Many years ago, I rode on a team bus through the agricultural heart of California. Up far too late for a school night, we didn’t get on the road until past 10 p.m., and weren’t getting back to Los Angeles before 2 a.m.
Strange things happen when you qualify for the California state volleyball playoffs. In California, athletic regions are larger than most states. I was an assistant coach at my alma mater. I didn’t have to attend the match, but I enjoy a good road trip.
We took State Route 145 southbound, an empty a two-lane through cotton fields and almond groves to get to I-5. Amid the dark and quiet—the kind of quiet that you only hear after a team’s season has ended—one of our more whimsical players bolted upright and asked of the entire bus, “Is that the real moon?”
She can be forgiven for her incredulity. The moon rising ahead of us that November night was a reddish freak of refraction known only to the flattest of landscapes. It looked nothing like the modest disk she’d seen over west Los Angeles a million times before. As far as the players and I were concerned, we were traveling through a foreign land—California’s own version of flyover country. For all we knew, maybe it did have its own moon.
Doug Walters @dougwalters via Unsplash.
Back then, Donald Trump was just an inflated real estate developer. Even so, the town of Kerman probably would have voted for him back then. A typical farm town of 8,500 at the time, 20 miles west of Fresno, Kerman floats amid the politically red ocean surrounding America’s archipelago of blue. It is precisely the type of place in which urbane city-dwellers are unfamiliar just as cities are unfamiliar to many people in places like Kerman.
For all of Kerman’s Red State inclinations, the facts suggest that politically we were, if not in friendly territory, at least in territory that wasn’t hostile. In 2000, 53 percent of Fresno County favored George W. Bush over Al Gore. In the 2016 election, Fresno County favored Hillary Clinton 49 percent to 43 percent. Of the four precincts within Kerman’s city limits, only one favored Trump. In neighboring precincts, that number reached 82 percent.
Though Kerman superficially resembles many of the places where Donald Trump dominated—beating Hillary two- and three-fold—it was actually one of the few places in California that was relatively evenly split. Kerman actually teeters on the edge of Red and Blue, making it, paradoxically, an electoral microcosm of the country. And yet, with polarization and geographic sorting, it is near unique among American places.
Kerman’s brand of rural America differs from that in places like Oklahoma or Nebraska. As in communities in those states, many jobs—24 percent in Kerman’s case—are in agriculture. With a median family income of just over $34,000, it’s poor. But it looks different from its Heartland America counterparts. One explanation for Kerman’s political allegiance with urban America lies in demographics. Today, Kerman has 13,500 residents and is 71 percent Hispanic, up from 65 percent in 2000. How its volleyball team reflected its demographics, I honestly can’t recall.
Kelly Sikema @kelsikkema via Unsplash.
Until 9 November, I hadn’t thought about Kerman for a very long time. Come to think of it, Donald Trump probably never paid it, or its thousands of counterparts, much mind either. There’s not much of a market for skyscrapers on the prairie. And yet in the course of his campaign Trump saw his own moonrise the moment he left his tower and met with adoration in the unlikeliest of places. Hillary Clinton didn’t figure it out until the moment he won Michigan.
As I think about the way Trump’s America views my America, I can’t help but think about what Kerman thought of us or what we thought of Kerman. Some of our players probably didn’t think of Kerman at all—it was a team and a gym, and nothing more. Some may have been enchanted by the idea of a small town, so dissimilar from our metropolis. Some may have been less charitable.
And our opponents, the Lions of Kerman High? I hope they didn’t think of us at all. If they had, they might have been appalled. My school embodied every private school stereotype: wealthy, worldly, fashionable, probably a little spoiled. The children of what came to be known, soon thereafter, of the 1 percent. The girl so perplexed by the moon? She was the daughter of a celebrity, a rock star known in part for Vietnam-era protest songs. How awful must we have seemed to them. How backwards must they have seemed to us.
We’ve all developed notions of the noble struggles of the Heartland, the Rust Belt, Coal Country, and the rest. But until 9 November I think few of us realized just how badly the fuzziness of these notions could hurt us. What has become abundantly clear is that the hurt goes both ways: rural America, no matter how it votes, feels isolated from and therefore threatened by the cosmopolitan America of the cities and coasts. Cosmopolitan America does not recognize these threats and therefore ignores them. It probably believed that rural areas appreciated the urbanity and economic, intellectual, culturally-creative power of cities—looking to them admiringly.
I understand the Trump phenomenon better when I consider what his rallies must have meant to people in towns like Kerman—and in towns far more isolated and far more desperate. In those places, a volleyball playoff game might be the highlight of the year. A win in the state playoffs over a fancy private school might be the highlight of the decade. A Trump visit— one of those rallies where he pledged his allegiance to them and pledged inexplicably to stick it to the “elites”—might have been the highlight of a lifetime.
The beauty and tragedy of athletic contests is that they take place on the court. There’s a handshake and a coin toss and then the game comes into being. It is bounded by rules. Schools become teams. People become players. Places become venues. Participants relate to each other through the prism of the game. Then one of us goes home.
Los Angeles from Griffith Observatory by KimonBerlin via Flickr.
I wish we’d done more than just play volleyball that night. We could have gotten to know each other. Coaches could have chatted with coaches. Players could have made friends with their opponents. We could have had dinner beforehand or gone for ice cream afterwards. We could have gotten to know their names and found of what their lives were like. They could have done the same.
This is the type of encounter that, multiplied millions of times, may have prevented our national fracture. It’s the type that may be required for national healing. Gentle conversations, free of accusations and bitterness, may lead to empathy on both sides. That’s one school of thought, simplistic though it may be. The other school holds that the time for reconciliation is past and that the left must battle like never before. Of course, the right will do the same.
A little friendliness might not have saved the world. But I can’t help thinking of the power of small gestures of communion. Those kids grew up four hours from Los Angeles and four hours from the Bay Area. And yet, there’s a chance that none of them ever visited either or even met anyone from either. Their impressions would have been rightfully left to their own imaginations. Even a single encounter is memorable if it’s distinctive enough. We both could have come away with warm feelings rather than with the coldness of our assumptions. We could have reminded each other that we all live in the same state, in the same country, under the same moon. Maybe, seventeen years later, we’d have thought about each other, if only briefly, when we went to the polls.
To their credit, Kerman fielded a hell of a team. They whupped us fair and square. That’s one reason why that bus ride was so somber, celestial oddities notwithstanding. But, still, it was just a volleyball game. I wish all losses were so easy to take.
Josh Stephens is a journalist covering cities, and is contributing editor to the California Planning & Development Report, the state’s foremost independent publication dedicated to urban planning. He is also contributing editor to Planetizen.com and conducts its “Planners Across America” interview series. His work has also appeared in a wide-range fora including Planning Magazine, The Architect’s Newspaper, Los Angeles Magazine, Sierra Magazine, Grist.org, Los Angeles Review of Books, Volleyball Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, many of which are chronicled at joshrstephens.net.
On the porch that evening in August 2004, still wearing his plastic ID bracelet from the ER, my father laughed. The mental blowout, which doctors diagnosed as transient global amnesia, was his memorable way of retiring. I couldn’t blame him. He’d clocked sixty years on earth, most of it spent dodging shrapnel of one kind or another. As an infant, he sustained second degree burns when the windows of his house blew out from an explosion at Hercules’ powder factory, knocking over a pot of boiling water onto his high-chair. As an adult, he stayed inside his military-issue roadgrader to avoid being picked off by the Viet Cong. He’d been married twice, raised two kids, and been involved in enough lawsuits to have estranged his sister and chastened his cheating former business partner. He’d had enough of the unceasing flood of methheads and manipulators and emotionally retarded that made up our customer base.
Maybe there was a time when it made sense for the next generation to carry forward the old processes, but I didn’t perceive a future in this. With its dipping tanks and fin-pressing machines and toxic chemicals, my family’s automotive aftermarket company seemed less like a living entity and more like one of those historical recreation villages populated by actors with child-garnishments and prison records. However, as the newly appointed twenty-four year old operational manager of our family business, this was now officially my problem. My parents had been running this business for eleven years. Neither one wanted to continue doing so, but the mechanism for not running it while still making a living had yet to manifest. It didn’t matter if manufacturing in the U.S. was waning, or if globalization had skyrocketed the price of raw materials we used regularly like sheets of copper and brass; my family’s well-being depended on me figuring out how to make this business profitable again. A dopey business broker had been bringing potential buyers to the office like a hawk wrangler, giving them a hasty glance at our financials before urging them to fly free. And they kept flying free.
As a recent college graduate who wanted to be a writer, the world of business was not my first choice. I loved studying people for their humanity, not for how they could benefit the bottom line. But that was a position of privilege; the new reality of managing a company for the sake of my family would require me to put aside my love of literature and use my powers of observation to study some very ugly business indeed.
• • •
Over New Year’s Eve weekend in December 2016, my friend Paul, an architect, his boyfriend Jose, a buyer for a major retailer, and I, an essayist, were lounging poolside in a rented house in Palm Springs. The thing I’ve always loved about Paul is that while he is capable of clearly interpreting reality, he does so without judgment: he relates to each person he meets as if that person has value, even if that value isn’t necessarily one he shares. He understands, for example, that without a brick-layer, brick will not be laid. If the brick-layer is having a problem, Paul needs to understand how to solve it, not simply blow it off as being a menial labor concern.
We were trying to enjoy ourselves in the waning weeks of the Obama administration, before the swearing-in of reality TV fascism. The result of the election, which was being blamed on working class voters, seemed simplified to me. Or rather, it seemed to be the result of exploiting an invisible class breakdown between those who preferred to work with their hands versus those who preferred to work with their minds. As we switched from mimosas to wine, Paul spoke about relating to different sets of people he encountered in his work; everyone from the clients to government officials to on-site construction workers.
I met Paul in 2007 when we were both working for Frank Gehry. I had started work at the architect’s office shortly after successfully restructuring the pricing architecture of my parents’ business. Initially, to save money at the business, I had laid off the most recent hire, a phlegmatic receptionist. It wasn’t her fault that she had to be let go, but she was the most expendable of an already tight crew of ten. I offered to write her the best recommendation letter known to humanity, and then I took on her job of answering the phone in addition to what I was already doing, which included the books, handling HR issues, managing sales and production, and negotiating pricing with vendors. The business needed to turn a profit. But how? All the fat had been cut.
I had learned, after some intensive late nights of studying our manufacturing process in detail, just how vital each member of the crew was. Every person had a highly specialized skill, and it had taken years for them to learn how to do things like bend metal beautifully, or solder without leaving embarrassing stains and spurts all over the finished product. As much as a novel is heavily dependent upon its characters more than some abstract notion of plot, the business depended on its workforce more than some corporate formula for success. Although technically people could be replaced, the time and energy spent in retraining someone else would simply be money out of pocket. I was not a slash and burn operator; I had to find a way to keep the essential staff while making the company make more money.
Finally, I realized the problem was the solution. As I discovered later, it went against a primary principle taught at Harvard Business School, which was that businesses needed to offer a high volume loss-leader product that would draw in a larger customer base to the core business, but here’s why it worked: we were selling a luxury product. Nobody needs a handcrafted radiator for their 1912 Model T the way they need a pair of pants or a bottle of milk. We were selling a tangible item, but we were also selling an experience, a taste of the good life. By definition, luxury isn’t cheap.
And yet wealth, despite what rich people tell you, has very little to do with money. Wealth is a state of mind; money is the intoxicant that often makes reaching this state possible. But true wealth, in its varying forms, is not about Scrooge McDucking your way through an unending vault of officially-stamped lucre. To be wealthy is to be infallible: and for this reason, it is bound less with numbers and more with perception.
As an example, you can be wealthy on a street corner in Southern California, simply because it is Southern California. Pay a hefty Malibu mortgage or squat in some unpermitted lean-to in a Culver City backyard and you’re still waking up to daily splendor. The ocean lolls around like an untapped 401(k); the palm trees languidly bend like house cats. It’s a perpetual waking dream, a sun-dappled sanctuary 500 square miles in size. Why bother with unpleasant emotions when every available surface is bursting with beauty? This is the lazy wealth of abundant natural resources, and it used to extend in slightly less photogenic form across the whole of the United States.
This lazy wealth was a kind of ignorance that stemmed from a hard-won luck, which is to say we economically excelled in World War II and felt like we would collectively never have to work again. We would become the operational managers of the world, occasionally ordering the clean-up of a spill of communism in some third-world aisle.
It helped that during the twentieth century, China was doing its somnambulist empire thing: it would twitch occasionally in its sleep, but for the most part it kept everyone in the world entertained with its communist mumblings and dream-logic insistence on One Time Zone. Now and then, it also ran over dissidents with tanks. However, during the first decade of the twenty-first century, China finally stirred awake and began to heavily invest in industry. They partnered with a variety of European and American firms, intent on providing manufactured goods at a much cheaper price. The deal was, they would give us the cheap goods as long as we provided the instructions on how to make them. Raw materials like copper, zinc, and steel correspondingly shot up in price as China began manufacturing everything in the world.
Which meant if you were a soup-to-nuts manufacturer who had never had to compete with the demand for supplies of a billion-person workforce, your pricing architecture was quietly experiencing massive dry-rot.
For this reason, my family’s business model, the one that had paid mortgages and helped send children to school and funded a lifestyle that could be described as upper middle class, was no longer working. It wasn’t because of shitty management or untrustworthy employees or even the pressures of the newly environmentally regulatory government. It was simply a casualty of the times, a charming but outmoded curmudgeon in the reality of a fiercely competitive globalized economy.
With all that in mind, I decided to increase the end user price of our basic radiators from $425 to $850 with a mass-mailed letter and the knuckle-whitened hand of a Russian roulette player. There was a gasp, there were a few phone calls, and then… the number of orders stayed about the same, but our bottom line slipped effortlessly from the red into the black.
By December 2005, there was that sense of renewal that comes after the end of a long illness. By February 2006, the dopey business broker was gone, replaced by an ad on Craigslist and a sharp-eyed former food executive who was tired of drinking expensive sake with corporate fools and their hookers in Tokyo bars. He was looking for a nice, quiet business in scenic San Luis Obispo county where he could bring his dog to work. And, after replacing all the insulation of the pricing infrastructure, I delivered this ex-exec exactly what he was looking for: a small but genuinely profitable business that overlooked a cow pasture.
• • •
When I moved to L.A. to pursue writing and needed a job to support myself, winding up at Frank Gehry’s was an unexpected delight. FOGA even had Bagel Fridays, a luxury my parents could never afford at their business. Yet other than the fact that Bono and Jeremy Irons were in the Outlook contacts, the vibe was the same. Management (of which I was frequently exposed to by virtue of being an executive assistant) and labor (who I hung out with after work at various bars and cramped Venice apartments) didn’t trust each other. Each felt the other had a superior deal. From management’s perspective, they were providing a guaranteed paycheck to a bunch of whining, candy-assed employees who only had to do their jobs. To labor, the dictates of their bosses seemed to drop out of the sky with a randomness and ferocity that was alienating.
