Trees in Paradise: A California History by Jared Farmer (W. W. Norton and Company, 592pp, $35)
Reviewed by Annie Powers
Imagining LA conjures a series of well-known images: the Hollywood sign, Sunset Boulevard, the sunny seashore. The less enthusiastic might imagine traffic jams on the freeways, a sea of cars roasting in the too-hot sun. And above all of these symbols, both literally and metaphorically, is just one—the palm tree. From postcards and tourist brochures to music videos and movie shoots, the palm marks any scene as quintessentially Los Angeles—and even quintessentially California. Tree and city, tree and state, are imagined as fundamentally interlinked.
Jared Farmer takes on this connection between trees and symbols in his impressively researched Trees in Paradise: A California History. Spanning the state’s history from the Gold Rush to the present, Farmer analyzes the ways in which people interacted with redwoods, eucalyptuses, orange groves, and palm trees in order to create the California dream. Crucially, Farmer’s history is neither strictly environmental nor strictly cultural. Instead, he carefully details the ways in which the people living in California used and abused trees to create a mythological paradise, a verdant land where anything at all was possible. Californians created that mythology on the trunks, leaves, and fruit of trees—and exported it to the rest of the nation. California’s trees came to signal an imagined state where dreams came true in the warmth of the sunshine and the shade of its leaves.
California has more trees now than it has had since the late Pleistocene about ten thousands years ago, but, Farmer argues, this process was far from natural. While Californians—and Americans—imagine the state and its mythology through its trees, those trees and that mythology had to be carefully planted, grown, and cultivated. With the exception of redwoods and a few species of palm, none of the trees Farmer discusses are native to California, and even those that are native have been modified and commodified for human use. But trees, too, are subject to changing tastes and sensibilities. Although non-native trees like the palm and orange remain embedded in the idea of the Golden State, others, like the eucalyptus, have fallen out of favor. Once beloved, the eucalyptus is now demonized as a hazardous non-native – in language eerily similar to the rhetoric used to criticize and exclude people who have come to California from elsewhere.
Farmer’s work is detailed and nuanced. Trees in Paradise weaves environment and culture into a single narrative. If you’ve ever eaten a California orange, seen a palm on a postcard, or marveled at a redwood, this book is for—and about—you.
In 1915, just two years after the Los Angeles Aqueduct was completed, Julius Goodwin Oliver and William Henry Frick packed up their Ford Model T and drove north from Hollywood to see where their water came from. Frick lovingly photographed the 250-mile trip and collected the images in a photo album that we found in the Huntington Library’s archives. It is a delightful time capsule—a series of stills laid out like a prospectus for a silent movie—chronicling the landscape; the new infrastructure of the aqueduct, reservoirs, and roads; the men themselves; their home in LA; and, of course, their car. The album even has a soundtrack. “The Little Ford”—a 1915 song that humorously recounts a series of hazards endured by a Model T—is listed among the credits on the last page.
Like the aqueduct, the car, which would transform Los Angeles, was relatively new on the scene. In 1915, the Ford Motor Company would produce its millionth car. Only seven years after the first Model T rolled off an assembly line in Detroit, Michigan, Ford was building a new car in just 93 minutes and, in the process, making automobiles affordable for many middle-class Americans. Across the country, a new car culture was being created in songs, books, movies, newspapers, and amateur photographs like those in this album. The Model T also ushered in the age of the road trip. In 1915, car camping was still a real adventure. In the beginning of this album, Frick and Oliver’s relatives cluster around the car “amid tears” at the “starting of the EXPEDITION,” and near the end their “return safe and sound” is met with “rejoicing among our relatives.”
The photo album also seems to be an early example of another emerging genre: the buddy movie. In addition to the soundtrack credit, the back cover names Oliver “director” and Frick the “head camera man,” and it announces, “Mr. Oliver begs leave to present his latest production entitled Itinerary of the Water of the Los Angeles Aqueduct” in language redolent of early film advertisements. It’s no surprise that movies would be on the minds of these men—1915 also saw the release of the first real Hollywood blockbuster, D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, which was filmed in Southern California and announced the arrival of a new local industry with national and eventually global aspirations. The destination of Frick and Oliver’s film expedition—the iconic rural western landscape of the Owens Valley and towering eastern Sierra Nevada—would become the setting for hundreds of films and commercials. The town of Lone Pine now has a film festival dedicated to this local canon.
But what about the silent star of this photo album, the aqueduct itself? This record of Frick and Oliver’s adventure suggests that they were fascinated with this great feat of engineering. The album has the air of a visit to the Great Pyramids or some other wonder of the world. Their snapshots try to do justice to the monumental architecture of this earth-changing and city-building technology. But there is also a playful, sometimes ironic tone to the whole thing, especially in the final shot, captioned “the Slacker using the water.” The photo shows Oliver’s niece Lillian watering their lawn in Hollywood, seemingly unaware of the epic effort that enabled water to flow from the hose in her hand.
Mr. Oliver begs leave to present his latest production entitled Itinerary of the Water of the Los Angeles Aqueduct.
You can see the full photo album–and hear “The Little Ford”–over here.
“The Los Angeles Aqueduct” photo album courtesy of the Huntington Library, San Marino, California. Boom would like to thank Steven Keylon, Patrick L. Jones, Christina Rice, Rory Coleman Mitchell, and Ann Campbell for helping us fill in some of the details of Oliver and Frick’s story after we posted a photograph on Facebook asking for information about the home at 1837 Canyon Drive.
That which Los Angeles has not and wills not is not.
—Commemorative of the Official Opening, the Los Angeles Aqueduct and Exposition Park (1913)1
In Los Angeles, we go about our daily lives in a world made possible by the LA Aqueduct, utterly dependent on a massive undertaking that brings water to our faucets from the Eastern Sierra more than two hundred miles away. The very shape of the city, its famous sprawling complexity, bears the watermark of the aqueduct as well as the fingerprints of the aqueduct’s masterminds, if you know where and how to read the signs. Those signs can also be traced in historical archives around Southern California, where the documentary record of the aqueduct’s construction, history, and continuing impact is preserved in boxes of photographs, papers, engineering drawings, and maps.
Now, in conjunction with the centennial of the aqueduct, the Los Angeles Aqueduct Digital Platform—a joint project of UCLA Library and the Metabolic Studio—is working with other archival repositories to digitize, aggregate, and curate this rich body of documentary material and make these vital records accessible to scholars, students, and citizens so that new histories can be written and new stories can be told. At the heart of these collaborative efforts is a shared belief that cultural institutions entrusted with stewardship of the city’s history have an important role to play inspiring new research and informing new conversations on the social and environmental impacts of the aqueduct and the urban developments it has made possible. The new digital platform will do this by making historical sources in the archives readily accessible, providing a context for narratives about the past, present, and future of the aqueduct, and creating a space for civic dialogue in Los Angeles, Owens Valley, and beyond.
What do we gain from preserving and contextualizing the archival records of the aqueduct? The most striking and immediate reward is a history of technology, a story of engineering prowess. Glance at the photographs of the aqueduct’s creation in UCLA’s Library Special Collections, and you’ll see evidence of the sheer ambition of one of the largest municipal projects undertaken in this country and the practical challenges faced by the workers, animals, and machines that built the aqueduct. You’ll also find evidence of the political maneuvering and, some might say, corruption, as well as the planning necessary to create and transport raw building materials, and the organization required to recruit, house, and provision workers in isolated construction sites—all necessary for the completion of the aqueduct. These archives give us a sense of the hubris and determination of the aqueduct’s builders, an attitude captured by the closing words of the commemorative volume celebrating its completion: “That which Los Angeles has not and wills not is not.”
Archival records document the attitudes of the individual, municipal, and corporate entities that designed and built the aqueduct, as well as such figures as President Theodore Roosevelt, who endorsed the construction and hailed the aqueduct as a product of progress and development in the American West. But, just as importantly, the archival records preserve multiple perspectives and subaltern voices, which haunt the history of the aqueduct, voices that risk being marginalized or forgotten altogether if they are not archived, preserved, cataloged, and remembered.
The creation of the LA Aqueduct pitted Owens Valley and the City of Los Angeles in a bitter dispute over water rights and consumption of natural resources. One striking theme that can be traced through the aqueduct’s archives is the controversy surrounding the impacts of the aqueduct on the environment in Los Angeles itself, in addition to the environment in Owens Valley and the Mono Basin, whose water the city exploited. From its inception, one might say, the story of the aqueduct has dripped with political, human drama—corruption and exploitation, victory and defeat—the stuff of movies for which the city is justly famous. Warring newspaper columns are but one rich source of material for understanding the dense, complicated social, economic, and political discourses through which the meaning of the aqueduct has been debated. The debate continues. The language in these archives provides a record of the continued conflict, compromise, and contentious conversations surrounding the use of water, conversations that can still provide intellectual resources for new, innovative perspectives on the history and the future of Los Angeles.
But these archives of the aqueduct also transcend narrow regional histories and offer windows into larger themes of urban growth in the twentieth century, federal land regulation, labor organizing, economic development, as well as evolving conceptions and legal definitions of the public interest in natural resources. The story of the aqueduct may be told in light of other iconic, historic building projects, such as the Brooklyn Bridge or the Panama Canal, whose stories likewise are entangled in histories of labor, politics, environment, and economic development.
Wallace Stegner famously said that “California is like the rest of America, only more so.” In this regard, the history of the development and allocation of water resources, a cornerstone of Southern California history, is an index of a larger story of American and even global urbanization. The Los Angeles Aqueduct is a living artifact of LA’s history, an implicit part of our everyday lives, but it is also part of a greater, global story of the development of urban landscapes, the social implications of forms of urban development, and their effects on surrounding environments.
Efforts such as those by UCLA and Metabolic Studio to preserve and provide access to the aqueduct’s archival record provide resources for deepening a crucial, challenging civic dialogue between Los Angeles and Owens Valley. They may also ultimately enable us to re-envision the integral relationship between our great cities and the rest of the world.
