Tag: History


Spirits of Guasti

by Susan Straight
Photographs by Douglas McCulloh

From Boom Winter 2012, Vol. 2, No. 4

Between the 60 and the 10

Is it a ghost town when haunting and beautiful stone buildings sit between two of the busiest freeways in California? Is it a ghost town if the rows of ancient houses are shrink-wrapped in white plastic so that they actually look like a blinded row of what used to be homes for the men and women who picked grapes and made them into wine, and packed the barrels onto railroad cars?

There was once a city here in Southern California, a lovely replica and reimagining of a village from the Piedmont area of Italy. It was the center of life for hundreds of families who came from the mountains of southern Italy to work for Secondo Guasti, who picked grapes and made them into wine and packed the barrels onto railroad cars. Secondo Guasti built an entire little world here, with a town named for himself. The surrounding land was planted in vineyards, grapes famous for sacramental wines, communion wines, and a world-famous dark red port. The Italian Vineyard Company was the largest vineyard in the world in 1917, with 5,000 acres of grapevines that produced 5 million gallons of wine a year, vintages that were sent all over the world.

Today, between the 60 Freeway, which connects Riverside and Los Angeles, and Interstate 10, which runs from the Pacific Ocean at Santa Monica to the Atlantic Ocean in Florida, you can see, just beyond the railroad tracks, a vast stone building with arched windows and the skeletal remains of a wooden roof. That was where the wine was put into barrels and stored. My father remembers being inside the dark, cool warehouse, smelling the grapes. Nearby, the workers’ homes are wrapped incongruously in shiny white plastic, even the chimneys, like some piece of modern art. Lemon trees full of bright yellow fruit stand here and there, sole survivors of what were once backyards.

Photographs by Douglas McCulloh

My father taught me to drive on Guasti Road, amid the acres of vineyards that, back in the 1970s, still covered some of Rancho Cucamonga and Mira Loma.

In the kind of convergence that happens over and over in Southern California, Guasti Road heads through CentreLake, an industrial park of structures with white walls and blue glass that house for-profit colleges and businesses, the Guasti post office, an old brick schoolhouse, and across from there, one of the loveliest churches I’ve ever seen anywhere in the world: San Secondo d’Asti.

Secondo Guasti left Italy, went to Mexico, and arrived in Los Angeles in 1878. He had no education or money. In Los Angeles, he worked in a restaurant and eventually married the owner’s daughter. He saved enough money to start a small winery in LA, and he bought a small vineyard in Glendale. But according to legend, he visited the sandy Cucamonga Valley and thought there might be water under the dry land. He also found a single vine growing, which could have been a straggler from other grapevines, wild or even domestic—we know Tiburcio Tapia planted the first domestic grapes in 1838 on his rancho there in Cucamonga, and others grew grapes all around the region.

Stories say Guasti dug down twenty-four feet with a shovel and found water. Back in LA, he went to his fellow countrymen and sold shares for his Italian Vineyard Company. He bought eight square miles of desert land and planted a hundred varieties of grapes, and soon San Bernardino County had 20,000 acres of vineyards, more than present-day Sonoma and twice as many as Napa.

Guasti created a village based on work, family, and beautiful architecture—the values he’d brought from Italy. He built an inn, a school, firehouse, post office, hundreds of homes for workers, and his own narrow gauge railroad that ran twenty-two miles along the vineyards so that workers could send the harvest to the huge stone packing houses where barrels of wine were produced and stored.

Then in 1924, Guasti and his wife decided to build their own church, to replicate a seventeenth century church from Asti, his native village. He brought woodworkers and stonemasons from Mexico and Italy to work for two years. It feels as if those two countries are still alive in the stone courtyard lined with rock walls, in the garden where white statues and roses are vivid against the surreal backdrop of a huge electrical tower.

Inside, the sanctuary is cool and dark, as if worshippers are in mountainous Italy. The carved wooden beams hold wrought-iron chandeliers; copper reliefs decorate the brown plastered walls; and the stained-glass windows show the martyred St. Secundus, beheaded in Asti during Hadrian’s rule.

San Secondo d’Asti is as beautiful as any of the famous missions of California, surrounded by the ancient past and the glossy present, which obscure its history of debt and worry. Prohibition, drought, development, and water shortages led to Guasti’s haunting. Urban sprawl, history erased, housing tracts and warehouses are common in California now. But Guasti Wines still sells sacramental and altar wines all over the world, through Joseph Filippi Winery & Vineyards, still in Cucamonga, where it began in 1922. And Guasti remains a vision. No—no one could build a warehouse or a church like that now.

One afternoon, I took my father to San Secondo d’Asti. He remembers Guasti from the 1950s, when most of the Italian workers had been replaced by Mexican immigrants, who lived in small wooden houses throughout the area.

My father went with his brother-in-law, who sold televisions to the men who tended the vineyards.

Later, I went to the post office for stamps. The sign reads “Historic Guasti,” but it’s really not; the original post office is a shuttered building of yellow and red brick, near the empty schoolhouse. A long line of people waited, including several elderly men and women—black, white, and Mexican American—who have been using this post office since the 1940s. A notice on the wall identified it as one on the list for closure, but on 15 May 2012, there was a reprieve.

The actual population of Guasti is one. One man. Father Louis Marx, who has lived here since 1997, in the church. He is mayor, fire captain, and priest. At night, I wonder what he hears, there between the freeways, between the electrical towers and CentreLake development, and the white-shrouded history of a dream that could be revived and made beautiful again, if someone, a new Secondo Guasti, fell in love.


The Accidental Archives of the Royal Chicano Air Force

by Stephanie Sauer

From Boom Winter 2012, Vol. 2, No. 4


RCAF pilot’s scroll map [detail]. Smithsonian Air & Space Museum.

In California, there is a group of pilot-artists, largely unknown yet renowned for their fleet of adobe airplanes and their key role in the Chicano civil rights movement. As Cesar Chavez’s bodyguards and poster makers for the United Farm Workers Union, they created a vast repertoire of silkscreen posters, murals, poetry, performances, and public ceremonies that served to counteract the shame that once surrounded all things indigenous. Their air force stance and self-mythologizing has enshrined them in California lore.

I was first introduced to the history of the Royal Chicano Air Force through Steve LaRosa’s original PBS documentary, Pilots of Aztlán. The story goes: The Rebel Chicano Art Front (RCAF) was created in 1969 by art professors José Montoya and Esteban Villa, along with a handful of committed students from California State University, Sacramento, whose ranks grew to include hundreds of artists, activists, community members, academics, politicians, and pilots. Intent on honoring the spirit of a true collective, they signed all their work with only the acronym RCAF. Soon the RCAF became confused with the Royal Canadian Air Force, until one day someone said: “No man, we’re the Royal Chicano Air Force!” And the mythology grew from there.

There is no way to write an accurate historical account of the Royal Chicano Air Force; in fact, conducting official and unofficial research over the last ten years has led me to understand that there is no way to write an accurate historical account of anything. You may not agree with me, and that is exactly what I mean. We live in a world filled with multiple, coinciding, collapsing, reconstituted truths, a world in which “truths” are used to justify. The ways I see our world and its history are directly related to my own lived experiences and contexts, as are the ways you see them. You chose the historical narrative sequence that validates your life choices, world view, actions, and privileges, and I do the same.

Despite our best efforts to remain “objective” or “scientific” or “rational,” our perceptions remain shaded, even if by objective scientific rationale. Worldwide, we have yet to fully investigate the cultural damage done by Victorian-era archeological practices and dominant Western lenses through which notions of otherness are viewed, studied, and explained. Cultural institutions adopt—and indeed pay for the rights to use—Indiana Jones-inspired stories in attempts to engage young learners of history. And, in general, we agree to believe that those fantasies are facts.

I am not interested in perpetuating this narrative. This is not a colonial fantasy in which I forsake my cultural inheritance in order to prove my allegiance to an indigenous or urban noble savage population, and then report back to you, dear reader. This is my cultural inheritance. This is the United States of America, and we are messy.

In Pilots of Aztlán, RCAF member Stan Padilla says, “In a world that is out of balance, adding beauty and harmony does not restore the balance. Sometimes you have to add more craziness. That is the message of The Sacred Fools, the tricksters.” Stan Padilla did not say exactly this, but that is how I remember hearing it. The following excerpts are my hymn to this sacred locura (craziness). They are part of a larger book, a catalogue of field research conducted in the neo-traditional RCAF locura lo cura (craziness cures) method. Using this approach and performing the character of La Stef, a turn-of-the-century World’s Fair archaeologist, I blend myth and historical documentation without prioritizing one over the other. Here I offer but one truth that is not entirely fiction.

A Brief Introduction to the Royal Chicano Air Force

RCAF: [r c a f ] orig. SacrAztlán 1. acronym of the Rebel Chicano Art Front 2. acronym inscribed in place of individual artist’s names on numerous silkscreen posters announcing various causes, boycotts, and fiestas found throughout Aztlán, beginning in the year 1969 of the Christian calendar 3. acronym of the Royal Canadian Air Force 4. pertaining to a widespread confusion between the Rebel Chicano Art Front and the Royal Canadian Air Force, resulting in a subsequent name change of the former to the Royal Chicano Air Force 5. acronym of the Royal Chicano Air Force 6. Cesar Chavez’s Air Force 7. an independent graphic arts wing of the United Farm Workers Union also employed to guard Cesar Chavez during speeches and pilgrimages in the greater Sacramento region 8. independent publishers in the silkscreen poster medium 9. an air force within which rank is fluid 10. referring to a close knit group of pilots not at the exclusion of the larger troops that made up the organization of the Royal Chicano Air Force 11. media reference to “The Robin Hoods of the barrio” 12. “. . . a footnote in history” 13. founders of the Barrio Art Program, Breakfast for Niños and La Raza Bookstore & Galeria Posada 14. phenomenon of international recognition while being ignored in country of origin

CON SAPOS is an archeological collective over 500 years in the making. Founded by world famous archeologist La Stef, our mission is to record, collect, and preserve history in the Americas as it happens. Since the colonial period, our approach has been unique in combining techniques of preservation indigenous to this continent, as well as those introduced by European archivists in recent centuries.

Con Sapos’ current team is led by Quetzalcoatl, who pioneered tlacuiloismo (the historian’s art), and includes John Rollin Ridge, Jean Charlot, Bertolt Brecht, Erich von Daniken, and cartographer Miss Ella. Among our noted services to the field are the recovery of lost and stolen Royal Chicano Air Force ephemera and our pioneering applications of mitoarqueología.

A Close Call as Cesar’s Security

This map, which was originally used in the cockpit of RCAF Commander José Montoya’s C-29 adobe aircraft, is unique to the fleet of the Royal Chicano Air Force in that it was later utilized as a scroll to document one of the Force’s near lethal encounters while serving as security for Cesar Chavez at a United Farm Workers Union rally in Davis, California. The map itself blends the standard French aeronautical map and holder model with that developed by the Eagle Knight Warriors serving under Moctezuma II, allowing pilots to steer the aircraft with one hand while turning the scroll map with the other. It is the same model used in World War I, El Movimiento Chicano, and the Maguey Wars of 2012.

With the help of a handful of code-switching scholars and a series of meticulously transcribed oral history accounts, the Con Sapos archeological team has deciphered the pictographic language in which an unnamed scribe recorded the day’s events. We have carefully translated its contents here and included archival annotations when necessary:

RCAF pilot’s scroll map [detail]. Smithsonian Air & Space Museum.

United Farm Worker Union leader Cesar Chavez had made his way to Davis, California, to address a crowd of sympathetic listeners. Members of the Royal Chicano Air Force (identified by their green uniforms with the exception of General “Confusion” Esteban Villa, who came attired in his usual lunar exploration suit) were providing security for the union organizer, whom they affectionately referred to as “The Little Guy.” Chavez’s personal secretary Richard Ybarra secured the stage. During a rousing speech on walkouts in Yolo County, the union leader became so impassioned by his commitment to La Causa, or the plight toward social justice for all farm workers, that the body guards noted a visible shift in the crowd that now rallied behind him after having been so moved.

At that moment RCAF pilot Ricardo Favela, positioned imperceptibly in the crowd for Chavez’s protection, noticed two snipers poised atop an apartment complex just across the street from the park with a missile aimed straight for the union leader’s chest. The pilot motioned another Air Force member on Chavez’s right, who made the leader aware. “The Little Guy” immediately “went limp,” says fellow pilot Juanishi Orosco, then turned himself inside out so that all that was visible of his once petite but formidable self was his heart, exposed and beating for all to see. As another witness described the change, “it was as if he were just tempting the assassins to make a martyr of him in front of all those folks.” According to scholars, Chavez, following in the Aztec and Mayan traditions of human sacrifice, had updated the practice and used, instead of another human, himself as sacrificial victim. In the few split seconds—though it is recorded that all temporal measurement devices actually paused—the vulnerable heart tissue was swaddled in gauze and taken under the protection of two federal agents charged with avoiding the union leader’s martyrdom. They cleared a corridor in the crowd as pilots Louie ‘The Foot’ and Ramón Ontiveros hurried the organ into Chavez’s beat up Dodge Dart, summoning the RCAF squadron to follow, for they were legend to be useful in the reconversion process.

