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T.C. Boyle's "The Tortilla Curtain": Urban Conditions, Racism, and Ecological Disaster in Fortress Los Angeles

©2013 Masterarbeit 59 Seiten


Los Angeles is famous for its sunny weather, for the Hollywood film studios and for being the residence of the rich and beautiful. And although - or, precisely because - all this is more illusion than reality, the city frequently serves as setting for various pieces of fiction. However, Los Angeles does not only play a huge role in the media, but since lately also in the realm of urban studies. Having long been a kind of ‘outsider’ in the field, it is now regarded as a prototypical example for urban development by the L.A. School. In this context, its image is less sunny and positive, but reveals a deep-rooted racism against Latin-American immigrants in combination with a fortress mentality on the part of its white population as well as a unique urban ecology, in which natural catastrophes seem to be regular occurrences. This paper intends to outline the significance of Los Angeles in urban studies and trace the thereby acquired findings in a fictional representation of the city: T.C. Boyle’s novel The Tortilla Curtain. In the process, it is shown how urban conditions, racism and nature, especially in the form of ecological disasters, intersect and influence each other.


3. Los Angeles in Urban Studies

3.1. The L.A. School

Whereas in the past, the Los Angeles region, and also Southern California as a whole, have often been regarded as „an exception to the rules governing American urban development“ (Dear, “Los Angeles” 55), the area is now rather viewed as a prototypical example in the field:

For many current observers, LA is simply confirming what contemporaries knew throughout its history: that the city posited a set of different rules for understanding urban growth (ibid.).

Thus, Michael Dear suggests rewriting urban theory with respect to Los Angeles/Southern California as the groundbreaking precursor (cf. “L.A. School” 423), thereby bringing the L.A. School into play. The latter advocates a “theory of ‘postmodern urbanism’” (ibid.) that challenges and revises the “modernist thought” (ibid.) of the well-established Chicago School.

Consequently, the L.A. School first of all counters the Chicago School’s “concentric ring theory” (Dear, “Los Angeles” 56), which understands the city as a “unified whole” (ibid.) arranged around a center, with its concept of “the multicentric city of nodes and parcels” (Willard 315). Of course, this image derives from Los Angeles with its several nuclei and lack of a core (cf. Cruz 78). So “[in] essence, Los Angeles is many cities, each with its own tangible character” (ibid.), rather than a ‘unified whole’. Therefore,

[w]e need to view each ‘Los Angeles’ as constituting a particular, specific, and concrete way of living in and through the city that is both bounded by and linked to other sectors by its particular configuration of factors such as race, class, gender, immigrant status, political access, and economic resources (Rocco 366).

In this view of the “polynucleated, multicentric city” (Willard 316), a “non-linear, chaotic process” (Dear, “Los Angeles” 65) has superseded the “linear evolutionist urban paradigm” (ibid.) stated by the Chicago School. In addition, “it is no longer the center that organizes the urban hinterlands, but the hinterlands that determine what remains of the center” (ibid. 59). Hence, according to the L.A. School, the driving force in urban growth is now decentralization, which particularly involves suburbanization (cf. ibid.). However, the suburbanization of the metropolis already started in the 1920s (cf. Soja 455). The emerging

suburbia was viewed primarily as a product of voluntary residential decentralization, initially of a wealthy elite, but soon followed, closer to the city center, by working-class inner suburbs and further out by primarily white middle-class ‘pioneers’ pushing ever outward the suburban ‘frontier,’ following the grand American tradition of civilizing frontier settlement (ibid.).

Apparently, the “search for better housing” (ibid.) as well as “for sameness, status, and security” (Low, “Edge and Center” 47) was hoped to be fulfilled in the “exclusionary enclave[s]” (ibid.) of the suburbs. Hence, the “expanding suburbs of the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s generated ‘white flight’ from densely populated, heterogeneous cities” (ibid.). The result was a sprawling, privatized, “culturally homogeneous and ‘consumerist’ suburbia” (Soja 455). Thus, the contrasting urban and suburban landscapes were “inherently shaped by class, race, and gender relations” (ibid. 456). When it comes to gender, suburbia was primarily regarded as the female space of the housewife, whereas the urban center, where all the jobs were to be found, represented the masculine space (cf. ibid.).

