Tag: History

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Through the Heart of California: Seeing the “Other” California through a Relief Map

Alex Espinoza

In 2014, Aljazeera America ran a story titled “Fresno Rated Highly Livable for Young People.”The piece cited information gathered by the online news source Vocativ, which used everything from the cost of manicures to real estate prices as metrics for determining “all things that matter to younger people — especially in rough times.”Fresno took the number 24 slot on a list of 100 best places for those under thirty-five.

Many say that California’s fifth largest city has always suffered from an identity crisis. Others say that this is not necessarily a bad thing. Equidistant from Los Angeles and the Bay Area, Fresno attracts citizens from its larger cousins who find themselves fed up with hour-long commutes and skyrocketing home prices. Here is one of the few places in California where you can find San Francisco Giants lawn banners jabbed into yellowing patches of grass while, across the street, a dusty Ford F-150 sports a decal proudly proclaiming that its driver “bleeds Dodger Blue.” Here you find a regional dialect that often fuses idioms and verbal ticks from both the Bay Area and metropolitan Los Angeles; sentences are sprinkled with liberal amounts of the adjective hella (from the North) while use of the definite article the when referencing local freeways (an LA staple) has become increasingly common.

Fresno, like its vernacular, like the fertile soil of the Great Basin—carved when an ancient ocean plate called the Farallon surrendered to the more aggressive North American Plate as Pangea broke apart during the Jurassic period—is constantly chafing against external forces determined to define it, to alter it.

Despite its strategic location, its deep agricultural roots, and its close ties with the farmworker movement of the sixties and seventies, in many ways Fresno remains stubbornly un-Californian, reveling in its misfit status. It is home to one of the largest Hmong populations in the United States. It is where in the sixties a man named Boogaloo Sam created “popping,” described as “a dance that combines rigid robotic moves with loose flowing moves.”Cher attended Fresno High School briefly before quitting at sixteen to pursue her dreams. The name Fresno means “ash tree” in Spanish, and it’s where Chrissy Snow on Three’s Company was born and raised, and to where she was ultimately banished when Suzanne Sommers, the actress who played her, was enmeshed in contract disputes with the show’s producers.

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The topography of Los Angeles and the Antelope Valley, courtesy of NASA/JPL/NIMA.

Before relocating there, I thought of cities like Fresno as places people moved from, not places people moved to. “Fresno is not small. The city has more than half a million residents and is larger than the state capital, Sacramento. But because it’s in the heart of farm country, it lacks big-city glamour. What it does offer is a more compact power structure that allows even the young to make a difference.”4

I remember a relief map of California I made in the fourth grade. I pressed my thumb into the mixture of paste and flour to form the Central Valley. Then, using brown food coloring and water, I painted in wide fields of alfalfa and rows of lettuce and cabbage. I imagined people, cars, small towns, a schoolyard with swings and a metal slide, its patina worn and dull not from neglect but from years of friction, the kind of use that tells you that things as innocuous as playground equipment could be loved.

In the documentary, The City Addicted to Crystal Meth, widely viewed by Brits, reporter Louis Theroux examines the damaging affects the drug has had on Fresno. At the time of its airing on the BBC in August of 2009, the city had the highest number methamphetamine users in the nation.“It is quite charming—and this was an extraordinary film, a sad portrait of a very different California from the one you see in Entourage,” wrote Sam Wollastan for The Guardian about Theroux’s documentary.

I had always dreamed of owning my own home. When I was a kid there was no such thing as privacy. When you have ten older siblings, there isn’t much opportunity to cultivate this luxury. I used to dream of space, of empty rooms and a quiet kitchen, a big yard with a giant tree, its branches rocking in a soft breeze carrying the scent of blooming jasmine and freshly shorn grass. I’d lie in a hammock and read and sleep to the sound of birds chirping and the low, lonely bark of a neighbor’s dog.

In 2005, I was fresh out of graduate school and living with my husband, Kyle, in a cramped apartment in Riverside. I was a part-time instructor teaching composition and creative writing classes. I kept an eye on my aging mother who lived nearby in a large house all by herself. I would shuttle her from her doctor appointments to her dentist appointments, grading papers in the lobbies while I waited. At night, I would work on my first novel, sitting at a desk in a dark corner of the bedroom in our small, shabby place. I remember thinking, If only I could get away from the stress of my family, be far enough away from the drama but close enough to drive if there were an emergency. If only we could afford a house.

In 2007, after my first novel was published, I decided to go on the job market. When I came across the announcement for the teaching position at Fresno State, there was only one thing I knew about Fresno: raisins.

On 22 January 2016, The Fresno Bee reported that the county’s unemployment rate for the previous year was the lowest it had been in nearly a decade. “In Fresno County and its neighboring Valley counties, annual unemployment has fallen in each of the past six years, dropping to levels not seen since the early part of the 2007–2009 recession.”7

According to United States Census Bureau, in 2015 52.4 percent of the population of Fresno County was Hispanic or Latino.8

Despite its large Latino population, despite its long history of cultivating artists of color, I was the first Chicano writer ever hired to teach in the MFA program in creative writing at Fresno State.

Call it regional snobbery, but many of my LA friends could not comprehend why I decided to move to Fresno.

“Really?” they asked.

“I’d commute from here,” another friend suggested. “You don’t actually want to live there, do you? Stay in LA and drive up just to teach your classes, man.”

The car was crammed full of boxes, and our dog sat on Kyle’s lap. As we cleared the Tejon Pass, I saw before us a wide valley floor, stretched flat. I remembered the relief map I’d constructed back in elementary school. I imagined a giant thumb parting the sky, the rivulets and swirls of my fingerprint denting the land to form rivers and thin roads that looped around and around one another.

Fresno is located in the fertile San Joaquin Valley in the central part of California, about halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles. The terrain in Fresno is relatively flat, with a sharp rise to the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains about 15 miles eastward. The weather is usually sunny, with over 200 clear days each year. Summers are typically hot and dry, while winters are mild and rainy. Spring and fall are the most pleasant seasons.

Area: 99.1 square miles (2000)

Elevation: 328 feet above sea level

Average Temperatures: January, 39.6° F; August, 94.1° F; annual average, 62.5° F

Average Annual Precipitation: 9.86 inches9

The heat was like a blast furnace that first June. Two weeks of triple digit temperatures. Thankfully, the house we were renting had a swimming pool. In between unpacking boxes of books, we swam for hours. I used to love watching the cypress trees lining the perimeter of the backyard bending and swaying in that hot, dry breeze.

Located on Shaw Avenue, just east of Highway 99, the Forestiere Underground Gardens is a series of subterranean tunnels, grottos, and patios that were designed and built by a Sicilian immigrant named Baldasare Forestiere. It took him over forty years to complete, and he used only hand tools throughout its construction. “Forestiere worked without blueprints or plans, following only his creative instincts and aesthetic impulses. He continued expanding and modifying the gardens throughout his life. Baldasare Forestiere died in 1946 at the age of sixty-seven. After his death, the Underground Gardens were opened to the public as a museum.”10 He built it as a way to cool off during the brutal Central Valley summers. The Forestiere Underground Gardens is on the National Register of Historic Places and draws hundreds of visitors year after year.

Coming from Los Angeles, there were some perks to relocating to Fresno:

  1. Hardly any traffic
  2. Lower cost of living
  3. A slower pace of life

I didn’t have time to miss Los Angeles that first semester. I was too busy getting a handle on my new job. Between teaching classes and committee meetings, there was hardly a moment to take in my surroundings. During that time, my mother grew increasingly ill. My sisters and I decided not to tell her that I had relocated. Me being the baby of the family, her favorite child, we thought it would devastate her to know I had packed up and headed north. Immediately after she passed away, I had dreams of her holding the relief map I had made as a kid. In the dream, she squeezed it hard. Dried tan and green-colored chunks broke apart and fell to the ground. She’s scolded me, her face red, her forehead beaded with sweat. “Why did you leave?” she asked. “You weren’t supposed to leave. What were you thinking?”

I should have told her. My mother never knew I left. She died thinking I was still near her.

In a story dated 9 March 2015, Men’s Health ranked Fresno number 1 on its list of drunkest cities in America. “Our statistical sobriety checkpoint shows that the inebriated people there have one of the highest death rates from alcoholic liver disease (per data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention),” they wrote.11

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Mt. Pinos and the Carizo Plain in the distance, courtesy of NASA/JPL/NIMA/USGS.

Men’s Health included the following details on measures used to determine Fresno’s “dangerous drinking” ranking:

Deaths from Liver Disease: 2nd
Deaths in DUI Crashes: 16th
Binge Drinking: 33rd
DUI Arrests: 4th
Harsh DUI Laws: 80th
Grade: F12

We’ve also been voted among the “dumbest cities” in the United States. On 26 July 2016, the Fresno Bee ran a story citing a national poll that ranked cities in the San Joaquin Valley on their list of least educated areas. WalletHub, which initiated the poll, “compared the top 150 metropolitan statistical areas based on the percentage of adults with a college education and other factors such as the quality of the area’s public schools and universities. Overall, Fresno ranked 145th, just ahead of Modesto at 146th, Bakersfield at 147th and Visalia/Porterville at 148th.

I am not out to dis a place like Fresno. That’s never been my style. Nor am I here to praise it, to paint an inauthentic picture of the city as an idyllic community untouched by problems plaguing it and similar inland cities of California. It’s true that we have a high number of drug abusers, that we drink a lot, and that lack of access and money has prevented some of our citizens from reaping the benefits of higher education. But I can also tell you about the friends I’ve made here, scholars from some of the most prestigious schools in the country. I can tell you how famed novelist Julia Alvarez once taught at the same university I did. I can tell you about the history and legacy of writers like William Saroyan and Gary Soto, and Mark Arax today. I can tell you about Diana Marcum, The Los Angeles Times reporter who covered the Central Valley and who, in 2015, won a Pulitzer Prize for her unflinching coverage of the devastating effects of the drought on farmers, field hands, communities, and families. I can tell you how I’ve picked apricots in the summer, washed them in my kitchen sink, and eaten to my heart’s content. I can tell you that I lived here for nearly ten years, and I was never robbed. I can tell you that I bought my first house and that it was built in 1941, and there’s a tall oak tree full of squirrels and woodpeckers and blue jays that live and raise families in the green canopy above my roof. I can tell you about the dogs I’ve rescued and the one that I lost here and cried over for days. I can tell you that this place, like any other place, is full of contrast and contradiction.

My husband and two dogs have remained there for the year while I ease my way back into a life in Los Angeles. Because I’m returning to the Eastside and the greater San Gabriel Valley, locations holding so many memories—both good and bad—my emotions have run the gamut, vacillating between moments of extreme fear and trepidation to hope and nostalgia. It’s all wrapped up together, coming at me in waves, simultaneously hot and cold, up and down, dark and light. I laugh when I drive by the 7–11 where a high school friend of mine and I scored our first six-pack of beer when we were fifteen, then I cry when I turn left down another street and find myself at the exact spot on Valley Boulevard where my father took his last breath on a cold January evening in 1989.

The past few years, as I’ve commuted back and forth between Los Angeles and Fresno for work between two state universities and as I’ve served on the board of California Humanities, our statewide humanities council, I’ve learned about geographical variances, that we’re not all the same, that we all have stories to tell, and that my notion of California stretches far beyond the factories and freeways of the San Gabriel Valley, far beyond the stucco houses and empty lots of the Inland Empire, where I spent my twenties and thirties, and even beyond the strawberry fields, the orange groves, and the almond orchards and vineyards of the Central Valley.

It’s appropriate for Californians, I think, this constant moving, just like the earth that occasionally rumbles and shifts and flows right beneath our collective feet.

Notes

1 http://america.aljazeera.com/articles/2014/1/3/fresno-ranks-highlylivableforyoungpeople.html

2 http://america.aljazeera.com/articles/2014/1/3/fresno-ranks-highlylivableforyoungpeople.html

3 http://blogs.uoregon.edu/jerkrumpop/popping/

4 http://america.aljazeera.com/articles/2014/1/3/fresno-ranks-highlylivableforyoungpeople.html

5 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_City_Addicted_to_Crystal_Meth

6 https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2009/aug/10/louis-theroux-crystal-meth

7 http://www.fresnobee.com/news/business/article56100350.html#storylink=cp

8 http://www.census.gov/quickfacts/table/PST045215/0627000,06019#headnote-js-b

9 http://www.city-data.com/us-cities/The-West/Fresno-Geography-and-Climate.html

10 http://historicfresno.org/nrhp/forest.htm

11 http://www.menshealth.com/health/drunk-cities

12 http://www.menshealth.com/health/drunk-cities

Alex Espinoza is a novelist known for works such as Still Water Saints. A professor at California State University, Los Angeles, as well as the director of their MFA Program in Creative Writing and Literary Arts, he was born in Mexico and raised in Los Angeles.

ArticlesPhotography/Art

The Smell of Gold: On the Yuba River

Caitlin Mohan

My son and I sit on a boulder in the Yuba River when he asks if the river looked this way a hundred years ago. Since I have been visiting this same place for the last forty-five summers and with the exception of a new wash of gravel or a fallen tree that changes the depth of a hole, I tell him that the river will remain the same. Probably.

The river’s granite boulders and jade waters teach firsthand how water takes the path of least resistance. In fact, this small radius of my childhood, Highway 49 running past Nevada City over the south fork and up a dirt road, looks from a dusty car window as it always has—a red earth, scrub brush landscape that curves away from pressures of modern life even as it pulls the imagination back to gold miners and a hundred years later to the rednecks, retirees, and back-to-the-land types.

What’s different today is that when I roll down the window a sirocco of marijuana saturates the car—the new smell just beyond the road that will become the scratch-and-sniff memory for my children’s recollection of this place.

When I was a kid, summer’s first swim began with my nose skimming the water’s surface in an effort to rediscover that familiar scent of river, rock, dragonfly—whatever it was that brewed Gold Country smell. My father, for whom “odors” were of paramount importance, a gateway to memory and feelings, taught me to register the smells of Highway 49. He would hang his head out the car window, shouting into hot wind, “Can you smell it?” For a New Jersey transplant by way of Greenwich Village and Berkeley, California was a land of Lotus Eaters. He never could get over the place and the smell of (what was it?) witch hazel, cedar, manzanita—it drove him wild.

Yes, I could smell it, though we could never name the intoxicating elixir of plants, animals, and dirt, for we were East Coast in origin, summer visitors and hedonists, not scientists. We would leave the diagnostics to people like Gary Snyder who lived year round on the ridge and actually studied the super biodiversity of California in general and this watershed in particular. My father was a romantic and so to smell and to feel, void of precise nomenclature, were enough—were everything.

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Late afternoon glisten, Yuba River.

Perhaps it was his sense of romance that brought my father to purchase eight and a half acres and a cabin on the Middle Fork. Its scrap-wood walls and buddy-taped electrical wires called to his inner yearning for Walden. He was an English teacher, so this wasn’t just a cabin; it was a sanctuary in the way of Robinson Jeffers’s Tor House or Jack London’s Wolf House—a place to slow if not stop time, a place to shelter his kids from the crap of the world. There was no TV, no phone, and for the first two decades, no toilet or hot water. It was a place to play ping pong, eat fudgesicles. It was a place to swim in the clear, moving water that taught me most of what I know about force and abeyance, and set my life’s course so that it feels sacrilegious to mention it in passing. It was a place to preserve what was best in ourselves through reading, watching, and talking under the stars.

In 1972, people were doing this sort of thing. We weren’t the only people who had copies of Whole Earth Catalogue and Shelter magazine, which reprinted today can be found on any earthy boutique shelf in Nevada City. Perhaps sparked by his particular desires to escape the harangue of Berkeley politics and soothe his marriage, he was fueled too by the larger Californian and American consciousness to get back to the land—or get back to something. As a kid, I saw this idea on the cover of The Band album, in a group of musicians who looked as if they had crawled out of a mine shaft in patina leather. What were they digging for? I saw it in the films like Easy Rider and Sam Peckinpah’s The Ballad of Cable Hogue—individuals leaving home, setting up watering holes in the middle of the desert, always with dirt-encrusted beards. I heard it in Joni Mitchell’s directive to “get back to the Garden.” And so the Gold Country, like places of the imagination across time, became an El Dorado for those traveling from something to something, and ultimately looking for a return to Eden, even as they looked forward to the precipice of enterprise and fortune.

