California left in Ashes by Suburban Expansion built on Decades of Exclusion and Criminalization of the Poor

What if I told you that in California working Black and Latina single mothers will be slapped with the bill for the untold millions in damages from the latest fire season in communities where they’re largely relegated to occupy space only as nannies or security detail? And what if you then learned that all of the discretionary or “unrestricted” social money for public goods supposed to be set aside for community development–not to mention emergencies such as COVID-19–in South Central Los Angeles and other impoverished, formerly red-lined geographies, are those which stand to lose the most from preventable fire emergencies? This is exactly what is happening in the “Golden state.”

As days of lungs ensnared in smoke turn into weeks of suffocation, it might almost feel like all of California has been taken hostage by a force of wicked nature. But it would be more accurate to say that the city, and indeed the state’s fates have been sealed by real estate corporations and obsequious governments, whose ill regard for natural and cultural limitations, and whose collusion in land theft, “separate but equal,” police states, redlining, white flight, and now gentrification intermingle like a Fiesta salad of colonial residue, which tastes just as it looks: like heaps of ashes from a darkened sky over the “final frontier” that is–or that was–the Golden State.

Governor Newsom is correct to cite a “climate damn emergency” in his assessment of ‘this moment,’ but still fails to situate climate change within the observed history and present state of corporate control over millions of acres of formerly public lands, largely still unceded by Native peoples in California but retained by companies like Pacific Gas & Electric and other private corporations, whose executives have profited immensely from fire hazards, pollution, publicly funded subsidies and insurance coverage, and more than anything: the mass removal of poor people and even their natural, sacred geographies for the sake of racialized expansion projects such as suburbia.

While the most expensive damage from the latest preventable fires have mostly impacted suburban enclaves developed by real estate moguls away from inner cities, the present state of high alert and toxic air quality for communities across the Western hemisphere emphasizes how fire hazards are not–and never have been–relevant only to isolated suburbs.

Moreover, as urban space continues to rise in density at the direction of real estate firms and not that of working-class communities, there are likely more fires on the way to big cities like L.A. After all, it was only six years ago that smoke from the so-called Da Vinci apartments choked the skies above downtown Los Angeles and the nearby Pico-Union and Westlake neighborhoods, the latter of which has historically been prone to fire disasters as a result of outdated building and fire codes, not to mention lax enforcement from L.A. city inspectors on landlords over safety. While a taxi driver was arrested for allegedly starting the fire at the Da Vinci complex and sentenced to fifteen years behind bars, the blaze was also attributable to corporate exceptionalism to the rules when developer Geoffrey Palmer failed to install key fire prevention measures to keep the complex from incinerating so rapidly and threatening other nearby structures.

In 2016, in a blazing example of belated, half-hearted watch-dogging from local government, Mike Feuer, the District Attorney for the city of Los Angeles sued Palmer for $20 million dollars for violating the city’s fire codes. Yet just one year later, Feuer settled for only $400,000 of that demand, or the equivalent of a small fine for the billionaire’s coffers, which another attorney for Feuer’s office called “an excellent result.”

Moreover, Palmer’s Da Vinci complexes were back in business as soon as 2015, offering non-rent controlled 746 square feet apartments for a minimum of $2,000 dollars a month to overlook the city’s sprawling tent encampments below the complexes. From 2013 – 2015, the city of Los Angeles alone saw an additional 1,300 people added to the streets. Today, there are more than 41,000 people without shelter atop the sidewalks and freeway underpasses of L.A., that is, according to LAHSA’s official estimates, which are always an under-count.

It turns out, however, that L.A.’s lame attempt at reining in Palmer was just one in a long list of Los Angeles officials’ rapid forfeiture of land to real estate firms without so much as a whimper, the result of which quickly forced into being cities like Malibu, Santa Clarita, and many more predominantly white enclaves, despite often being literally against mountainous terrain, and by extension, against the recommendations of sustainable planning experts.

