Monday, May 29, 2017

Benjamin Heber Johnson's "Escaping the Dark, Gray City"

Benjamin Heber Johnson is Associate Professor of History at Loyola University Chicago and the co-editor of the Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era. His books include Revolution in Texas: How a Forgotten Rebellion and Its Bloody Suppression Turned Mexicans Into Americans (2003) and Bordertown: Odyssey of an American Place (2008).

Johnson applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Escaping the Dark, Gray City: Fear and Hope in Progressive-Era Conservation, and reported the following:
From page 99:
Dana Bartlett’s Los Angeles, like most American cities, and perhaps even more so, did not follow his advice. Private property, not a municipal plan or government, determined the metropolis’s explosive growth in subsequent decades. City fathers set aside very little park space. Later generations of the very Angelenos on whose behalf Bartlett labored so much—its recently arrived immigrants, congregating in the urban core, out of easy reach of the beach and mountain retreats—ended up the most deprived of regular contact with the larger rhythms of nature. The Los Angeles River, which Bartlett and other conservationists envisioned as a key public space and environmental amenity became, in the nature writer Jennifer Price’s words, “an outsize open sewer that carved a no-man’s-land through many of the city’s most fragmented and park-starved areas.”
The burying of a once vibrant vision of urban environmental reform is the subject of page 99 of my book. In the late twentieth century, the city of Los Angeles had become the epitome of many of the nation’s environmental ills. Chained to their cars and highways, Angelenos drowned in smog, with the city’s poor out of reach of the beach and mountain retreats available to the wealthy.

It wasn’t always so. Ford Madox Ford’s page 99 test works for my book, more or less, because one of its main ambitions is to show how powerful urban conservation was in early twentieth century cities, including Los Angeles. Page 99 is the downbeat to a more optimistic take on the conservation movement. Many of us remember Gifford Pinchot and John Muir as the apostles of environmental enlightenment in this period, but who has heard of Dana Bartlett or Mira Lloyd Dock? The Reverend Dana Bartlett, a prominent civic leader in the Los Angeles of the 1910s and 20s, was a remarkable environmental thinker and activist who urged the city’s leaders to mandate extensive parks and playgrounds so that that all of the city’s residents had access to nature. He wanted the Los Angeles river to be a ribbon connecting the city and giving citizens a sense of a shared place and purpose.

Bartlett’s plans, like many Progressive measures, ran headlong into the power of real estate interests, as described on this page. Looking at what L.A. became decades later, it was easy to forget that it had been a seedbed of innovative environmental ideas. But decades later, as health and environmental conditions became intolerable – and the Los Angeles river became a huge open sewer whose only purpose seemed to be the filming of iconic chase scenes from Greased Lightning and Terminator -- local environmental activists began proposing many of the same measures.

Today, as efforts to meet such environmental challenges as climate change are again stymied by vested economic interests, perhaps excavating this past can help us understand our current predicament.
Learn more about Escaping the Dark, Gray City at the Yale University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue