Posts Tagged ‘book review’

This Bookforum review of Smogtown remains one of our favorites, even with its little jab. L.A. – a city of “irreconciliables”

Tuesday, September 14th, 2010



Historians of Los Angeles have tended, even when critical of the city, to re-inforce its long-standing reputation as a place of fantasy. Among the first to examine LA as an object of serious scholarship was Reyner Banham, who, in Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies (1971), imagined La La Land as a series of discrete laboratories for democratic life, an exciting but highly romanticized LA of sun, fun, and motoring. A generation later, that book found its dark opposite in Mike Davis’s City of Quartz (1990), which turned LA’s penchant for unreality against it, revealing a bloated science-fictional dystopia. Both books boast compelling urban histories and continuing relevance, but even as each attempted to explore the form and fundamental logic of the city, they glamorized its past, and LA remained under a haze of myth.

Some of it gets burned off in Smogtown, a meticulous chronicle of the city’s signature airborne grime and of the civic and social forces that emerged to stop it. The authors, Los Angeles–based journalists Chip Jacobs and William J. Kelly, bring LA back to its unglitzy basics in a story of greed, pollution, and molasses-slow political change. Their history describes a decidedly dreary Los Angeles: Patio furniture fades, flowers die, and a man’s coral-colored tie turns bluish-purple over the course of an afternoon—all due to the smog that rolled into the city quite unannounced one morning in 1943. “The blocked skies,” write Jacobs and Kelly, “were tantamount to acne on a beauty queen.”

While Angelenos choked on the black stuff, variously described as an “aerosol barrage” and a “hanging bouillabaisse,” the government floundered. The Bureau of Air Pollution Control (BAPC) was the first local agency to tackle the crisis, starting in 1945. It failed to identify the smog’s source, as its engineers focused chiefly on sulfurous factory smoke and ignored gasoline-related fumes. The BAPC was replaced in 1947 by the Air Pollution Control District (APCD), under whose aegis Dutch-born biochemist Arie Haagen-Smit isolated automobile exhaust as the culprit. The APCD, however, couldn’t get much traction on the problem; neither could its successor agency, the South Coast Air Quality Management District; nor could the California Air Resources Board, the superagency created to coordinate statewide efforts. As Jacobs and Kelly demonstrate, the reason so little got done for so long was simple: Haagen-Smit (known fondly as Haagy) had solved the mystery, but in “linking smog with the tailpipe,” he put the antipollution bureaucracy in a bind for decades—caught between California’s burgeoning car culture and the smog-bedeviled people of Los Angeles.

It’s enough to make you feel bad for bureaucrats. Speaking of APCD chief Louis McCabe, one observer recalls, “The poor chap was being harassed from all sides.” Haagy’s credibility was called into question by “scientists” funded by the automobile and oil industries while rumors spread in the general population about a plot by big-business polluters to indict the “little man’s automobile.” The smogmen were charged with the daunting task of mediating between the public and private sectors and one another, all while dealing with angry citizens who threatened to “[come] down there after you with a hatchet.”


Potpourri Wednesday: a new pollution hotspot, atmosperic re-engineering, carbon footprints, and a fresh review for Smogtown

Wednesday, April 29th, 2009


Not the Number One status the San Joaquin Valley would seek, but one us Angelenos are at least glad to shed. Particulate pollution is a very serious matter. Here’s a brief L.A. Times story about the new rankings, and no, Southern California did not escape thanks to the port area.

Another landmark state move on greenhouse gases and fuel, in case you missed it. Here’s one article.

Modifying the atmosphere to induce cooling. From the Newsweek story – a story ever so reminiscent of early efforts to mold the weather to lower L.A.’s infamous smog.

“Over the past two decades geo-engineering began to include other ways of fixing climate, including new spins on the Pinatubo effect. Using sulfur dioxide or other materials, they aim to reflect sunlight back into outer space. One would boost a series of mirrors into orbit, shading Earth from sunlight, but at a cost that would likely bankrupt the planet. In the 1990s, the controversial inventor of the hydrogen bomb, Edward Teller, proposed floating reflective particles of metal in the atmosphere, adding a Dr. Strangelove air to the geo-engineering field.”

Calibrating your carbon. C’mon. It’s a gas. From MSNBC.

Lastly, another sterling review of our book, Smogtown: the Lung-Burnng History of Pollution in Los Angeles, this time from Earth First (not to be confused with Friends of the Earth) …

” … Smogtown is thoroughly entertaining from start to finish. It’s a dramatic story, playing out like it was written for the screen, with clear protagonists and villains – and humor peppered throughout. While Smogtown does an excellent job of providing the hard facts about how the pollution got so bad, the weakness of the government in controlling it and the difficulty of convincing Los Angelenos to sacrifice any part of their lifestyle to make it go away – it’s also a gripping tale that will keep you eagerly turning the pages. What with the terrified citizens crashing their cars in panic at the appearance of the smog and bewildered, ineffectual government officials bumbling about, it’s almost like Godzilla, but with pollution as “the beast” …

For full review, click here.