023 ☼ On Moving
On Chumash, Tongva (Gabrieleno) and Kizh (Gabrieleno) land
I just moved. I ratchet-strapped my old mattress—the one I hadn't slept on since summer of 2020—to the top of my mom's old Chevy and drove a smooth 70mph to a little apartment on a hill in Chinatown Los Angeles. This house to me, in this moment, is perfect. There are 3 flights of steps to my and my roommate's door. Our neighbor grows roses and oranges which he leaves to ripen in a clean L-shape formation along the cement stairways. The house is mostly windows. My friend in Paris said my view was his favorite, "Like Bladerunner," he said. We have a back garden and two cats. I brought my books. I intend to stay here until summer, if not longer.
It feels so good to exist in one place; I'm luxuriating in the sensation. Of knowing whatever I set down in one place will still be there or near there when I look again. The walls don't change unless we change them, my roommate leaves me notes, the cats have routines. I cleaned the bathroom with yellow kitchen gloves and we marveled at how sparkly the pink tile became when the sun started to set. Sprigs of herbs and wildflowers litter the counters and tabletops. To sit on a couch, divine! To read by a window, also bliss. To listen to my Ahmad Jamal album for the nth time on the record player, heaven. My visions of what I wanted from a home collapsed into one boxy hilltop house; but now of course I'm preoccupied with paying rent. Still nothing feels cast in stone for very long. These days it takes more effort to stay put than to move on.
The land my house sits on is historically contested, famously so. I live on the edge of a canyon named Chavez Ravine. In the above image, I live on the hill just beyond the road behind this man walking up with his lunch tin toward the photographer, Don Normak, who captured this and other images of everyday life in Chavez Ravine in 1949. This was when the city started paying people out to leave their homes. Many left and a handful stayed until they were dragged, literally, from their homes.
For decades, Chavez Ravine was home to generations of Mexican Americans who were redlined out of buying homes in more affluent (ahem, white) neighborhoods. For 10 years between 1949-1951 or so and using the power of eminent domain, the city of Los Angeles bought up the land and leveled many of the existing buildings, driving the residents out with a plan for affordable housing, which fell apart after a new conservative mayor took office and declared public housing to be “un-American”.
Instead the location would become the future site of Dodger Stadium with houses built around the base of the ravine, where I live now. My writing is a simplification of a much larger, much more complicated narrative and if you’d like to learn more about Chavez Ravine, I encourage you to start here with this documentary made by Jordan Mechner.
The politics behind who gets to stay and who has to leave are integral to my research on ghost towns. My roommate and I considered the old photographs of Chavez Ravine and pinpointed our location just by looking out our window. “I guess this is a kind of ghost town,” he said. He’s right. Our apartment was built in 1961, a year before Dodger Stadium opened. If the stories of places aren’t documented or shared, how do we know what happens? Without the photographs and the reporting, I’d never know I lived at the base of a once-thriving community, replaced with a stadium that frankly wasn’t worth 10 years of violence and instability, not to mention the generational trauma that followed. The stadium is a scar and every time its left empty—which is often—I can’t help but feel that it’s a waste. The stories behind the ghost towns I study are stories about housing, home, and outsiders.
The above image of a stalwart couple from Calico, a ghost town turned tourist trap in Death Valley, was taken by a group of road-tripping 20-somethings in 1926. With two model-T’s and in leather and shearling, the group of friends visit abandoned mines and wagons along the way, tracing the paths of the old twenty mule teams that dragged Borax across the desert floor in scorching heat and desolate conditions. The series is phenomenal in how it captures the area’s post-industrial Gold and Silver Rush waste that lived large in the public imagination about 49’ers and California’s migratory history. What struck me was not the desolation, but who they met along the way; the fact that many people were still living there seemed to thrill the photo-trippers. I won’t lie; it thrills me too. Even cooler is that the set of photos from UC Berkeley’s Bancroft Library are labeled with diaristic entries about each place they stop, what they ate, who they met and what car troubles they came upon.