Mike Davis’s Ecology of Fear (1998) documents key points of this history of L.A. officials yielding to the mighty developers’ expansionist dreams. Among several examples of how L.A. officials approved the city’s infamous “de facto” segregation over decades, Davis analyzes how twenty years prior to the mass gentrification of the Santa Monica mountains for the sake of Malibu–which was once home to tens of thousands of Chumash people–the urbanism firm EDAW reported that a then-projected 405,000 additional homes to the area would be ill-advised:

“They pointed out that Malibu, apart from major problems with earthquakes, flooding, and landslides, also had a fire history ‘unique in intensity, devastating in effect, and heightened during Santa Ana wind conditions.”

Twenty years later, the Malibu fire in 1993 proved this point, costing over $500,000,000 adjusted for inflation in today’s dollars, which, along with the Northridge quake in 1994 in the “de facto” segregated white valley, sucked up more state and federal dollars than the battle worn streets of South Central Los Angeles from less than two years prior. Davis noted even then:

“The fate of inner-city areas of Los Angeles in the aftermath of the Northridge earthquake vividly illustrates how people of color are doubly punished by natural and political disasters. The first casualty of the temblor was any residual official interest in economic recovery efforts and job creation in the neighborhoods traumatized by the 1992 riots. Rebuilding the Valley supplanted ‘Rebuild L.A..'”

Nearly thirty years after Malibu’s predictable smoldering, smoke now consumes streets from Los Angeles to Portland as bruised sunlight stares ominously from above, and you can bet Geoffrey Palmer to the tune of a billion dollars that the predominantly Black, Latino and also impoverished white communities laying unhoused, behind prison bars, and under police surveillance across the “Golden State” will be the same ones whose affordable housing and decarceration are again postponed due to elected representative spinelessness before Palmer and his contemporaries.

The state’s latest ineptitude during this fire season, like its hackneyed safety nets amid the pandemic this last half year, is thereby proof that the present struggle against police violence is not separate from the state’s conscription to unnatural catastrophes developed by corporate bottom lines one year after the next. In other words, the same annual budget that strains firefighting from “saving” precariously built structures in fire-prone areas is also the one which provides LAPD in South Central L.A. and across its immigrant communities with zealous field-days; but while the former present billions in damages that will cost the state’s public schools, public transportation, and hundreds of thousands of Californians without access to secure housing, the latter’s only threat is a skin color and some variant inflection of Inglés that continues threatening California’s intransigent white supremacist order.

As present-day neighborhoods like those in Malibu and Santa Clarita were built on top of the ruins of decimated Chumash people, whose residents now live in heightened anxiety every September through November, the past has not yet passed. Today, while Hollywood celebrities have access to same-day testing for COVID-19 as the poor are ordered to wait until they have a fever to show for it, inheritors of the Golden state’s tragic love affair with real estate moguls will watch as another generation of public “leaders” call for rebuilding California’s white suburbs with more expenses on the working poor, including through increased policing, displacement, incarceration, and thus shutting out or banishment.

The only conceivable way out at this late stage in the game is for more citizens to stand against such manufactured inequality by supporting movements across the soot-worn Golden state for tenants’ rights, for affordable homes instead of sweeping zones, for prison abolition and police defunding, and for community investment led by communities rather than parasitic billionaires. There is no alternative to this latter option; we are already living in the alternative, blanketed in ashes.

J.T.

A mural along Melrose avenue depicting Kobe Bryant and his daughter, Gianna Bryant

A reflection on Father’s Day for every working-class father, and all the working-class mothers who also play the role in Los Angeles

(Pandemic in Los Angeles: Day 94)

On this day–during this most critical year for our nation–I hope it’s only becoming clearer that if our nation has respect for the concept of the family, then it should show that respect in its treatment of families everywhere by uplifting them, as Kobe “Bean” Bryant was celebrated for uplifting his daughter Gianna Bryant.

