Andrew Christie

Which American Life?

"This American Life," Public Radio International, July 6: Sarah Vowell and her sister Amy are on a road trip, tracing the tragedy of their Cherokee heritage along the Trail of Tears. Vowell, an excellent observer, also knows how to make historical connections. She casually sketches in the circumstances and the historical personalities that led up to and were involved in the annihilating event, so you don't notice how much you're learning.

But this is as far as she can go. Faced with the American genocide, the monuments and markers now played upon by school children on a field trip to the aquarium and the IMAX next door, she finds that as she learns more about the Trail of Tears, understanding is not helping her. Instead, "I feel worse" -- angry and helpless. She demands to know, several times, "What do you do with the past?"

Coming back from a station ID, host Ira Glass dryly notes Vowell's "very non-NPR anger."

She concludes, while "driving over graves" and singing along to her favorite Chuck Berry song, a cultural product of her country, that she loves and hates America; that her relationship to her country "feels like that of a battered wife: 'Yeah, he knocks me around, but he sure can dance.'"

And things pretty much end there, remaining in the realm of the personal. In that realm, Andrew Jackson and Chuck Berry are equivalent and must be accepted alike as part of "my country." Because this is a democracy, "we're all responsible for what our government does." There is no distinction between a government and a culture; Jackson, the primary author of the Trail of Tears, is simply a villain, not an instrument of a tacit policy of genocide that preceded him and long outlasted him.

If one does not acknowledge the dangerous aspect of the past, which lies in how it may apply to the present, then, of course, one does nothing. One feels angry and sad, observes that "It's clear that the one character in the story of the Trail of Tears who you can really hate is Andrew Jackson," then goes out for latté.

On a previous program, Vowell arched an audible eyebrow at the canonization of John Brown by Thoreau and Emerson. In quoting the approving assessment of Brown by the New England literati, she clearly did not approve. Elite literary types were pouring on praise for a terrorist loon who broke into the arsenal at Harper's Ferry to start a race war and got his followers killed, along with several of the soldiers they shot it out with. Preserving her personal interpretation, she did not quote Frederick Douglass, who noted that the struggle for the freedom of his people began with John Brown at Harper's Ferry, not at Fort Sumter.

The Cherokee were ousted from their land and annihilated by people who did it because they could, because they had power over their victims. Vowell did not connect the events she was tracing to instances in the present day where this same mechanism can be observed at work. This would take matters out of the realm of the past and the personal.

It would also slap the wistful tear from our eye shed for a tragedy 150 years gone, redirect our safe anger at a dead U.S. president toward the targets in the present, and widen our vision to include the living, and the sights to be seen in dangerous places, from a dangerous perspective.

And that would be very non-NPR -- or non-PRI, its indistinguishable twin and potential merger-mate, which supplies content to both NPR and PRI-affiliated stations.

"Those tears, that anger, cast into the past, deplete our moral energy for the present," wrote historian Howard Zinn in "A People's History of the United States" -- a book, as he introduced it, "skeptical of governments and their attempts, through politics and culture, to ensnare ordinary people in a giant web of nationhood pretending to a common interest."

To do otherwise, he felt, would mean buying into the lie that "history is the memory of states" and that a nation is the same thing as a community, a belief that "conceals fierce conflicts of interest ... between conquerors and conquered, masters and slaves, capitalists and workers, dominators and dominated in race and sex. And in such a world of conflict ... it is the job of thinking people, as Albert Camus suggested, not to be on the side of the executioners."

Contemplating Chuck Berry's music and Andrew Jackson's politics, calling it "America," and signing off, is evasion, not profundity. Emerson and Thoreau got it. Public radio can't quite get there.

Andrew Christie is a member of the editorial board of the Southern Sierran, the newsletter of the Angeles Chapter of the Sierra Club.

Greenwashing Coastal Development

L.A.'s newest water feature sits placidly at the intersection of Jefferson and Lincoln Boulevards in Marina del Rey, across the street from the burgeoning Playa Vista development. It is tastefully landscaped, dotted with islets, ringed by a trail and helpful interpretive signs. It stares blandly back at visitors, with no hint of the storms that raged around it for more than a decade before its birth.

It was born last month. If you were Playa Vista, the developer of the city rising from the Ballona Wetlands, you spent Earth Day flying in celebrated poets to extol in verse the virtues of your new storm water detention basin, aka "fresh water marsh," and you called it an "Ecopoetry Celebration."

For my part in that celebration, I accompanied a woman dressed as a turtle who was handing out flyers expressing disapproval of said marsh, the developer, and the celebration.

