Tag: History


Outselling the Beatles in 1966: LA’s forgotten musical genius

Peter Cole

As music critics release “best of 2016” lists, who can name the most popular musician in America fifty years ago? The Beatles? The Rolling Stones? Wrong. The Supremes or another Motown act? Nope. Bob Dylan? Johnny Cash? The Beach Boys? No, no, and no.

Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass Brand sold about fourteen million LPs in 1966. Anyone who has rifled through old records at thrift stores and rummage sales has seen his albums. Most famously, Whipped Cream and Other Delights featured a young woman covered in (apparently) nothing but whip cream.

No musician sold more records in 1966 than this pop trumpeter. His first ten albums, all released in the 1960s, reached the Top 20. Even more impressive, in 1966 Alpert had five albums in the Billboard Top 20 simultaneously, a Guinness World Record never since repeated. For one week, four of the Top 10 albums were Alpert’s and three of the top four!

Alpert blended multiple sounds perhaps only possible in his native Los Angeles, a city connecting diverse cultures for a century now, though the cover art didn’t hurt.

The origins of Ameriachi

Alpert combined surf rock, West Coast cool jazz, and Mexican mariachi to create a new pop sound. In the late 1950s, surf emerged as a southern California subgenre of the still-emerging rock ’n’ roll. Think Dick Dale, who graduated high school in El Segundo near Los Angeles, and his scorching, staccato guitar riffs on “Misirlou” (1962).

Cool jazz, especially its West Coast variant, also influenced Alpert. Miles Davis defined the sound on albums like Kind of Blue (1959). A growing Los Angeles-based jazz scene, including Stan Getz and Gerry Mulligan, adapted cool just as Alpert started playing professionally.

However, those Mexican horns, so distinctive and, at that time, so unusual for non-Mexicans to hear, probably were what listeners heard first.

In 1962 Alpert visited Tijuana where he attended a bullfight and heard a mariachi band. Inspired, he took that sound back to the studio. Playing all the parts himself, he quickly released The Lonely Bull under the name Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass. After achieving some success and tour requests, he hired musicians to populate his band.

His style quickly became known as “Ameriachi,” a perfect name for his transnational music. In one 1966 interview, Alpert described it as, “a sort of fusion of the mariachi sound of Mexico with a jazz undercurrent.” His songs included “Mexican Shuffle” and “Spanish Flea,” but “A Taste of Honey” typifies his iconic sound.


Herb Alpert, 1966, via Wikimedia

Perhaps shockingly, neither Alpert nor anyone in the Tijuana Brass Band was Mexican or Mexican American. In fact, he joked in concert that his band consisted of “four lasagnas, two bagels, and an American cheese.” Four Italian Americans, two Jewish Americans, and one Anglo American. Alpert was a bagel.

Los Angeles: cultural borderland

Alpert hails from Los Angeles, home to a rich and diverse set of cultures. In the 1950s, that included a thriving, multiethnic community in Boyle Heights, on LA’s eastside. Alpert’s parents, Eastern European Jewish immigrants, gave birth to Herbert there in 1935. Boyle Heights was known as a multicultural, working class enclave with many Mexican Americans and Japanese Americans cheek to jowl with Jewish folks. The sort of place where Jews in the socialist Workmen’s Circle and garment workers’ union advocated a leftist politics that embraced the diversity of immigrants and working class peoples. Historian George Sanchez goes as far as to argue that Boyle Heights maintained this diverse, radical culture into the 1950s, when Alpert came of age.

Though not literally on the Mexican border, Los Angeles might as well be. Just a few hours drive south sits Tijuana, the definitive border town in the American imagination. Of course, the Mexican-US border is an arbitrary line drawn by politicians far removed from this region. People have crossed and recrossed this border endlessly and still do. Or, as some Mexicans declare, “We didn’t cross the border, it crossed us.”

Los Angeles always has been culturally, demographically, and economically tied to Mexico. The Southern Pacific Railroad—the “Espee” Line—terminated in LA with connections to Sonora down to Jalisco. In his book Becoming Mexican American, Sanchez notes that Spanish-language radio stations broadcast to Mexico from Los Angeles as early as the 1920s. LA remains the unofficial capital of Mexican Americans in El Norte.

Alpert in 1966

Undeniably, Alpert stood at the top of the heap in 1966. Record sales don’t lie. Whipped Cream and Other Delights sold six million platters, the best-selling LP that year. “A Taste of Honey” won the Grammy for “Best Record of the Year.” Also in 1966, Going Places, featuring “Spanish Flea,” and a third album, What Now My Love, all went to #1, the latter for nine weeks. All told, Alpert sold around fourteen million albums in 1966—way more than, yes, the Beatles.

Confirmation of his domination of the pop charts came when Alpert recorded the title track (composed by Burt Bacharach) for the first-ever James Bond film, Casino Royale, in 1967.

Selections from My Jazz Album Collection

Cultural Appropriation?

For this success, what “right” does Alpert have to “take” Mexican music, shear it of some of its native authenticity, and repackage it for non-Mexican audiences? It’s an important question.

Clearly, Alpert merged Mexican horns into his own sound; but artists incorporate elements of different cultures all the time. Picasso and Gauguin did it. The Talking Heads did it. Dizzy Gillespie and countless other jazz artists did so. Commercial success should not be the measure by which such “mashups” are considered theft or respectful.

As a native Los Angeleno born and raised in culturally diverse Boyle Heights, his neighborhood included countless Mexican Americans and was inextricably twined to Mexico. His visit to Tijuana in 1962 was not his first to that city, but was when it inspired him to incorporate Mariachi horns into his own music.

Alpert’s music even gained some popularity in Mexico. His album Whipped Cream and Other Delights was reported as, “One of the top 10 records in sales in Mexico City.” In 1967, he played a benefit concert in Tijuana before a sold-out crowd of 14,500 people, where he and his band recorded a one-hour program for television’s CBS.

Alpert, of course, was hardly the only American to embrace Mexican and other Latin musical traditions. “Tequila,” a Cuban-mambo slash instrumental rock song by the Champs, a LA session group, reached #1 in 1958 and has been repeatedly covered ever since. The LA-based rock music group, Love, channeled Alpert’s Ameriachi sound to create an iconic hit with “Alone Again Or” (1967), which continues to amaze. Further north, in San Francisco, Mexican-born Carlos Santana had a big hit covering Puerto Rican Tito Puente’s “Oye Come Va.” The long list of country singers, from Marty Robbins to Johnny Cash, who incorporated Mexican horns also springs to mind. Arguably, doing so is an acknowledgement of the impact of and respect for Mexican culture in the United States.

Music hardly is the only site of cultural “mashups,” as the recent LA creation, Korean tacos, confirms. They are a product of a city in which vastly different peoples live near each other and increasingly come together. Who doesn’t love the very idea of the Korean taco? But that mélange does not happen just anywhere. Rather, it emerges in cities like Los Angeles, where peoples and cultures meet and mesh.

Though Alpert’s music was very commercialized—i.e. wildly successful—we need popular musicians pushing boundaries. Whether such efforts are considered “appropriation” or respectful integration remains an ongoing conversation.

After the Sixties

Alpert continued to record, successfully, but perhaps more importantly created and managed a music label, A&M Records, with business partner Jerry Moss. A&M signed, recorded, and distributed an impressive array of musicians including Wes Montgomery, Joe Cocker, Quincy Jones, the Carpenters, Carole King, Cat Stevens, The Police, and many more. He even met his wife, who sang backup for Sergio Mendes & Brasil ’66, via A&M, which first brought Mendes to American audiences.

After selling A&M to Polygram in 1989 for half a billion dollars, Alpert became a philanthropist. He has donated tens of millions of dollars, especially to promote music education in his hometown. According to his website: “The UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music focuses on cross-cultural experimentation and musical diversity with an emphasis on music and influences from around the world.” Earlier this year, he donated another ten million to Los Angeles City College that will provide all music majors with tuition-free education, additional private lessons, and additional financial support. In his words, “I love that LACC has helped so many low-income students who have financial challenges but have a strong commitment to education and to self- improvement.” Through such generosity Alpert strives to keep music, the arts, and education alive, accessible, and evolving in his native Los Angeles.


Herb Alpert receiving the Medal of Honor for the Arts, 10 July 2013. Photo by Pete Souza via Wikimedia Commons.

Long-forgotten but shouldn’t be

Today, when considering the greatest American musicians of the 1960s, many spring to mind. The Doors in LA. The Jefferson Airplane and Grateful Dead in San Francisco. Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix in New York. Stevie Wonder and the Jackson 5 in Detroit. These and many others, much loved and respected, have seen their stars continue to shine.

Still, none were nearly as commercially successful as Alpert in 1966. So, despite John Lennon’s legendary boast that the Beatles were “bigger than Jesus,” Alpert actually was “bigger” than the Beatles if only for a moment. No doubt, he has faded from popular memory. The proof, today, lies in record bins across the land, where it is rare to not find a Herb Alpert album. Believe me, I’ve tried.

So, though every collector has seen—and passed—his LPs, let us not condemn him to the dustbin of music history, “easy listening.” Instead, think of Herb Alpert’s stunning popularity, fifty years ago, as confirmation of Los Angeles as a vibrant city where cultures come together to produce something new and wonderful. Alpert represents the best of an increasingly multicultural America arguably defined, since the 1960s, more by Los Angeles than New York. Proof that borders are meant to be crossed or sometimes even ignored. Proof that it’s better to tear down walls than build them.

Peter Cole is a professor of history at Western Illinois University. He is the author of Wobblies on the Waterfront: Interracial Unionism in Progressive Era Philadelphia and currently at work on Dockworker Power: Race, Technology, and Unions in Durban and the San Francisco Bay Area. He writes extensively on the history of labor unions, port cities, race matters, and politics. He tweets from @ProfPeterCole

Copyright: © 2016 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/


What Are the Urban Humanities?

Anthony Cascardi
Michael Dear


Photograph courtesy of Margaret Crawford.

The efforts in research and teaching that fly under the flag of the “urban humanities” represent one example of a much larger set of phenomena that have emerged across humanistic disciplines for the past two decades. That hybrid initiatives like this have appeared alongside many more broad-based interdisciplinary efforts is telling of the challenges involved in attempting to transform the knowledge and practices that had settled into more or less stable institutional configurations. The existing configurations have proven difficult to change because our institutions are less malleable than we might wish, and because they provide a sense of permanence—some would say a false sense of permanence—in the face of broad shifts in the external conditions surrounding the academic enterprise such as the withdrawal of public support for state institutions and the privatization of higher education across all sectors. But the naturalization of disciplines cannot be a good thing because it leads us to forget that the disciplines are human constructs, and that neither the objects of their study nor their methodological predilections are natural features of the world. It is not that disciplines are intrinsically pernicious, since specialization has led to greater insight and practical interventions, but that academic disciplines have progressively narrowed an appreciation of the meaning of human existence and ways in which it can be bettered.

The creation of interdisciplinary fields has been one way of moving beyond disciplinary specialization toward a more holistic appreciation of the world and its problems. Since the 1980s, interdisciplinarity has given rise to various subdisciplinary “studies” (e.g., women’s studies, gender studies, sound studies). California was on the forefront of this trend. With them there have emerged new departments and centers. Their aim has been to establish areas of inquiry not recognized by preexisting disciplines (or concealed by them) and to create institutional spaces in which they could achieve the legitimacy enjoyed by the “traditional” humanistic disciplines like philosophy, history, and English. At the same time, the very notion of the “humanities” has come under various pressures, some originating from external demands to justify their relevance to contemporary realities, and others originating organically from within the disciplines themselves, motivated by the desire to establish more meaningful connections with a broad range of worldly activity. This has given rise to the hybrid humanities.

Why the “hybrid” modifier? Taken by itself, the term “humanities” carries relatively little meaning for those disciplines internal to it, serving mostly as a convenient abstraction for scholars who need to represent their disciplines externally, or for those on the outside who often demonstrate very little knowledge of the kind of work that humanists do. By contrast, the “hybrid humanities” better describe new areas of inquiry, areas where humanists have been making productive new connections, often outside established disciplines. These connections bridge some of the time-honored questions in the humanities with a set of new and emergent methods, technologies, and materials. The digital humanities, including some of its specific foci such as digital history, are some of the most prominent examples of the hybridization of the humanities. Other fields coalescing as spatial humanities, geohumanities, urban humanities, and global urban humanities represent more recent instances of this same hybridizing effort.

The hybridization reflected in the emergent field of urban humanities has happened with the willing participation of the environmental design disciplines, including architecture, urban and regional planning, and landscape and environmental design. Indeed, some argue that both as a discipline and as a practice, architecture became hybrid early on. In lectures delivered during the 1990s, later published under the title How Architecture Got its Hump, Roger Connah argued that architecture has long been “subject to interrelations with other disciplines. Film, photography, drawing, philosophy, and language are perhaps more familiar and fashionable interrelations. Recent indications suggest that dance, music, opera, physics, chaos theories, the new science of materials, computer science and software, and even boxing and cuisine are now being explored as serious analogical sources and interference for architectural theory, prediction, space, and metaphysics.…”Add to this list the new technologies associated with geographical information systems (GIS) plus a renewed interest in place as a means of counterbalancing the anonymizing forces of globalization, and it is not difficult to see how and why an environment hospitable to collaboration would begin to emerge.