Want more? We’ve put together a slideshow with images from archives at Loyola-Marymount University, University of California-Riverside, and the Claremont Colleges. Click here to see it.
1 F.B. Davison, Commemorative of the Official Opening, the Los Angeles Aqueduct and Exposition Park: November Fifth and Sixth, Nineteen Hundred Thirteen (Los Angeles: Kingsley, Mason & Collins Co, 1913), .
2 Photographs courtesy of Department of Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library, UCLA. At top: Cottonwood Reservoir site, 1905, from photograph album of Owens Valley. In image gallery: Tufa Quarry at Fairmont, Portal of Elizabeth Tunnel Construction of Open Lined Canal in Owens Valley, from Construction of the Los Angeles Aqueduct Final Report, Board of Public Service Commissioners of the City of Los Angeles, 1916; Los Angeles Aqueduct Right of Way from Collection of California Postcards (Collection Number 1351), Finishing the open section of the aqueduct from Collection of Scrapbooks (Collection Number 155); Owens Lake south from Cottonwood, 1906, from Photograph Album of Owens Valley (Collection Number 94/194).
The Los Angeles Aqueduct is a product of early twentieth-century engineering, and much of its history has been created through photography, the dominant imaging technology of that century. The connection between the two—the aqueduct and photography—has more metaphorical resonances than are immediately apparent on the surface, resonances that are ironically resurfacing in the twenty-first century through nineteenth-century photographic technology. But, then, nothing is as it seems in many images of the aqueduct and its landscape.
By far and away the most iconic photograph of the LA Aqueduct is one in which it is invisible. Ansel Adams took Winter Sunrise, Sierra Nevada from Lone Pine on a bitterly cold morning in 1944. The portrait of the eastern massif of the Sierra is organized into bands of contrasting light, a shadowed meadow in the foreground behind which a line of sunlit trees demarcates the pasture from the upsloping and dark Alabama Hills. In the background, Mount Williamson and the Mount Whitney group stand wreathed in brilliant snow. In part it is such a successful photograph because it combines the nearby pastoral with the distant sublime, an organization of pictorial space that has been used in painting since the sixteenth century.
The photograph betrays no direct evidence of technology; the only obvious traces of human tinkering are the cleared pasture and the unnaturally rigorous spacing and alignment of the trees. Two elements that actually existed and that would have contradicted this Edenic composition are missing from the photograph. Arrayed on the left-hand hillside of the Alabama Hills were the large letters LP spelled out in whitewashed rocks that stood for Lone Pine. Driving through the town, you can still see the letters, which are refurbished regularly by locals in a ritual familiar to many communities in the Western states. Ansel Adams was so disturbed by what he considered to be an ugly scar in the landscape that he spot-toned out the letters in his prints with a small brush, and in the 1970s finally had them eliminated from the negative itself by his assistant.
Photo at top: Winter Sunrise, Sierra Nevada from Lone Pine, 1944. Photography by Ansel Adams. Courtesy of Collection Center for Creative Photography, University of Arizona. Copyright the Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust.
The Los Angeles Aqueduct’s impact on the Owens Valley through time.
The city of Los Angeles grew from just 11,183 residents in 1880 to 50,395 in 1890; it doubled to 102,479 residents by 1900 and then tripled to 319,198 in the first decade of the twentieth century. City leaders knew that the local water supply could not sustain such growth forever and that if the city continued to expand, alternative sources 1 1ould need to be found. William Mulholland and others began to gather political and economic support for their vision of a conveyance system that would bring the waters of Owens Valley to Los Angeles. In 1905, representatives of the city began buying up land from residents in the valley, and construction of the Los Angeles Aqueduct began not long after. The following century saw scores of protests, legal challenges, negotiations, and agreements between Owens Valley residents and Los Angeles.
What follows is the story of the aqueduct from the perspective of the people at the other end of the pipe, told through excerpts from Kim Stringfellow’s audio tour of the Owens Valley, There It Is—Take It! Stringfellow’s work collects her research and interviews with activists, environmentalists, litigators, Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) employees, historians, biologists, and residents to tell their story of a century of protests, legal challenges, negotiations, and, finally, some agreements. Click a panel of the timeline below to see a larger version.
It’s getting harder to sell the future in California.
Billions of dollars will be spent on infrastructure projects to support California’s thriving population in the twenty-first century, and that’s just counting the projects we’ve already dreamed up. Governor Jerry Brown has revived the idea of a peripheral canal to carry water south from Northern California reliably while reducing the ecological strain of exports on the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta; the California high-speed rail project looks forward to a day when regular north-south commuting in the state outruns the capacity of air travel; and the state’s schools, colleges, and universities continue to struggle with the task of educating students for an economy that requires increasing numbers of highly and specifically skilled workers. Where will all that money come from?
There’s a lesson to be learned from William Mulholland. Famous today for bringing water to Los Angeles and victimizing the people of Owens Valley, he’s less well known for his role in the chicanery that took place at the other end of the planned aqueduct, where the people of Los Angeles were asked to put up $1.5 million to launch the project via a bond vote in 1905.
Tempting as it may be to think of that bygone era as one free of such obstacles as environmental impact reports and antidevelopment lawsuits, the aqueduct was by no means a sure thing. Moneyed interests lined up on both sides of the project, as did the press. In the months leading up to the September 7 vote, Mulholland and his supporters showered the voters with misrepresentations and outright lies. They warned that the city’s population of 220,000 souls was about to outgrow its local water supply; the “nightmare” of a dry Los Angeles could be only weeks away. They raised the specter of private speculators acquiring control of the municipal system if the voters failed to act—although the only such figure known was a former partner of Mulholland’s who had been unable to raise funds for such a scheme in more than a decade of trying.
An embargo on the project’s announcement was broken one day early by the Los Angeles Times, which proclaimed the new era with all the enthusiasm one would expect from a publication controlled by members of the syndicate expecting to profit from the sale of newly watered land: “Titanic Project to Give City a River” read its page-one headline on 29 July 1905. The aqueduct plan, the Times declared, was “the most important movement for the development of Los Angeles in all the city’s history.” The Times predicted that land values in the San Fernando Valley would double with the coming of the water. This was a miscalculation; within ten days of the announcement land values had already quintupled.
But the Times’s scoop turned one of its competitors against the aqueduct. William Randolph Hearst’s Los Angeles Examiner positioned itself as the enemy of moguls poised to rake in multimillion-dollar hauls. The Examiner called incessantly for investigations of profiteering while raising doubts about the healthfulness of the Owens River, which skeptics called “a vile bed of typhoid germs.”
Mulholland and the Times reminded city dwellers of a “drought” that had crippled the city from 1895 to 1904—an exaggeration, though there were a number of dry years in the preceding decade. What registered in people’s minds was the hot spell that August, which drove temperatures over 100 degrees. That was evidence enough that the water supply of Los Angeles was poised on a knife edge. That the weather broke and brought back normal temperatures by the first of September weighed little against the fearsome drumbeat coming from the aqueduct party. As it happened, the results of the election told contradictory tales of municipal apathy and municipal fervor. Only 11,500 voters came to the polls, fewer than half those who had voted in the mayoral election the previous year. But those who came voted for the $1.5 million bond issue by a margin of fourteen to one.
Plan from Construction of the Los Angeles Aqueduct Final Report. Courtesy of UCLA Library Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library
Before a second vote in 1907 to approve a $23 million bond—the money needed to actually build the aqueduct—many of the same charges were aired again, but as a pale echo of their earlier selves. Even the Examiner, bowing to what had become genuine municipal zeal, muted its opposition. Turnout on 12 June 1907 swelled to more than twice that of 1905, and the margin of victory was almost as great, ten to one. The Times declared victory the next morning in its distinctively crass fashion, reporting, “The few ‘antis’ who appeared were as lonesome as a ham sandwich at a picnic of the sons of Levi.”
We can debate the methods Mulholland and associates used as they were worked out at both ends of what became the Los Angeles Aqueduct—indeed, that debate continues to this day. But we should acknowledge his fundamental farsightedness, which was fixed early in his career on securing a water supply for a growing Los Angeles.
“The city needed the aqueduct, but it was a need founded in prospect,” wrote the water historian William Kahrl in 1982. “The city had to have the aqueduct, not to meet any actual and immediate needs, but to serve the prospective demands of a greatly increased future population.” The choice was between a Los Angeles destined to be a small city of a half-million, even a quarter-million population, and a Los Angeles taking its place as a great metropolis. The attitude of Mulholland and his backers was that if fear-mongering and deceit on a monumental scale were necessary to build a monumental water works, so be it. Asked during the campaign what would happen if the city failed to vote the bonds and failed to get the water, he replied crisply, “If you don’t get it now, you’ll never need it.” Mulholland was committed to building more than was needed in his day and letting tomorrow grow into the slack.
Before the aqueduct campaign, Mulholland had helped to rally public and political support for the city to retake ownership of its water supply from the privately owned company that employed him. The water system then was already decrepit, and in any case too small to serve a boom-time clientele. Homeowners complained of finding fish in their water pipes—that is, when there was water in the water pipes—and water company employees were known to find the odd corpse in a reservoir. But more money flowed in from more customers, and more pipelines were being laid all the time.
The city took over the system in 1902 with the proceeds of a $2 million bond sale. As head of what was now a city agency, Mulholland launched himself into the dual roles of engineering chief and promoter of municipal growth. The search for water to fuel and supply that growth led him to the Owens Valley and gave birth to the aqueduct. To ensure municipal control over the water supply, the project would have to be publicly financed. In 1905, when Angelenos voted to raise the money through bonds, they were voting to buy their aqueduct on layaway.
