All photographs are historical photographs. Conventionally, photographs qualify as historical only as artifacts; their content is irrelevant. Their age—the temporal distance from us—is what matters. Historical photographs need to originate in a distant past and travel through time, surviving its vicissitudes. They arrive in the present carrying their baggage of images of places gone or altered. Only then do we consider what they contain to be history.
This is very odd. Consider a photograph of an old man. It can count as a historical picture of an old man only when the photograph as well as the man is old. That the man in the picture is old, that the chair he sits in is old, and that the house that contains the chair is old—none of these things matter. The past that is present in the photograph is immaterial.
“In a photograph, you are trapped in this one timeless instant of time,” Erroll Morris has written. This seems nonsensical. How can an instant of time be timeless? But it is only paradoxical. In a photograph, we see the preservation of a fleeting moment. Photographs preserve the ephemeral. If nothing in the frame can ever change, if all the things that happened afterward in the place pictured go unrecorded, then the captured instant is, in a sense, timeless.1 It certainly cannot look forward.
The idea that a photograph captures only an instant of time is not so much false as incomplete. A photograph possibly anticipates what comes next, but photographs, particularly artful photographs, are chock full of the shadows of what came before, which is to say history. All the people and objects within photographs are the products of events and relationships that took place prior to the click of the shutter. 2
Here are two photographs taken in June of 2014 by Jesse White in Tulare County. They each capture a segment of the past at once stranded in and part of a present.
Visually both photographs center on isolated vertical features erupting in overwhelming horizontal landscapes. Both center on artifacts not immediately explained by the landscape surrounding them. Both trace patterns of change going back over a century. Both are as much questions as statements.
These photographs can stand alone, but as freestanding objects—whether art or journalism— they are vulnerable to a danger John Berger pointed out some time ago. Isolated, each can become “a dead object,” which is “severed from all lived experience.” They are not pictures in a family album that trigger memories and stories. While the photographer lives and remembers, the photograph can spawn stories, but they are only the photographer’s story. In this case, they might revolve around how Jesse came to see the object and frame the shot. They will involve locating the scene in space. The stories can spin off into how he came to be there, what he ate, what played on the radio during or after the shot. Given the month and his habits, it was most likely a Detroit Tigers game.
Severed from memory and story, the photograph becomes, in Berger’s words, dead, and “exactly because it is dead, lends itself to any arbitrary use.” It becomes the stuff of Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children: lost objects woven into a fanciful story unconnected with the objects’ origins or any truth about what they portray. There is certainly room for fantasy, but the world, past and present, is far more than fantasy.3
There are stories, and then there are stories. The photographer can take us only so far. Jesse’s memories of the photograph revolve largely around the day in June 2014 when he took the picture. The photograph, however, contains far more than he or any photographer can ever know in the instant they shoot a picture.
I, like any knowledgeable viewer, can see more than the photographer saw when the shutter clicked. This, I realize is a bold claim. Erroll Morris says photographs are “collections of mystery stories,” and I guess they are. They prompt questions to which I do not always have answers, but even though I cannot explain everything I see, I can explain some of it and recognize what I need to know to explain even more. 4
Mysteries mean photographs breach their seeming ephemeral moment. The photograph strains against its frame, rooting down into the past, and reaching out into a future that had not yet happened when the shutter clicked. The past is what mainly concerns me here, but the future is also tethered to the photograph because whoever reads this article and looks at these photographs can only do so after Jesse has taken them and after I have written this. Viewers and readers exist only in our future.
The large tree in the first photograph? That is a valley oak, the remnant of an older landscape, but not an original landscape, for where it and the young orchard stands was a century or more ago water: the basin of Tulare Lake, then the largest lake in California but now gone. Outside of the soil and sky, nothing in the frame can be older than the draining of the lake. Date the oak and you date a change when the grassland that succeeded the lake allowed at least one tree to take root. In between the oak and the orchard were most likely grain fields—although I do not know this for certain. The orchard is but a moment in an agricultural landscape that is anything but timeless.
In the second photograph, the silo replaces the orchard and it, too, captures events older than the photograph. A tree has taken root on the silo roof, which means the silo was abandoned before the tree began to grow. Silos rarely stand alone; there probably was a farm or a ranch here. Certainly, there was grain for why build a silo if there is no grain? When the farmers shifted crops—when grapes, nuts, fruit, and alfalfa filled these fields—the silo was useless. The photograph whispers all these changes. It captures a landscape story, and all landscape stories in hybrid landscapes like this are human stories. The photograph does not tell them fully. Photographs entice us into a not fully explained past.
Explaining that past changes photographs. We rescue them from being arrested and isolated moments. They, in Berger’s words, “reacquire a living context.”5 That living context has to be constructed with words, with other photographs, and through “its place in an ongoing text of photographs and images.” What Berger calls an ongoing text I call history.6
These two photographs capture intact objects, but photographs have a power that goes beyond that. The traces they capture can be faint, but the past endures in them. F Ranch on the Point Reyes National Seashore is all the more a mystery for not being a mystery. A sign at Point Reyes identifies it, but few people stop because there is no longer a ranch at F Ranch, only a bedraggled grove of Monterey cypress.
Even without the sign, anyone familiar with Point Reyes would know that a human habitation once stood here. At Point Reyes trees always mark human intervention, usually a past in which someone planted and nurtured trees to act as windbreaks or as ornaments. Sometimes, however, it might just mean someone gathered a Bishop pinecone from up on the ridge and discarded it alongside a road.
The obvious story in the photographs of F Ranch is one of decay and also stubborn resilience. What was once a windbreak is now an organic ruin. There are dead and dying trees but also shrubs and trees that have stubbornly rerooted and grown again.
These photographs, however, also gesture toward a past that they cannot alone recover, and this sends me into the archives. The archives contain other photographs, the kind we do mark as historical, and they reveal both other ruins and then, like a film running backward, the ruins restored, the hedges full and trimmed, and the place full of human life. People, now dead, look into the camera. This is what Berger means by reconstructing a living context with words and with other photographs. There is no narrative yet, but there are now more points to be connected and not just time’s arrows shooting into the dark.
Courtesy Jack Mason Museum of West Marin History.
Courtesy Point Reyes National Seashore Museum.
Courtesy Anne T. Kent California Room, Marin County Free Library.
Like the photographs Jesse took in the winter of 2012, each of these photographs point to other events. How did the house fall into ruin? Who ultimately removed it, commemorating its absence with a sign and little more? Who lived here, what did they look like, and how did they live? Each photograph answers some questions and raises others for all contain yet another past.
Finally, the backward reaching trail of photographs arrives in the nineteenth century when the hedge itself was yet to be planted. Even there, the trees indicate a ranch already older than the people who pose before it.
Photographs cannot help but contain a deeper past, moments before the moments of their creation. The events that created the scene in the photograph are as tea leaves to a cup of tea. We strain out the leaves to drink the tea, but they have colored what remains in the cup. Every object in the frame existed before the shutter clicked; some have existed for moments, some days, some years, some centuries, some for millennia and more. That tree took root decades ago. Someone built that house, that fence, that road. Everything has a history.
1. Errol Morris, Believing Is Seeing: Observations on the Mysteries of Photography (New York: Penguin Press, 2011), 180.
2. John Berger, About Looking (London: Writers and Readers, 1980), 50–52, 56.
3. Ibid.; Ransom Riggs, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children (Philadelphia: Quirk Books, 2011).
River valleys throughout America are known for commerce, as in barges and industrial traffic on the powerful currents of the Mississippi or Hudson; for wilderness tourism and fishing, as on the winding Snake or rushing Columbia; for cheerful touristic sidewalks hugging tamed waterways, as on San Antonio’s Riverwalk; and recently for cement channels with fake boulders planted on the banks, as in countless new housing tracts all over the nation, with names like River Oaks and Creek Canyon.
But California rivers are charismatic in a different way, unknowable to many people I meet from other parts of the world, and when visitors or newcomers ask me with some disdain the location of the invisible river that gives my city its name, mentioning the width and speed and historical importance of their rivers, I sometimes just laugh.
The Santa Ana River that winds through three counties, from San Bernardino County through Riverside County and then Orange County, on its way from mountain headwaters through the wilds of urban San Bernardino and Colton and Riverside, and then channeled through Orange County to the Pacific Ocean, is a serpentine body of water holding pre-Revolutionary history and post-recession history, mixed in ways hauntingly beautiful and haunted; a river wild, which looks unloved but is beloved; overlooked until you spend years alongside it, obsessed with the sandy plains and riparian lands stretching for a hundred miles.
When I was ten, the oldest of five kids, my mother would drop us off at the edge of the river to play—inconceivable now, but the beginning of my lifelong devotion. I forced everyone to find acorns, to pack them for drying and later grinding and leeching into a bitter mush; to poke into fox dens; to look for wild grapevines and yellow monkeyflower. There were remnants of Cahuilla camps on the high banks near Mt. Rubidoux above us, and we came out of the river into Fairmount Park, designed by the Olmsted brothers on land bisected by Indian Creek.
Forty-four years later, I still go to the river nearly every day. I walk the trails with my dog, through the same earth, under the same cottonwoods, watching for descendants of the same coyotes and foxes. From the end of my block, I can see the half-loaf of mountain—toast-brown surface and white sheared-off granite face—where my grandfather worked for Riverside Cement when he came from Switzerland to Fontana. Every day I’m reminded of the successive waves of humans who decided to stay along this water: people who built shelters of branches and ramadas made of palm fronds; people who mixed mud with straw and formed adobe bricks; people who dropped packs from horseback or whose Fords broke down in the sandy crossings during the Dust Bowl; people who built wooden bungalows and lined garden paths with white river rock; and people who build shelters every night near the end of my block, erect tents and EZ-ups in the arundo cane and wild grapevines, sitting on overturned orange crates to eat pizza before a campfire.
I bicycle all the way up to the border of Colton, where the old Trujillo Adobe still stands, and drive often along Agua Mansa Road, where the first Trujillos are buried. Passing me are hundreds of trucks leaving hundreds of warehouses, for the new economy of goods, which cannot be much removed from the old economy of goods. Americans want things. They will get them.
Agua Mansa is a good place to remember this California’s history. More than two thousand people are buried on this bluff above the river. Lorenzo Trujillo, his sons Doroteo and Esquipula, and many more Spanish surnames inscribed on cement or stone or wooden crosses.
Lorenzo Trujillo was born to Native American parents—possibly Comanche, Apache, or Pueblo—in Abiquiu, New Mexico, and probably ransomed by Spaniards, who baptized him in 1794 (though his birthdate is unknown). Who knows what name Lorenzo Trujillo might have already been given and what he had to forget? His adoptive parents taught him the Spanish language, culture, and religion—Catholicism. He married in 1816 and had seven children, and in 1838, he was recruited by letter to come to the Santa Ana River valley. Trujillo and his four sons were already known as veteran “Indian fighters.” Back when this land along the river was Rancho San Bernardino, Don Antonio Lugo kept losing horses to Native Americans out of Nevada and the Mohave River area, and Chief Walkara of the Utes. Trujillo was given land in exchange for “protection against thieves and marauders of every hue.” After working for years for Don Lugo, Trujillo received land from Don Juan Bandini at his Rancho Jurupa, a few miles away. Trujillo founded La Placita, on the east side of the Santa Ana River, and other settlers stayed in Agua Mansa, on the west side. By the mid 1840s, this was the largest community between New Mexico and Los Angeles.
The settlers dug irrigation ditches and canals, planted grain, grapes, and raised livestock. They sent their goods to market on horse-drawn wagons down this winding road between sere hills and river. Many days, I see descendants of Lorenzo Trujillo—Darlene Trujillo Elliot works for the city of Riverside, and countless other relatives live nearby. She began the Riverside Tamale Festival to raise funds for restoration of the Trujillo Adobe where her ancestors lived, across the river from the Agua Mansa Cemetery.
I stand at the cemetery and look down at American commerce. Isaac Slover, born in 1786 in Kentucky, was one of the first American fur trappers in Taos. He married a New Mexican woman, moved to Agua Mansa, and loved to hunt bear, which he did until one fateful 1854 encounter with a grizzly. His grave marker reads “Pioneer Hunter Trapper Killed By a Bear Near Cajon Pass.”
I meet people who tell me the road is still haunted, by a woman, by a man and his dog. I meet a small, wiry man who tells me he’s a Mexican-Jewish former jockey born in Texas whose son began a dog rescue facility on acreage here near the river. He tells me his son committed suicide in this lonely place, and he now feeds the dogs. At night, he watches bands of coyotes rip apart Chihuahuas abandoned at the river.
On the rise of a hill above Agua Mansa Road, the white stone burial vault of Lorenzo Trujillo floats above the earth with others that look like skiffs scattered in a golden sea of drying wild oats. This is a pioneer cemetery without manicured grass and lush landscaping and fountains. The grave markers are decorated with wrought iron crosses, a fading poncho, artificial flowers, and sometimes food offered up to the spirits. Trujillo claimed this place—the name means gentle water in Spanish—and it’s strange to imagine what he would think to look down on the narrow asphalt road below as thousands of trucks speed past, their own long white vaults holding everything America wants right now.
Today this asphalt ribbon is the “Agua Mansa Industrial Corridor.” The steel structures and towers come right up to the cemetery to the north. To the west are concrete batch plants—E-Z Mix concrete and Angelus Block—the largest makers of block, pavers, and retaining wall components in California. Farther down the narrow winding road is Tombstone Paintball, with a fake plywood town and other obstacles where people can shoot at each other, just as they did in the old days.
Driving to the west, I circle the granite hill chiseled and blown up for decades by my grandfather and the many other immigrants who worked at Riverside Cement. Skanska is still there, with other construction material companies.
Closer to the river, there are more industrial complexes: huge expanses of cold storage for Target, Walmart, and others on the bluff. They look down on an encampment of homeless people next to the sandy expanse of the Santa Ana River. Agua Mansa, dammed up and diverted for irrigation and sewage treatment, winds along the miles and miles of land that used to be citrus groves, vineyards, and wheat fields where furrows between the crops shone silver with water from the zanjas, the irrigation ditches dug by Cahuilla and Luiseño fathers and sons. The ancient remnants of one zanja lead underneath Agua Mansa Road as the trucks thunder from the warehouses whose walls are the brightest white, where Italian cypress like black knives and jasmine like white stars are planted alongside, where hundred-year-old windbreaks of eucalyptus brought from Australia make pungent fences in the next vacant lot, where the wild tobacco trees and jimsonweed are the natives that will still colonize the Earth here if left to do so.
About twelve miles as the crow flies down the river—and flocks of crows do live here in abandoned pecan orchards once irrigated by more zanjas—my brother-in-law worked for a year of dark nights on the bluff overlooking the place where, in 1774, Juan Bautista de Anza and his party of soldiers, women, babies, and animals crossed the Santa Ana on the first overland route to California.
My brother-in-law is a huge man—six-feet-six-inches tall, 380 pounds, with light red-brown skin and freckles. He is African, Irish, Cherokee, and American. He sat each night in a small white truck with a heavy-duty flashlight and a pad of paper, waiting to see who would come to steal construction equipment at the site where workers were boring a tunnel along the river to replace an eighty-year-old sewer pipe.
The left front tire of his truck was five feet from the bronze historical marker telling the world about the Anza Crossing, and he kept an eye on that, too, because now thieves prize bronze, copper, and aluminum as well, roaming parks and construction sites like Paleolithic hunters out for metal.
I hadn’t thought about Anza for years, until I went to keep my brother-in-law company and bring him food to help the hours pass. This is another good place to think about often-forgotten California history.
Father Francisco Garces, a Franciscan priest, had tried the journey before, in 1771. He left San Xavier del Bac, a frontier mission in what is now southern Arizona, and reached the Colorado River, which he followed down to its mouth in the Gulf of California, but the way was lost in the desert after that, and he returned. In 1774, he joined the party formed by Juan Bautista de Anza, a Spanish military captain at Tubac, Arizona. Anza wanted Spain to open a trading route with Nueva California, a land route from Tubac to San Gabriel Mission and then on to Monterey. Previous failed attempts had led the Spanish to call the desert journey El Camino del Diablo—”The Road of the Devil.”
The Anza party must have looked like a strange parade to the tribes and villages of Native Americans who saw them approaching: Anza, Father Garces and another priest, Father Diaz, twenty-one volunteer soldiers from Spain, an interpreter, a carpenter, five mule drivers, two of Anza’s servants, sixty-five head of cattle, and 140 horses—and as guide, a California Indian who’d made the trek from Arizona to San Gabriel, whose Christian name was Sebastian Tarabal.
A few days before they left, colonists in Boston disguised themselves as Indians and threw tea into the harbor.
Days into the Anza expedition, trying to reach the Colorado River, Anza came to know from Garces and Tarabal that the lives of human and animal would depend on Native Americans in Arizona, the Papago and Pima peoples, leading them to rainwater caches they had known for generations, and offering them food, such as rabbits they killed with throwing sticks.
Life is always about water. I stood on the bluff with my brother-in-law, thinking about the 1862 flood that took away most of Agua Mansa; the 1938 flood remembered by my mother-in-law with vivid horror, as she was only four and knew people who drowned; and the 1969 floods, when we children watched the Santa Ana raging brown and churning high enough to take out bridges and steal trucks and cars. Here, under the railroad bridge, is where the river is narrowest, forced between stone bluffs, and the best place to cross for the Anza party.
Still dangerous, though. I imagine watching them from the air today, crossing each river as a mass that would appear little different from ancient migrations of hoofed and toed mammals. In March of 1774, Father Garces’s diary records that the water was flowing so fast and heavy that the men had to build a bridge of logs, which took time, and then cross over that. Every other river they’d been able to ford on foot and horseback, but not here.
