Editor’s Note: In celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Summer of Love, the California Historical Society’s “On the Road to the Summer of Love” tells the story of this countercultural movement through an ambitious photographic exhibition. The selection of images and text included with this article are reproduced from the larger exhibition and highlight a portion of the cultural and contextual features that led up to the 1967 Summer of Love. The full exhibition will be on display through 24 September 2017 at 678 Mission Street, San Francisco.
The Summer of Love
The community that grew up in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury neighborhood from 1965 to 1967 was part of a vital tradition celebrating personal freedom and the right of peaceful protest that has traveled through American history since Henry David Thoreau’s Walden (1954). The thread is intrinsic to San Francisco, which as Thoreau began his masterpiece was emerging during California’s Gold Rush. The forty-niners were not dutiful servants of the Protestant work ethic but rogues gambling their lives for gold, scamps who cherished an eccentricity uniquely American.
Today, fifty years from the Summer of Love, its impact—social, cultural, economic, political, psychosexual—continues its ripples through American culture. Its unabashed pursuit of liberation triggered all manner of questioning of gender identity. LSD challenged social hierarchies, which had a particular impact on engineers around Palo Alto; without the West Coast psychedelic ethos, Silicon Valley and the development of the personal computer may have happened in Boston. It also created sensitivity to what one put in one’s body that led to natural foods and the organic food industry. The music and graphic art of the subculture swept the globe and seized young imaginations everywhere.
All this and more remains with us: the origins of the revolutionary maelstrom begin with the tribal elders known as the Beat Generation, succeeding important political events and the mind-changing effects of a powerful avant-garde art scene. Combined with psychedelics and rock and roll, the result was the creation of a new consciousness, which we call the Summer of Love.
Helen Haight and Don Graham at Grant and Green, 1958, Jerry Stoll (1923-2004); courtesy of Jerry Stoll Photography.
The roots of the Haight-Ashbury scene arose in a small cluster of disaffected writers repulsed by the monstrous death and destruction birthed from World War II. In 1944, a seaman and Columbia University dropout named Jack Kerouac fell in with Columbia students Allen Ginsberg and Lucien Carr and another man, William S. Burroughs. They created a “new vision,” a mix of transcendentalism and bohemianism that evolved into “Beat,” a rejection of mainstream bourgeois American beliefs and an advocacy of art and spirituality pursued through intense experience.
Their friend Neal Cassady settled in San Francisco, and then Kerouac and Ginsberg followed. Here Ginsberg blossomed as a poet, producing Howl in 1955. He first read it at the Six Gallery along with sympathetic companions and fellow readers Michael McClure, Gary Snyder, and others, with the elder of the city’s poetry scene, Kenneth Rexroth, as master of ceremonies. Howl was published the next year by Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s City Lights Press. Along with Kerouac’s 1957, On the Road, the poem inspired young artists to align with the idea of Beat, especially in San Francisco’s North Beach neighborhood.
A succession of youth-dominated political events prepared the ground for the consciousness labeled the Summer of Love. In 1960, the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) came to San Francisco’s City Hall to hold hearings, and the students of UC Berkeley and San Francisco State University demanded the right to attend. They were not only denied entrance, but forced down the hall’s grand staircase by firehoses. Outside, students and left-wing unionists mocked HUAC with Nazi salutes; the once-terrifying power of the committee would soon disintegrate.
In 1964, students from the two schools came together again, this time to challenge white-only hiring among the auto dealers along San Francisco’s Van Ness Avenue and at the Sheraton Palace Hotel. After nonviolent picketing and hundreds of arrests, they achieved victory when the car dealers and hotel owners agreed to integrate.
Barbara Dane, Vietnam Protest, 1964, by Erik Weber.
Auto Row Protest, “We Want Jobs,” by Joe Rosenthal, San Francisco Chronicle; courtesy of the San Francisco Chronicle
Later that year, students at UC Berkeley created the Free Speech Movement, as they named it, and challenged the limits on political free speech in the university’s Sproul Plaza in what developed into a countercultural critique of a technocratic university treating education as a product. The mass arrests and frequent violence surrounding the FSM presaged many more such incidents to come across the nation, as well as the ensuing reaction that helped elect Ronald Reagan as California governor and later US president, jumpstarting a nascent conservative movement still ascendant in 2017.
Coupled with an awakening sexual liberation stimulated by birth control and ongoing Vietnam War protests, many young people in the Bay Area evolved a very new perspective by the mid-1960s. The experiences, experiments, and beliefs of those “hipsters” or “hippies” would soon rock the world.
Mario Savio on top of Police Car, University of California, Berkeley, 1964, photo by Ronald L. Enfield (b. 1945).
Crowd led by FSM Banner through Sather Gate, Regents’ Meeting, University of California, Berkeley, 1964, photo by Ronald L. Enfield (b. 1945).
An underappreciated element of the cultural and intellectual flowering of the Haight-Ashbury scene is the role played by various avant-garde arts group and individuals over the previous decade. The Actor’s Workshop, the Tape Music Center, the Committee and Lenny Bruce, the Open Theater, Canyon Cinema—each had a heavy impact on young people whose minds had been opened by Beat poetry and political events. Two groups emerged as particularly significant.
The Actor’s Workshop would have a far-reaching impact, bringing serious theater to San Francisco with plays by Samuel Beckett, Bertolt Brecht, Harold Pinter, and Jean Genet. They sought, wrote co-director Herb Blau, to “shock, disturb, remind, tease and infuriate our audiences.” They succeeded. Among the veterans of AW was former assistant director Ronnie Davis, founder of the legendary San Francisco Mime Troupe.
The Tape Music Center, founded by Ramon Sender and Morton Subotnick with Pauline Oliveros, Bill Maginnis, and Tony Martin, would challenge the notion of what music was. It was central to the development of modern avant-garde music, and its propensity for interacting with other groups—for instance composing for the Actor’s Workshop, the San Francisco Mime Troupe, and avant-garde dancer Anna Halprin—made it an aesthetic nexus in the scene.
Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter, 1962, by Jerry Melrose (b. 1939); courtesy of the artist.
San Francisco Mime Troupe, c. 1966. Photo by Gene Anthony; from the collection of the California Historical Society.
Poetry, politics, and avant-garde art were the elements in the alembic chamber (wherein alchemists tried to change base metals into gold). LSD and rock and roll were the final agents that catalyzed a remarkable transmutation in the minds of the Haight’s new citizens. The need for spiritual transcendence is a fundamental aspect of humanity, and LSD was a revolutionary agent of change, making the psychedelic experience exponentially more accessible—inexpensive, powerful, and easily obtained in San Francisco. It found a perfect partner in high-volume, visceral rock and roll.
In the summer of 1965, the San Francisco band the Charlatans took over the Red Dog Saloon in Virginia City, Nevada, and became the first band to routinely combine LSD, a light show, and rock and roll. Later that year, author Ken Kesey and his friends the Merry Pranksters began a series of parties where LSD was available, dubbing them Acid Tests. They grew very quickly, and reached their apogee in January 1966 at the Trips Festival at Longshoreman’s Hall, with thousands in attendance. Many of the avant-garde arts groups—the Tape Music Center, Anna Halprin, the Open Theater—took part, but it was Tony Martin’s light show and the rock and roll bands (the Grateful Dead, Big Brother, and the Holding Company) that people embraced.
Ken Kesey and Carolyn Adams at Courthouse, 1966, San Francisco Chronicle; courtesy of the San Francisco Chronicle.
Hit of Blotter Acid, 1981; courtesy of Mark McCloud.
Avalon Ballroom, 1967, by Ben Van Meter (b. 1941); courtesy of the artist.
Jefferson Airplane at the Monterey Jazz Festival, 1966, by Stephen Rees (b. 1948); courtesy of the artist.
Grateful Dead on steps of 710 Ashbury Street headquarters, c. 1966, photo by Gene Anthony; from the collection of the California Historical Society.
The Real Summer of Love
The true Summer of Love was not the public affair of 1967, but the private social experiments that took place largely in the Haight-Ashbury in 1966. Among the most fondly remembered of these was a pair of parties at Olompali, a large home in Marin County where the Grateful Dead had taken up residence for the summer. Inviting their friends—members of Jefferson Airplane, the Charlatans, Big Brother and the Holding Company, among others—they played, danced, and got quite high in the private, natural setting of the ranch.
Back in the city, a psychedelic neighborhood sprang up along Haight Street. Hip businesses like Mnasidika, the Psychedelic Shop, and In Gear opened. The Avalon Ballroom and Fillmore Auditorium presented music, poster artists advertised the shows with extraordinary creativity, and a community grew. By fall, the Haight had generated its own iconic social-theatrical-political visionary troupe, the Diggers, who would subvert the dominant paradigm with art and humor.
When LSD was made illegal on 6 October 1966, the Diggers and their friend Allen Cohen of the Haight’s newspaper the Oracle responded with the Love Pageant Rally, a celebration rather than a protest. At their request, the Grateful Dead played for free, and free music in the Panhandle and Golden Gate Park became a fixture of the Haight experience.
Fantasy Fair, Mill Valley, 1967, by Elaine Mayes (b. 1936); courtesy of the artist.
Cop Strings Orchids on Antennae, 1967, by Elaine Mayes (b. 1936); courtesy of the artist.
Jimi Hendrix at Monterey Pop, 1967, by Suki Hill (1941-2014); courtesy of the artist.
The Gathering of the Tribes
As 1966 drew to a close, there was a palpable sense of accomplishment in the Haight. Peace, joy, and love were actually working. A few hundred people had created something remarkably beautiful. It called for a celebration, and Allen Cohen and his artist friend Michael Bowen of the Haight’s Oracle newspaper conceived of a Gathering of the Tribes for a Human Be-In, to be held in Golden Gate Park on 14 January 1967.
Among those who came together, there were elder and mentor poets like Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, Michael McClure, and Lew Welch; spiritual leaders like Timothy Leary and the apostle of Zen Buddhism in America, Shunryu Suzuki; various rock bands; and even the Berkeley radicals. They were celebrating, as someone remarked, nothing in particular. It was a truly wonderful day.
But it had enormous, unanticipated consequences. Up to that point, the Haight-Ashbury scene, whose members referred to themselves as “freaks,” had flown largely under mainstream society’s notice, not least because the group was actually quite small. But the Be-In attracted tens of thousands to the park, and the spell of invisibility vanished. The media descended, the phrase “hippie” became immortalized, and suddenly the trivial accoutrements of life in the Haight—long hair, flowers, extravagant clothing—were broadcast around the world.
Gary Snyder, Michael McClure, and Alan Ginsberg at the Be-In, 1967, by Gene Anthony; from the collection of the California Historical Society.
Dizzy Gillespie at the Be-In, Polo Grounds, Golden Gate Park, 1967, by Erik Weber (b. 1940); from the collection of the California Historical Society.
Couple on Ground After Be-In, by Gene Anthony; from the collection of the California Historical Society.
 For a discussion of Kerouac’s understanding of “beat” as tramping along with a rucksack, and as beatitude, beatific, see Conversations with Jack Kerouac, ed. Kevin J. Hayes (Jackson: University of Mississippi, 2005), 31. With thanks to David L. Ulin for this reference.
Dennis McNally is author, historian, and music publicist. He was the publicist for the Grateful Dead, is the band’s authorized biographer, and wrote the bestselling history of the band, A Long Strange Trip: The Inside History of the Grateful Dead, as well as the recently published On Highway 61: Music, Race, and the Evolution of Cultural Freedom and Desolate Angel: Jack Kerouac, The Beat Generation, and America. He lives in San Francisco.
July sky at Bahia de Los Angeles, Baja California, Mexico, courtesy of Bill Gracey via Flickr.
Gerald W. Haslam
Growing up in an oilfield community at the southern end of the Great Central Valley, I for many years believed California ended where the Tehachapi Mountains met the Temblor Range. Southern California seemed to be a continent away. Then my parents transferred me to a Catholic middle/high school in Bakersfield, and I encountered many Latino students, some of whom spoke of a mysterious place—perhaps part of California, perhaps not—called simply “Baja” or sometimes “la frontera.”
Few, I recall, claimed to have visited there. Rather it existed for us as a dangerous (but tempting) idea, a no-holds-barred locale that produced “Tijuana bibles” and tire-tread huaraches, and that housed a fabled red-light district. In our imaginations, that frontera was a remnant of the wild west, the sin capital of the west.
The actual place, as Verónica Castillo-Muñoz reveals in The Other California: Land, Identity, and Politics on the Mexican Borderlands, was culturally and economically far more complex than we had imagined. It slipped in and out of the grasp of Yankee capitalists (principally in the guise of the Colorado River Land Company and the International Mexican Company) in the late nineteenth century. Those companies “transformed Baja California from a Mexican backwater territory to one of the most prosperous cotton-producing centers along the U.S.-Mexico border.”
Castillo-Muñoz presents a detailed outline of how Baja California, a region of northern Mexico, was for a time an economic pawn to Mexican politicians, was a Pacific entry for Chinese and Japanese immigrants to the Americas, and was treated as an outlier (it didn’t gain statehood in Mexico until 1952). It was slowly built by hard-working people who came to largely ignore static gender roles and varying racial barriers, thus enriching the cultural landscape of western Mexico. The book traces no utopian society, but rather reveals “how ethnicity and racially diverse communities of laborers changed the social landscape of Baja California,” and does a good job of that.
Social stability and economic viability were by no means quickly achieved. The society detailed by Castillo-Muñoz’s book churned and boiled. Part of that was due to the self-serving influence of absentee owners, especially Yankees. But locals were capable of shooting themselves in the foot, too. For instance,
Chinese and Japanese earned an average of 40 centavos per day, while mestizo and indigenous workers earned average of 1.25 pesos. It was only a matter of time before Chinese and Japanese workers discovered the wage disparity, and they held strikes against the company [Compagnie du Boleo] several times.
Despite discrimination, “By 1920 the Baja California peninsula stood out as one of the most diverse communities in northern Mexico, with a growing population that spoke nineteen languages.”
Although women in Mexico did not get the vote nationally until 1953, their activism played a steady role in the social and economic development of Baja. “Ejido [communal land grant] distribution shaped gender relations and campesino [farm worker] identity in the Mexicali Valley where women saw their role on the ejido equally important to that of men.” World War II solidified that.
In 1942, Mexico entered the war on the side of the Allies. That little-discussed fact (in the USA, at least) led to the Bracero contract that sent male Mexican workers between the ages of seventeen and forty to “fill jobs in the farming and railroad sectors caused by the US labor shortage.” That, in turn, opened jobs in Mexico for women, “Thus both ejido farmers and private farmers in the Mexicali Valley came to rely on women’s labor for the cultivation and picking of cotton.” In 1944, President Manuel Avila Camacho smoothed the path toward gender equality when he “endorsed a campaign for women to join the workforce in northern Mexico to offset the shortage of labor caused by the Bracero Program.”
Castillo-Muñoz’s slim book (113 page text) is literally packed with such information, and is supplemented by 30 pages of valuable notes, a detailed bibliography and an index. For better or worse, the author shows, Baja California reflects many of the same issues that have plagued us here in Alta California—think of water, for instance, or racial tensions or gender discrimination. The Other California’s academic tone might be off-putting to some, but the text is so rich in information that this reader hardly noticed. It is an excellent intro to California’s southern namesake.
Gerald W. Haslam, an Oildale native, is professor emeritus at Sonoma State University, and the author of, among other books, The Other California: The Great Central Valley in Life and Letters (University of Nevada Press, 1994).
One of the most famous attempts to describe Los Angeles depicts it as an enclave of communities without a focused core; a collective search for a pulse that does not exist. One version of this characterization suggests, “Los Angeles: seventy-two suburbs in search of a city.” Another narrows the scope: “nineteen suburbs in search of a metropolis.” Assigned to a series of writers, most famously Dorothy Parker, but also Aldous Huxley and H.L. Mencken, the words reverberate an anxiety about Angelenos’ collective experiences of space. Pointing to the uniqueness of Los Angeles’s geography and topography, it also reveals the challenge of trying to capture the essence of a multi-nodal place with words alone. This essay examines how digital mapping can help to foreground localized knowledges of Los Angeles by introducing a pilot multimedia project called the Barrio Suburbanism Map.
In recent years, the digital-turn has birthed a new version of spatial musings similar to those of Parker, often in the form of maps. Rather than plotting points on a grid, digital mapping often combines practices of cartography, photography, narration, active revision, and public-orientation. These contemporary multimedia renderings demonstrate the continued active and critical searching for what it means to live in metropolitan Los Angeles. From this search, several questions emerge. Who decides what a place is called: barrio, suburb, neighborhood, ghetto, colonized territory? Where are its edges? How does a space become more than a location, but instead a site imbued with meaning? And, to whom? These questions move us beyond the iconic scene of Los Angeles produced from the studios of the Hollywood Hills to the lived experiences of space radiating out from Mariachi Plaza in Boyle Heights to the Tierra Mia coffee shop in Huntington Park. This essay explores how digital mapping might inform our understanding of metropolitan Los Angeles, both in the academy and beyond. Specifically, by pairing photographs with student ethnographies, the Barrio Suburbanism Map complicates popular perceptions of the suburbs as sites of homogeneity in order to reveal the dynamic diversity of suburbanization in multiracial Los Angeles, with a focus on Latinx communities.
Since the writings of 1920s social commentators, a range of urban historians, planners, creative writers, artists, and preservationists have created a wealth of scholarship and resources concerning Los Angeles and its suburbs: as bustling sites of working class identity, as spaces of queer sociability, and as areas of relocation for urban Chicanxs. Yet, suburbs are habitually understood through the lenses of homeownership, whiteness, middle-class status, and conservatism in popular discourse. These depictions of suburbs eclipse the equally important histories of “triangular race relations” and “relational racialization” exemplified in places like Los Angeles, where complex interactions between race, class, and gender have accompanied the social segmentation of the metropolitan region. Rather than a fixed set of characteristics, suburbia is networked, ever shifting, historically contingent, and defined by much more than political boundaries.
