Sunday, February 27, 2005

Extreme Weather in Southern California: looking at Mike Davis again

In the last week in February 2005 Southern California has had flash floods that covered the Hollywood Freeway and blocks of Hollywood; a stretch of the San Gabriel Mountains right near Mt. Wilson which a gotten 100" of rain a year; water spout-like hurricanes off Santa Monica; avalanche conditions in the San Gabriel Mountains; a huge sinkhole opened up in the middle of the road in Sun Valley where an engineer died; and mud slides in Malibu, Pasadena, Brentwood, Silverlake, Hacienda Heights et al.

When Mike Davis published in 1998 his book Ecology of Fear detailing Southern California's extreme weather, he was loudly criticized as a catastrophe-monger, a man who looked everywhere and saw Apocalypse. A Malibu realtor named Brady Westwater sent a 22-page letter containing Davis's supposed flaws to local media, and then local media starting with New Times regurgitated Westwater without fact-checking him. No media this last week would now argue with Davis's contention that Los Angeles has extreme weather.

In Davis's first chapter of Ecology of Fear, he explains extreme weather and environmental hazards in Southern California better than any book I know. He details thirty years of scientific research to understand "deep history of Mediterranean landscapes" which include Southern California, Italy, central Chile, the costal zone of South African's Cape Province and West and South Australia. Both drought and regular fires are centuries-long features of the Meditarrean environment, so plants have adapted: they are drought-resitant and some need fire to send off seeds. The first Spanish explorers saw evidence of great floods and experienced earthquakes, but the Spanish had long familiarity with the Mediterranean climate of Southern Spain.

The problem is that Anglo-Americans were familiar with the ecology of England and eastern United States: regular seasons with rainfall that didn't vary that much over the years; rivers that ran year-round; and stable ground without earthquakes. They based their ideas of natural law on the "uniformitariaism" of these eastern environments where one year was very much like the previous. So Anglo-Americans based their ideas of "average" climate and rainfall on this Eastern ecology, thinking of Los Angles as having a naturally sunny, warm climate. Then they created a whole publicity campaign that successfully sold the image of California as endlessly sunny, pleasant climate. This image of Southern California just wasn't true.

In Mediteranean climates like Los Angles Davis says "high-intensity , low-frequency events ('disasters') are the ordinary agents of landscape and ecology change." Our ecology naturally produces floods, mudslides, drought, and fire while our geology produces earthquakes. In a ecology where fires, floods, and mudslides regularly occur, they occur most extremely in floodplains at the base of mountains: Los Angeles is one such floodplain at the base of the San Gabriel and Santa Monica Mountains. Davis adds, "consequently, [these floodplains] are at risk from multiple-interlinked disaster .... Drought, for examples, dries fuel for wildfires which, in turn, removed ground cover and makes soils impermeable to rain."

But throughout the 20th century people have ignored Southern California's ecology of disaster and have ignored common sense in building homes. They have put homes in harm's way: homes have been built in areas such as La Conchita or on the cliffs in Mailbu which have regular mudslides; homes have been built all over the foothills and mountains which have fires occurring every decade; a huge city in a semi-desert has been built with little conserving of water flooding down in winterstorms. Davis feels most of the tragedies such as the recent nine deaths from the mudslide in La Conchita were avoidable if we treated the land differently.

Further, after each flood or fire or earthquake the federal government through FEMA gives low-interest loans or even outright disaster aid for people to rebuild in the same dangerous areas. Davis argues this "diaster amnesia is a federally subsidized luxury." Right now FEMA has been on the radio announcing it will give its low-interest loans to homeowners affected by the recent mudslides.

Davis argues instead building in "redundancy" in emergency systems to help us through our extreme weather and geology as well as reduce their impact. Extreme weather will occur again, but Davis feels we can reduce its impact through "hazard zoning": exluding intensive housing on "most disaster-prone terrains" of foothills and wetlands . Also, increasing apartments inside the city instead of sprawling new housing through more disaster-prone foothills and plains would save money on flood control systems.

The federal government should end its low-interest loans to homeowners on dangerous hillsides previously harmed by flood or fires. Homeowners can rebuild, but the taxpayers won't subsidize them. If some homeowners then abandon their hillside homes, the city could buy the land from them and we might wind up with more hillside parks--Los Angeles desperately needs new parks. We already have tougher requirements for retrofitting buildings to make them earthquake-safe.

In the past Southern California has had regular droughts, so it needs to adopt a saving water ethic including having catchbasins and barrels to catch rainwater using it to water gardens, lawns and parks. Also, we could get rid many lawns and instead use drought-resistant plants in our gardens as these reduce our use of water. In Los Angeles we've already adopted low-flush toilets and showerheads--that is good. This redundancy in our water use would lessen the impact of the next drought.