In 1775, Anza, Garces, and the Spanish organized a second crossing—this time partly to populate New California. They brought 240 people, including twenty-nine wives of the soldiers.
They crossed deserts, lava flows like “a sea of broken glass,” traveled down the Gila River. and crossed the Colorado River to enter California again, the river running two hundred yards wide and shallow enough that the cattle and horses walked across, while the Yumas carried the cargo, and Anza and the others rode horseback. Garces, though, had a terrible fear of falling from a horse and drowning—he could not swim. So the Yumas carried the priest across the water, too.
On 24 December 1775, at Coyote Canyon, the Anza party passed out of what is now San Diego County and into what is now Riverside County. They had left behind days of snow and entered rain and fog, and one of the women “was taken with childbirth pains,” Anza’s diary reads. “At a quarter to eleven in the night our patient was successfully delivered of a boy, which makes three who had been delivered between the presidio of Tubac and this place.”
Father Pedro Font baptized the boy Salvador Ygnacio the next day. On 1 January 1776, they came again to this place. Anza wrote, “this river of Santa Anna. . .almost unfordable for the people, not so much because of its depth as of the rapidity of its current, which upsets most of the saddle animals. For this reason it was necessary to reinforce the bridge which I made during the last journey. . .these tasks could not be completed until after twelve o’clock, at which time the women were taken over first, next all the perishable things, and then the rest of our cargo and our stock, of which a horse and a cow were drowned because they did not have strength enough to withstand the force of the current.”
The next time I visited my brother-in-law, I brought cake. Before he was hired, thieves had broken into the site, loaded an entire flatbed truck with expensive equipment, using the crane, and then stole the truck and crane as well.
“The foggy nights are the worst,” he said. “The train looks like a ghost coming out of it. And this whole place looks haunted.”
Under the bridge, on the rocks where Anza’s men assessed the crossing, graffiti covers many of the stones and the bridge abutments. One large homeless encampment is near here, and we watched two young men ride up the trail and then walk their bikes past us. He greeted them, as he does everyone. During his weekend day shifts, retirees driving recreational vehicles come to the bluff. One couple told him they were following the entire Anza Expedition, stopping at each monument. They told him about the history of the place where he spends most of his waking hours now, and then they motored away to the next marker.
Between Agua Mansa and Anza Crossing, there is an arroyo called Tequesquite, named by the Cahuilla people who once lived here. There is a tiny street called Wong Way, named for the last resident of the historic Chinatown that, like so many others in California, flourished for decades before white Americans turned on the residents in anti-immigrant anger. My dog and I walk down to the end of our dead-end street, through a field, and down the arroyo, past Wong Way, and head for the river.
I look downstream, where Mexican-born and Riverside-born people swim under that railroad bridge under the Anza Crossing bluff on hot summer days, though they are warned not to. Vietnamese-born people harvest watercress and bamboo shoots, and Central American men wash clothes in secluded places and hang them to dry on cottonwood branches near the trail where we walk.
The Santa Ana is the largest river in southern California, ninety-six miles long, draining 2,650 square miles of watershed, passing through four counties and flowing by more than five million people. It begins in the San Bernardino Mountains, in wild canyons where massive boulders crash during flash floods and their smaller round offspring wash up in drifts of white rock, which have been made into fireplaces and porches and houses for generations. The Army Corps of Engineers called it the most dangerous river west of the Mississippi before it was controlled. After those historic floods killed hundreds and washed away houses and ranches and citrus groves in Orange County as well as here, two dams were built, water was diverted for irrigation and water treatment plants, and most of the river past the Orange County line was channelized in concrete and riprap, like the Los Angeles River and so many others. It ends in a lagoon and then mingles with salt in the Pacific Ocean between Costa Mesa and Huntington Beach.
We walk most days along the Santa Ana River Trail, an asphalt bike path that begins in San Bernardino and eventually ends at the ocean, and on every single day or evening, I come back with a story. People in full racing gear on expensive bikes race past us, calling out for us to move. People on old bicycles with trailers attached bearing their belongings, chained or leashed dogs also attached and trotting alongside, bags of recyclables or food dangling from the handlebars, move alongside us, too. Mothers and fathers pushing strollers and helping small children on small bikes catch up to us. They speak Spanish, and we greet each other, as all three groups of people are familiar to the dog and me.
“You can’t walk down there by the river bottom alone!” people often admonish me. “It’s dangerous!”
It is. One night last week, a mother and two kids, about four and six, came rushing up onto the trail through the brittlebush, gasping and covered with sweat, terror in their eyes. They had tried to find the river itself, which flows all the way across the sandy landscape covered with trees and arundo cane and vines and hundreds of secret paths worn by animals and humans, and they’d gotten lost for an hour, and now, at dusk, an ambulance had gone over the bridge above them, and the siren had roused a pack of coyotes whose answered howls were so close that the mother grabbed her children and ran.
I told them we’d done that before, too, my dog and me, and we were just as scared. I showed her the best path across the river bottom to the water, for another day. I’ve crossed that same path since I was ten and still I get lost, because water changes landscape in constant and implacable fashion. I have sunk to my hips in quicksand after a winter storm, when the black silt and mica glitter atop the white powdery drifts.
The next night we stopped to talk to a homeless man heading down another trail to his camp, near the Mission Avenue Bridge, where this was once the main entrance to Riverside from Rubidoux and points west, and where a shrine to St. Francis de Assisi built of boulders and another bronze marker remains. This man had just adopted his new dog—Pretty Girl—from the animal shelter, and he, with his chrome shopping cart and his companion, wished us well as he does most nights. But I was nervous about the early appearance of the coyotes, who are bolder than ever because of the drought. On the way back west toward home, the cottonwoods released their drifting white, and the rabbits were too new to be afraid of my dog, so they lay in the heat with their haunches spread casually as if on lawn chairs. The coyotes would love that, I thought. When I saw a couple walking with their dog off-leash down the sandy trail, which we love but are hesitant to take alone, the dog and I caught up with them.
Their pit bull was also from the shelter, as is my flat-coated retriever named Angel, so we traded dog stories and coyote sightings, as we walked deeper into the brush, where ancient river oaks lean over a sandy trail that might be hundreds of years old—a savanna, a riparian place where humans and animals always gather. The remains of yellow mustard turned skeletal gold stems, and new wild oats turning pale and shimmering in the breeze, were beside us. Yes, I had realized that the couple were heading home, as I was, and that their home was here in the brush. There are hundreds of people living along the Santa Ana, in encampments up near Agua Mansa, down by Anza Crossing, and in too many to count close to where we were. Two large settlements are nearby. Each night I see a man a few years older than me, with one bad leg, crutches, and a gray beard, walking from the city down the arroyo sidewalks and down another trail through massive tumbleweeds to his own camp, where he has lived for many years.
Tonight one man heard us coming and stood beside his camp, nodding his head in acknowledgement. The couple split momentarily so we two women could walk together down an ancillary path back toward the main trail. Her companion called back, “Hurry up so the pizza don’t get cold!”
“I saw a bobcat up there two weeks ago,” she told me. Her face was round, the deep brown of living outside, and she was missing many teeth. We were near the same age. “I was riding my bike on the trail, ’cause you know that’s the easiest way for me to get to work, and I saw two eyes, right there between those two rocks.” She pointed to two huge boulders set in the flank of Mt. Rubidoux, which borders the other side of the trail. “I went up close in case it was someone needed help, and I saw his face. A bobcat! He looked at me like, yeah, come right on up here, and I got on my bike and rode like hell!” She laughed. “I’m Annie. You need anything, you come down here and call for me.”
We parted there, amid the huge peeling eucalyptus marking another familiar trail where my dog always sees rabbits and sometimes a roadrunner. Annie turned right and shouted to her companion, “I’m coming! Keep that pizza hot.” I turned left, and we both headed home.
When he was twenty-one years old, Jimi Yamaichi built a jail within a jail on the barren wind-swept grasslands near Tule Lake, California. Yamaichi was imprisoned in a Japanese American internment camp. Eager to work despite the cold and miserable conditions, he accepted the job of foreman on the construction project, overseeing his fellow internees at Tule Lake War Relocation Center for $19 a month. His labor contract was for “in-house construction,” he says with a wry chuckle.
The jail still stands, a modest single story half the size of a professional basketball court. Its six cells, designed to hold twenty-four prisoners, were packed with more than a hundred by late 1944, when America’s war with Japan was raging. By the end of 1945, it was empty. Today, the shifting skies that overshadow this spare and lonesome land seem to swallow the jail’s graying walls. Weeds blow against its exterior, where the old concrete is crumbling beneath a leaky flat roof.
Tule Lake perimeter fence and guard tower. Courtesy National Archives and Records Administration.
Yamaichi is aging, too. Now ninety-two, his slender frame remains sturdy. His stride is steady, but slow. He parts his thinning gray hair on the left, carefully combed around large ears that hold tiny hearing aids. His warm brown eyes shine below bushy eyebrows from a pale brown face marked with age spots. Yamaichi speaks with a voice that retains a musical lilt thickened with time. When he smiles, it is with an aching sweetness that belies his past.
Builder and building are bound together in a wrenching chapter of American history: the incarceration of 120,000 Japanese Americans during World War II. Yamaichi has dedicated what remains of his life to ensuring that this story is not forgotten. He is leading a campaign to restore the Tule Lake jail, proudly telling his own story of imprisonment, humiliation, and shame. It is part national history, part personal tragedy. Telling and retelling it is an act of redemption for Yamaichi and the nearly 19,000 others who were held at what many now call the Tule Lake concentration camp. For Yamaichi, preserving the jail as a symbol of racial injustice is an important step in ensuring that these wrongs are never repeated.
The National Park Service, which owns Tule Lake Jail, is coordinating its $1.2 million restoration with the Tule Lake Committee, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the site and its history. The plans call for fully renovating two of the six cells to their 1945 condition and turning others into an exhibit hall. So far only $200,000 has been raised, but construction is on track to start next year. “I might make it,” says Yamaichi, grinning broadly.
Yamaichi greets me on a bright winter day under a canopy of towering camphor trees outside the Japanese American Museum of San Jose. Inside, he leads me past black-and-white photo displays of the Japanese American 442nd Regimental Combat Team. At the back of the building, he throws open the door to a sparsely furnished twenty-by-twenty-foot room. The wood-planked floor creaks as Yamaichi walks across it and takes a seat on a crude wooden stool beside a metal-framed Army cot. “This is how we lived,” he says, spreading his large hands and inviting me to take in the replica of the barracks he built decades after he left Tule Lake.
When World War II began, Yamaichi was twenty, living with his family on a vegetable farm near San Jose where they grew beans, cucumbers, and squash. The fourth of ten children, he had already developed carpentry skills and was looking forward to studying engineering and architecture at Miami University in Ohio. Instead, he and his family were yanked from their home, rounded up with other Japanese Americans, and sent to Tule Lake Internment Center, one of ten war relocation centers across the United States.
The Tule Lake center is just south of the Oregon border in a dry lakebed west of the lava beds where, in 1873, the Modoc Indians routed a US Army battalion before surrendering to troops that outnumbered them twelve to one. Like all of the Japanese-American relocation centers, it is isolated and inhospitable. Eight-foot barbed wire fences surrounded the compound that held 18,789 people at its peak, with guard towers at every corner. “If you crossed out, they would shoot you,” Yamaichi says.
Photograph of a mother and children outside internment camp barracks by Dorothea Lange. Courtesy National Archives and Records Administration.
His family was assigned to a hastily built wooden barracks sided with tarpaper. Yamaichi looks around the museum replica, staring at the wide chinks in the floor. “That dust would crawl up like ants through those cracks,” he says. Bits of rust-colored lava rock would work its way through the newspapers his mother stuffed between the wallboards against the relentless wind. Their furnishings were illuminated by a single bare bulb like the one that dangles above us. Hanging nearby is a clothesline strung between walls and draped with a sheet. “That was all the privacy we had,” Yamaichi says. He fingers the thin, wool Army blanket on the bed nearby, a patchwork of remnants from World War I military uniforms. “This was all the warmth.”
Yamaichi was more fortunate than many of the Tule Lake internees. “I was 20-years-old, feeling my oats. Bachelor guys like me, we were happy-go-lucky.” As a carpenter, he had skills the government guards needed. He got a job with the construction and maintenance department. “I enjoyed it. I did my work and just kept quiet,” he says.
Not everybody did. Unrest over living and working conditions was common throughout the internment camps, but it was an ambiguous, clumsily worded government questionnaire sent to all ten centers early in 1943 that turned Tule Lake into a crucible for Japanese-American resistance. Designed to determine the loyalty of Japanese Americans, the questions led to sharp disagreements among the inmates and agonizing turmoil within families. The first asked prisoners if they were willing to serve the United States in combat duty, and then, if they would “foreswear any allegiance to the Japanese emperor.” The questions were insulting and confusing for both Japanese citizens living in the United States who had been productive and cooperative members of American society and American citizens who were being denied their constitutional rights in prison camps. Twelve thousand inmates gave negative or qualified answers.
At Tule Lake, 42 percent of prisoners answered no to one or both of the questions. Because it had the highest number of dissenters by far, Tule Lake was designated to house dissidents from the other nine camps. They became known as “no-no boys,” and the camp was repurposed as an armed camp and segregation center with twenty-eight guard towers, a prisoner curfew, and barracks-to-barracks searches that all but eclipsed normal daily activities. Overcrowding taxed the simple infrastructures Yamaichi helped build. “We ran out of water, and sewers were running wild,” he says. Government officials declared martial law, which led to months of even greater repression and hardship.
Tule Lake jail interior in 2006. Courtesy Historic American Buildings Survey.
The atmosphere was poisonous, says Will Kaku, a Sansei (a third-generation Japanese American) whose father was among the Tule Lake “no-no boys.” Tanks rolled into the camp; inmates were assaulted with tear gas and beaten by guards with baseball bats. The animosity was not just between inmates and guards. Even though all of them were equally imprisoned without constitutional rights, fierce disagreements raged among the Japanese Americans who identified as “loyals” and those who refused to say “yes” to the loyalty questions. “What is patriotism under such circumstances? What is loyalty?” Kaku asks.
As discontent grew, Army officials ramped up physical controls, designating an area as a stockade surrounded by fences and gun towers. Along with barracks, a mess hall, and a latrine, they provided unheated tents, using them as punishment for some prisoners.
Then there was the jail. “I didn’t have to build it,” says Yamaichi. The project manager gave him a choice. “He said, ‘If you don’t do it, I’ll get somebody else to.’” Amid the turmoil roiling throughout the camp, it was not easy to recruit workers to build a jail for themselves. “They called me baka—crazy.” Yamaichi eventually signed up forty people, most of them farmers honing new skills with makeshift tools. They pretentiously anointed themselves Daiku-san, master carpenters. “We knew it was phony, but it helped,” says Yamaichi, and they built a jail to hold their fellow prisoners.
Tule Lake stockade. Courtesy National Archives and Records Administration.
Soon it was overcrowded with the opinionated and the dissenting—“Anyone they thought was a troublemaker,” says Yamaichi. Among the prisoners were “disloyals,” whose experience had so shaken their faith in America that they opted to renounce their citizenship and go to Japan. While awaiting his deportation to a country where he likely had never lived, one desperate man scratched a plaintive message in Japanese that has haunted Yamaichi for seventy years: “Show me the way to go home.”
Tule Lake was the last internment camp to close, and Yamaichi was the last inmate to leave it. He was given a raise—to 35 cents an hour—and hired to inventory all the buildings after the other prisoners left. His primary task was to make sure no dead bodies were left behind. He didn’t find any.
On 31 May 1946, four years after he and his family left home, Yamaichi boarded a train and rejoined his family on their San Jose farm. He didn’t want to farm and soon moved to Los Angeles, where he earned a contractor’s license, and met and married Eiko Tanaka. Yamaichi started a contracting business specializing in residential and commercial buildings, and for the next four decades he made a living to provide for his family. Like most former internees, he was rebuilding his life in an environment still sometimes hostile to Japanese Americans. Also, like most, he didn’t talk about the indignities of camp life or his indignation over losing his rights as an American citizen. “You just keep struggling,” he says with a wan smile.
“I found that infuriating,” says Tom Izu, a fifty-six-year-old third-generation Sansei who is executive director of De Anza College’s California History Center. “Something significant happened to them, and they had no way to talk about it.”
While Yamaichi and other second-generation Nisei were getting on with their lives, their children were growing up in the caldron of the Civil Rights Movement and the rebellious 1960s. It was in classrooms, not living rooms, that they learned about the humiliation and degradation their families endured in internment camps. When they tried to talk to their parents, however, they were often met with stony-faced silence.
Tom Izu joined the student and community activists who, along with a handful of former inmates, were pushing for redress for the injustice of Japanese-American incarceration. In 1974, they organized the first of what would become biannual pilgrimages to Tule Lake to educate the larger community and provide a way for generations of Japanese Americans to come together to discuss their shared history. A combination of grassroots agitating and political lobbying led to the 1988 Civil Liberties Act, under which Izu and other campaigners won an official apology to survivors from the United States government. Each received $20,000 as token reparation.
Like many of his generation, Yamaichi was uncomfortable with the redress movement. He was making his way as a contractor in a “white” world and risked losing his clients by speaking out. “Oh sure, I took the $20,000 but I wouldn’t fight for it,” he says. He maintained his silence. But he was curious about the biannual pilgrimages to Tule Lake, which were attracting participants and former prisoners from all ten internment camps. In 1991, he and his wife decided to join “to see what it was all about.”