Their trip is elective, a historical thrill-seeking hunt for lifestyle content before social media existed. Many shots feature the landscape, vacant shacks, old wagons deserted by mule teams that met less fortunate fates. Each photograph is carefully composed with each friend postured just so. One in particular kills me in its theatricality and unintentional humor:
The friend in the foreground, kneeling down to examine the water hole in his stetson hat and thermal henley, a very serious seeming pose as he crouches to commune with history and those who struggled before him. The three friends in the background, perched on the fallen water wagon, their feet crossed in uniform add a sense of playfulness to the composition. Their outfits, positions, and vehicles are what tethers the image to any sense of time and era. Without them, the photo is too self-serious and dare I say, cringe in its earnestness. The caption reads: “We arrive at Owl Springs, here an abandoned water wagon was found the front wheels sunk in sand, the rear ones almost all cut away by desert wanderers for fire wood; Owl Springs -- one of the water holes of the twenty mule team borax days.” Water in Death Valley has always been a problem. Though the trip is taken in January when the desert is slightly more bearable without the oppressive heat that strangles the area come spring, the team of pals struggles with their cars, what to eat, where to camp, where to find water. They travel hundreds of miles before the find potable water again. Imagine the complications of using a map! Imagine how heavy the camera equipment! This photo could’ve been taken recently, if only for its relatability:
The caption: “We camp by the Amagrossa river at 6:20 p.m. -- 59 miles. The Amagrossa is an alkaline stream which goes down into Death Valley and flows underground until it stops under the Devil's Golf Course. The next morning it was so cold that it took us 3 hours to start the flivers, the oil had frozen into chunks; the Amagrossa river.” Apparently a Ford Flivver is the name of their automobile’s make but became synonymous with an old junky car. What we might call a junker (see also: my Chevy, lol). I’ve been in this photograph—not the location—but the mood. The fatigue and discomfort that sets in toward the end of a trip, the cold and grouchy pose of the photographer’s friend with the air misting in the cold. The feeling of just wanting to go home, wherever that is. ☼
☼☼☼This story about a Brazilian ghost town and the few denizens who refuse to leave reminds me of Chavez Ravine: “Few holdouts remain, several of whom told The Associated Press they imagine the ground under their feet resembling Swiss cheese. Still, Paulo Sergio Doe, 51, said he will never leave his home in the Pinheiro neighborhood where he grew up.
‘The company can’t impose what it wants overnight to do away with the lives and histories of so many families,’ he said in an interview outside his home.” Who owns the land and who lives their days out on the land remain diametrically opposed.
☼☼Back in 2017, when I interviewed city contractor Juan Reinoso, whose company Urban Graffiti Enterprises, is responsible for graffiti abatement in most of East Los Angeles, I asked him what his employees do with memorials for individuals who have passed on. “In a day, a contractor’s body follows the choreography of a graffitist: climbing under freeways, laddering up bridge abutments, tiptoeing across billboard scaffolding. Messages that are racist, violent, or include murder codes are given higher priority. ‘R.I.P.’ notes and memorials are left up longer. ‘Usually until the flowers die,’ Reinoso says.” But what if people replace the dead flowers with living ones?
How will an institution handle a public collection of trauma? In this report on an indigenous residential school memorial in Canada contains vivid details on the objects left in honor of the hundreds of Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc Nation children who were unceremoniously buried near Kamloops, B.C.:
“Hundreds of tiny shoes, stuffed animals and flowers began appearing around the Centennial Flame in front of Parliament’s Centre Block last spring, after the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc Nation announced ground-penetrating radar had found the possible remains of about 200 children on the site of a former residential school near Kamloops, B.C.[…]A spokesman for Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada said items from the memorial remain in storage. Sacred items were removed and carefully stored at 115 Sparks where (Public Services and Procurement Canada) has been monitoring the air quality and moisture level to ensure proper conservation until they can be delivered to the Algonquin Anishinabeg First Nation.” It’s noted that many of the tokens plucked from the memorial kept in temperature-controlled storage were in various states of degradation.
How do you measure grief in dead flowers? How do you measure a pain that generations held silent within them for lifetimes? What now that the wound of grief has finally been acknowledged let alone all its fraying and inefficient bandages, let alone beginning to heal. This is deep fissure pain, an unresolved history of betrayals and neglect—agreements first spoken by elders, broken by their children's children, collusion and temporary collaboration between former enemies, commerce and tourism at the hands of barons, piss-poor reparations, glad-handing and eminent domain, like that at Chavez Ravine. Why does the human hand look so small in comparison to the fist of historic cruelty?
☼For Variable West, I interviewed artist Pamela Ramos about her recent exhibition Carta Encontrada, in which she rifled through her father’s old storage unit from his moving company Ramos Envios. What she found sparked an investigation into the deeper meaning in our attraction to certain objects.
One of my favorite quotes from her: “My journey with the objects I found are as intimate as what you write about but carry a different weight because death isn’t the assumed cause of why they're left in storage. This ambiguity flattens out what was important. Arbitrary things like a baby keychain held the same intimate weight that a love letter did. It wasn’t necessarily because someone had lived through these objects but because there was an urge to share and connect through them.” Read the rest of our conversation here.
Until next time, I think you should read this excellent newsletter dispatch On Regionality from the unimpeachable Alicia Kennedy who asks a deeply important question that relates to the very bones of my research and which reminds me of the instances I’ve outlined in today’s newsletter: Abundance for whom?
She writes: “I’m rarely at the beach. Instead, you see the birds who are nesting and swooping at our dog. Rainbows, because it rains. I’m decidedly not on vacation; I’m getting frustrated at IKEA and standing in line at Costco. I don’t remember when I last put on a bathing suit. Tropical fruits, though, I have in excess.
I think about the contrast between living in and visiting the tropics when I see people receiving fruit from companies that have emerged to send tropical fruit to anyone, anywhere, at a premium, in a new bourgeois expression of an old practice: taking from the tropics to provide something new and exotic elsewhere. Would people pay a premium for fruits that don’t evoke a general idea of ‘vacation’? Who’s growing these fruits and what are the conditions? Who’s profiting? Could the land be used better, to feed people closer? There are infrastructures of abundance for whom?”
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