Davis's ideas on how to avoid the harm of future floods, earthquakes, drought, and mudslides are sensible and practical. He is hardly, as his critics have said, a man yelling catastrophe about Los Angels but a man with intelligent ideas how to avoid catastrophe. It those like Westwater and Davis' critics who ignore such sensible ideas to make people safe that are the producers of disaster.

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Villaraigosa for LA's Mayor

Villaraigosa is the only one of the 5 mayoral candidates with a vision for Los Angeles that would actually solve some of the city's problems while the other four candidates--Hahn, Hertz berg, Parks, and Alarcon--are only offering band aids that would keep LA's wounds festering.

On the city council, he helped resolve the MTA bus strike in November 2003 while Mayor Hahn was unable to do so. As a board member of the MTA, he's done necessary work to link transit and land use planning as well as adopt sustainable building pratices for all large projects.

Villaraigosa says to solve Los Angeles traffic gridlock we need to a comprehensive plan to upgrade the roads, build more rail lines including expanding the lines we have, improve the bus system until it is first class, and create more bikeways. He argues that to solve the housing crisis we need to build more middle class homes and more affordable homes for the poor as well as create tax incentives for families to help them buy their first home. Homes, schools and transporation should all be coordinated.

While in the state legislature he was important in passing a $2.1 billion initiative effort to provide parks and open space throughout the state. By helping to pass the bill for the Los Angeles river conservancy, he brought more than $87 million to Southern California to spur development of parks along the Los Angeles River and he also funded an extensive expansion of water quality enforcement by the state. He’s by far the best candidate for the environment with his vision for a green Los Angeles: planting a million trees to both conserve water and improve air; improve air quality; reduce dumping of toxics in the beaches; increasing recycling throughout the city; and a host of other ideas. He’s the best candidate for increasing much needed park space: he wants to build parks, particularly a string of pocket parks along the Los Angeles River.

For the economy, he further suggests to solve the problem of poverty in the inner city we need a community-development bank to improve the economy in low-income neighborhoods. Villaraigosa would work harder than any other candidate to extend the living-wage ordinance and build more affordable housing. With low-income workers making more money, they would immediately spend the money, spurring the economy. Building housing and also rehabilitating existing slum housing would also employ construction workers and would positively affect the economy. Villaragoisa’s economic solutions will benefit citizens of all classes. Further, with poor people getting higher wages and better housing, there would be more social peace, again benefiting all classes. His plan of adding more police without a tax increase would also help social peace.

Villaraigosa has real achievements both when he was in the state legislature and on the city council. When he was in the state legislature, he authored a state health insurance program, “Healthy Families,” currently serving 600,000 children of the working poor--this is one of the most important pieces of legislation passed in California in the last decade. Also he led the passage of a $9.1 billion initiative to rebuild and modernize California schools.

He is a politician who has done more for the environment than any other in Los Angeles and he's also extremely knowledgable about transportation issues, important for solving traffic gridlock. All in all he's already improved California's health, schools, environment, transportation, and water quality. That is quite a record. As mayor he would support ideas that would improve schools, health, transportation, the economy, and public safety. Los Angeles needs Villaragoisa’s vision and needs him as mayor.

Villaraigosa versus the other candidates

The other four candidates running for Los Angeles's mayor don't even come close to Villaraigosa.

Bob Hertzberg is a moderate business-orientated Democrat. His best is to use the rubber from heaps of used tires to make rubber sidewalks, a good idea but far from an environmental plan to solve L.A.'s many environmental problems. To improve the economy, he suggests the mayor persuade Korean banks in invest in this city, but Koreans and Japanese companies have been investing in L.A. for years with little impact. His major idea is to break-up Los Angeles Unified School District, but as mayor he has little power to do so, and can only suggest that the state legislature take action. He has a few proposals to help driving such as no roadwork during rush hour, but these plans won't solve traffic gridlock. He has a couple ideas how to reduce runaway film production by eliminating $20,000/day location, but this will so little for the economy.

Richard Alarcon is a decent liberal Democrat, but he, as many other candidates want to add 1,000 more cops. His major ideas are to roll back DWP rates 11%--nice but a quick fix, solving no long-term problems. His idea for improving transportation by creating a Green Business Program to provide tax credits for business that have good wages and give public transportation to their employees would have little or no impact on reducing traffic gridlock He had some decent ideas for improving schools--reduce administrative spending; increase per capita spending; localize decision making--but the mayor has little influence over the huge bureaucracy of the Los Angeles United School District. He wants to get rid of pay-to-play for awarding city contracts by limiting campaign contributions of developers and lobbyists to $100. That's a nice idea but laws such as these have been passed for a decade with little discernible effort.