Both parties had a point. But what surprised me was that nobody on either side ever felt comfortable airing their true grievances to each other. Privately, it reinforced my childhood dream to become a writer, where I was neither the evil overlord of an aftermarket automotive company nor on the bottom rung on the Pritzker Prize ladder. But this essential divide still troubles me. Nearly a decade later, after publishing dozens of pieces I’m proud of and many that now simply bemuse me, I wonder that we are so quick to adapt to these roles, the notion of employee/employer. What would it take to recognize each other as being equally valuable, to stop seeing each other as being so starkly divided in the workplace?
I suppose the strong memory of my parent’s business persists because I’ve reached a level in my profession where I regularly encounter V.S. Naipaul knock-offs (that is, the writers who after four years of their degree, from Oxford or wherever, can start to write and needed no other profession) and it took me a long time to stop feeling a little dirty around them, as if my need to figure out how to support my entire family and a staff of 10 was somehow shameful. There are brilliant people out there who have never worked at an assembly line and never will, and I admire their talent, even if many of them came with trust-funds or connections.
Running the business wasn’t exactly art, I admit, although it was highly conceptual. The demands of having to become analytical at the expense of my emotions fractured a part of me I didn’t know could be broken until it was. It took nearly every damn minute in between then and now to become whole again, to become a person who could value pure feeling the way artists are supposed to value feeling. But the thing I can’t stand in those who have never had to sacrifice themselves for others is their lack of compassion.
As Paul, surrounded by the foaming waters of the hot tub, spoke about understanding how to relate to a variety of people in order to accomplish a goal, I felt sadness that the country, and the larger world, had become so immune to compassion. We were going to allow a small cabal of oligarchs to divide us because we were too angry to admit that we all needed each other, that each service we provided was valuable in its own way. Superiority in work, like superiority in life, almost always causes more problems than it solves. But the worst sin is insularity; refusing to reach out to others, to not consider someone else’s life as having as much meaning and worth as your own, is ultimately the downfall of every single civilization. In a way, we knew at the end of 2016 that the country had hired someone to be its Hater in Chief. And why? Because a certain segment of the population wanted their jobs back?
I don’t think it’s as much about the literal jobs as it is about the sense of collective purpose. Telling any group of people that they just have to suck it up and abandon their existence is never going to be a hot sell. But appreciating their skills—in this case, the willingness to do hard, manual work, day in and day out—and understanding how to apply those skills to a newly engineered economic model is. We need to invest in new infrastructure in our cities, and there’s no reason why we can’t pay people a living wage to do it. Everyone benefits from this model, and everyone’s skills are used. It’s about remaking America into a collective vision, not a nation of wounded halves.
I mourn this jilted wedding of economy and ecology on a daily basis. Once the world’s biggest company and the center of American manufacturing, General Motors spent the final decades of the 20th century withering away into obsolescence. Their leadership had refused to acknowledge that competing on a global scale required a complete shift in thinking. Instead of manufacturing gas-guzzling behemoths, we should have been producing electric cars to reflect the consumer desire for energy-efficient, environmentally-friendly vehicles. In 2007, this old way of thinking would finally hit the wall when GM and most of the major American financial institutions finally had to declare bankruptcy or go out of business. But like the Sinatras of capitalism, they did it their way, right up until the end.
A decade later California leads the globally-burgeoning electric car business. The state stands against its own national government on the U.S.’ withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accord, while elected officials in cities like Los Angeles attempt to protect the rights of all of their citizens, whether documented or not. California’s ongoing tabula rasa approach to challenges, made literal by the periodic earthquakes that scrape away the unreinforced leavings of history, has made it an important player in a world of constant harmonic shifts and tempo changes. California’s ideas and products tour the world while many elsewhere in this country remain isolated in a shrinking bubble.
Which is why the United States of America must always exist primarily in myth: It was a kind of rough-hewn utopia that never really was as great as it claimed, but never as far-fetched as others accused. Americans felt invincible, powerful, and acted like the leaders of the free world. And then seemingly overnight, our lazy wealth had gone.
In 1964, British sociologist Ruth Glass coined the term “gentrification” in her study of young creative professionals moving into the working-class, largely West Indian neighborhood of Islington, London. She explained, “Once this process of ‘gentrification’ starts in a district it goes on rapidly until all or most of the original working-class occupiers are displaced and the whole social character of the district is changed.”1 The late twentieth- and twenty-first-century tech-boom-related gentrification of San Francisco has undeniably changed the city’s character and its accessibility to the diverse groups—writers, artists, activists, the working class, queer people, and people of color—who have made it such a unique city in California and the world. In contrast to poet George Sterling who called San Francisco a “cool grey city of love” in 1920, writer Rebecca Solnit now deems it a “cold gray city of greed” as the incursion of new wealth has rapidly and violently displaced longtime residents.2
The predominantly Latino neighborhood of the Mission District has been particularly affected. In the longer historical view, San Francisco’s Latino demographic is highly distinctive because it has been strong and variegated since the nineteenth century. Central Americans, Puerto Ricans, Mexicans, and Latin Americans of other nationalities moved there beginning in the Gold Rush era; the only other city to have such a diverse Latino population so early on was New York City (which claimed more of a Caribbean demographic), to be followed much later by cities like Los Angeles and Miami. The Mission District has been San Francisco’s “Latin” neighborhood since the 1940s, but now many fear it will lose that label as thousands of its Latino residents are evicted to make room for tech titans and their employees. While some may characterize this moment of gentrification as more economically than racially consequential, the data on tech industry hiring points to the contrary. A whopping 94 percent of Facebook’s employees are white or Asian while only 3 percent are Latino, 2 percent are mixed race, and 1 percent are black. Meanwhile, blacks and Latinos together comprise only 6 percent of Twitter’s workforce and 5 percent of Google’s.3 With little overlap between the Latino and techie demographics, the threatened dilution or disappearance of Latino San Francisco is very real.
The Virgin of Guadalupe shares space in the Mission District with a sign of the sharing economy. “La Virgen De Guadalupe” by Francisco “Twick” Aquino, 2007.
A long-defining characteristic of the Mission District has been its public murals, which first appeared in the 1970s in response to various local and global events as well as new city funding for public artwork. Located mostly in Balmy and Clarion Alleys, the murals infuse the neighborhood with color, creativity, and visual interest. Ironically, the cultural vibrancy that newcomer techies, investors, and young professionals value so highly in their choice to move to the Mission is exactly what will be eliminated over time with continued evictions, takeovers, and buildup. This essay offers a brief history of Latino San Francisco, using the murals of the Mission as the lens from which to examine Latinos’ historical presence in the city and to interrogate what part they will play in its future.
Historically, Latino artists in San Francisco and elsewhere have used murals as vehicles for, and symbols of, their social and political activism. They have articulated their stances on local and global issues—civil rights at home, civil wars abroad, racism, policing, and now gentrification—with paintbrushes and spray cans, and in the process have helped to cultivate a sense of Latinidad, or cultural interconnectedness between Latinos that surmounts differences in nationality and citizenship status.4 This essay showcases older and newer change of Mission murals, both of which comment on the simultaneous persistence and precarity of Latino artistic production on San Francisco’s streets. Many early murals have disappeared either through a lack of restoration funding or new property owners’ decisions to whitewash them. What does the erasure of some murals, and the survival or appearance of others, help reveal about the future of Latinos in the city? A few years ago, journalists and demographers questioned the future of black San Francisco (and now African Americans comprise only 6 percent of the city’s population).5 As one of the first big “Latino” cities of the US West, San Francisco is becoming so economically inhospitable that it is in danger of losing that historical title. With the exodus of Latinos to suburban and rural Northern California, we may be witnessing a shift back to pre-World War II demographics in that region, as well as the creation of a marginalized commuter class of Latino workers who will continue to serve an influential city but no longer be able to call it home. Do murals and the fight for their preservation have the potential to mobilize a diverse population of Latinos who want to push back against being pushed out?
• • •
Living in San Francisco even before it became San Francisco, Spanish-Mexican (Californio) rancho-owning families established deep roots in the area near the present-day Mission District. After the end of the US-Mexican War in 1848, however, these families lost their land grants to white squatters and even their own lawyers.6 The next year, the Gold Rush attracted migrants from all over the world and anti-Latino violence spiked. “Whether from California, Chile, Peru, or Mexico…all Spanish-speaking people were lumped together as interlopers and greasers,” and Latinos were either chased away from the gold fields by white miners or lynched by vigilante groups.7 In response to these attacks, Latinos turned inward and formed community with each other, constructing a Spanish-language Catholic church in the “Latin Quarter” of North Beach in 1875. When San Francisco became a leading processer of Central American coffee, Central American migrants added to the community’s diversity, as did Mexicans fleeing the Mexican Revolution of the 1910s and Puerto Ricans transitioning from jobs on Hawaiian plantations during the 1920s.8
After World War II, increasing rents in North Beach and urban development pushed Latinos to the South of Market Street Area (SoMA) and the Mission. The German, Irish, and Italian residents who had been living there began moving to newer housing in San Francisco’s western neighborhoods, which facilitated Latino settlement in the Mission along with small numbers of African Americans, Native Americans, American Samoans, and Filipino and Chinese-origin peoples.9 The first significant cluster of Latino restaurants, bakeries, and specialty shops soon appeared along 16th Street, and the neighborhood absorbed more newcomers, including Mexican farmworkers escaping the Bracero Program, Puerto Ricans who jumped ship instead of becoming Hawaiian sugar workers, and Nicaraguans and Salvadorans recruited by shipyards and wartime industries. By 1950, San Francisco’s Latino population totaled approximately 24,000 people, with almost a quarter of them living in the Mission.10
As San Franciscans heard more Spanish spoken on Mission streets, the perception of the neighborhood as a “poverty area” solidified.11 If one looked closer, however, multiple Latino political and social organizations had been founded by the 1950s, and a Latino-centric economy of small businesses, restaurants, grocery stores, record shops, and bookstores was thriving. When the 1960s ushered in War on Poverty initiatives and urban redevelopment, many Mission Latinos resisted the plan to build two Bay Area Rapid Transportation (BART) stops in the neighborhood. In city authorities’ eyes, BART would ostensibly revitalize and sanitize a district “well on its way to becoming a slum,” but residents rightly predicted that this infrastructure building meant displacement from several homes and businesses.12 As new waves of Cold War–era migrants—mainly Asian and Latin American refugees fleeing invasions and civil wars—moved into San Francisco, they increased the Mission’s percentage of Latinos to 44.6 percent and its foreign-born residents to 33.5 percent by 1970.13
Details from the mural “Mission Makeover” (2012) by Lucia Ippolito and Tirso Araiza.
A concurrent influx of internal migrants, including Puerto Ricans and Mexican American farmworkers leaving California’s San Joaquin and Salinas Valleys, boosted the 1970 citywide Latino population to over 101,000.14 Still attractive for its affordability and proximity to industrial and service jobs, the Mission cost residents an average monthly rent of $105.15
Two major phenomena of the 1970s that kickstarted mural production in the Mission were the Chicano civil rights movement and the multiple civil wars taking place in Latin America. In 1970, local artists active in the Chicano Movement founded La Galería de la Raza, a nonprofit community arts organization intended to foster public awareness and appreciation of Chicano/Latino art. When the city of San Francisco began commissioning murals in the 1970s that depicted events, people, and images associated with Latino communities, Galería-affiliated artists and others painted at least fifty major murals in the Mission by 1985. Inspired by Chicano Movement graphic art as well as older Mexican artists like Diego Rivera and David Siqueiros, muralists paid tribute to a wide array of subjects including the Virgin of Guadalupe, Mexican cinema stars, farmworkers, zoot suiters, and Vietnam veterans. A great number of the Mission’s early murals were painted by a group of Latinas called Las Mujeres Muralistas who fought for their place in the male-dominated world of mural-making and pointedly included women and children in their pieces. Their 1974 piece Latinoamérica intentionally strayed from the style of Mexican master muralists and paid homage to Peruvian, Venezuelan, Bolivian, and other Latin American cultures, as well as US-born Latinos, in an effort to affirm the Mission’s pan-Latino identity.17
Often the product of several artists’ work, murals are collaborative and collective art pieces that can function as an empowering mode of social bonding and an assertion of a community’s presence in a certain space. In requiring people to gather and decide what kind of art they want to live with, murals work to—as Cary Cordova argues—“solidify local and transnational communities.”18 Indeed, murals are landmarks of belonging and texts to be read for their expressed social values, political stances, or emotional responses to certain events. During the 1980s, some Mission murals commented on the farmworker movement in California. Juana Alicia’s Las Lechugueras/The Women Lettuce Workers depicted a group of women harvesters, including a pregnant worker, being sprayed with pesticides. Meanwhile in Balmy Alley, artists painted twenty-seven murals that addressed the United States’ intervention in the Nicaraguan, Guatemalan, and Salvadoran civil wars and communicated the trauma and violence experienced by these Central Americans.19 The pieces Culture Contains the Seed of Resistance and A Past That Still Lives feature ominous military police, critique economic disparities between the United States and Latin America, and express a hope for sanctuary.
As much as the 1980s witnessed intra-Latino mixing in the Mission, they also witnessed intra-Latino tensions. Central American and Mexican day laborers jostled each other figuratively and literally as they competed for work. Branches of the Sureño, Norteño, and MS-13 gangs staked out territory and engaged in open violence. The Mission’s reputation as an increasingly dangerous neighborhood resulted in heightened police surveillance. This, however, did not diminish the area’s real estate value. After the 1989 earthquake, white and Asian residents unable to buy property elsewhere in the city flocked to the Mission, where they beat out Latinos (who made a median annual income of $11,400 compared to $26,222 for whites) for housing. By 1990, Latinos accounted for 51.9 percent of the Mission’s population, while whites comprised 30 percent and Asians 13.1 percent.20 The later 1990s ushered in the dot-com boom, and as housing prices continued to soar, entrepreneurs erected high-end restaurants and boutiques next door to taquerias and thrift shops. Taking advantage of the fact that the Mission had the highest concentration of renters in the city (70 percent), landlords raised rents, evicted tenants through owner move-in evictions (OMIs) or the Ellis Act, chopped up buildings into multiple units, and converted warehouses into live/work lofts coveted by tech startups.21 In a land grab reminiscent of the post–US-Mexican War era, many Latinos were displaced and those who remained struggled to meet the median rent of $1,600 a month for a two-bedroom apartment (a price that only about 38 percent of all San Francisco households at the time could afford). “People who have been the heart and soul of this city for decades—artists, writers, musicians, senior citizens living on pensions, blue-collar workers, students, people on welfare and disability, and service-sector employees—are increasingly in danger of becoming an endangered species,” journalist Daniel Zoll wrote.22
Details from the mural “Mission Makeover” (2012) by Lucia Ippolito and Tirso Araiza.
