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Power Lines Around Los Angeles: Isolation, Interconnection, and Aesthetics

Daniel Wuebben

Historically, California’s overhead electric lines have been pushed to the margins of the built environment and, when possible, physically buried out of sight; now, the webs over our heads are central artifacts in the broader struggle to avoid climate catastrophe and enact climate justice.

Power lines are sites of tension. They have simultaneously proliferated electric currents across California and faded in popularity for over a century. In 1913, when Southern California Edison opened the Big Creek Power House No. 1 and sent hydroelectric power at an unprecedented potential of 150,000 volts across 241-miles to the Eagle Rock substation, the Los Angeles Times envisioned “a hand robed with lightning” stretched “across the gulf of valleys and mountains to the doors of this city.” Contemporaries may have viewed the new, soaring steel transmission towers that began in the Sierras, crossed the Tejon Pass, the Newhall Pass, and then descended into the valley as hands, “robed with lightning,” but by the second half of the twentieth century, most Angelinos associated overhead power lines with industrial blight. Wires, poles, and lattice steel towers made aesthetic intrusions on otherwise beautiful California landscapes. In recent years, another negative inflection has been laced onto the lines. Long, energized wires are potential tinder boxes. Instead of hands robed with lighting, the unpredictable arcing of energized lines swaying in the wind and warmed by climate change has unwittingly ignited dry vegetation and sent waves of fire across mountains and valleys to the doors of Los Angeles.

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Big Creek, 1913. The first power lines in the United States to use all lattice steel towers. “Stringing wires on the 243-mile long Big Creek to Los Angeles 150,00-volt transmission line,” 1913, Bishop G. Haven, Southern California Edison Archive, The Huntington Library, San Marino, California

However, California’s electric infrastructure will, for the foreseeable future, remain fire hazards and lynchpins of climate justice. Efforts to decarbonize and bring more renewable energy sources online requires wires. Indeed, along with wind turbines and solar fields, long-distance, high voltage transmission lines must be built to “”unlock a renewable energy bounty.”[1] The clean energy transition demands transmission. However, gaining public approval for new transmission projects is difficult, especially as the tightrope of electric transmission spans a physical and political landscape charred by wildfires and threatened by blackouts. What can the history of California’s transmission lines offer during this pivotal moment of energy transitions and climate activism?

One can hope that policy makers and affluent communities fighting for clean energy will not shift the burdens of transmission infrastructure into sensitive ecosystems or onto communities already poised to bear the brunt of climate change. The history of infrastructure in California dampens such hopes, but overhead lines have long evoked ambiguous responses. Select lines have been viewed as safe, controlled “lightning”; however, the majority are unruly and sprawling. Some lines have been framed as beacons of progress, others as icons of blight. The lines in our landscape may be viewed as revolutionary links of a technological wonderland or banal webs choking life from the environment.

The following considers some of the historical forces and visual associations of electric lines around Los Angeles. I am not a power lines apologist and am not certain what might incite utilities to repair the thousands of miles of existing lines or the public to accept the new transmission that might be built. Here, I frame specific lines as emblematic of the isolation, interconnection, and aesthetic conflicts in the broader power network. These lines also happen to be on the route between Santa Barbara, where I lived from 2011 to 2015, and the Huntington Library in San Marino, where I completed research for Power-lined: Electricity, Landscape, and the American Mind.

I recently returned to the area and retraced my regular route. It begins and ends with the 101 and a series of smooth, seaside curves that mirror the silky bottom turns surfers make on breaking waves beyond the rumble strips at Rincon Point. After Ventura, one may continue southeast on the 101, over the Conejo Pass and through Thousand Oaks; or, take the longer route east from Ventura and through the Santa Clara River Valley, the self-claimed “Citrus Capital of the World.” Here, I turn east, make a detour towards Ojai, and then continue towards Pasadena and San Marino. I head back on the 101 through Hollywood and then north to Santa Barbara to complete the circuit.

Isolation: Telegraph Road and the Thomas Fire

In 1853, the first telegraph line on the Pacific Coast was strung across the branches of living pine trees. The single wire spanned 23 miles between the northern mining towns of Nevada, Grass Valley, and Auburn.[2]  San Francisco was connected to Los Angeles in 1860, less than a year before the transcontinental telegraph line linked California with the East.[3] The line strengthened coast-to-coast correspondence, but, for most of the nineteenth century, California’s geographically isolated mining outfits, ranch towns, and agricultural settlements sometimes hung together by a mere telegraph thread. Despite growing inter-state communication between San Francisco and other Western cities in the 1850s, the intra-state network remained sparse. In the 1860s that telegraph finally began to spread south in California, reaching Los Angeles in 1860 and San Diego in 1870. James Schwoch’s excellent history, Wired into Nature (2018), considers these environmental pressures. He explains how gold mining and the Civil War spurred the need for telegraph lines in California while difficult terrain and snowstorms in the Sierras hindered this spread.[4] Another challenge was the fact that, even for a state teeming with timber, it was difficult to obtain relatively cheap and easy to move telegraph poles. In the 1860s, groves of Blue Gum Eucalyptus, a species imported from Australia, provided poles for telegraph lines.[5]

California’s relative lack of telegraph lines during the period of late-nineteenth-century occupation and development may be why, in 2020, it appears to have more streets, avenues, and roads with the name “telegraph” than any other state.[6] Over a century ago, a single telegraph line was a noteworthy feature in the middle landscape between wilderness and civilization. Compared to the glut of wires on the Eastern seaboard, a telegraph line in California seemed significant. The lines did not intersect multiple streets of neighboring towns or even connect every district in the cities; rather, the telegraph line was often erected alongside an existing thoroughfare, such as “Telegraph Road” in Los Angeles, which runs diagonally from Beth Israel Cemetery at Olympic Boulevard to Imperial Highway in La Mirada. Collectively, “telegraph” street names may be considered holdovers from an age when new (or at least newly named) dirt roads, stagecoach trails, train tracks, and telegraph wires made collective imprints on the California landscape.

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Telegraph Road in Fillmore, CA. Various sections of Telegraph Road connect Castaic Junction to Ventura.  Photograph by author.

Twenty minutes after I veer off the 101 and onto Route 126, I reach Santa Paula where West Telegraph Road, turns into East Telegraph Road and then continues as Old Telegraph Road. As it appears and disappears, Telegraph Road splits through orchards and nurseries, sometimes overlapping with 126 to arrive in downtown Fillmore. Here, the Fillmore and Western Railway declares itself “Home of Movie Trains” for film and television productions.[7] The telegraph and railroad arrived here in tandem in the late nineteenth century. Film and television crews from Los Angeles still use the railway’s collection of historic train cars and depot scenes to create the illusion of the past. Of course, real telegraph lines and poles are nowhere to be found, but telegraph poles and wires have been a crucial backdrop and narrative device for the Western genre.

In the first decades of the twentieth century, as Los Angeles was wired for power and the lights of the American movie industry flickered to life, director D.W. Griffith used telegraph lines—and telegraph cutting—to signal a sudden isolation of protagonists in two of his more famous short films, The Lonedale Operator (1911) and The Girl and Her Trust (1912). Wire cutting heightens the tension of a pending attack as the characters can no longer send for help. The trope was repeated in the opening scenes of Stagecoach (1939) as well as Once Upon a Time in the West (1968). In the Western, focusing on the single telegraph pole or wire, which the viewer knows can and probably will be broken, evokes the terror of isolation. Wire cutting, loss of telegraphic communication, and the fear felt by the fictional Western characters seems quaint in comparison to the sudden, widespread, and sometimes deadly loss of electric power that has accompanied some of the state’s recent wildfires.

Instead of continuing on Telegraph, I turn up 150, or North Ojai Road. This two-lane road is flanked by wooden utility poles, ranch style homes, and a blend of fan palms and eucalyptus. The valley widens. Goldenrod and chaparral pour down the hills. Soon, I arrive at my destination—Anlauf Canyon Road. On Monday, December 4, 2017, at approximately 6:14pm, the cables which stretch from the poles lining 150 towards a family ranch in Anlauf Canyon swayed and then struck one another resulting in “line slapping.” According to the Ventura Fire Department Report, “phase to phase contact on several spans of [these] power lines” caused “molten aluminum particles to fall to the ground,” which then ignited sagebrush in the dry streambed.[8]

California is crisscrossed by thousands of miles of power lines. Many intersect difficult terrain, pushed away from parks, schools, family homes and sensitive habitats.  For various reasons, electrified lines start thousands of small fires each year. Some rural lines are poorly maintained, some crowded by overgrowth, and some susceptible to being jostled out of position by the warmer, faster winds incited by climate change.[9] In recent years, vulnerable or faulty equipment have ignited California’s most catastrophic blazes.

When an iron hook holding up a 115,000-volt line owned by Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) snapped on the morning of November 8, 2018, it ignited what was later named the Camp Fire, the deadliest fire in California’s history. An investigation revealed that PG&E “knew for years that hundreds of miles of high-voltage power lines could fail and spark fires, yet it repeatedly failed to perform the necessary upgrades.”[10] In October of 2019, after PG&E preemptively shut off power across the northern part of the state, a broken jumper wire started the Kincade Fire. These utility’s culpability for these faulty and exposed lines is part of ongoing lawsuits. To insulate itself, PG&E has filed for bankruptcy. Meanwhile, Southern California Edison—who owns and controls the lines running through this bucolic canyon near Ojai—is fighting its own legal battles regarding the Thomas Fire and the Montecito Mudslides.

What started with this seemingly simple line spread, scorched 282,000 acres over forty days. The fires directly caused two deaths and destroyed hundreds of structures. The tragic catastrophe and heroic effort to fight the fire has been explored, both in gripping journalism and stunning multimodal photoblogs.[11] Meanwhile, locals on the outer edges of the fire footprint are planning a memorial to the many victims and heroic first responders to the mudslides that ripped through Montecito on January 9, 2018.

Two years after the fire and mudslides, I stand on edge of 150 and look East over Steckel Park towards Anlauf Canyon. No sign or memorial will be placed here. I hear the creek gurgling below, see rich and verdant shrubs, and watch the waxy leaves of the Cottonwoods flickering like an organic strobe. This quiet canyon seems like the scene for a Western, a garden seemingly detached from the sprawling metropolis to the south or the devastation wrought in the rich hamlet to the northeast. I know the isolation is illusory. The sensation of being “cut off” from the beautiful vistas of the 101 and the bustle of Los Angeles can be almost instantly collapsed by a loose cable, especially in this age of dryer winters and warmer winds. Decades of damage has exposed our networks to nature’s wrath.

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Charred tree on Highway 150, or North Ojai road.  Photograph by author.

From the shoulder, I photograph some of the visible remnants of the fire, including charred poles, some of which are spray painted with an X. It’s unclear if they have simply not yet been replaced or will continue to be ignored. A series of scorched tree stumps line the opposite side of the road and above, I can see the cables with a hint of green, clearly shiny and new. I imagine most of the drivers that zip past me on 150 do not differentiate between the replacement poles and wires and the original, broken infrastructure. When the fires are controlled and the power returns, how do we notice the lines that ignited it? Why should the technological source of our tragedy be replaced? Why not let them hang there like obsolete telegraph poles alongside train tracks? For me, the electric lines, visible and disappeared, are salient. Maybe the locals see them too. Maybe the experience of the Thomas Fire has led them to see overhead wires as threats, as reminders of how easily the landscape around them could ignite and leave each tiny ranch or small town an island isolated by a sea of flames.

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These wooden poles, insulators, and cables that run towards the Anlauf Canyon site where, December 4, 2017, power lines swaying in high winds cause sparks to fly and ignited the Thomas Fires. Photograph by author.

Intensification at Newhall Pass

Twenty-five miles east of the Fillmore, California Highway 126 reaches Castaic Junction and U.S. Interstate 5. This north-south interstate parallels the Pacific coast from the Mexico-U.S. border at San Diego to the Canadian border in Washington State. In the rocky landscape around Castaic, the 8-lane artery of I-5 is crossed by distinct packs of overhead cables and flanked by soaring transmission towers. To the north, I-5 rises through the Tejon Pass and continues into the Central Valley. In the span of sixty miles, the interstate is crossed by six major sets of 345 kv lines and three sets of 500 kv lines. The 500 kv lines are part of the Path 26 electric power transmission corridor, which runs from the Vincent Substation in Palmdale towards Midway station near Bakersfield. Midway, an industrial plot surrounded by vineyards and almond orchards, connects Path 26 to Path 15. Midway station is a node in the Pacific Intertie, a gigantic infrastructure that, like Interstate 5, stretches thousands of miles across the entire backbone of the continent. Few Californians likely know anything about the Pacific Intertie, but everyone, it seems, has had an experience with the I-5. One can physically engage the I-5, drive from Mexico to Canada on a border-to-border cannonball run in just about 21 hours or, be stuck in rush hour traffic for what feels like days. Meanwhile, no person travels the Pacific Intertie; instead, electrons move border to border in a matter of seconds.

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“Men changing insulators on tower in Kern River Canyon,” 1916, Photographed by Haven G. Bishop, Southern California Edison Photographs and Negatives, Huntington Digital Library, San Marino California

I turn on I-5 south towards Los Angeles. Transmission towers dissect the hills dotted with oak and chaparral. Near the exit for Magic Mountain Parkway, three side-by-side sets of lattice steel towers and two of the “portal” designs carry a cluster of twenty-seven dense cables overhead. Lines and poles repeatedly flicker into view between the palm trees and strip malls that flank the interstate. Two miles behind the Wal-Mart at exit 168 are the remains of the Pico Canyon Oil Field, site of the first commercially drilled oil wells in California and longest operating well in the world, having been tapped in 1876 and capped 114 years later, in 1990. Nearby marks one of California’s first oil refineries and pipelines.[12]

To appreciate the approach to my final destination, I turn east, cut through Santa Clarita, and park at the end of Newhall Avenue near Whitney Canyon Park. The pamphlet for this 442-acre open space boasts “outstanding examples of coastal sage scrub, oak woodland, chaparral and riparian corridor vegetation, with year-round springs and at least ten sensitive species.”[13] While the ecosystem deserves praise, the parks’ hills are visually dominated by lattice steel towers and swooping cables. I ascend the path and stand next to one of these massive specimens. A hawk circles, too close to the lines, I think, and then glides towards the summit.

In fact, wildlife—not wildfires—used to be the cause of California’s power outages. In a fascinating article on the confluence of electrical engineering and ornithology, Etienne Benson tells the story of how, in the 1920s, Southern California Edison employees traced the sudden short circuiting of certain power lines in this area to the streams of feces that hawks released as they launched from their perch on lattice steel towers. The engineers used pans, poles, and shields to break the conductive “streamers” of bird excrement before they draped across the energized lines and caused a flashover.[14]

NewHall-Pass_Line_Arc_Farmer_Comments

Note on the negative reads: “There is no evidence of any burning. Farmer has never seen or heard of any arc.” This may have been part of an investigation regarding an outage. In the 1920s, when the line was upgraded to 220kv, a series of unexplained flashovers were eventually linked to bird feces which splayed across lines, causing them to arc and often incinerating any evidence of the effluent. February 23, 1915. Southern California Edison Archive, The Huntington Library, San Marino, California.

The hawk above me does not release—or at least onto me. It continues in an ungeometric gyre. I listen to corona discharge dissipate in the breeze. I remember that the electrons charging these lines were likely generated by falling water in the Sierras and arrived only to dissipate here, in this lush corridor between the Santa Susana and San Gabriel ranges.

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Whitney Canyon Variety, Photograph by author

If there were such a thing as a park dedicated to the viewing of power lines around Los Angeles, this could be it. The dirt trails curve up and around small canyons and copses to different perspectives on unique tower designs, some L-5s 500 kv, others with more slender frames, fewer arms, lower voltages. The few mountain bikers, hikers, and families I pass do not seem to mind the towers, but I wonder what other purposes, beyond their function, these forms might serve? I am reminded of Leah Glaser’s claim:  transmission towers can be “valuable cultural resources with a crucial story about the impact of long-distance power.”[15] Unsurprisingly, the pamphlet does not tell that story.

The story of these towers would, in my mind, be the story of the “white coal” captured in the Sierras and extended to Los Angeles. Here, in 1906, the world’s first lattice steel transmission towers were used to transmit high voltage power. 1,140 lattice steel towers ranging from 30 to 60 feet tall carried what was at that time a record line with 75,000-volt potential from Kern River No. 1 across 118 miles to Los Angeles. As transmission voltages increased, taller and wider steel structures would replace wooden poles and H-frame structures across the United States and the rest of the world. In fact, California engineers initiated many global advances in power technology during the first decades of the twentieth century. As James C. Williams explains in Energy and the Making of Modern California: “By 1914, their success resulted in California having more long-distance, high tension transmission system that any other region in the world.”[16] Of course, the power systems stretched across the great expanse of the Sierra range, but the bulk of them funneled into San Francisco and Los Angeles. With its natural barriers to the north, lines coming into Los Angeles narrowed into bottlenecks. Nowhere is this more evident than at Newhall Pass.

Newhall Pass was the final gateway on the long journey from the eastern United States to Los Angeles. In 1854, Phineas Banning cut down an existing trail through these mountains by 30 feet to allow wagons the ability to more safely descend. In 1862, Edward Beale acquired a toll road franchise and made another 60-feet gash that was known as “Beale’s Cut.” The Newhall railroad tunnel went beneath the pass in 1876. The new tunnel provided Southern Pacific a direct line to Los Angeles and, with the ensuing and nearby oil boom, Newhall Pass became an inflection point for Los Angeles’s movements of oil, freight, water, and power.


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Los Angeles Aqueduct Cascades, 1913, Los Angeles Department of Water and Power.

I return to my car, drive through the corridor, and in seconds I am on the other side of the ridge. The geography is similar, but it feels like a different world. Here, packed into just over one square mile on the northern edge of Los Angeles county are the remnants or active features of the Ridge Route, the Sierra Highway, Interstate 5, the Antelope Valley Freeway and dozens of off ramps, flyovers, and interchanges. These concrete bands overlay two railroad tunnels and pass beside the first and second iteration of the Los Angeles Aqueduct Cascades. When this notable conduit first opened in 1913, 40,000 people gathered to hear William Mulholland dedicate the engineering feat and to release the flow of water with the famous words, “There it is. Take it!”

Flanking these overlapping tunnels, roads, pipes and chutes are sweeping packs of power lines. I follow the lines as they sweep over a hundred or so brand-new condos which have cardboard and plastic packaging hanging from their flawless garages. Besides one of these sparkling new homes, I notice a half acre burnt patch of recently planted sod grass. Here too, nature has reclaimed parts of the plastic buffer. I exit my rental car, climb up beneath a lattice steel transmission tower, and watch the hypnotic gush of the cascade.

From this vantage point near Newhall Pass, one might behold the latest iteration of what Christopher F. Jones calls “landscapes of intensification” which he defines as “material transformations of the natural environment that unlocked a world of ever-increasing energy flows delivered at ever-decreasing prices.”[17] The transport of energy across this intensified landscape includes transmission lines, which transport electrons. A further level of intensification occurs where these lines intersect other infrastructures.

If Whitney Park is a place from which to view power lines that rise and reach across mountains, Newhall Pass and Sylmar—with its substations, pipelines, aqueducts, warehouses, trucking yards, new homes, and array of industrial glut—may be the site to view the consolidation of material and financial power as its siphoned to and from Los Angeles.

The Portals

After revisiting materials in the Huntington Library stacks, I race through Pasadena towards Hollywood hoping to get beyond the 405-101 interchange before the yellow lines on my map app turn to the thick red of traffic. Like the crowds of isolated drivers around me, I pass countless lines, insulators, poles, and towers. Most are easily ignored and difficult to remember. In fact, in the 1970s, artist R. Crumb created a photo album filled with pictures of California’s street lights, poles, and other overhead infrastructure because, as he explained, “People don’t draw it, all this crap, people don’t focus attention on it because it’s ugly, it’s bleak, it’s depressing…The stuff is not created to be visually pleasing and you can’t remember exactly what it looks like. But, this is the world we live in; I wanted my work to reflect that, the background reality of urban life.”[18]

Amidst the “background reality” of Los Angeles, one series of transmission lines and distribution poles are not as bleak and they do stand out—the Dreyfuss designs.[19] In the late 1960s, in response to consumer outcries against the negative visual impact of power lines, Edison Electric Institute and Southern California Edison pioneered an industry-wide effort to improve the aesthetics of tower designs, to sway public opinions, and to avoid the astronomical costs of undergrounding. They commissioned Henry Dreyfuss, the “father of industrial design” to create a series of aesthetic models to merge the function of high voltage transmission with sleek, modernistic forms. The results initially took the form of a book, Electric Transmission Structures and a short film, Towers of Tomorrow. Both book and film showcase Dreyfuss’s 26 designs for poles and towers. In his introduction, Dreyfuss dreams: “When transmission towers are given the same purity of expression given great bridges, they, too, may be acclaimed as a Twentieth Century art form.” Dreyfuss also narrates Towers of Tomorrow, which features photographs of models against the backdrop of various projected landscapes. Dreyfuss guides viewers with comments related to the innovative features of the new towers such as, “The curve elements are important as they contribute strength as well as well as visual grace.”[20] Overall, the models show Dreyfuss’s preference for “robustness and seamlessness” and structures which would be “sturdy and unified-looking in contrast to their spindly predecessors.”[21]

Dreyfuss and Southern California Edison tried to convince the public that these “esthetic” towers made positive impacts on the visual landscape, but the campaign was not entirely successful.  One recent review notes, “[Dreyfuss’s] work was to be the first and the last cooperative attempt by industry to create new aesthetic structure designs.”[22]

While not exactly new, three distinct types of Dreyfuss power lines remain visible in Los Angeles. The “Starburst” for 69 kv poles features six cantilevered insulators spread out like a starfish. Their most famous placement is along Hollywood Boulevard. The “Sunburst” is a more remarkable design and is used for higher-voltage transmission. The “Sunburst” is a sleeker, more streamlined version of the typical lattice steel transmission tower. Two prototypes were erected near El Segundo in 1967 and thirteen more were put into place the following year. These remain the most exemplary of all Dreyfuss’s transmission line designs, although the dull brown variation is more common.

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“Sunburst” 66kV double-circuit pole design, Photographed by Art Adams, Southern California Edison Photographs and Negatives, Huntington Digital Library

Today, I visit the third of the Dreyfuss designs that remain in the area; the “portal.” In 1972, Southern California Edison described the portals as having “bold, simple silhouette” which is “very impressive at close-up viewing as well as at a distance. Its vee-string insulators are always orderly, even under minor side loads.”[23] One such example is visible above the Conejo Pass.

The Conejo Pass provides a fitting exit for my discussion of Los Angeles’s wired landscapes. Southbound on the iconic Highway 101 from Ventura, trucks lug up the right lanes of the 7% grade while more nimble vehicles whip by on the left. Older cars, I know from experience, are prone to overheat during this steady, 3-mile ascent. Northbound from Los Angeles, semi-truck drivers must have their brakes inspected before descending. Next to the brake checkpoint, just beyond the peak of this steep pass, two formidable pairs of brown concrete pylons are stamped into a rock outcropping like indestructible carpet staples. Twelve cables span the 1400-foot gap carrying 220 kV over the banking traffic. To the east, the lines extend towards to the Los Angeles suburb of Moorpark. To the southwest, they are crossed under by Edison Road, a dirt path that snakes beneath the lines and allows crews to access these pylons and the subsequent lattice steel towers. The portals help to transmit electricity through the mountains and then slope towards the Ormond Beach natural gas power plant on the edge of the Pacific. With its 1,516 megawatt capacity, Ormond Beach is the third largest power plant in California. Due to its age, and newer energy regulations regarding the use of ocean water, Ormand Beach was supposed to shut down in 2020. However, because of concerns about grid reliability, it may remain open for one to three more years.

I leave the car at a dead end in Newbury Park and take the trail I found online and which was posted by rock climbers who come here to scale the Conejo boulders.[24] After a short hike, I’m standing next to the portals, looking down at the 101.

These structures do more than provide physical support for invisible currents. In addition to their aesthetic posture, the specific context for these portals is also fitting, as they strike at the etymological roots of “pylon.” The word “pylon” comes from the Greek word for “gate,” and French archeologists originally used pylon to describe the monumental, side-by-side gateways placed near Egyptian pyramids and temples. For millennia, massive pylons have flanked and decorated prominent entrances, pathways, bridges, and ports. Presently, “pylon” also connotes smaller markers (e.g. “traffic pylon” and “end zone pylon”), tall poles used by airplanes or ships for navigational guidance, and, especially in the United Kingdom, electric transmission towers.

The pylons above Conejo Pass transmit electricity and mediate a visible exchange with landscape. They are portals. They are thresholds. They are visible tokens of the millions of miles of electric lines that, over the course of a century, helped transform this relatively rustic, arid, inhospitable area into one of the most powerful, diverse, and iconic regions on the planet.

Power lines are sites of tension, physically and culturally. While my interest in the history of technology attracts me to different lines like these, these portals have also come to signal my own entrances and exits, flights and perchings in the state of California. I wonder if others might feel the same. Just before I returned to make this tour, the LA Times published an opinion piece urging the California Public Utilities commission, PG&E, and SCE to come up with a plan for the “immediate inspection of all the power lines in the state, starting with those in the high-fire risk areas.”[25]

This has been more like a strange tour compared to the inspections required to keep residents safe during the next fire season. In addition, convincing the public to accept the transmission lines (and corresponding costs) or new transmission will be difficult. For now, viewing unique single slivers in the vast and complex power systems reminds me of the interplays between California’s history and future of electric power, engineering and environmentalism.

Notes

[1] Jeff St. John, “7 Transmission Projects That Could Unlock A Renewable Energy Bounty,” GreenTechMedia, 9 April 2020, https://www.greentechmedia.com/articles/read/9-transmission-projects-laying-the-paths-for-cross-country-clean-energy

[2] James D. Reid, The Telegraph in America:Its Founders, Promoters, and Noted Men (New York: Derby Brothers, 1879), 498.

[3] Alice Bates, “History of the Telegraph in California,” The Historical Society of Southern California Vol. 9.3 (1914), 181-187.

[4] James Schwoch, Wired Into Nature: The Telegraph and the North American Frontier (Urbana-Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2018).

[5] James C. Williams, Energy and the Making of Modern California (Akron, University of Akron Press, 1997), 42.

[6] Some of the most well-known “Telegraph” streets in California are “Telegraph Road” which crosses greater Los Angeles from La Mirada to East Los Angeles and “Telegraph Avenue” which passes from downtown Oakland to the campus of University of California Berkeley. Lesser-frequented telegraph paths are the “Telegraph Road” in a remote stretch of mountains in Midpines, “Telegraph Hill” in El Dorado Hill, “Telegraph Blvd” in Marina, “Telegraph Ave” in Folsom, “Telegraph Place” in San Francisco, and “Telegraph Drive” in San Jose. There are also Telegraph Canyon, Telegraph Peak, Telegraph Hill, Telegraph Ridge, and Telegraph City, named for its location on the line 33 miles east of Stockton and 30 miles west of Sonora.