In the days and months following the untimely passing of this first-class pair, the city of Los Angeles, along with people all over America, mourned their sudden loss with many words, moments of silence, and testimonials. Though it may seem just a faint memory now, one can still recall that in the short time before the coronavirus, almost every other day in L.A. was marked by some kind of space for mourning the unthinkable loss of the Bryants and other families above the hills in Calabasas.

Today, when mothers and fathers march for the deaths of their sons and daughters–or those who could be their family members–especially following their deaths at the hands of law enforcement–which, don’t forget: are preventable deaths–they’re only participating in the same collective grieving that arose for these far more famous figures not long ago.

But every human life, no matter how rich or how poor, is absolutely worth the world, worth fighting for, and worth demanding a better world for, as so much of the working-class is now calling for, once again, in America. When state and public officials thus choose to meet such demands with indifference, force, or disdain, they are openly betraying–once again–one of the ideals they claim to want to uphold. Hence why we mourn, Los Angeles, and why we must continue to rise again.

The battle is long. But it is still our duty to win. Kobe Bryant knew this. And that’s why we loved him. Or at least, why we claimed to. The time has now come to extend that love to people just as human as Bryant and his 13 year old daughter. We march for justice.

J.T.

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Pandemic in Los Angeles: Day 58

This afternoon, on the drive back home from picking up some more Los Cuentos face masks, I saw that my car and I were definitely a part of traffic resuming its more usual gross shape across L.A.’s tarmac.

Just a couple miles from home, stopped at a light, as the bulb turned green signaling the go-ahead, the car just ahead of me–which was also directly in front of the crosswalk–held steady to its breaks, not going anywhere. When I saw that the car adjacent to it was also paused, holding a line of drivers in the lane next to mine back as well and thus turning us into two clusters held firm, I raised my neck to see just what was in the way.

I saw an African-American gentlemen struggling from his wheelchair then, a man who was surely somewhere in his sixties, and who looked to still be in a hospital gown for patients, as if recently discharged. With all his strength, he bore his arms upon the chair’s groggy wheels to hobble towards the end of the cross-walk.

My concern then was someone sounding their horn unknowingly, as these intersections are wont to hearing during such moments, but I had nothing to fear: it’s as if all of us from our seats behind the windshields could only bear witness to the stunning brokenness of the minute.

Where were the man’s family members? Or his caretakers? Shouldn’t he have had a hotel bed reserved for him under LAHSA’s Project Roomkey? He certainly qualified. The city aside, how could no one standing at the end of the cross-walk rush over to help him push past the curb safely onto the sidewalk? But the pedestrians nearby were also mostly older women themselves, mothers and even grandmothers donning their face-masks with great resolve to protect their own health. But who were us drivers then? All of us were America, from sun-rich Los Angeles.

In 2017, a United Nations (UN) official visited the United States to report on the U.S.’s handling of its poverty rates compared to that of other developed (largely Western) countries. What followed was an indicting account of a political body spread across the country that not only refuses to address poverty as a social issue, but which also clearly benefits from maintaining the concentration of wealth into the hands of a few while far more struggle for basic survival, including by promulgating the idea that the poor are at fault for their own poverty and that it’s for this reason no safety net should be afforded to them. In the words of Professor Philip Alston, a UN Special Reporter on extreme poverty and human rights:

…I wonder how many of these politicians have ever visited poor areas, let alone spoken to those who dwell there. There are anecdotes aplenty, but evidence is nowhere to be seen…the poor people I met from among the 40 million living in poverty were overwhelmingly either persons who had been born into poverty, or those who had been thrust there by circumstances largely beyond their control such as physical or mental disabilities, divorce, family breakdown, illness, old age, unlivable wages, or discrimination in the job market.”

J.T.

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Racial Propositions: Ballot Initiatives and the Making of Postwar California (2010)

The first time we analyzed an election in California was in 2017, when we reviewed data from a Special Election in Los Angeles. Data for that election showed a yawning gap between the voting rates for white and non-white voters; at the close of the special election, in a city where less than 50% of the population identified as white, over 64% of ballots turned in belonged to white voters. As we noted in our article:

“Although non-white registered voters make for a combined total of 52% of votes eligible to be cast, post-election day only 37% of ballots turned in belonged to non-white voters.”