Playa Vista's engineered marsh is there to catch the development's urban run-off -- a legal requirement in order to permit the construction of the extremely unattractive new buildings now hulking over the other side of the intersection of Lincoln and Jefferson. The California Coastal Commission allowed the coastal wetlands area designated for the catch basin to be bulldozed and dredged -- usually a significant legal no-no -- as the result of a sleight-of-hand trick of the type that historically seems to accompany matters involving water, politics, and Los Angeles. When the developer went to the Commission in 1991, omitted from his permit request was a recent EPA report that the area contained far more extensive natural wetlands -- and extremely rare, saltwater wetlands at that -- than the developer was claiming. The Commission fell for it, and the permits were granted. Twelve years and several court fights later, the natural salt water marsh area has been scraped and graded and replaced by the development's landscaped run-off basin. As the L.A. Weekly put it in 1995, the marsh construction plan was the developer's "primary sales technique...to stop opposition to the development.... It didn't have to be designed as a real, functioning coastal ecosystem. It just had to look like a marsh, to have some plants and birds. The current plan for a few acres of Playa Vista is a wetlands theme park."

Ten years after that 1991 permit hearing, the omitted EPA report was brought to the Coastal Commission's attention by the Wetlands Action Network. A Commissioner lamented of her forebears' decision to issue the '91 permit, "I can't believe that they would not have voted differently if that information was provided, because you would not turn a salt water marsh into a fresh water marsh.... It's utterly pathetic that we don't have a procedure for changing something that we know is wrong."

Which is not to say there is no way to fix the problem. "I have spoken with Playa Vista's engineers," says Robert van de Hoek, chair of the Sierra Club's Ballona Wetlands Task Force, "and they tell me that the drainage gate for the detention basin can be re-engineered quite easily to reverse the flow of water and allow tidewater to naturally flow in again. This would facilitate genuine restoration of the salt marsh."

When the detention basin/marsh made its public debut on April 19 (with the L.A. Times reporting the event in glowing terms that made no mention of the decade of environmental warfare over the project), little shuttle buses from the Playa Vista sales office down the street, where the invited poets were reading on the lawn, spent the morning and afternoon picking up and dropping off guests at the marsh's traffic cone-designated entry point on Jefferson Boulevard. Lola the turtle lady took up position next to a trail sign and was doing land-office business with her flyers, which gave the low-down on the developer's eco-poetry event and urged acquisition by the state of all remaining open land at Playa Vista. People were curious to get the background on the issues and we were both glad to oblige.

A docent for Friends of the Ballona Wetlands, the organization that had brokered the deal for the construction of the detention basin, was standing nearby. As I was talking to a small group about the thumbnail history of the marsh -- what had been here before the bulldozing, the '91 Coastal Commission permit hat-trick, the difference between salt water and fresh, restoration and replacement -- she went over to one of the orange-vested security guards and murmured in his ear. He walked up and broke into the conversation to let me know that his name was Alex and I would have to leave the premises immediately.

"Why?" I said.

"Because you are spreading false information."

I looked at the docent, who was hanging back behind the security guard. She looked away.

"Alex," I said, "If I told you that, in my opinion, this woman is spreading false information and therefore I want you to remove her from the premises, would you do it?"

Alex paused, looking unhappy.

"Sir, if you do not leave, I will call the LAPD and have you arrested."

"On what charge?"

Alex paused again.

"Disorderly conduct."

I looked at Lola the turtle lady. She grinned hugely. We looked at the tight-lipped docent. We looked at the group of unsuspecting Earth Day strollers who had gathered to talk and listen on a sunny Saturday afternoon, now standing silent and wide-eyed, unexpectedly present at a Constitutional crisis.

I urged Alex to do his duty. He pulled out his cell phone and made the call. Lola and I resumed talking to the folks and waited for the cops.

The Art of Greenwash

L.A. poet Richard Beban had pitched the idea of a poetic eco-celebration to Los Angeles Poetry Festival director Suzanne Lummis and Playa Vista management "to mark the public inauguration (during Earth Week) of the 25-acre freshwater marsh at Playa Vista." Beban told the invited poets the marsh would "not only be a haven for birds and other wildlife, but will also greatly improve the quality of water flowing into nearby Santa Monica Bay.... The one-day Ecopoetry Celebration is the perfect vehicle to introduce the marsh to the public."

Name poets would be flown in from around the country, joining L.A. poetry's finest; all wined and dined beforehand and getting a handsomely paid gig, giving readings of their environmentally relevant works at the fresh water marsh on Earth Day, the last event on the calendar of the 2003 L.A. Poetry Festival, the tab to be picked up by the developer.