This essay explores how digital mapping can function as an active means for engaging ongoing process of place-making, one that can offer unique contributions to both student learning and public engagement. Beginning with a brief account of digital mapping projects in Greater Los Angeles, this essay provides a series of mosaics from one such project designed by the authors, the Barrio Suburbanism Map. A collaborative research project created by UCLA undergraduates in the Department of Chicana and Chicano Studies, its aims are two-fold. First, it builds upon studies of the barrio and diverse suburbs to examine how these sites operate in multiracial and metropolitan contexts. Second, it foregrounds undergraduate research aimed at reaching a public audience through multimedia mapping. Piloted in an upper-division research seminar in the Winter of 2016, the project asks how Chicana/o and Latina/o populations have impacted the economic, social, and spatial contours of specific suburbs, with attention to how place-making and the built environment have changed over time.
Although academic sources and public humanities projects have identified diverse histories of development in Los Angeles, there is still much work to be done if we hope to uproot the white-picket fence. For instance, many students found a dearth of digital and visual sources highlighting the intersectional histories they had personally experienced, as residents or visitors to these spaces, available within the public domain. Digital mapping provides these students an opportunity to actively engage in the processes of revisionist history and public facing scholarship with the potential to provoke critical discussion about the meanings of these places. And, as an infinitely buildable platform, future students can reply to those conversations through introducing new topical layers to the map over time. Rather than statistics-based work, this is an exercise that can not only historicize, but also humanize national trends in which Latinx, immigrants, refugees, and other historically marginalized populations are increasingly calling suburbs and exurban areas home.
Mapping Place, Constructing Place
Maps are powerfully operative in the ways we understand the world around us. They have been used as tools of empire in far-reaching colonization endeavors and wielded by states to convert the commons into private property. However, as much as they have been used as blunt instruments of the powerful, maps have also served as the tools of everyday people. In many cases, residents who have struggled to be heard at city planning meetings have turned to collaborative mapping, where they identified unrecognized community resources and provided blueprints for alternative futures. Maps do not represent pure truths about the physical world, but rather create space as much as they reflect it. Maps can also help facilitate dynamic conversations about the places we occupy. For instance, a national dialogue concerning urban development and gentrification is taking place through maps, from the views of LA neighborhoods, crafted by the Los Angeles Times, to the interventionist mapping projects of public scholars. Looking to these undertakings helps underscore what might be gained from a similar exploration of Latinx communities in LA suburbs.
Critical cartography teaches us that every line drawn reflects a set of decisions about spatial meaning, social identity, and the boundaries between insiders and outsiders. For instance, in the Los Angeles Times project Mapping L.A., “neighborhoods” are a product of combined staff decisions, census tracts, and reader contributed drawing of geographic boundaries between notable Los Angeles districts. Although disproportionately shaped by the perspectives of “affluent” English-dominant Angelenos, who comprise a sizable share of the newspapers’ readership, the resultant neighborhoods have become the definitive guide to LA neighborhoods. Each map includes extensive neighborhood data, such as ethnicity, housing, income, and education statistics. Prominent among the information provided are crime statistics: violent crime, property crime, time, date, type, location, weekly totals, monthly totals, and a six-month summary. However, the stories of the people who occupy these spaces are lost in the data. When the mismatch between the Los Angeles Times’ readership and the city’s shifting demography combines with the heavy focus on crime statistics, Mapping L.A. may inadvertently create a deficit perspective of working class communities of color. This risk both underscores the limitations of mapping and its uneven consequences when written from a deficit perspective.
In an effort to increase the agency of stakeholders outside traditional map-making processes, asset mapping seeks to identify sites of neighborhood significance from the alternative perspective. Such mapping can raise political consciousness, enhance local knowledge, and build the capacity for community mobilizations with the potential to foster claims to place and secure control over resources. Along these lines, the number of scholars engaging public-facing mapping projects has grown significantly in recent years. In particular, a number of notable Los Angeles based projects have pushed the boundary of mapping technologies and laid the groundwork for new approaches to community engagement. Consider, for instance, the HyperCities project, a collaborative online tool based on Google Earth technology, has served as an incubator for multiple critical cartography projects, including LA-based Historic Filipinotown and Mapping Jewish Los Angeles. Hypercities was one of the first platforms to allow multiple users to layer demographic data (census, etc.) alongside videos, audio, photographs, and other multimedia resources to create an immersive storytelling experience. Another, more recent example, offers a unique and pathbreaking method for community asset mapping: Project Willowbrook. This effort focuses on a workbook model that asks community members to define their own neighborhood. And, there is Ride South L.A.: Watts Ride, a print map designed by local residents using camera phones to document places and routes of interest to bicyclists. In each of these cases, community members use maps to tell their own neighborhood stories and to create a space for dialogue in public forums.
Digital mapping is a tool that fosters reflection about place-making and offers a promising avenue to think through metropolitan Los Angeles and its history. Two trends have combined in recent years to warrant increased attention to Latinx suburbanization, specifically. First, as of 2010, suburbs became the primary site of residential life for the United States as a whole. As a nation, the residential experiences that shape daily life are centered in our suburbs. Second, in 2015, the U.S. Census Bureau found that Latinx communities formed the California majority for the first time in recent history. These trends intersect. According to a joint study by the Pew Hispanic Center and The Brookings Institution, 54 percent of all U.S. Latinxs live in suburbs. The study found that Los Angeles illustrates national trends in which Latinx residents are choosing suburbs and rural areas over city centers and disrupts assumptions that the Latinx community are more concentrated in urban settings. Using the mapping platform Social Explorer, the map below illustrates the Latinx population’s growth across LA census tracts between 1970 and 2015, reflecting a significant growth outside of the central city.
The scholarship on Latinx suburbanization demonstrates that Latinxs make residential choices with many of the same aspirations as other Californians, including access to jobs, opportunities for homeownership, and pursuit of the suburban dream. Yet, their pathways and experiences of suburbia have been, by no means, equal. For early Latinx suburbanites, it meant staying in place as semi-rural colonias were enveloped by suburbanization. For others, it entailed pursuing social mobility through geographic movement from LA’s urban centers and colonias to inner ring suburbs, as both middle class homeowners and working class laborers in areas of new construction. And, for others, suburbanization has been as a strategic response to circular displacement, from the redevelopment of urban centers to dislocation from one’s home country. In each case, many of these Latinx suburbanites face the legacies of racialization, discriminatory lending, and generational spatial inequity. Multimedia mapping can help visualize and narrate these varied histories, as well as where they intersect.
The Barrio Suburbanism Map focuses on the first metropolitan region to double its non-white population, explores the shifting economic, social, and spatial contours of suburbs in Greater Los Angeles, and illustrates national trends of Latinx suburbanism in its everyday context. If Los Angeles is a harbinger of the nation’s future, as it has often been, then we can expect that Latinx will increasingly shape the meaning of suburbs in the United States. To paraphrase urban and cultural historian A.K. Sandoval-Strausz, Latinx history is key to rethinking suburban history. In his insightful article, “Latino Landscapes: Postwar Cities and the Transnational Origins of Urban America,” Sandoval-Strausz asserts that alongside quantitative studies of Latinx in the postwar city exists an equivalent need to examine “the culturally specific ways they occupied and produced urban space: their everyday behaviors, residential practices, ownership and patronage of small businesses, and commitment to public presence.” Likewise, in the case of Latinx suburbs, statistics do much to provide a snapshot of recent transformations in suburbia, particularly growth, but they fail to represent the ways Latinx create meaning in the places they occupy. We suggest that multimedia mapping can help inform how we understand these places in light of demographic transformations. Digital mapping, photography, and student research combine here to prompt reflection of how Latinx (sub)urbanism shapes metropolitan space.
Mosaics of Los Angeles Suburbs
We share below six mosaics of Los Angeles inspired by selections from the Barrio Suburbanism Map. Each mosaic is comprised of images and a brief narrative summarizing the map’s content organized by regions that emerged from this research—San Fernando, the Greater Eastside, Gateways, the San Gabriel Valley, Santa Ana, and the Inland Empire. They provide a countermapping to “neighborhoods,” as defined by more mainstream projects that often rely heavily on quantitative data, instead revealing sites linked by place-making and diaspora. Initially, students surveyed demographic data and looked for places where the Latino community had a notable presence. Students, then, explored each area by using a range of qualitative methods, from field visits to analyzing redlining maps to deep reading of archival materials, such as photographs, oral histories, and ephemera. They were also encouraged to reflect on their own experiences within these spaces. Building on that research, map entries were designed with museum length descriptions of 250 words, tweetable links of 140 characters, a bibliography of sources, and, often, original student photography. Although each student focused on an individual suburb or neighborhood, it was through the collective process of mapping that they began to identify spatial forms and cultural practices across metropolitan Los Angeles. When observed online, the digital map underscores shared themes of community formation, immigration, education, art, and public space within the frameworks of (sub)urban studies and planning history. The Barrio Suburbanism Map, itself, contains more entries than the mosaics highlighted here, 80 in total. But it is by no means exhaustive. Rather than seeking to create a definitive survey of LA suburbs, the Barrio Suburbanism Map underscores the ways maps give meaning to place and foregrounds the everyday spatial practices of Latinx communities.
San Fernando serves as a microcosm of shifting land uses and spatial forms in Los Angeles. Situated Northwest of Los Angeles, San Fernando was originally occupied by peoples indigenous to southern California, most notably the Tongva. The city was later colonized by Spanish missionaries and gifted to Californio ranchers during Mexican secularization. San Fernando was one of a few cities in the valley to avoid annexation by Los Angeles in the early 20th century. As demonstrated by Americanist Laura Barraclough, legacies of restrictive housing and exclusionary land-use planning centered on western heritage have maintained privilege in places like the San Fernando Valley when compared to Los Angeles. Map entries follow changes in the town as it transitioned from a Spanish mission holding to Mexican ranch to American farmland to Los Angeles suburb. These transitions culminate in the emergence of local heritage campaigns that foreground San Fernando’s history as a community of “Little Farms Near the City.” In each urban transformation, the presence of Latinxs is steadfast. Yet, the significance of this presence is ever changing as residents react to varying economic, political, and demographic shifts.
Selections highlighting two ways of mapping San Fernando. At left, a historic street map, Shell Oil Company, “Street Map of San Fernando Valley and Los Angeles Northern Section,” David Rumsey Historical Map Collection (1956); at right, a narrative entry, “Barrio Suburbanism: Reshaping Metropolitan Geographies,” 2016, http://uclachicanxstudies.github.io/BarrioSuburbs/#page/about.
In Mapping Los Angeles, the neighborhoods of Highland Park and Lincoln Heights are drawn apart from Boyle Heights. In doing so, “East Los Angeles” is prematurely dissected by lines of class and race that are very much contested. By contrast, Victor M. Valle and Rodolfo D. Torres argue for thinking of these places as part of a continuous landscape, that of the Greater Eastside. This social geography is “shaped by the destructive and creative energies unleashed in the competition between older and newer forms of capital accumulation and the ensuing competition between landscapes.” Rather than reestablishing borders, we emphasize the interwoven patterns of Latinx migrations from urban to suburban and back, as well as the histories that underlie these movements. Valle and Torres offer a poignant vision of the “urban Latino core east of the Los Angeles River… as an organic demographic unit from which other Latino satellite communities would grow, cell by suburban cell.” The selections below give a glimpse of changing communities, but also signal the long-term growth and cohesiveness of Latinx neighborhoods.
Sprouting from the famous “shoestring” of Los Angeles, the Gateway suburbs are a collection of over 25 independent municipalities. This vast area, to the Southeast of Los Angeles and stretching out towards Orange County, has a rich, diverse, and sometimes surprising history. One of the most well-known is that of Richland Farms, a working urban farm located in Compton. The story of Richland Farms situates the Gateways and connects it back to the Shoshone tribes, who lived there before the Spanish missionaries arrived in the 1770s. Stories like that of Richland Farms help contextualize the spatial and demographic transformation of the Gateways through place-based history. It also contextualizes how migrants from Mexico and Central America found a home in a predominately African American neighborhood, which actually was almost entirely white decades before. If, on the one hand, Richland Farms points to the region’s past, on the other hand, the 710 Freeway and its geographical surrogate, the Los Angeles River, points to its future. Its freeway’s construction promised to create jobs by providing an easy connection between the urban core and northern suburbs of Los Angeles to its port. However, the freeway also divided communities, making them all but unlivable due to the accompanying high levels of pollution. In the emerging Los Angeles landscape, the Los Angeles River’s redevelopment may provide a transitional moment for some neighborhoods located along this busy corridor. Map contributions include observations concerning the freeway’s impact, empty lots, changing demographics, and new artistic spaces that give voice to the future.
Selection of photographs from Gateways by Alberto Loaiza, Lynwood, CA, 24 February 2016 (left); Enrique Carranza, Maywood, CA, 12 February 2016 (center); and Berenice Meza, Photograph of Mural by “Latino Barrio Roots,” Bell, CA, 21 February 2016 (right).
San Gabriel Valley
Affectionately referred to as the “SGV” and “626” by its residents, the San Gabriel Valley occupies an important cultural crossroads within metropolitan Los Angeles. Described by scholar Wendy Cheng, “The SGV is not only… a notable site of working and middle-class Chicana/o history—but also east of Little Tokyo, east of Chinatown, and an ancestral home of the indigenous Gabrielino/Tongva people.” It is in the context of an intertwined relationship between racial formation and home that Cheng locates an emergent “non-white identity” that is distinct to these multiracial middle-class suburbs. The layered histories of racialization in the San Gabriel Valley are highlighted by its’ mixture of mission architecture, specialty ethnic marketplaces, and multilingual community resources. Looking to suburban space from this interethnic crossroads, one encounters manga graphic novels from Japan translated into Spanish at the local library and a Vietnam War Memorial honoring U.S. veterans in a city with a sizable Vietnamese immigrant community. Suburbs with majority Latinx and Asian American populations, like Rosemead and Baldwin Park with their vivid ethnic landscapes, appear in contrast to majority-Asian elite suburbs, which concede to an “Anglo design aesthetic,” for a variety of class, cultural, and political reasons. Examples of past and present developments, from the first In-N-Out to the Rosemead Trailer Park, underscore the histories of population change, agriculture, and immigration in this LA region.
Selection of photographs of the San Gabriel Valley by Patricia Gonzalez, “Mercado Latino Inc.,” Baldwin Park, CA, 2016 (left) and Kathryn Loutzenheiser, Rosemead, CA, 20 February 2016 (center, right).
Behind the veneer of effortless suburban homogeneity made popular by the Bravo series Real Housewives of Orange County, sits one of the largest Latinx communities in California. The Logan neighborhood of Santa Ana is among the oldest barrios in the region, with roots dating back to 1886. Santa Ana is now a majority Latinx city, with current estimates near 80 percent of the population. The suburb has become a central node within an alternative Orange County, one in sharp contrast to the O.C.’s central place in histories of conservatism and right-wing organizations comprised of “suburban warriors.” Map entries underscore the ways its built environment shifted alongside municipal demographic changes. Downtown Santa Ana serves as a particularly striking example of place-making, where Logan Park, La Cuatro/Fourth Street, and the East End/Fiesta Village illustrate the varying ways residents of diverse backgrounds use the city. For instance, La Cuatro/Fourth Street features Spanish signage, hosts Mexican national celebrations, and provides a commercial center with restaurants, cafes, and gift shops serving a large immigrant and Latino/a community, at the same time it confronts gentrification. Long-time residents and newcomers, Mexican Americans and Mexican immigrants, Spanish-speakers and non-Spanish-speakers, have each left their imprint on the heart of Orange County, from the “Dia de La Independencia Fair” to Carlos Aguilar’s mural Among Heroes, which honors Santa Ana veterans. Where residents have created a rich sense of place, the dense interurban transportation networks of the Santa Ana Regional Transportation Center remind us of suburbia’s connection to the larger currents of metropolitan Los Angeles.
Selection of photographs of Santa Ana by Kevin Martinez, 8 February 2016 (left, right) and Jorge Quiroz, 15 February 2016 (center).
Looking to the Inland Empire underscores both past and future directions in the metropolitan areas’ poly-nuclear development and the growth of Latinx suburbia. The Inland Empire was formerly the “Citrus Belt,” a region dotted with semi-rural communities. The City of Ontario exemplifies these early 20th century “agriburbs,” from the tree-lined Euclid Avenue which served as an early showcase of irrigated splendor, to the Sunkist packing house that fueled agriculturalists’ fortunes, to Our Lady of Guadalupe Church, which served as a place of worship for Mexican American residents employed within the regional citrus industry. Where non-white workers were excluded from central neighborhoods through racial covenants and redlining, citrus workers established colonias at the edges of town where Mexican American customs flourished. These neighborhoods were often multiracial and drew on networks and resources established by earlier migrant workers, particularly from China, Korea, Japan, and India. As metropolitan Los Angeles stretched eastward in the postwar era, fields of green were replaced with stucco. About 10 miles east of Ontario is one of California’s newest incorporated municipalities, Jurupa Valley. Like other towns with historic colonias, the Latinx population has grown steadily here. Bilingual markets, the Rubidoux Swap Meet, festivals, parks, and churches have made the site a cultural hub. More so, the growing warehousing industry and its need for labor have made the town a center of international logistics, debates over environmental injustice, and a popular immigrant gateway.
Selection of photographs of the Inland Empire: “Ontario and San Antonio Heights Railroad Company’s Mule Car on Euclid Avenue, Ontario, ca. 1890,” California Historical Society Collection and the University of Southern California, c. 1890 (left); and Jose Cardona, Jurupa Valley, CA, 20 February 2016 (center, right).