[7] Richard Verrier, “In Hollywood, All Trains Lead to Fillmore,” LA Times, 20 July 2010 http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/entertainmentnewsbuzz/2010/07/in-hollywood-all-trains-lead-to-fillmore.html

[8] Joseph Serna, “Southern California Edison Power Lines Sparked Deadly Thomas Fire, Investigators Find,” LA Times, 13 March 2019. Ventura County Fire Department Report,  https://vcfd.org/images/news/Thomas-Fire-Investigation-Report_Redacted_3-14-19.pdf

[9] Alejandro Borunda, “Climate Change is Contributing to California’s WildFires” 25 Oct 2019, https://www.nationalgeographic.com/science/2019/10/climate-change-california-power-outage/

[10] Katherine Blunt and Russell Gold, “PG&E Knew for Years Its Lines Could Spark Wildfires, and Didn’t Fix Them” Wall Street Journal 10 July 2019, https://www.wsj.com/articles/pg-e-knew-for-years-its-lines-could-spark-wildfires-and-didnt-fix-them-11562768885

[11] American Wildfire Experience, “Thomas Fire,” Accessed at https://www.mysteryranch.com/thomas-fire

[12] Stan Walker, “Brief History of Oil Development in Pico Canyon,” http://www.elsmerecanyon.com/picocanyon/history/history.htm

[13] Mountain Recreation and Conservation Authority. “Whitney Canyon Park.” CA.gov, https://mrca.ca.gov/parks/park-listing/whitney-canyon/

[14] Etienne Benson. “Generating Infrastructural Invisibility: Insulation, Interconnection, and Avian Excrement in the Southern California Power Grid.” Environmental Humanities Vol. 6.1 (2015), 103-130.

[15] Leah Glaser, “Nice Towers, eh? Evaluation a Transmission Line in Arizona,” Cultural Resource Management, U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, Vol. 20.14 (1997), 23-24.

[16] James C. Williams, Energy and the Making of Modern California, 187.

[17] Christopher F. Jones, “Landscapes of Intensification: Transport and Energy in the U.S. Mid-Atlantic, 1820–1930” The Journal of Transport History, Vol. 35, No. 2 (Dec 2014).

[18] Reznik, Eugene. “R. Crumb’s Snapshots: Source Material of the Legendary Comic Artist.” TIME, 30 Sept 2013. http://time.com/3802766/r-crumbs-snapshots-source-material-of-the-legendary-comic-artist/

[19] Levy, Eugene. “The Aesthetics of Power: High-Voltage Transmission Systems and the American Landscape.” Technology and Culture Vol. 38 No. 3 (July 1997), 575-607.

[20] Towers of Tomorrow. 15 min. New York: Jack Brady Productions, 1968.

[21]  Russell Flinchum, Henry Dreyfuss, Industrial Designer: The Man in the Brown Suit (New York: Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum and Rizzoli, 1997), 174.

[22] Tikalsky, Susan M. and C.J. Willyward. “Aesthetics and Public Perceptions of Transmission Structures: A Brief History of the Research.” Right of Way (Electric Power Research Institute, March-April 2007), 28-32.

[23] Southern California Edison, “Design Guide: Aesthetic Guidelines for Electric Transmission Lines,” Southern California Edison, Rosemead, CA, 1972.

[24] “Conejo Boulders Climbing,” MountainProject.com, https://www.mountainproject.com/area/105850674/conejo-mountain

[25] “Power Lines Are Still Starting California Wildfires” LA Times, Opinion, 29 Nov. 2019, https://www.latimes.com/opinion/story/2019-11-29/fix-california-wildfires-utlities-and-fire-starting-power-lines

Daniel Wuebben Ph.D. is the author of Power-Lined: Electricity, Landscape, and the American Mind (University of Nebraska Press, 2019). His research on floral codes, viral literacy, and surfing has been published in academic journals such as Victorian Literature and CultureComputers and Composition, and Symplokē. He lives in Segovia, Spain, and in July 2020 he will begin a two-year Marie Skłodowska-Curie Fellowship with the Ciberimaginario Group at the Universidad Rey Juan Carlos. His project on “grid literacy” engages electric rhetoric and transmission’s role in the energy transition.

Copyright: © 2020 Daniel Wuebben. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/.

Postcards Series

The Tides that Erase: Automation and the Los Angeles Waterfront

With “Postcards,” creative non-fiction stories grounded in place, we aspire to create a new cartography of California. For us, literature and language are as much about marking and representing space, as they are about storytelling.


 

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Original art by Fernando Mendez Corona

Jennifer Carr

Whenever I go out with my father anywhere in San Pedro, we inevitably run into someone he knows, from his school days (a long time gone), from the Cabrillo Beach Polar Bear Club, or from years of work spent on the harbor. That’s when San Pedro, with a population of 56,000, feels like a small town.

My dad, now a retired longshore worker and marine clerk, Locals 13 and 63, remembers faces better than names, and a casual—someone who takes jobs out of the casual hall and isn’t a steady at a particular dock—comes up to my dad as we sit down for burgers on Gaffey Street, asks, “Jack, you still down at Pasha Stevedoring?”

“Retired three years now,” my dad says, and I can tell he’s searching for the name to go with the face. But names don’t always matter, because there are now two workers from the waterfront in one place, two brothers in the union, which means they can have a full conversation in the shared language of the docks.

The San Pedro Bay Port Complex, comprised of the combined Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, makes up the ninth largest port in the world (the top eight are all in Asia). Realizing its potential value, Los Angeles annexed San Pedro as a part of the City of Los Angeles in 1909, and the complex has since been given the moniker (and a National Geographic Channel show along with it) America’s Port, since it handles more than forty percent of all containerized cargo that enters the United States. However, this distinction has an uncertain future with the dredging and widening of the Panama Canal, the fully-automated barge port in Louisiana, or the megaships that can carry over 20,000 twenty-foot equivalent unit containers. These container ships have a beam of about 193 feet—compared with the 100-feet bow-to-stern total length of the San Salvador, the flagship galleon of Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo, who in 1542 became the first European to scout the San Pedro Bay, inhabited by the Tongva, whose settlement in the bay was named Kiinkenga.

APL Terminal (1)

Courtesy of Jennifer Carr

While waiting for our burgers, the longshore worker tells us, “I only get out three days a week now—work is down because of tariffs. There are no slabs at all.” Because I’m the daughter of a former longshore worker/marine clerk, I know that slabs are hunks of steel made from ingots rolled out on a belt in lengths between thirteen and forty-four feet, weighing between ten and twenty-seven tons. I know that the 1960 Modernization and Mechanization Agreement enabled containerized cargo, a move that prevented the union from rejecting any future technological advancements in the port but simultaneously negotiated the union’s ability to be trained on and operate the new technology. I know that my dad first got his start on the docks in 1959, just out of high school, and used a 9-inch metal hook to unload cargo onto pallets. I know the rhythms and the cadences of waterfront speak and its hopes and losses by heart.

The trade war is affecting everyone who isn’t currently pulling a retirement pension or already in the ground. A trade war means fewer ships in the harbor, fewer gangs called up for a shift—“Only two gangs ordered per ship!” our new friend tells us while we wait for our burgers, “And only two foremen now each for the day and night shifts, when before there were five!” I see both my dad’s relief at being out and guilt over getting the best deal out of his last contract before retirement.

Work on the waterfront has always been a tenuous balance between the members of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union—my dad’s union—and the shipping companies represented by the maritime association. Bloody Thursday honors the flashpoint of the 1934 West Coast Strike that involved scabs and hired goon squads beating up (and shooting) striking union members, killing two of them. It’s now commemorated every July 5th with a harbor shutdown and branded t-shirts. In 1960, the Modernization and Mechanization Agreement meant that companies could containerize cargo, reducing physical labor, but that the union had to handle the movement and stowage from ship to dock. The union would have to be allowed the chance to modernize with the technology. In 2002, there was the weeks-long lockout after the union was accused of a slow-down, during which the union leveraged its power to negotiate a favorable contract with the association representing the shipping companies (despite George W. Bush invoking the Taft Hartley Act as a means to weaken the union, attempting to render them unable to strike); in January of 2015, I marched alongside my dad and thousands of other ILWU families in support of the union’s contract negotiations; and earlier in 2019, the union rallied once again to protest shipping giant Maersk’s addition of 130 robotic vehicles to replace human-operated machines to sort and move cargo on the docks. A lopsided agreement was made; though the union can be trained on the new automation, jobs will still be reduced, and the union has been leveled a devastating blow. It’s not the Matrix or Skynet—but there’s a real fear that in two generations, with automation potentially replacing most of the workforce, there will be few who know what it meant to work on the waterfront. Reactions range anywhere on the spectrum between hysteria to excitement, depending on which side of the labor vs. management debate you’re on.

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Courtesy of Jennifer Carr

As for now—we don’t know what’s going to happen. Maersk uses microchips in the containers and even on the docks, plugged into robots to do the work my father spent hours of his week planning out. He’d come home, dusted yellow with spray chalk from marking steel slabs and coils, marking the yard for placing the steel slabs, coils, and plywood to be loaded onto trucks or rail cars, double checking bills of lading, somehow sorting cargo the way a conductor guides a symphony or the Sorcerer Supreme bends the world at his will.

The waterfront is the true official language of San Pedro, which otherwise has been a pidgin of Spanish, English, Croatian, Italian, and Japanese since Juan Domínguez was given the land grant by Spain for ranching in 1784 (and the subsequent US takeover of California after the Mexican-American War). Phineas Banning, an immigrant from the East Coast, dredged the harbor in 1871 to make it deep enough for ships to pass through, and two years later, as California State Senator, used government funds to build the first breakwater. My great-grandfather, an immigrant from Croatia (then the Austro-Hungarian Empire), found his way to San Pedro in 1914 in his purse seiner, The Agram, after freezing on the waters of Puget Sound. San Pedro looked similar to the Adriatic coast, Catalina Island a more distant Krk, the harbor town a larger iteration of Crkvenica and Rijeka. Familiarity and echoes of home bays and fishing communities drew most of the families that came to San Pedro during the twentieth century.

The stories of San Pedro are woven out of fishing nets, metal hooks, and family recipes. San Pedrans also retain their ties to cultural heritage—many of my friends still return to Croatia every summer—but even stronger is the Pedro heritage. Families remember who fished on the Sea Scout between 1950 and 1959, or how many owners the John R. had. The first boat my grandfather owned was also the first all-steel purse seiner on the coast, The Paramount. Starting in the 1930s, he spent months at a time off the Galapagos Islands fishing tuna, dropping off loads in Mexico, then motoring south again for another load. During World War II, he and the rest of the fishing fleet took turns patrolling the coast for submarines, then scooping up every last sardine and anchovy from the waters—whatever could be put in a can, stowed in musty holds, or shipped to the fronts. When the fishing dwindled, the men moved onshore, but not too far, from the boats to the docks, cargoes of bananas from Brazil, coffee from Colombia, sugar from Hawaii, cowhides from wherever it was the cowhides came in from. Bales of cotton loaded on pallets, hand-stowed, hand-offloaded, hand-sorted, with steel hooks in the hand to move the pulleys, separate the loads, throw the cargo onto trucks or railcars.

Some symphonies are played with violins and cellos and flutes—my family created them with hooks and pallets and the rhythms of human automation, smooth, choreographed, memorized, inherited. Water is in our blood and our bones, and our steps pulse with the low hum of the cranes that lift and pull cargo the way the moon pulls the tides and the way we pull stories from salt.

San Pedrans are wary, not necessarily of progress, not necessarily of being left behind, although that is a concern, but worse, of being erased altogether.

There’s a hole in my heart where Canetti’s Seafood Grotto used to be, down in the throat of 22nd Street, tucked behind the fish markets. It was an archive that sold fish, but the real draw was the characters inside, human libraries reciting their daily litanies, rimes of not-so-ancient mariners who didn’t measure days with coffee spoons but instead counted years by fishing boats: again, who fished on which boat and with whom, who partnered, who owned outright, was it longlining tuna or nets of sardines or anchovies or ligni—squid—conjured to the surface of the ocean with spotlights. After my grandfather died, I worked at Canetti’s for a time, absorbing the stories of other grandfathers, imbibing the sounds the way others who grieve sniff items of clothing. In the age of computer automation, this worked as a different kind of neural network, the individual stories binding us all in one greater story.

After sixty years, Canetti’s closed up shop, the larger-than-life Joe Canetti retired, and like my grandfather and so many others, he is now gone, lost to the tides of time. Canetti’s fish tacos and sandwiches were famous, but my dad and I often switched up our orders to get their burgers, a greasy-spoon diner type of burger, and the closest we can replicate (though still aren’t quite the same) we’ve tracked down to a sandwich shop on Gaffey Street. And here, just like at Canetti’s, the pulse of the harbor carries us to another thread of the collective story of the waterfront.

The man at lunch on Gaffey Street mentions a name I know, says this worker got laid off because work was so slow, and now had to take jobs out of the casual hall. “And he’s a good worker, too.”

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Jack Carr at work, 1994. Courtesy of Jennifer Carr

A good worker. Akin to the title of Sorcerer Supreme, it’s the highest compliment you can give someone on the waterfront. Though it may sound Bolsheviky, the good worker plaudit is an apolitical mark of distinction that is carried down generations. At Canetti’s, people would recall good workers who had been dead for ten or twenty years. Prime table position was given to Ray Patricio, one of the “best bosses” to ever work down at the harbor.

My dad is one of the good workers, a trait that imbued every part of his life. “You know how lucky you are?” his coworkers would tell me at holiday parties or the occasional run-in at Canetti’s, the movie theater, the Target parking lot. My dad’s vice president (on the management side) said on multiple occasions that he’d retire when my dad retired. When my dad did retire—at the age of seventy-five—two workers filled his position. Fifty-seven years he spent on the waterfront. Eight-, ten-, sometimes fourteen-hour days. In that time, he clocked in almost twenty orthopedic surgeries, his body given over wholly to the job.

Having a good worker in the family is a sense of pride. I didn’t earn it, but it sticks to me, a benediction, a membership card for respect. It’s the story that has framed my entire life, just like my grandfather’s story framed my father’s.

The port complex currently provides 190,000 jobs to human beings who pay taxes, buy homes, shop locally, send their kids to little league and soccer. Automation will change the complexion of the entire town, and it’s already changing. San Pedrans look around at places like this sandwich hangout on Gaffey Street, wondering which of us gentrification will bump off first. Without the language of the waterfront and the people who speak it, what will happen to the rest of the town? Losing this language is personal. It’s akin to losing my grandfather all over again.

Now, perhaps, is the coda, but maybe not. Maybe as the workers shift to fit themselves into the narrower machinations, they’ll forge new shapes and new rhythms that will be just as beautiful, though different, perhaps a little melancholic. The stories will go on, and there will be enough of us left who know even a few words of the old language to tell the stories of those who have come and gone: break bulk, hooks, casual cards, A books, long on hours, a good worker, the best worker, my grandfather, my father, my father. I repeat it like a prayer, a chronicle of what was, saying it often so there will be no end to the echo.

Jennifer Carr frequently explores how our jobs reflect or inform our identities, and what happens when the jobs are threatened by time, automation, and politics. Her work has recently appeared in Baltimore ReviewOrigins Journal, and Panorama Journal, among others. Though she sometimes regrets not getting her union card, she loves teaching creative writing at Chapman University and spends the rest of her time as a ghostwriter. In the gaps, she is completing her novel set on the Los Angeles waterfront.

Copyright: © 2020 Jennifer Carr. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/.

Postcard Series:

  1. Jenise Miller, “We are our own Multitude: Los Angeles’ Black Panamanian Community”
  2. Toni Mirosevich, “Who I Used To Be”
  3. Myriam Gurba, “El Corrido del Copete”
Reviews

Inland Shift: Towards a Radical Intercommunalism in the Inland Empire

J.T. Roane

During a speech delivered at Boston College on November 18, 1970 Huey P. Newton extended Marxist-Leninist material dialecticism as a mode of theoretical and practical inquiry through his critical neologism “intercommunalism.” Describing two variants of intercommunalism, one reactionary and the other revolutionary, Newton premised his analytic on an understanding that American empire had eclipsed the nation-colony model of European imperial integration in a similar fashion to the ways that system eclipsed the “primitive empire” Romans built within the world as they conceived it in the Classical period of the West. “North America,” he argued had been “transformed at the hands of the ruling circle from a nation to an empire,” changing “the whole composition of the world.” As a result, the elite of the United States “necessarily control[led] the whole world either directly or indirectly.” Intercommunalism, in its reactionary variant, created a world defined by the dislocation of finance, production, and consumption across increasingly dispersed and mediated geographic system of resource-siphoning in which automation would give way to “cybernation [and] probably to technocracy.” The primary effect of reactionary intercommunalism, according to Newton, was the creation of a permanent class of expendable people the world over with no access to the benefits of technological transformation and who were forced to bear the worst effects of global integration.1

In contrast to reactionary intercommunalism, Newton proposed and adopted “revolutionary intercommunalism.” As a result of “nations hav[ing] been transformed into [the] communities of the world,” revolutionary organizers could also make it a “time when the people seize[d] the means of production and distribute[d] the wealth and the technology in an egalitarian way to the many communities of the world.” Newton’s interpretation of the revolutionary variant of intercommunalism justified the shift of the Black Panther Party toward its Survival Programs. Without the basics of subsistence in food and healthcare and without critical education, there would be no ability to survive, let alone to throw off the technocratic elite, he reasoned. Revolutionary intercommunalists could shut down the draining of collective resources to line the pockets of Empire’s elites. Using the capacity of the new technological age, which had taken a person to the moon but which refused to end hunger and depravation, revolutionary intercommunalists, including the Panthers, could create a global sense of the world based not on exploitation but rather on the power to extend human happiness and wellbeing equitably.2

These key turns in Newton’s thought, his analysis of both the reactionary and revolutionary versions of intercommunalism, as well as the Black Panther’s organizational praxis responding to these novel theorizations, remain important theoretical and practical points in challenging globalization—the hegemonic financial and cultural integration of the earth that has continued since the era of Newton’s theorization. This, our age of the orange autocrat in the U.S. and of multiple neo-fascist regimes around the world, is defined by unprecedented technocratic monopoly and the devastating expansion of the permanently jobless, homeless, and nationless who can make no claim to the advances associated with globalization and who face the brunt of the negative effects of this order. Extending Newton’s concept, we currently face the rise of what I call reactionary, reactionary intercommunalism—a variant in which the façade of integration accompanying multicultural neoliberalism has given way to the explicit embrace of autocracy in and through technological, economic, and political integration. Across disparate human geographies a technocratic elite—ranging from logistics capital to social media tycoons—dictate the lives of ordinary people, deciding if they work, live, or die and under what conditions.

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Basil D, Soufi, “Aerial view of the Inland Empire overlooking San Bernardino and Rialto, California,” Courtesy of Soufi via Creative Commons

Juan D. De Lara’s important new book Inland Shift: Race, Space, and Capital in Southern California (UC Press, 2018), garners for readers analytic purchase not only on the dynamics of the technologically integrated commodity chains shaping contemporary reactionary, reactionary intercommunalism, but also on the potential for labor organizing and politics to extend the practice of Newton’s revolutionary intercommunalism. One of the powerful aspects of De Lara’s study is that, like Clyde Woods’ work in the context of the Mississippi Delta, he takes the region as his point of analysis. Foremost, as De Lara argues, the region provides a frame through which to analyze the ways that “[c]reative destruction is…woven into the fabric of capitalist development” and provides “solution to the devaluation of fixed capital by reconfiguring spatial-temporal relationships to create new investment options.” Emerging from a “speculative growth regime” the Inland Empire as a distribution center for global commodities emerged as corporate boosters and politicians beginning in the 1980s justified the expenditure of collective resources to extend Southern California’s port, warehouse, and distribution infrastructures into the region encompassing cities east of Los Angeles like Riverside, San Bernardino, and Ontario. As De Lara demonstrates, these changes were sold to ordinary people as the tide that would lift all boats, as the collective potential for prospering after the devastation of the region’s rapid deindustrialization in competition with emerging production centers around the world. Elites reasoned that the expenditures, as well as the environmental-health threats related to concentrated diesel pollution, would be worth the enhancement of the region’s position in the mounting competition for increased commodity imports. They argued that these developments would improve the lives of the region’s ordinary residents by providing them with stable incomes and concomitantly with access to the housing market as owners. In effect, however, these processes further entrenched vulnerability in communities exposed to global market fluctuations. Indeed, the cost of speculatively-growing Southern California ports and the Inland Empire distribution networks to make them competitive with others around the nation, was the extension of tedious and poorly compensated labor under conditions of often cyborg-like surveillance, as well as environmental degradation, and racial violence.

As it chronicles the rise of a regional elite, De Lara’s work holds onto material dialecticism, introducing points of possibility for the subversion of regional logistics hegemony through the narratives of predominantly Latinx warehouse workers. In particular, he includes, along with his analysis of the dominant social-spatial features of the Inland Empire, the “counter-mappings” of workers, or the “collective stories provid[ing] insight into how people make sense of the world” which are also the “seeds of opposition to dominant systems.” Importantly, De Lara credits ordinary people with the ability to generate theoretical and cartographic insights useful in analyzing and thwarting this reviling and destructive system. In chapter five, for example, De Lara shows the ways that ordinary Latinx warehouse workers, “José,” “Angelica,” and “Marta” make sense of vulnerability within the wider geography of the region. He connects their analysis with their attempts to defy the imposition of a system of technologically enhanced management in which workers are wired to track productivity (or the lack thereof) as part of the wider coordination of production, commodity importation, warehousing, and distribution for corporations like Walmart. De Lara places these everyday forms of analysis and resistance on a continuum with the efforts of organizations to combat vulnerability. For example, these mappings helped to drive the inroads made by unions to end temporary work and also undergirded efforts to halt raids, detentions, and deportations undermining local Latinx communities. The rudimentary coordinates of worker’s alternative vistas on the matters of labor, place, and politics, served as the substrate out of which activist consciousness emerged. Union and community organizers drew together people by highlighting their shared narratives and common geographic analyses.

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De Lara’s book provides an excellent addition to the growing work in critical human geography. It would be particularly effective if paired with important works of regional analysis and Marxist geography including Clyde Woods’ work and Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s in Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California. These works, taken together, help us to gain purchase on the development of the geographies of gendered racial capitalism in state and global capital formations and also to take stock of resistance. These works also remind us of the vital place of what Newton understood as “the left of the proletariat.” In a world, increasingly defined by reactionary global integration, it is only the everyday and organized subversions on the part of ordinary people that can dislodge the tyranny of technocracy, giving expression to a world free of borders wherein the advances in technological capacity can be distributed to address crises such as the environmental catastrophe, in order to insure our collective wellbeing rather than our collective destruction. As De Lara’s work effectively illustrates, we must recover the radical potential of Newton’s analysis, forwarding it into the nascent order. We must also organize shoulder to shoulder with the potentially revolutionary intercommunalists across the world if we are to survive the terrifying juncture of environmental destruction, technocratic monopoly, and global integration. The people of the Inland Empire have led the way in demonstrating the place of ordinary people can incapacitate technocratic power and fighting fascism, the political analog of an economy based in technocratic monopoly.

May the revolutionary intercommunalists of the world unite!

Notes

1 Huey P. Newton, “Speech Delivered at Boston College: November 18, 1970, To Die for the People, ed. Toni Morrison, (San Francisco: City Light Books, 2009): 20-38.

2 ibid.

J.T. Roane is assistant professor of African and African American Studies in the School of Social Transformation at Arizona State University. Roane is broadly concerned about matters of geography, ecologies, sexuality, and religion in relation to Black communities. He is at work on a manuscript under contract with NYU Press titled, “Dark Agoras: Insurgent Black Social Life and the Politics of Place in Philadelphia.” He serves as co-senior editor for Black Perspectives, the digital platform of the African American Intellectual History Society (AAIHS).

Copyright: © 2019 J.T. Roane. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

Articles

Military Industrial Sexuality

Ryan Reft

In March 1992 the nineteen-year Navy veteran and founder of the Veterans Council for American Rights and Equality (C.A.R.E), Chuck Schoen penned an open letter in the Redwood/Sacramento branch’s newsletter to the then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell, protesting the military’s ban on homosexuals. While he thanked Powell for rejecting sexual orientation as a security risk, he lamented Powell’s continued stance opposing gay men and women in the military. He informed Powell, “We know how to separate our professional life from our sexual life. We have proven this during the past fifty years, by our honorable service.” Due to an investigator’s discovery of his homosexuality during a security clearance investigation, Schoen had been forced to resign in 1963 or else face a dishonorable discharge. Schoen believed security clearances unfairly targeted gay service members. “[T]housands of investigators spent millions of man hours and millions of dollars ruthlessly seeking out harmless homosexuals,” he wrote Powell. “Even with all their expertise and money, they had only about one percent success rate. All during this time they thought we were the spies. What a costly error based only on conjecture and hatred.”[1]

That same month, then head of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and future Secretary of Defense Robert Gates responded to a letter from the William and Mary Gay Alumni Association (WMGAA). President Michael Pemberton and Thomas P. Rowan had congratulated Gates upon his appointment to the directorship of the CIA in December while also raising concerns about the agency’s ability to ensure “equal opportunities for all current and prospective employees.” Gates thanked them for their letter and assured Pemberton and Rowan that the “[a]gency does not reject, disqualify, or assign people, or make any other personal decision on the basis of sexual orientation.” He went on to note that, “Indeed, CIA has homosexuals in its workforce.”[2]

Though the overlapping dates of these correspondences might be coincidental, the motivations behind each were not. Since President Eisenhower’s issuance of Executive Order 10450 in 1953, which banned homosexuals from government employment and labeled them a threat to national security, along with the military’s history of purging gay and lesbian service personnel homosexuals struggled to gain equal rights in the government and the military. Both letters preceded real government reform in this area. The Pentagon enacted the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy in 1993 and two years later President Clinton issued Executive Order 12968, which stated for the first time in an executive order that sexual orientation could not be grounds for denial of a security clearance. Yet gay men and women both within and without the government had long protested what they saw as unequal treatment, including security investigations that delved unfairly into the sexual lives of service personnel and employees. The advances witnessed in 1995, and to a far lesser extent 1993, stemmed from such efforts over the course of four decades, not least among them was the case of Otis Francis Tabler, a Rancho Palos Verdes resident and missiles systems analyst working within the expanding military industrial complex of Southern California.

