Category Archives: City & Country

Racist Real Estate Text Books of an Earlier Era

Stanley McMichael. Ugh. Though if you want a vintage encapsulation of how subdividers worked in the 1930s-50s and probably after through racist real estate text books, hurrah. This is an extremely detailed nuts and bolts handbook for developers creating subdivisions with occasional chapters by other experts in the field. It contains check-lists for getting things through planning, sample contracts and deeds, detailed explanations of how and what to build and what creates value. It opens like this however:

‘POSSESSION AND USE of land, since the very dawn of human history, has been the most interesting and important business pursuit of mankind. Biblical history, the oldest written record of human events, is replete with real estate transactions and there is scarcely a book in the Old Testament in which reference is not made to land and its possession.

Adam was the first to be given possession of land, subject, however, to certain restrictions. Through the reported connivance of his co-tenant, Eve, these restrictions were broken and the first eviction occurred, for God banished them from the Garden of Eden. Adam had been given no deed to the land and not even a one dollar consideration was on record as having been paid. Indeed, the first real estate transaction was actually a conditional lease in perpetuity, contingent upon observance of certain covenants. Violation of one of these covenants led, subsequently, to a long series of litigations, which have been responsible for more clogged legal docket than any other phase of human behavior. [7]

From Adam it moves along to other old testament figures, then jumps quickly to George Washington before reaching the builders of today. Both extraordinary and vomitous, I confess. But the reason for it is because for all of its focus on the how-to of subdividing and development, this book recognises that ‘The place for social control of land to start is through the subdivider himself‘. Which is why we should care about it, and read rubbish like this. And this is essentially a manual for building a divided, unequal and bigoted society really, representing the leading theory of the time as pushed by the National Real Estate Board, the Federal Housing Adminstration and multiple others in the field.

First you have to split people up by class

The subdivider knows that “birds of a feather flock together.” It is a wise assumption and consequently there must be a variety of allotment properties, possessing definite social grades and distinctions to fit into community life. The location and character of the land to be subdivided usually suggest the class of buyers that will be most readily attracted and accommodated. [21]

and develop accordingly:

While expensive pavements, curbs, and sidewalks go well with the higher classes of development they are not so necessary in most allotments where workingmen aim to make their homes.

Of course it celebrates the suburbs, you develop low density for automobiles, separate residential from commercial. They are designing neighborhoods for people whose top 3 out of 4 reasons for buying a home they believe are about status:

Among the motives that cause buyers to acquire subdivision property are:

(1) Desire to own a home
(2) Desire to “put up a front”
(3) Ambition to outshine his neighbors by living in a better district
(4) Imitation-a “follow the leader” impulse, caused by seeing his friends move into better neighborhoods

Thus the primary goals of such an individual when choosing his (and it is of course, a him)subdivision are protection

The purchaser who buys a lot-particularly for a home-reasonably expects certain benefits to accrue, among which are these: that the restrictions will establish a district in which future improvements will conform to minimum standards as to cost, character, and location thereof; that he will be protected against the possibility of undesirable neighbors; that the restrictions are designed to accomplish the complete and economic use of the tract …

A protection which is far more important than any other larger sense of public feeling or obligation, thus quite a lot of time is spent in looking at how best to protect him, and you have to really appreciate the candour and honesty of the old days:

zoning restrictions, to be valid, must be substantially related to the public health, safety, morals, or general welfare. They must operate uniformly for the general public welfare; they cannot be created for the benefit of any particular group, nor discriminate against another. Furthermore, “since the police power cannot be invoked by purely esthetic considerations, zoning ordinances merely seeking to promote or protect the beautiful, or to preserve the appearance of the neighborhood, are unauthorized.”

Deed restrictions, on the other hand, may be imposed in any manner and for any purpose that will best serve the desire of the subdivider and of the lot owners. In contrast to zoning ordinances, such restrictions need not necessarily promote public health, safety, morals, or general welfare of the public-they may be intended to create a particular character of neighborhood desirable only to the subdivider or the tract owners, and may be based upon “purely esthetic considerations.” They may be uneconomic, discriminatory, and utterly unsuited for the character of community development which should be sought; but they are, nevertheless, valid contract obligations which may be enforced [181]

The book has three chapters devoted to restrictions, a full chapter to race restrictions. Can they still be enforced? McMichael writes:

Chief Justice Vinson, who wrote the decisions covering the two cases, declared that the application of restrictive clauses to the sale of real estate violates the “equal protection” clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, but he further definitely specified that it “erects no shield against merely private conduct, however discriminatory or wrongful.” This means, it is generally conceded, that two persons can make a contract that will be binding between them but it cannot be enforced against all comers. [202]

Given:

‘That the entry of non-Caucasians into districts where distinctly Caucasian residents live tends to depress real estate values is agreed to by practically all real estate subdividers and students of city life and growth. Infiltration at the outset may be slow, but once the trend is established, values start to drop, until properties can be purchased at discounts of from 50 to 75 per cent.’

