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Land of Sunshine

Land of Sunshine: An Environmental History of Metropolitan Los Angeles

William Deverell
Greg Hise
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    Land of Sunshine
    Book Description:

    Most people equate Los Angeles with smog, sprawl, forty suburbs in search of a city-the great "what-not-to-do" of twentieth-century city building. But there's much more to LA's story than this shallow stereotype. History shows that Los Angeles was intensely, ubiquitously planned. The consequences of that planning-the environmental history of urbanism--is one place to turn for the more complex lessons LA has to offer.

    Working forward from ancient times and ancient ecologies to the very recent past, Land of Sunshine is a fascinating exploration of the environmental history of greater Los Angeles. Rather than rehearsing a litany of errors or insults against nature, rather than decrying the lost opportunities of "roads not taken," these essays, by nineteen leading geologists, ecologists, and historians, instead consider the changing dynamics both of the city and of nature.In the nineteenth century, for example, "density" was considered an evil, and reformers struggled mightily to move the working poor out to areas where better sanitation and flowers and parks "made life seem worth the living."

    We now call that vision "sprawl," and we struggle just as much to bring middle-class people back into the core of American cities. There's nothing natural, or inevitable, about such turns of events. It's only by paying very close attention to the ways metropolitan nature has been constructed and construed that meaningful lessons can be drawn. History matters.

    So here are the plants and animals of the Los Angeles basin, its rivers and watersheds. Here are the landscapes of fact and fantasy, the historical actors, events, and circumstances that have proved transformative over and over again. The result is a nuanced and rich portrait of Los Angeles that will serve planners, communities, and environmentalists as they look to the past for clues, if not blueprints, for enhancing the quality and viability of cities.

    eISBN: 978-0-8229-7311-9
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Introduction: The Metropolitan Nature of Los Angeles
    (pp. 1-12)

    As we send this book to press, questions over the environmental sustainability of greater Los Angeles figure prominently in public and policy debates. In everyday conversation, talk about sustainability is shorthand for natural capital, environmental carrying capacities, and our ability to ensure that the needs of the present are met without compromising future generations. With this understanding, it is obvious that any assessment of sustainability must include temporal perspectives. In other words, history matters. It matters a great deal. Looking back, timelines of environmental stability and change must be carefully constructed and scrutinized to fashion appropriately sophisticated practices and policies...

  2. Part One: Analysis of Place

    • [Part One: Introduction]
      (pp. 13-15)

      As we begin this volume, we reach deeply back into the ancient past of the Southern California region. What we find there, thanks to chapters by Mark Raab and Paula Schiffman, may be surprising. Raab, an archeologist, posits disturbing correlations and theories about environmental limits, especially those prompted by drought and rising social violence within the resident native populations of the coastal regions of what is now Southern California. Raab also reminds us that any concerted effort to understand environmental change must be at least cognizant of, if not beholden to, timescales of duration not usually used by historians. If,...

    • Folio One: Southern California, 1900
      (pp. 16-22)

      In 1900 the California Photogravure Company published a boxed set of twelve softbound fascicles entitledArt Work on Southern California.¹ The text, which promotes investment in real estate, is brief; it is the plates that are charged with the mission of presenting Southern California as attractive to prospective purchasers and developers. They do this by displaying Los Angeles and its environs as an achieved balance between nature and the arts of design.

      The celebration of a stable order of phenomena as a commodity available for exploitation and development lies contradictorily at the heart of the mythology of the region. To...

    • 1 Political Ecology of Prehistoric Los Angeles
      (pp. 23-37)
      L. MARK RAAB

      Prehistory may seem an unlikely influence on a place such as contemporary Los Angeles. Massive physical and socioeconomic transformations have overtaken the region since the nineteenth century, with a pervasive sense of newness in infrastructure and lifestyles particularly apparent since the Second World War. The result often seems to be a civic ethos so present oriented as to exclude all but the sketchiest historical consciousness. Spanish place names and a scattering of buildings with pre–World War II architectural themes lend a vague sense of historical roots deeper than living memory, but unlike urban centers of Latin America, Europe, or...

    • 2 The Los Angeles Prairie
      (pp. 38-51)

      Flatness once defined the ecological essence of much of the Los Angeles region. The areas of flat topography—the Los Angeles Plain and the adjacent valleys—were ecologically unique. These were the segments of the precontact landscape most rapidly and profoundly altered by European settlers through agriculture and urban development. The natural structure and species composition of the original prairie ecosystem on these flatlands differed considerably from the ecosystems on the slopes of the surrounding mountains. In addition, the region’s steep hillsides were relatively inaccessible and were therefore much less vulnerable to historical human activities. While the chaparral and coastal...