As for Bernard Parks, he has been a good representative for his district, getting more than $7 million in funds for the redevelopment of the Vision Theater in Leimert Park, so arts and culture can be catalyst for economic development in the African-American area. He has supported the Lula May Washington Dance Studio and African Marketplace and other art projects in L.A.’s. He is serious about supporting arts through funding the Cultural Affairs Department, has helped support gay rights, and has a good transportation plan that integrates pushing for more rail lines, better buses, and improved street driving. His business orientated idea to help the economy through tax incentives would do little. Often Parks seems to be more campaigning against Mayor Hahn than giving forth ideas to solve the city problems. He has made witty remarks attacking Hahn such as "asking Mayor Hahn about reforming the pay-to-play scandal is like asking Fat Albert about dietary tips."

Finally, Mayor Hahn's boasts his two most notable accomplishments were appointing Bratton as head of the L.A.P.D. and stopping Valley succession--a very shortlist. As for the environment, he as one small accomplishment: getting the DWP not to invest in a Utah coal plant. Other than that, he's do nothing for the environment; for example, he hasn't pushed the DWP to increase its use of non-polluting energy sources.

During the long bus strike in fall 2003 he walked a picket line but was unable to negotiate an end to the long, drawn-out lockout/strike. During the February floods he was again M.I.A. He's usually not there, without a vision, without ideas. He has been decent to labor, supporting both the grocery workers and the longshorepeople during their strikes as well as allowing for raises of city hall workers. But that is not enough to be re-elected mayor. His administration has been tarnished by the pay-to-play scandal of giving city contracts to developers who had previously given him campaign contracts.

All in all Villaraigosa beats out his four competitors for mayor in terms of previous accomplishments and he has the most far-reaching and detailed vision for Los Angeles.

Monday, February 21, 2005

Hollywood Floods

When I drive to my mother's house for dinner at 5:30 Monday during the storm, the streets are wet but there is barely a drizzle, so when I start east at 7:00 pm down Melrose Avenue through Hollywood I think there would no problems. Driving through Melrose and Highland there is a an inch or two of water over the intersection but I keep on going. I'm an old hand now after a month of storms of driving through slightly flooded intersections.

Then as I approach Vine Street the cars are really backed up and I could see the westbound lanes are flooded. There are two lanes going east where I am in the left lane with the right lane flooded. I think for a second maybe I should turn around but I didn't. Instead I slowly inch forward until I got to the intersection. Yes, on Vine going north there is a couple inches of rain flooding the street with a car stranded in the middle. Big water ahead! I see there is a couple inches of rain all over the intersection--I'm driving a sedan, not a truck or a SUV. I inch forward through the water saying a prayer. Now I'm driving on water, praying my brakes hold up. I keep inching forward until finally I'm out of the intersection. Oh my god, I made it.

On the other side of Vine Streets Melrose Avenue is again clear of water as I pass by Paramount Studios on my north. Then approaching Bronson Avenue I see that the cars are slowing down ahead. I know at Melrose and Wilton Avenue there was in previous storms at least an inch or two of rain. Two weeks ago the traffic light at that intersection had gone out in a power outage that effected the whole area, so I decide to turn right to avoid the Melrose/Wilton intersection, taking backstreets. One street is blocked off--I guess it had flooded so the neighbors wisely blocked it off. I take backstreets the few blocks until home but there are strangely a lot more cars--obviously taking detours as I am.

As I turn into the parking garage undearneth my apartmenthouse, my neighbors are with buckets bailing out the inches of water on the garage floor near the entrance. I park my car at the opposite end of the parking garage, put my purse in the apartment. Twice in the previous month's storms the power had gone out--once for three hours. In late December I had a friend over for dinner during the storm when lightening and thunder happened together right over my apartment house--the lights went out including the computer. God, I thought my building had been hit. I lit candles and we continued eating--what else is there to do? Back to the quail! Later I checked my computer which luckily was protected by a surge protector so the computer was O.K.

Now, thank God, the lights are on in my apartment. Then I return to help by carrying buckets full of water to dump in the street. They fill up buckets while I haul them out of the garage. One neighbor said that Beverly and Western is flooded. I learn later that it had about 2 feet of water, the power is out in the neighborhood, and also homes are flooded. With six of us working at filling up water buckets and dumping them in the street we clear out the water in the gargage in about 15 more minutes.