For a while, the cabin became a halfway station for such dreamers. One Thanksgiving, a family friend, Bob O’Garbage, as we lovingly called him, rolled up from Virginia in a 1954 pearl-gray Mercedes with his family; he left two years later wearing nothing but a pair of lederhosen and his long beard, and carrying a staff. Bob worked sporadically at the mill; his wife, Blanch, would bathe the kids in a horse trough; and we all had great times together on the weekend. During this time, two parcels of land on either side of the cabin were purchased—one by a Southern California contractor who was rumored to be a Republican and the other by his handsome Paul Bunyan nephew who built a Shwartzwaldian zendo in homage to Yogananda. Both of these men loved the land, raised their families, and earned legal livings. Their eventual schism has always stood vaguely iconic of the larger cultural splits that infuse menacing energy into the region: rednecks vs. hippies, meth heads vs. pot heads, retirees vs. entrepreneurs, and perhaps now a subdivision: certain types of growers vs. other types of growers.

In the eighties, we rented out the cabin to a parade of seekers: a roadie for Supertramp and a less savory family who made a lab of the kitchen with dusty jars of thick mystery and pot galore. We knew they were not part of the Edenic dream when their youngest, a forest troll of about four years old, came running out of the cabin as we rolled up, and yelled, “Dad, fucking Mohan’s here!” This in contrast to our gentlest renter, Carl, with spritely laugh and guitar, who loved the land, planted a vegetable garden, and wrote a song called Hot Shit in Mexico (a local favorite at the time), and whose refrain “Hot shit in Mexico, paraquot shit in Mexico” reminds us where California’s dope used to come from and why there is a market for organic product.

All of the cabin dwellers smoked their share of marijuana. With the exception of Carl, who later set up a teepee on our land and may have had a single plant for his own personal use, none of them were growers. Now, however, everybody’s growing it. Goat people with dreads coiled around their heads, wearing loin cloths, smoking joints the size of corn cobs with names like Star Compost are doing it, and people like our neighbors, who tired of the excess and pace of the Bay Area are doing it. We couldn’t ask for better weed-growing neighbors: educated, ethical, and organic. They are kind people with refined interests who do not smoke their product.

Perhaps some who come to the Gold Country today to live share that dream of living off the land, escaping the rat race, and absorbing the wisdom of the river like Siddhartha. But people have always come here to make money mining gold, logging trees, and now growing pot. And so the question arises: What is California dreaming? Are these pursuits a means to an end? Is gold still and always the dream? Or, is the work itself the dream: the mining, the logging, the growing? Just months ago, the parcel belonging to the Republican uncle was sold to an investor who employs a property manager and farmer. The wooden fence that once corralled a horse is now six feet tall and possibly electrical. We met the hired farmer—a county native—yesterday, the nicest guy who’s traveled the world only to come home. I wonder if his California dream is growing marijuana for somebody else or if he is still searching.

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Joy in granite, Yuba River.

With both properties on each side of our cabin owned by growers, my summer cabin is the cream filling in a cannabis Oreo. I am caught between accepting this latest gold rush economy as the antidote for a historically poor area and feeling protective of the land. Not all growers are as ideal as my neighbors; many use harmful fertilizers, leave the land worse for wear, and lure cartel types to the area. All growers siphon from the watershed, and most don’t pay taxes on their crops. But I am also protective of a time when people came here to get back to the land and not for the sake of profit, when people believed we had strayed from Eden but ultimately belonged to it. Of course, these are sentimental notions from a summer visitor who has never had to earn a living in an area that offers few options. And, California dreams are so close to California schemes it is often difficult to tell which is which.

Today on the rock, my son asks if the river looked the same a thousand years ago, and this is where I am stumped. That’s a long time for anything to endure, let alone remain unaltered; but if anything around here will remain, I hope it will be the river and that its water will not become the next form of gold, though of course it already is. I think of how just yesterday at the Nevada City library we learned who might have been the first people here. When we touched the computer display, a song of the Nisenan tribe came out of the kiosk, causing me to wonder why it took me forty-five years to learn this name. Most of the history of this tribe is unknown and misunderstood by those who live near and on their tribal land. The stories of recent, successful financial enterprise have masked their past, just as the odor of weed now covers what I recently learned is a major herbal ingredient in the air of my childhood: mountain misery.

Though my own fourth-grade education favored constructing sugar-cube missions over studying California Indians, I learned a potent lesson in California history by visiting Malakoff Diggins, now a state historic park in Nevada City that preserves California’s largest hydraulic mining site. The eerie lunar landscape—hills blasted bare as skin by massive water hoses between 1853 and 1884—told me of a one-sided relationship between the miner and his environment. The nearby settlement, more of a ghost town than an historical site, appeared to have been left in a hurry or simply wandered off from. In the 1970s, you could simply press your nose against the window and peek over the pharmacy bottles to spy a woman’s shoe in the middle of the silty floor, sitting there as if she couldn’t find it but walked out the door just the same. You could wander into a leaning barn and see, or perhaps imagine, a noose swinging from the rafter, not unlike the make-shift gallows some miles up the North Fork, which hosted the only female hanging in California—Juanita—in 1851. At least the gallows had a crude plaque bearing meager details that belie a story of racism and sexism made obvious with hindsight.

But Malakoff Diggins was just another place, leaving me to wonder what we Californians make of our own history. Perhaps our history is too recent, too dredged in profit rather than ideals to have warranted in the 1970s, a mere 125 years from the Gold Rush, a cordon rope, a plaque, or tour guide with a badge. Perhaps California, like a child, did not have the perspective that comes with a more critical contextual awareness to take itself seriously enough to see itself as a historical subject.

So too, it has taken me a good chunk of my life to inaccurately, incompletely define the smell of this country, partly because of my own ignorance but also because the smell of the Gold Country isn’t only about plants and animals; it’s about the residue of the human endeavor that is palpable in the great piles of mossy boulders that Chinese miners pulled from the Yuba River that now sit on the roadside without ceremony or documentation. The smell is edible apple trees in the orchard, planted an unknowable number of years before my family bought the land, and which survive without irrigation or pruning. The smell is audible in the hush of rapids, momentarily drowned out by the motorcycle shifting into high gear on Highway 49. I suspect every California region from the county of Jefferson to the Imperial Valley provides a synesthesia of evidence to classify particular landscapes, histories, and endeavors, but I wonder if this Gold Country smell isn’t somehow more potent than it is in other areas. I wonder if the heart-cleaving beauty of the area coupled with a desperate drive to unearth a living hasn’t made love of this place more hard won. If California is, in the words of Wallace Stegner, “like the rest of America, only more so,” then perhaps the Gold Country is like the rest of California only more so—the unofficial capital of what the state is about—the always changing dreams, which following complicated labor, birth the next reality.

But odor is not a competition. California doesn’t need to compete with itself to define its character. The state is too diverse to characteristically identify with science or fiction; likewise, it remains impossible to name the smell of the Gold Country. So, I am not surprised when I ask my son as we sit on the rock what he thinks he smells and he says he doesn’t know. I instantly flash on a Gary Snyder poem that intimidated me with his authoritative chronology of the Malakoff Diggins area, citing millions and millions of years of evolution. That poem, “What Happened Here Before,” is one that still appeals to me for its allegiance to defining place using the names of plants and animals while imagining the erstwhile lives of miners, Indians, tax assessors, and a prophetic blue jay who screeches in response to the question of who we are: “We shall see / Who knows / How to be.”

The computerized kiosk at the Nevada City library emitted a Nisenan song, but it cannot produce the smell of the Gold Country, although I recently came across liquid soap in that aforementioned earthy boutique bearing the name Yuba. Its admirable but inadequate attempt to capture the river’s essence displays that no amount of technology will allow one to push a button and smell from the car window those first hits of red earth, stonefly, and mountain misery—odors that are now absorbed into the marijuana growing just feet from Highway 49.

I wonder what the Highway 49 smell will be when my children are grown, if they will bring their own kids here in the summer. I wonder if they will keep the TV, phone, computer, and other technology out of the cabin as we have done in hopes that without these distractions we can read, play ping pong, and eat fudgesicles. What will be the new industry of their time? The one that takes the path of least resistance. What will be the latest technological distraction? Will they have the inclination or grit to tell their kids to turn it off, crawl into bed, and inhale that Gold Country scent that travels through the screen window, the one we can never name that leads them to dreams of the river?

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Leaning toward the past.

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Yuba Green.

Note
All photographs by Conny Heinrich.

Caitlin Mohan is an educator and writer living in West Marin. She is currently working on a collection of essays and can be found every summer swimming in the rapids of the Yuba River.

ArticlesPhotography/Art

Elegy

David L. Ulin

Andrew Molera State Park. I didn’t know it was the almost perfect midpoint of the California coast when I visited in late May 1980. It was also the almost perfect midpoint of my time living by the Bay. Just days before my roommate was due to leave San Francisco and return east, we drove south, through Santa Cruz and Watsonville, to Big Sur to spend a weekend camping at the sea. What we saw first were naked women, two of them, walking the trail back from the beach loose-limbed and jangly, like the beating of my heart. I was eighteen and mostly inexperienced, but I knew enough to look them in the eye. Down at the water’s edge, my roommate suggested we get naked also; the idea made me uncomfortable, but I didn’t want to say. Instead, I peeled my jeans as if I were shedding skin, averted my gaze as he did the same. Then we smoked a joint and wandered the rocky shore, sporadically crossing paths with other walkers, all of us as bare-assed as if we were newly born. This was not a nude beach, not specifically, although the overall sensibility was When in Rome. I felt titillated but not physically, more in the sense that I was crossing into adulthood…or at least adulthood as I imagined it might be. Later in the afternoon, we stumbled upon a couple having sex behind an outcropping; by then, we had already put our pants back on and were on our way to pitch our tent. I don’t recall much else, just this small sequence of images, all of them taking place over an hour or two between the trailhead and the waves. Oh, and one other thing, one more sensation: that this wasn’t who I was, not quite, not exactly, no matter how I wished it might be so.
Fort Mason. I had a job working for Greenpeace, three evenings a week, canvassing Marin, the East and South Bays, going door to door to ask for funds. The office was in Fort Mason Center, which had only recently been turned over to the National Park Service; before that, it had been an army post, going back to the Civil War. I would take the Fillmore bus, get off in front of Marina Middle School, walk the dozen or so blocks to the office where we would gather like a squadron about to go out on patrol. We would pile into a brown VW bus, listen to the Dead or Public Image Ltd., drive out of the city, stop for dinner, and hit the neighborhoods. The higher end, the better: In Mill Valley once, I was invited into a party, given beer and joints for my fellow canvassers, as well as a $150 check. That was a night’s work, more than one; in certain neighborhoods, I’d be lucky to scrounge up sixty or seventy bucks. Around 8:00 or 8:30, we would meet back at the bus and return to the city where we would add up our donations and cash out. Then I would head into the cool San Francisco night, fog drifting in from the Bay, and wander in great looping arcs from the Marina through Cow Hollow, across Pacific Heights, the Western Addition, Alamo Square, and Hayes Valley, before angling southwest to the Haight. Some evenings I would take Fillmore the whole way, others Divisidero, clinging to the shadows in the darkness like a ghost. What I liked about San Francisco was that it had a history, although I didn’t know it, which left me suspended, in some sense, between the present and the past. That, and the fact that I understood there was no future for me in this place; that like my roommate I, too, would be leaving; that it was unlikely I’d be living here again.

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View from Bernal Hill, San Francisco in the 1980s. Photograph by Mimi Plumb.

Marin Headlands. Earlier that year, perhaps in April, we spent a Saturday afternoon climbing in the Marin Headlands. Was this the same day we went to Green Dragon Temple in Muir Beach for tea and lunch? We did not sit zazen or read the sutras, but I can still see us pull up before the square construction of the zendo, piling out of the car as if the journey was much longer than seventeen miles. For as long as we stayed—an hour? maybe two?—I imagined what it might be like to live here, to stay behind when the car left and shed the concerns and ambitions of the world. Even then, however, I knew that I would never be able to sit still long enough. Maybe this is why we ended up circling back to the Headlands, all that dirt and grass. We spent an hour or two crawling over the concrete batteries dug into the hillsides, the residue of two world wars. And yet, was this so different from where we had just been? No, just another place for turning inward, not toward stillness, silence, but to ourselves, our fantasies. That day, I felt like a ten-year-old again, wanting to fit myself through the narrow gun slits, to sit inside, protected, hidden from the city and its claims. Later, I would read a book, Jim Paul’s Catapult, about two friends who get a grant to build a medieval siege weapon and shoot stones from the Headlands into the sea. In a way, what Paul is describing is its own form of meditation, its own mechanism for stepping outside time. This is how I felt a lot during those months, as if time had slowed or slipped or grown elastic, as if there were time enough at last. That this turned out (how could it not?) to be another illusion is, of course, the point—not just of memory but also of all these sites and artifacts, which I could not, which I still cannot, move beyond.

Old Waldorf. Our first weekend in the city, a group of us took blotter acid, ended up in Golden Gate Park. Many hours later, we crept out of the park and meandered from the Haight through Hayes Valley, the Civic Center, deep into the Financial District, where there was a club on Battery called the Old Waldorf, owned by Bill Graham. Battery, batteries, the city and its defenses, military or cultural, through which time moved as liquid essence…or maybe that was the drugs. We went to the Old Waldorf often, that or the Mabuhay Gardens on Broadway, where we heard SVT, Vital Parts, the Dead Kennedys, Jim Carroll Band. We were in the middle, on the seam between two eras, wannabe hippies (we weren’t old enough) lit on fire by punk. My last night in the city, ten weeks after that trip to Andrew Molera State Park, I stood atop the Stockton Street tunnel with my best friend and his girlfriend, smoking cigarettes after one last show. Below us: the crush of Sutter Street, its delis and massage parlors; while up there the three of us, we lingered, shrouded in the fog of leaving, aware that our time had come. Who had we seen that night? It could have been anyone—Jorma, Carroll, even Jerry Garcia who played, when he was in town, once a month in North Beach at the Stone. The next morning, I packed the last few items in my backpack, locked my apartment, and left the keys in the super’s box. The air was chilly, overcast I want to tell you (although that may have been internal weather), and I remember shivering a little as I stepped onto Haight Street and waited for the bus to take me to the Transbay Terminal on Mission and Howard, where I would start my journey home.

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Dogpatch, San Francisco in the 1980s. Photograph by Mimi Plumb.

Sutro Tower. I had a dream once, during the months I lived in San Francisco, of dancing underneath the Sutro Tower, that vast three-pronged transmission standard that overlooks the city from a hill not far from Clarendon Heights. I could feel the buzz of all those broadcasts, all those voices, all that electricity pulsing through my body, lines of energy. The closest I ever came to making something like that happen was one night at Twin Peaks, where a group of us came to drink and get high and dance to the boombox someone brought. The Grateful Dead or the Dead Kennedys, Jerry Garcia or Jello Biafra, Sutro, sutra, Freddie Mercury. When Queen played Oakland in July 1980, the singer came to party in the Castro, just over the hill from where I lived. That summer, everybody looked like Freddy: tight jeans, bandannas folded neatly into rear pockets, close-cropped haircuts, mustaches. “Terminal” was still a word we might use to describe a bus station; it had not yet become a harbinger of fear. A decade afterward, Mercury was dead, like so many of the men in that neighborhood, who I’d encountered on the sidewalks or when I took the bus. I don’t mean to offer up an elegy, but I want to remain clear about what I remember, which is this: I remember something that felt like abandon, the sensation that anything I could imagine might come true. I remember grace, or better yet elevation, from the Headlands to the tunnels to the hills. I remember feeling that time had erased itself even as I understood that time kept passing, that it always would. I remember that as much as I wished otherwise—Green Dragon Temple, Greenpeace, Andrew Molera State Park—I was just a visitor here.

David L. Ulin is a 2015 Guggenheim Fellow and the author of Sidewalking: Coming to Terms with Los Angeles, which was shortlisted for the PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay.

Photography/Art

Becoming Kevin Starr: Images in the Making of California’s Son

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Great-grandfather and great-grandmother of Kevin Starr

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Grandfather and grandmother of Kevin Starr, and father as infant, San Francisco 1918

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Owen Starr and Kevin Starr, San Francisco 1940

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Kevin Starr, 45 Clayton Street, San Francisco 1945

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Kevin Starr, US Army, Germany 1962

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Kevin Starr, Allston Burr Senior Tutor, Eliot House, Harvard University, 1972

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Kevin Starr, wife Sheila Gordon Starr, daughters Marian and Jessica, San Francisco 1974

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Kevin Starr, San Francisco Examiner columnist, 1980

Notes

With special thanks to Sheila Starr, who in incalculable ways has made a profound contribution to our understanding of California, and in memory of a true California son, Kevin Starr (b. 3 September, 1940, San Francisco – d. 14 January, 2017, San Francisco). Requiescat in pace.