yet non-Caucasians are going to keep moving into cities, McMichael asks the key question,

‘What remedy will solve this tremendous problem and protect the interests of subdividers, as well as the owners of property in selective sections of our great cities? [204]’

He quotes the full address of the president of the California Real Estate Association stating their reasons for pushing an amendment to the constitution giving owners the ‘right’ to discriminate, grandfathered of course. Then gives another little gem from Glendale real estate expert, which is worth quoting in full as McMichael does

The president of a real estate board can arrange for a meeting of a small group of persons interested in helping to solve this problem locally. To this meeting invite persons representing each of such groups as: the real estate board, real estate brokers not members of [208] the board, the local lending agencies, the chamber of commerce, the merchants association, and the planning commission. At this meeting the problem can be discussed and a general planning committee can be appointed to work out a long-range plan whereby certain portions of the community will be designated, and agreed upon by those interested, as most suitable for the residence of nonwhites, a location where they and their children would be more likely to be contented and happy than in an all-white neighborhood.
After this general committee makes a careful study of the problem, it should report its findings with recommendations to the original group, who, in turn, should report back to their various groups, each reporting suggestions or recommendations as to what can be done by his organization to help further the general plan. Part of the program should be to develop a “sales talk” setting forth the advantages which would accrue to the nonwhites by having their own neighborhoods apart from the all-white sections.

In cities where certain races predominate in some neighborhoods, especially when it appears that the residents are more contented among people of their own race, the program should cover that situation as well as the general segregation of whites and nonwhites.

The value of real estate depends upon its salability, or marketability. Marketability depends largely upon desirability. Maximum desirability of residential property depends importantly upon the neighbors being harmonious. For this reason, racial segregations are often advisable because persons of the same race have a tendency to possess similar tastes, traits and tendencies which encourage the harmonious relationships so important in making a neighborhood a desirable place in which to live.

there are some humerous moments of course, when you suddenly realise that hot-dog stands could cause ruin to residential property values, but really this is just a long explanation of so much of what is wrong with America, complete with sample residential restrictions and articles of incorporation for Homeowner Associations, their best bets for keeping undesirables out.

[McMichael, Stanley L. 1949. Real Estate Subdivisions. Prentice-Hall.]

Crabgrass Frontier

745452In understanding how on earth American cities developed as they did, there is probably no better place to start than this book. It is immensely well researched, marshaling a wealth of information that I found jaw-dropping at times. This makes it a bit too detailed on occasions, perhaps a bit harder to get through and I am no fan of reading ad nauseum that old garden city ideal or the building of early havens of wealth and beauty. I could have done with less of that, but so many of the tidbits are delightful, from the horse-car and its effects on the weak-willed:

“It is hardly too much to say that the modern horse-car is among the most indispensable conditions of metropolitan growth. In these days of fashionable effeminacy and flabby feebleness, which never walks when it can possibly ride, the horse-car virtually fixes the ultimate limits of suburban growth.” p 42 (Miller – Fares Please)

to the rise of the automobile:

“There is something uncanny about these newfangled vehicles, They are unutterably ugly and never a one of them has been provided with a good or even an endurable name. The French, who are usually orthodox in their etymology, if in nothing else, have evolved ‘automobile,’ which being half Greek and half Latin is so near indecent that we print it with hesitation.” New York Times January 3, 1899

He has a very broad analysis of suburbia’s rise, and his main argument is that:

The spatial arrangement of cities depends less on ideology than on economics, less on national idiosyncrasies than on industrial development, technological achievement, and racial integration.

I think he does a solid job of showing some of the economics (though I could have wished for more analysis of profits and power, and this is no critique of capitalism itself), industrial development and technological achievement.

But the mention of ‘racial integration’ points up where my main critique lies, because it was not integration that pushed anything at all, it was the immense push to segregation. He does a great job of unearthing and presenting the federal government’s awful role in enforcing and promoting segregation through the FHA and HOLC, but it seems to me he fails to fully engage with the issue of racism, or its manifestation among white Americans themselves. Perhaps that is why he is so hopeful looking into the future…

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Permaculture in Urban Farming: An LA Experiment

Once upon a time I was lucky enough to move into a house with a small and completely overgrown garden. So my then-partner and I decided we would reclaim it and try to grow as much of our own food as possible. Just to learn what that would take.

chickens

We grew some delicious vegetables — and if you know me that will make you laugh — but I deeply enjoyed them after they were cooked. We also had loquats and kumquats and pomegranates. We had fresh eggs from the chickens we also raised up there in the Forgotten Edge, perched between Echo Park and Chinatown. But what we managed to grow? I’m afraid it was nowhere near enough to sustain us and this is partly why (apart from size, as of course that does matter).

