The Politics of Concrete

David Helps


When Mike Davis thought about California, he thought about concrete. In 1998, the state’s most famous radical not named Angela took the stage at the founding conference of Critical Resistance, the Los Angeles prison abolition organization, and held up a hunk of his driveway. To a kid in the 1950s, “this is what the California Dream was made of,” Davis regaled the audience. In those days, concrete embodied the postwar promise of liberal capitalism: “great dams,” good union jobs, and tuition-free colleges. Now, Davis looked at his prop and saw “something rather sinister.” Concrete meant the prison-industrial complex—and the life-affirming investments that mass incarceration had crowded out. “Each of those prisons,” lamented Davis, “is a school or a hospital that’ll never be built.”

If public works are the material expression of political priorities, then we can learn a lot about a place from what gets built. Davis’s focus was on prisons, as the antithesis of the colorblind “California Dream” he grew up on in Fontana, a steel town fifty miles east of Los Angeles. But follow the concrete into another outlying region, and the relationship between race, infrastructure, and abandonment becomes even more tangible.

Beginning in the 1960s and accelerating after the election of Tom Bradley in 1973, the City of Los Angeles transformed its port from a lowly backwater into the nation’s “gateway to the Pacific Rim.” The San Pedro Bay Port Complex—an amalgamation of the facilities in L.A. and neighboring Long Beach—is today the busiest port in the Western hemisphere. Its growth stands as a triumph of political imagination, made possible by concrete and other raw materials. In the port’s shadow, however, live some of L.A.’s poorest and most marginalized communities. Places like the aptly named Harbor Gateway: a thin ribbon that links inland Los Angeles to the harbor region to the south. What might this area—the gateway to the gateway to the world—teach us about the struggle against inequality under global urban capitalism?

L.A.’s port was not always so central to the city’s economy and self-image. Its turbocharged expansion under Tom Bradley was part of the mayor’s larger project to make Los Angeles a “world city”—a powerhouse of global capitalism. Bradley’s L.A. sat at the vanguard of what liberal technophiles called the “New Economy”: a growth machine organized around finance, high-tech, and logistics, unlike the industrial factories of the Northeast and Midwest. The rising cohort of New Democrats, which included Bill Clinton, Al Gore, and California governor Jerry Brown, saw the financial sector and Silicon Valley as potential sources of inclusive economic development, as historian Lily Geismer documents in Left Behind: The Democrats’ Failed Attempt to Solve Inequality.

To proponents and critics alike, the emergent New Economy conjured images of an ethereal world of fictitious capital and instant communications. But even Gore’s notion of the internet as an “information superhighway” nodded to an earlier era of public works and the retrograde California Dream built by New Deal liberals and unions.

Rhetorically and literally, the “New Economy” was still grounded in specific places and structures, as L.A.’s logistics sector made clear. Through containerization, California ports rapidly rationalized and standardized their operations. The volume of containerized cargo passing through Los Angeles more than quadrupled in the 1980s, from 476,000 “cans” in 1981 to over two million in 1989. The cost of shipping from Asia dropped by as much as 60 percent. Today, L.A.’s is the busiest port in the Americas and ranks ninth worldwide.

L.A. was hardly a passive recipient of cheapened trade and a shifting national economy. Mayor Tom Bradley frequently travelled to Pacific Rim nations, including Japan, Korea, China, Taiwan, and Singapore to drum up foreign business.  With each trade junket and sister city, L.A. became more embedded in the Pacific world of shipping. (Hosting the 1984 Summer Olympics didn’t hurt, either.)

“What develops in the outer fields of Los Angeles and other megacities,” writes activist and scholar Charmaine Chua, “is an architecture of urban capitalism that has shifted away from ‘public works’—infrastructure as a public good—and toward remaking the globe as a logistical leviathan.” The restructuring of the U.S. economy, in other words, can be understood in terms of the things that governments built, and the places that were allowed to languish.

Much of the wealth of the port must also pass through Harbor Gateway—a working-class, mostly Latinx community in the area known as Southeast L.A. Viewed on any map, Harbor Gateway is an odd, twisted ribbon of land, about eight miles long and four blocks wide. It’s the city’s “umbilical cord,” as the L.A. Times once put it. Without this narrow stretch, Los Angeles would be cut off from its port. And yet, its residents have never received their fair share of the wealth that passes through the city’s bloodstream.

