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Los Angeles City Water Company

The Los Angeles City Water Company headquarters sits just above the Plaza in this photo (circa 1890s). Photo courtesy of the Historical Photo Collection of the Department of Water and Power, City of Los Angeles.

By Tom Sitton


Here we are on July 20, the 149th anniversary of an important date in the history of supplying many of us with the necessary wet resource that kept Los Angeles growing. For on that date in 1868 the Los Angeles City Water Company received its thirty-year lease to provide the city’s residents with nature’s gift by operating its water system.

That event followed a number of years in the mid-1800s, when early water providers faced many difficulties in building crude infrastructure to distribute water from the Los Angeles River and other sources to thirsty Angelenos. By 1868 city officials were desperate for help, and three entrepreneurs offered to solve their problem. Although there were many critics of the final lease agreement, the city leaders saw no other solution to their dilemma and a majority of the common council agreed to a thirty year lease for distribution of the city’s water.

Conflicts between the city and the company began soon after the firm took over, as its directors fought to reduce their annual rent payments to the city, reneged on building promised infrastructure, and even challenged the city’s ownership of the water. While the company amassed generous profits from the business, residents complained of bad service, high rates, slimy water and low pressure. As the Los Angeles population boomed in spurts in the 1870s and 1880s, the protests became louder with the transformation of the area from primarily agricultural to commercial and residential.

By the time the lease period was ending in 1898, public outcry against a renewal of the lease had crystalized with a demand for the city to take over its water system. The lease became a major issue in the 1896 city election in which opposition candidates were successful. The new council members began negotiating, but the sales prices demanded by the company and the city were far apart and ended up in arbitration that still did not solve the problem. The council decided to build the city’s own infrastructure for distribution instead of purchasing the company’s system, which would leave the firm with pipes, pumps and such, but without water. Several lawsuits ensued and a compromise was finally worked out — the city took over the company’s property in 1902, almost four years after the lease had expired.

The transfer of ownership of the city’s water system from private entrepreneurs to the city was an example of the early reform sentiment in Los Angeles that would increase during the early Progressive era movement that was sweeping the nation at this time. The municipal ownership drive of urban reformers was a key ingredient in progressivism, particularly in owning natural resources and other necessities for residents. Los Angeles would soon have full control of its water supply and eventually its electrical, harbor, and airport services as it does today.

So Happy Anniversary, Los Angeles City Water Company, and thanks for your contribution to the early history of Los Angeles growth and its environmental and political history.


Tom Sitton is History Curator, Emeritus of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. For more on the Los Angeles City Water Company see books by Ostrom, Fogelson, Hundley, Karhl, Mulholland, and Soifer.

Screen Shot 2017-06-09 at 5.55.09 AMOn the occasion of 150 years since architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s birth (June 8, 1867), ICW reached out to Christopher Hawthorne, the architecture critic at the Los Angeles Times, for some thoughts.

ICW: Commemorations such as this allow us to ask questions about influence and legacy. In this case, how can we think about distinct pre- and post-Wright periods in American architecture? Can you give us a sense of that?

CH: Pre-Wright is marked by a slow search to establish an authentic American architecture, an effort that really picks up in the work of Wright’s mentor Louis Sullivan, the Chicago architect he called his “Lieber Meister.” Wright takes Sullivan’s ideas about ornament, form and function, which were hugely influential but largely contained to the late 19th-century Midwest, and expands them in place and time, working all over the US and in Japan and across a staggeringly long career. To oversimplify a bit, Wright’s work is a sustained negotiation between a desire to express a domestic architecture and staying in conversation with — not wanting to appear outpaced by — experiments in European modernism. His career lasted so long and he was so prolific — especially at the beginning and the end of his working life — that any time you talk about before and after you also have to acknowledge how long the “during” was. His established his own firm in 1893; his last great building is the Guggenheim Museum, completed (posthumously) at the end of 1959.


ICW: A few buildings notwithstanding, we don’t generally associate Wright with Southern California or Los Angeles. Should we?

CH: We should. The work he did here in the early 1920s — mostly experimental concrete-block houses with pre-Columbian ornament — helped Los Angeles get a better sense of itself, its cultural and architectural identity. It pointed the way to a regional architecture that wasn’t Spanish (more on that below), that didn’t rely on European precedents. It was different from anything being done here at the time and also radically different from anything Wright did before or after.