This endangerment was reflected in a particular episode involving a beloved Mission mural. On 25 July 1998, the colorful four-story piece Lilli Ann by Jesus “Chuy” Campusano (commissioned by the city in 1986 for $40,000) was whitewashed after the building was sold to the Robert J. Cort Family Trust. A major real estate investor, the Trust wanted to provide ad space for its new tenants’ multimedia game company. According to the federal Visual Artists’ Rights Act (VARA), the mural’s copyright holders (Campusano’s children and fellow muralist Elias Rocha) were entitled to ninety days’ notice before any alteration. They ultimately sued the Trust for $500,000 and won their case, but the mural had already been lost with no planned replacement. This destruction of a Latino-produced mural came to symbolize the whitewashing of a larger Latino presence and culture in the Mission, or what scholar Nancy Raquel Mirabal has termed “culture deletion.”23 With one stroke of a delete key in the digital gold rush, the many strokes of a Latino artist’s paintbrush were rendered invisible.
Detail from Josue’ Rojas’s 2014 mural “Dedicated to the Migrants of the Mission,” which depicts a young Honduran boy crossing into the U.S. where he is met by a welcoming embrace to San Francisco.
By 2000, the Mission was making headlines for the tensions erupting between the new Silicon Valley digerati and older residents who were organizing themselves into anti-gentrification and anti-displacement coalitions. Accusing newcomers of taking advantage of the Mission’s low-income renters of color (in 2000, the neighborhood was 62 percent Latino and 83 percent renter, with a per capita income of $20,112 versus $32,441 citywide), activists added that many Mission residents were undocumented or could not speak English, making them more vulnerable to intimidation and being pushed out of their homes.24
Furthermore, on a national scale, Latinos had been deemed “the furthest behind in the race to become connected to the Internet,” and therefore lacked desirable cultural capital in the digital era.25 By the year 2000, more than one thousand Latino families had been displaced from the Mission; and between 2000 and 2005, the Latino population of San Francisco decreased from 109,504 to 98,891, making it the only major city in the United States to experience a loss in its Latino population.26
The national media continued to discuss, but not always with informed nuance, the Mission as a space of Latinidad. In a 2008 travel article on San Francisco, The New York Times praised the “wonderful mishmash” of the neighborhood. “Where else can you find epicurean vegan cafes, feisty nonprofits, and a Central American butcher shop?” the author asked, disregarding the community tensions keeping these nonprofits “feisty.”27 Along the same vein, a 2016 USA Today contributor living in the Mission sentimentalized her “discovery” of her local Mexican restaurant:
I had burritos delivered from Pancho Villa twice before I ever stepped in the well-known staple in my Mexican-influenced neighborhood.…I felt the energy of the staff wrapping perfectly cylindrical burritos at light speed and heard each order called out in Spanish and English. The burrito tasted better when I could appreciate the soul that went into making it.28
Essentializing Latinos as soulful workers who rapidly met her needs with a comforting bilingualism, the author extolled her choice to personally interact with this Latino business rather than rely on a food delivery app. This ability of newcomers to choose whether to interact with residents closely or distantly through technology is what many Mission Latinos decry as an uncomfortable and even hostile social environment.
In response, La Galería de la Raza and Precita Eyes Mural Center artists have produced powerful anti-gentrification pieces. The 2012 mural Mission Makeover hits upon the gentrification-related consequences of racially-targeted policing and price gouging. As young Latino and African American boys are detained and arrested by police, eviction notices and For Sale signs hang in windows while coffee shops fill to the brim with laptops and expensive lattes. Looming riot police don helmets with Facebook and Google logos; a Mexicana Airlines airplane flies overhead (presumably taking San Francisco–weary people back to Mexico); a blonde woman holds a Dia de los Muertos mask in a sign of cultural appropriation; and a faceless figure in the center symbolizing the Latino working-class majority proclaims, “Aquí estamos y no nos vamos! (Here we stay and will not leave!).” The directional landmarks in the mural—street signs reading Uan Wey and Otro Wey (wey meaning “dude” or “dummy” in Spanish)—communicate a frustration and hopelessness with what the neighborhood has become.
This explicitly anti-gentrification mural, and others like it in the Mission, works to counterbalance the disappearance of the older, historically significant Latino murals that came before it.29 Community action around mural preservation has increasingly become the way for Latinos in the Mission to keep their voices heard. In 2013, when the owner of a new wine bar decided to paint over the building’s large murals that depicted scenes from Latin American history, he incited vociferous protest. In the summer of 2015, hundreds of people rallied outside La Galería in support of Por Vida, a digital mural depicting two Latino same-sex couples and a transgender man that had been repeatedly defaced. Defending murals has become shorthand for defending Latinos’ presence, diversity, and deep history in the Mission. Murals have marked Latinos’ past and present in San Francisco, and therefore efforts to protect them stand as acts of community cohesion and persistence in the face of what feels like cultural warfare or erasure. With such a heterogeneous population of Latinos living in the Mission, no one civic, social, or political organization can represent them all. Yet, arguably, murals have helped to create a more tangible sense of Latinidad through their creation and subject matter.
By that token, if murals have played a key historical role in the making of Latinidad, do they hold the potential to mobilize and preserve San Francisco’s Latino community? By virtue of being visually provocative or beautiful, murals may be easier magnets for community support and thereby effective political tools. Nicaraguan immigrant and longtime San Francisco resident Erick Arguello has recently convinced the city to create the Calle 24 Latino Cultural District because of the number of murals in the area. If city authorities proceed to grant Twenty-Fourth Street special-use district status, local residents would have more say in decisions concerning further residential and commercial development.30 By tying the murals’ survival in the city to their own, Latinos could use historical preservation arguments to maintain the landscape they created as well as their place within it. While numerous cultural districts and street art conservation programs exist in the United States from Los Angeles to Harlem, to date Calle 24 seems to be unique in its fight to preserve not only particular works of art, but the right of a particular ethnic community to keep living among them.
• • •
Because the Mission District was not always a Latino neighborhood, some might argue, it should make sense that it will not always be one. People move in, people move out, and environments change. In 2015, studio apartments in the Mission were renting for $2,700 a month, and the neighborhood was more popular than any other area of San Francisco on Airbnb.31 As San Francisco city budget authorities predict that the Mission will lose 8,000 Latino residents by 2025, Latino organizations like the Mission Economic Development Agency are holding free computer and coding camps in the hopes of giving Latino youth a better foothold in the tech world.32 Local architect Evan Rose has argued that the Mission’s transformation simply reflects “the nature of a city. Cities grow and respond to growth pressures.”33 Mission artist and evictee Tony Breaux opines, however, that once tech monoculture takes over, “you are dealing with a dead city, creatively.”34 If city authorities give only certain groups the opportunity to grow and be creative, other groups—in this case artists, working-class people, immigrants, and people of color—will not be included in the future of San Francisco. In fact, they will be rendered as even more foreign and powerless outsiders.
Writ large, Latinos crisscross all of these vulnerable positionalities. If they will no longer be able to reside in the city unless they possess a certain amount of wealth, what will result—and what has already begun to emerge—is a large Latino commuter underclass living on the periphery of San Francisco. Latinos and blacks have already moved to suburbs like Richmond, Vallejo, Sacramento, Antioch, Tracy, and Stockton. Though superficially cheaper, these new homes result in more expensive work commutes and profound disconnection from old places, people, and routines. This shift in San Francisco will no doubt shape the future of California as more people of color move to suburban or agricultural communities that may or may not be accustomed to their presence. In some cases, Latino families with farmworker heritage that worked their way out of the fields in the post–World War II era are returning to places like the San Joaquin and Salinas Valleys out of economic necessity, a move which likely provokes anxieties about re-experiencing racial and social marginalization and downward mobility.
San Francisco has rebuilt itself several times after natural and economic disasters— this time, is it doing so without imagining Latino residents in the picture? Or, as some believe, are intentional disasters being created to erase this population? After BART’s establishment in the Mission in the 1960s, 133 fires erupted within a three-block radius of the Sixteenth Street station, eliminating low-income properties and paving the way for redevelopment. In an eerie echo of the past, mysterious Mission fires over the past few years have displaced hundreds of people.35 Latinos’ historic contribution to San Francisco’s social diversity and cultural production is profound, yet the threat of their (as artist Rene Yañez terms it) “cultural eviction” looms large.36 Murals have given Mission residents access to beauty, creative work, and cultural pride amidst the local and international political turbulence of the past fifty years. This current moment of turbulence is about who can claim access and belonging to this influential California city. By painting and pointing to murals, Latinos are engaging in a type of community cartography, fighting to map themselves onto the past, present, and future of a changing San Francisco.
Detail from Josue’ Rojas’s 2014 mural “Dedicated to the Migrants of the Mission,” which depicts a young Honduran boy crossing into the U.S. on La Bestia, the infamously dangerous train used by undocumented immigrants where he is met by a protective angel on the journey.
The author gratefully acknowledges Francisco Aquino, Lucia Ippolito, Tirso Araiza, and Josué Rojas—the artists whose work is featured in this essay—along with Tatiana Reinoza…along with Tatiana Reinoza, Susannah Aquilina, and an anonymous reader for their feedback and suggestions.
1 Ruth Glass, London: Aspects of Change (London: MacKibbon and Kee, 1964), xiii–xlii.
2 George Sterling, “Cool Grey City of Love,” The San Francisco Bulletin 133/31 (11 December 1920), 1; Rebecca Solnit, various Facebook posts—for example, 7 May 2016.
4 For more on Latinidad in San Francisco, see Tomas Summers Sandoval, Latinos at the Golden Gate: Creating Community & Identity in San Francisco (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2013).
6 Brian Godfrey, “Ethnic Identities and Ethnic Enclaves: The Morphogenesis of San Francisco’s Hispanic ‘Barrio,’” Yearbook: Conference of Latin Americanist Geographers 11 (1985): 48.
7 Abraham P. Nasatir, “Chileans in California during the Gold Rush Period and the Establishment of the Chilean Consulate,” California Historical Quarterly 53/1 (Spring 1974): 62.
8 Godfrey, “Ethnic Identities,” 46; Cecilia Menjivar, “Immigrant Kinship Networks and the Impact of the Receiving Context: Salvadorans in San Francisco in the Early 1990s,” Social Problems 44/19 (February 1997): 111.
9 Eduardo Contreras, “The Politics of Community Development: Latinos, Their Neighbors, and the State in San Francisco, 1960s and 1970s,” unpublished Ph.D. diss. (University of Chicago, 2008), 6.
10 Menjivar, “Immigrant Kinship Networks,” 111; Godfrey, “Ethnic Identities,” 46, 50; Contreras, “The Politics of Community Development,” 6.
11 Godfrey, “Ethnic Identities,” 50.
12 Contreras, “The Politics of Community Development,” 32.
13 Godfrey, “Ethnic Identities,” 49.
14 Contreras, “The Politics of Community Development,” 6; Godfrey, “Ethnic Identities,” 46. This is likely a conservative and low number because there were many undocumented Latinos working in San Francisco’s underground, informal, and cash economies.
15 Contreras, “The Politics of Community Development,” 7; Godfrey, “Ethnic Identities,” 52.
18 Cary Cordova, “Hombres y Mujeres Muralistas On a Mission: Painting Latino Identities in 1970s San Francisco,” Latino Studies 4/4 (2006): 356.
19 Timothy W. Drescher, “Street Subversion: The Political Geography of Murals and Graffiti,” Reclaiming San Francisco: History, Politics, Culture (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1998), 235.
20 Menjivar, “Immigrant Kinship Networks,” 110–111. Again, because the Census has historically undercounted Latinos due to the population’s undocumented immigrant element, 51.9 percent is a conservative number. African Americans (4.5%), Native Americans (0.3%), and Other (0.3%) comprised the remainder of the neighborhood’s population in 1990. Simon Velasquez Alejandrino, “Gentrification in San Francisco’s Mission District: Indicators and Policy Recommendations,” Mission Economic Development Association Report (Summer 2000), 18.
21 Nancy Raquel Mirabal, “Geographies of Displacement: Latina/os, Oral History, and the Politics of Gentrification in San Francisco’s Mission District,” The Public Historian 31/2 (Spring 2009): 13–15.
22 Daniel Zoll, “The Economic Cleansing of San Francisco: Is San Francisco Becoming the First Fully Gentrified City in America?” San Francisco Bay Guardian, 7 October 1998, 17.
25 John Jota Leaños, “The (Postcolonial) Rules of Engagement: Advertising Zones, Cultural Activism, and Xicana/o Digital Muralism,” Street Art San Francisco: Mission Muralismo, Annice Jacoby, ed. (New York: Harry Abrams, 2009), 205.
Details from the mural “Mission Makeover” (2012) by Lucia Ippolito and Tirso Araiza.
Lori A. Flores is an assistant professor of history at Stony Brook University specializing in the histories of US Latinos, immigration, labor, and the US-Mexico borderlands. She is the author of Grounds for Dreaming: Mexican Americans, Mexican Immigrants, and the California Farmworker Movement (Yale), which was named Best History Book by the International Latino Book Awards. Her scholarship engages the public through advocacy for underrepresented groups in higher education and immigrants and farmworkers in the United States.
Segment of “Berkeley: A People’s Bicentennial History of Telegraph Avenue” by Osha Neumann, O’Brien Thiele, Hannah Kransberg, and Daniel Galvez. Photograph by Wally Gobetz, via Flickr.
“Just remember, Nancy, that you and I are just ‘passing’ as academics.”
—George A. DeVos (“the Fox” in Flemish), University of California professor of anthropology
The first act of civil disobedience doesn’t come easily to most people. We are raised to be obedient; it requires considerable discernment to decide what matters enough to justify going against our sociable inclinations to conform, to not make waves, as my beloved Dad put it. The phone or the doorbell rings, and we answer it. The Star-Spangled Banner strikes up at a baseball game, and we rise to salute the flag and strain to reach the impossible notes of a ghastly anthem with its “bombs bursting in air,” its references to fire, destruction, blood, and the “pollution” of our enemies, the “terror of flight and the gloom of the grave.” But sing it we do, on cue. Then, suddenly, there is a tipping point that brings one to their senses. Following the My Lai Massacre in Vietnam, something snapped back home in the United States. Some ordinary people began to sit tight during the singing of the national anthem in our ballparks. The bench sitters were pelted with hot dogs and mustard, with snow cones and soft ice cream. They were told to stand up like men, even if they were women. They were called traitors, scum, cowards, and Commies, and told to get out of America. But, like Horton the Elephant, they sat and they sat. They refused to remove their baseball caps or place their right hands over their hearts in a display of patriotic loyalty. That took a lot of moral courage.
