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Saturday, June 24, 2017

William Mulholland and the Rise of Los Angeles (2000) by Catherine Mulholland

Book Review
William Mulholland and the Rise of Los Angeles (2000)
by Catherine Mulholland

  There is a foundation myth of the growth of Los Angeles, familiar to a generation of Americans.  It is expressed in the film Chinatown, by Roman Polanski.  The most famous academic version of the myth is Cadillac Desert- read by almost every American studies undergraduate class in the US.  The myth, which is described in the foreword to her excellent history of her father, William Mulholland, the architect of modern Los Angeles, goes like this:

   Once upon a time Los Angeles was a small Mexican village, after the United States took over, it wasn't long before a vast conspiracy, consisting of both public and private interests, launched a plan to steal water from a bucolic farming community hundreds of miles away.  This theft, engineered in secret, destroyed that community and constitutes an original sin that forever taints modern Los Angeles.

  I'm as guilt as anyone when it comes to embracing what is essentially a false story.  I've got a shelf full of books like Cadillac Desert- seeking to expose the corruption at the heart of the Southern California dream.  Well, Catherine Mulholland, daughter of William and esteemed historian in her own right, is fed up with that bullshit, and her book, William Mulholland and the Rise of Los Angeles serves as a counter-point to the more established, critical view point.

  I wouldn't say that she wrote this book to settle scores, but she does settle some scores while also writing a dense, well written, well researched, well cited book about the growth of Los Angeles.  First things first, William Mulholland started work in Los Angeles digging ditches for the pre-Anglo water department.  He moved up to work as a supervisor for one of the private water companies which preceded the (in)famous Department of Water and Power.  The early chapters shed little light on the meat of the book, but they are interesting if you live in the Silver Lake/Echo Park area.   Tracing out one of the maps in the early chapters, I actually found the original water pipes that served the Elysian Park Reservoir.

  The meat of Mulholland and the Rise of Los Angeles has to do with the oft recounted tale of the "theft" of the water supply of the Owens River Valley.  This act has been repeatedly portrayed as the theft of water from a group of innocent ranchers and farmers.  Some of the parts of this story turn out to have been true-  Mulholland did use a private citizen to acquire the rights in secret, then that citizen sold the water rights to Los Angeles.

  The representation that the Owens Valley aqueduct was simply to serve the land owned by wealthy Angelenos in the San Fernando valley is shown to be false.   Mulholland and Los Angeles were plotting to secure an enormous supply of water for the entire Los Angeles basin.  Wealthy Angelenos bought large ranches in the San Fernando valley because they were cheap, and available.  The two facts are not linked in time or motivation.  Those land owners did, in fact, benefit from the water supply, but then, so did every person in Los Angeles.

  Another assumed fact that is shown to be false is the idea that the Owens Valley actively resisted from the beginning of the plan to steal "their" water.  Mulholland demonstrates that the active period of resistance- with some physical sabotage- was not linked to the construction of the aqueduct, but rather to the period after, when there was a vociferous debate as to whether the power generating capacity of the new aqueduct would be controlled by private or public entities.   The acts of sabotage were supported by those who advocated for the private control of the power to be generated, financed by outside interests who weren't opposed to the aqueduct, but just to the public control of the resulting power generating capacity.

  The rise of Los Angeles wasn't the result of a criminal conspiracy, it was an obvious solution to a pressing problem, and it was executed with a style and aplomb that is rarely seen in public infrastructure projects.

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