I Don't Have Much Money, But I Just Spent it All on My Dog

My oldest dog, Toby. | Photo: Erin Aubry Kaplan

I've been claiming working-poor status for a while now, one of millions of Americans who not only are earning below their capabilities, but who are becoming more convinced every month that they'll never have full-time employment again. Full-time employment is not the only road to success or security, of course -- there are screenwriters and actors and other creative sorts who do more than okay for themselves, and they're happy to boot. They actually have a vocation, not just a job or work.

But these people have a certain social status, and more importantly, they have unions. As a writer -- not screenwriter, alas -- I have neither. On good days I feel reasonably allied with the Hollywood scribes -- we're all freelancers with good ideas, drinking post-breakfast coffee at noon -- but most often I feel part of the black middle class that had a brief moment of upward mobility, unraveled a few stitches in a bad economy, and have not knit back together. I might never. If it wasn't for my husband, a full-time public high school teacher with 37 years in the business and counting, I hate to think how much I would have unraveled by now.

Monte Mar Vista: Luxury Homes With a View (of an Oil Derrick)

Standard Oil provoked a considerable uproar among real estate interests when it built this wildcat oil well next to a new, luxury housing tract in 1927. Courtesy of the USC Libraries - Dick Whittington Photography Collection.

Its promoters billed it as an exceptional housing tract -- buried utility lines, curving concrete roads, and a hilltop site whose ocean views gave the subdivision its name: Monte Mar Vista. With country clubs bordering it on three sides, residents of the so-called "central jewel in a Tiffany setting" could easily play nine holes before breakfast. There was only one problem with the promoters' claims. Just as the first residents began moving into their English Tudor and Spanish Colonial homes in 1927, a steel oil derrick suddenly rose nearby, marring their views.

A wildcat well next to a housing development was nothing special; oil companies were drilling across the Southland to find new petroleum deposits. Most communities were powerless to fight back, even as forests of derricks crowded their homes. But the well-heeled residents of Monte Mar Vista -- today part of L.A.'s Cheviot Hills neighborhood -- had the political muscle to elbow out oil operations.

The derrick stood inside an otherwise picturesque ravine. Cattle still grazed on the land, a 320-acre tract leased by Standard Oil, but the steel structure compromised Monte Mar Vista's bucolic atmosphere and raised questions about noise and air pollution should the well strike black gold.

Before Standard Oil could turn its drill, Fred W. Forrester, a sales agent for Monte Mar Vista who also lived on one of the subdivision's choice lots, filed suit. Joined by other real estate interests and two neighboring country clubs, Forrester obtained a temporary injunction against Standard Oil. As the litigation unfolded, the city rescinded a zoning variance it had issued to allow drilling on the site. Standard Oil and the landowner, May Rindge's Marblehead Land Company, countered with a federal lawsuit that slowly worked its way up to the U.S. Supreme Court. But by 1931 the housing developers had won. The derrick came down, and the residents' views were restored -- until the ravine and hills became home to their own suburban housing tracts.

Drumlines and Tassels: Black History as Everyone's History in Riverside

Photo: Douglas McCulloh

It's all about the tassels. The tassels on the boots of the drill teams who strut down Riverside's Market Street in formation, their short skirts swaying from side to side, their smiles wide and their crisp salutes to the crowds lining the sidewalks cheering for them. The drumline behind them, making the whole crowd dance to the primal beat of wood and skin.

The San Bernardino Pacesetters, founded way back in 1959 to instill pride and culture and joy and practice to black girls in San Bernardino; the drill team of Desert Highlands Unity Center in Palm Springs, formed 30 years ago for the same reasons. The Greater Victory Church of God in Christ (also San Bernardino) sent a drill team with three age groups, from tiny new marchers to women of a certain age, all dressed in feathers and flowing dashikis to honor Carter G. Woodson. This is the Riverside Black History Parade, the 35th Annual event begun by Dell Roberts in this Southern California city to honor not only national black history, but our own local heroes.

And Roberts is one. He was the Grand Marshal of this parade, after 35 years of walking the route, organizing all the entries, and starting the whole thing, way back in 1980, with two young women -- heads of their Black Student Unions at Riverside Poly and JW North High. (He did this while working three jobs, and raising three sons, as I wrote about in a previous story.)

Chinese New Year Is Everyone's New Year

A lion dance troupe parades through L.A.''s Chinatown as part of the Chinese New Year celebration.
| Photo: Elson Trinidad

Happy New Year, everyone.

Even though we're already some 40 days into 2014, and we've already flipped the calendar to the second month, it's definitely time to ring in the new year again -- Chinese New Year, that is.

Also known as the Lunar New Year due to coinciding with the new moon, it's intended to mark the coming of the spring season in China, an important time when Chinese society was primarily agrarian, establishing a tradition that has been established for several centuries. It's also celebrated in other Asian countries (namely Vietnam, where it's known as Tet), and observed all over the Chinese diaspora in communities worldwide.

And since Chinese New Year lasts not one day but two weeks, we're still in the midst of the holiday, ending with the Lantern Festival on February 14 (plus, local Chinese New Year festivities last well into late February).

Being how multicultural Southern California is, we can probably consider Chinese New Year to be everyone's New Year as well.

Trees Are Like Children, and Children Are Like Life

| Adapted Photo: rcrowley/Flickr/Creative Commons License

Early this morning I went for a walk, that lovely time of day when the sun has just risen and the light is soft, as if it is tentatively testing the day and deciding whether to stay.

I was happy to be walking, because it is a gift to be able to take your own steps. I was also happy because it is February and most of the country is lucky to get out their front door.