As a young Peace Corps Volunteer in rural Northeast Brazil, my band of nonspecialist “sanitary engineers” (latrine diggers) and “barefoot paramedics” arrived soon after the 1964 military coup (fully supported by the CIA) that clobbered the impoverished sugarcane cutters who had begun to organize with the Ligas Componese, the Peasant League Movement. The military officers in Recife learned that the “squatters” of the shantytown, Alto do Cruzeiro, in rural Pernabuco were holding mass meetings and that Dona Nanci was organizing a squatters association (UPAC, the Union of the People of Alto do Cruzeiro) to address the lack of potable water, the hunger, the infant mortality, and the premature deaths from uncontrolled infectious disease. But it was the indignity of pauper burials in shallow, collective graves using borrowed municipal tin coffins that poor people could no longer endure. UPAC organized around the slogan “Six Feet Under and a Proper Coffin.”
One afternoon, two sweaty men in uniform came to my mud hut, perched near the top of the hillside shantytown, and accompanied me to military headquarters in Recife, where I was questioned. I spoke of the useless suffering and meaningless (premature) deaths of infants and “angel babies.” I was released but placed under surveillance and a form of house arrest. I was not allowed to leave the town of Timbauba during the military investigation of UPAC. I could not meet with more than three people at a time. No elections of local leaders could take place. All organizing had to stop, and I had to give a daily report of my activities to a local judge, Dr. Geraldo. Three months later a verdict was reached: UPAC was banned and my visa was to be revoked. I was told to leave Brazil.
My Peace Corps directors threatened that if I was forced to leave my post, they would pull the other 500 volunteers out of the country with me. A compromise was reached: UPAC could still function in circumscribed ways. Our infant-toddler daycare center (the crèche) ran as a parent co-op alongside a community kitchen to feed those who were in the greatest need. Over the protests of sugar plantation owners and cattle ranchers worried that thirsty squatters would squander water needed for agribusiness, the Secretary of Public Works provided water pipes. The pipes were installed, and a water pump and a large water tank were installed on the top of the shantytown. Literacy classes continued at night, and a few rural workers learned to read, write, and use alfabetizaçao within the forbidden contest of political conscientizaçao. I could leave with my head up and with a collective that kept the crèche working for several years after I left Brazil.
On return to the United States, I wasn’t ready to resume my studies and I joined SNCC (the Black-power-oriented Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) and spent two years (1967 and 1968) in Selma, Alabama, and its rural surrounds, especially Wilcox and Lowndes counties where we gathered household, medical, and family data to support a class action suit (Peoples vs. the US Department of Agriculture) representing 500 Black farm families, tenant farmers, and sharecroppers who were being denied federal subsidies, food commodities, FHA loans, and cotton allotment checks that were due them. It took more than twenty years for that suit to wind its way through the federal courts.
In the spring of 1969, I moved to Berkeley to work as a research assistant for my undergraduate mentor, the anthropologist Hortense Powdermaker, who had retired from Queens College and moved to North Berkeley where she lived next door to the Alfred and Theodora Kroeber compound on Arch Street. Her last research project was a study of “time and youth culture” in the Bay Area. Thanks to Hortense’s pressure, I applied to the graduate anthropology program at Berkeley. When Hortense died suddenly that summer, I was bereft and threw myself into the local political scene. I joined the first ragtag group of students and local activists to occupy the area that became known as People’s Park. Mayhem followed, including police shootings and demonstrations. I became pregnant and then became a single mother. But having lived among many single parents and grandparents with children, I learned from them how to manage.
Founding UC Berkeley Child Day Care Services
I joined a group of community activists and students who were trying to begin a student-parent child day care co-operative on the Berkeley campus. It was during this time that I met my husband Michael, a Harvard graduate and football player who suffered an injury that had disqualified him from the draft. His work as a child day care teacher alleviated some of his guilt about not serving in Vietnam. He had demonstrated against the war but would have fought in WWII, he said.
By the fall of 1970 we had negotiated with the ASUC (Associated Students of the University of California) and the university administration to use a vacant small redwood building on Galey Road, Girton Hall, while looking for a larger location. Girton could not handle more than fifteen children per hour, and the hours were distributed by a weekly lottery. Our attempts to be recognized and supported by the university administration failed. “We are not in the business of babysitting,” an assistant in the chancellor’s office told us. The collective decided to apply pressure by “occupying” the chancellor’s office with our infants and toddlers. We were to have been about twenty demonstrators or so, but when I arrived at 200 California Hall with my baby daughter, Jennifer, who I carried in a side sling, only two other mothers turned up. We managed to get inside the glass doors of the chancellor’s office and sat on the floor with our curious and playful toddlers; we said we would not leave until we could speak to then Chancellor Roger Heyns. However, the tables were turned, and we were locked down inside the reception area for several hours. The media came and dozens of our daycare parents cheered us on from outside. As our babies began to cry and needed their diapers changed, the university police finally let us leave without penalty.
What would we do next? I shared my experiences about the tactics of “occupations” that I learned in Brazil among the rural squatters who had occupied a rocky, steep hill (a rural favela) that they called Crucifix Hill, Alto do Cruzeiro. There, we had built a crèche for the children of rural workers whose infants were dying like flies as they left them home alone or in the care of other children or old neighbors—none of them capable caretakers. We did what Brazilians were doing all over the country, occupying land that was not being used.
We decided to apply the same tactics to our student-parent co-operative while we continued while we continued to investigate other buildings on campus that were under used. We chose a large basement in a high-rise university dorm on Durant Avenue and conducted a survey of the student residents to see if there were any objections to our using the site for our second childcare unit. The students were positive, and one morning we seamlessly executed the plan, bringing in cribs, playpens, blankets, and toys so that another thirty children of UC Berkeley students had access to the daycare co-operative.
There was one incident that put a chill on our project. An older graduate student with emotional problems related to a breakup with his wife set fire to a mattress that was used by the toddlers to play on. Luckily, the fire was set after the children had gone home, and it was immediately detected. Fire trucks arrived and extinguished it. Then the UC administration wisely closed that ad hoc childcare center and seriously began negotiating with us for the first time. The result was that the volunteer daycare teachers were employed under the title “lab technicians,” which they protested to the administration saying that they were not taking care of white mice or rats in a cage. By 1972, the Associated Students of the University of California administered the daycare program. Additional sites were negotiated, including childcare centers at the old Anna Head building near People’s Park, another in the basement of The First Congregational Church at Dana and Durant, and a year later at the Smyth-Fernwald UC Berkeley married student housing complex at the top of Dwight Way.
People’s Park: Installing The People’s Café
After I completed my doctorate in the anthropology department at Berkeley in 1976, my husband and I moved to Texas (Southern Methodist University) and then to Chapel Hill, North Carolina, where I taught for several years, returning to Cal in 1982 to join the anthropology department as a professor. It was the Golden Age of Anthropology at Berkeley, and I was lucky to have enjoyed sharing Kroeber Hall with so many brilliant scholars and dedicated fieldworkers. Meanwhile, however, People’s Park was going to seed: runaway teens, Vietnam vets with PTSD, and former patients of the old state asylums vied for space in the park. Faculty and students avoided the place, except for the occasional weekend concerts. The crack epidemic brought some unsavory people into the park, where they were wheeling and dealing. In the late 1980s, we met John Cooper, the founder of The Berkeley Catholic Worker. Every morning he rode into People’s Park in his green pickup truck bearing steaming vats of hot coffee and donuts. Cooper was an impossible, irascible Berkeley saint. He had a Ph.D. from Stanford in physics and a tough addiction to alcohol. When he hit rock bottom, he lived as a tramp. He managed to recovered enough to drive a taxi around town and it was during one those long rides through the city that he had his Saint Paul on the way to Tarsus moment. He looked at the homeless denizens of the Berkeley streets, empathized with them, and decided that he would spend the rest of his life trying to make their lives easier and more dignified. John claimed to be an atheist who had a single God experience, the one that pulled him toward a radical love for the homeless of People’s Park and his dedication to the Catholic Workers, an anarchist-socialist movement founded in NYC by Dorothy Day and Peter Marin in the 1930s to respond to the basic needs of the homeless during the Great Depression by opening Catholic Worker hospitality homes and ‘agronomic universities.’
Segment of “Berkeley: A People’s Bicentennial History of Telegraph Avenue” by Osha Neumann, O’Brien Thiele, Hannah Kransberg, and Daniel Galvez. Photograph by Wally Gobetz, via Flickr.
Catholic Worker philosophy was based on a few principles: personalism, intimacy, pragmatism, and respect for the dignity and freedom of excluded individuals. In People’s Park, these included people without names and known only as “the Hate Man,” “Pig-Pen,” “the Orange Man,” Rosebud, and Gypsy. The Catholic Worker’s playbill also included radical action as needed. Over time, the Berkeley Catholic Workers broadened their commitment to include antinuclear protests and arrests at the Livermore Labs, along with various peace initiatives encouraged by our chaplain, the famous Father Bill O’Donnell, who taught us how to get arrested so as to maintain the dignity of both cops and demonstrators.
But primarily, the Berkeley Catholic Worker’s brief was to prepare and dispense gourmet breakfasts—old-fashioned Irish oatmeal and fresh cream, grits and cheese, hot croissants and Peet’s coffee (caf or decaf), and some weekend evening meals of hearty soups and stews (meat or vegetarian). “Why shouldn’t the homeless have choices?” John insisted. But serving hot meals out of an open, flatbed truck was not very convenient or dignified in the rainy season, and so John managed to wheedle some $50,000 from local donors so that our group could rent a nice, dry, and well-lit place in the vicinity of People’s Park.
An ideal space, managed by the university, close to the park was found, and John Cooper and I met with a dean—I forget who he was, but we called him the “Dean of Monies.” We explained our plans and how we would make sure that our CW hospitality house would be as well run and as integrated into the university community and campus as the ASUC child care program of which the university was quite proud. The dean’s answer to us was No, No, and Never. I recall looking at John, who for once in his life was totally defeated. He had worked so hard to pull together a significant amount of funds, and he had won the respect of the divided and divisive residents of People’s Park. It was heartbreaking; and although I was a full professor, totally dedicated to my students, to our doctoral program in critical medical anthropology, and to my research and writing, I was not willing to sacrifice the other part of my life, the life of a radical. I took one last look at John, and I said spontaneously to the dean: “Well, I guess we’ll just have to implement option two.” “And what would that be?’ the dean asked while John cocked his head at me, wondering what I had in mind. I replied, “We’ll just have to build a hospitality house in People’s Park.” “You do anything of the sort,” the Dean of Monies replied, “and it will be curtains for you,” or something along those lines.
Endless “clarification of thought” meetings took place among the Berkeley Catholic Workers. In the interim, we borrowed time by operating out of the basement of Mary Magdalene Church in North Berkeley, but it was too far from People’s Park where most of the homeless gathered. Finally, John Cooper and a small band of hard-core Berkeley Catholic Workers members—including my husband, Michael; my daughter, Jennifer; and me—agreed to take the more radical path.
Those who prayed—not John Cooper, who always insisted, “I’m not a Catholic; I don’t pray, and I don’t work”—went to Saint Joseph the Worker Church where Father Bill O’Donnell dedicated a monthly Mass to the Catholic Workers and advised us. We were a motley crew. John Cooper came to the Mass, but he sat grumpily on a folding chair at the back of the basement room where the Catholic Worker Mass was taking place, and he ducked out as soon as the “bloody kiss of peace” went round, and again when Holy Communion was distributed.
After one of those Masses, we decided that we would plant a People’s Café in People’s Park, occupying university-owned land. We purchased a beautiful (if such could be said) seventy-four-foot house trailer that we hauled from a construction site to the Berkeley Marina on the evening of 8 May 1989. A dozen of us spent the night at the marina in quiet contemplation. Father Bill came to give us a blessing. He reminded us that we would be breaking the law; we said we understood and would accept the consequences.
I annoyed the hell out of John Cooper every time I asked him during the cold night watch:
“John, what is the plan after we carry the trailer into People’s Park?”
“Dammit, Nancy, we’ll make a giant cauldron of oatmeal and one of grits, and we’ll start feeding people.”
“Yes, but what do we do when the police arrive?”
“Bag your negative energy. When the police come, we’ll know what to do.”
Segment of “Berkeley: A People’s Bicentennial History of Telegraph Avenue” by Osha Neumann, O’Brien Thiele, Hannah Kransberg, and Daniel Galvez. Photograph by Wally Gobetz, via Flickr.
I shut up and put my head on my knees, wanting the morning light to appear. At 5:00 A.M. we got into our cars and accompanied The People’s Café as it was hauled by union-motorists down University Avenue. John, seated inside the cab of the truck, blasted a tape of the Hallelujah Chorus, as we held our breaths. Arriving at People’s Park, we took our assigned posts and set to work following a minute-by-minute schedule. Our carpenter-member sawed down some wooden posts that boarded the park, so the trailer café could be driven inside the park. We punctured the tires of the mobile café so that it would be a permanent fixture. We arranged picnic tables with tablecloths and lit up the gas stoves. By 7:00 A.M., when campus police arrived, we had already served more than 150 people a hot breakfast under the white flowing banner “The People’s Café.” The first cop said, “Holy shit!”
In the months that followed, The People’s Café provided more than good food. Guests were welcomed inside the café where card tables, dominos, chess, and checkers were set up. Free haircuts were given, and basins for “washing up” were provided, as were small lockers to store small, special possessions. Then mayor of Berkeley, Loni Hancock, praised The People’s Café, which she was cited in the Berkeley news as calling “a little piece of heaven dropped down on People’s Park.” During its tenure, there were no violent incidents at the park. When crises arose, they were dealt with on the spot. Weapons were sometimes confiscated, but we never had to call on or involve the police. The People’s Café was a weapon-free and police-free zone. We were respected—but, of course, the university wanted us out.
After several months of failed negotiations with UC Berkeley’s Vice Chancellor for Business and Administrative Services, the university filed suit in Alameda County Superior Court asking for a court order to forcibly remove The People’s Café. The judge rejected the case: “You want to remove the café; you can,” she said. “It is on state property. Don’t ask the county to be party to this.” The judge said that she was a great admirer of Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker movement. But ultimately after four wonderful years, the university police, armed and dangerous, entered the park and forcibly removed and eventually chopped up and destroyed The People’s Café. In its place, the university built volleyball courts for students.