Grocery stores have brutally erased the agricultural seasons for us, so you have to relearn a lot (which also means your diet and your cooking repertoire have to completely change). You can’t plant seeds all at once, rather you have to do it in waves, so as to have a continuous harvest. Preparation of the ground is key: digging deep, breaking up clay (of which we had tons and it sucked but it sure as hell was better than caliche), adding what you can to improve its lightness along with your organic fertilizer which should come as much as possible from your own compost pile.

We aimed for all organic but it was rough, and involved things like wiping down each individual plant to get rid of aphids and other pests. We bought ladybugs, but did not have a garden they seemed to enjoy sticking around in. That required more thought and work and planting. We had to water; to do it efficiently required putting in a drip system or a way to collect rainwater, and treat and reuse gray water, which we investigated but never managed to do. We didn’t have money even for the drip system all at once, so watering regularly was one more thing (though adding mulch reduced that burden). We had to fertilize regularly. We had to tie up our tomatoes and our cucumbers, and insulate our squash from the ground. We had to rotate crops as we constantly planted new ones. Planting certain combinations — like the famous triad of squash, corn, and beans — helps ensure each variety grows better than they would alone and puts them at less risk of pest infestation, so we planned that into our rotations. And every day we had to be out there weeding, watering, tending, planting. Every. Day.

All of it required planning and thought and work and more planning. It was joy and pain all mixed together, even if we didn’t do it all that well and I discovered I’m lazier than I thought. I remember reading something in the middle of this that referred to subsistence farmers as unskilled labour, and I almost threw the book across the room. The ability to survive on what you grow on the land is knowledge passed down from generation to generation. To try and relearn it all through books that are never specific to the land you are working? I just wonder when we will awaken to the tragedy of what we have already lost, and what we continue to lose.

I started reading  Permaculture: A Designer’s Manual by Bill Mollison during this grand attempt, the only textbook I’ve ever loved. I’ll acknowledge that for the present I’m far too busy, and very happily so, to reattempt such a labour intensive project for now. But permaculture as a way of being in the world has stuck with me. In it’s most concrete sense it is an approach to planning and implementing sustainability, creating systems that provide for their own needs and recycle their waste. It has very practical rules to live by. In a quote from Bill Mollison:

“Permaculture turned very rapidly into a system of design so that everything you put in had a multiple purpose and was in the right place to carry out its job. It’s a peculiar thing to say that you put the tree there to give shade; every tree gives shade; so that’s not a unique characteristic of this tree you put there, to give shade, but if it also gives you something like oranges or dates as well, that’s good, and also has an excess of oranges to feed your pig . . . then it’s doing three things. And I always say that everything you place should do at least three things.”

But more philosophically, it is entirely about getting to know your place: finding out where the sunlight spends most of its time in summer and winter, where the cold air collects, where the soil changes and moisture collects. It’s about acknowledging all of your assets, seeing how you — and everything around you — fit together, work together, improve or help each other. You can only live this way by constantly working to see the world around you holistically, deepening how you understand it. You no longer see just a chicken, but what a chicken eats, how it lives, what it produces as the picture above shows. This requires deep reflection on experience, in preparation for acting, building, creating, before reflecting again in a perfect popular education spiral.

what-is-pop-ed-1-13-10.003

Clearly I haven’t even scratched the permaculture surface here; I’ve just read a book or two and talked to some people and tried to implement some principles, so find out for yourself and explore! I’m particularly excited about urban permaculture, so read more here. I’ll leave you with an awesome design I look forward to one day building, as I’ve already mentioned spirals once and I surely love them:

 

herb spiral
It reminds me of this from my own hometown:

and the house I grew up, built of adobe by my parents and called at different times ‘mud house’ and ‘nautilus house’. This stuff runs deep.

 

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Where LA’s stolen water comes from, the wonder of Owens Valley

The Coso Mountain range to the east of Owens Valley is a line of volcanoes that erupted again and again, spewing out massive flows of black basalt. The whole area was a center of volcanic activity, creating a landscape of wonder framed against the Eastern Sierra Nevadas

To the north is an incredible cinder cone of deep red, gases and minerals forced violently up from the earth’s core through the hole they blasted in its crust. It reminds you that we mindlessly bang around atop a layer of earth floating above a seething bubbling mass of magma and gas. And only 500,000 years ago it swelled from below, shot upwards, rebuilt the landscape. And here I stand simply marveling at it.

There used to be a lake here, and a river. The river ran down the valley, and when a new lava flow sent it coursing across the black basalt, it sought out weaknesses and devoured them, it polished hard surfaces smooth, it carved amazing forms as it fell forty feet down a basalt shelf, and created one of the more amazing things I have ever seen

I tried, and admit I mostly failed, to capture its beauty and the strange fascination of it. Heat radiates from the rocks, flows about them in eddies and swirls as water once did. This place burns your palms with a deep tingling life as you climb into it, it cuts your skin with its razored lines of grace. And from every angle you discover new shadows and curves, a dark unfurling of stone.

There is no water here now, it was stolen, and the land lies arid and dry as you see it, though abounding with life in gorgeous color.