The Ancient Documentaries of Southside Park

Near the end of the Fourth Sun, when the world was about to split open and make way for the Fifth, members of the Royal Chicano Air Force, informed by scholars and elders, reinvigorated a series of ancient ceremonies, including Día de los Muertos, Fiesta de Tonatzin, Fiesta de Colores y Fiesta de Maíz. The freestyle interpretation of the sacred rites infuriated some indigenist activists engaged in more authentic reenactments, but the RCAF and their comrades continued with their belief in the greater need. The organizers had been informed by Dr. Reynaldo Solis, who in his own sociological research had come to the hypothesis that certain cultural and historic wounds that plagued the local Chicano community and continued to cause ingrained psychological, spiritual, and even economic damage could be healed in part by updating and reinstating ancient cultural ceremonies that both marked individual rites of passage and affirmed and connected one in a positive way to the whole of one’s cultural history. He wanted to test this hypothesis and the RCAF was ready.

Miss Ella and La Stef at Zapata Park in the search for the sacred scrolls. (PHOTO COURTESY OF JANELL LACAYO).

The Sacramento Concilio, led by Josie Talamantez, Tere Romo, Rosemary and David Rasul among others, took on the strategic planning for the ceremonias, including the securing of required legal permits and fundraising. For Day of the Dead, they even chartered a flight to Mictlán to extend personal invitations to key ancestors and submit a request for sacred visions from Mictlantecuhtli and Huitzilopochtli without the need for sacrificial cannibalism, which they reasoned would complicate the already controversial use of public space with too much illegality.

Others, including Privates Stan Padilla, Gina Montoya, and Juanishi Orosco, prepared a sweat lodge on Stan’s property in the Sierra Nevada Foothills—a place believed to house potent spiritual energy, as well as being the site of historical atrocities associated with the European discovery of gold and other minerals. The group gathered green willow branches, pine resin, and stones in preparation for the cleansing.

Día de los Muertos sacred scroll of the Royal Chicano Air Force. Excavated by the Con Sapos team at Southside Park cenote.

The following narratives describing the first ceremonies held in Sacramento were recently excavated from the Southside Park cenote by La Stef and local historian Miss Ella. A major find in the field of RCAF scholarship, three of the four sacred scrolls were found encased in wooden boxes with cut out holes for viewing. Read from top to bottom by turning the handles, it is not unlike watching film in a prehistoric television set. Indeed, it has been confirmed that these Ancient RCAF Documentaries are the missing link between the ancient scroll book form and contemporary film media, proving that they are indeed the precursor to movies and television. Thus, it can be concluded that these dominant forms of art and entertainment have originated entirely in the Americas.

There was no physical record found of the Fiesta de Jaguares, a ceremony said to have been developed by danza azteca leader Chuy Ortiz to honor and establish a rite of passage for young men.

While a fourth box was found in pieces, the scroll pertaining to Fiesta de Tonantzín was missing.

Día de los Muertos scroll. (click to enlarge)

[Translation of First Scroll: Dia De Los Muertos/Day Of The Dead]

As read from left column to right, up and down:

1. The First Dia de los Muertos.

2. Pilot’s hold council in Stan [Padilla]’s sweat lodge.

3. Las Guadalupanas receive visions from Mictlán / and begin to organize.

4. Senior Airman Rudy Cuellar pilots a special / mission to retrieve pyramid and coffin.

5. Chuy’s danzantes lead procession down 64th / to the cemetery,

6. carrying the (almost) interred Elvia Nava.

7. The neighbors complain.

8. Finally, they arrive at the cemetery.

9. They offer blessing at the four directions. / In reverse.

10. Las Mujeres perform an interpretive ‘Birth Dance.’

Fiesta de Maiz scroll. (click to enlarge)

[Translation of First Scroll: Fiesta De Maiz/Corn Festival]

As read from left column to right, up and down:

1. The First Fiesta de Maiz

2. Held on the summer solstice / with the sun at its zenith

3. in Southside Park

4. where / a few / months / prior / . . .

5. a visiting Tibetan monk / discovered a crystal bed

6. beneath the pond / that was really a cenote

7. that had a vein that ran / from SacrAztlán all the way to Hopi.

8. When the elders arrived / they burned copal.

9. They blessed the dancers / who began to dance.

10. They / danced / . . .

11. and / they / danced

12. until some out-of-town performers / passed out.

13. Maria de Maíz appeared / atop a pyramid.

14. Xilonens – dressed in white – / enter the sacred circle.

15. They receive the blessings and the palabra.

16. They had prepared all year for this.


Echoes of Magón

by Rubén Martínez

From Boom Winter 2012, Vol. 2, No. 4

The march between two cities

I grew up in Los Angeles, but my family’s far-flung roots instilled in me the idea that I had the birthright to live in more than one place at a time. My mother emigrated from El Salvador to California in the late 1950s. My father was born an Angeleno but spent his formative years bouncing between Los Angeles and Mexico City. As a child and as a young adult, I traveled on a north-south axis between Los Angeles, Mexico City, and San Salvador. At one point I told friends I was living in all three places, but of course that was untenable. After a while, I contented myself with shuttling between Mexico City and LA.

My father’s tales of his days in “el DF” (Distrito Federal, akin to District of Columbia) were enthralling to me when I was growing up. The family legend is that he, an adolescent at the time, walked wild enough on the streets to get kicked out of school. My father lived with his parents in an apartment in the heart of Colonia Roma, a much-storied bohemian district with classy Belle Époque and Deco architecture. It has proven captivating to generations of expats, including William Burroughs and several of his Beat friends, who lived there at precisely the same time my family did. I like to imagine my father, a tall, pudgy kid with slicked back hair, strolling down Álvaro Obregón, the neighborhood’s main drag, rowdy with his friends, while Burroughs and Kerouac floated by, high and drunk.

Stirred on by these romantic notions and my own adventures in the city, el DF and I have had quite the affair over nearly three decades. There have been some long separations (the longest lasted nearly seven years), but right now we’re close—as is the relationship between my two cities, whose histories have been intricately braided over the last century. Migration has made LA a palpably Mexican place that gazes southward, while el DF has been avidly following northern popular trends for generations. They certainly share some difficulties: chronic traffic congestion, pollution, a transportation infrastructure that fails to make their far-flung geographies easily navigable. The differences are complementary, too. Los Angeles gives Mexico City, a place that can feel yoked by history, a sense of the future through an eternal pop present. And el DF provides LA, the pastless paradise, historical depth. Migration is movement through time and space, a perpetual becoming that is both a fleeing from and reverence for the past, and it’s a force that transforms the point of origin as much as of arrival.


There is also a fluid communication in art and youth styles. A year ago, our friends José Luis Paredes Pacho and his partner Graciela Kasep took my family to see ¿Neomexicanismos? at the Museo de Arte Moderno, where Graciela is a curator. The exhibit featured several artists who had worked and lived between LA and el DF; it included multimedia artist Rubén Ortíz-Torres and “performancero” Guillermo Gómez-Peña, both of whom happen to be chilangos (Mexico City natives) who became obsessed with Chicano culture in Los Angeles even as Chicanos, like me, were heading in droves to Mexico City, climbing the Pyramid of the Sun to authenticate our identities. The exhibit underscored that Mexican identity increasingly has been shaped not in the center but on the periphery—that is, not in Mexico City, but on the border that Mexico shares with the United States and beyond it, “México de afuera” (as Douglas Monroy and other scholars call it), “Mexico outside,” a vertiginous dialectic of movement and constant hybridizing.


The roots of the process go back decades. In the 1940s, Mexican American youth imitated and transformed American gangster styles, becoming “pachucos” (later “cholos”), who soon enough appeared in the border towns and, through reverse migrant currents, wound up on the streets of el DF, which is Mexico’s own Hollywood producer of its celluloid imagination. It was only a matter of time before icons of Mexican cinema, like Tin Tan, were popularizing “pocho” (bilingual) slang—a representation that would eventually make its way back across the border to flash on the screens of the Mexican theaters of LA.

The crises and opportunities of the global moment we live in reverberate loudly both north and south. Needless to say, the drug war profoundly unites my cities, sometimes in rather surreal fashion. Although in LA I can walk into a dispensary and be presented with a menu of designer marijuana, I know that much of the immigrant population in the immediate vicinity is traumatized by the violence across the border that results from, among other things, the massive, repressive, and corrupt machinery of prohibition. On the other hand, I’ve witnessed the politics of hope in both places. A little over half a year after I toured Solidarity Park, Occupy LA’s encampment on the steps of City Hall, I stood beneath the great arches of the “Monumento de la Revolución” in el DF as students pitched tents and began holding nightly general assemblies, all part of the burgeoning #YoSoy132 student movement. Of course, LA and el DF belong to a much greater uprising—from Tahrir Square and the indignados of Spain to the students of Chile —that echoes other, as we say in Spanish, “coyunturas” (there is no perfect translation: “juncture,” or “moment,” but a critical, maybe even historic one). The year 1968 certainly comes to mind, which just happens to be well represented by an iconic image from Mexico City’s past—Tommie Smith and John Carlos of the American Olympic team raising their fists in a Black Power salute at the Estadio Olímpico Universitario, not far from the birthplace of #YoSoy132. But lately I’ve been imagining another political palimpsest, which connects the LA and DF of exactly 100 years ago, through the story of Mexican revolutionary Ricardo Flores Magón.


The barest outline of Magón’s story is part of institutional revolutionary memory in Mexico. Because his agitation in Mexico City predated the uprising of 1910 by several years, he is known as the “Precursor” of the Revolution. There is a boulevard named after him and a prominent grave in the Rotunda de Personas Ilustres. But even though he spent the better part of two decades in LA, there are no statues or streets bearing his likeness or name in my hometown, whose media and political elites perfected the erasure of radical history in the twentieth century. Magón’s legend in Los Angeles lives on largely in Chicano Studies and anarchist circles, where his figure wields powerful influence. You can hear Magón’s ideas in Rage Against the Machine songs, see his visage on murals in East LA, and his titles sell briskly at the annual Anarchist Bookfair.


Born in a largely indigenous community in Oaxaca in 1874, Magón moved to Mexico City to study and first marched against dictator Porfirio Díaz when he was just seventeen years old. He started up his own newspaper, Regeneración, intially a liberal journal that called for democratic reforms. Díaz’s forces arrested him repeatedly, and it became apparent that each term at the infamous rat and spider-infested Belem Prison only served to further radicalize him. The regime decided that it would abide no more impudence and banned Ricardo and his brother Enrique, who had joined the cause, from publishing anything at all, ever. This display of brute power shoved the Magón brothers and several of their sympathizers into exile and ultimately to Los Angeles.

Poster design by Jesus Barraza.

It is no coincidence that Ricardo Flores Magón wound up in the City of Angels. Even though it is over 100 miles from the US-Mexico line, during the revolution it essentially qualified as a border town, receiving hundreds of thousands of refugees, more than any other place in the American Southwest. This massive influx laid the foundation for what would become the most important and mythologized Mexican barrio in American history: East LA. There is an ideological symmetry to Magón’s arrival, as well. In the early 1900s, the city was a hotbed of radical organizing, notwithstanding its open shop reputation and the reactionary screeds of the Los Angeles Times. Emma Goldman spent several months in the city giving speeches, and socialist visionary Job Harriman nearly won the mayor’s office in 1913, eventually founding the Llano del Rio commune in the Mojave Desert, which Mike Davis famously proclaimed an “alternative future” in the opening pages of his classic City of Quartz.


In Los Angeles, Magón promptly set up shop a few blocks from the Old Plaza, where radical agitators exhorted the masses from soap boxes. He continued publishing Regeneración, including sections in English and Italian, which he smuggled back into Mexico and also distributed it on this side of the border. It is here that his definitive ideological identity is forged: now he turned to anarchism, and his dream was of revolution not just in Mexico, but across all borders. In “Manifesto to the Workers of the World,” published in 1911, he called upon the “comrades of the entire world” to “break the dorsal spine of tyranny, which is capitalism and authoritarianism.” The revolution was at hand, Magón wrote, a “universal cataclysm which will soon break upon the scene all over the planet.”

When Occupy LA was born in the late fall of 2011, Ricardo Flores Magón’s ghost hovered over the encampment. A young activist unfurled a large banner stenciled with his signature slogan “Tierra y Libertad”—Land and Liberty, which was soon taken up in Mexico by Emiliano Zapata. And the “commune” of Occupy tents recalled Magón’s own experiment in sustainable living. In between arrests and prison terms, in the LA neighborhood of Edendale, he and his closest collaborators ate what they sowed, sold surplus at market, and enacted equitable gender roles.


Six months after Occupy LA was evicted, my wife and I, along with our twin daughters, marched alongside the students of #YoSoy132 on the streets of Mexico City, and we saw Magón’s bespectacled face undulating on another banner. A century after his death, Magón continues his peripatetic march between my two cities.