The short history of the geohumanities is instructive because it represents a transdisciplinary merger that originated outside the humanities, from geography. The movement has its origins in a 2007 conference at the University of Virginia, organized by the Association of American Geographers (AAG). At that time, the term “geohumanities” had not yet been invented. The conference’s principal presentations were later included in a collective volume entitled GeoHumanities: Art, History, and Text at the Edge of Place (Routledge, 2011). It included critical reflections, empirical analyses, topical vignettes, and artwork from many fields, organized in a four-part structure: creative places (geocreativity); spatial literacies (geotexts); visual geographies (geoimagery); and spatial histories (geohistory). Place emerged as the common analytical focus of the book’s contributors. The editors prized transdisciplinarity, which seeks a fusion of diverse disciplinary approaches into novel hybrids distinct from parent disciplines, because its nonexclusionary openness to all forms of knowing produced a kind of “democratic intelligence” incorporating different ways of seeing and offering a firmer foundation for the shift from knowledge to action. Not until the very last pages of the volume did a tentative definition of the field materialize: “The geohumanities that emerges in this book is a transdisciplinary and multimethodological inquiry that begins with the human meanings of place and proceeds to reconstruct those meanings in ways that produce new knowledge and the promise of a better-informed scholarly and political practice.” A few years later, in 2014, the AAG launched a new journal entitled GeoHumanities, with an editorial board comprised of geographers and representatives of many humanities disciplines, signaling the legitimacy of this maturing discipline.

As with the geohumanities, the global urban humanities exert an expansive force over the way the humanities have tended to operate, both at the level of theory and as a set of practices—i.e., it has encouraged expansion of the theoretical and practical fields operative among humanists with global relevance. What specifically are those expansive forces?

The humanities have long privileged texts as their model, even where their primary materials were not texts in the literal sense—for example, musical scores, or easel paintings. The dominant metaphor of the disciplines was “reading,” a term that signaled both the preeminence of texts and the fact that the work of the humanities lay principally in interpretation. But in privileging reading and interpretation, too little attention was paid to lived experience; indeed, most sophisticated theories of interpretation cautioned against making connections between what was available as text and any sense of experience at all. To make the humanities global and urban meant, first of all, attending to conditions that cannot be fully metaphorized as “texts.” They incorporate what is left out in the process of textualization—that is, all the physical, material, social, and geographical factors that happen together in real time and in real space, even if they are recorded textually in ways that can be retrieved post hoc. And second, going global and urban introduced to the humanities a much broader tool kit of representational opportunities and analytical methods—e.g., in mapping and comparative textual investigations. In short, the urban humanities expanded the field of humanistic inquiry by adding new dimensions—of time, space, mapping, method—to the relatively two-dimensional world of textual interpretation.


Photograph courtesy of Margaret Crawford

The urban humanities have also posed previously neglected questions about practice and intervention on top of, or alongside, questions of interpretation. Humanists rarely use the word “intervention,” or have done so principally in the context of discursive engagements in response to a conference paper or lecture. By contrast, profession-oriented fields such as architecture and urban planning embrace questions about what can and might be done. The hovering question—what should be done?—demands a practical response to what is but also creates an opening for speculation about the possibilities of what might be. In the zone where environmental design intersects with the humanities, humanists are drawn to think in ways that are at once more practical and more imaginative than they are accustomed to. That effort, in turn, has consequences that are potentially beneficial for the disposition of the humanities more broadly conceived. Indeed, one of the criticisms leveled at the humanities is that the disciplines are too heavily weighted toward critical analysis and take insufficient notice of the possibilities for positive transformation.It has too often been forgotten that “ideology” is only meaningful in contrast to “utopia,” and that bottomless critique will eventually eat away any hope for a constructive view of the world. In engaging with future prospects, the urban humanities have introduced a way of thinking that stands some chance of breaking free from the hermeneutics of suspicion.

Not surprisingly, much urban humanities work has drawn on the creative disciplines—art practice, new media, theatre and performance, etc. But there is an additional reason why the disciplines just mentioned have been so hospitable to this work, which has more to do with method than with subject matter. Conventional humanistic scholarship has by and large been an individual affair. Notwithstanding exemplary efforts of teamwork that have produced magnificent outcomes (e.g., the Chicago Assyrian Dictionary), humanists have operated for the most part as solo practitioners. The dominant model has been the lone scholar in the archive. Because divergence and dominance weigh more heavily than collaboration in the appraisal of humanistic research, there have been few incentives for humanists to collaborate. In the traditional humanities, the important thing is to demonstrate how one’s particular view (interpretation) diverges from those already available, and then to hope for the dominance of that view, which all others will respectfully cite, at least until they can assert some powerful divergence from it. In work coalescing around the urban humanities, where interpretation is not privileged over creativity, design, and intervention, there is greater room—indeed, an imperative—for collaborative endeavors. Because work in theater and other arts is also open to the participation of multiple actors, the convergence between these disciplines and the urban humanities is not difficult to understand. At the same time, exposure to the kinds of studio work and field study that are familiar in environmental design challenges humanists to experience what it is like to work collectively, hence less proprietarily than they are used to. These pedagogical situations have obliged humanists to explore new ways of working, drawing on skills that they may find new and strange, pressing the need to show work that is preliminary and offered in formal criticism sessions at various stages of finality, and questioned for its practical utility and application.

None of these comments should be taken as a judgment against the traditional humanities. There is simply too much of the world’s knowledge—and experience—bound in books (and musical scores, and works of art) for anyone to forsake the values of reading and interpretation. It should not be forgotten that reading itself generates new experiences. Montaigne wrote, “…there are more books about books than about any other subject.” A master of irony, and endowed with great worldly wisdom brought from experience, Montaigne did not abandon writing, but rather assumed a distanced stance in relation to the book he was writing, which he also claimed was identical with himself.

Looking ahead, gathering researchers in transdisciplinary dialogue may not be as difficult as it first seems. Scholars are already accustomed to engaging simultaneously with multiple viewpoints; this is, after all, the basis of argumentation. We are capable of assessing different kinds of evidence and readily commit to transparency—that is, being forthcoming about how our studies are framed and conclusions derived. Many scholars willingly admit to the provisionality of their findings, and the inevitability that today’s knowledges will be superseded by subsequent discoveries and reinterpretations. Remarkably, we almost always acknowledge the utility of transdisciplinary work, as if the potential of such engagement is self-evident. Given these widespread, seemingly propitious circumstances, what could stand in the way of successful collaborative practice?

Two common hurdles blocking diversity in academic discourse are exceptionalism and exclusivity. The former refers to an assertion that one’s own practice is axiomatically superior because one’s own field or discipline somehow furnishes more fundamental or analytically more powerful insights than all others; and the latter actively elevates my claim for special privilege by diminishing yours. One such expression of privilege—intra-, rather than inter-disciplinary, in this case—is the current spat in physics. It concerns the apparent willingness of many physicists to set aside the requirement for experimental confirmation of a theory, largely on the grounds that empirical verification (or falsification) of today’s ambitious “blue-sky” theorizing is impossible. In a Nature article defending “the integrity of physics,” Ellis and Silk argue against weakening the “testability requirement for fundamental physics,” because this would represent a break with “centuries of philosophical tradition of defining scientific knowledge as empirical.” While not prohibiting the practice of imaginative, evidence-independent inquiry, they warn that legitimacy of the scientific method is at stake, insisting that the “imprimatur of science should be awarded only to a theory that is testable.” The merit of this argument is not at issue here; far more germane is the manner in which their exceptionalism and exclusivity are used to bludgeon peers who search for new ways of seeing.


Collage by Ettore Santi.

These days, the assertions that there is no such thing as a single method or world-view and that there is no Grand Theory of Everything are neither original nor especially provocative intellectual stances. All theories are partial, even though many may possess a topical home domain, which their practitioners claim renders some special insight. British philosopher Isaiah Berlin long ago pointed out that human conflicts over differing values are real and unavoidable, and have little or no potential for satisfactory reconciliation. In the face of such radical incommensurabilities, Berlin concluded that we had better focus on learning how to live with them and how to choose between irreconcilable value systems, rather than construct intellectual conceits and imagined worlds where reconciliation may be feasible. California’s intellectual culture is favorable to this.

Beyond the academy, opposition to transdisciplinarity can be traced to the current political climate associated with neoliberal austerity and its seemingly universal mandate to “Do More With Less.” Facing intrusive performance measures, diminished support for public universities, increased emphasis on grant-getting, and proof of relevance in teaching and research, academicians of all stripes are circling their disciplinary wagons as a prelude to launching fierce counteroffenses against any and all exogenous attacks. In defense of their solipsistic worlds, scholars have invented an extraordinary vocabulary for passing judgment, and one can only marvel at the variety and nuance that we have invented to credit or discredit our peers. It’s up to practitioners of the hybrid humanities, together with their allies in the digital humanities, geohumanities, and elsewhere to reveal the gains made through their transdisciplinary collaborations. In short, they need to demonstrate the superior outcomes of collaboration.

To give two indications: classical social theory is founded in a distinction between structure and agency, or between the enduring, deep-seated practices and institutions that undergird society (such as markets, law) and the everyday voluntaristic behavior of individuals. In the past, despite the best intentions, the cleavage between structure and agency seems to have done more to separate disciplinary camps than to act as a fulcrum for articulating the connections between the two. Our experience has been that urban humanities produce superior understandings of the structure/agency connection by its self-conscious, simultaneous engagement with social theory, human experience, and social action. In addition, humanities students hitherto steeped in the “lone scholar” ethos have blossomed intellectually and creatively in response to the collective experience of the studio setting, direct community engagement, and immersion in the “maker” culture of real-world environmental design.

This is only a beginning, and much work and persuasion remain to be done. The greatest imminent challenge facing the emerging urban humanities is how it can be absorbed into the institutional setting of the university without becoming just one more programmatic emphasis in a cross-disciplinary curriculum, or even a new subdiscipline in its own right. Fortunately, examples abound of how to proceed effectively without capitulating to institutional rigor mortis. They include myriad forms of creative commons abundant in the tech world, and the blaze of experimental learning settings spreading like wildfire across campuses. It is no coincidence that many of these teaching and research start-ups include the appellation Design in their titles and manifestos.

Centuries ago the great Montaigne practiced distancing himself from his writing in order to find perspective and generate new experience. These days, perspective and innovation are more readily realized through the surprising transdisciplinary collaborations of the kind envisaged in the urban humanities.

Roger Connah, How Architecture Got Its Hump (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2001), xv-xvi.

Michael Dear, J. Ketchum, S. Luria and D. Richardson, eds., Geohumanities: Art, History & Text at the Edge of Place (New York: Routledge, 2011), 312.

See Michael Roth, Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015).

Michel de Montaigne, Essays, Donald Frame, trans. (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1958), 818.

George Ellis and Joe Silk, “Defend the Integrity of Physics,” Nature 516 18.25 (December 2014): 321–322.

Ibid., 323.

John Gray, “The Case for Decency,” New York Review of Books, 13 July 2006, 20–22.

Anthony J. Cascardi is dean of Arts and Humanities at the University of California, Berkeley, and professor of comparative literature, rhetoric, and Spanish. He is former director of the Townsend Center for the Humanities and of the Arts Research Center.

Michael Dear is professor emeritus of city and regional planning in the University of California, Berkeley, College of Environmental Design. His most recent book is Why Walls Won’t Work: Repairing the US-Mexico Divide.


Photograph by Susan Moffat.


Yosemite By Any Name Is Still the People’s Park

by Marc Norton

A critical appreciation

They may change the names, but they can’t take Yosemite from us.

Or can they?

I’ve come back to Yosemite regularly since I was a young California kid in the 1950s. Yosemite never disappoints, as one of my friends says, though it is becoming increasingly difficult and expensive for some of us to experience Yosemite.

I’ve camped in many of the park’s campgrounds, stayed in Camp Curry’s tent cabins, played cards in the Ahwahnee Hotel lobby, spent New Year’s Eve in a cheap room in the Wawona Hotel, and nearly frozen to death in a camper in the parking lot of Yosemite Lodge.

All those names have been changed and, still, Yosemite endures. But how long will the Yosemite experience be accessible for an average Californian, visiting on the cheap what seemed our park but seems increasingly less so now, even as the valley is crowded for another high season in the Sierra?

Photograph by Flickr user mjmonty.

Photograph by Flickr user mjmonty.

The problem with names in Yosemite did not start with the Delaware North corporation and their now infamous trademark claims. It started when the valley’s indigenous people were pushed out and the profiteers moved in.

In 1851, a group of white militiamen calling themselves the Mariposa Battalion, led by the aptly named James D. Savage, invaded what is now known as Yosemite Valley. They came on a mission of conquest, aiming to either remove the local natives or exterminate them in order to make the surrounding territory safe for miners, settlers, and profiteers.

The militiamen mostly focused on rounding up Indians and burning their homes and caches of food. But a few militiamen were impressed with the scenic wonders of the valley and took the time to name them. The first thing they had to name was the valley itself. The Indians called the valley Ahwahnee—at least that is how it was rendered in English. Ahwahnee has been variously translated as “Deep Grassy Valley” or as “Place of the Big Mouth.” But the invaders wanted to treat the place as their own, so they renamed it Yosemite. The etymology of the name remains in dispute, but it has stuck.

Many years later in 1927, when a certain majestic hotel was named the Ahwahnee, it was without any payment to the people who named the valley. It took a certain corporate entity named Delaware North to make a monetary claim to the original name of the valley nearly a century later.

At one point in the war waged by the Mariposa Battalion, an encampment of Indians was found on a lake northeast of the valley, not far from what is now known as Tuolumne Meadows. The militiamen told Chief Tenaya, the leader of the group, that they were going to name the lake in his honor. Tenaya protested that the lake already had a name. “We call it Pyweack,” he is reported to have said, as he pointed to a group of nearby glistening peaks and told the militiamen that the name meant the lake of shining rocks. The militiamen had other shiny rocks in mind, particularly gold. They disregarded Tenaya’s claim to name the lake.

Nobody ever found gold in Yosemite Valley, not in the ground anyway. But it did not take long for profiteers to realize that there was money to be made from tourists here. Long before there were any roads, even wagon roads, there were gutsy tourists ready to take a long and difficult saddle ride to see the old haunts of Tenaya’s people—and they had money to spend.

One of the first hotels to be set up, in 1858, was called the Upper Hotel, built near Yosemite Falls. In 1864, the Upper Hotel was taken over by James Mason Hutchings and renamed Hutchings House.