The land itself was stolen from the Paiutes, they irrigated small farms here from a fast running river, and collected obsidian. When first soldiers and then the homesteading act opened up the land to white settlers, small farmers and prospectors moved here, side by side with land speculators.

Frederick Eaton became mayor of Los Angeles in 1898, and appointed his friend William Mulholland as head of the new Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. Together they started what are now fondly known as the California Water Wars. Especially to those who have forgotten that they are ongoing.

LA required water to become the sprawling sucking metropolis that it is today, and the two saw that the Owens Valley had water in abundance. Remember Chinatown? Eaton was a close friend of the agent working for the Bureau of Land Reclamation, who was there to build a network of irigation canals to help small farmers. He bought up much of the land (it all ended up belonging to LA), and Eaton got Teddy Roosevelt to cancel the irrigation project. By 1905 the city of LA had enough land to build the aqueduct through tactics that were varied, creative, and often nefarious. As icing on the cake of venality, the initial run of water went to the San Fernando Valley to water the fields of another close friend, and turn worthless real estate into an agricultural gold mine overnight.

By 1913 the aqueduct was built (it now carries 315 million gallons a day to LA). By 1924 the lake was dry. And in the despair of 1924, 40 men united to dynamite the aqueduct

OwensVly1924

6 moths later residents seized the Alabama Gates spillway and released the water back into the lake. But that was the end of even small victories until the 1990s. The uprising failed as US uprisings always seem to do.

In 1972 LADWP built a second aqueduct, draining surface water. The original vegetation died, and even now the alkali meadows continue to expand. There are salt beds where water used to be, and the wind picks up their dust of carcinogenic nickel, cadmium and arsenic to fling it across the valley. The EPA stated that when the wind blows across the lake bed, this valley becomes the single largest source of particulate matter pollution. In the 1990s and again in 2003, local activists, the Sierra Club and Inyo County won an agreement that a tiny percentage of the water must be diverted back into the valley, but it is tiny…for more on what is being down today take a look at the valiant Owens River Committee.

And read Cadillac Desert by Marc Reisner for the whole story, this is obviously a most horrific simplification.

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Thoughts on the Chicago Skyline

Downtown Chicago is all planes and angles, contrasts in brick and stone, glass and steel. It is full of amazing reflections in glass.

You see it at one level from the street, and another entirely from the El train, and from both it is visually spectacular. Your fingers itch for your camera, every step brings a shift in the lines, and changes the seen and the unseen.

I had half a day on Monday after a morning meeting, so I thought I’d do the Architectural Boat Tour, 90 minutes along the river and almost all the pictures a lustful heart could ask for…as the river goes round the loop and not through it.

But I confess my extreme love for these great buildings piled one on top of the other sits miserably with my love of social and environmental justice. They are contradictions impossible to overcome. I wonder if perhaps I love them (and hate them) for their colossal and unbelievable arrogance, because it is combined with such extraordinary technical and engineering skill. I love the fact that we have figured out how to build such things, hurling metal and glass up to the sky. I suppose we never stopped to ask whether we should. And the wealth required to build such buildings…where does it come from? Chicago is as much a city of immense poverty as it is a city of beauty. And that is where you find the answer. My question is whether we could build such things without exploitation, and in a way that sits happily on the earth.

On the tour, the guide was full of information on architectural styles and the men who created them, the requirements of building something like the Sears tower, the Trump tower, and towers x, y, and z. Everything was entirely divorced from the city or the people who live in it with the exception of a single architect, Bertrand Goldberg. He designed Marina City, which I love.

I have always loved round buildings. But the guide explained that he also tried to design buildings to create community, to encourage contact between neighbors, to provide immediate access to life’s amenities. Another of his buildings is River City

These buildings are all mixed use, with stores, child care, and access to a marina beneath. The balconies  are close together to bring neighbors together. They have beautiful public spaces. He believed density was a good thing, for community, for creativity, for life.

And so I looked him up. And I’m not sure what I think of him, I certainly disagree with much of what he says, but he makes me think. He wrote this of Marina City:

More importantly, in the Marina City forms. I made it possible for people to participate in community formation. Both in the use of space and in the form of space I discovered that behavior can be influenced by the shape of space. The faceless anonymity of the corporate box which we had used for the buildings for our government, our health, our education, our business and our living, I discovered could be replaced more effectively by a new development of architectural structure and forms that supported its use by people. We could have both architecture and humanism just as we had begun to do 200 years before in the social revolutions of the 18th and 19th centuries.

I love this recognition of the influence of space on the individual and community, and the revolutionary idea that architecture should be for the people and how they will live within it. That it affects how our society lives and grows. He’s not the only one of course, but one of the few. Yet it is a typical liberalism, looking backward to some better time, and only as worthy as it can be without questioning a terribly unjust world. He wrote another speech that offers an interesting reflection on the thoughts above called Rich is Right…exposing all of the contradictions involved in his thinking.