Copyright: © 2017 Sheila Starr. 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/

Articles

Urban Humanities Pedagogy: The Classroom, Education, and New Humanities

Jonathan Banfill
Todd Presner
Maite Zubiaurre

At University of California, Los Angeles, the Humanities are located at both the historic and symbolic center of the university, on the main quad in three of the original buildings erected on the campus: Royce Hall, Powell Undergraduate Library, and the Humanities Building. They house departments that include dozens of world literatures and cultures stretching from the Middle East to the Americas, from Eastern Asia to Western Europe. The undergraduate library specializes in foundational texts of human civilization, including philosophy, history, literature, the sciences, and the arts. Founded in 1919, UCLA is nearing its first centenary, but the university builds—both literally and metaphorically—on humanistic and liberal arts traditions that are many centuries long and globally diffused. In this regard, one might bring to mind the shift from a theocentric worldview in the Medieval period, which cultivated the trivium (grammar, rhetoric, and logic), to a more humanistic approach in the Renaissance period with its developing studia humanitatis, focused on history, Greek, and moral philosophy (ethics). This shift developed the idea that knowledge is culturally conditioned and increasingly that monocular perspectives on the world need to be displaced by multiperspectival, transdisciplinary approaches. The wellspring of humanistic knowledge came from many literary and vernacular sources, abetted by the rediscovery of classical texts in Greek and Arabic, preserved in Byzantine and Islamic sites of learning, and disseminated through transcriptions, translations, editing, and annotation practices, which were greatly accelerated by the invention of the printing press. The core disciplines that we recognize today as comprising the Humanities—literary and language studies, philosophy, art history, musicology, history, among others—have deep roots in these institutional, cultural, and technological histories.

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Porosity by Maite Zubiaurre.

But yet, for all its grand ambitions for reckoning with the world, the university has remained by and large an isolated institution, walled in and often walled off from its surrounding community, accessible to a chosen few, stratified by economic, social, and racial differences, and perhaps too invested in the security of its storied past. What, after all, are the physical buildings meant to evoke, except a grand past of privilege and prestige? Royce Hall, UCLA’s architectural and cultural landmark, is built in the Lombard Romanesque style. Its towers reference Milan’s ancient Basilica of Sant’Ambrogio, which gained its Romanesque style in the twelfth century—800 years after it was built. Carved into stone above the stage in Royce Hall is an unattributed quote: “Education is learning to use the tools which the race has found indispensable.” It is attributed to Ernest Carroll Moore, a philosophy professor who served until 1936 as UCLA’s first provost. One may wonder: What tools has “the race” found to be “indispensable”? Pen and paper, paintbrush, camera, clay, word-processing machines, Photoshop? Is learning to use such tools enough, or might we need to interpret the objects created, assess their significance, and probe their conditions of possibility? And who, after all, can learn to use these tools found to be “indispensable” by “the race”? We know from Moore’s other writings on education, for example, that not every human being counted as part of “the race,” and we know all-too-well that racial thinking, eugenic paradigms, and social Darwinism were not just part and parcel of late nineteenth and early twentieth century thought but were also framing assumptions in his published writings.How do we confront these profound histories of exclusion and hierarchy that are literally inscribed in the edifices of the university? How do we open the university to other stories and histories, particularly those from the outside?

The bricks of UCLA’s Royce Hall tell a fascinating story—a story of continuity and venerability—that harkens back to the early twentieth century. As it happens, UCLA still acquires its bricks from the former Alberhill Coal and Clay Company, now renamed Pacific Clay, the same factory that produced the first bricks that set the foundation of the UC “branch” in Westwood in the late 1920s. This fact allowed Los Angeles–based New Zealand artist Fionna Connor to, in her words, read “the UCLA campus through the use of bricks” in her April 2016 installation Process Inter-rupted. Intriguingly, that installation took place in the same classroom where the Urban Humanities Initiative 2015–2016 cohort was working on several collaborative projects of precisely the type that leave behind brick walls—and even contribute to tearing them down. In reading the campus through its bricks, we might further ask: What do we know of the people who actually produced the bricks, who carted them to Westwood, who toiled in the Los Angeles sun to build the grand campus on land that was originally Gabrielino-Tongva? How does deep knowledge of the layered histories of places inform, or fail to inform, our positions, ways of knowing, and actions in the present? These are questions that come from historical, cultural-critical, and ethical perspectives influenced by the humanities.

Traditionally, brick and mortar stand for a university solidly anchored in the ivory tower model, where knowledge is produced, preserved, guarded, and stratified in countless ways. Many educational situations quietly reinforce the very social, economic, and racial hierarchies of inclusion and exclusion, of permitted speech and permissible discourse, where students are judged by their facility in reflecting predigested knowledge formed with the tools the race has found indispensable. Yet one may wonder about these tools. Following Audre Lorde, we might ask: Can the master’s tools dismantle the master’s house? Is it possible to use “the tools” and transform the ivory tower model and the brick walls themselves? Or, might entirely new tools need to be invented, ones that imagine and bring about new possibilities, futures that are distinct and different from the stratifications of the past built into the educational edifices themselves?

The Urban Humanities initiative is an attempt both to apply conventional tools in unconventional ways and to invent new tools by respecting the fundamental virtue of bricks, namely their porous nature. Porosity—that is, the ability to breath in and out, to open up to the world, and to rapidly and evenly transport and expand moisture (life) and knowledge—is the modus operandi, or better even, the modus vivendi of a new, “fluid” university model based on permeability, openness, interdisciplinarity, collaboration, and community engagement at the local, national, and transnational levels. Needless to say, the digital era and the relatively new reality of knowledge production and consumption patterns based on digital networking and widespread virtual learning has heavily contributed to the “softening” and increasing porousness of universities, with noticeable effects on the uses of their physical and institutional spaces. But it is not only digital tools that have enabled this softening; it is also an ethic based on diversity and difference that reimagines the public university as sites of engagement that are multidirectional and nonhierarchical in the past, present, and future.

Against the somber background of what Umberto Eco termed “apocalyptic” thinkers who mourn the downfall of the Humanities and perceive only the crisis of public education,“integrated” and “generative” approaches optimistically speak of a radically “new ecology of teaching and learning” that not only acknowledges but also openly embraces the opportunities of a paradigm shift.“What is different at this historical moment,” director of the University of Michigan’s Institute for the Humanities Sidonie Smith contends, “is the intensification of cross-institutional [and cross-departmental and cross-divisional] collaborative activity in the humanities and opportunities for modeling collaborative graduate [and undergraduate] education.”Therefore, in a fitting response to the zeitgeist and as part of a new ecology of teaching and learning, Smith’s “Manifesto for a Sustainable Humanities” proclaims the need of “preserving the intimacy of the small and [stewarding] the distinctiveness of the local while recognizing the attraction [and potential] of global networks,” and of “relishing the commitment to teaching through innovations in the classroom, among them explorations of participatory and project-based humanities inquiry.”More importantly, she urges the Humanities to “reconceptualize the scholarly ecology as a flexible collaboratory, one that positions the scholar as singular producer of knowledge, but also as a member of a collaborative assemblage involving students, colleagues, computer engineers and graphic designers, project designers and strangers of the crowd.”6

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La linea de Tijuana I by Jonathan Banfill and Maite Zubiaurre.

“Strangers of the crowd” may as well stand here for diverse communities not always sufficiently integrated into the knowledge networks or institutional formations that focus singularly on teaching the correct use of tools considered to be indispensable “for the race.” What about tools that stem from “beyond” or “outside” the university? What about ways of knowing, thinking, seeing, and building that come from communities not traditionally selected to partake in the knowledge formations and credentialing programs prized by the university? How does the university’s fundamental porosity expose students to possibilities and potentialities from the outside? And what does this mean for the mission of the university embedded in multiple critical networks that extend far beyond its walls to ways of creating and thinking that are “foreign” to it? Critically inflected forms of community engagement are certainly one of the imperatives of a new ecology of teaching and learning that shares with bricks the fundamental quality of porousness and permeability.

Intellectual and pedagogical initiatives such as Urban Humanities are based on and inspired by these principles. In the same way in which contemporary LA is now aligning itself with the global cities of the Pacific Rim, contemporary UCLA too is shifting, and amplifying its geographic and pedagogical scope in the same direction. Needless to say, by turning its gaze toward the Pacific, it is not only canvassing the far horizon, but also looking more intently at the demographics of the city and state it serves. Presently, 47 percent of Los Angeles County’s population is Hispanic or Latino, and 13 percent is Asian. Since 1 July 2014, Latinos have outnumbered non-Hispanic whites in California.How does this demographic reality change the way we consider the context of UCLA in LA, in California, and along the borders between the United States and Mexico in the post-NAFTA world, and in the ever-mutating global flows?

In the summer of 2015, a diverse group of twenty-four graduate students and five faculty members came together for a three-week, intensive summer institute that used Los Angeles as a “learning laboratory” to put these concepts into practice. The students came from both Ph.D. and professional master’s programs in the humanities (literary studies, history, and Chican@ studies), architecture, and urban planning, and brought together a wide-range of positionalities, life experiences, and perspectives. Some participants had grown up in Tijuana or Mexico City; others had never set foot in Mexico. Through historical investigations, multimedia mapping projects, and spatial ethnographies, the institute was framed around the investigation of contested histories, erasures, and spatial injustices in Los Angeles. Students worked in collaborative, interdisciplinary teams to make films, produce “thick maps,”and propose digital activist interventions, all with the goal of creating a foundation for a cross-disciplinary learning community prepared to work together for the remainder of the year.

In comparing Los Angeles and Mexico City, the pedagogical and research methods of the Urban Humanities were motivated by the bold question of whether it is possible to decolonize knowledge. Can knowledge ever be “decolonized”? The answers are far from clear-cut. We began with a relatively simply proposition: Rather than bring our knowledge and tools to Mexico City to “solve” a problem there, how might we study Mexico City in order to learn what knowledge and tools could be brought back to Los Angeles to help us see our “home city” differently? How might we identify, address, and challenge the spatial injustices in Los Angeles with toolsets, perspectives, and knowledge from another city and set of experiences? What kind of intellectual groundwork would have to be put in place to begin to orchestrate such a transformation? To do so, we would have to imagine new kinds of knowledge, new kinds of collaborations beyond the walls of the university, and utilize a range of tools to develop new kinds of speculative knowledge and historical awareness.

The summer institute acted as the foundational brick upon which the rest of the year was constructed, creating a new collective conception of what the classroom can be and how knowledge is generated. The classroom is not fixed; in fact, the chairs and tables themselves are mobile, rolling around to form new combinations. The walls are used as work space as well as the floor. Over three weeks, the classroom moved from Westwood to La Placita and Chinatown. One session focused on mapping the events of the 1871 Chinese massacre. Tables were pushed aside, a ten-foot-long map was unfurled on the floor, and students spent hours annotating it with a multiplicity of narratives, data, and comparative analyses—both historical and synchronic—culminating in contemporary examples of racial injustice and erasure.

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La linea de Tijuana II by Jonathan Banfill and Maite Zubiaurre.

Other sessions left the classroom behind entirely. We moved into key sites in Los Angeles, and in this way the traditional classroom with its hierarchical ordered space was overcome. Urban Humanities propose something closer to a collaborative workshop, a messy garage or whimsical laboratory, where knowledge can be co-created with a spirit of porousness across borders both visible and invisible: disciplinary, national, linguistic, social, and cultural.

This spirit of a “new Humanities” continued throughout the academic year, where Los Angeles and Mexico City were put into productive conversation. The two seminars that followed worked to provide a flexible, open knowledge of the thematic confluences between the two cities—water, earthquakes, traffic and mobility, precarious housing, political and social violence—creating a dialogic circuit for deeper understanding. In the fall seminar, the focus was specifically on Mexico City: watching films and documentaries, reading novels and histories, and learning about events such as the 1968 Tlatelolco massacre and the 1985 earthquake. In the destructive aftermath of catastrophe, the idea was to apprehend the creativity of life in Mexico City as ways of rethinking, rebuilding, reimagining, and surviving after disasters, whether human-made or natural, contemporary or historical. How could such knowledge, creativity, and imagination be brought back to Los Angeles?

In the winter, we focused on the theme of borders and transgressions, where the US-Mexico border was not just understood in its embodied, physical, and geographic manifestation, but also as a symbolic, economic, and cultural formation. This included a study trip to Tijuana and San Diego where the abstract knowledge of the classroom encountered the reality of the border. The Tijuana experience was encapsulated by an evening visit to Playas de Tijuana, where the border fence extends across a sandy beach and disappears into the Pacific. Here, shrouded in an eerie ocean fog, we walked along the border, touched it, stuck our hands through the vertical openings, read the messages scrawled on the fence and the pieces of political art, truly feeling the immensity of the division as we peered back across to the United States. We were forced to materially confront our relationship with the border—including, for most of us, our privilege of being able to freely cross it back and forth—and to think through where our knowledge might better open up spaces for circulation and justice through such a seemingly insurmountable edifice.

The rest of the year followed such practice, continuously creating a growing bank of reflexive knowledge built across Los Angeles, Mexico City, and the geographic, cultural, linguistic, and social borderlands in between. By the time we arrived in Mexico City, a conceptual toolset existed for engaging in community projects. Each of the three partner organizations—an arts organization (inSite/Casa Gallina), an architecture firm (Productora and their LIGA space), and a city government urban think tank (Laboratorio para la Ciudad)—provided a different lens for interpreting the city. They first came to Los Angeles to work with us, and then we went to Mexico City to work with them on site. The idea was not to package and ship “expert” knowledge in either direction, but rather to forge partnerships, grow collaborations, and open critical perspectives for networks of engagement. In this two-way process, knowledge was “forged and produced,” to quote the Brazilian educator Paulo Freire, “in the tension between practice and theory.”9

The result was a series of projects of engaged, speculative scholarship that were realized in specific urban sites characterized by spatial inequities and injustices. The goal was never to “master” Mexico City, but rather to engage with local community organizations around specific issues within the city—street vending, children’s safety, gentrification—in order to bring back knowledge, insights, and perspectives that might be applied to analogous issues in Los Angeles. As Peter Chesney, a Ph.D. student in history at UCLA, reflected: “The most important experience in Mexico City was learning about the limitations of our own systems of knowledge, so that we could come back to Los Angeles and speculate about a place we think we know.” This is what we did returning to LA and extending, at least conceptually, the work done in Mexico City in a series of humanistic, interventionist collaborations with community groups in Boyle Heights.

In the spring studio, the urban humanities students worked with five Los Angeles–based community organizations—Libros Schmibros, The East Los Angeles Community Corporation, From Lot to Spot, Multicultural Communities for Mobility, and Self Help Graphics—grappling with critical issues currently unfolding in Boyle Heights, a neighborhood rife with spatial contestations and tensions between the residents and the ambitions of developers, city planners, business leaders, transit authorities, and government policies. These community organizations work on literacy, housing, green space, transportation, and activist visual arts, respectively, trying to find ethical, ground-up ways to enact change, struggling with questions such as: How do you develop a neighborhood that protects its residents, rather than welcoming in outside gentrifying forces? How do you intervene in ways that are ethical and attuned to the needs of greater LA? As outsiders to the neighborhood, our students occupied a liminal zone inflected with perspectives, knowledge, and activist practices stemming from Mexico City.

The projects that emerged were attempts, however provisional, to fuse these experiences and imagine scenarios that were ethically grounded, truly collaborative, and imaginatively engaged with the possibilities of translational, humanistic knowledge: A magic storytelling box for child literacy, a manual for community greening, a fotonovella imagining a just future for the neighborhood, a successful city arts activation grant for making a series of installations advocating for bike commuter safety.

Now there is also transnational circulation of these projects, with ideas spreading back from Los Angeles to Mexico City: La Caja Mágica, the magic storytelling box, will soon to be deployed in Mexico City on the children’s safety project where Laboratorio para la Ciudad continues to claim a “right to the street” for children’s play spaces.

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Mexicocitylosangeles/Losangelesmexicocity by Jonathan Banfill and Maite Zubiaurre.

None of these projects is a grand statement or a utopian solution. They are small-scale interventions, speculative collaborations that are inserted into the fabric of the city in order to expose and begin to address a spatial injustice. They open up the public university to the outside and bring the outside in. They are porous in every sense of the word. As such, urban humanities bring productive responses to the oft-heard cries of “crisis” in the humanities; they are experimental, engaged, and speculative forms of knowledge-making, rooted in humanities perspectives and values, charged with creating new knowledge, new kinds of tools, and new possibilities for opening up the walls of the university and addressing spatial injustices through transnational creativity and networks. This is a prototype for the “fluid” university based on permeability, openness, interdisciplinarity, collaboration, and community engagement. Indeed, the decolonization of knowledge is never complete, but it must also start somewhere. We see Urban Humanities as one such start.