Although he and a few companions reverted to bringing hot meals into park in the original green Catholic Worker pickup truck, John Cooper fell into a deep depression. It was never the same after that, and bad luck—bad ‘cess the Irish would say—followed. Gypsy, a much beloved street person, choked on a chicken bone while standing on his head in front of the Caffe Mediterraneum on Telegraph Avenue. Soon after, a nineteen-year-old runaway with a history of mental problems, known as Rosebud, who lived in The People’s Park, broke into University House, the campus home of the new and much loved Chancellor Chang-Lin Tien. Rosebud had a small machete. A security device alerted campus police, who arrived with a particular Berkeley police officer who had a history of violence and civil rights abuses. They found Rosebud cowering in the bathroom of the chancellor’s residence, and they shot her point-blank. Rosebud was a disturbed person, but John Cooper believed that her death could have been averted if The People’s Café and its staff of homeless veterans had been available to counsel her, just as we did many other disturbed people in People’s Park. Mad Lives Matter!
A few years later, John Cooper gave up and died of emphysema, neglect, and a broken heart. We grieved John’s death deeply, and I still miss him. John was a difficult man, a temperamental man, and at times a tempestuous man—but he was also a visionary. John confided that it all began in 1985 when, while driving his taxicab through the dismal backstreets of San Francisco, he experienced what he called gruffly, “an abrupt feeling that I should serve the poor.” John was also an educated man, and he left behind his bound Ph.D. in physics from Stanford University. He had a problem with alcohol but never had a drink before 5:00 P.M. He was a “disciplined” alcoholic and the first to admit it. He wrote weekly reflections in our Berkeley Catholic Worker newspaper that captured the spirit and writings of the original Penny Catholic Worker socialist newspaper that I read as a child in New York City. Cooper was an itinerant and virtually homeless intellectual, similar in spirit to the French worker-priest Peter Maurin, who accompanied Dorothy Day and helped her to think. John had a single vision: to dwell physically, psychologically, and spiritually with the homeless. He never turned back.
Segment of “Berkeley: A People’s Bicentennial History of Telegraph Avenue” by Osha Neumann, O’Brien Thiele, Hannah Kransberg, and Daniel Galvez. Photograph by Wally Gobetz, via Flickr.
In my 1995 article, “The Primacy of the Ethical: Propositions for a Militant Anthropology,”1 I suggested ways of bringing together scholarship and moral and political commitment. In Death Without Weeping,2 I argued for an anthropologic-pe-no-chao, anthropology-with-one’s feet on the ground, a committed, grounded, “barefoot” anthropology. We can write books that go against the grain by avoiding impenetrable prose so as to be accessible to broader publics. We can make ourselves available to the poor, the displaced and disgraced, as companheiros and companheiras. We can exchange gifts based on our labors, use royalties or awards, to support radical actions. We can seek to avoid the death-dealing treadmill of academic/professional achievement. We can be scholars as well as upstarts. We can take advantage of the incredible freedom that the academy has given us and not squander it on useless or obscurantist arguments. “Theorists and Methodologists—Get to Work!” Finally, in “Three Propositions for a Critically Applied Anthropology,”3 I argued that there are times to “play the court jester, that sometimes mocking, sometimes ironic, but always mischievous, voice from the sidelines…to put on the white face of the harlequin…Don’t be seduced, be the seducer! Don’t be subverted, be the subverter! Laughter is the best medicine and the Rabelaisian love of the absurd, the grotesque, and for the tumbling of received wisdoms.”
There are times when civil disobedience is a just path toward human liberation. Today there is still hunger in the streets and newly exposed shocking hunger among our Berkeley student body—some of whom are so financially stressed by the rising cost of tuition, rent, and books that they limit themselves to one meal a day fortified by snacks of tortilla chips. I think of John Cooper as John the Good and wonder what he would say and write in his wise reflections in the Berkeley Catholic Worker newspaper, one cent per copy, just as Dorothy Day never changed the price. I think he’d say: Feed the hungry; visit the prisons; make friends with the drug dealers and the gangsters; open the doors of the university to the undocumented, to the former gang members, and let the homeless sit in on your classes. They all have a lot to teach us.
Nancy Scheper-Hughes, “The Primacy of the Ethical: Propositions for a Militant Anthropology,” Cultural Anthropology 36 (1995): 409–440.
Nancy Scheper-Hughes, Death Without Weeping: The Violence of Everyday Life in Brazil (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993).
Nancy Scheper-Hughes, “Three Propositions for a Critically Applied Medical Anthropology,” Social Science and Medicine (1991): 189–198.
Maricela Becerra Cat Callaghan Will Davis Grace Ko Benjamin Kolder Alejandro Ramirez MendezIt is two-thirty in the afternoon on Sunday, 22 May 2016. You walk west down First Street, through Boyle Heights, a neighborhood just east of downtown Los Angeles. You can see downtown on the horizon from the crossroads of Boyle Avenue and First Street directly ahead of you. Walking through Mariachi Plaza in the glare of a Sunday afternoon, you hear cheering, then quiet, then laughter, then quiet, then singing. Children’s voices come from the kiosk, a raised pavilion that was a gift from the State of Jalisco in 1998 and built in traditional Mexican style from Cantera, using the same stone the pre-Colombian Toltecs used for their pyramids. Approaching the kiosk, you realize it is filled with people, a mix of ages. They are hushed, their attention fixed on a woman reading to them.This scene describes a children’s storytelling hour, the result of a collaboration between six UCLA researchers and Libros Schmibros, an independent bookstore and lending library in Boyle Heights, which took place over four months in 2016. The project explored how small-scale, staged literary interventions like a storytelling hour could have a productive impact on a given community. The initiative came about as a way to promote something we call “literary justice.”
Literary justice is premised on the idea of a culture that embraces stories as a part of life as part of a community-building effort. It is achieved when all members of a community have equal access to books and stories, and it stems from numerous studies that demonstrate that a person’s access to literature is a strong indicator for a host of quality-of-life measures.1 A robust public library system is an important tool in the fight for literary justice, but in cities like Los Angeles, busy families often struggle to use a public library system that was not designed to accommodate them. The limited availability of books and magazines, limited open times, hard-to-reach-library branches, and even a lack of knowledge of where library branches are located all limit the utility of libraries, as do lack of time and money, illiteracy, and a passion for books that has not yet been sparked in every member of the community.
So instead of focusing on physical libraries—or even physical books—we chose to focus our work with Libros Schmibros on stories. By bringing books and stories out of the library and into the neighborhood, we hoped that literacy and community engagement might build on one another in more imaginative ways. We devised a project that had two components—La Caja Mágica (the Magic Box) and La Hora Mágica (the Magic Hour)—aimed to expand the conventional notion of what a library could be by shifting the focus from books to storytelling. A small gathering telling stories becomes a performance: the sidewalk becomes a space of cultural production, changing the cultural practices of the neighborhood. Essentially, it becomes a library.
In Seeking Spatial Justice, Edward Soja introduces the idea of space as subject to forces that allow resources to be distributed unevenly and allow certain services to be granted only to the privileged.2 Literary injustice, therefore, describes forms of cultural, geographic, and social segregation that affect a community’s access to literary activities. In this sense, literary justice looks to break chains of inaccessibility and to empower community members by creating access funded by new paths of literary distribution.
Literary justice focuses on those places or social strata where access to literature has been diminished by economic or political decisions of the city. If “those who live in the city,” as Mark Purcell suggests, “contribute to the body of urban lived experience and lived space,”3 where does the experience of reading and storytelling fit into urban space? Claiming a space for books in the city is a way for a community to claim the right to be educated.
This in turn, led us to ask the following: Is our city designed for reading? Is public space planned for sharing stories? Is the act of reading aloud perceivable in Los Angeles? Literary justice promotes the importance of reading in the public realm as a means to enhance and empower community participation in public space.
Today’s public libraries serve as a basis for disseminating ideas to the community while providing a secure reservoir for books, magazines, or newspapers. However, as an enclosed, institutional space, it is functionally limited by its location, format, hours, and programs offered. Mobile libraries, on the other hand, represent a practical way to bring the book and the pleasure of literature to different communities. Projects such as the American Bookmobile service in the 1950s symbolized a way of assisting communities outside the boundaries of public library branches.4 However, mobile libraries themselves are limited by their small size and lack of vital resources a full-service public library can provide, such as trained children’s librarians. How can people access books and storytelling activities in public space? Can creatively implemented literary justice embedded into the cultural practices of an urban space such as Boyle Heights foster spatial justice?
La Caja Mágica is the heart of the project. Inspired by art projects such as The Dumpling Express (by the Berlin architecture office, Something Fantastic) and Olafur Eliasson’s Mirror Bikes, La Caja Mágica is a chrome-coated plywood box that unfolds to expose an interior of grass serving as a stool. The box stores grass mats to create seating for an audience. What looks at first like a strange, mirrored, rolling two-foot cube is in fact a storytelling box of tricks, containing books, puppets, and gifts. It is a box, but it is also a seat for a storyteller. It is an object, but also a location.
When children approach it, they see themselves playing in its mirrored surface. This dazzling effect seeks to pay homage to the visual aspects of a neighborhood, blending strangely with its surroundings, appearing imperceptible. Like the gleaming boxes of magicians, it attracts and generates expectation and curiosity among children and adults alike.
Once it is open, the box—lined with artificial turf—provides a place for the storyteller to sit and to store the books that will later be distributed to the audience. The turf and green seating mats transform the gray sidewalk into something almost park-like. The goal of La Caja Mágica is to transform a common environment into a micro library—or into a space apt for magical storytelling. The action of transforming the surroundings of the box into a whimsical environment becomes in itself a simulacrum of the cultural imaginary of telling stories in the middle of the forest. It transports these activities from the seclusion of enclosed space to the open communal environment of the public space. It also plays—in a minimalistic way—with the basic conditions needed to transform any space into a library.
Displaying La Caja Mágica (the Magic Box), a chrome-coated plywood box that unfolds to expose an interior of grass serving as a stool. The box stores grass mats to create seating for an audience.
Displaying La Caja Mágica (the Magic Box), a chrome-coated plywood box that unfolds to expose an interior of grass serving as a stool. The box stores grass mats to create seating for an audience.
In 2006, the Mexican artist Pablo Helguera organized an art project called The School of Pan-American Unrest. The project revived dying native languages and reenacted traditions in a traveling schoolhouse that made connections between the different regions of the Americas—from the northern regions of Alaska to the southern provinces of Chile—through a combination of performances, workshops, and screenings. Helguera’s breakdown of the traditional institution of the school provided inspiration for the reconceptualization of the pedagogical dynamics between storytelling and the places stories are told, be they schools or libraries.
Following Helguera’s lead, on a sunny Sunday afternoon in May of 2016, our six-person team and Libros Schmibros took over the kiosk at Mariachi Plaza. We opened La Caja Mágica and La Hora Mágica (the magic hour) began. David Kipen of Libros Schmibros introduced the event, and children’s librarians read stories aloud in Spanish and in English to a group of twenty children, who listened and danced. Two storytellers from the Los Angeles Public Library system engaged the children and their adult family members through skillful storytelling: book selection, page turning, and animated voices transformed words on a page into reality.
As the event drew to a close, we asked the children how often they would like to attend storytelling afternoons like La Hora Mágica, and we asked their parents where such events should be held. Most said three or more times a month, at Mariachi Plaza. Afterward, children and parents signed up for new or renewed accounts and checked out books at Libros Schmibros, which is located right next to the kiosk.
The whole project became an act of gift-giving to the community of Boyle Heights; by giving and sharing books and stories with the people, it functioned as an exemplary action to be imitated between parents and children. It also symbolized an act of literary justice that pursued the transformation of the cultural practices of the neighborhood by bringing fun and enjoyment to public space while promoting the act of reading and literacy.
At first, it was La Caja Mágica that commanded the attention of the audience, with its bizarre shiny presence; but as La Hora Mágica continued, both children and adults shifted their attention to the stories and activities performed by the storytellers. La Caja Mágica created an intimate literary space in a public area. La Hora Mágica is about stories, but it is also about the physicality of books and how they are treated when they are theatrically pulled from La Caja Mágica. The box, difficult to size because of its reflective sheen, seemed simultaneously tiny and huge as some twenty to thirty books emerged, one pulled from Libros Schmibros’s collection for each child present.
La Hora Mágica was advertised through posters in nearby locations, such as storefront windows and utility poles, and outreach to a few schools, bringing a dozen children there for the beginning of the event. Within the first ten minutes, another nine children and their parents joined, some running late and others passing by and wanting to join. The crowns, books, and puppets that emerged from La Caja Mágica attracted the attention of the public, but these alone could not hold focus without the dances and stories, read from books in English as well as Spanish.
Spectacle and performance were key components of this literary intervention. The action and impact that La Caja Mágica and La Hora Mágica had over the community provided an outlet for the social dynamics of the neighborhood, which all too often remain latent, with child-friendly spaces rare and working parents often keeping children at home. The event, not only a symbolic transformation of public space into library, also brought a moment of unity, peace, and enjoyment to participants. The project proposed, on one hand, a change in the spatial practices of the neighborhood by making accessible the art of storytelling; on the other hand, the whole experience allowed a reconfiguration of the reading and storytelling expectations of people.
Bringing the experience of reading books to people in urban spaces opens the possibility to reclaim the spaces for literacy as an act of social and spatial justice. Traditionally, kiosks in plazas like the one in Boyle Heights are used by bands and other groups as entertainment space. La Caja Mágica and La Hora Mágica broadened the kind of entertainment that could use the kiosk, while instilling a culture of literacy. Inspired in principles coined by Michel de Certeau in The Practice of Everyday Life, reading culture (or storytelling culture) is a series of social practices and tactics that permit competence in reading skills; these social rights of community to reading habits enable people to use books as tools for its intellectual and personal development.5 However, these practices are neither centered nor anchored in the mere materiality of the book as an object, nor in the number of books that a person possesses or reads, but in the way the communicated word between two or more people impacts and transforms someone’s thoughts and life. Access to the benefits that the act of reading and storytelling bring to people is the basis of the “Literary Justice.”
On the importance of libraries to communities, see M.D.R. Evans, Jonathan Kelley, Joanna Sikora, and Donald J. Treiman, “Family Scholarly Culture and Educational Success: Books and Schooling in 27 Nations,” Research in Social Stratification and Mobility 28.2 (June 2010): 171–97, which demonstrated that having more books in the home provided an advantage to children equivalent to having parents with a university education.
Edward W. Soja, Seeking Spatial Justice (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010).