“In a precedent setting action, the Industrial Security Clearance Review Office (ISCRO) of the Department of Defense today withdrew its appeal… finding issuance of a Secret-level security clearance to Otis Francis Tabler, Jr., an open, self declared Homosexual, to be ‘clearly consistent with the national interest,’” announced the Mattachine Society of Washington D.C. (MSW) in August 1975.[3] Tabler challenged both the federal government’s security clearance system and California state law banning sodomy and “perversion,” thereby opening up new job opportunities for homosexuals in the state’s booming defense industry while also contributing to the fight to eliminate unconstitutional legislation.[4]

Though Tabler’s case unfolded at the Federal Building on Wilshire Boulevard, its success existed as a confluence of factors, individuals, and geography that stretched over the course of two decades. It took the advocacy and activism of Washington D.C.’s foremost gay activist, Frank Kameny, a World War II veteran who for years fought discrimination against homosexuals in government hiring. At the same time, the establishment of the original Los Angeles Mattachine Society by Harry Hay in 1951 enabled Kameny and other activists across the country to establish their own local versions from which to operate while Southern California’s expanding defense industry offered employment and opportunity to carry out new struggles against discrimination. Kameny would cut his teeth in such struggles as leader of the MSW and would bring this experience to bear on behalf of Tabler in the early 1970s.

While often seen as the most conservative of American institutions, the military, the vast defense industry that supports it, and veterans themselves have operated, intentionally and unintentionally, in conjunction to advance the rights of ethnic, racial, and sexual minorities.

During the 1970s, Los Angeles’s vibrant gay liberation movement inspired Tabler and gradually shaped public opinion toward a more favorable view of homosexuality and, by 1976, a repeal of the state legislation Tabler had challenged. Finally, Kameny and Tabler’s fight to open up the security clearance process for gay men and women preceded the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy by nearly two decades and helped to lay the ground work for President Bill Clinton’s 1995 Executive Order 12968. Over forty years later, Tabler’s battle demonstrates how the intersection of the military, California, and the nation’s capital led to the expansion of opportunity and rights for gay men and women across the nation. While often seen as the most conservative of American institutions, the military, the vast defense industry that supports it, and veterans themselves have operated, intentionally and unintentionally, in conjunction to advance the rights of ethnic, racial, and sexual minorities.


A Military State, World War II, and California

World War II radically reshaped California. First, it led to a boom in population and a demand for greater infrastructure in nearly every area of urban life from water systems to road construction. Single women, Blacks and Latinos all flocked to cities like Los Angeles and San Francisco to work in defense factories. Men of all races joined the military as a means to demonstrate their sense of patriotism. Minorities tired of dealing with discrimination and second-class citizenship used service as a means to demand equality from a nation demanding that they sacrifice for the war despite existing inequalities.

Women too contributed to the war effort in countless ways. Some by working in the numerous factories that dotted the Los Angeles, Orange County, San Francisco, and San Diego landscapes, while others served in the Women’s Army Core (WACS) or Women Accepted for Voluntary Service (WAVS, the women’s branch of the Naval Reserve). Women’s experiences in the war would lay the groundwork for the feminist movement of the 1950s and 1960s.

The war also created the space and opportunity for gay men and women to realize their own sexuality and build community in the process.  The stress of military training, the common purpose of working toward victory in the war and the crucible of combat encouraged camaraderie and trust. For those attracted to the same sex, working, sleeping, and relaxing with one another in gender segregated military environs proved an imperfect yet opportune chance at romance and community.[5]

At the same time, the military cracked down on homosexuality. As Daniel Hurewitz specifies in his 2007 work Bohemian Los Angeles and the Making of Modern Politics, “The war mobilization laid the groundwork for a national effort to eliminate homosexuals from public life.” Hurewitz further states, “During the war, itself, a host of psychologists and psychiatrists had convinced military leaders that they could help limit the number of soldiers suffering from psychological ailments as a result of the fighting.” Looking to prevent gay men and women from serving, officials questioned recruits about their sex lives as they tried to “weed out” those the military believed to be sexually active labeling them, “mentally unfit.”[6] These kinds of categorizations went far to frame homosexuality as a psychological malady rather than a sexual preference. As demonstrated, the military took the issue of homosexuality seriously, often issuing verbal warnings about Los Angeles’ gay permissiveness. “We were solemnly told that all queers in California wore red neckties and hung out at the corner of Hollywood and Vine, a myth we all accepted,” noted one former Marine and World War II veteran. Such warnings probably helped to pique the interest of closeted service personnel, suggests historian Allan Berube.[7]

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Though the armed services targeted men mostly, in the late 1940s and 1950s, after the war, women also came under scrutiny. In the early Cold War military, notes historian Margot Canaday, “the state did not ignore, conflate, or subsume lesbianism, but was instead focused upon it.” Despite women making up less than one percent of the military during this period, the military’s anti-homosexual agenda targeted women in a particular way. “Military officials maintained that homosexuality among women was more disruptive to morale and discipline then homosexuality in men, and they attributed a far higher rate of homosexual activity to female than male personnel,” she concludes.[8]

Simultaneously, the Los Angeles Police Department increased their surveillance of homosexual activity. State law had long considered sodomy a felony, but in 1915 California legislators adopted legislation outlawing fellatio after authorities arrested thirty-one men for engaging in oral sex following a 1914 Long Beach raid.[9] Predictably, officials used such laws largely to regulate homosexual activity rather than that of heterosexuals. Even worse, gay men especially could not count on city police officers for basic protection. “Gay men could not escape the knowledge that the LAPD regarded them not only as laughable, but as ultimate criminals,” note Faderman and Timmons. Despite, or perhaps due to, a growing gay community of men and women, the LAPD viewed lesbians and homosexual men with the utmost hostility.[10]

Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, the LAPD raided gay bars, surveilled known cruising sites and attempted to entrap gay men and women, all in an effort to persecute patrons. The city attempted to shut down various magazines seen as homosexually-oriented including ONE, Physique Pictorial, and Adam, only to be rebuffed on appeals by the courts all while vendors across the town sold Playboy magazines without incident. No matter how many legal defeats the city endured, it continued to prosecute. “Los Angeles officials expressed their overt intent to continue the persecution of queer texts through obscenity charges,” noted Whitney Strub.[11]

Cinemas too struggled under the thumb of authorities. Venues such as the Coronet (La Cienga Blvd in West Hollywood), the Lyric (Huntington Park) and Vista Theater (Silver Lake) served as gathering places for gay Angelenos. Such venues frequently screened art films with “queer undertones,” writes Strub. In particular, the Coronet played Kenneth Anger’s “Fireworks” in 1957, arguably one of the most provocative queer films of the period. The LAPD filed obscenity charges soon after. In the end, the Lyric and Vista Theaters all endured legal challenges similar to that of the Coronet, which ultimately resulted in closure, even when they emerged victorious on judicial grounds. Yet, when the film Deep Throat achieved national popularity, it too flashed across Los Angeles movie screens and authorities did nothing to prevent it, which further illustrates these pervasive double standards.[12]

Gay panic even served to influence debates regarding the role of outdoor leisure in Los Angeles. The city’s beaches endured accusations of homosexual infiltration. During the 1940s a number of establishments began catering to a homosexual clientele thereby enabling the growth of a notable gay public sphere along a stretch of Santa Monica beachfront between Hollister and Strand. Known as “Crystal Beach” among locals, the area became subject to police surveillance in the early 1950s when a number of gay bars and taverns opened for business. “Now more visible, the perceived threat posed by the gay beach going community was heightened by the Cold War,” writes historian Elsa Devienne, “a time when any challenge to the heterosexual nuclear family model was perceived as a direct attack on American values.” During the campaign for municipal elections in 1955, candidates openly accused the Santa Monica beaches of “fostering and protecting homosexuals.”[13]

Gay panic even served to influence debates regarding the role of outdoor leisure in Los Angeles. The city’s beaches endured accusations of homosexual infiltration. During the 1940s a number of establishments began catering to a homosexual clientele thereby enabling the growth of a notable gay public sphere along a stretch of Santa Monica beachfront between Hollister and Strand.

In the face of such hostility, Harry Hay and others formed the Mattachine Society in 1951 in what was then known as Edendale,—Silver Lake today. Emerging from a milieu populated by bohemians, communists, and homosexuals who shared ideas, strategies, and beliefs, Hay constructed what would become the homophile movement and the Los Angeles Mattachine emerged as its first real organization. It enabled gay men and women to form a community and present a collective identity to a hostile questioning public. “What Mattachine offered was a different kind of camaraderie: non-sexual family camaraderie… that was well organized and increasingly more defined,” argues Hurewitz. “This was camaraderie about sexual desires that was not constituted by those desires… it was new and transformative; it was how a communal identity—a shared self perception—was constructed.”[14]

Government purges contributed to Hay’s motivation notably in the influence that federal policies cast over private sector employment. Having worked for large aircraft manufactures dependent on government contractors for work, Hay realized the chilling effect such policies might impose. Hay’s own supervisors had encouraged him to pursue systems engineering. But Hay, fearing that his support of the Communist Party threatened his ability to receive a security clearance, declined.[15]

In the decade that followed World War II, half of Southern California’s economic growth depended on defense contracts. This dependency meant Hay and others like him faced dismissal from current employment and dramatically fewer job opportunities. At the same time, the Korean War delivered a surge in government spending, particularly in the area of research.[16] Though many defense industry jobs at the outset of the war remained blue collar, the expansion of atomic weaponry, the increased influence of the Air Force, and technologically advanced weapons systems placed a greater emphasis on a college-educated workforce. Hay organized the Mattachine Society, in part as a means to organize Southern California homosexuals in response to wide spread societal discrimination, including impending governmental purges.[17]

Unfortunately, the L.A. Mattachine struggled with internal divisions and Hay would be ousted from leadership within a few years of its establishment. Still, it persisted and inspired the growth of Mattachines across the U.S. and perhaps most importantly the creation in 1961 of the MSW under the leadership of Frank Kameny. Though later eclipsed by organizations in San Francisco and New York, the MSW would be “the leader in the homosexual rights movement.” In its efforts to battle workplace discrimination during the 1960s, the MSW “took the entire gay movement in a new direction,” argues David K. Johnson. To paraphrase John D. Emilio: Kameny spearheaded the new militancy in the homophile movement.[18] Indeed, a decade before Otis Tabler’s hearing, Kameny and the MSW cast a national influence by protesting the Civil Service Commission’s (CSC) hiring practices or organizing Remembrance Day protests outside Philadelphia’s Freedom Hall as a means of recognizing homosexuality in the public sphere. After the famed Stonewall Uprising of 1969, Remembrance Days migrated north to New York where it transformed into the Christopher Street Gay Liberation Day and would become known as the Gay Rights or Gay Pride Parade. Ultimately, Kameny’s influence would reach California but only after gutting out legal in battles in the nation’s capital.

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D.C.

During the Red Scare of the 1950s, communism and homosexuality became intertwined as threats to national security. A major congressional inquiry in 1950 explored the “Employment of Homosexuals and Other Sex Perverts” in government and ten years later institutions like the State Department “divided security risks into ‘homosexuals’ and ‘nonhomosexuals’, with the former outnumbering the latter two to one,” noted Johnson. “Throughout the 1950s and 1960s the term ‘security risk’ in fact functioned largely as a euphemism for homosexual.”

In the government’s civil service commission and elsewhere, gay men and women who refused to resign were drummed out on charges of “immoral conduct,” a clause that dated back to the 1800s but most often found usage as a means to target homosexuals. Thousands of employees lost their jobs due to their sexual orientation. New York Post columnist Max Lerner described the policy as a witch-hunt, derisively labeling it the “panic on the Potomac” while senators endorsing the action referred to it the “purge of the perverts.”[19]

Few understood the effects of the policy than WWII veteran, Frank Kameny, who in 1957 was fired from his job in the Army Map Service for being a homosexual. Kameny filed a petition to the Court of Appeals District of Columbia Circuit Court protesting his firing on discriminatory grounds. It eventually reached the Supreme Court, but the justices refused to hear the case. He would not relent.

Lilli Vincenz, who had been discharged (ironically, honorably) from the Army WAC in 1963 for lesbianism, joined the MSW soon after and described the organization’s single-minded focus under Kameny’s leadership. “The Mattachine Society of Washington is not a social group—but rather an ascetic one,” she wrote to a friend in 1965. “The CAUSE is all and don’t you dare speak of trivial matters like an occasional social get-together.”[20]

By 1961, Kameny had re-established the MSW and used it as a platform to achieve equality in government hiring for homosexuals. From 1961 through the 1970s, Kameny criticized the government’s “war on gays and lesbians” at every opportunity, even picketing the White House and Civil Service Commission Headquarters among other Washington institutions over their policies in 1965.

Aware of Cold War rhetoric depicting homosexuality as subversion and a security threat, MSW members and picketers went to great lengths to demonstrate that while they were homosexuals they deserved the same rights accorded their fellow Americans. They identified as “homosexual citizens,” thereby arguing that one need not reject their sexuality in order to claim the rights of national membership.[21]According to the lone newspaper that covered the April picketing of the White House, ten protesters carried signs that said, “We want Federal employment, Honorable Discharges and Security Clearances,” and “Gov. Wallace Met With Colored Citizens, But Our Government Won’t Meet With US.”[22]

Participants were keenly aware of the risks. Jack Nichols and Elijah Clarke stayed up late the night before making picket signs only to have a roommate warn them about potential violence. “You guys are crazy. People are going to attack you,” he told Nichols and Clarke. Another protester, Gail Green, admitted the biggest fear among protesters was loss of employment. Nichols prevented his partner Clarke from attending since Clarke worked for the Joint Chiefs of Staff and would likely be fired. Two other participants wore sunglasses in an effort to conceal their identities. [23]

Vincenz, who would appear on the cover of the October 1965 issue of The Ladder picketing the Civil Service Commission, concurred that many of them were “between careers” or could “afford to do it.” Next to her wedding day, “that was the most important day of my life… It was a defining moment for all of us. It was very empowering.”[24] They picketed six times that summer, three times at the White House, once each at the State Department, CSC, and Pentagon. Initially the protests received paltry media coverage. However, by the end of the summer, due to the protests, Kameny and the MSW had developed an effective media strategy that would boost participation and increase coverage of their efforts in outlets such as Reuters and Confidential. Looking back, Kameny claimed the summer of 1965 established a “mindset for public displays of dissent by gay people” which would later make Stonewall possible.[25]

That same year, a legal victory in the U.S. District Court of Appeals forced the CSC to define closeted homosexuals as acceptable employees.[26] Still, Kameny and others remained understandably unsatisfied and California would serve as another key testing ground to push sexual equality further.

Unlike Hay, whose approach to gay rights was rooted in Marxism leading to organizational anarchy, Kameny framed his fight in the context of Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution, and the protests of suffragists like National Woman’s Party leader Alice Paul.


Southern California

After World War II, due to its room for expansion, diverse geography, and mild weather, California drew increased military spending. Historian Richard White concluded, “[i]t was as if someone had tilted the country: people, money and soldiers all spilled west.”[27] Los Angeles and Orange County drew new installations and defense industries, the latter particularly in aerospace. By the early 1960s, forty-three percent of manufacturing employment in the two counties was tied to government aerospace contracts. This process persisted into the 1970s, by which time L.A. and the surrounding region “had come to rely to an extraordinary degree upon the related industries of defense aircraft space and electronics,” notes historian Roger Lotchin.[28] Even today, the presence of the military and private defense industries contributes significantly to Orange County’s ranking as the nation’s largest suburban employment center.[29] Simultaneously, the city’s gay population expanded to an estimated 140,000 gay men and women in metropolitan L.A., which was a number that would only expand over the ensuing decades.[30] Government expansion corresponded with demographic growth, by the mid-1950s 250,000 Californians labored as federal workers, which led many to describe the Golden State as a “second U.S. capital.”

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Ironically, U.S. military action contributed to the development of the Mattachine Society. If Harry Hay had refused to enter the “the new discipline of systems engineering” largely because he feared denial of a security clearance due to his communist affiliations and homosexual lifestyle, that did not mean he couldn’t use the burgeoning conflict as a means to recruit for the Mattachine Society. During the summer of 1950, Hay and others canvassed city beaches asking beachgoers to sign a petition protesting the Korean War. Hay believed most people would refuse to sign on to such a radical statement, but it would allow him to introduce a more moderate proposal: the formation of a gay organization. “Then we’d get into the gay purges in U.S. government agencies of the year before and what a fraud that was,” he noted. Ironically, most people signed the petition, but eschewed the idea of a gay rights society. Still, as Johnson notes, by Autumn he had the germ of what would become the Mattachine Society, and it all began on Los Angeles beaches with a discussion of the U.S. military industrial complex.[31]

Unlike Hay, Otis Francis Tabler did pursue systems engineering. Born in 1942 in Hampton, Virginia, Tabler eventually moved to Philadelphia where he graduated in 1963 from the University of Pennsylvania with an Bachelor’s degree in engineering. He moved to Denver where he worked for General Electrics and Martin-Marietta Company until later decamping for Los Angeles in the late 1960s for a position with Logicon, located in San Pedro.

From 1966-1969 Tabler studied missile defense systems at Logicon as a computer scientist, from which position he was granted a Secret security clearance. However, during the first background investigation that led to his clearance, he neither concealed nor highlighted his homosexuality. He briefly left Logicon for employment with another company where he did not return to the San Pedro company until 1971‑ at which point he sought a new clearance. During the new investigation, Tabler openly apprised investigators of his sexuality, telling them “I am an overt, practicing homosexual who prefers to obtain a clearance without concealing his personal life from the investigative process.”[32]

Tabler released an Interoffice Correspondence relating his personal history to his superiors and co-workers. The packet included a psychological evaluation by a former U.S. Air Force psychologist that upheld Tabler’s trustworthiness and reliability.[33] Based on their testimony at his hearing, Tabler’s peers agreed with the report. According to his coworkers and supervisors, Tabler demonstrated considerable skill in carrying out his responsibilities, but due to his inability to secure the necessary security clearance, his talents were not being adequately utilized and the company was forced to let him go as a result. His former supervisor, U.S. Air Force Captain Larry Wayne Kern believed Tabler to be honest, trustworthy, and reliable and said that Tabler had “a specific and unique contribution to make in the field.”[34]

While Tabler mounted his defense, the push for equality of sexual orientation had begun to coalesce to a greater degree than in previous decades. By the 1970s, the gay liberation movement had become a dominant force, one undoubtedly shaped by other social movements of the day. For example, in Los Angeles, Morris Kight founded the city’s chapter of the Gay Liberation Front in 1969.[35]

During the 1960s, anti-Vietnam war militancy exhibited by the New Left, the “counterculture,” and Chicano, feminist, and Black Power advocates inspired gay activists as well. On 12 May 1966, L.A. residents witnessed their first gay parade in history, the “First National Homophile Protest” to end the ban on gays in the military. The protest snaked along a twenty-mile route that stretched from Downtown Los Angeles to Hollywood. Participants carried signs that cajoled onlookers to “Write LBJ Today” and pointed out the fact that  “Ten Percent of all GI’s are Homosexual.” The National Conference of Homophile Organizations had planned demonstrations in five cities across the county, but only Los Angeles held a parade. Unfortunately for organizers, the media paid little attention. The Los Angeles Times declined to cover the demonstration unless reports of injuries surfaced.[36]

Agreement within the gay community regarding efforts like that of Tabler was not universal. Not all members of the Gay Liberation Movement believed that gay men and women should be pursuing employment in fields such as the military or defense industry. The ideology of movements that leaned left of center or in some cases fully left, combined with the residue of the Vietnam War, created an internal debate among activists. Why would an ostensibly liberal, politically aware gay man or woman want to work for a warmongering United States government or the various agencies that were seen as (at best) complicit in domestic and foreign policies that victimized minorities and the poor?

Not all members of the Gay Liberation Movement believed that gay men and women should be pursuing employment in fields such as the military or defense industry.

Others like Richard Gayer, a colleague of Kameny’s and a lawyer who represented numerous gay men and women in security clearance cases, believed such efforts served a larger purpose. Gayer had brought his own case regarding discrimination over security clearances earlier in the 1970s, and also sought Kameny’s aid. He explained the importance of such a struggle years later: “There are some among us who argue that because no one should work for agencies as questionable as the CIA, we shouldn’t litigate anti-Gay discrimination by them,” he wrote. “If the government says that Gays are not to be trusted with sensitive information and are otherwise unreliable, then we are likely to be excluded from any employment (private or governmental) that involves such information or requires reliability and dependability.” Whether or not one supported the military industrial complex was beside the point. Anti-gay governmental policies begat anti-gay policies society-wide, he argued. For Gayer, Tabler and others, it came down to a simple fact: “Gay people, like any other class of citizens, should be free to choose their careers without fear of discrimination as they advance their chosen fields.” The inability to do such reverberated throughout society in ways that further circumscribed life for homosexuals.[37]

During the 1970s, newly aggressive gay organizations and activists began to dominate the movement, such as PRIDE and the Gay Liberation Front Los Angeles (GLFLA), formed to push for a place in the public sphere for gays.[38] “As you may know, Gay Liberation Front Los Angeles has become the center of military resistance for the gay community,” GLFLA leader Mark Lareau wrote Kameny in 1971.[39] The GLFLA viewed Kameny as uniquely skilled in battling discrimination against homosexuals in the military and government, sending him dozens of letters from G.I.s; some from military personnel trying to escape service due to homophobia in the armed services and others attempting to hold on to the career they had built in the military now under threat due to their homosexuality. In other ways, the city’s gay community began to assert itself more openly even opening the Gay Community Services Center in 1971. The intersection of the Vietnam War and the city’s vibrant gay liberation movement made Los Angeles a hotbed of activism.

Swept up in this fervor, Tabler too became politically active, at one point joining forces with GLFLA leader and founder Morris Kight to challenge the state’s anti-sodomy and fellatio legislation. Tabler, along with five others, formed the “Felons Six,” a group that “confessed” to engaging in “oral copulation of each other.” When authorities refused to prosecute them, Kight made a citizen’s arrest in front of the L.A. Press Club and brought them to authorities. Law enforcement continued to refuse to prosecute the group, thereby demonstrating California laws governing the private sexual activity of adults to be baseless. Kight testified on Tabler’s behalf at his clearance hearing and explained that the point of the demonstration was to “create a court test case with which to challenge and hopefully strike down Sections 286 and 288A of the California penal code,” which made anal and oral sex illegal. Since the city’s attorney general declined to pursue the case, the problem remained that as long as the law persisted it could be used against homosexuals in certain circumstances as in the case of Otis Tabler’s security clearance investigation and other gay men and women seeking similar clearances.[40]

With a growing political awareness and having been denied a security clearance earlier in 1973, which resulted in job loss, Tabler appealed the decision and forced an open hearing with the Western Division Field Office of the Department of Defense, the first of its kind in U.S. history. The hearing held over four days in late July and early August of 1974, roughly two months after the “Felons Six” demonstration, at the Federal Building on Wilshire Boulevard revealed a clearance process, at least in relation to homosexuality, beset with contradictions that reflected broader societal biases of the day. Government counsel James E. Stauffer told the Los Angeles Times that “as long as these type of activities are determined to be criminal according to statues and high decisions,” the security clearance program had no choice but to conduct investigations accordingly. [41]

The testimony of witnesses at Tabler’s hearing demonstrated that the government’s enforcement of sodomy and perversion laws proved both selective and discriminatory. Logicon security officer Helga Angela Kuczora testified that Tabler notified her early on of his sexuality, which to her mind demonstrated his insusceptibility to blackmail. She noted that everyone else at Logicon knew about Tabler’s sexuality due to the fact that the presence of an open homosexual in a company of three hundred employees amounted to a “small Watergate.” Kuczora further critiqued the clearance process pointing out “a heterosexual is never questioned as to his sexual preferences.” She herself had engaged in sexual acts outlawed by the state but nonetheless held a Top Secret clearance. “I think the main thing here being that why [a] homosexual’s sexual activities and not a heterosexual’s activities are questioned.” Christian Julia Robinson, who had known Tabler for eight years and even carried on a sexual relationship with him at one time drew similar conclusions noting she had engaged in sodomy and oral sex with Tabler but still had qualified for a Secret clearance.[42]

Even a government investigator testified that officials only inquired about an individual’s sexual history when they were a suspected or an admitted homosexual. Michael Roussel Dupre, a special investigator who had conducted the review of Tabler’s case admitted that he perceived Tabler as “responsible, discreet, loyal, and trustworthy “ and insusceptible to blackmail. He acknowledged that in his experience heterosexuals were almost never investigated for “consensual sexual acts,” but when an allegation of homosexuality was leveled and substantiated that “yes, the holders of security clearances who are homosexuals have their clearance taken away from them.” [43]

Tabler testified on his own behalf. When the government’s lawyers inquired about his sexual history notably any prevalence of one-night stands, Kameny objected, pointing out the same would not be asked of heterosexuals. Tabler told Government Examiner Richard Farr that while he believed in a strong, sound, well administered clearance system, the one he encountered had been perverted by “a very, very mentally disturbed homophobic attitude on the part of the Industrial Security Clearance Review Office and extending all the way up through and into a number of people on Capitol Hill….” In regard to state sodomy laws, Tabler viewed them as “merely words written on statue books. I believe that they do not exist.”[44]

Tabler’s mother added emotional tenor to an already contentious hearing. She made an impassioned plea telling the government that her son was a loyal American and that as the widow of a disabled U.S. Air Force veteran, she loved her country, “But I’m horrified to find out that the Defense Department does not honor the Constitution of the United States.” She then broke down in tears.[45]

The government could not reasonably claim that Tabler represented a blackmail risk. He was an open homosexual. His mother knew, as did all his coworkers; over twenty affidavits from colleagues attesting to this fact were submitted into evidence.[46] Tabler even sent letters confessing to his sexuality and violation of state sodomy laws to the Los Angeles County Sheriff and District Attorney.[47]

Though not a lawyer, Kameny represented Tabler and employed an unorthodox and unconventional approach. His opening statement lasted over ninety minutes. He called the security clearance program bigoted, politically corrupt, and vile. He accused the Department of Defense (DOD) and federal government of conducting a war on gays that both waged “relentlessly, remorselessly and mercilessly.” The homosexual community did not want to fight, but “if they want a war they will get it,” he told the government examiner.[48]

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The case drew welcome publicity. One of the most difficult aspects of the early gay liberation movement related to the mainstream media’s tendency to ignore protests, particularly those of the GLFLA.[49] Tabler and Kameny went out of their way to force the case into the public sphere despite attempts by the DOD to avoid an open hearing. Drawing on his experiences from the 1960s, Kameny successfully attracted local and national media attention. Articles before and after the hearing appeared in numerous outlets including the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, the Washington Star, The New York Times, The Palos Verdes Peninsula News, and Newsweek, among others. Radio and television also covered the hearing including Radio-News West, KNBC, and KTTV. KTTV broadcast the closing statements of the hearing and the case even garnered attention overseas in London’s Gay News.[50]

Though many of the articles featured headlines such as, “Homosexual in Fight to Regain U.S. Clearance,” or “Homosexual Gets Security Clearance,” in a letter to LGBT activist Barbara Gittings, Kameny expressed great satisfaction with the end result. Describing the hearing as “the much publicized California case,” Kameny believed that the “de-facto change in [DOD] policies” represented a real victory. He wrote Gittings, “[T]he war which I started formally about 1959, and which you and I fought together in its more formal stages starting about 1965 has now ended with victory.” Having won triumphs at the CSC and DOD, Kameny believe that two of the three “Federal Government battles going on since time immemorial” had been resolved, leaving the Armed Services as the last hold out. Then again, Kameny’s exuberance obscured the fact that the State Department and intelligence services remained very much resistant and would continue to be so into the 1990s. Still Kameney was correct; the ruling represented significant progress.[51]


Change

At the same time, organizations like the Gay Community Alliance (GCA) formed to encourage Los Angeles homosexuals to “register, vote, and think of themselves as a political force.” The GCA drafted voter slates and campaigned for gay friendly candidates. In 1973, one year after Harvey Milk had become the first openly gay individual in the state to be elected to office, in San Francisco, Burt Pines won election to become city attorney. Though not homosexual, Pines’s victory was due in great part due to his courting of the gay vote. Pines immediately pushed through reforms that more or less ended city prosecution of gay bars and promised that the LAPD would hire qualified homosexual officers.[52] In 1975, Assemblyman Willie Brown wrote the Consenting Adults bill, which passed, repealing “all laws against homosexual acts.”[53] While the LAPD remained hostile under the leadership of Chief Ed Davis, even continuing to conduct the occasional raid, open hostility to the city’s homosexual population had begun to recede. Granted, obstacles remained, like 1978’s anti-gay Proposition 6, but much had improved. Nationally, however, by 1975 only eleven states had decriminalized adult consensual sexual activity between same sex partners. Government officials acknowledged that members of the LGBT community in states with such laws still on the books made approval of clearances for such individuals deemed “more difficult.”[54] The 1986 Supreme Court ruling in Bowers v. Hardwick, in which by a 5-4 vote the court upheld a Georgia anti-sodomy law, demonstrated how deeply embedded such notions were within American society and jurisprudence.[55]

For Tabler, good news followed, although once again not without a fight. On 17 December 1974, government Examiner Richard S. Farr, who had supervised the hearing, ruled in Tabler’s favor, judging him worthy of a security clearance. However, the Department of Defense appealed the decision and even attempted to disqualify Kameny as his counsel. Still, almost exactly a year to the day, the DOD reversed course and dropped its appeal notifying both Kameny and Tabler that it had changed its policies regarding homosexuals.[56]

Tabler became the first openly homosexual person to gain a security clearance. In contrast to his more celebratory remarks to Gittings months earlier Kameny acknowledged in the Mattachine newsletter that much work was left to be done, since now it needed to be determined that such policies would be followed. In addition, the FBI. and CIA conducted their investigations and continued to discriminate against homosexuals.[57] Nonetheless by the 1990s, homosexuals would even be welcomed into the CIA as noted by none other than former C.I.A. Director and Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates who in response to correspondence from the William and Mary Gay and Lesbian Alliance argued the CIA. did not discriminate and in fact “has homosexuals in its workforce.”[58] Undoubtedly, Otis Francis Tabler’s fight contributed to such developments.