The ensuing struggle over Hutchings House was the beginning of the legal battles over property and names in Yosemite.

Neither Hutchings, nor those who preceded him, nor any of the other hoteliers in Yosemite Valley ever paid for the land they appropriated. In the spirit of the day, the land was there for the taking by homesteaders. It wasn’t until 1864, when President Abraham Lincoln signed the Yosemite Grant Act, that ownership of the land became an issue. The Yosemite Grant Act set aside Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Big Tree Grove to be managed by the state of California “for public use, resort, and recreation… inalienable for all time,” although “leases not exceeding ten years may be granted for portions of said premises.”

Hutchings and other squatters in the valley took umbrage at the idea that they did not own the land on which they operated. They mounted a legal challenge to the new state of affairs, a case that went all the way to the US Supreme Court. In 1872, the court ruled that Hutchings and his allies had no valid claims to the land.

Robert Binnewies, a former park superintendent at Yosemite who recently wrote a book entitled Your Yosemite: A Threatened Public Treasure, states:

“[While] Hutchings was reduced from presiding as presumptive landowner of… some of the most prized scenic real estate on earth to becoming a tenant functioning under permit at the pleasure of the [State] Board of Park Commissioners… this stalwart trailblazer was not left empty handed. He was compensated by the State of California for the structures and bridges he had constructed, receiving $24,000 [a princely sum in those days] and the right to continue to operate his hotel as a public benefit, a decision that set the stage for concessionaire services in national parks that continues to this day.”

Photograph by Christina B Castro, via Flickr.

Photograph by Christina B Castro, via Flickr.

That was no small precedent. It established the right of private, profit-seeking concessionaires to operate in national parks. It ultimately brought Delaware North to Yosemite. It also laid the foundation for the current dispute between Delaware North, the park’s new concessionaire Aramark, and the National Park Service over naming rights in the park.

Binnewies’s book is full of insights into the history of Yosemite, particularly commercial development in the park. Binnewies, who was superintendent between 1979 and 1986, describes Yosemite Valley as “the seat of the largest commercial operation in any national park, anywhere in the world.” He writes that there is “a constant push by commercial vendors for more profit centers” and “a constant resistance by park administrators and environmental advocates to further development.”

Ed Hardy, head of the Yosemite Park and Curry Company, is the chief villain in Binnewies’s story. “Hardy’s responsibility was to maximize profits for his corporate employer,” writes Binnewies, “while mine was to maximize preservation for my public employer; the scale on which our conflicting agendas rested was unsteady.”

Mixing his metaphors, Binnewies later writes, “Hardy and I were in the same canoe but attempting to paddle in opposite directions, making it difficult to avoid capsizing.”

Hardy had come to Yosemite several years before Binnewies when the Music Corporation of America bought the Curry Company in 1973. MCA was a holding company that was involved not only in the music recording industry, but also in film by virtue of its ownership of Universal Pictures. MCA had additional holdings in television, book publishing, and more.

As Binnewies described it, the Curry Company was now managed “from afar, sometimes by executives who never had or would visit Yosemite.” One of Hardy’s first moves was to propose an aerial tramway from YosemiteValley to Glacier Point, “allowing customers to be dramatically levitated through 3,000 feet of airspace amidst breathtaking scenery,” writes Binnewies. According to Hardy, this would be a means of providing alternative transportation that would relieve visitors from their dependence on automobiles. The tramway also would have transported guests to a rebuilt Glacier Point Hotel, which had burned down in 1969.

Neither of these proposals ever got significant traction, but MCA had more plans. Their next “gambit to cash in on Yosemite” was a television series entitled Sierra, featuring “crime-busting Yosemite Rangers,” Binnewies writes. The production crew, “not liking the natural color of some rocks in a scene shot in Yosemite, decided to paint them.” Mercifully, the show lasted only three months, so the damage was limited.

The funniest story Binnewies tells about his time in Yosemite is about a visit by James Watt, Ronald Reagan’s Secretary of the Interior from 1981 to 1983. When visiting Yosemite in 1982. “Watt made clear that he always wanted me by his side when photos were taken,” Binnewies writes. “He knew of the good image that park rangers had nationwide and wanted to be so associated, but only for the photo opportunities.” When Binnewies tried to talk to Watt about development in the valley, “Watt quickly cut me off by saying ‘the more hotels, the better—fill up the whole valley.’”

The Curry Company didn’t just want to fill the valley with hotel rooms. It wanted wilderness areas drawn so that the rim of the valley would also be open to development. Imagine standing in Yosemite Valley today and looking up at hotels and restaurants on the rim. The Curry Company also wanted to expand the area on which the High Sierra Camps in the Yosemite backcountry stand, from about two acres to thirty acres each, “allowing the tiny camps to ultimately morph into alpine villages of a sort.”

All these plans were defeated eventually, and Binnewies tells the tale well, including the decisive interventions of the late, great Congressman Philip Burton. In the end, however, this reader was left wondering about the stories Binnewies didn’t tell, the names left unnamed.


Photograph by Ray Krebs, via Flickr.

Another author who has written a lot about Yosemite, historian Alfred Runte, complains about how in 1983, near the end of Binnewies’s time in Yosemite:

“A spacious lounge at Yosemite Lodge was gutted, subdivided, and wholly replaced by a $262,000 bar, conference meeting rooms, and lodge store annex… Park Superintendent Robert Binnewies further applauded its brightness and spaciousness, noting that for once problem drinkers would be ‘forced into the light.’ The old location, he explained, was very cramped and too dark, making it difficult for park rangers to monitor everyone’s behavior.”

I remember that lounge the way it used to be—a space where visitors could warm themselves by a fire without having to buy anything—and what it became: one more “profit center,” as Binnewies describes it in his book.

Binnewies eventually capsized himself. In 1986, he was transferred out of Yosemite to a new post in the park service when it was revealed that he had secretly recorded a conversation with Chuck Cushman, a property owner in Wawona, who went on to found the American Land Rights Association, a national organization dedicated to “protecting private property rights” inside national parks and on other federal lands.

Binnewies eventually left the park service but remains passionate about Yosemite. Today, he serves on the advisory board of Restore Hetch Hetchy, a group working to remove a dam and reservoir that filled a valley in the park said to be the equal of Yosemite Valley before it was destroyed to provide water storage for San Francisco.

In his book, Binnewies relates the events that brought Delaware North to Yosemite after he left.

In 1990, a Japanese company, Matsushita Electric Industrial Company, bought MCA. Matsushita, now known as Panasonic, is one of the largest consumer electronics firms in the world. This created a furious, chauvinistic uproar about Yosemite concessions being managed by a foreign company. Matsushita agreed to sell the Curry Company, including about 800 buildings, to the nonprofit National Park Foundation for $49.5 million.

The deal transferred all Curry Company assets to the National Park Service. This meant that ownership of all the hotels, restaurants, and associated concessions in the park became public property. This could and should have been an opportunity for the National Park Service to take direct control of almost all of the commercial activities in Yosemite National Park. Why not run Yosemite accommodations for the benefit of visitors and the public at large, instead of the benefit of a handful of corporate profiteers?

Instead, a “nonprofit idea was sparked to life,” Binnewies writes. Conceding that there should be competition among nongovernmental entities for the right to run Yosemite’s accommodations, an impressive group of movers and shakers put together a bid for a concession contract to be managed by a new nonprofit called the Yosemite Restoration Trust Services Corporation.

The National Park Service under President George H.W. Bush ruled that the Yosemite Restoration Trust Services Corporation was “not qualified” for the contract, Binnewies writes, “supposedly due to a lack of sufficient cash in the bank and no prior resort-management experience.” The Bush administration “was not wresting the [Curry Company] contract from Matsushita in order to convert National Park Service concession activities to not-for-profit status… [The administration] was simply eager to pass along those activities at Yosemite to the next private vendor and the next group of shareholders.”

Delaware North won the contract.

The roots of today’s fight over Delaware North’s claim to own the trademark rights to Yosemite place names—including the Ahwahnee Hotel, Yosemite Lodge, Curry Village, the Wawona Hotel, Badger Pass, and even Yosemite National Park itself—lie in the fine print of that contract.

But a dispute over names, as revealing and irksome as it may be, is only a sideshow to the real issue involved in the commercialization of Yosemite. The real issue is why our national parks are used as profit centers for private corporations in the first place.

In the words of Alfred Runte, the “fundamental flaw” in how Yosemite is run is “the privatization—for profit—of the sale of food, lodging, supplies, and transportation to incoming visitors.”

In March 2015, Derrick Crandall, a spokesman for the National Parks Hospitality Association, an organization that represents concessionaires, told the online National Parks Traveler that there is “an opportunity to enhance the ability of visitors to enjoy the park experience.”

How? The one concrete example Crandall gave was this: “…when you look at Yosemite Valley, and you have 1,500 rooms [including tent cabins]… I’m not afraid to say at some point we should look at how we upgrade those rooms so that 1,500 rooms have 1,500 bathrooms.”

Crandall’s math is a little suspect. According to the National Park Service, there are only 1,053 “lodging units” in Yosemite Valley, plus 640 campsites, not Crandall’s 1,500 rooms.

But you get the idea. It is not more bathrooms that Crandall and his constituents want. It is more hotel rooms. They don’t care about tent cabins, bathrooms, or visitors who may not be able to pay hotel rates. What they really want are more customers with more money to spend.

Photograph by Flickr user Jasperdo.

Photograph by Flickr user Jasperdo.

Crandall also testified before a House subcommittee last year that the National Park Service should allow “dynamic pricing of services”—that is, higher charges for visitors at times of higher demand—in order to “increase franchise fees to the NPS by 50 percent within three years” and, not coincidentally, provide bigger profits for concessionaires.

Chris Belland, CEO of Historic Tours of America, told the same House subcommittee, “Recreation and tourism are a trillion dollar industry, and national parks are widely regarded as a top asset of this industry.”

Photograph by Flickr user Chris D 2006.

Photograph by Flickr user Chris D 2006.

Just how and when did our national parks become an asset of industry?

The concessionaires are not the only ones who have dollar signs in mind. The National Park Service developed a plan to tear down the 245 rooms at Yosemite Lodge and replace them with 440 units in four new three-story structures, plus a new parking lot for 395 more cars. The same plan called for all of the tent-cabins in Curry Village to be replaced with permanent lodging. This plan was called Alternative 6 in the Merced River Plan, adopted in 2014.

The park service created Alternative 6 for the Merced River Plan and then rejected it in favor of Alternative 5, which calls for replacing fifty-two tent cabins in Curry Village with new hard-sided “cabin/hotel rooms” in two-story structures. This plan has gotten little publicity, but it could change Curry Village much more than renaming it “Half Dome Village.”

John Muir once wrote:

“Nothing dollarable is safe, however guarded. Thus the Yosemite Park, the beauty, glory of California and the nation, Nature’s own mountain wonderland, has been attacked by spoilers ever since it was established, and this strife, I suppose, must go on as part of the eternal battle between right and wrong.”

And, yet, even in 1880, a visitor to Yosemite named Lieutenant Colonel William Francis Butler could observe:

“They have written much about it; they have painted and photographed it many times. They have made roads and bridle-paths to it, built hotels and drinking saloons in it, brought the cosmopolite cockney to it, excursioned to it, picnicked in it, scraped names upon its rocks, levied tolls by its waterfalls, sung Hail! Columbia beneath the shadows of its precipices, swallowed smashes and slings under its pine-trees; outraged, desecrated, and profaned it, but still it stands an unmatched monument hewn by ice and fire from the very earth itself.”

Yosemite never disappoints—by any name. Be sure to visit while you still can.

Photograph by Flickr user TVZ Design.

Photograph by Flickr user TVZ Design.


Marc Norton is a union member, political activist, organizer, and writer in San Francisco. His website is http://www.MarcNorton.us.


Let There Be a Firmament in the Midst of the Waters

by Brock Winstead

Treasure Island, then, now, and again

This is an excerpt from Boom Spring 2016, Vol 6, No 1. 

At its lowest points, the levee ringing the former naval station of Treasure Island clears the lapping brackish waters of San Francisco Bay by about four feet during the highest tides.1 According to current sea-level-rise projections, the bay could overtop the levee sometime this century. The return of Treasure Island to the bay whence it came would start with a few exuberant splashes during storms and extreme high tides, then more routine flooding at very high tides, and then flooding every day, twice a day, beginning a slow conversion of the island to tidal wetlands, and finally history.

Of course, that will happen only if the levee isn’t built higher or if Treasure Island doesn’t rise up to match the encroaching waters. That’s exactly what’s planned as part of a long-awaited redevelopment on the island, set to get underway later this year. Solving the problem by raising the levee alone would wall off the island from its spectacular views of downtown San Francisco, the East Bay, and the Golden Gate, which planners deemed unacceptable (and future residents would likely agree). Instead, they’ve assembled a mix of mitigation measures. They’ll increase levee heights a few feet in some places and truck in fill to raise the elevation of the developed parts of the island. They’ll build a robust new storm-drain system and require that the base floors of all new buildings and transportation infrastructure sit three-and-a-half feet above the projected 100-year water level. They acknowledge that even in the near term, during certain high-water events like storms, some of the open spaces may develop temporary ponds—a preview of coming attractions, perhaps.

Sea level rise is something developers are now required to consider when planning new projects along the shore of San Francisco Bay. But it wasn’t on the minds of the people who began filling in a stretch of shoals in the center of the bay to create Treasure Island in 1936. They had no idea that a warming planet and rising waters would one day threaten the mile-long chamfered rectangle they were “reclaiming.” They were focused instead on a much more foreseeable challenge: building Treasure Island so that it could host a World’s Fair, the Golden Gate International Exposition of 1939.


Site map of the 1939 World’s Fair on Treasure Island. Click here to view larger map.