America is rich, America is right. Architects have always worked for the rich. We are now also working for the right.

Ah, if only that were true. Are the rich ever right? I don’t really think so. Our homeless population and slum housing certainly proves otherwise. But it is true that architects have always worked for the rich. I do like such frank admissions. But that leads to the conclusion that the 90% of Americans who are not rich just have to hope that those 10% of quixotic and self-absorbed rich people at some point get it right, no? That seems to require a lot of faith that history has never ever justified.

He goes on, extraordinarily enough, to quote Albert Speer, architect of Hitler. I read Speer’s autobiography some years ago and found it fascinating. He did not just build buildings, he created drama and spectacle, he cemented the image of ultimate power in the minds of the observer. Whenever you see Hitler speaking on a stage with the colossal architecture, the huge backdrops of red banners and striking black swastikas, the eagles, the torches… Speer designed all of that.

Albert Speer- Hitler’s state architect said: “We must learn to master technology and its potential by political means.” In contrast, modern architects of the 19th century all saw architecture as a reform mechanism for politics: that is, for helping solve social problems rooted in urban life and community needs, and for devising improved ways for people to work and learn and grow together.

It seems to me that my Chicago  boat tour proved Speer’s point, that architecture reflects the landscape of political power, and it has been mastered by the Trumps of the world. It is a skyline of corporations, not of government, ideals, or community spaces. Bertrand was alone there in thinking about these things, his buildings stand out because of it.

The tour takes you down the river again almost to the mouth of Lake Michigan. On your left is an urban renewal area. The words urban renewal hurt my soul, always. They usually mean the wholesale clearance of earlier communities, older buildings, of people of color and immigrants and all those who did not master power, who lived lives of poverty and hard work. My people. Urban renewal has been translated into a coastline full of high rise condos. On your right is another urban renewal area. It is also full of high rise condos. You can see down the coastline, more and more and more high rise condos. I didn’t particularly care to hear about the architects.

And they are busy building luxury residences for people who don’t exist. Home sales in Chicago’s metropolitan area are down 27.5% from April 2008, and unemployment is up to 10.1% according to the Illinois Association of Realtors. And they have somehow decided that these condos count as affordable housing and are asking for help:

David Hanna, president of the Chicago Association of REALTORS®. “The city of Chicago condominium sales numbers continue to reflect a critical need for governmental agencies to review the growing disparity in the ability to finance a condominium purchase in the city. This affordable housing will become unaffordable and unattainable to many qualified first-time homebuyers in the city of Chicago unless existing federal guidelines, which do not take into account nuances of the local market, are modified.”

If they did build affordable condos, I’m sure they wouldn’t be having quite so much trouble…I like to imagine what our cities would look like if they were built for all of the city’s people. Because, I do agree with this final quote from Bertrand Goldberg:

Are cities in our blood?

Are cities the natural forms of shelter which men build for themselves? Like the spider his web, or the oyster his shell? The answer to this is uncertain, but I believe it to be – yea.

I love the city.

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Arizona Ghost Towns

Life seems such an unlikely combination of luck and choice and circumstance…I think it hits me most when facing choices that will send my life down vastly different trajectories. Or is even that assuming too much? It’s interesting to think of life curling back to an original line no matter which direction you go, or this moment as a hub from which extend multiple lines into the future like rays from the sun. In geologic time, I suppose life looks like a tiny pin prick, with no trajectory whatsoever. Or it could be one circle or a series of them or a combination of metaphysical loops and linear time…I like to imagine it as a spyrograph drawing but that doesn’t really mean anything metaphorically without a great deal of mental stretching. And choice itself is something of a luxury…

What if I had been born here?

Gleeson, a mining town that is almost dead, population down from 2,500 to 100, and people leaving via the cemetery. It sits to the west of a town full of adobe ruins and shattered timbers, only a few miles from Tombstone (that has survived only by becoming its own spectacle, a real town turned into Hollywood set complete with fake gunmen in long black coats and tours by stagecoach). Gleeson is only one of so many towns built upon the mineral riches of southwest hills. And I know the myths, the level of violence. I also know Nana and Tata, the parents of my old soccer coach from Dos Cabezas, and they are beautiful people. On Nana’s wedding day she was sitting on the porch with her suegra and when they saw some rabbits, she got the rifle from inside and shot one dead for dinner. I’ve driven past there, and always wondered which of the foundations and shattered walls belonged to them…I know Frank  born and raised in Tombstone, he’s beautiful too, and his dry sense of humor is made up of puns and spanglish wordplay and he tells truly terrible jokes that I love. It’s why in spite of my love of noir, I’ve never liked authors like Camilo Jose Cela where there is nothing to redeem these dusty violent towns. And much as I love Sergio Leone’s westerns, still, I wish they showed some of the warmth and humor that allowed people to survive in these places.