Often the military and its related private defense contractors are seen as inherently conservative institutions. Historians like Lisa McGirr have documented how the growth of the defense industry in Orange County contributed directly to the establishment of the New Right and modern conservatism.[59] Yet, as demonstrated, for all its moral ambiguities, the military industrial complex has also provided a space for resistance and the assertion of rights and community for gay men and women across the U.S. but especially in California.

“Sexual orientation is unrelated to moral character. Both patriots and traitors are drawn from the class American citizen and not specifically from the class heterosexual or the class homosexual.[60]

Tabler’s case and others eventually forced the government to evaluate its assumptions regarding gay and lesbian employees. During the 1985 Senate hearings, FBI and CIA officials stuck to their narrative regarding the susceptibility of LGBT employees to blackmail yet could not muster a single example. In 1991, a government commissioned studied found that of one hundred seventeen documented cases of espionage only six involved gay men or women, and none of those half dozen had committed espionage due to blackmail. The report’s author came to the following comprehensible conclusion: “Sexual orientation is unrelated to moral character. Both patriots and traitors are drawn from the class American citizen and not specifically from the class heterosexual or the class homosexual.[60] In the end, all it took was passionate efforts from a thirty-one-year-old systems analyst in California and a militant World War II veteran in Washington D.C., but the moral arc of the U.S. government finally began to bend toward justice after decades of protest fueled by the aims of reaching a state of love, respect, and acceptance.

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Notes

[1] Chuck Schoen, “General Colin Powell Makes Rash a Rash Statement Based Only on Conjecture,” The Newsletter Veterans Council for American Rights and Equality, March 1992, Service Academies Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual Alumni Records, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress; Craig Anderson, “Discharged veteran, 65, still battles for gay military rights,” The Press Democrat, 11 March 1991, Service Academies Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual Alumni Records, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress

[2] Robert Gates to Michael A. Pemberton and Thomas P. Rowan, 6 March 1992, Folder 3, Box 42, Frank Kameny Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[3] Mattachine Society of Washington D.C., “Homosexual wins final award of security clearance,” Press Release, 4 August 1975, Folder 9, Box 158, Frank Kameny Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[4] Kathy Burke, “Homosexual in Fight to Regain U.S. Clearance,” Los Angeles Times, 4 August 1974.

[5] John D’Emilio, Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983); Alan Berube, Coming Out under Fire: The History of Gay Men and Women in World War II (New York: Free Press, 2000).

[6] Daniel Hurewitz, Bohemian Los Angeles and the Making of Modern Politics (Oakland: University of California Press, 2007), 232.

[7] Berube, Coming Out under Fire, 123.

[8] Margot Canaday, The Straight State: Sexuality and Citizenship in Twentieth-Century America (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009), 175.

[9] Lillian Faderman and Stuart Timmons, Gay L.A.: A History of Sexual Outlaws, Power Politics, and Lipstick Lesbians (New York: Basic Books, 2006), 30.

[10] Faderman and Timmons, Gay L.A., 84.

[11] Whitney Strub, “The Clearly Obscene and the Queerly Obscene: Heternormativity and Obscenity in Cold War Los Angeles,” American Quarterly 60 (2008): 381-382.

[12] Strub, “The Clearly Obscene and the Queerly Obscene,” 382, 383, 387, 389.

[13] Elsa Devienne, “Urban Renewal by the Sea: Reinventing the Beach for the Suburban Age in Postwar Los Angeles,” Journal of Urban History, 29 March 2018, accessed 15 May 2018, https://doi.org/10.1177/0096144217753379.

[14] Hurewitz, Bohemian L.A., 254.

[15] Stuart Timmons, The Trouble with Harry Hay: Founder of the Modern Gay Movement, (Boston: Alyson Publications, 1990), 117-118, 130-31. During World War II, Hay worked on developing a pilotless aircraft at Interstate Aircraft in Los Angeles. He soon moved on to Avion Aircraft where his supervisor made efforts to convince Hay to enroll in Cal Tech to study systems engineering, but his inability to get a security clearance due to his communist affiliations resulted in a career of lower level manufacturing work such as his position at a downtown firm following the war, Leahy Manufacturing.

[16] Margaret O’Mara, Cities of Knowledge: Cold War Science and the Search for the Next Silicon Valley (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005), 202.

[17] David K. Johnson, The Lavender Scare: The Cold War Persecution of Gays and Lesbians in the Federal Government (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004), 170-71.

[18] David K. Johnson, “‘Homosexual Citizens’: Washington’s Gay Community Confronts the Civil Service,” Washington History 6 (1994/1995): 62; David K. Johnson, The Lavender Scare: The Cold War Persecution of Gays and Lesbians in the Federal Government (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004), 174, 184.

[19] Johnson, The Lavender Scare, 106-7.

[20] Lilli Vincenz to Sister Mary Agnes, 13 October 1965, Folder Personal Correspondence 1965, Box 3, Lilli Vincenz papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[21] Johnson, The Lavender Scare, 200-201.

[22] “10 oppose Gov’t on homosexuals,” Washington Afro American, 20 April 1965, Folder 4, Box 15, Lilli Vincenz papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[23] Brian Moylan, “Pivotal Protest”, The Washington Blade, 8 April 2005, Folder 4, Box 15, Lilli Vincenz papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Johnson, The Lavender Scare, 206-207.

[27] Richard White, “It’s Your Misfortune and None of My Own”: A New History of the American West (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1993), 496.

[28] Roger W. Lotchin, Fortress California, 1910-1961: From Warfare to Welfare (Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1992), 65.

[29] Thomas Hill, “The Securitization of Security: Reorganization of Land, Military, and State in the Pentagon’s Backyard,” Journal of Urban History 41 (2015): 76.

[30] Faderman and Timmons, Gay L.A., 145.

[31] Johnson, The Lavender Scare, 170-171. Several U.S. governmental agencies had begun purging homosexual employees years before the 1953 executive order.

[32] Otis Francis Tabler, Interoffice Correspondence: Request for your support in maintaining my right to hold an Industrial Security Clearance, 4 August 1973, Folder 4, Box 149, Frank Kameny Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress. The underlined portion of the letter was written by Tabler.

[33] Ibid.; Franklin Drucker M.D., Re: Otis Frank Tabler, 14 November 1972, Folder 4, Box 149, Frank Kameny Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[34] Larry Wayne Kern, testimony, Otis Francis Tabler Jr. v. OSD 73-86, 30 July 1974, Folder 1, Box 35, Frank Kameny Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[35] Faderman and Timmons, Gay L.A., 165.

[36] Ibid., 153-154.

[37] Richard Gayer, Press Release “The Green vs. CIA Settlement–A New Way to Gay Equality,” 25 October 1984, Box 40, Folder 8, Frank Kameny Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[38] Faderman and Timmons, Gay L.A., 170-72.

[39] Gary M. Lareau to Frank Kameny, 11 March 1971, Frank Kameny Papers, Folder 3, Box 92, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[40] Faderman and Timmons, Gay L.A., 180; Morris Kight, testimony, Otis Francis Tabler Jr. v. OSD 73-86, 30 July 1974, Frank Kameny Papers, Folder 1, Box 35, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[41] “Pentagon Opens Security Review,” The New York Times, 4 August 1974; Kathy Burke, “Homosexual in Fight to Regain Clearance,” Los Angeles Times, 4 August 1974.

[42] Christian Julia Robinson, testimony, 31 July 1974, Frank Kameny Papers, Folder 2, Box 149, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[43] Kathy Burke, “Homosexual in Fight to Regain Clearance,” Los Angeles Times, 4 August 1974; Michael Roussel Dupre, testimony, Otis Francis Tabler Jr. v. OSD 73-86, 31 July 1974, Folder 4, Box 149, Frank Kameny Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress; Helga Angela Kuczora, testimony, Otis Francis Tabler Jr. v. OSD 73-86, 31 July 1974, 198-99, Folder 1, Box 35, Frank Kameny Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress; Christine Julia Robinson, testimony, Otis Francis Tabler Jr. v. OSD 73-86, 31 July 1974, 360, Folder 1, Box 35, Frank Kameny Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[44] Otis Francis Tabler, testimony, Otis Francis Tabler Jr. v. OSD 73-86, 30 July 1974, 476, Folder 1, Box 35, Frank Kameny Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[45] Mary Aull Tabler, testimony, Otis Francis Tabler Jr. v. OSD 73-86, 30 July 1974, 46-50, Folder 1, Box 35, Frank Kameny Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, 166-67.

[46] Ronald Den Hartwick, Affidavit, 28 June 1974, Folder 4, Box 149, Frank Kameny Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress; Frank Terrio Cummings, Affidavit, 28 June 1974, Folder 4, Box 149, Frank Kameny Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress; Wray Davison Bentley, Jr., Affidavit, 28 June 1974, Folder 4, Box 149, Frank Kameny Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress. These are three examples from over twenty submitted.

[47] Otis Francis Tabler to Sheriff Peter J. Pitchess, 17 December 1973, Folder 4, Box 149, Frank Kameny Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress; Otis Francis Tabler to Honorable Joseph J. Busch, District Attorney, County of Los Angeles, Folder 4, Box 149, Frank Kameny Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[48] Frank Kameny, opening statement, i, 30 July 1974, 46-50, Folder 1, Box 35, Frank Kameny Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[49] Faderman and Timmons, Gay L.A., 177.

[50] Kathy Burke, “Homosexual in Fight to Regain U.S. Clearance,” Los Angeles Times, 4 August 1974; “Pentagon Opens Security Review,” The New York Times, 4 August 1974; “Homosexual Gets Security Clearance”, Washington Post, 2 February 1975; “Gay Liberation,” Newsweek, 3 February 1975; Vernon A. Guidry, Jr., “Pentagon Easing Gay Curbs,” Washington Star, 15 August 1975; Frank Kameny to Gay News, 4 March 1975, Folder 14, Box 34, Frank Kameny Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress; Otis Francis Tabler Jr. v. OSD 73-86, 30 July 1974, Folder 1, Box 35, Frank Kameny Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[51] Frank Kameny to Barbara Gittings, 31 July 1975, Folder 1, Box 4, Frank Kameny Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[52] Faderman and Timmons, Gay L.A., 215.

[53] Ibid., 180.

[54] Vernon A. Guidry, “Pentagon Easing Gay Curbs,” Washington Star, 15 August 1975.

[55] Michael J. Graetz and Linda Greenhouse, The Burger Court and the Rise of the Judicial Right (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2016), 208-211.

[56] Mattachine Society of Washington D.C., “Homosexual wins final award of security clearance,” Press Release, 4 August 1975, Folder 9, Box 158, Frank Kameny Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[57] Ibid.

[58] Robert M. Gates, Letter to William and Mary Gay and Lesbian Alliance, 6 March 1992, Folder 3, Box 42, Frank Kameny Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[59] Lisa McGirr, Suburban Warriors: The Origins of the New Right (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2002).

[60] Paul M. Rosa, “Gays and the Security Myth,” Washington Post, 10 July 1998; Theodore R. Sarbin, “Homosexuality and Personnel Security” (Monterey, CA: Defense Personnel Security Research and Education Center, 1991), 25, 30, 32.

 

Ryan Reft is a historian of the modern U.S. in the Manuscript Division at the Library of Congress. He is a contributor to and co-editor of the forthcoming anthology East of East: The Making of El Monte, 1700-2017 and writes regularly for KCET. His work has appeared in the Journal of Urban History, Souls, California History, and Southern California Quarterly among other publications and anthologies.

Copyright: © 2018 Ryan Reft. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/.

Articles

Regarding the Documents

Capital Boom_v2lead

Jason S. Sexton

We were all undocumented once, if you like to think of things this way. With no paper, none to be possessed, owned, or laid claim to so as to build upon, capitalist-style. Of course, this erstwhile situation assumes that agency (the stuff giving evidence that one has a will), cognition, and personal resolve have something to do with the matter of being documented or not; yet they don’t really, or they didn’t then, once upon a time.

The powerful forces operating on us were bigger than us, than our parents, than any state government. Our once undocumented state, however, once suggested something about the integrity of our humanity and life; like it is now, our lives were contingent, derivative by nature—life from life, and sometimes from love, even though we had no papers. But in today’s debate, life, especially the barest kind,[1] doesn’t factor into the conversation, nor does love. The humanity doesn’t matter, nor do the stories, nor the lives. Just proper documents.  

What is a document? According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the English term comes from a combination of Old French document, denoting “lesson, written evidence” from the 12th–13th c., and the Latin noun documentum, meaning “lesson, proof, instance, specimen,” or else a written instrument, a charter, or an official paper in medieval Latin. The Latin verb docēre, meaning “to teach,” suggests something of a didactic function inherent in the term, whatever relationship the term might have to a similar-sounding dokimazō[2] from the ancient Greek, or perhaps even dikaioō, suggesting a legal cause of doing or showing justice, related to a favorable verdict or vindication.[3]

In the English usage, which has come down largely into the U.S. consciousness today, the term ‘document’ signifies teaching, instruction, warning, or else, “An instruction, a piece of instruction, a lesson; an admonition, a warning.” These definitions give way to a use with no less commanding function, but with an increasingly penal potential: “That which serves to show, point out, or prove something; evidence, proof,” often taking the subordinate clause—a document of birth, a document of citizenship, of acceptance, etc. without which one simply cannot show, point out, or otherwise prove what might be needed to support his/her status for personal well-being.

The noun is also used for “Something written, inscribed, etc., which furnishes evidence or information upon any subject, as a manuscript, title-deed, tomb-stone, coin, picture, etc., and specifically, “The bill of lading and policy of insurance handed over as collateral security for a foreign bill of exchange.”[4] The definition in English increasingly points out transaction and property, and thus with regard to persons: propertied people, or people as property, belonging somewhat and in some way to whatever entity issued a person their essential documents.

paper_trees

Again, once upon a time it was not so—there were no documents of this kind to be spoken of in the ancient world. The rhythms and ordered systems of reality were different. The inception of these things, like writing in the history of civilization, came in sometime around 3,200 B.C. with the Sumerian society, which had increased to such size that a new methods of accounting appeared to better dictate relationships in the ancient world, organizing what sociologists today would call class or estate. Rulers in the early states were seen as ‘parents’ of their subjects, and this practice of writing or documenting things “emerged first as a way of accounting and power.”[5] Knowledge of things could be stored more accurately than with earlier forms of oral transmission, in turn giving way to writing systems. The first of these to emerge in Mesoamerica (c. 600 B.C.) came from Southern Mexico.[6] Bureaucracy mounted through the process, especially as the divide of social classes increased with the scribal and ruling elite at the top and everyone else at the bottom—i.e., those who owed things.[7] Yet before this, once upon a time, there was no state agency’s orderly account of things denoting with some finality what was owed or given, nor a written debt to someone or something. The earliest writing arose with this, though, on documents that established code or law.

If the above notion were all there were, then everyone is both documented and undocumented in various ways. We owe things, and are all owed things in this complicated bureaucratic system of states and state-governed bodies. But the state is not only comprised of people collectively as a body politic; the systems are also created by the people and, perhaps in our wildest dreams, even somehow for the people. Moreover, in a fundamental sense, the state simply is people and a way of people existing together.

But the state is not only comprised of people collectively as a body politic; the systems are also created by the people and, perhaps in our wildest dreams, even somehow for the people.

On a basic level, then, there are always things that we don’t belong to: particular clubs, or institutions, or organizations, or parties; sometimes this is designated by individual agency and choice, other times these things are chosen for individuals who have little to no choice in the matter. Everyone doesn’t have every particular document, and are thus left excluded from certain things, generally reflecting class and segregation, as well as religion and race.[8] Documents are an important way of denoting this, which can also be imprisoning, excluding, or else including in different categories.

But when do humans become ‘illegal’ or ‘outlawed’? It depends.

These things really are a moving target that we’re trying to highlight with the intellectual underpinnings of what we’re trying to discuss in addressing the issue of “Undocumented California,” and the manifold arbitrary inconsistencies that our government and culture use to legitimate dominant ideologies and institutions.

The Library of Congress has continued to use the term “illegal aliens” and “alien detention centers.” The term “illegal aliens” is also used by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, especially in the recent statement from acting director Tom Homan in response to California’s SB54, declaring California a sanctuary state.[9] But to declare individuals here illegally is not a matter that California’s governing authorities are quick to choose. Labeling and name-calling is something we’d rather leave to what our parents gave us. Immigration of any kind is always a great risk, taken with great hope, and great dreams—dreams that Californians value deeply as part of their identity. Illegal, then, is not a term we will use for Californians who choose to make their lives here.[10]

Who would we be, should we create a kind of second-class citizen for a human being who is present in all astonishing wonder and humanness? Who would we be to create the underclass, and be happy with it, reinforcing the notion with media that underpins our identity (legal?) even if it disregards that of others?

The Associated Press recently gave a glimpse of a possible change in tone in a piece they published referring to, “undocumented citizens,”[11] a designation fitting enough for those committed to contributing to our shared society and common good. The term used, however, was rescinded the very next day.[12] The matter seemed to have not been entirely different from a hyper-sensitivity that the previous executive administration had together with Congress for very carefully enacting things like DACA in 2012, the cessation of which was announced by the Trump administration 5 October 2017. Both moves, however, in two different ways (from Trump and Obama administrations) showcase state power over residential subjects. Yet amid all changes that keep things consistently governmentally-controlled, with provisions doled out arbitrarily from year to year, this does not mean that cultural revolution and change cannot happen to renew our outlook.

None of this minimizes the potential existential crisis manifested in fear, destruction, loss, and seizure. One without proper documentation at any point today may be tossed swiftly to the margins, disrupting scores of lives. This is all part of the design and part of the larger story, none of which can be understood apart from the law, which in turn cannot be understood apart from worldview (or, suggestively, operative theology).[13]

America the beautiful, the chosen, the exceptional—this vision fuels what we do with the different subjects of the U.S., most of whom will be punished at some point and in one way or another.[14] The U.S. issues papers throughout this process to those con papeles as opposed to those sin papeles.[15] This, too, is about power. The U.S. is not the only democracy that does this. But in this case, continuing capitalist style, the world’s elite can come anytime, especially to the coveted California: pay cash for a house, immigrate anytime. Their money will secure the documents needed.

DSC02635_v2

But for those embodying any sense of the Statue of Liberty’s unfulfilled calling: “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free”[16]—these aren’t really in with making America great again.[17] But if they aren’t, then nothing is. And even yet, if America is that place of “an established culture painfully adapting itself to a new environment, and being constantly checked, confused, challenged, and overcome by new immigrations,” then in California, America’s America, to the Statue of Liberty’s call our motto is not merely “yes” and “amen”; but is always “only more so.”[18]

We cannot pretend that this in extremis version of America that California has embodied hasn’t involved the penal documentation of the ‘other,’ which also has always been part of our narrative.[19] The carceral undocumented are trapped in county systems, or banished to the penitentiary, or vanished into Adelanto, our private immigration detention center. For the carceral undocumented, punishment inflicted suggests the need of discipline, whatever the half-hearted determination might be from the official verdict of whether or not they truly belong. In Spanish, the rendering of Michel Foucault’s Serveiller et punir is given as not “discipline” and “punishment” as his chosen term for the English translation, but rather as Vigilar (“keep an eye on”) y castigar.

When surveilled or punished, it’s not as though forms of documentation are not involved. We document everything. While great political figures receive exile, especially the white collared ones, the less significant players are swiftly discarded. In the vigilant, punitive surveillance of the carceral state, humans were written-out with documents of exclusion, but not without punishment for having the wrong kind of documents or else none at all, relegating them for banishment. To where, it didn’t much matter, so much of which is arbitrary, affirming again ultimate state power and control, and stability for the state and its shareholders, which can be both symbolically and psychologically reinforced with a stronger, ever increasing, larger, higher, bigger border wall.[20]

That’s not how the truest Californians roll, though. We chart a different course, collecting and affirming the world, open to far more possibilities than the world has yet seen.

How do we reenvision our California selves then, both with the undocumented, and also simultaneously as the undocumented? And what is ‘undocumented’ in the contemporary moment? This is difficult to discern. We know California’s response has not been shy to these questions, but neither are we univocal with a position. Largely in opposition to the Washington administration, our Legislature, institutional, and civic leaders have uttered many words to the effect of protection and affirmation. Have they? Will they? These things in the contemporary moment should be understood as noble, ambitious, but still aspirational, part of a dream. But dreams are worth living into, and developing, especially when looking honestly and discovering the troubling reality that the world is indeed quite troubled. For those with some modest means, will, and desire to do something about it, dreaming may be essential for survival.

The term ‘undocumented’ is quite possibly a cheap concession that, while humbly admitting “need” (need for proper documents?), also concedes: “We don’t have documents needed to remain, to abide, to be/exist.” But this is a declaration humans must not be able to make of humans. To unwrite a person, to erase, negate, subtract, to deny life—this ought not be done. It happens, and may be something, but is certainly not of California—a state of mind as much as anything—where the dreamers remain, belong, until the end of time.

DSC00037_v3

It happens, and may be something, but is certainly not of California—a state of mind as much as anything—where the dreamers remain, belong, until the end of time.

Our overall position only makes sense in light of what’s possible, or at least plausible, and what we have done before to build ourselves up amid great challenges. There’s nothing new under the sun. And dreaming does not mean aspiring to a utopian society. California is surely not that, nor will it ever be. [Perhaps in fifty years Mexico may beat California to this.] But California can be a place of solidarity, mutuality, respect, dignity, and healing. We can work together, believe in each other, and re-recognize our shared humanity of wealthy and poor, and the poor in spirit—blessed as they are. And are those who mourn, and the meek, and those who hunger and thirst to be righteous (to have papers), who are merciful, pure in heart, peacemakers, and persecuted.

Californians—we hope, we believe, we assert, we confront, and we fight—but we don’t fear, even if disinherited. We’re not going to fall for rhetoric that divides families, disrupts classrooms, invades workspaces. And we can take the nation’s undocumented, the poor, the disinherited. Deport them to California, Joe Mathews argues.[21] And more so.

Californians, we ourselves often forget our stories, and those of others around us—we know that more of the point is found looking to the future. Amnesia is often tacitly prescribed upon arrival. But we have memory, identity, presence, and know what it means to be human, documented or not. We know, or at least we’re trying to find time to breathe and reorient ourselves to figure out what it means in this moment to do justly, to love mercy, and walk humbly.

Perhaps the undocumented are the greatest examples of humility, and the very best of what the American (and Californian) disposition could dream to be. Maybe perceived as hiding in the shadows, laying low in order to not be found out, deported, sometimes self-deported,[22] or else going underground, under the radar, opting not to remain in an official governmental capacity. Yet they are also activists—they are mothers, fathers, children—they are like us, but of course are second or perhaps third or fourth class citizens. But whenever did one’s official status constitute what’s real? What’s prescribed as ‘official’ does not constitute how life, culture, and love is ever made—the true, enriching stuff that makes life worth living. That stuff is hard to document in any proper sense, however we might try; but that’s what matters most, and is most needed right now.


Notes

  • With gratitude to Miroslava Chávez-García, Susan Straight, and Abel Fernando Vallejo Galindo, an undocumented Californian, for comments on an earlier draft of this essay.

[1] Luke Bretherton refers to this as “life excluded from participation in and the protection of the rule of law,” Resurrecting Democracy: Faith, Citizenship, and the Politics of a Common Life (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015), 220. See also Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2005).

[2] Meaning, “to make a critical examination of something to determine genuineness, put to the test, examine”; or “to draw a conclusion about worth on the basis of testing, prove, approve.” William Arndt, Frederick W. Danker, et al., A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 255.

[3] Ibid., 249.

[4] Quotations are taken from “document, n,” OED Online, June 2017, Oxford University Press, http://www.oed.com.lib-proxy.fullerton.edu/view/Entry/56328?result=1&rskey=EkUMvF& (accessed 5 October 2017).

[5] David Christian, Maps of Time: An Introduction to Big History (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011), 275.

[6] Ibid., 277.

[7] Robert Tignor, Jeremy Adelman, Peter Brown, et al., Worlds Together, Worlds Apart, Vol. 1: Beginnings through the Fifteenth Century (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2014), 55.

[8] Kevin Starr identified this as a perpetual tension in California life, historically and into the present, noting particular operative racial, ethnic, and religious covenants of exclusion, as well as the long-seated enmities that various immigrant groups to California held against each other, highlighting especially the American dilemma of race as equally a California problem, although perhaps even more so. Kevin Starr, California: A History (New York: Random House, 2005), 308.