Harbor Gateway (blue-green) connects Los Angeles (neon green) to the San Pedro Bay port region. Map created by the author with Social Explorer.

Harbor Gateway is a cartographic contrivance, and because of this, it’s also a jurisdictional orphan: some of its homes fall within the tortured polygon of Los Angeles, while others lie in unincorporated L.A. County. Historically, this has allowed officials in both governments to take on, or skirt, responsibility. It’s often made Harbor Gateway a “No Man’s Land,” with neither the city nor county eager to meet the needs of its working-class Latinx community.

This and other overlooked areas have not benefitted from L.A.’s logistics revolution. But to say Harbor Gateway has been “left behind” would be incomplete. As Geismer argues, policymakers’ worries about those Americans whom globalization “left behind” has reinforced the belief that pockets of poverty and unemployment are exceptions to national economic growth, as opposed to features of economic restructuring. In historical terms, the fate of Southeast L.A. is closely linked to the rise of logistics via the process that Ruth Wilson Gilmore calls “organized abandonment.” While policymakers built up the logistics leviathan, Southeast L.A. lost many of the resources—including decent jobs and housing, well-funded schools, and healthy environments—that allow people to live meaningful lives.

In the ’70s and ’80s, a wave of factory shutdowns hit Southeast L.A. hard. Between 1978 and 1982 alone, more than 75,000 manufacturing jobs disappeared from the area south of downtown. There was Bethlehem Steel in Vernon, Firestone Tire & Rubber in Commerce, and the Ford assembly plant in Pico Rivera. In South Gate, General Motors closed a plant that had opened in 1936 and built tanks during World War II.

With the decline of factory work, Los Angeles became reoriented around the port. “Logistics,” Chua observes, “became a viable antidote to deindustrialization.” But this involved an infrastructural trade-off. On one hand, new jobs sprang up in trucking and warehouse work. On the other hand, communities near the port must live with the environmental consequences: diesel fumes, noise pollution, and chemical spills among them. In the early 2000s, researchers determined that the port complex was the largest air polluter in Southern California, emitting the equivalent of sixteen thousand tractor-trailers idling 24 hours a day.

With pollution comes serious hazards to public health. Chua describes the considerable ecological and health problems associated with logistics, which include elevated rates of cancer, asthma, heart disease, and depression. In many of these places, however, the etiology of serious illness can be hard to pinpoint. From 1947 until 1982, Harbor Gateway was home to Montrose Chemical, the nation’s largest manufacturer of the notorious pesticide DDT. The plant remains an active Superfund site; in some areas, DDT levels exceed 700,000 parts per million.

For years, Montrose also dumped barrels of “acid sludge”—totally legally—just off-shore. As many as half a million lay on the ocean floor, according to a Los Angeles Times investigation.

There was no golden age of capitalism in Southeast L.A. The California Dream served to mask corporate abuse and regulatory neglect—a “heavy industrial heritage,” as the journalist and activist David Bacon once put it. But the abandonment of places like Harbor Gateway has also intensified in times of austerity. Longstanding ecological violence is exacerbated by an approach to governing that privileges the logistics sector above all else. The human costs of that choice—cancer, respiratory damage, heart disease—are well documented. This makes Southeast L.A. the underbelly of global capitalism—of cities’ reliance on logistics amid grave social and environmental harms. Behind the promise of the just-in-time supply chain is a world of slow violence and premature death, distributed through racial and spatial disadvantage.

 

La Montaña in Huntington Park before it was dismantled. Source: Communities for a Better Environment website.

In the 1990s, Southeast L.A.’s toxic inheritance became impossible to contain. In 1991, Park Avenue Elementary School in the city of Cudahy was forced to close for a year after reeking petroleum waste began to ooze up through the playground. After the 1994 Northridge earthquake, a company called Aggregate Recycling Systems moved some of the rubble to Huntington Park, an almost entirely Latinx community and one of L.A.’s “Gateway Cities.” Neighbors came up with a nickname for the 150-foot pile: La Montaña.