    • 3 Ranchos and the Politics of Land Claims
      (pp. 52-66)

      Most accounts of land and property in Southern California decry as unfair the 1851 California Land Act that governed the transition in property rights between Mexico and the United States. These stories of loss, although compelling, fail to tell us how widespread the loss was, what precisely the losses were, or why these costs occurred. In short, the literature devoted to land claims fails to provide an adequate metric against which loss can be measured and then interpreted.¹

      In comparing how Los Angeles–area claims fared relative to other California land claims, we have examined the specific costs Los Angeles...

  3. Part Two: Land Use and Governance

    • [Part Two: Introduction]
      (pp. 67-70)

      By the end of the nineteenth century, greater Los Angeles had clearly come up against environmental limitations in profound ways. Sustainable development would not be a phrase with any meaning for nearly another century, yet it had become clear to individuals and institutions (public, civic, and commercial) that environmental obstacles posed actual obstacles to growth and that ongoing change in the present would structure visions of the future.

      To be sure, systems of environmental control, which are the focus of this section, sprang from fairly straightforward understandings, and even convictions, of nature as obstacle. Aesthetic appreciation of natural beauty or...

    • Folio Two: Lost Landscapes/Past Lives
      (pp. 71-77)

      This visual history of Southern California citrus culture identifies significant structures and processes that have defined the Southern California landscape in imagination, experience, and place, a distillation of the physical setting: the powerful earthquake, the wild chaparral fire, the mudslide and debris torrent, the ever present reality of millennial geology in a semiarid Mediterranean climate.

      California has been a dramatic stage and host to a myriad of competing ideologies, myths, dreams, and aspirations. It has been the setting of economic, material, and practical conflict for native and immigrant generations. The playing out of this history has occupied an imaginative center...

    • 4 Pollution and Public Policy at the Turn of the Twentieth Century
      (pp. 78-94)

      In April 1907 businessman J. W. Eddy addressed the Los Angeles City Club. He warned its members that air pollution had become “an aggressive nuisance and unless dealt with radically and heroically [it] will soon become unbearable.” He urged municipal leaders to take action so that future generations could enjoy “our pure air and clear skies uncontaminated with soot and grime, or nauseating and poisonous fumes.”¹ Eddy’s comments provide both an uncomfortably accurate prediction of the future and an indication of how very early in the city’s history pollution became a matter of public policy debate.

      At the turn of...

    • 5 Beaches versus Oil in Greater Los Angeles
      (pp. 95-114)

      The California government dominated major transformations occurring in the state’s oil economy in the first decades of the twentieth century. Geology and previous political decisions framed the period’s controversies regarding state petroleum properties. The terms of federal land grants for educational purposes, for instance, specifically barred the states from receiving mineral lands. By chance and error, California received several parcels with significant oil deposits. But by the 1920s the state had sold the promising oil properties to individuals or companies. The school land grants thus did not provide the state with an extensive domain of oil and gas deposits, and...

    • 6 Who Killed the Los Angeles River?
      (pp. 115-134)

      Through much of its course, the Los Angeles River is hard to imagine as a river at all. Its channel is artificial, its bed and banks constructed of concrete, reinforced with steel. Little water flows in the river except during storms. At other times the flow is mostly treated sewage, discharged into the channel from three plants in the San Fernando Valley. The river was built to accommodate storm surges twenty thousand times its dryseason flow, yet the bulk of the water it carries nine months out of the year is confined to a much smaller, low-flow channel cut through...

    • 7 Flood Control Engineering in the Urban Ecosystem
      (pp. 135-151)

      A winter storm rolled onshore at Los Angeles on February 13, 1980. A second storm followed a day later, then a third and a fourth and a fifth. A sixth storm brought the heaviest rains yet, swelling the Los Angeles River to its levee tops. Meanwhile, weather forecasters spotted a seventh storm brewing out on the Pacific. As water rose in the dark that night, the swamped electronic stream gauges stopped functioning, and the technicians at the flood control headquarters lost track of how high the water was running. If the river were to spill over its walls, it would...

    • 8 Private Sector Planning for the Environment
      (pp. 152-166)

      Over the past one hundred years, private organizations expanded their role in the planning of American cities. Business leaders, academics, homeowners, professional planners, and environmentalists as well as civic reform associations, philanthropic foundations, and other nongovernmental agencies with a stake in changing urban environments sought to influence planning to suit their particular interests—economic, social, altruistic, and otherwise. This became especially apparent in metropolitan areas, where individuals and interest groups large and small organized coalitions to participate in planning decisions and in implementing (or halting) major development projects.¹

      The process was notably evident in Los Angeles, where voluntary organizations became...