But, in 2000, Edward Soja notices “changes in the spatial organization of the modern metropolis over the past thirty years” (ibid. 454). Consequently, the “urbanization of the suburbs” (ibid.) has brought about a relatively new phenomenon that Soja denotes “postsuburbia” (ibid.) or “the Outer City” (ibid.). This is specified by Joel Garreau, who Soja calls “the Pied Piper of Postsuburbia” (ibid. 457). With the restructuring of urban space, which creates the polynucleated and “inverted” (ibid. 454) form of the “postmetropolis” (ibid.), he associates the emerging “shopping mall and office-centered developments he calls […] Edge Cities” (ibid. 457). Edge cities, in contrast to suburbia, accordingly provide possibilities for work as well as consumption, but most of the time they do so for their inhabitants and are therefore still in large part residential. However, with the suburbs becoming postsuburbs, the suburban dream becomes endangered:

In the Era of the Postmetropolis, it becomes increasingly difficult to ‘escape from the city’, for the urban condition and urbanism as a way of life are becoming virtually ubiquitous (ibid.).

Therefore, postsuburbia becomes also more and more racially mixed (cf. ibid. 456), especially through re-Latinization, as we have already seen. As a result,

middle-class residents appear to be repeating the white flight of the 1950s and 1960s with the added architectural dimensions of walls, gates, and guards, and with the added legal constraints of specialized covenants that institutionalize and concretize these emergent discriminatory practices (Low, “Urban Fear” 54).

Consequently, the expansion of the metropolis continues in search of a homogeneous suburbia, only that people are not only fleeing from the center anymore, but also from the inner suburbs to the further and further outlying ones (cf. Blakely and Synder, “Fortress America” 146), and that they are privatizing and walling new as well as already existing suburban communities to exclude others. According to Dear, “perhaps the quintessential edge city residential form” (“Los Angeles” 60) is privatopia, “a private housing development based in common-interest developments (CIDs) and administered by homeowner associations” (ibid.).[1]

With the exclusion of others or ‘the other’ through privatization, edge cities – which are symptomatic for Los Angeles and Southern California as prototypical examples of urban development and are therefore essential “for understanding contemporary metropolitan growth in the United States” (ibid. 59) – hence play a significant role in the ongoing process of spatial segregation. As has already been outlined, Los Angeles is “socially and culturally heterogeneous” (ibid. 64) due to its complex history of diverse migrations. Nevertheless, it is at the same time socially, “politically and economically polarized” (ibid.): “Los Angeles today is a city […] polarized between the predominantly white affluent and the predominantly nonwhite disadvantaged” (Willard 313). Therefore, Mike Davis drafts a dystopian vision of Los Angeles as fortress city in contrast to the popular utopian concept, which perceives “California in general, and Los Angeles in particular, […] as places where the American (suburban) Dream is most easily realized” (Dear “Los Angeles” 61). In Davis’s gated and walled city space, urban fear has led to an overemphasis with security and thus to social and racial segregation (cf. ibid. 62).[2] With L.A.’s “rising levels of surveillance, manipulation, and segregation” (ibid. 61), it is moreover identified as “theme park” (ibid.), a place of massive simulation (cf. ibid.). Soja labels this type of city, which is consequently “characterized by aspatiality” (ibid.), with the term “exopolis” (ibid.). To sum up, it is to say that there are two contrasting perceptions of Los Angeles as an “urban utopia” (Scott and Soja 1) with suburbia and privatopia as “dreamscapes” (Dear, “Los Angeles” 64) on the one hand and as a “dystopian […] ‘Hell Town’[3] ” (Scott and Soja 2) with “fortified cells […] and places of terror” (Dear, “Los Angeles” 62) on the other hand. This pervading polarization, which makes Los Angeles a “Dual City” (ibid.), manifests itself in

the increasing gap between rich and poor; between nations; between the powerful and the powerless; between different ethnic, racial, and religious groupings; and between genders (ibid. 65).

