California Nightmares

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March 1, 2015 · Posted in Notes from Above Ground 




By Honey van Blossom

(Honey is a Belgian Marxist former strip-tease artiste)

The Tenderloin is a neighborhood in downtown San Francisco between the Union Square shopping district to the northeast and the Civic Center office district to the southwest. It encompasses about 50 square blocks. It overlaps the theater district. By the 1920s, the neighborhood was famous for speakeasies, billiard halls, boxing gyms – background for the fiction of Dashiell Hammett, who lived at 891 Post Street. Both the movie and the book The Maltese Falcon were set in the Tenderloin.

Squalid conditions, homelessness, crime, illegal drug trade, prostitution, dive bars and liquor stores give the neighborhood a seedy reputation.   Violent crimes and thefts from parked vehicles are common.

The densest cluster of human dung in San Francisco is in the notoriously filthy North of Market-Tenderloin Community Benefit District. BART escalators on Market close from time to time to remove human excrement. The Mission District, Chinatown and western Haight-Ashbury host significant shit deposits. You have to watch your step as well South of Market between Fifth and Seventh Streets.

In 1980, I worked in an office South of Market. The first day of my job at Consumer’s Union, I walked from the bus terminal walking over a green and nacreous river of broken wine and liquor bottles and saw homeless men clustered around another man having a seizure. There were no cell phones in those days. I stopped to see if I could help. They asked for money, I gave them money. I had a seizure disorder, caused by a car driving into me as I crossed the street. One of my cousins was a paranoid schizophrenic, and no one in the family knew where he was. A woman walked by, staring vacantly. She was normally dressed and had nicely combed hair. She genuflected and talked into an invisible telephone. The area now looks better than it did in 1980. Then, everything was derelict.

Later that summer, I had dinner with my supervisor. I asked her to drive me to the BART station so I could get back to Berkeley. She drove up the pedestrian path, pedestrians spreading away from us in terror, and deposited me at the top of the escalator. “Don’t ask,” she said. “I grew up here.”

Two months ago, my fifteen-year-old granddaughter wanted to see Haight-Ashbury so we took Uber from Market and endured blocks of pseudo-hippie junk.   I wanted her to experience public transportation, so we took a bus back to the Powell Station. Her mother had instructed us not to sit in public transportation, so we stood in the front. A series of alarmed cries rose from the back of the bus. A man had shat and refused to leave. Stench filled the bus. The bus driver stopped, went to the back, ejected the man and opened portholes on top of the bus. To me, this was a big step forward in bus driver deportment from when I was a teenager in a Los Angeles bus from the public library downtown. That time, the man seated behind me had snaked his hand around the back of my seat to feel me up. I screamed. The bus driver didn’t move. I got up and screamed in his ear. He ignored me.

Two weeks ago, my friend Susannah and I had tickets to see Angela Lansbury in Blithe Spirit at the Golden Gate Theater at 1 Taylor Street. We took BART to the Powell Station and looked for some place to eat lunch. I suggested Starbuck’s. We sat at a counter that faced the street. A huddled homeless man sat outside with his hand out for money. His pleas went unrewarded. When we left, he cried out after us, “Old women, won’t you give me money?” “Not an especially attractive appeal,” she said dismissively. I concurred.

Then we entered hell for some, joy for others. Yet another group of shabby homeless men surrounded an epileptic. Yet another ambulance rushed with flashing lights and sirens. A group of blank faced young people danced ecstatically to music from a radio. “Every day a party,” Susannah said. “I’d like to get out of here. Soon.” I said. We did.

Take the drive from San Francisco on the I-80 over the Bay Bridge. In 1980, I drove my then-thirteen year old daughter across the old Bay Bridge. My car died. A truck with a scoop in front of it scooped up the back of my ancient Subaru and deposited us in West Oakland. I locked my little girl in the car and ran to the gas station to call Triple A, which did not come. A car filled with hooting young men circled us. It grew closer. A man stopped his car, screamed at the young men, and locked us in the car and called AAA again. Whatever he said to AAA, worked.