Notes

1
Cf. the excellent discussion of Moore’s works and this inscription by our colleague Chon Noriega: http://www.chicano.ucla.edu/about/news/csrc-newsletter-january-2014.

2
While we don’t disagree with the many struggles faced by the public university in an age of neoliberal corporatization, we don’t see the university in ruin or the humanities in perpetual crisis. Cf. Bill Readings, The University in Ruins (Harvard University Press, 1997).

3
Sidonie Smith, A Manifesto for the Humanities: Transforming Doctoral Education in Good Enough Times (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2016), 87.

4
Smith, 39.

5
Smith, 108.

6
Ibid.

7
http://www.latimes.com/local/california/la-me-census-latinos-20150708-story.html.

8
“Thick mapping” is a key method in the urban humanities in which “mapping” is given dimensionality through a multiplicity of datasets, historical perspectives, narratives, and multimedia assets. The concept is derived from Clifford Geertz’s “thick description” and underscores the constructedness, contingency, and layeredness of spatial representations. For a fuller discussion, see Todd Presner, David Shepard, and Yoh Kawano, HyperCities: Thick Mapping in the Digital Humanities (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2014).

9
Paulo Freire, Letters to Cristina (New York: Routledge, 1996), 85.

Jonathan Banfill is a Ph.D. student at University of California, Los Angeles. His research focuses on interdisciplinary higher education across Asia Pacific.

Todd Presner is professor of Germanic languages, comparative literature, and Jewish studies at University of California, Los Angeles. He is also the chair of the Digital Humanities Program.

Maite Zubiaurre is professor of Spanish and Portuguese and of Germanic Languages, and Associate Dean for Equity, Diversity and Inclusion, Humanities Division, at University of California, Los Angeles.

Interviews

The Inside-Out Museum/ The Inside-Out University

Walter Hood
Shannon Jackson
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University of California, Berkeley campus, viewed from the east circa 1874. Photograph courtesy of the Bancroft Library.

Editor’s note: In 1873 when California’s flagship public university moved to its present location, then part of Oakland Township, the edges of its campus were open to the ranchland surrounding it. The university profoundly shaped the city that incorporated as the Town of Berkeley five years after the campus arrived.

By contrast, the Oakland Museum of California (OMCA) was established in a dense urban neighborhood at a time of political turmoil and violence in 1969. The windowless facades of the museum complex appear designed for defensibility, facing downtown Oakland streets and Lake Merritt with walls of raw concrete.

It would be too simple to describe one campus as open and the other as closed. While urban form influences dynamics among institutions and their cities, it does not determine them, and both the university and the museum have a complex history of interactions with their settings. Now, both institutions are examining their connections to their publics and the relationships among their internal and external constituencies.

The Oakland Museum of California, known for its innovative programming in art, history, and natural history, has asked the university to help find ways to better integrate both physically and culturally with its city. As the process begins, the university is discovering that engaging in this conversation is helping highlight important questions about its own function in the urban East Bay and beyond.

In a course sponsored by the Global Urban Humanities Initiative, Landscape Architecture Professor Walter Hood will ask students to examine the museum and its neighborhoods in order to come up with proposals for change. Hood works on projects ranging from city-scale master plans to site plans to art installations and is known for his focus on the human element in design.

OMCA Executive Director Lori Fogarty says that addressing questions of art, economics, identity, gentrification, and environmental change requires approaches from multiple disciplines. “We hope that the Museum can serve as a new kind of town square or public plaza for Oakland, connecting our campus with Lake Merritt, the adjacent civic buildings, the BART station and the surrounding neighborhoods. Our work with Walter, with UC Berkeley, and with other partners involved with social practice and creative place-making inspires us to consider the Museum in a different way—and to, as Walter says, ‘dream big.’ Our city and our community need and deserve big dreams—and that requires that we all work together with boldness, courage, and imagination.”

University of California, Berkeley, Associate Vice Chancellor for the Arts and Design Shannon Jackson recently spoke with Walter Hood at his Oakland studio about how the arts and humanities and design can work together to illuminate urban experience.

Shannon Jackson: As an artist and designer, you have created award-winning landscape designs for many museums and cultural organizations (notably the de Young here in the Bay Area). How does this project compare to other museum projects? How does it compare to other landscape projects in the public realm?

Walter Hood: Looking back, I realize this never began as a “professional project.” There was never a call that specified a particular problem that wanted a particular solution. Mark Cavagnero’s [architecture] firm had just finished renovation of the galleries, so there was a sense that I might be on call to clean up the exterior spaces. But really, even if I was tasked with the “gardens,” it never began as [a contract to design a space].

Jackson: It seems like your conversations with OMCA also coincided with a moment when they had started to think more expansively about the identity and function of “the Museum.”

Hood: Exactly. And I really think that it was in that spirit that OMCA brought me on board. It wasn’t simply that I was the “landscape architect”; I was being brought in to explore the future of the museum. That was also a time when Rene de Guzman [senior curator of art] had just moved onto the staff. They were commissioning artists—local artists—to create text pieces and sound pieces that had this exploratory function for the museum as an institution.

Jackson: And you were there as a partner artist, but in a context where the “artist” has a different function. The artist isn’t brought in to make work to hang in a gallery or install in a garden, but you were brought in to help trigger new thoughts and behaviors about what a museum gallery or a museum garden might be.

Hood: Right, and the thing is, with bringing me in as an “artist,” I was also allowed to have a different kind of relationship to my own design practice. I wasn’t ever presented with a practical document that asked me to “fix something.” Instead, I could allow my own practice to be more speculative, to allow speculation to be part of my practice. This project is one where I was able to say: my firm is not “a landscape design” firm; we are an “art and design” firm that makes things in landscape.

Jackson: A big conceptual shift.

Hood: Huge. It wasn’t that we were presented with a problem to solve. Instead, we could use the Oakland Museum to propose a set of questions that we wanted to ask. It all unfolded from there. At each part of the process, we learned things; each step forced us to see things in a different way, which in turn produced new questions. For example, what happens when we go from thinking about “the gardens in the museum” to “the museum in the city?”

Jackson: The museum as an institution sited in a particular location.

Hood: Yes, and once we did that, we had to ask, why here? And why would the city’s residents come? Which in turn made us realize that in order to locate the museum in the city, we also had to find the city in the museum.

Jackson: You had to think about how this museum operates, presents itself, behaves internally and externally as a civic entity.

Hood: Yep, and if you’re going to get it to behave differently, what do you have to work with? So we looked at this hermetic box, the Brutalist energy of the museum’s architecture, and then we had to get to a point where we were breaking out of the box. We were never thinking, this is a bad museum, or this is a good museum. It was more like—what do we have? What can we work with?

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Photograph of Shannon Jackson and Walter Hood by Lan Ly.

Jackson: And in answering that question, it seems like you expanded the “what,” expanded the circumference of what you decided you were “working with.” At one point, I remember you did a charrette with some of us on the concept of “a sculpture garden” for the exterior spaces, and you realized that this project wasn’t just a sculpture garden.

Hood: No, it couldn’t be. In fact, the circumference of the “garden” needs to change. I’ve had to start thinking about wider exteriors, larger parts of the city. And now we’re thinking about this whole area, this neighborhood, or district, around the museum, around Lake Merritt. What if we could think about this whole area as “a park?”

Jackson: As if this museum is actually inside a larger park within the city of Oakland. It’s as if it’s inside a park that we don’t quite see yet. In trying to find the city in the museum, you end up asking for the city to rethink itself as well.

Hood: And that’s what I mean about a speculative process. Every step of the way, there has been a new revelation. It’s about learning from each step and then redirecting the process as you learn. It happened with everything. We started to think about the accessibility of the ramps, which then made us think about how we could open up the museum bunker to the neighborhood, which then led us to think about our neighbors—Where is Laney College? Where is the BART? At another point, we opened a conversation with OMCA staff, each of whom brought their own idiosyncratic goals. For instance, some staff told me they wanted a “children’s garden.” OK, wow, what does that idea do? Let’s go down that road for a bit.

Jackson: Once your practice starts to have this propositional character, this “speculative” character, is it hard to return to the land of execution? Or is it easier once you have found a new way to reframe the project?

Hood: This is a thing I struggle with in my studio. How can you be efficient and still be speculative? It’s hard to find people who can work with this ambiguity and still be “practical” within the practice. I mean, there is still something you need to deliver at the end of the day. But right now, this double quality is what interests me most. Whether you call it social practice, or something else, I want to work with people who can tolerate ambiguity, who welcome ambiguity, but who can also be disciplined about the practice. It’s hard to create the context for that, but that is what I hope we can create with the studio and with the university.

Jackson: To some degree, you’re talking about a mix of practices and sensibilities that we are trying to create within the “urban humanities” at Berkeley, joining the humanities, arts, and environmental design. Some people think that certain humanities and conceptual art disciplines are better at the speculative, while others in design are better at execution and practice. But you seem to be trying to blow apart those stereotypes.

Hood: I need it all. This is why I did an MFA and what my work with [public art curator and critic] Mary Jane Jacobs was about. There was something I learned being in an art context that helped me thinking differently about the ideas, about how to communicate ideas in my work. You think about Kant, on the known and the unknown; how do you allow the known and the unknown to engage one another in your art practice?

Jackson: Kant was always one for asking, not what we know, but how we know. Or how we know what we think we know.

Hood: And that’s speculation. That’s what you have to be open to in a creative practice. You might think that you “know” the problem, that you know the limits of “reality” and what’s practical.

Jackson: But oddly enough, being open to the unknown might actually allow you to find a new conception of what’s practical.

Hood: Right. In fact, I’m working on a new book right now that draws from my old MFA thesis where I’m trying to describe this. [Walter begins drawing a horizontal line with points of demarcation.] So in a traditional design process, you think you’re supposed to go from here to there. Along this linear process, there are points in the road. You get the money; you deliver the concept; you do the fabrication; you do the installation. But the fact is that between any of these points, there are opportunistic moments where you can move away [Walter draws vertical lines], where you can allow for a speculative moment to take the project somewhere else. And you need to allow yourself to go there, while also knowing how you’re going to get back. But before you cross immediately into the next phase, you need to do that exploration; that’s a crucial point of bifurcation. You can take the project somewhere else as long as you know how to get back.

Jackson: So speculation isn’t the opposite of discipline.

Hood: You can only be speculative because you’re disciplined. I’m finding that a lot of people today—professionals, even some students—they have never actually done anything. Everything exists too much in an abstract context. I remember learning to sew when I was a kid. I remember being fascinated by the double stitch. And once I learned how to sew, I never asked my mother to mend my clothes again. Once you learn something, a skill, a practice, that kind of learning is applicable to lots of other things. I think another thing you learn is the time it takes to get something done. I remember learning the time it would take to hem something. I remember learning the time it would take to draw something. And even having that sense of time helps me feel comfortable taking time to speculate; it freed me to keep imagining.

Jackson: It frees you to imagine when you also know how to get something done. Walter, I just want to note that you have been articulating some of the core principles of creative pedagogy. You’re talking about how a creative practice taught you discipline, how it taught you self-reliance, and how it allowed you to join the act of thinking with the act of doing, joining ambiguity and practicality. And how it taught you time management. Just saying.

Hood: I’m blown away by that temporal investment. It happens in everything I do. I can imagine something new because I have confidence that I know how much time it takes to get stuff done.

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Exterior of Oakland Museum of California, with yellow peace symbol and other art just over the wall. Photograph courtesy of OMCA.

Jackson: As someone who teaches and writes about artists who work in this larger field of “social practice” and socially engaged art, your impulse to expand the parameters of the art work are incredibly resonant. Some of the most interesting social practice projects are those that ask big questions about where the artwork ends and the social context begins. You’re pushing at those boundaries and scales at every step—moving from the garden to the museum to the district to the city to the park. It’s as if the local geography and the city space are functioning as a kind of artistic material.

Hood: And that’s the kind of practice we want to teach this fall. In the studio course that I’m creating for Berkeley, the OMCA project will be at the center. And the idea is to marry the arts and environmental design, through a strong social art and design framework. So again, what do we have to work with? [Walter starts to draw the district. He draws Lake Merritt, shaped as a heart in the center.] I always draw the lake as a heart. And so then you’ve got these regions all around it. I draw them like petals. You’ve got the business district; you’ve got the Lake Merritt district; the East Oakland Brooklyn Basin, and then you have the Waterfront and Estuary. As far as the arts and environmental design, then, we have four petals. I want to use the course to have the students decide what principles define the edge of the petals. What is in and out, and why?

Jackson: What’s an example of a possible principle?

Hood: Well, one really might have to do with climate, with sea level rise, and what it does to the ecologies within the petals. Depending upon whether you are lower or higher relative to the Bay, the whole ecology around you is changing. Where I live now, animals and birds wake me up every morning who never used to be around. Here at the office (in West Oakland) we’re starting to notice seagulls and crows, big black scavenger birds, coming here for the garbage and because the climate is changing. They’re part of a new food chain.

Jackson: So the studio course with Berkeley students will give them a concrete project that builds pragmatic skills and conceptual skills. It occurs to me that the OMCA project could have an effect on UC Berkeley that is similar to the one it has with the city of Oakland; it’s a chance for all these regional partners to ask ourselves “what do we have?” and “what can we work with?”

Hood: Yes, if I bring a Berkeley student to this district in Oakland, what does that mean? If I want students to see themselves as part of that community, what does that mean? For instance, if we spend one day of the class at the university, and one day physically in Oakland, how does that change the nature of the practice? How does that change our collective sense of space and of the region?

Jackson: And what might it be to create a “binding aesthetic” amongst the university and this district, or a “binding aesthetic” amongst the higher education sector, the museum sector, and the civic community?

Hood: So let’s figure out how we get that to happen philosophically and politically, as well as practically. I think we need to teach them ethnographic skills, both to reflect on themselves as well as the people they are meeting. To have them read Tally’s Corner [Elliot Liebow’s classic 1967 study of “Negro streetcorner men”] along with some of the newer urban ethnographies. I’m thinking of asking if we can have a studio space inside OMCA, or somewhere in this district. The students are used to collecting data and bringing it back to campus to model something in studio. What if we had a pedagogical space on site?

Jackson: Site-specific pedagogy. What are some of the other things that you’ll have the students do?

Hood: Well, my firm has already done some basic studies that we will give to them, about the metrics, size, and capacities of different places in the petals. We want to get the students to look around and ask, why do people want to be here? What is the lynchpin that is getting them to want to be there? If you take the time, really spend a full amount of time in a space, you’ll start to realize what’s happening. There’s this ledge in the Business District of Oakland around Seventeenth Street that attracts the most amazingly diverse group of people. It’s this ledge that people lean on because of what they get to see there—from this certain spot, you can see into other businesses, you can see into a second floor of another building where people can see you. It’s this beautiful little section of the city where the architecture and the sociology are intersecting, and you see all of these beautiful relationships.

Jackson: So the social is getting explored as much as the spatial.

Hood: And there are other spaces. Like this housing tower that surrounds a courtyard, and that courtyard has this fountain where you see such an amazing multigenerational assembly and different ethnicities. We have to think about how people are defining their spaces, and building relationships within those spaces.

Jackson: There are some clear points of connection to the humanities in those ideas. First, there is a “discursive” connection, how do we consciously or unconsciously name and define our world. And then there is “relational” element, about how design reflects or transforms the social relationships amongst humans and other living beings.

Hood: On the first one, I’ve been thinking about a difference between conscious hybrids and unconscious hybrids. We have conscious ways of defining a hybrid experience. The “street” is a conscious hybrid. The “park” is a conscious hybrid.

Jackson: Just to rephrase to be sure I understand. These are conscious—socially acceptable, normalized ways of defining spaces where we have “hybrid” experiences of difference, of diversity. The street, the park.

Hood: Right, so where might be the “unconscious” hybrids? First of all, is the idea of “The Park” still valid? And then, might there be different ways of naming other spaces where we experience hybridity? Unconscious hybrids are more fertile, because they are attempting to create new meanings, new words. How do you feel? How do you react to something? Can we understand nascent or latent ecologies?

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Aerial view of Oakland Museum of California. Photograph provided by OMCA.

Jackson: So-called natural and so-called social systems have their own way of assembling, so are we arriving at new experiences of that hybridity unconsciously?