The aqueduct, in its visionary birth and its method of financing, looked ahead to many other works that made the Golden State: bridges, dams, freeways, the state university system, and, yes, more waterworks. These projects may not all have been unalloyed blessings, but without them California could not have fulfilled its dreams. Mulholland’s approach to securing popular support for speculative and expensive public works prefigured our uneasy approach to major infrastructure spending today. The same questions arise again and again: When should infrastructure be the government’s responsibility? When should it be left to private enterprise? And if the former, how best to pay for the job?
When should it be left to private enterprise?
California is facing these issues on multiple fronts today.
Infrastructure development always rests on a certain type of visionary faith. First, one must believe that critical problems loom on the horizon demanding solutions; second—and this is the harder part—that the solutions proposed today will solve those problems. To be convinced that it makes sense to build a high-speed rail line linking northern and southern California, one must accept projections of ridership, cost, environmental impact, and technological innovation that all involve a large measure of conjecture. The benefits of keeping public higher education accessible and inexpensive for the broadest range of California residents may not be measurable for decades, if at all.
Politics, finance, and social policy also play their parts in the process. The alignment of the proposed high-speed rail line is subject to the competing demands of local communities from one end of the state to the other. The construction of a new water conveyance system in the Delta means balancing local and regional costs and benefits with those of the state as a whole. It may be impossible to find a “balance” that satisfies everyone. Building and supporting an expansive university program means imposing costs on all taxpayers to educate the children of a few. Does the entire state gain from offering an elite high-quality education to a few thousand of its sons and daughters every year? Californians in 1960, when the state’s higher education master plan was drafted, had no doubt that it did; today they might answer more equivocally.
UC Berkeley, 1888. Courtesy of Bancroft Library, UC Berkeley.
Mulholland and his big money backers were able to convince the city leaders and voters that the aqueduct was the solution to a real problem. To overcome the opposition, Mulholland, with the help of the LA Times, spun a narrative that voters believed: this pure mountain water would ensure Los Angeles’s future. It helped, too, that thirst afflicts voters at all levels of society. But the solutions to our current infrastructure needs aren’t so straightforward, nor do they improve the lot of all Californians equally. How do you convince nearly forty million people that any given project is one they should fund over decades?
So it’s unsurprising that we sometimes seize on the most straightforward and convenient financing solution: require the direct beneficiaries of a project to cover its cost. Should we pay for highway construction through tolls or gasoline taxes? Should students shoulder the cost of their education through tuition, and farmers and city dwellers pay for their water by the gallon? It may be an easier sell, but maybe too narrow a way to finance infrastructure that can enrich whole communities or regions for decades.
Moreover, it can place the burden on users who can’t afford the price, or result in socio-economic stratification. Los Angeles County’s experiment with toll lanes on its congested Harbor Freeway has produced longer commutes for those who cannot or will not pay the toll. Those willing or able to pay the price of uncongested lanes, which can run as high as $15.40 each way on the 11-mile tollway, zip along while those unwilling or unable are stuck in traffic jams on a freeway that was originally built to serve all motorists equally.
UCLA, 1930. Courtesy of Thelner Hoover Photography Collection, UCLA Library Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library.
Similarly, as tuition rises in the University of California and California State University systems—instructional costs for in-state residents at Berkeley increased from about $4,000 in 2000–2001 to more than $13,000 last year—they become less accessible for working-class students dependent on scholarships and middle-class Californians who may not qualify for financial aid. Less accessible to all Californians, in fact: strapped for resources, the top UC campuses—Berkeley, UCLA, and UC San Diego—accepted such a large percentage of higher-paying out-of-state applicants for the fall 2013 term that their entering freshman classes could be one-third out-of-staters. Taxpayer support of the state university system, which the drafters of the 1960 higher education master plan saw as indispensable to future economic growth, has systematically dwindled over recent decades; tuition now pays for a higher share of the cost of university education for California residents than does the state general fund. It might seem odd to think of education as infrastructure, but that is exactly how the university system was conceived, as an investment in the future.
Other infrastructure projects are experimenting with a grab bag of funding models. The high-speed rail line that may one day carry passengers from Los Angeles to San Francisco in a little over two and a half hours needs about $68 billion, according to current projections. It would be the most expensive public works project in the nation’s history. Less than half of that money has been lined up, though work on the first section linking Madera to Fresno was scheduled to begin this summer. The state’s Legislative Analyst’s Office has called the funding model “highly speculative,” and it includes a mix of sources: voters have approved a $10 billion bond, and grants from the federal government have also been promised. Private investment, perhaps from the prospective rail operator, is also likely to be a part of the answer, and so might investment from China.
Sinking billions of dollars into a high-speed rail line with no money lined up to complete construction is certainly speculative, but also canny. Part of the logic must be that we won’t let a mostly useless stretch of track in the middle of the state sit idle. Once work has begun and the money has been spent, it will create its own pressure to finish it.
Map of proposed Delta pipelines. Courtesy of the California Department of Water Resources.
A collection of projects around the Sacramento–San Joaquin Delta have been on the table for years. The peripheral canal—or tunnels as currently conceived—would improve the quality and increase the quantity of water transported from Northern California to points south and, supporters argue, improve the ecological health of the Delta. Jerry Brown has said that users—primarily large growers in the Central Valley—would fund the canal’s construction. But the region needs more than canals; habitat restoration and a slew of smaller projects are also required to clean up the Delta and improve the state’s aging water infrastructure. To fund that work, Brown has also floated and retracted—twice now—an $11 billion bond that would make all residents foot the bill.
Brown’s water bond was to appear on the November 2012 ballot, but was pulled for fear it would hurt the chances of another Brown-backed measure, Proposition 30. Passed by voters, Proposition 30 raised the state sales tax and introduced new tax rates on people earning over $250,000. The public was asked to pass these temporary tax hikes to fund schools and public safety programs that had been hit hard by successive years of budget cuts. But Brown and other supporters did more than encourage voters to invest in the future of California; taking a page out of Mulholland’s book, they warned of dire consequences should the measure fail.
UC Merced campus conceptual drawing. Courtesy of UC Merced.
The official voters’ guide cajoled “without Prop. 30, our schools and colleges face an additional $6 billion in devastating cuts this year.” The Los Angeles Unified School District warned that if the voters didn’t come through, three weeks would be cut from the school year. Voters were also told that “Prop. 30 keeps cops on the street.” The threat was clear: vote yes or blow up the public school system. Vote no and risk your personal safety. The campaign worked, and the measure passed with 55 percent of the vote.
The scale and the forces driving each project push different funding models to the fore. As with the aqueduct, the lesson seems to be that more is required than someone with the vision and faith to dream up the project. Someone has to spin a story, push, and prod to get the public behind that vision.
That was true of the other great water project with which Mulholland identified himself—the Boulder Canyon Project, which we know today as Hoover Dam. The dam might well never have been built had Mulholland not thrown his considerable reputation behind the idea at a crucial moment. Yet it was very different from the aqueduct in terms of the benefits it would bring to California and the West, and how they would be distributed. One might say that all the dam and the aqueduct had in common were that they both involved the transport of water over hundreds of miles, and that both fit within William Mulholland’s vision of how to serve the future. The story this time was not needed to win over voters, but members of Congress who would fund the project.
The Hoover Dam project was born as a measure to bring flood control and irrigation to the growers of Imperial Valley. The valley’s output of $2 billion in crops—at the turn of the last century!—was menaced by a series of floods beginning in 1905, caused by the construction of a canal from the Colorado River built by a private company not above cutting engineering corners to save money.
As President Theodore Roosevelt advised Congress in the floods’ aftermath, the crisis showed that the only entity big enough, rich enough, and determined enough to bring the willful Colorado to heel was the federal government. The job was handed over to the Interior Department’s reclamation service, which had already built dams for irrigation and flood control across the West.
Reclamation officials understood that damming the river only to provide flood control and irrigation water to Imperial would never pay: the cost of a properly built canal would bankrupt the water users downstream. But a more ambitious vision would be something else entirely. Combine a canal with a high dam capable of generating electricity and storing water on a large scale, and the result would be a public work that could serve farmers, industries, and residents in all seven states of the Colorado River basin.
Mulholland alluded to that idea when he appeared before a Congressional committee in 1924 to urge that Hoover Dam be built. His immediate goal was to secure the Colorado as yet another water source for a growing Los Angeles—claiming, much as he had done to get the 1905 bond issue passed, that the city was in the grip of an “appalling” and “desperate” drought. (“This committee has got to come to our relief,” he warned theatrically, “or we are ruined.”) But his more effective tactic may have been to describe the river as a national patrimony, and bringing it under control therefore as a federal mandate. “The Colorado River is wasting more power today than the greatest oil field in California is producing,” he said. “The oil will be gone in twenty years; and the Colorado River will be running perpetually.”
Mulholland’s bravura performance demonstrated how well he understood the politics of public works. Describe a project as “spending,” especially for a narrow contemporary purpose, and it is dead; present it as an investment that will enrich generations into the beckoning future, and it looks like a bargain. He was not above placing his thumb on the scale: the drought in Los Angeles was nowhere near as dire as he painted it for Congress; the city’s existing supply from the Owens Valley was more than adequate to serve the city for years; and his real goal was to secure water and power to fuel the city’s growth. He perceived that the real value in infrastructure investments comes not from their todays, but their tomorrows.
Mulholland had taken his seat in a congressional hearing room on a bracing February day to announce, “I am here in the interest of a domestic water supply for the city of Los Angeles: and that injects a new phase into this whole matter.” It was 1924, and the “matter” bedeviling the committee he addressed was where to find the money to build a great dam on the Colorado River.
For months Congress had been gnawing on the subject. Should the government simply pay for it? Charge a fee to the landowners downstream whose farms and ranches would be saved from flooding and served by a reliable source of irrigation? Turn it over to private industry? At length the lawmakers decided that the taxpayers’ seed money should be repaid from the sale of the dam’s hydroelectric power; but that merely opened up a new question: Who would buy it? The established cities of the West, like San Francisco, were too far away for the transmission lines. Los Angeles was nearer, but even with a population approaching one million, there was reason to doubt whether its electrical demand would pay for the dam.