On the news on channel 9 I see the Hollywood Freeway at Santa Monica is totally covered with water. Cars had gotten stranded (thank god it wasn't me), firemen had to rescue the people, and towtrucks had to tow out their cars. In an hour a storm cell had dropped 1 1/2 inches of rain over Hollywood and then moved north and dissipated. That's what is so weird. The storm can be drizzles all day like today and then pow! a storm cell in an hour can flood the streets! Because all four lanes of the Hollywood Freeway were closed, cars were backed up on the soutside for miles and on the north for miles while police were taking cars slowly off the freeways. Cars must be crisscrossing Hollywood trying to avoid flooded intersections and the freeway.

The funny thing is now it isn't even raining. Well, I hope that stops the flooding of Hollywood.

Sunday, February 20, 2005

Kevin's Starr's Coast of Dreams

Kevin Starr’s Coast of Dreams: California on the Edge 1990-2003 is the sixth in a series of books on California history, and the only one written just at the end of the decade it is about. The book gets some things very right about California in the 1990s while it completely misses other.

What’s best about the book the chapter “The Boys from Texas” where he brilliantly covers the mid-1990s deregulation of California’s energy and then the resulting energy crisis shortage of early 2000-1. Starr writes as an angry California nationalist not wanting his state to become an energy colony of “the boys from Texas” but instead energy independent. Further, he gives a good argument for an very unpopular opinion: Governor Gray Davis did as much as he could to get the state through the energy shortage.

Starr in "Zen California" has an enlightening description of the state’s multitude of religious communities including Hindus; Japanense and Tibetan Buddhists; New Age; Protestants, covering the Pentecostal revival; Catholics, focusing on the impact of Mexican Catholics; and Jews. In “Diversity” he paints good portraits of the growth of immigrant communities from Mexicans to Asians to Muslims, Armenians, and Russians. In his chapter “Immigrants to the Rescue” he powerfully argues that immigrant busnisspeople have started small businesses and new industries and also immigrant professionals have important jobs in high tech industries--both were key to the state’s economic recovery.

Starr counters the prejudiced idea that California is becoming a nightmare of impoverished immigrants by showing how many immigrants are contributing to economic life as well as becoming established by buying homes and moving into the middle and upper middle classes. His idea of the “dream” does capture these dream riven people. These immigrant success stories need to be told—Starr does a good job of telling it.

But even here Starr ignores an important story. He neglects entirely another key event: Latino trade union leaders such as Gilbert Cedillo as well as immigrant activists such as Jose Guiterrez organized a huge demonstration against Proposition 187 and then started drives to naturalize Latinos and register them as voters. These registration drives helped to elect Latino politicians. Also Miguel Contreras, the new head of the Los Angeles County AFL-CIO, had unionists work hard to mobilize Latinos and trade unionists, contributing to the effort to elect first Latino candidates and then progressive non-Latinos. These efforts helped create the strong progressive bloc of legislators in the state assembly and senate, thus changing both Los Angeles's and California's politics and policies.

Starr has similar strengths and weaknesses in his discussion of the environment. He gives an excellent statewide panorama of California’s environmental problem from sprawl in the Central Valley to statewide drought to conflict over redwoods to corruption in building Los Angeles's subway. The only environmental group he does discuss is Earth First--their attempt to stop Pacific Lumber’s cutting of old growth redwoods in Humboldt County--but he describes them as quaint but uncivil remnants of the 1960s.

His “Going Green” chapter omits the many citizen’s groups that have reshaped the state. In Los Angles, these groups have had great impact: a coalition West L.A. group saved from the developers a remnant of Ballona Wetlands, the last wetlands in Los Angeles; Friends of the Los Angeles River and Latino politicians got the state to pass 1999 bill establishing the San Gabriel and Lower Los Angeles Rivers and Mountains Conservancy as well as established bike paths along the river; the Desert Chapter of Los Angeles Sierra Club persuaded the U.S. congress to pass legislation for a new national park made up of Joshua Tree, Death Valley and parts of Mohave; the Chinatown Yard Alliance, which is a coalition of Anglo, Chinatown and Latino groups, successfully fought Mayor Riordan to keep the old railroad land called the Cornfields from being industrialized and got itinstead turned into park with an elementary school.

This is just Los Angeles—the missing story is even Los Angeles has a powerful environmental movement. The second missing story is that throughout the state environmental citizens groups were a political power. The third missing story is Anglo environmentalists on the Los Angeles’s Westside are now working politically with Chinese, blacks, Latinos, and Native Americans in such groups as the Chinatown Yard Alliance. These citizens groups and coalitions are hardly 1960s remants but the new politics of the 1990s and the 2000s

What's Really Happening In L.A.