Hood: Exactly. So how do we name that? And what are the principles for defining it? What was your second humanities connection?

Jackson: The relational element, the social element. Which frankly is also an art element.

Hood: Got it. In my practice at Hood Design, I always want to think about the social element, the humanist element—of the neighborhood, the museum, of the university. I’m interested in people, and Berkeley is a place that should be designing for people.

Jackson: That theme appears in so many conversations I have about Berkeley’s role in the future of arts and design education. Everyone is reminding me that Berkeley’s focus on people and publics distinguishes it from other places where creativity is more privatized, a less socially responsive endeavor.

Hood: It’s absolutely the case. I see it all the time in every thing we do, everything our students do. It’s how we are wired. It’s in the DNA of Berkeley. And I have to say it annoys me when people introduce me at other universities or design events, and they will usually say something like: “Walter is interested in people.” Why is it unusual for Walter to be interested in people? Shouldn’t all designers be interested in people? It’s a kind of marginalization. As if, because I’m dealing with people, I must not be doing design. That’s the beauty of moving into an artistic context, because I find more people are empowered there to make a humanist discovery. You know, in an art context and in a humanities context, difference is a good thing. Difference generates new thinking.

Jackson: That’s hybridity.

Hood: Of course, but in a design context, people often think difference is a problem, something you have to get past or get over. If you bring in different people, we all start to see things that we hadn’t seen before. To me, that is the exciting thing; that’s what design should be about. Difference reveals a new unknown. If you know what it is going to be before you start, why do it?

Jackson: And that gives you a new sense of what might be possible. You know, throughout this conversation, you have been challenging assumptions that many hold, the notion that the designers are the practical and functional people and that artists are the impractical people.

Hood: It’s the opposite to a certain degree.

Jackson: I wonder too about the humanities, about the impulse to think historically and philosophically about design, about the practicality of that exercise.

Hood: You know, being an African American male, I had to find a way to find myself in art. I needed a tangible way to be part of the conversation. And I feel that I really got that at Berkeley; when I was a student, I heard Spiro Kostov talking about history and architecture. He talked about Mussolini, and the “Third Rome,” and about Mussolini creating his own narrative through buildings, that there were ideas in buildings. OK, it’s not that I agreed with Mussolini, but I just had never heard anyone talk like that, this notion that ideas could be reinforced in space. I learned about Modernism, about what people thought could be done, politically and socially, through architecture. I thought, wow, these people were optimistic! So weirdly enough, I felt that the tenets of Modernism actually included me. And I read Dell Upton on the shotgun houses and the diaspora from Haiti. I learned that you are in conversation with a context, whether you like it or not.

Jackson: “You are in conversation with a context whether you like it or not.” Let’s remind ourselves that that happens to be a fundamental lesson of the humanities.

Hood: Yeah, so for me, the humanities element is welcome, because a different kind of agency becomes available to you. It’s a different kind of information that comes to you. It allows for a bifurcation in the process actually. The ideas aren’t accessories. They can change the process, and you have to be ready for that conversation.

Jackson: Maybe we can close by returning to this partnership between UC Berkeley and OMCA, between a museum and public higher education. It is a really interesting moment right now, because we see the education sector thinking about how to cultivate creativity, while we simultaneously see the museum sector influenced by the so-called “educational turn.” Institutions like Berkeley are rethinking pedagogy just as museums are trying to be pedagogical. It seems like we have an opportunity here for mutual, reciprocal transformation.

Hood: Museums have had to redefine themselves; they have had to become new transformative institutions. They realize that they have to serve this civic function out of need, because we have lost so many other public institutions. I think about the loss of the community organizations that were part of my life. I spent my summers in the arts clubs of the Scudder Public Housing project in New Jersey. It might not have been great housing, but every morning, we got up and went to the community center, and I made a bunch of bad clay bowls, painted, and did ceramics.

I can’t imagine where I’d be if it weren’t for publicly funded summer art programs. And let’s face it, all those programs are gone. We had them in Oakland, and so many of them are gone. So museums have opened themselves up to artists and the community to help the museum learn to be more collaborative, to be partners, to be neighbors, to pick up the slack where our public institutions have been dismantled. And they bring an artistic practice into what used to be a static context. Most museums would rather be part of an active process; they need to be dynamic—and pedagogical—in order to stay relevant.

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Aerial view of attendees gathered for an event at the entrance to the Oakland Museum of California. Photograph provided by OMCA.

Walter Hood is professor of landscape architecture and environmental planning, and urban design at University of California, Berkeley. He is principal of Hood Design, a cultural practice based in Oakland.

Shannon Jackson is professor of rhetoric and theater, dance, and performance studies at University of California, where she is also associate vice chancellor for the Arts and Design and director of the Arts Research Center.

Interviews

A Boom Interview: Kevin Starr

Kevin Starr

Editor’s note: Narrator of the desires that gave California rise and the experiences of countless Californians, Kevin Starr has written the most comprehensive account of the place. A native son and fourth-generation San Franciscan, he chronicled the dream while living it. His California Dream series tells the story of the American state’s rapid, monstrous growth, along with its struggles, dips, and dodges from moments that could have snuffed out the dream and utterly snubbed the dreamers. Reckoned by some as tending more to tales of optimism and swashbuckling heroism amidst the troubles—in true glass-half-full California style—both Starr’s personal and literary approach to California are actually much more variegated and complex. Between writing the first and second volumes of a new series some call his magnum opus—the first volume titled Continental Ambitions: Roman Catholics in North America: The Colonial ExperienceBoom editor Jason Sexton recently managed to catch up with Starr. In this interview, we see the personal side of this historian—addressing religion, values, and matters of public concern—including his wide-reaching polymathic abilities that enable his unique kind of magisterial interpretation of the golden state. With ongoing reflections on the place—its past, present, and future—here we see Starr chronicling his own place in California’s ongoing saga, living even more meaningfully into the reality of the dream. This interview was conducted by Jason S. Sexton.

Boom:
If you had to choose, what are three values that matter most to earlier shapers of California?

Starr:
I frequently use the phrase “a better life for ordinary people.” That, I think, sums up the top three values motivating migration to California: life, the improvement of life, the ability of ordinary people to achieve such improvement for themselves. That is the theme of most of my volumes, or at the least, the background to those volumes, since I frequently concentrate on extraordinary people coming to California as well.

Boom:
What do you think are the biggest threats to those values today?

Starr:
The growing divide between the very wealthy and the very poor, as well as the waning of the middle class, as expressed geographically in California by the global wealth of the coast from San Diego County to Marin County and the rapid socioeconomic falloff evident in certain interior regions.

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Boom:
How have your views of California changed over the years?

Starr:
As I grew older and a little wiser, I became more connected to what the Spanish philosopher Miguel de Unamuno describes as “the tragic sense of life.” My first volume is only tangentially connected to this tragic sense of life, while the volume dealing with recent California, Coast of Dreams, seems almost obsessed with it. That is because the present is exactly that: present to us in all of its complexity.

Boom:
What is the main goal of the historian? And how do you see your work fitting together with the other guild of California historians?

Starr:
It is the task of the narrative historian such as myself to assemble a narrative of what Ralph Waldo Emerson calls Representative Men and Women, and to place such figures in the context of their times, and thereby create a pointillist-realist probe into the past.

Boom:
You never went through the tenure track route in academia, opting for an entirely different track altogether. Was this a good move? Do you have any regrets about it?

Starr:
I am very proud of my diverse services as an Army officer, a senior tutor at Harvard, a librarian/civil servant, a newspaper columnist, a magazine contributor, a communications consultant, and the writer of a number of histories. As Paul Anka wrote for Frank Sinatra, “I did it my way,” thanks to the support of my wife Sheila and my commitment to the education of my children and grandchildren.

Boom:
People have called you a booster and an optimist, classically juxtaposed to Mike Davis,but my first intro was reading how you accounted for my own story. So I checked for your handling of Tracy, I checked for the homeboys and the matter of mass incarceration—and you had it! And it was troubling. You told things as if you were there, but you managed to not completely fall into the noir California. You kept things sunny. What would really make you despair for California?

Starr:
As far as I’m concerned, despair is one of the Seven Deadly Sins. Given the ordeal of the world in general, Californians would be grossly self-indulgent to afford themselves the dubious pleasures of noir instead of committing themselves to what Josiah Royce and Carey McWilliams describe as the struggle for corrective action.

Boom:
Californians have serious amnesia. What do you hope to accomplish with drawing from the deepest visions of this place, even back to the conquest?

Starr:
As a graduate student at Harvard supported by a Danforth Fellowship, I had the opportunity to read somewhat extensively in the history and literature of the United States and, thereby, to come to the conclusion that a fusion of forgetting and remembering, amnesia and obsession with the past, is characteristic of our entire American civilization and not just California.

Boom:
On the Boom board, we have a number of figures committed to efforts to revive nativism, what about the Native Indians here is critical to sketching California’s future?

Starr:
One of the pleasures of my decade of service as State Librarian for California was the opportunity to get to know the various components of Native American California and to respect the complex cultural consciousness of these First Californians, from whom we continue to learn to this day. If you want to find an example of Unamuno’s tragic sense of life, just look at the way we treated those Native Americans in the nineteenth century: which is the theme of Helen Hunt Jackson’s great book, Century of Dishonor.

Boom:
What is a Californian, and can you describe the character traits of a good Californian?

Starr:
I have always approached the history of California as part of the history of these United States. I, therefore, resonate with the remark of my friend the late Wallace Stegner that California is like the rest of America, only more so. I grew up in California, a fourth-generation Californian; but I discovered California as the theme for history as a graduate student at Harvard, which meant that I perceived this history from a national and comparative perspective. Lately, my thinking has taken a comparable Asia/Pacific and Latin American direction.

Boom:
You used to sign your books saying that the best Californians are those who choose to come here. Is this still true?

Starr:
I still adhere to that belief. After all, I was born in 1940, when California had slightly less than seven million people. Today, that figure has become something like forty million and counting. I was born into one of the states of the American Union. By the time I was in my sixties, I was living in a nation-state of global significance. Today we are all living in a nation-state that is the sixth largest economy on the planet. Talented and hard-working people from around the globe have come to California to make this happen.

Boom:
I recall asking you in 2013 why you didn’t write historical theology. This book—Continental Ambitions—where did it come from?

Starr:
In Continental Ambitions: Roman Catholics in North America, the Colonial Experience, I employ the same narrative technique that I use in my Americans and the California Dream series: a blend, that is, of the nineteenth-century American historians, Vernon Parrington, Van Wyck Brooks, Perry Miller, and Alan Heimert, under whom I did my doctorate at Harvard. I would describe this technique as pointillist-realist narrative, animated by an underlying and continuing dialectic that only rarely surfaces in an explicit manner.

Boom:
Does the conquest sweep in the same way that California’s modern history does? Has California been a microcosm of the US even in the earliest images?

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Starr:
The long history of California—Native American, Hispanic, American, global—simultaneously shows discontinuities of growth and development and continuities of continuing aspiration. Certain basic paradigms continue: land and water, for example, continuing through the mining era, the agricultural era, the era of urbanization through dams, aqueducts and reservoirs; or the interaction of nature and technology; or a pursuit of pure science anchored in nineteenth-century astronomy. I am not suggesting cause and effect here but, rather, paradigms that repeat themselves.

Boom:
What role do churches play in the California drama, in the past and today?

Starr:
As is the case with the rest of America, religion—as a matter of imaginative and moral formation, language and metaphor, and guide to the good life—has played a most important part in the development of American California. Until very recently, we must remember, Unitarian minister Thomas Starr King and Catholic Franciscan missionary Junipero Serra represented California in the National Statuary Hall in our nation’s capital.

Boom:
And how did the reformation, coming on its five-hundredth anniversary, help shape any of this vision?

Starr:
Protestantism dominated the colonial era, the early republic, the nineteenth century, and the first two-thirds of the twentieth century. Whatever one’s religious traditions may or may not be, this Protestant matrix goes a long way in helping us to understand our national culture—hence, the importance of the Reformation and Protestantism in the formation and emergence of our national character.

Boom:
You’ve written that California grew up innovatively as both a religious and secular state, which my students are always surprised to hear. And your work famously revised Hubert Howe Bancroft. But do you think the religious and secular can continue to work together? Or does the runaway tendency of secularism prove nonconducive for the flourishing of all groups here?

Starr:
I do not accept this disjunction between religion and the world, or the world and religion, in the American experience. The first 150 years of American California showed a strong presence of organized religion as a social and cultural catalyst. Thanks to our separation of church and state, we Americans remain capable of rendering to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s. These days, the great religions of the world have brought to America and to California their transformative insights. As a force, religion remains in the private sector, but as Mark Twain said of the mistaken newspaper reference to his passing, the reports of the demise of religion as a force in American life have been highly exaggerated.

Boom:
What role does faith play in your work and writing, both earlier and now? And how would you describe your relationship to the Church?

Starr:
As far as my relationship to the Roman Catholic Church is concerned, I am proud to be a member in reasonably good standing of this 2,000-year-old faith community. I share this distinction with 1.2 billion Catholics worldwide. As James Joyce said of the Catholic Church: here comes everybody!

Boom:
Will you ever write your own memoir? Especially your own “becoming Kevin Starr” years from your early professional life, along with the 1960s, 1970s, and early 1980s? Some have identified the novel Land’s End as filling this role. Is this true?

Starr:
I don’t think I would ever write a memoir. In a very real way, my books constitute a kind of memoir or at the least some form of documentation of my inner landscape. I’m not one for much introspection. I prefer to define myself through family, friends, community, and the act of writing. I do, however, plan to augment Land’s End, expanding it to a full narrative of the life and death of Sebastian Collins, who constitutes the closest I’ve ever come to an alter ego.

Boom:
Catholic social teaching informs a lot of Jerry Brown’s rationale for big decisions he’s making in Sacramento; how does it inform your own work?

Starr:
As you suggest, Governor Brown has successfully internalized Catholic social thinking. Like Governor Brown and thousands of others coming of age in Catholic San Francisco, I absorbed this tradition as well. In later life, I had the pleasure of discovering Monsignor John Ryan’s classic The Living Wage, which further solidified my thinking in this area. I have also been influenced by John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice, emphasizing fairness. As a graduate student, I had the honor of being a member of the Leverett House Senior Common Room at Harvard when Professor Rawls was writing this magisterial book. Other influences on my social thinking—especially relevant to public service—have been the Analects of Confucius, Cicero’s De Officiis, Machiavelli’s The Prince, and Lord Peter Hennessy’s recent Whitehall.

Boom:
What do you make of Pope Francis?

Starr:
During my lifetime, Pius XII, John XXIII, Paul VI, John Paul I, John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and Francis have served as popes. Each of these men was remarkable in differing and shared ways. Two of these popes—John XXIII and John Paul II—have been raised to the altar as saints. John Paul II was an eminent philosopher, with an ability to project himself as an ecclesiastical rock star. Pope Benedict XVI continues his work as one of the leading Catholic theologians of our recent era. Pope Francis shares many traits with his predecessors, to include a capacity for off-the-cuff commentary in common with John Paul I. Like John XXIII, Francis projects warmth, accessibility, love and friendship. Like John Paul II, he is a tireless traveler. The images that come to mind when I think of Pope Francis are the photographs of him embracing the truly afflicted. As pope, Francis has de-imperialized the papacy.

Boom:
What are the movements in California that you find most hopeful, either for the future of California or else for the future of the US and the world?

Starr:
I ride DASH to the USC campus on the days I teach. The movement I love the most is the movement of the DASH bus filled with human beings of every age and occupation from every corner of the earth riding to their day’s work.

Note

1
Susan Moffat, “Dueling Prophets of Next LA: Mike Davis Sees Murky Decay, While Kevin Starr Embraces Shiny Optimism,” Los Angeles Times, 19 November 1994, http://articles.latimes.com/1994-11-19/news/mn-64521_1_mike-davis.

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Kevin Starr (1940-2017) was for many years a California historian and a professor at the University of Southern California. He received a Ph.D. in English and American literature at Harvard University and published such works as the multivolume series Americans and the California Dream.

Articles

California Dreams and Olympic Schemes at Rose Parades

Mark Dyreson

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The City of Los Angeles “Follow the Sun” float.