Schematic drawing for Hoover Dam construction. Courtesy of Special Collections, University Libraries, University of Las Vegas.
Then Mulholland stepped in. The congressmen looked with fascination upon this big man with his walrus moustache, the creator of the great Los Angeles Aqueduct, opened only eleven years earlier. He had built the aqueduct, and he was going to tell them how to build the dam.
He started by describing the immediate need. Los Angeles was staring down a crisis, he told them, for there had been no rainfall. “This drought is one of the most appalling things that could happen,” he said. But he knew that the travails of Los Angeles alone would not sway Congress into spending more than $50 million for a dam, so he pitched the matter wide. It was not only the city, but the region, that needed the dam—indeed, it was the thirsty yet flood-prone Imperial Valley that had started the movement for the project. “Our sympathies are with the people of Imperial Valley,” he said. “Our need is their need, and we have always felt so.” Finally, he situated the project within the current of time. The dam was not merely for Los Angeles but for the people of the Southwest; and it was not merely for the here and now but for generations yet to come. Los Angeles would be the biggest customer today for the power harnessed by the dam, and an even bigger customer tomorrow, and in the tomorrows after that. “The city of Los Angeles will grow, and continue to grow.”
The dam blueprints were still embryonic, but it was already clear that the project would enrich not small cadres of capitalists and real estate jobbers, but growers, factory builders, and new residents by the thousands, even hundreds of thousands. The electricity generated by its turbines was to belong to the public, for sale at a price that would serve as a benchmark against which to measure the rates charged by its privately owned rivals. The electric power trust was already conniving against the dam, covertly; Mulholland was prepared to stand against them. He promised to buy the dam’s entire output of hydroelectricity—mostly to pump water for his city from the river over the mountains—to guarantee a market. As a public work, the dam Mulholland urged upon Congress that wintry day transformed the West, as he knew it would: Since 1930, when the project was launched, the population of the seven states of the Colorado basin has grown by forty-five million people. Much of this is growth that was fueled in part by the dam’s water and power.
Diagram of proposed Delta pipelines. Courtesy of the California Department of Water Resources.
Projects of the magnitude of the aqueduct and the dam, viewed from a modern perspective, evoke a fundamental question: Could they be built now?
Among the familiar objections raised to major public construction projects is that “we can’t afford it.” It’s proper to ask whether what is lacking is not money, but ambition. Projects of the type that were welcomed by our parents’ and grandparents’ generations as symbols of our commitment to making California greater tomorrow are ridiculed for addressing needs that can’t be seen from our front porch. Those bridges, roads, and trains “to nowhere”? Almost all of them will go somewhere eventually, because projects on their scale create their own somewheres. In today’s fiscal debate, government debt is treated as an unalloyed burden; actually it’s the most responsible way of financing public works that will spin off benefits broadly and over decades.
William Mulholland was the most effective exponent of the idea that a community grows by building for the future. Were a man—or a woman—like him alive today and in the flower of his career, he might well be able to win public support for some of the most grandiose public works currently on the table. We need more men and women with his vision to see California’s needs before the rest of us. But vision alone is not enough. Mulholland’s other gift was selling his vision. How will the next Mulholland win support to build today for our tomorrows? Will compelling narratives be enough, or will they also resort to the political brute force and sheer hucksterism that were such important weapons in his arsenal?
Image at top from California High-Speed Rail Project, Request for Proposal for Design-Build Services, Fresno to Bakersfield, Fresno Subsection. Courtesy of the California High Speed Rail Authority.
Los Angeles, give me some of you! Los Angeles come to me the way I came to you, my feet over your streets, you pretty town I loved you so much, you sad flower in the sand, you pretty town.
— John Fante
Let’s begin with the photographs. On 5 November 1913—a century ago—water began to pour through the Los Angeles Aqueduct in the San Fernando Valley’s Newhall hills. It is in this instant that contemporary Los Angeles was invented: the apotheosis of the city’s creation myth. And yet, if we now take these sorts of images entirely for granted, the documentation of history as it is happening, their existence shows how far ahead of its time Los Angeles has always been. The same might be (has been) said of the aqueduct, but let’s stay for the time being with the photographic record, which captures the exact moment a legend comes to life. We observe the crowds begin to gather: men and women scaling the slopes in suits and hats and long skirts, clutching American flags. We observe the cars (even then, LA was a driving town), the speechifying, and marvel as the sluice gates open and the stolen Owens River water starts to flow. One particularly striking shot, published in the following day’s Los Angeles Times, portrays the cascade mid-torrent; as spectators line either side of the aqueduct, the water bursts through it, violent, unruly, its leading edge as angry as a storm-fed wave. In the foreground, we can see the pebbled bottom of the concrete channel, soon (in half a second) to be submerged. There’s something so active, so aggressive, about this photo that it seems, almost, like a movie; we expect the water to explode into the frame. Minutes later, it is over, and another image evokes the aftermath: crowds starting to break up as behind them, water fills the aqueduct unimpeded. Los Angeles as we know it has been born.
This is, of course, an exaggeration, this reading of the city through the filter of a single flashpoint, as if there were one instant by which we might come to terms with everything. The history of Los Angeles—like that of every city—is made up of thousands of such moments, millions of them, in LA’s case going back at least as far as Campo de Cahuenga and the end of the Mexican-American War. Still, there’s something in the water, in what it promises, in its connection to the best and worst of us. It’s the (not so) secret history of the city, a story recorded and mythologized, the story of the California Aqueduct, of the Owens River Valley, and Chinatown. It’s a story marked equally by rapacious capitalism and vast public infrastructure projects, built on the trope of Southern California as a blank slate, where, as Charles Dudley Warner put it in the 1890s, “nature seems to work with a man, and not against him.” That this is almost exactly opposite to everything we’ve come to understand about the place—“Of course,” the old joke goes, “there are four seasons in Los Angeles: fire, flood, earthquake, and drought”—is part of the point, if not the point entirely, which is to say that whatever else it is, LA is a projection, a template for our own dreams. Another well-worn trope, perhaps… and yet, if the city has anything to teach us, it’s that all of it, cliché as well as nuance, comes into play here, that this is a landscape where the myths can’t help but bleed (at times, without our even being aware of it) into the fabric of everyday life.
There’s something in the water, in what it promises, in its connection to the best and worst of us.
What does that mean? For an answer, let’s go back to the aqueduct, although really, the story begins some years before. As early as 1900, Carey McWilliams observes in Southern California Country: An Island on the Land, Los Angeles, which then had a population of 102,249, “began to be disturbed by the discrepancy between the available supply [of water] and the rate of population increase.” So far, so good, since LA, as a growing metropolis, had every reason to be attentive to its future; as McWilliams notes, “No one has ever seriously questioned the right of the City of Los Angeles to be concerned about its water supply.” Yet as with so much here, there’s a catch, a complication beneath the surface, which in this case has to do with not just water but also real estate and money, that Holy Trinity of the city’s inner (and its outer) life. Here’s McWilliams again:
In large part…this fear [of drought] was artificially stimulated by a group of powerful “empire builders” of the period. In 1905 and later in 1910, a syndicate financed by Harry Chandler, General Harrison Gray Otis, Joseph F. Sartori (the banker), Henry Huntington, E.H. Harriman, E.T. Earl, and M.H. Sherman acquired most of the former holdings of the Van Nuys and Lankershim families in the San Fernando Valley.…Eventually this group of men acquired control over 108,000 acres of land in the valley. Once in control of this vast acreage, they came to the water board of the City of Los Angeles with a typically grandiose proposal: that the city should build a 238-mile aqueduct to tap the waters of Owens Valley (located between the Sierra Nevada and the desert); and thereby hangs a tale.
The tale McWilliams shares is hardly secret; indeed, it is rooted into the city’s image of itself. As early as 1917, it inspired Mary Austin’s novel The Ford (although she changed the setting to Northern California); it infuses both Morrow Mayo’s 1933 history Los Angeles and Cedric Belfrage’s 1939 novel Promised Land. And why not? It is, perhaps, the classic LA story, in which a cabal of civic leaders, including William Mulholland, who ran the Bureau of Water Works and Supply like a private fiefdom, conspired, pretty much in full view of everyone, to use public resources for private good. “To the amazement of the residents of Los Angeles, who had just assumed a $25,000,000 indebtedness,” McWilliams explains, “the aqueduct line was brought to the north end of San Fernando Valley, not into the City of Los Angeles, and there the terminal point still remains. With water available to irrigate the lands they had acquired,…the ‘men of vision’ who had engineered this extraordinary deal, proceeded to sell their holdings for $500 and $1,000 an acre, at the expense of the residents of Owens Valley and of Los Angeles.” This is what is celebrated in the photographs, the payoff of a get rich (or, get richer) quick scheme. Still, we understand, there’s more. “From an airplane,” Morrow wrote eight decades ago, “Los Angeles today resembles half a hundred Middle-Western-Egyptian-English-Spanish communities, repainted and sprinkled about. Its population is about 1,400,000. It is, and has been for ten years, the largest city in America in area, and people often wonder why. The answer is Water.” In other words—and in spite of themselves—the tycoons who bought and sold the Valley helped guarantee the rise of the modern city, the one we live in, streamlined and speed-obsessed, a landscape of light and celluloid and sprawling freeways, with its own odd, airbrushed image of the past.
Because here’s the thing, a century later: None of it matters, at least not as we think it does. Los Angeles is what Los Angeles is, and it makes no difference how it came to be that way. In fact, I can’t help imagining, those “men of vision,” as McWilliams calls them, were—wittingly or otherwise—onto something; call it psyche or psychology, but in any case, the spirit of the place. Again, I find myself drawn to the photographs, and to one in particular, a shot of Mulholland as he addresses the assembled masses, looking for all the world like a politician or a priest. He speaks from a raised platform, hands gripping the railing, which is decorated in bunting, like the grandstand at a World Series game. There is a flag off to his left and a billboard in front of him, although the angle of the camera renders the wording obscure. In the foreground, men listen attentively; one, in a bowler and a clean snap collar, clenches a pipe between his teeth. Behind them, the Newhall hills rise plain and dusty, fronted by a line of telegraph poles.
