, The Architecture and Landscape Gardening of the Exposition, A Pictorial Survey of the Most Beautiful of the Architectural Compositions of the Panama-Pacific International Exposition, 2d ed. (San Francisco: Paul Elder and Company, 1915), 6–7.

15. Ben Macomber, The Jewel City, Its Planning and Achievement; Its Architecture, Sculpture, Symbolism, and Music; Its Gardens, Palaces, and Exhibits (San Francisco: John H. Williams, 1915), 20. Todd, The Story of the Exposition, vol. 1, 308. Bradley, “Exposition Gardens,” 665.

16. Todd, The Story of the Exposition, vol. 2, 340. See also Macomber, The Jewel City, Its Planning and Achievement, 78; and the fictional account in Elizabeth Gordon, What We Saw at Madame World’s Fair: Being a Series of Letters from the Twins at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition to Their Cousins at Home (San Francisco: Samuel Levinson, 1915), 54.

17. The Blue Book, 24, 132. See also, Raymond, The Architecture and Landscape Gardening of the Exposition, A Pictorial Survey of the Most Beautiful of the Architectural Compositions of the Panama-Pacific International Exposition, 18.

18. Todd, The Story of the Exposition, vol. 2, 340.

19. The Blue Book, 20.

20. Dennison, “Horticulture,” 337–340, 339.

21. Todd, The Story of the Exposition, vol. 4, 314. Dennison, “Horticulture,” 337–340, 338.

22. Todd, The Story of the Exposition, vol. 4, 314. Dennison, “Horticulture,” 337–340, 338.

23. McLaren, “Landscape Gardening,” 348.

24. Dennison, “Horticulture,” 337–340. Official Catalogue of Exhibitors, Panama-Pacific International Exposition, San Francisco, 1915 (San Francisco: The Wahlgreen Company, 1915), 11–28.

25. James A. Barr and Joseph M. Cumming, The Legacy of the Exposition, Interpretations of the Intellectual and Moral Heritage Left to Mankind by the World Celebration at San Francisco in 1915 (San Francisco: 1916), 87.

26. Ibid., 165.

27. Ibid., 4.

28. Ibid., 119.



by Thomas J. Osborne

A Pacific Epic

From Boom Spring 2015, Vol 5, No 1

Some names come laden with epic baggage.

The Golden Gate is one of them.

In 1846, the soldier-surveyor-explorer John C. Frémont wrote that the maritime passage between San Francisco and the Marin headlands was “a golden gate to trade with the Orient.”1 Frémont was right. For most of the next 100 years, San Francisco reigned internationally as the dominant port in the Pacific, commercially and militarily. To celebrate its place in the Pacific world—and the opening of the Panama Canal, which city leaders hoped would cement its position—San Francisco hosted the Panama-Pacific International Exposition (PPIE) in 1915.2

Fast forward to 2015. San Francisco no longer dominates Pacific trade, and other ports along the West Coast have been preparing for a new and enlarged Panama Canal, which will make for uncertain waters in transpacific trading. If the near future of California’s involvement in the Pacific world seems unclear, the prospects for the Golden State’s ocean commerce in 2115 are as fog-shrouded as a San Francisco summer.

Whatever lies ahead, we know California’s future is deeply tied to the Pacific world beyond our shores. After all, California literally emerged from the Pacific, geologically speaking, and has been formed and reformed by Pacific migrations, commerce, military action, and culture. A look back at that history in this centenary year may help cut through the fog, allow us to better understand our present uncertainties, and, perhaps, see the outlines of 2115 and beyond.

Prologue to an Exposition

California’s Pacific history begins about thirty million years ago. In that distant past, the submarine Pacific Plate plunged beneath the North American Plate; parts of the Pacific Plate scraped off and piled up onto the West Coast, giving rise to the California land mass largely as it exists today. The Golden State was created by huge, shifting, and sometimes colliding forces beneath the Pacific. In this geological soup, gold made its way from the bottom of the ocean to the High Sierra’s mother lode.

Willard E. Worden, Untitled ((Clipper Ship in the Golden Gate)), circa 1904. Courtesy Oakland Museum of California.


More than a half-century before the Panama-Pacific exposition, on 12 May 1848, that gold started a boom. Merchant Sam Brannan waved a bottle of gold dust in San Francisco, shouting: “Gold! Gold! Gold! From the American River,” and so began the California Gold Rush. Argonauts came mainly by sea to try their luck in the goldfields.3 Tens of thousands hailed from homelands throughout the Pacific Basin—Mexico, Peru, Chile, Hawaii, Australia, New Zealand, China, and British Columbia. Some settled permanently, but not all did: Australians and New Zealanders left California in droves and recrossed the Pacific in the 1850s and 1860s, when gold was discovered back on their home islands. These Pacific crossings and recrossings tethered California, particularly the Bay Area, ever more tightly to the Pacific world by circulating people, capital, science, technology, industry, and culture. During the rush, California’s gold didn’t just buoy currency markets worldwide; it transformed other cities. For instance, the wealth that flooded into Hong Kong enabled it to become the major hub of Pacific trade that it is today.4 California’s Gold Rush was a Pacific world moment that catapulted San Francisco into the first rank of global port cities.

California’s gold petered out around 1860, but San Francisco’s Pacific course was set. The city emerged as the world’s whaling capital by 1880, around the same time as Central Valley farming was starting to fill grain ships bound for far-off Pacific markets at the ports of Stockton and Sacramento. Shipment of grain, borax (a mineral used as a cleanser), quicksilver (a mercury amalgam used in mining), lumber, salt, dried seafood, and other products assured San Francisco’s maritime dominance on the west coast of North America—and beyond.

San Francisco waterfront from the bay. Courtesy San Francisco Public Library.


The Spanish-American War began in the Caribbean, but it did not stay there. Commodore George Dewey’s dramatic naval victory over a Spanish fleet in Manila Bay on 1 May 1898 spilled over into a three-year American imperial war to conquer the Philippine Islands. In both the war against Spain and then against Filipino rebels, San Francisco was the staging area for 80,000 troops who made the Philippines an American colony. For much of the next half-century, the San Francisco Presidio and other Bay Area military installations served as America’s naval bastion on the Pacific. San Francisco made the most of its position on the rim of the Pacific world, but still remained impossibly far from the American centers of power on the East Coast. An incident at the start of the war made this clear: it took the battleship Oregon sixty-six days to make the 14,000-mile voyage from San Francisco, around Cape Horn, and to the East Coast.5

With the annexation of Puerto Rico, Hawaii, and the Philippines, American trading interests grasped the opportunity to establish a network of coaling stations and naval bases along a maritime route from the Atlantic seaboard to Asia, through a canal to be dug across the Isthmus of Panama.6 The Atlantic and Pacific approaches to a Central American canal could be defended from Hawaii on one side and the American-controlled Caribbean on the other, securing the long-hoped-for trade route to Asia. By the early 1900s, an imperial San Francisco began to see its fortunes linked to the grand canal that was being built through Panama’s steaming jungles.7 In hindsight, by 1903, when the United States acquired sovereignty over a swath of Panamanian territory between the Caribbean and the Pacific, a canal-themed international exposition in San Francisco a dozen years later seems as good as inevitable.

1915: The Panama-Pacific International Exposition

To make the San Francisco world’s fair a reality, planners and investors put in time and talent—and a lot of money. Prominent San Francisco business and civic leaders spent the decade before the fair planning and building. Forty-one nations participated—an amazing number considering that much of Europe was engulfed in World War I at the time.8 Pacific Basin-themed exhibits predominated, including life-size replicas of a Mexican pueblo, a Samoan village, and Chinese and Japanese settlements. A huge miniature replica of the Panama Canal occupied nearly five acres on the fairgrounds. During the 288 days that the exposition ran (20 February 1915 to 4 December 1915), more than eighteen million visitors saw these and other attractions, reportedly a record for world’s fairs at that time.

Given the magnitude of the project—which included beating out New Orleans, San Diego, and other cities for congressional approval and funding—why did city leaders believe it necessary to host a world’s fair? The prospect of material gain was extremely important. The city’s movers and shakers wanted to herald San Francisco’s impressive recovery from the great earthquake and fires of 1906. But more than that, San Franciscans hoped the fair would allow the city to grab a lion’s share of new Pacific trade soon to be pouring out of the Panama Canal. The city’s Chamber of Commerce and Merchant Exchange were the prime movers in drafting and implementing the plan to host the global event.

Reuben B. Hale, a prominent San Francisco department store owner and real estate developer, was the first to pitch the idea of holding a San Francisco world’s fair in connection with the opening of the Panama Canal. Speaking at the San Francisco Merchants Exchange on 12 January 1904, Hale shared his vision, which linked the city’s future to the opening of the Panama Canal and the expected growth in transpacific commerce: “We are at the center around which trade revolves between the United States and all European countries that are looking for trade with the Orient and other Pacific Ocean points.”9 Mayor James (“Sunny Jim”) Rolph, who co-owned a fleet of cargo vessels traversing the ocean from San Francisco to Hawaii and trading with other Pacific ports in South America and Australia, fully supported Hale’s idea.

When the gates to the exposition grounds opened in 1915, Hale’s idea of San Francisco as the center of an American empire had caught on. While fairgoers were treated to spectacular displays of machinery, sculptures, and architecture featuring images that celebrated America’s new Pacific empire, a gathering of scholars called the Panama-Pacific Historical Congress was meeting in Berkeley, San Francisco, and Palo Alto to discuss the canal, California, and San Francisco. There, University of California professors H. Morse Stephens and Herbert E. Bolton proclaimed a new era in world history: “The Panama Canal must inevitably change the relations of the American, the Asiatic, and the Australasian countries bordering upon the Pacific Ocean toward each other. One era of Pacific Ocean history comes to an end; another begins.”10 Another scholar declared: “We see the canal finished before our eyes. The seat of empire begins to shift from the Atlantic to the Pacific.”11 Many informed Californians already agreed with this view of San Francisco as an emerging hub of commerce and civilization in the world’s largest ocean basin.

“Panama Canal – Gaillard Cut. S.S. Kroonland, Southbound. (October 25, 1923)” drawn from the James Gordon Steese Papers. Courtesy Archives and Special Collections, Dickinson College.

Frank Morton Todd, writing about the exposition at the time, explained that San Francisco was only ninety-six nautical miles off the shortest (Great Circle) route from Panama to Yokohama, Japan, making the city a natural port of call. This presented “an opportunity for expansion in every trade affecting shipping and in every line of activity dependent on cheap freights to and from the Orient and to and from the Gulf and Atlantic coasts. The Canal has given San Francisco a new position on the planet.”12 Thus with the opening of the Panama Canal, scholars and other notables attending the fair and related events around the Bay Area connected California’s past, present, and future with America’s ever-increasing advancement into the Pacific world.

