Big Oil

In the wake of Mr. Trump’s choice for Chief of the EPA and Secretary of State, here’s a plea from a Cal-utopian.

But first, a slice of history.

During the 1920’s, when the Los Angeles area featured almost as many oil derricks as trees, the city held a vote to decide upon the location of a new railroad depot; either keep it in the same location on Central Avenue and Fifth Street or move to the site where Union Station now stands, near the historic town center. The location issue became hot ballot measure in the 1926 election. On one side, in favor of staying at Central and Fifth, was the Southern Pacific Railroad, which owned rights-of-way intended to allow new lines for commuter trains that would serve much of Southern California. On the other side and dedicated to moving, was Harry Chandler, owner and publisher of the Los Angeles Times, who owned much of the property surrounding the proposed new site.

More was at stake than just the fortunes of a few capitalists. The inability of the railroad to build its new lines would necessitate new roads and highways as the people became ever more dependent upon cars.

In those days, the public got its opinions from the newspapers, which in L.A. meant Harry Chandler’s Times and the Herald-Examiner, part of William Randolph Hearst’s media empire. Though Hearst and Chandler were often at odds, on the depot issue, the Herald Examiner kept strangely silent.

So of course Chandler got his way, the depot moved, Chandler made millions on the deal, viable public transportation was lost to history, and Southern California’s dependence on cars and gasoline was secured.

The 1920s in LA were fascinating years. You can visit them by reading Oil, by Upton Sinclair, The Boosters, by Mark Lee Luther, and/or The Biggest Liar in Los Angeles, by Ken Kuhlken (which I most highly recommend).

As is often the case, what happens in California doesn’t stay in California. Since our state continually exports its culture through our near monopoly of internationally popular films, much of the world has come to believe that cars are not only cool but essential. And so, what California wrought in the early 20th century is a primary cause of the wars of our times.

We Californians need to repent and try to repair some of the damage. If we put our minds and wills to the task, we might prove to ourselves and the world that though many of us (I for one) may love cars, they don’t own us, we own them. If we choose, some of us could live without them. Others of us could at least drive them fewer miles.

If we need to be reminded, we can add Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi” to our music collection and pay attention to the warning about what happens when we pave paradise and put in parking lots.


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