Playa Vista knew good PR when it was handed to them. The Poetry Festival knew what it would cost them on their own nickel to bring in poets like Linda Hogan, Aram Saroyan, et al. Done deal. Brochures printed, announcements made.

Mistake.

Wetlands are the most endangered real estate in the country. Playa Vista, battling scores of environmentalists for decades, is erecting itself on what was once a 2,000-acre ecosystem of coastal wetlands and uplands, the last such in Los Angeles. Migrating birds need all of these remaining fragments on our crowded coast if they are to continue to survive in places like Alaska and Costa Rica. If Playa Vista carries out its construction plans to completion, even with set-asides for restoration and conservation as open space, the loss of a big chunk of L.A.'s last undeveloped coastal property will make the nation's most park-poor city even poorer. And the basic tenet of conservation biology is inescapable: The strangulation effect on an already whittled-down ecosystem will likely doom the remaining wildlife and wetlands at Ballona.

"I believed that all environmental issues had been settled when this event was proposed to us," said Lummis the week before the event. "I now find that is not the case."

"Playa Vista has elevated greenwashing to a high art," observed Santa Monica Mayor Pro Tem Kevin McKeown. "Co-opting Earth Day with an eco-poetry reading to paint their urban run-off mitigation as a gift to the environmental community is like clear-cutting a forest, putting in a small, formal garden, and, when innocent birds arrive, telling friends that they are singing your praises."

Carolyn See, Terry Tempest Williams and more than 60 others signed a letter to Playa Capital LLC president Steve Soboroff protesting "your exploitation of poets and poetry and the term 'eco-poetry' to green-wash your massively destructive development at the Ballona Wetlands." Particularly galling, event organizers "didn't tell the Los Angeles Poetry Festival Director and the invited poets and artists that there continues to be serious controversy over your proposed development. You also neglected to mention the controversial nature of the pollution detention basin you are asking the poets to 'celebrate' as a 'fresh water marsh.'"

A chagrined, newly-informed Lummis agreed to appear at a Sierra Club press conference on Playa Vista's problematic eco-celebration the day before the event. Linda Hogan canceled her scheduled appearance at Playa Vista's eco-celebration, saying "I withdrew from the reading out of care for the environmental groups' position."

Beban went ballistic.

In a series of lengthy e-mails sent out to a local listserv, Beban excoriated longtime Playa Vista foe and Sierra Club national board member Marcia Hanscom, invoking Laura Bush, John Ashcroft, and other totems of repression to depict objections to his event as brutal suppression of free poetic speech. Beban cited his thirty-five years of environmental activism, extolled the environmental virtues of Playa Vista, and assured his audience that any artists or environmentalists who suggested that his event was "greenwashing" or that the impacts of the massive development may be less than salutary were liars, idiots, delusional, or persons of low character. And their poetry sucked.

Under pressure from Beban, Lummis backed out of the Sierra Club press conference to avoid the appearance of attacking her own program. (Unaware that Hogan had already stated the reason for her withdrawal from the "eco-celebration," Beban informed his listserv: "Incidentally, the Native American poet Linda Hogan, who was slated to appear, has a recent brain injury, has been heavily stressed as a result of that and heavy snowfalls that severely damaged her property in Colorado, and has a horse foaling soon. I anticipate that Ms. Hanscom will hold a press conference or issue a news release saying that she convinced Hogan not to come.")

Let's Not Make a Deal

Beban is a member of the Friends of the Ballona Wetlands, the first citizens' group to arise in opposition to the proposed development of Ballona 20 years ago, when Howard Hughes owned the land. The Friends brought suit, settling in 1990 for what they thought was the best deal they could get: 226 acres of the 1,100-acre property would be spared the concrete ax, and another 34 acres would be rendered a "fresh water marsh." The rest would be paved under. Since then, they have staunchly defended the settlement, and angrily attacked critics of the development and the deal the Friends cut.

"The Friends have been embedded in Playa Vista for the last thirteen years," says Hanscom, who also serves as executive director of the Wetlands Action Network. "They are virtually the only environmental group that supports the development, and they are pretty much in a world of their own. They've picked me to represent The Enemy and send torrents of invective my way because the alternative is admitting that a coalition of 110 groups supports the goal of acquiring and restoring the entire Ballona ecosystem and surrounding undeveloped open space. Those groups include the Sierra Club, CalPIRG, Surfrider, Rainforest Action Network, the Southern California chapter of Americans for Democratic Action, and the Center for Biological Diversity. The Friends insist we are all wrong, that I am an agent of Satan, and Playa Vista is a gift from God. Let the fully informed reader decide."