2015: Centennial Celebrations

In the intervening century, some things have not changed. California’s coast is still a critical staging ground for the country’s commercial aspirations, and, once again, attention is fixed on the Panama Canal. Today, as a project to expand the Panama Canal reaches completion, California’s business and governmental interests seem less jubilant than they were in 1915—and more concerned than ever about getting the Golden State’s share of future Pacific Ocean trade. US military strategists, too, must reckon with the national security implications of the new canal.

A container ship sails through the Golden Gate. Courtesy John Morgan.


San Francisco’s hegemony over Pacific Coast trade was surpassed by other California port cities more than fifty years ago. Oakland, Los Angeles, and Long Beach now dominate American maritime trade, and together account for 70 percent of the nation’s trade with Asia. With port commerce continuing to grow—and with surfing, beach tourism, and fishing industries thrown in—the Golden State boasts the nation’s largest coastal economy.13 That said, Los Angeles-Long Beach port officials are deeply concerned about competition expected when the Panama Canal reopens in 2015 and other major West Coast ports vie for market share of transpacific trade. The Pacific ports are not the only worries; rivals on the Gulf and Atlantic coasts are expected to step up the competition, too.

Time and money will determine which ports come out on top when the canal reopens. How long it takes and how much it costs to unload container ships and move their goods onto trucks and trains are critical factors now. So far, California’s ports and their Pacific Coast rivals are doing well on this front, compared to East Coast ports, according to Geraldine Knatz, the former executive director of the Port of Los Angeles. More than 90 percent of imports destined to inland markets in the United States move through West Coast ports.14 Preserving and augmenting this advantage is the chief challenge for California’s ports today.

That the Panama Canal route to East Coast ports from Asia is one-third longer in distance than the transpacific track from Asia to the West Coast is good news for California. Cargo voyages from Asian ports through the Suez Canal to the East Coast are approximately twice the distance to the West Coast. Moreover, in anticipation of increased competition in maritime trade and climate-induced sea-rise, California’s leading ports and others on the West Coast have upgraded their facilities while working to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from in-harbor vessels, trucks, and on-dock equipment. The Los Angeles-Long Beach harbor complex and other West Coast ports share an added advantage over competitors, namely, that their carbon footprints are smaller in nearly all routing scenarios from Asia to inland markets in the United States.

The stakes are high. The Jobs 1st Alliance—a coalition of business, government, and labor groups in Southern California—estimates that the new, larger Panama Canal could accommodate Asia’s biggest shipping vessels and lure away 25 percent of the cargo traffic currently destined for the twin ports of Los Angeles-Long Beach. These floating leviathans can carry 12,600 twenty-foot containers through the canal to East Coast ports. As many as 100,000 jobs held by longshore workers, drivers, and others could be lost, according to the alliance, whose mantra is simple: “Beat the canal.”

Scudder Smith, an adviser to the Panama Canal Authority, says that the threat of a reopened, enlarged Panama Canal to California shipping, though real, has been exaggerated. The greater challenge to Southern California’s twin ports, he and other experts believe, will come from other major ports on the West Coast, which are building or upgrading intermodal transit systems to whisk cargo from Asian vessels to interior markets in preparation for the opening of the enlarged Panama Canal in 2015.15 West Coast ports are striving not only to “beat the canal,” but even more so to beat each other for market share in the Pacific world.

The impact of the reopened canal isn’t only commercial. The US Navy base at San Diego is the principal homeport of the Pacific Fleet, the world’s largest armada.16 In an echo of 1915, the United States military is once again engaged in a strategic “Pacific pivot.” In an article in the US Naval Institute’s journal, Proceedings, on the anticipated reopening of the Panama Canal, naval Commander Robert W. Selle noted: “We need a greater presence in the far Western and North Pacific areas, including the international waters of the strategically important Sea of Okhotsk, to counter Russia’s and China’s presence in the region.” A century after the Panama-Pacific International Exposition, the Golden State is still central to power struggles throughout the Pacific world.

2115: A New Pacific World?

As a historian, I am reluctant to predict the future. But this much seems clear: patterns that we can discern today in 2015 will very likely shape the way California interacts with the wider Pacific world a century from now.

Led by China, Pacific Asia—the world’s most economically robust region today—will likely dominate global manufacturing and maritime trade for the next century. With its abundant investment capital and lower production and labor costs, China’s ascendancy in Pacific trade is easy to imagine. By 2115, given current plans of Chinese investors, a canal might even be sliced through Nicaragua, to compete with the Panama Canal and enlarge the volume of potential trade between the Pacific and Atlantic worlds.17 If this canal were built, it could dramatically decrease traffic through California ports.

On the other hand, assuming California’s world-leading computer, biomedical, and green economy sectors continue to pump out high-tech exports to Asia and elsewhere, it seems likely that these businesses will continue to play a strong role in transpacific trade. Given the fact that the Golden State has more Nobel laureates than any other state or nation,18 a disproportionate share of world-class researchers in the fields of science and technology, and more venture-capital investment dollars than all of the other states combined,19 this cautiously sanguine economic prospect for 2115 seems justified.

Yet the global environment is a complicating and crucial factor in all of these scenarios. Global warming could sufficiently melt the Arctic icecap to open up a long-sought northwest passage between the Pacific and Atlantic.20 Central American canals may no longer be the best option for trade moving between these two oceans. The implications are difficult to gauge, but it is clear that climate change will cause trouble for ports along all of America’s coastlines, and not just because of rising seas.

Amid such contingencies, what seems certain is that California’s perennial Pacific connections will continue to be crucial in 2115. This coastal state has a strong record of adapting to realities that require new thinking and innovation. California’s optimism and achievement, much ballyhooed at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in 1915, have continued to draw some of the best minds—and boatloads of trade and venture capital— to the Golden State in the century since. If the past tells us anything about the future, California’s Pacific edge will enable us to thrive in 2115 and beyond.

Rendering of the MAERSK Innovation Triple-E, the world’s largest container vessel.


1. The quotation is attributed to then US Army Captain John C. Frémont and is dated 1 July 1846. It appears online at http://goldengatebridge.org/research/Name.php. This website is managed by the Golden Gate Bridge Highway & Transportation District.

2. I use the term “Pacific world” as a synonym for the Pacific Basin, that is, the entire waterscape of ocean, islands, and bordering lands of Asia and the Americas.

3. James P. Delgado, To California by Sea: A Maritime History of the California Gold Rush (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1990), ix-x; Aims McGuinness, Path of Empire: Panama and the California Gold Rush (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2008), 6.

4. Elizabeth Sinn, Pacific Crossing: California Gold, Chinese Migration, and the Making of Hong Kong (Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2013), 2, 297–299.

5. Sarah J. Moore, Empire on Display: San Francisco’s Panama-Pacific International Exposition of 1915 (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 2013), 76.

6. Thomas J. Osborne, “Trade or War: America’s Annexation of Hawaii Reconsidered,” Pacific Historical Review 50: no. 3 (August 1981), 285–307.

7. Gray Brechin, Imperial San Francisco: Urban Power, Earthly Ruin (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999), 246–247.

8. Moore, Empire on Display, 191.

9. Frank Morton Todd, The Story of the Exposition: Being the Official History of the International Celebration Held at San Francisco in 1915 to Commemorate the Discovery of the Pacific Ocean and the Construction of the Panama Canal, 5 vols. (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1921), 1: 36–37.

10. H. Morse Stephens and Herbert E. Bolton, eds., The Pacific Ocean in History: Papers and Addresses Presented at the Panama-Pacific Historical Congress Held at San Francisco, Berkeley, and Palo Alto, July 19–23, 1915 (New York: The Macmillan Co., 1917).

11. Ibid., 112.

12. Frank Morton Todd, The Story of the Exposition, supra, 1:31.

13. Judith Kildow and Charles S. Colgan, California’s Ocean Economy: Report to the Resources Agency, State of California, prepared by The National Ocean Economics Program (July 2005), 1, online at http://www.opc.ca.gov/webmaster/ftp/pdf/docs/Documents_Page/Reports/CA_Ocean_Econ_Report.pdf.

14. Geraldine Knatz, “The Expansion’s Market Impact,” Marine Technology (July 2011), 8–9.

15. Ibid.

16. See these two official US Navy websites: http://www.navyregionsouthwest.com/go/doc/4275/1173475/Naval-Base-San-Diego; http://www.cpf.navy.mil/about/facts/.

17. Los Angeles Times (9 September 2014).

18. The Stanford Report (5 September 2001).

19. See Time magazine cover story, “Why California Is Still the Nation’s Future,” (2 November 2009).

20. Ashutosh Jogalekar, “Climate Change Might Open Up Northwest Passage to Shipping by Middle of the Century,” Scientific American (6 March 2013), online at http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/the-curious-wavefunction/2013/03/06/climate-change-might-open-up-northwest-passage-to-shipping-by-the-middle-of-the-century/; Douglas R. Bradley, “Forging an Arctic Alliance: Canadian-U.S. JIATF-Arctic,” The Culture and Conflict Review, 5: no. 2 (Earth Day Special Issue). This is an official US Navy publication, online at http://www.nps.edu/Programs/CCS/WebJournal/Default.aspx?IssueID=30.

On Becoming a Historic Resident of Oakland

by Brock Winstead

When knowing your history doesn’t help

From Boom Winter 2014, Vol 4, No 4

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

And that, for me, is the rub—now.

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

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

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


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


Genius Loci

by Jonah Raskin

The strange alchemy of California’s literary shrines

From Boom Winter 2014, Vol 4, No 4

As the chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, California poet and essayist Dana Gioia was an evangelist for California literature. Now he’s taking a different approach to spread the good word about the state’s rich, though often underappreciated, literary heritage.

“We need literary shrines as much as, if not more than, any other place,” he told me. “They can provide tangible evidence of the literary past that’s eroding and serve as institutional storehouses for the collective national memory of our writers, their lives, and their work. Tourist bureaus in California underestimate the power of the imagination. They don’t do all they could do to preserve our cultural heritage.”

The best literary shrines do more than honor literary heroes of previous generations. They’re also places where their work can find new life, new relevance, and new readers. They can speak to the present and even the future as much as the past. They can also work a strange sort of magic when the spirit of a book and readers from around the world come together in a place once enlivened by an author. In the process, readers, books, and places rejuvenate one another and combine to form new wholes.

Visiting shrines is an occupational hazard I’ve long accepted and even embraced as a writer. I haunt dead writers, visit their graves, walk the neighborhoods they once inhabited, poke around their homes, and peer into their offices. For an afternoon or an evening, I feel that I have communed with the poets, playwrights, and experimental fiction writers who intrigue me. I also tangle with the spirit of books that keep me up late at night, turning the pages of noir novels, adventure stories, and California epics. Everywhere I turn in California, I find a literary landscape: in the town of Twain Harte—named for Mark Twain and Bret Harte—near Yosemite; in the Henry Miller Memorial Library in Big Sur; and in Eugene O’Neill’s Tao House not far from Danville where the playwright and his wife Carlotta lived in the 1930s and where he wrote many of his best dramas.