Conclusion: A Community of Mapping
Through digital mapping, projects like the Barrio Suburbanism Map facilitate public-oriented research and student engagement in that process. By pairing photographs with student ethnographies, the map seeks to complicate popular perceptions of suburbia. It highlights the dynamic diversity of suburbanization in multiracial Los Angeles, with a focus on Latinx migration and settlement that aims to provoke critical discussion. In particular, it foregrounds how Latinx suburbanites impact the spatial and ideological contours of Greater Los Angeles. Rather than statistically driven mapping, these types of projects offer a more humanistic approach for interpreting space with the potential to train students in historical analysis. This is the first layer of an exponentially buildable platform. Future iterations, for instance, could introduce new layers to the present map that address labor history, housing prices, racial housing covenants, predatory lending, or fair housing activism, as well as artistic, literary, and architectural interventions in suburban spaces. As noted by the editors of Hypercities: Thick Mapping in the Digital Humanities, “thick maps are never finished and meanings are never definite… and give rise to forms of counter-mapping, alternative maps, multiple voices, and on-going contestations.” In this way, digital mapping offers a promising opportunity to develop pedagogical and public initiatives that are responsive to the changing conditions of the world we live in.
The authors thank Becky Nicolaides and an anonymous peer reviewer for providing valuable feedback on an earlier draft, as well as Priscilla Leiva for image assistance and student researcher Yazmin Gonzalez for editorial assistance.
 Becky Nicolaides, My Blue Heaven: Life and Politics in the Working-Class Suburbs of Los Angeles, 1920-1965 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press,) 2002; Karen Tongson, Relocations: Queer Suburban Imaginary (New York: New York University Press, 2011); Jerry Gonzalez, “‘A Place in the Sun’: Mexicans Americans, Race, and the Suburbanization of Los Angeles, 1940-1990,” unpublished Ph.D. dissertation (University of Chicago, 2008).
 For a selection of sources on the relational forms of racial formation in metropolitan Los Angeles, see Scott Kurashige. The Shifting Grounds of Race: Black and Japanese Americans in the Making of Multiethnic Los Angeles (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008); Laura R. Barraclough, “South Central Farmers and Shadow Hills Homeowners: Land Use Policy and Relational Racialization in Los Angeles,” The Professional Geographer, 61/2 (2009): 164-86; Leland T. Saito, Race and Politics: Asian Americans, Latinos, and Whites in a Los Angeles Suburb (Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1998); Wendy Cheng, The Changs Next Door to the Diazes: Remapping Race in Suburban California (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013).
 Defined by historians Becky Nicolaides and Andrew Wiese in The Suburb Reader, “In practical terms, we treat as suburban the sprawling territory beyond the central city limits that lies within commuting distance and social orbit of the older core…. In the larger metro areas, it may include places as far as two hours away as job opportunities have leapfrogged outward and metropolitan commuting sheds have overlapped.” Becky M. Nicolaides and Andrew Wiese, The Suburb Reader, 2d ed. (London: Routledge, 2016), 9.
 Audrey Singer, Twenty-First Century Gateways: Immigrant Incorporation in Suburban America (Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution, 2008).
 For a selection of classic and contemporary scholarship on mapping, see Martin Dodge, Rob Kitchin, and Chris Perkins, eds., The Map Reader: Theories of Mapping Practice and Cartographic Representation (Wiley Blackwell, 2011). On decolonizing mapping, see Sherene Razack, Race, Space, and the Law: Unmapping a White Settler Society (Toronto: Between the Lines, 2002). See also ch. 5 in Elaine Lewinnek, The Working Man’s Reward: Chicago’s Early Suburbs and the Roots of American Sprawl (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014).
 Robert O. Self, American Babylon: Race and the Struggle for Postwar Oakland (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2003), esp. ch. 7; Jody Agius Vallejo, Barrios to Burbs: The Making of the Mexican-American Middle Class (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2012); Jerry Gonzalez, “‘A Place in the Sun’: Mexicans Americans, Race, and the Suburbanization of Los Angeles, 1940-1990,” unpublished Ph.D. diss. (Chicago: University of Chicago, 2008); Audrey Singer, Twenty-First Century Gateways: Immigrant Incorporation in Suburban America (Washington, D.C.: The Brookings Institution, 2008).
 See Raúl Homero Villa and George J. Sánchez, eds., Los Angeles and the Future of Urban Cultures: A Special Issue of American Quarterly (Baltimore, MD: John Hopkins University Press, 2005).
 A.K. Sandoval-Strausz, “Latino Landscapes: Postwar Cities and the Transnational Origins of a New Urban America,” Journal of American History101 (2014): 808.
 This project utilizes GitHub as an academic publishing web platform and builds on frameworks developed by UCLA scholar Dawn Childress and programmer Nathan Day. For more on the design and attribution of the map, visit “Barrio Suburbanism: Reshaping Metropolitan Geographies,” 2016, http://uclachicanxstudies.github.io/BarrioSuburbs/#page/about.
 Laura Barraclough, Making the San Fernando Valley: Rural Landscapes, Urban Development, and White Privilege (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2011).
 Becky M. Nicolaides and James Zarsadiaz, “Design Assimilation in Suburbia: Asian Americans, Built Landscapes, and Suburban Advantage in Los Angeles’s San Gabriel Valley since 1970,” Journal of Urban History 43 (2017): 332-71.
 Scott Dunlop, “Real Housewives of Orange County,” Bravo Networks, 2006–2016.
 Lisa McGirr, Suburban Warriors: The Origins of the New American Right (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001).
 Carlos Aguilar, Among Heroes, Mural, 24-by-27-ft., 2012.
 For more on agriburbs, see Paul J.P. Sandul, California Dreaming: Boosterism, Memory, and Rural Suburbs in the Golden State (Morgantown, WV: West Virginia University Press, 2015).
 Matt Garcia, A World of Its Own: Race, Labor, and Citrus in the Making of Greater Los Angeles, 1900-1970. Chapel Hill and London (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2011).
Appendix: Inspirational Mapping Resources
We have drawn inspiration from a myriad of mapping projects across the Los Angeles region. Below is a partially crowd sourced selection of interpretive projects and archival map resources for feeding your inner-cartographer.
Phillip Ethington, “Los Angeles and the Problem of Urban Historical Knowledge,” A Multimedia Essay to Accompany the December 2000 Issue of the American Historical Review, published by the org, http://lapuhk.usc.edu
Genevieve Carpio is an Assistant Professor of Chicana/o Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles. She earned a Ph.D. in American Studies and Ethnicity from the University of Southern California and previously held the Cassius Marcellus Clay Postdoctoral Fellowship at Yale University. Her work engages relational ethnic studies, 20th century U.S. history, and critical geography, particularly as it relates to notions of place and mobility.
Andy Rutkowski is the Geospatial Resources Librarian at UCLA Library. He is interested in how GIS applications and methods can be applied to traditional library collections and archives in order to improve discoverability of collections as well as provide richer context and meaning to materials. He is also interested in the role that GIS and mapping can help play in community building and providing spaces for discussion, dialogue, and engagement around a variety of topics and issues.
The question is posed like this. You’ve probably heard it or asked it yourself. Perhaps at a cocktail party. Probably not in LA—but hey, maybe even here in the heart of the folly.
Why on Earth would you build a city for millions of souls in a desert?
Someday, and maybe sooner rather than later, the water is going to run out, and Los Angeles will dry up and blow away.
Alex Prud’homme, author of Ripple Effect: The Fate of Water in the Twenty-First Century, prophesied that Perth, Australia, “could become the world’s first ‘ghost city’—a modern metropolis abandoned for lack of water.” And, he warned, “similar fates may await America’s booming desert cities: Las Vegas, Phoenix, or Los Angeles.” Prud’homme’s description of Los Angeles as a “desert city” has a distinguished lineage. Boyle Workman, a 1930s booster, recalled Los Angeles’ “desert” beginnings when he described the Los Angeles Aqueduct as a triumph of human ingenuity and engineering. Workman praised “the men who diverted streams into ditches and fed waving fields of grain, vineyards, glossy orange groves and rich gardens that blossomed where once desert brooded.” A 1977 article by the famed aqueduct critic Remi Nadeau was headlined “Los Angeles is by Far the Largest City Ever Built in a Desert.” And nine years later in Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water, Marc Reisner referred to Los Angeles as being second only to Cairo as the most populous desert city on earth.
The myth of desert Los Angeles suggests that if not for the Los Angeles Aqueduct—and if the city were ever to lose the water that comes from Owens Valley—LA could be Ozymandias: that “colossal wreck, boundless and bare,” around which “the lone and level sands stretch far away,” in the immortal words of the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. But is Los Angeles the once and future desert? And should the LA Aqueduct be seen as Mulholland’s greatest gift? Or a curse because it gave rise to an ultimately unsustainable metropolis?
That Los Angeles is a “desert city” is, in large part, a myth. Writers have chipped away at the myth of the desert metropolis before. Here my objective is not simply to dispel the myth but to explore the history that underlies the mythology and to consider its potential for becoming true—because sometimes myths have a strange way of becoming true. Could we, through our own actions, be transforming the myth of desert LA into a self-fulfilling prophecy? It turns out, we have in fact gone a long way down that road.
Mojave Desert and creosote bush on the outskirts of Lancaster, California. Photograph by Glen MacDonald.
“A very pleasing spot in every respect”
The term “desert” has specific meanings. But how well does Los Angeles fit the bill? According to the venerable Köppen-Geiger Climate System, deserts typically receive less than 10 inches of precipitation a year. Los Angeles gets around 15 inches. However, it is not quite that simple. The real mark of a desert is the ratio of potential evaporation and transpiration (evapotranspiration) to precipitation. This ratio is dependent on temperature, and when the ratio is taken into account we find that a Southwest city such as Tucson, with its high temperatures, is classified as desert despite its average annual precipitation of around 11.6 inches. LA’s higher rainfall and milder temperatures place it in the Mediterranean climate zone. Climatologically, Los Angeles’ sister cities are not places like Cairo but Rome, Lisbon, Madrid, and Athens.
What else defines a desert? Ecologists and biogeographers delineate deserts as regions in which aridity produces sparse and treeless plant cover. Typically, in deserts there is more bare ground than vegetation. Consider the creosote bush-dominated Mojave Desert that extends from Lancaster to beyond Las Vegas. Here we see a generally treeless landscape where creosote bushes often occur at densities of less than one plant for every 100 to 200 square feet of land. Did Los Angeles ever look like this?
It can be hard to imagine what Los Angeles, with its pervasive built and irrigated landscapes, was like prior to Mulholland’s aqueduct, let alone in a state of nature. But glimpses of LA long before the deluge can be found in the written accounts of Padre Juan Crespi who accompanied the Gaspar de Portolà expedition in 1769. Crespi’s descriptions challenge the notion that Los Angeles was a desert. On 2 August 1769, Crespi described what is now the heart of Los Angeles: “The river flows on down nearly at ground level through a very green, lush and wide reaching valley of level soil some leagues in extent from north to south; upon one and the other side of the river, which runs continually onward with a great amount of trees[,] lie very large, very green bottom lands, looking from afar like nothing so much as large cornfields.” Crespi called it “a very pleasing spot in every respect.” He went on to express his views about the potential for European settlement: “And good, better than good, though the places behind us have been, to my mind this spot can be given the preference in everything, in soil, water and trees of which it has a good amount as I have related. A grand spot to become in time a good-sized mission of Our Lady of the Angels and La Porciúncula.” Instead of a mission, Governor Felipe de Neve established a civilian farming settlement on arable land that had once sustained the Tongva Indians. On 4 September 1781, a party of forty-four colonists and their military escort founded what was to become Los Angeles. The pueblo was established not in the middle of a desert but where colonists found water, lush vegetation, and good soils.
The Portolà expedition also crossed into the SanFernando Valley, a region generally hotter and drier than the site of future downtown LA. On 5 August 1769, near present day Encino, Crespi found another “grand spot for a good-size mission.” He wrote that “there is no bettering the vast amount of level soil in this valley, dark and friable.” Encino took its name from the Spanish word for live oaks, and Crespi commented on the many trees in the vicinity. “There are a great many walnut trees and white oaks here on the slopes of the mountains belonging to this plain, with a great deal of trees visible to eastward.”
Was Crespi overselling the Los Angeles region? It is not all lushness in his accounts. He does note burned grasslands, coastal sage, and prickly pear cactus consistent with semi-arid vegetation, but he does not describe a desert.
We have other glimpses of early days in the so-called “desert city.” In the nineteenth century, precipitation supported rich range lands and early cattle ranches surrounding Los Angeles, and farmers in the San Fernando Valley produced wheat without irrigation. River water irrigated vineyards, orchards, and market gardens near the pueblo. Shallow groundwater and spring water that collected in the basin’s substrates provided additional water for pumping. A picture from 1863 of a water wheel taking irrigation water from the Los Angeles River against the background of verdant fields and green trees tells the story, as do maps of agriculture in the late nineteenth century. As Crespi had observed earlier, it was “a very pleasing spot in every respect.” The natural local water of the Los Angeles Basin’s streams, rivers, and groundwater allowed Los Angeles to become by 1910 the top agricultural producing county in the entire United States.
Water wheel along the Los Angeles River in the 1860’s. Courtesy of Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection.
Water Wars, Real Estate and the Birth of the Desert City Myth
So, where did the “Los Angeles is a desert city” myth originate? Historian Ralph Shaffer has laid the blame on Harrison Gray Otis, the Chandler family, and their use of Los Angeles Times as a propaganda vehicle to secure water and ensure development. However, I think it’s a little more complex than that. In the writings of city boosters during the first real estate boom in the 1880s, one finds no overt reference to Los Angeles as a desert. The following assessment in Los Angeles Times comes from 15 August 1886: “The water supply of Los Angeles is abundant, and while not everything that it should be or can be made, it is better than the water of Boston, Philadelphia, and other Eastern cities.”
There were, however, other forces at work that may have contributed to conceptions of Los Angeles as a desert at the time. The 1877 Desert Lands Act classified as desert those tracts of land that “will not, without irrigation, produce an agricultural crop.” Private citizens could be granted title to such lands if they intended to “reclaim” them through the provision of irrigation waters. The area of Rancho Cucamonga in San Bernardino County east of Los Angeles was a region of such activity, although it is arguably not a true desert either.
Closer to Los Angeles, the San Fernando Valley in the 1880s was explicitly referred to as desert that could be made to bloom with irrigation. Here is one example from Los Angeles Times, on 4 June 1886: “It was said by somebody years ago, that the man who made a blade of grass grow where none grew before was a public benefactor. What can we say of the man who brings water from the bowels of the earth and causes a fresh, pure living stream to flow where there never was one since the world’s creation? Streams shall break out in the desert, and the thirsty lands become pools of water.” We begin to see the desert city myth taking hold in what would become the greater Los Angeles area, appropriately enough in the San Fernando Valley, where water from the LA Aqueduct would enable urban development in the twentieth century.
The image of Los Angeles collapsing and returning to desert can be seen in a remarkable Los Angeles Times article, “When the Desert Came Back,” which was published29 May 1927, just twelve years after the aqueduct first brought water to the city. Nathaniel Davis’s ostensible subject was the Roman ruins at Timgad, Algeria, but he used the occasion to warn about the potential environmental collapse of Los Angeles and the need for the conservation of water and surrounding forest lands. Uncannily, his voice can seem to speak directly to us from over eighty years ago about topics starkly relevant today. As many would do after him, Davis employed the desert motif in his plea: “I stood on the heights of Hollywood’s hills and looked seaward and then toward the mountains. It is a stirring panorama, a drama in orchards, steel and stone, and brawn and brain and heart. And I was pessimistic enough to imagine that self-confident Los Angeles had forgotten Babylon, Palmyra, Palestine, China and Timgad. What I now saw was our own beloved land. And I saw sand dunes, sage brush, aridity, stately ruins, idle derricks, desolation.” Much of what has since been written about Los Angeles’ fated return to desert echoes this refrain.
Maps to accompany report on irrigation and water supply, by William Hammond Hall, California Department of Engineering, 1888. Courtesy of davidrumsey.com.
What About William Mulholland?
But what about William Mulholland, the father of the LA Aqueduct? Did he ever subscribe to this view of the desert city? Or use it to sell the aqueduct? In 1905, Mulholland claimed that he originally thought the city would never need water from anywhere else. “Thirteen years ago Fred Eaton first told me that Los Angeles would one day secure its water supply from Owens Valley,” Mulholland told Los Angeles Times. “At that time the Los Angeles River was running 40,000,000 gallons of water daily, and we had a population of less than 50,000. I laughed at him. ‘We have enough water here in the river to supply the city for the next fifty years,’ I told him. ‘You are wrong,’ he said, ‘You have not lived in this country as long as I have. I was born here and have seen dry years, years you know nothing about. Wait and see.”’ Mulholland concluded: “Four years ago I began to discover that Fred was right. Our population climbed to the top and the bottom appeared to drop out of the river.”
The cause was drought. Mulholland’s case for the aqueduct was not built on making a barren desert bloom, but accommodating population growth and providing protection against drought, arguments that have been used to justify importing more water to the city ever since.
In 1907, Mulholland urged voters to support bonds that were critical to building the aqueduct, arguing: “Our population has doubled since 1904, while our water supply has diminished. At times we have faced a veritable water famine.” Drought, of course, was no stranger to Angelenos even prior to Mulholland’s arrival. A devastating drought from 1862 to 1865 eviscerated the region’s cattle-based economy. A prolonged dry spell from 1893 to 1904, coupled with dramatic population growth—the city tripled in size during that period—motivated Mulholland’s quest, not a vision of creating a city in the desert.
MODIS satellite image of the urban area of greater Los Angeles and the surrounding desert. Courtesy of Glen MacDonald.