I was happy, too, because I passed many trees. We are fortunate to live in a neighborhood of trees. I know everyone is not so lucky. I have visited tree-less places. There is something missing beside the obvious. But it's also true that so many times I don't notice our trees, busy as I am going about some forgetful task. I don't think I'm alone in this. We often ignore the things that matter.

But on this morning I was just walking, and so the trees loomed large and small in my eyes and my mind.

History Lessens: The Story of Black People in America Continues to Fade

When I was growing up, our family had a set of encyclopedias -- Britannica, of course -- that lined about a bookshelf and a half. Those books, and the dictionary, were my portal into just about everything I wanted to know, each alphabetized volume an obliging and endless fount of answers for almost every question I had in the pre-Google age. I actually learned less by looking things up than by sitting and browsing through a randomly chosen book and stopping on whatever caught my eye; it's how I learned about the constellations of stars and how they corresponded to the signs of the zodiac, the workings of the brain, the various breeds of dogs and horses. I liked the visuals, too, the photographs of famous people like FDR, the illustrations of Ursa Major in the night sky, the detailed maps overlaid with skins of plastic.

One thing I often wondered about was how certain entries got more space than others. Sometimes it was obvious -- I understood why New York City, which my 1964 edition trumpeted as "probably the greatest city in the world," filled more pages than Los Angeles, which was more or less described as impressively large and ambitious, fascinating to a point but culturally inconsequential. But sometimes the reasons weren't apparent, or they weren't to my 10-year-old mind, in which case I just assumed that cancer was more important than diabetes, FDR more illustrious a president than Millard Fillmore, and so on. Our encyclopedias were accessible but also authoritative, and I believed that however they emphasized information was how that information should be emphasized, or not. I relied on them to order my world.

But there was one entry I happened upon in M-N-O volume that I couldn't make sense of at all: Negro. I remember staring at the page (I don't think the entry was much longer than that) with a mixture of fascination, pride, puzzlement, and downright embarrassment that I had never felt before.

Drought by the Numbers: Where Does California Water Go?

Either, Or.
| Illustration assembled from rights-free image and photo by Bert Kaufmann/Flickr/Creative Commons License

California's water budget is skewed heavily toward agriculture. The conventional estimate is that 80 percent of the water used in California flows into the state's multi-billion-dollar agricultural sector.

The 20 percent left for urban use is split between homes, businesses, and government.

About 6 percent of the state's water is consumed by industries, commercial operations, and governments. About 14 percent is poured into bathtubs, toilets, and washing machines or sprayed over residential lawns.

But there are statewide differences in the volume of residential water use, with divergent patterns of consumption based on climate, water system efficiency, and conservation efforts. In this season of drought, some communities are faring better than others because some water providers have done more -- and for longer -- to cut per capita water use and expand water storage.

Central Basin Municipal Water District in More Hot Water

The board of directors of the troubled Central Basin Municipal Water District in Southeast Los Angeles County is up to its neck in debt, lawsuits, criminal investigations, political rivalries, and unanswered questions about the district's present -- and past -- odd behavior.

Already linked to the FBI investigation digging into state Senator Ron Calderon's finances, the CBMWD is scrambling to account for almost $3 million in district funds. The effort to untangle the mess around a controversial groundwater storage plan has cost the district at least $300,000 in legal fees so far.

Photos: When Orange County Was Rural (And Oranges Actually Grew There)

Citrus trees in Placentia, 1961. Photo courtesy of the Orange County Archives.

Orange County hardly lives up to its name1 anymore. A few relict orchards may survive, but today the endless citrus groves that once clothed the county in green are only a memory.

Before a postwar population boom triggered an almost wholesale conversation of farmland to suburbia, much of Orange County appeared decidedly rural. In 1948, a vast forest of five million Valencia orange trees grew on 67,000 acres2 -- but the county's sprawling ranches supported more than just citriculture. Dairy farms dominated the Orange County's northern reaches, while in the south cattle grazed on the rolling hills of vast estates like the Irvine Ranch and Rancho Mission Viejo. Elsewhere, farmers cultivated celery, walnuts, lima beans, and sugar beets. Berries were common, too; the Knott's Berry Farm amusement park began as a roadside fruit stand on an actual berry farm.

In 1950, Orange County was a network of modest towns surrounded by fields and rangeland, home to roughly 216,000 people. Highways and interurban rail lines connected the area to the growing metropolis to the northwest, but Orange County still played the role of country to Los Angeles' city. Then L.A.'s suburban growth began spilling over the county line, and new master-planned communities in the Garden City tradition sprang from once-agricultural lands. By 1990, Orange County's population had exploded to 2.4 million, and the area had developed into a semiautonomous, "postsuburban" region--a social transformation mirrored in the physical landscape.

Much of Los Angeles County witnessed similar change, but in Orange County -- as in the Inland Empire -- the metamorphosis was recent and sudden enough that longtime residents still remember when office parks were strawberry fields, housing tracts were open pastures, and twelve-lane superhighways were quiet country roads.

Memories fade, but the photographic collections of the Orange County Archives -- a rich trove of more than a million historical images -- more permanently preserve visions of Orange County's rural past. The Archives have made the highlights freely available through Flickr and have digitized tens of thousands more.

1 In fact, Orange County's name was first proposed long before oranges became the area's dominant crop.

2 Two new books tell the story of Southern California's oranges in detail: Jared Farmer's "Trees in Paradise: A California History" and David Boulé's forthcoming "The Orange and the Dream of California."

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