Detail from Bikes to Books, by Nicole Gluckstern and Burrito Justice.

Gioia is spot-on when he insists that California can and should do more to honor its literary genius loci—the home of The Land of Little Rain author Mary Austin, in Independence, cries out for visitors—but we’re doing pretty good already. A cottage industry in literary maps of San Francisco and Los Angeles has sprung up, each one expanding the list of minor shrines and the number of potential pilgrims. We have our major shrines, too. All year long, locals and travelers from far away descend on Jack London State Historic Park in Glen Ellen, the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas, and the Beat Museum in San Francisco.

Literary tourism in California has a history that stretches back more than a century. In 1884, Helen Hunt Jackson published her wildly popular novel Ramona, and fans came to Southern California from far and wide to soak up the romanticized atmosphere they found in the book. Towns fought over which one had truly inspired the author—the better to lure tourists—while others created shrines at her heroine’s imagined birthplace, wedding site, and burial plot. For decades, it was as if the whole region became a literary shrine to California’s imagined past.

Literary shrines to American authors first became popular in New England a decade after the first wave of Ramona-fever. Theodore F. Wolfe described the fabled world of Thoreau, Emerson, and Margaret Fuller in Literary Shrines: The Haunts of Some Famous American Authors in 1895. California shrines in that restrained New England mold began to appear on the tourist trail not long afterward. In the inaugural issue of California Magazine published in January 1915, the editor, E.J. Wickson, emphasized the Golden State’s fledgling cult of the author. Everywhere he looked, Wickson saw “numerous artistic and literary shrines,” though he complained, “the searcher is called upon to make a pilgrimage down some half-hidden by-path, or to go delving into the musty archives of the past.”

Things have changed greatly since 1915, although it’s still possible to make pilgrimages down half-hidden paths at Jack London State Historic Park in rural Glen Ellen, which draws literary tourists from around the world. The ruins of Wolf House, built for the Londons but destroyed by fire before they moved in, are still the main draw, although the museum at the House of Happy Walls, as well as the author’s grave, see a steady stream of visitors, too. While generations of American schoolchildren know London best for his adventure stories, the politics that infused so much of his work have garnered him many fans in translation abroad, particularly in Russia. If visitor numbers and sheer enthusiasm are anything to go by, that second kind of reader seems to have developed a much deeper, keener connection to London.

“There’s an international Jack London cult,” Jeff Falconer, who grew up a devoted London fan in the East Bay and is now a devoted docent, told me on a recent visit to the park. Eugene Birger, a native-born Russian and now a Sonoma County resident speaks perfect Russian to the tourists from Moscow and Kiev who make the pilgrimage to Glen Ellen. He’s almost always on hand.

Falconer and Birger regale visitors with the story of a Soviet diplomat who arrived in a chauffeur-driven limousine one night in the 1960s, toured the grounds under cover of darkness, handed out caviar to show his appreciation, and then returned to San Francisco undetected by authorities. To fulfill the dream of a lifetime, Alexander Solzhenitsyn made a pilgrimage to the park in 1976, one hundred years after London’s birth. Two decades later, Dr. Vil Bykov—the twentieth-century’s foremost Soviet authority on London—spent a week there. “Paradise,” he called it in his memoir, In the Steps of Jack London. At the annual banquet sponsored by the London Foundation, he told the crowd: “Jack London is an integral part of Russian culture.”

A Romanian visitor recently pointed to London’s 1908 dystopian novel, The Iron Heel, as though it offered the latest news of her own country. A dignified traveler from India, a turban wrapped around his head, explained to a docent that he’d grown up in Kolkata reading London’s books. After visiting the House of the Happy Walls, he took the hand of his guide and kissed it.

Almost all of the docents describe the exuberant Russians who walk to the small plot of ground where London’s ashes are buried, bow their heads reverentially and shed tears. The power of the London shrine, however, does not work on all visitors equally. Falconer told me, “I remember a group of Russian and American tourists that provided a study in contrasts. Two young Muscovites took turns filming at Jack’s grave. They might have been gangsters. They certainly dressed the part. One of them looked down at the ground then up at the camera and shouted, ‘I’m right here where the greatest American writer is buried.’ The Americans watched flabbergasted. I’ve never seen a single US tourist do anything like it.”

Russians brag about their devotion to London and sneer at Americans who fail to appreciate the one and only god of California literature. In part, the Russians who come to Sonoma are carrying on the adoration that their parents, grandparents, and great grandparents expressed for London. Perhaps it’s this deep, multigenerational wellspring of feeling that makes the Sonoma shrine so powerful to its Russian visitors.

The National Steinbeck Center in Salinas, which opened its doors to the public in 1998, draws a much different crowd. The center has tried and failed to attract tourists from Russia. Japan, more than any nation in the world, save the United States, sends waves of reverential readers who stray now and then from familiar roadside attractions to pay their respects to the author of TheRed Pony, Of Mice and Men, and The Grapes of Wrath, first published in 1939 and translated into Japanese after World War II.

Susan Shillinglaw knows much of The Grapes of Wrath by heart. A Steinbeck expert at San Jose State University and the author most recently of On Reading Grapes of Wrath, she views Tom Joad, the Oklahoma ex-con turned California visionary, as the quintessential twentieth-century American literary rebel. Tom Joad could be an inspiration for the world’s “square people,” says Shillinglaw. Indeed, she sees him as an icon and a hero for the crowds in Beijing, Cairo, Istanbul, and Hong Kong, who gather in city squares to confront illegitimate authority. So far, however, the “square people” have not showed up en masse at the Steinbeck Center.

Phillip Saldana, who grew up in Bakersfield and who read John Steinbeck’s novels as a young man, keeps all the relevant data on visitors. They do not come from China, Egypt, Turkey, or Russia, he tells me, although you’d think perhaps Salinas might attract visitors from Moscow, Kiev and Volgograd (then called Stalingrad), cities that Steinbeck visited and wrote about in A Russian Journal in 1948. Steinbeck avoided much of the clichéd Cold War thinking that enveloped American writing about the Soviet Union, but he also supported the Vietnam War, and that may have cost him his Russian readers.

Colleen Bailey, the director of the National Steinbeck Center, sees Steinbeck’s appeal closer to home in Salinas and Monterey, rather than Moscow. As a young girl, she read Of Mice and Men. Then in high school she acted in a stage adaptation of East of Eden. In the pages of Steinbeck’s fiction, she found defiant characters who encouraged her own rebelliousness. In 2014, to commemorate the seventy-fifth anniversary of The Grapes of Wrath, she and the staff at the center went on the road and retraced the Joad family’s odyssey. A videographer filmed the journey that began in Sallisaw, Oklahoma, and ended in Bakersfield. Along the way, Bailey interviewed farmers, housewives, businessmen, and students, and she learned that Steinbeck’s words can still wound readers in the places where he wrote and that he wrote about.

The Texas-born, San Francisco-based, award-winning playwright Octavio Solis joined Bailey on the trip from Oklahoma and found himself transformed by the journey, communing with the ribbon of Steinbeck’s literary shrine that runs for fifteen hundred miles. On the road, Solis read a few pages of The Grapes of Wrath each night until he finished the book. The journey led him backward and forward in time and in space and inspired him to write a play called “On the Mother Road.” He’s at work on another drama in which a descendant of Tom Joad returns to Oklahoma and in the era of global climate change finds signs of yet another Dust Bowl. “Does he become his own worst boss?” Solis asks. “Is he a good grower or is he cruel to his workers? And what is life like in Eastern Oklahoma?” As a dramatist, he finds powerful theatrical elements in nearly all of Steinbeck’s work as well as characters who speak to him as though they’re alive today.

“I had long thought of Mexican farm workers as today’s Okies,” Solis told me. “But that idea didn’t hit home until I met a dark-skinned man in Weedpatch, California, who had worked in the fields, read The Grapes of Wrath, and saw himself as the reincarnation of Tom Joad.” One of the poorest towns in all of California, Weedpatch was perhaps the perfect location for Solis to find Steinbeck’s novel as vital as it had been when it was first published. Indeed, in Weedpatch, California, the seventy-five-year-old book came to life again.

Solis’s literary allegiances stretch beyond Steinbeck. Born in 1956, the same year that Ginsberg’s Howl was published and a year before Kerouac’s On the Road appeared in print, he feels linked to the Beat Generation writers. You might find him at City Lights Bookstore or at Vesuvio’s or Tosca’s in North Beach. “City Lights is a major shrine and so is Tosca’s,” Solis said. “I’ve always felt an affinity with Kerouac because he was a wild spirit influenced by jazz and because he wanted to break down boundaries.”

Jerry Cimino, the founder of the Beat Museum in North Beach, and a former executive at IBM and American Express, was inspired by the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas. He remembers lunch with Kim Greer, the center’s CEO, who told him, “A Beat Museum ought to be big. You’ve got multiple greats: Kerouac, Ginsberg, Burroughs, and Corso. You’ve got jazz, rock n’ roll, the sixties, and nonconformists through the ages. It could be huge.” Greer’s prediction has come true.

Cimino runs the Beat Museum out of a spacious two-story building that looks out on a cityscape with cultural capital. While almost all of the visitors to the Steinbeck Center come from northern California, the Beat Museum draws an international crowd that has learned about the Beats from recent films such as Howl (2010), On the Road (2012), Big Sur (2013), and Kill Your Darlings (2013). According to Cimino, twenty- and thirty-year-olds come to the museum from all across the United States and from Vietnam, Ukraine, New Zealand, China, and Germany. “I’ve learned from them that the Beats are timeless, that they exemplify youth, and that they’ve helped to foment rebellion around the world,” Cimino told me.

In 2014, he hired Noemi Sornet, a twenty-one-year-old French videographer, to document the cultural diversity of the visitors to the Beat Museum. Born and raised on the west coast of France, Sornet read Sur la Route at sixteen. She first came to Cimino’s attention when she stormed a screening of Walter Salles’s cinematic version of On the Road at the Cannes Film Festival, and later when she launched a website that collected reflections from Kerouac readers around the world. It was a global valentine to the author.

“Reading On the Road was a freeing experience,” Sornet told me. “At sixteen, when I finished the novel, I wanted to write and also to come to America. Working at the Beat Museum has been a dream come true. I’ve met sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds from Brooklyn, Montreal, and San Paolo. We all belong to the Kerouac cult.”

Did she feel that French responses to the Beats differed from American responses? “I don’t want to speak for everyone,” she said. “But I think the French are less puritanical than many Americans, less shocked by the Beat use of drugs, and less judgmental about their sexuality, though in San Francisco almost everything goes. Yes, there are differences, but I think that On the Road expresses the universal feelings of youth.”