For his trans-border political activities, Magón gained the enmity of Harrison Gray Otis, the conservative publisher of the Los Angeles Times (rather the Rupert Murdoch of his day, he counted among his vast holdings upwards of a million acres of land in Baja California) and the LAPD, which arrested him several times, each conviction leading to a longer prison sentence. He died at the federal penitentiary in Leavenworth, Kansas, in 1924, and his body returned to Mexico City in a cortège that was received by tens of thousands of mourners.

My two cities are intimately bound together, but traveling between them is no easy thing. There is the matter of immigration policy and border walls and the drug war and the generalized wave of crime in Mexico. Communes in both places still meet the same fate as all anarchist experiments under capitalism: they are violently dismantled by the state, or they disintegrate from within, often because of state infiltration.

Am I bequeathing my daughters a quixotic passion that they’ll rebel against or embrace, only to have their generation’s dream of a continental commune crushed?

I know how Magón would have answered that question.


The Last Gun of Tiburcio Vasquez

by Georgia Jeffries

From Boom Fall 2012, Vol. 2, No. 3

Whose California?

The ancient rifle of a long-dead Californian arrived without warning. Unsolicited. Uninvited. A surprise bequest from an elder cousin who earned his master’s in history from Claremont College and took pride in his role as the family archivist. The weapon, empty of shells and unexpectedly elegant, is sequestered in our upstairs closet. To protect the oak stock and copper case, it came cradled in soft white bunting, which we have unwrapped only a handful of times. A shrouded ghost, it stands in a dark corner behind winter coats and a faded bridesmaid dress as one year, then another, flows by.

Five years now since it arrived. A sobering time for family and neighbors faced with the ills of our state’s recession. Almost 136 years have passed since the gun killed game or human beings. No longer used for the reason it was created, the gun still serves a purpose. Like all trophies collected after armed struggle, it is a symbol. A symbol of danger contained, loss justified, greater crisis averted. And like all sacred relics saved by the generations that came before, it comes with a story.

This handsome Henry rifle, one of thousands of repeating firearms first manufactured during the Civil War, was taken from Tiburcio Vasquez after his capture by Los Angeles Sheriff William Rowland on 14 May 1874. A public servant eyeing his odds for reelection, Rowland presented the rifle as a “token of friendship” to Judge Stephen C. Hubbell, one of the leading citizens of the anglicized El Pueblo de Nuestra Senora de los Angeles who had urged authorities to put a stop to the robber’s raids on new settlers’ ranches. After two infamous decades robbing banks and rustling horses in the northern part of the state, Vasquez had traveled south. Many feared he would target downtown Los Angeles next.

Judge Hubbell, my husband’s great-grandfather, was an Ohio native who came west to prosper, serve society, and raise a family. All historical accounts indicate he fulfilled his dream. A cofounder of the University of Southern California, he was elected the school’s first treasurer. Also a respected philanthropist, he donated a substantial portion of his land, Westlake Park, to city fathers (who would later rename it MacArthur Park in honor of the World War II general). He was a generous man, once his property was secured and no longer under threat by a notorious, lawless “Mexican,” as Vasquez was called in the press coverage of the time.1


Along with the rifle, we received original front-page clippings from the 29 December 1889 edition of the Los Angeles Times. Dry and amber with age, “The Robber Vasquez” headlined columns had been pasted with care on sturdy cardboard. The article profiled eyewitness “reminiscences” of San Francisco Chronicle correspondent George Beers, who accompanied Rowland’s posse on its historic adventure. Beers interviewed Vasquez, only thirty-nine, shortly before his death in San Jose on 14 March 1875. Convicted of murdering three unarmed men while his band robbed a general store in Tres Pinos, he had been sentenced by a jury of norteamericanos to hang on the gallows. (Accounts differ as to whether Vasquez or members of his gang bear responsibility for the actual killing. He admitted the robbery, but denied committing murder on that occasion or at any other time during his twenty-three-year outlaw career.)2

“I had a good opportunity to study his character,” Beers reported. “A remarkable man … his original boyish idea was that he could incite a revolution among the Spanish-speaking population and recover Southern California from the United States… .”

Truth? Romantic revisionism from the lips of a man about to die? A blending of both? When I look at Vasquez’s rifle, preserved by Anglos he once terrified, I consider Faulkner’s admonition: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”3 And I wonder what the bandido would think of his beloved homeland now.

A net of despair

Outsiders, outcasts, and outlaws have always been the real creators of the California dream. When there is less to lose, it is often easier to make the risky move. Like our ancestors, contemporary residents will need courage to transform a less than happy present into a better tomorrow. They will also need a bold vision, one that trades the historical glory of rugged western individualism for pragmatic commitment to the larger common good.

The despair that has always danced among the have-nots in the hills and valleys of California is expanding its dark net. Since 2005 more people have left California than have arrived from the rest of the country.4 And for good reason. The state of our state is foreboding.

According to the Los Angeles Times, six million Californians, 16.3 percent of residents, already live in poverty, and many more are perilously close.5 Twenty percent of the population has no health insurance, and extreme cuts to Medi-Cal are planned.6 Over 2.2 million are unemployed.7 In 2010 the state’s median household income fell 4.6 percent, the largest decline in a single year since record keeping began. According to a recent poll by the Public Policy Institute of California, nearly half of California adults now consider themselves among the have-nots.8 These figures are even more alarming because, as the pundits often note, ours is a bellwether state. As California goes, so goes the nation.


This is not what my parents would have predicted when they left Illinois to take an intercontinental gamble on the long road west in the sixties. Everybody was making the trek and making good, according to a dreamy Technicolor cover story in the LOOK magazine prominently displayed on the mahogany coffee table—a table that, as it happened, did not make the cut when our small U-Haul was packed to the ceiling with heirlooms, china, and three toys from my childhood bedroom. (Only three, my mother insisted.) The rest were sold at our suburban front yard auction along with sofas, chairs, an antique rolltop desk, patio furniture, and assorted tools. Like the pioneers who had gone before, my parents thought it wise to lighten the load. Our family was moving to the Golden State to better ourselves.

Better, that was the word. So powerful it serves as both verb and adjective. Better climate, better health, better job for my father, and better educational opportunities for me at the University of California in the years to come. No one leaves ancestral foundations to fall backward. But for many who arrived during the great California migrations of the last half-century, that “better” life has become a nightmare of diminishing returns.

Not everyone is suffering, of course. Multimillionaires formerly of Silicon Valley have reinvented themselves in the hot, new tech Valhalla of San Francisco, and bling-obsessed, reality-programmed “real housewives” are cropping up south of Beverly Hills in the McMansions of Orange County. What has gone missing in the last decades is the California middle class. Granted, there were many gradations in this vast middle—“almost” lower-middle, “about to be” middle-middle, “not quite yet” upper-middle—but there was only one acceptable direction on the ladder of prosperity: up. Hard-working, law-abiding, tax-paying folks could rely on collecting their just rewards in a rosy and very near future. Every few years, a new car, a new house and—yes!—a better job with a bigger salary and more benefits. That way of life went down the drain with five-figure entry-level first homes and tuition-free education for in-state residents at the best state college and public university systems in the country. (UC’s annual undergraduate tuition is expected to rise to $22,068 within the next four years.)9

Aristotle argued that true virtue lies in the median between extremes.10 Within that virtue blooms happiness. The great philosopher was no economist, but the principle holds: how can happiness exist without a certain level of balance and stability? Certainly, the California middle class loomed as the ideal for generations of immigrants from Dust Bowl Okies to post-World War II aerospace factory workers to displaced Vietnamese, Armenians, and Afghans seeking political asylum. Getting rich might be nice, but a solid middle-class niche, affordable mortgage, and college-educated children embodied the sweet smell of success. Eden has been lost. Again.

On 17 June 2011, the Pasadena Star-News reported that a group of homeowners, at risk of foreclosure, appealed to Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca for help.11 Representatives of the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment called for Baca to place a moratorium on foreclosure evictions. Unfortunately, the sheriff was out of town, and there were no later news reports that he might mount a posse on behalf of the frightened citizenry desperate to protect their property from forces they could not fight alone.

On New Year’s Day in Pasadena a few years ago, before the real estate market tanked and gave our state the dubious distinction of leading the nation in foreclosures,12 I was walking home among a large crowd of Rose Parade revelers after the last marching band headed north on Sierra Madre Boulevard. The air was clear and crisp, the view of the San Gabriels spectacular. A glorious January morning flooded with California sunshine and the fragrance of fresh blossoms. This is what our ancestors had traveled thousands of hard miles to enjoy. That’s when I overheard two women talking behind me. One was complaining to the other: “We finally get California back and then the Chinese come in and take it away from us. Who do they think they are?” As I turned the corner, I noticed the ladies were Latina. And I was pretty sure they were talking about the influx of Asian families moving into San Marino, Monterey Park, and other parts of the San Gabriel Valley.

Who do they think they are?

Well, “they”—whoever “they” are—assume they are entitled to carve out as large a wedge of the California pie as they can beg, borrow, buy—or steal—for themselves. Vasquez’s ancestors were immigrants too, loyal soldiers of the Spanish crown who occupied the fertile valleys that belonged to the original indigenous Californians, Tongas and Chumash, here long before European interlopers descended. Victorious conquistadores and pious mission priests made no apologies for taking what they wanted. They determined their needs came before other lesser beings, and after all, there was enough. Surely there would always be enough for the people that mattered.

The villains change. So do the innocent. The story does not. Bandidos or banks. Latinos or Asians. White or Black. Somebody somewhere is trying to take what we have … what we can no longer afford … what we cannot save because the forces we battle are too large and we are too small.

Or are we?

Anger—and the fear that fuels it—can do more than close ranks. It can also activate change and broaden the playing field. Witness the power of unified rage within the Occupy movement. Occupy Oakland. Occupy Los Angeles. Occupy the 2012 Pasadena Rose Parade? Yes, yes, and yes. To paraphrase Paddy Chayefsky’s furious prophet of the airwaves in the Hollywood film Network, some Californians are mad as hell about the state’s inequities and refusing to take it anymore. Between 1987 and 2009 more than one-third of California’s income gain went to the top 1 percent wage earners. Some of those remaining 99 percent are no longer simply festering in their discontent. They are organizing, protesting, “occupying” public property, demanding equal justice, and launching Facebook campaigns to challenge the abuses of corporate power.

A young California woman living in Echo Park, indignant about Bank of America’s announced plan to charge a five-dollar monthly debit card fee, spearheaded a national campaign to encourage people to move their money from large US banks to local nonprofit credit unions. Not only did thousands of depositors follow her lead, Bank of America abandoned their proposed fee hike a month later.13 The message? If you can’t beat the 1 percent bastards, join with like-minded instigators and call a new ball game.

Novelist James Cain, the East Coast transplant who became a master of California literary noir, once predicted that the “vaulting ambitions” of the Golden State would surely generate interesting social progress. “Streams are meeting here that ought to churn up some exciting whirlpools.”14 Indeed.

Riding out of the rocky hinterlands at the helm of a guerilla band of outlaws, Tiburcio Vasquez left a legacy that eclipsed his earthly crimes. A hero of resistance to his admirers, a thieving killer to his enemies, there is no question he made his mark on a land still divided today by discrimination, language, color, and class. Even the state map acknowledges his presence: Vasquez Rocks, a region in northern Los Angeles County where his gang used to hide out, is now a park named in his honor.


In 1939 Judge Hubbell’s daughter loaned the Vasquez rifle to her new son-in-law, Fred Runyon, a young publisher who wanted to display the historic firearm in the windows of his Pasadena Independent newspaper offices to impress readers. Sure enough, the bandit was still a headliner sixty-five years after his hanging. And yet, despite a notoriety that has stretched across three centuries, the man is long gone. It is the place that inspired his passion which endures. Ultimately, all of us who call ourselves Californians are merely visitors. Only the land, this vast earthquake-veined land of disastrous faults and breathtaking beauty, is eternal. The land …

… and the hope that one day there will again be enough.


1. George Beers, “The Robber Vasquez,” Los Angeles Times, 29 December 1889.

2. John Boessenecker, Bandido: The Life and Times of Tiburcio Vasquez (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2010).