[9] For the deeply irresponsible “Statement from ICE Acting Director Tom Homan on California Sanctuary Law,” see https://content.govdelivery.com/accounts/USDHSICE/bulletins/1bbc85f.

[10] Note that Senate Bill 54 does not use the terms ‘illegal’ or ‘alien’ in its entire text: https://leginfo.legislature.ca.gov/faces/billNavClient.xhtml?bill_id=201720180SB54.

[11] Ryan Saavedra, “Associated Press Now Refers To Illegal Aliens As ‘Undocumented Citizens’,” The Daily Wire, 7 September 2017, http://www.dailywire.com/news/20784/associated-press-now-refers-illegal-aliens-ryan-saavedra.

[12] “Associated Press Now Refers To Illegal Aliens As ‘Undocumented Citizens’,” 8 September 2017, https://www.apnews.com/14392ccadac64851a2c23bcbaeea4c39/Mayor:-Chicago-students-welcome-as-Trump-ending-DACA-program.

[13] See Hiroshi Motomura, Immigration Outside the Law (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), 4-5 on complexity of terms and significance of understanding these things in relation to law. See also pp. 19-55.

[14] See Marc Morjé Howard, Unusually Cruel: Prisons, Punishment, and the Real American Exceptionalism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017).

[15] Jen Hofer, “Under the Radar and Off the Charts: Undocumentation in Los Angeles,” in Patricia Wakida, ed., Latitudes: An Angeleno’s Atlas (Berkeley: Heyday Books), 161.

[16] See https://www.nps.gov/stli/learn/historyculture/colossus.htm.

[17] See dust-up with erstwhile California resident, Steven Miller, in Liz Stark, “White House policy adviser downplays Statue of Liberty’s famous poem,” CNN, 3 August 2017, http://www.cnn.com/2017/08/02/politics/emma-lazarus-poem-statue-of-liberty/index.html.

[18] Wallace Stegner, “California: The Experimental Story,” Saturday Review, 23 September 1967, 28.

[19] Some native indigenous Californians were documented somewhat with names for tribes that became common, or with new names for captured individuals or those baptized or brought into missions. But early accounts of the turbulent and chaotic years of genocidal violence against Californian Indians left poor documentation not only as to name but also to tribal identity. See Benjamin Madley, An American Genocide: The United States and the California Indian Catastrophe, 1846-1873 (Newhaven, CT: Yale University Press, 2006), 15. And for details listing the numbers of how many were murdered during this time period, see Appendices 1-6, pp. 363-550.

[20] See reasons why unauthorized migration benefits the U.S. government, Motomura, Immigration Outside the Law, 52-55.

[21] Joe Mathews, “Legal residency for California’s undocumented,” Zócalo’s Connecting California, 7 September 2017, http://www.kcrw.com/news-culture/shows/zocalos-connecting-california/legal-residency-for-californias-undocumented.

[22] Brittny Mejia, “Leaving America: With shaky job prospects and Trump promising crackdowns, immigrants return to Mexico with U.S.-born children,” Los Angeles Times, 19 September 2017, http://www.latimes.com/local/la-me-ln-dual-citizenship-20170808-htmlstory.html.


Jason S. Sexton
is visiting fellow at UC Berkeley’s Center for the Study of Religion, and visiting scholar at UC Berkeley’s Center for the Study of Law and Society. He teaches at California State University, Fullerton, where he serves as Pollak Library Faculty Fellow. He is the Editor of Boom California. For more information, please visit www.jasonssexton.com.

Copyright: © 2017 Jason S. Sexton. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

Interviews

Revisiting L.A.’s Floodpath: A Boom Interview with Jon Wilkman

Jon Wilkman


Editor’s note
: Over the past seven years, Boom has focused much of its attention on water in California. In 2013, commemorating the centenary of the Los Angeles aqueduct’s opening on 5 November 1913, our previous editor Jon Christensen and others spent some time reflecting on water and L.A. And so it’s no surprise that we’ve come back to it now. California’s life will be forever intertwined with the innovative use of water for its existence, which is perhaps as relevant for Los Angeles as anywhere. Here we sit down with Jon Wilkman, the author of Floodpath: The Deadliest Man-Made Disaster of 20th-Century America and the Making of Modern Los Angeles (New York: Bloomsbury, 2016), which received the Historical Society of Southern California’s Martin Ridge Award for Best Book of California History after 1848, and was also an Amazon 2016 Nonfiction Book of the Year.


Boom:
You published a book recently, Floodpath, which has been optioned for a television mini-series by Joel Silver Productions. You also gave a recent talk on this at the Mechanics’ Institute in San Francisco, and earlier this year published an article in Southern California Quarterly.[1] What brought you to this subject of water in California history in the first place? And specifically in Los Angeles?

Wilkman: I grew up in the San Fernando Valley, not too far from the ruins of the St. Francis Dam in San Francisquito Canyon, fifty miles north of downtown L.A. and northeast of Santa Clarita. But like many Americans, Californians, and even Angelenos, I had never heard of the disaster that killed well over 400 people. In the fourth grade I built a Spanish mission model, but there had been no classroom mention of the St. Francis Dam when I graduated from North Hollywood High School. As an elementary school kid, heading north on family vacations, we passed the Cascades, the concrete chute that disgorges water from the Owens Valley. When I asked what it was I was told, “That’s where our water comes from.” After college in the Midwest and the beginning of a career as a documentary filmmaker in New York, when I returned to Los Angeles in 1978 I rediscovered my home town, and especially its often overlooked and underappreciated history. I was hooked. While developing a public television series, “The Los Angeles History Project,” I ran across Man-Made Disaster: The Story of the St. Francis Dam, a 1963 book by Ventura County historian, Charles Outland. That set me and my late wife Nancy on a 25-year-long quest to document and tell the story of the St. Francis Dam in a modern context. As early as 1990, we began to videotape interviews with eyewitness and survivors. Some of them are included in Floodpath, and can be seen in a short film I made to promote the book.[2]


Boom:
Most people who are not historians may probably know the name Mulholland from the 2001 David Lynch film, Mulholland Drive; many Angelenos will have even driven the winding road with the same name. But who was William Mullholland and why does he matter today?

Wilkman: There would be no modern Los Angeles without William Mulholland. Some City of the Angels bashers might say no modern L.A. wouldn’t be such a bad thing, but Mulholland’s life and legacy are larger than life and Shakespearean in their rise and fall. An Irish immigrant to Los Angeles, he started as a ditch-digger in 1878, became a self-taught engineer, and in 1913 was responsible for the completion of the 233-mile-long Owens River Aqueduct, at the time, the longest in the world. With this great achievement, and others afterward, came legendary status and over confidence that led to the misjudgments that caused the failure of the St. Francis Dam. To me, his biography is filled with insights into the growth of Los Angeles, and even the United States, and warnings and lessons that have never been more relevant.

Dirt_via_Flickr user John Davey

Dirt via Flickr user John Davey.


Boom
: The leading L.A. writer David Ulin wrote a piece in Boom a few years ago, under the same title as Mullholland’s infamous phrase, “There it is! Take it!” highlighting both something of a wild ambition as well as an exploitation, what some have referred to as L.A.’s Original Sin. But could you tell us what the innovation of the Los Angeles Aqueduct meant for Los Angeles at the time when it opened? What did it also mean for California and the world?

Wilkman: To get to your question in a roundabout fashion, aside from a widespread lack of knowledge about the full extent of Los Angeles history, there’s a long tradition of “noir L.A.,” which I believe originated in a 1920s east-coast-based belief that Los Angeles was somehow an unjustified urban aberration, built on fraud and shallow values—certainly not a “real” city like New York, Boston, or even San Francisco, where hucksterism and chicanery were considered colorful, not foundationally sinister.  Frankly, I think it’s time to give L.A. noir a long vacation, if not a trip to a rest home.  Good, bad, and otherwise, the history of Los Angeles is too fascinating, influential, and important to be summed up in a popular novel and movie genre. To make a fresh start, I can’t think of any better story for a deep dive than the tragedy of the St. Francis Dam.

Frankly, I think it’s time to give L.A. noir a long vacation, if not a trip to a rest home.  Good, bad, and otherwise, the history of Los Angeles is too fascinating, influential, and important to be summed up in a popular novel and movie genre.

“There it is! Take it!” is often cited as the short speech that encapsulates a legacy of quasi-criminal usurpation that’s the history of water in Los Angeles—as you say, L.A.’s “Original Sin.” The facts, as they tend to be, are multi-faceted. Mulholland’s five words occurred at the end of a longer less punchy oration, interrupted when water from the Aqueduct began to flow, and eager Angelenos rushed to dip tin cups into the city’s man-made river. The classic film noir, Chinatown, draws upon the mix of truth, half-truths, and conspiracy theories that followed. The business insiders who hugely profited by early investments in the San Fernando Valley had lots of power and influence, but at the time funding for the Aqueduct wasn’t assured, and unlike the plotting of Chinatown, they didn’t have to con other Angelenos by dumping water to fake a drought (something Mulholland would have never allowed). As we know from recent history, droughts were regular and real and the vast majority of the city’s citizens believed more water could benefit everyone in Southern California, as it ultimately did. Former city engineer and mayor Fred Eaton, representing Los Angeles as well as himself, indeed used surreptitious tactics to conceal his true intentions when he convinced Owens Valley farmers and ranchers to sell land with access to the Owens River. Even if the water was purchased, sometimes at inflated prices, not “stolen,” it was an unprecedented transfer of resources from one region to another in an era of small town localism. In the context of the Progressive politics of the day, with the backing of President Theodore Roosevelt, the acquisition was justified as providing “the greatest good to the greatest number.” But for the residents of the Owens Valley, the results had damaging and long-term ecological and economic consequences. They fought back with a water war that continues to this day. In the process, Valley activists repeatedly dynamited the Aqueduct, then, and even now, seen as a heroic act of defiance, although others might consider it terrorism. For Los Angeles, with water available beyond the elusive Los Angeles River, nearby independent communities were willing to be annexed to greater L.A., quenching thirst and irrigating crops. As a result, the city grew from forty-three square miles in 1913 to 442 by 1930. Combined with opportunities for trade, made possible by a new man-made harbor, which opened in San Pedro in 1907, by 1920 Los Angeles was poised to become the preeminent economic center of California, and eventually an important world capital.


Boom:
Obviously, the dam no longer exists, and your book and recent article accounts for these things in some detail, but can you briefly tell us what happened with the tragedy on 12 March 1928.

Wilkman: Construction of the 200 feet-tall arched concrete St. Francis Dam was officially completed on 4 May 1926. Over the next nearly two years, as the reservoir was slowly filled, cracks and leaks appeared. At first they weren’t a source of concern because such fissures are common with concrete dams as they cure and settle. When they happen they are patched with caulk. Despite this, on the morning of 12 March 1928, St. Francis Dam watchman Tony Harnischfeger was especially anxious when he discovered leaking water that appeared to be filled with soil, a sign the foundations of the dam might be dissolving. He called his boss, William Mulholland, who, joined by his assistant, Harvey Van Norman, drove from Los Angeles to investigate. When Mulholland examined the leak, he said he saw it running clear. It became filled with soil only after it encountered construction debris lower down. Convinced the dam was safe, Mulholland and Van Norman returned to Los Angeles. Only hours later, shortly before midnight, with no warning the St. Francis Dam collapsed catastrophically. In forty-five minutes the St. Francis Reservoir was empty and 12.4 billion gallons of water were rushing west through San Francisquito Canyon and the Santa Clara River Valley toward the Pacific Ocean, 54 miles away. In between, thousands of people in towns like Piru, Fillmore and Santa Paula were sound asleep. With downed telephone lines, it would take more than an hour before warnings were issued. To some, they never came. Well over four hundred died.


Boom:
What did that disaster mean at the time, for Mulholland, for Los Angeles, and California?

Wilkman: Mulholland was obviously devastated by the collapse of the dam he’d built in San Francisquito Canyon. He never really recovered, personally or professionally. Although he refused to accept independent engineering accusations of inadequate safety measures and faulty decision-making, probably believing a dynamite attack was to blame, he nevertheless took full responsibility. “If there was an error of human judgment, I was the human,” he said, adding, “The only ones I envy about this thing are those who are dead. “Aside from the tragic loss of life, the St. Francis Dam disaster couldn’t have come at a worse time for the future of water infrastructure in California and the American West. Plans for Boulder (Hoover) Dam were caught in a Congressional crossfire between those who believed in private enterprise and advocates of government support for new dams and hydroelectric projects. The failure of a city-built concrete dam near Los Angeles seemed to confirm that public agencies weren’t up to the task. In the end, a compromise between public and private interests allowed for the construction a series of dams that transformed the American West and Southeast. To put the matter behind as soon as possible, Los Angeles, without acknowledging blame, rapidly made restitution for loss of life and property damage. Most important, California established a dam safety regulation and review system that became a model for other states, and even countries overseas.

St. Francis Dam wing dike, The Greater Southwestern Exploration Company via Flickr

St. Francis Dam wing dike, courtesy of The Greater Southwestern Exploration Company via Flickr.


Boom:
Knowing what he knew after the disaster, what do you think Mulholland could have done differently? If he knew and had today’s technology, what would be different with what he did?

Wilkman: There were plenty things Mulholland could have done at the time. To start, building the dam in a less treacherous geological environment. I don’t think Mulholland’s culpability can be excused by a lack of modern technology. The latest explanations blame a massive landslide as the initial cause of the failure, a situation some have said couldn’t be discerned by geologists in the 1920s. In fact, after the collapse, ancient landslides at the dam site were clearly identified in 1928 by a Stanford geologist. Mulholland’s failing was hubris. He believed he knew best and didn’t consult others. Even if he included the latest safety measures in his design, most engineers believe the geology of St. Francisquito Canyon doomed the St. Francis Dam. Too often, though, the disaster is treated as an anomaly—the work of a self-trained engineer and arrogant old man. However, despite generations of university-educated engineers and computer-aided design, dams can still fail, and do. Most often, though, it isn’t a matter of faulty design, but a failure to anticipate and respond effectively to worst-case scenarios and especially inadequate maintenance.

However, despite generations of university-educated engineers and computer-aided design, dams can still fail, and do. Most often, though, it isn’t a matter of faulty design, but a failure to anticipate and respond effectively to worst-case scenarios and especially inadequate maintenance.

Boom: This Spring and Summer our levees were tested with both the Delta levees and the canals. Kingsburg had flooding of a resort, along with the Delta’s Treasure Island, Van Sickle Island, among others. Much of California actually sits in flood zone areas. My hometown of Tracy does, in the Delta region. And while I knew that Tracy had its problems, I didn’t realize that one of them was its low-lying situation until Kevin Starr pointed it out to me. But add to this our dams that sit above many communities—Lake Isabella above Bakersfield, Oroville Dam, Folsom Lake, and many others. Our infrastructure is also in need of great repair. What do you think California needs in terms of its water infrastructure repair?

Wilkman: I am not an engineer, so can’t respond with specifics. As I indicated in my previous answer, regular and adequate maintenance is essential. That certainly appeared to be an issue with Oroville, along with some design weaknesses. Recently, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave the state of dam infrastructure in America a grade of D+.  Yet even in the best of circumstances, unprecedented acts of nature can be overwhelming, as sadly proved recently in Texas and Florida. Preparation for the worst is always a good strategy, including avoiding construction in known flood plains, but sometimes even that isn’t enough when flooding, as it was in Houston, is the greatest in a thousand years.


Boom:
What do you think is the future of water in California? How do you envision us better reckoning with it and its power. Should we be more aggressive or more conservative toward it? In short, more technology, or more work with nature? And of course, there’s no indication that there will be any less people in California in the foreseeable future. What sort of things worry you about the future of California water infrastructure? And what sort of things should we as Californians and also our civic and governmental leaders be thinking about that we and they are not currently doing?

Wilkman: I read an interesting statistic while researching Floodpath. In 2015 Los Angeles consumed less water that the city did in 1970, and L.A.’s population was a million more. In the aftermath of the recent drought, I don’t know if that’s changed for worse or better, but it shows there can be hope if we adopt effective regulations and technologies, as well as enlightened lifestyle expectations. Again, I’m a filmmaker and historian, but from what I know, efforts to work with nature, not attempts to remake or ignore it, are what a lot of thoughtful engineers and social planners are thinking about. New technology, sure, but also conservation programs, including capturing what rain we get for local reuse or stored in natural aquifers, not just uncovered concrete-lined reservoirs. Establishing resource allocation policies that deal with urban and agricultural needs is obviously vital too. Certainly there’s no excuse for the citizens of California to be ill-informed about the challenges we face. No matter what some political leaders at the highest national level may believe, the effects of global warming are real and they’re not going to wait for the next election for us to act.

BOOM SLO-1


Notes

[1] Jon Wilkman, “Floodpath: The Forgotten History of the 1928 St. Francis Dam Disaster,” Southern California Quarterly 99 (2017): 71-88, http://scq.ucpress.edu/content/99/1/71.

[2] https://vimeo.com/153180111.

 

Jon Wilkman is a native of Los Angeles and graduate of Oberlin College. A documentary filmmaker and author, his films have won numerous national and international awards. Books include Picturing Los Angeles and Floodpath: The Deadliest Man-Made Disaster of 20th Century America on the Making of Modern Los Angeles.  He is currently working on a new book, Screening Reality: How Real World Moviemakers Reimagined America.

Copyright: © 2017 Jon Wilkman. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

ArticlesPhotography/Art

What is a River in California?

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Highway Bridge, 2016, archival pigment print, 56 x 60 inches, Sayler/Morris. I-5 Bridge near the confluence of the American and Sacramento Rivers.*


Susannah Sayler
Edward Morris

What is a river? This is not a question we ask every day because it seems superfluous. Certainly, a river must be a flowing body of water of a certain size. Call it a river or a creek, but one way or another, flowing is the essential thing. Yet, what if a given river does not flow per se but is pushed and pulled mechanically? Or what if the flowing that defines a river is arrested and controlled through dams, canals and machine technology? What if the river no longer moves with inextricable desire towards a specific place like an ocean or a lake, but rather is widely dispersed into various uses? What if a river is wholly owned and apportioned the moment it comes out of the ground? Does all this change the essence of a river? Is it even still a river?

These speculative questions, for which the arts are particularly well suited, assume real significance in a state like present-day California that depends entirely on technological control of rivers for its prosperity and very survival. Seeing a river in California for what it is now—namely water-put-to-work—can abet a number of other vital inquiries, such as: if water in the state is essentially a resource or even a commodity, who owns it and how are these owners positioning themselves for the water shortages of the future due to climate change and population growth? How is the current regard for water connected to California’s murderous, colonial past,[1] and what can we gain from such an understanding? And/or how can California avoid its seemingly inevitable fate of privatized water markets, unreliable access to clean water for the poor and profound income inequality? Such questioning “prepares a free relationship” towards the issue, to quote Martin Heidegger. It reveals and opens. It renders something that appears universal, absolute and given—in this case our extractive attitude toward water and farming—as contingent and therefore mutable through political activism and civic engagement.

We make this particular connection to Heidegger despite all his baggage because he provides a number of indispensable analytic tools for perceiving what is really at stake with environmental issues, not to mention his inventive and evocative vocabulary. Further, an encounter with Heidegger’s investigation into the nature of rivers proved transformative to our own art-activist project Water Gold Soil. As artists working with the medium of landscape photography, we first looked towards what is visible in the land in order to represent the drought issue in California. A reading of Heidegger and other research then provoked us to consider what lies behind what can be seen. A key thought sits in Heidegger’s before-and-after comparison of the Rhine River found in “The Question Concerning Technology”:

The hydroelectric plant is set into the current of the Rhine. It sets the Rhine to supplying its hydraulic pressure, which then sets the turbines turning. This turning sets those machines in motion whose thrust sets going the electric current for which the long-distance power station and its network of cables are set up to dispatch electricity. In the context of the interlocking processes pertaining to the orderly disposition of electrical energy, even the Rhine itself appears to be something at our command. The hydroelectric plant is not built into the Rhine River as was the old wooden bridge that joined bank with bank for hundreds of years. Rather the river is dammed up into the power plant…. What the river is now, namely, a water-power supplier, derives from the essence of the power station…. But, it will be replied, the Rhine is still a river in the landscape, is it not? Perhaps. But how? In no other way than as an object on call for inspection by a tour group ordered there by the vacation industry.[2]

Seeing the way “a river in the landscape” can actually be more fundamentally defined by its economic uses (power supplier, tourism and recreation site, irrigator) became the presiding impulse of our own project. Accordingly, we photographed the transition from the wilderness incarnation of this water flow in the Sierra Nevada to its first damming, and then on to its increasing subjection to rationalization and canalization, and finally to its dispersal in various end-uses, primarily agricultural. The most basic goal of the photography and the video we took was simply to reveal the “river” as economic rather than scenic—and by “river” here, we mean both our particular water flow and by extension all such “rivers” in California.

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Water Gold Soil: Report, Draft 2, Sayler/Morris, 2015, 2-channel video installation, 17 min, TULCA Art Festival, Galway, Ireland. Voiceover text: “From this point on the water does that flow. They pushed it along with pumps. They extracted it from the Delta, and moved it into two canals. One headed for the big cities and one headed to the desert farms. The water commodity.”

This may seem obvious, but the productiveness of this enterprise became evident when an environmental organization giving us an award requested that we put more images of “beauty” and “wildness” into an exhibition of our work. Indeed, the typical maneuver of photographers working on environmental issues is to show a particular landscape as pure and beautiful and therefore worthy of protecting, or else to show “damage” to the land caused by the impurities of pollution and industrialization. However, such obsession with purity, which has historically motivated the environmental movement in the United States, deadens an adequate response to issues like climate change or water rights in California. In both cases, sufficiently powerful animus and solidarity must derive from a heightened sense of both the dangers and opportunities. Urgency comes from care for and protection of life, social justice, empathy, economic opportunity and restoration of the sacred. Each  of these themes came together in Standing Rock.

The purity paradigm continues to grip the environmental community, but so long as it does it will jeopardize its efficacy. For such an interest in conservation, preservation, and beauty, tremendously understates the danger of our current ecological crisis and renders the ecological crisis the sole province of a privileged class. Here too Heidegger can be of some assistance, albeit with significant caveats. Heidegger’s description of the hydro-electric plant in the Rhine comes amid a larger discussion of what he identified as “the supreme danger” to mankind. This supreme danger presents itself to Heidegger first in the guise of “modern technology.” Modern technology for Heidegger differs from what precedes it in that “it puts to nature the unreasonable demand that it supply energy which can be extracted and stored.” Heidegger terms this essential aspect of modern technology a “challenging forth,” which he contrasts with the gentler “bringing forth” (poiesis) of older technology. Poeisis, of course, is also the mode of the arts (i.e., poetry), the significance of which we explore below. In this connection, Heidegger contrasts the impact of a wooden bridge over the Rhine to that of the hydro-electric dam per the above quotation. The wooden bridge brings forth place, dwelling, cultivation of the land; whereas the dam challenges forth the river to yield energy that might in turn be used for industrial processes.[3]

To understand how this is not merely a nostalgic, wistful call for a return to a past primitivism, we must understand exactly what is so unreasonable about the demand Heidegger identifies that modern technology puts to nature. The danger here is not the loss of an attribute of the river we might call beautiful or the imposition of a stain on its purity that can ultimately be restored through effective advocacy; rather, the danger lies in the complete transformation in the nature of the river within a means-ends order. It has become, in Heidegger’s terminology, a “standing reserve.” The river is not alone. In a world dominated by modern technology, Heidegger writes:

Everywhere everything is ordered to stand by, to be immediately on hand, indeed to stand there just so that it may be on call for a furthering ordering. Whatever is ordered about in this way has its own standing. We call it the standing reserve.[4]

Another way of saying this is that within the challenging forth of modern technology everything becomes a resource, or as Heidegger writes elsewhere “something is only through what it performs.”[5] Heidegger gives a couple of other examples besides the transformation of the river. He contrasts a windmill with coal power. Whereas with the windmill things “are left entirely to the wind’s blowing,” with coal “a tract of land is challenged in the hauling out” with the result that the “earth now reveals itself as a coal mining district, the soil as mineral deposit.”[6] He also contrasts older farming techniques with industrial agriculture, emphasizing the lost values of care and maintenance, words which together we might call by a different name—sustainability.[7]

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Water Gold Soil: Report, Draft 2, Sayler/Morris, 2015, 2-channel video (still), 17 min. The pipes depicted here in the right channel of the video are part of infrastructure originally built to support gold mining by regulating flow in the South Fork of the American River. The same infrastructure was later re-purposed for irrigation agriculture and suburban development. Voiceover text: “Pipes followed as if demanded by logic itself…. But the pipes were kept hidden, tucked away. So that a faucet could appear like a stream.”

By this logic, in order to answer the question, “What is a river in California?,” we must first answer the question of specifically what that river is used for, what it performs. It is not enough simply to observe that it is technological in some generic sense. Of course, a given river in California might have various uses. (It is illuminating in this regard to examine Bureau of Reclamation spreadsheets showing just who owns each acre foot of water in each river.) Notice, however, how Heidegger articulates the usage of the river in terms of a system: the water moves the turbines, which moves machines that create the electrical current, which in turn moves along cables to be stored and distributed. The underlying logic of the challenging forth is that it is extracting and storing energy with the purpose to further something else, namely some industry.

We chose to follow a water flow toward its end use specifically in the industry of large-scale agriculture because this is the dominant industry governing much of California’s water infrastructure. Jay Lund, one of the leading experts on water in California and editor of the California Water Blog, describes the system of water management in California, as follows:

By 1980, a vast network of reservoirs, canals and exploited aquifers transformed California. This system was largely designed to support an agricultural economy envisioned in the latter 1800s, which greatly exceeded the gold mining economy it replaced.[8]

In this single concise quotation, you have all the elements of our project: Water, Gold, Soil. The “agricultural economy” (i.e. soil) is the descendant of the gold mining economy, and both were entirely dependent on water—agriculture for obvious reasons, and gold because not only was gold first found in the rivers, but water in the form of sluices and later water cannons was essential to mining operations.  As Norris Hundley writes of the gold mining industry in California: “they built hydraulic empires of dams, reservoirs, flumes, ditches, pipes and hoses. All this in turn required knowledge of advanced engineering principles, now introduced for the first time on a large scale in the West and later used to build other great public and private projects.”[9] In addition to the technological confidence and infrastructure, perhaps a more important legacy of the gold mining industry on the agriculture industry that supplanted it was the legal framework for how to regard ownership of a river in the first place. [10] In particular, the notion that one could claim a right to some water simply being the first to put it to some vaguely defined “beneficial use” originated in California with the Gold Rush. The havoc wrecked by the mixing of this “prior appropriation” right with other sorts of rights (namely riparian) has been well documented.

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Water Gold Soil: Report, Draft 2, Sayler/Morris, 2015, 2-channel video (still), 17 min. Voiceover text: “They first discovered Gold near this place on the American River, setting off a worldwide hysteria that has been treated comprehensively by Brandt and others.”