Into the Void Pacific, by University of California, Berkeley associate professor of architecture Andrew M. Shanken, undertakes a detailed examination of the politics and processes of design that produced the layout, monuments, and buildings of the 1939 fair, and how those buildings were executed and received. Within his design history, Shanken considers the fair as an expression of identity and ambition, a projection of power—America’s, California’s, and San Francisco’s power—into a new Pacific world order.

Shanken’s book is also about how we try to build for a future that we think is coming, and how we frequently get it wrong.

Treasure Island and the new bridges, looking west.

Treasure Island and the new bridges, looking west. Courtesy Oakland Public Library, Oakland History Room.

The 1939 fair was, as Shanken points out, a “pretext” to accelerate the creation of Treasure Island itself, where San Francisco planned to build a new major airport after the exposition’s end. By the early 1930s, civic leaders looking for the next engine of development turned their gazes skyward. They saw a future in which airborne transportation would determine a city’s fortunes, and they set about building the infrastructure necessary to seize it for San Francisco’s benefit. Adjacent to the natural Yerba Buena Island, where the two spans of a newly proposed Bay Bridge would meet, Treasure Island was thought to be an ideal place for a new airport, providing easy access to San Francisco and Oakland. Build the bridge, and a new island airport begins to seem practical. Propose a fair to celebrate the new bridge. Use the fair to speed up the creation of the island for the airport. It helped that federal funding through the Works Progress Administration was available for this audacious building spree.

Shanken argues that the bridge-fair-airport scheme was San Francisco’s gambit in a competition for West Coast economic dominance. San Francisco saw itself in a race with other cities, in particular Los Angeles, but its growth was constrained by its peninsular geography. The Bay Bridge and the Golden Gate Bridge, both built in the 1930s, were attempts to escape those confines, and they helped the city expand its influence over the wider region. Its state-spanning and region-serving water system, its railroad connections, and its then-robust seaport had also been critical to San Francisco’s growth.

Like the bridge and the island airport, the 1939 fair was a tool for expressing and, city leaders hoped, realizing San Francisco’s goals for the future its elected and business elite saw coming. Shanken explains that, with the fair, San Francisco was willing itself to become “the hub of what civic leaders imagined as an emerging Pacific civilization that would supplant the Atlantic world.” That no such “Pacific civilization” existed seemed not to bother the fair’s designers; they would create one. They would “transplant and synthesize” elements of the distinct cultures ringing the great ocean and make California “the melting pot of the Pacific.”

Shanken attempts to make sense of the Golden Gate International Exposition’s muddled program and ideology. The design of the fair’s buildings and their contents, he writes, aimed to position the city as the center of a vast western region that extended across the Pacific. The City’s regional consciousness had imperial ambitions. The rhetoric of the GGIE tapped into this idea, extending the reach of imperial San Francisco to the Pacific in a moment when air transportation promised to shrink the oceans and make such a plan possible. The immense symbolic power expressed by the China Clipper landing at Treasure Island brought these associations into plain view. The name of the island itself echoed the sentiment. And so would the architecture become an accomplice of this fantasy.

Into the Void Pacific is rich with drawings, photographs, and passages from documents and correspondence by the fair’s designers, visitors, and critics that document this fantasy-abetting architectural enterprise. Shanken re-creates the look and experience of the fair as it was at the time—which is helpful, since almost none of its buildings are standing today. Visiting Treasure Island now, it is almost impossible to picture the Golden Gate International Exposition as it stood in 1939 and 1940, because it left so few traces on the ground.

Even before the fair opened in February 1939, its fever dream of a unified “Pacific civilization” was being undermined by reality. Japan, which had occupied Manchuria since 1932, launched a full-scale invasion of China in 1937. (Reflecting its own grand Pacific ambitions, Japan set up an ornate, 50,000-square-foot pavilion at the fair—the largest of any foreign country. China had no official participation.) By the fair’s end on 29 September 1940, Japan had taken control of French Indochina and signed the Tripartite Pact with Italy and Germany, creating what would be called the “Axis” powers. There was no Pacific world in contrast with an Atlantic world, as the fair had offered. There was simply one world, and it was at war.

Detail of construction of the “nave” of the Federal Building. From the Visual Resources Center, University of California, Berkeley.


When the fair ended, the United States was still more than a year from formally joining that war, but the momentum of global events was clear. In early 1941, the Navy leased Treasure Island from San Francisco and opened a receiving center there, and in the spring of 1942 it acquired the island from the city outright (though not without protest from San Francisco over the low price paid).2 As it transformed the island from playground to training ground, the Navy demolished or paved over most of the exposition’s buildings, monuments, and formal courtyards.

Today, only four original buildings remain. They include two large hangars and a semicircular administration building, aligned on the island’s southern edge, which had been designed to serve the airport that never was. (The administration building is even topped with a small control tower in anticipation of its intended use.) The fourth, a model home from the fair called the “California Home of the West,” has been altered significantly and now houses a restaurant and banquet space called the Oasis Café.3

The rest of Treasure Island is covered with a hodge-podge of open spaces and structures built during its use as a naval station from 1942 to 1997: warehouses, classroom buildings, offices, apartments, and other buildings in various states of occupancy, disrepair, or outright abandonment. About 2,000 people live in the apartments today. There’s plenty of parking, though some lots are chained off with regularly spaced red, white, and blue shields bearing the words “US GOVT PROPERTY NO TRESPASSING.” The word “NO” is the largest element. Other parts of the island are closed to entry with a different kind of sign: yellow rectangles warning of radioactive contamination—another legacy of the Navy years, though not as tangible as the buildings.

This utilitarian, decrepit, partly toxic landscape is a far cry from the spectacle that the fair must have presented, and that is captured in the photographs and diagrams of Into the Void Pacific. Shanken’s book can help us with the difficult trick of seeing Treasure Island’s past. But it’s harder to see its future.

The plans for Treasure Island’s redevelopment call for razing most of the structures on the island and replacing them with, among other elements, up to 8,000 housing units, 140,000 square feet of commercial space, 100,000 square feet of offices, three hotels, 300 acres of open space, and a new ferry terminal.4 Demolition of some existing structures has begun, but the full project is expected to take about twenty years to complete. (Given the nature of California planning and environmental laws, this may well prove optimistic.) The plans approved to date give a rough idea of what will be built where, but later phases will add details to this new small city in the middle of the bay. Right now, it’s a gauzy rendering.

Part of the difficulty of imagining the past and the future of Treasure Island may have to do with the island’s fundamental impermanence. Buildings burn, fall apart, are demolished and replaced. Land, though—we’re not used to land going away. Perhaps we should work to accustom ourselves to this idea, but for now, our senses struggle to accommodate it.


Painting of the Tower of the Sun, Golden Gate International Exposition, by Chesley Bonestell. Collection of the Oakland Museum of California. Gift of Heather Fowler.


Thanks to Burrito Justice for his map of the Treasure Island fair site.

1. Moffatt & Nichol Engineers, “Treasure Island Development Project Coastal Flooding Study,” April 2009, http://sftreasureisland.org/sites/sftreasureisland.org/files/migrated/ftp/devdocs/Tsunami,%20Seismic,%20SLR%20Detail-%20File%20110291%202%20of%202.pdf.

2. “Treasure Isle Goes to Navy,” San Francisco News, 17 April 1942,

3. “A House That Many Architects Have Dreamed of Building,” Architect and Engineer (June 1939): 57.

4. The Treasure Island redevelopment plans approved thus far are available at http://sftreasureisland.org/development-project.

5. For more on this, read “The Man Who Helped Save the Bay by Trying to Destroy It” by Charles Wollenberg for Boom: http://www.boomcalifornia.com/2015/04/the-man-who-helped-save-san-francisco-bay-by-trying-to-destroy-it/.

6. J.M Ferrito, “Ground Motion Amplification and Seismic Liquefaction: A Study of Treasure Island and the Loma Prieta Earthquake,” Naval Civil Engineering Laboratory (June 1992), http://www.dtic.mil/dtic/tr/fulltext/u2/a253945.pdf.

Photograph by Craig Kohlruss.

Come See California’s Future

by Aris Janigian

In beautiful Fresno

From Boom Spring 2016, Vol 6, No 1

You might find it hard to picture Fresno. Many Californians, not to mention people elsewhere, have no idea what our city looks like or what goes on here. You might imagine things of an agricultural nature on a big scale. But that’s probably it.

When you live in a state with cities like San Francisco, Los Angeles, Newport Beach, and Napa, Fresno barely registers. Very few people come here to get away from anywhere else, although plenty pass through on their way to Yosemite and Sequoia national parks.

For the longest time, Fresno has barely even registered to itself. Even today, with so much going on here—yes, there is a lot going on here—most well-off Fresnans ditch the city on weekends for second homes on the coast or in the Sierra. The press Fresno gets is mostly just bad: bad air, bad crime, bad poverty—all true.

Now tracks for a high-speed rail are being laid in Fresno to connect us to the rest of the California in a way that some believe could transform our city. But into what? One of many new bedroom communities serving Los Angeles and San Francisco from even farther out? The hub of a new Central Valley megalopolis that will connect all of the small cities along Highway 99 from Bakersfield to Stockton?

It makes sense to start building the bullet train line in the dead center of the state, where dirt happens to be relatively cheap, good jobs are hard to come by, and there are no real topographical challenges to contend with. Fresno is a place “so nearly level,” John McPhee once wrote, “that you have no sense of contour.” And since nobody is keeping an eye on Fresno, starting here may also be a way to gain momentum for a project hammered by controversy. For a city of half a million, the fifth biggest city in the state, Fresno has remained generally off the radar.

Photograph by Craig Kohlruss.

But Fresno doesn’t need the bullet train to get on anybody’s radar or to transform the city. That’s already happening. Fresno is being transformed from the inside out, taking strands from its past, present, and future to build a new kind of California urbanism, dare I say, a more appealing urbanism than anywhere else in the state, and people are starting to notice.

Fresno’s first code was purely agricultural. In the 1870s, a Midwesterner named Thomas Kearney envisioned Fresno as a Jeffersonian yeoman farmer’s paradise. His great plan to shape Fresno into a powerhouse of agriculture, and himself into a kind of Carnegie of farming, began when he purchased 6,800 acres, nearly five miles square, and fashioned a master plan that included a 240-acre park. In the middle of this park, he built a home modeled after the Loire Valley’s Château de Chenonceau, with a footprint of 12,000 square feet. He divided the land surrounding this castle complex into twenty-acre parcels and advertised them at $1,000 apiece.

Accountants, haberdashers, former gold rushers flush with money, retired attorneys, and four ex-schoolteachers from San Francisco were among the first to sign up. They arrived in Fresno intending to fashion a life from the land, and because of that land’s amazing productiveness, it was no idle dream. In 1920, Mary Bartlett wrote of her father, who farmed next door to Kearney: “He started with pumpkins, watermelon, squash, corn, and tomatoes and by the time the young vineyard was at the bearing stage he also had several varieties of peaches, apricots, plums, oranges, lemons, tangerines, kumquats, loquats, quince, crabapples, almonds, pomegranates, walnuts, cherries, artichokes and his great pride and joy…a whole row of olive trees which in no time at all were more fruitful than the ancient branches of Tuscany.”

“California’s Central Valley is one of the seven most fertile valleys in the world,” the Fresno Historical Society’s website claims, “fifteen million acres of land some 450 miles in length and typically 40 to 60 miles wide. Fresno County is located in the heart of this Valley and is the most productive agricultural county in the nation.” But its greatest gift, as Mary Bartlett’s letters reveal, isn’t so much the volume but the variety of crops grown here, some of which, like almonds, pistachios, and walnuts, grow well in only a few places around the world.

This Fresno was still evident when I was growing up here. Back in the days when I walked its alleyways home from school, you could pick enough different kinds of fruit from the trees that hung over fences to start your own stand. This is thanks to the Mediterranean climate, extraordinarily rich and textured soil, the result of millions of years of wind and rain scraping and scrubbing the Sierra on one side and the Coast Range on the other, and water both underground and flowing down from the Sierra—but in truth, the reason things grow here unlike anywhere else in the world is impossible to say.

When I was a kid, the country with all its fertile glory was never more than a stone’s throw away from wherever you lived. It made a terrific place to escape, especially during the winters when the fog was almost as thick as yogurt, providing a kind of natural cover from parents or the law. But beginning in the 1980s, and continuing to this day, the orchard and vineyards that once surrounded the city were handed over to developers who built a never-ending series of neighborhoods with preposterous names such as Liberty Square and Barcelona.

Fresno today feels and acts like a real city, not just a series of misfit bedroom communities, partly because these neighborhoods are tied together by four pretty efficient freeways. Fresno raised itself up around its downtown, where city government is still housed. Skirting the “Frog,” Fresno’s futurist, amphibian-shaped City Hall, is an eclectic mix of buildings that house various city functions, some new but most mid-century variations of the so-called International Style. These structures edge up to Fulton Mall, a three-block outdoor promenade and one of the great urban landscape experiments in America, with playful fountains and geometric sculptures, including a Rodin, and sitting areas under mature trees. Adjacent to the Fulton are some architectural gems like the old Fresno Bee and Guarantee Savings buildings, the extraordinarily beautiful art deco Warner Theater that would rival any of the grand movie palaces in Los Angeles, and many former industrial spaces now tastefully restored as art galleries, boutique clothing stores, and coffee houses.

The city, like so many others, suffered a version of white flight when the well-to-do moved east toward the mountains. But downtown, there are now blocks and blocks of new apartments, put up by a longtime local developer betting on Fresno’s renaissance. His strategy, executed with the city’s cooperation, was to preserve the more handsome older structures that remained and replace the dilapidated ones with mixed-use buildings—retail below and living spaces above—made of glass and steel but painted in playful colors, like three-dimensional Mondrians. The area is called the Arts District, or the Mural District, and up until a few years ago it was moribund, given up for prematurely dead. Now it is turning into an ambitious example of the new urbanism at work. It is also the starting point for the most culturally and architecturally interesting part of the city, one that continues unfolding for five miles up Van Ness Avenue, through the humming Tower district and the Fresno High School and City College neighborhoods, ending in the area called Fig Garden, arguably the most beautiful neighborhood in Fresno, which every year hosts the longest “Christmas tree lane” in America.

