LOS ANGELES — What if I told you that working Black and Latina single mothers will be slapped with the bill for the untold millions in damages from the latest fire season in communities where they’re largely relegated to occupy space only as nannies or security detail? And what if you then learned that all of the discretionary or “unrestricted” social money for public goods supposed to be set aside for community development —not to mention emergencies such as COVID-19— in South Central Los Angeles and other impoverished, formerly red-lined geographies, are those which stand to lose the most from preventable fire emergencies? This is exactly what is happening in California.
As days of lungs ensnared in smoke turn into weeks of suffocation, it might almost feel like all of California has been taken hostage by a force of wicked nature. But it would be more accurate to say that the city, and indeed the state’s fates have been sealed by real estate corporations and obsequious governments, whose ill regard for natural and cultural limitations, and whose collusion in land theft, “separate but equal,” police states, redlining, white flight, and now gentrification intermingle like a Fiesta salad of colonial residue, which tastes just like it looks: heaps of ashes from a darkened sky over the “final frontier” that is —or that was— the Golden State.
Governor Gavin Newsom is correct to cite a “climate damn emergency” in his assessment of “this moment,” but still fails to situate climate change within the observed history and present state of corporate control over millions of acres of formerly public lands, largely still unceded by Native peoples in California but retained by companies like Pacific Gas & Electric and other private corporations, whose executives have profited immensely from fire hazards, pollution, publicly funded subsidies and insurance coverage, and more than anything: the mass removal of poor people and even their natural, sacred geographies for the sake of racialized expansion projects such as suburbia.
While the most expensive damage from the latest preventable fires have mostly impacted suburban enclaves developed by real estate moguls away from inner cities, the present state of high alert and toxic air quality for communities across the Western hemisphere emphasizes how fire hazards are not —and never have been— relevant only to isolated suburbs.
Moreover, as urban space continues to rise in density at the direction of real estate firms and not that of working-class communities, there are likely more fires on the way to big cities like L.A. After all, it was only six years ago that smoke from the so-called Da Vinci apartments choked the skies above downtown Los Angeles and the nearby Pico-Union and Westlake neighborhoods, the latter of which has historically been prone to fire disasters as a result of outdated building and fire codes, not to mention lax enforcement from L.A. city inspectors on landlords over safety. While a taxi driver was arrested for allegedly starting the fire at the Da Vinci complex and sentenced to fifteen years behind bars, the blaze was also attributable to corporate exceptionalism to the rules when developer Geoffrey Palmer failed to install key fire prevention measures to keep the complex from incinerating so rapidly and threatening other nearby structures.
In 2016, in a blazing example of belated, half-hearted watch-dogging from local government, Mike Feuer, the District Attorney for the city of Los Angeles sued Palmer for $20 million dollars for violating the city’s fire codes. Yet just one year later, Feuer settled for only $400,000 of that demand, or the equivalent of a small fine for the billionaire’s coffers, which another attorney for Feuer’s office called “an excellent result.”
Moreover, Palmer’s Da Vinci complexes were back in business as soon as 2015, offering non-rent controlled 746 square feet apartments for a minimum of $2,000 dollars a month to overlook the city’s sprawling tent encampments below the complexes. From 2013-2015, the city of Los Angeles alone saw an additional 1,300 people added to the streets. Today, there are more than 41,000 people without shelter atop the sidewalks and freeway underpasses of L.A., that is, according to LAHSA’s official estimates, which are always an under-count.
It turns out, however, that L.A.’s lame attempt at reining in Palmer was just one in a long list of Los Angeles officials’ rapid forfeiture of land to real estate firms without so much as a whimper, the result of which quickly forced into being cities like Malibu, Santa Clarita, and many more predominantly white enclaves, despite often being literally against mountainous terrain, and by extension, against the recommendations of sustainable planning experts.
Mike Davis’s Ecology of Fear (1998) documents key points of this history of L.A. officials yielding to the mighty developers’ expansionist dreams. Among several examples of how L.A. officials approved the city’s infamous “de facto” segregation over decades, Davis analyzes how twenty years prior to the mass gentrification of the Santa Monica mountains for the sake of Malibu–which was once home to tens of thousands of Chumash people —the urbanism firm EDAW reported that a then— projected 405,000 additional homes to the area would be ill-advised:
“They pointed out that Malibu, apart from major problems with earthquakes, flooding, and landslides, also had a fire history ‘unique in intensity, devastating in effect, and heightened during Santa Ana wind conditions.”
Twenty years later, the Malibu fire in 1993 proved this point, costing over $500,000,000 adjusted for inflation in today’s dollars, which, along with the Northridge quake in 1994 in the “de facto” segregated white valley, sucked up more state and federal dollars than the battle-worn streets of South Central Los Angeles from less than two years prior. Davis noted even then:
The fate of inner-city areas of Los Angeles in the aftermath of the Northridge earthquake vividly illustrates how people of color are doubly punished by natural and political disasters. The first casualty of the temblor was any residual official interest in economic recovery efforts and job creation in the neighborhoods traumatized by the 1992 riots. Rebuilding the Valley supplanted ‘Rebuild L.A..’
Nearly 30 years after Malibu’s predictable smoldering, smoke now consumes streets from Los Angeles to Portland as bruised sunlight stares ominously from above, and you can bet Geoffrey Palmer to the tune of a billion dollars that the predominantly Black, Latino and also impoverished white communities laying unhoused, behind prison bars, and under police surveillance across the “Golden State” will be the same ones whose affordable housing and decarceration are again postponed due to elected representative spinelessness before Palmer and his contemporaries.
The state’s latest ineptitude during this fire season, like its hackneyed safety nets amid the pandemic this last half-year, is thereby proof that the present struggle against police violence is not separate from the state’s conscription to unnatural catastrophes developed by corporate bottom lines one year after the next. In other words, the same annual budget that strains firefighting from “saving” precariously built structures in fire-prone areas is also the one which provides LAPD in South Central L.A. and across its immigrant communities with zealous field-days; but while the former present billions in damages that will cost the state’s public schools, public transportation, and hundreds of thousands of Californians without access to secure housing, the latter’s only threat is a skin color and some variant inflection of inglés that continues threatening California’s intransigent white supremacist order.
As present-day neighborhoods like those in Malibu and Santa Clarita were built on top of the ruins of decimated Chumash people, whose residents now live in heightened anxiety every September through November, the past has not yet passed. Today, while Hollywood celebrities have access to same-day testing for COVID-19 as the poor are ordered to wait until they have a fever to show for it, inheritors of the Golden state’s tragic love affair with real estate moguls will watch as another generation of public “leaders” call for rebuilding California’s white suburbs with more expenses on the working poor, including through increased policing, displacement, incarceration, and thus shutting out or banishment.
The only conceivable way out at this late stage in the game is for more citizens to stand against such manufactured inequality by supporting movements across the soot-worn Golden state for tenants’ rights, for affordable homes instead of sweeping zones, for prison abolition and police defunding, and for community investment led by communities rather than parasitic billionaires. There is no alternative to this latter option; we are already living in the alternative, blanketed in ashes.
J.T. is editor-in-chief of JIMBO TIMES: The L.A. Storyteller, a blog dedicated to working class communities and culture in Los Angeles since 2014. Find him on Instagram via @jimbotimes, or on Twitter at @JIMBO_TIMES.