Myth Made Real?
But are we turning the city into a desert? To see, let’s get a view from on high, above the city, from a satellite orbiting Earth, which gathered data to create an image while I was writing this piece. What has Los Angeles become since the pastoral eighteenth and nineteenth century views we encountered earlier?
Now we see the gray tones of our metropolitan area blanketing the entire Los Angeles basin, San Fernando Valley, Santa Clarita Valley to the north, and Inland Empire to the east. The San Gabriel and San Bernardino Mountains, which seem so imposing from the ground and separate us from the true desert to the east, appear like tiny green islands in a sea of city and desert. Indeed, because it now veritably merges with Palmdale, Lancaster, Victorville, and Palm Springs, it is the growth of the megacity that encroaches upon the Mojave Desert and not vice versa. The cities merge physically and in terms of the daily flows of people, energy, and commerce. Taken as a whole, Greater Los Angeles has grown from its Mediterranean core outward and has merged with the true deserts to the east. The “fertile vales” that once separated city from desert are no more. This image shows a huge city that blends in with vast deserts to the north and east.
That is not all. Increasing concentrations of greenhouse gases, to which Los Angeles has contributed directly, threaten to bring the true desert climate closer to the city’s core. A recent projection of the impacts of climate change shows the city of Los Angeles warming by some 3 to 4 degrees Fahrenheit by the middle of this century, while foothill, mountain, and desert regions could warm even more. At the same time, other models suggest that precipitation patterns are likely to change in ways that will reduce the snowpack in our mountains and diminish our water supply. The result is likely to be increasing general aridity in the Southwest, Southern California, and the Los Angeles region coupled with longer droughts that will tax an already stressed water system. Neither the Sierra Nevada nor the Colorado River are likely to be able to provide the imported water to which we have become accustomed. Unfortunately, the phrase “desert city” could soon accurately describe Los Angeles. As we move further into the twenty-first century, not only are the outer boundaries of the Los Angeles megacity sprawling into the true desert, we are also bringing the desert climate inexorably closer to the heart of the founding plaza of El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Ángeles de Porciúncula.
And just so we come to the end of a chapter of our history that William Mulholland began, “There it is. Take It.” Now we must write a new chapter of our history, and in the process perhaps create a new myth for our metropolis.
 Alex Prud’homme, “Drought: A Creeping Disaster,” The New York Times, 16 July 2011.
 Boyle Workman, The City That Grew (Los Angeles: The Southland Publishing Company, 1935).
 Remi Nadeau, “Los Angeles: A City That Water Built,” Los Angeles Times, 26 June 1977.
 Marc Reisner, Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water (New York: Viking Press, 1986).
 Mike Davis, Ecology of Fear (New York: Vintage Books, 1998); Ralph Shaffer, “That desert myth: will it ever dry up?” LA Observed, 10 November 2003, http://www.laobserved.com/archive/2003/11/la_is_not_a_des.php; Glen MacDonald, “Los Angeles Water––Myths, Miracles, Mayhem and William Mulholland,” AAG Newsletter, December 2012.
 M.C. Peel, B.L. Finlayson, and T.A. McMahion, “Updated World Map of the Köppen-Geiger Climate Classification,” Hydrology and Earth System Sciences 11 (2007): 1633–1644.
 Glen MacDonald, Biogeography: Space, Time and Life (New York: John Wiley and Sons, 2002).
 Juan Crespi, A Description of Distant Lands, Alan K. Brown, trans. (San Diego: San Diego State University Press, 2001).
 In the San Fernando Valley, Crespi describes grandes enzinos y ròblez, meaning large evergreen live oaks (Quercus agrifolia) and deciduous valley oaks (Quercus lobata). The neighborhood of Encino in the San Fernando Valley takes its name from this. The modern Spanish spelling for live oak is encina.
 Quoted in: J. Cohen, “Agricultural Land Is Growing Scarce: Nursery Plants Are Now the Top Crop in Los Angeles County,” Los Angeles Times, 10 May 1987.
 Ralph Shaffer, “That desert myth: will it ever dry up?”
 “‘Instink’ and Desert Lands: The Act of Congress in Such Cases Made and Provided,” Los Angeles Times, 7 July 1883; J.T. Ganoe, “The Desert Land Act in Operation, 1877–1891,” Agricultural History 11: 142–157.
 “Improving the Waste Places: The Work of Settlers on the So Called Cucamonga Desert,” Los Angeles Times, 17 November 1883; “Cucamonga,” Los Angeles Times, 20 July 1883.
 “San Fernando Valley: A Fertile Region with a Prosperous Future,” Los Angeles Times, 25 November 1883.
 See for example: “The San Fernando Water Case,” Los Angeles Times, 22 August 1904; “Bright Days in the Valley,” Los Angeles Times, 10 August 1905.
 Robert W. Matson, William Mulholland: A Forgotten Forefather (Stockton: University of the Pacific, 1976); Margaret Leslie Davis, Rivers in the Desert: William Mulholland and the Inventing of Los Angeles (New York: Harper Collins, 1993).
 “Truth About Owens River: Mulholland Talks to Sixth Ward Property,” Los Angeles Times, 30 May 1907.
 Workman, The City That Grew; Lynn Bowman, Los Angeles: Epic of a City (Berkeley: Howell-North Books, 1974); Gordon DeMarco, A Short History of Los Angeles (San Francisco: Lexikos, 1988).
 A. Hall, F. Sun, D. Walton, S. Capps, Q. Xin, and H-Y. Huang, “Mid-Century Warming in the Los Angeles Region”––Part I of the Climate Change in the Los Angeles Region (UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability Peer-Reviewed Report, http://escholarship.org/uc/item/6v88k76b).
 IPCC, 2007: Climate Change 2007: Synthesis Report: Contribution of Working Groups I, II and III to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, eds. R.K. Pachauri and A. Reisinger (Geneva, Switzerland, IPCC); Glen M. MacDonald, “Climate Change and Water in Southwestern North America Special Feature: Water, Climate Change, and Sustainability in the Southwest,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 107, 21256–21262; doi:10.1073/pnas.0909651107, 2010.
Glen M. MacDonald is Director of the White Mountain Research Center and a UCLA Distinguished Professor. He is a former Director of the UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability and holds the John Muir Memorial Chair in Geography at the University of California, Los Angeles. He is the author of Biogeography: Space, Time and Life. His research focuses on climatic and environmental change.
UC Berkeley. Photograph by Charlie Nguyen via Flickr.
University of California President Janet Napolitano’s troubles over the State Audit are not a one-off case of mismanagement or bad governance. They are symptomatic of a larger and longer term problem: dramatically shrinking revenues have made the UC’s task increasingly impossible, triggering the fancy footwork by an Office of the President trying to safeguard its reserves and simultaneously manage the politics of what has become an untenable position. No doubt Napolitano is undermined when the constituent parts of the UC sing a different song to herself and the regents. No doubt also, the legislature and the public must know where things stand. But the real issue is that the University of California, and also the CSU, no longer have the public financing to fulfil their far-reaching public mandates.
It is a crisis that has been forty years in the making. The table (below) summarizes the funding trend from 1960 to 2010. The tax revolt and Proposition 13 in 1978 ensured that despite some good years in the 1980s the public funding of public higher education would never be as strong again as it had been in the great days of the 1960 Master Plan.
The table illustrates the rapid rise in total funding in the first two decades of the Master Plan as enrollment grew more rapidly than planned in the community colleges. In the 1970s the University budget slowed due to the combined effects of Governor Reagan’s opposition to UC Berkeley, and demographic factors. Nevertheless, the economy was up in the 1980s, and Governor Deukmejian made higher education a priority, granting the University of California a 30 per cent increase in its operating budget in 1983. Despite the gathering fallout from Proposition 13, the 1980s were on the whole a good decade for the University. State support increased for the CSUs and the community colleges also. However, Proposition 13 meant that in some years, community colleges had to turn away applicants, a sign of things to come. Also, the share of total state expenditures going to the UC and CSU fell, from 11.3 per cent in the Master Plan year of 1960, to 7.8 per cent in 1995. (Over the same span funding for prisons rose from 2.4 to 7.1 per cent of state spending).
The 1990s saw the end of funding growth in the UC and CSU, though the enrollment grew by 8.5 per cent in the UC and 2.5 per cent in the CSU. The final decade in the Table (below), 2000-2010, was considerably tougher. It saw a major reduction in fiscal support, much of it concentrated at the end of the decade, reflecting the effects of the 2008-2010 recession. State funding of the University of California fell by 24.7 per in real terms between 2000 and 2010, while the enrollment increased by a massive 40.2 per cent. There was a 14.8 per cent decline in California State University funding over the same 2000-2010 period, while the enrollment rose by 28.2 per cent. The funding of the community colleges increased by 14.2 per cent, which almost matched the enrollment growth of 16.2 per cent, but the community colleges had less opportunity to raise non-state revenues than did the CSU and UC campuses.
Student enrollment in public higher education, andstate and local government financial support, California, 1960 to 2010 (constant 2010 prices)
The 2008-2010 recession generated havoc in state revenues and was especially bad for the unprotected areas of the state budget. Douglass reports a cut of $813 million in the funding of the UC system in 2009 and 2010. Public funding, the bedrock of long-term planning in the early decades of the Master Plan, is now more volatile and less predictable than tuition revenues and other private sources. UC campuses are beginning to imagine a future in which state funding is negligible. In the decade between 2002-03 and 2012-13, state revenues received by University of California Berkeley declined from $497 to $299 million in current dollars, a reduction in constant price terms of 54 per cent. Successive state governments have learned that they can reduce university funding without a severe public backlash, but there is more likely to be public opposition if they sanction the tuition increases necessary for institutions to make up the shortfall. From the 1990s onwards, a new pattern was established, in which the years of funding recovery were insufficient to compensate for years of reductions. Small cuts were not undone and tended to accumulate. In this asymmetrical policy framework, and given the continued legal/fiscal constraints on the state, California’s recession-induced cuts now look to be largely irreversible.
Royce Hall, UCLA. Photograph by Praytino via Flickr.
Like their public sector counterparts in many other states, the UC and CSU finds (and will continue to find) it extremely difficult to secure state support to raise tuition so as to compensate for the effects of state cutbacks. Nevertheless, tuition increases sufficient to plug the gap in spending also carry problems. Public institutions depend on public support, both to secure favorable state policies and more generally, to function effectively in a highly networked society and economy. Public support is no doubt undermined by rising tuition, and this also eats into the access mission of the University of California, which so far has been largely maintained despite the circumstances. On the other hand, public support is weakened also by reductions in service quality due to insufficient funding, and the access mission needs to be subsidized. In 2013, after the recession, the student-to faculty ratio in the University of California was 24 to 1, compared to 19 to 1 a decade earlier, and 15 to 1 in the 1980s. The public university campuses find themselves positioned between the Scylla of a resource decline that would undermine all objectives, including the research outputs and quality on which so much else depends, and the Charybdis of public unpopularity and mission compromise. They feel forced to become more like a private university, so as to uphold their public mission effectively in social competition with the real private sector. They have limited options, with only research funding, foreign students and noncore revenues as potential sources of much needed additional resources. In this setting the University of California campuses have no clear-cut forward strategy.
The problem is specific to public higher education rather than general to higher education as a whole. The effects of the recession differentiated between the University of California, which depends partly on the Californian state budget and whose tuition is state regulated; and private universities such as Harvard, Yale, Stanford, and Princeton, which are free to manage their prices and carry significantly larger endowments than Berkeley, UCLA, and UC San Diego. Though both state funding and university endowments fell sharply in value in the first two years of recession, the recovery in each case was different. By 2014 endowments had been largely restored in value but the state funding cuts seemed at least partly permanent.
While the UC campuses and the beleaguered UCOP are struggling to cope, right now, the deeper effects of today’s crisis will play out over decades. Of all the jewels of American science, California public education has shined the brightest. As I discuss in my book published last year, The Dream is Over: The Crisis of Clark Kerr’s California Idea of Higher Education, the UC still houses four of the world’s top twenty research universities, in terms of the amount of high quality science produced—Berkeley, UCLA, San Francisco, and San Diego—and seven of the world’s top sixty. Not if present trends are maintained.
Money matters in research and education, as it does in most everywhere else. Past patterns show this. In a study of American science , James Adams finds that in the 1990s there was an overall slowdown in the output of the public universities. Though their share of federal research grants grew their revenues from their respective state governments fell, which ate into the capacity to sustain research infrastructure and faculty time on research. It is a sign of what is to come. The drop in state support across the country in the 1990s, studied by Adams, was nothing compared to what happened after the 1990s in California. Between 2002-03 and 2012-13 the proportion of Berkeley’s revenues coming from state sources dropped from 34 to 13 per cent. That decline is continuing. Unless the state, and ultimately the taxpayer, have a change of heart the UC position is going to get much worse.
Sather Gate, UC Berkeley. Photograph by John Morgan via Flickr.
 Clark Kerr, The Gold and the Blue: A Personal Memoir of the University of California, 1949-1967, Volume 1: Academic Triumphs (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001), 189.
 Patrick Callan, “The Perils of Success: Clark Kerr and the Californian Master Plan for Higher Education,” in Sheldon Rothblatt, ed., Clark Kerr’s World of Higher Education Reaches the 21st Century: Chapters in a Special History (Dordrecht: Springer, 2012), 67, 69.
 John Wilton, data supplied by Vice-Chancellor, Administration and Finance, University of California, Berkeley, October 2014.
 Neil Smelser, Dynamics of the Contemporary University: Growth, Accretion and Conflict (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013), 44-48, 85.
 John Aubrey Douglass, To Grow or Not to Grow? A Post-Great Recession Synopsis of the Political, Financial, and Social Contract Challenges Facing the University of California. Research and Occasional Paper CSHE 15.13 (Berkeley: Center for Studies in Higher Education, University of California Berkeley), 7.
 James Adams, “Is the United States Losing its Preeminence in Higher Education?” in Charles Clotfelter, ed., American Universities in a Global Marketplace (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010), 44-66, esp. 65.
“An organizer is a leader who does not lead; he gets behind the people and pushes.” —Fred Ross
I doubt Fred Ross would have been the subject of a book length biography had he not recruited United Farm Workers founder and civil rights leader Cesar Chavez to the organizer’s trade. Yet the reasons why a full portrait of Ross’s life is both timely and useful extend far beyond his star pupil.
Gabriel Thompson’s America’s Social Arsonist: Fred Rossand Grassroots Organizing in the Twentieth Century reveals a driven, singularly focused man, who sacrificed family and personal comfort to devote himself to organizing poor people for collective action on their own behalf. Thompson documents the deep positive impact Ross had on working class communities, and on the practices of two generations of organizers. These pages also unveil, often painfully, the personal damage to his loved ones that his priorities inflicted on them.
Ross shunned the limelight, believing an organizer’s role was to find leaders, help them to develop, and get out of their way. He found a lot of them, including Chavez, but others too—bighearted, ambitious, or both—who went on to important roles in the labor movement and electoral politics. Ross developed garden-variety activists as well, training thousands over the course of a forty-year career. But he was also ruthless in assessing and discarding individuals he deemed insufficiently dedicated to the difficult, tedious, mundane, and time-consuming chores—the checklists, the follow-up phone calls, the endless meetings—involved in creating social change.
I share this with Cesar Chavez: both of us were recruited to organizing work by Fred Ross. My initiation occurred during a warm spring afternoon in 1974, underneath a tree next to Campbell Hall at UCLA. My leftist English professor had asked a few politically interested students if they would like to hear about the United Farm Workers from one of the union’s organizers.
I was a senior, contemplating without too much urgency my post-graduation prospects. Ross sat with us on the grass in a circle. He was old (by which I mean exactly the same age I am now) but animated with a quiet assurance about the importance of the work he described. I don’t remember his words but they were effective. After an hour or so my friend Wayne Baron had decided to become a full-time organizer for the UFW boycott effort. I had other priorities—eventually, graduate school—but with the war in Vietnam winding down, I was casting about for another volunteer political activity, and knew I had found it. For the next year and a half I sat behind a table on Bruin Walk piled with UFW literature, buttons, and bumper stickers and accepted donations for the cause. I organized house meetings and film screenings. I stood outside supermarkets and asked shoppers to not buy grapes and lettuce. I caravanned to Delano in the Central Valley to join demonstrations.
Eventually I moved to San Francisco for graduate school. Wayne had gone there before me, and now ran the city’s boycott effort out of a former church dormitory. He was extremely proud of the article written about his work by an undercover John Birch Society reporter that began, “Where nuns once prayed and slept, now filthy mattresses lie four abreast, supporting communist subversion.” He pinned it to the bulletin board next to his office and showed it to everyone who visited.
I continued to volunteer a few hours a week for la causa after starting school, plugging into Wayne’s impressive boycott operation. Few stores carried non-union grapes or lettuce, and the ones that did faced lively picket lines each weekend. On the other hand, many storefront windows sported the black and red UFW eagle, pledging fealty to the boycott. And wherever I walked with Wayne, we could not go more than a few hundred feet without being stopped by someone—store owners, union members, community activists, students—who knew him through his indefatigable UFW boycott organizing.
Multiply this situation in San Francisco by scores around the country in major urban centers—there were four hundred full-time organizers on staff, receiving $5 a week plus room and board—and you have an idea of the reach and effectiveness of the boycott in the mid-70s. Polls showed that 10–12% of the American population had stopped eating grapes and lettuce in sympathy with the struggle of California farm workers for a better life.
I didn’t connect the dots at the time, but much of this was ultimately traceable back to Fred Ross, through a combination of the serendipity of his meeting and resulting relationship with Chavez, and the unbelievably hard work Ross devoted to organizing on the way to that meeting, creating the conditions for it to occur, and afterward, nurturing conditions for the movement to flourish.