3. William Faulkner, Requiem for a Nun, Act I, Scene III.

4. Gale Holland and Sam Quiones, “Waving California Good-bye,” Los Angeles Times, 27 November 2011.

5. Alana Semuels and Duke Helfand, “6 Million in State Live in Poverty,” Los Angeles Times, 14 September 2011.

6. Noam Levy, “State’s Ills May Weaken Health Reform,” Los Angeles Times, 15 September 2011.

7. Alana Semuels, “Jobless Rate Hits 12.1% in California,” Los Angeles Times, 17 September 2011.

8. George Skeleton, “Lumps of Coal All Around,” Los Angeles Times, 19 December 2011.

9. Larry Gordon, “UC Tuition May Rise to 16% a Year,” Los Angeles Times, 15 September 2011.

10. Aristotle, Nichomean Ethics.

11. Erick Galindo, “Group Seeks Foreclosure Justice,” Pasadena Star-News, 17 June 2011.

12. Alejandro Lazo, “Housing Defaults Up In August,” Los Angeles Times, 15 September 2011.

13. Stuart Pfeifer and E. Scott Reckard “Interest Grows in Bank Transfer Day,” Los Angeles Times, 5 November 2011.

14. James M. Cain, “Paradise,” American Mercury, March 1933.


The People’s Sidewalks

by Bess Williamson

From Boom Spring 2012, Vol. 2, No. 1

Designing Berkeley’s Wheelchair Route, 1970-1974

A story of Disability Rights, although rarely included in accounts of the Sixties in Berkeley, runs alongside the history of protest against University of California policies, the War in Vietnam and the establishment in general. During these tumultuous years, a community of mostly young disabled persons, many of them students or graduates of the University, left a mark not only on the politics of the city, but the physical landscape as well. From 1970 to 1974, the City built the first planned, wheelchair-accessible route in the United States. These sloping curbs—varying in design over time—created the physical foundation for one of the largest and most active communities of disabled people in America.

Cover of The Independent showing Berkeley’s “Wheelchair Route” designers: from right, Hale Zukas; his attendant and collaborator Eric Dibner; community organizer Kitty Cone; and an unidentified helper. COURTESY OF THE CENTER FOR INDEPENDENT LIVING.

Berkeley was host to a growing populace with disabilities in the 1960s, including people with significant paralysis due to spinal cord injuries, cerebral palsy, and polio. This community centered around a small group of students who lived in a special dormitory within Cowell Hospital, the only building on the University campus that could accommodate wheelchair users. In an era before government requirements for “accessible” design, these students made their own ways through the hilly terrain of campus and city. They rumbled through town on hefty, rudimentary motorized wheelchairs, wheeling in the street or relying on friends to drag them up steps and over curbs.

For these young people, the rebellious spirit of Berkeley in the Sixties was infectious. The Cowell residents banded together, lobbying for greater accessibility on campus, more housing options and their own wheelchair repair shop. By the end of the decade, recalled one student, “everything began happening at once.” The campus was charged with political spirit as protesters clashed with authorities on campus and in the city. In this historical moment, Berkeley’s disabled community sought a space for themselves in the broader cityscape.

Center for Independent Living director Phil Draper at the corner of Telegraph Avenue and Blake Street in 1984, Going Where You Wheel on Telegraph Avenue (op. cit.).

The first move to build curb cuts on Berkeley sidewalks came out of a coincidence of 1960s politics. In 1969, Berkeley erupted in riots over the University’s plans to build on an untended lot near campus that functioned as a “People’s Park.” After riots that brought the National Guard to town, the City renovated the Telegraph Avenue business district, widening sidewalks in a gesture towards local street life. In keeping with a brand new building code, these renovations included wide, flat curb “ramps” positioned at the corner of the sidewalk.

Curb cut diagrams by Yoshiaki Imafuku, in Going Where You Wheel on Telegraph Avenue (Berkeley, CA: Center for Independent Living, 1984).

While Berkeley’s wheelchair users greeted the new cuts with pleasure, they also noted concerns about accommodating a range of disabled persons. The wide, flat curve where the sidewalk flattened into the street caused problems for blind pedestrians who relied on a sharp curb to detect the edge of the sidewalk. Even for wheelchair users, the cuts’ diagonal position caused a conflict with turning cars. A visiting Japanese student, himself a wheelchair user, sketched the pros and cons of various curb cut designs, showing how the curb cut that angles into the street can push wheelchair users into traffic.

For a second round of curb renovations, the disabled community of Berkeley took an active design role, mapping more than 100 sites for cuts along Telegraph south of campus, and along Shattuck Avenue in downtown Berkeley. They also offered a new design: a steep, sharp cut set outside of the main pedestrian intersection. These new cuts were steep for wheelchair users, but represented a compromise for a range of pedestrian needs—foreshadowing the “universal” ideal of later planning and design projects.

Berkeley’s Wheelchair Route, drafted by Ruth Grimes. Dots indicate the location of 125 new curb cuts. Map from City of Berkeley, Resolution No. 45,605-N.S. (February 13, 1973).

The early changes on Telegraph and the surrounding area were the first in a series of design projects to accommodate Berkeley’s large disabled population. Since the 1970s, Telegraph has been renovated and resurfaced many times over. In place of the original flat “ramps” are curbs with textured concrete slabs to identify the change in surface for the blind, often marked with bright yellow inserts with bumps. Designed decades before recent projects such as the Ed Roberts Campus (see article by David Serlin), these curb cuts were low-profile, but nonetheless important elements of an accessible city.

Raised curb cuts at Telegraph and Dwight avenues, 2011. PHOTO BY AUTHOR.


Hayakawa Among the Conservatives

by Gerald Haslam

From Boom Winter 2011, Vol. 1, No. 4

Stranger in a strange land

When the famed author, editor, and lecturer Dr. S.I. “Don” Hayakawa, joined the faculty at San Francisco State College in 1955, his presence seemed to elevate the college’s reputation. It also led to a series of events that would make Hayakawa arguably not only America’s best-known citizen of Japanese ancestry but also, according to journalist Ed Salzman, “The only folk hero to have emerged from American higher education.” My own acquaintance with Hayakawa stretched over decades, in a relationship that never quite revealed who or even what he was, other than controversial.

The professor, a Canadian native who had only recently become a citizen of the United States, much impressed his colleague Manfred Wolf, who wrote: “It was fitting that after years in the Midwest he should have come to perform on the brighter, brasher stage of California.”

Hayakawa’s unusual academic specialty, general semantics, stimulated considerable buzz in the Bay Area, and his evening course in the subject enrolled an overflow 300 students. General semantics had been formulated by Count Alfred Korzybski as “an integrated science of man” through the understanding of symbols and their use in human affairs.

By 1973, Hayakawa was an ex-president of San Francisco State University contemplating a political run. COURTESY OF HAYAKAWA FAMILY ARCHIVE

There was far more to Hayakawa than “GS.” Over the years he had been a poet, a columnist, an editor, a jazz maven, and even a fencing coach. Most of all, he and his talented wife, Margedant Peters, had been noted liberals, quick to embrace causes and eloquent in defending them, whether endorsing co-ops and racial equality or attacking anti-Semitism and price gouging, they seemed to be exemplars of progressive politics.

But Don Hayakawa, who had not been confined, was also a sometimes apologist for the World War II internment and relocation of Japanese Canadians and Japanese Americans. “Whatever the heartbreaks and losses created by the wartime relocation, there were unforeseen benefits… . almost all Nisei and many Issei were thrown out of their ghettoized Japan-town existence into the mainstream of American life… . “1 That position, and the frequency with which he repeated it, troubled many.

The “brighter, brasher” stage of California turned out not to have as much room for general semantics as originally seemed possible. As a result, Hayakawa’s dream of a “GS” major at San Francisco State was frustrated due to the opposition of colleagues. By 1966, when an editor of San Francisco State’s student newspaper wrote a column making fun of efforts of SFSC’s professors to organize a union, Hayakawa, who was then teaching only part-time, wrote him a note saying, in part, “Basically, I agree with you … . there are a lot of lazy, oververbalized bores in any college faculty, including our own—people unfit for any other work but drinking coffee and chewing the fat with their juniors.” He, of course, refused to join the union, and some colleagues wondered if he was festering over earlier rebuffs.

Sensator SIH and President Reagan at the White House in 1981. COURTESY OF HAYAKAWA FAMILY ARCHIVE

As student dissent began to crest in 1968, Hayakawa helped form a campus group called Faculty Renaissance that urged resistance to student demands. He contacted Chancellor Glenn Dumke then and, as a result of events that have never been fully explained,2 Hayakawa was offered an appointment as acting president of San Francisco State. Conservative Governor Ronald Reagan reportedly said, “If he’ll take the job we’ll forgive him for Pearl Harbor.” It was a statement that would not have surprised Hayakawa, who felt Reagan had great political instincts but was often poorly informed. He took the job, and on December 2 of that year, Hayakawa (and his signature plaid Tam’-o’-Shanter) became symbols of resistance to student rebellion when he ripped out speaker wires on a sound truck and stopped an illegal demonstration—or denied First Amendment rights—or both. Many faculty opposed his actions, but the public, sick of academics capitulating to rude students, embraced him as the only college administrator with guts.3 Meanwhile, many in the general public also asked for the first time, who is this guy?

Samuel Ichiyé Hayakawa was born to immigrant Japanese parents in Vancouver, B.C., Canada, on July 18, 1906. When he and his younger brother were in their teens, their parents returned to Japan, leaving the boys in Canada.4 Samuel eventually graduated from the University of Manitoba in 1927, earned an M.A. from McGill University in 1928, and completed a Ph.D. at the University of Wisconsin in 1935.

In that time of anti-Japanese sentiment,5 he could not find a tenure-track college teaching job, frequently losing out to white candidates who had no doctorates. He didn’t bother to complain, but dug in and by 1938 had published enough to be considered a solid literary scholar and a promising poet. The young Canadian, then an instructor at the University of Wisconsin Extension, read Stuart Chase’s book The Tyranny of Words and was enthralled. He then read Chase’s inspiration, Alfred Korzybski’s Science and Sanity, and decided to study general semantics with its developer, setting in motion events that would lead him to fame, to fortune, and finally to frustration.

Left to right: Otoko Hayakawa, Marge and Alan Hayakawa, Great-Grandmother Hayakawa, SIH; Marge, Alan and Don visit Don’s family in Kusakabe, in Yamanashi City, Japan, 1953. COURTESY OF HAYAKAWA FAMILY ARCHIVE

In 1941, only days before the Pearl Harbor attack, his own book on general semantics, Language in Action, was a Book-of-the-Month Club selection and became a best seller. He embraced the sudden notoriety and would no longer be considered a literary scholar or a poet; he was a “famed semanticist.” What he couldn’t know is that GS would never penetrate the academic mainstream and neither would he, despite enjoying a degree of celebrity.

During World War II, while Japanese Americans on the West Coast were being interned and relocated, he was on the faculty at Illinois Tech in Chicago, where he and his wife remained prominent on the cultural scene. In the 1940s he became a popular lecturer nationally, the editor of a quarterly journal, ETC.: A Review of General Semantics, and a columnist for the Chicago Defender; his wife was a major figure on the co-op scene and an editor at Poetry magazine, as well as the mother of three young children.

By the 1950s, though, all was not well. S.I. Hayakawa had resigned his tenured position at Illinois Tech and was unhappy teaching only part-time for the University of Chicago evening division. Then his wife discovered that he was involved romantically with one of her associates at Poetry. Hayakawa had a standing offer of a professorship at San Francisco State College, where he had taught summer classes. Despite reservations about California’s anti-Asian history, and with his marriage on the line, he relocated to SFSC in 1955.

Six years later, my new bride and I drove to San Francisco State College from the Central Valley where I’d been working as a roughneck on a drilling rig. We hoped to begin a life that would offer more choices than the oilfields did. I met the famous professor in 1963 as a first-semester graduate student enrolled in his seminar on general semantics, a course based on a reading of the daunting Science and Sanity, which we discussed in detail. The professor listened intently to students, and then his comments revealed what seemed to me to be an extraordinarily broad base of knowledge.

In 1966, the strike erupted at SFSC. Hayakawa had favored some of the reforms demanded by students, such as the development of an Ethnic Studies program, but he opposed the tactics of strikers and their demand for total autonomy. Many of his colleagues, in turn, opposed Hayakawa’s efforts, and each felt betrayed by the other. When the smoke finally cleared after 167 days, the immediate winner in the strike settlement was Hayakawa, whose great popularity among the general public—not merely conservatives—opened doors. But the tide of history was on the side of the young; eventually they would be the establishment, and many of their best ideas would be implemented while they outgrew others.

Senator S. I. Hayakawa with the Cambodian refuge kids at the holding center for Kampucheans in Thailand, in 1980. COURTESY OF HAYAKAWA FAMILY ARCHIVE

Hayakawa was for a time rudderless, due to rejection by his old liberal and progressive allies, but he had to decide how to use his popularity. Earlier in his life he had considered politics, and by 1973 his ambitions matured. When his aide Gene Prat asked Hayakawa what he hoped to accomplish in office, he replied, “To be a statesman.” To accomplish that, he switched parties, becoming a Republican in 1975, and the next year ran for the United States Senate against Democratic incumbent John Tunney, even though he still held some of the liberal positions that had once led him to be called a “pinko.”6

In what seemed to be his greatest triumph, he won the Senate seat. During the years that followed I sent him letters complaining about this vote or that, and at first he replied, but finally I no longer heard from him—although I kept sending missives, because it seemed to me that he had become, politically at least, a mirror image of the man I had admired.

His largely conservative voting record in the Senate was deceptive. He at times seemed to be voting against liberals rather than for anything. Never really active in California’s amorphous New Right, he soon learned that lone wolves accomplish little in Congress, so he joined the luncheon caucus of the Senate’s New Right, with colleagues such as Jake Garn, Orrin Hatch, Paul Laxalt, and Jesse Helms. Still, he was not easy to categorize, since his positive votes on public funding for abortions and on returning the Panama Canal to Panama, as well as his insistence on the privacy of behavior between consenting adults, perplexed liberals and conservatives alike. A few journalists began to refer to him as a libertarian.