In consequence, the metropolis has to deal with immense problems of “racism, inequality, homelessness, and social unrest” (ibid. 61).

Eventually, Dear recognizes a polarization in Southern Californians’ dealing with nature. In the area, a deep respect for nature is opposed with a damaging carelessness in favour of urbanization that creates grave environmental problems (cf. ibid. 63 f.). After all, urban expansion in the Los Angeles region has only been possible to this extent through a “widespread manipulation of nature” (ibid. 63). Apart from the already described natural catastrophes, this manipulation causes “air pollution, […] habitat loss and [often dangerous] encounters between humans and other animals” (ibid. 64).[4] Hence, Dear suggests “to incorporate environmental issues into the urban problematic” (ibid.).

The above mentioned spatial changes furthermore trigger economic transformation (cf. Willard 313). The clarification of this urban-economic shift, which is naturally best to be observed in Southern California (cf. ibid.), “is one of the hallmarks of L.A. School urban theory” (ibid.). In this regard, Los Angeles has evolved from the city of “Fordist mass production” (Dear, “Los Angeles” 62) for a national market, to the de- and reindustrialized city (cf. Willard 313) of “post-Fordist ‘flexible production’” (Dear, “Los Angeles” 62) based on small-size manufacturing and intended for quickly changing, global markets (cf. Willard 313). Similarly, the modernist emphasis on the individual, whose “personal choices ultimately explai[n] the overall urban condition, including spatial structure, crime, poverty, and racism” (Dear, “Los Angeles” 56), has been replaced by the postmodern idea of a “global, corporate-dominated connectivity” (ibid. 65) that outweighs the individual in urban development (cf. ibid.). Therefore, the “global/local dialectic” (ibid. 63) is an important topic of urban studies today, “most especially via notions of ‘world cities’ and global ‘city-regions’” (ibid.). With its global connectivity and hence “the challenges of the information age” (ibid. 66), the postmodern metropolis is furthermore viewed as a “Cybercity” (ibid.).

All in all, the quintessence of the L.A. School is the notion that there has been “a radical break in the material conditions that lead to the production of cities” (Dear, “L.A. School” 423) as well as in “the ways of knowing the city” (ibid.). This all-encompassing “fragmentation both in material and cognitive life” (Dear, “Los Angeles” 65) identifies Los Angeles also as a “Hybrid City” (ibid.). Congruently, Dear recognizes an “overlap between modern and postmodern in current urban sociology” (ibid. 68) and therefore stresses the “continuing validity” (Dear, “L.A. School” 426) of the Chicago School. Besides an interdisciplinary approach (cf. ibid.), he thus also supports a “comparative analysis [that] is at the heart of a revitalized urban theory” (ibid.). Because of this revitalization – “the exploration of new realities and […] resistance to old hegemonies” (Dear, “Los Angeles” 68) – the L.A. School does not only exist as a “body of literature” (ibid.), but moreover as a “discursive strategy” (ibid.).

3.2. Gates and Walls: The Fortress City

As has already been outlined, Los Angeles is “increasingly separated by income, race, and economic opportunity” (Blakely and Snyder, “Gates”). According to Davis, this ubiquitous immaterial polarization manifests itself in the “physical separation of the different humanities” (“Fortress LA” 275). Hence, “the social and the spatial are intertwined” (Hise 51). The prime cause of this “spatial apartheid” (Davis, “Fortress LA” 272) is the growing “fear of violence and crime that is said to pervade the city” (Low, “Edge and Center” 45). Although there has been a decline in crime, urban fear has increased since the mid-1960s. Thereby, it is most probably linked to one’s physical and social surroundings (cf. ibid. 47). Consequently, in cities with an “increasing cultural diversity” (ibid. 45), such as Los Angeles, fear of crime is especially high and (white) residents often flee their neighborhoods (cf. ibid.). Hence, “the cultural diversity and racial tensions of the center are reflected in the segregation and social homogeneity of the suburbs” (ibid.). This explains the predominance of whites in the “more expensive low-density outer suburbs and mountain areas” (Fröhlich 161) as well as that of Latin Americans in the urban center and increasingly also in the inner suburbs (cf. ibid. 162). Nevertheless, when it comes to low-wage labor, many wealthy households keep relying on poor immigrants, although they are often associated with crime (cf. Caldeira 89 f.): The “upper classes fear contact and contamination, but they continue to depend on their servants” (ibid. 90). But while social separation is obviously produced by fear and racism, it is moreover supported and cemented by the economy, politics and planners:

[R]esidential segregation created by prejudice and socioeconomic disparities is reinforced by planning practices and policing, implemented by zoning laws and regulations, and subsidized by businesses and banks (Low, “Edge and Center” 47).

Apart from this spatial distance, material barriers begin to appear in growing numbers throughout the city, “producing a literal landscape of fear” (Low, “Urban Fear” 53) that reminds residents constantly of the dangerous world outside (cf. Blakely and Snyder, “Fortress America” 150). Often, these two aspects come together in gated communities that are located in the (outer) suburbs already:

Even richer neighborhoods in the canyons and hillsides isolate themselves behind walls guarded by gun-toting private police and state-of-the-art electronic surveillance (Davis, “Fortress LA”, 267).

Hence, “[g]ates are firmly within the suburban tradition: they enhance and harden the suburbanness of the suburbs, and they attempt to suburbanize the city” (Blakely and Snyder, “Fortress America” 10 f.). So while it is primarily still a suburban phenomenon, gating more and more also appears in the center (cf. ibid. 2): “[S]uch closures occur in the inner city and in the suburbs, in neighborhoods of great wealth and in areas of great poverty” (Blakely and Snyder, “Gates”). Although walled and gated communities are definitely not new, their current forms are exclusively residential as well as private rather than public (cf. Low, “Urban Fear” 53). Moreover, they often go even further in their means of exclusion (cf. Blakely and Snyder, “Fortress America” 8), for example by privatizing “civic responsibilities like police protection and communal services such as street maintenance, recreation, and entertainment” (ibid.). Thus, most gated enclaves are run by their own “private government[s] called ‘homeowner associations’” (Low, “Edge and Center” 47). These powerful coalitions primarily preserve the isolated spaces of their neighborhoods by lobbying for zoning regulations (cf. Caldeira 99). In this way, “local democracy may be used as an instrument of segregation” (ibid. 104). But homeowner associations not only protect rights and provide services, but moreover “come with covenants, conditions and restrictions that impose rules on an astonishing array of things both inside and outside the home” (Blakely and Snyder, “Fortress America” 21). Such requirements as, for example, uniform building and design, which in extreme cases even prescribe a limited range of colors for the front doors (cf. ibid.), are a subtle means of control (cf. ibid. 22) that goes against any notion of democratic freedom. Furthermore, homeowner associations are highly anti-communal (cf. ibid.) because they only care and provide for themselves:

There have always been those who complain about the use of ‘their’ tax money to solve other people’s problems, even within the same city or town. […] With the spread of homeowner associations, more and more Americans can set their own taxes in the form of assessments, use them for services they choose, and restrict those benefits to themselves and their immediate neighbors (ibid. 24 f.).

Not surprisingly, the trend towards gated communities continues. Along with the creation of new fortified developments, also “existing neighborhoods are increasingly installing barricades and gates to seal themselves off” (Blakely and Snyder, “Gates”). In 1997, over eight million people already lived in such developments (cf. ibid.). One reason for this ongoing trend is that the residents of gated communities feel safer, although they are probably not (cf. Blakely and Snyder, “Fortress America” 128). After all, there is no evidence of reduced crime in fortified enclaves (cf. Blakely and Snyder, “Gates”). Nevertheless, gating “provides at least psychological relief from […] fear [as well as] an illusion of control and stability” (Blakely and Synder, “Fortress America” 152):

Gating, as an attempt to exercise control over the environment, lessens [the] feeling [of fear], irrespective of the reality of the threat or the actual effectiveness of the gates (ibid. 108).