Mark Purcell, “Excavating Lefebvre: The Right to the City and Its Urban Politics of the Inhabitant,” GeoJournal 58.2 (2002): 99–108.
Dorothy Strousse, “The Administrator Looks at Bookmobile Service,” ALA Bulletin 52.1 (1958): 16–22.
Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984).
Maricela Becerra is a Ph.D. student in the department of Spanish and Portuguese at University of California, Los Angeles. Her research focuses on the post-memories of the Tlatelolco massacre in contemporary Mexican authors, and the exchanges between the Chicano student movement in Los Angeles and the Mexican student activists in 1968.
Cat Callaghan is a master’s student at the University of California, Los Angeles. She is an architect studying transportation planning with the goal of improving accessibility in cities.
Will Davis is a Ph.D. student in architecture at University of California, Los Angeles. He studied in Bristol, Rotterdam, and Lund, gaining bachelor’s and master’s degrees in graphic design and anthropology.
Grace Ko is going into her second year in the Graduate School of Architecture and Urban Design at University of California, Los Angeles.
Benjamin Kolder is pursuing his master’s in architecture at University of California, Los Angeles. He works for Neil M. Denari Architects (NMDA) in Los Angeles.
Alejandro Ramirez Mendez is a Ph.D. student in the department of Spanish and Portuguese at University of California, Los Angeles. He studies the representation of space in Mexican and Chicano/a narratives of the twentieth and twenty-first century and their importance in the construction of identity.
Storytelling time for attendees of La Hora Mágica (the Magic Hour), Boyle Heights.
Editor’s Note: In 2014, architecture Professor Margaret Crawford and Associate Professor of Art Practice Anne Walsh taught the first University of California, Berkeley, Global Urban Humanities Initiative research studio course, called No Cruising: Mobility and Identity in Los Angeles. Then a Ph.D. student, Noam Shoked traveled to LA as part of the class to study bicycling communities there.
When we asked Crawford to tell us a little bit about the class, she wrote that “while preparing for the course, we spotted a photograph of a roadside ‘No Cruising’ sign, which opened our minds to the possibility of an ambiguous and open-ended understanding of mobility in LA and aided our investigation. Urban Dictionary’s two definitions of cruising both emphasized nonproductive mobility: first, ‘just driving around with no clear destination’; second, ‘trying to pick up someone for anonymous gay male sex.’ We added the subtitle ‘Mobile Identity and Urban Life’ to underline mobility as a social and human condition rather than a traffic problem to be solved.
“The adaptation and appropriation of words and concepts used to define ‘mobility’ opened doors to additional varied and unexpected interpretations as ten students majoring in art practice, art history, architecture, and performance studies, each selected a dimension of mobility they sought to identify on our field trips to LA. One goal of these field trips, or research studios, was to get students out of their comfort zones to explore new approaches and methods. We encouraged students to draw on each others’ disciplines, so art students undertook archival research while architectural history students, like Noam Shoked, used interviews and photography to investigate contemporary conditions.”
Los Angeles, known for its uncompromising car culture and unending urban sprawl has in the past year added more than one hundred miles of bike lanes, and intends to add forty miles more this year. In addition, with more than 100,000 participants, the car-free biking event CicLAvia takes place three times a year and is the country’s largest event of its kind. These initiatives are supported by multiple nonprofit organizations and bike co-ops such as the Bicycle Kitchen, Bikerowave, and the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition.
I made my first visit to Los Angeles to study this emerging culture in the context of the global urban bicycling movement, including that of my home country of Israel. I met with activists young and old, as well as officials dedicated to transforming much of the city by promoting a multimodal model, if not a car-free one. I was ready to leave the city and start analyzing the data I gathered, but on my way out of town, waiting at a gas station on Spring Street in the downtown area, I noticed someone riding slowly on the sidewalk. In heavy clothes and an old hat, he didn’t look like the young cyclists in spandex shorts and glossy helmets that I’d been interviewing. His bike was not as fancy as theirs and carried storage baskets on both sides. A few seconds later, I noticed another cyclist. Like the first, he was also riding on the sidewalk and wore a large hat that made it near impossible to see his face. It didn’t take long before I noticed that the sidewalks were crowded with cyclists. Most of them seemed like they were in their forties, maybe even fifties. All were men. Their lived experience of biking in the city was so different from what my research had led me to understand was the norm in Los Angeles. I had to learn more.
By the end of my second trip, my research project, my assumptions, and my view of bicycles in the city were turned inside out by a series of conversations with bicyclists who were part of no particular movement or organization, but who depended for their livelihood on their two-wheeled vehicles.
On my second visit to Los Angeles, I went to the area where I last saw these men and stumbled upon the Instituto de Educacion Popular del Sur de California (IDEPSCA) Downtown Community Job Center on Main Street, a facility that helped day laborers find work. Many bikes were tied to the bars by the entrance, and I assumed the men who came to the center looking for work rode their bikes from home each day. Inside I met José, a short man, probably in his forties. José was born in El Salvador and moved to Los Angeles a few years ago. His bike was in good shape—painted red and blue, and on one of his wheels there was a light refractor. He told me that when he was a kid in El Salvador, he also rode a bike.
José said he got to the day labor center by bike, insisting that he rides only on the sidewalk. He explained he was afraid of getting hit and complained about the merciless car drivers in the city. Accidents, he told me, can also happen on the sidewalk, and so he rides very slowly. I asked José if he used to ride on the sidewalk in El Salvador. José was amused. He said it was simply impossible in El Salvador, where the sidewalks were narrow and too crowded with people, vendors, and other obstacles.
Trying to understand his regular commute to the day labor center, I asked José where he lived. He wouldn’t tell me. At that moment, another worker, Miguel, intervened and announced, “He is homeless!” José seemed uneasy with Miguel’s comment and explained to me that he owns a cart and a bike, and stays near the intersection of Spring Street and Cesar Chavez. He even invited me over and said he would love to show me his place. By any standard definition, José was homeless, but not according to him. According to him, he owned some property—a bike and a cart—and had his own spot on Cesar Chavez Avenue. The bicyclists I met last time I was in Los Angeles saw bikes as a matter of mobility, but for José, his bike was the opposite. It gave him a sense of belonging, a way to put down roots.
I was curious to learn more about why it was important for him to declare that he owns a bike and a cart. José pulled a receipt from his pocket and explained that he usually doesn’t get jobs through the day labor center. Instead, riding his bike, he collects cans and bottles, and sells them to the Downtown Metals & Recycling Center on Alameda Street. José’s receipt indicated he received $11.23 from the recycling center. He said he rides his bike to different areas of the city on different days of the week. He usually goes to the area around Temple and Glendale on Wednesdays, and to Skid Row on Saturdays and Sundays. Sometimes, he makes a big loop from Cesar Chavez, south to Washington Boulevard by way of MacArthur Park, and then back up Alameda to the recycling center, where he gets paid for his haul. Mobility, then, for José, was also a matter of inserting himself into the city’s economy.
Through José, I met Diego, who was younger and seemed rather stylish. Four years ago he moved here from Colima, a small city south of Guadalajara. Diego explained that he lives on Third and Los Angeles streets. It wasn’t clear to me whether Diego actually had an apartment there. I wondered if perhaps, like José, he was also homeless. By now I realized such designations were irrelevant to those at the day laborer center, and I worried about imposing my own norms on Diego or, worse, causing him discomfort, and so I didn’t ask him to clarify this point. A more definitive study might have required such information, but I was after something else. I wanted to learn about the city through Diego’s terms. Diego then told me that in order to get to the day labor center, where we met, he rides on Third Street and then takes a left turn onto Broadway. Sometimes he goes from the center to the main branch of the Los Angeles Public Library on Fifth Street.
Like José, Diego also collects recyclable material across the city, though he has his own route. He starts near his home and bikes eastward on Third Street. Along his route, Diego passes by the jewelry and wholesale stores downtown, a Buddhist temple in Little Tokyo, as well as the art galleries and lofts in the Arts District right before going up on the bridge and crossing the LA River. Along this route his attention is divided between looking down at the sidewalk and up to the urban landscape. Once on the east side of the river, Diego stops at Hollenbeck Park where he can rest and relax for a short while. Then, cycling westward, back toward downtown, he stops sometimes by Mariachi Plaza before crossing the bridge again. From here, he turns to Alameda Street and goes straight to the recycling center at 1000 North Main Street.
Diego’s route traverses multiple landscapes and social scenes in six different neighborhoods. Riding on his bike, he sees difference, not sameness. While on his bike, even though inequality is not erased altogether, urban segregation is diminished. His freedom is limited only by how far his legs and two wheels can take him.
And they can take him far. He prefers riding even longer distances just for fun, and he belongs to a cyclists’ group with whom he goes on long rides once a month, usually from Montebello to Whittier and around Rose Hills Memorial Park—a twenty-seven-mile ride. He rides for necessity, but not unlike those young men whom I talked with on my first visit, he also biked for the love of it.
Before leaving the day laborer center, I also met Pablo, an undocumented immigrant who was born in El Salvador and moved to the United States seven years ago. He first lived in Las Vegas, where he worked for a furniture company; but early in 2016, he lost his job and moved to Los Angeles with the hope of finding another. For the time being, he registers every morning at the day labor center on Main Street.
Pablo told me he lives in Boyle Heights, not far from Mariachi Plaza. In order to get to the center, he rides his bike on First Street, crosses the LA River, and then turns onto San Pedro Street. When he gets a job through the center, he can ride his bike to almost any location in the city where there is work. One time, Pablo recalled, he biked all the way to La Cienega Boulevard. At another time, he even made it to Santa Monica. On his bike, Pablo covered an expansive geography.
At one point, while we were talking about the city and how different it was from Las Vegas, I asked Pablo what would he change in the design of the streets of LA, if he could. After a few seconds of silence, Pablo replied saying, “Not to have bicycles on the streets.” After a few more minutes of talking, I learned Pablo didn’t really want to eliminate all bicycles from the city. It was bike lanes he didn’t like. He didn’t want the visibility that came with riding on city streets. When riding on the sidewalk, he felt invisible to most passersby. When riding on the newly painted bright green bike lanes, he was just too visible. I am accustomed to thinking that visibility is a source of political power. For Pablo, invisibility is a tactic, or a means through which he can insert himself into the social fabric of the city without attracting the notice of anyone who might not want him there.
Before our interview ended, I asked Pablo about his income: How much money was he making every month? Was he getting a lot of jobs through the center? Or, was he relying on other sources of income like José and Diego? Pablo, who, unlike José and Diego, did not collect recyclable materials, explained to me that the day labor center to which he biked every day was not a source of reliable income. Instead, it was an institution that provided him with care, a form of compassion and friendship. Away from his family and home, the center was important for his emotional well-being.
On my way back to Berkeley I realized how much my understanding of biking culture had changed over the course of these two visits to LA. If, originally, I intended to learn more about an obvious problem—the lack of bike lanes—I was now faced with a completely different set of problems. Biking was not just a healthy and green mobility alternative in Los Angeles. It was also a matter of social mobility, citizenship, and visibility. In addition, while the biking activists I intended to study had a straightforward outcome in mind, the cyclists I ended up documenting resisted neat solutions.
And instead of finding a solution, through listening to these few cyclists, I found an alternative landscape. This landscape of cycling paths, economic activities, and squatting spots seems to exist almost secretly, despite taking place out in the open, right on the city’s sidewalks.
Photographs by Noam Shoked.
Noam Shoked is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Architecture at the University of California, Berkeley, and an Israel Institute Doctoral Fellow. Before coming to Berkeley, he worked as an architect in New York and Tel Aviv.
Editor’s Note: Chronicler of the California dark side and LA’s underbelly, proclaiming a troubling, menacing reality beneath the bright and sunny facade, Mike Davis is one of California’s most significant contemporary writers. His most controversial books led critics to label him anything from a left-wing lunatic to a prophet of gloom and peddler of the pornography of despair. Yet much of his personal story and evolution are intimately touched by his experience and close reading of deeply California realities: life as part of the working class, the struggle for better working conditions, and a genuine connection to the difficulties here. His most well-known books, City of Quartz and Ecology of Fear are unsparing in their assessments of those difficulties.
Remaining a central figure of a discipline at the intersection of geography, sociology, and architecture known as the Los Angeles School of Urbanism, Davis is now in retirement from the Department of Creative Writing at UC Riverside. Earlier this summer, he invited architectural educator and director of UCLA’s cityLAB Dana Cuff and dean of UC Berkeley’s College of Environmental Design Jennifer Wolch into his San Diego home to discuss his career, his writings, and his erstwhile and ongoing efforts to understand Los Angeles.
Dana Cuff: You told us that you get asked about City of Quartz too often, so let’s take a different tack. As one of California’s great urban storytellers, what is missing from our understanding of Los Angeles?
Mike Davis: The economic logic of real estate and land development. This has always been the master key to understanding spatial and racial politics in Southern California. As the late-nineteenth century’s most influential radical thinker—I’m thinking of San Francisco’s Henry George not Karl Marx—explained rather magnificently, you cannot reform urban space without controlling land values. Zoning and city planning—the Progressive tools for creating the City Beautiful—either have been totally co-opted to serve the market or died the death of a thousand cuts, that is to say by variances. I was briefly an urban design commissioner in Pasadena in the mid-1990s and saw how easily state-of-the-art design standards and community plans were pushed aside by campaign contributors and big developers.
If you don’t intervene in the operation of land markets, you’ll usually end up producing the opposite result from what you intended. Over time, for instance, improvements in urban public space raise home values and tend to become amenity subsidies for wealthier people. In dynamic land markets and central locations, nonprofits can’t afford to buy land for low-income housing. Struggling artists and hipsters inadvertently become the shock troops of gentrification and soon can’t afford to live in the neighborhoods and warehouse districts they invigorated. Affordable housing and jobs move inexorably further apart and the inner-city crisis ends up in places like San Bernardino.
If you concede that the stabilization of land values is the precondition for long-term democratic planning, there are two major nonrevolutionary solutions. George’s was the most straightforward: execute land monopolists and profiteers with a single tax of 100 percent on increases in unimproved land values. The other alternative is not as radical but has been successfully implemented in other advanced capitalist countries: municipalize strategic parts of the land inventory for affordable housing, parks and form-giving greenbelts.
The use of eminent domain for redevelopment, we should recall, was originally intended to transform privately owned slums into publicly owned housing. At the end of the Second World War, when progressives were a majority in city government, Los Angeles adopted truly visionary plans for both public housing and rational suburban growth. What then happened is well known: a municipal counter-revolution engineered by the LA Times. As a result, local governments continued to use eminent domain but mainly to transfer land from small owners to corporations and banks.