However, Lund leaves out half of the equation. The other major driver of water infrastructure development in California was, and continues to be, real estate development and speculation. This story has been comprehensively told in Norris Hundley’s The Great Thirst and elsewhere. In fact, a strong argument can be made that agriculture in California is itself simply real estate investment in disguise. With a Heideggerian flourish we might say (as we do in a video piece that is part of our project): “Water spread over land by wind and rain transforms ground to nutrient. Water spread over land by pipes transforms ground to real estate.” Many in addition to Hundley have recited this history,[11] which in broad brush strokes looks like this: the government wrests away land populated by Native Americans and grants it outright to large corporations, including railroads and oil companies; the companies market the land to settlers who begin to farm it and increase its value under lease agreements; the same large landowners then successfully lobby the government for massive, multi-billion-dollar water infrastructure projects, cynically invoking the Jeffersonian image of the small farmer (this includes the San Luis reservoir, which is the hub of the water flow in our Water Gold Soil project); the construction of these projects is granted under the agreement that the large landowners will sell off their land into smaller parcels to support small business and families; this sell-off is never done and the military-scale federal investment in infrastructure is thereby translated into direct real estate gains by the large owners. Studies have shown the deleterious effects of corporate farming on communities, as the owners of these lands get rich while the people working on them are mired in some of the country’s most dire poverty.[12] In the ultimate irony, many communities within these farming districts (known perversely as water districts) completely lack access to any water at all, or else are subjected to poisonous levels of pollution.[13]

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Water Gold Soil: Report, Draft 2, Sayler/Morris, 2015, 2-channel video (still), 17 min. Irrigation in Westlands Water District. Voiceover text: “Water spread over land by wind and clouds transforms ground to nutrient. Water spread over land by pipes transforms ground to real estate.”

Here we approach the crux of the argument and an identification both of what is valuable and vexing about Heidegger. For Heidegger, if the reduction of the natural world to a standing reserve is the danger, then the “supreme danger” is the reduction of humans themselves to the status of this standing reserve, as with the laborers of the Central Valley most obviously, but, in fact, as with all of us living within a world defined by modern technology. This reduction of nature, labor and all people to a standing reserve is a function not of technology itself but what Heidegger calls the essence of modern technology: enframing (Gestell). What sort of thing is enframing? One is tempted to call it a worldview, an orientation, a theory, a way of representing the world, or even an ideology, but Heidegger scrupulously avoids these sorts of epistemological terms—a fact that accounts for much of the difficulty of his text. For him, enframing is not simply a way of seeing things. It is itself generative as a mode of revealing the world, a mode of existence. Enframing reveals by ordering, framing, putting things into boxes.  Enframing alters what is actual, not just how we see the actual. Under the sway of enframing, objects, and ultimately human beings themselves, turn into a mere function of their instrumentality.

However, while enframing is not itself a way of seeing, it is, paradoxically, both the by-product of and the necessary condition of a way of seeing, which Heidegger calls out as “modern mathematical science.”[14] Perhaps a helpful way of understanding the enframing concept is to see it as that force within “modern mathematical science’s” way of seeing that is productive of being—the binding force between epistemology and ontology. “Modern science’s way of representing pursues and entraps nature as a calculable coherence of forces,” Heidegger writes, and this “theory of nature prepares the way not just for modern technology but for the essence of modern technology [i.e., enframing].” Heidegger emphasizes that this occurs at a particular time in history—that is to say, something else came before. With an ecological dynamic, culture, in all its myriad modes of representation (scientific, artistic, conversational, etc.) is produced by, and in turn, propagates this ontological enframing force. Heidegger lays down the marker between the Renaissance and the Middle Ages: “What actuality is in Durer’s picture ‘The Columbine’ is determined differently from what is actual in a medieval fresco.”[15] Indeed, there is something crucial about this transition. The creeping ooze of enframing spread over the entire world as we moved through the epochs labeled the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, Modernity and indeed Post-Modernity (which, we understand as neo-liberalism by another name). The story of enframing’s creep is the story of colonialism, and it is also the story of our project in which documentation of a given “river” is both real and allegorical. Our assembly of images and words is representational of an actual water flow at a given point in time, but also of the broader historical trajectory of the Age of Extraction. California is an interesting case study in the epistemo-ontological creep of enframing because it is so compressed and so stark.

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Enframing II, Sayler/Morris, 2016, Archival pigment print with gold leaf, 20 x 24 inches. Appropriated image from United States Geological Society with permission.

Yet, in the final analysis we make quite different hay than Heidegger out of this recognition of enframing’s historicity. Heidegger’s primary concern throughout his work is Being, by which he means the essence of human existence. We will not follow him into these considerations, which are dense with thorns, except to say this overarching concern of Heidegger’s leads him to consider the “supreme danger” of enframing as bearing most importantly on man’s ability to continue to live as he essentially is—in all his aloneness and glory. This preoccupation of Heidegger’s, seeped in a brew of human exceptionalism and a pursuit of pure origins along with some other rather dubious notions, creates what seems to us like two blindingly obvious aporia in his questioning concerning technology, namely a consideration of agency in the development of enframing’s challenging forth, and relatedly a consideration of class and regional distinctions among the humans of this world. Who pushed forward the challenging forth of nature and labor that fell out of enframing like destiny? And who can stop it? In several places, Heidegger’s questioning brushes tantalizing close to Marx—for example in his observation that the challenging forth of technology is invested in “driving on to the maximum yield and the minimum expense”; or in his description of humans becoming a standing reserve, which seems to harken to Marx’s analysis of alienation. However, Heidegger does not pursue a material, economic understanding of what is threatening about the enframing phenomenon. This leads to a very nebulous conception of its origins and import, as well as to a misunderstanding of the ways in which we can engage in overcoming it.

Heidegger never forged an explicit political philosophy but expressed that a revolution in thinking was needed to avoid the tragic subjection of humans themselves to the status of a standing reserve. We do not normally think of Heidegger as an activist, but in the Introduction to Metaphysics he states: “we dare to take up the great and lengthy task of tearing down a world that has grown old and of building it truly anew.”[16] He had an exalted view of both philosophy and art in this process. In fact, it was to these activities alone that he ascribed any real power. The world had to be re-created through a heroic exertion of complicated thought, embodied best in poetry. Heidegger was silent about how this deep thought might be conveyed to the citizenry and how in turn it might lead to concrete changes in policy or political systems. Not surprisingly, this giant lacuna in Heidegger’s thought resulted in personal exhaustion and disillusionment, such that he ultimately declared in an interview with Das Spiegel: “philosophy will be unable to effect any immediate change in the current state of the world. This is true not only of philosophy but of all purely human reflection and endeavor” because “the greatness of what is to be thought is [all] too great.” Heidegger broodingly concluded that only “God can save us.”[17]

Taken as disillusionment on Heidegger’s part, this spirit all too commonly results from detaching the abstract work of world creating (via worldview changing) from the concrete work of political activism aimed specifically at agents of the danger. For there are indeed agents. Could not the mysterious ecological relation that Heidegger describes between the scientific mode of representation, enframing, the challenging forth of nature (and labor), and finally the transformation of the world into a standing reserve be more reductively described as the application of modern science towards making money? Does he not overlook the crucial ingredient of greed as the dominant driver of certain (though not all) humans and the force that adds the unreasonable challenging forth of nature (and labor) to enframing? The development of exploitative economic systems arose out of an ability to systematically demarcate and make predictions (about how to build a ship and navigate, about how to build a dam, about how much water is needed to get a certain size crop, about where gold might be, about how to make an equivalent exchange, etc.). Heidegger shows how the self-perpetuating logic of this system alters our worldview, cuts off pathways to the sacred and defeats humility. Yet, by failing to ascribe agency in the process, he concludes that “Human activity can never directly counter the danger.” This flies in the face of actual gains that social movements can and do make all the time, even as this more fundamental work of culture changing happens in the background. Shout out to: Cesar Chavez, to 350.org, to anti-fracking movements in New York, to dam-removal movements and their successes on the Yakima and other rivers, etc.

To state it simply, there are two fronts to changing the world: changing ideology (i.e., ways of seeing and representing); and changing material conditions. As such, the work of poets, artists and thinkers is symbiotic with the work of activists, not isolated a la Heidegger; it is on this level that we think of our work as art-activist. A poetic way of seeing the world—defined here as an investment in non-rational consciousness and empathic understanding—is absolutely required for an effective activism, not only because it opens up a new relation to the world, but also because it restores enchantment and inherently combats the challenging forth of enframing with the alternative form of revealing articulated by Heidegger as the bringing forth of poiesis. However, poetry/art do not happen in a vacuum and no real change can be achieved there without changes in material conditions, which is what Heidegger fundamentally missed. Once again, the phenomenon is an ecological cycle, a dialectic.

We believe in the role of the artist as historian, specifically in this sense of the art-activist who contributes to a transformation of worldview. To represent a river in California, our job is to show not only what it is now, but to represent its now-ness as a form of (avoidable) destiny—here again Heidegger is instructive, for he speaks of enframing and also poiesis not just as modes of revealing, but as modes of destining. History arrives, and it is always arriving. It is not unearthed intact. The image is the tool by which we convey this. As Benjamin said, “It is not that what is past casts its light on what is present, or what is present its light on what is past; rather, image is that wherein what has been comes together in a flash with the now to form a constellation.”[18] This is the mode of the artist as historian.

With respect to California, we have found it illuminating to stare at a blank outline of the now-iconic shape that forms the boundaries of the state. That shape, which owes its Eastern contour to the desire to capture as much gold-harboring land as possible, has become one of the primary images of our project. It reflects all the capriciousness and violence, even absurdity, of political borders. These lines were drawn in 1849, the year after gold was discovered in the state. How was this same land understood before the lines were drawn? What was a river then? Is there a clue there to what it could be now?

outline-3_final

11 October 1849, Sayler/Morris, 2016, Archival pigment print, 18 x 22 inches. Title refers to the date that the state legislature formally adopted the boundary lines of the State of California.

The creation of that shape we now know as the borders of California was an arrival, not an inception. The destining started with the Spanish lust for gold, which animated their colonial adventures. Some believe the very word California was invented by a Spanish fiction writer named Montalvo in the early 16th Century. Montalvo gave the name “California” to a fantastic land of desire and gold in his novel Las Sergas de Esplandián (published in 1510).[19] In this book, the inhabitants of California were all-powerful women who ate men after laying with them in order to bear children. There was gold everywhere. The women wore gold harnesses and hunted with gold weapons. Montalvo called it California because it was a caliphate, a land of infidels. Yet, he also placed the territory “very near to a side of Earthly paradise.”[20]

This was fantasy, but fantasy transforms fact. Ten years after Montalvo’s book was published, the colonist Hernan Cortes wrote a letter to the King of Spain from present-day Baja California, in which he purported to confirm the nearby existence of just such a place as Montalvo described (earthly paradise, lots of gold, only women who ate men, etc.).[21] Cortes was likely angling for continued investment in his colonizing enterprise, but it is telling that he thought his report would be both enticing and sufficiently credible to his benefactor. Not long after Cortes’ letter, maps begin appearing with Montalvo’s word “California” labeling some of the lands Cortes colonized[22] and after a while this became the accepted name of the region. Montalvo’s fantasy reified.

However, when the first Spanish mission entered into the territory of California more than two hundred years later in 1769, it was not the word “oro” (gold) that appeared obsessively in the diaries of its leaders, but the word “aqua.” Nearly every day that was their primary concern. They hunted down rivers.[23] They had to hold water before they could hold gold. On 24 January 1848, everything came together when some other colonists found gold laying around in the American River. The mass hysteria that followed produced the near extermination of the Native people and rapid industrialization.

Of course, this gold had been sitting in the rivers all along but the Native Americans did not value it. Seeing value in gold is a purely imaginative exercise and dependent on a given worldview (enframing). John Sutter, the owner of the land on which gold was found on California, remarked without apparent irony that:

It is very singular that the Indians never found a piece of gold and brought it to me, as they very often did other specimens found in the ravines. I requested them continually to bring me some curiosities from the mountains, for which I always recompensed them. I have received animals, birds, plants, young trees, wild fruits, pipe clay, stones, red ochre, etc., etc., but never a piece of gold.[24]

One is reminded of Marx’s paradigmatic, if racially tinged, account of the commodity fetish and the absurdity of a materialist theory of value: “The savages of Cuba regarded gold as a fetish of the Spaniards. They celebrated a feast in its honour, sang in a circle around it, and then threw it into the sea.”[25]

There is a paradox at the core of history: how do we see the present as a destining, as the seemingly inevitable outcome of past events with all the gravity that implies, and at the same time see that very destining as contingent and therefore as mutable? This sort of maneuver requires a negative capability that is not the province of science, including history performed as science, but is the province of art and myth. When we ask, “What is a river?,” we would do well to attend the poet, as Heidegger recommends. Paraphrasing Holderlein, Heidegger gave this answer to the question before us:

“As a vanishing, the river is underway into what has been. As full of intimation, it proceeds into what is coming.”[26]

Maidu_Boom

Maidu Headmen with Treaty Commissioners, unknown photographer, c. 1851. Image courtesy of George Eastman House.


Notes

  • The Nisenan Maidu name for the American River was Kum Sayo, meaning Roundhouse River, referring to a structure that the Nisenan Maidu used for dances and other ceremonies. This building was the center of a Maidu community. A particularly large and important roundhouse was located at the mouth of the American River near its confluence with the Sacramento River, in the vicinity of this highway bridge. Other roundhouses could be found all along the American River. The domesticity implied in the Maidu name for the river contrasts with later names applied by European colonists: The River of Sorrows; Wild River (so named because of the ostensibly “wild” nature of the Maidu living there); the River Ojotska (a phonetic rendering of the Russian word for hunter); Rio de los Americanos (named for the American trappers that had begun to use the river).

[1] See Benjamin Madley, American Genocide: The United States and the California Indian Catastrophe 1846-1873 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2017) and Brendan C. Lindsay, Murder State: California’s Native American Genocide 1846-1873 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2015).

[2] Martin Heidegger, “The Question Concerning Technology,” in Martin Heidegger: Basic Writings, trans. David Farrell Krell (San Francisco: Harper SanFrancisco, 1977), 297.

[3] These ideas are developed more fully in other Heidegger writing on rivers, most notably in Hölderlin’s Hymn ‘The Ister’, trans. William McNeil and Julia Davis (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1996) and “Build Dwelling Thinking” in Martin Heidegger: Basic Writings, trans. David Farrell Krell (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1977), esp. 330-339.

[4] Heidegger, “The Question Concerning Technology,” 296.

[5] Heidegger, Hölderlin’s Hymn ‘The Ister’, 40 [emphasis in original].

[6] Heidegger, “The Question Concerning Technology,” 296.

[7] Ibid, 297.

[8] Jay Lund, “What’s Next for California Water?,” https://californiawaterblog.com/2011/02/23/whats-next-for-california-water/, (23 February 2011). This history is obviously told in far greater detail in many other places, notably Norris Hundley Jr.’s definitive The Great Thirst: Californians and Water—A History, rev. ed. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001).

[9] Hundley, The Great Thirst, 77.

[10] See Hundley, The Great Thirst, 86, but there is also an extensive literature on this crucial question. To cite just two important examples: Donald J. Pisani, Water, Land, and Law in the West: The Limits of Public Policy, 1850-1920 (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1996), and more recently, Mark Kanazawa, Golden Rules: The Origins of California Water Law in the Gold Rush (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015).

[11] General accounts can be found in Hundley; see also Stephanie S. Pincetl, Transforming California: A Political History of Land Use and Development (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003); Walter Goldschmidt, As You Sow: Three Studies in the Social Consequences of Agribusiness (Monclair: Allanheld, Osmun & Co., 1978); Mark Arax and Rick Wartzman, The King of California: J.G. Boswell and the Making of a Secret American Empire (New York: PublicAffairs, 2005). In our project we focused particularly on Westlands, an understanding of which we owe to in part to: Lloyd G. Carter, “Reaping Riches in a Wretched Region: Subsidized Industrial Farming and Its Link to Perpetual Poverty,” Golden Gate University Environmental Law Journal 3 (2009): 5-42, http://digitalcommons.law.ggu.edu/gguelj/vol3/iss1/3; and Ed Simmons, Westlands Water District: The First 25 Years, published by Westland Water District itself in 1983.

[12] See Goldschmidt, As You Sow (referenced above) and see also the work of Dean McCannell, which updated the legendary Goldschimdt study, and also the work of Paul Taylor (Dorothea Lange’s collaborator). An unpublished but excellent dissertation by Daniel J. O’Connell brings much of this work together: In the Struggle: Pedagogies of Politically Engaged Scholarship in the San Joaquin Valley of California, unpublished doctoral dissertation (Cornell University, 2011).

[13] For example, see http://pacinst.org/publication/human-costs-of-nitrate-contaminated-drinking-water-in-the-san-joaquin-valley/.

[14] It is hard to overcome thinking about causality in linear terms (which is itself a by-product of enframing). However, as ecological thinking is a thinking of relationships, it is also a thinking that dissolves linear causality in favor of cycles and dialectical relationships. Heidegger was perhaps more ecological than even he realized as his style of writing is cyclical.

[15] Heidegger, Hölderlin’s Hymn ‘The Ister, 25.

[16] Martin Heidegger, Introduction to Metaphysics, trans. Gregory Fried and Richard Polt (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000), 133.

[17] Martin Heidegger, “Nur noch ein Gott kann uns retten,” Der Spiegel 30 (Mai 1976): 193-219, trans. W. Richardson as “Only a God Can Save Us,” in Heidegger: The Man and the Thinker (n.p.: Precedent, 1981), ed. Thomas Sheehan, 45-67.

[18] Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002), 462.

[19] Kevin Starr, California: A History (New York: Modern Library, 2007), 5; and Charles E. Chapman, A History of California: The Spanish Period (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1921), 59-65.

[20] “Sabed que a la diestra mano de las Indias existe una isla llamada California muy cerca de un costado del Paraíso Terrenal” from García Ordóñez de Montalvo, Las Sergas de Esplandián, Seville, 1510, as found http://www.aaregistry.org/historic_events/view/california-its-naming-heritage, 7 July 2016. See also the argument for the Persian origin of the term from Kari-i-farn (“the mountain of Paradise”), suggested earlier by Carey McWilliams, in Josef Chytry, Mountain of Paradise: Reflections of the Emergence of Greater California as a World Civilization (New York: Peter Lang, 2013), 13-15.

[21] Chapman, A History of California, 64.

[22] Ibid. 65-66.

[23] Hundley, The Great Thirst, 32; anyd https://pacificahistory.wikispaces.com/Portola+Expedition+1769+Diaries

[24] John A. Sutter, “The Discovery of Gold in California,” Hutchings’ California Magazine, November 1857, accessed 24 May 2017, http://www.sfmuseum.org/hist2/gold.html.

[25] Karl Marx, ‘Debates on the Law on Thefts of Wood’ [1842], in Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Collected Works, Vol. 1 (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1975), 262-263.

[26] Heidegger, Hölderlin’s Hymn ‘The Ister,” 29.

 

Susannah Sayler and Edward Morris use photography, video, writing, and installation to investigate and to contribute to the development of ecological consciousness. Their work has been exhibited in diverse venues internationally. They are also co-founders of The Canary Project, a collective that produces art and media about climate change and other ecological issues. They teach in the Transmedia Department and are part of The Canary Lab at Syracuse University.

This essay is part of the artists’ larger Water Gold Soil project, which brought them to California late 2014 to document drought conditions as part of the ongoing A History of the Future project. Water Gold Soil: American River represents a river in present-day California. Yet, the river represented by Sayler/Morris hovers between the real and the allegorical and their time perspective shifts between the past, present and future. The project consists of an ongoing assembly of original photographic and video works, archival images, writing, maps and other media.

 

Copyright: © 2017 Susannah Sayler and Edward Morris. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

Articles

Investigating STEM: Health Equity as Touchstone for the Future

Cheryl Holzmeyer

Sometime over the past decade or so, a new acronym began permeating public discourse, lumping together fields from marine biology to nuclear engineering to kinesiology to topology: “STEM,” shorthand for Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics. Appearing especially in federal reports and policy discussions of global economic competition, commentators argued that so-called STEM education and STEM fields held the key to future U.S. prosperity. These arguments sprang up everywhere from the business press to reports by the National Academies.[1] California’s Department of Education frames STEM in similar terms, declaring that “Through STEM education, students learn to become problem solvers, innovators, creators, and collaborators and go on to fill the critical pipeline of engineers, scientists, and innovators so essential to the future of California and the nation.”[2]

But as Rodger Bybee asks in his book, The Case for STEM Education, published by the National Science Teachers Association: “If STEM Education Seems to be the Answer, What Was the Question?”[3]

For many industry stakeholders, the primary importance of STEM education is to ensure an adequate number of qualified workers in their particular economic sectors, to foster growth and global competitiveness. Absent such supply of human capital, the logic goes, these stakeholders see a U.S. “STEM crisis” of a particular kind, even while the existence and character of this purported STEM crisis is debated.[4]

Yet these narratives of STEM education are inadequate to address growing crises of social equity, ecological sustainability, and democracy associated with current paradigms of U.S. economic growth. As an article in PLOS Biology recently put it, “Justifying STEM education through the economic imperative demands a consideration of what the limitations of this imperative might be. The purported relationship between STEM education and economic growth rests upon the questionable assumption that economic development has no ecological costs or that those costs can be eliminated through continued GDP growth….”[5] Moreover, current paradigms of economic growth exacerbate social inequalities and environmental injustices, undermining possibilities for a truly flourishing society that supports everyone’s well-being. Merely increasing the number of students and workers prepared to fill “gaps in the STEM pipeline” will not address these more fundamental, structural issues.

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Photograph provided by chuttersnap-233105 via unsplash.

These issues tend to be obscured by the supposed coherency of the STEM acronym, however. Contradictions often manifest across STEM fields—such as petroleum engineering, climate science, and public health—belying monolithic framings of STEM. Different STEM fields often involve disparate definitions and approaches to innovation as well, with new social justice challenges looming as automation and artificial intelligence gain ground, even as A.I. is viewed by some STEM advocates as a holy grail.[6] Yet as President Obama reflected on the future, at the end of his term in office:

What I do concern myself with, and the Democratic Party is going to have to concern itself with, is the fact that the confluence of globalization and technology is making the gap between rich and poor, the mismatch in power between capital and labor, greater all the time. And that’s true globally. The prescription that some offer, which is stop trade, reduce global integration, I don’t think is going to work…. If that’s not going to work, then we’re going to have to redesign the social compact in some fairly fundamental ways over the next twenty years…. [A]t some point, when the problem is not just Uber but driverless Uber, when radiologists are losing their jobs to A.I., then we’re going to have to figure out how do we maintain a cohesive society and a cohesive democracy in which productivity and wealth generation are not automatically linked to how many hours you put in, where the links between production and distribution are broken, in some sense. Because I can sit in my office, do a bunch of stuff, send it out over the Internet, and suddenly I just made a couple of million bucks, and the person who’s looking after my kid while I’m doing that has no leverage to get paid more than ten bucks an hour.[7]

In California, campaigns such as Silicon Valley Rising, affiliated with Working Partnerships USA, are already grappling with these social contradictions of innovation, as analyzed in their reports on contract workers,[8] by “taking on occupational segregation and severe income inequality with a comprehensive campaign to raise wages, create affordable housing and build a tech economy that works for everyone.”[9] STEM education oriented toward health equity could dialogue with such reports and organizing work, as well as with books like De-Bug: Voices from the Underside of Silicon Valley,[10] authored by members of the San Jose-based social justice organization, Silicon Valley De-Bug.

STEM education could also engage with public health research shaped by problem-frames and evidence from both credentialed scientists as well as community-based “street science.”[11] Silicon Valley De-Bug, for example, frames community organizing as a kind of science – a science for building community power, whether to mitigate power inequities in the criminal justice system or to fight displacement and gentrification. Through such STEM education, students would not only have opportunities to assess a wider array of evidence and evidentiary standards in the course of their inquiries; they could also pursue a broader range of questions about STEM fields and social values, the politics of research agenda-setting and policy-making, and the social relations and economic development paradigms toward which STEM fields are – and are not – directed.[12] Many engaged with the April 2017 Marches for Science articulated inspiring visions along these lines.[13]


Health Equity as Touchstone for Innovation and STEM Education

While Silicon Valley symbolizes the end of the metaphorical STEM pipeline for many, in California and beyond an array of organizations and a burgeoning body of research offer a touchstone for STEM education that is innovative on different terms: on behalf of health equity. Health equity emphasizes social justice and “attainment of the highest level of health for all people” as the foundation of a flourishing society, in which all people are valued equally.[14] As the American Public Health Association elaborates, achieving health equity entails that, “We optimize the conditions in which people are born, grow, live, work, learn and age. We work with other sectors to address the factors that influence health, including employment, housing, education, health care, public safety and food access. We name racism as a force in determining how these social determinants are distributed.”[15] Health equity initiatives strive to end the unnecessary, unjust suffering of so many people—particularly people of color and of low-income—experiencing premature death and illness in a country and state with vast economic and scientific resources. Health equity initiatives do not subscribe to a false binary between values—such as equity and social justice—and science. Rather, they draw on an extensive body of STEM research—variously referred to as social epidemiology or social determinants of health research—that examines population health and health inequities, with wide-ranging ethical implications. While this research is well-known within the public health field, it is too often unfamiliar to those in other fields of STEM research and education, from biotechnology to computer science. At the same time, the insights and causal relations surfaced by this body of research are often highly familiar to environmental justice activists, who have long been attuned to the ways in which the places and circumstances in which people “live, work, learn, and play” underpin public health and health equity.

In brief, social determinants of health are the resources and opportunities available to people in their daily lives, which in turn affect their health and well-being. Good jobs that pay a living wage, affordable housing, clean air and water, freedom from racism and discrimination – these variables are most important to promoting health and health equity for all, as demonstrated by a plethora of social epidemiology and social determinants of health research. The Director-General of the World Health Organization’s Commission on Social Determinants of Health, Dr. Margaret Chan, noted at the release of the commission’s 2008 final report (“Closing the gap in a generation: Health equity through action on the social determinants of health”): “This ends the debate decisively. Health care is an important determinant of health. Lifestyles are important determinants of health. But… it is factors in the social environment that determine access to health services and influence lifestyle choices in the first place.”[16] Recognizing these upstream, root causes of health inequities, the report called for “improv[ing] daily living conditions” and “tackl[ing] the inequitable distribution of power, money, and resources” as integral, necessary, and urgent to achieving greater health equity, in the U.S. and beyond. An array of multidisciplinary research syntheses complement and reinforce these conclusions.[17]

Environmental justice and health equity organizations have deep expertise and familiarity with these issues, whether explicitly or implicitly engaged with social determinants of health research. California-based organizations and coalitions[18] collectively offer a crucial touchstone to orient STEM fields toward the type of innovative economy that all Californians, and people everywhere, deserve.

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Air Watch Bay Area screenshot, with refinery fenceline and community air monitors, Richmond.