ICW: Why have we missed the connections or the relationship, Wright and Southern California?

CH: Mostly because his time here was short. When he set up an office on Fountain Avenue in January 1923 he thought maybe he’d be here for good. LA was booming. But by the end of that year he’d given up on that dream. A number of potential projects — some of which were maybe pipe dreams from the start, like the massive Doheny Ranch — had fizzled out. He was not getting along with his son Lloyd, also an architect and the construction supervisor for some of the LA houses. Most of the concrete-block houses didn’t work out quite as he’d planned, in part because of their experimental structural system. He designed a house in Montecito early on his career and then returned to LA near the end of it for a couple of small projects. Those were flybys. But in the 1920s he was trying to really ground his architecture in Southern California, trying to reinvent himself as a West Coast architect.


ICW: Los Angeles in the 1920s must have seemed caught between provincial and would-be metropolitan, especially to someone with Wright’s eye. What did he think of the place?

CH: His opinions were inconsistent — since he was — but tilted negative. After he left he dismissed LA as a “desert of shallow effects.” But it also sparked something in him, elicited work as inventive and singular as he’d produce anywhere. And he sympathized with the provincial in any case — he was from a close-knit, rural Welsh Wisconsin family that was suspicious of cities. He never quite shook that attitude.


ICW: Who did he know here and with whom did he associate?

CH: His son Lloyd arrived earlier and was for a time the head of the design department at Paramount. Lloyd helped him make contacts. Aline Barnsdall first wanted to build her house in Northern California; once she bought land on Olive Hill he had a steady source of LA income. He was better at making connections in the right social circles when he was younger, as an up-and-coming architect in Chicago. By the time he got to LA he was middle-aged and reeling from the 1914 murder of his mistress Mamah Borthwick.


ICW: His LA time is coincident with his Tokyo work? Any connections between here and there that are especially interesting or germane?

CH: The timing is mostly during the Tokyo work, and just after. It’s the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo that gives him a key commission at a lean period in the middle 1910s and brings him regularly to the West Coast for trips across the Pacific. His work here is influenced by Japan but the hotel is also shaped by his rising interest in the architecture of the Americas, defined broadly. Especially pre-Columbian.


ICW: Do you know if he made any connections to the way Los Angeles boosters had become so attracted to Chicago at the time? In other words, LA wanted to do, 1900-1950, what Chicago did, 1850-1900. Did Wright sense that?

CH: He must have, though he was too cynical, too much of a curmudgeon and too vain to join a campaign promoting anything but himself. He saw Los Angeles as the future but also as refuge, a place to hide out and reinvent himself. That contradiction can be seen in his LA work, which is historicist and experimental at the same time, looking backward and forward in a way that has confounded some critics and historians, who were used to dividing 1920s architecture rather neatly into avant-garde and revivalist camps.


ICW: How did he change Los Angeles?

CH: I’ve been working through this question — not just to write the Times piece marking the anniversary but in helping develop a forthcoming KCET Artbound documentary on Wright’s work in L.A. I think you could make a case that his houses here paved the way for the particular success of the major civic and cultural landmarks of the middle and late 1920s — the Central Library, City Hall, Wiltern, etc. Those projects were eclectic and revivalist without being slavishly Spanish Colonial Revival, a style Wright disdained. He planted the seeds for that, for an approach that broke equally from the Bauhaus, the Mission and his own early work.


As architecture critic for the Los Angeles Times, Christopher Hawthorne also writes a weekly column about architecture in Los Angeles.  The 1920s photo of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Ennis House (above) was taken by Julius Shulman and is courtesy of USC Libraries.

The month of April is synonymous with taxes. We spend hours, days, and even weeks sorting through the paper trail of our financial identity, condensing a year’s worth of work into a federally approved formula. Taxes are an inherent part of life; so, in an era in which the crossover between art and life is a given, what might the crossover between art and the United States Tax Code look like?

Two Things You Can Count on—Art and Taxes,” appeared in the June 1974 issue of LAICA Journal. The opening lines of the two-page spread, read:

Lowell Darling: “Dudley, can you tell me where you’re from?”

