How should one study, interpret, and manage an island known worldwide for both its natural and its cultural histories? This is one of the most important questions facing parks and reserves in the twenty-first century. Santa Cruz Island just happens to be an excellent example. It provides an ideal vantage from which to view the intersection of nature and culture in California, how our state’s institutions interpret, represent, and mobilize history, and how their approaches to remembering the past and documenting change over time bear on the present.
Camping is in trouble. After more than a century of increasing popularity, the number of campers is declining. Although camping remains among the top-five outdoor recreations in the United States, the rate of participation by Americans sixteen and older is down from its peak in the late 1990s. Automobile, trailer, and motorhome camping at “developed” locations (with drinking water, tables, restrooms, etc.) and at “primitive” locations (without such amenities) has decreased approximately 7 percent overall. Only backpacking’s popularity has held steady, although at much lower numbers than other forms of camping.
A few years ago in the fall, I led a coastal field course from Los Angeles to San Francisco with thirteen undergraduates and graduate students from Duke University. I wanted my students to see California with reverence and awe, while not ignoring its flaws and internal contradictions. I wanted us to get immersed in its cold Pacific waters, to cover our hands in octopus ink and the slime of stranded drift mats of giant kelp. I also wanted to walk in its cement rivers and inhale the stink of its refineries. I wanted us to savor its delicious doughnuts, uncover the secrets of its wines, and gorge ourselves on enormous burritos. I wanted to share it all with the eclectic mix of artists and activists, scientists and stewards who make California their home.
I like to think about the stories that plants and animals can tell me—with a little help from their genomes—about where they came from, how they make a living in nature, and why they do the things that they do. By thinking about organisms as both players in their ecological communities and as bags of DNA that can be analyzed, I see a different view of the world around me and the animals I love. Thinking about genomes may seem like a stark, scientific vision of nature at odds with a love of the outdoors. I see it as an incredibly exciting view that allows me to ask very specific questions of plants and animals, and get answers back. The effect can be pretty amazing.
The natural history museum is a venerable seventeenth-century institution. But curiously, it may well be one of the civic institutions best suited to help us think with nature in the twenty-first century. In recent years, the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County has reinvigorated both the “natural” and the “history” in its mission. The museum is reconnecting to the city around it and in the process discovering a vital role for itself in the life of the city and its future. Lila Higgins and Emily Hartop both work at the museum.
Graywood Avenue is an asphalt and stucco fraction of the nearly uniform grid of Los Angeles, but nature is never absent. I walk down Graywood Avenue and nature’s reciprocal penetration always manages to break through my self-absorption. The tracks of snails glisten on the sidewalk. The stink of an irritated skunk lingers in the morning air. A coyote and I sometimes pause at the end of my block and watch each other before the coyote lopes into the Edison Company right-of-way. Mourning doves, mocking birds, scrub jays, and house sparrows accompany me, either in person or as a fugue of their calls interweaving overhead.
In inner-city Los Angeles, just west of the downtown high-rise buildings and trendy upscale restaurants is a poor, densely populated neighborhood where most households get by on less than $20,000 a year. Here at the garden, the mujeres weed, water, and cook to feed their families, but they are also tending to themselves, forging new relationships and support networks, and re-creating scenes from homes left thousands of miles behind. Men and children come here too, but this is really a women’s place.
We asked Carolyn Finney and Rue Mapp to talk with us because their work is at the very heart of thinking about people and nature in California, in all of its glorious and challenging diversity. It only occurred to us later that their work and this conversation is also an apt illustration of what we’re trying to do with Boom: bring important, innovative thinkers and doers from our great universities into conversation with important, innovative thinkers and doers out in the world.
The return of Humbug Valley to the Mountain Maidu is more than a one-time repatriation to redress past wrongs. It is a surge in a groundswell of stewardship activity by Native Americans on lands across the country. What is evolving on this site 150 miles north of Sacramento is by all accounts an experiment—a start-up still building basic organizational skills. Yet the promise of this acquisition is already inspiring other tribes to carve their own paths to land conservation.
