Improving California Means Doing Some Things and Not Doing Others

As KCET begins to celebrate its 50th Anniversary, we're engaging the public in a series of conversations, starting with "How do you envision a better state?" Contributor Erin Aubry Kaplan shares her ideas below. Share yours here.


Maybe this goes without saying, but at the top of the list of what I want to see is what I don't want to see, which is California split into six states. Or three or even two, even though many people argue it's been two states, North and South, for a long time, maybe since its inception. People say that California is two states that are related but different, like the Carolinas or the Dakotas. That may be true, but the fact is that we've been one state for a long time, one known for its topographical, natural, climate and cultural diversity. California has built its reputation as the anything-possible state based on this breathtaking diversity of elements, this embarrassment of riches, and though that reputation has certainly been tarnished in the last generation, it's still standing. People still look to us as a bellwether for certain kinds of innovation and progress, and we often deliver. Why mess with that kind of mythology?

Across America, Trust is Freefalling

Recent studies claim most Americans no longer trust each other. According to recent research, nearly two-thirds of Americans say other people can't be trusted. An Associated Press-GfK survey found that most of us (75 percent) mistrust other drivers, mistrust folks who swipe our credit cards (67 percent), don't trust others on social media (59 percent), and trust politicians only part of the time (81 percent).

Frankly, I'm a little suspicious of an organization that doesn't know how to use the caps key or spell out its name.

According to something called the General Social Survey, our trust levels have fallen precipitously. In 1972, when the General Social Survey first asked if we trusted our fellow man, half of Americans did; which was pretty good considering Richard Nixon and other murky sorts were making headlines with something called Watergate. Now, apparently only a third of us trust our fellow man.

I raise the topic of trust because it comes up all the time, and we must deal with it in the manner we choose.

The other day I was walking along Main Street here in Ventura when I spotted a man sitting on a bench. He was waving his arms and barking oddities. The rest of the world (and I don't blame them) walked quickly past, as if they were G. Gordon Liddy, just summoned to the Oval Office. I stood for a moment, watching. The man bent and picked up a bag of fries, soggy and enormous. There were a lot of fries. He pulled out a handful, more like a softball, and began gnawing around the edges. I am not a private detective, but it looked to me like someone who worked at a nearby restaurant had given him the fries, and not this afternoon.

When PCH Blasted Through Point Mugu

From 1937-40, workers blasted a roadcut through Point Mugu. The rocky stub of the headlands, Mugu Rock, now appears frequently in car commercials. Undated photo courtesy of the Santa Monica Public Library Image Archives.

Today, Pacific Coast Highway passes effortlessly through Point Mugu between Oxnard and Malibu. But when highway engineers began plotting the route in 1919, the rocky promontory presented a colossal challenge.

Then, Point Mugu was a near-vertical ridge of resistant volcanic rock -- an igneous dike that in a distant epoch intruded the Topanga formation's softer sedimentary strata--standing some 150 feet tall against the pounding surf. As the westernmost tip of the Santa Monicas, it represented the last hurrah of the rugged mountain range. Just north and west of the point, the land opened up as the Oxnard Plain. (The Santa Monicas don't truly end at Point Mugu. Instead, geologists speculate, the thrust fault that gave rise to the mountains plunges beneath the waters of the Pacific only to reemerge far to the west as the northern Channel Islands.)

Point Mugu was a formidable barrier to the planned coastal highway, but California's state highway engineers attacked it with a full arsenal of geologic weapons.

First, in 1923-24, they blasted a road cut around the base of the headlands. Workers scaled the cliff with ropes and drilled a series of 30-foot holes into the rock. Into the holes went 18 tons of hand grenade powder left over from World War I and 25 tons of black blasting powder, and down came 108,000 cubic yards of rock -- much of it used as fill for the adjacent road embankments. By October 1924, a narrow road snaked around the point where waves once lashed at its stony face.

The coast highway's original alignment bent around Point Mugu where waves once lashed at its stony face. Photo from the October 1924 issue of California Highways, courtesy of the Metro Transportation Library and Archive.