But although the efficiency of gates, walls and security systems in scaring off criminals is still discussed (cf. Davis, “Fortress LA” 278), there is no doubt that “they are brilliantly successful in deterring innocent outsiders” (ibid.). So it is important to recognize that the reason for gating is not always entirely or even mainly the fear of crime (cf. Blakely and Snyder, “Gates”). Not only are gated communities a “strategy for making money” (Low, “Urban Fear” 55) for developers, construction companies (cf. ibid.) and real estate agents, but also residents themselves have different motivations, besides fear, for moving into such developments:

Hopes of rising property values, the lure of prestige, and even the desire to build barriers against a poorer neighborhood or one of different race are also common reasons behind gated communities (Blakely and Snyder, “Gates“).

Urban fear has therefore to be identified as “an acceptable, socially constructed discourse about class exclusion and racial/ethnic/cultural bias” (Low, “Edge and Center” 45) that further “reinforces residents’ claims for their need to live behind gates and walls because of dangers or ‘others’ that lurk outside” (ibid. 45 f.). So the restructuring and gating of urban space do not only pursue safety, but moreover social homogeneity (cf. Davis, “Fortress LA” 273) and therefore lead, according to Davis, to a new war of race and class (cf. ibid. 272). Thus, Davis uncovers “the xenophobic and supremacist fantasies of Los Angeles’s white racial unconscious” (Willard 314) and argues that the fortress effort must hence be recognized as a “deliberate socio-spatial strategy” (Davis, “Fortress LA” 272) of “explicit repressive intention” (ibid.). However, it is important to see both sides of “the coin of whiteness” (Willard 320), as Willard puts it: the offensive side as well as the defensive one (cf. ibid.). In this regard, gates and walls “exist to wall out crime or traffic or strangers as well as to lock in economic position” (Blakely and Snyder, “Fortress America” 154). Walls, whether physical or symbolic, are therefore mostly ambiguous (cf. Marcuse 250).[5]

Consequently, the “phenomenon of […] gated communities is a dramatic manifestation of [the] new fortress mentality growing in America” (Blakely and Snyder, “Fortress America” 1 f.). Furthermore, Davis states that Los Angeles is divided into “’fortified cells’ of affluent society and ‘places of terror’ where the police battle the criminalized poor” (“Fortress LA” 268). So the fortress city involves on the one hand security systems and material walls that seal off gated communities (cf. ibid. 277) from “the underclass ‘Other’” (ibid. 269), but on the other hand also the public as well as private police (cf. ibid. 279). The latter thereby fight the homeless (cf. ibid. 276) and poor (cf. ibid. 275) that are “made up of predominantly ethnic – Latino and Black – minorities” (Low, “Edge and Center” 46), in order to remove them or hide them from view (cf. Davis, “Fortress LA” 274). In this respect, they barricade streets and close off poorer districts, allegedly to combat drugs (cf. ibid. 267). In addition, “the city is engaged in a merciless struggle to make public facilities and spaces as ‘unliveable’ as possible for the homeless and the poor” (ibid.), and the LAPD (Los Angeles Police Department), being under the influence of developers (cf. ibid. 276), “have broken up every attempt by the homeless and their allies to create safe havens or self-organized encampments” (ibid.). Thus, the police confine the space of public gatherings as well as the freedom of movement of certain groups (cf. ibid. 282): “For the poor and working classes, urban space is increasingly secured, policed, and defensively fortified” (Willard 314). Not surprisingly, a competition for the limited public spaces results (cf. Low, “Urban Fear” 56). Davis condenses all these processes in his notion of the “militarization of city life” (“Fortress LA” 268), where security has become a purchasable good (cf. ibid.).

With the attempt to secure the city and get rid of the socially disadvantaged, public space is increasingly destroyed (cf. ibid. 269) through a “dual architectural and police assault” (ibid. 282):

Public spaces will shrink as privatized social spaces expand in order to provide white citizens with immunity from immigrants, poor people, and other "undesirable" minorities (Low, “Urban Fear” 53).