It was at Los Vallecitos, in August 1899, where a rancher delivered the final five slugs into San Diego County’s last recorded grizzly bear, and the largest bear ever documented in California. A historian later dubbed the animal the “Monster of San Mateo.” The Chief of the United States Biological Survey, C. Hart Merriam, examined the bear’s remains and determined the Southern California grizzly to be a distinct subspecies, which he named Ursus magister. “Size of male huge,” Merriam wrote, “largest of known grizzlies, considerably larger than californicus of the Monterey region, and even than horribilis, the great buffalo-killing grizzly of the Plains.”
Don Hankins lit the Costello Forest fire in the context of a National Science Foundation grant to investigate the effects of returning Native American burning practices to California landscapes where fire has been suppressed since the late 1800s. Without low-burning prescribed fires that clear out duff and debris and keep the fuel load minimized, the stuff accumulating on forest floors becomes tinder, ready to send any small, perhaps accidentally started fire into a major conflagration. Droughts like the one we have been enduring recently make things worse: everything’s drier. Climate change projections predict that California will get hotter still and periods of extreme dryness will increase.
Ishi must be tired. For 160 years, people have hunted him and other California Indians. In 2012, photographers Byron Wolfe and Troy Jollimore continued the quest to capture Ishi, visiting Deer Creek in search of his wilderness. Settlers, anthropologists, and indigenous people have hounded Ishi for different purposes. Understanding why people hunt Ishi tells us much about how Californians envision Indians and their past, present, and future.
In September 2012, photographer Byron Wolfe and I backpacked into Deer Creek, in northern California, carrying a heavy load of photographic gear. We were looking for a particular spot on the creek, where Ishi, the so-called “last wild Indian in America,” had spent much time before his emergence from the woods; the spot where he had been photographed in 1914 when, after three years of living in the Bay Area, Ishi was convinced to return by the anthropologists who had become his friends.
From Boom Fall 2014, Vol 4, No 3 “The word ‘nature’ is a notorious semantic and metaphysical trap.” —Leo Marx¹ Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt of Amy Scott’s essay”Twenty-First-Century Sublime” from our Fall 2014 issue. Click here to access the full article through JSTOR, where it will remain free for a limited time. Tension between the desire to experience nature in its unadulterated form and the urge to exploit it for material gain has long been at the center of landscape painting in the American West. This is especially […]
Our ecological detective work synthesizes clues found in naturalists’ field notebooks and surveyors’ sketches; diary entries by Spanish explorers, Forty-Niners, and farmers’ wives; and photographs of camping trips and family picnics, to name a few of the colorful and idiosyncratic sources left behind by previous generations. They let us visualize change through time, providing a spatially explicit view of how prior generations of Californians shaped their landscapes into the ones we have inherited and continue to reshape today.
John Muir died 100 years ago in a Los Angeles hospital bed with only an unfinished book manuscript for company. He was seventy-six years old. In the final year of his life he had been stung by betrayal, losing the fight of his life: his beloved Hetch Hetchy Valley in Yosemite would soon be dammed to serve the water and power demands of a booming San Francisco. Yet, here he was, still proselytizing—from his deathbed—on the wonders of nature. A century later, is anyone still listening?
The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan is a portrait of these men but mostly of their times, an era that begins with the sins of one landmark Golden State politician and ends with salvation being promised by another. California is not the setting of Perlstein’s national drama, yet the state shaped both of its leading players, readying Reagan especially to play his role to perfection.
Eventually, I learned to stop looking for the perfect San Francisco because it does not exist. It exists in fiction—and maybe in the minds of those with enough wealth to build up an urban fiction around themselves, as more and more seem to be doing—but not for me.
A more urgent question may be: what might happen to San Francisco if current trends continue? The new tech workers settling in San Francisco (and adjacent communities such as Oakland, slated to become the Brooklyn of the West Coast) are mostly young, predominantly male, and if 2010 Census records for the Silicon Valley workforce hold true, almost evenly split between white and Asian, with Asians (both American born and immigrant) a slight majority.