Ea Oerum, a Danish journalist, toured literary San Francisco in the winter of 2014, but she didn’t catch fire until she arrived in Los Angeles. For three weeks, she wandered from Beverly Hills to Bunker Hill, taking notes, interviewing residents, and writing about LA for her readers in Denmark. She went home, unpacked, repacked, and returned to her newly adopted haunts. On her second visit to California, she stayed nine weeks.

Detail from the Raymond Chandler Map of Los Angeles by Paul Rogers. http://www.herblester.com

More than any other LA writer—more than James M. Cain, John Fante, and Raymond Chandler—it was Charles Bukowski who fascinated Oerum. Bukowski’s streets became her shrine, although their seediness seemed anathema to the very notion of a literary shrine. Born in Germany in 1924 and brought to the United States as a child, Bukowski published more than one hundred books that have long been appreciated more in Europe than in the United States, at least until recently. Oerum made a pilgrimage to Bukowski’s grave at Green Hills Memorial Park and with friends observed the anniversary of his death at King Eddy Saloon, the self-proclaimed “finest watering hole on Skid Row.”

Richard Schave, the founder of Esotouric—which offers literary tours billed as “adventures into the heart of LA”—brought Oerum into Bukowski’s world of drunks, derelicts, college professors, and intellectuals in the City of Angels. A perfect guide to the world of Bukowski, Cain, Chandler, and Fante, Schave is a native Angeleno. He eats, sleeps, drinks, and thinks like a character in a noir film circa 1945, or perhaps more like a noir director, say Billy Wilder. Schave’s literary map of LA is recognizable to readers who have been raised on Bukowski, Baudelaire, and Brecht, German expressionists and French film critics, who gave the word “noir” to Hollywood’s downward-spiraling narratives about criminals, grifters, insurance salesmen, and waitresses who commit murder for love and money.

And in the end what can a pilgrimage do to the pilgrim?

It has turned a Danish woman into an Angelena. “I love Bukowski’s LA,” Oerum told me. “I love the way that he gives humanity to people in the gutter. I’m sorry I wasn’t there to meet him in person. I wish I might have met more of the kinds of Americans that he writes about in Ham on Rye,” my favorite Bukowski book.

And it has made an Angeleno something else entirely. “I haven’t adopted a European view of the city per se,” Schave told me. “But I share with European artists and writers a peculiar view of LA that’s not exactly American and not entirely European, either.”


A New Deal for California

by Gray Brechin

Recovering a history hidden in plain sight

From Boom Winter 2014, Vol 4, No 4

Hubris doesn’t begin to describe what we proposed to do: document every last physical trace of the Depression-era federal Works Progress Administration (WPA) in California. All of it—every plaque, school, fountain, tennis court, park, and ranger station built by the WPA as part of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal for America. What was I thinking? It helped that I didn’t really know what I was in for. The markers left by the WPA on sidewalks, public restrooms, and Berkeley’s beloved Municipal Rose Garden had long intrigued me, but I had never gone out of my way to hunt them down. And I knew nothing of agencies like the PWA, CWA, FERA, REA, or the RA, but I knew that the Three Cs, Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), had built rustic structures and trails in the East Bay Regional Parks. But in 2004, the Columbia Foundation gave photographer Robert Dawson and me a grant to kick off the project, so we got to work.

I assumed that the New Deal was centralized in Washington, D.C., so surely I would find the records of its accomplishments neatly filed and accessible at the Library of Congress or the National Archives. A few trips to the nation’s capital were sufficient to convince me that I was wrong. WPA filing cards are not very informative, and they were preserved on some of the worst microfilm I’ve ever encountered. Public Works Administration (PWA) reports were also microfilmed, but they were stored in a dauntingly complex filing system and are so voluminous that no one but a young, tenured professor contemplating a life’s project could hope to come to grips with them. If the CCC records for the work done at thousands of camps existed anywhere, they would be similarly intimidating. Unfortunately, many of those records have been lost or destroyed over the decades since the effort to gear up for World War II abruptly killed the New Deal public works programs. As Harold Ickes, the head of the PWA, said in 1939 as he broke ground for Friant Dam in California: “Even those of us in Washington who are responsible for carrying out orders sometimes lack comprehension of the mighty sweep of this program.”

The range of projects built under the auspices of the New Deal defies easy description. No city, town, or rural area in the country was left untouched. Tens of thousands of roads, schools, theaters, libraries, hospitals, post offices, courthouses, airports, parks, forests, gardens, and works of art were built or improved in a single decade by those of our parents and grandparents who worked for the New Deal agencies or the companies they contracted. The result was a rich landscape of public works across the nation, often of outstanding beauty, utility, and craftsmanship. Early on, one of our sources told me, “Growing up in the 1930s, in retrospect, seemed like a renaissance period with so many useful and handsome public facilities and buildings being built …. I am sure that there was much economic distress during the period, but to me, the many civic projects brought a feeling of well-being and optimism, which I have not experienced since.” I have heard many such testimonials since then from people who lived through the Roosevelt years.

Among the many WPA initiatives I discovered in my early research were archaeological digs and historical re-creations, and they gave me the idea for an analogous effort: to create an ever-expanding excavation to reveal a buried and lost civilization. This was not, however, a civilization engulfed by the jungles of Guatemala or the sands of Egypt. It was our own history and a monument to an era a mere seventy-five years old but almost entirely forgotten by what Gore Vidal called the “United States of Amnesia.”

The National Archives preserved many boxes of roughly organized archival photographs of New Deal public works. I scanned hundreds of images that began to reveal the magnitude of what we had undertaken by trying to document the WPA’s work in California—and photographs bear witness to only a fraction of the work that was done by the WPA and other New Deal public works agencies.

Fortunately, in his indispensable book Long-Range Public Investment: The Forgotten Legacy of the New Deal (University of South Carolina Press, 2007), Robert Leighninger, Jr. describes all of the New Deal public works agencies and explains how they changed during their brief years of existence in response to the whipsaw of political and budgetary pressures exerted on the Roosevelt administration.1 The book is as inspiring as it is informative. But even after twelve years of research, Leighninger didn’t come close to documenting every New Deal work. He revealed only the tip of an enormous iceberg.

I only intended to catalog the remnants of the WPA in California, but even that task began to seem impossible for a two-man operation. So I began to gather together a group of like-minded folks to help with the effort. We launched California’s Living New Deal Project in 2005. (The word “living” reflects that most of the public works of the 1930s remain in daily use today by countless people who take them for granted.) I soon realized that we needed a more professional operation, and that’s when I asked Dick Walker to help us with his organizing experience and sources of support at the University of California, Berkeley. We began to build a database of projects and display them on a Google map, each dot opening to reveal documentary data and, wherever possible, contemporary and archival photos.2

We also joined forces with the California History Society and, with another grant from the Columbia Foundation, hired Lisa Ericksen to work as project ringmaster. Lisa invited historians, archivists, and others from around the state to attend workshops in Berkeley and San Francisco. Those attendees constituted our first network of informants feeding information to our graduate-student research assistants, who fact-checked for accuracy and entered information into the database and map.3 Because much of the evidence for New Deal public works is not available at the National Archives but in local histories, newspapers, municipal records, and scrapbooks, knowledgeable informants are crucial to the whole project, making it a Living New Deal in a double sense. By 2010 we had gathered enough data to map our first 1,000 sites.

Tile mural and sculpture at San Francisco Aquatic Park, created by the WPA.

The Living New Deal project grew timelier as California’s economic condition deteriorated into what press and pundits routinely dubbed the Great Recession, the worst crisis since the 1930s and similarly the product of rampant corruption that sprang from deregulation. Unfortunately for present-day California, the state’s modern leadership was doing precisely the opposite of what Roosevelt’s New Deal did to kick the economy out of the doldrums. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, for example, closed state parks and stinted on their maintenance in a futile effort to balance the state budget, despite the lessons that might have been drawn from the fact that California’s once exemplary state park system was largely the product of CCC labor in its early years. The same is true of the East Bay Regional Parks and most national park and forest campgrounds, trails, amphitheaters, and buildings. WPA workers improved every public park in San Francisco and planted thousands of street trees in other cities now in their maturity. They built San Francisco and Berkeley’s Aquatic Parks, along with recreational marinas throughout the state. Thousands of streets, sidewalks, and bridges were constructed by laborers whose wages in turn cycled into the economy, refloating it from the bottom rather than waiting for cash to trickle down from on high to those most urgently in need.

New Deal agencies similarly came to the aid of public education from kindergarten to the university level. Scarcely a town in California lacks a school built or improved by the WPA or the PWA. Many of these new schools replaced ramshackle, crowded, and inadequate structures with modern fire- and earthquake-resistant facilities that boasted science labs, libraries, cafeterias, kitchens, athletic facilities, and multiuse auditoriums that quickly became community centers. A panel of architects tasked by President Roosevelt to select the best PWA projects in the country flatly stated, “Some of the best architecturally outstanding buildings in all types may be found in California,” and singled out the state’s public schools for special praise.

The Sunshine School in San Francisco, built by the PWA.

After hearing about the Living New Deal project, a seventy-seven-year-old man wrote me to say that his Watsonville elementary school “had features we would never have enjoyed if the local taxpayers had to foot the bill.” The redwood basketball arena at Watsonville High, he said, “was the pride of all who attended” the school. He recalled the joy of hearing live classical music played by a WPA Symphony Orchestra in that auditorium, so I sent him a photograph that I’d scanned at the National Archives of school children enjoying a concert. He responded, “I’m sure I’m somewhere in that crowd.”

In less than six years, WPA labor and PWA funding built entire campuses such as the community colleges at Santa Rosa, Long Beach, San Francisco, Pasadena, Santa Barbara, Fullerton, and Los Angeles. The PWA built a state-of-the-art orthopedic school for crippled and malnourished children in San Francisco’s Mission District. Not only did the Sunshine School feature ramps and elevators now mandated by the Americans with Disabilities Act, it was richly embellished with elaborate Spanish tiles, stenciled ceilings, and Moorish light fixtures. Such aesthetic considerations were no accident. “Everything possible has been done to create the most cheerful possible atmosphere in order to encourage the children to forget as far as possible their disabilities,” noted the authors of a report on the best PWA projects.

Mosaic on the old university art gallery at UC Berkeley, created by the WPA.

The National Youth Administration (NYA) provided work-study jobs so that students could complete their education, as well as vocational training. CCC “boys,” who were mostly young, uneducated, and unskilled, reconstructed Mission La Purissima Concepcion in Lompoc from the ruins left by an earthquake, while WPA workers restored General Vallejo’s home in Sonoma, although they left no marker to remind the future they had done so. The New Deal agencies did not just employ unskilled workers such as those in the CCC and the Civil Works Administration (CWA), the precursor of the WPA; the New Deal also put to work thousands of teachers, educational aides, librarians, nutritionists, bookbinders, conservators, translators, and recreational supervisors—and it put them to work in newly built public libraries, museums, zoos, and park visitors’ centers.