Thompson’s book begins, fittingly, with the well-known story of Ross visiting Chavez’s house in the barrio of East San Jose, Sal Si Puedes, in late spring 1952. Although a full treatment of Ross’s life had to wait for Thompson’s book, the UFW itself is the most well documented labor movement in United States history; within that literature the meeting at Chavez’s house with Ross remains the stuff of legend. Outside that moment, though, many of the now aging cohort of activists who came up through the farmworker movement knew relatively little of Ross’s pre-Chavez life. In extending our knowledge about the master organizer, Thompson’s book holds his subject beneath an unblinking wide angled lens, and what we learn, not entirely pretty, explains a lot about both men.
Fred Ross was born in Los Angeles in 1910, product of the unhappy marriage of Frederick Ross and Daisy Crowell. Ross’s later political development was not nurtured in his early home environment. Frederick Ross worked in newspaper advertising and later for the National Association of Manufacturers—a trajectory his employer at the Los Angeles Times, the virulently anti-union Harrison Gray Otis, would have found commendable. Thompson notes that young Fred’s parents shared racist attitudes, and referred to poor people as “trash.” Daisy was incensed when the school district boundaries near their Echo Park neighborhood home changed and she found her son going to school with black children. She raised such a stink he was allowed to transfer back to his former school.
Ross the senior probably cheated on Daisy, according to Thompson, precipitating their divorce when Fred was ten and his brother six. Her job as a secretary barely paid the bills, even with child support payments. Eventually Daisy couldn’t handle Fred’s continuous bad behavior. Her parents, who owned a modest hotel in San Pedro, took Fred in on the weekends and gave him the attention Daisy could not. They also provided him with a structured religious upbringing, schooling him in the Bible so deeply he was anointed junior pastor in their Methodist church.
Ross did less well in actual school, disinterested in academic achievement or classroom decorum. His wild antics (example: setting off fireworks at his elementary graduation rehearsal) led Daisy, at considerable expense, to send him to a military school in San Diego, but after getting sick he returned home and finished high school with a C average.
After a few years enduring low paying jobs and taking some classes at Los Angeles Junior College, Ross enrolled at University of Southern California, subsidized by Daisy’s lover, a judge. Here things began to change. His friendship with fellow student Eugene Wolman, a Jewish Communist from New York, opened Ross’s eyes to the Great Depression and its impact on the working class. He became active in student political organizing, took a class from a socialist professor that made a deep impression on his intellectual development, and allowed himself to be recruited to lead the campus chapter of the Communist Party-inspired National Student League.
After graduation Ross remained at USC for another semester to get a teaching credential, while Wolman went to work in a nearby factory, hoping to organize a CIO (Congress of Industrial Organizations) union. He invited Ross to come to the first organizing meeting, at which but one worker showed up. Thompson notes, “For Ross, it wasn’t the most inspiring introduction to organizing. But it did offer a useful lesson: to organize, you needed energy and passion, which Wolman had in abundance, but you also need a solid plan.”
Wolman went on to fight and die in the Spanish Civil War. This, too, had a big impact on Ross, according to Thompson, “an example of how, no matter what sacrifices he might make as an organizer—the long hours, the low pay, the constant travel—others had sacrificed much more.”
Despite his recently acquired teaching credential, history teachers were more plentiful than jobs in 1937, and when Ross was offered a position as a social worker he took it. California had set up the State Relief Agency (SRA) a couple years before, ostensibly to help the unemployed get through hard times. Ross found that in the agricultural counties surrounding Los Angeles its other purpose was to supply cheap labor for growers. It enforced this function by removing its destitute clients from the relief rolls if they refused to go to work at any price.
Here Ross began to develop the work habits he maintained throughout his life, including long hours, careful note taking, and leaving behind his young wife for days—or weeks, or months—at a time. Ross gained some real world details to fill out the incomplete picture his college radicalism had painted of the working class. At first outraged to discover that some of his clients had lied and were actually working in the fields while drawing unemployment compensation—because, as they told him, the piece rates they were being paid could not sustain them, let alone their families, and they needed the extra income—he determined to prove that they must not be working hard enough.
Ross and family on porch. Photo courtesy of the Ross family.
But his meritocratic ideology taught him something different than what he had expected. Going to work one day in disguise tying carrots, where growers needed workers so badly they were always hiring, he labored twelve hours and emerged bone tired with eighty-four cents. After he was disfraciplined by his supervisor when he described what he had done, Ross quit the SRA and got hired by the federal Farm Security Administration (FSA). Renowned today for the photographs by Dorothea Lange, Ben Shahn and others that burned the faces of the Dust Bowl refugees Ross worked with into the nation’s conscience, the agency hired Ross for a job in a warehouse distributing dry goods in the Coachella Valley.
As Thompson records, Ross discovered that “The poor were complicatedly human, as three-dimensional as anyone else; they just happened to have more roadblocks thrown up in their way.” One Okie migrant in particular, a sixty-two year old man who lost his farm, became Ross’s friend. As a result of his storytelling—what one transplanted southwestern woman called their “migracious stories”—he and people like him were no longer “political abstractions, neither the right’s lazy creatures prone to ‘chronic dependency’ nor the left’s flawless victims.”
Early in 1939 Ross accepted more responsibility and stepped into what ultimately became one of the few other well-known—if not entirely accurate—elements of the Ross legend. The FSA had set up nineteen model farm labor camps around California’s central valley. As Thompson points out, these were meant to provide an alternative to the filthy and oppressive conditions found in most camps set up by growers for their low paid labor force: these were clean, relatively well-run, featured laundry facilities, and contained showers in their bathrooms. They also demonstrated that with some encouragement, the campers—mostly migrant Okies—might find some dignity beyond personal hygiene in cultural activities (for example, camp newsletters, dances and concerts, film screenings, theatrical productions, etc.) and participation in camp governance.
Ross served a four month apprenticeship in the Visalia camp, and then became manager of his own, outside the feudal town of Arvin, where Joseph Di Giorgio, pacesetter capitalist in the newly-named “agribusiness” flourishing despite the Great Depression, held sway.
The way I had heard the story from Wayne and other UFW activists, Fred Ross was the inspiration for the kindly government camp director in John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, which appeared later that year in 1939. I always thought the timing wasn’t right, and Thompson sets the record straight: it was an earlier director of the same camp, Tom Collins, who had modeled that role for Steinbeck. In any case, Ross didn’t waste the opportunity he had been handed.
In addition to the Okie workers and their families, the Arvin camp served as temporary quarters for left wing troubadour Woody Guthrie, who played and sang for the migrants on numerous occasions, as well as two hard-bitten state organizers for the United Cannery, Agricultural, Packinghouse and Allied Workers of America (UCAPAWA-CIO). These men, Luke Hinman and Wyman Hicks, took the opening willingly provided by Ross to utilize Arvin Camp as a base for organizing field workers residing there and in the surrounding area.
This was a tough row to hoe, but one in which Ross would make a large contribution himself in later years. At this point he simply watched, learned, and bent the FSA rules to accommodate his guests as they built the will among his campers to go on strike in October, 1939. He also became acquainted at this time with Carey McWilliams.
McWilliams had been appointed by Culbert Olsen, the first Democrat elected California governor in the twentieth century, to oversee agricultural labor as the state commissioner of immigration and housing. His book Factories in the Field, a well-researched non-fiction flip side to The Grapes of Wrath, came out the same year, strengthening the growing public understanding that something was very wrong in the sprawling farm districts of California. Unlike his predecessors at the top of California government agencies dealing with farm labor, McWilliams did what he could to help migrant farmworker families. Ross, as Thompson reports, was still assigning Factories in the Field to his organizer trainees decades later.
In camp Ross did not hide his sympathies. Thompson notes, “His partisanship was so overt that one resident would pen a letter to Ross’s supervisor complaining that the camp was “practically run” by the union, that Ross was a “strong member” of the CIO, and that the camp was no longer a place for “us honest and non-communists to live in.”
The strike, however exhilarating at the start, lasted two weeks before being efficiently and violently crushed by the growers; their weapon, the Associated Farmers, had been described without hyperbole by McWilliams as a fascist organization. The job action, involving thousands of workers in dozens of farms, turned out to be the last hurrah in the fields for the UCAPAWA, heir to communist-led organizing for the previous decade. Rethinking its strategies after the defeat, it retreated to canneries and packing sheds, where its leaders planned to rebuild a structure in the agricultural supply chain that would eventually allow them to return to field organizing.
Brawley meeting. Photo courtesy of Department of Special Collections and University Archives, Stanford University Libraries.
That never occurred, as McCarthyism ultimately destroyed UCAPAWA along with a dozen or so other left wing CIO unions by the early 1950s. Ross, moved by his experience during the strike and conversations with Hinman and Hicks, eventually played a major role in a different farmworker organization’s attempt to organize field workers. But first another formative moment awaited him during World War II, when he left the FSA to work for the War Relocation Authority (WRA), with Japanese-Americans interned in concentration camps.
While in some respects the WRA represented continuity for Ross—working with a stigmatized social group in rural America—it also demonstrated conclusively to him the limits of a model of social action emphasizing service to victims. Although he didn’t understand it at the time, it set him inexorably on the path to his calling as an organizer.
Initially believing the government’s justification for relocation—that the Japanese Americans threatened national security—working closely with them changed his mind. Stationed in Minidoka, Idaho, Ross learned that nothing he attempted to do on behalf of the nearly ten thousand detainees would be approved by his superiors. His experience provided him with insight into the deep wellspring of racism in American politics and culture, which suffused the WRA bureaucracy, nearby towns, and, after Ross got transferred to Cleveland to work on relocation efforts, the attitudes of white workers within war industries desperate to hire any workers—except “dirty Japs.”
Ross found that getting Japanese-American workers employed within the still fierce “them and us” hothouse atmosphere of war necessitated building and using a big toolbox of tactics. Besides eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation with anger, prejudice and fear, Ross had to establish functional relationships among government agencies, community groups, employers, and unions—including persuading racist southern white workers who had come north for well-paying defense jobs that winning the war on the home front required setting aside ingrained beliefs about others.
Ross gained another perspective on the same set of issues at home. Ross’s second wife Frances (his first wife having divorced him early in the war) got a job in a Cleveland factory, where her efforts helping to integrate African Americans into the plant’s workforce eventually led to a job with Roosevelt’s Fair Employment Practices Commission (FEPA), the federal agency responsible for enforcing a modest standard of racial justice in hiring and promotion in war industries. The FEPA was understaffed and limited in its ability to fulfill its mission. Occasionally other authorities stepped up to fill the vacuum.
For instance, after returning to San Francisco at the end of the war, Ross accompanied International Longshoremen’s and Warehousemen’s Union president Harry Bridges on an expedition to a Petaluma warehouse north of the Golden Gate Bridge, where the radical labor leader, who later married a Nisei, told his members refusing to work alongside a Japanese-American that he would pull their local charter if they did not allow the man to work.
This full immersion program in race and employment relations outside and within his home during and after World War II led Ross in a new direction. Thompson tells us that “Ross the social worker was receding, soon to disappear; the outlines of Ross the campaigner, Ross the organizer, were beginning to take shape.”
The circumstances out of which Ross emerged in his late thirties as a superb organizer have been chronicled elsewhere, notably in Ken Burt’s The Search for a Civic Voice: California Latino Politics. Thompson dives more deeply into the discipline of organizing, using Ross’s experience to demonstrate what Ross felt was necessity for an organizer—full devotion to a cause—but for others could seem like near obsession.
Ross knew how to listen, as he had already shown in his work with the New Deal “alphabet soup” agencies. Despite poor Spanish skills, he began to do that listening in southern California barrios, working first for the American Council on Race Relations and then, crucially, for famed Chicago organizer and author (Reveille for Radicals) Saul Alinsky and what was to become the Community Service Organization (CSO). Prior to their meeting, Ross had spent a couple years bringing together Southern California Mexican American and African American low income communities in coalitions for voter registration drives, successful campaigns to oust racist school board and local city council officials, and efforts to integrate and secure resources for schools and community centers.
These activities had brought him to the attention of the older Alinsky (not to mention the FBI). It was also during these campaigns that Ross realized that the house meeting was the essential building block of community organizing, a method he refined over time with near-scientific precision.
In Thompson’s telling, when Alinsky, founder of the Industrial Areas Foundation based in Chicago, met Ross, he wrote a friend, “I have hired a guy who I think is a natural for our work. It will really be the first time that I have an associate who understands exactly what we are after.” The phrase, ‘what we are after,’ referred to organizing working people in the early years of the Cold War, as anti-communism was corroding longstanding progressive political alliances, poisoning public discourse, and enveloping anyone whose occupation was “organizing,” especially in working class communities of color, within a fog of suspicion.
Swearing in CSO members. Photo courtesy of Los Angeles Daily News, UCLA.
Nowhere did these factors play into the equation more than in the melting pot of Boyle Heights, where immigration combined with radical politics circa 1950 to morph the neighborhood—just east of downtown Los Angeles—from early twentieth-century white working class origins to a diverse international community including Russians, Mexicans, and Japanese. But as Thompson recounts, the area was commonly known as the “lower East Side” of Los Angeles, with a large Jewish working class population, heavily leavened with socialists and communists.
A decade later, fearful working class Anglos fought against and fled integration a few miles away in Watts, other south Los Angeles County neighborhoods, and the downtown. But here, the leftward tilt of this midcentury community was already a couple generations old; Boyle Heights had been a bastion of support for labor organizer Fred Wheeler in the 1910s and 1920s, the first Socialist elected to Los Angeles City Council. Postwar Boyle Heights welcomed a growing Mexican American population and a broader mix of other ethnic groups at the same time as a racist police department and media culture led by TheLos Angeles Times promoted social exclusion via employment codes, blacklists, restrictive housing covenants, and the physical repression of non-whites.
The organization Ross built at the intersection of these many currents of politics and culture was the Community Service Organization (CSO). His work with CSO was the best-known part of Ross’s history, yet Thompson contributes new nuggets of information and interpretation. The CSO emerged from the nuts and bolts organizing techniques and experiences that Ross brought to a circle of Latino Boyle Heights activists around Edward Roybal.
Roybal eventually became a successful career politician, the first Latino to be elected to a citywide position since the nineteenth century; later he was elected to Congress. But when Ross met him, he and his circle were trying to regroup after their first effort, a loss. With Ross’s assistance, and based on the model he had developed over the previous couple of years, the group focused on voter registration in the growing but mostly non-voting Mexicano population. The next time around, Roybal got elected to the Los Angeles City Council.
The CSO, under Ross’s guidance, created a template for the most successful form of progressive alliance in the post war United States, replicating the same strengths and weaknesses many times elsewhere. Focusing on achievable goals in poor and working class communities, Ross relied on direct one-on-one organizing to create building blocks of change from house meetings to broad organizational coalitions to voter registration and turnout. Direct action tactics, like those that the nascent civil rights movement was borrowing from the mass union organizing of the previous two decades, were not first resort but were also not unknown in CSO either. But the deceptively simple thing emphasized by Ross was that to be an organizer meant one had to be organized—before, during, and after any moment in an organizing campaign.
Unions, churches, and civil rights organizations were all welcome to participate and support the CSO, and many did with financial contributions and the loan of organizers. Communists and their “front groups” were not officially banned from taking part, and in this way CSO was virtually unique among organizations in the era of, “Are you now or have you ever been….” Ross also urged Roybal not to vote for a proposed Los Angeles city ordinance seeking to force communists to register with the police.
Perhaps it was Ross’s early tutelage by his student friend or association with UCAPAWA organizers in his central valley farm labor camp that gave him the courage to do these things. He knew who communists were, what they stood for and above all the hard work they put into progressive causes.
But he was a pragmatist too, and when push came to shove Ross was not above figuring out the proper parliamentary procedures for denying communists the floor in meetings, or how to maneuver behind the scenes in coalitions to keep the CSO free from the red stain—enough so that progressive Latino political and community organizers closer to the Party like Burt Corona later accused Ross of red-baiting.
Ross organized CSO chapters in nearby southern California cities and then across California. It was in San Jose in 1952 that the meeting with Chavez took place. Of that moment’s impact, Chavez later said, “I learned quite a bit from studying Gandhi, but the first practical steps I learned from the best organizer that I know, Fred Ross. He changed my life.” Ross did the same for Dolores Huerta, the future co-founder of the United Farm Workers union, whom he likewise recruited to the CSO a few years later in the north San Joaquin Valley town of Stockton.
Dolores Huerta with Fred Glass. Photo courtesy of Fred Glass.
Huerta, who had more formal education than Chavez, soon combined raising children, work for the CSO, and organizing farm workers with the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC), launched by the AFL-CIO with more resources than any previous effort in the fields. Brimming with energy, but not so good on time management, she needed Ross’s direction to focus her passion for social justice; as Thompson put it, “Huerta had a way of careening through life as if she were a football player covered in pads, running straight into challenges with a complete lack of fear.” Over time Huerta grew disenchanted with AWOC’s organizing model, which focused on signing up labor contractors, who in turn would bring workers into the union as a group, but crucially without a sense of their own agency.
Chavez, meanwhile, moved up to national director of the CSO, and eventually had to face two problems that threatened its viability throughout its growth and decline in the early 1960s: lack of a clear mission and shaky funding. Chavez grew more certain over time that he wanted the organization to move into farm worker organizing; its reluctance to fully commit to that goal eventually drove him to resign in 1962. At that point, penniless, and with eight children, he moved with his wife Helen to Delano.
It was here that he and Huerta divided up the map of the great agricultural valley at Helen’s kitchen table and began to put Ross’s organizing methods to work, finding and recruiting farm workers to their association (it wasn’t to be called a “union” until 1965) one house meeting at a time.