Gleeson still has those 100 people. But there are far more in the cemetary. Most of the graves are unmarked, it appears almost empty from the road, but when you get closer you can see the remnants of plastic flowers, the splinters of broken crosses, crumbled headstones. The grass here is full of such things, hidden from view.

Maximo Rueda, died 1927, who was he and what was his life like? I know it is too far away for me to even imagine properly, though it does not stop me from trying.

Ed Ramirez, who died in 2000 yet his grave appears almost as old as the others, though with flowers remaining intact. Some graves have iron railings to rescue them from being swallowed by time, but even so, most of the names have long gone. For those that remain, you can see the families buried in groups, World War Two veterans, the Mexicans in one area and the whites in another, attempts by family members to rescue the graves of their loved ones from obscurity. One almost fresh grave.

I wonder if they are people who never left, or people who only returned to be buried?

The whole place was eerily silent, broken only by the wind over dry grass and the occasional clear sounding of two different bells, almost like windchimes, too musical to belong to livestock. I didn’t find the grave they belonged to. I’m not usually spooked by graveyards, and the hot sun and blue skies kept fear at bay, but images like this send chills

as I walked across the graves of the unknown to rescue some from total obscurity, to search for signs that they were there at all, to take pictures of their forlorn brokenness, I hope I did not simply take advantage of the picturesque. Seems like you owe something, even to those who are dead.

Gleeson is the third stop on the back roads between Wilcox and Tombstone, the first is Pearse. I read that it had a reputation worse than Tombstone back in the day, but find that hard to believe, especially of a town so tiny. Tombstone is a metropolis by comparison, though perhaps more foundations lie lost to view in the grass along the road. There are two buildings still standing. One belongs to the only residents of the town, though this was the only living thing to greet us

Some kind of miniature donkey? he was as musical as his larger cousins. And there is a beautiful old general store of adobe with a painted metal facade, if you arrange a tour in advance, and pay for it, you can go inside. But we hadn’t…

From Pearse you drive down through hills filled with the multicolored landslides of mine tailings. They are more than familiar to me from my youth, my family spent so much time going over them looking for cool rocks, bits of azurite, turquoise, silver, copper, gold, molybdenum. There was one only a couple of miles from my old home, we’d hike there and eat lunch in the cool shadows of the mine tunnel, which ended in a deep pit twenty or thirty feet back.

Down the road is Courtland, of which I know nothing but the name. There are clear signs that mining is about to begin again, but apart from recently graded roads and white survey flags, nothing is there but more scattered remnants of abandoned buildings and bored youth

Though shooting up street signs, generally while drinking and driving, is to my certain knowledge, not at all restricted to youth. One of my old coworkers used to enjoy such a pass-time. He was my old assistant manager too.

It was a stunning day all round, even before we arrived in Tombstone and Bisbee. The country is extraordinarily stark and reluctant to support human life, but also extraordinarily beautiful. Here is the recently graded road leading into the back streets of Tombstone

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Aberdeen (I’m running a bit behind here, I know!)

I wrote this a week ago in an internet free environment…

I’m in Aberdeen with Sara and Rowen and today sparkled with sunshine and rain, the train ride up here was glorious and filled with golden light and green moors and the sea, space around me in all directions, freedom stretching out side to side. And tonight I am absurdly happy. Very few people know happiness I think; I am so lucky.

A great chat, a tramp along a dirt path through the woods alongside a burn, and then a right up the hillside past fields with horses and a high stone wall to Rowen’s school to pick her up. A wee rest and then down to visit Sara’s brother past fields of pigs. We made pasta with fresh vegetables picked from their garden and romped with three tiny puppies who all finally fell asleep in my lap, and played tig and took a walk with the two dogs Bonnie and Meg down the road to the woods. We lost Meg and had to go back to look for her and then lost some time on the great bales of hay. My first time on bales of hay, you can jump and fall and roll around and it is soft almost like I imagine a cloud would be. There is honestly little better in the world than playing tig on bales of hay and clambering up and around and over and falling and not minding a bit. We lost Meg again, Meg was asserting her right not to go for a walk, so back to the house we went and then back home. And watched the empire strikes back munching on biscuits. Nevis the small black mouse had been released to enjoy his freedom a while in the living room, and it took some time to find him. I was having some misgivings about sleeping on the floor in said living room with Nevis running about, not enough to fall asleep somewhere else of course. But I have woken to find myself face to face with a mouse before, in the good old desert days, I can’t say I enjoyed it particularly. Luckily he was found underneath the chest and put to his own bed and so the room is mouse free and I am sleepy.

And I think in spite of everything life is beautiful.

The moors

I walked out of Glenfall and down the road, past the Howwood Inn and up past the football pitch, down along the road that leads to…god damn, I’ve forgotten the little village, it’s where Michael lives, I remember walking down that road several times in company of Michael and Knoxie and Spider, too and from copious amounts of drinks, particularly one sunny Monday when I attended a barbecue with several chefs from the Johnstone area who tend to have Mondays off and I got a sunburn. First and last Scottish sunburn I must say, a unique event in the annals of history. One of the chefs lay comatose on the grass after a long wedding weekend, a wreck the like of which I have never seen after days of drinking and no sleep and a memorable but highly ill advised battle amongst the men with their wooden skean dhus which had left him with the most hideous bruises imaginable.