The WPA’s Federal Art Project (FAP) commissioned artists to embellish existing and new schools with murals, sculpture, and easel paintings. Some of that artwork—such as Jacques Schnier’s gigantic relief of Saint George slaying the dragon of ignorance at Berkeley High School—is accessible to the public. However, security concerns have rendered many New Deal works, such as a magnificent wood inlay panorama of Bakersfield at East Bakersfield High School, invisible. California’s public schools represent a vast and largely unknown reservoir of art created during the Great Depression. The Living New Deal relies on teachers, principals, and custodians to alert and send us photos of paintings, sculptures, and even, as at San Jose’s Hoover Middle School, stained glass windows hidden within their schools. Another federal agency—the Treasury Section of Fine Arts—was responsible for the thousands of murals and sculptures in post offices and other federal structures.

The Redlands Post Office, funded by the US Treasury.

The New Deal built few prisons but many schools, in the belief that it is far better and cheaper for the nation and communities to educate their young rather than to punish them. WPA bureaucrats were deeply concerned with juvenile delinquency at a time when job prospects for young men were even bleaker than now—and they foresaw the need for leisure activities once the economy improved—so they built public tennis courts, ball fields, golf courses, and swimming pools, most of which are still in heavy use. In San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, for example, the WPA built public stables, a model yacht clubhouse, and one of the finest fly-casting facilities in the country, thereby making available to everyone sports previously available only to the well-to-do. Near the summit of Mount Tamalpais State Park, CCC work crews moved lichen-encrusted boulders to create the open-air Mountain Theater, while in the Oakland hills WPA crews built the Woodminster amphitheater with a magnificent water cascade and fountains dedicated to California’s writers.

Long Beach Municipal Airport terminal building, built by the WPA.

An elderly woman involved in the Federal Theater Project told me that those few years constituted “the most creative period in American history.” FDR’s critics dismissed the New Deal’s public works projects as “boondoggles.” But far from being wasteful, New Deal projects were carefully monitored and remarkably free of scandal despite intense scrutiny from political opponents. The long-term payoff from this public investment helped propel American economic growth after World War II and much of it is still working for the American people today.

In 2010, we expanded the Living New Deal to the whole country in order to inventory, map, and publicize the achievements of the New Deal in all fifty states and US territories. We knew this expansion would require a rapid scaling up of the project, including its web presence, project team, and financing. First, the website was completely overhauled by new programmer Ben Hass. Second, the project team had to grow, so we added a communications expert, Susan Ives, a fundraising consultant, Adam Kinsey, and oral historian and book review editor, Sam Redman, among others. Meanwhile, our research assistants, Shaina Potts and John Elrick, were adding to the database and map, mostly from published documents on the New Deal, ramping up to more than two thousand sites by the summer of 2012.4

A Yosemite restroom, built by the CCC.

The new fundraising team raised our income substantially, allowing us to leap to a much greater organizational capacity. We were able to hire a new project manager, Rachel Brahinsky, who lent a whole new dynamism to our team of stalwarts and who made a concerted outreach to locate researchers around the country to help us locate New Deal public-works sites.5 As her efforts bore fruit, we created a national network of regional associates in Maryland, Virginia, Wisconsin, Tennessee, Texas, Mississippi, and Southern California. By mid-2013, the project had a dozen research associates around the country, and that number grew to a total of thirty in more than half the states by 2014. Our search for research affiliates in all fifty states continues as more people discover the Living New Deal on the Web, Facebook, and Twitter, and as they contact us to volunteer.

In 2013, Barbara Bernstein agreed to merge her magnificent crowd-sourced website, The New Deal Art Registry, into the Living New Deal database. With that addition and a surge in new submissions from our associates’ network, our database leapt to five thousand sites by late 2013. It was receiving around five thousand unique visits each week—a doubling of the archive and public access over the previous year. We are well on the way to doubling both totals again in 2014.

Relief sculpture on Berkeley High School, created by the WPA.

Because these public works are rarely marked, the New Deal’s ongoing contribution to American life goes largely unseen. Millions of Americans use the New Deal’s parks, libraries, and schools every day; for the most part, they are completely unaware of where they came from and what they represent. Given the epic scale of what was achieved during the Roosevelt years, it seems inconceivable that no national register exists of what the New Deal agencies built.

We stand on the shoulders of giants who include not only Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt and the ingenious and compassionate men and women they gathered around themselves, but also the millions of anonymous workers who transformed a nation facing economic calamity before they turned their energies to fighting World War II. The Living New Deal is making visible their enduring legacy.

California historian and former State Librarian Kevin Starr has likened the Living New Deal to a WPA project from the 1930s in its ambition and scope. Like the WPA, the national inventory is actively involving ordinary Americans in the fascinating detective work of assembling history from scratch, rediscovering and mapping a lost landscape of our own making. As a lifelong Californian, I’m proud to say that, like so much else, it started here in the Golden State.

Far from an antiquarian exercise, the Living New Deal aims to help preserve precious art and architecture from destruction or privatization, to see that New Deal sites are properly marked, and to help communities and families across the nation rediscover their heritage. Moreover, the New Deal legacy could be a model for the present. The economic crisis that began in 2008 invited many comparisons with the Great Depression of the 1930s, along with calls for similar government programs to revive the economy and relieve the severe unemployment and financial suffering of millions of Americans. The latest crisis was centered in California, and the Golden State felt the effects worse than any other part of the United States: the state’s unemployment rate hovered near 10 percent, wages stagnated, deficits bankrupted local governments, home foreclosures were epidemic, and overall economic growth was anemic. Unlike the Great Depression, however, government programs shrank, infrastructure continued to decay, and the richest 1 percent gained a larger share of the state’s wealth.6

San Bernardino Mission Assistencia, restored by the WPA.

A new New Deal, which many people hoped President Barack Obama might launch, could have helped enormously, but what we got was a weak imitation.7 A common mistake, even among historians and economists, is to think that the Great Depression was ended only by the buildup to World War II. We now have clear evidence that the economy revived smartly from 1933 onward, despite a setback in 1937, with growth rates of 5 to 9 percent per year. By 1942, it was already back to the level it would have attained had there been no depression. This era also saw the greatest rise in the productivity rate in American history. World War II’s main contribution to ending the Depression was to absorb the remaining unemployed labor. Prior to the crash of 1929, the United States was poised to become the world’s dominant economy. The meme so often repeated during the Great Recession that FDR’s New Deal was a well-meaning but ineffective (or worse) effort to revive the economy before the war smashed those of its competitors is simply wrong.8

The legacy of the New Deal has much to teach us about farsighted leadership and what can be achieved when our country rallies to serve the needs of ordinary people in troubled times. The New Deal not only pulled the country out of economic doldrums, it left a long-term foundation of physical and cultural infrastructure that underwrote a golden age of American prosperity after World War II. What is more, the New Deal provides an example of what positive government can achieve when it invests in public works and policies that serve the collective good. Government can, indeed, work for all the people by putting people to work and restoring meaning to their lives while building things of beauty, such as elegant buildings embellished with public art, that improve the lives of all who use them. It’s our hope that the Living New Deal will continue to remind Americans of the tangible evidence of what this country once had and did, as well as to inspire us to build the parks, bridges, schools, libraries, and artistic endeavors that researchers eighty years hence will eagerly track down.


Many thanks to Dick Walker for comments, additions, and edits, not to mention all his work building the Living New Deal project. Further thanks go to the Department of Geography, where I have enjoyed residence as Visiting Scholar, and to our collaborators at the National New Deal Preservation Association, the California Historical Society, and UC Berkeley’s Institute for Research in Labor and Employment (IRLE).

First image by Flickr user Waltarrrrr; all others by the author.

1 A valuable companion work, which I discovered later, is Jason Scott Smith’s New Deal Liberalism: The Political Economy of Public Works, 1933–1956 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006). Smith is a former Berkeley history student.

2 This was the work of the excellent programmers, Elizabeth del Rocio Camacho and Heather Lynch, at the Institute for Research on Labor and Employment at UCB.

3 Lindsey Dillon and Shaina Potts, graduate students in geography at UCB, have earned my deepest gratitude for all they have done over the years. Without their intelligence and hard work, we would have floundered long ago.

4 The project and its server also moved to the Department of Geography, where it is still housed. We have recently gained nonprofit status to operate off-campus, as well.

5 Funded by a bequest by Ann Baumann of New Mexico (daughter of New Deal artist Gustave Baumann) through the National New Deal Preservation Association. Rachel’s good work has been followed up by Alex Tarr, our current Project Manager.

6 On California’s central role in the Great Recession, see Ashok Bardhan and Richard Walker, “California Shrugged: The Fountainhead of the Great Recession,’’ Cambridge Journal of Regions, Economy and Society 4:3 (2011): 303–22. Nevada and Arizona had higher rates of foreclosure and unemployment, but they have much smaller economies and their fortunes are closely tied to California.

7 Obama’s American Recovery and Reinvestment Act actually did help, along with massive injections of money by the Federal Reserve Bank, which is why the United States has done better since 2009 than Europe under German-led austerity.

8 Christina Romer, “What Ended the Great Depression?” Journal of Economic History 52: 4 (1992): 757–84. Alexander Field, A Great Leap Forward: The 1930s Depression and US Economic Growth (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011).


New Missionaries

by Marc Flacks

In the olive groves of the Golden State

From Boom Winter 2014, Vol 4, No 4

Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt of Marc Flacks’s essay “New Missionaries” from our Winter 2014 issue. 

The production of olive oil in California has deep roots. Generations of Californians have been seduced by olive trees and their promise of a liquid bonanza. California is now reported to be in the midst of an olive oil boom or a “liquid gold rush,” but in fact, the state is witnessing its third or fourth effort to establish a viable olive oil industry. The Spanish missionaries began producing olive oil in California around 1803. After that, Italian immigrants in the mid-nineteenth century started producing olive oil when their Gold Rush dreams failed to pan out, and in the twentieth century, entrepreneurs tried to compete against the dominant European olive oil industry.

As this Mission olive tree on the State Capitol grounds grew over the past century, the tags bent and were embedded in its trunk.

Even though California olive oil represents only a tiny fraction of today’s world market, the state may be poised to become a major global player because of the creative efforts of family-run agribusinesses, legislation aimed at defining high quality, “extra virgin” oil, and the implementation of a relatively new high-density growing method imported from Spain. Every new attempt to cultivate this industry in the Golden State has been accompanied by new myths about olive trees and the natural suitability of California for producing the golden oil. As something of an insider to the industry and an academic researcher, and therefore something of an outsider too, I’ve been curious about the people at the forefront of this potential boom and the new myths they are creating.