Their timing was good. Against the backdrop of a prosperous economy (at least for non-farm workers), ascendant civil rights movement, and a large and supportive AFL-CIO at the apex of its power, Chavez and Huerta could find allies in powerful places as they attempted to do something no one had before: build a farm worker union that lasted.
They almost succeeded. Ross’s contributions were considerable, including overseeing critical early union representation elections, serving as organizing director from 1966 to 1968 and putting in place protocols for the consumer grape boycott. The union organized tens of thousands of workers in several of the most important crops of California’s multi-billion dollar agribusiness empire. Collective bargaining, backed up by strikes and the boycott, forced growers to pay more attention, and higher wages, to farm workers than ever before.
For a decade and a half the union, despite the uneven playing field, contested seriously with the growers for power in the fields and public opinion. At that point, however, the union hit a wall. Much of the problem was not of the union’s making—the receding of the mass social movements of the 1960s and 70s, the ascension of anti-union, small government forces to the highest elected offices in California and the United States, and the long slide of union power and density. The UFW was a clever small fish swimming with larger protectors. When its supporters in labor and politics were assailed with troubles of their own, the small fish found itself facing its predators alone. And it did not survive.
Given the power of California agribusiness, it may well not have mattered what decisions Chavez and the UFW leadership made. Alinsky astutely aphorized the difficulties involved in farm worker organizing: “It’s like fighting on a constantly disintegrating bed of sand.”
Nonetheless, the other part of the problem was indeed the fault of the union leadership: it stopped organizing. Like a revolution, a union movement either organizes and moves forward, or else retreats. The union’s decision in the late 1970s to pull back from the fields to farm worker “advocacy” was compounded by Chavez’s increasingly autocratic and erratic behavior. His unfortunate choice to travel to the Philippines to accept an award from dictator Ferdinand Marcos shocked the UFW’s Filipino members, triggering the resignation of UFW vice-president Philip Vera Cruz. (Chavez’s choice eventuated in another, less historic, but personally significant consequence: I too ended my UFW volunteer activities.)
Thompson efficiently glosses recent revisionist history of the UFW’s decline—a story told at some length by Frank Bardacke and Miriam Pawel, and more succinctly by Marshall Ganz—while injecting his protagonist into the proceedings in order to ask, in essence, the question, “Why did Fred Ross, arguably the only person who Chavez might have listened to, not intervene?”
Ross giving training. Photo courtesy of Ross family.
In the book’s penultimate chapter, “Blind Spot,” Thompson attempts to account for Ross’s failure to confront Chavez’s bad decisions and the union’s retreat from organizing. Apparently only one ugly instance, in which Chavez reportedly orchestrated an anti-Semitic smear against two long-time union leaders challenging his authority, roused Ross to call Chavez on the phone and protest. Numerous purges of union stalwarts who were perceived by Chavez as threats were abetted or ignored by Ross.
Ross’s son, Fred Ross, Jr., an accomplished organizer himself who provided Thompson with extensive access to his father’s documents, told his father at the time, “Dad, this is fucking wrong. You know it’s wrong.” But, he explained, “My dad had a hard time going there. His fallback position was that no one had made the sacrifices that Cesar had made. Except for the anti-Semitism, I don’t think my father ever challenged Cesar.”
Ross’s other blind spot related to similarly disastrous circumstances, but within the personal sphere of his family. Two wrecked marriages and alienated children represent just the headline over numerous ‘are you kidding me?’ stories recorded by Thompson, the result of Ross’s choice, nearly every time, of work over family life. One instance will suffice to paint the picture. Frances, pregnant, and suffering from polio, was in the hospital for three months. On the day she was to finally return home, Ross failed to show up at the appointed time, because he was at an organizing meeting.
Ross had some insight, albeit limited, into the damage caused by his prioritizing organizing over all else. He later admitted, “When you start organizing, that’s it. You’re not working any nine to five job anymore. You’re not working just six days a week. That’s the end of family life. I didn’t know that. Not that that would have stopped me.”
Thompson’s assessment of Ross’s legacy is astute, concise, and mostly accurate. In addition to closing a gap in UFW historiography, America’s Social Arsonist is a compact synthetic history of the social justice movements in which Ross played an important part. And Ross certainly deserves the credit Thompson gives him for pulling together key elements—especially putting house meetings at the center—during the early post-World War II fights to create an effective modern organizing playbook.
The book is not without a few questionable calls. Were house meetings as an organizing tool invented by Ross? It’s probably best to call this a reinvention. CIO unions utilized the tactic, especially in company towns where the public sphere as well as the workplaces were dominated by powerful employers. Due partly to a substantial presence of Communist Party members on staff and in leadership of a number of these unions, house meetings, like cell meetings, were traceable to underground organizing in Czarist Russia, clandestine meetings linked one to another away from the eyes of the hated government or company spies.
Beyond this, the occasional errant factoid mars Thompson’s otherwise scrupulously accurate narrative—e.g., the Ludlow Massacre of 1913 occurred in a Colorado mining town where John, not his son David Rockefeller (who wasn’t yet born) employed the miners. It might have also been useful to at least refer to the work of Ernesto Galarza. Although Thompson mentions the pioneering National Farm Labor Union staffer briefly, his contributions to the anti-Bracero fight and stubborn attempts to organize California farm workers in the 1950s were unfolding at the same time that Ross and Chavez were building the model in CSO that ultimately succeeded, for a time, in doing what Galarza could not.
In the historical moment following the recent Bernie Sanders presidential campaign, which managed to propel the concept “socialism” back into mainstream political discourse, the question facing the thousands of young people (and older ones) inspired by his vision of a “political revolution” is, what next? If they are to sustain a mass movement for social justice into the Trump era, amid its effort to roll back social justice to the nineteenth century, effective organizing will have to anchor the otherwise ephemeral passions of the moment.
Organizing has also clearly moved into the digital age. It is data driven (although it actually always has been; as Ross said, “If you can’t count it, it doesn’t exist”—we just have better ways to count now). Social media can spread the word for a meeting or demonstration faster than it seemed possible in years past. Beyond these superficial differences between the past and present of organizing, however, Thompson’s book provides a clue about what’s next: people talking with people, taking the inspiration and data and doing the hard work of using the tools, old and new, to organize. There are no short cuts. Fred Ross’s life provides an example—with both positive and negative lessons for organizers—pointing toward what is to be done.
Bernie Sanders rally at Cubberly Community Center in Palo Alto, California, 1 June, 2016. Photo courtesy of Dawn Endico via Flickr.
Fred B. Glass is the author of From Mission to Microchip: A History of the California Labor Movement (Oakland: University of California Press, 2016), recently reviewed in Boom California. He serves as Communications Director for the California Federation of Teachers and Instructor of Labor and Community Studies at City College of San Francisco. He wrote and directed Golden Lands, Working Hands, a ten-part documentary video series on California labor history.
Copyright: 2017 Fred B. Glass. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/
Given our ambitions for our recent book, Water and Los Angeles: A Tale of Three Rivers, 1900-1941—that it will carry readers through documents and ideas back to a river and urban past that Californians must grapple with in order to fully understand the present—we would be remiss if we did not at least contemplate the future of metropolitan Los Angeles in terms of exactly those riparian places and spaces. The future, unknown and unknowable, is nonetheless inextricably tied to what has come before—which roads or paths were taken or not and how the history of rivers moves and shifts and changes course like a river itself.
Los Angeles celebrated, in 2013, the hundredth anniversary of the opening of the Los Angeles Aqueduct. It was an anniversary that prompted a wide variety of responses—from celebration to antipathy and everything in between. For many, the century’s mark passed without notice or care. For some, the moment offered an opportunity to celebrate all that metropolitan Los Angeles had become since 1913, watered in part (in large part) by the snowmelt waters of the Owens River. For others, however, the centennial offered the chance to look again at the “water grab” performed a hundred years earlier. The anniversary meant that Los Angeles, or its municipal Department of Water and Power, was yet again trying to wrap a bold and ultimately imperial play and ploy in adjectives that speak to legacy, growth, inevitability, vision, and ambition.
To be sure, the hundred-year history of the Los Angeles Aqueduct is fraught and deeply complicated. Nothing is simple about moving a river hundreds of miles from its bed. It wasn’t simple in 1913, and it is certainly not simple today; and we could say that the matter grows more complex with each passing year. For one thing, there are two aqueducts now, two giant metal straws of cavernous diameter sucking on the melted Sierra snowpack and hustling it southwest to a thirsty global metropolis. Atop all the engineering and physics and hydrology issues at stake—and they are legion—there remain issues of upkeep and maintenance and environmental impact.
That is but the tip of an aqueduct iceberg. Long-simmering resentment and anger in the Owens Valley (especially vociferous there, for obvious reasons, but not only there) about the creation of the Los Angeles Aqueduct has, as we might have expected, found its way into courtrooms and litigation. Remarkable legal decisions have resulted, in more than one instance, that have altered the perceived, if misleading, simplicity of two big straws stuck into a flowing river. Citing history (as in the case of a once-full, now-dry Owens Lake) and health concerns tying dust to pulmonary and respiratory disease and difficulty, antagonistic individuals and organizations took on the city of Los Angeles and its chief water agency and won a series of important battles and concessions. These amount essentially to Los Angeles leaving water in the Owens Valley or putting some of it back. The city is now responsible for a series of mitigation exercises that is putting water back into the ancient lakebed of Owens Lake, as well as into Mono Lake as a protective measure for the fragile geologic structures within it. Legal action is not likely to abate in the short term, and it is entirely possible that climate-change ramifications (most specifically the depleted Sierra Nevada snowpack) will add to the complexities of mitigation and further legal disputes between entities in the Owens Valley, or their proxies, and the city of Los Angeles.
Dry Owens Lake and blowing alkali dust, 2008. Courtesy of Eeekster (photographer Richard Ellis) via Wikimedia Commons.
Climate change is undoubtedly going to play a huge role in determining the future of the Metropolitan Water District’s place in supplying water from the Colorado River to its client entities, with the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power being chief among them. As the water district’s ability to draw from the state water project (a largely north-south conduit bringing water to Southern California) evaporates—its allotment has gone down dramatically in recent years— the role of the Colorado River becomes even more prominent. The legal issues attendant on this situation are, if anything, more complex than those in dispute regarding the Owens River, the Owens Valley, and the thirsty giant metropolis far to the southwest.
So, too, is the fate and future of the Colorado River a complex, tangled tale of water, climate change, international treaties, and widespread thirst. Asked to water great chunks of seven states, as well as parts of northern Mexico, the Colorado River watershed is the most important in the United States, perhaps even in North America. Recent onslaughts of drought across the American West have resulted in drastic changes in the ways in which Colorado River water is stored and delivered to a divergent and far-flung customer base of agencies, municipalities, and entire states and nations. By virtue of long-standing agreements, Southern California is entitled to a lion’s share of the Colorado River (always dependent on the annual wintertime Rocky Mountain snowpack on the western slope of the Continental Divide). This legal allotment amounts to over four million acre-feet of water (an acre-foot is a standard water measurement: one acre spread with water to a depth of one foot, or three hundred thousand gallons of water). Because the state-to state agreements were formulated in especially “wet” years, and because California threw its considerable weight around back in the early 1920s, when the most important agreements were signed, the Golden State can keep drawing water while states such as Arizona and Nevada will lose water . . . all from a water source that is itself losing water to climate change at a fast (and accelerating) rate.
As drought and climate change alter the snowpack levels from year to year in the Colorado high country, the cities, states, and water agencies will continue to struggle with the consequences. And these consequences will of course affect individuals at every point along the Colorado River’s watercourse. Preservation and conservation efforts will and must continue. These will take many forms, and undoubtedly new innovations will come to the fore. Water restrictions—how much, how often, aimed at what, and at what times—will become more common. Water reuse will rise in popularity—household water will find its way more and more often into outdoor and gardening use. Roofs will be better fit with water catchment devices for rainwater capture. Drain spouts will catch water instead of rushing it off to storm sewers and the ocean. Trees will be planted in places, such as school playgrounds, once covered in asphalt or concrete (trees catch water and hold it around their roots).
Broader innovations will have to be implemented as well. Individual efforts— which will include smartphone technology applied to, for example, household irrigation systems and timing (off it goes when it rains)—will make some difference. But bigger actions, on a statewide or even a federal scale, with regulatory or enforcement teeth, are needed. Water trading between states will rise in importance, and these innovations will have to be carefully modeled and regulated. Water pricing will be intricately related, of course, and it is likely that disparate water costs, which are now the rule rather than the exception, will be leveled out (though allowed to fluctuate in times of relative abundance or relative scarcity). Perhaps most important, the rural-urban divide regarding water use will need to be addressed and hard decisions made, backed up by legislative innovation. Rural users account for most of the water use—by far—across California and the entire American Southwest. Demand is rising in urban centers, but so much water is being used on agricultural crops that the urban demand—however modest by comparison—is not being efficiently met. What kinds of crops are grown, and how they are irrigated, will and must change, lest Southern California face even worse conditions born of water scarcity, drought, and the loose and inefficient “water culture” that has been allowed to develop over the past century.
Environmental awareness and environmental sustainability will go hand in hand with greater awareness of water’s preciousness and scarcity. We think historical knowledge is required in order to gain that kind of critical perspective. One of the key features of changing cultural and environmental attitudes will be simple “river awareness” in California cities, which, at this writing, we can say is growing. Los Angeles is and will be the most important locale for this, and all attention will be focused on the rivers of the Los Angeles basin. Ironically, perhaps (given its puny size in relation to far bigger rivers and watersheds), none will be more important than the Los Angeles River.
The Los Angeles River is the riparian canary in the coal mine of Southern California sustainability. It has, in just over one hundred years, gone from promise to problem and now again to promise in the regional imagination. After 1941, postwar floods, spilling out across the basin, led to more concrete being poured into and up the banks of the river. Still a vital cog in the machine of flood control—the concrete that encases the body of the river is critical to corralling floodwaters—the Los Angeles River is simultaneously the central focus of a great deal of environmental reimagining of green space and greenbelts throughout the metropolitan Los Angeles basin. From biking paths to kayaking and possible reintroduction of steelhead trout, the river is being rethought in very large terms and scales as the twenty-first century opens; much of this is due to the long-standing advocacy and activism of groups, none more critical than the Friends of the Los Angeles River. “Greening” the Los Angeles River, pulling out some of the concrete straitjacket, and becoming more aware of the riparian environment at the very center of a global metropolis of millions of people, is a large-scale effort—of imagination, of money, and of engineering and environmental know-how. Each innovation, each step forward, will further the collective knowledge about rivers and about water, and this consciousness change (from “what Los Angeles River?” to “our Los Angeles River”) can only lead to further benefits in conservation, preservation, and “waterwise” awareness. That path to a differently imagined riparian future will be complicated, with political, fiscal, and hydrological hurdles of daunting scale strewn hither and yon at each step of the way. We suggest optimism about the Los Angeles River, a faith born of diehard grassroots activism and a level of renewed political leadership gazing on a river too-long ignored or expected to provide but a single, flood-control purpose across the landscape it traverses. Perhaps now more than ever, the Los Angeles River is a site of dreams and disagreements, as various constituencies imagine what it could or might become; and as such futures are pondered, so, too, are questions about where the money comes from and who and how people (and nonhumans) benefit from riparian changes large and small.
Photograph by Matt Gush.
This is not to say that the other two rivers are any less important. They are hugely important. But the symbolic burden placed on the Los Angeles River is, especially within the Los Angeles Basin, palpable and magnetic. “How are we doing?” people ask, wondering about water, water shortages, water conservation. And the answer, for many at least, will be found with reference to the Los Angeles River. However, to the north and east, the fate of the Owens River, and especially the Owens Valley, dry and getting drier, will provide additional perspective. And much of that will be colored by controversy: what can Los Angeles do, what should Los Angeles do, as environmental penance for its century-old role in desiccating a landscape? The questions can and will be asked regarding “how are we doing?” up there, up in the Owens Valley. That site, since midcentury, has prompted lawsuits against the city of Los Angeles for water loss and the resulting environmental damage. What can people—through advocacy and activism—claim or insist, and what can various courts or legal decisions obligate the city of Los Angeles to do? These are not issues that will go away, either; on the contrary, as dryness accelerates and snowpacks retreat, these issues will creep up in the headlines and in the lists of imperatives for the region and its populace. We simply urge that such awareness go hand in hand with appreciation of the interlocking histories and meanings of, for example, Los Angeles and the Owens River.
So, too, with the mighty Colorado. Entire careers are forged out of figuring out the dynamic realities of that river’s place in the American West. Where does the river go? Who gets to decide? Which state or agency or nation gets to dip the largest buckets into it? And where to they get to dip? Where do the rights of states come into dialogue or conflict with the rights of indigenous people whose ancestral or reservation homelands sit alongside the river? How does Mexico interact with the various states that, in their thirst, deplete the Colorado so that it now peters out far from its former mouth on the Gulf of California?
Southern California lives because it can take so much Colorado River water to satisfy the thirst of its people and the thirst of what it grows. What happens if that gets shut off, or, more likely, what happens if the flow gets cut back, by law, by drought, by climate change? Major international decisions reached by treaty in the years since 1941 have reduced the amount of water Southern California can take from the Colorado River, in favor of other states, indigenous polities, or Mexico. One thing is sure: the Colorado River cannot supply all the water that treaties or other agreements promise, and this has been true for decades. It carries a great deal of water. But not enough to meet demand, unless that demand is cut by conservation or other water-saving practices. Furthermore, what happens if the region’s reliance upon water from Northern California, by means of the state water project (a “fourth river,” which we do not take up in this book), becomes ever more compromised by state decisions that cut off supplies going to Southern California through the Metropolitan Water District’s systems? Less Colorado River water, less Northern California water—where will those roads take us?