Fresno has the bones upon which to construct an appealingly Californian city, but more importantly, it has the conditions that make living here an attractive proposition. It’s become axiomatic that only the wealthiest or those grandfathered in can afford to live in many of our most coveted California cities today, whereas the vast horde of commuters is relegated to a kind of daily guest-worker status. This is not the case in Fresno. A typical commute is fifteen minutes; monthly rent for a large one-bedroom apartment is about $800 a month; the price per square foot for a home around $120. For several years, Fresno, with an average cost per square foot of retail space around $1.50, has actively supported live-work spaces, relaxing the rules about where one can conduct business, which cuts commuting time to nothing.

In a series of pieces on Fresno, James Fallows of The Atlantic took notice of the city’s vibrant art scene, going so far as to agree with many Fresnans’ sense of their city as California’s new Bohemia, which, I think, gets the tone of artistic production here just right. Though there are quite a few orchestrated cultural events in Fresno, the vast majority have a bit of a ramshackle character, including The Rogue Festival, a ten-day artistic free-for-all that features a mindboggling number of events from juggling acts to one-act plays. When I moved to Los Angeles in the eighties, I lived up the street from Tom Solomon’s Garage, a two-car garage where the art dealer showed work by many artists who later became famous. You can find a lot of this same DIY culture incubating in Fresno today.

Every first Thursday of the month, around a hundred artists open their studios to the public for what the city calls “Art Hop.” If the weather is good, several thousand people show up. Though nobody has counted, that I know of, yet, I would guess that the stretch from downtown to the Tower District has more artists’ studios (as opposed to art galleries) per capita than anywhere in California. A good number of fine musicians also use Fresno as a live-cheap-eat-well basecamp where, in a matter of hours, they can be in California’s bigger cities for gigs. On any given night you can walk the Tower District and hear them making beautiful fools of themselves on the streets, in tiny rooms in the back vinyl stores or in private garages with the door flung open.

Photograph by Craig Kohlruss.


In Fresno, you are allowed a certain privacy, even solitude, to acquaint yourself with your torments and dreams. Perfect for artists. For years I’ve felt that this reality, along with the energy of the soil, the intensity of the sun and immensity of the fog, explains the remarkable number of writers, and especially poets such as recent American poet laureate Phillip Levine and current poet laureate, Juan Phillip Herrera, who were either born here or came here from elsewhere to live their lives and hone their craft.

On the other end of the spectrum is third-generation restaurateur Jimmy Pardini, who worked with Nancy Silverton of Mozza and La Brea Bakery fame for five years before moving back to Fresno and into a space adjacent to his father’s restaurant to start his own place, The Annex. Despite being surrounded by a mindboggling array of produce, Fresno has been woefully short of restaurants where the food is fresh and tastes are bold, and so Pardini saw an opening—and found success that has so far beaten his expectations. The Annex also features an extraordinarily tasty olive oil produced by Vincent Ricutti, a childhood friend whose family has grown and crushed olives locally for generations.

Even with all this going for it, it is probably “boomerangers”—that is, native Fresnans who fled the city for San Francisco, Los Angeles, and other metropolises, but eventually returned—who will jump-start the city into a new phase of growth and vigor. A good example is Jake Soberal, cofounder of Bitwise Industries, which was featured in Fallows’ reporting on Fresno. Capitalizing on local talent and the fact that Fresno is way more affordable than San Francisco or San Jose, Soborel and his cofounders started a high-tech incubator, which they characterize as Fresno’s “mothership of education, collaboration, and innovation.” Their first campus, a playfully rehabilitated building just off the Fulton Mall, aims to attract the best and brightest minds in the Central Valley with the aim of building another Silicon Valley.

Fresno’s mayor might not put it this way, but cities need holes in their fences. They need to be a bit desperate and welcoming, with ordinances, codes, rules, and regulations loose enough that the average person can get a foot in the door. Fresno is doing this right.

But for this new Fresno to fully encode itself in the Central Valley, the city needs to be more central in the consciousness of old-school Fresnans, too, particularly farmers, who still represent the city’s first agricultural code. Rather than turning their backs on the city, as they tend to do, we need them to join the Bohemians in celebrating the city, to invest in marketing and technologies that add value to their raw products, and in other new businesses that will generate jobs to diversify opportunities in the area. Farmers who call Fresno home might want to ask themselves why it took an Angeleno, Stewart Resnick, to turn clementines, pomegranates, and pistachios, crops all sourced from the valley and grown here for decades, into “Cuties,” “Pom,” and “Wonderful.” And the Bohemians need to figure out how to bring the farmers into town.

Any honest observer must admit that agriculture is among the things that make California the most robust state in the union. In this part of the state, how we treat farmers, how we negotiate water and environmental concerns, has an enormous impact. Fresno County adds nearly $6 billion to the California economy. In the future, that number could grow. Seventy-five-year-old vineyards are being yanked out to make room for almonds that fetch $3 a pound. And farmers have seen their land value quadruple in recent years. The market for hardy, high-protein foods such as nuts is increasing worldwide. And it is becoming harder and harder to wring more productivity out of agriculture around the world. But farmers around here are good at that. And in the not-too-distant future, they may be celebrated the way Silicon Valley executives are today.

Meanwhile, the Bohemians and farmers will keep the wheels spinning in Fresno, for the time being, perhaps until the day when Fresno, too, becomes a prohibitively expensive place to live and work. Then, I suppose, people will move to Modesto just up the road—or maybe just up the tracks on the bullet train.

Photograph by Craig Kohlruss.


Radical Remodeling

by Wendy Gilmartin

What comes after the single-family home?

From Boom Spring 2016, Vol 6, No 1

Since the 1920s, the single-family home of California has been, in its most elemental form, a snug, one-story, wood-framed house. But then came the remodels: the replacement windows, home-office additions, and backyard renovations in a continuous loop of demolition, rebuilding, and reinvention. Drive through any community in California, and you’ll see it, the basic bungalow—sometimes built more than a century ago and updated in 1961, 1989, 2007, 2015. The home might not impress at first glance, but linger a while and a Frankenstein stitching together of stylistic riffs is revealed. There might be a lattice up at the gable’s crux, inspired by a Dutch farmhouse motif; a squared bay on the driveway likely forms a dining room hutch, an interior design feature advertised to middle-class housewives in Ladies’ Home Journal circa 1910; the perky outdoor furniture from IKEA is Scandinavian modern; and the plaster is a nod to the Spanish tradition. These aesthetic traits are so commonplace in California’s suburban neighborhood homes that we barely notice, let alone marvel at the melting pot of ideas, concepts, and technologies our homes embody.

Over decades of gradual change, Californians played with the very idea of what a middle-class, single-family home can and should look like. But single-family homes of the twentieth century were not intended as outlets for individuality and creativity. Indeed, quite the opposite was true: most of California’s single-family housing stock was built speculatively, or semi-speculatively, by large homebuilding companies that built hundreds of homes at a time, by the acre, and with generic floor plans. The development company sold empty parcels to new owners. The owners would then peruse a book of architectural plans, choose one (a plan could be purchased anywhere from $10 to $15), and the builders would reconfigure the plans to suit the lot, for another $10.1 Architectural plans by developer-builder companies such as Pittman Brothers, Marlow-Burns Builders, Kaiser Community Homes, and Kaufman & Broad reveal little customization or personalization except for tweaks required to accommodate the constraints of an individual lot or other site condition. This formulaic model of real estate development generated California’s uniform suburbs, which are so often criticized and stylized in movies, literature, and urban studies classes.

A property owner’s individual identity could come through in the single family home, but only over time, with each successive paint job, kitchen renovation, or lawn ornament. Customization of the middle-class, single-unit home—like the Southern California–grown phenomenon of custom cars and hot rods—rose from the realm of the weekend tinkerer and the informal economy. These acts of home improvement, like those of the driveway mechanic, freed the suburban home from its generic, mass-produced relentlessness.

Southern California’s lax design guidelines in particular made an inexpensive individuality relatively simple to attain. Nonstructural renovations and additions such as wind chimes, flagpoles, new paint, colorful awnings, distinctive window treatments, and lawn ornaments set one home apart from another without much investment of time or capital. Larger-cost items such as pools, landscaping, professional-quality appliances, central heat and air conditioning, additional rooms, and, more recently, energy-saving measures such as insulated windows, new roofing materials, and greywater systems could be worth the expense because they might add equity and resale value to a home.

From the least expensive of Home Depot terra-cotta accents, to the most lush and ostentatious water-guzzling tropical gardens, basic bungalows helped make legible a frenzied human ecology across California. The carpet of everyday structures that rolls out across California embodies a spirit of individualism built one pink flamingo, planter box, and front-yard fence at a time.

Generations of owners have left their mark on this California bungalow.

In the twenty-first century, however, California’s middle class is shrinking. In 1980, 60 percent of Californians could call themselves “middle-class,” those who earn from $44,000 to $155,000 a year. That portion of the state’s population slipped in 2011 to 49.7 percent2 and it continues to erode. California has long seen the ticking decline of blue-collar and trade-worker numbers as industries have left the state and the country. But what’s more striking about this trend is that even white-collar, middle-class workers—those earning $150,000 per year, per household—cannot afford homes in many cities in California now. This is not just a problem of stagnating wages, but also stagnating housing: we are not building enough homes. A recent report from the Goldhirsh Foundation noted that Los Angeles, for example, will need a minimum of 500,000 additional units over the next thirty-five years to meet growing housing demands.

In April of 2015, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti pledged to build 100,000 new market-rate or below-market-rate homes by 2021, and he has instructed planning and building agencies to accommodate real estate developers to do so. More than 25,000 building permits have been issued in the city since Mayor Garcetti’s decree, and development is up in other California cities as well. But new development models are now taking the place of the stand-alone, single-family home, in part because of scarcity of land. Small-lot subdivisions, townhomes, and high-amenity condominiums are infiltrating a market that has had to adjust to provide affordable and denser housing alternatives in cities that can’t continue to develop beyond their exurbs.

Small-lot subdivisions are developed when a single lot zoned for multifamily buildings (apartments and condominiums) or commercial buildings is divided into smaller, individual lots of sellable land. Lots zoned for single-family homes are not allowed to be subdivided. Small-lot developments were intended to promote a different scale of home ownership, physically and financially, by way of infill. They can enable younger home buyers with less personal wealth to enter the housing market and do so in the center of a city. The typical small-lot development features a number of skinny three- or four-story structures with just inches of space between them, set around a common driveway. Developments can be as small as three homes and as large as fifty.

A row of houses in Silver Lake built under the small-lot subdivision ordinance.

Derek Leavitt, co-owner of Modative, a design-build firm and developer of small-lot projects, sees the emergence of small lots as providing a much needed antidote to the housing gap. “It’s become incredibly expensive to buy a home in LA, and there’s no help for all the people that did everything their parents told them to do—go to college, get a professional job, work your way up, and achieve success—and still they can’t afford a house,” Leavitt says. “Or they buy something way out in the Valley and that poses life quality and traffic problems. Or people just move to Austin, Portland—other cities that offer a life for young professionals, but where they can also afford homes. So for us, this is personal—we don’t want to see our friends leaving LA.”

Like the cookie-cutter tract developments of the 1940s and 1950s, many small-lot subdivision developments in Los Angeles are designed and built speculatively. But Architect Tracy Stone, who has designed several small-lot projects, points to the urban benefits of the development type, explaining, “It’s a nice development product for a neighborhood, along with apartments and single-family homes. It makes for a permanent resident population, in addition to a temporary population that live in apartments, and then you’ve got ‘eyes on the street’— people have an investment in the neighborhood, and a different price point for entry into homeownership for many people.” Stone adds: “It really has yet to be seen how owners of these developments will personalize them.” She thinks that the small-lot development’s new version of “home sweet home” will take on an owner’s personality in smaller ways at first. New owners have begun to put their individual stamps on the roof decks that top most of these homes, but they are mostly out of view from neighbors at the street level.

Small lots will provide an updated formal and financial model of living, but with market-rate home prices rising $120,000 over the last three years to a median price of $393,000 in California,3 house buying is surely not a viable solution for all of the home-needy. Much criticism has been waged against small-lot developments from low-income-housing equity groups who see the type replacing desperately needed apartment housing in the region. When they see a clutch of dense homes appear on a lot that had previously been home to fewer people, neighborhood groups aren’t happy either. But California is in dire need of more market-rate housing. For Californians wedded to the idea of the bungalow as an icon of California living, the small-lot house might also just look wrong—more vertical than horizontal, each built right up against its neighbor with no yard in front or back, and with a tidy uniformity that seems to discourage the personalization that marked twentieth-century modes housing.

Senior city planner for Los Angeles Jae Kim refers to small-lot development as a “new model—LA’s own brownstone walk-up.” Says Kim, “There’s a growing perception that we need less space at home because we’re going to have better city around us. For LA, there’s some shock value for residents and transplants who thought they could own a house with a yard, and here’s where small lots come in.”

“How will the form be affected as a result of the guidelines we put forth?” asks Kim, rhetorically. “We’re concerned how the actual integrity of the form will affect the neighbors and the built environment,” he says. “It’s always in the back of my mind, what are we going to see, formally as a community? We haven’t had a ‘Case Study’ movement with small lots yet, like we did with single-family homes in the forties and fifties.”

LA’s experimental Case Study houses interrogated, manipulated, and transformed the single-family home in Southern California from a mishmash of borrowed European forms into a modern, streamlined regional type, now emulated across the globe for its clean lines, indoor/outdoor flexibility, and agility in accommodating multiple families and generations. Architects like Richard Neutra and Rudolph Schindler transformed the model of suburban, single-family homes in California and simultaneously established residential modernism’s immeasurable impact on mid-to-late twentieth-century design. That design style emerged from the prefab tract home “kit of parts,” zoning laws set forth by municipalities, and the designers’ and owners’ political bent. Today, new trends in the so-called “sharing economy” and small-lot types could blend to produce an emergent model, too—one that offers fundamental cooperative financing in a smaller portioning of land.