But today I made the first right up the hill and towards the moors, the sky was grey and it was raining, light rain, the sort of rain where the air is half water half mist and the wind blew hard against my face. Last I was up here was late spring and the day was clearer, Ben Lomond rose up in the distance covered in snow. Ben Lomond today lay shrouded in mist, unseen, looming on the edges of my imagination, the world reduced to the steep climb between the trees of Skipton wood, the gurgling of the burn to my right. I love the woods, and yet…and yet coming to the edge of the trees, seeing the green expanse of the moor rising open before me fills me with a fierce joyful sort of wildness. The wind screams up here, mist driven into your face, hair whipping around your head. Sheep watch you warily and if you come too close they bounce away (there is something about sheep running that always makes me laugh and I’ve tried to pinpoint why I find it so delightful but haven’t quite been able to put my finger on it). I wandered fiercely joyful along the curve of the moor, the bog of the old damn to my left, heather and moss and long grass beneath my feet, a sort of gothic elf today not having packed at all for moors so I had my trousers rolled up to my knees, long black socks, smart black trainers, black sweater…and I tried to take pictures but the moors in the rain defy capture.

It got exciting when I came to the first burn, having passed the hill where an early pict settlement supposedly once lay though nothing now remains…that too loomed large in my imagination as it could not be seen really through the weather. But the burn ran high, after a minute peering up and down in a vain search for likely rocks, I grinned and stepped into it, and continued to squelch happily on my way. The moors don’t go on far enough for me, they are over far too soon, and I had to make the left through the gate to pass the little farm. This time I was squelching through mud heavily enriched by cows, luckily I came to another burn and freed myself of the enrichment. And then back onto the lonely little country roads and winding down the hill and the sun came out to sparkle on the wet grass and summer flowers and pick out the shaggy coats of the cows as they stood watching me incuriously curious. This one was my favourite, all alone in his field and I spose unhappy in his loneliness, he stared at me and then followed me for 20 minutes or so, ambling slowly alongside the fence

I almost danced down the hill, past the trout fishery, down and down and back to Howwood. The world was gloriously beautiful as you can see and the small things full of wonder.

Once the sun was out the pictures came alive of course, the light against dark clouds extraordinary and beautiful. Still, the sun did not come out for long, and played hide and seek with the rain which never quite let up. It had almost disappeared again for the last look back to where I had come from:

And now I am sitting in an airport, on my way to London and 4 days of great things…

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Sheepherders and the CA Minimum Wage

So I’m doing a wee bit of research for a fellowship I’m applying for…money is money, and money paid to do something akin to what I want to do is good money so I’m applying. So I’m trying to explain the abysmal situation that most working folks in LA find themselves in, and from there heading down the ladder to all those who are sometimes with work, out of work, unable to work. And what my writing might be able to do about it…I’m writing a good line to be sure, but it’ll take a hell of a lot more than writing for damn sure.

At any rate, I was looking some stuff up about the California minimum wage and discovered this juicy tidbit from off of the official California Department of Industrial Relations (a misnomer if the below quote is anything to judge by…you can read all about it yourself at http://www.dir.ca.gov/dlse/faq_minimumwage.htm):

Q. What is the minimum wage?

A. Effective January 1, 2008, the minimum wage in California is $8.00 per hour.

For sheepherders, however, effective July 1, 2002, the minimum wage was set at $1,200.00 per month. Effective January 1, 2007 this wage was increased to a minimum monthly salary of $1,333.20. Effective January 1, 2008, the minimum monthly salary for sheepherders will be $1,422.52. Wages paid to sheepherders may not be offset by meals or lodging provided by the employer. Instead, there are provisions in IWC Order 14-2007, Sections 10(F), (G) and (H) that apply to sheepherders with respect to monthly meal and lodging benefits required to be provided by the employer.

Yeah, I thought that was pretty sweet. Sheepherders. I’m glad they’re taken care of, or are they? I suppose a minimum monthly means they can’t be paid less then that for their work…how many hours do sheepherders work anyway? The ones in the bible seemed to be on pretty much 24/7 but it’s been many years since I spent time reading about them…

Actually this minimum wage takes care of no one really. A full time worker will earn $16,640 a year. That means a mom with her two kids is living below the federal poverty limit even though she is working full time. Though I guess she’ll be better off working at Burger King than herding sheep. Perhaps.

It’s really too bad that the Department of Industrial Relations’ Frequently Asked Questions section doesn’t include just how people are expected to live off of under $1,400 a month when the average 2 bedroom apartment in LA is now renting at $2,100. Forget about healthcare, car insurance, clothes, utilities, food…

For general info on just how badly you are fucked on minimum wage look at California Progress Report 2008, of course, the folks earning minimum wage already know all that.