Amid all the uncertainties of rivers and waters, one thing is incontrovertible: the Colorado, the Owens, the Los Angeles: these are not infinite bodies of flowing water. They wax and they wane, they dry up (in actuality, or relatively, in response to wetter years). Legal decisions act as dams, shutting off water that used to go from “here” to “there.”
Arid times have long been upon us in Southern California. And despite having experienced one of our wettest winters on record, drought times loom. Exceptional drought looms. These times may be interrupted by more rain and floods, testing our various technological innovations and water infrastructure. But new rivers will not arise to solve the problems. We are stuck with what we have, and we want Californians to know what we have—what you have—and how we got from there to here, from then to now. This is a history we all share, just as it is a future we must all help to make better.
William Deverell is Professor of History at the University of California and Director of the Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West. He has written Whitewashed Adobe: The Rise of Los Angeles and the Remaking of Its Mexican Past, and Railroad Crossing: Californians and the Railroad, 1850-1910, both published by UC Press.
Tom Sitton is a curator emeritus of history from the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. Together, with Bill Deverell he is co-editor of California Progressivism Revisited and Metropolis in the Making, both published by UC Press.
What does it mean to become Californian? It means being witness to an epic bender—a 169-year binge lubricated by gold, cattle, wheat, oil, suburban housing, the Cold War, and a marketing campaign of seductive power. At every stage of its history, each of the state’s exploitable ecologies has been dressed up as another paradise, pandering to the latest wave of hopelessly intoxicated newcomers. The come-on that seduced them—the elemental promises of health, wealth, and happiness in the sunshine—is the California Dream. For Joan Didion, the state’s renowned exile, there is in that dream a “dangerous dissonance…a slippage” between what we desire and who we are.1
The official story of California is told as a pageant of bonanzas, but belief in the official story requires forgetting so much. We want the story to record what had been hard won, but it’s actually full of lucky accidents. We bought the Californian sales pitch, but we became remorseful buyers afterward. We want to be Californian, but we don’t want to earn it.
These paradoxes were built into the subdivisions that absorbed thirteen million dream seekers between 1940 and 1970—the great years when California retailed to America its mix of Arcadian ease and technocratic élan. The greatest paradox is, of course, that the success in getting so much from California has been turned into so much loss. Californians tend to use the state’s compromised environment as the screen on which to project what they can no longer find in California—something missing from becoming Californian—and the suburbs, the traffic, and the presence of too many of us are said to be the cause. But perhaps what Californians can no longer find is in themselves, in what they lost by becoming Californian. We forget that the California Dream didn’t come with a moral compass.
I cannot say that the dream did not serve us. It provided the goods of a middle-class life to millions, including me. It remixed popular culture in exciting ways. It built beautiful and lasting things—and the dream still inspires. A neighbor of mine—with a tract house, two grown daughters, and a husband who is a teacher—wonders if it means anything to say that the dream is ending. “They’ve been saying that for thirty years at least. It hasn’t ended yet,” she told me.
Photograph by Matt Gush.
Kevin Starr has written nine volumes of history about California and America’s feverish dream of it, and in 2009 he hadn’t yet reconciled whether California would become a “failed state” or would reinvent itself again, and if reinvention would be another arc of boom to bust to regret. Starr’s faith was in the state’s genetic and cultural rambunctiousness and the possibility that a retooled dream, suitable for a less-Anglo California, will replace the parts of the dream that served us so poorly. But Starr, like many of us, had his doubts.
Californians had presumed that California would always deliver whatever they deserved. Now we know California can’t. Even more self-knowledge is needed, now that our revels are ended. If we are to become brave, new Californians, we will begin to dream differently.
• • •
What does it mean to become Californian? It means seeing nature without romance or despair. California has been uniquely intoxicating, but it was also a place on the national periphery in the nineteenth century and far from the familiar place where hearts might feel at home. Merchandising the state’s natural grandeur answered some of Californian longing. From William Henry Jackson in the 1870s through Ansel Adams in the 1950s to the latest coffee-table book, California has produced gorgeous and misleading environmental photography, promoting the view that sacred wildness is out there, unmarred by our presence and ready for our contemplation.
The iconic photographs make the rapturous assumption that none of us was ever here——but we were! We’re sluicing mountains into rivers to get at the gold, taking down forests to build a wood and iron technology gone before our parents were born, erecting groves of derricks over oil fields, extracting harvests from the compliant ground, and assembling communities from tract houses and strip malls. I’m tired of my own sentimentality for landscapes that are rendered either as an open wound or a throat pulled back, ready for the knife. Pity is misplaced if there is no place in it for you or me.
The choice for Californians north and south after the Gold Rush cataclysm was not between nature and its despoiled remnant, but the terms on which our encounter with nature would be framed. The environmentalist John Muir gave nature a privileged autonomy, a kind of green divinity. Frederick Law Olmsted, a builder of New York’s Central Park, concluded that nature in California would never again be sublime, despite what the photographs implied, and that nature must be enmeshed in the community of people living here. Olmsted struggled for a word to describe the tie that might bind a place and its people. He settled on “communitiveness.” It’s an awkward word for something that tries to define both loyalty to one’s neighbors and trusteeship of the land. Olmsted, as Muir and others did, sought to read a redemptive narrative—and something of the wider American experience—into the landscape of California. The Californians who were led here by their longing for the redeeming qualities Muir and Olmsted saw in California’s nature—qualities variously ennobling, consoling, and therapeutic—unalterably changed California.
• • •
What does it mean to become Californian? It means finding that California is increasingly ordinary (for which I’m grateful, because the commonplace is necessarily the place where we find love and hope). But if California isn’t the “great exception,” isn’t the best or worst of places, then how do we describe California when it is not exactly “Californian” anymore, not as alluring or lurid as the clichés of the utopian or dystopian accounts said it was? California is riven—north and south, coastal and inland, urban and rural, valley and foothill—but that which unites these “islands on the land” is the question of what had been gained by becoming Californian.
For Joan Didion, becoming Californian was a prize for leaving the past behind, although the result would be brokenheartedness. For essayist Richard Rodriguez, becoming Californian meant becoming mingled, impure, heterogeneous, and discovering that your color, whatever it is, is just another shade of brown. For the novelist and playwright William Saroyan, becoming Californian was to see this place, finally, as “my native land.” For the two million or more Californians who, in the past two decades, have migrated to “greater California”—which is now located in Texas, Arizona, Washington, Oregon, and Nevada—becoming Californian meant finding some measure of inadequacy in California. Maybe becoming Californian means laboring to undo the toxic effects of what California has been: a commodity, a trophy of Anglo privilege, and a place of aching, unmet desires.
The Anglo possessors of California after 1847 took on habits that began with the first gold claim staked on the American River and continue each time a house lot changes hands today. Imagine considering those habits with a “truth and reconciliation” commission whose members are a skateboarder, a “mow and blow” gardener, a rap artist, a real estate agent, a vintner, a Gabrieleño elder, a Chinese immigrant, and someone employed in the adult entertainment industry. Maybe becoming Californian means facing a ravenous “hunger of memory”2 and having only California’s clichés to offer.
• • •
What does it mean to become Californian? It means locating yourself, according to environmental historian Stephanie Pincetl, in a panorama that includes Hollywood, the Sierra Nevada Mountains, Big Sur, San Francisco, Disneyland, the redwoods, and Death Valley.3 She might have added Compton, Route 99 from Fresno to Bakersfield, the Silicon Valley, the San Fernando Valley, the Central Valley, and the whole of la frontera from Yuma to the Tijuana. Pincetl included in her list the seductive mirage of El Dorado, the folly that led to all of the state’s ruined paradises. An imagination so spacious as to dwell in all of these Californias requires a different kind of intelligence, attuned to many vernaculars. The alternative is living daily with the experience of estrangement, discontinuity, and forgetfulness.
Californians who need something to stand with them against these disorders might find it in Michel Foucault’s notion of “a particular, local, regional knowledge, a differential knowledge incapable of unanimity.”4 The desire to sustain “ecologies of the vernacular” and live in “habitats of memory” may be the new requirement for becoming Californian.
Photograph by Matt Gush.
Foucault distantly echoes Josiah Royce’s notion of a Higher Provincialism,5 which finds the potential for moral order in a shared sense of place and in the common habits of being there. This embodied knowledge becomes “critical regionalism”6 in turning away from the comforts of nostalgia toward “interrogating the local and proximate precisely in order to demonstrate its universality, its connectedness, and its differences with the wider world.”7
California happened to the world in 1849, and in the rush to extract something from becoming Californian, the world—in the form of every race and ethnicity—met itself here.8 The meeting was chaotic, brutal, often tragic, and sometimes redemptive, and its energies are not yet spent. For all its potential to create a hybrid American (and, I believe, a better one), the collision left Californians haunted by the spirit of El Dorado—the illusion that being Californian requires being perpetually the object of someone else’s desire.
To become truly Californian, dwellers here will recover from that malign dream to “awaken the stories that sleep in the streets”9 and pick up the burden and gift of making their place a home for every kind of Californian.
Photograph by Matt Gush.
Lead photograph by Matt Gush.
A longer consideration of the themes in this essay can be found in “Rereading, Misreading, and Redeeming the Golden State: Defining California Through History,” in A Companion to California History, William Deverell and Greg Hise, eds. (Oxford: Blackwell, 2008).
1 Joan Didion, Where I Was From (New York: Vintage, 2004), 48.
2 The phrase is specifically Richard Rodriguez’s lament for a misplaced language.
3 Stephanie S. Pincetl, Transforming California: A Political History of Land Use and Development (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999), vii.
4 Michel Foucault, Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings, 1972–1977 (New York: Pantheon, 1980), 82.
5 Josiah Royce, “Provincialism,” Race Questions, Provincialism, and Other American Problems (New York: Macmillan, 1908), 65.
8 The image is Richard Rodriguez’s (paraphrasing Karl Marx) in “The North American” from Public Discourse in America: Conversation and Community in the Twenty-First Century, Judith Rodin and Stephen P. Steinberg, eds. (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003), 69.
9 “Through stories about places, they become habitable. Living is narrativizing. Stirring up or restoring this narrativizing is thus among the tasks of any renovation. One must awaken the stories that sleep in the streets.…” Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, Vol. 2, Living and Cooking (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1998), 142.
“I could remember everything about California, but I couldn’t feel it. I tried to get my mind to remember something I could feel about it, but it was no use. It was gone. All of it.” —Richard Hallas from You Play the Black and the Red Comes Up1
Gold Underneath the Street
For months now, I’ve been at the time-bending task of emptying out my family home, breaking down history as if it were a set.
It’s my childhood home, not the first, but the one we inhabited the longest. Moving through rooms, closets, and overstuffed drawers, I’ve unearthed all manner of lost treasures: pocket watches, maps, deeds to homes long razed. This house, I realize, became a nest—not just ours—but one made up of artifacts of generations of family members: Bibles and Sunday hats, old wallets still filled with gasoline “Charg-a-Plates” and oxidized pocket change, a cache of antique cameras still spooled with film, and a river of photographs documenting their journey west.
A few weeks back, making my way through the old kitchen, I put my hand in the dark recesses of a cabinet stacked with crystal water goblets, luncheon plates, and not one but two ornate turkey platters to find the most fragile porcelain teacup and saucer—once white with scalloped edges, a hand-painted small cluster of oranges at center. Beneath the fruit, in plainspoken yet fine-brushstrokes, unscroll the letters “C-A-L-I-F-O-R-N-I-A.” Whose tiny cup was this? My grandmother’s? My great aunt? My mother’s? Who purchased this souvenir? Who thought to save it? To protect it? I wondered. How had it survived so long, so dusty and delicate?
Loved ones brought home souvenirs like this almost translucent cup, to place on their shelves among their finest. To think that this memento perhaps made two journeys, from here to home and then here again. Was it a memento or a goal—or both?
Strange, it now seems in reflection, but my first understanding of California—the California of my mind—the one summoned most vividly in words, music, or visual artifacts—was the product of those who arrived from elsewhere. My African American forebears were pulled to this place by a myriad of desires—opportunity, weather, freedom, peace of mind. I lived in their myth. My personal narrative of—and connection to—place begins with those circumstances that brought my family here; the inspiration—or kindling—was the California of their imagination.
I’ve shuffled those projections and fanned them out on the table of my memory. They fit easily alongside my pop-culture-influenced impressions of the West: those early twentieth-century slapstick comedies shot on streets dotted with palm and pepper trees; then too, the out-of-the-side-of-the-mouth voice-over assessments of the raw deal and busted dreams Los Angeles was sure to serve you. Add to it the disgruntled Bohemian’s longing—a restlessness for which the West, particularly the rugged Central and Northern Coast, might be the only antidote—all of these scenarios, often told through the prism of a transplant’s vision of the West (boomers and speculators and dreamers), East Coast by way of Europe, Midwest by way of the South—to the edge of the Earth’s last promise. That gossamer tenor sax of Stan Getz, bending like a breeze, the one that so many consider the signature of West Coast Cool School jazz, was just like my father, Pennsylvania-born.
I grew up on those shadows. Those slapstick shorts were filmed on the Culver City streets where I played. I read stacks of those hard-boiled paperbacks—Detective Marlowe and his descendants—that taught me not to trust Los Angeles even though I might yet become transfixed by it. I found myself pulled into the courtyards and avenues invoked by the California Scene painters—the bright astringent midday light and the fire skies that come as the sun slips away—and for all of my real frustrations with what Los Angeles has become, I am undeniably the daughter of noir and the jasmine-scented current of West Coast jazz.
What that means is that I early-on had to come to some sort of peace with what it is and what it’s not, both the fatalism and the optimism. How California is perceived by the native, what it looks like—beyond movies and postcards and books—is a process of combining. You move tiles around, understanding at all times that there may be, and often are, gaps.
It’s a hand-me-down coping mechanism. My migrant forebears had expectations; some of which were fulfilled: jobs and homes, secured. The region’s beauty was undeniable when they first landed here in the late 1940s. Even my blind great-grandmother, if asked, would extol, “It’s always beautiful here.” I wondered how that beauty must have registered inside her. Was it the happiness of her children? Was there something that coursed through her that didn’t need visual input? Some indescribable scent, the sun on her skin? I’ve found a photo of her in a prim dark blouse standing beneath a heavy, shaggy palm tree, her dark aviators shielding her ruined eyes, her smile, beatific.
My maternal forebears, Louisianans, came west and then split off. Half went north to the Bay Area, Oakland; the other bent south to Los Angeles—each to be near a busy railroad hub that brought my uncles the good fortune of hard but steady work as Pullman porters. How they perceived it, I could hear it in my Uncle Harvey’s voice, the way he sank into the word, the name itself like an incantation, “Cal-ee-forn-ya.” They all stretched out its music, made it their own: You know, baby, there was gold under the streets.
What my relatives ascertained in real time and experience is where the actual story begins—the great uncle who vanished (dead or missing, we never learned); restrictive housing covenants that dictated where you could rent or buy; circumscribed dreams. This “paradise,” by all accounts, held up only in its external natural promise—the weather, the flora, the vistas. The rest? It could be worked around.
And it was. The California I most deeply reside in is the California of personal imprint—generations of it. It’s the stuff of absorbed histories—the weight and heft of personal adaptations, language, and traditions. You brought a little of your past with you—how to string beans or devein shrimp or how to make a roux; you brought a lullaby; you brought coming-of-age rituals. You compared and shared with your neighbors because you were creating a community. All was integrated into the rhythm and space of your new environs. You brought your pride and joy along with your cleverness or itch for adventure. You brought what was road-worthy, meaningful, something worth handing down.
That ability to “make do,” or improvise, applied in many ways. “Placemaking” is the work of the mind as well as the hands. Living in California has often meant that you have to become familiar with and conversant in both the mythic place and the real place, and know where they come together—that seam where the extrapolation and the real meet.
As I moved out of my teens and into my twenties, I understood that seam—this place—as negative space, that area between two visible knowns. It was a trick of perception, in a sense it became an empty room to fill. If what has been promised doesn’t exist, or what my forebears came to find fell short, then what did they encounter? What is it that we celebrate, what is that we think of as home?
my eyes capture the purple reach of hollywood’s hills the gold eye of sun mounting the east the gray anguished arms of avenue
i will never leave here
—Wanda Coleman, Prisoner of Los Angeles2
A handful of years ago, I taught a class about Los Angeles. It was part history, part literature, part writing workshop. My goal was to encourage students to shake free of old notions of Los Angeles and to begin to define the region for themselves. For one of the assignments, I gave them the task of thinking about what visual imagery helped define “place” for them. “If you close your eyes and think about Los Angeles, what is it you see?” I nudged them to think beyond cliché—which meant no beach parties, no red carpet fantasies—but what did the real LA they daily interacted with mean to them? What shape did it take? How did they know when they were “home”? Even by the end of the semester, after we had been thinking deeply about place, beyond spinner-rack postcards and episodes of TMZ celebrity stalking, they struggled mightily, to the point that some panicked. Resorting to late-night emails, eleventh-hour office visits, they would confess they had no ideas. No ideas beyond what they were fed—ocean, palm trees, Hollywood, like a prayer or mantra—a safe spot to land. Was it that they didn’t feel confident enough to call it for themselves? Or did the region still seem to be so amorphous that they still couldn’t corral feeling into words? “The most photographed but least remembered city in the world,” as Norman M. Klein has famously remarked about Los Angeles, but it was more. Even with all of the assignments and assistance, what struck me the most was how hard some of them fought it, the very thought of stepping out into it, describing and defining it for themselves.
This is not uncommon. What’s particularly maddening about trying to spin a more complex vision of Southern California, to move beyond the vast projected image, is that even when you attempt to do due diligence and deal honestly as you know it, there’s a battle.