My own olive oil journey began by accident in Santa Barbara, where I grew up. When I rode my bike or moped down Olive Street on my way to Santa Barbara High School, my tires would slide perilously when braking, and I would wonder why the city allowed all the fruit from the olive trees lining the road to drop and grease the street, instead of harvesting them and putting them to good use. Then, when I moved to the Sacramento area in 2007 to begin teaching sociology at Yuba College, I read in the Sacramento Bee that University of California, Davis, having settled too many suits filed by bicyclists injured in accidents caused by oil from fallen olives, decided to harvest their trees and ultimately establish the UC Davis Olive Center, transforming a liability into an asset. Yuba College, it turns out, sits on the site of an old olive grove and, when I noticed a feral grove near campus, I obtained permission to hold a volunteer community olive harvest there and began establishing 49er Olive Oil, a nonprofit olive oil venture.

My self-appointed olive oil mission has been not only to get 49er Olive Oil up and running, but to immerse myself in the world of California olive oil and to try to grasp its significance in sociological, historical, geographical, and mythical terms. Traversing a California divided into familiar binaries such as Northern/Southern, coastal/inland, organic/conventional, liberal/conservative, urban/rural, government/industry, profit/nonprofit, etc. I’ve talked with many of today’s olive oil missionaries to better understand the ideals, goals, and strategies they hope this time will avoid the industry busts of the past.

Santa Barbara’s Old Missions

Because my curiosity about California olive oil began in Santa Barbara, I started my exploration there.

There is an old myth that California’s first olive tree was planted by Father Junipero Serra in 1769, the year that the governor of Baja and Alta California, Gaspar de Portolá, led an expedition to San Diego to establish the first of California’s twenty-one missions. Aside from shade and food, Spanish missionaries needed olive oil for sacramental purposes. Although the actual historical record of olive propagation and Spanish conquest diverges from myth—there is no reliable evidence that Serra planted the first tree—the evidence that olive trees and their fruit were central to the lives and work of Spanish missionaries is still visible up and down the state.

In partnership with the Santa Barbara Trust for Historic Preservation, Santa Barbara’s Old Mission has planted a new olive grove called Stations of the Cross Olive Garden Path. The grove is meant to serve multiple purposes, including providing revenue to the mission and the trust through olive oil sales, providing shade, connecting visitors to biblical history, and simply providing a place for quiet contemplation.

The trust has also partnered with Mission Santa Inés to grow olive trees and involve citizen volunteers in helping to produce nonprofit olive oil. They are hoping to gain state park status for a historic grist and mill, and they are creating new opportunities for visitors to gain hands-on understanding of California history.

Olivos Del Mar

Sample products from the Makela family’s Olivos Del Mar company.

Over the coastal range from Santa Ynez, near Refugio Canyon, is the Makela family spread. The Makelas trace their heritage back to the original Spanish settlers in Santa Barbara and acknowledge that, while planting avocados would probably be more profitable, they consider olives to be their family tradition and legacy. A sign hanging above the entrance to their offices reads, “100 years and 9 generations of Santa Barbara tradition in every product.”

The Makela family’s work blends historical preservation and innovation. Craig Makela, past president of the Santa Barbara Trust for Historic Preservation, led the planting of olive trees at the Old Missions in Santa Barbara and Santa Ynez. He also has helped plant olive trees to support the nonprofit mission of the Young America Foundation, which now operates the Ronald Reagan ranch, situated in Refugio Canyon in the mountains overlooking the Makelas’ olive ranch.

Aside from the “social entrepreneurship” of planting olive trees to help nonprofit organizations, though, the Makelas are energetic businesspeople. They recently received a patent for Oleavicin, a lip balm made from olive leaves.

Rancho Olivos

Shannon Casey and John Copeland operate all aspects of their olive venture, Rancho Olivos, from planting the trees to selling the oil—and with it, a promise of a Californian lifestyle.

Their mission goes beyond earning money and includes protecting the environment. In planting their orchard, they were careful to plant around existing oak trees, even dead ones. They also see their work as connecting to their community’s history. Antique items are repurposed—for example, an old carriage that was once used for house calls by the country doctor of Los Olivos and is now a sign holder at their farm stand.

Los Olivos, in the Santa Ynez Valley in North Santa Barbara County, was once heavily planted with olive groves, but today there are only a handful of small operations, hoping to capitalize on the winery “agritourism” that has thrived in that region at least since the release of the movie Sideways. As a product, olive oil promises a whiff of the Mediterranean dolce vita that blends labor with leisure. Casey and Copeland are particularly proud of their oil infused with Meyer lemons. They live, work, and play at their olive ranch, and they sell visitors an entire California lifestyle with every bottle of olive oil.

The cemetery at Mission Santa Inés is shaded by historic Mission Olive trees.

Dan Flynn and Selina Wang in the Olive Center’s lab at UC Davis.

The grove at Rancho Olivos is planted around old oak trees.

On the California Olive Ranch bottling line.

CEO of California Olive Ranch Greg Kelley.


All photographs by the author.


How a Mid-Century LA Environmentalist Got Beyond John Muir

by Christopher Sellers

As the centenary of John Muir’s death in Los Angeles approaches on December 24, the inevitable outpourings of praise need to be tempered with both historical awareness and wariness.

Muir’s legacy runs to the heart of why Americans have had such trouble caring for nature in the places we actually inhabit. Extolling the High Sierra, Muir taught his readers and followers to appreciate a nature that could be truly found only in the most pristine of places, where the human hand seemed lightest.

Photo from the Richard Gordon Lillard papers, Library Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library, UCLA.

Photo from the Richard Gordon Lillard papers, Library Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library, UCLA.

Yet our biggest environmental problems have long lain not in places like Yosemite, but where human hands appear far more dominant, and nature itself is much harder to see. Muir’s legacy has often impeded our inclination and ability to heed ecological realities that are neither so pristine nor so grandiose, but that thread through our society and our lives. And so Muir’s legacy is inevitably being questioned on this centennial.

But there are other, earlier precedents for productively re-examining Muir’s relevance. The modern environmental movement, which took off after World War II in California as elsewhere, was often concerned with places that were far more populous and built up—suburbs and cities in particular—than Muir’s beloved Sierra.

For at least one prominent mid-century California environmentalist, caring for these places required overcoming Muir’s legacy. Richard Lillard was an English professor and author of Eden in Jeopardy: Man’s Prodigal Meddling with His Environment: The Southern California Experience, published in 1966, and the closest thing Southern California had in those years to an environmental prophet. A Muir acolyte when he first arrived in Los Angeles in the mid-1940’s, Lillard never would have written his seminal book had he remained so.

At first, following Muir, Lillard abandoned the city whenever he could, spending his summers as a “naturalist” guide in Yosemite, and even holding his wedding in its outdoor “cathedral.” His tune changed while living in a house he had bought in 1947 in a canyon of the Santa Monica Mountains, close enough to the downtown to lie within the city limits of Los Angeles.

In search of a conservation that was more personal and “deeply lived,” Lillard got to know the natural world that lay around his own house. That growing acquaintance became central to his transformation. He “lovingly raised” his own home garden, and turned a keen eye to the local wildlife, even the weeds. When a disastrous flood and mudslide struck his and his neighbors’ homes, he launched into local politics, reviving a homeowners’ association that pushed city hall for tighter rules on hillside homebuilding.

Soon thereafter, writing in his private journal, he rankled at Muir’s legacy. Muir’s admirers, he decided, were “socially immature.” He affirmed instead the inspiration of a Thoreau or Andre Gide who “balance … things well”—the “humane world…of private love and public causes” alongside “the nature he makes his setting.” Part of the reason was that the place Lillard now lived in and cared for faced threats that Muir had never contemplated, threats more associated with suburbs or cities than with wilderness. The great contribution of Eden in Jeopardy was to highlight these threats across Southern California: the heedless paving of roads and rivers, the haphazard raising of roofs across valleys and farmland, the hurdling of tons of smoke and hydrocarbons into the Los Angeles basin’s air.

Lillard’s experience mirrored that of the group owing the most to Muir’s legacy, the Sierra Club. As late as 1955, it remained a small group centered on the West Coast and hewing closely to Muir’s vision. Sponsored trips exposed a membership mostly from cities and suburbs to the transcendent nature of the Sierras. Its political agenda remained confined to protecting the remote federal preserves where much of America’s wilderness could be found.

Only after the club began to take on more urban and suburban issues—not before—did the Sierra Club’s roster soar. Its causes expanded in ways that would have utterly puzzled Muir himself. By the early 1960’s, the Los Angeles Chapter had begun lobbying against the county’s dumps, pushing for a public preserve in the Santa Monica Mountains, and for protection of far less pristine parks in Boyle Heights and elsewhere downtown.

Where the Muir tradition most hobbled the Sierra Club from endorsing Lillard’s broader agenda was over environmental threats to human health. Enraptured by the High Sierra, Muir and his disciples mythologized their own strenuous and daring exertions across them. Rarely did they consider how vulnerable to these or any other surroundings human beings could be. Yet that was precisely the message hammered home by post-war environmentalists such as Lillard and Rachel Carson, whose Silent Spring, published in 1962, emphasized that human-made chemicals such pesticides did not just threaten birds and wildlife but people too.

Los Angeles’ worsening smog offered one of the nation’s earliest and gravest instances of how bad the most modern versions of pollution could become. Yet for decades, the Angeleno chapter of the Sierra Club shied away from regional political battles over smog. Only in the late 1960’s did they join in, after Lillard and many others had argued for smog’s relevance to ecological advocacy.

A century out from Muir’s death, humanity’s mounting influence on the planet, and what we now know about that influence, have made a truly pristine nature ever more difficult, even impossible, to find. No place on earth stays untouched by a phenomenon like climate change. To be sure, we still need our Yosemites, not least for the transcendent encounters that Muir and his descendants have helped us to find in them. Yet in a time when human impacts have turned planetary in scale, the project of protecting our wildest places has become far more bound up with what we do in our cities, suburbs, and factories than Muir ever imagined.

More than ever, we also need precedents like Lillard’s: ways we may see, appreciate and protect the natural world in those places where most of us live our lives, but where nature itself sometimes seems far more difficult to find.

Christopher Sellers is the author of Crabgrass Crucible: Suburban Nature and the Rise of Environmentalism in 20th-Century America, and a professor of history at Stony Brook University.


Photograph at top by Ken Kanouse via Flickr.


Island Time

by Peter S. Alagona

On the stories we tell about nature and history

From Boom Fall 2014, Vol 4, No 3

There are few better places in California to think with nature than the blustery earthen prow of Fraser Point at the northwest tip of Santa Cruz Island. On a clear day, the point offers a magnificent 360-degree panorama. Behind you lie the island’s arid windward slopes. To your right, sheer headlands overlook the Santa Barbara Channel and distant Santa Ynez Mountains. On your left is Santa Cruz Island’s rugged western shore with its sea cliffs, tide pools, and guano-caked rocks. Directly in front of you across a six-mile strait, Santa Rosa Island’s sand dunes shimmer in the afternoon sun. Far beyond, the hazy, double-humped apparition of San Miguel Island hovers over the horizon, perched on the edge of the wild Pacific.