Several weekends ago, I made a poorly planned visit to San Francisco with a few friends from Los Angeles. Raised just south of the city and a Berkeley grad, I know my way around the bay but came up short when looking for a place to crash Saturday night. We were far from being able to afford a proper hotel, and most friends with welcoming couches were unfortunately out of town. One of my travel companions suggested Airbnb, and after an hour or two, we’d booked a place in the Mission.
Stamen Design, a studio specializing in live data visualizations and interactive mapping, overlooks the busy corner of Mission and Sixteenth Streets in San Francisco. Its mission: “Take ambiguous, obscure, complex data. Turn it into beautiful, engaging and accessible projects that delight and inform the public. Repeat.”
When Stamen Design mapped the routes of the private buses that ferry techies between their homes in San Francisco and their jobs in Silicon Valley for the 2012 Zero1 Biennial, the aesthetic choice to render the map as a transit-system schematic made an open secret within San Francisco obvious to the world. The city is becoming a suburb of the Silicon Valley suburbs.
Chinese are leaving the Chinese city of San Francisco at the very moment that San Francisco has become, spectacularly, America’s most important Chinese city, with all the political prestige and potential pitfalls that ascendance implies.
Read ethnically or racially: San Francisco resembles Gold Mountain, the city of Chinese immigrant legend and myth. Read economically: San Francisco is becoming a city of new wealth, no longer a city for the middle class and those poorer, regardless of race—and as the recent FBI investigation of Senator Leland Yee and alleged Chinatown mobster “Shrimp Boy” Chow makes clear, illicit money is no stranger to politics in the new Chinese city.
San Franciscans have a useful history of resisting grand development plans, whether they were driven by market forces, corporate developers, or the social engineering visions of politicians and city planners. Read one way, this short history demonstrates the relentless power of money in defining who is a San Franciscan and who can stay and who must go. But read another way, this history shows that there is historic precedent for optimism that the worst consequences of today’s creative destruction of the city can be averted if we know and use our history.
We asked photographer Rian Dundon to put a face on the displacement that is roiling San Francisco. His photo essay focuses on the city, but also on surrounding areas like Oakland, San Jose, and even Santa Cruz because, as he noted: these issues spill out. “Especially if you’re talking about inequality, geographically, you have to look at if people are being kicked out of San Francisco, where are they ending up?” He told us that he approached the assignment not as a journalist but from “a more ambiguous space in photography—to find the power of what can be suggested more than literally described.”
You may have heard that the cool city of fog and freaks is over and done. At the risk of being unpopular, I’m going to tell you this isn’t quite true. The Bay Area is undergoing a period of rapid transformation. In many ways, we’ve seen this boom before. Yet the unsettled atmosphere of the current moment—in which the middle class fears eviction alongside the most vulnerable—has refueled another familiar Bay Area process in the fight against displacement. The San Francisco you love exists because, as capitalism’s “creative destruction” tears through the urban landscape, community advocates fighting for what I call an “ethical city” try to reshape that destruction—and sometimes they win.
DIE TECHIE SCUM—it’s been tagged on sidewalks in Oakland, printed on posters in the Mission, and chanted during protests at Google bus stops. For some, the violence of the phrase is disturbing; for others, it acts as a rallying point, crystallizing the frustration of those displaced by tech-boom gentrification. It’s not the only slogan being used by activists—it’s not even the only one wishing unkind things on new gentrifiers. But it’s memorable and significant because it taps into a long tradition of activism across the country, and indeed around the world.
People post fliers and wear T-shirts that say “DIE TECHIE SCUM,” and photos of these frequently make the rounds on Twitter and Facebook. When I see these and hear the “Die Techie Scum” anger, sometimes I laugh along with everyone. But sometimes it can be weird. Not because I think it’s directed at me personally, but because it’s a landscape I have to navigate thoughtfully. Is everyone in tech scum? Are all scumbags tech people? No, obviously not. So where, what, who needs to change?