Dudley Finds: “Dollars, Texas.”

art-and-taxes

 

In the text, California-based artist Lowell Darling interviews his alter ego, Dudley Finds. The mock-interview is the concluding segment of Darling’s five-year tax project, initiated when the IRS classified Darling a hobbyist rather than an artist engaging in a trade for profit, thus disallowing his proposed income tax deductions for art material expenses. This 1969 denial kicked off Darling’s career as a non-profit public artist bent on proving his artist status to the IRS, all while displaying no documented monetary profit.

To realize the project, Darling corresponded with politicians and federal agencies regarding proposed artworks, stamping the letters he received in response with: “ARTIST’S PROOF.” He established the fictional Fat City School of Finds Art (FCSOFA), placing his alter ego, Dudley Finds, as the founder and dean of the imaginary institution and distributing over 50,000 free MFA degrees—the school counts among its famous graduates John Baldessari and Ray Johnson. Darling realized pro bono site-specific installations up and down the West Coast; he was interviewed by numerous media outlets (television, radio, newspaper); and in 1973, he was awarded a grant by the federally funded National Endowment for the Arts (NEA).

Only in 1974, and with the assistance of then-UCLA law professor Monroe Edwin Price, was Darling reclassified by the IRS as an artist displaying a profit intent. Thus, he was allowed, finally, to deduct the cost of materials from his [lack of] income. This change in classification was not the result of revised tax laws or increased recognition for conceptual art. Darling posits that having a lawyer argue his case, and having his work reproduced on the cover of Art in America, were significant factors in this revised status. While this may very well be the case, ultimately, the deciding factor was the NEA grant, not because of its associated prestige or federal backing, but because it allowed Darling to display one all-important element on his tax forms: profit.

Thus, to conclude the tax project, which involved forays into correspondence, installation, and performance, Darling displaced the discussion, turning it away from himself (the subject of the IRS audit) and instead shifting it towards Dudley Finds, complicating the matter by discussing his financial identity under a name that both was and was not his.

 

This blog post is taken from ICW’s Doheny postdoctoral scholar Monica Steinberg’s ongoing research into the agency of imaginary artists in Los Angeles.

Adam Goodman is currently a Provost’s Postdoctoral Scholar in the Humanities at the USC. Beginning fall 2016, he will be an Assistant Professor of History and Latin American and Latino Studies at the University of Illinois, Chicago. Goodman is a scholar of migration interested in the interconnected histories of people throughout the Americas and received his Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania. His current book project explores the rise of the deportation regime and the expulsion of Mexicans from the United States over the last century. He has published articles, essays, and reviews in academic venues such as the Journal of American Ethnic History and popular outlets such as The Nation and The Washington Post.

We interviewed Adam about his research, what he’s currently teaching at USC, and how his work affects his experience of Los Angeles.

 

 

ICW: Tell us about your background and training. How did you come to your interest in immigration history?

Adam Goodman: Before starting graduate school I worked as a high school history teacher in the Lower Rio Grande Valley on the US-Mexico border. Many of my students came from families that had recently migrated to the United States, and some continued to cross the border on a daily, weekly, or seasonal basis. Living in the Valley sparked an interest in how migration and migration policies shape people’s lives, which I then went on to explore in more depth as a history Ph.D. student at the University of Pennsylvania.

 

ICW: What was it like to study American immigration at Penn, and how did Mexican immigration history fit or not fit the paradigms you studied in graduate school?

Goodman: From the outside looking in, the Penn history department doesn’t seem like an obvious place to study Mexican migration history: there are no Mexicanists or Chicana/o historians on faculty and, although it has grown in recent years, the Mexican community in Philadelphia remains relatively small compared to major metropolitan areas in the Southwest and West. But it was the perfect place for me. When I started graduate school I didn’t know what I wanted to specialize in. (For a time, I thought it might be the history of education and social inequality.) Fortunately for me, I found a dynamic group of engaged scholars—Michael Katz, Tom Sugrue, Ann Farnsworth-Alvear, Eiichiro Azuma, and Steve Hahn, among others—who nurtured my burgeoning interest in migration history and policy, pushed me read widely and “think big,” and encouraged me to conduct archival research and oral histories in Mexico. Ultimately, their advice made me a better historian and added depth to my work. And, in the end, the fact that Penn didn’t have anyone working in my direct field forced me to branch out and make connections with colleagues at other institutions across the country.