A couple of summers ago a delegation of journalists appeared from far-flung places around the globe. Part of my job as the welcome crew was to move these reporters through spaces that told different stories about LA and California in general, that would leave a deeper afterimage. Not boosterism—we were pushing for something that was substantive, bold and true. When one of the journalists looked at the list of venues—museums, concert halls, house parties, and an evening of experimental theater—he balked, “Well, what about a film studio? Aren’t we going to tour a studio?” His disappointment was both palpable and infectious. He was in California; he wanted to see what was behind the curtain, and we wanted to draw his eye to what was in plain sight but often overlooked. He didn’t just resist, but bucked. His grown-man pouting made it clear: “Give me what I want of Los Angeles; then I’ll know I’ve been there.”
I got the San Francisco blues Bluer than heaven’s gate, mate, I got the San Francisco blues Bluer than blue paint, Saint, I better move on home Sleep in My golden Dream again —36th Chorus from Book of Blues by Jack Kerouac3
I struggle with Los Angeles. My anger or disaffection sweeps through in waves. Sometimes it catches me unaware, but most often it’s fanned by evidence of the image overtaking the real. I moved away from Los Angeles in the mid-eighties. In certain ways, it was the younger version of the LA that that visiting journalist a couple summers ago was pushing to see. I myself had grown weary of the slickness—or the elevation of such. After college, I worked for a time in a bookstore trying to figure out if I wanted to go to graduate school, or write, or who knows what; but the interactions I was having on a daily basis with customers—junior film executives, agents, wannabe movers and shakers—effectively doused what was left of my affection of LA at the time. The sharp edges and crassness deeply fractured my constructed sense of home. Meanwhile, Los Angeles, post-1984 Summer Olympics, seemed to be in the middle of another transition, ceding old notions of itself—calling it “community redevelopment” and “urban renewal.” I watched the key elements that had made up my relatives’ West—pace, space, and a certain gentility—begin to vanish. I set my sights on something with some sort of heft and nap: Northern California. I wanted to go someplace where I could, I thought, reconnect with what brought my forebears west.
I was pulled by my first glimpses. Those early impressionistic snapshots of San Francisco came from visits to relatives’ homes or our family-foursome’s up-the-coast road trips. They also came from TV and books. Again, often an outsider’s perspective—either a Quinn Martin police procedural of the seventies (The Streets of San Francisco) and, of course, much later the Beat Generation’s rhapsodizing. The voices of Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and Gregory Corso spun around my head—these bards of the new California, all transplants, too.
I was very late to Kerouac. By high school, I’d meandered through On the Road and stalled—twice. But I’d been swept up by The Subterraneans (for which he swapped East Coast for West as the story’s backdrop so that Paradise Alley became “Heavenly Lane”) and then Big Sur—that rugged, unflinching coast that Kerouac described in such mournful detail, became rooted in my memory—became my own memories. The first drive I took north as an adult with a friend, in a convertible slithering up Highway 1, was about as mortifyingly cliché as it could come: My head full of a Massachusetts-born writer’s descriptions and the tenor sax moods of a Pennsylvanian as my soundtrack—it effectively set up the scene. When we arrived at Nepenthe famished and ready for lunch, I paused to first take in that startling edge-of-the-Earth view. The universe seemed to know what I needed as confirmation: Stan “The Sound” Getz was drifting through an old bossa nova over the surround-sound stereo.
Securing an address and actually living in the Bay was an entirely different matter, of course; I’d moved to the outer Sunset which often only offered three hours of sun and a dedicated fog so thick and constant that at first I thought was rain. It was an adjustment for my Angeleno-being—an entirely different perspective of California, a bit more curated and consequently, manageable.
I didn’t have a car for the first time since I’d earned my driver’s license as a teenager. Moving about without one was both disorienting and liberating. I found my way by bus or on foot, learning the city step-by-step, stop-by-stop. San Francisco trained my eye in a different way. I’d grown up in a sunny place where often I moved past details at thirty, forty, fifty miles an hour. A scene or tableau that would come into focus for a moment and then move away from you, a streak of color and smear of sound. Here I could see things close-up. The crumbling Victorians, the noir tap rooms, with their hints of dereliction or risk. Depending on the wind, I could catch scent of the sharp brininess of the Pacific, the blast urine in BART station, the aroma of scallions, garlic, and fish in late afternoons as I turned the corner in the Richmond.
In the years before corporate coffee was on every corner in the city, the ritual of the independent coffeehouse was already well established. Strong, heated, and often full-boil conversations about politics or city life were in animated display. The best ones were theater of their own. There was an urgency and liveliness, a particular sense of chance borne out of flow and accessibility that was, at the time, more difficult to come by in Los Angeles. One image that often returns: I had been making my way up a gentle incline in North Beach on Vallejo Street to stop in Caffe Trieste when the poet Gregory Corso thundered out of the front door and into the night, eyes blazing. I knew his face from the postcards in a rack at City Lights Bookstore and the photo inserts of the books of the era I’d been living in; the face was just more anguished, the hair gray, wild like filament. When my friend arrived to join me at a small window table, I made mention that she’d missed him by mere minutes. A man seated next to us lifted a piece of paper—a stained napkin—with some ink pen scribblings: “He was just diagramming a poem. You want this?”
Oh, yes. I did. This was what I wanted—for a time: a textured life to press between pages of a book, one that looked becoming in black-and-white photographs. I wanted to live in a place that didn’t just feel and look old, but protected its aged sacred places—the stories and characters that went along with them. What a city looked like, the noise and press and chaos of them, I finally began to put it together, was the patina of presence. It started with people: How they touched, shaped, and occupied space determined the nature of “home.”
Since the beginning, the real California has been obscured by perception, or as historian Kevin Starr observed, “at times, it seemed to be imprisoned in a myth of itself.”4 And when so many have come to west to find themselves—or their next self—how does a place struggle out of all of that need and expectation? “The myth that has symbolized America for the rest of the world has found its true expression here,” historian Gwendolyn Wright wrote in her introduction to the 1984 reprint of The WPA Guide to California, noting little had happened in fifty years to dim that perception, “A desire for dramatic change is at the heart of California’s appeal.”5
Place then, our sense of it, is what suffers in the blind or selfish making and remaking. We build it up and tear it down. Shoehorn expectations, and in the endeavor truth takes a beating and essence becomes much more difficult to summon.
The California cities that own part of my heart—San Francisco and Los Angeles—are anything but static. The Los Angeles and Bay Area that my relatives set their sights on is long gone. Sometimes though, I happen into ghosts of it—if on a drive home, heading north toward the San Gabriels on a clear day and I see the shoulder-to-shoulder rise of land that demarks the Angeles National Forest, or the socked-in coast and wild weed and pampas grass near the Pacific just as I move out built San Francisco. I can still lose my composure in the presence of the beauty that I know both I and my forebears bore witness to, together across the bend of time. But these vignettes of paradise are flashes. If we’re lucky, we glimpse them daily on a bike ride home, or while lifting groceries out of the car. They are reminders. I suppose that’s why I’m much more interested in the paradises that Californians create for themselves than boosters’ or Hollywood’s evocations of them; the neighborhoods naturally give themselves over and find humane ways to coexist.
When I speak of “paradise,” I’m not referencing elaborate McMansions built to the very edge of property lines or elaborate six-foot-high retaining walls that obscure your (and our) collective sense of place. I’m speaking of a vision of personal beauty seeking connection/interaction—maybe it’s a folk art garden full of old baby doll heads, or shards of blue glass sunk next to broken china as part of a front-yard mosaic. Maybe it’s painting your house turquoise or maybe it’s a flock of plastic pink flamingos? It might be the Virgen de Guadalupe painted on a Quik-Mart’s tamarind walls next to floating bottles of Tide and rolls of Ariel. Maybe it’s a make-shift fortune-telling kiosk in the driveway. What does peace, freedom of expression, a chance to breathe and reevaluate look like from decade-to-decade across generations?
It’s still about “space” to my mind. Not just measurable space—those miles demarcated in freeway exits—but the room to ask and play out that What If: Who might you be if you intersected with the place that might allow you to wander that question to its logical, meaningful end.
California, the best of it, is what lives and prospers in a liminal, unnamed space—somewhere between dreams, disappointments, and recalibration. It’s harder to recognize, perhaps, because it’s messy. It might look like defeat, or it might feel unfinished—or still in motion.
Meanwhile, of late, I’ve been watching my city turn into glass and steel and observing what visually individualized it, receding into a fragment of memory. Another wave pushing through, dissolving and flattening. Long-time Los Angeles Times columnist Jack Smith used to say, “The real LA is invisible.” It’s only becoming more so. In a conscious way, I’ve been trying to save what’s left or, perhaps more accurately, trying to see it better. My ritual has been to move out on foot early mornings, camera in hand, to find my way back home. It was a portal I had to locate, imagery that announced, “I am here” or “SOS”—plainspoken, conversational, real.
Those personalized markings—the doll-head gardens, the turquoise houses—the impressions that we make on place, the stories we tell on a window sill, the detritus we arrange in alleys, the found mannequins waving from the bungalow roof, the poems we write in dust are the conversations of place; they are the visual fodder that find their way deep inside, that later evolve into a character in a book, a line in a short story, some key and singular evocation of place. Until then, for now, I pause, raise my camera, and take the frame.
Of Saints and Sanctuaries: A Snapshot
My San Francisco shuttle driver looked as if he’d stepped out of a nineties-era Hollywood adventure flick: barrel-chested, slicked-back hair, and ink-black wraparound shades. He was a man of few words—at first. Once he’d left off every fare but me, I noted a laminated placard, stuck in his cupholder: a Robert De Niro from Taxi Driver and the words “Saint Travis” inscribed above it.
Even before this discovery, I was tipped off that he would be a necessary source to mine. Instead of zipping us through the usual downtown entryway streets, I looked, up from checking messages to see that he was dragging us through the nether regions of the Tenderloin. Rows of blue tarp and trash-bag shanties and cardboard pallets lined the filthy sidewalks—hardly the exalted California Dream. I had to wonder: Was this shortcut meant to warn, school, or discourage? We rode in conspicuous silence.
Now, van emptied, I asked him about the placard. He said it was a gift from his girlfriend. “All the cabbies and shuttle drivers have all these saints hanging from mirrors and knobs. I’m not religious, but she thought I needed some sort of saint.”
What did Saint Travis ward off? I asked.
“It’s just gotten so crazy,” he speaks to me through the slash of rectangle of the rearview mirror, as we bump along toward my hotel in North Beach.
The traffic? I guessed.
“No, the people. I also drive a cab and I just got off of a long shift and these assholes with the ‘Take me to mumble mumble.’ They don’t know where they want to go. Or they’re drunk. Or both. Where doesn’t seem to be important. Then, once we settle on a place for me to drop them, they jump out of the cab before the destination, without paying. Assholes. I took the keys and threw them at my boss—‘NO MORE.’ I mean, I’ve trained as a Navy SEAL. This shit is worse.”
Place, of course, has changed too, certainly a reflection of the people who may not sweat certain details of destination. I could see it—or the absence of it—instantly: all this glass and steel and fewer tacky surfaces and the stories that go with them. I was struck by how much more like Los Angeles San Francisco appeared at first glimpse—south of Market particularly—with lofts and condos and sleek watering holes.
I met up with my friend Shelley, my old roommate from my grad school days there. I had merely a sketch of a plan. I wanted to locate what was still recognizable, what had stowed away. I wondered if that falling-down flat off Divisadero, where another friend once lived—with the warring turntables blasting punk and opera—still stood. Or if the bus still left you off in front of a vivid liquor store—always story in motion.
Shelly and I retraced our old routes, the streets, ones closer to the ocean in the Outer Sunset. I still saw the shoulder-to-shoulder pastel houses, but inevitably, with a modernized, streamlined version interrupting the lines. In a certain way, visually, you could eavesdrop on conversations that were going on via architecture. I wondered how long this unusual mix of ragtag, working-class, aspirational, and DIY will be this way along the Great Highway.
On my final morning, we stop for coffee at Caffe Trieste, the same spot where I’d watched Gregory Corso fly out into the night. With a clutch of gray-haired men in hats and scarves lingering out front, it felt hearteningly unchanged. Protected, ducking in, I glimpsed a poster on the window. It took the wind out of me. Its dominant feature was a black-and-white image of a young Giovani ‘Papa Gianni’ Giotta, Trieste’s founder. The text advertised an upcoming memorial for Papa Gianni, that Saturday. I stood silently before the picture, looking at him behind the old counter opening day in 1956. A bar where I’d lined up weekends and evenings for a perfect cappuccino: “The first cappuccino bar on the West Coast!” as the family had long touted it. I had become enough of a regular that they’d remembered my order. For years, long after I moved away, I’d return, queue up and watch the barista pull my espresso, place the brown cup and saucer before me. I didn’t have to say a word. This, too, was home.
Even with all the buzz of gentrification that has restitched parts of North Beach, I was struck by how much of the feel—and stories—remained alive in the crevices of this place. This wasn’t Italy; it was California as seen through the prism of his Italian youth. He was extending the line—possibility—himself with it. The cafe has been a meeting room for generations of artists, muckrakers, eccentrics, and tourists; but mostly, its role has been to lend support and succor to neighborhood, struggling, and/or working-class folks like Giotta, who himself had arrived from Italy with his family penniless and at loose ends. From a singing window-washer to a business owner, this cafe had saved him—and so many others. In certain ways, it is a monument to all of that—a sanctuary.
The sorrow I was feeling had settled somewhere deep. I was sorry I would miss the memorial, the arias that would be sung in his memory, the old neighborhood stories that would soar. Shelley and I lingered longer than we’d intended. I wanted to pause to take a few snapshots—details—to remember this moment, but I was at a loss. Not a cup or saucer. Not the jukebox full of arias. But what? We stopped next door at Trieste’s adjacent storefront, their coffee-roasting business, and struck up a conversation with the man behind that counter. He directed our gaze toward the window, another poster of beloved Giovanni Giotta. The whole block, it seemed, was heavy in mourning. “There’s a big thing this weekend,” he told us, his body seemed limp with grief. Then he pushed two postcards—souvenirs—across the counter toward us: a blurred multiple exposure of the Caffe Trieste’s interior—the roar of activity visible and Papa Gianni, a ghost, there again before me.
The man at the counter looked up over his glasses and into middle space, and then pronounced: “That’s all we have left of poor Papa Gianni.”
I don’t want to believe him. I can’t. Because what’s circling around us—dusty and delicate but enduring—tells me something else: Papa Gianni is in these walls, in that jukebox. He’s part of the feeling of that old North Beach. Those guys standing on the street corner, keeping the story moving, aloft; the woman with the kind smile who remembers your coffee; they’ll be ghosts too, soon enough. But this old wooden monument of risk, big love, of life and acceptance is what we have left. How would I frame this shot? This feeling? Because it’s quintessentially California. I realize now why it was so difficult to capture: because California moves through you. It is vigor and spirit. If we do it right, we leave our mark on hearts and in stories and souls.
If we’re lucky, it’s ongoing.
It’s how we work with it.
All photographs by Lynell George.
1 Richard Hallas, You Play the Black and the Red Comes Up (New York: Carnegie-Mellon University Press, 1938; reprint, Seattle: Dark Coast Press, 2013).
2 Wanda Coleman, “Prisoner of Los Angeles (2),” in The Geography of Home: California’s Poetry of Place, Christopher Buckley and Gary Young, eds. (Berkeley: Heyday, 1993), 36.
3 Jack Kerouac, Book of Blues (New York: Penguin, 1995), 35.
4 Kevin Starr, California: A History (New York: Penguin Random House, 2005), xi.
5 The WPA Guide to California: The Federal Writers Guide to 1930s California (reprint, New York: Pantheon, 1984), xv.
Lynell George is a Los Angeles–based photographer, journalist, and essayist. She has written for KCET’s Artbound, Los Angeles Times, the L.A. Weekly, and she taught journalism at Loyola Marymount University. She is the author of No Crystal Stair: African Americans in the City of Angels (Verso/Doubleday).
I walked among the equidistant graves
New planted in the irrigated lawn.
The square, trim headstones quietly declared
The impotence of grief against the sun.
There were no outward signs of human loss.
No granite angel wept beside the lane.
No bending willow broke the once rough ground
Now graded to a geometric plane.
My blessed California, you are so wise.
You render death abstract, efficient, clean.
Your afterlife is only real estate,
And in his kingdom Death must stay unseen.
I would have left then. I had made my one
Obligatory visit to the dead.
But as I turned to go, I heard the voices,
Faint but insistent. This is what they said.
“Stay a moment longer, quiet stranger.
Your footsteps woke us from our lidded cells.
Now hear us whisper in the scorching wind,
Our single voice drawn from a thousand hells.
“We lived in places that we never knew.
We could not name the birds perched on our sill,
Or see the trees we cut down for our view.
What we possessed we always chose to kill.
“We claimed the earth but did not hear her claim,
And when we died, they laid us on her breast,
But she refuses us—until we earn
Forgiveness from the lives we dispossessed.
“We are so tiny now—light as the spores
That rotting clover sheds into the air,
Dry as old pods burnt open by the sun,
Barren as seeds unrooted anywhere
“Forget your stylish verses, little poet—
So sadly beautiful, precise, and tame.
We are your people, though you would deny it.
Admit the justice of our primal claim
“Become the voice of our forgotten places.
Teach us the names of what we have destroyed.
We are like shadows the bright noon erases,
Weightlessly shrinking, bleached into the void.
“We offer you the landscape of your birth—
Exquisite and despoiled. We all share blame.
We cannot ask forgiveness of the earth
For killing what we cannot even name.”
*Dana Gioia, “A California Requiem,” 99 Poems: New & Selected (Graywolf Press, 2016).
Photograph by Matt Gush.
Dana Gioia is the ex-chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts and Poet Laureate of California. He received an MA in comparative literature from Harvard University and has published five full-length collections of poetry between 1986 and 2016.