During his stint in Washington, an unacknowledged sleeping disorder undid his image. Friends had long noticed that he seemed to doze at unlikely times; I once saw him fall asleep mid-conversation. Johnny Carson soon picked up the sleeping-Senator theme. Carson, whose Tonight Show dominated late-night television, began joking about Don—”What would S.I. Hayakawa’s personalized auto license plate be?” “ZZZZZZ.” But Carson also offered the new Senator the opportunity to appear on the show in 1977. In addition to his skill as a speaker, Don was an engaging personality and on the national A-list of lecturers then. Members of his staff advised against an appearance on Carson’s show, a decision that would haunt them. One aide later explained to Hayakawa, “I think it was felt [by staff] that as a US Senator, it would not be appropriate for you to be going on ‘The Tonight Show’ as a guest.” As a result of that decision, many in the public came to know only the caricature.

When his Senate term ended, Don acknowledged that it was not considered successful. Asked what he’d be remembered for, he told Los Angeles Times reporter Cathleen Decker, “Sleeping, I guess.” An unlikely chain of events had brought Don Hayakawa the possibility of great success, and he had grasped it only to become its victim. This irony, of course, gave Hayakawa’s considerable list of enemies reason to rejoice and to mock him.

His post-Senate activity as spokesperson for US English and its campaign to declare English the national language resonated with a segment of the public. He perhaps exaggerated the need for a national language because he had seen his own immigrant mother trapped by a lack of English skill. Hayakawa’s more important work as special advisor for Secretary of State George Schultz, especially on MIAs in Southeast Asia, went largely unnoticed, subsumed under chuckles about “sleeping Sam.”

Nevertheless, Hayakawa never ceased promoting diversity and assimilation. As he once explained, “Who said being American—or Canadian—meant being white? Look at our vocabularies, look at our dining habits, our styles of dress, and increasingly our theological and philosophical concepts … look at our children and our grandchildren … those are by no means exclusively Anglo-Saxon.” He remained committed to a multiethnic American identity.

By the late-1980s, the ex-senator was a spokesman for U.S. English, an advocacy group. COURTESY OF HAYAKAWA FAMILY ARCHIVE

In the late 1980s, I received a phone call from him and, sounding as though we’d played poker just the night before, he said, “Gerry, would you and Jan like to join Marge and me for lunch next Wednesday? I have something I’d like to discuss with you.” I was surprised, but also intrigued, so we accepted, and enjoyed a “reunion” meal. He asked if I’d like to collaborate with him on a new edition of Language in Thought and Action, but I had to defer because I was at work on a book on the Central Valley. Nevertheless, that lunch reestablished our relationship.

In 1991, I was reading from a new collection of stories at The Depot Bookstore and Café in Mill Valley when I noticed the Hayakawas slip into the back of the room, Don pulling a portable oxygen tank. Following the festivities and with two of my old SFSC professors, Thurston Womack and John Dennis, who had been strikers at San Francisco State, I greeted Don and Marge. That led to an invitation to their nearby home for a drink, which we three accepted.

Once there, though, Womack was startled when Don, who was clearly failing, looked up and asked, “Who are you, again?” Thurston, once Hayakawa’s commute partner, identified himself, and then Don said, “Thurston, do you know I wasted six years of my life in the United States Senate?” That was the last time we three ever saw him.

S.I. “Don” Hayakawa was undone by a combination of his own limitations and by events beyond his control. He had a kind of hubris; his son Alan said S.I.H. could never understand why everyone didn’t agree with him if he was given a chance to explain his position. He also put all his eggs in the general semantics basket, and they ended up broken due to lack of acceptance in the academic mainstream. The success of his first book made him famous but limited his academic options, and his term in the Senate revealed flaws that bordered on caricature. Nevertheless, the sum of his accomplishments marks him as memorable; exactly how he’ll be remembered in the long run may depend on which version of his life one cares to believe.


1. Written in “‘Farewell to Manzanar: An unorthodox view of the World War II internment of Japanese-Americans,” TV Guide, 6 March 1976, 13.

2. Including the resignation of President Bob Smith.

3. Apparent capitulations at schools such as Columbia, UC Berkeley, SUNY, etc., were creating a negative image of administrators and faculty alike. Herb Wilner and Leo Litwak, both pro-strike professors at SFSC, acknowledged that “it was a revelation to discover that we were among the bad guys, damned by eighty percent of the public … .”

4. SIH’s father had offices in Japan and Canada. He kept a mistress in Japan, and his wife in Canada found out, so she took her two young daughters to Japan to confront him, leaving the boys (who were barely able to speak Japanese). The senior Hayakawas remained in Japan thereafter.

5. The 1930s were a period of growing anti-Japanese sentiment in the United States and Canada as Nippon became ever more aggressive: 1931—occupied Manchuria; 1933—withdrew from League of Nations; 1937—invaded China (Rape of Nanking followed); 1940—invaded French Indo-China.

6. Even two FOIA requests (one supported by the ACLU, the other by Representative Lynn Woolsey) could not force the US Department of Justice to open its files on Hayakawa. His kin, friends, and old neighbors reported that he had been called names, especially after he wrote a devastating critique of arch-conservative Superintendent of Schools Max Rafferty. He was also identified with Friends of KPFA, the co-op movement, and racial integration. This author personally heard him called “comsymp,” “parlor pink,” “pinko,” and other epithets in the late 1950s and 1960s.


Checking In

by Michael Ziser

From Boom Winter 2011, Vol. 1, No. 4

Karen Tei Yamashita’s I Hotel
Coffee House Press (Minneapolis, 2010)

Many members of this year’s multiethnic college-freshman class were born in 1993, the year before Newt Gingrich and John Boehner’s Contract with America, the blueprint for today’s interlinked and seemingly unstoppable abandonment of the public welfare investments of the New Deal, the civil rights achievements of the 1960s, and the sexual revolutions of the 1970s. Even the most precocious and politically aware of these students will likely date their political awakening to sometime during the second term of George W. Bush. They will not be able to vote in their first national election until 2012. When they arrive on campus, however, many will encounter syllabi in American culture and politics courses shaped by the culture wars of the 1980s and 1990s, that bitter era of reckoning with the new attitudes toward race, class, gender, and sexuality that bloomed with the coming-of-age of the Baby Boomers. What their older professors regard as existential questions about the validity and utility of the multicultural accommodation forged in those years, today’s freshmen are likely to view as a mystifying archive of arguments with few clear connections to their own historical context of national economic decline, global warfare, and the surveillance state. For them, the New Left might as well be the Wobblies.

Although few would suggest that the new generation should simply get with the Aquarian program, the loss of political and personal memory from one generation to another presents a serious challenge for the fragile American tradition of leftist political dissent, and the gap between the Boomers and Generation Z is one that must be carefully bridged in the few years left before the Boomers retire from public life. This is not a question of persuading freshmen to declare allegiance to the politics of Soul on Ice (Eldridge Cleaver), Sexual Politics (Kate Millet), or The Revolt of the Cockroach People (Oscar Zeta Acosta); rather, it is the more difficult task of freeing them from the flattened and narrowed representations of their parents’ politics as retailed in pop culture while encouraging them to imagine themselves as similarly empowered political agents.

So, despite the evident surplus of superficial and self-congratulatory Boomer memorials to their youthful radicalism, there is still a crucial place for writing that captures both the feel and the historicity of a politically open moment. Karen Tei Yamashita’s I Hotel, in a genre all its own somewhere between historical fiction and creative nonfiction, is an inventive attempt to re-present such an era in a way that is simultaneously heuristic and available to the imaginations of the young.

The historical core of the book comes out of Yamashita’s decade-long research into the rise of multicultural politics, particularly the Asian-American Movement, in the San Francisco Bay Area of the late 1960s and early 1970s, gathered out of various libraries, archives, geographies, and living memories. From that material, Yamashita has produced a sort of roman à clef of the major and minor figures responsible for the consolidation of Asian-American identity and political power from 1968 to 1977. Readers knowledgeable about the place and time will easily recognize many of the figures thinly disguised behind her pseudonymous and composite characters (Ling-chi Wang, Takeo Terada, Florence Hongo, Richard Aoki, Mo Nishida, S.I. Hayakawa, and dozens of others) as well as actual events (the student protests at San Francisco State, the demolition of the International Hotel, the occupation of Alcatraz, etc.). Those for whom this history is new will be drawn toward traditional historiography of the period (Erika Lee and Linda Yung’s Angel Island; Michael Liu, Kim Geron, and Tracy Lai’s The Snake Dance of Asian American Activism; and Estella Habal’s San Francisco’s International Hotel would make a great trio of background reading).

Reminiscent of her two previous historically-based works about Japanese diaspora communities in Brazil, Brazil-Maru (1993) and the Circle K Cycles (2001), I Hotel naturally lacks the zanier plot elements of Yamashita’s early magical-realist novels, Through the Arc of the Rainforest (1990) and Tropic of Orange (1997)—no mysterious plastic substances, trialectics, or portable latitude lines here! What I Hotel lacks in the fantastic, however, it more than recoups through its unorthodox form. Composed of ten independent but interlinked novellas, one for each year from 1968 to 1977, I Hotel tells its story through an astonishing variety of technical means, ranging from first-person narration to screenplay to graphic novel (the last achieved with the aid of illustrators Leland Wong and Sina Grace). The multitude of perspectives may preclude the deep psychological insights readers sometime expect from novels, but on the other hand it is not difficult to read I Hotel as a radical form of autobiography (Yamashita was born in Oakland) limning the rooming-house consciousness of the author herself.

Rather than try to locate a single dramatic narrative that condenses the entire experience of the time, as less venturesome novelists might, Yamashita opts to tell ten distinct but overlapping narratives, each involving three different main characters and each told from differing narrative points-of-view, with subchapters delivered in different styles ranging from first-person limited to teleplay script to surveillance file. Each section is primarily set in its given year, beginning with the 1968 tale of a Chinese young man, Paul Lin, whose father has died and left him to inherit the seemingly irreconcilable traditions of San Francisco’s Chinatown and the Bohemian intellectual and political scene coming to prominence in the 1960s. As it turns out—in both Yamashita’s narrative and in the history upon which it is based—the cultures of Portsmouth Square and Sproul Plaza are not so incommensurable after all. This Paul learns when he meets Chen Wen-guang, a Chinese ex-pat professor of Chinese literature at San Francisco State University (then State College). The professor serves as a connection between the young Paul and many of his fellow SCSF students (Edmund Lee and Judy Eng most prominently) and as a link to the radical politics of the 1940s. (After being expelled from the United States for his connections to Communism, Chen headed to China to fight alongside Zhou Enlai during the early Chinese revolution; in the 1960s he remains, despite small misgivings, committed to Maoism). His political experience makes him a natural mentor for students caught up in their own smaller moment of rebellion, and it opens Yamashita’s novel to the broad back-story of the Chinese diaspora in California and its complicated transnational status.

But Yamashita well understands that her story must embrace ideologies outside the Left and Asian-American ethnicities beyond the Chinese. In the first chapter, the complexity of the moment is expressed through the figure of S.I. Hayakawa, the semanticist and traditional Republican Japanese-Canadian-American president of San Francisco State. His crackdown on student protesters, including the infamous incident in which he literally pulled the plug on a student PA system, helped propel him to a single, troubled term in the United States Senate on a wave of the same antiradical and antistudent sentiment that made Ronald Reagan into a nationally recognized conservative leader. He too is a part of the story of Asian California, albeit ultimately a marginal one.

In later chapters, Yamashita goes on to explore the Japan-Town Collective, a radical San Francisco community organization, and the Third-World Liberation Front, a Berkeley student group advocating curricular changes in support of the world’s indigenous peoples. For 1970, we are thrown into the International Hotel of the title, an aging single-room occupancy hotel (at the edge of San Francisco’s old Manilatown and Chinatown) catering mainly to aged Filipino farmworkers and dockworkers. Slated for demolition by its Japanese conglomerate owner to make way for the construction of the massive highrises that now house the firms of the Financial District, it becomes a squat and an important mixing place for Yellow Power and Black Panther radicals. Later chapters range from a highly experimental meditation on the enmity between the twin origins of contemporary Asian American literature, Maxine Hong Kingston and Frank Chin; the connection between the organized Filipino Left and the budding Mexican farmworkers movement; the Native American occupation of Alcatraz; the advance guard of Vietnamese refugees; the Coit Tower murals painted by a Nisei Communist who was for a time the roommate of Paul Lin’s father; and an uproarious pig-roasting contest between Filipino and Pacific Islander cooks.