Take the 80 to the 580 and merge onto the I-5. Pass Modesto and Merced and Madera to Fresno.

Fresno rates third poorest metropolitan area in the United States. Its slogan is, “Fresno—smile when you say that.” The sign, however, in front of the second entrance gate built in 1929 states it is – or maybe once was — “The Best Little City in the U.S.A.”

Forbes lists the Fresno-Madera metro area for the dirtiest city in America. The 500,000 people in this area suffer from groundwater polluted by agriculture as well as having the fifth worst year-round particle pollution in the nation. They also suffer the nation’s worst exposure to soot and chemical pollution. The California Environmental Protection Agency says people in West Fresno live with higher health risks than anyone in California.

An article by Mark Grossi in The Fresno Bee on September 20, 2014, described “the kind of lung-searing day that would crack the rubber band on your newspaper if you left it on the driveway.” Sierra Nevada wildfires burned for days in stagnant 103-degree weather.

A Science Magazine article published on September 12. 2014, pointed a finger at stratospheric intrusion from China. In fast developing China, where levels of nitrogen oxides more than doubled between 1995 and 2010 survive in the atmosphere for days, if not weeks. “During this time, the pollution can travel across the Pacific in a Northern Hemisphere ‘conveyor belt’ of westerly winds several kilometers up. The U.S. mountain west lies right in their path…”

The Sierra Nevada forests are adapted to frequent, low intensity fire. Before Euro-American settlement, native people burned to keep the forests open to promote acorns and meadow foods, to suppress insects and develop pliable shoots in shrubbery for basketry materials. Fire suppression efforts resulted in more severe fires. Severe fires mean that most or all of the trees are killed. Climate change leads to extended periods of drought – California before climate change also experienced drought episodes – means less moisture in the Sierras, which means trees are more damaged by insects than they were before. Homes are the biggest fuel in the forest; yet local governments continue to allow real estate development in the forests.

John McPhee in “Los Angeles Against the Mountains,” a 1988 installment in The New Yorker, described how Southern California’s dry chaparral produces devastating fires. “In millennia before Los Angeles settled its plain, the chaparral burned every thirty years or so, as the chaparral does now. The burns of prehistory, in their natural mosaic, were smaller than the ones today. With cleared fire lanes, chemical retardants, and other means of suppressing what is not beyond control, people have conserved fuel in large acreages. When the inevitable fires come, they burn hotter, higher, faster than they ever did in a state of unhindered nature.”

The beef ranch near the Coalinga interchange is known to travelers for the “ripe, tangy odor of cow manure,” described alternatively as “a horrible stench.” The stronger odor is cattle piss. The land around the animals is bare.   From the highway, it appears that the beasts huddle on bare ground and filth.   The ranch is an example of industrial livestock production also called “factory farming,” which usually uses antibiotics and pesticides to mitigate the spread of disease and pestilence exacerbated by crowded living conditions. The World Health Organization is concerned enough about human resistance to antibiotics to suggest significantly curbing the use of antibiotics on the animals we eat. The ranch provides the beef for In-N-Out Burgers and supermarkets.

The slogan for Bakersfield is “Life as It Should be.” What can that mean? “Life as it should be if you live somewhere that is not Bakersfield?” Could it mean that life in Bakersfield is an ideal and if so, what is that ideal? Bakersfield is the seventh poorest large metro area in the United States.

The Kern River Oil Field near Bakersfield covers 10,750 of the “low lying hills” around Bakersfield. The Lost Hills are almost completely barren except for oilrigs, pipes, tanks drilling pads and associated equipment. The oil pumps look like mechanical mosquitos that bob their heads slowly up and down to suck up the black blood.

The highway and the Amtrak views of the area between Fresno and Bakersfield is littered, gray-soiled, lined with silage under tarps weighted with used tires, some palm trees. The San Joaquin Valley is sinking: its water reserves are shrinking by 800 billion gallons a year because of moisture-demanding crops, improved drilling technologies, and a surge of corporate investors seeking profits.