The photo, as it survives, is strangely disconcerting: The sky above the hills and around Mulholland’s head has been cropped out. The effect is to make the moment disembodied, as if it existed slightly out of time. Here it is, the myth again, the history of the city as a passion play, a pageant, like the Mission Play so popular in those days. It was during this speech, after all, that Mulholland linked LA to a kind of manifest destiny. “This rude platform,” he declared, “is an altar, and on it we are here consecrating this water supply and dedicating this aqueduct to you and your children and your children’s children—for all time.” On the one hand, that’s to be expected, an expression both of Southern California’s relentless boosterism and also the most obvious, self-interested dodge. At the same time, it is merely prelude to what, I want to tell you, are the most resonant lines ever spoken about Los Angeles, five words that, to borrow a phrase from Joan Didion, “get very close to what it is about the place.” I have no idea if Mulholland knew what he was saying; apparently, he’d planned a formal presentation, but overwhelmed by the assembly, not to mention a ceremonial band and artillery pieces, he chose to cut it short. Regardless, as the water started flowing and Los Angeles mayor H.H. Rose stood beside him, Mulholland gestured toward the aqueduct, and—to the crowd, to history, to whomever—shouted: “There it is. Take it.”
There it is. Take it. This should be the motto of Los Angeles, emblazoned on every police car and proclamation, embedded in the city seal. It says all there is to say about the place, about the myths and what they mean and what they will never mean, about the promise of the city, which is both true and the most pernicious sort of lie. A lie? Of course, beginning with the notion that LA is there for the taking, that it is for everyone. Who is Mulholland talking to (or about) anyway, if not his cronies, the back room dealers who through their influence over various civic institutions (the Times, the Water Bureau, the Pacific Electric Railway) built the city in the image of their greed? The aqueduct, the Valley real estate scheme, the Owens River Valley grab… these are just the earliest in a long line of (what shall we call them?) indiscretions, the selling of public policy for private good.
In the early 1920s, oil baron Edward Doheny’s no-interest loan of $100,000 to US Secretary of the Interior Albert Fall helped trigger the Teapot Dome scandal; in 1929, his son Ned died in a still unresolved murder-suicide at his Beverly Hills mansion Greystone after being implicated in his father’s fall. In 1927, the collapse of Julian Petroleum, a Southern California oil company turned elaborate Ponzi set up, may have helped precipitate the Great Depression: Over a period of thirty months, the company issued more than three-and-a-half million shares of phony stock, bilking forty thousand investors while offering powerful allies, including businessman Harry M. Haldeman (grandfather to the Watergate conspirator), studio head Louis B. Mayer, political boss Kent Parrot, and gambling kingpin Charlie Crawford, participation in “pools” that guaranteed vast short-term returns. Crawford—who, with Parrot, essentially ran the city throughout the 1920s, using Mayor George E. Cryer as a front—would be gunned down in 1931 by former city prosecutor David Clark, an act inspired by either corruption or self-defense. (This, too, has never been resolved.) If all that sounds like ancient history, it isn’t, and not only because some of these events took place in living memory. Just think about the 1992 riots (and the Watts riots and the Zoot Suit riots) and the culture of Darryl Gates’s LAPD. Just think about Bell, among the poorest communities in Los Angeles County, where, in 2010, a group of city officials, including the mayor and the city manager, were found to be receiving exorbitant salaries after having manipulated a special election on charter reform.
Do I sound a little fatalistic? Well, okay then, I’m a little fatalistic—because these stories are as LA as it gets. They’re the reason noir grew up here, as Richard Rayner points out in his book A Bright and Guilty Place, which casts the saga of Clark and Crawford through a wider lens. Raymond Chandler’s 1935 story “Spanish Blood,” Rayner reminds us, begins with a kingmaker named Donegan Marr shot dead in his office, much as Crawford had been four years before. “In a few more years he’d have taken the town over,” a cop confides, although in actuality Crawford’s influence was on the decline when he died. But no matter; it’s the larger movement Chandler is after, a movement that, as a former oil industry executive, he understood from the inside out. As Rayner explains:
What’s important is that Chandler was a part of all this, not merely an observer. The history of Los Angeles through the late 1920s and early 1930s sank into his blood and became a part of his writerly DNA because he’d been a minor player in that history. He’d felt its breath. Chance and the loss of his job forced him to turn to the pulps, but LA made him the only kind of writer he could have become.…Chandler’s fiction abounds in blackmailers who get what’s coming to them (or don’t), in crooked DAs, violent cops, exhausted cops, disinterested cops, tough cops that can be greased but aren’t all bad, shyster lawyers, sinister racketeers, bent doctors, victim chauffeurs, seedy pornographers, gamblers too slick for their own good, and always the ruthless rich who do as they will and expect to buy their way out of whatever jam they land in.
In his third novel, 1942’s The High Window, Chandler even comments on the case of Ned Doheny (renamed Cassidy in the book). “You read it in the papers,” his detective Philip Marlowe tells a policeman, “but it wasn’t so. What’s more you knew it wasn’t so and the DA knew it wasn’t so and the DA’s investigators were pulled off the case within a matter of hours.…And what were the family and the family doctor doing during the four hours they didn’t call the cops? Fixing it so there would only be a superficial investigation. And why were no tests made on the hands for nitrates? Because you didn’t want the truth. Cassidy was too big.”
Chandler, of course, has been written about plenty; no need to slip through that wormhole at any great length. But as much as Mulholland or Doheny or Huntington or Otis, he came to LA and took it, too. The terms were different—the sensibility, the moral center. (Chandler, that is, had one.) And yet, the impulse is the same. Chandler, as Rayner notes, arrived at writing as a last resort and was an unlikely literary hero: a detective novelist in a movie town. Could another city have produced him? Would another city have given him a chance? He was an artist working in a popular medium, not unlike his contemporary James M. Cain. Both were late bloomers: Chandler published his first novel when he was fifty-one, Cain when he was forty-two. Both had bottomed out, to some extent, Chandler in the oil business and Cain in East Coast journalism, and both ended up, if at times loosely, involved with the entertainment industry (“[T]he very nicest thing Hollywood can possibly think of to say to a writer is that he is too good to be only a writer,” Chandler sniped in 1945 in the Atlantic Monthly), an association that influenced how Chandler and Cain thought about what literature could do. For Chandler, the big idea was to use a popular form, the detective novel, to get at the corruption of the city, while eschewing elitist aesthetics. “There are no vital and significant forms of art; there is only art, and precious little of that,” he wrote in “The Simple Art of Murder.” And: “It is always a matter of who writes the stuff, and what he has in him to write it with.…Everything written with vitality expresses that vitality; there are no dull subjects, only dull minds.” Cain, for his part, produced a run of early books (The Postman Always Rings Twice, Double Indemnity) as fine as any in American literature, including one, Mildred Pierce, that seventy-two years later remains perhaps the greatest of all Southern California novels, a melodrama built out of the detritus of middle-class suburban culture—divorce, domestic strife, the indignities and aspirations of class. “I never forget,” Cain once observed, “that the average man, from the fields, the streets, the bars, the offices, and even the gutters of his country, has acquired a vividness of speech that goes beyond anything I could invent, and that if I stick to this heritage, this logos of the American countryside, I shall attain a maximum of effectiveness with very little effort.”
What Cain understood as well as anyone is that, for all its corruption, its stacked decks and sweetheart deals, Los Angeles is also essentially democratic—in the sense that here, or so we like to think, we can do what we want. This, of course, cuts both ways: Just ask the husbands in his first two novels, murdered by faithless wives eager for insurance money and a brand new start. And yet, isn’t the appeal of such characters that they speak to all of us, that like Mulholland or Chandler or Cain himself, they turned their backs on every last vestige of propriety and looked for something else? There it is. Take it. This could be their motto, as it could for all of us. In his essay “Paradise,” published in H.L. Mencken’s American Mercury in 1933 (the cover teased, “What Southern California Is Really like”), Cain captured the nature of the place, imagining a map of the region and filling it in. “Now then,” he writes, “put in some houses. Most of them should be plain white stucco with red tile roofs, for the prevalent architecture is Spanish, although a mongrel Spanish that is corrupted by every style known on earth, and a few styles not hitherto known. But you can also let your fancy run at this point, and put in some structures ad lib., just to exhibit your technique. If a filling-station occurs to you, a replica of the Taj Mahal, faithfully executed in lath and plaster, put that in. If you hit on a hot-dog stand in the shape of a hot dog, prone, with portholes for windows and a sign reading ‘Alligator Farm,’ put that in. Never mind why a hot-dog stand should have portholes for windows and a new line of alligators: we are concerned here with appearances, and will get to that part later.”
By now, of course, it’s become a cliché to poke fun at LA’s architecture; that’s what seventy-five years of beating the same drum will do. Nathanael West, Truman Capote, Norman Mailer… although unlike Cain, they overlook the key idea, which is not so much to ridicule (okay, maybe a little) as it is to use the surface as a guide to the city’s personality. And what is that personality? Cain describes it in terms of destiny. Again, from “Paradise”: “Where this place is headed is to be the leader in commerce, art, citrus production, music, rabbit breeding, oil production, furniture manufacture, walnut growing, literature, olive bottling, short- and long-distance hauling, clay modelling, aesthetic criticism, fish export, canary-bird culture, playwrighting, shipping, cinematic creativeness, and drawing-room manners. In short, it is going to be a paradise on earth. And, with such vaulting ambitions, it might pull off something: you can’t tell. It is keenly aware of the Orient, and also of Mexico; streams are meeting here that ought to churn up some exciting whirlpools. I, personally, even if the first act hasn’t been so hot, am not going to walk out on the show.”