The novel ends with the forcible eviction of the International Hotel residents and activists and the leveling of the building itself. By this point, the symbolic significance of the hotel is clear: it serves as the crucible in which the many varied traditions of Asian immigrants were temporarily united in defense of the poorest among them. As one activist with a strong sense of the novelty of the “Asian-American” identity produced in that moment remarks: “Goes to show, you can weld anything to anything” (p. 480). Although there is a utopian moment of solidarity, when the I Hotel (wired up with microphones as part of the public protest) becomes a “gigantic organic voice-box of our own making,” Yamashita’s book is equally committed to presenting the shearing and centrifugal forces at work, the divisions and disagreements that remain part of the structure of any particular history and of any individual psyche that emerges from it (p. 580).

And in time we may remember, collecting every little memory, all the bits and pieces, into a larger memory, rebuilding a great layered and labyrinthine, now imagined, international hotel of many rooms, the urban experiment of a homeless community built to house the needs of temporary lives. And for what? To resist death and dementia. To haunt a disappearing landscape. To forever embed this geography with our visions and voices. To kiss the past and you good-bye, leaving the indelible spit of our DNA on still moist lips. Sweet. Sour. Salty. Bitter. (p. 605)

Here, as elsewhere in the novel, Yamashita manages to capture the combination of continuity and contingency in the making of cultural and political identities, offering dozens of historical rooms (taken, abandoned, and unclaimed) into which her readers, especially younger ones looking for a way to connect to the political past without being smothered by it, might check the unfinished fragments of their own lives.


Demise and Ascent

by Todd Holmes

From Boom Winter 2011, Vol. 1, No. 4

The career of Thomas Kuchel and the advent of the Reagan right

Thundering applause pierced the frigid Connecticut air on the evening of February 23, 1965, echoing from the brownstone gothic building that towered on the edge of Yale’s central campus. Inside, Senator Thomas Kuchel addressed a sea of navy blue blazers otherwise known as the Yale Political Union, discussing the state of the Republican Party and the “suicidal tragedy” he deemed Barry Goldwater’s 1964 presidential nomination. “Republicans lost because they did not keep faith with their basic principles,” the senator declared, taking pointed aim at the rising influence of the GOP’s far-right contingent. Characterizing the November election as a “repudiation of a party which … [had] forgotten its heritage,” Kuchel warned that the rightward drift of the party must be stemmed at all costs. “If the grand old Republican Party were to become a shriveled, shrunken, impotent political haven for an anachronistic few, then vast changes, and not for the good, would enter our way of life.”1

Kuchel’s statement presages the significant shifts in the Republican Party since 1965. Not long after his remarks, voices of critique and concern within the GOP became persecuted and then silenced. By the end of the 1960s, a liberal consensus was giving way to the conservative phenomenon known as Reaganism. At the forefront in fighting America’s right turn were traditional Republicans like Kuchel.

In his thirty-two-year political career, Thomas Kuchel was a California Republican in the Hiram Johnson and Earl Warren mold—a progressive who championed reform, responsible government, and a bipartisan politics of moderation. In today’s era of Reagan centennials, Fox News, and Tea Party marches, Republicans like Kuchel stand all too forgotten in the political consciousness of twenty-first century Americans. His 101st birthday this past August offers an opportunity to reflect on both the current Republican Party and the proud progressive tradition of California Republicanism that was fought for and lost amid the rise of Reaganism.

California Congressional Delegation Breakfast, March 23, 1955. Courtesy of the Bancroft Library University of California Berkeley

Born and raised in Anaheim, California, Thomas Kuchel began his Republican political career fresh out of University of Southern California law school at the young age of twenty-six. First elected to represent Orange County in the State Assembly in 1936, Kuchel would continue to climb California’s political ladder, serving as State Senator (1941–1945), State Controller (1946–1953), and finally United States Senator upon Governor Earl Warren’s 1953 appointment. In the Senate, Kuchel wore the progressive stripes of California Republicanism proudly—a stark contrast to the suburban warriors who would later make his home region of Orange County identifiable with the Conservative Right. “Progressive Republicans,” he recalled, “brought to politics the philosophy of governing for the many.” Over the next fifteen years, Kuchel followed this principle by playing key roles in the passage of the Interstate Highway Act, the 1963 Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Leading a “baker’s dozen” of progressive Republicans in the Senate, Kuchel even helped provide the necessary margin for passage of Lyndon Johnson’s Social Security and Medicare programs. As the ranking member of the Senate Interior Committee, he sponsored numerous laws to create and expand wildlife refuges and national parks, including Northern California’s Redwood National Park. Indeed, Kuchel enjoyed strong support in both California and the US Senate. He was the last Senate nominee in California to win all fifty-eight counties and the only senator elected Assistant Minority Leader five consecutive times.2

Kuchel’s brand of progressive Republicanism claimed deep roots in the political soils of California. Contrary to the liberal-Democrat persona often ascribed today, the Republican Party commanded an influential majority in the Golden State for most of the twentieth century, guiding much of California’s development in the areas of industry, education, conservation, and social reform. At the forefront of the state’s GOP stood Hiram Johnson, the two-term governor (1911–1917) and long-time US Senator (1917–1945) for California. Considered one of the founders of American Progressivism, Johnson crafted a type of Republicanism that balanced conservative and liberal ideals, championing responsible economic development and fiscal policy on one hand, and an agenda of social-political reform, conservation, and state funded programs on the other. Just as Johnson created the foundation of California’s Progressive Republicanism, Earl Warren (governor 1943–1953) helped guide it through the Democratic era of Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal. Indeed, Warren continued to champion the balanced politics crafted by Johnson. Yet in the age of Roosevelt, he also pushed to have bipartisan cooperation brought into the fold of the state’s GOP—a moderate political thrust Warren trumpeted as “independent,” “nonpartisan,” and placing “citizenship above partisanship.”3

It was upon this California landscape, and among these influential progressive Republicans, that Thomas Kuchel grew up and cut his political teeth. In his youth, he read both the Congressional and State Legislature records daily to his father, studying the politics of Hiram Johnson as well as adopting his strong independence and calculated style of debate—a style that on the high school debate team helped Kuchel defeat an opponent from Fullerton named Richard Nixon. Under the mentorship of Earl Warren as both state legislator and Controller, Kuchel also learned the art of balanced politics and bipartisan compromise that had long guided California’s GOP majority. To be sure, it was this brand of Republicanism that Kuchel brought to the United States Senate, and others like Dwight Eisenhower sought to adopt on the national level. As Kuchel later defined it in a televised speech, Progressive Republicanism was a “combination of liberal and conservative … conservative in dealing with the people’s money, liberal in dealing with human problems.”4

Thomas Kuchel with Dwight Eisenhower. Courtesy of the Bancroft Library University of California Berkeley

By the early 1960s, however, Thomas Kuchel began to confront what he deemed as an “evil and offensive” danger to both America and the traditional principles of his beloved Republican Party. The menace he fought was neither communists nor the counterculture, but the conservative right and groups like the John Birch Society who threatened the balanced politics of Progressive Republicanism. Charging to the Senate floor in May 1963, Kuchel in his characteristic independence issued one of the first Republican denunciations of right-wing extremism, warning his colleagues to heed the rising “danger of hate and venom, of slander and abuse generated by … [a] handful of zealots, in the ranks of self-styled ‘I am a better American than you are’ organizations.” To Kuchel, these “fear peddlers” of the far right not only “degraded America … [but also] defiled the honorable philosophy of conservatism.” Undoubtedly, far-right corrosion of the GOP stood at the heart of Kuchel’s concern. In a July 1963 letter to Congress, the California senator stressed his intention to defend the traditional principles of the Republican Party from right-wing co-option. “I shall continue to speak out against those who call themselves ‘Republicans’ but who … would change our Grand Old Party from one of constructive reason … into a zany and dangerous voice espousing abolition of the income tax, white supremacy, preventative war, the break-up of NATO, or similar nonsense.”5

Kuchel’s stance in 1963 was a heightened defense of the traditional Republican principles he had advanced since the late 1950s. He had publicly defended his mentor, California Governor-turned-US Chief Justice Earl Warren, against red-baiting slurs and right-wing threats of impeachment, and roundly condemned Birch Society founder Robert Welch for calling President Eisenhower a communist. In the 1962 California gubernatorial race, Kuchel even refused to endorse GOP candidate Richard Nixon due to his rightward stray from the party’s center. Such political abstention, however, reached new heights in 1964. After an unsuccessful attempt to deliver the GOP presidential nomination to fellow moderate Nelson Rockefeller, the California senator shunned conservative nominee Barry Goldwater. Labeling Goldwater’s nomination a “tragic interlude” of “intellectual sterility,” the independent Kuchel premised his silence on the continued defense of traditional Republicanism. “I consider myself the Republican,” he declared. “I consider what Barry Goldwater was saying hardly Republican doctrine.” Kuchel cited similar criteria for his refusal to endorse conservative George Murphy in his successful run for California’s other US Senate seat that same year, underscoring the chasm between party loyalty and Republican principles. In Kuchel’s words, “I never coveted public office enough to become a wholesale hypocrite.”6

By 1966, Kuchel’s fight to protect the Republican Party from far-right corrosion collided head-on with the gubernatorial aspirations of conservative candidate Ronald Reagan. Well financed and directed by a consortium of corporate conservatives, Reagan’s campaign trumpeted a new version of Republicanism—one that spurned the traditional ideal of progressives like Kuchel. It was a corporate conservatism whose tenets of pro-business, antilabor, antireform, and the racial status quo Reagan articulated on a range of issues, from Watts and Open Housing (Proposition 14) to Berkeley and César Chávez’s farmworker movement. Aghast at a Republican candidate he deemed extremist, unqualified, and well outside the GOP mainstream, Kuchel threw his political weight behind San Francisco’s moderate Republican Mayor George Christopher. Upon Reagan’s primary victory, however, the progressive senator touted his Warren-like independence and settled back into the familiar posture of political silence. Kuchel’s refusal to endorse Ronald Reagan’s bid for the California governorship scored national headlines and further placed the thirty-year Republican veteran in the crosshairs of the New Right. Just two months before Reagan announced his candidacy, Kuchel had continued to publicly censure the “so-called Republican groups in California,” characterizing right-wing demands like privatizing Social Security, abrogating the Nuclear Test Ban treaty, and repealing the federal income tax as “far more in keeping with Fascism than Americanism.” Now refusing to support the New Right’s favorite son saddled him with an ultimatum from conservatives and party loyalists alike: “support the party’s nominee in 1966,” one newspaper paraphrased, “or face political extinction in 1968.” Such threats emanated particularly from California GOP chairman Gaylord Parkinson, causing an indignant Kuchel to demand “who the hell is Parkinson” to attempt such “intimidation.” Speaking to reporters two weeks before the election, Kuchel announced that he would take his chances in 1968, affirming he would not under any circumstances endorse Ronald Reagan.7

Thomas Kuchel on television, March 15, 1960. Courtesy of the Bancroft Library University of California Berkeley

Kuchel offered no apologies for his lack of support in the wake of Reagan’s victory. “I called my signals as I saw them,” he told reporters after the election. “No one leads this senator around with a ring through his nose.” Yet, as Kuchel pledged to continue advancing a “forward-looking Republicanism,” the corporate conservatives amassing under the new Reagan Administration in Sacramento held other plans. Labeled the Kitchen Cabinet by the press, the consortium of conservative businessmen backing Ronald Reagan—Holmes Tuttle, Henry Salvatori, A.C. Rubel, Leonard Firestone, and Justin Dart—set out to eliminate, in Reagan’s words, “that damn Tommy Kuchel.” Within a year, Reagan’s backers had propped up conservative Max Rafferty to challenge the incumbent senator, waging a primary campaign that some pundits deemed “vicious” and “far below minimum standards of decent political behavior.” Red-baiting slurs and ferocious fabrications emanated from the Rafferty camp, all propelled by a war chest of over $1 million—an insurmountable sum for Kuchel, who often remarked that his refusal to stomach the pageantry of campaign fundraising was his “Achilles’ heel.” In the face of the conservative onslaught, the senator continued to cling to his political roots. “There are certain elements of the Republican Party who have seen fit to denounce me,” Kuchel wrote one constituent, “but I have no intention of compromising the political principles I have followed for thirty years.” The primary election of June 5, 1968, proved one of California’s darkest days. While gunshots had taken the life of Democrat Robert F. Kennedy, the corporate conservatives had defeated Thomas Kuchel, sounding the death knell of California’s progressive Republicanism. In New York for Kennedy’s funeral days later, an aging Earl Warren embraced his younger protégé, telling Kuchel “I just feel so badly about your defeat. I can’t talk about it.”8

In assessing the impact of Kuchel’s primary loss, the Los Angeles Times observed that California “will suffer from the short-sightedness of those who voted against him.” Indeed, the Times’ words, like the many warnings of Kuchel, have proved prescient. In today’s GOP-fueled landscape, the “fear peddlers” still operate, the corporate interests still dominate, and the moderate, progressive stripe of California Republicanism now only emanates as a historical artifact from the political graveyard. In remembrance of Thomas Kuchel’s 101st birthday, let us pause and reflect on a tradition lost and an honorable public servant who stood as one of the most costly political casualties of Reaganism’s rise.9


1. “Sen. Kuchel Asks Students to Help Build ‘Viable’ GOP,” Yale Daily News, 24 February 1965, 1; “Chafee, Kuchel, Scott Talk to Students on GOP,” Yale Daily News, 24 February 1965, 1; “The Choice is Yours,” Kuchel Speech at Yale University, 23 February 1965, Political Folder, Box 245, Thomas H. Kuchel Papers, Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley.