Small-lot development by speculative developers is not likely to push new living styles or design methods. But small-lot development in concert with new cooperative concepts by resident-owner groups could provide a next-wave of micro-homesteading. Groups of residents who pool finances for land and home ownership in California could spark development outside the usual mode of developers staking an initial investment for maximum short-term profit, which is how many small-lot developments get built now. In the guidelines and legalities of small-lot regulation that planners such as Jae Kim are developing, a strategy to abate this trend may emerge. Mayors are on board, and the crisis of affordable housing is hot. The time for alternatives is now. In California today, rentable granny flats, home-swapping, and AirBnB are—despite regulatory issues—establishing precedents for reconceptualizing and repackaging space, habitation, and the housing economy.

The emergence of new models in equitable co-housing, shared amenities, and multi-owner group developments are likely to shift design paradigms even further away from purely aesthetic revisions of “home,” to new organizational modes of living. These hybrid housing models are less about formal design trends and more about a spirit of empowerment and co-ownership emerging from the sharing economy.

When the owners of a nine-unit apartment building in the Divisadero neighborhood of San Francisco put their property up for sale in 2012—a move that would displace the group of artists who lived there—residents mobilized to buy the building themselves. They formed a community-development nonprofit group, Neighbors Developing Divisadero, and, with help from a crowdfunding campaign and the San Francisco Community Land Trust, proposed a sustainable mix of uses and housing types within the building that could garner subsidies and tax breaks over time for the potential new owners. The plan included converting existing units into low-income apartments and adding a community gathering space called “The Living Room,” a lively, semipublic space within the apartment building that could host occasional pop-up art exhibitions and performances.

Outside the Eco-Village.


In Southern California, Eco-Village is a cooperative community just west of downtown Los Angeles, where residents have cut away curbs and rerouted neighborhood streets to favor pedestrians over vehicle traffic and to make more room for community gardens. Their ad hoc, take-back-the-neighborhood approach to community living shares aspects of the commune movement of the sixties and seventies. Amenities such as shared bike racks mingle with colorfully painted spiral patterns on the streets, walls, and gates that are peppered throughout the two-block area, where around forty residents live in a variety of redeveloped homes and apartment complexes within the village.

More than a century’s worth of California homes now cover the former oil fields of LA, the shrubby foothills above Fresno County, and the sunny hillsides of San Diego, their crazy-quilt layered history and identity on display for all. Our frenzied residential ecology may be set to morph again in a co-financed, individually owned and built small-lot boom. Kickstarter-funded homesteading, stacked-up mini-homes with their own roof decks, co-owned properties with flexible commons, reoriented lots, new addresses, streets, and small neighborhoods will usher in a new phase of ideation on formal modes of habitation and place-making, calling forth new forms of architectural legibility. Both the spirit of the weekend tinkerer and the cagey developer have their parts to play in this potential model—homegrown in its customization and eager to accommodate the next mixture of ideas, concepts, and technologies that may remodel what we think of as California living.


All photographs by the author.

1. Dana Cuff, The Provisional City, (MIT Press, 2000).

2. Public Policy Institute California, 2011.

3. Zillow.com real estate tracking, 2015.


Take the Parkway to the Freeway to the Automated Roadway

by Nate Berg

The past and future of freeway landscapes

From Boom Spring 2016, Vol 6, No 1

California’s freeways—its state highways, urban expressways, and interstates—cumulatively stretch 15,104 miles, end to end. Counting each lane separately, California has 51,326 drivable miles of freeway. Using the standard 12-foot width the state’s Department of Transportation, Caltrans, uses for roadbuilding, California’s freeway system covers roughly 116 square miles. If California’s entire freeway system were stretched out along its 840-mile coastline, it would be sixty-one lanes wide.

Freeways, though, are not just their lanes. They are medians, overpasses, off-ramps, soundwalls, shoulders, berms, plantings, and peripheral spaces, together combining into a superstructure of interrelated elements spiderwebbed across the state. Freeways are infrastructure, architecture, and landscape all mixed together, and they make up a significant part of our built world.

Despite their massive physical presence and impact on the land, we tend to take freeways for granted if we don’t outright despise them. This is understandable. Freeways are so much a part our day-to-day experiences of California that they almost fade into the background. At the same time, we know that freeways have played a powerful and often heinous role in shaping the built environment and the way we live our lives. Although California has long been associated with the freedom of a car-oriented lifestyle in a car-oriented place, the downsides are plentifully evident when we stop to consider them. From traffic congestion and sprawl to environmental degradation and displacement, the list is long. And yet, it’s precisely this influence that makes freeways worth looking at and thinking about more critically.

While many now hope for removals and the gradual undoing of the freeway’s unpopular effects on urbanism, the structure and landscape of the freeway—and their imprints on the land—will likely be with us for many years. Perhaps our freeway structures will one day house the shanty towns of a state ravaged by drought and sea level rise. Their underpasses are already sheltering increasing numbers of homeless men and women. Or perhaps they’ll be highly efficient speedways for autonomous cars, traveling at hundreds of miles per hour, mere inches apart. Maybe they’ll be adapted to do more for us than just provide a direct route from here to there. By understanding how freeways evolved—and what opportunities were missed along the way—we might find ways to reengineer our freeways for the future.

Italy’s Autostrade, built beginning in the mid-1920s, was the world’s first system of fast car-only roads. In the early 1930s, Germany began building its Autobahn, a countrywide network of dedicated motorways between major cities. Inspired by these systems, officials from the US Bureau of Public Roads drafted a masterplan in the 1930s for a national system of interregional highways, and our interstate highway system was born. In the United States, a “coast-to-coast rock highway” linking New York City to San Francisco through fourteen states was planned as early as 1913, though it took twenty-five years to fully build and pave. But while the international highway building project may have its roots elsewhere, it truly flourished in Los Angeles. The conditions under which LA’s highways developed and their physical impact would come to typify the emerging relationship between car and city in the United States and around the world as planners and engineers borrowed the most successful elements of the burgeoning system.

For the most part, these early roads were purposefully kept to the periphery of cities. A vast superhighway “Futurama” designed by Norman Bel Geddes was a highlight of the 1939 New York World’s Fair. But Bel Geddes was nonetheless concerned about how new roadways would be implanted in the landscape. In his 1941 book Magic Motorways, Bel Geddes argued that a “great motorway has no business cutting a wide swath right through a town or city and destroying values there: its place is in the country where there is ample room for it and where its landscaping is designed to harmonize with the land around it. Its presence will not, like that of a railroad, destroy the beauty of the land. It will help maintain it.”

In Los Angeles, that’s how things started out. The Arroyo Seco Parkway between Pasadena and downtown opened in 1940, the first in a rapidly growing network of high-speed roadways. Before freeways became the utilitarian behemoths of the post-war years that we’re most familiar with, they first embraced the concept of creating a harmonious connection with the landscape. “As a ‘parkway,’ the Arroyo Seco was more than a route; it was also a place to appreciate sublime nature from the seat of a car moving through the city at forty-five miles per hour,” writes UCLA professor Eric Avila in the exhibition catalogue Overdrive: LA Constructs the Future, 1940–1990. “A masterful orchestration of trees, shrubs, grass, arched bridges, and winding pavement, the parkway was the architectural linchpin between the garden suburbs and cemeteries of the nineteenth century and the modern highway of the interstate era.”

With medians, controlled access, and bridges for intersecting roads, early parkways like the Arroyo Seco were outfitted or later updated with many of the elements that would become standard on the urban expressways, freeways, and interstates that followed. The transition from parkway to freeway was actually quite fast in LA. Thanks to the 1933 National Industrial Recovery Act, funding for road building was shifted from the local level to the federal level, and New Deal programs made significant amounts of that funding easily available. Los Angeles took advantage of these funds to build the Arroyo Seco and sections of what would become the Hollywood Freeway, both of which retain some elements of the sweeping, scenic paths they originally cut. But almost as quickly as LA began building its scenic parkways, the era of scenic parkways was replaced by a more top-down, efficiency-oriented approach to roadbuilding.

“The transition in design orientation from boulevard to parkway to expressway to freeway accompanied the transition in planning and design responsibility from cities to county planning commissions to state highway departments,” writes David W. Jones in the 2008 book Mass Motorization + Mass Transit: An American History and Policy Analysis.

The onset of World War II brought most freeway building to a halt. But once the war was over, Los Angeles was primed to unleash a massive wave of freeway projects. New Deal money had been used to buy up rights of way throughout the city, often displacing so-called “blighted” neighborhoods and poor communities of color. Two statewide gas tax increases in the late forties and early fifties further built up a pool of money for road projects. Between 1950 and 1955, the total operating mileage of freeways in the Los Angeles area increased by 450 percent, according to David Brodsley’s seminal work L.A. Freeway: An Appreciative Essay. By the time funding for the interstate highway system was approved by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1956, nearly 100 miles of freeway were being built annually across California, according to UCLA urban planning professor Brian D. Taylor.1 Statewide freeway plans adopted in 1959 aimed to put every part of Los Angeles within four miles of a freeway, which was just part of a system covering more than 12,000 miles across the state. Though funding would run out long before that system could be fully realized, much of it was built. Construction peaked in California in the 1960s, when upwards of 350 new highway miles were built in a single year’s time. As the postwar freeway building boom peaked, the design aesthetics of the parkway era and its harmonious landscape described by Norman Bel Geddes were largely abandoned. Instead, the freeway became its own landscape—the concrete ribbon, the gash, the neighborhood barrier.

“When the Eisenhower period came in and the roads system for the whole country started to go, none of the standards of providing pleasant environments, limiting the amount of shopping on the periphery, none of those things applied,” says Pritzker Prize–winning architect Kevin Roche. “It was really just thought of purely as engineering. How do you get from here to there, with the minimum of bridges and hills and things like that, so you can just bang your way through it? The question of beauty or handsome environment I don’t think came up very much.”

Not that beauty wasn’t a concern. Roche, for instance, was part of a team of architects, landscape architects, urban planners, and engineers who developed a detailed report for the Federal Highway Administration between 1965 and 1968 calling for “a high level of visual quality in every proposed freeway.”2 “The Freeway in the City: Principles of Planning and Design” offered both general and specific guidance on how freeway and interstate building could be less destructive to cities and the landscape, suggesting that more attention should be paid to how freeways approach and cross through cities, how they can be utilized for more than just mobility, and how to design individual physical elements of freeways such as overpasses and support columns to be more attractive. “Urban freeways should contribute to the beauty of the regions through which they pass, from the standpoint of both the users and the viewers of the facility,” the report argues. Roche and his coauthors recognized that many freeway projects would be built regardless of public outcry. If freeways are inevitable, their report seems to suggest, they should at least be better designed.

Landscape architect Lawrence Halprin was another coauthor of the Highway Administration report, as well as his own book about freeways. He’d been trying to integrate these ideals into freeway planning throughout the 1950s and 1960s, but with little success. In his design for the Panhandle Freeway in San Francisco, Halprin tried to create a pastoral, park-like setting, with tunneled and stacked roadways that attempted to compensate for the imposition of the freeway by creating a new landscape along its path. His drawings for the project show recessed roads and large buffers of green space between homes and the freeway, and tunnels that bury the road beneath sloping topography. Even so, the idea of building a freeway that sliced through Golden Gate Park was too destructive for San Franciscans and the project was scrapped, a victim of one of the signal “freeway revolts” that arose in cities across the country successfully demanding that projects be canceled or rerouted around neighborhoods and parks.

Roche says the report he and Halprin coauthored might have had more of an impact if it had been better distributed. But he also knows that designing the landscape of freeways was a low priority back at the height of the interstate era. “I wouldn’t want to blame engineers and say they were insensitive to these problems, but it just wasn’t the number one concern,” Roche says. “The number one concern was to get from here to there ASAP. That was the charge and to do it at minimal cost and as fast as possible. So all this other stuff was regarded as fiddling around.”

Which isn’t to say that Roche and his coauthors gave up on the freeway. Halprin, among other influential landscape architects and planners such as Ian McHarg and Kevin Lynch, tried to create a freeway “that’s as alive as it is infrastructural,” says Margot Lystra, a doctoral candidate at Cornell University whose dissertation focuses on the design of urban American freeways. “These were projects that were just trying to explain that freeways were not just freeways but were environments,” Lystra says. In the post-war freeway era, “neither planners nor landscape architects nor designers across the board were really included in that conversation. It was much more turned over to highway engineers.”

The result had its own kind of beauty. It’s hard to dismiss the grandeur of the sweeping overpasses of a freeway interchange. Reyner Banham, in his 1971 book Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies, called the intersection of Interstates 10 and 405 in West LA “a work of art, both as a pattern on the map, as a monument against the sky, and as a kinetic experience as one sweeps through it.” The aesthetics of freeway engineering—exemplified in the famous “Four-Level” interchange of the 101 and the 110 near downtown LA, or more recently in the extravagantly swooping 110–105 interchange to the south—has its own fantastic allure.

“Some of the projects in the sixties are instances of designers trying to flip the script on the freeway story and say these are not just structures,” Lystra says. “These exist in neighborhoods, they go through landscapes, they interact with living beings, living beings interact with them. They’re not just these mechanical infrastructures that serve us in this very utilitarian way.”

Today, neither “pastoral” nor “speed” is the buzzword of California’s freeway builders. “The major concern here at the department is safety,” says Patty Watanabe, a landscape architect in the Caltrans District 7 office in Los Angeles. She and her colleagues are in charge of all the nonstructural aesthetics you’ll see on the freeway, from the pattern of cinderblocks in a soundwall and El Camino Real bells, to rest stops and the shrubs planted in the cloverleaves of an interchange. “Anything we put in there, we have to look at it from the safety viewpoint,” Watanabe says. “Not just the public but our worker safety, too.”

