By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
Two years ago, Normark began meeting with Los Desterrados, as those who were uprooted from Chávez Ravine call themselves, showing them the photographs he had taken and recording their reactions. The result of those meetings is a beautiful book, in which Normark accompanies his photos, many of them unforgettable -- of children wrestling in a field, a girl trying on her confirmation dress, men talking over a fence, shooting the shit in front of a market, shadow-boxing in a yard -- with fragments of oral history. Together, the faces and landscapes and voices tell the story of the life of a community, with all its joys and all its troubles, that neither the bureaucrats who planned to improve the "blighted" neighborhood nor the politicians and businessmen eager to profit from it were ever able to hear.
IF THE DESTRUCTION OF CHáVEZ RAVINE STANDS out as a particular outrage in Los Angeles' more than slightly checkered history of city planning, USC professor â Stephanie S. Pincetl attempts to provide the larger picture in Transforming California: A Political History of Land Use and Development. With scrupulous attention to how the state's political structures have shaped the way in which we organize our communities and interact with the land, Pincetl sorts out the interconnections among the various phenomena that characterize California today, including corporate dominance of agriculture, white flight, urban neglect, environmental degradation and suburbanization. The picture she paints is not a pretty one; as the natural environment is steadily destroyed, a built environment of mini-malls and tract homes keeps people isolated from each other and alienated from political life, and the landscape reflects more than ever the inequalities and exclusions that mark contemporary American democracy.
Like Escobar, Pincetl goes back to the Progressive era to find the roots of today's ills. For the Progressives, she writes, "the role of government . . . was to create favorable conditions for businesses and capitalists." Power was snatched from political parties, which were corruptly beholden to the railroads, and dropped into "the hands of civil servants . . . advised by volunteer boards and commissions where politics would play little or no role." In the process, "Democracy was reduced to a simple act of voting rather than participation in decision making." And politics did, of course, continue to play a considerable role, as powerful appointed boards and commissions tended to be staffed exclusively by representatives of the industries they were ostensibly regulating.
In vast, often excruciating detail, Pincetl tallies the dire effects of Progressive reforms through the years in terms of housing, agriculture, timber, fishing, water policy and environmental regulation, arguing that many of the state's contemporary ailments can be tied to its fragmented political system, which effectively precludes intelligent land-use planning. She seems most upset, though, not by the physical results of those reforms, but by their broad political consequences: "The principles of a competitive capitalist economy system have become internalized in the principles of governance, leading to malign neglect of the commonweal." Only a very small -- and largely white and wealthy -- portion of the populace, Pincetl bemoans, participates meaningfully in government these days.
But she offers no evidence that Californian -- or American -- politics were any less plutocratic prior to the Progressive era. Such evidence would be difficult to find. Without it, though, she cannot convincingly pin the blame on Progressive reforms. As destructive as they may have been, the problem goes rather deeper. Nor can she avoid sounding naive as she protests the lack of "any distinction between the public sphere of politics and the economic sphere of capitalism," as if any such distinction had ever been particularly noticeable. What she can do, and does, is offer superficial solutions (including "removing the two-third majority required to pass a state budget" and a host of other tinkerings) and liberal platitudes (largely rehashings of political philosophers like Ronald Dworkin and John Rawls) without asking more difficult questions about the necessary relationship between the ever-present inequalities of capitalism and the ways in which they are invariably perpetuated under liberal democracies like ours. In the absence of such an analysis, Pincetl is sadly right that "Overall, the outlook for expanding democratic access, democratic process and accountability does not look promising."
RACE, POLICE AND THE MAKING OF A POLITICAL IDENTITY: MEXICAN AMERICANS AND THE LOS ANGELES POLICE DEPARTMENT 19001945 | By EDWARD J. ESCOBAR | University of California Press | 372 pages | $18 paperback
CHáVEZ RAVINE, 1949: A LOS ANGELES STORY | By DON NORMARK | Chronicle Books 144 pages | $30 hardcover
TRANSFORMING CALIFORNIA: A POLITICAL HISTORY OF LAND USE AND DEVELOPMENT | By STEPHANIE S. PINCETL | Johns Hopkins University Press | 372 pages | $45 hardcover