Even more problematical is Kevin Starr’s view of Los Angeles in his book Coast of Dreams. He gets the little details wrong, saying Santa Monica by the 1980s and 1990s had such irritating homeless that they “effective [were] creating a no-man-s-land between Santa Monica and the sea.” Nita Nickerson, one of my students, said that during this period as a pregnant woman she felt perfectly safe walking the area—hardly a no woman’s land. Starr's examples of catastrophe mostly occured in L.A.: horrifying murders, corrupt cops of the Rampart scandal, the 1992 riot, never ending ethnic tensions, dreadfully poor children, and out-of-control gangs. After reading Starr’s litany of catastrophes, some of my students were astounded to hear me call him a booster.

What’s quite missing is all the citizens groups who bravely battle to make Los Angeles livable. After the 1992 riot Los Angeles’s business and political establishment had established Rebuild LA to address the city’s poverty but it failed miserable. But Starr omits the real story: -Latino led AFL-CIO, immigrants rights groups and progressive Jewish, black Latino politicians and groups defeated Mayor Riordan’s attempts to privatize city services, which would have led to lower wages, producing even more poverty.

Then this coaltion fought for and won a livable wage ordinance; supported the Justice for Janitors campaign to first unionize and then got a wage increased for immigrant janitors working in high-rise luxury offices. All these efforts were the real beginning of addressing poverty after elites had failed miserably. Again, the city's establishment failed to make any dent in the gang problem, but anti-gang groups were making small progress. These many small groups-- Amer-I-Can, Hands Across Watts, Homies Unidos, Unity One, Barrios Unidos, HomeBoy Industries, and Communities in Schools--all flew under Starr's radar as they worked to have gang truces an to provide alternatives to gangs in recreation, life-skills and job-training programs.

Other groups tackled the affordable housing shortage, hunger, and rundown schools. These citizens groups tackling Los Angeles’s problems across the were giving the city much needed compassion and humanity but also were presenting viable proposals that would lessen the growing gap between the state's wealthiest and its poorest citizens. The story was not of a city out of control but of citizen's groups presenting viable proposals. A few of these proposals were adopted but mostly the city's political and econmic establishment stonewalled.

A final story that Starr omits is how Los Angeles arts have come of age in the 1990s. Starr has bits and pieces of the story strewn around his various chapters, but one needs to gather the pieces together in a coherent story. In the 1990s of Los Angeles architecture reached world fame with Frank Gehry while the Getty musuem now had the finest photography collection in a private museum in the country. In the early 1930s Mexican muralist David Sequiros painted his murals in Los Angeles, starting a 60-year old outdoor mural tradition with murals across town, more than any other U.S. city; further, the city has a roster of important visual artists and a huge number of museums and galleries showcasing all kinds of visual art. Many small theaters were daring and adventurous while its large theater pioneered with such plays as Tony Kushner’s Angels in America.

Los Angeles finally had a large scale repertory cinema in the American Cinemateque at the Egyptian The city had one important film festival after another featuring Latino film, African and African-American film, independent cinema, and even a homegrown alternative Silverlake film festival. After New York, Los Angeles was the most important visual arts as well as theater center in the country; in cinema it was, of course, the most important.

Starr even discusses Los Angeles novelists—Bukowski, Ellroy—as being too down and dirty but he has focused on pre-1990s novelists: Bukowski is really a countercultural voice of the 1960s and 1970s celebrating the little guy while Ellroy is a 1980s debunker exposing in his best novel LA Confidential the corrupt, racist 1950s LAPD. Two novelists who did capture the 1990s were Janet Fitch’s White Olander and Hector Tovar’s Tatooed Soldiers. Where Starr gives us a long litany of ills suffered by trashed children, Fitch’s heroine is one of those trashed children who manages by the end to find some happiness. Tovar’s is the best immigrant story, detailing a Guatamlan refugee fleeing the civil war to see in Los Angeles his life hit bottom and then begin to go upwards. Both novels ending with small moments of redemption.

Starr’s book, despite its flaws, is still the best book about California in the 1990s because he begins to tell a major important California story in how the great immigrant wave of the decade was transforming the state’s economy and culture, but a second story needs to be told: how immigrants are transforming its politics. How immigrants form coalitions with non-immigrants in dealing with issues of environment, hunger, jobs, anti-gang and housing may prove to be the big story of the decade starting in 2000. A new arts and literature resulting from this stew of new cultures is also bubbling. Rather than a decade strewn with catastrophe, the 1990s may prove in the future to be a decade like New York 1900-1910 when citizens started small scale groups to produce ideas--seeds of hope--to solve their many problems and to creative innovative new arts.