The 128th Tournament of Roses Parade stepped-off on Monday morning, January 2, beneath overcast skies and temperatures in the low fifties.  It was not the best climate that the parade has enjoyed in its long history but still better than weather in most homes throughout the United States watching the Pasadena festivities on television.  It was certainly far better than weather outside my house in central Pennsylvania–slate grey skies, temperatures in the low thirties, and freezing rain mixed with just plain cold rain.  As I watched the spectacle I wished I could spend the winter in Pasadena, but settled for putting another log on the blaze in my den.  For more than a century the Rose Parade has been holding such visions of California as a mid-winter paradise in front of snow-and-ice bound denizens of the industrial and agricultural heartlands of the United States.

In 2017 the Rose Parade doubled as an advertisement not only for California as the American grail of idyllic living but for the quest of Los Angeles to garner a third Olympic spectacle.   The City of Los Angeles float, “Follow the Sun,” featured a flowery recreation of the Los Angeles Coliseum on which former Olympians and Paralympians cavorted.  Gymnasts Bart Connor, an American hero of the 1984 Los Angeles games, and Nadia Comaneci, an all-time great who after her Olympian career immigrated from Romania to the U.S. and later married Connor, waved to the crowd from the front of the float.  Anita DeFrantz, a bronze-medalist in rowing in 1976, an American member of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), and one of the leaders of the LA 2024 waved alongside the gymnasts.  Olympic volley-ballers, including beach volleyball stars April Ross and Holly McPeak, played a match in the center of the float.  Lex Gillette, a blind Paralympian who won three silver medals in the long jump, saluted the crowd from the rear of the float as did LA 2024 vice-chairwoman Candace Cable, who competed in nine Paralympics and earned eight gold, two silver, and two bronze medals in both summer and winter events.[1]

Right behind the City of Los Angeles’ promotion of the LA 2024 Olympic bid came the trio of grand marshals—three former Olympians with deep roots in Southern California, Allyson Felix, Janet Evans, and Greg Louganis.  Felix, a Los Angeles native, won six gold medals and three silver medals in a variety of sprints over four Olympics from 2004 to 2016.  Louganis won four gold medals and one silver medal in diving over three Olympics from 1976 to 1988, including double-gold at Los Angeles in 1984.  Evans won four gold medals and one silver medal in swimming in an Olympic career stretching from 1988 to 1996.  The Tournament of Roses selected the trio in concert with LA 2024 leadership to promote the bid effort.  Indeed, Evans serves as a member of the leadership team for the bid, and Louganis and Felix join Evans on the LA 2024 Athletes’ Committee.[2]  The three Olympians embodied the 2017 parade theme, “Echoes of Success,” showcasing that American Olympic prowess emerges from a variety of different backgrounds and experiences.[3]

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While some might interpret the choice of the three—Evans, a woman; Felix, an African American woman; and Louganis, an openly gay bi-racial man of Samoan and Swedish heritage who made a post-Olympic career of fighting for LGBTQ causes as a California commentary on America in the age of Trump—they were in fact announced as marshals a few days before the 2016 presidential election when most pundits and pollsters confidently predicted a different result in the race than what eventually transpired.  Louganis, Felix, and Evans appeared at the gala heralding their selection with “Sam the Eagle,” the old mascot of the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics.  They also fit neatly into a much older tradition of using American Olympians to celebrate ethnic, racial, gender, class, and other categories of diversity—one that stretches back to the earliest interpretations of American performance at the origins of the modern Olympic movement.[4]  This persistent and popular deployment of American Olympians as symbols of some sort of heterogeneous “melting pot” as a key to the national success in international competition has never been a partisan position in American politics.  Instead, liberals and conservatives, Republicans and Democrats, the ardent left and the fervent right have cheered U.S. Olympic teams as signifiers of equality and meritocracy. From Theodore Roosevelt (Republican) and Woodrow Wilson (Democrat) to Ronald Reagan (Republican) and Bill Clinton (Democrat), American political leaders have long embraced Olympians to promote their visions how diversity has promoted American exceptionalism.[5]

While ideologues of a wide variety of stripes have used American Olympic diversity to combat the extremes of nativism that have historically waxed and waned in American culture, had the LA 2024 bid committee and the Tournament of Roses Association really wanted to send a message about the contributions of immigrants to American prowess they could have selected a triumvirate of immigrant American Olympian grand marshals that included Lopez Lomong, a Sudanese “lot boy” migrant who carried the flag for the U.S. at the 2008 Beijing games; Meb Keflezighi, an Eritrean refugee whose family relocated to the U.S. when he was a boy and later became the silver medalist in the marathon at Athens in 2004; and Southern California’s own Olga Fikotová, who won a gold medal for Czechoslovakia in the 1956 Olympics, married her American sweetheart Harold Connolly, migrated to Santa Monica, and served as the U.S. flag-bearer in the 1972 Munich Olympics.  Had the engineers of the 2024 Los Angeles bid sought to express solidarity with the LGBQT community they could have chosen U.S. soccer gold medalist Megan Rapinoe and U.S. basketball gold medalist Elena Delle Donne to serve alongside Louganis.

But the LA 2024 and Tournament of Roses collaboration was not designed to promote alternative political or social visions.   It was crafted to sell Southern California to the nation and the world as an Olympian paradise, a California dreamscape that would be ideal host for the world’s most spectacular sporting event.  Such collaborations between sporting magnates and boosters of Southern California lifestyles have an ancient–by California standards–history, stretching back into the late nineteenth century.  The Rose Parade and Los Angeles’ multiple Olympic bids have their genesis in the idea of using sporting spectacles to sell California to the world.[6]

Like many Southern California traditions, the Tournament of Roses Parade began as a promotion for a real estate development.  In 1890 the well-heeled members of Pasadena’s Valley Hunt Club, most of them transplants from the high society environs of New York City, Philadelphia, Boston, Chicago, St. Louis, and other established metropolises, came up with the idea for a Tournament of Roses to advertise their majestic mid-winter environs to snow-bound relatives and neighbors in their former hometowns.  They planned a retro medieval-style tournament that featured a mixture of modern and antiquated equestrian events, from jousts to polo matches.  With an abundance of mid-winter flowers in bloom, they kicked-off their well-bred extravaganza with a parade that featured horse-drawn carriages garnished with bountiful blossoms cut from local gardens.  So began the Rose Parade, an annual event held ever since to promote Southern California as the sun-dappled, affluence-blessed lifestyle capital of the United States—the sweetest slice of the American dream.[7]

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Early Tournaments of Roses showcased the athletic and aesthetic sensibilities of the country club set.  Dr. Charles Frederick Holder, a former curator of the American Museum of Natural History and the scion of a prominent Boston family who had retired to Pasadena to take advantage of local sport fishing opportunities, led the charge as the first president of the Tournament of Roses Association.  In addition to the parade and equestrian sports, Holder sprinkled in a few other athletic events, including footraces and tugs-of-war.  American football, a game that originated during the 1870s as primer in manhood at Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and the other finishing schools of the country-club set, joined the Tournament of Roses festivities in 1902.  The University of Michigan trounced Stanford University in the inaugural tilt between gridiron gladiators.  In spite of the overflow crowd that turned out for the game, football would not return to the festivities until 1916.  In its stead, in 1904 the Tournament of Roses added chariot races, inspired by best-selling novel Ben-Hur, that sought to evoke the neo-imperial grandeur of Rome in modern America.    The chariot contests ultimately proved too expensive and too dangerous, much as they had for the Roman Empire, and disappeared in 1915.  Football returned the following year.  The Rose Bowl gridiron matches have proved more enduring than the chariot races and remain a Tournament of Roses staple that neither danger nor expense has yet curtailed.[8]

From the outset grand marshals led the parades that started the Tournament of Roses festivities.  Early marshals were elite sportsmen drawn from the leadership of the festival’s sponsor, the Valley Hunt Club, including Professor Holder and his cronies.  By the end of the 1920s the Southern California boosters turned to celebrity marshals to generate national publicity for the parade.  Hollywood actors, military heroes, politicians, astronauts, and other American luminaries dotted the roster of parade leaders.  Many had California connections, from Jimmy Stewart (1982) to Kermit the Frog (1996) to Earl Warren (1943, 1955).  Others, from John Glenn (1990) to Dr. Jane Goodall (2013) to Gerald Ford (1978), were national figures without any obvious California linkage.  The Tournament of Roses selection committee probably came to regret a few of the choices in light of later scandals—Paula Deen (2011), Bill Cosby (2003), and Richard Nixon (1953, 1960) spring to mind.  Athletes have figured prominently on the grand marshal roster.  The veteran voice of the Los Angeles Dodgers, Vin Scully, led the parade in 2014.  Jackie Robinson, the man who broke the color line in major league baseball, received a posthumous nod in 1999.  The last major leaguer to begin his career, like Robinson, in the Negro Leagues got the Rose Parade nod the year after he overcome a mountain of racist venom from angry white fans and broke the all-time major league home run record: “Hammerin’ Hank” Aaron led the parade through Pasadena in 1975.  Golfers Juan “Chi Chi” Rodriguez (1995) and Arnold Palmer (1965) served as grand marshals, as have global soccer legend Pelé (1987), football player and announcer Merlin Olsen (1983), and legendary football coach Amos Alonzo Stagg (1944)—although in Stagg’s long tenure his teams never played in a Rose Bowl.[9]

The 2017 marshal trio are not the first Olympians to lead the parade.  In 2015 a rider-less horse led the parade in honor of Louis Zamperini, the evangelist, war-hero, and Olympic runner at the 1936 Berlin games whose astounding life story had been chronicled in a best-selling book and major motion picture.[10]  Zamperini passed away in the summer of 2014 before he could undertake his marshal duties.  David Wolper, the Hollywood producer who helped to stage the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, shared marshal duties in 1999 with Jackie Robinson (a posthumous honor since the legendary star had passed away in 1974) astronaut Buzz Aldrin, and Hollywood child-actress legend and diplomat Shirley Temple Black.  Two American Olympic stars, track-and-field star Carl Lewis and gymnast Shannon Miller, earned grand marshal honors in 1997.[11]

The first—and for interpretations of the 2017 parade as a commercial for the Los Angeles Olympics, the most significant—appearance of an Olympian as grand marshal occurred in January of 1932 when William May Garland, a Los Angeles real estate developer, member of the IOC, and the godfather of the original installment of the Los Angeles Olympics, served as grand marshal.  Garland and the Tournament of Roses Association made the entire parade into an Olympic promotion under the theme of “Nations and Games in Flowers.”  Every float that year took on an Olympic theme, representing either a nation attending or an athletic event or an ancient Greek Olympian connection.[12]  The Olympian Rose Parade bedazzled Jean Bosquet, a recent Eastern transplant to Southern California who covered the event for the Los Angeles Times.  For Bosquet, the experience of wintertime rose petals combined with Olympian grandeur carried the power to instantly transform Easterners such as him into converts of California as paradise, as he breathlessly confessed in a front-page essay on the Rose Parade.[13]

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Like the originators of the Rose Parades, Garland staged the 1932 Olympics to sell property.  As one of the largest realtors in greater Los Angeles, he managed to get municipal governments to use taxpayer funds to spiff up his holdings by planting the ubiquitous palm trees that came to signify the city along the boulevards that led to his developments.  That same spirit of civic boosterism and profit motive would animate the 1984 Olympic extravaganza, as governments in the Los Angeles basin rewarded real estate developers with additional palms to gentrify local throughways.[14]   As political theater the 2017 grand marshals and Olympic-themed floats have more in common with the 1932 Rose Parade led by Garland than they do with a growing progressive spirit among the powerbrokers who stage these events.  True, in 1932 a rich, white, male entrepreneur served as the public face of the Los Angeles Olympics while in 2017 the diversity of both the core leadership of the bid group and the public faces of LA 2024 reveal some remarkable changes in the constitution of power elites.  Still, Evans, Felix, and Louganis are being made to do essentially the same thing today that Garland did decades ago.  The effort is not calling for a profound social revolution or an ambitious economic redistribution but rather is selling the Olympics to a public whose consent is required to get the job done.  The corporate promoters who design Olympic bids understand that what rich, white male personas could do in 1932 now takes a multi-cultural team. However, while the racial, ethnic, and gender make-up of the elites has broadened considerably, they remain the class destined to profit most handsomely from a third Los Angeles Olympics.  This is not meant as an indictment of Evans, Felix, and Louganis, who have each used their global fame to partner in important charitable campaigns to improve the quality of life for all Southern Californians.  Rather, it is intended to highlight the ironies that while since Garland’s era the elite classes have been profoundly democratized in terms of their ethnic, gender, and sexual composition, the mechanics of acquiring an Olympics in Los Angeles or any other city have not been similarly democratized but remain in the hands of the elites.

For a real challenge to social status quo, the 1975 grand marshal choice, Hank Aaron, represented a much more radical departure by the Tournament of Roses Association.  Aaron was the first African American grand marshal in the history of the parade.  His chase of Babe Ruth’s all-time home record had elicited death threats from white supremacists and revealed the deep racial fissures that remained in American culture in the post-Civil Rights era.  Aaron consistently refused to offer white America feel-good platitudes about how his own personal triumphs demonstrated that racism was about to disappear from American life.  He routinely decried institutional racism in baseball and other American institutions even as legal and customary segregation diminished during his career.[15]

Rarely, however, have the promoters of Southern California who stage the Rose Parade made as dramatic a choice as Hank Aaron.  What if they had selected native Pasadena son Jackie Robinson as grand marshal in 1948, in the aftermath of his first season in the major leagues when he had led the Dodgers to the World Series and won plaudits for his fierce determination to erase the national pastime’s color line, rather than when he had been dead for almost three decades when they finally made him a posthumous grand marshal in 1999?  What if they had tabbed Greg Louganis as grand marshal in 1996, shortly after he came out as both gay and HIV-positive?  What if they selected Los Angeles native Florence Griffith-Joyner in 1989, after she set sprint records as the fastest woman of all time in the 1988 Seoul Olympics?  What if in 1937 the Tournament of Roses Association had selected a trio of local African Americans who had won glory and medals under incredible duress at the 1936 “Nazi” Olympics in Berlin—James LuValle, the bronze medalist in the 400-meter dash who grew up in Los Angeles; Cornelius Johnson, the gold medalist in the high jump who grew up in Compton; and Matthew “Mack” Robinson (Jackie’s older brother), the silver medalist in the 200-meter dash who grew up in Pasadena?[16]

“What ifs,” however, are the historian’s trusted sleight-of-hand, designed mainly to shift the focus in order to pontificate about what might have been rather than what was.  The civic deacons who stage Rose Parades and select its grand marshals are not social crusaders who appeal to better angels of human natures.  They are purveyors to the ice and snow-bound masses of January rose petals and sylvan vistas, of suburban utopias in balmy Mediterranean climes, of palm trees and Pacific beaches, of mission-style cul-de-sacs littered with year-round backyard swimming pools and perpetual orange blossoms.  They trade in California dreams—a product they share with Los Angeles Olympic promoters.  Sometimes, as in “Echoes of Success” and “Nations and Games in Flowers,” their advertising campaigns intersect.  From my bleak midwinter chair in front of the television and fireplace in gloomy central Pennsylvania, their pitch has a remarkable appeal.  Janet Evans, Allyson Felix, and Greg Louganis would make fabulous neighbors.

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NOTES

All photographs provided by LA 2024.

[1] Daniel Etchells, “Los Angeles 2024 Promote Olympic and Paralympic Bid at Rose Parade and Rose Bowl Game,” Inside the Olympics, 3 January 2017, http://www.insidethegames.biz/articles/1045390/los-angeles-2024-promote-olympic-and-paralympic-bid-at-rose-parade-and-rose-bowl-game.

[2] “Rose Parade 2017: Here’s the Complete Lineup with Every Float, Band and Equestrian Group in Order,” San Jose Mercury News, 21 December 2016, http://www.mercurynews.com/2016/12/21/heres-the-complete-rose-parade-2017-lineup-with-every-float-band-and-equestrian-group-in-order/;  Claudia Palma, “Your 2017 Rose Parade Grand Marshals Are Olympic Athletes Allyson Felix, Greg Louganis and Janet Evans,” Pasadena Star-News, 3 November 2016, http://www.pasadenastarnews.com/lifestyle/20161103/your-2017-rose-parade-grand-marshals-are-olympic-athletes-allyson-felix-greg-louganis-and-janet-evans; LA 2024 Bid webpage, https://la24.org/home.

[3] “2017 Rose Parade Theme,” https://www.tournamentofroses.com/rose-parade/theme-grand-marshal

[4] While some categories of diversity such as ethnicity, race, gender, and class, have remained constant over the history of American Olympic enterprises, others have changed considerably.  In the first half of the twentieth century pundits paid a great deal of attention to regional identity, particularly East versus West.  By the end of the twentieth century notions of regional identity had mostly disappeared, but questions of sexual identity had become a major focus of interpretations.