As it turns out, the rate of return for that Special Election in L.A. was not an anomaly, or some new and strange phenomenon, but actually just consistent with the history of voting in ‘liberal’ California.

In Racial Propositions: Ballot Initiatives and the Making of Postwar California, Daniel HoSang takes an analysis of California’s voting patterns one step further, exploring the way the predominantly white electorate of the state has voted negatively or against a handful of ballot issues dealing closely with racial or progressive issues in the state during a sixty year period from just after 1945 to the early 2000s.

And why should we care about a handful of ‘old’ voting issues in California? HoSang explains that ballot measures are especially useful for thinking about the state’s role in the inequalities found between its public schools, healthcare, employment and other areas ‘separating’ people of color from wealthier whites due to the way that voting publicizes a particular type of conversation on these issues:

Ballot measures…especially those that receive widespread public attention, create public spectacles where competing political interests necessarily seek to shape public consciousness and meaning.

Put another way: materials like campaign rhetoric, opinion articles, television commercials and other instruments used to support the passage or defeat of certain ballot issues can show the way voting doesn’t ‘just express’ the will of an electorate, but how the process leading up to election day actually creates and develops certain perspectives about what a place like California is, who California is. and who it belongs to.

Because the instruments of direct democracy by definition are intended to advance the will of “the people,”…organized groups and interests must always make their claim in populist rather than partisan terms, thereby defining the very meaning of the common good.

In other words, for HoSang, as anyone familiar with the 2016 Presidential Election should be able to recall, voting issues have a very particular–at times even “nasty”–way of telling voters about “who we are,” what our values are–or what they should be–and how we should act on those values with our votes.

HoSang further contends that the “sensibilities” or logic which the voting issues of Racial Propositions make their appeals to are voters’ “political whiteness.” The phrase “political whiteness” has layered meanings, but essentially, throughout his book it means a degree of privilege and status for white voters that’s not only maintained but also expounded on by voting issues:

[Racial Propositions] draws from and extends both George Lipsitz’s observations about the ‘possessive investment in whiteness’ and Cheryl Harris’s critical account of ‘whiteness as property.’ Whiteness, Lipsitz argues, is ‘possessed’ both literally in the form of material rewards and resources afforded to those recognized as white as well as figuratively through the ‘psychological wages’ of status and social recognition detailed by W.E.B. Du Bois.

Stated more simply, HoSang claims that “whiteness” in the United States isn’t simply a “fixed” identity, where if you’re white you view yourself as white in a “static” or “unchanging” way, but that “whiteness” is highly impressionable, that is, capable of transforming due to external factors like advertising, propagandizing, and voting.

As HoSang takes readers through the first dozen or so pages of Racial Propositions, then, rather than simply restating the term, the author arrests and interrogates scores of materials left by different voting issues in California. The campaigns for Fair Employment, Fair Housing, or the effort to Desegregate Public Schools in California are just a few of the voting issues he discusses, in which he exposes the logic of “political whiteness” at play in the efforts by organizations like the California Chamber of Commerce, the California Realtors Association (CREA), the Parents Associations and other groups that come together to defeat these measures.

That’s right. Did you know that in 1946, voters in California decided against protections for workers facing discrimination in hiring? Or, did you know that in 1964, voters in California decided against protections for non-white residents looking for a home in the state? Did you know that in 1979, California voters decided against racial integration at our schools when they canceled the state’s busing program?

In Los Angeles alone, parents voted by a margin of 73% to put an end to school busing in the city, which was only instituted in 1977 and thus barely getting off the ground.

The vote against desegregating schools was passed through an ordinance known as Proposition 1, and put an end to “mandatory” busing in 1980 (which, of course, was just a few years before my parents would arrive from Latin-America alongside many other Central-American and Asian people. Can anyone say, awkward?).