Professor Money, God, and the First Book Published in Los Angeles (Maybe)

Los Angeles Star
| Photo: Courtesy USC Libraries

"San Francisco had its Philosopher Pickett, its Emperor Norton and a host of others of like ilk," wrote James M. Guinn in the 1902 annual publication of the Historical Society of Southern California. "Los Angeles had representatives of this class in its early days, but unfortunately the memory of but few of them has been salted down in the brine of history."

Guinn did fish out of history's mid-19th century pickling barrel one notable Los Angeles character in whom eccentricity and enterprise were strangely blended. He might be described as the founding father of kooky L.A. His name was William Money. He insisted that the name be pronounced "Moe-NAY."

Or maybe it was "Moe-NEE."

Study in Brown: The Mixed Messages of Water Conservation

The couple in Glendora whose brown lawn was the subject of media hyperventilating has, I hope, moved on in their lives. (The house in photo above is not theirs, by the way.) The media's fondness for irony, the public's readiness for sympathetic outrage, and the web's infinite capacity to make the outrageous ever new is going keep their story going without them. Too bad that story isn't the one you heard.

At least, that's how Glendora City Manager Chris Jeffers tells it. In a letter to California CityNews, a news site for local governments, Jeffers outlines Glendora's water conservation history and explains why conservation doesn't have to turn Glendora's lawns into dust bowls. I wish him well.

A Travel Listicle About Ventura Has Put Me Over the Edge

We inhabit a world of lists. I do not need to list them. If you read anything online in the past minute, you can cite your own example. I confess, I am not a fan of these lists. To be blunt, I think lists are lazy and shallow, requiring little effort on the part of the writer, or the reader. Let me ask you; read a list of "30 Things to Love and See in Amsterdam," and, five minutes later, how many of the items do you recall, discounting the ones related to the red light district?

My personal distaste for lists is not affecting their pace. Lists are everywhere, and they show no sign of abating. I confess I have written my share of lists. Editors assign them, and I write them to put food on the table. I try my best to make them accurate, and I attempt to toss in an item or two that might enhance the reader's world, but honestly, it is hard to convey much of merit in four sentences.

I have a particular gripe with travel/destination lists. I address this particular genre of list for two reasons. Let me list them. One, I believe these lists are the antithesis of true travel. Two, yesterday someone brought yet another destination list to my attention. In the vast deluge of lists, this one caught my attention because it was about my hometown.

"30 Things You Need to Know About Ventura Before You Move There," addressed, surprise, 30 things you ostensibly need to know about my hometown before you move here. In the interest of honest journalism, I must say I commenced my reading already biased: any piece of writing sponsored by a real estate company ("Movoto. Real Estate Made Easy") makes me both skeptical and nervous.

For a Better State, Give Local Government What It Needs

As KCET begins to celebrate its 50th Anniversary, we're engaging the public in a series of conversations, starting with "How do you envision a better state?" Contributor DJ Waldie shares his ideas below. Share yours here.


All the boom times that inflated our desires and our demands have ended. The California good life that millions took for granted for so long belongs mostly to digital billionaires. And the billionaires want to set up their own insular state -- the ultimate in Californian narcissism.

For the rest of us, the hope is for enough of the California Dream to make fit lives for ourselves and our children.

Better government for California is tangled in that incoherent expectation. I call it incoherent because the several historical strands that have made up California politics since the 1970s have never resolved what government is supposed to be. And yet, California's voters are asked every election season to pass on constitutional initiatives that redefine how government will realize the California Dream.

Enjoying Work, Whether Fast Food in Ventura or an Elevator on Wilshire

To Serve Man: Why Not a Little Fun?

The other day, I decided to eat breakfast at a local establishment familiar to everyone. Said establishment is familiar to my wife, too. I hope she doesn't read this because she will certainly ask me why I didn't eat a perfectly good breakfast at home, to which my only legitimate reply would be our breakfast foods don't contain a fistful of salt with each serving. Now and again we all deserve a little additional spice, made spicier by sneaking around.

Just in case there was someone inside that might report to my wife, I conducted my purchase via the drive through.