Graffiti in Tule Lake jail: “Down with America” (datou beikoku). Courtesy Historic American Buildings Survey.
Yamaichi recalls the moment he set foot on the dusty ground where he had endured so much hardship. Twenty-four years later, sitting in the replica barracks in San Jose, his eyes fill with tears. “I can’t explain it—the feeling you get standing on the very ground you walked on for four years as a prisoner.” Seeing the jail—“all that old graffiti and those bars”—spawned an idea: Yamaichi would redeem his past by restoring the jail. He would heal himself by telling his story. “And that’s when I decided. I should come back—to tell what happened to me,” he says.
The Tule Lake pilgrimage transformed Yamaichi, says Izu. “Suddenly Jimi was doing all sorts of stuff—building guard tower replicas, digging up all kinds of relics he somehow got hold of.” Yamaichi joined the Tule Lake Committee and jumped in to support its mission to increase understanding of the imprisonments, especially Tule Lake’s unique role. He joined other members in speaking publicly to school and civic groups about the internment camp experience. After 9/11, Japanese Americans stood side-by-side with Muslim Americans at many events, telling their own story of discrimination to ensure that these injustices were not repeated.
The Tule Lake Committee focused on preserving the internment camp, and in 2006 it was named a national historic landmark. Two years later, the site was designated a national monument. That set the stage for a campaign to restore the jail. National Park Service officials consider it the most significant structure remaining from any of the internment camps.
For Hiroshi Shimizu, president of the Tule Lake Committee, the jail is a symbol of the government’s vindictive treatment of nonviolent dissenters who resisted their unconstitutional imprisonment. The government should be responsible for funding the restoration, he says, but the committee has kick-started the process. They are halfway to their goal of $500,000. The process is moving quickly for a federal bureaucracy—but not fast enough for Yamaichi. “I’m doing the best I can to move it along a little faster,” he says. “I don’t have that much time.”
Jimi Yamaichi in the replica of the Tule Lake barracks he built at the Japanese American Museum of San Jose.Photograph by Jane Braxton Little.
He has been so intent on telling me his story that he has forgotten about his uncomfortable perch on the crude barracks stool, surrounded by the trappings of his four-year confinement. Yamaichi squirms slightly, rises stiffly, and beams the shy smile that has charmed audiences from junior high school students to government officials. The stories he tells orbit in broad arcs that always circle back to the jail, “the monument I built for my own people.” The building that has haunted him is now keeping him alive.
As we leave the museum barracks, Yamaichi wanders up to a fit-looking young man studying a photo display of Japanese American athletes. He starts a casual conversation. “So you were born in Hong Kong,” Yamaichi says, with warmth and genuine interest. “Let me show you the baseball team we had at Tule Lake.” Soon they are in animated discussion, strolling through the exhibit area into the barracks room, and Yamaichi launches into his story for a brand new audience.
Image at top: Tule Lake internment camp barracks in winter, with Castle Rocks in background. Courtesy National Archives and Records Administration.
“To describe this diverse region in such a way as to make comprehensible the many dimensions of the city’s population and the identification of its problems has required years of analysis, millions of pieces of data, hours of computer time, and sometimes heroic assumptions; however, this has all been necessary to enable an evaluation of a city of this scope.”
Los Angeles Community Analysis Bureau, “The State of the City: A Cluster Analysis of Los Angeles,” 1974.
In December 2013, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti issued an executive order instructing each city department to gather all the data it collects and share it on a publicly accessible website by early the following year. In February 2014, he appointed LA’s first Chief Innovation Technology Officer, and a few months later he launched DataLA, the city’s online data portal. The launch, aimed at a generation who had grown up with smart phones, the Internet, and GIS mapping, was promoted with a hackathon hosted at City Hall.
Whether you call the approach “smart cities,” “intelligent cities” or “digital cities,” DataLA puts Garcetti on a growing list of mayors who believe that better use of information technology and data can help them govern cities more effectively, connect residents to city government and resources, and spur high-tech employment. Smart cities have been criticized for prioritizing whiz-bang tech over residents’ basic needs and for their potential to widen the economic gap between the technology haves and have-nots. While those are real concerns, the concept of improved urban governance through better use of information is a promising one.
Like many smart, new ideas, however, it’s not new. It’s not even new to Los Angeles, which has been pursuing computer-assisted data and policy analysis for decades. Beginning in the late 1960s and through most of the 1970s, the little-known Community Analysis Bureau used computer databases, cluster analysis, and infrared aerial photography to gather data, produce reports on neighborhood demographics and housing quality, and help direct resources to ward off blight and tackle poverty.
I have been reading about the history of planning in Los Angeles for years, but the first time I had seen anything by or about the Community Analysis Bureau was when I ran across its insightful-but-weird 1974 report “The State of the City: A Cluster Analysis of Los Angeles” at a library. A data-rich snapshot of LA from forty years ago, the report didn’t categorize Los Angeles into the usual neighborhoods or community plan areas, but into scattered clusters with names like “the singles of Los Angeles,” “the suburbs from the fifties,” “richest of the poor,” “gracious living,” and more. The nomenclature was seemingly drawn more from market research than traditional city planning reports.
I mentally filed it away as just another 1970s urban experiment, an attempt to sort and categorize places across LA’s expanse. As I read more about the methodology, however, I became intrigued by the Community Analysis Bureau’s ambition to create an “Urban Information System” that could be applied to tackle the problems of the day. I wondered whether this urban intelligence had influenced city policy or programs. How had the bureau fared as the politics of planning, poverty alleviation, and land use in the city changed? Was there a trove of lost data moldering somewhere in boxes of punch cards? I looked up documents on the history of the bureau in the city archives and located several former staff members still living in the Los Angeles area. They were gracious enough to share their memories of the bureau’s work.
Cybernetic Urbanism in the Know-How City
In a 1976 essay, British travel writer Jan Morris summed up Los Angeles as “The Know-How City:”
“Remember ‘know-how’? It was one of the vogue words of the forties and fifties… It reflected a whole climate and tone of American thought in the years of supreme American optimism. It stood for… the certainty that America’s particular genius, the genius for applied logic, for systems, for devices, was inexorably the herald of progress. There has never been another town, and now there never will be, quite like… Los Angeles… where the lost American faith in machines and materialism built its own astonishing monument.”
In the years after World War II, that know-how and faith in machines translated, in part, to an interest in computer-assisted social analysis, thanks to the availability of both mainframe computers and large federal grants during the Cold War. Social scientists in particular were interested in exploring the possibilities that data and computers could bring to public policy, as were city planners and architects. In A Second Modernism: MIT, Architecture and the ‘Techno-Social’ Moment, Arindam Dutta writes that for them, “the emphasis on assembling, collating, and processing larger and larger amounts of data” was “paramount in the postwar framing of expertise.”
Data was the key to know-how, and Los Angeles was key to the techno-optimism of the era. Although the region’s lingering reputation may be for unchecked sprawl and popular entertainment, twentieth-century LA was highly planned—and proud of the systems on which it depended: its networks of streetcars and freeways, its flood control and water infrastructure, and its intentionally fragmented municipal and quasi-public governance. Southern California had a huge high-tech cluster in the aerospace industry. Even the Hollywood studios had their “system.” LA was a temple of progress, “the international symbol of the City of the Future,” as Mayor Sam Yorty put it in his introduction to a 1970 Community Analysis Bureau report. By then, the city had been tapping into the technological know-how of the region for more than a decade.
During the 1950s, the city of Los Angeles departments of planning, and building and safety had mocked up computer punch cards for a system they hoped could help track and analyze every piece of property in the city. In 1962, the city submitted a proposal to the Ford Foundation seeking funding for “A Metropolitan Area Fact Bank for the Greater Los Angeles Area.” In proposing the “fact bank,” the mayor’s office noted that Los Angeles “was one of the first non-federal government agencies to use electromechanical and electronic data processing systems in accomplishment of its day-to-day service rendering tasks… the City now staffs and operates thee solid state computers and four electromechanical data processing installations.”
The Ford Foundation rejected the proposal, but LA’s leaders were undeterred. In 1964, the city hired Calvin Hamilton as director of the city planning department, in part due to his success in bringing computer modeling to Pittsburgh. Two years later, Los Angeles applied for federal funding to launch a community analysis program that would perform “a comprehensive analysis of the entire city” in order to “prevent further inroads of a physical, economic, and social nature which contribute to… obsolescence.” The city had better luck this time. The grant was approved, and the following year, in January 1967, Mayor Yorty approved an ordinance creating “a department of City Government known as the Community Analysis Bureau.”
Bytes vs. Blight
Like many American cities, LA had been studying and trying to prevent, cure, or clear “slums” for decades. At the end of World War II, the city’s housing authority issued an annual report entitled “A Decent Home…An American Right,” which proclaimed, “No city can thrive when 176,000 of its citizens are living under unsafe and insanitary conditions. The substandard houses in Los Angeles with their filth, squalor, and foul environmental influences are a costly menace and disgrace to our city.” Planners and policy makers believed that badly maintained housing threatened the prosperity, health, and morals, not just of low-income populations living in substandard homes, but of the broader metropolitan area. This was the era of urban redevelopment: Los Angeles’s planning, health, housing, and building departments had created alarming maps showing concentrations of tuberculosis cases, housing without plumbing, juvenile delinquency, and other indicators of poverty.
In forming the Community Analysis Bureau, Los Angeles sought new tools to address the old challenges of deteriorating housing by providing detailed local data to identify neighborhoods showing early signs of obsolescence. The city had razed “blighted” housing in Chavez Ravine in the early 1950s and, when the CAB launched in the late 1960s, was using federal funding to redevelop the Bunker Hill area. The bureau’s data would help identify blighted areas across the city for renewal efforts like these and inform measures aimed at alleviating the poverty that led to blight in the first place.
Data Hunting and Gathering
The US Census Bureau had gathered and reported statistics on housing quality between 1940 and 1960. The agency stopped directly rating housing quality after finding that only one-third of the units they labeled as dilapidated would be considered so by trained housing inspectors. After 1960, the Census Bureau recommended looking at other characteristics such as building age, lack of plumbing, and overcrowding to infer housing quality.
The Community Analysis Bureau adapted and developed a range of technologies and analytic approaches to assess housing (and related social) conditions to fill this void left by the Census Bureau, and provide detailed local data to identify neighborhoods showing early signs of obsolescence. Computerized data storage and retrieval were centerpieces of the bureau’s planned work with the ultimate goal of helping policy makers plan and budget city responses.
First, however, the bureau had to digitize and centralize relevant information from the US Census, the Los Angeles Police Department, the LA County Assessor, and other private and public sources using the city’s existing IBM-360 mainframe computers. As a partial step toward a comprehensive Los Angeles Urban Information System, the bureau created a database using 220 staff-identified data categories as the nucleus of its database. This eventually expanded to 550 categories available to analyze individual census tracts.
In 1974, the CAB recommended a strategy of cluster analysis to allow “the data to suggest its own ‘natural’ grouping.” Clustering could identify parts of the city that might be geographically far apart but shared important social and physical characteristics. Bureau staff chose sixty-six key items from the database, including population, ethnicity, education, housing, and crime data, and an environmental quality rating.
Using a combination of hierarchical and reallocative clustering procedures, Thomas A. Smuczynski developed the cluster analysis techniques used by the Community Analysis Bureau, and his colleagues programmed the city’s existing mainframe computers in City Hall using Fortran and COBOL. Smuczynski told me that the city was able to hire talented computer programmers in the early 1970s due to layoffs in the aerospace industry. City data was processed with the computer programs SPSS (Statistical Package for the Social Sciences) and BioMed, a data analysis program created at UCLA.
Using Smuczynski’s techniques, LA’s 750 census tracts were sorted into thirty clusters. Cluster 2, for example, was “The Singles of Los Angeles.” It contained “a very young population with an average age of thirty-three, living in high-density new apartment buildings.” Seven of the nineteen census tracts in this cluster were located adjacent to one another in West Los Angeles and Brentwood. Other tracts with similar young, single, apartment dwellers were found in Palms, Baldwin Hills, Del Ray Palisades, Hollywood, and Bunker Hill.
Cluster analysis also revealed correlations between data and social outcomes. Bureau staff noticed that it didn’t’t take sixty-six data types to pinpoint which parts of the city had the worst blight and poverty. Three sets of data considered together—birth weight of infants, sixth-grade reading scores, and age of housing—emerged as an accurate indicator for housing decline and socioeconomic disadvantage.
Even with a vast array of data at their fingertips, evaluating the physical state of more than a million housing units spread out over Los Angeles’s nearly 500 square miles was an enormous challenge for the bureau—so bureau staff took to the air. A 1970 report from the bureau noted that “the use of color infrared (CIR) aerial photography offers immediate aid as a relatively inexpensive means of locating those areas most affected by conditions of blight and obsolescence.”
The city’s aerial analysis was led by Robert Mullens II. As a graduate student at UCLA, Mullens wrote his master’s thesis on ways to analyze housing quality from aerial photography, and he was hired by the Community Analysis Bureau to refine these techniques for application in Los Angeles. He recommended that the city use color infrared aerial photography due to its ability to penetrate haze and to show vegetation quality and small objects.
Aerial photography had evolved by this period into a widely used tool for everything from surveying land and analyzing forest health to fighting the war in Vietnam. In her 2004 book From Warfare to Welfare: Defense Intellectuals and Urban Problems in Cold War America, Jennifer Light underscores the intertwined military and civilian origins of aerial photography. She explores how some of the procedures used for urban planning in the 1960s and 1970s—not just aerial photography but also computer analysis and the very metaphor of the cybernetic city—derived partly from Cold War military research. I mentioned this thesis to Gary Booher, who helped Mullens analyze aerial photos of Los Angeles at the Community Analysis Bureau. Booher replied that whatever the military-civilian cross-fertilization on urban policy, the bureau never had access to higher resolution defense department cameras and photographs.
After trial runs over Watts and parts of Northeast LA, the city contracted with aerial survey agencies to conduct overflights of the entire city in 1971 and 1978. Cameras mounted in light planes took color infrared photos at a 1:6000 scale. Mullens and his colleagues developed a point system to rate the environmental quality of census tracts based on these aerial photos. The purpose was to measure housing quality “by photo interpretation of selected surrogate characteristics of the neighborhood residential environment.” Each photo sheet was looked at and rated by three city staffers to derive an average score of between 1 and 10 (a lower number meant fewer problems and better environmental quality). Some of the characteristics considered were vacant land, land uses, street conditions, trash, the presence and quality of vegetation, house and lot size, and the presence of “convenience structures” like patios and swimming pools.
City staff drove through a sample of neighborhoods to verify the accuracy of their aerial ratings. These “windshield” observation of dwellings for visual signs of dereliction, plus data from city building inspections and Los Angeles County assessors, helped tweak the environmental quality ratings. The ratings showed that the “City’s center has the worst environmental quality, with the next poorest quality classes forming concentric rings around the downtown area.” The map from the 1978 flyover shows dark areas (bad environmental and housing quality) clustered downtown and to the south and east of downtown. Estimates from this analysis showed that nearly 150,000 dwellings—13 percent of LA’s housing stock—could be considered substandard. Most of these needed only minor repair, but 4,807 units—0.4 percent of the city total—were considered truly dilapidated and beyond rehabilitation.
While Mullens and Booher still think that aerial photography and the bureau’s rating system were a fairly accurate way to locate housing in need of repair, they acknowledge, in Booher’s words, that “economic bias crept in.” Rating criteria favored homes with residents who could afford to maintain landscaping, extend decks, and build pools. The focus on lush plantings in those 1970s assessments also seems dated; xeriscaping in today’s drought-conscious California would not rate well using their methodology.
From Analysis to Action
The bureau’s data and analyses were intended to spur interventions in the city. An early report on the bureau’s methodology used the analogy of a “thermostat that samples changes in data… and, based on these measurements, or studies, makes recommendations to operating and staff agencies of the City as to the differences in the desired City climate and the actual.” The city’s data-driven climate control would help to regulate everything from crime rates to unemployment to traffic. That broad range of recommendations reflects the ambitions of the late sixties and early seventies, when urban planners claimed a broader mandate than we are used to today. As the bureau’s first “State of the City” report explained, “It has become obvious that the traditional approach to urban renewal, the treatment only of physical problems, is not adequate… to deal with the social, economic, and physical nature of urban decay.” Recommendations from that report included raising family incomes above poverty level, placing all needy three-to-four-year-olds into preschool, and spurring the construction of 7,000 to 9,000 low-to-moderate income housing units per year, in addition to those already planned.
As a kind of think tank inside city hall, the Community Analysis Bureau lacked authority to launch its ideas into action, but the timing was right to explore ways to address inequality. In 1973, Los Angeles elected Tom Bradley, who was known to be more committed to assisting disadvantaged neighborhoods and to addressing racial disparities than his conservative predecessor Mayor Sam Yorty, as its first African American mayor. The next year, the federal government created the community development block grant program to fund redevelopment, social services, and infrastructure in high-poverty neighborhoods. According to Romerol Malveaux, whose first job was conducting research and administering grants for the Community Analysis Bureau and who remains a community activist forty-five years later, the data that the bureau generated helped Los Angeles become the first city to receive community development block grants. LA used these funds to expand social services, maintain streets, and build libraries and parks in low-income areas. Detailed data at the census tract level even allowed the city to identify high-poverty pockets eligible for block grants in wealthier council districts.