On the issue of school integration, HoSang points out that placing an end to a program whose stated goal was the integration of the races in the state’s public classrooms was not easy; it required a sophisticated deployment of a language of “racial innocence” which sought to ‘pass the buck’ or responsibility of “fixing” racism onto the desks of the state and away from the children of ‘innocent’ [white] parents:

[Supporters of Proposition 1] held that because white parents and students did not intentionally create the second-class schools to which most racial minorities were consigned nor explicitly support segregated schools as a matter of principle, they could not be compelled to participate in the schools’ improvement.

In other words, in the same way that today the Trump administration likes to argue that the refugee crisis in Central-America should be some other state’s–perhaps Mexico’s–problem, opponents of the school-busing program in late seventies California argued that mixing their white children with Black and Brown kids was unfairly burdening them with a job that was supposed to be the state or federal government’s to do. That is, whenever the state or federal government would get to it. Perhaps never, even, but the point being the same: it was not the parents’ responsibility to account for or address inequality at public schools. They were “the innocent ones.”

But the gift of Racial Propositions is that no matter what the reader may make of the author’s argument on political whiteness, the book is an exhilarating page-turner for anyone interested in a political history of “The Golden State.” This is due in no small part to HoSang’s unsparingly sharp, saber-like writing skills. For his part, the author recognizes none other than James Baldwin as a key influence on his analytical framework:

Whiteness was for Baldwin “absolutely, a moral choice,” an identity derived from and constructed through a set of political convictions. It was by inhabiting a particular political subjectivity—one that rested upon a series of destructive assumptions—that one became white. To embrace the myth of whiteness, he argued, was to “believe, as no child believes, in the dream of safety”; that one could insist on an inalienable and permanent protection from vulnerability.

By the closing pages of Racial Propositions, HoSang’s analysis also makes clear why our political discussions today need to abate a conception of ‘liberal’ California which still dominates the vox populi leading up to 2020: that because California is already a “minority majority” state, it offers a glimpse into the “progressive” future of America, since the U.S.’s “browning” is asumed to lead towards ‘liberalizing’ it.

HoSang notes that if the “majority minority” or “browning” scenario, which became the case in California nearly two decades ago, is what progressives are hinging their hopes on for a more liberal future in the United States, they better look at the numbers:

…in 2000, as California became the first large “majority minority” state in the nation, white voters still constituted 72 percent of the electorate.

And so, as one blogger put it to his fellow readers and historians following another election where that same “majority minority” was hardly seen throughout election day:

…the current disparities throughout California between white voter rates and those of people of color when considering the larger voter eligibility pool of the latter is not just unfortunate, it’s something of a public safety concern.

So let’s get on it, Los Angeles. Find and read Daniel HoSang’s book, which has full approval from The L.A. Storyteller. Then, send me your book recommendation to see if I can review it next!

J.T.

Deed Restrictions in Los Feliz and East Hollywood

T-RACES, or the Testbed for the Redlining Archives of California’s Exclusionary Spaces, is a powerful map and treasure cove of historical documents showing how cities like Los Angeles were developed over the course of the 20th century, particularly during the years just before World War II. The archives contain ‘area descriptions’ of L.A. neighborhoods as seen by city and county officials of the national Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (HOLC); to learn more about the HOLC, readers can visit Design and Violence, where my treasure hunt for the documents began.

I’ve gathered a few of the area descriptions of the “Los Feliz” and “East Hollywood” neighborhoods, respectively, all of them dated from 1939. It’s fascinating to see the old vecindades distinguished by their racial and class makeup. For example, in the Los Feliz neighborhood, the absence of “foreign families” or “negros” based on the “deed restrictions” banning their presence, as well as single-family residential zoning, lead to a “high green” or attractive rating for the HOLC:

“[In Los Feliz] …Deed restrictions cover both improvement costs and racial elements. Zoning is single-family residential. Conveniences are as available as is desirable in a multi-car garage neighborhood. This area was subdivided some 15 years ago, and was engineered and platted to contour resulting in well arranged and improved streets. Construction, maintenance and architectural designs are of the highest quality. Population is of a high character and many of the city’ s wealthiest citizens reside here. Values shown above are somewhat conjectural as size and location of homesite affects prices. This also applies to rentals as quality of tenant is a large consideration. With a convenient location, ideal building sites and high caliber deed restrictions, this area should continue indefinitely to attract a substantial type of resident. On the basis of present development and future prospects area is accorded a “high green ” grade.”