[5] Mark Dyreson, Making the American Team: Sport, Culture and the Olympic Experience (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1998); idem, Crafting Patriotism for Global Domination: America at the Olympics (London: Routledge, 2009); idem, “Return to the Melting Pot: An Old American Olympic Story,” Olympika: The International Journal of Olympic Studies 12 (2003): 1-22; idem, “Playing for a National Identity: Sport, Ethnicity and American Political Culture,”  Proteus 11 (fall 1994): 39-43; idem, “Melting Pot Victories: Racial Ideas and the Olympic Games in American Culture during the Progressive Era,” International Journal of the History of Sport 6.1 (May 1989): 49-61.

[6] Mark Dyreson and Matthew Llewellyn, “Los Angeles Is the Olympic City: Legacies of 1932 and 1984,” International Journal of the History of Sport 25.14 (December 2008): 1991-2018; Mark Dyreson, “The Republic of Consumption at the Olympic Games: Globalization, Americanization, and Californization,” Journal of Global History 8.2 (July 2013): 256-278; idem, “The Endless Olympic Bid: Los Angeles and the Advertisement of the American West,” Journal of the West 47.4 (Fall 2008): 26-39.  On the mass media’s role in this process Michael R. Real, Super Media: A Cultural Studies Approach (Newbury Park, CA: Sage, 1989).

[7] “Tournament of Roses History Timeline,” https://www.tournamentofroses.com/sites/default/files/2015%20History%20Timeline.pdf; “Rose Bowl Game Result History List,” https://www.tournamentofroses.com/sites/default/files/2016ResultsRBG.pdf; History of the Tournament of Roses Association,” https://www.tournamentofroses.com/sites/default/files/2016ResultsRBG.pdf.

[8] Ibid.

[9] “Tournament of Roses Grand Marshal History,” http://d2ijx9hwh2n8da.cloudfront.net/sites/default/files/2017%20Grand%20Marshal%20History%20List%20.pdf.

[10] Laura Hillenbrand, Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption (New York: Random House, 2010); Unbroken, directed by Angelina Jolie, Universal Pictures, 2014.

[11] “Tournament of Roses Grand Marshal History.”

[12] “Garland Named Roses Marshal,” Los Angeles Times, 9 December 1931, sec. A, p. 1; “Floats Entrance Throngs,” Los Angeles Times, 2 January 1932, sec. A, p. 1.

[13] Jean Bosquet, “Beauty and Glory Join in Rose Parade Epic,” Los Angeles Times, 2 January 1932, sec. A, p. 1.

[14] Dyreson and Llewellyn, “Los Angeles Is the Olympic City”; Dyreson, “The Republic of Consumption at the Olympic Games”; Dyreson, “The Endless Olympic Bid.”

[15] Certainly Aaron’s autobiography challenges the racial status quo.  Hank Aaron, with Lonnie Wheeler, I Had a Hammer: The Hank Aaron Story (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1991).  See also, Howard Bryant, The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron (New York: Pantheon Books, 2010).

[16] John Gleaves and Mark Dyreson, “The ‘Black Auxiliaries’ in American Memories: Sport, Race, and Politics in the Construction of Modern Legacies,” International Journal of the History of Sport, 27.16-18 (November/December 2010): 2893-2924.

Mark Dyreson is professor of kinesiology at Pennsylvania State University, specializing in history of sport, social and cultural dynamics of human movement, race, ethnicity, gender, and sport. He has served as President of the North American Society for Sport History, is co-editor of several collections on sport and society, and author of Making the American Team: Sport, Culture, and the Olympic Experience, and director of research and educational programs at the Penn State Center for the Study of Sport in Society.

Copyright: © 2017 The Author(s). 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/

Articles

Neither Here Nor There: Engaging Mexico City and Los Angeles

Dana Cuff
Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris

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Cyclist cutouts heightening awareness in Boyle Heights. Mockup by Jeannette Mundy.

“Much of urban history research has sought to pair or categorize cities on the basis of complementarity of existing source material. But these categorizations should be disrupted by a creative use of sources, and increasing inclination to fuse different sources and the adoption of original methods emerging from different interdisciplinary scholarship.” 1

Since time indeterminate, narratives have constructed distant cities for readers—from ancient Pausaneas’s portrayals of second-century Athens, to Baudelaire’s and Benjamin’s accounts of a changing nineteenth-century Paris, to Steinbeck’s depictions of industrial landscapes in early twentieth-century Monterey, to Kerouac’s background of gritty alleys, bars, and flop houses in mid-century San Francisco. Such intriguing urban environments have dominated the imagination of historians, geographers, novelists, and poets. The accounts, often written by outsiders traveling through or living for some time in a city, take the form of urban biography—single-site case studies that examined the relationship between space and society at a distinct point in time.

Urban biographies described cities, their everyday situations, and their architecture according to their uniqueness and distinct features. They include humanist and historically specific works like Walter Benjamin’s Moscow Diary from 1927, which begins with a two-page reflection about how he really got to know his hometown Berlin only after visiting the Russian city.Benjamin’s characterizations of Moscow, as well as Naples, acknowledge his own Northern European frame of reference and demonstrate that the understanding of one city never stands in isolation.

If sole-city narrative implicitly depends on comparative urban “other,” how should we think about similarity and difference? What constitutes a fruitful pairing? Fundamentally, urban comparisons rest on a construction of two independent objects viewed in relation to one another, even though cities are difficult to objectify and their similarities as well as differences are boundless. These are issues that scholars, including ourselves, have struggled with in order to better understand the settings of metropolitan life.

Early twentieth-century versions of comparative urbanism generally spanned vastly different cities by relying on the cotemporaneous theories of modernity and development.Urban anthropology, history, geography, ecology, and sociology were born from their parent disciplines to conceptualize and even promulgate a more modern, progressive, cosmopolitanism. With the rise of urban studies in the twentieth century, theories about cities—rather than the cities themselves—framed relationships among them so that the American sociologist Robert Park could discuss London, San Francisco, Osaka, and Bombay in a single sentence.In this instance, Park’s notion of a “world-city” served as an abstract structure or theory to scrutinize any individual metropolis.

However, in an era of globalization, transnational flows, and cross-border relationships and influences, this single-site focus became increasingly unsatisfying. Scholars who considered it “parochial” and “ethnocentric”questioned its utility and argued that “the day of the individually posed idiosyncratic study of a town that has no particular analytical purpose…is now on the wane.”In the wake of this, over the last four decades, comparative urbanism has flourished, triggered by a desire to identify, compare, contrast, or juxtapose parallel phenomena that happen in multiple socio-spatial contexts and likely influence one another. Starting in the 1970s, a number of scholars began touting the need for comparative urban research that opens the eyes to broader urban phenomena that can be compared across municipal boundaries and national borders.Underlying comparative approaches is the notion that urban imaginaries—this is, cities as they are imagined, contemplated, and written about—are “‘sites of encounters with other cities’ mediated through travel, migration and the circulation of images, goods, and ideas.”8

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Children reclaiming the street for play in Mexico City. Photograph by Ryan Hernandez.

Comparative studies require identification of similarities and differences of at least two entities and use the city or the nation-state as their unit of analysis. But they are also criticized as overly constrained by fixed entities and arbitrary divisions such as municipal or national boundaries. In reality, urban networks and influences are dynamic, diverse, and transcend such boundaries.The emphasis on comparison may also bring along the danger of homogenizing differences and disregarding local particularities in favor of extracting universal lessons to urban issues and problems.10

The flaws of comparative studies have been further exposed by postcolonial theorists critical of studies of nonwestern cities and their residents by scholars from the west, which they argue led to culturally inaccurate, even exoticized, representations and understandings of those regions.11 They criticize the kind of patronizing view, for example, that may see Shanghai as the image of Los Angeles’s future, which in turn points the way for the even more “undeveloped” Mexico City. Geographer Jennifer Robinson argues that urban models of both difference and similarity are inadequate: “The persistent incommensurability of different kinds of cities within the field of urban theory is out of step with the experiences of globalization, and the ambitions of postcolonialism suggest that simply universalizing western accounts of cities is inappropriate.”12 Contemporary urbanists cannot and should not imagine that global cities are converging to become more alike, nor exoticize their differences. This conundrum has not slowed the production of comparative urban research.

In more recent years, a transnational perspective has gained favor in urban studies. This arose in response to criticism that comparative urbanism suffers from a static perception of the urban.13 In contrast, transnational approaches focus on interdependencies, movements, and flows across borders in regions and subregions.14 The goal of such approaches is to understand urban settings and experiences, as composed by multiple regional, ethnic or institutional identities and forces.15 In other words, transnational urban studies wish to take down arbitrary divisions between entities so that both their interconnections as well as collisions become more apparent.

For transnational studies to build on the work of previous generations of scholars, urban data and ethnographic evidence that was collected and limited by administrative borders must be reexamined so that “transnational forms and processes are revealed.”16 This requires employing multiple methodological lenses and traditional and nontraditional units of analysis to study the metropolis that may derive from different disciplinary fields. This is where Urban Humanities enters, with its blended trajectories and influences from urban planning, architecture, and the humanities.

If theories of globalization rest on constructs of the state, networks, economic flows, and data, transnationalism emphasizes human connections and their socio-spatial impacts, including migration, immigration, border crossings, political refugees, practices of economic exchange, as well as multicultural artistic influences and hybrid urban landscapes. Rather than flows and networks, urban humanities considers interweavings, intimacies, conflicts, collectivities, and engagement among different people and their socio-spatial contexts. If comparative urban studies lead, in the simplest sense, to ideas of same and different, a transnational urban humanities helps to better understand past and presently linked practices between urban settings and culture.

There are three interrelated ways that urban humanities go beyond conventional comparative urban studies and contribute to our understanding of the urban. The first concerns fused practices of scholarship by which we explore the human dimension of transnationalism. This fusing of different data sources and methodologies from fields of study such as film, mapping, spatial and social ethnography, and public arts interventions helps enrich the description and understanding of the urban (see for example the ideas of Banfill, Presner, and Zubiaurre in this issue of Boom). The second contribution can be described as the projective imperative of urban humanities—that is, the obligation of urban scholarship to open up possibilities and envision alternative and better futures. This is distinct from the modern project’s interest in globalization and innovation, and from the development model’s particular focus on improvement through policy for those deemed deserving. For urban humanities, the emphasis on possibility rests on comprehending a complex past in relation to an intricate present, in order to construct a potential future that is neither obvious nor shared without immersive debate. The latter is part of engaged scholarship, the third quality of an urban humanist approach. Urban humanities scholars working in cities uphold their own agency along with that of others, as intrinsically political, ethical, and positional. To some extent, the projective and engaged character of urban humanities expands upon those very qualities of architectural design practices. A focus on thick methods, open possibility, and engaged scholarship builds upon Benjamin’s thinking about cities by resisting conventional objects of comparison like nation or state. Instead, critically framed questions and more nuanced understandings of the connectivity and influences among urban places are favored.

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Photographs of participants at a Boyle Heights bicycle advocacy event. Photograph by Lucy Seena K Lin.

To flesh out this perspective, consider two studies, one in Mexico City and the other in Los Angeles. Both cities erode notions of “here” and “there” that underlie conventional comparative urban studies, because like other polyvalent locales they comprise multiplicities on nearly every dimension of analysis. Their intimate interconnections extend through centuries, connections made literal through conquests, immigration, environmental issues, and economies, to name a few. That connective tissue sets the context for two activist studies of spatial justice in specific urban streets: research in Mexico City about reclaiming neighborhood streets for children’s play, and in Los Angeles, about heightening awareness of bike commuters of necessity, for workers whose primary means of transportation is biking.

From the Mexican governmental organization Laboratorio para la Ciudad, the construct of “legible policy” was adopted to create new urban imaginaries in which streets dominated by automobile traffic could be opened to new uses by neighborhood children and other residents and bike commuters. Families living in a Mexico City neighborhood called “Doctores” joined in a series of street closures in which playing children took the place of the regular automobile traffic, exposing connections between shop and garage owners, multigenerational residents, and street vendors. The temporary closures were consistently marked in the city with signage, banners, and chalk drawings covering the pavement to make legible to neighbors the policy that streets were safe for play.

In the Boyle Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles, Mexican American artists and cyclists allied to make visible their advocacy of safer streets. In collaboration with the local organizations Self Help Graphics and Multicultural Communities for Mobility, UCLA’s urban humanists proposed life-size portraits of individual bicycle commuters be installed along commonly used roads. The portraits could be collaged together with maps, personal narratives, and traffic data to make legible the need for policy to create safe bike paths and increase awareness about a marginalized group of Angelenos.

Urban humanities scholars partnered in both undertakings, deploying traditional research strategies such as data gathering and analysis, alongside critical cartography, spatial ethnography, and creative urban interventions such as street closures to create play space. Lessons flowed in both directions, from Mexico City to Los Angeles and back again, as graduating students returned to project sites to continue their work during the summer. Each project offered activists and residents a glimpse of a new possible future in their neighborhood. The Doctores experience temporarily demonstrated that the unexpected was possible: children could take control of the street. In Boyle Heights, an inventive study made a vulnerable population visible for political urban action and in so doing startled a possible future into view.

Urban humanities attempts to sidestep pitfalls that urban studies has long been prone to: essentialism, homogenization, and the erasure of differences between cities. It also does not seek to become an exercise in futurism. For this reason, it employs engaged scholarship and community input and action to mold its proposals. It deploys a range of thick methods to understand and create possibilities for everyday metropolitan life. Rather than holding cities up as objects for comparison, our efforts link cities through practices that rely on extended engagement. That is, urban humanities seeks deep understanding through the shared actions of scholars and citizens moving within and between cities. Rather than urban solutions per se, the projects are offered as public propositions that will evolve through iterations that may lead to more permanent change. If the urban humanities evolve into a bona fide field of study, they may disrupt not only urban studies but current academic structures as they produce not only transformative urban ideas but also new forms of scholarship that could enrich the study of cities.

Notes

1
N. Kenny and R. Madgin, “‘Every Time I Describe a City’: Urban History as Comparative and Transnational Practice,” Cities Beyond Boarders: Comparative and Transnational Approaches to Urban History, N. Kenny and R. Madgin, eds. (London: Routledge, 2015), 14.

2
Walter Benjamin, One-Way Street and Other Writings, Edmund Jephcott and Kingsley Shorter, trans. (London: NLB, 1979), 177–78.

3
Jennifer Robinson, “In the Tracks of Comparative Urbanism: Difference, Urban Modernity and the Primitive,” Urban Geography 25.8 (2004): 709–23.

4
Robert E. Park, Human Communities: The City and Human Ecology (New York: The Free Press, 1952), 133.

5
J. Walton, and L.H. Masotti, eds. The City in Comparative Perspective: Cross-National Research and New Directions in Theory (New York: Sage, 1976).

6
H.J. Dyos, “Editorial,” The Urban History Yearbook (Leicester: Leicester Unversity Press, 1974), 3.

7
Walton and Masotti.

8
Kenny and Madgin, 5.

9
M.P. Smith, Transnational Urbanism: Locating Globalization (Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2001).

10
R. Madgin, Heritage, Culture, and Conservation: Managing the Urban Renaissance (Saarbrucken: VDM Verlag, 2009).

11
E. Said, Orientalism (New York: Vintage Books, 1979).

12
Robinson, “In the Tracks of Comparative Urbanism,” 709–723.

13
D. Cohen and M. O’Connor, “Introduction: Comparative History, Cross-National History, Transnational History—Definitions,” Comparison and History: Europe in Cross-National Perspective (New York: Routledge, 2004), ix–xxiii.

14
C.A. Bayly, S. Beckert, M. Connelly, et al. “AHR Conversation: on Transnational History,” American Historical Review 111.5 (2016): 1440–64.

15
S. Khagram and P. Levitt, “Constructing Transnational Studies,” The Transnational Studies Reader: Intersections and Innovations (New York: Routledge, 2008).

16
Ibid.

Dana Cuff is a professor, author, and scholar in architecture and urbanism at University of California, Los Angeles, where she is also the founding director of cityLAB, a think tank that explores design innovations in the emerging metropolis.

Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris is the associate dean of academic affairs and urban planning professor at University of California, Los Angeles. Her research focuses on the public environment of the city, its physical representation, aesthetics, social meaning, and impact on the urban resident.