But in the end, the bureau was a victim of its own success. The data it collected proved so useful in securing federal grant money that the city focused the bureau’s activities on grant development and administration, with continued data analysis to justify these funds. Instead of using research to guide the city’s actions, the bureau wound up reacting to the city’s predetermined goals as set out in funding applications. The bureau was folded into a new Community Development Department in the mayor’s office in 1977, where the Community Analysis and Planning Division of the department continued to issue reports until 1980, after which the “community analysis » name was retired.
Legacy and Lessons
Today, most people working on planning, housing, and economic development in Los Angeles have never heard of the Community Analysis Bureau. Having spoken to former bureau staff members and having read through some of its reports, I think that the history of the bureau—its mission, strategies, accomplishments, and shortcomings—are worth sharing. This early effort to apply computer analysis to the social and physical challenges of a big city might hold some lessons for our contemporary era of big data, smart cities, and digital urbanism.
The bureau never achieved the full ambitions of its founders to create a control panel for what we call a “smart city” today. Gary Booher, who joined the project when it shifted into the Community Development Department, described the 1970s technology as just too “embryonic” to allow real-time data to flow to decision makers who could adjust policies and practices on the fly.
Despite this limitation, staff members who helped develop the bureau’s methods believe that they were worth exploring. Thomas Smuczynski, Robert Mullens II, and Romerol Malveaux all told me that it was exciting to be working on new techniques for understanding Los Angeles. They also found it rewarding to know that their work had helped identify places and problems where grants could help improve people’s lives.
But the ultimate failure of the Community Analysis Bureau suggests that data analysis needs to be better linked to planning, policy, and even advocacy. The bureau wasn’t closely allied with social movements that might have pushed for changes related to the agency’s findings, nor was it sufficiently integrated into the structure of decision making and budgeting in the city. With no core constituency in the heart of city government, the bureau’s findings were easy to dismiss as interesting but inessential factoids. Bureau employees predicted this problem in 1970 in a report that noted, “Political realities must be very carefully amalgamated with the tools of technology. This amalgamation will be difficult at best since, by design, the conclusions of technology tend to be objective, while those of politics tend to be subjective and emotional.” The bureau might not have won any friends in City Hall with self-important statements like these, but there’s some truth there, too.
The bureau may not have brought about the technocratic decision making its early proponents hoped for, but Romerol Malveaux told me that the Community Analysis Bureau did advance equality in a Los Angeles stratified from decades of segregation by providing information on what needs existed in the city’s many neighborhoods. There are some hopeful signs that LA’s current smart city efforts have those same inclusive goals. The winners of the hackathon launching LA’s open data portal were a team of high school student’s whose app is intended to help deliver supplies to homeless shelters. One of the city’s first funded efforts to apply an innovation approach to governance will be an effort to understand whether LA can have revitalization without displacement.
We should judge the data generated by and for smart cities by its social relevance as well as by the volume of it made available publicly and the processing power and analysis harnessed by the city, the private sector, and academia. Could digital urbanism help narrow the growing gap between society’s 1s and 0s? Will smarter cities help us steer below a 2-degree Celsius rise in global temperature? If intelligent cities and open data can advance knowledge, efficiency, equity, and sustainability, a new generation of community analysis might fulfill the techno-optimism that took root in 1960s and 1970s Los Angeles and is back with us today.
Mark Vallianatos is policy director of the Urban & Environmental Policy Institute and teaches at Occidental College. He would like to thank Thomas Smuczynski, Robert Mullens II, Romerol Malveaux, and Gary Booher for their insights, and LA City Archivist Michael Holland and UEPI research assistant Amelia Buchanan for helping locate files on the bureau.
An earlier version of this article misspelled Robert Mullens II’s name.
 Los Angeles Community Analysis Bureau, “State of the City II: A Cluster Analysis of Los Angeles,” City of Los Angeles, 1974, 181; Los Angeles Community Analysis Bureau, “Priorities of Need,” City of Los Angeles, July 1974, 1.
 Interview with Thomas Smuczynski, 12 August 2014.
 Los Angeles Community Analysis Bureau, “State of the City II: A Cluster Analysis of Los Angeles,” 14–17.
 Interview with Thomas Smuczynski, 12 August 2014; Interview with Romerol Malveaux, 12 August 2014.
 Charles W. Johnson and Robert H. Mullens II, “A Practical Method for the Collection and Analysis of Housing and Urban Environment Data: An Application of Color Infrared Photography,” Community Analysis Bureau, City of Los Angeles, April 1970, 2.
 Interview with Robert Mullens II, 24 September 2014.
 Jennifer S. Light, From Warfare to Welfare, 95–123.
 Interview with Gary Booher, 20 November 2014.
 Johnson and Mullens, “A Practical Method for the Collection and Analysis of Housing and Urban Environment Data,” 11; Interview with Robert Mullens II, 24 September 2014.
 Community Development Department, Community Analysis & Planning Division, “Housing Quality in the City of Los Angeles,” 1980, City of Los Angeles, 14.
In the 2009 preface to the new edition of his book Water and the West, Norris Hundley, Jr. wrote: “Water is today, as it was when the first edition of this book appeared thirty-five years ago, among mankind’s greatest concerns, a problem that remains a crisis of worldwide importance. Scientists, statesmen, environmental groups, and people everywhere recognize that water is a resource not to be taken for granted. Even those areas with considerable water are struggling with pollution and problems of management that worsen yearly as population grows and industry and agriculture expand.”
“No area of the world is more aware of the current water crisis than western America,” he asserted, “a vast arid and semiarid region embracing nearly half the continent of North America. Except for a strip along the north Pacific coast and isolated areas in the high mountains, the West is a region of sparse rainfall and few rivers. The implications of these facts of geography have been enormous. From the time of the first settlers to the present, few westerners have failed to comprehend that control of the West’s water means control of the West itself—its industry, agriculture, population distribution, and, withal, the direction of the future. Because the West has always had a water problem, its experiences provide valuable insights into the crises faced by other water-shy areas; and they also offer a preview of the even more serious problems that must involve the entire nation and the rest of the world as population grows.”
A Dutch photojournalist recently visited my office to talk about “disputed waters.” That’s actually the title of a project he is working on with colleagues—journalists, photographers, and videographers—around the world. They’re exploring stories about transboundary rivers—the Nile, the Mekong, the Jordan, the Danube and Rhine, and the Colorado—rivers that are a source of conflict because of climate change and increasing populations of people dependent on their waters. They’re working on a multimedia website, a book, and a traveling exhibition.
I’ve written about water in the American West for going on thirty years, and I did my best to help him, knowing all along that the person he really should have been talking to is no longer with us. But his books are.
If you’re like me, you probably have people you feel like you know through their work, although you’ve never gotten to know them in person. I wish I had had the opportunity to get to know Norris Hundley in person before he died in 2013. I’m deeply grateful that I’ve had not just the opportunity, but the necessity of getting to know him through his work. Because you cannot claim to care about understanding water in California and the broader American West—and, I daresay, understanding the state and region as a whole—without knowing the work of Norris Hundley, Jr. And there is, I believe, no way to read and know his work without getting to know a great deal about the man.
So I’d like to share with you what it is like to know a great historian through his great work.
Let’s start with the boundary waters the Dutch journalist was interested in, since that is where Norris started. (Because I feel as though I have come to know him through his work, I’d like to call him Norris here.)
Norris’s first book, Dividing the Waters: A Century of Controversy Between the United States and Mexico, came out of his dissertation at the University of California, Los Angeles, and it was published by UC Press in 1966. We historians treasure objects that give us a feeling for a particular time and place. I have an inscribed copy that looks and feels and, I like to think, even has the smell of a small, personal, scholarly library of someone, I imagine, who loved Southern California and the West, but also wanted to understand it critically, to be a part of it. It is a book I like to think I might have found in my grandfather’s home in Pasadena when we came to visit when I was just a kid in the sixties. He owned and ran Vroman’s bookstore with his cousins. I’d sit on the floor there and pull books off the shelf and read. But what I remember more is my grandfather’s personal library stuffed with books about California and the West.
Looking back, I realize I’m letting time slip. Norris’s book would have been brand new then, not the copy I now hold in my hands nearly fifty years later. Although this book is burnished by time, it still speaks to me now of our history, of this moment even, and of the man who wrote it.
“This has been a difficult book to write,” Norris states in the preface, “not only because the subject matter is often technical, but also because it deals with events that were—and still are—highly controversial.”
Note that “still are” remains true today.
He continued: “The great need for water in the arid southwestern United States and northern Mexico understandably prompted sharp conflicts between the countries as well as among the citizens within each country. For this reason, objectivity on the part of participants in the story has been almost impossible to find, and, obviously, it has not been easy—and sometimes has been impossible—to determine which side had the stronger case on a particular domestic or international issue. Nevertheless, judgments have been rendered where it was thought possible, and I candidly admit that some of them will not please everyone.”
There it is: the clear voice of the historian, aware that his sources come with strong points of view, to say the least, and aware that while he has done his best to practice objectivity—be faithful to his sources and present their arguments fairly, even as a debate of vital importance to his own region continued to rage around him—the historian has a point of view too, and will render judgment, openly inviting continuing debate.
Norris concluded Dividing the Waters with these words: “The United States and Mexico have made significant headway in the nearly century-long battle over their border streams, and, hopefully, their record of successes and failures will benefit other nations faced with similar problems. But any benefits that have been achieved should not be marred by neglecting to solve newer points of controversy.”
Here we have, in his first book, what I think of as the Norris Hundley point of view: broad-minded—he’s thinking about other places in the world facing similar challenges that might benefit from his history; fair about the progress, that “significant headway,” that had been made in the face of all kinds of problems; and aware of the challenges ahead—in the sentence before this conclusion he pointed to two of them: water quality and the vagueness of treaty provisions regarding the meaning of “extraordinary drought”—words that have an eerie resonance today.
Water and the West
Dividing the Waters examined the history of three rivers shared by Mexico and the United States: the Rio Bravo del Norte or Rio Grande, the Colorado, and the much smaller, but still very complicated Tijuana River. In his next book, Water and the West: The Colorado River and the Politics of Water in the American West, Norris took hold of the most vexing river’s history and wrestled it to the ground, mostly. I say “mostly,” because he would return to this history again and again.
“This book is about the greatest conflict over water in the American West,” he wrote. “To be more precise, it is primarily a book about an alleged peace treaty, the Colorado River Compact. But like most books about peace, it is really an account of war. No bullets were fired in this war, yet the life and death of cities and states in an enormous area were at stake. The Colorado River drains the entire left-hand corner of the continental United States. It is not a particularly heavy-flowing stream (ranking about sixth among the nation’s major rivers), but it is virtually the sole dependable water supply for an area of 244,000 square miles, including parts of seven western states—Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, Nevada, Arizona, California—and Mexico. Its influence is also felt far beyond its own watershed, for its waters have been diverted hundreds of miles and used to stimulate and sustain the urban, industrial, and agricultural growth of other areas such as eastern Colorado, western Utah, and the coastal plain of Southern California, a vast megalopolis stretching from north of Los Angeles to the Mexican border.”
I’ve come to wonder what Norris really thought about Los Angeles, which he called “the West’s most notorious water hustler.” I would have liked to talk with him about what seems, from his writing, to have become something of a love-hate relationship with this city and the role it has played in shaping California and the American West.
Norris was born in Texas, but California became his home from a young age. He met his wife Carol at San Gabriel Mission High; they fell in love and were married a year before Norris graduated from Whittier College in 1958. After receiving his Ph.D. in History in 1963 from UCLA, he taught at the University of Houston for a year before returning to UCLA, where he would spend his entire, enormously productive career, a career that helped shape not just the history of water in the West, but several other fields, as an advisor, mentor, colleague, and editor of the Pacific Historical Review for three decades.
In Water and the West, Norris worked several important veins in Western history. First, he put the Colorado River Compact in the context of federalism: “the attempt,” as he wrote, “of the Colorado River Basin states to work out their shared destiny in concert with the government in Washington. The attempt has been dogged almost from the start by conflicting notions of sovereignty, as each side has sought to assert its supremacy in areas jealously coveted by the other.”
In Western history, we sometimes say that the modern American West is a child of the federal government. You know the trope: the college student revels in the freedom, but still emails the parents to “send money.” As Norris wrote of his own work, “a prominent theme is the western desire to tap into federal largesse without incurring federal control.” But, as he noted, “the attempt to get the purse without the purse strings proved an impossible task” in the creation of the compact, as well as in a host of other projects that required the federal government to help build the American West.
The second vein that Norris continued to work in Water and the West was international. “Mexico is present in the Colorado River Basin,” he wrote, “though denied participation in the compact negotiations. Another international dimension,” though beyond the scope of his book, he continued, “emerges from a realization that other countries (most notably Egypt, Sudan, India, Pakistan, Israel, and Jordan) have looked to the compact for insights into the handling of their own water problems.”
Norris was well aware of what we now like to call the “transnational” dimensions of much of our history. The compact, he wrote, was “the first and most significant treaty of its kind, and one that has inspired a host of similar pacts.” The history of the American West, as he wrote it, is not a history of exceptionalism, a history told in isolation. It is a history tied to world.
There was one more significant prospect that Norris opened up in Water and the West, which would continue to shape his work. Historians had tended to see the conflict over water from the Colorado River, and other water conflicts in the West, “in simplistic terms,” he wrote, “in which advocates of cheap public power battled with the monopolistic forces of private industry—the ‘power trust.’ There was such a battle,” he continued, “but public agencies—federal, state, local, and municipal—also battled among themselves, as revealed in the conflicts among groups such as the city of Los Angeles, the state of Arizona, the Interior Department, and powerful chartered agencies such as the Imperial Irrigation District and the Salt River Valley Water Users’ Association.”
It’s not for nothing that we often talk of western water wars. What Norris showed is that at times this looked not so much like the imperial, all-knowing conquest of a hydraulic society in the American West, but instead like a chaotic war of all against all, in which, as he wrote, “no bullets were fired,” “yet the life and death of cities and states in an enormous area were at stake.” Or, what we might just call democracy, messy democracy, a theme to which Norris would return, again and again.
A reviewer in the Western Political Quarterly, called Water and the West “vivid…. A well-documented case study of how not to go about making public policy.”
We’re taught to resist the temptation of responding to reviewers, at least in print, but I like to imagine Norris, in private, saying something like “perhaps the worst way of going about making public policy on the Colorado River, except for all those other ways that were tried before the compact.”
Which is not to say that Norris was not critical of the compact. He was very critical of the compact, from its foundation on lousy data, which estimated average river flows based on a series of the wettest years on record, to the way apportionment was mandated, which guaranteed that upper-basin states would have to deliver flows to the lower-basin states even during dry years, to the lawsuits that resulted, and the ways in which the compact has limited innovation.
Norris Hundley, as far as I can tell from reading his work, resisted simplification, which is not the same as clarity, I hasten to add. His prose was clear and direct, even as he waded into some of the most complex situations imaginable—and water in the West is nothing if not complex.
In his next book, The Great Thirst, a magnum opus for those of who know and love and hope to understand California, Norris fully integrated two more complexities in this history: Native American water rights and the environment. The first, he had already begun to explore in Water and the West, as tribal rights to water figured in Arizona v. California, the key Supreme Court case that settled compact claims in the lower basin, although, as Norris showed, the decision was based on a misreading of the historical record. Moreover, while the Supreme Court could decree peace, it could not end water wars in the West.
“‘Basin of Contention’ would be an apt name for what generations have called the Colorado River Basin,” he wrote in a new epilogue to Water and the West in 2009. “A limited supply of water in a vast arid and semiarid region is hardly a recipe for tranquility among those who covet that water. The drafters of the compact were clearly aware of that truism, but they nonetheless failed to determine with reasonable accuracy the long-term annual flow of the Colorado River…. They had a glaring need for sound information, but no concerted effort was made to call on the scientific community for help. The drafters were mesmerized by their desire for haste and their political and personal goals. Without authoritative information, they had an opportunity to pick and choose information that best suited their interests and uncertainties—and that is what they did. The situation would not change significantly until others recognized and studied the importance of tree-ring data—data that revealed a distinct pattern, going back centuries, of severe and lengthy droughts, and the probability that this pattern will continue in the future. The consequences of the compact remain with us.”
In that epilogue, Norris pointed to other issues that would continue to complicate water in the West: the threat of global warming, endangered species, a resurgence of Native American water rights claims, and here in California, the fate of the delta of the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers and the proposal formerly known as the peripheral canal. “As I write this, no one knows when the current imbroglio—which involves much more than a peripheral canal—will end,” Norris concluded in 2009. “But if the past is any clue to the future, there are years of arguing and grumbling ahead.”
The Great Thirst
The Great Thirst: Californians and Water: A History would have been the achievement of a lifetime for any historian. But Norris wrote it not just once but twice. The first version was published in 1992 and instantly became the definitive history of water in California. In 2001, Norris significantly revised the book.
“Even this edition cannot pretend to have the last word on such a complex topic characterized by both fast-breaking and ponderously slow developments,” he wrote. “Such is the fate of any attempt foolish enough to try to keep abreast of history as it is being made. An impossible task, of course, and it is further complicated because water issues are so closely intertwined with the core elements of California’s (and the American West’s) political, economic, legal, and cultural evolution.”
The Great Thirst is a great book, the kind of book that can be written only by a someone in the full confidence of his powers as a historian and a writer, knowing his subject backward and forward, and guided by a vision informed by a lifetime of research, enriched by arguments with his sources, other scholars, and even himself, and based on a foundation of caring, dare I say, love.