These reference points are all the more valuable given the challenges of responding to climate change and the relevance of environmental justice organizations and social determinants of health research in doing so. Extreme heat, drought, declining air quality, more frequent wildfires, and other environmental and economic upheavals tied to climate change are all impacting and poised to further impact public health and health equity for Californians. As environmental justice advocates and social determinants of health research demonstrate, it is vital to not only reduce greenhouse gas emissions to prevent additional climate change, but also to contest and mitigate communities’ unequal access to resources and vulnerabilities in the face of climate change—to close the “climate gap”[19] and work toward just transitions away from fossil fuel dependency and toward green job creation.[20] Accordingly, California’s Climate Change and Health Equity Program observes:

Climate change and health inequities share similar root causes: the inequitable distribution of social, political, and economic power. These power imbalances result in systems (economic, transportation, land use, etc.) and conditions that drive both health inequities and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. As a result, we see communities with inequitable living conditions, such as low-income communities of color living in more polluted areas, facing climate change impacts that compound and exacerbate existing vulnerabilities. Fair and healthy climate action requires addressing the inequities that create and intensify community vulnerabilities, through strategically directing extra investments in improving living conditions for and with people facing disadvantage.”[21]

However, even as many concerned with STEM fields decry U.S. students’ rankings on standardized math and science tests compared with students in Finland or Japan, and sound alarm bells about global economic competition, these STEM discussions tend not to simultaneously highlight the U.S.’s global outlier status as a wealthy country with high levels of poverty, preventable morbidity, infant mortality, and health inequities. This is an underappreciated STEM crisis—a failure of economic and political decision-makers to learn from and act on social determinants of health research. As elaborated in a 2013 report from the National Research Council and Institute of Medicine, while the U.S. is among the wealthiest countries in the world, it is far from the healthiest. Indeed, the report—the first comprehensive comparison of the U.S. and 16 peer countries in terms of multiple diseases, injuries, and behaviors across the life span—found that the U.S. is “at or near the bottom in nine key areas of health: infant mortality and low birth weight; injuries and homicides; teenage pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections; prevalence of HIV and AIDS; drug-related deaths; obesity and diabetes; heart disease; chronic lung disease; and disability.”[22] The report ultimately argued that, “Without action to reverse current trends, the health of Americans will probably continue to fall behind that of people in other high-income countries. The tragedy is not that the United States is losing a contest with other countries but that Americans are dying and suffering from illness and injury at rates that are demonstrably unnecessary.” More specifically, other researchers have noted that, “[U.S.] public investments in broad, cross-sectoral efforts to minimize the potential effect of such foundational drivers of poor health as poverty and racial residential segregation are pitifully few in comparison with those of other countries.”[23] Health equity is an innovative touchstone for STEM education in part because, despite pertaining population patterns of well-being, life, and death, social determinants of health research is not widely familiar in the U.S. or in California, nor have these been at the forefront of advocacy for STEM education and science literacy.


If STEM Education Seems to be the Answer, What Was the Question?

Attention to health equity and social determinants of health research suggests the need to reframe conventional STEM education narratives, with an eye to the kinds of economic growth that serve equitable prosperity, ecological sustainability, and democracy. Such a reframing, centered on social determinants of health and the crucial intersections of race, class, and place, is also needed to achieve existing STEM education goals, from closing achievement gaps to supporting underrepresented students in STEM fields. As one STEM education analyst commented on the “Sisyphean Task” of STEM equity and diversity, “While educators continue to do their part to improve the K-16 STEM learning and teaching environment, our efforts may be out-weighed by inaction or counter-productive conditions in other domains.”[24] Yet another possibility is that these efforts may be aided by action in other domains,[25] especially action by researchers, public health professionals, and activists working to promote health equity and environmental justice through multi-sectoral, system-oriented problem-solving.

In this era of proliferating assertions about STEM fields as sources of prosperity and problem solving, it is crucial to question what is meant by “STEM.” How does the public health field fit into the STEM landscape, particularly amid California’s combination of enormous wealth juxtaposed with deep health inequities? How might research on social determinants of health and health inequities reshape this landscape? How could all California STEM stakeholders contribute to the vision embodied in the California Office of Health Equity’s recent report to the California State Legislature?[26] Conversely, how might some STEM discussions obscure rather than illuminate key puzzles of social prosperity and innovation—even or perhaps especially while flying the banners of curiosity, inquiry, innovation, disruption, and challenging the status quo? What is missed when challenges are framed as grand, global and national—rather than regional, or attuned to particular zip codes and neighborhoods? How do the questions asked, and not asked, shape the possible answers—the ways people puzzle through and piece together worlds? California’s vibrant environmental justice and health equity communities offer cogent and inspiring starting points for future STEM inquiries.

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March to stop the incinerator, December 2013, United Workers via Flickr.


Notes

  • Thank you to the editors and anonymous peer reviewers at Boom for their helpful comments on an earlier draft of this article.

[1] Committee on Prospering in the Global Economy of the 21st Century: An Agenda for American Science and Technology, Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Better Future (Washington, D.C.: National Academies Press, 2007), http://www.nap.edu/catalog/11463/rising-above-the-gathering-storm-energizing-and-employing-america-for; Members of 2005 “Rising Above the Gathering Storm” Committee, Rising Above the Gathering Storm, Revisited: Rapidly Approaching Category 5 (Washington, D.C.: National Academies Press, 2010), http://www.nap.edu/catalog/12999/rising-above-the-gathering-storm-revisited-rapidly-approaching-category-5.

[2] http://www.cde.ca.gov/pd/ca/sc/stemintrod.asp.

[3] Rodger Bybee, The Case for STEM Education: Challenges and Opportunities (Arlington, VA: National Science Teachers Association, 2013).

[4] Michael Teitelbaum, Falling Behind? Boom, Bust, and the Global Race for Scientific Talent (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014); Yi Xue and Richard C. Larson, “STEM crisis or STEM surplus? Yes and yes,” Monthly Labor Review, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, May 2015, https://www.bls.gov/opub/mlr/2015/article/stem-crisis-or-stem-surplus-yes-and-yes.htm.

[5] Brian M. Donovan, David Moreno Mateos, Jonathan F. Osborne, Daniel J. Bisaccio, “Revising the Economic Imperative for US STEM Education.” PLOS Biology 12 (2014): 3, http://journals.plos.org/plosbiology/article?id=10.1371/journal.pbio.1001760.

[6] Lance Ulanoff, “Bill Gates: AI is the Holy Grail,” Mashable, 1 June 2016,

http://mashable.com/2016/06/01/bill-gates-ai-code-conference/#oogN_u01Jmqw.

[7] David Remnick, “Obama Reckons With a Trump Presidency,” 28 November 2016, http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2016/11/28/obama-reckons-with-a-trump-presidency.

[8] Connie M. Razza and Louise Auerhahn, “A Hidden Crisis: Underemployment in Silicon Valley’s Hourly Workforce,” The Center for Popular Democracy & Working Partnerships USA, April 2016, http://www.wpusa.org/Publication/A_Hidden_Crisis.pdf; “Tech’s Diversity Problem: More Than Meets the Eye,” Working Partnerships USA, 2014, http://wpusa.org/Publication/Tech_Diversity_Report_2014.pdf.

[9] http://siliconvalleyrising.org/.

[10] Raj Jayadev and Jean Melesaine, De-Bug: Voices from the Underside of Silicon Valley, (Berkeley: Heyday Books, 2016).

[11] Jason Corburn, Street Science: Community Knowledge and Environmental Health Justice, (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2005); Jason Corburn, Toward the Healthy City: People, Places, and the Politics of Urban Planning (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2009).

[12] Brian Martin, “Strategies for Alternative Science,” in Scott Frickel and Kelly Moore, eds., The New Political Sociology of Science: Institutions, Networks, and Power (Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 2006): 272-98, http://www.bmartin.cc/pubs/06Frickel.html.

[13] Indigenous scientists, agency professionals, tribal professionals, educators, traditional practitioners, family, youth, elders and allies from Indigenous communities and homelands all over the living Earth, “Let Our Indigenous Voices Be Heard,” Indigenous Science March for Science Letter of Support, https://sites.google.com/view/indigenous-science-letter;

Science for the People editorial team, “Which Way for Science?” 18 April 2017, https://scienceforthepeople.org/2017/04/18/which-way-for-science/.

[14] Healthy People 2020: https://www.healthypeople.gov/2020/about/foundation-health-measures/Disparities.

[15] American Public Health Association on Health Equity: https://www.apha.org/topics-and-issues/health-equity.

[16] Margaret Chan, “Launch of the final report of the Commission on Social Determinants of Health,” World Health Organization, 28 August 2008, http://www.who.int/dg/speeches/2008/20080828/en/.

[17] These research syntheses include: Jack P. Shonkoff and Deborah A. Philips, From Neurons to Neighborhoods: The Science of Early Childhood Development (Washington, D.C.: National Academies Press, 2000), http://www.nap.edu/catalog/9824/from-neurons-to-neighborhoods-the-science-of-early-childhood-development; Nancy Krieger, Epidemiology and The People’s Health: Theory and Context (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013); Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson, The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger, 2d edition (London: Bloomsbury, 2011); and research into the life-long ramifications of Adverse Childhood Experiences (or ACEs), e.g.: https://www.samhsa.gov/capt/practicing-effective-prevention/prevention-behavioral-health/adverse-childhood-experiences.

[18] For example, California Environmental Justice Coalition: https://cejcoalition.org/; Communities for a Better Environment: http://cbecal.org/; Greenaction for Health & Environmental Justice: http://greenaction.org/; the Center on Race, Poverty & the Environment: http://www.crpe-ej.org/; Public Health Awakened: http://publichealthawakened.com/; among many others.

[19] Rachel Morello-Frosch, Manuel Pastor, Jim Sadd, and Seth Shonkoff, “The Climate Gap: Inequalities in How Climate Change Hurts Americans & How to Close the Gap,” 2009, https://dornsife.usc.edu/pere/climategap/.

[20] See Our Power Campaign: http://www.ourpowercampaign.org/about.

[21] California Climate Change and Health Equity Program: https://www.cdph.ca.gov/Programs/OHE/Pages/CCHEP.aspx, emphasis in original.

[22] Steven H. Woolf and Laudan Aron, eds. U.S. Health in International Perspective: Shorter Lives, Poorer Health (Washington, D.C.: National Academies Press, 2013): http://www.nap.edu/catalog/13497/us-health-in-international-perspective-shorter-lives-poorer-health.

[23] Ronald Bayer and Sandro Galea, “Public Health in the Precision-Medicine Era,” The New England Journal of Medicine, 2015 Aug 6;373(6):499-501, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26244305.

[24] Douglas Haller, “STEM Equity & Diversity: A Sisyphean Task,” Huffington Post, 22 September 2013, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/douglas-haller/stem-equity-diversity-a-s_b_3634985.html.

[25] Emily Zimmerman and Steven H. Woolf, “Understanding the Relationship Between Education and Health,” Institute of Medicine Discussion Paper, 2014, https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/e009/90cdb938751c718d74934ff1d3d8fad907a1.pdf.

[26] California Department of Public Health Office of Health Equity’s Report to the Legislature and the People of California, “Portrait of Promise: The California Statewide Plan to Promote Health and Mental Health Equity,” August 2015, http://www.cdph.ca.gov/programs/Documents/CDPHOHEDisparityReportAug2015.pdf.

 

Cheryl Holzmeyer lives in the San Francisco Bay Area and is a postdoctoral fellow with the Fair Tech Collective at Drexel University. She conducts research and outreach for Air Watch Bay Area, a project focused on frontline community monitoring of air pollution from regional oil refineries. She completed her sociology Ph.D. at UC Berkeley and has taught courses on “Science, Technology, and Environmental Justice” at Stanford.

 

Copyright: © 2017 Cheryl Holzmeyer. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

Articles

Pokémon Go, an Unnatural History: Reflections on race, privilege, and access to augmented nature

Bryan B. Rasmussen

Lately, I’ve put summers in the service of natural history, something I didn’t get much of as a kid. As much as I protest to friends and family that I do not have summers “off,” academic life frees my summers from the usual workaday constraints. Last summer it was collecting butterflies: easier on the joints than the prior summer’s three-week trek through the Sierra Nevada, but disadvantaged by some unfortunate optics: I’m in my forties, and as Vladimir Nabokov, another forty-something would-be lepidopterist, once noted, “the older the man, the queerer he looks with a butterfly net in his hand.”[1] On one afternoon collecting “expedition” to a city park not far from where I live, I found myself under a dense canopy of riparian willows, in a spot well off the path, damp, and full of litter. I’m in the North Atwater Bioswale, a densely vegetated ditch or gully bordering the Los Angeles River. My dog Amelia, a reluctant assistant, stands close in the somewhat wild place, on lookout for dangers known only to her, while I peer from beneath the boughs for evidence of my quarry, the elusive Western Tiger Swallowtail.

This huge, four- to five-inch “splendid, pale-yellow creature with black blotches, blue crenels, and a cinnabar eyespot above each chrome-rimmed black tail,”[2] is a marvel of invertebrate life. And it is appropriately smug about it, rarely mucking about with us terrestrials. Its massive wingspan allows it to sail at high altitudes for an eternity. Though I’ve spotted a dozen of them, to my consternation I’ve never been able to net one. But patient observation reveals that they do occasionally descend to sublunar levels. Like planes over a landing strip, they drop through the middle and lowest part of the swale that forms a treeless alleyway of dense coyote brush and California gold bush where there are no paths. This alleyway terminates at its southern end in the arboreal grotto where I’m standing, and where the swallowtails go for reasons I have yet to divine.

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Positioned in hope of netting one just as it enters, right out of the air, I hear on the path above me two teenagers talking animatedly. They can’t see me but I see them pretty clearly. So there I am, not just a forty-something man with too much unstructured time and a butterfly net, but a forty-something creeper, barely out of view of a pair of teenagers, ducking self-consciously under dank vegetal cover, with a butterfly net, wondering if I could get arrested for this.

It is soon apparent they are arguing about Pokémon Go. They’re in my swale because their phones told them of an invisible, imaginary animal here somewhere, a Pokémon, and they are out to collect it. Overnight, my swale has become host to digital fauna in addition to the analog ones I’m staking out. Suddenly it makes sense why I’ve seen more mothers out with their kids today than in all my previous visits combined. They, like those teens arguing about Jigglypuff or Wartortle or whatever, are looking to net Pokémon. Who knows how many Pokémon are all around me that I can’t see. The place is probably an ark of Pokémon, an illuminated eBestiary of “augmented” nature. And it is clear these players do not pursue their quarry with the same self-conscious shame with which I pursue mine.

The juxtaposition struck me as odd: Me, with net and jangly bag of killing jars, copy of Heath’s Butterflies of Southern California, field notebook, scratched up from clamoring off the path to this spot known mostly to swallowtails and secret pot smokers, sweaty, covered in the ants that rain down from the willows above, and worrying that Amelia might step on god knows what—a used needle? They, inside-kids clearly unused to being outdoors (you can just tell), clutching their Androids, indifferent to the actual fauna all around them, hunting an image superimposed on a digital camera reproduction of a real landscape.

In my moment of discomfort and shame, a host of ungenerous, but not entirely unmerited, arguments came to mind: arguments about the inherent merits of analog over virtual or “augmented” nature; about people not spending enough or the right kind of time outdoors; about being outside not really being the point; about the daily battle for kids’ (and adults’) time, attention, and money. After all, those teenagers that have turned my swale into a GPS data point are little more than the sweaty consumer endpoints of algorithms created by computer programmers (themselves inside-kids, I’d wager) breathing the cool recycled air pumped into their glass and steel San Francisco campus at Niantic, Inc., the corporate origin of digital species. They’re merely extensions of the artificial worlds in which we have largely confined ourselves and, to a greater degree, our nature-deprived children who now suffer from something called “nature-deficit disorder”—journalist Richard Louv’s diagnosis for the disease that plagues our technology-addled modern youth.[3]

Later, though, like the Lake poet William Wordsworth,

…when on my couch I lie
In vacant or pensive mood[4]

I found myself suspicious of the ease with which such snarky criticisms came to mind—easy, perhaps because of the enticing moral boilerplate that drives much of our talk about “nature” and what it means to be “in” it. Such notions about nature are as much morally as physically prescriptive: going out in nature is good for you and therefore good. These ideas are old. Louv’s nature-deficit disorder, for example, dresses up American Transcendentalist philosophy in clinical language. It’s a version of Emerson’s prescription that “a nobler want of man is served by nature,”[5] which he borrowed from the Romantics who insisted that “nature be your teacher.”[6] Nature ideals have always contained normative assumptions: about the boundaries between the natural and artificial worlds (nature is “essences untouched by man,” so I guess leaves and things); about what counts as valuable outside time (walking, preferably aimlessly, roughly westward, and definitely not to work); about the right way to be outside (alone, in awe).

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And they contain assumptions about privilege and access to nature: not just, are you really outside when you’re playing Pokémon Go?—but should you really be outside? Different people experience the answer to this last question differently. In fact, few would even put that question to a white professional like me, even a silly-looking one with a butterfly net. But those teenagers playing Pokémon Go were Hispanic, as were those mothers with their kids. The issue with Pokémon Go isn’t just the human-computer intersection that challenges what it means to really be outside, it’s the politics of being outside at all. It reminds us how fraught “going outside” actually is.

Lying on my proverbial poet’s couch, I found myself confronting not just the queer, quaint privilege of the scholar-naturalist, but what it means to practice natural history while white. If he’s not careful, the cranky naturalist, lurking beneath damp willows, waving around a butterfly net and some hackneyed nature ideal to justify his disapproval of some teenagers’ digitally augmented outdoor experience, can find himself also policing access to nature—an act historically underpinned by race and privilege. An afternoon’s jaunt to my local park in pursuit of natural history had turned out to be anything but quaint.

Is Pokémon Go Natural History?

Pokémon Go actually sells itself as a kind of virtual natural history. When you first play, you’re greeted by Professor Willow, a stylishly outfitted naturalist-cum-urban explorer who asks for your help in his global research project to collect Pokémon (or “pocket monsters,” in the original Japanese game concept from 1995), mystery animals that seem like the composite creatures in a medieval bestiary, with names—besides Jigglypuff or Wartortle—like Rhyhorn, Horsea, and the coveted Charizard. Like all such franchised worlds, it has a hugely complex and sprawling mythology and detailed rules. But the gist of it is this: Your device shows you a map of your area, which you use to locate a wild Pokémon. When you’re close enough to one, you can select it by tapping it on your screen, and then it actually appears in “real” life—that is, superimposed on the camera image displayed by your smartphone. To catch it, you throw the equivalent of a net, a “Poké Ball,” over the creature. If you’re successful, its information enters your Pokédex, an encyclopedia with detailed information on your Pokémon’s habitat and ethology. Meanwhile, the creature remains inside the Poké Ball while you feed it, or you can train your Pokémon for battle against others at a local “gym,” like a Balinese cock or a Shanghai fighting cricket.

Scientists have been among the first to recognize and exploit the parallels between Pokémon Go and natural history. They suggest that the game might reinvigorate interest in the venerable practices of observing, identifying, and classifying organisms in the form of citizen science. As legions of players armed with high-resolution digital cameras wander out of doors looking for digital fauna, “they are spotting other wildlife, too,”[7] useful data to scientists that study biodiversity. The potential of these players to advance understanding of biodiversity is huge, especially in an era of declining attention to field study in schools and colleges.[8] So-called “digital collectors”—anyone with a cell phone camera—“are fast outnumbering specimen collectors.” Moreover, with “new conservation rules [that make] it harder to collect and transport real species samples,” scientists would do well, they argue, to mobilize the popularity of Pokémon Go.[9]

Ecologist Andrew Thaler says the game has the potential to inspire interest in natural history because it promotes “active, creative, exploratory play that encourages players to interact with their environment.” [10] Morgan Jackson, a fly-researcher, says playing the Pokémon games as a kid helped spark his interest in biology. “Catching [flies], ID’ing them and figuring out how they’re all related” is, he says, essentially doing “Pokémon in real life.” Maybe “it’s not a cure for Nature-Deficit Disorder,” says Thaler, “but it’s definitely a potential treatment.”[11]

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Image courtesy of Colleen Greene.

There are some obvious ironies to Pokémon Go’s thin pretense to natural history. For example, the game’s gladiatorial feature runs counter to any recognizable conservation philosophy. While it’s true that natural history has historically relied on violence to secure specimens, scientists are among the most likely to regard capturing and killing specimens as an unfortunate feature of their discipline, to be practiced with great constraint, not celebrated. In many branches of biology, the practice has wended away from capture and kill and toward observe and record. Furthermore, natural history is just a side-effect of game play, certainly not the point. To call Pokémon Go players “digital collectors” is a stretch. Rather than, say, educating them about the importance of biodiversity survey, or schooling them in good field practice, or even deploying them for the higher purposes of data collection, the game instead instrumentalizes and monetizes its users. Citizen science it is not.

While promoting going outside might seem like the cure for what ails us as a culture detached from the things of the earth, there is a certain cruel spectacle to sending a lot of people outside who are ill-equipped to be there. Nature-lovers’ naive optimism about the benefits of going outside were largely overwhelmed last summer by the media rollout of (let’s face it, much more entertaining) stories about the public nuisance that going outside actually creates. In summer of 2016, within just days of the game’s introduction, the Los Angeles Times reported that two men from San Diego “fell off a bluff” while playing, obviously because they were outside only in the physical sense—their minds were elsewhere. One of them fell 75 to 100 feet (he lived). An Oregon man was stabbed while playing the game after midnight (he kept playing); a New York man crashed his car while driving to a PokéStop. Two English teens got stranded underground in some caves. Three San Diego women stumbled on a dead body in a park. Some others tracked their Pokémon into the Washington, D.C. Holocaust Museum.[12] Reports like these raise the issue that while the game encourages its players to go outside, it doesn’t provide the tools to thrive—or even survive—there.[13]

Moreover, it’s hard to reconcile Pokémon Go’s promise of exploratory play in the environment with the disproportionate risks of, and uneven access to, that play. Just ask the two Florida teens playing Pokémon Go that were shot at, evidently mistaken for thieves, or the Iowa State football player mistaken for a bank robber.[14] As it has been for naturalists for hundreds of years, being outside entails risk. Naturalists have had to “share the field” with all manner of folks: “hunters, fishers, poachers, trappers, surveyors, tramps, madmen, shamans, loggers, prospectors, bird watchers, bandits, vacationers, herbalists, cowboys, students, con men, true and false prophets, and green terrorists.”[15] So along with similar practices, it only makes sense (and it’s only fair) that Pokémon Go’s “digital collectors” should experience similar dangers.

But Faith Ekakitie, the Iowa State student mistaken for a criminal, is Black. Police justified stopping him on the street because he fit “the exact description of a bank robbery suspect police believed was in the vicinity.” Exact? In the context of the incidents of shootings of unarmed Black teenagers and men, and in particular with the 2012 killing of Trayvon Martin by vigilante George Zimmerman that sparked the Black Lives Matter movement, it’s impossible not to read such statements as anything but the outcome of racial profiling of Black men who have the audacity to simply be outside.

The danger that Ekakitie faced was categorically different than the average Pokémon Go player. He wasn’t just exposed to the greater risks of being outdoors: he was risk itself, and therefore subject to risk containment in the form of police attention that could easily have turned fatal. This highlights the potential for uneven distribution of risk among Pokémon Go players, or playing Pokémon Go while Black. It also highlights the matter of uneven free access to the outdoors. Writer Omar Akil puts it this way: “The premise of Pokémon Go asks me to put my life in danger if I choose to play it as it is intended.” [16] More directly: “I might die if I keep playing.”[17]

In light of incidents like this, the real question facing Pokémon Go players may not be, are you doing natural history, but, do you belong in the landscape? The question of what to do with people is one with which natural historians have long struggled, often confusing the study of the natural world with the policing of social norms.

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Natural History and the Politics of Being Outside

The politics of being outside—in my case, the comparatively low-risk shame of being a working-age male wandering, to any reasonable observer, aimlessly during daylight hours—is in part what drove me to make my natural history hobby conventionally scientific rather than merely quaint. I like to imagine that the pretense of scientific purpose, manifest in the totem of my butterfly net, protects me from the charge of privilege (even as much as being white reveals that privilege).

I chose the North Atwater Bioswale to make a systematic survey of butterfly diversity, accounting for number and kinds of species according to season. I was inspired by an exhibit at the Los Angeles Natural History Museum where I learned that of the 236 butterfly species in Los Angeles County, forty-five make their home at Griffith Park.[18] The North Atwater Bioswale is just across the 5 Freeway and the Los Angeles River from Griffith Park, which is the easternmost edge of the Santa Monica Mountain Range: Can my swale still be considered part of the mountains? What is the ecological relationship between Griffith and North Atwater Parks? What kind of biogeographical barriers do rivers and freeways make? Do butterflies cross freeways?

However, if I’m being honest, quaintness does motivate me. I am inspired as much by modern ecology as by my favorite English naturalist Gilbert White, the eighteenth-century country parson who spent his life documenting the flora and fauna of his native county of Selborne in the south of England. White’s Natural History of Selborne (1789), the best-selling book in England after the Bible for 200 years, made local or “backyard” natural history fashionable and inspired generations of naturalists, including Charles Darwin. It provides a prescient model for what we now would call citizen science, that practice of experts outsourcing observations in nature to local amateur field agents (though the expert/amateur distinction did not technically exist in the eighteenth century). White’s book is a collection of his letters to his naturalist friends Thomas Pennant and Daines Barrington on local flora and fauna and is famous for its quaint charm, and for the persona of the humble, interested observer, characterized by expressions like this: “My remarks are the result of many years of observation; and are, I trust, true in the whole: though I do not pretend that they are perfectly void of mistake, or that a more nice [i.e., expert] observer might not make many additions, since subjects of this kind are inexhaustible.”[19] His field study might be regarded as among the first to attempt a biological survey, richly documenting the biodiversity of his native county and exemplifying his dictum that “all nature is so full, that that district produces the greatest variety which is the most examined.”[20]

I am so enchanted by White’s example of deep natural history that I set out to do my own Natural History of North Atwater Park. I focused my attention on this bioswale on the western edge of the park about a hundred meters wide and running a quarter mile along the Los Angeles River. Devoting myself to an entire county is daunting, but a three-acre urban watershed management park within a dog-walk from my house seems manageable. The swale is teeming with native flora, and is really accessible, crisscrossed with compacted dirt paths and adorned with informative signage explaining what kinds of plants can be found there and what a bioswale even is.[21]

The swale also provides rich faunal habitat. Since I started paying attention, I have observed a bestiary of Los Angeles invertebrates: the Western Honey Bee (Apis mellifera); the less common Golden Digger Wasp (Sphex ichneumoneus); hoverflies, like the tiny Margined Calligrapher (Toxomerus marginatus); huge Gray Bird Grasshoppers (Schistocerca nitens) and giant rust-colored Flame Skimmer Dragonflies (Libellula saturate), as big as small birds; and California Mantis (Stagmomantis californica), whose oothecae festoon the willow branches and on which I keep a close eye for signs of activity. And my main interest, the lepidoptera. In just a couple of months, I’ve documented or captured ten species on my rounds: Marine Blues, Gulf Fritillaries, Common Buckeyes, Cabbage Whites, Mourning Cloaks, West Coast Ladies, Fiery Skippers, Funereal Duskywing Skippers, Umber Skippers, and, of course, Western Tiger Swallowtails.