Baja adventures part 2

A foggy morning in the ex-ejido of Chepultepec. We wandered down to the little restaurant for an excellent breakfast, un omelete de rajas con crema, chilaquiles, frijoles, happiness even though I could only finish half. We wandered out of the restaurant again, we heard the sound of tires peeling out, and through the arched entrance we watched police cars drive past going west, they must have turned where the road forks and then back they came going east…two cars, a truck, another car, another truck, they raced back up the road, lights flashing, sirens blaring. I walked through the arch to look down the road but they were already disappearing. And a minute later behind them came put-putting a tiny little car like a golf cart with a family happily oblivious inside. It was like the keystone cops.

We are back in el ex-ejido Chapultepec, but just for one more night, not two…And there are gunshots even as I write, first one, thirty seconds later another. I hope it is nothing. We got a reservation in Ensenada proper tomorrow but tonight there was nowhere available. Third gunshot, I hate guns. Fourth gunshot. A lot of cars pulling away. Fifth gunshot, they’re just fucking around, did I say I hate guns? I hate them.

Anyway, today was a great day…we walked down to the main road and waited for a bus…sixth gunshot. That one sounded closer. This morning we were waiting for the bus and there were three guys hanging out down by the fence alongside a little stand selling second hand goods. All of a sudden sirens blare, lights flash, and a police car and a police truck together pull over a van right beside us…I watch them for a minute, we’re a bit nervous you understand, then turn my head and the three guys have disappeared into thin air, vanished into the earth. The police get out with their huge automatic weapons, they confer. Seventh gunshot. We wonder if the bus will stop for us with them there, but it does, we get onto first one and then a micro to la Bufadora…eighth gunshot, I’m glad they’re just fucking around but it would be nice if they stopped now. So, la Bufadora, a natural phenomenon that is apparently very rare, there were a steady stream of tour buses headed there at any rate…small ones. We found out later that they were ferrying people from the cruise ships. Ninth gunshot, this is absurd.

And they’re interrupting my story, cabrones. So, we got on the micro with a man carrying a load of perhaps one hundred caramel apples fixed onto both ends of a pole, another with a khaki vest I rather fancied that had ‘professional photographer’ embroidered on the back in red…we wound along the coast and it was beautiful; if I come back here for a weekend I think it would be nice to try La Jolla beach, we passed it on the way, it was long and white, it was not fenced off, and apparently you can find beautiful shells there, I like shells. La Bufadora was…now there’s a loud fight taking place outside, you have to love Saturday night, I’m glad we’re tired and sunburned and in our rooms…so, La Bufadora was very cool, not astounding. Or perhaps it would have been amazing had there not been crowds of people lining the wall overlooking it…luckily they were all lazy and none of them felt like climbing to the top with us so we could look down for a while in peace. Bev says that the legend tells of a mother and baby whale traveling from the South to the North, and the baby whale gets trapped and so la bufadora is the poor trapped whale trying to escape and expelling the water from it’s blowhole. And that’s what it looks like, a huge spume of water that leaps up to oohs and ahhs from the crowd at regular intervals. I think if you were to stumble upon it alone, it would be spectacular. Crawling with people it is not quite so spectacular, though I rather enjoyed the gauntlet of tourist stalls on the way there: T-shirts of Zapata getting high, Bart Simpson as Che and an Aztec warrior, pharmacies selling antibiotics, valium and Viagra, knockoff bags by Chanel, the pleasant smell of churros in the air, chanclas of every description…

We took the micro back to the main road and then the bus to Ensenada to plan our escape. We passed fields of asparagus. We passed lines of farm workers tired and dusty carrying pails and waiting to get onto large yellow school buses. We passed piles of coconuts and stands full of preserved olives and chiles. We passed a Japanese restaurant with a large red sun above it, caricatured with slanty eyes and glasses and buck teeth. We passed a poverty that even coming from South Central is shocking. I had forgotten, funny how easy it is to forget when you don’t have to look at it every day. Or survive it every day. And we wandered Ensenada which is a great deal richer, but full of indigenous women and children hustling the streets selling bracelets and chiclets, they way they do in Nogales, in Tijuana, in Juarez, in Guadalajara. Everywhere in Mexico, such inequalities hurt my heart. And I wonder why they didn’t rise up and join the Zapatistas, why they came here. I wonder how such a precarious life of dismal suffering could be better then making a stand and fighting. I wonder if the decision was a conscious one or not. I wonder what I would have decided had I been in their place. I gave thanks for where I am; who I was born confusing as my worlds are sometimes. I am glad I am fighting, and I am glad to be alive, and I am glad to be here. And I am also glad I have no internet connection, almost two full days without being able to work and that has been a rather beautiful thing, though it is back to civilization tomorrow.

And er…those aren’t gunshots, they’re fireworks. They have to be.