Because it’s clear to this reader that Norris Hundley loved California, even as he kept a sharp, critical eye on “the nation’s preeminent water seeker,” or as he modified that in The Great Thirst, “collection of water seekers.” Norris was nothing if not precise in his prose and in his arguments and ideas.
The Great Thirst is guided, much more than his earlier books, by a concern with what he called “the dynamic interplay between human values and what human beings do to the waterscape.” This is no longer a kind of political and diplomatic history brought to the realm of water wars along the United States-Mexico border and on the Colorado River. To be sure, it still has that solid, detailed grounding in politics, economics, and the law, but The Great Thirst is also about a cultural collective. It is, as the subtitle says, a history of “Californians and water.”
This story runs from California before Europeans arrived right up to the twenty-first century. It chronicles the appearance of what Norris called “a new kind of social imperialist whose goal was to acquire the water of others and prosper at their expense, a goal that catapulted California into a modern colossus while also producing monumental conflicts and social costs. At the same time,” he wrote, “this is a story of extraordinary feats of fulfilling basic social needs, in which communities mobilized and focused their political energies on providing abundant clear water to multitudes of people who expressly wanted it done.”
Here Norris took precise aim in an internecine skirmish among historians in these larger western water wars. You know the saying: “You come at the king, you best not miss.” Well, there is another great book, by a friend of mine, a great historian too, Donald Worster, called Rivers of Empire, which argues that our western American hydraulic societies created, as Norris wrote, “a powerful, highly centralized, and despotic ruling elite like that found in the irrigation society of Karl Wittfogel’s classic Oriental Despotism: A Comparative Study of Total Power.”
“The evidence presented here does not reveal” that, Norris argued. And here, I think, as much as I love Don Worster, Norris Hundley does not miss:
“Rather, the California record discloses a wide and often confused and crosscutting range of interest groups and bureaucrats, both public and private, who accomplish what they do as a result of shifting alliances and despite frequent disputes among themselves. Because of their multiplicity of interests, different combinations of them at different times and for different reasons worked vigorously on behalf of particular projects, but each success brought more growth, which intensified hostility and the competition for supplies always perceived as inadequate. Thus, conflict, rivalry, and localism have permeated the development process, exacerbating the human and environmental costs, with the public, until recently, cheerleading with ballots and in other ways the aqueducts, dams, and reservoirs. There is, of course, some system and order to what has been accomplished, but it is found in attitudes toward the environment, in local and regional considerations (especially California’s traditional north-south rivalry), in interest-group pressures, in the give-and-take of political battle, and it is understood within the larger context of American political culture and policy-making and in the ways in which the national culture resonates in California.”
In the view that Norris gives us, we can no longer blame our predicament on despotic elites. To quote Pogo: “We have met the enemy and he is us.”
Or as Norris writes: “When viewed from both local and national perspectives, California’s water achievements have resulted ultimately from the support and encouragement of the people, who have considered themselves participants in a booming economy made possible by great hydraulic projects. These projects have included the ambitious flood control, reclamation, and irrigation programs of the late nineteenth century; the twentieth-century urban aqueducts to the Owens Valley, Mono Basin, and Hetch Hetchy; the massive federal multipurpose ventures pioneered nationally in the Boulder Canyon Project and replicated in the Central Valley Project; and California’s own State Water Project, the largest public enterprise ever undertaken by a state.”
But, but, and here is the key, turning in the lock:
“Just as the electorate has sanctioned these ventures,” Norris writes, “so too have the people of California begun to register second thoughts, especially over the last several decades. Spiraling costs, runaway urbanization, gridlocked streets and highways, environmental damage, a decline in the quality of life, heavy public expense in the exorbitant subsidies to agriculture, inefficient and wasteful water practices, the persistence of poor working conditions for those laboring in California’s fields—all have contributed to mounting demands for reform.”
Norris knew these reforms were “piecemeal, fitful, and frequently more symbolic than real,” but he believed in reform. He also believed, after years of studying the successes and failures on the border, on the Colorado, and in California, that “the lack of informed and consistent leadership in Sacramento and Washington” did not augur well for the state he loved. In a move that mystified Don Worster, who thought that centralization of power was the root of all evil in water, Norris even argued that we need to centralize more control of water at the state level in order to get better management of water statewide. It was a conclusion drawn from deep knowledge about this “collection of water seekers” called California. It makes sense. We are beginning to see that happen in Sacramento, though still in fits and starts, of course. I know I shouldn’t say this as a historian, but some things never change.
“No one has ever argued that democracy is a perfect form of government,” Norris dryly observed as he brought The Great Thirst to a close. In fact, far from perfect, as his life’s work had shown, when it came to water in California and the American West.
I didn’t know Norris Hundley. I wish I had. I would have liked to talk with him about all of this, but also about something that many of us don’t talk about much outside of our profession: his theory of history. Every historian has one, even if they don’t think they do. The best, like Norris, don’t wear it on their sleeves.
I like to try to teach my students to understand and even develop their own theory of history, particularly if they are not going to go on to become historians (if they do, they’ll have plenty of time for that; but for some of my students, my class may be their only chance). I reveal to them my own theory of history as we work through a class I’ve called “Climate Change in the West: A History of the Future,” though it can also be set in California, or even Los Angeles. We work through books like Norris’s, filled with the messy particulars of nations, states, institutions, policies, laws, economy, cultures, rocks and soils, plants and animals, and groups and individuals. We think about the structures of these things, how they endure and are reproduced by all of us as we go about our daily lives, but also how they change because of contingency—things happen, the St. Francis Dam fails, Arizona wins a key decision in the Supreme Court, the Peripheral Canal is voted down, the Mono Lake Committee prevails on the public trust doctrine—and because of agency, people have power to make things happen, especially in a democracy.
That’s what I want the future engineers and lawyers, politicians and environmental advocates, scientists and teachers to take away from my class. I want them to understand the constraints that have been created by our history of transforming California’s landscape, the limitations of politics and institutions, the ways in which power reproduces itself and makes it difficult to change. I also want them to understand the ways things change, as Norris wrote, in ways that are often at the same time “ponderously slow” and “fast-breaking.”
I have a feeling, from reading his work and listening to colleagues talk about his teaching, that Norris and I might have had some good, long conversations about all of this. And I miss them.
To my ear, Norris always had a small-d democratic voice, a small-p progressive voice. A pragmatic, reformist voice. A moral voice. From the beginning to the end. As I read through his life’s work, I hear that voice growing steadily stronger through the years, gaining clarity, confidence, authority, and passion.
It is a voice that represents the very best of our profession. It is a voice that has a strong point of view but nevertheless follows the careful practices of objectivity. It is a popular voice that is accessible to all, judicious in its use of evidence, fair in its presentation of all arguments, and generous in its humanity.
This is a voice our state and our world needs. It is a voice that is missing from our public square today, but a voice that is still here in these books, for others to take up and bring into the world, to do work in the world. I am glad Norris Hundley, Jr. is still with us in his work.
In 1961 three remarkable women—Kay Kerr, Sylvia McLaughlin, and Ester Gulick— started Save the Bay, a grassroots citizens’ movement to preserve and protect San Francisco Bay. It turned out to be one of the most successful efforts at environmental activism in American history. As University of California, Berkeley geography professor Richard Walker has observed, the movement transformed the popular vision of the bay from a “place of production and circulation of goods and people… of no more aesthetic or spiritual import than today’s freeways” to a “vast scenic, recreational, and ecological open space.” New public policies ended bay fill, promoted the restoration of marshes and wetlands, and opened hundreds of miles of bay shoreline to the public. The bay became “the visual centerpiece of the metropolis, a watery commons for the region, and a source of pride to Bay Area residents.”1
Yet the dramatic achievements of the Save the Bay movement in the 1960s would not have been possible without the defeat of the Reber Plan in the 1950s. John Reber’s proposal to build two giant dams to transform most of the San Francisco Bay into two freshwater lakes would have destroyed the estuary as we know it. Had Reber’s dream come true, there would have been no bay to save. The Reber Plan also became a crucial and lasting symbolic inspiration for the movement to save the bay. Although the history of the Save the Bay movement is well documented, the rise and fall of the Reber Plan is less well known today. Almost entirely forgotten is the personal story of John Reber, a remarkable figure in Bay Area history who seemed to combine the ambition of Robert Moses, New York’s larger-than-life master planner, with the personality and personal frustrations of Willy Loman, the tragic hero of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman.2
Via Flickr user Anika Erdmann.
When twenty-year-old John Reber came to California from his native Ohio in 1907, he planned to become a teacher. But he couldn’t resist the siren call of show business and instead became an actor, director, and writer. He wrote screenplays for Mack Sennet comedies. (Reber said his method was to write tragedies and then “throw in a couple of custard pies” for laughs.) For two decades, he made a good living writing and directing plays and pageants in communities up and down California. Local service clubs such as the Elks usually sponsored the productions, which featured townspeople in the cast. Reber estimated he staged more than 300 performances in sixty towns and cities with local casts of 100 to 5,000 people. This put him in contact with “all the best people,” influential men and women who might later support his bay plan. Senator and former Governor Hiram Johnson said Reber knew more people than anyone else in California. Reber believed his show business experience prepared him to create his grand plan. “What is master planning but stage managing an area?” he asked. According to Reber, the implementation of the plan would be “the greatest pageant on earth.”3
Reber argued the bay was “a geographic mistake,” interfering with the efficient operation of the surrounding metropolis. Because of the bay, the transcontinental railroad ended in Oakland instead of its natural destination, San Francisco. Reber initially favored an earthen causeway to bring the rails directly into the city. But as he traveled around California and learned of the extraordinary value of freshwater to the state’s development, his plan became far more ambitious. By 1929 his proposal included two large earth-filled dams, one located just south of the current Bay Bridge and the other at the approximate location of today’s Richmond-San Rafael Bridge. While the tops of the structures would serve as transportation corridors for rail and auto traffic, the dams would also block saltwater intrusion into both the north and south bays, creating two massive freshwater lakes. Under the Reber Plan, only about 15 percent of the present bay would have remained subject to ocean tides. Reber estimated the lakes would store about 10 million acre-feet of water, more than twice the capacity of Lake Shasta, California’s largest reservoir. The water would have been available for residential and industrial use around the bay and for irrigation in regional agricultural areas such as the Santa Clara Valley.4
The Reber Plan also proposed massive amounts of new bay fill, creating about 20,000 acres of additional dry land on what was once wetlands and open water. The largest fill would have been off the Richmond, Berkeley, Albany, and Emeryville shoreline. The plan envisioned a twelve-mile freshwater channel through these new lands, linking the two lakes and allowing runoff from the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers to circulate in both the north and south waterways. The plan included locks to allow shipping to pass from salt water to freshwater. Reber added features as time went on: additional port facilities, an aqueduct to transport water to the San Joaquin Valley, an airport, a regional transportation terminal, and a high-speed military freeway connecting the Bay Area to Los Angeles. As World War II approached, Reber planned new military elements, including naval bases on filled land along the Marin County shoreline and secure hangars and fuel storage facilities in caves created by the excavation of fill for construction of the earthen dams. Later Reber promoted the proposed transportation corridors as evacuation routes in the event of atomic attack.5 During its nearly thirty years of design and debate, the Reber Plan was an organic document, changing to reflect new circumstances and political realities. But the transportation links and the freshwater lakes remained the key elements of John Reber’s grand vision.
The Reber Plan, via Flickr user Eric Fischer.
Reber belonged to a generation of Americans who had great faith in massive public works. Beginning with the construction of the transcontinental railroad, an enterprise heavily subsidized by the federal government, such projects dramatically affected California’s economic and social development. As early as the 1880s, state engineers studied the concept of saltwater barriers on San Francisco Bay, and in the early twentieth century, a barrier at Carquinez Strait was championed by Contra Costa County business interests concerned about high saltwater content that interfered with industrial processes. Contra Costa industrialists eventually formed the Salt Water Barrier Association to lobby state officials. But by the early 1930s, state engineers had convinced Contra Costa County that the solution to its problem was not a saltwater barrier, but a vast state water project that included high upstream dams on the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers, combined with freshwater pumped from the delta.6 In 1933, California voters approved a bond issue to support the proposal. When the Depression made it difficult for the state to sell the bonds, Washington, D.C. took control of what became the federal Central Valley Project.
Reber initially proposed his plan in the inauspicious year of 1929. Not only was 1929 the beginning of the Great Depression, it coincided with the state engineers’ decision to reject barriers as a solution for Bay Area water problems. In addition, Reber’s plan surfaced as both San Francisco and the East Bay were building public aqueducts to bring Sierra Nevada water to Bay Area cities. Reber’s transportation proposals were upstaged by construction of the Golden Gate and Bay Bridges. Yet in an age of great public works projects that routinely transformed natural systems, Reber’s plan continued to attract attention and support. In 1933, a prominent member of the Elks Club arranged a meeting between Reber and former president Herbert Hoover, who had returned to Stanford University after being defeated for reelection by Franklin Roosevelt. A world-class engineer before going into politics, Hoover proclaimed the Reber Plan “the most complete proposal for the bay.” Hoover’s endorsement gave the project significant credibility and publicity. In 1935, Reber retired from show business to promote the plan full-time. In 1940, he put a model of the proposal on display at the world’s fair on Treasure Island, giving his grand scheme unparalleled public exposure. By 1940, then, the Reber Plan was well launched. For the next two decades it was a matter of intense discussion and debate in the Bay Area, Sacramento, and even Washington, D.C.7
Reber devoted the last twenty-five years of his life to promoting his dream. He had little interest in personal wealth. Supported by savings and contributions from his entourage of “Reberites,” he and his wife lived frugally in a modest San Francisco home. He had almost no staff support, turning out a vast amount of correspondence and other paperwork on his home typewriter. Reber was an unusually friendly man, almost always on a first-name basis with supporters and opponents alike. He loved public attention and was willing to talk to any audience, from local garden clubs, service groups, church gatherings, and chambers of commerce, to statewide meetings of business, labor, and farm organizations. Over the course of more than two decades, he claimed to have given more than a thousand speeches on behalf of the plan. He’d arrive at such events with an impressive array of maps and charts and would lace his presentations with homespun humor. His appearances before legislative committees were often tours de force, with Reber the performer dominating the session.8
But for all his public relations skills, John Reber desperately needed technical credibility. Although he studied the dozens of scholarly papers and reports that seemed to fill every available tabletop in his home, Reber was a high school graduate with no formal engineering training. His ability to gain the support of professional engineers was crucial to his success. Herbert Hoover was the first but not the last of such supporters. Philip G. Bruton, a retired general from the Army Corps of Engineers, became one of Reber’s strongest advocates. Probably the most important of Reber’s supporting engineers was Leon H. Nishkian. A graduate of UC Berkeley, Nishkian headed a distinguished San Francisco engineering firm that participated in many of the state’s most important construction projects. Beginning in 1940, he worked diligently and without compensation on behalf of the Reber Plan. He prepared engineering schematics and illustrations and came up with a highly favorable cost/benefit analysis. Nishkian submitted written testimony to government agencies and lent his considerable professional reputation to the cause. Due at least in part to Nishkian’s influence, The California Engineer, a respected professional journal, concluded that “competent engineers have examined the project closely and feel that it is entirely feasible.” According to Reber, Nishkian’s untimely death in 1947 was “the blow of blows.”9
San Francisco business and political forces were among the powerful interests that rallied behind the plan, believing it would have provided increased regional transportation access to the city’s downtown and, in theory at least, an unlimited supply of freshwater. The central waterfront, the heart of the city’s commercial port, would have remained open to salt water with easy access to the Golden Gate, the only Bay Area port facility with this advantage under the Reber Plan. In 1942, the city’s board of supervisors formally supported the plan, a position enthusiastically backed by Mayor Angelo Rossi. San Francisco’s legislative representatives, including influential assemblyman Thomas Maloney, lobbied for the proposal in Sacramento. Much of the city’s press, particularly the San Francisco Chronicle, also supported the Reber Plan.10
But Oakland and most of the East Bay took a very different position. The Port of Oakland had grown steadily in the 1920s and 1930s, but under the Reber Plan, Oakland’s harbor would have been isolated behind a dam. Oceangoing vessels would have had access only through locks located on the filled land off the Berkeley waterfront. (Much the same was true for the ports of Richmond, Stockton, and Sacramento located behind the northern dam.) Irving Kahn, a prominent Oakland retailer and president of the city’s Downtown Property Association, condemned the Reber Plan as “Hitler Tactics,” a plot by San Francisco to keep Oakland in an inferior competitive position “just because you are bigger than we are.” Both the Oakland City Council and Alameda County Board of Supervisors opposed the plan. James McElroy, president of the Oakland port commission, argued the plan would destroy maritime activity in the East Bay. “There is no reason,” he said, “for taking the bay and chopping it into a pond.”11
California farmers were among the Reber Plan’s strongest supporters. The state’s Farm Bureau Federation backed the proposal, and its Bay Area affiliates, such as the Santa Clara County Farm Bureau, were especially enthusiastic. Santa Clara Valley fruit and vegetable growers, like many Bay Area and Central Valley farmers, expected to gain access to cheap irrigation water pumped from the new lakes. One of Reber’s most enthusiastic backers was John E. Pickett, editor of The California Farmer and The Pacific Rural Press, two San Francisco–based publications with substantial agribusiness readership. The California Farmer became “a rabid oracle of Reberism,” while the Rural Press referred to the plan as “the greatest project ever conceived.” Pickett eventually became president of the San Francisco Bay Project, a nonprofit corporation established to provide John Reber with financial and organizational support. However, agricultural backing was not unanimous. Many delta farmers feared that during intense winter storms the water backed up behind the northern dam would overwhelm delta levies and flood the region’s fields.12
Reber hoped that World War II would increase support for his proposal. He added significant military infrastructure to the plan and argued that the new lakes would provide a secure water supply in case of attack. But Rear Admiral John W. Greenslade, commandant of the Twelfth Naval District, pointed out that the plan would put most of the Bay Area’s naval installations, including the Alameda Naval Air Station and the Mare Island and Hunters Point Naval Shipyards, in freshwater lakes behind the dams. Ships would have to pass through locks, causing “delay and risk to every vessel including danger of a complete blockade.” Admiral Greenslade concluded the Reber Plan “has no merit.”