Fast-forward to the 1980s. A new opportunity emerged. Downtown redevelopment was devouring hundreds of millions of dollars of diverted taxes, but its future was bleak. A few years before, Reyner Banham had proclaimed that Downtown was dead or at least irrelevant. If the Bradley administration had had the will, it could have municipalized the Spring-Main Street corridor at rock-bottom market prices. Perhaps ten million square feet would have become available for family apartments, immigrant small businesses, public markets, and the like, at permanently controlled affordable rents.
I once asked Kurt Meyer, a corporate architect who had been chairman of the Community Redevelopment Agency, about this. He lived up Beachwood Canyon below the Hollywood Sign. We used to meet for breakfast because he enjoyed yarning about power and property in LA, and this made him a unique source for my research at the time. He told me that downtown elites were horrified by the unexpected revitalization of the Broadway corridor by Mexican businesses and shoppers, and the last thing they wanted was a populist downtown.
He also answered a question that long vexed me. “Kurt, why this desperate, all-consuming priority to have the middle class live downtown?” “Mike, do you know anything about leasing space in high-rise buildings?” “Not really.” “Well, the hardest part to rent is the ground floor: to extract the highest value, you need a resident population. You can’t just have office workers going for breakfast and lunch; you need night time, twenty-four hour traffic.” I don’t know whether this was really an adequate explanation but it certainly convinced me that planners and activists need a much deeper understanding of the game.
In the event, the middle class has finally come downtown but only to bring suburbia with them. The hipsters think they’re living in the real thing, but this is purely faux urbanism, a residential mall. Downtown is not the heart of the city, it’s a luxury lifestyle pod for the same people who claim Silverlake is the “Eastside” or that Venice is still bohemian.
Cuff: Why do you call it suburbia?
Davis: Because the return to the center expresses the desire for urban space and crowds without allowing democratic variety or equal access. It’s fool’s gold, and gentrification has taken the place of urban renewal in displacing the poor. Take Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris’s pioneering study of the privatization of space on the top of Bunker Hill. Of course, your museum patron or condo resident feels at home, but if you’re a Salvadorian skateboarder, man, you’re probably headed to Juvenile Hall.
Dingbat in rear next to fenced-in modern complex.
Cuff: Would you include architecture in your thinking about real estate? Weren’t you teaching a course about this at SCI-Arc [Southern California Institute of Architecture] some years back?
Davis: When I was first hired at SCI-Arc in 1988, I confessed to Michael Rotondi [then Director] that I knew nothing about architecture. He replied: “Don’t worry, we do. Your job is to teach LA. Get the students out into the city.” It was a wonderful assignment and over the course of a decade, I participated in a number of remarkable studios and site studies, working with the likes of Michael Sorkin, Joe Day, Anthony Fontenot, and other radical architects.
My own vanity project was demonstrating the feasibility of a community design studio that addressed the problems of older neighborhoods and suburbs. With the support of a leading activist in the Central American community, Roberto Lovato, now a well-known journalist, we focused on the Westlake [MacArthur Park] district just west of Downtown.
I knew the area fairly well, since in the late 1960s I had lived there while briefly managing the Communist Party’s bookstore on Seventh Street, oddly near the FBI’s old office building on Wilshire. This was right after the final evictions from Bunker Hill and most of its residents had been dumped in tenements near MacArthur Park. Walking to the bookstore I several times encountered the bodies of these elderly poor people on the sidewalk—who knew what dreams had brought them to LA in the 1910s and 1920s?
We finally settled on studying Witmer Street, between Third and Wilshire, because it had an almost complete declension of multifamily building types: a single-family home from the 1890s, a bungalow court from the 1920s, dingbats from 1960, even an old masonry apartment building that was used as a set for Hill Street Blues.
Students divided up into teams, training themselves as building and fire inspectors, and we took the neighborhood apart molecule-by-molecule over two semesters. One group studied fire safety issues and other hazards such as unprotected roofs where small children played. We looked at the needs of home workers, seamstresses and auto mechanics; studied problems of garbage collection; looked at issues involving gang rivalries and elderly winos. With Lovato’s support, we got inside apartments—typically studios for three to five people—and analyzed how families organized their tiny spaces. We researched who owned the buildings, calculated their rental profitability, even visited and photographed the homes of the Downtown slumlords who were living in Beverly Hills and Newport Beach.
The only form of housing that was generally popular, where the tenants had been there for a long time—everybody else was in and out—was the one courtyard apartment complex, with its little gardens and a fountain. The most despised were not the older 1920s tenement fire traps but the dingbats—low-rise six- to twelve-unit apartment buildings with tuck-under parking, built in the fifties and sixties on single family lots. They were designed to become blight in a few decades and constitute a major problem everywhere in Southern California. The other multi-unit types were still durable but it was hard to imagine any alternative for the stucco rubble other than to tear it down—which in fact developers have done, only to replace the dingbats with four- and five-story “super-cubes” that are just larger versions of the same problems.
Our goal was to bring all our findings together in a kind of Whole Earth Catalog set up as a website, and then invite everybody in the world to write and contribute ideas around generic issues of working-class neighborhoods like trash, play, working, graffiti, gangs, social space, parking, and so on. Our point was not to create a miniature master plan but to build up an arsenal of practical design solutions based on careful, realistic analysis that could help residents frame demands of landlords and the city. We imagined collaborations of architects, artists and artisans, acting as toolmakers for community self-design and activism. I still believe in the idea but my own tenure at SCI-Arc ended when our merry prankster and guiding light, Michael Rotondi, left.
Cuff: The idea of toolmaking instead of master planning is useful. A group of urban humanities students at UCLA focused on Boyle Heights, which, like Westlake, is experiencing development pressure. The tools that the community partners asked for were pretty straightforward, like a manual about how to turn abandoned spaces into parks. It was an interesting conversation with the humanities, architecture, and planning students about their own agency. Could you not deliver what they wanted and still be a socially responsible partner with community groups? The discussion was interesting because the agency of the students came into play, from architecture students who are ready to do something even if they don’t have much information, to the humanities students who are reluctant to act since they feel like they don’t know enough or have the right to intervene.
Davis: That kind of conscience might be good for some of the senior architects in LA who regard the city as a free-fire zone for whatever vanity they happen to come up with, regardless of urban context or history. In City of Quartz, I criticized Frank Gehry for his stealth designs and over-concern with security. It really pissed him off, because he comes from a social-democratic background and hated my tongue-in-cheek depiction of him as architecture’s “Dirty Harry.”
One day, a few years later, he called me in to see him. “Okay, big shot, look at this.” And he showed me the latest iteration of his Disney Concert Hall design, which had park space wrapped around its non-Euclidean perimeter. “You criticized me for antidemocratic designs, but what is this?” And of course, it was clever integration of the elitist concert hall with space for local kids to play and homeless people to relax. It invited rather than excluded residents from the poor Latino neighborhoods like Witmer Street that surround Downtown. This was more or less unprecedented, and he had to wage a long battle with the county who wanted the Disney fenced and off-limits. In this instance at least, celebrity architecture fought the good fight.
Jennifer Wolch: Absolutely. However it’s an important question particularly for the humanities students, the issue of subjectivity makes them reticent to make proposals.
Davis: But, they have skills. Narrative is an important part of creating communities. People’s stories are key, especially about their routines. It seems to me that there are important social science skills, but the humanities are important particularly because of stories. I also think a choreographer would be a great analyst of space and kind of an imagineer for using space.
I had a long talk with Richard Louv one day about his Last Child in the Woods, one of the most profound books of our time, a meditation on what it means for kids to lose contact with nature, with free nomadic unorganized play and adventure. A generation of mothers consigned to be fulltime chauffeurs, ferrying kids from one commercial distraction or over-organized play date to another. I grew up in eastern San Diego County, on the very edge of the back country, and once you did your chores (a serious business in those days), you could hop on your bike and set off like Huck Finn. There was a nudist colony in Harbison Canyon about twelve miles away, and we’d take our bikes, push them uphill for hours and hours in the hope of peeking through the fence. Like all my friends, I got a .22 (rifle) when I turned twelve. We did bad things to animals, I must confess, but we were free spirits, hated school, didn’t worry about grades, kept our parents off our backs with part-time jobs and yard work, and relished each crazy adventure and misdemeanor. Since I moved back to San Diego in 2002, I have annual reunions with the five or six guys I’ve known since second grade in 1953. Despite huge differences in political beliefs and religion, we’re still the same old gang.
And gangs were what kept you safe and why mothers didn’t have to worry about play dates or child molesters. I remember even in kindergarten—we lived in the City Heights area of San Diego at that time—we had a gang that walked to school together and played every afternoon. Just this wild group of little boys and girls, seven or eight of us, roaming around, begging pennies to buy gum at the corner store. Today the idea of unsupervised gangs of children or teenagers sounds like a law-and-order problem. But it’s how communities used to work and might still work. Aside from Louv, I warmly recommend The Child in the City by the English anarchist Colin Ward. A chief purpose of architecture, he argues, should be to design environments for unprogrammed fun and discovery.
Wolch: We have a completely different question, Mike. One of your books that we like the most is Late Victorian Holocausts. It’s not about cities or about the West. How did you decide to link up global climate-change history to famine and political ecology? It seems like something of a departure.
Davis: After the 1992 riots, I got a huge advance from Knopf to write a book about the city’s apocalypse. Through my political activities I had gotten to know the mothers of a number of key players in these events, including Theresa Allison, whose son, Dewayne Holmes was a prime mover in the Watts gang truce. I also knew Damian Williams’s mom—he was the chief villain, the guy who almost beat the truck driver to death at the corner of Florence and Normandie. Through their eyes I had acquired a very different perspective on cause and effect, right and wrong, during the course of the explosion. But at the end of the day, I could not find any real justification for the kind of journalism that makes authoritative claims through selective quotations and portraits of people who generally have no control over ultimate manuscript. In the 1930s, this kind of social documentation or second-hand existential narrative—Dorothea Lange’s photographs or James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, for example—could claim that it was an integral part of a crusade, the New Deal or the CIO, that was fighting to improve the lives of the victimized people who were its often unknowing subjects. But now, in our post-liberal era, such work runs the danger of simply being sensational and exploitative. Frankly, as much as I wanted to write the book, I couldn’t find any real moral license for looting folks’ stories and their personal miseries for my greater glory as LA’s voice of doom. So I gave the advance back and moved my base of operations to the Cal Tech earth science library and immersed myself in the research on environmental history and disaster that became Ecology of Fear.
I also discovered another topic where there was no ethical ambiguity—indeed, a project that perfectly aligned conscience and my zeal for research. Tom Hayden contacted me in 1995 or 1996 and asked me to contribute to a volume he was editing on the one-hundred-fiftieth anniversary of the Irish holocaust. At first I demurred. Brilliant young Irish historians were reinterpreting the Famine, and I had no expertise in this area. But he persisted. “Well, maybe there’s something else that happened at the time that you could write about.” Then I discovered the famines in China and India during the 1870s and 1890s that killed some twenty million people but had long gone unmentioned in conventional histories of the Victorian era. The result was Late Victorian Holocausts, a kind of “black book” of capitalism, about the millions of unnecessary deaths that occurred as European powers—above all, England—force-marched the great subsistence peasantries of India and China into the world market with disastrous results.
Wolch: We have one last question, about your young adult novels. Whenever we assign something from City of Quartz or another of your disheartening pieces about LA, it’s hard not to worry that the students will leave the class and jump off of a cliff! But your young adult novels seem to capture some amount of an alternative hopeful future.
Davis: Gee, you shouldn’t be disheartened by my books on LA. They’re just impassioned polemics on the necessity of the urban left. And my third LA book, Magical Urbanism, literally glows with optimism about the grassroots renaissance going on in our immigrant neighborhoods. But to return to the two adolescent “science adventure” novels I wrote for Viggo Mortensen’s wonderful Perceval Press. Above all they’re expressions of longing for my oldest son after his mother moved him back to her native Ireland. The heroes are three real kids: my son, his step-brother, and the daughter of our best friends when I taught at Stony Brook on Long Island. Her name is Julia Monk, and she’s now a wildlife biologist doing a Ph.D. at Yale on pumas in the Andes. I’m very proud that I made her the warrior-scientist heroine of the novels, because it was an intuition about her character that she’s made real in every way—just a remarkable young person.
Writing these tales was pure fun. The original inspiration was a trip that my son and I took to East Greenland when he was seven. This became The Land of the Lost Mammoths. Stories like this write themselves, especially because they’re real kids and you’re projecting their moral characters in situations of fantastic adventure and danger (although some of the most outlandish parts of the books are true and based on my life-long obsession with mysterious islands). In a way, it was like the four of us really went on expeditions to Greenland and the strange, bewitched island of Socotra.
But let the kids continue the adventure. I’ve become a homebody in retirement, focused on learning everything I can about nature and geology in Southern California. My only organizational membership in recent years (of nonsubversive groups, that is) is in the American Geophysical Union. My wife enjoys a good novel at bedtime. I read strange tomes on igneous petrology and paleoclimatology. I even have a Stephen King–like text somewhere [about the street I live on] called 33rd Street Ecology because there is nothing natural in this neighborhood, from the Arundo to the Sicilian snails, which if they ever hit the Central Valley could do a few billion dollars’ damage to crops. Crows didn’t exist here, nor did the sinister brown widow spiders who now live in my patio furniture. To me this is great noir stuff—the neighborhood taken over by the aliens and the inhabitants don’t know it.
Photographs of the neighborhood in and around Witmer Street by Matthew Gush.
Mike Davis is the author of more than twenty books, including City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles. He is professor emeritus at University of California, Riverside, in the department of creative writing.
The United States is the only country in the world to sentence juveniles to life in prison. A majority of juveniles sentenced to life serve their time in just five states, California among them. While many breakthroughs are still needed, California has begun to right the wrongs it has committed against the state’s most vulnerable population.
In 2014 and 2015, Governor Jerry Brown signed two bills that give California inmates who were under the age of twenty-three at the time of their crime and were given a “lengthy or life sentence” a chance for a parole hearing after serving fifteen, twenty, or twenty-five years, depending on the length of the original sentence. Parole is not guaranteed, and it is not an option for those sentenced to life without parole, but SB 260 and SB 261, as the bills are known, give youthful offenders hope where none has previously existed. Over 10,000 inmates meet SB 261’s eligibility requirements, meaning that in light of the nature of their crimes, they are not disqualified from receiving a parole hearing.
SB 261 recognizes that, neurobiologically, young adults between the ages of eighteen and twenty-two share more characteristics with teenagers than they do with adults. In terms of judgment and impulsivity, the young brain simply hasn’t had enough time to fully develop.