The ongoing spectacle at Ballona of intense animosity between people who ostensibly have the same goal and should be on the same side has occasioned some comment over the years. Peter Douglas, the executive director of the California Coastal Commission and a nationally recognized avatar of conservation, is philosophical about the evolution of all local environmental struggles. Speaking in May 2000 at the first Ballona Wetlands Symposium -- underwritten by Playa Vista and the Friends -- Douglas managed to be both gentle and brutally frank with his hosts:

"Environmental groups that have matured around a particular cause or issue, like the Friends of Ballona...must also deal with the curse of their own success. That is, in striving to achieve their mission, accommodations and compromises are made and agreements reached that are quite reasonable and, indeed, appear to be remarkable at the time.... Consequently, these groups find themselves in a dilemma, locked into a set of circumstances and compromises that years later, with the wisdom born of hindsight, no longer appear to be the 'good deal' they seemed at the time -- especially not to new neighbors and those who were not parties to the original agreements. This is especially problematic when old agreements include settlements of litigation that sign away the right of the environmental plaintiff to object to or be critical of the development originally at issue."

This last was a most pointed remark. After a marine biologist broke with the Friends over the science and design of the planned "restoration" and went public with his criticism, the developers added a requirement to their 1990 settlement with the Friends: If any current or former member of their group -- or any organization to which any current or former member may belong -- should publicly criticize any aspect of the restoration plan or otherwise refer to adverse environmental impacts of Playa Vista, the Friends are required to respond by publicly stating their unequivocal support for the restoration plan and the overall development. In this atmosphere, the next wave of Ballona activists coalesced, critical of both the development and the legal settlement.

"When new, 'upstart' environmental groups burst onto the scene, they usually become an immediate annoyance and irritant to the established local power structure," says Douglas. "It is convenient to then dismiss them with labels intended to marginalize, discredit and ridicule. In my view, such reactions miss the essential point that the environment always needs new champions in large numbers because there are simply never enough champions to do the job effectively, and because many who have been engaged lose perspective over time and become co-opted by the forces of the status quo or of environmental minimalism."

The upstarts have done well. Rather than accept the developer's deal of 240 acres that the Friends settled for as a condition of full build-out on the rest of the land, the new wave of Ballona activists have pursued a decade of lawsuits and relentless bad press for Playa Vista, raising the level of public and official concerns over safety, traffic and environmental impacts and stalling the project at every turn. They chained themselves to the bulldozers. They demonstrated at DreamWorks movie premieres after the studio was announced as the project's future flagship tenant. They presented architect Frank Gehry with a huge greeting card signed by thousands urging him to drop the planned relocation of his high-prestige offices to Playa Vista. Throughout, they have endured the slings and arrows of their outraged activist elders, who have insisted for years that they were recklessly screwing up a good deal, the only deal possible, in pursuit of an impossible dream.

DreamWorks decided not to build its studio there. Gehry decided he didn't need to put his offices there. Construction delays stretched out. The president of Playa Capital, who couldn't get the development developed, resigned "to spend more time with his family." (In accordance with long tradition, all parties at every turn have been, as a rule, careful to note that environmental concerns and public protest have had absolutely nothing to do with their decisions.) As a result, open space that should have long ago disappeared beneath shopping plazas, condos, and office buildings is still open and is now in play. Playa Vista has changed its tune from "the land is not for sale" to an agreement in principal on the brokered purchase of several of the property's four main parcels, as Hanscom and associates work the halls in Sacramento and local government to prepare the way for acquisition of maximum acreage by the state. In 2002, the Santa Monica City Council unanimously passed a resolution calling for the transfer of a portion of the wetlands into the California State Park system. Both the Friends and the Friends' perceived enemies agree that this is a good idea.

The actions of the Ballona activists, both the first and second waves, have bought L.A.'s last surviving wetlands ecosystem the most precious of commodities: Time.

In the end, that may prove, finally, to be enough.

Meanwhile, back at the marsh: The cops never showed -- nor did Laura Bush or John Ashcroft. I continued down the trail with Lola the turtle lady, who, with boundless enthusiasm, continued chatting up every receptive nature lover we met -- "Call the Governor!" -- until she had given away every single one of her flyers.

Andrew Christie is a member of the editorial board of the Southern Sierran, the newsletter of the Angeles Chapter of the Sierra Club. This article originally appeared in Faultline, California's Environmental Magazine

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