Reber simply dismissed this, as he did virtually every other criticism. “We are not interested in people unable to grasp what we are driving at,” he said. “We don’t argue with people who are against us, because we know they will be with us eventually.” With Greenslade, at least, that turned out to be the case. After the admiral retired at the end of the war, he had an extraordinary change of heart and became one of Reber’s most prestigious supporters. However, this changed neither the Navy’s nor the Army’s official opposition to the.plan.13
The establishment of a “Joint Army-Navy Board on Additional Crossing of San Francisco Bay” in 1946 gave the Reberites another chance to gain military support. Only a decade old, the Bay Bridge already was experiencing traffic jams. Any new bridge or other trans-bay link required military approval. Reber offered his proposed south bay dam as an obvious answer. Designed to be 2,000 feet wide, it could accommodate thirty-two lanes of auto traffic, in addition to both transcontinental and interurban rail lines. Reber and Nishkian called for the board to approve at least the southern portion of the Reber Plan as part of the solution to the region’s transportation problems.
But after the war, the state of California turned against the Reber Plan, as momentum turned toward a major water project in the Central Valley. State Engineer Edward Hyatt and chairman A.M. Barton of the State Board of Reclamation both testified against the Reber/Nishkian proposal. Carl Schedler, a distinguished consulting engineer who had once been the president of the Contra Costa County Salt Water Barrier Association, also emerged as a formidable opponent. He challenged Nishkian’s optimistic financial projections and argued the plan posed a threat to delta agriculture. While the Army-Navy Board finally concluded that additional bay crossings were needed, it went out of its way to reject the Reber Plan. According to the board, Reber’s proposal “would result in a dislocation of industry, is considered economically unfeasible, and further is untenable from the standpoint of navigation and national interests.”14
If opponents thought that this strong language would deter Reber and his supporters, they were mistaken. In 1949 California Senator Sheridan Downey brought a subcommittee of the US Senate Committee on Public Works to San Francisco to hold public hearings on Reber’s proposal. Downey was sympathetic to the plan, and supporters outnumbered opponents five-to-one on the list of witnesses. John Reber was the first to testify, entertaining the room for more than two hours in response to Downey’s friendly questions. Emphasizing the importance of hydraulic planning, Reber claimed “there was only one man who could live without water and that was W.C. Fields.” When a senator corrected one of Reber’s many biblical quotations, Reber replied, “I do the work and Mrs. Reber does the praying.” After making his usual strong pitch for the transportation and water elements of the plan, Reber discussed the recreational aspects, promising shoreline parks and “the greatest fishing hole in the world.” He admitted the plan might threaten the bay’s sturgeon fishery, but said “if we can get on friendly terms with Stalin…we can get a few eggs from the Volga River and replenish our supply.”15
After Reber’s testimony, San Francisco Bay Project president John Pickett orchestrated the appearance of dozens of additional supporting witnesses, including San Francisco Recreation Department director Josephine Randall, who strongly commended the plan’s recreational components.16 But opponents, though seriously outnumbered, also had their say. Glen Woodruff, an engineer representing Oakland, said the plan would put his city “at a very decided disadvantage competitively.” State Engineer Hyatt repeated his agency’s opposition, and for the first time was joined by representatives of the federal Bureau of Reclamation. Both state and federal witnesses argued that proper management and expansion of the Central Valley Project would secure California’s water future far better than the Reber Plan. Carl Schedler listed a number of technical difficulties, among them the possibility that there would not be enough freshwater to keep the lakes full during the dry summer months. If lake level fell substantially below that of the remaining bay, operation of the locks would dump salt water back into the lakes. The Bureau of Reclamation feared that that the Central Valley Project would be required to divert water from farms and cities to keep the lakes above the saltwater level of the bay. In effect, the opponents argued the plan would create rather than alleviate a water shortage. Nevertheless, the subcommittee concluded that the proposal had promise and deserved further research. In 1950, Congress appropriated $2.5 million to support a comprehensive Army Corps of Engineers study of the Reber Plan.17
The Bay Model, via Flickr user Wayne Hsieh.
The Corps took thirteen years to complete the study, due in part to delays caused by the Korean War and other priorities. But the congressional appropriation was a victory for Reber and his supporters, and it attracted national attention. In November 1950, The Saturday Evening Post, the nation’s most popular weekly magazine, featured an article on the plan, comparing it in scope to Hoover Dam. The author, Frank J. Taylor, said that because of Reber’s advocacy, the proposal had gone from “a harebrained idea to a project backed by an impressive array of engineering brains.” Taylor described “Old Reber,” then sixty-two-years-old, as a compact, blue-eyed man in perpetual motion. He was “spry as a cricket,” “nimble as a goat,” “bouncing from office to office, to meetings, to public hearings,” always selling his plan. The article closed with Reber’s prediction: “We could be pumping freshwater out of the bay in two years.”18
In many respects, the Saturday Evening Post article was the high-water mark for the Reber Plan. Over the next five years, various agencies and branches of state government issued studies that were uniformly critical of the proposal. In 1949, the Assembly Committee on Tidelands Reclamation and Development commissioned John Savage, a well-regarded Denver engineer, to carry out the first independent professional study of the plan. Savage’s findings, released in 1951, were devastating. He confirmed that there was not enough water to keep the lakes full in the summer and too much water to avoid delta flooding in the winter. He also found that the lakes would become seriously polluted, particularly in the dry summer months. Savage pointed out that the Reber Plan would destroy several bay industries, including salt production and commercial fishing. He concluded that the plan was physically possible but “neither functionally nor economically feasible.” Savage’s conclusions were supported by the report of Cornelius Biemond, the water director of metropolitan Amsterdam, who was commissioned by the state legislature to study California’s hydraulic problems in 1953. Biemond estimated the true cost of the Reber Plan was $1.4 billion, not the $250 million figure used by Reber. In 1955, a state board of consultants, composed of five experienced engineers, said that while the Reber Plan “intended to foster industrial expansion, it would actually be most disruptive…. It would transform a great natural harbor into an artificial bottleneck.”19
The San FranciscoChronicle reported that John Reber took these setbacks “with a smile.” He replied at length to the critical reports in the newspaper’s This World weekly magazine. But instead of directly countering most of the technical points contained in the reports, Reber simply repeated the familiar arguments that he had been making for more than two decades. In effect, he claimed that the technical criticisms could not be valid because the plan was endorsed by distinguished engineers such as the late Leon Nishkian. Reber concluded that his plan was “a must” if the Bay Area was to increase its regional population from the current three million to a projected twenty-one million in the twenty-first century. A Chronicle editorial argued that the state reports should not be accepted as the last word, but the newspaper’s editors admitted the documents had an “impressive air of finality.”20
In fact, the plan never recovered from the combined impact of the state studies. By the mid-1950s, Reber was in poor health, suffering from severe asthma. But he gamely carried on, maintaining his public optimism. After one hospital visit, he told reporters, “I had a talk with the Lord. He told me I have five more years. And I’ m going to see the start of construction on the Reber Plan.” But it was not to be. On 16 October 1960, John Reber died at the age of 73. The Chronicle and the San Francisco Examiner covered his death as a front page story. Even the New York Times printed a substantial obituary.21
During the last years of his life, Reber and his supporters pinned their remaining hopes on the much-delayed Army Corps of Engineers study. If it found the Reber Plan desirable and viable, they thought, the study would more than offset the damaging conclusions of the previous state reports. In 1957, the Corps built a giant hydraulic bay model on the Sausalito waterfront to study the proposal. It covered an acre and a half and was located in a large building that had once been the warehouse of Marinship, a World War II era shipyard. In 1960, researchers began running simulations of the Reber Plan on the model. The results confirmed some of the most discouraging findings of the state studies. The Corps of Engineers research report, published in 1963, concluded that the plan was “infeasible by any frame of reference.”22 This was the final nail in the coffin. The Reber Plan was dead, laid to rest three years after the passing of John Reber himself.
The Reber Plan was not killed by environmental opposition. It was defeated by the powerful interests it threatened and experts who believed it wouldn’t work. Neither the San Francisco–based Sierra Club nor any other mainline conservation organization took a position on Reber’s proposal. When the Save the Bay campaign began in 1961, Sierra Club executive director David Brower said his organization had other priorities. Preservation of pristine wilderness was more important than saving a gritty waterway surrounded by a heavily populated metropolitan region. The established conservation groups became actively involved only after Save the Bay generated considerable popular support. In 1965, just two years after the final defeat of the Reber Plan, the California legislature passed the McAteer Petris Act, establishing the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission (BCDC). The new agency had authority to regulate land use along the bayshore and establish a plan to guide future bay conservation and development policy. Four years later, Governor Ronald Reagan signed legislation approving BCDC’s permanent Bay Plan, a document that included powerful environmental protections for the estuary.23
Close up of the Bay Model via Flickr user Erik Ogan.
The establishment of BCDC and the approval of its ambitious plan were major victories for the Save the Bay movement. That movement was in turn a reflection of the new environmental consciousness that was part of the larger process of social and cultural change in the sixties. Save the Bay, initially an effort to protect the estuary from further land fill, evolved into a broad campaign to preserve and restore San Francisco Bay as a natural ecosystem. By contrast, the effort to defeat the Reber Plan was part of an argument over how best to use and exploit San Francisco Bay as a natural resource. If the Reber Plan had succeeded, there would have been no bay to preserve. The engineers, business leaders, military officers, bureaucrats, and politicians who opposed the Reber Plan made the subsequent Save the Bay movement possible. Without realizing it, they were Act I in the play to save the bay, an act that paved the way for a cultural re-envisioning of the bay that was as dramatic in its own terms as the physical transformation proposed by John Reber. While Reber’s dream is long dead, and the Reber Plan only resurfaces from time to time as a symbol of what might have been, the dreams and aspirations of the Save the Bay activists thrived and remain powerful today.
1 Richard A. Walker, The Country in the City: the Greening of the San Francisco Bay Area (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2007), 110–111.
2 Matthew Morse Booker says the Reber Plan “could have been perhaps the greatest calamity ever to befall the bay.” Down by the Bay: San Francisco’s History Between the Tides (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013), 219.
3 San Francisco Chronicle, 17 October 1960; San Francisco Examiner, 17 October 1960; Frank J. Taylor, “They Want to Rebuild the Bay,” Saturday Evening Post, 18 November 1950, 32–33.
4John Reber, “San Francisco Bay Project—the Reber Plan,” Leon Nishkian Papers re: the Reber Plan, (hereafter cited as Nishkian Papers), box 2:2; David R. Long, “Mistaken Identity: Putting the John Reber Plan for the San Francisco Bay Area into Historical Context,” American Cities and Towns: Historical Perspective, Joseph F. Bishel, ed. (Pittsburgh: Dusquense University Press, 1992), 129–130; Philip J. Dreyfus, Our Better Nature: Environment and the Making of San Francisco (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2008), 152.
5 W. Turrentine Jackson and Alan M. Paterson, The Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta: The Evolution and Implementation of Water Policy (Davis: California Water Resources Center, 1977), 63–65; Dreyfus, 155.
6 Alan M. Paterson, “The Great Fresh Water Panacea: Salt Water Barrier Proposals for San Francisco Bay,” Arizona and the West (Winter 1980), 308–314.
7 Catherine Way, “Reber’s Dam Folly,” California Living Magazine, San Francisco Chronicle/Examiner, 29 July 1984, 18; Paterson, 317; Dreyfus, 155.
8 Taylor, 33, 156; Jackson and Paterson, 65.
9 Dan Cameron, “The Reber Plan,” California Engineer (December 1947), 8–9, 26; Dreyfus, 157–158; Jackson and Paterson, 67; Nishkian to Roger Lapham, mayor of San Francisco, 25 October 1944; Nishkian to Honorable Earl Warren, 4 December 1946; Nishkian to R.S. Clelland, Acting Regional Director US Bureau of Reclamation, 10 October 1945, Nishkian Papers, box 1:2.
10 Chronicle, 17 August 1946; Paterson, 317; Dreyfus, 155.
11Chronicle, 25 April 1942; Oakland Tribune, 25 April 1942.
12California Farmer, 5 April 1952; Pacific Rural Press, 27 September 1947; Jackson and Paterson, 65; Dreyfus, 156.
13 District Staff Headquarters 12th Naval District to Board of Supervisors City and County of San Francisco, 1942, Nishkian Papers, box 1:2; Taylor, 158; Dreyfus, 156–157.
14 L.H. Nishkian, “Report on the Reber Plan and Bay Land Crossing to the Joint Army-Navy Board, “ 12–15 August 1946, Nishkian Papers, box 2:1; “Report of Joint Army-Navy Board on Additional Crossing of San Francisco Bay” (Presidio of San Francisco, 1947), 5–6, 57, 68–81.
15Needs of the San Francisco Bay Area, California, Hearings Before a Subcommittee of the Committee on Public Works, United State Senate, December 8–16, 1949 (hereafter cited as Hearings) (Washington: US Government Printing Office, 1950), 4–33; Taylor, 156.
16 Hearings, 42–106.
17Hearings, 164–232, 240–255; C.W. Schedler, “Comments on the Reber Plan Prepared for Senator Downey at the Hearings of the Public Works Committee,” (San Francisco, 1949), 1–24.
18Taylor, 32–34, 156–158.
19 California State Assembly, First Report of the Interim Fact-Finding Committee on Tideland Reclamation and Development in Northern California, Related to Traffic Problem and Relief of Congestion on Transbay Crossings (Sacramento, 1949), 23–25, 27; John L. Savage, Report on Development of the San Francisco Bay Region (San Francisco, 1951), 1–2, 24–78; Jackson and Paterson, 67–69.
20Chronicle, 30 March 1955, 31 March 1955, 29 May 1955.
21 Chronicle, 17 October 1960; Examiner, 17 October 1960; New York Times, 17 October 1960.
22 US Army Engineer District San Francisco, Comprehensive Survey of San Francisco Bay and Tributaries Technical Report on Barriers, (San Francisco, 1963); Way, 19; Dreyfus, 163. In this era of computer simulations, the Bay Model is no longer used for research, but the Corps of Engineers still operates it for educational purposes with an attractive visitor center.
23 Mel Scott, The San Francisco Bay Area, a Metropolis in Perspective (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985), 315–317; Walker, 113–116; Booker, 165. In 2007, BCDC briefly studied and then rejected the idea of a saltwater barrier at the Golden Gate to protect the bay from sea level rise due to global warming. San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission, “Analysis of a Tidal Barrier at the Golden Gate,” (San Francisco, 2007), 1–10.
Panorama: Tales from San Francisco’s 1915 Pan-Pacific International Exposition, Lee Bruno (Cameron + Company, 191pp, $29.95) and San Francisco’s Jewel City: The Panama-Pacific International Exposition of 1915, Laura A. Ackley (Heyday, 352pp, $40.00)
A critical appreciation
by Elizabeth Logan
Why does the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition still captivate Californians? The centenary of the fair, which celebrated the construction of the Panama Canal, and showcased San Francisco’s reemergence after the 1906 earthquake and fires, has been greeted with much fanfare in the city including press coverage, museum exhibitions, a dramatic lighting of the Ferry Building, and several new books to mark the occasion. Two of those books, Lee Bruno’s Panorama: Tales from San Francisco’s 1915 Pan-Pacific International Exposition and Laura A. Ackley’s San Francisco’s Jewel City: The Panama-Pacific International Exposition of 1915, offer a kaleidoscope of possible explanations for this enduring interest.
The root of the authors’ fascination is simple to pinpoint. Lee Bruno’s Grandma Ruby piqued his interest early through the stories she shared about her father, Reuben Brooks Hale, a prominent San Francisco businessman and one of the exposition’s masterminds. For Laura Ackley, the draw was less familial; the exposition caught her attention as an undergraduate at Berkeley, where she attended a series of lectures on the Beaux-Arts built environment. Both authors highlight that the fair celebrated innovation, shifting geopolitical power, and commercial opportunity, and that it brought the world together just as it was being ripped apart by World War I.
The draw for Californians more broadly, may be in observing a recognizable past in California’s present. But perhaps collective interest in the fair’s centenary is also symptomatic of an increasingly complicated relationship with the ephemeral.
We live in an age in which we constantly encounter the paradoxical longevity of digital media. When we send an email, tweet, or post something on the Internet, our actions, comments, and photographic achievements endure in a virtual yet permanent space largely available for the world to explore. Even rapidly “vanishing” selfies on Snapchat can be stored forever. With Bay Area and Silicon Beach companies leading the charge toward greater and greater e-innovation, are Californians in the middle of the redefinition of what is considered ephemeral and ephemera? Does some of the fascination with a 100-year-old exposition stem from our own interest in the temporary and the fair’s momentary and fantastical qualities?
Panorama and San Francisco’s Jewel City both approach the exposition’s fleeting nature as well as the details of its day-to-day fanfare through photographs, postcards, tickets, pamphlets, and the written words of planners, visitors, and scholars.
