Category Archives: history

The Loma Prieta Earthquake Thirty Years Later

 

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The San Francisco Chronicle initially reported hundreds dead in the massive 1989 earthquake.

Thirty years ago today at 5pm PT, I was in a condominium in downtown Santa Cruz. Game 3 of the Giants-A’s “Bay Bridge” World Series game at Candlestick Park was about to start when the TV began acting like a basketball, slamming screen-first into the carpet and bouncing up and down. A few minutes later, when the earth stopped shaking, we walked out to see some houses sitting at 45-degree angles from their foundations, some buildings completely collapsed, every chimney in the area in rubble, and a cloud of dust enveloping downtown. (Our building was untouched, aside from every dish in the kitchen shattering on the floor. When the electricity eventually came on, we found that the TV even worked.)

Somehow the phones never got knocked out, so we were able to get tabs on many of our friends and help where we could. Pretty much every able-bodied person in the area had the same instinct, so as darkness fell, we arranged for as many people as possible to get the perishables out of their refrigerators and come down to use our grill. We had a delicious feast that night as the aftershocks — some of which were larger than most of the quakes the area had seen in recent memory — rocked the building.

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That was the last good food we would have for quite a while as we quickly relied on peanut butter, ramen, and other durables in the days before power was restored while fielding phone calls from friends and family from around the world (when they could get through the jammed lines). The downtown area — including the historic Cooper Building that had undergone a retrofit to withstand seismic activity just a few months earlier — was so devastated that most of the businesses that didn’t go under would move into giant “temporary” tents for the next three years or so. STC-L-eiquake-1017-04building

Miraculously, the number of people killed in Santa Cruz could be counted on two hands; judging by the number of collapsed buildings one would have thought that hundreds had perished (as the Chronicle headline in this post feared). The entire Bay Area suffered sixty-three deaths (most in the collapsed I-880 Cypress Structure), but those of us near the epicenter were very, very fortunate.  I don’t know if subsequent plate shifts have since altered it, but there was a huge chasm in the woods not far from the UC campus for years afterwards.

The condominium complex we were in was of postwar construction, and it survived relatively intact. When I returned to UCSC several days later, little damage to the campus buildings (built largely after 1965) was evident (though the collections at McHenry Library and KZSC required many hours to reshelve).  Older and cheaper housing fared less well. In Santa Cruz and Watsonville, the large structures that survived became shelters for thousands of displaced residents whose houses had been destroyed. Many more buildings suffered moderate amounts of damage; it seemed that every brick chimney in town had crumbled.

SantaCruz_1989_Highway17Eventually the chimneys were restored, demolition of unsavable buildings took place, and a major rebuilding effort was evident by the time I moved away in 1992. When I visited Santa Cruz five years later, there were no gaping holes where houses and businesses stood, but the town looked much different than it had on the morning of October 17, 1989.

One lesson from the 1989 earthquake (and the 1994 Northridge earthquake) was a focus on planning to make cities “earthquake-safe” rather than “earthquake-proof” through modeling. This approach seeks to reduce risk while recognizing it is never eliminated; the 2011 Fukushima disaster is in part a lesson that natural events may be more powerful than what reasonable models project, and that the human-built world can vastly exacerbate the scale of disaster that results. The major earthquake that devastated Christchurch, New Zealand that same year was not on one of the faults that worried area seismologists. Safety is not guaranteed; that lesson certainly resonates when “storms of the century” become more frequent on the eastern seaboard.

Thirty years after the Loma Prieta earthquake destroyed downtown Santa Cruz, I live in another metropolitan region at risk from disasters. When searching for our last home, I consulted information about which neighborhoods were more dangerous than others. I did not consult violent crime statistics, but rather NYC’s hurricane evacuation map revised in the wake of Sandy. Our home is not in an area presently rated as a potential evacuation zone, though I understand that the map may be revised in light of new information, and a powerful storm could overwhelm the existing model of risk.

Earlier this month, Pratt hosted historian Ted Steinberg, whose work on how what we call natural disasters involve damage produced by human designs has led him to criticize the aggressive development of the waterfront as an act of “environmental machismo” in the face of rising sea levels. Yet I remain here, perhaps in part out of the irrational belief that storms come with warnings. The earthquake that shook Santa Cruz thirty years ago caught us by surprise.

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Megacities and Water Panel at 3rd World Congress of Environmental History, Florianópolis

FlorianapolisThe 3rd World Congress of Environmental History begins in Florianópolis, Brazil this week, organizing around the theme “Convergences: The Global South and the Global North in the Era of Great Acceleration.” For more information on the venue, keynote speakers, program and schedule of sessions, please click the links on the conference website.

As part of the conference, I will participate in a panel on Water and Megacities in the 20th Century on Thursday afternoon, with participants presenting cases from the Americas. I will discuss Newtown Creek as New York City’s aquatic discardscape, a site with several narratives of waste informing both its history and its future as a site for sustainable (or unsustainable) urban development. How do we think about waste? How do the answers to that question inform the ways discarded materials have shaped the land, water, and economic processes that interact at Newtown Creek? Join me for consideration of those questions and how they relate to water issues in the world’s megacities.

The Art of Sustainability Symposium in Philadelphia October 6

MuralArtsImageThe Mural Arts Institute and the Lindy Institute for Urban Innovation at Drexel University are hosting an Oct. 6 symposium on public art and sustainability featuring artists, architects, and me. Details, including tickets here:

Our speakers bring a variety of perspectives and experiences to the intersection of artistic practice and the environment. The line-up includes artist Stacy Levy, curator & scholar Patti Phillips; architect Mateo Fernández; Mural Arts Restored Spaces initiative founder Shari Hersh; the collective Basurama; community organizer Sulay Sosa; Wholistic.art; writer & scholar Carl Zimring; Bartram’s Garden Executive Director Maitreyi Roy; The Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education Executive Director Mike Weilbacher; and policy expert Stephanie Gidigbi. Sessions will range from conversation to lecture format to interactive engagement and will cover a wide range of topics.