By contrast, in East Hollywood, for the ‘concentration of Jewish families’, along with 5 & 6 room dwellings, or apartment buildings with 5 to 6 units, a “medial yellow” or “only fairly” attractive grade is accorded.

“[In East Hollywood] …There are no deed restrictions and zoning, while mainly single-family, also permits all types of multi-family residential structures in different parts and is also “spot zoned” for business and provides for numerous institutional developments. Two of the largest hospitals in the city are located within the area. Conveniences are all readily available. This area was originally largely occupied by the old Sullivan Farm and was subdivided approximately 25 years ago. Divided by and surrounded with business thoroughfares this far-flung area contains a miscellaneous array of multi-family residential development; however, the pre-dominating type of residence is 5 & 6 room dwellings which are generally of standard construction and fairly well maintained. It is said to be one of the community’s best rental districts. Rumors of scattered Japanese and Negro residents were not confirmed as none were located except upon the business thoroughfares. There is a concentration of Jewish families between Melrose and Santa Monica Blvd. east of Western Avenue. The population in general is heterogeneous, as is also the aspects of the improvements. There is a fair percentage of owner occupancy and many homes are still occupied by original owners. There is a decided trend at present toward business and income properties; however, it is thought that the major part of the area will remain predominantly single-family for many years to come. The area is accorded a “medial yellow” grade.”

Such standards beg the question, just who is the HOLC describing these conditions to?

That is, just who determines that ‘negros’, ‘foreign’ and ‘Jewish’ people and their dwellings reduce the overall quality of life? In literature it’s called the white gaze, or the white imagination that dictates a certain narrative or reality.

With these frameworks in mind, I was excited to read about just how the vecindad my family and I would come to call home during the eighties when mom and pops arrived here fared ‘in the ratings’.

In the eyes of the HOLC, the neighborhood was considered ‘blighted’ for 15% of its residency consisting of ‘foreign’ families, and for 10% of it consisting of ‘negros’, as well as for the neighborhood’s multiple family dwellings and bungalows. This led to a “medial red” or mostly unattractive rating.

“[In East Hollywood] …The few deed restrictions which have not expired are irregular and largely non-effective. The major portion of area is zoned for single family dwellings, but multiple family dwellings are permitted in scattered sections. Conveniences are all readily available. This district was subdivided over 25 years ago as a popular price home district and has largely maintained the characteristics. Many of the improvements are of substandard construction and maintenance is spotted, being generally of a poor quality. Scattered throughout the area are a number of small “B” grade apartments, bungalow courts and other multi-family dwellings. The population is highly heterogeneous with more than a sprinkling of subversive racial elements, there being several concentrations of Japanese and Negroes within the district. There is also quite a Jewish population adjacent to the synagogue which is located in the northern part. While by no means a slum district, the area is definitely blighted and is accorded a “medial red” grade.”

On the one hand, it’s astounding to think that there used to be more Japanese and Black people in the neighborhood. But it’s also sobering to consider how World War II and the Japanese interment which followed violently displaced such communities from the area. When one considers these events and the subsequent or concurrent modernization that followed or accompanied the war, such as the building of the first freeway in America in the Arroyo Seco Parkway in 1940, one can see how modern development has always been a matter of some violence on communities and restrictions of their space for the benefit of wealthier, more privileged groups.

It’s rarely ever easy to take another field trip through the historical foundations which led to our modern dilemmas with access to space. But in order to know where we’re going, we have to know where we come from, Los Angeles.

J.T.