2. Rep. Stephen Horn, “Honoring A True Public Servant: Senator Thomas Kuchel,” Congressional Record, 107 cong., 10 October 2002, E1856–59; “O.C. Politician and Ex-Senator Kuchel, 84, Dies,” Los Angeles Times, 23 November 1994, 1; “Thomas H. Kuchel Dies at 84,” New York Times, 18; Thomas Henry Kuchel, Biographical Directory of the United States Congress, http://bioguide.congress.gov/scripts/biodisplay.pl?index=K000335 [accessed May 2011]. For more on the far right in Orange County, see Lisa McGirr, Suburban Warriors: The Origins of the New American Right (Princeton, 2001). Kuchel is mentioned only three times in the book.

3. Democrats did not gain a majority in California politics until 1959. See Olin, Spencer. California’s Prodigal Sons: Hiram Johnson and the Progressives, 1911–1917 (Berkeley, 1968); William Deverell and Tom Sitton, eds., California Progressivism Revisited (Berkeley, 1994), especially Jackson Putnam, “The Progressive Legacy in California,” 247–63. Warren for Governor Non-Partisan Committee memo, 20 July 1942; Warren Campaign Ad, 1942, 1942 Gubernatorial Campaign F3640:443; Warren Reelection Announcement, 15 March 1946, 1946 Gubernatorial Campaign Files F3640:572, Earl Warren Papers, California State Archives.

4. “Thomas Kuchel—Class of 1928” Anaheim High School Alumni Association, http://www.anaheimcolonists.com/hall-of-fame/2009-inductees/thomas-kuchel [accessed 22 July 2011]; “O.C. Politician and Ex-Senator Kuchel, 84, Dies,” Los Angeles Times, 23 November 1994, 1; Stephen Cummings and Patrick Reddy, California After Arnold (New York, 2009), 64; Thomas Kuchel 1968 speech, NBC Television, http://www.nbcuniversalarchives.com/nbcuni/clip/5110206AA2082_035.do [accessed 22 July 2011].

5.Thomas Kuchel, “Fright Peddlers,” Congressional Record, 88 cong., 2 May 1963, 7636–42; Kuchel Letter to Congress, 29 July 1963, Political Folder, Box 245, Kuchel Papers.

6.”O.C. Politician and Ex-Senator Kuchel, 84, Dies,” Los Angeles Times, 23 November 1994, 1; “Chafee, Kuchel, Scott Talk to Students on GOP,” Yale Daily News, 24 February 1965, 1; “Who’s the Republican Extremist?” Riverside Press, Goldwater File, Box 262, Kuchel Papers.

7. “Republicans Warn Kuchel to Support Reagan,” Houston Tribune, 23 June 1966, GOP 1966 Folder, Box 262; “Kuchel Letter to Republicans,” 6 October 1965, Political Folder, Box 242, Kuchel Papers; “Sen. Kuchel Out on Limb in California,” Boston Globe, 17 July 1966, A5; “Angry Kuchel Assails State GOP Chairman,” Los Angeles Times, 4 June 1966, 4; “Kuchel, Will Not Aid Reagan,” New York Times, 25 October 1966, 22; “UPI Release,” 25 October 1966, Reagan Folder, Box 263, Kuchel Papers.

8. “Reagan Non-Support Upheld by Kuchel,” Baltimore Sun, 2 December 1966, A7; “Kuchel Indicates He’ll Ignore Critics,” Los Angeles Times, 2 December 1966, 3; “Dump Kuchel Plan by Reaganites,” Sacramento Bee, 21 September 1966, Reagan Folder, Box 263, Kuchel Papers; “Reagan to Goldwater,” 11 November 1966, Folder 5-Reagan, Box 18, Barry Goldwater Papers, Arizona Historical Society, Tempe, AZ; “Tom Moore Political Analysis,” 21 August 1968, Kreps Folder, Box 515, Alan Cranston Papers, Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley; “Rafferty Lists Election Spending of $1 Million,” Los Angeles Times, 10 July 1968, 27; “Kuchel to Rosenberg, 29 February 1968, Campaign ’68 “R”, Box 271, Kuchel Papers; “O.C. Politician and Ex-Senator Kuchel, 84, Dies,” Los Angeles Times, 23 November 1994, 1.

9. “Sen. Kuchel: A Loss for California,” Los Angeles Times, 7 October 1968, A4.


King of the Road

by Chris Carlsson

From Boom Fall 2011, Vol. 1, No. 3

A movement founder explains the deep roots of Critical Mass

“If the increase continues, the time is not very distant when not to own and ride a bicycle will be a confession that one is not able-bodied, is exceptionally awkward, or is hopelessly belated.”

“The Bicycle Festival,” New York Times, July 13, 1895


California is world-famous as the home of car culture, the place that gave birth to freeways, cruising, hot rods, and the whole mash-up of beaches, girls, convertibles, and teenage fun. That’s one story and it has some truth to it, but it’s a story of the twentieth century. The successful marketing of this image in films and literature—branding California as a car-obsessed state in which life unfolds mostly behind the wheel—has profoundly shaped the aspirations of people around the world. But it has also obscured another story that both precedes and succeeds the rise of the private automobile—the bicycle.

Given the rising tide of climate chaos rooted in fossil fuel combustion, it’s urgent that we tell ourselves other stories about our lives here in the Golden State. Such stories can point us toward viable alternatives that, coincidentally, are well-rooted in the state’s own history.

In September 1992, after months of tentative and speculative conversation about bicycling and politics among a couple of dozen friends (only a year and a half after the bombastic but fragile New World Order emerged in the first Gulf War), the first Critical Mass took place in San Francisco. I was one of those first forty-eight riders and had been intimately involved in the informal discussions that gave rise to it. The first ride didn’t yet have the name; they called it “Commute Clot.” Two months later, the more compelling “Critical Mass,” taken from a casual description of Chinese traffic patterns in Ted White’s documentary “Return of the Scorcher,” was adopted. The ride began with a simple goal: to fill the streets with bikes so completely that they would displace cars, and in so doing would create a new kind of mobile, temporary public space. The obvious irony of the concept lay in the fact that the streets of our cities are the closest thing we have to a genuine public space, but they are so dominated by the parking and movement of private automobiles that the use of the space is predetermined and markedly antisocial.

Nineteenth-Century Bicycling
The second bicycling club nationally and the first on the west coast was the San Francisco Bicycle Club, founded on December 13, 1876. The club petitioned the Park Commission for permission to ride their new-fangled devices in Golden Gate Park. The park commissioners, overcoming their astonishment that there was actually a club for wheelmen, allowed them to “enter Golden Gate Park at the Stanyan Street entrance to the South Drive before 7 A.M. only.” Intensive self-policing kept the wheelmen within the bounds of the variance, and before too long the “privileges were extended.”1 But it was in the next decade that bicycling began its precipitous takeoff. In the words of one contemporary:

The first competition for the SF Bicycle Club was “The Bay City Wheelmen,” founded in 1884. It raised enthusiasm to the highest pitch. Each man was eager to find opportunities for the keenest rivalry, for the honor of his club was at stake, and in those days wheeling was a clean sport. Sport for the true love of sport. There were none of the sordid motives which follow in the train of professionalism. To become a professional was to place one’s self outside of the social pale.2

The mass of nineteenth-century cyclists in San Francisco were not narrowly focused on bicycling alone. They became the backbone of a broad movement for improved streets and “Good Roads.” On July 25, 1896, thousands of cyclists filled the streets in the largest demonstration seen in the city’s history. In that century’s last decade, San Francisco was a muddy, dirty town, long past its glory years as a boomtown, but still one of the ten largest cities in the United States. The streets were full of horseshit, and between the ubiquitous cable car slots and the tangled web of streetcar rails, pedestrians and bicyclists had a hazardous course to traverse en route to their destinations. After months of organizing among the thriving bicycling clubs of the city, a huge parade was organized that drew as many as 100,000 spectators. Hank Chapot re-creates the scene:

“A five-year wheelman named McGuire, speaking for the South Side Improvement Club stated: ‘The purpose for the march is three-fold; to show our strength, to celebrate the paving of Folsom Street and to protest against the conditions of San Francisco pavement in general and of Market Street in particular. If the united press of this city decides that Market Street must be repaved, it will be done in a year.’ Asked if southsiders were offended that the grandstand would be north of Market, McGuire exclaimed, ‘Offended! No! We want the north side to be waked up. We south of Market folks are lively enough, but you people over the line are deader than Pharaoh!'”3

The movement for Good Roads would dovetail with the early progressive efforts to recalibrate government to provide services to the citizenry. After decades of parsimonious government expenditures in a climate that eschewed taxation in favor of privatization through franchises to provide public benefits (water, electricity, telephones, streetcars, etc.), new political actors in the 1890s turned against the big corporations and trusts. San Francisco politicians embraced the bicyclists’ demand for Good Roads along with a growing interest in public water, electricity, and transportation.

Meanwhile, in Southern California, an elegant bikeway was built along the Arroyo Seco corridor north of the Los Angeles River in 1900. It was the keystone of a plan to link Los Angeles and Pasadena with an eight-mile “great transit artery.” Pasadena Mayor Horace Dobbins dedicated public funds to an elevated, multilane, wooden cycleway, including streetlights and gazebo turnouts. The fifteen-cent toll didn’t dissuade hundreds of cyclists who showed up to the opening, going on to ride through a beautiful pre-urban Los Angeles landscape. More than 20 percent of the population were already regular bikers in 1900, and of course the weather was ideal. Cycleways were going to crisscross the area and provide a stylish and modern system for personal transport.4

As the twentieth century unfolded, the automobile rushed into the picture. Within a few years, bikeway expansion was scrapped and even the Arroyo Seco Cycleway was soon turned into a motorway (now better known as the Pasadena Freeway). As thousands of Californians became motorists, patterns of city life began to change. The chaotic crisscrossing of pedestrians, horses and horse-drawn wagons, streetcars, cable cars, and steam railroads, already joined by increasing numbers of bicyclists, now saw an influx of private automobiles.

The crowded, diseased, and dangerous streets of the nineteenth century were an additional motivation for progressive leaders who sought to ameliorate these conditions through efficient city planning, then a new discipline. As city centers choked with traffic congestion and automobile injuries and deaths soared, a struggle to reshape city streets took place. Police and parents wanted to control speeds to promote safety. Highway engineers wanted to widen and streamline city streets to promote through traffic at higher speeds. Auto companies promoted the “freedom of the open road” and claimed that street improvements must properly be directed to bettering driving conditions, since most of the money for road building and maintenance was derived from gasoline taxes. Bicycles and pedestrians were the obvious losers in this era as highway engineers—reinforced by auto industry propaganda—focused on widening streets, increasing parking, and creating parkways and highways (later freeways), while society subtly shifted the blame for car-related fatalities to careless pedestrians and cyclists, or individual bad drivers.5

In the late 1960s, after decades of car ascendancy, with the bicycle reduced in popular imagination to a children’s toy or an obscure sport, the bicycle began to assume its modern significance. An early breakthrough came in the bucolic university town of Davis, California, where in 1965 five locals formed a vaguely named “Bicycle Safety Committee” to save the imperiled cycling community. Davis was growing by 10 percent a year, and bicyclists were diminishing as the population was growing. The committee mapped a bike lane system for Davis, and after being thwarted by a hostile City Council managed to elect a pro-bicycling Council in 1966. Davis’s reputation as California’s best-known cycling town dates from that time, when local government gave a green light to a new network of bike lanes. Interestingly, during the first few years of trial and error, a separated bike lane between parked cars and the sidewalk was tried and discarded as unsafe, a system that has been successfully implemented in Copenhagen, Berlin, Amsterdam, and other European cities.6

A few years later, in 1969, hundreds of cyclists gathered in the first “Smog-Free Locomotion Day” demonstration on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley. For the next few years, this ecological protest bike ride rolled through the East Bay before sputtering out in the wake of the first oil crisis and the slow unraveling of the protest era.

In the 1980s, bicycle activism hit a low ebb until the end of the decade when San Francisco bike messengers organized a mass ride to encircle City Hall. The messengers were protesting the mayor and police threats to crack down on scofflaw messengers and force them to register and become licensed. The protest succeeded, and the plans to license messengers were abandoned. In 1990 a new group, Bay Area Bike Action, organized a bike ride through Golden Gate Park to advocate for a “park, not a parking lot!” During the first Gulf War in 1991, dozens of cyclists appeared at the periphery of large antiwar demonstrations in the city and pioneered a role for themselves as scouts, rolling ahead of marchers to see where police might be waiting for them. Finally, a group of fifty cyclists rode together from Santa Cruz to San Francisco during this same period, protesting the invasion of Kuwait and the bombing of Iraq.