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Lizards, birds, and mammals, too, frequent the swale—and people. There is the odd dog-walker, but mostly vagrants, drug dealers, and weed-smokers, probably because of the good cover the dense vegetation provides. I know this because of the colorful weed cannisters that adorn the underbrush, and the Toonerville gang’s (Toonerville Rifa 13) tagging of the educational placards. I generally steer clear of people on my afternoon expeditions, partly out of my sense of shame, and partly for fear that people take a dim view of collecting. But people and cultures have always been features of natural history, albeit perhaps the most problematic ones. The shared nature of “the field” puts into relief the social conflicts incurred simply by being outdoors.

White, for example, wrote a lot about the people of Selborne and their habits. Among them, he took special note of the “gangs or hordes of gypsies” that came through his county a few times a year. Like many of the birds that White describes, Gypsies are not native to Selborne, having migrated “from Egypt and the East, two or three centuries ago.” However, despite their long habitation in England, White insists on calling them “vagrants.” Their “family name,” the Curleople, which, though “a little corrupted” from its Greek origins, betrays their origins in the Levant region of the eastern Mediterranean. So does their language, which he characterizes, under cover of academic inquiry, as the “mutilated remains” of their native Greek and, even less academically, as “harsh gibberish” and “cant.”

White marks the Gypsies as “other”[22] not just in their name and language, but in their habits, too: they prefer, he says, to live “sub dio”—that is, under the sun, or outside—eschewing even the “barns, stables, and cow-houses” preferred by other, presumably English, beggars. In delineating between dwellings suitable for animals and living sub dio, White uses the Gypsies to police what it means to be “outside.” Living sub dio makes them neither animal nor beggar, but something closer to pests: they “infest the south and west of England;” they can’t be contained. “Europe itself, it seems, cannot set bounds to the rovings of these vagabonds,” as reports of them have been returned as far as “the confines of Tartary,” where they “were endeavoring to… try their fortune in China.”

White’s natural history description bleeds into normative racial and ethnic identity politics. For him, natural history patrols the boundaries around Englishness, regulating who is belongs and who does not. Furthermore, in his examination of their language and habits, he marks the Gypsies as rootless, homeless wanderers, severing their ties to their homeland in the Middle East even as he links them to it.[23] They’re left with no legitimate claim to place. In the end, White includes Gypsies as features of The Natural History of Selborne only to exclude them. They represent a kind of “unnatural” history: after all, birds pass through the country during migration, too, but birds don’t carry the same baggage of belonging or nativity that humans do.[24] Humans’ role in nature has historically had more contested significance than the nonhuman.

Romantic Nature’s Racist Legacy

For White, nature is not only a floral and faunal landscape, but a moral one as well. And natural history is not just a set of practices to study birds and whatnot, but an instrument to assess how different people figure differently in that landscape. It is this idea of nature and the study of nature as a moral enterprise that allows us to draw a straight line between White’s not-so-subtle exclusionary racism and the normative nature/non-nature, inside/outside boundaries made evident by Pokémon Go.

White’s natural history belongs to the late eighteenth-century zeal for nature experience and study that we associate with the likes of Romantics like Wordsworth, who aimed to reveal nature’s “spontaneous wisdom” through poetry.[25] For the Romantics, nature taught important moral lessons. Writers like Emerson imported the Romantics and their European-style nature-worship to America as Transcendentalism, signaling a major shift in modern nature philosophy. Before the Romantics, “nature” in America was mostly a lot of wasteland in between colonial towns on the east coast where wild animals and “savages” could murder you.[26] Majestic American mountain landscapes were then just blights on God’s otherwise harmonious vistas. Nature-worship was viewed as a form of paganism by settlers that were less likely to regard the indigenous people as humans than as (at worst) Satan’s howling demons or as (at best) fauna fit to be the objects of natural history, but not its practitioners. Nature from this moral vantage point ought not be preserved but tamed, along with the natives, to make room for Manifest Destiny: the God-ordained annexation of free land for white settlement and industrial development.

Romantic nature philosophy arrived on the scene at a time when Americans were beginning to contend with new and disturbing realities. First, God-ordained industrial and technological mastery provided the frightening ability to domesticate the fearsomeness of nature by eradicating entire landscapes and the people who lived on them in the pursuit of resources and profit. The real devils were now land surveyors and private landowners and, by extension, civilized town life more generally. Second, our religio-capitalist land-rape didn’t exactly deliver on its promise of moral health and happiness. In fact, to nature sages like Thoreau and Muir, land-rape and moral health seemed at odds. After a century or more of nature exploitation, under the auspices of “improvement,” had driven us more and more indoors, those historical “wastelands”—now safely delivered of their scary megafauna and original inhabitants—suddenly started to look spiritually rejuvenating. So, we drew lines around some big parks, kicked out the rest of the savages, and called the areas “nature.” This is more or less the story of how the wastelands of yore were resurrected as unpeopled wilderness preserves for the spiritual benefit of temporary sojourners in need of respite from the stresses of civilized life. Other less majestic places were left to fend for themselves. Joshua Tree versus the Salton Sea is a pretty striking local example of the consequences of such a binary land ethic, but perhaps more striking is the classic and widespread division between nature and city, which expresses the ultimate in normative nature ideas, that nature is anywhere humans are not.[27]

The Romantic nature ideal allowed for the preservation of unparalleled swaths of pristine national parkland against industrial development and exploitation, but at the same time it left a legacy of uneven access to that same ideal. While the “nature experience” has long been held up as a foundation of American identity, it has also been confined to specific places accessible mostly to whites. For along with eliminating permanent inhabitants from national parks, it helped turn those parks into temporary enclaves of middle-class white leisure-time activity—as places to travel to on family holidays, or as destinations of adventure requiring not only time but resources, such as three weeks during the summer and a few thousand dollars worth of gear to hike the John Muir Trail.

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This legacy is today evident in the radically uneven usership of national parks. For example, studies show that whites make up a disproportionately high percentage of visitors, while Black and Hispanic attendance lags far behind. A 2008-2009 study by the Park Service on “Racial and Ethnic Diversity of National Park System Visitors and Non-Visitors” found that of National Park visitors nation wide just 9% identified as Hispanic, and just 7% identified as African American. In total, non-Whites were just 20% of all visitors.[28] This despite that minorities account for almost 40% of the U.S. population. An NPR piece from 2016 examined Saguaro National Park in Tucson, Arizona, as exemplary of the demographic challenges facing the parks today and found that “The type of people who visit the park don’t reflect the type of people living in the community. Tucson is about 44 percent Hispanic or Latino. Of the park’s roughly 650,000 annual visitors, less than 2 percent self-identify as Hispanic.”[29]

Hispanic minorities cite the high cost of travel to parks, entry fees, lack of signage in Spanish, lack of shade (too sub dio, I guess), and the overwhelming whiteness of park employees as reasons not to visit. But they also cite cultural differences in the kind of experiences that they expect from nature: Whereas the ideal nature experience promoted by parks frequently borrows on “the solitude and quiet of a John Muir photo,” Hispanics “might want to have a different experience in the outdoors.” Hispanics enjoy nature, not as solitary wanderers above a sea of fog, but as whole families: “I’m going to bring my whole family,” said Oscar Medina, a teacher at a nearby high school: “we’re going to be loud, we’re going to explore.” But “that’s not what’s promoted” in parks that function a lot like museums. The result is the feeling that “this is not our space.” One park ranger observed, “If we’re not being relevant to almost half of the population, then 30, 40, 50 years from now, the park isn’t going to matter to them.”[30]

Instead of pristine wilderness, minorities have had to content themselves with whatever nature experience cities might offer,[31] a form of compromised nature far from the traditional nature of curated parklands. We tend not to revere urban nature with the same degree of ethical care as national parks, despite the fact that from an ecological point of view biodiversity skews higher in urban areas than elsewhere. Scientists regard Los Angeles, for example, as a biodiversity “hot spot.” It “lies within the California Floristic Province, which is globally recognized as one of just thirty-five biodiversity hotspots in the world—and the only one in the continental United States.”[32] According to Brian Brown, Curator of Entomology at the Los Angeles Natural History Museum, “There’s often a misconception that Los Angeles is a concrete jungle, when in reality the city is home to one of the most diverse ecosystems in the world.”[33] But when we imagine ourselves “out in nature,” taking in the landscape from the aerie vantage of mountaintops, we tend not to imagine a landscape crisscrossed by freeways and concrete flood control channels. The reality is that Los Angeles suffers less from a “nature” problem than a perception problem.

But this distinction may be moot, because even in such “compromised” spaces as urban parklands, non-whites suffer the same problems of accessibility as they do in national parks. Urban minorities are more likely to be “park poor,” or to live farther away from public parks. A public health study in Los Angeles from 2016 found that “African Americans and Latinos were more likely than Asians and Whites to live in cities and communities with less park space per capita.”[34] As a result, they were also far more likely to suffer “significant public health implications.” This is evidenced by a ten-year study of more than 3,000 children living in southern California, which found that “those living near parks and recreational programs had lower rates of obesity at 18 years of age than comparable children who lived further away.”[35]

Compromised nature leads to compromised quality of life. Given the higher rates of white children with access to “nature” in whatever form, non-white children are statistically more likely to experience Louv’s nature-deficit disorder. They’re also more likely to live closer to urban environmental hazards, like waste facilities or Superfund sites and so are perhaps less likely to participate in the national myth that our common American heritage resides in our relationship to “places untouched by man.”[36] The ethnic demographics of visitors to national parks, the traditionally park-poor communities of urban centers like Los Angeles, and the “unequal vulnerability” of minority populations to environmental degradation, illustrate that access to nature, in the traditional Romantic sense, is not a right but a privilege of race and class.[37] The reality is that minorities in urban centers are more likely to be the victims of a nature ideal secured by violence, not its beneficiaries.

At the same time, while Hispanics are underrepresented in national parks, they “are slightly overrepresented among Pokémon Go players.” Hispanics makes up 17% of the U.S. population, and only 9% of national park visitors, but they represent 19% of Pokémon Go players. This representation may correlate with the rural/urban divide in Pokémon Go usership: rates of play are much higher in cities than in the country. The game’s appeal to a diverse urban usership is particularly evident in the rates of new players. In one study, “while 34% of all respondents said they never had played a Pokémon game before,” that number was much higher for Black and Latino players (49% and 40% respectively). One interpretation of these figures is that white and non-white players experience the game’s offer of outdoor activity differently. Non-white players may express in their attraction to Pokémon Go a desire for the kinds of outdoor activities that are denied them. Perhaps these figures even reveal a criticism of the uneven opportunities to engage in outdoor activity that confront urban minorities daily as features of their built environment.

However, despite these statistics, some have argued that Pokémon Go simply reproduces the uneven access to and experience of nature that we find in city and national parks. Almost as soon as the game hit its high-water mark of popularity in the summer of 2016, critics revealed that different groups experienced the game differently. For example, Los Angeles-based environmental journalist Aura Bogado points out the striking disproportion of PokéStops and “gyms” in white versus minority communities. Using a Twitter campaign #mypokehood to gather user-generated evidence of the disproportion, Bogado found that there were far more PokéStops in Long Beach, which is about fifty percent white, than in her own majority-minority neighborhood in South LA. She found the same to be true for Chicago, Miami, New York, and Washington D.C. “As the share of the white population increases, PokéStops and gyms become more plentiful,” writes Shiva Kooragayala and Tanaya Srini of the Urban Institute, which corroborated Bogado’s findings. In fact, in majority white neighborhoods they found an average of 55 PokéStops, compared to only 19 in majority Black neighborhoods.[38] Furthermore, they argue that racialized public space is built into the game’s design, and in the gaming industry more generally. It turns out that Pokémon Go game designers simply borrowed the mapping algorithm of an earlier game called Ingress, also put out by Niantic. This, argues Bogado, is how environmental racism becomes structural, passed down uncritically from one design to another until the experience of inequity goes from bug to feature.

Some have referred to this “redlining”, a term more typically used to describe minority communities’ limited access to “essential services,” such as access to affordable housing.[39] Is access to nature an “essential service?” What about augmented nature? Pokémon Go promises access to the outdoors, but at the same time reinforces the unevenness of that promise.

Unnatural History

How can we resolve this apparent contradiction between the game’s promise, on one hand, of access to the nature experience through the practice of natural history and, on the other, its complicity in the long history of exclusionary environmental racism in this country? One avenue presents itself: the creator of the original Pokemon franchise, Satoshi Tajiri. I was surprised to learn Tajiri attributed his inspiration to a childhood spent collecting insects in the rural countryside around his hometown of Machida, a suburb of Tokyo—a place “full of nature,” a phrase that makes me imagine my bioswale, only much bigger.[40] Bugs fascinated Tajiri—or Dr. Bug, as he was known to his friends. He recalled in a 1999 Time interview being a keen observer of bug life: he possessed intimate knowledge of their variety, habitats, and behaviors. He knew beetles liked to sleep under rocks so he placed rocks under trees at night and would check on them in the morning in order to collect the sleepy beasts. “Every time I found a new insect,” he relates, “it was mysterious to me.”

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However, as rural landscape gave way to commercial development, “all the insects were driven away.” Tajiri saw a decrease in insects year over year as trees came down and buildings went up: “A fishing pond would become an arcade center,” which was a particularly ironic reflection given his own professional destiny as a video game designer. When asked if insects gave him the idea for Pokémon, Tajiri said yes: but not just the insects—the loss of insects and insect habitat, along with the accompanying shifts in childhood behavior, from an outside culture to an inside one.

Tajiri built this environmental consciousness into the game, intending it, writes Anne Allison, as a “play-form… to both capture and transmit to present-day kids” his “childhood experiences in a town where nature had not yet been overtaken by industrialization.”[41] Tajiri understood that as a result of these shifts, “people spend more time alone, forming intimacies less with one another than with the goods they consume and the technologies they rely upon.” Most of the games kids turn to demand that users master a degree of complexity that draws them further into the game world and away from the real world, leaving them without the connections to people and environment that can be sources of community, comfort, and health. For Tajiri, going outside meant connecting not just to nature, but also to one another. Natural history-style gameplay becomes a social experience that alleviates the stresses of living under industrial capitalism.

Given that Pokémon was originally imagined as a response to urban alienation, it is fitting that it is more likely to be played in urban locations by the people most impacted by poor access to natural resources. These are the same communities for whom the traditional distinction between nature and non-nature, real and augmented, probably makes less sense as a defining contrast. Historically compromised access to nature may mean that the desire for outdoor experience is not driven by nostalgia for a lost, pre-industrial nature ideal, as it was for the Romantics and Transcendentalists. And so by a curious historical and transnational confluence, urban minority Pokémon Go players in American cities come to resemble more closely the experience not of nature per se, but of the augmented nature captured in Tajiri’s design. Plugging into the smartphone game app, Pokémon Go players become students of a different nature than those in the Romantic school. They become living embodiments of Tajiri’s environmental consciousness, and, to borrow from Gilbert White, some “progress in a kind of information to which I have been attached from my childhood.”[42] The “information” I’m referring to is not White’s natural history: I maintain that Pokémon Go players are not learning much natural history. Rather, I’m talking about progress toward conceptualizing our actual, augmented relationship to nature, rather than the imaginary Romantic one we tend to wield, sometimes (charmingly) like a butterfly net, but sometimes (problematically) like police baton. The compromises and contradictions embedded in Pokémon Go players’ experience of the world, I think, better characterize this actual relationship to nature. They remind us that there is no nature without people, and that an untouched nature exists only as an exclusionary ideal.

Understood in the course of natural history, Pokémon Go gives us the means to re-imagine the nature ideal as an inclusive rather than exclusive one. This represents the value of “augmented” nature. Its natural historian, Tajiri, is a postcolonial Gilbert White: rather than using natural history to police boundaries, to deny access and connection, Tajiri designed his game with the intent to dissolve boundaries, to grant access and connection. In doing so, he re-designed “nature” itself. To modify Wordsworth,

“let augmented nature be your teacher.”

My beloved bioswale has been a good classroom for the lessons taught by augment nature: it’s as full of contradictions as it is of native flora and fauna. Its “nature” is propped up by a host of human contrivances. Completed in 2014, it’s a $4 million city planning component of the LA River Revitalization Master Plan to install environmentally sensitive urban design and improve water quality along a 51-mile watershed river that connects thirteen cities and many more municipalities in one of the most densely populated regions on the continent. It employs the latest in watershed design, like native plant biofiltration and permeable paving stones. It’s the result of huge collaboration among multiple city departments.[43] And it lies along the LA River: a concrete flood control channel that was once a naturally occurring seasonal meandering waterway, but which has become perhaps one of the world’s best exhibits of the contradictions of the human-nonhuman confluence. The LA River only looks like an “actual” river (at least where I live in the “Glendale Narrows” portion) because treated wastewater gets dumped into it daily from the Los Angeles-Glendale Water Treatment Plant. This is water that sustains the habitat that provides a home for human and nonhuman animals alike. Anything “natural” about North Atwater Park—in that cranky sense that nature is anything where humans are not—is a total fiction. The park is a work of human art and nature, which, when I think about it, makes me love it more rather than less.

Catching butterflies at this park was never really about living “the nature ideal” as it was a project that combined my need to get outside with my academic interest in the history and practices of science. By disposition, I’m probably a lot like those kids I see with their smartphones: I’m not a born naturalist, like Tajiri, and I’ve never been one to experience nature for its Romantic appeal. I’m frequently detached from the outside, and I use technology as a carrot to lure me there. Alongside my collecting net and notebook and killing jar I have a citizen science app called iNaturalist to photograph species and outsource identifications to local experts. iNaturalist geo-tags my observations and plots them on a Google Earth map for others to see. I sometimes use it like a geocaching tool, revisiting places where others have recorded an interesting butterfly in hopes of seeing one, too.

Like those Pokémon Go players, I need some alluring mission, like documenting how nonhuman animals make use of a three-acre marvel of environmental engineering. More meaningful to me than the question of whether the park is natural or artificial is that it needs a natural history because, to modify White, “that district possesses the greatest value which is the most examined.” Doing natural history in places historically relegated to “non-nature” is a step on the way to accommodating them in our nature philosophy. Perhaps only then might we improve both their quality and the access to them. As a White middle-class male, the question of my access to this park is not much contested. But a complete natural history of the North Atwater Bioswale ought not be limited to its fauna, Poké or otherwise: It ought to treat the experience of the humans who hunt them—the experience of privilege and exclusion alike. After all, these are features of the landscape, as well as its bugs.

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Notes

[1] Vladimir Nabokov, Speak, Memory: An Autobiography Revisited (orig. 1966, reprint, Vintage, 1989), 131.

[2] Ibid., 120.

[3] Sean Greene, “‘Pokemon Go’ players are finding real animals while searching for digital ones,” Los Angeles Times, 11 July 2016, http://www.latimes.com/science/sciencenow/la-sci-sn-pokemon-go-real-animals-20160711-20160711-snap-story.html.

[4] William Wordsworth, “I wandered lonely as a cloud.” Poems, in Two Volumes (London: Longman, 1807).

[5] Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Nature” (Boston: James Munro, 1836), 19.

[6] Wordsworth, “The Tables Turned.” Lyrical Ballads, with a Few Other Poems (London: 1798).

[7] “Gotta name them all: how Pokémon can transform taxonomy,” Nature: International Weekly Journal of Science, 19 July 2016,  http://www.nature.com/news/gotta-name-them-all-how-pok%C3%A9mon-can-transform-taxonomy-1.20275.

[8] See, for example: Robert E. Kohler, Landscapes and Labscapes: Exploring the Lab-Field Border in Biology (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010); John T. Anderson, Deep Things Out of Darkness: A History of Natural History (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012), 250-56.

[9] “Gotta name them all.”

[10] Greene, “‘Pokemon Go’ players are finding real animals.”

[11] Ibid.

[12] Veronica Rocha, “2 California men fall off edge of ocean bluff while playing ‘Pokemon Go,’” Los Angeles Times, 14 July 2016, http://www.latimes.com/local/lanow/la-me-ln-pokemon-go-players-stabbed-fall-off-cliff-20160714-snap-story.html. “Man Stabbed While Playing ‘Pokemon Go,’ But Continues Playing,” ABC7 News, 15 July 2016. http://abc7.com/news/pokemon-go-player-stabbed-keeps-playing/1428184/. Feliks Garcia, “Pokemon Go Gamer Crashes Car Into Tree in New York,” Independent 14 July 2016, http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/gadgets-and-tech/gaming/pokemon-go-car-crash-new-york-a7137261.html.; “Pokemon Go teens stuck in caves 100ft underground,” BBC News 15 July 2016. http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-wiltshire-36805615. Last accessed: July 17, 2016; Veronica Rocha, “‘Pokemon Go’ players find corpse in San Diego Park,” Los Angeles Times 15 July 2016, http://www.latimes.com/local/lanow/la-me-ln-san-diego-dead-body-pokemon-go-20160715-snap-story.html; Andrea Peterson, “Holocaust Museum to Visitors: Please Stop Catching Pokemon Here,” Washington Post 12 July 2016,. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-switch/wp/2016/07/12/holocaust-museum-to-visitors-please-stop-catching-pokemon-here/.

[13] The following gives handy list of such incidents involving the game: http://www.syracuse.com/us-news/index.ssf/2016/07/pokemon_go_dangerous_every_crime_accident_death_shooting_linked_to_game.html#0.

[14] Adam Hamze, “Police body camera shows Pokemon Go player mistaken for bank robber.” Vice News, 26 July 2016; https://news.vice.com/article/police-body-camera-shows-pokemon-go-player-mistaken-for-bank-robber; “Florida teens, mistaken for thieves, shot at playing Pokemon Go,” BBC News, 17 July 2016, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-36818384.

[15] Kohler, Landscapes 6-7.

[16] Omar Akil, “Warning: Pokémon GO Could Be A Death Sentence If You Are A Black Man,” Huffington Post, 12 July 2016, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/omari-akil/warning-pokemon-go-is-death-sentence-black-man_b_10946826.html.

[17] Ibid.

[18] This figure is down from fifty-five in the 1920s. Over ninety or so years, Griffith Park lost nearly 20 percent of its native butterfly diversity—I’m guessing due to habitat loss associated with human development. I would actually have expected a greater reduction, but Griffith Park remains a surprisingly unimpacted landscape in the middle of this metropolis.

[19] Gilbert White, The Natural History of Selborne (1789), reprinted (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), 133.

[20] Ibid., 45.

[21] Turns out “bioswale” is environmental-design speak for a biofiltration system that uses plants, rocks, and soil to capture trash, particulates, and toxins from flood water and break them down before they enter the aquifer or are expelled into the river through an outflow pipe. This water management strategy lies behind the design of the many “pocket parks” along the LA River intended to enhance aesthetics and improve water quality.

[22] White, 158-59.

[23] Ibid.

[24] In fact, bird migration was a major source of controversy: some theories said birds migrate for winter, others that they hide (Introduction, White, xxii).

[25] Wordsworth, “The Tables Turned.”

[26] See, for example, Baird Callicott and Priscilla Ybarra, “Puritan Origins of the American Wilderness Movement,” Nature Transformed: The Environment in American History, National Humanities Center and TeacherServe (2009): http://nationalhumanitiescenter.org/tserve/nattrans/ntwilderness/essays/puritan.htm. See also Evan Berry, Devoted to Nature: The Religious Roots of American Environmentalism (Oakland: University of California Press, 2015), esp. 102-147.

[27] See, for example, William Cronon’s now-canonical essay “The Trouble with Wilderness: Getting Back to the Wrong Kind of Nature,” in Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature, ed. William Cronon (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1995), 69-90.

[28] National Park Service Comprehensive Survey of the American Public, 2008–2009: Racial and Ethnic Diversity of National Park System Visitors and Non-Visitors. Natural Resource Report NPS/NRSS/SSD/NRR—2011/432

[29] Rott, “Don’t Care About National Parks? The Park Service Needs You To,” All Things Considered, 9 March 2016, http://www.npr.org/2016/03/09/463851006/dont-care-about-national-parks-the-park-service-needs-you-to.

[30] Rott.

[31] See for example these 2014 statistics on children living in rural versus urban settings, according to race and ethnicity in U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Health Resources and Services Administration, Maternal and Child Health Bureau. Child Health USA 2014 (Rockville, Maryland: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2014), https://mchb.hrsa.gov/chusa14/population-characteristics/rural-urban-children.html.

[32] Damon Nagami, “Los Angeles Launches #BioDiversifyLA to Protect Region’s Rare Biodiversity.” 25 April 2015, https://www.nrdc.org/experts/damon-nagami/los-angeles-launches-biodiversifyla-protect-regions-rare-biodiversity.

[33] Rory Carroll, “LA, a surprise nature hotspot, is home to one of the biggest biodiversity studies,” The Guardian, 14 April 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2016/apr/14/los-angeles-biodiversity-nature-study-natural-history-museum.

[34] County of Los Angeles Public Health, “Parks and Public Health in Los Angeles County,” May 2016, http://publichealth.lacounty.gov/chronic/docs/Parks%20Report%202016-rev_051816.pdf.

[35] Ibid.

[36] Emerson, “Nature.” See for example the Ken Burns documentary, The National Parks.

[37] Jedediah Purdy, “Environmentalism’s Racist History,” The New Yorker, 13 August 2015, http://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/environmentalisms-racist-history.

[38] Shiva Kooragayala and Tanaya Srini, “Pokémon GO is changing how cities use public space, but could it be more inclusive?” Urban Institute, 5 August 2016, http://www.urban.org/urban-wire/pokemon-go-changing-how-cities-use-public-space-could-it-be-more-inclusive.

[39] Allana Akhtar, “Is Pokémon Go racist? How the app may be redlining communities of color,” USA Today, 9 August 2016, http://www.usatoday.com/story/tech/news/2016/08/09/pokemon-go-racist-app-redlining-communities-color-racist-pokestops-gyms/87732734/.

[40] “The Ultimate Game Freak,” Time, 22 November 1999, http://content.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,2040095,00.html.

[41] Anne Allison, “Portable monsters and commodity cuteness: Pokémon as Japan’s new global power,” Postcolonial Studies 6 (2003): 388.

[42] White, 24.

[43] This includes the DPW, the Bureau of Engineering, Rec and Parks, and the Bureau of Sanitation. It’s funded by California’s Proposition 50 River Parkways Grant Program, and by Supplemental Environmental Project funds from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Bryan B. Rasmussen is Chair of English at California Lutheran University, where he teaches and writes about environmental literature, science and literature, and natural history. He sometimes blogs about these topics at http://www.oxbornbee.org. This summer he’s getting certified to be a California Naturalist and can be found leading nature walks for the Friends of the LA River.

Copyright: © 2017 Bryan B. Rasmussen. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/