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'Even Our Palm Trees Are Cooler'

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This image essay is a contribution to Incendiary Traces, a conceptually driven, community generated art project conceived by artist Hillary Mushkin. Incendiary Traces is holding a series of site-specific draw-ins, which will take place across Southern California in the coming months, as well as collecting related historical and contemporary materials, like this image essay. Artbound is following the draw-ins and publishing related materials as the project develops.

This photograph was shot in Los Angeles in 1889. Within a decade, L.A.'s fifty-thousand-strong population will double, and all of the primary growth-drivers are represented in this frame. Namely: the railroad, real estate, and the conjuring that historian Kevin Starr describes as "studied self-invention and exotic possibilities.

The workers posing for the camera are moving a mature palm tree to the front of Arcade Station, Southern Pacific Railroad's (SPRR) new transcontinental terminus. Shortly before the picture was taken, the area under scrutiny had been the Wolfskill family citrus grove. William Wolfskill had originated the Valencia orange, but by the time represented in this image, he is dead and his children have given part of the grove to Southern Pacific and subdivided the rest for sale.

All of this is here, but what we're really looking at is the positioning of a weapon in a process of deterritorialization and reterritorialization; the positioning of an incendiary device that will help to clear-burn what's left of L.A.'s Spanish-speaking power base and make more room for the white Anglos.

Beginning in the 1870s, Southern Pacific Railroad funded elaborate advertising campaigns that were intended to transform the public's perception of Southern California. Most particularly, the railroad wanted to persuade prosperous Americans from the Midwest and the East Coast that California was neither a wild frontier nor the rough mining society of the Gold Rush era, but a fertile, semi-tropical wonderland.

To this end, Southern Pacific published pamphlets, advertisements, and tracts, including Semi-Tropic magazine, and sent trains full of local produce and live trees across the country. The expansive marketing quickly wove Southern California into the public imaginary as a place abundant with palm trees and semi-tropical fruit. And our palm tree, the first sight that visitors saw on setting foot into Los Angeles, served to substantiate the Semi-Tropic propaganda.

However, there was a problem. While the propaganda of the 1870s had led visitors and prospective affluent settlers to require palm trees of Southern California, by 1889 SPRR had calibrated the propaganda to a different narrative. For there was something rather louche in earlier Anglo perceptions of the tropics, something a little too fecund perhaps; something that historian Douglas Casaux Sackman describes as "a wild, defiant luxuriance, which could never be subdued by industry."ii

Perhaps this is why our Semi-Tropic tree had to be fenced in - not merely to protect it from passing traffic, but to subdue the metaphor and render it safe?

It is almost certainly the reason why Southern Pacific began to shift its marketing emphasis away from tropicality. In this advertisement of 1876, for example, California was already being depicted as a cornucopia - a symbol of abundance from classical antiquity that would have been reassuringly familiar to SPRR's intended audiences - in which a pear and a peach improbably dwarf a (tropical) pineapple.

Although the palm tree and its tropical referent did not go away, like the pineapple their stature diminished. By the time California's State Legislature appropriated $300,000 for "the purpose of displaying the products of California at Chicago," SPRR had successfully positioned California as a fruitful, cultivated garden; a place of abundance rather than of potential abandon.

In the California Building at the Chicago World's Fair - also known as the World's Columbian Exposition - "exhibits in pomology, floriculture, horticulture, and arboriculture" were "the wonder and admiration of all nations." The exhibitors kept up "a continual fruit display, something that has never been attempted at any fair before,"iii and the State represented itself as a young white woman striding forth across the palms.

Bristling with neo-classical and agricultural symbols - including a liberty cap, a star-topped crown, an olive branch, a shield featuring Minerva Goddess of Wisdom, ears of wheat and corn, and bunches of grapes - Rupert Schmid's sculpture (above) exemplified the subjugation of all that was "tropic" to the apparent order and values of Western Europe's classical heritage.

A similarly star-topped incarnation strides forth in American Progress, John Gast's widely reproduced allegory of Manifest Destiny, painted in 1872. Here Columbia, the female personification of America, leads "civilization" west, stringing telegraph wire as she goes, and chasing the country's native residents out of the frame.

Southern Pacific Railroad and its fellow boosters, including its later partners the Citrus Growers Association (which became Sunkist), were massive contributors to a teleological fable of progress that both stimulated and justified the destruction of native and Californio society. The fable went something like this: With its perfect climate and fertile soil, California has the capacity to be a second Garden of Eden. However, the natives do not tend the land and the Californios have let it languish. Only hardworking Anglo-Saxon Americans can bring the land to its full productivity and grow here the second Garden of Eden a Protestant god intends.

The idea of pushing "foreign bodies" out of the picture takes a slightly more scatological turn with this "Prune Horse," which featured in both the California Building at the Chicago World's Fair, and the California Midwinter Exposition of 1894. "Mailed cap-a-pie with the desiccated products of Santa Clara orchards,"iv the life-sized horse and its rider "metaphorically" demonstrated that California's prunes were "being introduced victoriously into all lands, to the discomfiture of the products of other countries."v

A strange amalgam of mercantilism and religious expeditionary forces, the prune knight crusaded around the country on behalf of a narrative of white supremacy, for a city and county that came to be marketed as "the white spot of America."vi It propagandized on behalf of a fiction that "implied the domination of civilization over nature, Christianity over heathenism, progress over backwardness, and, most importantly, of white Americans over the Mexican and Indian population that stop in their path."vii It is perhaps not surprising therefore that Los Angeles boasted five times as many white Anglo residents in 1890 than it had had a decade earlier.

Why was Southern Pacific Railroad, a transportation corporation, so keen to pump out PR on behalf of California? As this 1882 cartoon suggests, "the Octopus" as it was known, was not primarily concerned with transport. Southern Pacific had tentacles everywhere - telecommunications, finance, agriculture, shipping, lumber - but its primary interest was land.

SPRR began life in 1865 as a land holding company. Railroad building was an excellent way to acquire land at this time because the private rail networks received massive public subsidies in the form of land grants to build the nationwide railroad infrastructure. Southern Pacific acquired almost seven million acres of public land, along with their natural resources and development potential, which the railroad stimulated aggressively.

Combined with a price war that dropped cross-country train tickets from $125 to $12 and even, for a time, $1, the aggressive boosting prompted a real estate boom. $100 million changed hands through LA County real estate transactions in 1887 alone. (Almost two and a half billion dollars in today's money.)

The boom not only fed Southern Pacific Railroad's profit margin, however; it also served to break up the big estates that remained in Mexican-American hands and redistribute them to majority Anglo ownership.

The process had begun in 1848 when Mexico, which had controlled the area since taking over from Spain in 1821, ceded Alta California to the United States at the end of the U.S.-Mexican War. The change of ownership led to the establishment of a Land Commission, which required all holders of Spanish and Mexican land grants to prove their land title according to U.S. law.

The result was an uncomfortable meeting between the US and Mexican legal systems. To name just a few of the problems litigants encountered: language barriers were expensive and time consuming to surmount, in most cases landholdings were not defined by surveys of the kind required by U.S. law but by "diseños", and American judges were largely unfamiliar with Mexican inheritance law.

A combination of these challenges with some possibly intentional foot-dragging, and the interruption of the American Civil War (1861-65), saw court cases take an average of 17 years to conclude. Californio litigants were often forced to sell or barter their land in exchange for legal, translation, and surveyor services, and even those whose land grants were confirmed - the majority - often found themselves destitute.

This lithograph depicts the Wolfskill citrus orchard. At seventy acres it was the largest in Southern California, but still a fraction of the size of one of the large land grants by which, in an earlier process of territorialization, the Spanish and Mexican governments had encouraged non-native settlers to populate Alta California.

The Arcade Station was built on just over 12 acres of land that Maria Francisca Wolfskill and her brother Joseph gave to the Southern Pacific Railroad. It replaced the adobe home of their parents, William Wolfskill and Magdalena Lugo.

Today the Arcade Station is long gone, and probably the palm tree too. Their place is taken by the intersection of 5th Street and Central Avenue, the eastern edge of Skid Row. It is just possible that the tree has survived however. In 1984 the last remaining tree from the Wolfskill orchards - a grapefruit - was discovered growing behind an empty building about a half a mile away from here. Is the foliage we see behind the Catch 21 Seafood Restaurant our palm tree?...

...Maybe not, but the mythos it supported persists...

...And not far away, inside a coffee shop...

...boosterism keeps the semi-tropic heat alive.

Notes:

i Kevin Starr: Inventing the Dream: California through the Progressive Era; Oxford University Press USA, 1986

ii Douglas Cazaux Sackman: Orange Empire: California and the Fruits of Eden, University of California Press, 2005

iii From the speech of J.M. Samuels, Chief of the Department of Horticulture, at the dedication of the California Building, June 19, 1893, excerpted in Final Report of the California World's Fair Commission: Including a Description of All Exhibits from the State of California, Collected and Maintained Under Legislative Enactments, at the World's Columbian Exposition, Chicago, 1893; by the California World's Fair Commission

iv California World's Fair Commission: Final Report of the California World's Fair Commission: Including a Description of All Exhibits from the State of California, Collected and Maintained Under Legislative Enactments, at the World's Columbian Exposition, Chicago, 1893

v Brochure of the World's Columbian Exposition, 1893 referenced in Cazaux Sackman

vi John Buntin: L.A. Noir: The Struggle for the Soul of America's Most Seductive City, Random House, 2010

vii Tomás Almaguer: Racial Fault Lines: The Historical Origins of White Supremacy in California, University of California Press, 1994

Incendiary Traces considers the political nature of representing the palm-dotted southern California landscape. It focuses on our landscape as a tool for understanding seemingly remote wars, particularly in similarly subtropical areas where the U.S. is involved, for example, the Middle East, Latin America and North Africa. Visit Incendiary Traces for more information. If you're interested in contributing or participating in Incendiary Traces, read the Call for Submissions.

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