“If you take a fully mature adult and a friend says, ‘let’s go rob a 7/11,’ an adult is more likely to recognize that if you have guns when you do that, something even worse than the robbery is likely to happen,” said Elizabeth Calvin, senior advocate of the Children’s Rights Division. A juvenile is “less able to think into the future and recognize that A plus B will equal C in all likelihood.”
SB 261 ensures that people who were younger when committing serious crimes have possibilities more closely aligned with juvenile justice concerns, giving them more opportunities to earn their way home if they can demonstrate they are no longer a public danger. More than that, Scott Budnick, founder and president of the Anti-Recidivism Coalition, explained that the bill exists to give hope to people who come from hopeless environments. These inmates “think they have no chance of ever regaining their freedom; then all of a sudden a light turns on and they have a chance at parole,” Budnick continued.
According to Calvin, it is impossible to know who a sixteen-year-old person is going to be twenty, thirty, or especially sixty years from now. So to give them a life sentence, this final, irrevocable punishment, “it makes no sense,” she said. At its heart, SB 261 requires the parole board to give great weight to the fact that these people were very young when they committed their crimes. At its essence, this bill requires the board to say, “Let’s see who you are now,” rather than “This is who you’ll be forever.” In no way does SB 261 alleviate responsibility for criminal actions; it simply recognizes that due to where they were developmentally, they had diminished culpability in comparison to fully developed adults, Calvin explained.
In passing SB 260 and later SB 261, California has taken great strides toward improving the criminal justice system. Still, America’s prison system is incomparable to any other penal system in the world, so we must not idle.
Moving forward, the Public Safety and Reform Initiative, which can be found on the November 2016 ballot as Proposition 57, will build on the victory of SB 261. This measure will change the process for how kids under the age of eighteen are tried in the adult system. Currently, California is one of fifteen states that grant prosecutors, rather than judges, the authority to file a child’s case directly into the adult system. Prosecutors must make their decisions within 48 hours of the crime, typically without having considered any school reports, any psychological disabilities the child may have, or what their home life is like—really, without any analytical information whatsoever.
Conversely, if a judge were making the decision—”the single most important decision the state can make in a child’s life,” Calvin called it—the judge could consider all aspects of the case in order to make an informed decision. “It’s not hyperbole to say that when we throw kids into the adult system, we’re giving up on them.” These decisions must be made with the utmost care.
“At its essence, these initiatives are about how we treat children and young adults,” Calvin said, and so far, our treatment should be viewed as failure. These laws are about recognizing that we, as a society, have been neglecting our responsibility to take care of young people. While we cannot lose sight of how monumental our failure has been, now it is time to focus on what needs to happen next, because more can always be done.
The following photographs from photographer Richard Ross’s widely hailed Juvenile in Justiceproject documents men and women in California’s prisons who were sentenced to life in prison for crimes they committed as children.
Kimberly Gutierrez, age 28. “Our victim was a man. Just a careless act. I had a gun because I ran on the streets. I felt safe with a gun. The man didn’t do anything to merit his life being taken. I was angry. . . I want to be a woman and stop acting like an animal. I am sincere about the changes I want to make and not just saying it because it is expected.”
David Kuns, age 54. “Did my crime at 17, was incarcerated at 19. Murder.”
Frank Barker, age 47. “I was 16 when I committed a murder. . . They tried to give me the death penalty so they pushed it over to adult charges. I got 15 to life. I have had two parole hearings. Last time I got seven-year denial for lack of parole plans. . . I have been clean and in programs since—for the last 21 years, I’ve had no write ups.”
Raylene Brooks, age 44. “I was incarcerated since I was 17. I was in CYA [California Youth Authority] until I was 25 and then here on my 25th birthday. . . I came here from South Central LA. I have two life sentences. . . For those who want to improve themselves we have the luxury of all that here. . . not on the streets. These groups are not the normal for me. In South Central LA the norm is you just survive. Improvement is not an option.”
When I conducted an unofficial census, I found five juice bars within five blocks. There was a juice bar across the street from a juice bar. There was a coffee shop that had served juice as a matter of course but suddenly rebranded itself as a juice bar. Inside Shinola, the concept store for the revitalized Rust Belt brand from Detroit, there was a juice bar. A juice bar! From Detroit!
Juice bars seemed to have become the preferred urban typology for my Los Angeles neighborhood. Even as the neighborhood council fought to keep other things out—an apartment building, a hotel, a bar that served alcohol instead of juice—juice bars upon juice bars on top of juice bars within juice bars were welcomed with open arms to the juice bar capital of Southern California.
In the midst of this Great Juice Bar Renaissance, cold-pressed beverages weren’t the only things increasing in numbers on our streets. When raw-food chef and Instagram celebrity Amanda Chantal Bacon opened a Moon Juice in Silver Lake, a handful of homeless residents were living on the sidewalk below her business. By the time it was profiled in Vogue—”Better Skin, Better Sleep, Better Sex”—at least three dozen people had erected temporary housing there, cooking their meals over camp stoves just a few feet from where organic cashew milk was being expressed on the spot.
Photograph by Eve Bachrach.
The neighborhood’s homeless population appeared to double and then triple within a matter of months, illustrating a wicked incongruity in Silver Lake’s planning process. How could the neighborhood have approved so many juice bars, yet rejected a giant housing development that would have brought at least 300 units, many of them affordably priced, to Silver Lake’s increasingly expensive rental market? The four-story modern complex reportedly inspired by Richard Neutra’s home and studio nearby was deemed a “massive deviation from the visual character” by the neighborhood council.
Perhaps the neighbors would have liked it better if it served juice?
This phenomenon is not limited to Silver Lake, of course. From Highland Park to Hollywood, Santa Monica to Skid Row, a housing crisis is strangling Los Angeles, exacerbating increasing inequality and contributing mightily to pushing more people out into the streets. Yet neighborhoods fight developments like the one rejected in Silver Lake and propose few good solutions.
The Reason Foundation recently asserted that instead of encouraging residential density, the city should enable residents to commute—of their own free will, of course!—even farther distances by digging a series of freeway tunnels connecting disparate regions to the tune of $700 billion. The free market at work! Perhaps there is a particular type of laissez-faire Angeleno who would rather spend hours a week under the region’s mountain ranges than live any closer to the neighbors.
I thought my neighborhood was moving in the right direction as I gazed from my kitchen window to watch a high-density urban-infill development being built. It was one of several new projects on my street enabled by the city’s recently passed small-lot subdivision ordinance, created to add “stealth density” to empty pockets of already fairly densely populated areas of the city instead of pushing sprawl and traffic ever farther out to the edges of the metropolis. I bragged that my progressive neighbors were adding more affordable housing to an already highly walkable, transit-accessible neighborhood of LA, where it is actually possible to live without a car.
Photograph by Alissa Walker.
The neighbors did not share my enthusiasm. “Eyesore!” one snorted when I ran into him strolling the block. He didn’t like the contemporary style, but mostly he didn’t like the fact that it was three stories taller than the single-family home it had demolished.
Recently, the A+D Museum put on an exhibition entitled Shelter, which offered buzzworthy solutions for LA housing. The ideas that weren’t particularly new; but in the hands of talented architects such Michael Maltzan and Barbara Bestor, they offered timely thoughts for a changing city. A sleek, prefabricated apartment plopped on a swatch of backyard behind a single-family house was simply an updated take on the “granny flat.” I was excited. Perhaps, this would be an easier sell to my picky neighbors.
But as I strolled the models of stacked white boxes, envisioning extra housing snapped into the grid as easily as a handful of Lego bricks, I became increasingly anxious. That tower of micro-units fringed with drought-tolerant greenery—sure, it might be harder to foist this upon a neighborhood with a fear of heights, but it could happen. However, it would be a greater feat to convince the city to reduce the amount of space devoted to parking those residents’ cars.
A recent study by researchers at the University of Arizona found that 14 percent of the land in Los Angeles County had been designated simply for parking cars. That works out to the equivalent of 3.3 spaces for every car in the county. Three parking spaces take up about the same amount of space as the micro-units that many cities are scrambling to build to fill their own housing shortages. Los Angeles could easily be housing one or two more people in the same amount of space we’ve set aside for each of our cars.
Some of the streets around my home go under the nearby 101 freeway. And I’ve watched the underpasses become increasingly residential, just like the sidewalk in front of the juice bar near my home. It is one of the cruelest ironies of the housing crisis. Thousands of people without homes are now living under our freeways, which destroyed thousands of homes when they were built, while space for cars takes space that could be used for houses.
“Birdman,” photographed under the 101 freeway at Alvardo Street in Silver Lake. Photograph by Skid Robot.
It is no secret that Los Angeles bulldozed dozens of its neighborhoods to make way for its beloved cars, but it’s hard to envision just how much land LA has ceded to its freeways. In L.A. Freeway, an Appreciative Essay, the 1981 book that began as an undergraduate thesis, David Brodsly estimated that about 250,000 people had been displaced by the freeway system in Southern California. Writing in the Los Angeles Times recently, architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne estimated that Caltrans owns about 9,000 acres of land along its freeways in LA and Ventura counties. By contrast, LA’s Griffith Park, one of the largest urban parks in the country, is about 4,000 acres.
Over the past half-century, LA neighborhoods that were severed by the construction of our freeway system have suffered the most. Blocks of homes immediately surrounding the freeways have seen their values plummet. Living near a freeway was marketed as a convenience but quickly seen as dangerous due to noise and pollution.
But that is about to change—and faster than we think.
As more and more cars run on electricity, they’re getting quieter and safer, from a public health perspective. Autonomous vehicles will change our idea of the freeway even more. A self-driving future likely means more shared cars and, therefore, fewer of them on the streets. It also means we’ll need to devote far less space to parking and vehicular flow. By some estimates, we could shrink our streets and parking lots by 80 percent. The flow on our freeways could be reduced from ten lanes of human drivers to a hyper-efficient robot-navigated two lanes. The blocks surrounding our freeways will become cleaner, greener, and safer. And what we choose to do with them could truly make a difference for LA.
Photograph by Alissa Walker.
When laying the grid for the cities founded by the Mormon Church, Brigham Young mandated that all streets must be wide enough for an ox-driven cart to make a U-turn, a traffic requirement that became obsolete within a few decades. In cities such as Salt Lake City and Las Vegas, however, these planning decisions remain visible to this day in freeway-like boulevards that stretch across eight, nine, ten lanes of asphalt.
In one Salt Lake City neighborhood, a group decided to erect a temporary development to help illustrate the possibilities of narrowing these roads. The concept of “road diets” have become popular in many cities—dedicating a lane of vehicular traffic to public transportation, bikes, or a pedestrian plaza—but the Salt Lake residents took it even further. With a series of structures designed to be exactly as wide as two vehicular traffic lanes, their pop-up proposal added parks, restaurants, retail, office space, and, yes, housing to underused road space.
Similar ideas have been proposed for extra-wide streets in other cities, but nowhere would this idea be more effective than on LA’s freeways. It’s not even that radical of an idea. Cap parks have already been proposed for many local freeways that are below-grade, and freeway removals have proved to be beneficial for many cities without affecting vehicular congestion. There’s no reason why we can’t begin to give back some of that land for people to live, especially as our burgeoning transit system continues to grow and connect the city in more effective ways.
Imagine living on the 101 Greenway, a revitalized corridor between Hollywood and Downtown LA. Your 300-unit building is close to a new rec center and farmers’ market on an elevated stretch that takes in sweeping views of the Santa Monica Mountains. Electric buses and cars still whirr along dedicated lanes of the adapted freeway, but the rest of the lanes have been devoted to running trails and bike lanes—an actual bike freeway!—all clearly demarcated from vehicles and neatly feeding into the surrounding neighborhoods. The Red Line is a quick stroll away. Did I mention the views?
We might not need to keep battling to make density more palatable to neighborhood councils across the city. Land could be easily allocated from Caltrans, keeping costs down to build the affordable housing the city desperately needs. Converting the freeways could instantly turn some of the least desirable real estate into the most desirable locations by making these forgotten spaces livable. It could also knit back together neighborhoods destroyed by cars, transforming a soon-to-be-useless piece of overbuilt infrastructure into a much-needed public asset.
At a party not long ago, I met Nick Stockton, a journalist who had just relocated to San Francisco. A reporter for Wired, Nick said he had come from New York but that he was originally from California.
“Northern California?” I asked. He said no.
“Oh, where in SoCal?” I followed.
“Actually, I’m from the part of the state no one thinks about,” he replied. He was from Shafter, a small agricultural town in the Central Valley.
It was an embarrassing moment. It hadn’t crossed my mind that a professional journalist from California might have come from anywhere other the greater San Francisco or Los Angeles areas. Maybe San Diego. But while that was a prejudiced and dumb assumption on my part, unfortunately it wasn’t entirely unfounded. “Nobody leaves, ever,” Stockton says of his hometown. Heading to New York for journalism school and then taking a job with Condé Nast in San Francisco was not a standard trajectory.
Stockton was talking about leaving town in a literal sense, but lack of mobility is an increasing problem in the United States in more ways than just that. By many measures, socioeconomic mobility—a key component of the American dream—is becoming in America even more of a dream and less a reality.
It’s not just access to magazine jobs that vary by where you live. Numerous things that shape your future are determined by where you were born. Whether a kid has access to a good school and a safe neighborhood where children play outside—these things vary from region to region, even across city blocks. Researchers call these kinds of differences “social determinants of health.”
It’s easy to look at an adult’s life—whether they go to college or stock shelves or spend time in prison—as the result of personal decisions. And that’s not entirely wrong. But our decisions are shaped, and too frequently limited, by where we live. One way to visualize this is by looking at how life outcomes cluster geographically.
In 2012, researchers at Virginia Commonwealth University dug into health statistics for Alameda County, where I live. Alameda is home to the University of California, Berkeley and is just across the bay from San Francisco. Not surprisingly, there are neighborhoods where people are doing quite well. But that’s only part of the story. In their report, part of a series called Place Matters, the researchers found differences in life expectancy of more than twenty years between neighborhoods in the same county. Poverty, education, and income levels all showed huge variations.
You can predict a lot about a person by where he or she lives. Start with life expectancy. If you want to reduce health and quality of life to a single number, it’s hard to do much better. Exercise, diet, income, stress—they all affect how long a person lives. And average life expectancy incorporates the effects of violence, as well; if a high proportion of young men are dying, that can bring down an overall average.
Data sources: per capita income by census tract and race by county from the United States Census 2013 American Community Survey. 2010 life expectancy by census tract from Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) Center on Human Needs (CHN). Count incarceration rates created from the California Department of Corrections “Year at a Glance” 2010 report, which gave the county of commitment, with thanks to the Prison Policy Initiative. I used 2013 American Community Survey population data to generate the rates.