This is especially true for the suburbs and their gated communities: “In time, suburban living became synonymous first with privacy, and then with privatism and disregard for public space and public goods” (Williamson, Imbroscio, and Alperovitz 304). Even nature, which is perceived as lying in “the preferably humanless ‘wild’ of the public domain” (Wolch, Pincetl, and Pulido 382), is more and more privatized (cf. ibid.). Thus, the wealthy are intruding deeper and deeper into the chaparral (cf. Meyerson 81). Furthermore, “gated communities exclude people from traditionally public areas like sidewalks and streets” (Blakely and Snyder, “Gates”). On the other hand, public spaces in the city are abandoned by the more privileged and left to the poor:

To reduce contact with untouchables, urban redevelopment has converted once vital pedestrian streets into traffic sewers and transformed public parks into temporary receptacles for the homeless and wretched. The American city […] is being systematically turned inside out – or, rather, outside in (Davis, “Fortress LA” 269).

In this sense, the rich merely use public streets by car, whereas it is exclusively the poor walking them on foot (cf. Caldeira 93): “To walk on the public street is becoming a sign of class in many cities, an activity that the elite is abandoning” (ibid.). Therefore, the privatization and abandonment, respectively, of urban public space are highly “anti-pedestrian” (Davis, “Fortress LA” 271), for they exclude outsiders on the “mean streets” (ibid. 275), thereby leading to increasing street violence (cf. ibid. 269). After all, according to Jane Jacobs, “a well-used city street is apt to be a safe street [, whereas a] deserted city street is apt to be unsafe” (354). Hence, she argues that there have to be “eyes upon the street” (ibid.) as well as a social mix of people using the sidewalks continuously (cf. ibid.). Exclusion is therefore the wrong means. Rather, “[e]veryone must use the streets” (ibid. 355) because “socially-based mechanisms are more effective than additional hardware like gates” (Blakely and Snyder, “Gates”) in ensuring safety. Nevertheless, the pedestrian heterogeneity of the Los Angeles of the past has been virtually eliminated:

Photographs of the old Downtown in its prime show mixed crowds of Anglo, Black and Latino pedestrians of different ages and classes. The contemporary Downtown ‘renaissance’ is designed to make such heterogeneity virtually impossible (Davis, “Fortress LA” 273).

Hence, a “democratic admixture” (ibid. 273) in the remaining “pseudo-public spaces” (ibid. 269) of Los Angeles is extinguished because different class and ethnic groups are isolated (cf. ibid. 267) by means of “new, racist enclaves” (ibid. 270). This isolation activates a vicious circle of prejudice and misunderstanding that increases fear and finally leads to even greater distance (cf. Blakely and Snyder, “Fortress America” 138).

In sum, in a city of walls and enclaves […], public space undergoes a deep transformation. Felt as more dangerous, fractured by the new voids and enclaves, broken in its old alignments, privatized with chains closing streets, armed guards, guard dogs, guardhouses, and walled parks, public space [….] is increasingly abandoned to those who do not have a chance to live, work, and shop in the new private, internalized, and fortified enclaves. As the spaces for the rich are enclosed and turned inside, the outside space is left for those who cannot afford to go in (Caldeira 98).

But when some people are excluded from certain spaces and the interaction between different groups is deliberately prevented (cf. ibid. 103 f.), when “public services and even local government are privatized” (Blakely and Snyder, “Gates”) and communal responsibility ends at the gates (cf. ibid.) – then the “universal principle of equality and freedom” (Caldeira 104) and thus the very notion of democracy is threatened (cf. Blakely and Snyder, “Gates”).