Concrete is, by some estimates, the second-most consumed material on earth, after water. If the industry were a country, scholar Vyta Pivo writes, “it would be the third largest polluter on the planet.” To officials in tax-strapped Huntington Park, however, ARS represented a welcome source of city revenue. Neighbors saw it differently. For one thing, the dust was inescapable. Linda Esperanza Marquez described the persistent, foul taste it left in her throat; her Sisyphean struggle to keep the house clean. “You wipe off your furniture, and an hour later it feels gritty again.”

Then there was the noise. The sound of trucks unloading—from six in the morning until seven at night—was punishing. “It used to be quiet here,” Esperanza Marquez maintained. “Now I feel as though being in my house is like being in prison.”

More than being bothersome, the dust was also dangerous. Every day, La Montaña released harmful particulates into the skies of Huntington Park. Residents complained about chronic nosebleeds and breathing problems, but it was difficult to demonstrate that the rubble was responsible. The airborne particulate matter was invisible to the eye, and most politicians were not inclined to listen to residents’ demands that the dust be studied. This made La Montaña an edifice of infrastructural racism: a source of slow violence that was impossible to ignore, even as its impact was difficult to detect.

That didn’t stop Esperanza Marquez or her neighbors. People in Huntington Park began to organize with the help of Communities for a Better Environment, a statewide organization with roots in the 1970s environmental movement. After months of protest by neighbors, the city agreed to test the air quality in the area. By the end of 1994, the city had also delayed approving an extension for ARS’s permit. Within two years, La Montaña was declared a nuisance, and the work of removing the rubble began.

The Huntington Park campaign shone a spotlight on environmental racism in Southeast L.A. In 1995, CBE organizers began giving “toxic tours” to some of the worst environmental offenders in the area. Over the years, these came to include the locations of major victories: refineries, power plants, and recyclers that were blocked, shut down, or subjected to new forms of regulation. “These poor Latina women are slaying more Goliaths than Al Gore or Leonardo DiCaprio,” a CBE organizer remarked in 2010.

Few of those victories stand out like the defeat of La Montaña, the location of which has been utterly transformed. In 2013, the Los Angeles Unified School District opened a high school on the site. It’s a testament to the power of local organizers, and to one “poor Latina” in particular. With its name, Linda Marquez High School carries forward the memory of the resident-turned-activist, who compared La Montaña’s noise and dust to being in prison. Not only is the former toxic mound now a school, but it’s named for the woman of color who led the charge to topple it.

In 2020, a Delta jet bound for LAX made an emergency landing on the playground of Park Avenue Elementary—the same playground where petroleum waste bubbled up in 1991. At least nine adults and 20 children were hit by raining jet fuel. Later that year, the city’s mayor, Elizabeth Alcantar, announced she was running for the local board that regulates air pollution. She’s now running for the California Assembly with the support of labor and environmental groups, including CBE.

Clearly, much work remains to be done to overcome organized abandonment. But the relationship between Southeast L.A. and the logistics leviathan is easily obscured by the abstracted way in which “globalization” is often discussed, even on the left. The ethereal dimensions of urban life in a global age are easily taken for granted. Think of Marshall Berman’s 1982 classic, All That is Solid Melts into Air, which takes the famed quotation from Marx as its title. In Huntington Park, activists in fact reversed Marx’s dictum, turning a source of deadly dust into a new school.

Thinking concretely, materially, highlights the specific social and ecological battles faced by places like Southeast L.A. When he waved his piece of concrete before the Critical Resistance group, Mike Davis was not merely saying that schools, dams, and prisons are “political.” The point was rather that infrastructural projects should be understood in terms of whose lives they make more livable—and the futures they enable or foreclose.

To build the global urban economy, cities scrapped the types of public works that allow communities to thrive. But those who experience the architecture of abandonment most acutely will continue to build life-affirming alternatives—and every new high school or hospital can mean that a prison will never be built.♦

 

 


David Helps is a Ph.D candidate at the University of Michigan. His writing on policing, cities, and capitalism can be found in The Los Angeles Review of Books, Foreign Policy, Monthly Review, and more.

 

Cover image by Paucal. Licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0.

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