St. Francis Dam beginning to leak. Courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library photo collection.
Cain is writing with his tongue partly in his cheek, of course, although not entirely; his mix of irony and credulity is one that anyone who has spent much time in LA knows all too well. How else are we to think about a metropolis built in a semi-desert, a get-rich-quick scheme that became something more? And yet, what resonates are those closing lines, the exciting whirlpools, the admission that he has no intention of walking out on the show. This is Los Angeles at the ground level, the level not of those who remade the place in their own image but rather of those who came here to be remade. Another myth, another trope, yet no less real for being so, this idea of the city as built on reinvention, on seizing the moment, or even better: on believing (there it is, take it) that there is a moment to be seized.
So what does all this mean for the modern city, which both is and isn’t the one Mulholland helped create and Cain (and Chandler) wrote about? Things have changed a lot since 1933, or even 1941, when Mildred Pierce was published, not to mention 1913. LA is, as it has ever been, a landscape of the present, where the past doesn’t count for very much. That, too, is part of the ethos of there it is, take it, an ethos which defines itself, perhaps most centrally, in never looking back.
And yet, how is this even possible, in a universe where history accrues? Like any place, Los Angeles is not immune from such a process, no matter what we choose to believe. Mulholland is a drive now, “a drive and a highway,” as David Thomson puts it in Beneath Mulholland, “running east-west, the supreme vantage point for the entirety of Los Angeles and the San Fernando Valley. You can stand up there and feel like Christ—or the Devil. Mulholland Drive allows both roles.” Doheny is a drive also, and a library, dedicated at the University of Southern California in 1932, in the name of the old man’s dead son. Huntington is a library and museum. All of them, transformed from human beings into monuments, forgotten in everything except their names. “And surely we no longer can afford to erase our home out of forgetfulness, or worse, a willful amnesia,” wrote D.J. Waldie in 2000, “and imagine, as many want to, that we live in a historyless city, a placeless region, a Los Angeles devoid of contrarian surprises, an LA devoid of us and our sacred ordinariness.” This, in its way, is an idea as transformative as there it is, take it, a strategy for looking at Los Angeles not as a mythic landscape but rather as a real place populated by real people, “a city,” in the words of Chandler, “no worse than others, a city rich and vigorous and full of pride, a city lost and beaten and full of emptiness.”
That’s a terrific description—all the more so because it holds up. This is the aftermath of Mulholland’s dream, which transformed LA from “a big dry sunny place with ugly homes and no style” into something infinitely more difficult to pin down. Immigration, mass transit, the Pacific Rim…one hundred years after the aqueduct, there it is, take it has a new set of meanings, defined less, perhaps, by manifest than by a series of overlapping, smaller destinies. As Richard Rodriquez suggests in his essay “Late Victorians”: “To speak of San Francisco as land’s end is to read the map from one direction only—as Europeans would read it or as the East Coast has always read.…To speak, therefore, of San Francisco as land’s end is to betray parochialism. My parents came here from Mexico. They saw San Francisco as the North. The West was not west for them. They did not share the Eastern traveler’s sense of running before the past—the darkening time zone, the lowering curtain.” The same is true of Los Angeles. Mulholland’s vision of the place as a blank canvas to be filled in by those with the power or the wherewithal to make it happen has been superseded by the reality of a sprawling megalopolis (with a population of close to thirteen million in the last census) that is increasingly unmanageable in ways that would have never occurred to him. Still, if history has anything to tell us, it is that, for all their contradictions, a through line connects these visions of LA, that they share a common sensibility, a soul.
Of course, even Mulholland had his share of souls to deal with, especially after the collapse of the St. Francis Dam on 12 March 1928. This disaster—in which hundreds died after a dam in the Santa Clara Valley failed, flooding Castaic, Fillmore, Santa Paula, and other towns before reaching the Pacific near Ventura—effectively ended his dominion over the Bureau of Water Works and Supply. Eighty-five years later, the collapse stands as a bookend to the opening of the aqueduct, the moment when ambition (or greed, or hubris) rolled back in upon itself, like the cresting of a wave. Mulholland had inspected the dam just twelve hours before its failure and had declared the structure safe. “I envy those that were killed,” he is reported to have said. “Don’t blame anyone else. You just fasten it on me. If there was an error in human judgment, I was the human.” In the wake of the disaster, Mulholland went into a self-imposed exile and remained essentially in isolation until his death in 1935 at age seventy-nine. Although he was not held to be liable, an investigation concluded that the “construction and operation of a great dam should never be left to the sole judgment of one man.”
The remains of St. Francis Dam. Courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library photo collection.
If you’re unfamiliar with the St. Francis Dam disaster, you’re not alone, although the ruins are still out there, in San Francisquito Canyon, near Valencia. The site is unmarked, but there are photographs: before and after images of the dam rerendered as rubble, like the building of the aqueduct in reverse. After all this time, it’s tempting to read this as a symbol, a metaphor for our history of forgetting, for the past so many of us came here to escape. And yet, if there’s a moral to this story, it’s that the past is always with us, that it asserts itself when we least expect it and regardless of what we intend. During the late 1990s, a friend of mine lived in a condo that had been Mulholland’s office, in the Metropolitan Water District building in downtown LA. At night, she told me, she would smell cigar smoke, hear the low murmur of conversation, and sometimes, if she were sleeping, feel the weight of people sitting on the bed. When I asked her what she thought it was, she said the place was haunted by the ghosts of all the people who had died in the disaster, come to see Mulholland for recompense.
I have no idea whether this is true or not—but I believe it, and not only because I trust my friend. No, I believe it because it tells me something about the world we live in, about the primacy of place over personality, rather than the other way around. Mulholland may have created Los Angeles as we know it with the construction of the aqueduct, but the place came back, as it always does, to extract a price. One hundred years later, that’s a lesson we’d do well to remember:
Just after Christmas 1924, William Mulholland was invited to dedicate the highway that bears his name, christening it with a bottle of water drawn from the Los Angeles Aqueduct. Engineered by a veteran of the aqueduct’s construction, the road runs along the spine of the Hollywood Hills and was underwritten by a group of real estate developers who hoped to get rich selling off their land once the street was complete. Mulholland Highway, now called Mulholland Drive, divided the city from the San Fernando Valley—the terminus of the Los Angeles Aqueduct—and remains a prime spot from which to admire the whole LA Basin. Its name is a fitting tribute to the father of the aqueduct, a man with a deeply divisive legacy, derided as a pawn of powerful real estate interests, but without whose vision Los Angeles could never have become the sprawling and dense metropolis it is today.
The debate over Mulholland’s character and legacy is nothing new; it has raged almost from the moment he first rose to local prominence. As chief of Los Angeles’ water department, Mulholland’s role was to provide ample safe and affordable water to the rapidly growing city. With others, he hatched a plan to tap the water of Owens Valley and engineered the Los Angeles Aqueduct to bring that water south to LA. He sold the plan to the public and won their support for a series of bond measures to finance the aqueduct’s construction.
From there, opinions diverge. Did Mulholland, by bringing water to Los Angeles, make a great city possible, or did he swindle and destroy a small but vibrant agricultural community? Was he motivated by greed, played by rich men who hoped to be made richer by a secure water source in the San Fernando Valley, or was he merely a zealous public servant serving the greater good? Was he a visionary who won public support for his project with masterful public relations, or did he lie to scare the public into backing his pet project? His record as an engineer is also inconclusive—while the aqueduct was one of the great construction feats of its day, his Saint Francis Dam built to store aqueduct water was a failure and killed hundreds of people when it gave way in 1928.
Born in Belfast in 1855, William Mulholland arrived in Los Angeles—population 9,000—in 1877. As an old man, he claimed that Los Angeles was “so attractive to me that it at once became something about which my whole scheme of life was woven, I loved it so much.” But not even his admiring granddaughter and biographer Catherine Mulholland believed that to be true. Instead, she wrote in William Mulholland and the Rise of Los Angeles, that he was already on his way out of town only a month after arriving when he was offered a job digging wells. And his life was changed. He taught himself engineering on the job, and he followed his new passion straight to the privately owned company that controlled LA’s water supply, and then to the city-owned Department of Water and Power that succeeded it.
Whether or not his love for Los Angeles came at first sight, he was the city’s ultimate booster and partisan. In Catherine Mulholland’s telling—and Michael Hiltzik elaborates on this view in this issue of Boom—Mulholland’s belief that Los Angeles would never reach its potential without water from Owens Valley drove his support of the project. If he exaggerated the present need or used overblown rhetoric (“If Los Angeles does not secure the Owens Valley water supply, she will never need it”) to drum up voter support for the bonds to fund it, well, it was for the good of the city.
Although he may not have felt any particular responsibility to them, Mulholland maintained that Owens Valley landowners were fairly compensated for their land. His view was corroborated by natural resource economist Gary Libecap in a 2007 study, which hailed the land deals as successful transfers of resources. If Mulholland blocked meaningful restitution for residents who saw their livelihoods destroyed by LA’s land-and-water grab, it was, as his granddaughter explained, because he was “schooled in an older, sterner system.” He believed “he had pledged his word to the taxpayers of Los Angeles to deliver their water works at the amount they had agreed to pay for through their bond elections.” Which he did—the eight-year $24.5 million project was, remarkably, finished on time and on budget.
William Mulholland. Photo courtesy of County of Inyo, Eastern California Museum.
Yet Mulholland had critics on both ends of the aqueduct. In LA, the newspapers that opposed his project called it unnecessary and a colossal waste of money. It was alleged that Mulholland and his backers lied about the immediate need for water, secretly dumped water to create an artificial drought, and passed an unnecessary ordinance prohibiting people from watering their lawns to frighten them into supporting the measure. From the start, there were rumors that the scheme was hatched by moneymen, including the owner of the Los Angeles Times, whose holdings in the San Fernando Valley were set to skyrocket in value when the aqueduct’s water arrived. This argument was made memorably in the film Chinatown, a fictional account of the LA skirmishes in the water wars. (That one of the two characters in the film who stand in for Mulholland is an incestuous, Machiavellian rapist has done his reputation no favors.)