The story of how San Francisco Eviction Times came to be is a San Francisco story, of the kind many fear might soon disappear. Last fall, Art Hazelwood and Patrick Piazza handed out anti-gentrification posters in the Mission at a Day of the Dead exhibition commemorating the life and work of the late Mexican political printmaker Jose Guadalupe Posada. There they struck up conversations with other activists and artists, including a DJ at San Francisco’s Mutiny Radio, who invited them to create a show for the radio station. So Hazelwood and Piazza circulated a flyer by Posada that read “Esta hoja volante se publicará cuando los acontecimientos de sensación lo requieran” (“This broadside will be published when sensational events require it”).
San Francisco is now the most-expensive large city in the United States. Protests in front of tech company shuttle buses have made front-page news around the country, housing costs dominate casual conversations, and San Francisco’s already strong antidevelopment sentiment is growing angrier. Yet, common sense and a basic understanding of economics suggests that building more housing is probably the only way out of staggeringly high housing prices in the long term. In the short term, though, we’re stuck right where we are in an increasingly untenable position.
The city is changing in ways no one seems to understand and growing faster than it can handle, its residents by turns ready for revolt and terrified of change. Some insist there’s nothing to see here, but each week brings a new story declaring that yes, there really is: San Francisco is the most expensive city in the country, San Francisco has its lowest-ever unemployment rate, San Francisco is on the frontlines of a new culture war between techies and. . . well, what’s the opposite of a techie when we’re all up to our eyeballs in technology?
Editor’s note: Rebecca Solnit is an impassioned voice for San Francisco—around the world. She grew up in the Bay Area and has lived and worked in the city her entire adult life. She has made it her city, while becoming one of the city’s—and, indeed, the world’s—most gifted, insightful, consistently relevant, and provocative writers, independent scholars, and public intellectuals. In the last couple of years, her columns on the perils the city faces—most notably symbolized by the great white Google buses—in the London Review of Books and elsewhere have made her an international voice for what’s at risk in San Francisco and other cities in our new Gilded Age.
As we bounce around among Twitter, Facebook, and the next greatest social media app, we might too quickly proclaim the youth culture of social networking an invention of the twenty-first century. Valerie J. Matsumoto’s City Girls: The Nisei Social World in Los Angeles, 1920–1950 offers a corrective to this hasty conclusion and a detailed guide through Nisei girls’ “ethnocultural networks” in Los Angeles. Through her narrative on girls’ social clubs—from sororities to church-based clubs—she highlights the significance of girls’ networks in California in the thirty […]
When the new visitor first sets foot outside a terminal at LAX he is greeted with bad signage, the hum of a thousand cars and buses inching through traffic, the heavy salt air choked with jet fuel exhaust, and utter chaos. LAX is the gateway to Los Angeles, the point of entry for 33 million people last year, and just about the worst of what this city has to offer. After exiting the airport horseshoe, the new visitor will likely find herself on a freeway, […]
Editor’s Note: How is California represented in world literature? There are certainly many qualitative answers to that question. But it is also possible to answer this question quantitatively by analyzing the millions of books digitized by Google in eight different languages. This represents an incredible corpus that can now be used to explore trends over time in words and ideas that have been published from 1500 to the present. We call this “world literature” in an expansive sense of the term because this corpus includes […]
Untitled from the Hill of Poisonous Trees series by Dinh Q. Lê. IMAGE COURTESY OF PPOW GALLERY. I am now seven years older than my father was when he came to California at the end of the Vietnam War. I have been an American writer and journalist for over two decades. I am here to tell you that the war, though it ended so long ago, doesn’t end—and for children from war-torn countries, the Old World, its memories and turmoil, sometimes calls out for our blood. For […]
Richard Rodriguez is a journalist, commentator, and author of several books, including Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriguez, Days of Obligation: An Argument with My Mexican Father, Brown: The Last Discovery of America, and Darling: A Spiritual Autobiography. He was born in Sacramento and lives in San Francisco. It’s hard to read Richard Rodriguez’s essays and books without feeling that there is something deeply Californian about them. Every one of his books—Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriguez, Days of Obligation: Arguments with […]