I-5 leaves the Central Valley through between the southwest end of the Tehachapi Mountains and the San Emigdio Mountains. In 1772, Spanish soldier and explorer Pedro Fages (1734-1794) named the pass La Cañada de las Uvas (Canyon of the Grapes) for all the Cimarron grape vines that grew in it. Amtrak trains stop at Bakersfield, and buses leave from the station for the drive over The Grapevine.

I-5 as it enters downtown Los Angeles digresses abruptly and incomprehensibly into other freeways. Keep right at the fork to continue on I-10, follow the signs for Interstate 10 West to Santa Monica, take the exit toward Alameda Street, and turn left onto Alameda Street.

The decision in Jones v. City of Los Angeles, 444 F.3d 1118 (2006) identifies Skid Row as the area east of Main Street, south of Third Street, west of Alameda Street and north of Seventh Street.

The term “Skid row” or “Skid road” originally referred to the path along which timber workers skidded logs. Its current meaning is an impoverished area inhabited by the poor and the homeless. At the end of the 19th century, residential hotels opened in the area as it became home to transient seasonal workers. By 1930, Skid Row was home to as many as 10,000 homeless people, alcoholics and others on the margins of society. As of the 2000 census, 17,740 people lived in the neighborhood. About 42 percent of those living in Skid Row were below the poverty line.

The Twin Towers Correctional Facility is at 450 Bauchet Street near North Vignes Street. Vignes is named after Jean-Louis Vignes, otherwise known as “Don Luis del Aliso.” “El Aliso” was a gigantic sycamore that may be seen in the background of 19th photographs of the pueblo. Three hundred years before the Spanish arrived, Tongva leaders traveled from their villages across Southern California to confer under El Aliso’s canopy. It stood at the center of one of the largest Tongva villages, called Yangva. In 1781, Spain founded a new agricultural settlement within a stone’s throw of El Aliso: El Pueblo de la Reina de Los Angeles.

Don Luis arrived in Los Angeles in 1931 and bought 104 acres of land located between the original Pueblo and the River.   He planted vineyards and imported vines from Bordeaux, Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon blanc. He also planted the first orange groves, 400 peach trees, as well as apricots, pears, apples, figs and walnuts. This area is probably the area described by Ina Coolbrith in one of her Los Angeles poems, “A Hope.”

“It befell me on a day-
/Long ago; ah, long ago! /
When my life was in its May, 
In the May-month of the year./ All the orchards were like snow/
With pink-flushes here and there;/ 
And a bird sang building near-
/And a bird sang far away,/ 
Where the early twilight lay.”

In May 2013, Twin Towers, along with the adjacent Men’s Central Jail, ranked as one of the worst ten prisons in the United States because of the severe overcrowding and violence within the facility. From 1982 to 2000, California’s prison population increased 500%. Of the 160,000 prisoners in California, two-thirds are African-American and Latino.

Take Metrolink at Union Station.   The train from Union Station passes first “Nickel Downs,” a low- income housing development that looks like a run down prison with little access to anything other than junkyards. The bridges are old. The polluted river water looks oily and fetid. The first stop after Union Station is Santa Fe/Norwalk.

Downey is a city in southern Los Angeles County. Farmers once grew grain, corn, castor beans and fruit where the city now stands. Suburban homes and industries replaced the agricultural land after World War II. Downey merges at its borders with Norwalk, once a dairy center. The American Dream of a single family home with a yard turned into cheaply made houses with tiny yards, convenience stores, high poverty rates, featureless landscapes and incessant road construction, all of which to the uninitiated – everyone who doesn’t live there – makes it impossible to reach any destination. The air smells of burning brakes.

Because of California’s Proposition 13, touted as a “grass roots” movement against property taxation but actually underwritten by the oil industry, large areas of California are deficient in parks and libraries, and the schools are underfunded. Cities therefore rely on income from new and used car sales because the state still has sales taxes, and cars are big-ticket items. “Big box” stores replaced locally owned businesses that sold once hardware and lumber and plumbing, bookstores, shoe stores. The car economy generates radiator shops and transmission repairs, gas stations.