The critics did not stop once the water started flowing. Carey McWilliams argued in his 1946 history of Southern California that the aqueduct’s water was always destined for the farms of the San Fernando Valley and that its arrival made the landowners a $100 million profit. In a twist on the argument that the aqueduct made Los Angeles, Marc Reisner wrote in Cadillac Desert that “the annexation of the San Fernando Valley, a direct result of the aqueduct, instantly made it the largest city in the world in geographic size. From that moment, it was doomed to become a huge, sprawling, one-story conurbation, hopelessly dependent on the automobile.”
The present-day consequences of the Los Angeles Aqueduct for the city are explored in David Ulin’s essay and for Owens Valley in excerpts from Kim Stringfellow’s project There It Is—Take It! (both featured in this issue of Boom). For Owens Valley, the ill effects are myriad. Rivers and lakes have dried up, water available for local use has dramatically decreased, and, according to residents, private investment in the area has been discouraged by LA’s Department of Water and Power, which is still a major landowner in the valley. But while Mulholland did not believe in spending Los Angeles taxpayers’ money in Owens Valley, his old department’s position has changed. Thanks to a number of long-running court battles, over $1.2 billion has been spent rewatering and managing dust at the once-dry Owens Lake, and an Owens River restoration project has seen some success.
What Mulholland achieved was remarkable, if difficult to characterize neatly. To his supporters, he was a man who believed in delivering the greatest good to the greatest number, and he devoted his career to doing just that. But in doing so, he rode roughshod over his many critics and a significant swath of Southern California.
The starter called, “Come to your marks!” and with seven other boys I knelt at the blocks for the finals of the Class C seventy-five-yard dash at the 1952 Kern Relays. I was a ninth-grader about to run the biggest race of my life when from another part of the field the crowd exploded into cheers and applause. “Come up!” called the official, aborting the start, and as we stood, I turned to the boy in the next lane and asked, “What happened?”
He said simply, “Patterson, I bet.”
Leon Patterson of Taft Union High School, who seemed to us to be a force of nature, not a mere athlete, had just become the first high school boy to put the 12-pound shot over 60 feet, shattering the national record. He was then engaged in one of the legendary competitions in prep track and field history, although most of us didn’t understand that.
Leon Patterson runs in a track meet at Taft High School. Photograph courtesy of Patterson family.
Throughout the spring of 1952, Leon Patterson and Bill Nieder of Lawrence [Kansas] High School had been battling to become the first high school athlete to break the 60-foot barrier in competition. On that April 9 in Bakersfield, Patterson—relatively small at 5 feet 11 inches and 185 pounds—had burst across the ring and sent the metal ball 60 feet 1/4 inch. Two weeks later, he extended the national record to 60 feet 6-1/2 inches at Fresno’s West Coast Relays.
Nieder, 6 feet 3 inches and 225 pounds, didn’t concede. A future Olympic champion and fierce competitor, he exceeded the Californian’s record when he thrust the shot 60 feet 9-1/4 inches on May 16 at the Kansas State Championship meet. Patterson, from the small oilfield town 40 miles southwest of Bakersfield, then reclaimed the national record on May 24 by putting the shot 60 feet 9-1/2 inches at the California State Championships.
Leon Patterson in 1952 at Taft High School. Courtesy of Patterson family.
By season’s end, Patterson also led the nation in the discus throw with a 177 feet 5 inches heave, an astounding 10 feet ahead of the runner-up and just short of a second national record. What fans and fellow competitors didn’t know—though Leon Patterson and his coaches did—is that the new record-holder was terminally ill when he accomplished those feats.
The prior summer he’d had a physical examination for a vacation job in the oil fields, and was discovered to have what was then an incurable kidney disorder called Bright’s Disease. No one could believe it, least of all Leon. He told journalist Melvin Durslag in 1953, “The funny thing is that physically I had never felt better in my life. That’s what made it all seem so completely unreal.”
Patterson’s brother George recalled, “If you met him, no one could conceive of this kid dying of a disease. He was too strong, too healthy…he looked like he could bend crowbars.” One of his coaches, Monty Reedy, drove the shaken young man to be examined by a specialist in the Bay Area, who confirmed the diagnosis and advised that if Leon gave up sports he might live ten years. The youngster dropped football—for which fifteen major college programs, including USC, UCLA and Notre Dame, were recruiting him—but remained on the track team.
Those were innocent, hopeful years and Patterson’s other brother, Calvin, probably spoke for nearly everyone who was aware of the illness when he said, “It was something he would overcome, I felt, right up until he went into the hospital that last time.” In Leon’s case, appearances were indeed deceiving.
A handsome blond, Leon Patterson looked like a picture of the California dream; more than a few of us yearned to be him. He was, however, the product of the California reality: poverty, toil, and grit. His family had struggled west from Arkansas searching for opportunities in the shadow of the Great Depression. The Pattersons were part of the larger, second wave of “Okies, Arkies, and Texies” who migrated during the 1940s. The Great Central Valley, at 15,000,000 acres about the size of Egypt, held the promise of at least seasonal work, even for unskilled laborers—especially at its larger southern end, called the San Joaquin Valley by locals. By World War II, the Valley had become one of the state’s economic engines, sustained by agribusiness, oil, and abundant cheap labor.
Leon Patterson’s high school graduation photo. Courtesy of Patterson family.
George Patterson recalled, “We were just one family out of thousands, struggling to raise ourselves up to middle class.” They never quite made it. Leon “had never had a steak, a lobster, or a salad in his life,” his high-school sweetheart and future wife, Dixie Kenney, revealed. “I don’t know if he’d ever had Christmas gifts and he’d never had a Christmas tree.”
Leon and his older brothers had been doing men’s work since they were little boys. In fact, hard work—everything from swamping seed potatoes to picking cotton—had been his equivalent of weight training. He physically matured early and, as journalist Earl Gustkey pointed out, “At 14, he had the body of a powerfully built man.” The demanding regimen of childhood labor had produced an exceptional physique, not only strong, but swift.
But that remarkable body was vulnerable. He was born with only one kidney, and at twelve had suffered strep throat, which went untreated. His parents, Marvin and Lillie, not only couldn’t afford a physician, but “didn’t believe in doctors,” according to Leon’s son, Leon Patterson, Jr.
But that remarkable body was vulnerable.
The older Pattersons were from a different time and place and never did understand California or their son’s accomplishments here. “Not once did his parents come to any of his track meets,” Dixie Patterson recalled, “not even when he won the state championship.” They were tied to the values of rural Arkansas, and neither sports nor academics impressed them. Their athletic son, meanwhile, struggled to become a good student in high school, but the cycle of migrant farm labor hadn’t allowed him to settle in at a school, so his basic skills were thin. “Most of our dates were spent doing homework,” Dixie said. “Leon was a smart kid, but by the time he got to Taft High, with his parents moving from one crop-picking job to another, he’d been to forty-two grammar schools. He was never caught up in his schooling, so I helped him a lot.”
Like other fabled young athletes, stories of Leon’s prowess sprang up in Taft and thereabouts. Sportswriter Jim Murray, for instance, wrote that one day Leon, then a ninth-grader, was crossing the track in his baseball uniform and the school’s high jumper invited him to try to clear a crossbar set at 5 feet 10 inches. “He cleared it easily,” Murray reported, adding that moreover, Leon could sprint 100 yards in 10.1 seconds, vault 11-1/2 feet with a stiff bamboo pole, even threw the javelin almost 200 feet the first time he tried it.
Leon Patterson in 1951. Photograph courtesy of Patterson family.
A gap was opening in the Patterson family as the younger generation embraced California’s opportunities.
In 1950, as a sophomore at Taft High School, Patterson switched to the track and field team and, although he was a beginner at putting the shot, he surprised everyone by qualifying for the state high-school championship. There, he studied his more experienced rivals and, on his final effort, thrust the metal ball 53 feet 11 inches for third place. He never lost again in high school competition. The next season, he won all weight events—12-pound shot put, 16-pound shot put, and discus throw—at the state championships and was already being recognized as one of the great competitors in the post-World War II era of athletic excellence in the Great Valley.
Historian James N. Gregory points out in American Exodus that “many of the [Dust Bowl] migrants shared a vaguely populist outlook which directed expectations toward manual occupations and away from extended schooling.” In California more than a few migrant kids became the first in their family to finish secondary school. Others moved even farther from old expectations, graduating from college. Athletic scholarships brought many young men like Leon Patterson to universities.
Those accomplishments could lead to family dissension. Missouri native John Collins, long-time track coach and educator at nearby Bakersfield College, said, “You have to wonder how many potentially great athletes never got a chance to compete back in the Southwest. And how many potentially valuable minds were lost as a result.” He more than once found himself talking hard to convince migrant parents into allowing their young-adult children to continue their educations. “I remember that one said, ‘If he can stay home to pick cotton, he can go to school too.’ That kid became a high school principal.”
It’s worth noting that by no means were all athletes with Dust Bowl connections white. For every Leon Patterson, Johnny Callison, Lon Spurrier, and Frank Gifford, there was a nonwhite or mixed-race sportsman like Sim Innes, Mike Garcia, Leamon King, and the Johnson brothers, Rafer and Jimmy, who pursued the egalitarianism of athletics and the opportunities sports offered. Some, such as Callison, Garcia, and Jimmy Johnson, became professional jocks; others, such as Innes, King, Spurrier, and Rafer Johnson, used sports as springboards into other professions. Frank Gifford did both.
After Leon Patterson had to drop football, his dedicated track coach, Tom O’Brien, was determined to help the young man become best in the throws that his body would allow. Leon was not only the defending state champion in the weight events but also a stalwart on Taft’s sprint relay team. During the 1952 season, Patterson confirmed that he was still one of the nation’s premier high-school athletes in his competition with the formidable Nieder. In June of that year, Taft High School’s boosters’ club hosted a banquet in the new national-record holder’s honor. Leon’s parents didn’t attend.
