I’ve Got You Under My Skin

August 6, 2005, is a good day. The summer monsoon has pushed thunderstorms into the high desert, and as the damp air flows north and east, there’s a risk of flash floods in the foothills above the city. The inversion layer is down to 600 feet, clamping a lid overhead as featureless and solid-seeming as concrete. Visibility is four or five battleship-gray miles into utter nothingness. The city is marooned in its air. Still, it’s a good day.

The Air Quality Management District’s online monitor says particulate pollution is only moderate; ozone levels are low, too. The AQMD’s air-quality index is only just beginning to peak into the range of “unhealthful for sensitive groups” in the valleys. Some people may begin to feel a characteristic catch in the back of their throat as they breathe the heavy air.

Exactly 50 years before, when I was nearly 7 and spent nearly every summer day outside in my baby-boom neighborhood with other boys my age or a little older, the breaths we drew with such urgency contained some of the highest levels of air pollution ever measured in the basin. The bright sun over our heads cooked together gritty particulates from diesel motors and locomotives, nitrogen oxide from manufacturing plants, carbon monoxide from car exhaust, sulfur dioxide from oil-fired industrial furnaces, and stray hydrocarbons evaporating from solvents and degreasers, household paints and gasoline. Epidemiological studies in 1959 would show an extra 1,200 fatalities over a 10-day period in mid-August 1955, mostly among the elderly and chronically sick. Ground-level ozone concentrations rose in the still air on each of those summer days, topping at 0.68 parts per million (or more than six times the federal health standard).

Boys hurrying down the block to catch the Helms Bakery truck couldn’t see the ozone. It’s not one of the colors in the vivid palette of smog. It’s a transparent, highly reactive gas refined in sunlight from volatile hydrocarbons and the byproducts of auto exhaust. For many adults, at 0.02 parts per million (the current AQMD “stage 1” alert level), ozone can start to sting the eyes and tinge each breath with pain. At higher concentrations, people wheeze and develop a headache. Some cough. Some feel lightheaded.

Running in air this polluted for just 30 minutes, according to the American Lung Association, is like smoking a pack of cigarettes.

Little kids, oddly enough, were said not to experience these adverse reactions, or they didn’t report them to the district’s researchers in the 1950s, because that’s what kids born into smog imagined the summer air was supposed to feel like and smell like, like a combination of spot remover and a gas station (and not an entirely unpleasant smell).

I didn’t pay attention to what I couldn’t see in the deepening gray-brown air. Maybe my throat was scratchy that day, but my mom was a heavy smoker then, and the effects of that were far worse. I remember my eyes watering when I got older, but I don’t remember if they did that August. I’ve almost forgotten what breathing the unmitigated pollution of 50 years ago felt like, but my body hasn’t. I still bear the marks of that afternoon in my lungs and heart and arteries — and all the afternoons spent in the smog years, even after responsible adults knew what caused the air to turn the color of a fresh bruise, knew much of what air pollution could do to boys like me, and knew how to prevent at least some of it from happening.

The first breath I took was of this troubled air in 1948. Its quality had been declining steadily since 1919, when the region’s non-agricultural economy began to boom and a million newly infatuated migrants started arriving in Los Angeles to begin enjoying “health and happiness” in what they had been told was a land of perpetual sunshine. That was the usual bait and switch.

Oil refining, tire manufacturing, aircraft assembly, auto making and shipbuilding were beginning to give sleepy L.A. a businesslike air, create jobs and make the place something more than a home for retired Hoosiers and “lungers” hoping for a tuberculosis cure. By 1935, Los Angeles (with the Firestone, Goodyear and Goodrich plants) was second to Akron, Ohio, in tire production and (with GM, Chrysler, Ford and Studebaker) second to Detroit in auto production.