The experience of suburbia can become dark literature, as in the film Nightcrawler (2014) and in the 2006 film A Scanner Darkly, the animated science fiction film based on the book of the same name by Philip K. Dick.

If you drive the surface streets from Orange County up through Central Los Angeles, you will see large areas almost without trees, with few parks, houses with barred windows that do not protect the inhabitants against drive-by shootings. The common experience of people who live in these areas is violence. The causes of the hopelessness of those who live in these areas are many: little access to justice, the history of restrictive covenants in Los Angeles until 1947 that meant African-Americans were only allowed to live in certain areas, the race riots, police brutality, the freeway system that divided communities, the War Against Drugs.

Kevin Starr’s multi-volume series on the history of California is collectively called “Americans and the California Dream.” Starr details the American dream in California that has meant many things to its many different and diverse people but the reality our people inhabit has been and is powerfully both framed by and also constrained by larger national and international political and economic realities.


 .Lois M. Davis, M. Rebecca Kilburn, Dana Schultz, “Reparable Harm: Assessing and Addressing Disparities Faced By Boys and Men of Color in California.” (2009)

Mike Davis, Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies (1971)

_________ City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles (1990)

Diri, Phyl, The Ideology of Housing During the Great Depression,

Unpublished master’s thesis, UCLA Graduate School of Architecture and Urban Planning (1981).

Andres Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zybrek, Jeff Speck, Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream (2010).

Chris Epting, Vanishing Orange County, California (2008)

Robert Fogelson, Bourgeois Nightmares: Suburbia, 1870-1930. (2005).

________The Fragmented Metropolis (1993)

“Green California,” See also,

Dolores Hayden, Building Suburbia: Green Fields and Urban Growth, 1820-2000 (2004) “In 1995 Bank of America issued a famous report on sprawl in California. The bank pronounced: ‘Urban job centers have decentralized to the suburbs. New housing tracts have moved even deeper into agriculturally and environmentally sensitive areas. Private auto use continues to rise. This acceleration of sprawl has surfaced enormous social, environmental, and economic costs, which until now have been hidden, ignored, or quietly borne by society.”

Daniel Johnson, “Pollution and Public Policy at the Turn of the Twentieth Century,” a chapter in William Deverell, Greg Hise, editors, Land of Sunshine: An Environmental History of Metropolitan Los Angeles (2006).

C.B. Macpherson, The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism: From Homes to Locke (1962)

_____, The Rise and Fall of Economic Justice (1984)

Nathan Masters, “El Aliso: Ancient Sycamore Was Silent Witness to Four Centuries of L.A. History,” Socal Focus, June 27, 2012.

John McPhee, The Control of Nature, (1989), page 183 and following.

Carey McWilliams, Factories in the Field: The Story of Migratory Farm Labor in the United States (1939). McWilliams was chief of California’s Division of Immigration and Housing in 1939. California growers called him “Agricultural Pest Number One, worse than pear blight or boll weevils.” J. Edgar Hoover planned to detain McWilliams in case of a national emergency. “China blamed for U.S. ozone,” by Eric Hand.

Frank Norris, The Octopus: A Story of California (1901). The Octopus was based on the Mussel Slough Tragedy of 1880, a bloody conflict between ranchers and law agents defending the Southern Pacific Railroad.

James Ridgeway and Jean Casella, “America’s 10 Worst Prison: LA County,” Mother Jones, May 8, 2013.

Kevin Starr:

World Commission on Environment and Development’s
(the Brundtland Commission) report “Our Common Future” (1987)


Los Scandalous — Skid Row (2014) produced by Shanks Rajendran. This documentary is close to unbearable to watch.

Grand Canyon (1991) is a mystical and hopeful story about Los Angeles.


Union Station

Biddy Mason Park, on Broadway and Spring Street, between 3rd and 4th Streets.





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