Standing on Fraser Point, teeth to the gale and hardly a hint of humans in sight, it is tempting to indulge in the fantasy of time travel. Superficially, this place recalls a bygone era in California when people were fewer and nature was still wild. The fact that Santa Cruz is an island, requiring an hour-and-a-half ferry ride to reach, adds to its sense of apartness, as if the channel crossing were a voyage to another age.

Photograph by Ross Doering.

Yet this place is no relic. Santa Cruz Island is the product of a long and complicated history, clues of which are everywhere for those willing to look. Gazing south from Fraser Point, massive shell mounds mark the locations of ancient Chumash villages, now recognized as some of the richest archaeological sites in western North America; a mat of squat tan foliage, including a cornucopia of native and exotic plants, carpets the foothills; deeply incised arroyos recall decades of foraging by feral animals; and a maze of rutted dirt roads, long maintained by the US military, traverse steep mountainsides. Near the end of the visible shoreline, Christy Ranch’s historic buildings once served as a remote outpost for the island’s livestock operations and now provide simple facilities for visiting researchers.

How should one study, interpret, and manage an island known worldwide for both its natural and its cultural histories? This is one of the most important questions facing parks and reserves in the twenty-first century. Santa Cruz Island just happens to be an excellent example. It provides an ideal vantage from which to view the intersection of nature and culture in California, how our state’s institutions interpret, represent, and mobilize history, and how their approaches to remembering the past and documenting change over time bear on the present.

Three institutions—the National Park Service, The Nature Conservancy, and the University of California’s Natural Reserve System—serve as Santa Cruz Island’s custodians. Along with a handful of other mainland organizations, they also serve as the de facto guardians of the island’s history. Each has developed its own relationship with the past, and these relationships inform the ways that each studies, manages, and interprets the island. Each has a different origin, mission, and culture. Each embraces a particular kind of institutional memory, and each engages in some form of organized amnesia. The way these institutions remember and act on Santa Cruz Island’s past will shape its future—and perhaps the futures of other such places in California and beyond.

First, consider the National Park Service, whose relationship with the past is best described as selected memory. Congress established the service in 1916 to “conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects” in national parks and monuments, and to “provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.” In 1980 Congress created Channel Islands National Park, which includes Anacapa, Santa Rosa, San Miguel, and Santa Barbara Islands. By 2000, the park also had acquired the eastern quarter of Santa Cruz Island.

For more than three decades, the park service has interpreted the Channel Islands’ history in much the same way that it has told the histories of other western national parks. Indeed, many readers who have never visited or even heard of the Channel Islands will immediately recognize the plotline of the service’s official history. It goes something like this:

The four northern Channel Islands comprise a seaward arm of the Santa Monica Mountains, at the southwestern edge of California’s Transverse Ranges. During the Pleistocene epoch, when sea level dropped to 120 meters below its current elevation, this archipelago formed a contiguous landmass. Close enough to the mainland to receive occasional terrestrial migrants, yet far enough away to isolate those newcomers from their source populations, the islands became a remarkable laboratory of evolution. Although not as rich in species as the mainland, they housed a grand menagerie of ice age flora and fauna, including the fanciful, oxymoronic pygmy mammoth. At least 145 species of plants and animals still occur here but nowhere else.

Evidence of human presence on the islands dates back at least 13,000 years. Over time, the Chumash people who lived here developed a sophisticated and cosmopolitan culture, complete with shell bead currency, deep-sea fishing gear, long-distance trade networks, and elaborate rituals. In 1542, Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo sailed along the Santa Cruz coastline, past Fraser Point, and estimated a population of around 2,000 human inhabitants in six villages. Disease and missionization decimated these communities and led to their abandonment by the early 1800s, less than three centuries after European contact. Ranching began on Santa Cruz Island in the 1830s with a Mexican land grant, and agriculture dominated the island for 150 years. Feral grazing and rooting animals denuded the vegetation, threatening native species and leaving a desolate landscape in many areas. Since the 1980s, restoration projects have begun to restore the island’s ecosystems, a process that most observers believed would take decades but is already showing remarkable results.1

If this story seems familiar that is because it is based on a formula.2 Visit other western national parks and you will see the same tale, told again and again, with different details but an identical structure. As a genre, the park service’s official history hits all of the disciplinary high points that national park visitors have come to expect: geography, geology, evolution, ecology, archaeology, and history. By combining the multiple temporal scales associated with these disciplines, national parks offer a God’s eye view meant to convey a sense of wonder in the presence of ancient things and monumental processes. From a practical perspective, the park service cultivates this feeling of awe to instill a code of conduct within the parks and an ethic of support for its mission. From an ideological viewpoint, the official history also serves as a nationalist narrative designed to enroll visitors in a shared heritage that inevitably culminates with modern American society and benevolent bureaucratic management.3

Photograph by Flickr user Momo Go.

Recently, at other sites, the park service has confronted challenges to its portrayals of the past, and this has led to public debates and new approaches.4 But these are exceptions. In a century of honing its official history, the park service has elevated this tale of the western national parks to the status of common sense. Today, it is the dominant narrative not only of ranger stations, trailhead signage, and official documents, but also of websites, guidebooks, and popular lore.

There is nothing nefarious about the park service’s mission, nor anything technically wrong with the story it tells. Its facts are accurate, its chronology sound. Yet its version of the past barely resembles the kind of history that most historians regard as vital and interesting. Historians value questions as much as answers, insights as well as information. They endeavor to treat the past on its own terms, while drawing appropriate connections to contemporary issues. They seek to tell stories that enliven history, while puncturing the air of inevitability so common in textbook accounts. Perhaps most important, they treat all narratives of the past as provisional.

Photograph by Ken Lund.

The official history of Santa Cruz Island sends an altogether different message. It is correct but not especially interesting because it is predictable rather than contingent. It is written in declarative instead of interrogative language that preempts, not prompts, further discussion. It artificially separates the past from the present, even though the consequences of that past are everywhere today. It then conflates the two by asserting that wise managers can turn back the clock, remaking lost landscapes from previous eras. The park service presents a stable and comfortable version of the past. Yet in doing so, it avoids almost all of the complex and important questions that link historical processes to current concerns.

Santa Cruz Island’s second major administrative institution is The Nature Conservancy, whose connection to the past takes the form of directed memory. The conservancy, which owns the western three-quarters of the island, has its roots in the Ecological Society of America. Two years after the society’s founding, in 1915, it established a preservation committee to promote the establishment of nature reserves for ecological field research. In 1946 the society’s governing board disbanded the committee, arguing that activist organizations, not scientific societies, should take the lead in conservation work. Several members responded by forming a new group, the Ecologists’ Union, which in 1950 they renamed The Nature Conservancy. This would become the world’s largest nongovernmental conservation organization.5

In 1978 the conservancy acquired most of Santa Cruz Island from the Stanton family, which, like so many other wealthy Southern California clans, made its fortune in the oil industry. The family patriarch, Carey Stanton, made it clear that he did not want his property to fall into the hands of the National Park Service. After Stanton’s death in 1987, the conservancy assumed full management of its portion of the island. This is where its story of the island’s history begins.

At the time, Santa Cruz Island was, by all accounts, in miserable condition. The conservancy’s restoration work began with the removal of more than 30,000 feral sheep in the 1980s and more than 5,000 feral hogs by 2006. Sometime in the 1990s, golden eagles from the mainland first appeared on the islands. They probably migrated there to feed on the islands’ piglets, but they also found its native foxes easy prey. By the early 2000s, the island fox—an endemic and charismatic subspecies, which, despite its diminutive size, was the island’s apex terrestrial predator—had nearly gone extinct. The conservancy joined with several other organizations to mount a response that included rounding up the foxes, protecting them in enclosures, and initiating a captive breeding program, while eradicating the remaining pigs and revegetating the denuded areas where the foxes were most vulnerable to areal predation by golden eagles. The program also involved removing all of the golden eagles and replacing them with bald eagles. Bald eagles disappeared from the islands by the mid-twentieth century, due to a combination of hunting, harassment, and reproductive failure associated with DDT toxicity. Many biologists believed that bald eagles were once common on the islands, were sufficiently territorial to fend off golden eagles, and preyed on fish rather than foxes.6

Photograph by Flickr user Momo Go.

In its promotional materials, the conservancy describes these events as a gripping tale of loss and recovery through expert management. A short online film, entitled Santa Cruz Island: Restoring the Balance, sets the stage. An airborne camera pans across the island to solemn music while the narrator describes it as “a world apart. . . Every plant and animal is an integral part of a unique, self-sustaining ecosystem. But this is a fragile place, where the slightest human touch can be profound.”7 The conservancy’s website echoes its film, recounting the story, and concluding with a declaration of victory: “Once on the brink of ecological collapse, Santa Cruz Island now offers visitors a glimpse of what Southern California used to be like hundreds of years ago. . . After three decades of tireless work, Santa Cruz Island has emerged as a leading example for successful island restoration and innovative conservation.”8

The conservancy deserves credit for its accomplishments. Yet its account of Santa Cruz Island’s history is filled with contradictions. The claim that Santa Cruz is “a world apart” forgets the extent to which people have shaped its flora and fauna. The idea that every organism is “an integral part” of the island’s “self-sustaining ecosystem” ignores the outsized role of introduced species, particularly nonnative plants, dozens of which are still common there. It also fails to mention the occasional natural colonizations that are typical of a large island so close to a continent. It discounts the several millennia during which humans, not foxes or eagles, dominated the island’s food web. And it overlooks the conservancy’s own history of intensive management, which is unlikely to end soon. Calling Santa Cruz “fragile” may seem reasonable, considering the grave changes that occurred there during the ranching era. But the conservancy’s own description of the island’s recovery suggests that even after decades of abuse, this remains a remarkably resilient place. Given these observations, the claim that Santa Cruz Island offers “a glimpse of what Southern California used to be like hundreds of years ago” is untenable. A more honest assessment would arrive at nearly the opposite conclusion: the past 250 years have been the most transformative and consequential in the island’s long history.

The Nature Conservancy’s account of the past qualifies as directed memory because it is history with a purpose. Unlike the National Park Service—which sees historical interpretation as central to its work, and whose form of selected memory serves bureaucratic needs but also the broader goals of promoting an inclusive and educated citizenry—the conservancy has much narrower objectives and no real allegiance to the past. Its goals are restoring and preserving nature—a project that often involves ignoring or attempting to purge the past—and securing funds to continue its efforts. Ecosystems are inherently historical entities, which makes erasing history impossible on the ground. So where restoration reaches its limits, a rhetorical project begins.