A gap was opening in the Patterson family as the younger generation embraced California’s opportunities. Their oldest son, George, left home to embark on a career in law enforcement in Southern California, and now their youngest boy was about to take advantage of the possibility of higher education; he was becoming a Californian with a Californian’s sense of the possible and unintentionally distancing himself from his parents in the process.
The older Pattersons sought to take advantage of enhanced opportunities to rise socio-economically that followed World War II. More migrants had come to California during the war than had in the 1930s, thanks to better economic chances. There was internal migration, too, with erstwhile seasonal farm laborers moving to shipyards or to factories or to the military posts for steady work; their old jobs were often then filled by new migrants. By the late 1940s, those migrants increasingly made their economic presence felt because attitudes were softening, opportunities continued expanding. In fact, ambitions were being triggered that in a decade or two would shape a new California.
Meanwhile, Leon’s achievements were alien to his parents, neither of whom had progressed beyond grade school. Worse still, although he was unassuming, Leon’s celebrity especially galled his father, and ugly scenes resulted. Alcohol, frustration, and domestic violence were the curses of the older Pattersons.
At the same time, some Californians aggressively resented southwestern migrants like Leon, and among young men in particular street fighting was not uncommon. Asked if her late husband had been a scrapper, Dixie replied, “Who in their right mind would pick a fight with Leon?” Leon, Jr., however, remembers that his Uncle Calvin told him that a group of guys—“five or six of them”—had once jumped Leon and roughed him up. That turned out to be a short-lived triumph because Leon returned home and found Calvin, then the two of them sought out the aggressors. With Calvin there to assure one-on-one fights, Leon “beat the piss out of every one of them.” No one ever bothered him again.
Although aware of Leon’s prognosis, Jess Mortenson, track coach at USC, in 1952 offered the youngster an athletic scholarship. Leon told the coach, “I hope God at least will spare me until the next Olympics.” The following year, he began weight training and grew to 6 feet and 200 pounds, all the while struggling to adjust to USC’s academic demands. He was nevertheless the nation’s best freshman discus thrower in 1953.
Leon Patterson at Taft High School. Photograph courtesy of Patterson family.
His steady progress with the discus throw, the event he had chosen to specialize in, masked his health problems. Sim Innes, the 1952 Olympic gold medalist in the discus, pointed out that “As a USC soph, he was already pretty sick [but] he threw the college discus 178 feet, the farthest throw ever [for a sophomore] at that time. I held the national junior college record then—164 feet. If Leon had been in a JC, he would’ve broken my record by 14 feet.”
George Patterson later said of his brother, “all during his SC time he was a sick boy.” Even so, while his health allowed, Leon fit well with his fellow Trojans. USC’s track team was then the nation’s best, loaded with world-class athletes, and world-class athletes are, to paraphrase F. Scott Fitzgerald, different from you and me. One USC teammate, former Olympian and national pole-vault champion Ron Morris, never forgot the kid from Taft: “The guy was a super athlete.… He was really competitive. We’d have crazy contests—who could throw a discus farthest while standing on one hand or who could walk the farthest on his hands or who could long jump farthest backwards.”
After Dixie graduated from Taft High School in 1953, the young couple wed and moved to USC’s married student housing, a collection of quonset huts that was high on neighborliness and low on luxuries. Still, they had a home of their own, a car, and were surrounded by other young couples in similar circumstances. With the optimism of youth, they began to build a life together. Soon Dixie was pregnant, and Leon’s ambitions were fixed on making the 1956 American Olympic team.
Leon and Dixie’s wedding party, 1953. Photograph courtesy of Patterson family.
During the summer of 1953, Dixie had a glimpse of Leon’s earlier life when the couple worked as peach pickers in Mendocino County, saving money for school while living in a tent in a harvest-workers’ campground. For a middle-class girl from Taft, it was eye-opening; she later wrote:
“The people in the campground were poor compared to Leon & I. We had a new car, they had old, beat up ones, we had my parents[’] camping equipment, some of them cooked over open fires & had blankets on the ground for their beds. We had a metal camp bed with a mattress, sheets, pillows and blankets. I worried that our stuff would be stolen while we worked, but nothing ever was.”
Dixie also learned to layer her clothing so she could be warmer in the morning, cooler in the afternoon. “By afternoon, it was hot. Leon would be stripped to the waist & grinning. He’d say ‘how do you like a taste of my life.’ I’d grin back and say it was a piece of cake.”
His widow later remembered that after Leon told her that he’d never had a Christmas tree, “I bought one for $1.80. He said I shouldn’t have spent the money & he wouldn’t let me buy ornaments, so I made popcorn & cranberry strings & ornaments & cut foil stars from gum wrappers. I caught him looking at it many times and knew he was pleased.” She didn’t know that it would be her husband’s last Christmas. During his sophomore season of 1954, Leon and Dixie became parents when Leon, Jr., was born. Unfortunately, the new father’s disease could by then not be hidden; it left him “with blurred vision, lower back pain, swollen feet and ankles, and headaches.”
Patterson nevertheless competed in the National Collegiate Championships meet at Ann Arbor, Michigan, where, despite puffy feet that made tying his shoes impossible, he managed on his last throw to reach 169 feet 1 inch for third place in the discus. During that season of inconsistent performances due to his illness, his longest throw—178 feet 8 inches—would have been good enough for fourth place in the 1956 Olympics, had he lived that long.
Our innocence peeled away like sunburned skin.
Perhaps as a result of another summer of hard labor to support his family, Leon’s health rapidly deteriorated in the fall of 1954. He died on November 21 of that year, shortly after attending a USC-TCU football game that he couldn’t see because toxicity had blinded him. Following his death, writer Dick Bank remembered, “That’s when the impact of that third-place throw in the NCAA meet really hit us.”
It hit many others of us, too. Leon Patterson was a hero and a puzzle to his peers: How could someone so apparently invincible suffer such a fate, we asked ourselves. And if he could, so could we. Our innocence peeled away like sunburned skin.
In retrospect, Leon Patterson is among the most memorable figures of our generation— not because he could throw the discus while balancing on one hand; not because he bounced tacklers from his thigh pads like soccer balls; and not because he thrust the shot put farther than any schoolboy ever had. No, Leon remains a hero because that unsophisticated kid from Arkansas transcended poverty and emotional privation to begin the climb to success, only to be forced to face the great gaping fact of death, and he did not fold. On his deathbed, Bank remembers, the new father was comforting visitors when he could.
Leon Patterson, Jr and son at gravesite. Photograph courtesy of Patterson family.
Pole vault champion Ron Morris, who was also there, said, “I still wonder what he had on his mind. I mean we were 20, 21. What does a 21-year-old kid know about life? What did he think about those last days?” What, indeed.
Athletics can epitomize larger social issues. The saga of Leon Patterson—like that of King, Johnson, Gifford, Innes, and all the rest—symbolizes escape from old social assumptions and the dawn of the more egalitarian society that has characterized California since World War II. Equality of opportunity, whether on the sports pitch or in a classroom, really is the American way. And so is the pursuit of excellence, as Leon Patterson’s story reminds us.
On March 16, 1991, African-American teenager Latasha Harlins walked into the Empire Liquor Market in South Central LA. She grabbed a bottle of orange juice, slipped it into her backpack, and walked to the counter to pay. Korean shopkeeper Soon Ja Du, concerned that Harlins was trying to steal the juice, tried to take the girl’s backpack. Harlins fought back, and the pair struggled. Harlins threw punches. Du threw a stool. Finally, Harlins disengaged, leaving the orange juice, and turning toward the door. Du grabbed a gun from under the counter and shot Harlins in the back of the head. Latasha Harlins died clutching $2 that she had planned to use to buy some juice. Du was found guilty of voluntary manslaughter, a conviction with a maximum sentence of 16 years in prison. But Soon Ja Du would serve no prison time. Instead, Judge Joyce Karlin, a Jewish woman, sentenced her to five years probation, community service, and a $500 fine. Less than six months later, police officers who beat Rodney King were acquitted, and Los Angeles erupted into violence. The LA riots had begun.
The three women involved in the shooting of Harlins and sentencing of Du—a poor black girl, a Korean woman from a small-business owning family, and an affluent female Jewish judge—are the focus of UCLA historian Brenda Stevenson’s new book, The Contested Murder of Latasha Harlins. By focusing on the death of Harlins and trial of Du, Stevenson moves away from a male-dominated narrative that emphasizes the police beating of Rodney King as the main cause of the LA riots. Instead, Stevenson argues, it was the Harlins murder and trial, a story centered on women, that was the real spark for the violence of spring 1992. The Harlins case crystallized frustrations among African-Americans about Korean-American shopkeepers in South Central LA, who seemed to regard their black customers as criminals. In the wake of Du’s sentencing, black Angelenos acutely felt that justice had been denied to Harlins and the black community. It was in reaction to the Harlins case that boycotts of Korean businesses began. It was through the experience of the Harlins case that African-Americans understood the Rodney King verdict and during the riots destroyed Korean shops. Stevenson’s shift of focus from Rodney King to the Harlins murder and verdict changes our understanding of the LA riots.
In her acknowledgments, Stevenson writes that this book has been in the works since 1991. Her long-term effort shows. Carefully assessing the intersections of gender, race, and class, Stevenson explores the circumstances under which Du could shoot Harlins and get off with a light sentence from Karlin. Stevenson does this by probing into the deep pasts of each player, extending her analytical reach into long histories of slavery, immigration, discrimination, poverty, and racism. This book is about Latasha Harlins, Soon Ja Du, and Joyce Karlin, but in many ways, it is about much more than that. It is about the importance of race, gender, and class in crime, justice, and, most crucially, lived experience. And perhaps most of all, it is about the ways in which history bleeds ever-forward into the present.