My contribution will be a lecture about the visual culture of environmental racism. I am looking forward to the entire program.

The Mountaintop 50 Years Later

MLK50_NYOn this day in 1968, Martin Luther King delivered his final speech in Memphis in support of the sanitation workers who had been on strike since that February. Tonight in Washington Square Park, the audio of the speech will be played in its entirety beginning at 7:30pm. On the other side of the country, Stanford holds a screening of the documentary “I am MLK Jr.,” performances, and comments by Professor Clayborne Carson beginning at 6pm PT. (April 4 update: In Chicago, 99-year-old civil rights activist and historian Timuel Black discusses Dr. King’s life and legacy at Rockefeller Chapel at 12:30pm CT.)

Memphis has been holding events since the start of the week relating to the speech and Dr. King’s assassination; Rev. Dr. Bernice King is participating in several events, and( the Commercial Appeal provides information on events on Wednesday’s sad anniversary.

A few resources on the speech and its significance:

Complete audio and transcript of the speech.

A 2008 NPR interview with the Rev. Samuel Billy Kyles, who was present at the speech.

Memphis journalist Wendi C. Thomas’s account of how Mayor Loeb’s policies and his family’s business practices exacerbated racial inequality a half century ago…and since.

Michael K. Honey’s history of the strike Going Down Jericho Road, which contextualizes King’s involvement in the long struggle for recognition by the workers.

 

Discussing Environmental History in Philadelphia and St. Louis

The end of winter has dynamic meetings and discussions of environmental history, and 2018 is no exception – though the format departs from my usual routine of ASEH meetings. I had the pleasure to visit a couple of exciting programs the past couple of weeks. At the end of February, I was a guest in Scott Knowles and Chuck Haas’s City of Systems course as part of Drexel University’s new Urban Strategy M.S. program.

Drexel_talkThe program is a cross-disciplinary approach to urban problems and solutions, and the course is team-taught by a historian (Scott) and environmental engineer (Chuck). As part of their module on waste, they assigned Clean and White, so I agreed to join them for a public talk and conversation with the seminar about the social and cultural dimensions to municipal waste management. The program is the kind of exciting mix of social sciences, engineering, and public policy that Carnegie Mellon in general (and Joel Tarr in particular) exposed me to during my graduate training, and I suspect the Philadelphia region will benefit greatly from its students in the years to come.

WUSTL_posterOne week later, Washington University in St. Louis hosted me as part of its Mellon Sawyer “Wastelands” Seminar. Like Drexel’s program, this seminar focuses on a set of issues investigated by scholars working in and across several disciplines. After an exciting set of rescheduled flights due to Northeastern weather, I made it to St. Louis in time for my public lecture on establishing the long history of environmental racism based on the chronology of Clean and White. That was my second event of the day; immediately after stepping off the plane, I was able to make it to campus in time for an engaging conversation with Heather O’Leary’s Environmental Anthropology class.

The following morning, I got to workshop my current research project on Newtown Creek, getting terrific feedback from the participants. Particular thanks to Nancy Reynolds and Heather O’Leary for inviting me and contextualizing my work in the seminar’s activities, Waseem-Ahmed Bin-Kasim for our conversations about urban sanitation, and Vasiliki Touhouliotis for both cogent comments on the Newtown Creek piece and handling logistics for my visit.

I particularly value these discussions because this year is a departure from my annual routine: I am missing the ASEH meeting in Riverside this year. While I am heading to California, I will be in the Bay Area for the Berkeley Journal of Criminal Law’s symposium and related events honoring Franklin Zimring’s career in criminology. Paraphrasing the Haggadah, “next year, in Columbus!” I look forward to resuming the routine in 2019.

New York Times essay on the hazards of waste work 50 years after the Memphis Strike.

We have entered the fiftieth anniversary of the Memphis Strike, and I wrote a piece for the New York Times about the hazards of waste work then and now.

The hazards facing people in this line of work have a long history — they inspired the Memphis sanitation workers’ strike of 1968. That walkout was set off in part by the deaths of two Memphis sanitation workers, Echol Cole and Robert Walker, who were crushed to death by the hydraulic press of the truck they were riding on one rainy winter evening.

The strike, whose organizers demanded higher pay, the recognition of the workers’ union and safer working conditions, is often associated with the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis the day after delivering his “Mountaintop” speech in support of striking sanitation workers. But when we think about the strike, we should also remember that half a century after his death, the work Dr. King was focused on in the last days of his life remains unfinished.

Thanks to Jenee Desmond-Harris and Clay Risen for giving me space in the paper, and Chris Kindred for the accompanying illustration.

The Dirty (and Racist) Origins of Donald Trump’s Anti-Immigrant Slur

Heck of a way to celebrate an anniversary. For the one-year mark of the Trump Administration, I look at President Trump’s rhetorical choices when discussing immigration policy with senators in my essay for the Washington Post’s Made by History blog.

President Trump didn’t choose his xenophobic slurs in a vacuum — his use of shithole or shithouse reflects the vicious racism that swept him into office and, as in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, portends tragic, inhumane, racist, exclusionary policies related to people he equates with excrement.

Thanks to Brian Rosenwald for editing and Alexandra Filindra for suggesting the piece.