Plants have to be easy to maintain, and materials have to be quick to repair or paint. The gray of recycled paint is the go-to for cheap graffiti abatement. Wall-hugging vines require less pruning than big bushy shrubs. Trees have to be set back at least thirty feet, when space allows, and their trunk diameters are usually limited to reduce deadly collisions. Any planting or design or space has to be able to put up with endless noise, wind, dust, heavy metal contaminants, oily water, and all manner of debris and garbage. The freeway landscape is designed to endure a lot of ugliness.

“We’re owner-operator. So whatever we build in our right of way, we have to maintain and operate,” Watanabe says. “You’re going to see a lot of the same things, because that’s what’s in stock in the maintenance yards. And if you have to get something different, then it’s more costly. We’re trying to be good stewards of the public funds. So we’re under constraints and we’re trying to be inventive and creative within our constraints.”

Watanabe sums up the freeway aesthetic: “Most of our palette is usually concrete.”

Freeways today are essentially a massive maintenance project. The era of freeway building is largely over, and state departments of transportation across the country are now left to do what they can to maintain the safety and functionality of freeways for as long as possible. The pavement of the roadway is designed to last between twenty and forty years.3 Bridges and overpasses have design lives of between fifty and seventy-five years, depending on use and materials.4 Short of a devastating earthquake or flash flood, most of these structures can be maintained and retrofitted to last much longer. And so, despite some successful and sensible campaigns to tear down inner city freeways in places such as San Francisco, New Haven, and Vancouver, most of our freeways and interstates will be with us for the long, foreseeable future.

But that doesn’t mean they’ll play the same role or even maintain the same appearance. The freeways of the future may simply be the sterile territory of autonomous cars and mass transit tubes zipping about in perfect synchrony. When drivers no longer have to pay attention to the roads, the roads no longer have to be designed for drivers. Speeds may climb to a point where roadside trees are but a blur and the zig-zag cinderblock patterns of sound walls are incomprehensible. Personalized billboard advertisements may be more efficiently and profitably displayed in the car’s display panel than on the roadside. With thick packets of autonomous cars filling the roadway, augmented reality windows may become a better way to see where the car is in relation to the city instead of what is actually on the other side of the glass.

A 2014 report from the New York University Rudin Center for Transportation Policy and Management offers a less orderly prediction. Authored by smart city expert Dr. Anthony Townsend, “Re-Programming Mobility” outlines four future scenarios for how transportation will be transformed by digital technology in American cities by 2030.5 The report’s Los Angeles scenario predicts a chaotic rollout of disparate autonomous car technologies “flooding the streets of southern California with a heterogeneous mishmash of assistive and autonomous vehicles that don’t interoperate well—the safety benefits of self-driving cars are realized, but not the congestion-reducing ones.” This gridlock turns freeways into “a 16–18 hour stretch of constant stop-and-go traffic.” The freeway landscape becomes almost completely inconsequential, as car users simply tune out their hellish commutes by watching TV, working at in-car desks, or sleeping.

Indeed, there may not be much to see out of the windshield. The freeway may become even more banal than it is today, with its surfaces and structures designed to optimize autonomous operation and reduce the glitch potential of the varying scanning technologies currently favored by autonomous carmakers. The freeway landscape, big as ever and maybe bigger, may simply become a blank space dedicated fully to transportation and completely divorced from any aesthetic concerns.

Pragmatically speaking, the fully automated freeway is likely decades away. In the meantime, and perhaps for a long time, the freeways we have will undergo a more piecemeal evolution. “We’re not going to build more freeways but the freeways we have will be fully utilized,” says John Kaliski, an architect and urban designer in LA whose firm is currently working on two park projects that could be built on top of stretches of freeways running through dense urban neighborhoods. These freeway cap parks will do little for the drivers below, but could be a way for neighborhoods torn in two by the giant roadways to stitch themselves back together.

Freeways, Kaliski suggests, will be called on to do more than just move traffic in the future. The space above or below them will be reused or redeveloped. The water they collect will be rerouted into retention basins. They’ll generate energy. They’ll provide space for ecosystems to emerge in their margins. In a twist on the freeway revolts of the post-war years, people today and in the near future will demand that the freeway landscape provide more to cities, people, and the environment. “If you look at all these natural systems, freeways are going to have to become more accountable to them in a more rigorous way,” Kaliski says.

This fits into the ethos of landscape urbanism, a reframing of landscape architecture to engage the landscape at a metropolitan scale. “Highways are public space writ large, in the metropolitan reach of their network as well as their sheer size,” writes the architect and professor Jacqueline Tatom in The Landscape Urbanism Reader. “They are part structure and part earthwork, occupying a formal position between architecture and landscape.”

If freeways, in their earliest forms, were about creating a connection to nature and the landscape, perhaps the freeways of the future will redraw that connection. “The structure of the freeway is so robust that it could almost take on anything,” says Ying-Yu Hung, a principal at the landscape architecture, planning and urban design firm SWA. “The question is do we want to dismantle it altogether, or do we want to do some adaptive reuse and make it into something else?”

Even if the rise of autonomous cars and the ever-growing need for fast links within and between metropolitan economies means that freeways will always be with us, perhaps some facets of the first freeways, the harmonious parkways, like the Arroyo Seco, can be revived. Even if our freeways are here to stay, there’s no reason they have to keep playing the same role they’ve played since the 1950s. We can learn from the brutal mistakes of the past and find new ways for our freeway structures to serve us, our cities, and our environment. Maybe we can even redesign and reuse our freeways in ways that offset and counteract the damage they’ve previously done. California’s freeway landscape is ours to redefine.


1.  http://www.its.ucla.edu/wp-content/uploads/sites/6/2014/05/BDT-Dissertation.pdf

2.  https://archive.org/stream/freewayincitypri00urbarich#page/n0/mode/1up

3.  http://www.dot.ca.gov/hq/oppd/hdm/pdf/english/chp0610.pdf#page=2

4.  http://www.fhwa.dot.gov/bridge/preservation/guide/guide.pdf#page=4

5.  http://reprogrammingmobility.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/Re-Programming-Mobility-Report.pdf


Water Works

by Scott Kildall

Visualizing San Francisco’s water infrastructure

San Francisco has an urban circulatory system that lives underneath our feet. It provides water to our homes, delivers a reliable supply to fire hydrants, removes waste from our toilets, and ultimately purifies it and directs it into the bay and ocean. Most of us don’t think about this amazing system because we don’t have to—it simply works.

But I like to think about how water works in San Francisco. I am fascinated by urban infrastructure, from fire hydrants to electrical access panels to phone cable boxes—the stuff you see when you are walking through the physical space of a city. Whenever city employees are working in a manhole, I stop and peer inside to see what is down there. They may not appreciate this, but I can’t help myself. I’ve even done my share of urban spelunking, adventuring through storm drains and other places I don’t belong. I’m just curious. So last summer I started work on Water Works, an art project and 3D data visualization through which I explored how water moves through the bowels of the city.


The project was part of a Creative Code Fellowship, supported by Stamen Design, Autodesk, and Gray Area—a design studio, a 3D software corporation, and a nonprofit arts organization, respectively. At these three organizations, I had desk space, state-of-the-art fabrication tools, and mentoring to help me create large-scale 3D-printed sculptures, each paired with an interactive web map at www.waterworks.io.

As an artist, I’ve worked with sculpture and software code for many years, but I’m only now learning to fully integrate the two media, using digital fabrication tools such as laser cutters, 3D printers, and other computer-controlled machines. These machines can use 3D renderings or 2D image files to create objects such as plastic 3D models, perfectly cut wood stencils, and finely milled aluminum parts. Since they remove traditional shop-craft techniques such as table sawing and routing from making sculpture, the artistry is in the concept, the ferreting out and assembling the data, and the ways that data can be manipulated and transformed into something tangible. That programming is an art is a fact often overlooked, and it’s never truer than when it is in service of a project like Water Works.

It’s a new frontier of artistic possibility. As far as I know, I’m the first person to mine city data and write software algorithms to generate 3D-printed maps. My directive for the project was to somehow make visible what is invisible; to turn virtual data into physical reality.

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The first step was to get permission from San Francisco to access its sewer data. The dataset was both incredible and incredibly complex. I discovered that the city had about 30,000 nodes (underground chambers with manholes) with 30,000 connections (pipes). But it quickly became clear that the information I needed, like all data, was messy and needed a lot of pruning, trimming and reworking. From previous data projects, I knew you have to work with the data you can get, though, not the data you think someone should have and wish you could get. So I spent many hours writing custom software algorithms to clean up the data. It was tedious, but oddly satisfying.

Then I began a deep survey of San Francisco’s water infrastructure. In the first month of the Water Works project, this involved endless research and culling, chasing leads and running into dead ends. I called myself a “water detective,” much like Jake Gittes in Chinatown. I soon learned that the city has three separate sets of pipes that comprise the water infrastructure: a potable water system, supplied by Hetch Hetchy; a combined stormwater and wastewater sewer system; and the Auxiliary Water Supply System (AWSS), which is a separate infrastructure used only for emergency fire fighting and which is fed from the Twin Peaks Reservoir. The AWSS was built in the years immediately following the 1906 earthquake, when many of the water mains collapsed and most of the city proper was destroyed by fires.

My nights were consumed with the search for water data, and I eventually found a great lead: the brick circles I’d long been puzzled over in the middle of intersections throughout the city. It turns out these markings are used to indicate the locations of underground cisterns, tanks of water used exclusively for emergency fire fighting. According to various blogs, there are about 170 of them, though the estimates vary.

The history of the cisterns mirrors San Francisco’s history. In the 1850s, after a series of great fires tore through the city, the small but rapidly growing municipal government built twenty-three underground reservoirs that could be drawn on for fire fighting. These cisterns were planted beneath streets in the central part of the city, between Telegraph Hill and Rincon Hill. They weren’t connected to any other pipes, because the fire department intended to use them as a backup water supply, in case the water mains broke in another earthquake.

They languished for decades. Many people thought they should be defunded since they had long gone unused. However, after the 1906 earthquake, fires once again leveled much of the city. Many water mains broke, and the neglected cisterns helped save portions of San Francisco.


Two years after the 1906 earthquake and fires, the city passed a $5.2 million bond to begin building the AWSS, both restoring the first generation of cisterns and constructing many new ones. The largest one is underneath the Civic Center and has a capacity of 243,000 gallons, though most of the twentieth-century cisterns hold about 75,000 gallons of water each. The original ones hold much less water, anywhere from 15,000 to 50,000 gallons.

While working with the cistern data, I kept returning to the formidable task of building a large-scale sewer map. With approximately 30,000 manholes and 30,000 pipes that connect them, I kept asking myself: how do I even begin mapping this? Even the Department of Public Works hadn’t mapped this out in 3D space. I don’t know if any city ever has.


Conventional software modeling packages can’t handle datasets this large, and they don’t enable the kind of artistic expression that I wanted to enable. So, I built my own 3D modeling software using a popular open source toolkit called OpenFrameworks, which supports the ancient C++ programming language. With it, I was able to map out the nodes and pipes in 3D space. While working on my laptop, on a plane ride from Seattle, my code finally rendered a manhole map of San Francisco, and it looked just like the city’s terrain. I let out a yelp of joy at 30,000 feet. The algorithms I created were quick, efficient, and could generate complex 3D models that could directly interface with the 3D printers at Autodesk.

For the sewer portion of Water Works, I chose to 3D print just a portion of San Francisco including the waterfront by San Francisco Bay, the historic Ferry Building, and a section of Market Street. I made the pipes a light gray and the manhole chambers represented by a darker gray. The sewer dataset included the diameters of the pipes and the volume of the manhole chambers, so I scaled the nodes and pipes accordingly, and I found that increasing the Z-axis (elevation) by a factor of three would perfectly accentuate the hills of San Francisco. The results surprised me: a huge sewer line runs down Kearny Street. The Pier 9 Autodesk office, where I was working sits right next to one of the largest underground chambers in the city.

The visualizations of the sewer and cistern data have overlapping, chaotic geometries. They are not to scale—the pieces would be impossibly small. The final prints have a 20-inch by 16-inch footprint and each is about 6-inches high. They took forty to fifty hours to print. They sit on a map made with the help of Stamen Design. I worked with their custom map tiles, and their developers provided me with a high-resolution black-and-white map that I used for laser-etching onto a cherry wood. The final 3D prints rested on pins, attached to the wood. They feel architectural and synthetic, yet organic as they follow the terrain of San Francisco.

To me, the best part about integrating code and sculpture was the uncertainty of form. When I altered my software algorithm, suddenly a 3D model would have an entirely different look. If the cisterns were too large, then the form felt clunky; and if they were too small, well, the 3D print would break in my hands. It wasn’t until I mapped the data in 3D space that I truly understood what it would look like. The combination of code and sculpture is powerful, and yet it takes the control away from my own hands. Like walking through an urban environment, the Water Works project fully engaged my imagination, as I transformed virtual data into physical objects that enable a general audience to appreciate what’s under their feet.