A chipper voice welcomed me and took my order.

When I came to the window, the chipper voice proved to be a young man of maybe 18. Regarding me through round glasses, he smiled pleasantly, took my money, put it in the register, and turned to some paperwork by his side.

I watched him. It occurred to me that this could be a dangerous game, as a hungry customer can be a volatile customer. It would not surprise me to learn that customers have come through the window for less, although I have no doubt this particular fast food chain sizes not only their meals but their windows, then further ensures employee safety by supersizing their customers.

What Flattened the Top of Mt. Lee (of Hollywood Sign Fame)?

The Hollywood Sign stands on the face of Mount Lee, a 1,708-foot peak in the Hollywood Hills. 1960 photo courtesy of the Security Pacific National Bank Collection - Los Angeles Public Library.

A monument to a failed dream frames the Hollywood Sign. Behind the landmark letters rises the 1,708-foot summit of Mount Lee, a hilltop whose flatness is no geologic anomaly, no wayward mesa from the Southwest. Instead, it's the remnant of a movie mogul's abandoned plan to build the grandest mansion in Los Angeles.

One of the highest peaks in the eastern Santa Monica Mountains, Mount Lee originally sported a rounded top. A narrow ridge connected the then-unnamed summit to nearby Cahuenga and Burbank peaks; together, they were known as the Three Sisters.

In 1923, a real estate syndicate christened the peak Mount Hollywoodland and opened at its base Hollywoodland -- a housing subdivision advertised in white block letters fifty feet tall. Among the developers was Mack Sennett -- a pioneering filmmaker best known for slapstick comedies like the Keystone Kops -- who reserved for himself an 18-acre mountaintop parcel where he hoped to build his dream house.

And what a dream it was. From the mountaintop, Sennett could see and be seen; he would enjoy commanding views of the entire city, and as the only structure on the crest of the Hollywood Hills, his house would become a conspicuous landmark. Plans by architect John L. DeLario placed a dining room, living room, drawing room, library, conservatory, kitchen, servant's quarters, and a butler's pantry all on the first floor. On the second floor, in addition Sennett's own apartment, would be four guest rooms and a suite of rooms for Sennett's mother. Outside were terraced Italian gardens, a 2,800-square-foot swimming pool with a sand beach, and a paddock with easy access to a bridle path that wound its way through Griffith Park. The design recalled a hodgepodge of Mediterranean influences, which the boosterish Los Angeles Times praised as "a new architectural style characteristic of Southern California and the sun-splashed hills and valleys." The total cost? One million dollars.

To create space for such a palace, workers would have to shave off the top of Mount Hollywoodland. By December of 1925, steam shovels were tearing into the mountain's sedimentary rock, shortening the peak by 69 feet, flattening four level acres at the summit, and carving a winding driveway that linked up with the Mulholland Highway.

But soon after the initial grading was complete, progress stalled. Then the stock market crash of 1929 wiped out much of Sennett's fortune, once valued at $15 million, further delaying construction. Finally in 1933, bankruptcy forced Sennett to abandon his plans. Others would find a use for the leveled hilltop -- in 1939, broadcaster Tommy Lee purchased the site, renamed the mountain after his father Don Lee, and installed L.A.'s first television studio there -- but the curiously flat mountain remains the legacy of a vanquished dream, a counterargument to the Hollywood Sign's alluring promise.

Hot Town: The Shape of Los Angeles and the 'Heat Island' Effect

Hot Enough?
| Photo from MS Gallery

For more than a hundred years, researchers have measured daytime and nighttime temperatures that are consistently higher in cities than in the surrounding countryside. This is the "urban heat island" effect caused, it is said, by the concentration of structures, hard surfaces, people, and the heat-generating mechanical systems that allow cities to survive.

Depending on geography and climate, the nighttime temperature of an urban core can be as much as 22 degrees warmer than its rural fringe.

A new study by Yale researchers has clues to why daytime temperatures are higher downtown, with implications for how Los Angeles may fare as average temperatures rise and the city's landscape is reshaped by development, drought, and public policy.