Interviews

A Boom Interview: Mike Davis in conversation with Jennifer Wolch and Dana Cuff

Mike Davis

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Editor’s Note: Chronicler of the California dark side and LA’s underbelly, proclaiming a troubling, menacing reality beneath the bright and sunny facade, Mike Davis is one of California’s most significant contemporary writers. His most controversial books led critics to label him anything from a left-wing lunatic to a prophet of gloom and peddler of the pornography of despair. Yet much of his personal story and evolution are intimately touched by his experience and close reading of deeply California realities: life as part of the working class, the struggle for better working conditions, and a genuine connection to the difficulties here. His most well-known books, City of Quartz and Ecology of Fear are unsparing in their assessments of those difficulties.

Remaining a central figure of a discipline at the intersection of geography, sociology, and architecture known as the Los Angeles School of Urbanism, Davis is now in retirement from the Department of Creative Writing at UC Riverside. Earlier this summer, he invited architectural educator and director of UCLA’s cityLAB Dana Cuff and dean of UC Berkeley’s College of Environmental Design Jennifer Wolch into his San Diego home to discuss his career, his writings, and his erstwhile and ongoing efforts to understand Los Angeles.

Dana Cuff: You told us that you get asked about City of Quartz too often, so let’s take a different tack. As one of California’s great urban storytellers, what is missing from our understanding of Los Angeles?

Mike Davis: The economic logic of real estate and land development. This has always been the master key to understanding spatial and racial politics in Southern California. As the late-nineteenth century’s most influential radical thinker—I’m thinking of San Francisco’s Henry George not Karl Marx—explained rather magnificently, you cannot reform urban space without controlling land values. Zoning and city planning—the Progressive tools for creating the City Beautiful—either have been totally co-opted to serve the market or died the death of a thousand cuts, that is to say by variances. I was briefly an urban design commissioner in Pasadena in the mid-1990s and saw how easily state-of-the-art design standards and community plans were pushed aside by campaign contributors and big developers.

If you don’t intervene in the operation of land markets, you’ll usually end up producing the opposite result from what you intended. Over time, for instance, improvements in urban public space raise home values and tend to become amenity subsidies for wealthier people. In dynamic land markets and central locations, nonprofits can’t afford to buy land for low-income housing. Struggling artists and hipsters inadvertently become the shock troops of gentrification and soon can’t afford to live in the neighborhoods and warehouse districts they invigorated. Affordable housing and jobs move inexorably further apart and the inner-city crisis ends up in places like San Bernardino.

If you concede that the stabilization of land values is the precondition for long-term democratic planning, there are two major nonrevolutionary solutions. George’s was the most straightforward: execute land monopolists and profiteers with a single tax of 100 percent on increases in unimproved land values. The other alternative is not as radical but has been successfully implemented in other advanced capitalist countries: municipalize strategic parts of the land inventory for affordable housing, parks and form-giving greenbelts.

The use of eminent domain for redevelopment, we should recall, was originally intended to transform privately owned slums into publicly owned housing. At the end of the Second World War, when progressives were a majority in city government, Los Angeles adopted truly visionary plans for both public housing and rational suburban growth. What then happened is well known: a municipal counter-revolution engineered by the LA Times. As a result, local governments continued to use eminent domain but mainly to transfer land from small owners to corporations and banks.

Fast-forward to the 1980s. A new opportunity emerged. Downtown redevelopment was devouring hundreds of millions of dollars of diverted taxes, but its future was bleak. A few years before, Reyner Banham had proclaimed that Downtown was dead or at least irrelevant. If the Bradley administration had had the will, it could have municipalized the Spring-Main Street corridor at rock-bottom market prices. Perhaps ten million square feet would have become available for family apartments, immigrant small businesses, public markets, and the like, at permanently controlled affordable rents.

I once asked Kurt Meyer, a corporate architect who had been chairman of the Community Redevelopment Agency, about this. He lived up Beachwood Canyon below the Hollywood Sign. We used to meet for breakfast because he enjoyed yarning about power and property in LA, and this made him a unique source for my research at the time. He told me that downtown elites were horrified by the unexpected revitalization of the Broadway corridor by Mexican businesses and shoppers, and the last thing they wanted was a populist downtown.

He also answered a question that long vexed me. “Kurt, why this desperate, all-consuming priority to have the middle class live downtown?” “Mike, do you know anything about leasing space in high-rise buildings?” “Not really.” “Well, the hardest part to rent is the ground floor: to extract the highest value, you need a resident population. You can’t just have office workers going for breakfast and lunch; you need night time, twenty-four hour traffic.” I don’t know whether this was really an adequate explanation but it certainly convinced me that planners and activists need a much deeper understanding of the game.

In the event, the middle class has finally come downtown but only to bring suburbia with them. The hipsters think they’re living in the real thing, but this is purely faux urbanism, a residential mall. Downtown is not the heart of the city, it’s a luxury lifestyle pod for the same people who claim Silverlake is the “Eastside” or that Venice is still bohemian.

Cuff: Why do you call it suburbia?

Davis: Because the return to the center expresses the desire for urban space and crowds without allowing democratic variety or equal access. It’s fool’s gold, and gentrification has taken the place of urban renewal in displacing the poor. Take Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris’s pioneering study of the privatization of space on the top of Bunker Hill. Of course, your museum patron or condo resident feels at home, but if you’re a Salvadorian skateboarder, man, you’re probably headed to Juvenile Hall.

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Dingbat in rear next to fenced-in modern complex.

Cuff: Would you include architecture in your thinking about real estate? Weren’t you teaching a course about this at SCI-Arc [Southern California Institute of Architecture] some years back?

Davis: When I was first hired at SCI-Arc in 1988, I confessed to Michael Rotondi [then Director] that I knew nothing about architecture. He replied: “Don’t worry, we do. Your job is to teach LA. Get the students out into the city.” It was a wonderful assignment and over the course of a decade, I participated in a number of remarkable studios and site studies, working with the likes of Michael Sorkin, Joe Day, Anthony Fontenot, and other radical architects.

My own vanity project was demonstrating the feasibility of a community design studio that addressed the problems of older neighborhoods and suburbs. With the support of a leading activist in the Central American community, Roberto Lovato, now a well-known journalist, we focused on the Westlake [MacArthur Park] district just west of Downtown.

I knew the area fairly well, since in the late 1960s I had lived there while briefly managing the Communist Party’s bookstore on Seventh Street, oddly near the FBI’s old office building on Wilshire. This was right after the final evictions from Bunker Hill and most of its residents had been dumped in tenements near MacArthur Park. Walking to the bookstore I several times encountered the bodies of these elderly poor people on the sidewalk—who knew what dreams had brought them to LA in the 1910s and 1920s?

We finally settled on studying Witmer Street, between Third and Wilshire, because it had an almost complete declension of multifamily building types: a single-family home from the 1890s, a bungalow court from the 1920s, dingbats from 1960, even an old masonry apartment building that was used as a set for Hill Street Blues.

Students divided up into teams, training themselves as building and fire inspectors, and we took the neighborhood apart molecule-by-molecule over two semesters. One group studied fire safety issues and other hazards such as unprotected roofs where small children played. We looked at the needs of home workers, seamstresses and auto mechanics; studied problems of garbage collection; looked at issues involving gang rivalries and elderly winos. With Lovato’s support, we got inside apartments—typically studios for three to five people—and analyzed how families organized their tiny spaces. We researched who owned the buildings, calculated their rental profitability, even visited and photographed the homes of the Downtown slumlords who were living in Beverly Hills and Newport Beach.

The only form of housing that was generally popular, where the tenants had been there for a long time—everybody else was in and out—was the one courtyard apartment complex, with its little gardens and a fountain. The most despised were not the older 1920s tenement fire traps but the dingbats—low-rise six- to twelve-unit apartment buildings with tuck-under parking, built in the fifties and sixties on single family lots. They were designed to become blight in a few decades and constitute a major problem everywhere in Southern California. The other multi-unit types were still durable but it was hard to imagine any alternative for the stucco rubble other than to tear it down—which in fact developers have done, only to replace the dingbats with four- and five-story “super-cubes” that are just larger versions of the same problems.

Our goal was to bring all our findings together in a kind of Whole Earth Catalog set up as a website, and then invite everybody in the world to write and contribute ideas around generic issues of working-class neighborhoods like trash, play, working, graffiti, gangs, social space, parking, and so on. Our point was not to create a miniature master plan but to build up an arsenal of practical design solutions based on careful, realistic analysis that could help residents frame demands of landlords and the city. We imagined collaborations of architects, artists and artisans, acting as toolmakers for community self-design and activism. I still believe in the idea but my own tenure at SCI-Arc ended when our merry prankster and guiding light, Michael Rotondi, left.

Cuff: The idea of toolmaking instead of master planning is useful. A group of urban humanities students at UCLA focused on Boyle Heights, which, like Westlake, is experiencing development pressure. The tools that the community partners asked for were pretty straightforward, like a manual about how to turn abandoned spaces into parks. It was an interesting conversation with the humanities, architecture, and planning students about their own agency. Could you not deliver what they wanted and still be a socially responsible partner with community groups? The discussion was interesting because the agency of the students came into play, from architecture students who are ready to do something even if they don’t have much information, to the humanities students who are reluctant to act since they feel like they don’t know enough or have the right to intervene.

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Davis: That kind of conscience might be good for some of the senior architects in LA who regard the city as a free-fire zone for whatever vanity they happen to come up with, regardless of urban context or history. In City of Quartz, I criticized Frank Gehry for his stealth designs and over-concern with security. It really pissed him off, because he comes from a social-democratic background and hated my tongue-in-cheek depiction of him as architecture’s “Dirty Harry.”

One day, a few years later, he called me in to see him. “Okay, big shot, look at this.” And he showed me the latest iteration of his Disney Concert Hall design, which had park space wrapped around its non-Euclidean perimeter. “You criticized me for antidemocratic designs, but what is this?” And of course, it was clever integration of the elitist concert hall with space for local kids to play and homeless people to relax. It invited rather than excluded residents from the poor Latino neighborhoods like Witmer Street that surround Downtown. This was more or less unprecedented, and he had to wage a long battle with the county who wanted the Disney fenced and off-limits. In this instance at least, celebrity architecture fought the good fight.

Jennifer Wolch: Absolutely. However it’s an important question particularly for the humanities students, the issue of subjectivity makes them reticent to make proposals.

Davis: But, they have skills. Narrative is an important part of creating communities. People’s stories are key, especially about their routines. It seems to me that there are important social science skills, but the humanities are important particularly because of stories. I also think a choreographer would be a great analyst of space and kind of an imagineer for using space.

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I had a long talk with Richard Louv one day about his Last Child in the Woods, one of the most profound books of our time, a meditation on what it means for kids to lose contact with nature, with free nomadic unorganized play and adventure. A generation of mothers consigned to be fulltime chauffeurs, ferrying kids from one commercial distraction or over-organized play date to another. I grew up in eastern San Diego County, on the very edge of the back country, and once you did your chores (a serious business in those days), you could hop on your bike and set off like Huck Finn. There was a nudist colony in Harbison Canyon about twelve miles away, and we’d take our bikes, push them uphill for hours and hours in the hope of peeking through the fence. Like all my friends, I got a .22 (rifle) when I turned twelve. We did bad things to animals, I must confess, but we were free spirits, hated school, didn’t worry about grades, kept our parents off our backs with part-time jobs and yard work, and relished each crazy adventure and misdemeanor. Since I moved back to San Diego in 2002, I have annual reunions with the five or six guys I’ve known since second grade in 1953. Despite huge differences in political beliefs and religion, we’re still the same old gang.

And gangs were what kept you safe and why mothers didn’t have to worry about play dates or child molesters. I remember even in kindergarten—we lived in the City Heights area of San Diego at that time—we had a gang that walked to school together and played every afternoon. Just this wild group of little boys and girls, seven or eight of us, roaming around, begging pennies to buy gum at the corner store. Today the idea of unsupervised gangs of children or teenagers sounds like a law-and-order problem. But it’s how communities used to work and might still work. Aside from Louv, I warmly recommend The Child in the City by the English anarchist Colin Ward. A chief purpose of architecture, he argues, should be to design environments for unprogrammed fun and discovery.

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Wolch: We have a completely different question, Mike. One of your books that we like the most is Late Victorian Holocausts. It’s not about cities or about the West. How did you decide to link up global climate-change history to famine and political ecology? It seems like something of a departure.

Davis: After the 1992 riots, I got a huge advance from Knopf to write a book about the city’s apocalypse. Through my political activities I had gotten to know the mothers of a number of key players in these events, including Theresa Allison, whose son, Dewayne Holmes was a prime mover in the Watts gang truce. I also knew Damian Williams’s mom—he was the chief villain, the guy who almost beat the truck driver to death at the corner of Florence and Normandie. Through their eyes I had acquired a very different perspective on cause and effect, right and wrong, during the course of the explosion. But at the end of the day, I could not find any real justification for the kind of journalism that makes authoritative claims through selective quotations and portraits of people who generally have no control over ultimate manuscript. In the 1930s, this kind of social documentation or second-hand existential narrative—Dorothea Lange’s photographs or James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, for example—could claim that it was an integral part of a crusade, the New Deal or the CIO, that was fighting to improve the lives of the victimized people who were its often unknowing subjects. But now, in our post-liberal era, such work runs the danger of simply being sensational and exploitative. Frankly, as much as I wanted to write the book, I couldn’t find any real moral license for looting folks’ stories and their personal miseries for my greater glory as LA’s voice of doom. So I gave the advance back and moved my base of operations to the Cal Tech earth science library and immersed myself in the research on environmental history and disaster that became Ecology of Fear.

I also discovered another topic where there was no ethical ambiguity—indeed, a project that perfectly aligned conscience and my zeal for research. Tom Hayden contacted me in 1995 or 1996 and asked me to contribute to a volume he was editing on the one-hundred-fiftieth anniversary of the Irish holocaust. At first I demurred. Brilliant young Irish historians were reinterpreting the Famine, and I had no expertise in this area. But he persisted. “Well, maybe there’s something else that happened at the time that you could write about.” Then I discovered the famines in China and India during the 1870s and 1890s that killed some twenty million people but had long gone unmentioned in conventional histories of the Victorian era. The result was Late Victorian Holocausts, a kind of “black book” of capitalism, about the millions of unnecessary deaths that occurred as European powers—above all, England—force-marched the great subsistence peasantries of India and China into the world market with disastrous results.

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Wolch: We have one last question, about your young adult novels. Whenever we assign something from City of Quartz or another of your disheartening pieces about LA, it’s hard not to worry that the students will leave the class and jump off of a cliff! But your young adult novels seem to capture some amount of an alternative hopeful future.

Davis: Gee, you shouldn’t be disheartened by my books on LA. They’re just impassioned polemics on the necessity of the urban left. And my third LA book, Magical Urbanism, literally glows with optimism about the grassroots renaissance going on in our immigrant neighborhoods. But to return to the two adolescent “science adventure” novels I wrote for Viggo Mortensen’s wonderful Perceval Press. Above all they’re expressions of longing for my oldest son after his mother moved him back to her native Ireland. The heroes are three real kids: my son, his step-brother, and the daughter of our best friends when I taught at Stony Brook on Long Island. Her name is Julia Monk, and she’s now a wildlife biologist doing a Ph.D. at Yale on pumas in the Andes. I’m very proud that I made her the warrior-scientist heroine of the novels, because it was an intuition about her character that she’s made real in every way—just a remarkable young person.

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Writing these tales was pure fun. The original inspiration was a trip that my son and I took to East Greenland when he was seven. This became The Land of the Lost Mammoths. Stories like this write themselves, especially because they’re real kids and you’re projecting their moral characters in situations of fantastic adventure and danger (although some of the most outlandish parts of the books are true and based on my life-long obsession with mysterious islands). In a way, it was like the four of us really went on expeditions to Greenland and the strange, bewitched island of Socotra.

But let the kids continue the adventure. I’ve become a homebody in retirement, focused on learning everything I can about nature and geology in Southern California. My only organizational membership in recent years (of nonsubversive groups, that is) is in the American Geophysical Union. My wife enjoys a good novel at bedtime. I read strange tomes on igneous petrology and paleoclimatology. I even have a Stephen King–like text somewhere [about the street I live on] called 33rd Street Ecology because there is nothing natural in this neighborhood, from the Arundo to the Sicilian snails, which if they ever hit the Central Valley could do a few billion dollars’ damage to crops. Crows didn’t exist here, nor did the sinister brown widow spiders who now live in my patio furniture. To me this is great noir stuff—the neighborhood taken over by the aliens and the inhabitants don’t know it.

Note
Photographs of the neighborhood in and around Witmer Street by Matthew Gush.

Mike Davis is the author of more than twenty books, including City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles. He is professor emeritus at University of California, Riverside, in the department of creative writing.