March 19, 2013
Los Angeles. The land of sandy beaches, beautiful people, and most importantly beautiful weather. A city whose only worry is whether or not winter will be too warm, or too cool (a chilling 60 degrees)–or so most people think. The Los Angeles that is remembered is one of a picture perfect city, whose environmental policy is at the forefront of the nation. Yet, what many disregard is the role that politics played at the turn of the century, which forged a much different Los Angeles than what we imagine today.
As a growing major metropolis, the city’s demographic and economic growth boomed at the beginning of the 20th century, which played key factors in the degradation of the beautiful environment. Yet, the powerful politicians driving this LA political machine set aside environmental pollution controls to further their personal gain and loyalty toward corporation and utility companies (Sabin, 96). As a result, the state of the city’s environment took a back seat and became increasingly degraded by continued demographic expansion and industrialization. Because of this, air pollution from smokestacks created by industrial entities and health hazards from limited municipal garbage collection began to negatively affect many of the Los Angelinos. Unlike decision makers, who tended to be middle class Angelinos with high stakes in meeting the needs of businesses, those most affected were blue collar workers and lower middle class citizens. These citizens had high stakes in the values of their homes which were being polluted and lowered in value by the high level of pollution (Sabin, 103). Yet, even when the well-being of its people were at risk, “adverse decisions by governing agencies on how to proceed with regulation [of these pollutants] occurred in a business-oriented, technocratic, non-democratic fashion redirected at delegitimizing or even crushing counter-proposal and opposing agendas” (Keil, 308). The political power of Los Angeles emerging into a diverse metropolitan city thus took precedence time and time again over the health of its people and its environment. This further extended into the largest economic boost of Los Angeles’ history: oil production.
The political machine that existed in Los Angeles played a significant role in the development of the oil and gas industry in the city. In the early 1900s pollution was particularly bad due to the conversion of coal and petroleum into a gas. This process created pollution in the form of tar and soot, and the ever-increasing pollution severely angered homeowners in the region. At the time, the LA Gas and Electric Company had an extremely close relationship with the local government. In fact, many “ward representatives often depended on the company to provide the money, patronage, and campaign workers to retain their power” (Sabin 83). And, in return, the government helped LA Gas and Electric gain a monopoly by shutting out competitors, and did nothing to address the complaints of the local residents about the intense pollution due to the company’s work. Thus, the government was in the pocket of the gas company, and paid little to no attention to the needs of the residents and homeowners.
In 1936 Standard Oil supported a ballot proposal that would allow it to access oil underwater by drilling diagonally from land. The oil giant gained to support of the parks department and the government by convincing them that the drilling royalties could easily be used to improve state parks. Voters in LA County were strongly opposed to the proposition, but there was little they could do against the powerful lobbyists of Standard Oil, and the proposition easily passed (Elkind 87). In 1931 Standard Oil lobbied Governor Rolph to veto a bill that would transfer tidelands to the city of Huntington Beach (Sabin 104). Drilling in Huntington Beach was contributing to overproduction, which was lowering the price of oil overall. Thus, they wanted to reduce oil output in order to increase prices. Once again, Standard Oil used its economic might to lobby and convince the government to act in its favor, regardless of what was in the best interest of the environment and local residents.
As the health and environment of Los Angeles continued to fail, businesses eventually echoed their concerns for the sake of the city as a whole, primarily from deteriorating property values in the real estate trade. Simultaneously, the structure of politics within the city shifted as machine politicians were replaced by progressive reformers who were less controlled by the influence of big corporations and oil companies. As the residents of Los Angeles fought to protect their homes and the value of their environment, the political machine of Los Angeles shifted towards an agenda that demanded the protection of their coastal waters and their air from industrial pollution.
By Sophie Cottle & Victoria Chu
Elkind, Sarah S. “Oil in the City: The Fall and Rise of Oil Drilling in Los Angeles.” Journal of
American History 99.1 (2012): 82-90. Print.
Keil, Roger and Gene Desfor. “Making local environmental policy in Los Angeles.” Elsevier
(1993):Vol. 13, No. 5 pp 303-313. Print
Sabin, Paul. LAnd of Sunshine: An Environmental History of Metropolitan Los Angeles (2005):