The third institution responsible for Santa Cruz Island’s management is the University of California’s Natural Reserve System, where history has usually taken the form of neglected memory. The UC Natural Reserve System dates to the mid-1960s, when the UC system created a single administrative unit to coordinate its existing reserves, and produced a plan for the development of a larger reserve network that would include representative samples of California’s biophysical diversity. The natural reserve system’s founders envisioned it as serving several objectives. It would provide secure sites for long-term research, facilities for teaching, and spaces for studying environmental problems. The reserves would also act as control sites for measuring ecological change in surrounding areas. Today, the system encompasses thirty-nine sites with access to around 750,000 acres, making it the world’s largest and most diverse university-run reserve system.9

In 1966, a year after the system’s founding, the university established Santa Cruz Island Reserve. The state does not own any land on the island, so the reserve operates under agreements with the National Park Service and The Nature Conservancy. The reserve’s director, Lyndal Laughrin, a fox biologist by training, is himself something of living historical figure, having worked on the island since 1964.

The system’s founders knew that a reserve’s value depended on effective management and adequate facilities, but they also stressed the importance of supporting documentation.10 This included basic natural history observations, scientific data collected on-site, archives pertaining to the history of the area before it joined the system, administrative records describing the reserve’s management, and libraries of reference materials. These founders conceived of a reserve network whose value would grow each year as knowledge about each site increased and became more accessible. After the system’s establishment, however, this vision was mostly forgotten. Today, the reserves hold only a small fraction of the supporting materials necessary for a rich understanding of their histories. Indeed, many scientists conducting research at UC reserves have no knowledge about the histories of their study sites, or how the legacies of those histories shape contemporary ecological processes.

There are many reasons for this predicament. Because most scientists see the history of their profession as a march toward more knowledge and better ideas, they tend to place little value on the past. During the mid-twentieth century, the biological and environmental sciences in particular turned away from historical accounts toward mechanistic explanations for patterns in nature. In the period of rapid expansion after the reserve system’s founding, its leaders focused more on site acquisitions than on instituting their vision of the reserves as repositories of knowledge. At most sites, urgent tasks—such as construction, maintenance, and fund-raising—took precedence. The need to produce timely results from funded research discouraged many scientists from undertaking long-term projects or assisting with baseline monitoring. Even efforts to compile lists of publications based on data gathered at the reserves faltered. The result of all this is that history, once the source of so much interest in the reserve system, has assumed the same role it so often does in the sciences. It moved from the vital foreground into the neglected background.

The system’s leaders now recognize their past lack of historical mindedness, and along with partners from several UC campuses they are now trying to catch up. But building an information infrastructure isn’t easy. Most reserves operate on shoestring budgets without resources for such work. A few reserves have done admirable jobs maintaining their records, but most have not. Some records have disappeared; others are disorganized, dispersed, or degraded. Basic information about past land use is missing, and only a few sites have extensive collections of historical data and documents. Their capacity to capture such materials remains limited. And the reserve directors are only beginning to develop partnerships with campus archives, libraries, museums, and laboratories whose missions include preserving such materials.

Photograph by Flickr user Momo Go.

Three factors are generating increased interest in the reserves’ histories. The system’s first generation of directors is now in or approaching retirement; if not properly planned, their departures could represent an irreplaceable loss of memory. In 2015 the reserve system will turn 50, an anniversary that will include many celebrations but may also generate questions about the system’s legacy. Finally, increased interest in environmental change has caused many scientists to search for more historical information on California ecosystems. High-quality, well-documented data going back more than a few decades, these investigators have found, is as rare as it is essential.

The Santa Cruz Island Reserve is probably in a better position relative to its supporting documentation than most other UC reserves. This is due in large part to the work of the Santa Cruz Island Foundation, an independent nonprofit group founded by Carey Stanton that collects materials related to the island. But the reserve itself is only now beginning to assemble its own archive, from long-neglected records in its office, with the assistance of a lone volunteer.

The National Park Service, The Nature Conservancy, and the UC Natural Reserve System embrace different forms of memory that lead to different relationships with the past on Santa Cruz Island. But why does this matter so much for thinking with nature in California? And if all of these accounts fall short, then what should replace them?

The way these three institutions relate to the past matters because the Santa Cruz Island case is not unique, and because it affects the future in at least three crucial ways. First, it influences the kinds of historical documentation these institutions choose to preserve, which in turn shapes our understanding of environmental change. Preserving such materials requires effort, which may seem like a tall order given the constraints these institutions face. But some nearby parks and reserves provide models of what can be done, often without spending a lot of money. Stanford University’s Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve, for example, has built a rich trove of historical documentation using mostly volunteer labor. This includes a complete database of all research conducted on the site beginning in the 1920s. With each additional archive and dataset, Jasper Ridge’s value increases. The loss of documents associated with the UC Natural Reserve System is one example of how, even in an increasingly digital world, important clues about the past can be lost without proper care.

Photograph by Ross Doering.

Second, the ways these institutions relate to the past shapes not only what they value, but also what their patrons and the broader public value about places like Santa Cruz Island. The Nature Conservancy’s rejection of most of the island’s human past sends a clear message: what is important here is nature not culture. The conservancy is entitled to manage the lands it owns according to its mission and values. (It is, after all, The Nature Conservancy.) The problem is that Santa Cruz Island is a product of both nature and culture. To truly know this place would be to value both human history and ecological processes, and to understand that both have contributed to making it what it is today.

Third, the ways these institutions relate to the past informs their management decisions. At the time of this writing, The National Park Service was promoting a new Channel Islands management plan that, if approved, will increase the proportion of the park designated as wilderness from zero to 53 percent. This will include almost all of the service’s land there, with the exception of San Miguel Island, which the park service manages but is still owned by the US Navy.11

Photograph by Ken Lund.

The Wilderness Act of 1964 defines wildernesses as places where “earth and its community of life are untrammeled by humans, where humans are visitors and do not remain.” Such areas should retain their “primeval character and influence, without permanent improvements or human habitation,” according to the act, and appear “to have been affected primarily by the forces of nature, with the imprint of humans’ work substantially unnoticeable.” Wilderness designation can be an effective management tool, and the park service has made this a centerpiece of its nature preservation efforts. Yet it is difficult to see how the legal definition of wilderness could apply to Santa Cruz Island. To make it fit, one must accept a number of assumptions about human history and the relationship between the past and the present.12 One must believe that several millennia of human habitation do not constitute a permanent presence, and that human activities on the island have not fundamentally altered the character of its wild areas. One must trust that damaged environments will repair themselves, returning to “primeval” nature with little or no human assistance, given the practical impediments wilderness designation imposes on restoration efforts. One must also consent to the park service’s wisdom in determining which historical features, such as roads and buildings, warrant preservation. Experience from elsewhere suggests that the park service will set a high bar for what it deems worthy. Much of the island’s built environment, including any features not a part of the service’s official history, will eventually disappear.13

Now consider an alternative possibility. Imagine a world in which institutions like the National Park Service and The Nature Conservancy stop presenting their versions of history as settled and circumscribed stories for passive consumption and, instead, start posing interesting questions that require us to reflect on the relationships between the past and the present. The result would be a less-manicured history, but it would be more alive and meaningful. It could also have important implications for policy and management. There are many good candidates for such questions; I will conclude with just a few.

How did the island’s native people alter its ecosystems prior to European contact, and what are the consequences of those changes for contemporary ecology and management? Did the island fox begin as a domesticated Chumash animal, and if so what does this mean for our attitudes and values toward native and exotic species?14 Did bald eagles and island foxes really live in harmony for all those years? How can histories of human impact on the islands’ marine ecosystems, which scholars once thought were trivial but now believe were extensive or even transformative, reshape our understanding of environmental history? What does it mean to establish a baseline target for ecological restoration on an island characterized by constant change? How can wilderness and historic preservation be reconciled to promote a richer appreciation of both nature and culture? And how can we develop a monitoring strategy for the island that will enable us to capture diverse data so that we can better analyze current and future environmental changes?

This is by no means an exhaustive list, but I hope these are good questions to ponder—and to spark a conversation—if you ever find yourself, as I did recently, with time to think on a clear day at Fraser Point.


Photograph at top by Flickr user Wendell.

1 This paragraph is a summation of material contained on the National Park Service’s Channel Islands website: http://www.nps.gov/chis.

2 Alfred Runte, National Parks: The American Experience (Taylor Trade Publishing, 2010); John E. Bodnar, Remaking America: Public Memory, Commemoration, and Patriotism in the Twentieth Century (Princeton University Press, 1994).

3 Popular Memory Group, “Popular Memory: Theory, Politics, Method,” The Collective Memory Reader, Jeffrey K. Olick, Vered Vinitzky-Seroussi, and Daniel Levy, eds., (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 254–260.

4 Ari Kelman, A Misplaced Masacre: Struggling Over the Memory of Sand Creek (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2013).

5 Abby J. Kinchy, “On the Borders of Post-War Ecology: Struggles over the Ecological Society of America’s Preservation Committee, 1917–1946,” Science as Culture 15:1 (March 2006), 23–44.

6 Timothy J. Coonan, Catherin A. Schwemm, and David K. Garcelon, Decline and Recovery of the Island Fox: A Case Study for Population Recovery (Cambridge University Press, 2010).

7 The Conservancy’s short film is available on YouTube and other websites.

8 See The Nature Conservancy’s Santa Crux Island web page.

9 Peggy Fiedler, Susan Gee Rumsey, and Kathleen Wong, eds., The Environmental Legacy of the UC Natural Reserve System (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013).

10 Lawrence D. Ford and Kenneth S. Norris, “The University of California Natural Reserve System: Progress and Prospects,” BioScience 38:7(July/August 1988), 463–470; Peter S. Alagona, “A Sanctuary for Science: The Hastings Natural History Reservation and the Origins of the University of California’s Natural Reserve System.” Journal of the History of Biology 45 (2012), 651–680.

11 National Park Service, Channel Islands National Park Draft Management Plan/Wilderness Study/Environmental Impact Statement, Channel Islands National Park, November 2013.

12 Matthew A. Lockhart, “The Trouble with Wilderness’ Education in the National Park Service: The Case of the Lost Cattle Mounts of Congaree,” The Public Historian 28:2 (Spring 2006), 11–30. William Cronon, “The Riddle of the Apostle Islands: How Do You Manage a Wilderness Full of Human Stories?” Orion (May/June 2003), 36–42; National Wilderness Steering Committee, “Guidance ‘White Paper’ Number 1: Cultural Resources and Wilderness,” 30 November 2002.

13 Laura Watt, The Paradox of Preservation: Wilderness and Working Landscapes at Point Reyes National Seashore, unpublished manuscript.

14 Torben C. Rick, Jon M. Erlandson, René L. Vellanoweth, Todd J. Braje, Paul W. Collins, Daniel A. Guthrie, and Thomas W. Stafford, Jr., “Origins and Antiquity of the Island Fox (Urocyon littoralis) on California’s Channel Islands,” Quaternary Research 71 (2009), –98.


The End of Camping

by Terence Young

From Boom Fall 2014, Vol 4, No 3

Coming home to the city

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

John Muir, circa 1902.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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