Industrialization improved L.A. — so much improvement that the decline was obvious in the city’s extraordinary qualities of light and air, which everyone in the previous 30 years had remarked on, which had helped bring filmmakers from New York and New Jersey. The disenchanted were quick to compare the sales pitch with reality. By 1948, dystopian L.A. — the shrouded city of “treacherous unbrightness,” the city that always cheated on its lovers — was painted in the colors of smog: sunsets that ran from peach to dried blood, daylight that shaded from urine to adobe. The smoggy city’s depiction in movies and novels became as structured as a villanelle: the city always seen from a height, from a freeway overpass, from a seat in a descending jetliner, the air in layers of yellow and tan, the hapless observer always going under, down to a carcinogenic sea.

The peculiar geometry of a basin that’s backed by mountains, fronted by an ocean and untroubled by winds has always given the city an ambivalent air, at one moment an atmosphere so clear that shadows have edges as sharp as a sushi knife and at other moments rendering even nearby objects nebulous and erasing all the big elements of the landscape. The cinematography of New York has a deep focus, with foreground and background equally sharp. But, as Thom Andersen illustrated in Los Angeles Plays Itself, our air does a kind of teasing fan dance, exposing and concealing. The obliterating haze is so much a part of the city that it’s been worked into the design of rooftop bars at hip downtown hotels.

This effect is only partly the result of pollution, as Lawrence Weschler pointed out in 1998 in The New Yorker, but it’s become part of the city’s toxic aesthetic. And nothing is going to change that image, not any number of assertions from the AQMD that air quality dramatically improved between 1983 and 2001 or that the basin exceeded the one-hour ozone standard just 27 times in 2004. (In the 1970s, the basin exceeded the one-hour standard nearly 200 days a year.) Despite the progress made through tighter emissions standards, from lower-volatility paints to less-polluting car engines, Los Angeles will always bear the stigma of being a ruined Eden.

Being an Angeleno (even a marginal one, like me) has always been a risky business, what with earthquakes, boom/bust economic cycles and the frequent lethality of fire and flood. There are tradeoffs in living here. Smog rolled in with smokestack industrialization in the 1930s and 1940s, giving good jobs with real benefits to lots of unionized Okies and Arkies and a sizable number of African-Americans. They bought cars. They bought houses. They lived better through chemistry, a lot of it extraordinarily polluting. Their sons and daughters ran laughing through the smoggy summer afternoons their parents had carefully made by using all the good things of a new kind of working-class life. Children filled their lungs with the livid air, and each breath multiplied their lifetime risk of heart disease, emphysema, asthma and lung cancer — even more reasons not to be nostalgic about a 1950s childhood.

The climate cycle, the population cycle, the business cycle, and the venality of political appointees who make air-quality policy have ratcheted up pollution levels in the past four years. Advocates of clean air fear that the momentum has stalled, that nerves are getting rattled by the nature of the lifestyle changes that will have to be made to accommodate all our breaths with air that doesn’t frighten us.

Children playing soccer in the park near my house, children running as hard as they can in the dull light of August 6, 2005, will carry all their lives the traces of that afternoon. Their burden of risks, I hope, will remain lighter than mine because parents and politicians made hard decisions decades ago to begin clearing our air. They will have to make more hard choices very soon. If they do, Los Angeles may not remain the smog capital of the U.S. (Houston and the San Joaquin Valley are real contenders), but our air won’t ever be perfect again.

Still, it was good enough when I stood on the knob of Signal Hill, 25 miles south of downtown, on an afternoon after a rainy day earlier this year. I saw in a bright panorama: Catalina Island, the Palos Verdes hills, the Santa Monica Mountains, the huddled towers of downtown, the Hollywood sign behind, and, farther in the distance, the San Gabriel and San Bernardino mountains, until, after almost a full circle, the Santa Ana Mountains and the coastline stretching away to the south and east in the clear, silver light. I drank in the splendid air of that afternoon and thought that it was a better day than I had known before.

D.J. Waldie’s most recent books are Where We Are Now: Notes From Los Angeles (Angel City Press, 2004) and an updated edition of Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir (W.W. Norton, 2004).

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