River Glass

by Matthew Klingle with photographs by Michael Kolster

From Boom Summer 2015, Vol 5, No 2

Carleton Watkins was arguably California’s first great artist, but like many Californians, he came to the state as an emigrant looking for work. Born in upstate New York in 1829, Watkins arrived in San Francisco in 1850, just as the Gold Rush was underway and California became a state. Employed by childhood friend and future railroad magnate Collis P. Huntington, he delivered supplies to mines in the Sierra Nevada, followed by stints as a carpenter and bookseller, before turning to his life’s passion: photography.1

Watkins often used the wet-plate process to make his pictures. It was a laborious, expensive technique that with time, patience, and luck could yield exquisitely detailed images on glass plates. His famed mammoth-plate photographs, made with a custom-built camera that accommodated plates as large as 18 by 22 inches, were materially and financially exhausting. Making them required thousands of pounds of cameras, lenses, glass plates, plate holders, tripods, a dark tent for developing, and a mobile laboratory of volatile chemicals. Watkins often traveled by railcar, but just as often by steamer or mule train, as he did to photograph Yosemite Valley beginning in the late 1850s. It was worth the effort. His iconic panoramas of Yosemite and San Francisco would ensure his lasting fame. As historian Martha Sandweiss argues, the glass-plate pictures made by Watkins and his peers made California and the West “a familiar place to millions of Americans.”2

As much as citrus crate labels and early Hollywood films, Watkins’s wondrously gorgeous images helped to sell an idealized California to the world. But Watkins was an artist for hire who photographed the ordinary as well as the picturesque. During visits to Southern California in 1877 and 1880, traveling on a free rail pass, courtesy of Huntington, he made pictures of wineries, ranches, and the dusty wide streets of a young Los Angeles. In the first mammoth-plate view of the city, taken from atop Fort Moore Hill in 1877, Watkins pointed his camera northeast over the adobe and clapboard houses of Sonoratown, the Mexican neighborhood that grew up along the banks of the Los Angeles River.

Sunnybrook, Atwater Village, 2014.

Today, Angelenos are rediscovering their city’s eponymous waterway even if they can’t always find it “under ten gridlocked freeways,” as river advocate Jenny Price once put it.3 Numerous organizations, from Friends of the LA River to the Los Angeles River Revitalization Corporation, are helping Angelenos get to know their river again. For so many in Los Angeles—let alone the rest of the world—the river isn’t a river but a sad trickle of water, its concrete channel made famous in countless movie chase scenes. But in the past few years, a stretch of the river has been transformed. Small parks have sprung up, a bike path runs along the top of the channel, there’s kayaking in the summer, and birding year round. The city has a billion dollar plan to expand and extend this “re-rivering” of the channel, and many of those who have visited understand the real riparian promise of what for so long has been derided as fake. Yet images of the river’s concrete have been cemented in the minds of so many others. To change it, new images are needed.

So why not turn back to the original technology that was so successful in first creating iconic photographs of California and the West? For the past five years, Michael Kolster, a friend and colleague at Bowdoin College in Maine, made wet-plate photographs of industrialized rivers up and down the East Coast. His favored type of image is the ambrotype: a faint negative made on glass using salted collodion, a sticky solution of gun cotton in ether that creates a semitransparent skin on glass. (Collodion was originally used as a medical field dressing, notably during the Civil War.) For Kolster, the making of ambrotypes physically echoes the industrial processes that produced early photographic technology and the polluted rivers he shoots.

Wet-plate photography is full contact art. It is physically taxing and mentally absorbing. The process begins in his studio, weeks in advance of a trip, when Kolster prepares his silver nitrate bath, polishes stacks of glass, and thins the collodion with highly flammable ether and 190-proof Everclear grain alcohol. After the collodion ripens, he waits for a sunny day with no wind and moderate temperatures. The makeshift dark box he built out of thick canvas and wood is tipsy in stiff breezes—and if it’s too cold, the chemistry won’t work. When conditions are right, he loads the 8×10 view camera, lenses, tripod, glass plates, plate holders, collapsible darkroom, chemicals, and gallons of water into the back of his Volvo station wagon. An In-N-Out Burger sticker on the rear door hints at California; he taught photography in San Francisco for almost a decade before moving to Maine in 2000.

Once Kolster reaches his site, he scouts for a flat, shady place to set up camp. For each plate, he follows a strict regimen. After framing a scene with his view camera, he pours the syrupy collodion onto a plate by hand, coating it with a thin, uniform layer of goo before placing the plate into a silver nitrate bath for several minutes. He then removes the plate, puts it into a lightproof holder, sprints to the camera and inserts the plate, opens the shutter, and measures the exposure by counting under his breath for between ten seconds to a minute, depending on the light and age of his collodion. Because the process only records ultraviolet light, traditional light meters are useless. Once he has the shot, he runs back to the dark box, turns on his red-light headlamp, pours developer over the plate, and waits a few seconds for the image to appear. When it does, he washes off the developer, clears the rinsed plate, moves back to the camera to frame another shot, and repeats the process. For the next eight to ten hours, he’ll be in constant motion. On a good day, he can make up to twelve plates. Afterward, at his studio or in a hotel room if he’s on the road, Kolster washes and dries the plates before coating them with varnish to protect the image.

Elysian Park Overlook (triptych), 2014.


The result is more like sculpture than a traditional photograph. On the collodion-coated side, if Kolster timed his exposures and developing correctly, and the light was sufficient, the silver-tinted areas float on the collodion film. When put against a black surface, like velvet, the image reverses and becomes a positive as the areas with less silver appear as shadows and the rest as diaphanous light. Places where the collodion peels or coagulates add texture or contrast to each individual plate. In addition to exhibiting the plates, he makes highly detailed large-scale prints from digital scans of the glass images.

Kolster honed his technique in the East before heading west in the path of Watkins. Like his nineteenth-century predecessor, he hauled his entire photography factory with him, but fitting for a modern day survey, he traveled by freeway in a rental minivan packed floor to ceiling with his gear. Once he arrived, photographing the Los Angeles River presented other challenges, beginning with reliable access. Finding good vantage points proved difficult but not impossible. The results speak to the resonances between Kolster’s work and his forerunners.

At the Glendale Narrows, leafy branches of overhanging trees drape a light dappled pool dotted with exposed rocks. Absent the caption, it would be hard to see this lush riverside idyll as the much ridiculed version of the Los Angeles River. But other images turn typecast into observation. A triptych of the South Gate Railroad Bridge, with each shot taken at a slightly different angle, bends the trusses into an arc bulging over the concrete channel and into the foreground. Further upstream, where the channelized Arroyo Calabasas and Bell Creek join to form the river’s headwaters in Canoga Park, the concrete divider thrusts at the viewer like a spear tip, pushing the eye aside to avoid the strike. Neither place is typically scenic, yet both photographs are beautiful.

Headwaters, Canoga Park, 2014.

Another striking image is a triptych created at an overlook in Elysian Park in central Los Angeles, facing northeast, above the confluence of Interstate 5 and State Highway 110, the Arroyo Seco Parkway. Beneath the streams of concrete and asphalt is the waterway, elbowing past the location where, in 1789, Gaspar de Portolà gave the river its European name.

Like Watkins and other nineteenth-century photographers who captured the beauty of a once-distant California, Kolster has been on his own expeditions. But instead of going to the great out there, he has traveled to the great nearby, photographing places we take for granted or ignore. His photos point toward a new aesthetics of place, with roots in earlier photographic traditions, like the New Topographics movement of the mid-1970s, or even further back to Watkins himself. Kolster’s striking pictures are part of a longer tradition of blurring boundaries between pure and prosaic in American landscape photography.

Watkins might have appreciated what Kolster is doing with his rebooted version of wet-plate photography. For his entire life, Watkins was a hard working artist who, according to Jennifer A. Watts, curator of photographs at The Huntington Library, spent his “lifetime balancing client demands with his own aesthetic perfectionism.” When a paying customer asked him to photograph an irrigation canal or a bunch of grapes, he turned the everyday into the remarkable, insisting that viewers “stop and linger awhile to marvel at their simple beauty.”4

Rattlesnake Park, Fletcher Street Bridge, Elysian Valley, 2014.


Glendale Narrows, 2014.


Del Amo Blvd., Long Beach (diptych), 2014.


Kolster does the same in his photographs. He invites us to revisit the Los Angeles River as a place of splendor regardless of its checkered past and uncertain future. His ambrotypes are windows on the river of time, opening views full of possibility and even hope.


1. For Watkins as California’s “first great artist,” see Christopher Knight, “Carleton Watkins on the Frontier of U.S. Photography,” Los Angeles Times, 27 October 2008, http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/arts/la-et-watkins17-2008oct17-story.html [accessed 28 March 2015].

2. Martha A. Sandweiss, Print the Legend: Photography and the American West (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002), 153. For Watkins’s work in California, see Judy Graeme, “Photography of Carleton Watkins,” LA Observed, 24 November 2006, http://www.laobserved.com/intell/2008/11/photography_of_carleton_watkin_1.php [accessed 24 March 2015] and Weston Naef and Christine Hult-Lewis, eds. Carleton Watkins: The Complete Mammoth Photographs (Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2011).

3. Jenny Price, “Thirteen Ways of Seeing Nature in L.A.,” Land of Sunshine: An Environmental History of Los Angeles, William Deverell and Greg Hise, eds. (Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2005), 228–29, republished in The Believer 4: no.3 (April 2006), http://www.believermag.com/issues/200604/?read=article_price [accessed 20 March 2015].

4. Jennifer A. Watts, “Railroads and Agriculture,” Carleton Watkins, 397.


Manifesting Destiny

by Tony Gleaton

From Boom Summer 2015, Vol 5, No 2

Being An Illustrated History Of Lesser Known Facts And Occurrences Utilizing Text and Landscapes Chronicling The African Diaspora In The Territories West of the Ninety-Sixth Meridian In The Sovereign Lands of Mexico, The United States, and the Dominion of Canada From The Years 1528 To 1918.

Manifesting Destiny, a photographic work in progress, seeks to balance aesthetic considerations with pedagogical concerns in its historical examination of African-descended people in the greater Trans-Mississippi West. This project is an effort to seek historical redress against the notion that Africans in North America, both enslaved and free, owed their historical beginnings and foothold on this continent solely to the settlements along the eastern seaboard of an area that would, in later years, become the thirteen British colonies.

In fact, elements of the African diaspora can also be found in areas throughout the realm of the Spanish conquest. In 1598, the presence of free women of color in the San Juan Pueblo of Northern New Spain (near present day Santa Fe) predated by nineteen years the arrival of the first enslaved Africans to Jamestown, an English settlement on the Atlantic coast. These women were not a statistical aberration but a documented presence of African-descended people in northern New Spain.

The first part of this narrative tells of the years after the conquest of Tenochtitlan (1521). Spaniards widened their expansionist gaze and extended their dominion over the new continent. They first voyaged north, along each of the Atlantic and Pacific coastlines. Then they journeyed overland, north out of the valley of Mexico, first through Sinaloa, the Gran Chichimeca, Sonora, and Nuevo Mexico, into lands that would eventually be called the American South, the Southwest, Texas, the Great Plains, Western Canada, Alaska, and the “island” of California. These foreign invaders with their retinues of indigenous allies, priests, Mestizos, and some Africans (most of whom were enslaved) held partial dominion over vast tracks of land as well as some of its people.

The second part of this story begins three hundred years later. By the 1800s, the descendants of the Spanish conquest, Mestizos, Mulattos, Negros, and Españoles, including Indian allies as well as the descendants of the indigenous people who had traditionally inhabited those invaded lands, experienced a second wave of conquest. These new invaders spoke different languages and had different customs and objectives than those who had come before; some spoke English and others spoke French. They were voyagers, trappers, merchants, and explorers of European, African, and indigenous extraction who had pushed westward in an expansion from the eastern seaboard.

Through my photographs, I’ve sought to tell the stories of the African diaspora within this tale of twin conquests. It is within this larger story of conquest, settlement, and eventual dominion that I have sought to chronicle interactions, failures, accomplishments, and misdeeds of people who were part of the African diaspora in the greater Trans-Mississippi West. My method of visual documentation and accompanying narrative text identifies the locations of particular events and tries to explain what transpired there. The photographs here are selected from the broader, ongoing Manifesting Destiny project to tell some of those stories from California’s past.

Julian, San Diego County. America Newton was a free woman, likely a former slave, who traveled west after the Civil War. She settled in Julian, California, in 1872. Gold had been discovered there by another free person, and Newton made her living washing the clothes of the gold miners. She received a homestead in 1891 and remained in Julian the rest of her life. Today, Julian commemorates Newton with a local gift shop named after her.

Mission San Miguel Arcangel, San Miguel. James Beckwourth was a free man who worked as a fur trapper and trader in the 1820s and 1830s before carrying the mail during the Mexican-American War. In December 1848, he stopped at Mission San Miguel, a resting point on the journey of more than 160 miles between Monterey and Nipomo. There, Beckwourth discovered the bodies of ten murdered men and women, the residents of the mission. The victims included William Reed, the owner of the mission, and his family, as well as their black cook and a Native American shepherd. Beckwourth rode on, delivering the news of the murders to Monterey. In part due to Beckwourth’s news, the perpetrators were caught. Beckwourth went on to write the story in his autobiography, The Life and Adventures of James P. Beckwourth, Mountaineer, Scout, and Pioneer, and Chief of the Crow Nation of Indians.


Charley’s Butte, Inyo County. Charley Tyler was a black cowboy who rode across the Southern California landscape in the 1860s. While he was working for the McGee family, a group of Paiute, resisting white encroachment, attacked. Tyler made a stand that allowed the McGees to flee, but he was likely killed in the engagement in Inyo County, near the so-called Charley’s Butte, named after Tyler. A small marker by the roadside now commemorates Tyler’s death.


Brown’s Valley, northern gold fields. Born in New Haven, Connecticut, Edward Duplex worked as a barber until he followed the call of the Gold Rush in the 1850s. Once in California, he helped discover a gold mine in Brown’s Valley and, along with several other free black men, owned and operated it. In the 1870s, he moved to Wheatland and was elected mayor of that community. He was one of the first black mayors in the West.


Point St. George, Crescent City. In 1865, the ship Brother Jonathan hit a reef ten miles off of Port St. George and sunk. Hundreds of people died. A more successful mission took place ten years earlier, when the vessel was named the Commodore. Back then, after the California legislature refused to accept the testimony of black people in judicial proceedings, hundreds of black men left the gold fields of California to seek their fortunes elsewhere. Many sailed aboard the Commodore to Canada, where they felt they would fare better in Frazier River gold mines in British Columbia.