Critical Mass Is Born in San Francisco, 1992
From these many threads through time, the first Critical Mass rode in San Francisco in September, 1992. While few of the first riders, if any, knew of their complicated legacy, they were resuming an honorable, century-old tradition of combining bicycling with politics. The several dozen Critical Mass initiators had different tastes, ideas, politics, and experiences. Some of us had been active in ecological efforts, others in antiwar and antinuclear campaigns of the 1970s and 1980s, a few were bike messengers, while others still were people who simply chose bikes as their preferred transportation. We made no effort to arrive at a consensus explanation for our action, but hoped that in the space we planned to open, many ideas could flourish and many purposes find their expression. We all agreed that the maltreatment and second-class citizenship we suffered as isolated everyday cyclists deserved a robust response; and if nothing else, by gathering and riding en masse, we would make our presence felt as it hadn’t been felt before.

It was obvious that if any formal organization took responsibility for the event, city authorities would most likely insist they have a permit and probably liability insurance, so we proceeded anonymously. We chose not to approach the police or the local government, defining the gathering as “an organized coincidence.” That proved to be a fortuitous decision, since no one could be held personally responsible for the gathering of dozens, then hundreds, and eventually thousands of citizens, all determined to use the public thoroughfares to “ride home together,” paralleling the utterly banal and normalized traffic jams that clogged the streets every day with cars. The slogan that emerged after awhile was “We aren’t blocking traffic, we ARE traffic!” (This also became the title of Ted White’s 1998 documentary on Critical Mass.7) Moreover, since no individual or organization “owned” the ride, it was easy for anyone to feel it was theirs as much as anyone else’s.

What none of us could know in that dry autumn and winter of 1992–1993, as the police took no notice of us and our numbers swelled toward a couple hundred riders by February, was that the idea had become a classic meme, spreading from person to person through phone calls, through letters, through visitors who rode with us and took the idea back to their hometowns. (A Polish expat in San Francisco told his old friends in Poznan, Poland, who may have had the first ride in Europe.) About eight of us put together a small pamphlet, “How to Make a Critical Mass,”8 which we sent out to anyone who requested it, only a couple of dozen by the end of 1993.

Coincidentally, 1993 was also the year that the World Wide Web began to have a real presence in our lives, especially in San Francisco, so email, listserv discussions, and eventually websites began to proliferate. Other Critical Mass rides were started across the bay in Berkeley; in New York; in Austin, Texas; Madison, Wisconsin; Portland, Oregon; and Montreal. The idea began to snowball that year, and people in dozens of other cities and towns started their own Critical Mass rides. They all followed similar ideas to the ones that animated our San Francisco ride from the beginning: no leaders, ideas communicated by way of “xerocracy” (using ubiquitous photo-copying machines, anyone could put their ideas out on a flyer and have influence over the culture and experience of the local ride); sticking together in dense masses of bikes, even if it meant running red lights, for it was safer to stick together than to get spread out and mixed with autos; “corking” side traffic by having one or a few cyclists stop in front of rows of cars to prevent them from encroaching on the Mass; and so on.

In time, dozens of major cities around the world would have Critical Mass bike rides, from Rome and Milan in Italy (along with twenty other cities), to London (and two dozen other United Kingdom locales), Chicago, Los Angeles, San Diego, São Paulo, Toronto, Vancouver, Budapest, Berlin, Sydney, Melbourne, Paris, Lyon, Madrid, Barcelona, Mexico City, Guadalajara, Quito, Santiago, and many more. Each city’s ride took some of the wider concept and made it their own, adapting as needed to local conditions. Some were tightly organized, others less so. Chicago contributed the “bike lift” to the culture, which was later best demonstrated in a Budapest ride of over 40,000 cyclists, all holding their bicycles aloft while cheering wildly. (Budapest had a recent history as a heavily policed “Communist” city; therefore, organizers chose to negotiate with the authorities rather than risk a violent confrontation and decided to hold Critical Mass rides only at the end of April and September, twice a year. This has led them to hold the record for most riders, recently topping 50,000.)

Everyday Bicycling Returns
Critical Mass was, and is, just a starting point. It’s a place where people meet and further projects begin to find adherents, often but not only bicycle-related. In the last decade, dozens of bike “zines” have been published (Mudflap, Bike Love, Chainbreaker, Sin on Wheels, Mercury Rising, to name a few). Lately such quality periodicals as Boneshaker magazine from Bristol, England, Bike Monkey from Santa Rosa, California, Dandyhorse from Toronto, and Momentum from Vancouver, Canada, have given the new bicycling culture aesthetically beautiful, editorially thoughtful media of its own.

Do-it-yourself bike shops, anchored by volunteer labor, have proliferated, too. In Los Angeles, the triumvirate of the Bike Kitchen, the Bike Oven, and the Bikerowave, has helped thousands of Angelenos become daily cyclists. Most recently, the Los Angeles Bicycle Coalition helped spawn La Bici Digna, a do-it-yourself bikeshop for Spanish-speaking day laborers in metropolitan Los Angeles. Similar kinds of efforts are running in San Francisco, Toronto, Chicago, and New York, and they have really taken off in Italy, where they’re called “ciclofficine,” and have found ready homes in the network of squatted social centers around the country (Rome alone has at least six such spaces, providing tools and spare parts to all comers to fix—or make—their own bikes). Another half-dozen free bike spaces have emerged in squatted buildings in Madrid.

In recent years, other kinds of rides have also begun, sometimes as deliberate efforts to start social bike rides that don’t have Critical Mass’s anarchistic reputation. This reputation, proliferated by the mass media, is sometimes deserved: a San Diego Critical Mass on Black Friday 2010 rode into a mall and through the aisles of a Target store. Midnight Ridazz in Los Angeles attracts huge crowds of middle-of-the-night riders. A San Jose Bike Party, designed to be law-abiding and respectful while fun and social too, started only a couple of years ago and is attracting thousands of riders to its monthly 8:00 P.M. rides through various Silicon Valley burgs. The East Bay and San Francisco have inaugurated Bike Party rides, in 2010 and 2011 respectively.

In the wake of all this social riding, formal advocacy groups are gaining political power. The San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, with its couple of dozen volunteers and occasional meetings in restaurants, is now 12,000 dues-paying members strong, and considered by most to be a serious political force in local politics. Similar advocacy groups in Marin County, the East Bay, Silicon Valley, and Los Angeles, with more modest memberships, have grown in influence during the past decade. Bicycle boulevards and traffic-calmed streets have been established throughout Berkeley and Davis, and are beginning to get attention from larger cities too, including LA and SF. A long-abandoned railroad tunnel linking Mill Valley to Corte Madera has just been refurbished and opened to bicyclists in Marin County.

Riding alongside mainstream groups are many other activists and initiatives, from CicLAvia in Los Angeles to the Bikes on Board campaign on Caltrain along the San Mateo peninsula, and the new Sunday Streets program in San Francisco. Less than a decade ago Bogotá, Colombia, established Sunday street closures, which have spread to dozens of major cities in South America and are now being adopted in San Francisco, too. Bikeshare programs are also being started. From the well-known Vélib program in Paris to similar bike shares in Copenhagen, Milan, London, and other European centers, the idea has taken hold in Mexico City and is slated to open in San Francisco soon.

Critical Mass captures a larger moment in history, a time when great numbers of people are searching for ways to make personal and political changes in their everyday lives in response to the multiple crises of energy, ecology, economy, and general anomie. Bursting on the scene in cities across the world over the past nearly twenty years, reinvented again and again by dozens of people in widely divergent geographic areas, Critical Mass emerges from a commonality of experience and resonates with popular imagination in a surprisingly wide range of cultures and languages. Dozens of other organizations and initiatives have been launched, sometimes directly from the milieu of Critical Mass cyclists, other times merely as further independent manifestations of the same shifting cultural zeitgeist of which Critical Mass is such a bright signifier. At its simplest level, Critical Mass has led untold numbers of people to abandon their former commute patterns and embrace the bicycle as their everyday transportation. I’ve heard hundreds of anecdotal accounts over the years, from San Francisco to New York, Rome to São Paulo, of people becoming regular bicyclists after trying it first in Critical Mass. But if Critical Mass seems to be a starting point, it’s vital to remember the great antecedents that took place long before anyone riding now was even alive.

“When you have attained a proficiency which enables you to take out your handkerchief, wipe your nose and replace the mouchoir in your pocket without slackening your pace, you have fairly graduated … For fun there is nothing like cycling, and before many years two or three family wheels will be as much a part of the ménage as the modern range and sewing machine are now.”

San Francisco Chronicle, 1896

The bicycle is the personal vehicle of the twenty-first century. It is an antidote to oil wars, carbon emissions, the obesity epidemic, and tens of thousands of annual highway fatalities. Bicycling puts us into the life of our streets and connects us to friends, neighbors, and strangers in ways that the car culture has blocked for so long. Thousands of Californians have chosen the bicycle, and millions more will as we alter our urban landscapes to welcome and facilitate that choice. Citywide and intercity systems of dedicated bikeways are long overdue. Imagine how many more people would ride if there were safe thoroughfares to make bicycling the most pleasant and direct way to get from anywhere in the city to anywhere else—point A to point B, smelling the flowers, the clean air, hearing the birds, and enjoying your friends and neighbors. Why not?


1. Ida L. Howard, “When San Francisco Was Teaching America to Ride a Bicycle,” San Francisco Chronicle, 26 February 1905.

2. Ibid.

3. Hank Chapot, “The Great San Francisco Bicycle Protest of 1896,” Processed World 2.001. http://www.archive.org/stream/processedworld2001proc#page/64/mode/2up. Accessed 11 December 2010.

4. http://www.sierraclub.org/sierra/200803/bikeway.asp.

5. Jane Holtz Kay, Asphalt Nation: How the Automobile Took Over America and How We Can Take It Back (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997), 148–164.

6. Dale Lott, “How our bike lanes were born,” http://www.runmuki.com/paul/writing/lottarticle.html. Accessed 31 March 2011.

7. http://www.tedwhitegreenlight.com/critical_mass_film.htm.

8. This document appears in the appendix of the book Critical Mass: Bicycling’s Defiant Celebration, ed. Chris Carlsson (Oakland CA: AK Press, 2002) and is available online at two or three websites.


Anti-Democracy in California


From Boom Fall 2011, Vol. 1, No. 3

October 8, 1911 New York Times Editorial

In 1911, the state of California amended its constitution to create the ballot initiative, the referendum, and the recall. In response, the New York Times published the following, remarkably prescient warning.

We have received the official statement of questions submitted to the people of California in connection with the recent special election, setting forth the amendments to the Constitution to be then voted upon, together with arguments pro and con. The statement is in more senses than one monstrous. It is printed in small and nearly unreadable type on both sides of an immense sheet, the reading matter covering in all twelve square feet. The amendments are twenty-three in number. Four of them are really important—woman suffrage, the initiative, the referendum, and the recall. Most of them are not fit for constitutional enactment at all, but should be within the scope of the powers of the Legislature.

The number, complexity, and minuteness of the propositions submitted to the popular vote make it physically impossible that the ordinary voter shall understand their nature and effect or the actual consequences of his own act. And the process of confusing and practically paralyzing the faculty of discretion and discrimination in the mind of the voter is, of course, a continuous and cumulative one. The multitudinous changes in the “fundamental” law wrought at one election invite and, indeed compel, further changes, correcting the mistakes made, or adding to them. Consistency, stability, and continuity are simply impracticable under this process. The rights and interests of the community are involved in a perpetual flux. Human experience has shown that certainty, simplicity, clarity, and reasonable uniformity are the prime safeguards of justice and reason in the making and in the application of the laws affecting the public. These cannot be had in a State where the Constitution is made to meddle with details innumerable and where its provisions are subject to the passing whims of popular feeling and opinion.

This new method of handling the basic law of the State is advocated in the name of democracy. In reality it is utterly and hopelessly undemocratic. While pretending to give greater rights to the voters, it deprives them of the opportunity effectively and intelligently to use their powers. They receive the right to vote much oftener and on a larger number of matters than before, but the number and variety of the votes they are called on to cast does away with all chance of really using sense and discretion as to all of them. The new method is proposed as a check on the machines. But the strength of the machines lies in the inattention and indifference of the voters, and the voters are sure in the long run to be more inattentive and indifferent in proportion to the number of the questions forced upon them at one time. When the machine managers get familiar with the working of the new method, they will work it for their own ends far more readily than they work the present method. The average voter, muddled and puzzled and tired by the impossible task of really understanding and deciding on a mass of matters, will give it up, and then the politicians will get in their fine work.

The remedy for the undoubted evils of machine politics is not in multiplying, confusing, and making more troublesome the duties of the voter, but in simplifying and restricting them and making the discharge of each of them more effective. So long as we make our political business so difficult that common men cannot, will not, and ought not to give to it the time and labor absolutely needed for success in it, so long there will be professionals to attend to it. It would be as easy to run the business of a big railway by leaving every detail of its management to a vote of the shareholders as it will be to run the business of a State under the new system. And the results in the latter case will be as mischievous as those in the former would be sure to be.