Bruno’s Panorama consists of thirteen sections celebrating the 100-year-old narrative of a reemergent San Francisco and capturing short biographies of the exposition’s visionaries. The exposition springs to life through the story of “Big Alma” Spreckels, who arranged for five Rodin sculptures to travel by sea to San Francisco, and through the stories of builders, such as Bernard Maybeck, and visitors ranging from Helen Keller to Charlie Chaplin. Bruno painstakingly curated the images and created a visually attractive souvenir of the centennial. Panorama personalizes the exposition in a mesmerizing way, and the design and graphics impress.
San Francisco’s Jewel City, published in a partnership between Heyday and the California Historical Society,offers a detailed account of the fair, perhaps bested only in its breadth of coverage by Frank Morton Todd’s official five-volume history printed around the time of the exposition. Inserted within Ackley’s nineteen substantive chapters are vignettes set aside in gold and images of printed material fair-goers in 1915 could have hardly imagined would have survived 100 years. Ackley uses narrative to tell the history of the exposition, addressing even the darker “evils of the era” from eugenics to gender and labor battles. Ackley’s discussion of the important role that light played is particularly captivating, as when she describes the colorful light shows projected onto the fog by the Scintillator and the electric kaleidoscope—ephemeral illustrations of the modernity of the entire venture. For those seeking a comprehensive memento of the fair, San Francisco’s Jewel City provides a detailed and compelling account.
By printing some of the exposition’s ephemera and plotting the details of the exposition in print, these two works alter its very ephemeral nature. Just as bits of paper served as physical reminders of the exposition, the two books serve as souvenirs of its centennial. They help change the fair into something more durable that might attract more readers, tourists, anthropologists, historians, visual studies scholars, and collectors not just to these two books, but to the archives that house its sometimes dusty remnants. Expansions in digitization promise increased access to those who might reimagine the event from its remaining pieces. In today’s digital age, it makes a historian smile to see books continue to play such a vital role in this process.
If you wander San Francisco this weekend in search of remnants of the Panama-Pacific International Exposition or any of the many citywide centennial celebrations, your guidebook or iPhone might lead you to the Palace of Fine Arts, the remaining architectural gem from the 1915 exposition—but just start your search there. Keep going. Panorama, San Francisco’s Jewel City,and the city’s archives and libraries dare us to go a little further as we contemplate the ephemeral.
Elizabeth Logan is a historian and assistant editor of Boom. She is currently a postdoctoral fellow at the Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West.
Photograph at top courtesy of the San Francisco Public Library.
Start with a doll—a Barbie, say, although it could be an Apple computer or iPhone, a cotton shirt or denim jeans, a clove of garlic or a bottle of wine, dog food or toothpaste. From manufacturing centers in China, to the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach and the huge warehouses in the Inland Empire, and then to a big box store in Chicago or Kansas City, Barbie’s journey is emblematic of what is sometimes called “the global trade and goods-movement system.” And it reveals how Los Angeles’s relationship to China has changed in the past century.
Rather than being at the center of a Pacific Rim periphery, Los Angeles is now an entrepôt in a global system with China at is center. This system for the movement of goods has also brought bad effects—especially pollution—to Los Angeles communities. At the same time, it has spurred a movement for environmental justice and cleanup that is now reaching back across the Pacific to China.
Today, 80 percent of the world’s toys are produced in China, primarily in Guangdong province in the Pearl River Delta in Southern China. Mattel, which produces Barbie, has dozens of suppliers in Guangdong, including the city of Shenzhen, which has grown from a small fishing village to a metropolis of ten million. The major players shaping the goods-movement system are the ship owners (who transport the goods across the ocean) and the large end users (who sell the goods). They have developed a strategic connection to the producers (those who make the goods), the port owners and managers (who bring in and send out the goods), and the rail, truck, and warehouse companies (who take the goods from the ports, repackage them, and send them to their final destination).
Over the last three decades, this system has become a central economic driver and a huge community and environmental burden for Los Angeles. It has also made Los Angeles something of an appendage to China. China, in that same period of time, has strengthened its role as the world’s factory and export powerhouse. At the same time, China has become one of the most polluted countries in the world.
At each stage of the doll’s journey, there are impacts. They begin at one of the Shenzhen factories where different parts have been assembled from other factories and subcontractors in Southern China or from other countries in Asia. Once assembled, the doll continues its journey from manufacturing facility to a port, whether the port at Shenzhen, third largest in the world, or the nearby port at Hong Kong, the fourth largest in the world. Packed in containers, the dolls, along with the computers, iPads, T-shirts, and hundreds of other goods, are loaded onto a giant container ship, vessels owned by some of the largest ocean vessel companies in the world. Most of the ships still run on bunker fuel, a grade of fuel lower than diesel and even more polluting. Absent strikes, fires, or other disruptions, it takes about a day (but sometimes quite a bit longer if there’s congestion) to unload all the containers from ships that arrive at the Port of Los Angeles or the adjacent Port of Long Beach and then reload containers heading back to China (although not all containers are reloaded for their return journey, given United States-China trade imbalances). A crane lifts each container off the ship, placing it onto a truck. The truck hauls the container (with the dolls inside) to a rail facility where it is reloaded onto a train, powered by diesel-fueled locomotives. The train then travels to one of Southern California’s giant inland ports, where the container is moved to another truck, which takes it to a huge distribution center further inland, and another truck ultimately hauls Barbie to the big box store where she will be sold.
These endpoint retailers, such as Walmart or Target, are also key players in the goods movement/supply chain system. Thousands of trucks operate throughout the country along this supply chain, from ports to retail stores; Walmart alone has a fleet of more than fifty-three thousand trucks. Many trucks are operated by independent owner operators, many of them undocumented immigrants, who work long hours with small compensation, while the large trucking companies often lease the trucks and assign deliveries, which further fragments the trucker workforce.
Environmental, public health, workplace, and community impacts arise along this entire system, especially from the diesel pollution resulting from this pattern of moving goods. The diesel emissions can in turn contribute to such health impacts as asthma, reduced lung development in children, cardiovascular disease, lung cancer, and premature death. Community environmental sacrifice zones have been created in the process, almost all low-income immigrant communities adjacent to the ports, the rail and truck routes, and the warehouse complexes.
This elaborate goods-movement system has significantly expanded during the past several decades. According to port officials, international trade increased nearly thirty times at West Coast ports since the 1970s, with a far more phenomenal growth in Chinese ports such as Shanghai, which has become the largest port complex in the world. Today, the links between Los Angeles and China resemble the dreams promoted by the Los Angeles Times in the 1950s of establishing a “Pacific Littoral” that would stretch from LA to Asia—but reversed. Los Angeles was supposed be the center not an entrepôt in “a maritime world economy” with China at its center.
Clarence Matson, the long time head of the LA Harbor Department, in a 1935 book about the history of the LA port, spoke of the “westward march of empire and civilization which is now reaching its climax on the eastern shores of the Pacific with Los Angeles as its apex.” This focus on Pacific trade expanded after World War II, with interest in new global trade opportunities and investments by American businesses and government officials spurred by talk of a new Pacific Rim constellation of players. When interest in promoting US exports and increasing imports further developed in the late 1950s and early 1960s, delegations from LA would continually travel to various Asian ports, including Hong Kong, Taipei, Manila, Tokyo, and Singapore, to highlight the changes that were increasing their port’s capacity and to look for new trade opportunities. By the early 1980s, LA Mayor Tom Bradley had emerged as the major champion for LA port expansion and increased trade, with a strong focus on Asia, and especially the emerging power of China. The growth in international trade from the Pacific picked up considerably in the 1980s and 1990s and exploded even further in the new century with the huge volume of exports now entering the United States from China.
Celebrating this expansion in trade, Bradley would proudly proclaim that LA had positioned itself as the “gateway city for the Pacific Rim.” The ports of LA and Long Beach embarked on massive expansions of their facilities, which included increased cooperation (as well as continuing competition) between the two ports in anticipation of increased trade and to accommodate the largest container ships, which could not fit through the Panama Canal. Periodic efforts were made at anticipating future growth, which led to further changes in port operations and facility developments.
Changes included building new terminals on existing vacant land, redeveloping and expanding existing container terminals, deepening waterside berths, building a bridge replacement to accommodate more goods-movement traffic, and constructing a major rail corridor, the Alameda Corridor, a $2.4 billion, twenty-four mile rail link from the port to the huge railyards and intermodal facilities situated in the low income communities to the south and east of downtown Los Angeles. There were also plans to expand the Interstate 710 freeway, the primary route for the thousands of trucks entering to and from the ports, with the freeway passing through the same neighborhoods that were located next to the large intermodal facilities. At the eastern edge of the Southern California region, in the Inland Empire, massive new warehouses and intermodal facilities (some one to two million square feet or larger) were being constructed or expanded to establish Southern California’s “inland ports,” designed to move goods inland from (and to) the ports, often by rail, to be repackaged and then transferred to their final inland destinations.
Today, the Port of Los Angeles is the busiest container port in the United States, while its neighbor to the south, the Port of Long Beach, is the nation’s second busiest. Together, the two ports constitute by far the largest port facility complex in the United States and the ninth largest (when combined) in the world. The Port of Los Angeles encompasses 7,500 acres, including twenty-four passenger and cargo terminals, on-dock intermodal facilities, and railyards. The Port of Long Beach resides on 3,200 acres and includes twenty-two terminals, ten piers, and eighty cargo berths that handle nearly five thousand vessel calls a year, as well as on dock rail facilities, with more than six million containers passing through the port. About 40 percent of the nation’s imports come through these two ports, and they are the primary destination for goods from China, establishing a new version of the old Pacific trade routes. Policy makers in both Los Angeles and Long Beach have heralded the economic value of the ports and logistics industries, proclaiming that they are the economic drivers and job creators in the region, and that a double and even triple expansion of the ports is poised to occur in the next two decades.
The combination of these developments has led policy makers to talk of a logistics industry revolution in the Los Angeles region, with huge transportation, land use, and environmental impacts identified as side issues, at most. Supporters of this goods-movement sector characterize it as a win-win for the region—good for the ports and the logistics industries such as warehousing and trucking and the railroads; good for other sectors of the Los Angeles regional economy and for the global economy; and good for consumers who buy cheap imported goods. If there are concerns for its boosters, it has more to do with competition from the newly expanding ports in the southern and eastern coasts of the United States—ports and regions eagerly awaiting a new enlargement of the Panama Canal’s capacity. This projected expansion, designed to accommodate the largest container ships, has spurred a frenzy of new expansion in eastern seaboard ports such as Jacksonville, Savannah, Miami, Gulfport, New York, and New Jersey. In addition, the Panama Canal expansion is seen as a major boost for the export of natural gas from the United States, thanks to huge increases in production due to advanced technologies such as hydraulic fracturing or “fracking.”
For the communities in the path of this logistics revolution, win-win could better be characterized as lose-lose. Beginning about thirteen years ago, community groups, along with environmental and academic allies, began to identify the enormous negative impacts this system generates. This includes the emissions from the ships, cranes, trucks, railroads, highways and high traffic roadways, as well as the twenty-four-hour bright lights, noise pollution, and land-use impacts.
The core community and residential health and environmental concern has been the diesel emissions that occur along each of these pathways. It is this concern that has led some community residents to describe their neighborhoods as “diesel death zones.” Diesel is considered a mobile source air toxic by the US Environmental Protection Agency. In California, diesel exhaust has been regulated as a toxic air contaminant since 1998, based on more than thirty studies showing that worker exposure to diesel exhaust is linked to lung cancer and other health effects. In 2012, pointing to cumulative research, the International Agency for Cancer Research, a part of the World Health Organization, identified diesel as carcinogenic to humans, based on evidence that exposure is associated with an increased risk of lung cancer.
The concern over diesel is also linked to the pollution associated with heavy truck traffic and congested high-traffic roads that affect nearby residences, schools, playgrounds, and other community gathering places. As in many other regions in the United States, land-use decisions in Southern California have resulted in homes, schools, and even parks being located near highways, and highways later being expanded so they end up even closer to homes. For example, sixty-five schools are located within one mile of the I-710 freeway with its huge goods-movement-related truck traffic, and there are more than 600,000 residents (including 212,000 under eighteen) who live within 1,500 meters of that same freeway. People living that close to the highway also have higher poverty rates and include a larger proportion of people of color than Los Angeles County as a whole.
It is due to this web of impacts through the goods-movement system that the oppositional movements took root. In 2001, scientists at the University of Southern California hosted a conference on air pollution and invited a number of environmental justice groups in the region to hear the findings of the scientists, including groups located in heavily affected neighborhoods adjacent to the goods-movement corridors. Scientists at USC were in the midst of a longitudinal study of air pollution, with a focus on children’s health, and had begun to map air pollution hot spots. While discussing the problem of exposure to particulate matter and diesel exhaust, several community members spoke of the health, community, and environmental issues in their neighborhoods.
Toward the end of the conference, Jesse Marquez, a resident of the low-income community of Wilmington adjacent to the Port of Los Angeles, rattled off a series of anecdotes about people in his neighborhood facing serious health problems. “The ships at the port are not even regulated for their impacts, yet we face the consequences every day,” Marquez told the assembled scientists. “Of course it’s regulated,” the scientists replied, less knowledgeable about how the goods-movement system operated. The scientists soon discovered that Marquez was right, suggesting that community experiences and knowledge were also critical in helping frame the research. As it turned out, already by the time of the conference in 2001, several of the community groups had linked up with the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) to contest a port expansion project involving a major Chinese shipping company. As these and additional partnerships began to be formed, they set out to change the nature of the debate and challenge policy makers to begin to address community, health, and environmental issues as part of their goods-movement policy agenda.
The community groups were linked to an evolving environmental justice framework. Based in low income, predominantly Latino and immigrant neighborhoods, the focus on goods-movement represented not just the classic environmental justice argument about the toxic burdens in such communities, but a strong desire to have residents help create more livable places, underlining the environmental justice argument that environmental advocacy is about the places where people live, work, play, eat, and go to school. What became especially compelling about this place-based focus was the understanding that their struggle was at once local and global. China was also on their agenda, as linkages have begun to be pursued with community and environmental advocates in Hong Kong and China who are addressing some of the same types of pollution and “sacrifice zones” on the other side of the Pacific.
Labor groups also became engaged in these issues. There are substantial numbers of people employed in the goods-movement system, including those represented by a strong and historically significant union at the ports (the International Longshore and Warehouse Union) as well as those not represented and often exploited and subject to some of the same environmental and health impacts as the community residents, including independent truck drivers and warehouse workers (many of them undocumented immigrants).
One of the first organizing and policy battles involved the fight over dockside ship emissions, specifically plans for a major Chinese shipping company to occupy a $650 million 174-acre terminal to be built by the Port of Los Angeles. The terminal would house as many as 9,100 containers for the China Shipping Holding Company, larger than any at the time. It would also include ten massive cranes, up to sixteen stories high to unload the containers. Yet the site was just five hundred feet from homes and would involve new roads to accommodate the anticipated huge increase in truck traffic.
These plans immediately generated community opposition. For one, the ships that would be docked at the port were likely to keep their engines running until containers could be unloaded. Dockside diesel-related emissions for just a single vessel at berth could include as much as one ton of nitrogen oxide and nearly one hundred pounds of particulates each day before the unloading took place. Given the issues involved, the community groups immediately went into action and convinced NRDC to bring suit against the port to stop the completion of the new terminal until an agreement could be reached with the community groups. After losing in district court, NRDC appealed and won a major decision at the appellate court level. As a result, the port (and the City of Los Angeles) decided to settle in order to avoid a lengthy court battle whose outcome was not assured.
The results of the agreement, known as the China Shipping settlement, were impressive. On the one hand, China Shipping agreed that its ships would use “cold ironing,” a long-standing technology used by naval vessels and ferries but never before by container ships. This technology established a simple change: instead of running on diesel power, the ships would plug into an electric source while at berth. In doing so, more than three tons of nitrogen oxide and 350 pounds of diesel particulate matter would be eliminated for each ship that plugged in. The settlement also called for other environmental changes at the terminal, including the use of dock tractors that could run on cleaner, alternative fuels instead of diesel, shorter cranes, and ultimately a shift toward cleaner marine fuels once their feasibility had been evaluated. A community mitigation fund was also established, including incentives to replace diesel-powered trucks, air quality mitigation measures, and community improvements.
The China Shipping agreement turned out to be the opening effort to address future expansion plans and produce environmental changes in current as well as future port operations. The community groups also gave notice that additional expansion of port projects that would increase emissions would likely be challenged. This included expansion of existing terminals, one of which involved an expansion from 176 acres to 243 acres and reconfiguring of roadways to accommodate the anticipated increase in traffic. Once again a lawsuit was filed and a settlement was reached out of court. This included, notably, a $50 million port community mitigation fund to be administered by a community and environmental board; $3.5 million for parks and open space, installation of air purification and sound proofing in the nearby public elementary schools and residents’ homes, new health services resources and research on health and land use impacts, and potential wetlands restoration projects in Wilmington and San Pedro.
The settlement was concluded in the midst of a lengthy and contentious policy process where the community and environmental groups, with their research, legal, and labor partners sought to establish an overarching plan to guide the environmental change, impacts on communities, and additional issues related to truck emissions and the conditions faced by drivers. It resulted in an overarching clean air action plan adopted in 2006 and a subsequent clean trucks plan the next year that included both ports, although the Long Beach port eliminated one key provision of the truck plan. In many ways, these plans provided the most substantial changes to date of any port in the United States and for many other ports worldwide. The clean air action plan set significant emission reduction targets—a 45 percent emissions reduction in diesel particulate matter, nitrogen oxides, and sulfur oxides by the end of 2011 from the baseline year of 2007; a goal that was achieved and even exceeded in part due to reduced ship traffic during the recent recession. Other changes that predated the adoption of the clean air plan or were put in place subsequently included a ship speed reduction plan, the change to electric shore power, a shift to alternative fuels for cargo equipment, including for cranes, and future changes in the fuel sources for incoming ships.