    • 9 Zoning and Environmental Inequity in the Industrial East Side
      (pp. 167-178)

      In 1997, the municipal council of Commerce in Los Angeles County denied a recycling firm the right to construct a multimillion dollar facility, despite the substantial sums it would have contributed to city revenues. The council objected to the noise and traffic the plant would generate and to possible deleterious health effects on nearby residents. The decision was in keeping with a national pattern of concern over issues of environmental inequity, the disproportionate concentration of toxic and waste facilities in minority communities. The population of Commerce is more than 90 percent Latino, and the city has one of the highest...

    • 10 Los Angeles Against the Mountains
      (pp. 179-200)

      In Los Angeles versus the San Gabriel Mountains, it is not always clear which side is losing. For example, the Genofiles, Bob and Jackie, can claim to have lost and won. They live on an acre of ground so high that they look across their pool and past the trunks of big pines at an aerial view over Glendale and across Los Angeles to the Pacific bays. The setting, in cool dry air, is serene and Mediterranean. It has not been everlastingly serene.

      On a February night some years ago, the Genofiles were awakened by a crash of thunder—lightning...

  4. Part Three: Nature and Culture

    • [Part Three: Introduction]
      (pp. 201-203)

      Through the first decades of the twentieth century, the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce, by far the most important advocate for merchant and business capital in the region and a potent force in local politics, often described Los Angeles as Nature’s Workshop. The symbolic richness of the phrase, especially to urban and environmental historians, is tantalizing.Nature, we know, is a seemingly simple term that on closer inspection turns out to be an intellectual grab bag filled with meaning. A primary purpose forLand of Sunshineis to tease out some of that meaning in a specific region and to...

    • Folio Three: Transitions in Southern California Landscape Photography, 1900–1940
      (pp. 204-219)

      The philosophy and aesthetics of fine art photography in the United States during the first four decades of the twentieth century may suggest little or no relationship to major environmental shifts occurring in Southern California during the same period. The practice of American fine art photography grew in a number of directions between 1900 and 1940 as the discourse of photography flowed from the aesthetics of pictorialism to the plurality of modernism. Beginning with the late-nineteenth-century struggle to establish photography as a fine art, it was no longer possible to view the photograph as only a well-crafted commercial product. Rather,...

    • 11 Thirteen Ways of Seeing Nature in LA
      (pp. 220-244)

      There are many places in LA you can go to think about the city, and my own favorite has become the Los Angeles River—a deeply paradoxical river, most famous for being forgotten, that looks and functions like an oversized concrete sewer. It flows fifty-one miles through the heart of LA County, and is currently enjoying an explosion of efforts to revitalize it, but commuters who have driven over it five days a week for ten years cannot tell you where it is. Along the river, the rough midpoint lies at the confluence with the Arroyo Seco, a couple miles...

    • 12 A Garden of Worldly Delights
      (pp. 245-266)

      A girl is running through row after row of blossoming orange trees. The air is densely fragrant. But this is no dreamy scene of sun-dabbled Arcadia, no female world of plants and pleasure. The girl is furtive and desperate; she is a fugitive. Her pursuers wish to capture her and then redeem her. She is, in their eyes, wild and uncultivated. She is the desert, and they are the rain. They have the power and know-how to make her bloom and train her growth. They want to take her back to the Sherman Institute in Riverside, a boarding school established...

    • 13 Changing Attitudes toward Animals among Chicanas and Latinas in Los Angeles
      (pp. 267-287)

      Chickens, roosters, rabbits, sheep, and goats, living in tiny backyards or even on the apartment balcony, are an increasingly common sight in Los Angeles’ dense Latino neighborhoods, especially those with large shares of immigrants. Latino immigrant residential communities in Southern California, where zoning regulations were characteristically lax, have always included animals; Don Normark, for example, provides photographic evidence of this in his 1949 images of Chavez Ravine, where farm animals such as goats were common. However, today such animals may be found in dense apartment communities and inner-ring suburbs with cramped yards.¹

      There are no quantitative data on the distribution...

  5. Epilogue: The Present as History
    (pp. 288-294)

    Los Angeles and the environment. Place those words together and the worst is often assumed. Some would argue that Los Angeles is better characterized as an anti-environment. The litany of environmental problems seems endless. After the passage of the 1970 Clean Air Act, Los Angeles County had more days when air quality standards were exceeded than any other region, until Houston finally began to challenge its supremacy as top air polluter in the late 1990s. Los Angeles residents experience the longest commutes on the most congested freeways. Many Los Angeles neighborhoods along the path of the fifty-three-mile Los Angeles River,...