 

ICW: Do the metaphors of uprooting and transplanting still mean something in immigration scholarship?  Why or why not?

Goodman: More than anything, metaphors like “the uprooted” (popularized by Oscar Handlin in 1951) and “the transplanted” (coined by John Bodnar in 1985) are useful to understanding the historiography of immigration and how much it has changed over the last few decades. Up until the 1990s, studies of one-way European immigration and assimilation dominated the field of immigration history (aside from a few notable exceptions). Since then, however, scholars—from increasingly diverse backgrounds—have focused on the histories of migrants from Latin America, Asia, and Africa; the many connections people maintain to their countries of origin; and how nativism, exclusion, and deportation have shaped United States history. There has also been an important shift away from the study of immigration and toward migration and mobility studies.

 

ICW: How does your work inform your daily life in LA?

Goodman: There are times when I see the city in a different light because of my work on Mexican migration and deportation. Dodger Stadium isn’t just where the Dodgers play: it’s also Elysian Park, the place where immigration authorities rounded people up in a make-shift detention camp during the infamous “Operation Wetback” deportation campaign in 1954; and it’s Chavez Ravine, the home to a large Mexican community until the city and team ownership forcibly displaced them so the ballpark could be built. Two of my favorite places in LA are Grand Central Market and the central branch of the Public Library. But when I emerge from the Pershing Square metro station en route to either, I can’t help but think about the people whose deportation hearings are taking place at that very moment, just two blocks away at the Immigration Court at 6th and Olive.

Huntington_Chavez_Ravine

Chavez Ravine, exact date unknown. photCL 486 (307) from the Palmer Conner Collection of Color Slides of Los Angeles, 1950 – 1970 at The Huntington Library, San Marino, California.

 

ICW: Tell us about the class you are teaching at USC.  What do you think you might expect from USC students on the topic(s) you are working with in the course?

Goodman: This semester I’m teaching a class on the history of Mexican migration to the United States. The first half of the course covers the sixteenth century to 1986. (We move fast!) It starts with the legacies of colonialism and conquest by European powers and the United States, and then it explores the first Mexican migrants to the US, Mexican American community formation, the Bracero Program, undocumented migration, and return migration to Mexico—whether by choice or force. The second half of the semester we’ll be examining topics on contemporary Mexican migration, including the militarization of the US-Mexico border, popular culture and migration, and Mexico’s impact on migration and migration’s impact on Mexico.

I hope that the course’s historical orientation enables students to better understand the essential role migration has played in shaping the interconnected histories of Mexico and the United States. Today, more than 34 million people of Mexican origin live in the US, making up around 11 percent of the total population; and the 12 million Mexican migrants who reside in the US comprise around 10 percent of Mexico’s population.

There’s also no better place to learn about Mexican migration, past and present, than Los Angeles. I hope the class helps students engage with the city in new ways. I want them to get off campus and see LA for what it is: a global metropolis that is home to more Mexicans than anywhere else in the world aside from Mexico City. With that in mind, during the second half of the semester students will be heading out into the community and conducting institutional histories of local migrant-serving organizations.

 

ICW: What’s the best thing about Los Angeles?

Goodman: The food is hard to beat, but, as a public transportation user and advocate, I’d add that I’ve been pleasantly surprised with the metro. The Expo Line extension to Santa Monica, Gold Line extension to the SGV, and Purple Line extension to Westwood are going to be game changers. An affordable, integrated public transportation system will make Los Angeles a more livable city for all of its inhabitants.

 

ICW: What are you working on now, in the short and long term?

Goodman: In the short-term I’m working on a couple of articles and essays, in addition to a book chapter about how migration policy has affected families split between Mexico and the United States. (It’s largely based on oral histories I did in the central-western Mexican state of Jalisco.) I’m also organizing an event on the roots and realities of the Central American refugee crisis that will be held at USC on March 22. And, a couple of weeks later, I’ll be giving a talk in El Monte on the history of immigration raids and immigrant resistance in 1970s Los Angeles. In the long—but hopefully not too long!—term, I’ll be working on my book project about the growth of the deportation regime and expulsion of Mexicans over the last century, and preparing it for publication.