The most impressive—and contentious—of the changes involved a transition toward replacing dirty diesel trucks with less-polluting trucks at the port. This clean trucks plan included replacing and retrofitting approximately sixteen thousand trucks in order to meet federal EPA emissions standards. To achieve these goals, the program featured a $1.6 billion concessionaire model that would require trucking companies who serviced the port to hire truck drivers as employees in return for securing transport contracts with the port. These new employees would replace the heavily exploited system of independent contractors, the tranqueros, who resided at the economic margins and would find the truck replacement costs nearly impossible to meet.
The adoption of the clean trucks program marked a path-breaking accomplishment for the community, environmental, and labor networks engaged in bringing about changes at the ports. It represented a major potential reduction in the environmental exposures experienced by both truckers and community residents, and a major benefit for the environment as a whole. It directly addressed the exploitative trucking system put in place with the deregulation of the industry in the 1980s that required independent truck drivers to bear the burden of all maintenance and upkeep for trucks that cost over $100,000, along with port fees and other costs of doing business at the port. Many of the individual truckers who owned and operated their own trucks and needed to compete individually for hauling jobs, were those low income, immigrant truck drivers who netted about $30,000 annually and worked eleven to twelve hour days. The immigration status of the truckers also reinforced the potential for exploitation. Immigration issues have loomed large in relation to port trucking and goods-movement issues. For example, on 1 May 2006, a year prior to the clean trucks plan agreement, 90 percent of all the truck drivers serving the LA port refused to make or pick up their deliveries, in solidarity with a massive immigration rights rally that took place that day. Participation in this action was significantly motivated by an immigration raid at the port two weeks prior that had targeted immigrant truck drivers, leading to several drivers hauled out of their trucks and detained, while their trucks were towed away.
Faced with these changes, the goods-movement industries, led by the trucking companies and the big box retailers have fought back, bringing legal challenges and seeking to undermine a key provision of the clean trucks plan, the concessionaire model. With their army of lawyers and deep pockets, and unusual alliances (for example, a Chinese government agreement with the American Legislative Exchange Council to promote fracking and natural gas exports), the community groups continue their battle, securing additional victories amidst various setbacks.
This goods-movement system is just one illustration of the increasing China-Los Angeles links. Los Angeles is an immigrant city—upward of 35 percent of its population are immigrants. Its Chinese population numbers 566,000 according to the 2012 census (the Bay Area is slightly higher at 629,000). One of the new destinations for Chinese immigrants is Monterey Park, which has the largest percentage of Chinese residents (42.7 percent) of any city in the United States. Similarly, Chinese investors have eagerly bought up Los Angeles assets, including commercial and residential real estate and high-end hotels.
But the heart of the Chinese presence in Los Angeles is represented by the goods that arrive and depart from the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. For Los Angeles (and for other West Coast ports), the Pacific Littoral has become more of a transfer point than a center for trade, while at the same time increasing the pollution that has for so long plagued Los Angeles. But it is also where the most dynamic community organizing in the country is taking place, seeking to create another notion of what Los Angeles—and perhaps China—could become.
“Facing West from California’s shores, / Inquiring, tireless, seeking what is yet unfound, / I, a child, very old, over waves, towards the house of maternity, the land of migrations, look afar, / Look off the shore of my Western Sea—the circle almost circled…”
Walt Whitman’s searching verses on the Pacific gaze were made concrete at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition of 1915. The words, inscribed on a piece of monumental didactic sculpture, the Arch of the Setting Sun, in the spectacular Court of the Universe, in the fantastic sudden city, proclaimed that San Francisco, and America, had risen, and was rising.
Bilum (string bag) from late nineteenth century Papua New Guinea. Collection of the Oakland Museum of California, Museum Purchase, Dr. John Rabe D.D.S. Collection.
“Pacific” was the key term in the exposition’s name. The fair presented a vision of an increasingly unified Pacific region under the control of American economic and political power.
“We may see in [Whitman’s] lines,” wrote a guide to the fair’s inscriptions, “the poet speaking as the personification and representative of the Aryan race—the race which, having its origin in Asia, has, by virtue of the spirit of conquest, the desire to be forever ‘seeking what is yet unfound,’ finally reached the Western edge of the American continent, whence ‘facing West from California’s shores,’ Aryan civilization looks ‘toward the house of maternity, the land of migrations’ from which it originally sprung.”1 “The circle almost circled” was the new frontier of American conquest. Of course, San Francisco’s Pacific connections didn’t begin in 1915. California had been part of a coherent Pacific region for hundreds of years, as a place that facilitated exchanges between indigenous people of the coasts and Pacific Islanders, a launching point for trade with Asia, a link in the global chain of whaling and sealing, and, increasingly throughout the nineteenth century, a magnet for migrants from the Pacific Islands and Asia.
For fair organizers, “Pacific” mostly meant Asian. (The conceptual erasing of the Pacific Islands in the rush to get to Asia has been described by historian Bruce Cumings as “rimspeak.”) They saw China and Japan as critically important to America’s prosperous Pacific future—and to the success of the fair. Because the fair was mostly locally funded, organizers personally invested in its success. They campaigned against California’s anti-Japanese Alien Land Law, worried that it would stop Japan and China from participating in the fair. Although the law passed in 1913, both countries still participated in the fair in great numbers. Japan and China not only created official pavilions encouraging trade, but also encouraged merchants to exhibit their wares in the main palaces. San Francisco’s Chinese American communities enthusiastically joined in the festivities; the fair was such a heterogeneous, multivalent, expansive space that despite its imperial tone, they found room to celebrate their cultures and argue for inclusion as equals in the grand narrative of global destiny.
Despite the Asian emphasis, other peoples of the Pacific attended the fair. “Pacific” could also mean Latin America, especially with the fair’s focus on the Panama Canal. Argentina’s pavilion, for instance, highlighted the nation’s modernity and growing political power.2
America’s new oceanic colonies—Hawaii, the Mariana Islands, and the Philippines—were also on display. Strategically valuable to the United States both for their own natural resources and as waystations for ships crossing to Asia, they also served as emblems of the country’s new role in the world as an empire with overseas territories. These colonies had been recently acquired: in the Spanish-American War of 1898, and, in the case of Hawaii, through a cabal of American businessmen and politicians that overthrew Queen Lili’uokalani.
The cultures of these oceanic colonies were displayed in frankly exploitative contexts. For example, Hawaiian culture appeared in three different places at the fair: the official territorial pavilion, a cafe and music venue in the Palace of Horticulture, and a concession on “the Zone,” the fair’s midway. Like other world’s fairs, the Panama-Pacific included “ethnographic village” exhibits, which included a Hawaiian Village as well as a Samoan Village and an Australasian (Maori) Village. (Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote of the New Zealand Building: “We saw the ugly native islanders that used to be the cannibal tribes in Australia and New Zealand.”3) The territorial government objected to the Hawaiian Village Zone concession. Territorial officials worried that its emphasis on the primitiveness of Hawaiian culture, and especially its highly sexualized version of the hula, undermined the official territorial government’s goals of promoting tourism and establishing Hawaiian culture as assimilable, romantic, and nonthreatening.4 The third venue, the pineapple-company-sponsored Hawaiian Gardens, featured Hawaiian music and helped start a national craze for the ukulele. These venues, although focused on promoting specific messages about Native Hawaiians and about white American imperial power, nevertheless also gave dancers, musicians, and artisans space to preserve and celebrate traditional aspects of their cultures. They also gave many fairgoers their first personal exposure to Pacific cultures.
Maori artisans from the Rotorua area made this patu paraoa (whalebone club) for exhibition at the New Zealand pavilion at the Panama-Pacific International Exhibition. Collection of the Oakland Museum of California, Museum Purchase.
Facing the Pacific was a key orientation for both the fair’s organizers and visitors. The fair was a pivot—not a point at which everything changed, but a point at which longstanding, evolving messages and relationships crystallized for a world audience. This centennial vantage point is a golden opportunity to evaluate the consequences of “the circle almost circled” for Californians and our Pacific neighbors.
This Marquesan porpoise tooth peue ‘ei (headdress) was made around 1885. Collection of the Oakland Museum of California, Museum Purchase, Dr. John Rabe D.D.S. Collection.
Waseisei whaletooth necklace, probably from Fiji, late nineteenth century. Collection of the Oakland Museum of California, Museum Purchase, Dr. John Rabe D.D.S. Collection.
Model canoe from Samoa, around 1900. Collection of the Oakland Museum of California, Gift of Mrs. Howard L. Osgood.
This kava bowl was made in Samoa in the late nineteenth century. Collection of the Oakland Museum of California, Museum Purchase, Dr. John Rabe D.D.S. Collection.
Fishhook and cordage from Pulusuk Island, Micronesia, 1910s. Collection of the Oakland Museum of California, Gift of Cdr. Kearney.
A shell trumpet from Manus, Papua New Guinea, early twentieth century. Collection of the Oakland Museum of California, Gift of Lt. Cmdr. C. T. Budney.
1. Porter Gamett, The Inscriptions at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition (San Francisco: The San Francisco News Company, 1915), 10–11.
2. Abigail Markwyn, Empress San Francisco: The Pacific Rim, the Great West, and California at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2014), 52.
3. Laura Ingalls Wilder, October 14, 1915, West from Home: Letters of Laura Ingalls Wilder, San Francisco 1915 (New York: Harper and Row, 1974), 105.
4. Markwyn, 58–59.
Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt of Phoebe S.K. Young’s essay “To Show What Will Be By What Has Been” from our Spring 2015 issue.
Most visitors to San Diego’s Panama-California Exposition—the southern counterpoint to San Francisco’s world’s fair in 1915—entered by crossing the Puente de Cabrillo. The high, arcaded bridge carried fairgoers over a small canyon toward the edge of a mesa on which the exposition’s miniature city seemed to float. At the end stood the California Building, its striking blue-domed roof and tower an echo of the Giralda in Seville. The richly ornamented entranceway featured a mash-up of monarchs, sailors, and missionaries made in plaster to look like marble: a youthful Padre Junípero Serra with the shield of the United States above his head; Charles III of Spain; Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, the first Spaniard to see San Diego harbor; Gaspar de Portola, first Spanish governor of California; and English navigator George Vancouver, among others.
In dedicating the California Building on the exposition’s opening night, leading local retailer George White Marston nominated this unlikely squad to serve as guardians of “the past and present of California’s life…true symbols of her glowing history and her wonderful today.”1 Promoters of San Diego’s fair had been deploying exactly this historical logic throughout the five-year process that brought the exposition to life. In the words of its head publicist, the philosophy behind it all was “to show what will be by what has been.”2
For the boosters and business leaders of San Diego, this was more than just a slogan to burnish San Diego’s Spanish legacy. They felt themselves poised atop their own historical fulcrum, recalling the century since the end of the Spanish colonial era, and projecting their city as a global leader in the century to come. The hopeful link the local elite drew between California’s past, present, and future was simple: empire.3 City leaders saw themselves as inheritors of Spain’s colonial empire and as the critical link to a new American empire at the intersection of Latin America and the Pacific. They hoped San Diego would in turn spearhead an American empire that now stretched across the Pacific to the Philippines.
To set the stage for their vision of San Diego’s role in this imperial future—one that promised enormous economic and strategic military opportunities courtesy of the newly opened Panama Canal—fairgoers had to be made to understand the history that brought them to this “wonderful today.” The exposition pulled visitors through a timeline of human progress and conquest, measuring the distance from a supposedly primitive nonwhite past and a romantic Spanish interlude to a modern Anglo empire of technological power. This embellished and distorted version of history on display at the exposition continues to have a profound effect on how Californians understand the state’s past and the place they live in today.
Entering the California Building, fairgoers found themselves at the very beginning of the timeline. They encountered a display called The Science of Man, trumpeted as a “never-before attempted ethnological and archaeological exhibit” that would unveil a major new piece of the puzzle of human evolution.4 Mounted by Aleš Hrdlička, a physical anthropologist from the Smithsonian Institution, the exhibit guided visitors to discover “proof” of a natural hierarchy within the human race—the intended conclusion being that white Americans were naturally superior to other “primitive” races. To make his case, Hrdlička meticulously arranged human and animal skulls collected from five continents according to detailed measurements of cranial capacity. Though later recognized as an erroneous signifier of intellectual ability, in 1915 craniometry asserted scientific authority to classify skulls from primitive (African to Asian and Native American) to advanced (European and American).5 By aligning race with evolutionary progress, the exposition sought to establish a benchmark for its broader historical narrative that led inexorably toward an American empire in the Pacific, which they hoped would run through San Diego.
The California Building’s architecture and decoration reinforced these notions of progress and empire. Under the dome, murals depicted the European discovery of America and the conquest of the West in glorious terms. Hrdlička’s skulls and the primitive human past they sought to portray faded away as visitors walked out onto the sunlit Prado, lined with ornate, gleaming white Spanish colonial buildings. The architecture composed a city of “tiled domes and fantastic towers, archways from which hang old mission bells,…a fountain plashing, a caballero leaning lazily against the wall…, or the troupe of Spanish dancing girls whose bright colored skirts are awhirl to the hum of guitar and the click of the castanet.”6 Played out before visitors’ eyes and ears, this romantic version of California’s past played a key role in the exposition’s storyline.
The fair’s Spanish fantasy simultaneously celebrated the arrival of European civilization in California and marked its picturesque, old-world elements as part of a bygone world. The Spanish theme went beyond a nod to local history. Local boosters and Boston architect Bertram Goodhue ignored the fact that Alta California never brought Spain the wealth or power that other Latin American colonies did and instead imagined the region as awash in New World riches. As exposition designers, they sought to outdo anything the Spanish had built in California during its days as a remote and relatively poor colony; indeed, they revised the “what has been” portion of the exposition’s concept to “what could have been” if the style of baroque Spain had been fully realized in California. In their hands, the exposition conjured “a city such as Cabrillo and his men must have dreamed of as they stood, perhaps, on that same lofty mesa, and looked down to the sea,”7 as Goodhue wrote in 1910. The exaggerated visions and the florid architecture served a purpose. The fair portrayed a quaint historical dreamland that no longer existed, surpassed by the arrival of Anglo American progress on the western side of the continent. The San Diego promoters of the Panama-California Exposition now set their sights on the future prospects of the Pacific World.
Planned in anticipation of the opening of the Panama Canal, the San Diego Exposition shared with San Francisco’s world’s fair the desire to make California a gateway to the Pacific World. San Diegans hoped to gain recognition as a city on par with its West Coast rivals. Local leaders and investors were eager to hitch their upstart city’s future growth to economic expansion in the Pacific. The canal represented new possibilities for the development of a city that in the first decade of the twentieth century was struggling to find its economic footing—a recent history they were hardly inclined to showcase. To remedy this, local boosters conceived of the fair as the centerpiece of a publicity strategy to draw attention to San Diego’s geographical suitability to be the premier West Coast transfer point between the Panama Canal and the Pacific. A map appearing in a 1910 publication promoting the exposition plotted out the “New Routes of World Commerce After Completion of the Panama Canal,” with San Diego, designated with a conspicuous arrow, as the origin for a multitude of direct lines to major port cities in Asia and the Americas. Los Angeles and San Francisco were labeled in font sizes so small they are barely legible.8
Both San Diego and San Francisco lobbied Congress for “official” exposition status and the federal recognition and money that came with it. But when San Diego lost its bid, the city had to relinquish any claim to represent the nation and was barred from inviting international exhibits to compete with San Francisco’s exposition.9 Most observers assumed San Diego would simply withdraw. The city hardly seemed positioned to mount any sort of exposition, much less one without federal support. The 1910 census had been disappointing to San Diego boosters, showing a much slower rate of population growth than Los Angeles. Moreover, turmoil from the initial stages of the Mexican Revolution threatened to spill over the border, making city and state leaders nervous, and potential tourists wary. Letting the bid drop would have been understandable. But local businessmen felt an increasingly dire need for the publicity an exposition might generate and were counting on the growth of San Diego commerce beyond local bounds. They were not going to let the idea die so easily.
Fair boosters developed several strategies to keep their nascent plans alive. First, they promoted the concept of “dual expositions,” drawing visitors with a two-for-one appeal that could appear to pull San Diego to an equal level with San Francisco. Second, they exploited a loophole in the Congressional terms and continued the exposition’s run into a second year, inviting San Francisco’s international exhibitors to travel to San Diego in 1916. Enough took them up on the idea that in March 1916, the San Diego fair became the Panama-California International Exposition and, although not as successful as either of the 1915 fairs, it provided a continuing promotional engine for the city.
Finally, far from ceding their claims on Pacific empire to San Francisco, San Diego boosters sought to reorient the map. San Diego placed itself at the center of a great empire in the American Southwest, which city leaders asserted, was poised to “become the new focusing point of the world’s immigration, the new land of opportunity next to be conquered by peaceful settlement.”10 In competing with San Francisco’s rise to the forefront of a new Pacific empire, San Diego reinvented its hinterlands as a regional empire and then proclaimed the city a natural hinge between the Southwest and the Pacific world. The grandeur of the exposition itself smoothed out the hitch in the timeline, bypassing San Diego’s uncertain state of development and portraying an unbroken history from primitive and romantic pasts to a confident future.