3.3. (The Crossing of) Borders and Boundaries

Western American history, with its several conquests, migrations, and immigrations, is characterized by the drawing of lines and the setting of borders (cf. Georgi-Findlay 387). “While some of these lines were those of class […], others were based on kinship, ethnic descent, or definitions of race” (ibid.). Societies and thus cities have consequently always been hierarchical (cf. Marcuse 245). As we have seen, since recently, this social hierarchy manifests itself in urban space and the built environment by separating different groups from each other (cf. Low, “Urban Fear” 61). In this process, the distinct groups use different kinds of material and immaterial barriers to exclude others. In this regard, Peter Marcuse identifies “five distinctive types of residential quarter” (245) that come along with corresponding types of walls (cf. ibid. 248). These “cities within the […] city” (ibid. 245) are the “dominating city” (ibid. 246) with its walls of suppression and dominance (cf. ibid. 248), the “gentrified city” (ibid. 246) with its “walls of aggression [and] superiority” (ibid. 248), the “suburban city” (ibid. 246), in which the stucco walls protect gated communities (cf. ibid. 248), the “tenement city” (ibid. 246) with its “walls for protection, cohesion and solidarity” (ibid. 248), and the “abandoned city” (ibid. 246), where the walls define ghettos and spaces of confinement (cf. ibid. 248). Hence, walls not only define the different districts of the city, but moreover the positions of their residents within the social hierarchy (cf. ibid.).

In some cases, “the walls are symbolic boundaries” (ibid.). According to postmodern theory, these are dynamic rather than rigid (cf. ibid. 249) and “at the extreme case, as perhaps in Los Angeles, they may move from block to block, street to street” (ibid.), just as the distinct groups move around (cf. ibid.). For Marcuse, walls can therefore assume different forms, such as “boundaries, partitions, borders, [and] transitions” (ibid. 244). Thereby, “[f]or all but the cases at the extreme ends of the spectrum, walls will be ambivalent” (ibid. 249). Thus, they may at the same time defend and oppress, protect and imprison, provide identification and exclude, establish a feeling of security and heighten fear (cf. ibid. 249 f.). In addition, they can be penetrated, crossed, displaced and re-erected over and over again, in order to continually change, establish or reinforce one’s own position within the spatial and social hierarchy (cf. ibid. 250). However, while in Marcuse’s

1995 analysis, walls and partitions are partial and mostly metaphorical [, today] these walls are complete, surrounding entire communities, secured and guarded by armed professionals (Low, “Urban Fear” 61).

And with the production of material walls and segregated spaces, also a more rigid construction of the former dynamic social boundaries occurs (cf. Caldeira 102). After all, with the elimination of contact between distinct groups, social and ethnic differences are perceived more intensely (cf. ibid. 103). The crossing of social boundaries is therefore severely controlled and surveyed in the fortress city (cf. ibid. 102):

When boundaries are crossed in this type of city, there is aggression, fear, and a feeling of unprotectedness; in a word, there is suspicion and danger (ibid.).

In this regard, the boundaries within the city, whether symbolic or physical, resemble “the highly militarized border zone separating the U.S. and Mexico” (Fojas 589). This is hardly surprising, for Los Angeles and the national border are inextricably intertwined: After all, Los Angeles is “a border city; a city that harbours the border as part of the experience of its topography” (ibid. 587). Furthermore, the border is connected to the metropolis through “a complex of operations, especially […] the technologies of surveillance that reach northward and link up to the policing agencies within the city” (ibid.). So the crossing of the international border is at least equally surveyed as the boundaries within the city and generates the same feelings of aggression and fear. Nevertheless, the border between Mexico and the U.S. is permanently crossed, especially by Mexicans: “Mexican migration to the United States remains the largest and longest-running migration anywhere in the world” (Straughan and Hondagneu-Sotelo 190). Consequently, Mexicans are distributed all over Los Angeles (cf. ibid. 188), ironically rendering it a Mexican city again (cf. ibid. 190).

However, the immigrant, who has just crossed the border, is immediately “faced with a new border within the city” (Fojas 595). Congruously, it is part of a disturbing logic that those who cross the U.S.-Mexican border must soon realize “that the chain link fences and steel walls […] multiply north of the border” (Walter 144 f.). So as a “mythological construction” (Fojas 587), “the border between Mexico and the United States moves north” (Walter 144), re-appearing as a “mental border” (ibid.) and as numerous material gates and walls in Los Angeles. In this regard, the border(land) is “a shifting geographic, psychological, and cultural space” (ibid.).[6] Because of all these boundaries within the city, the urban experience in Los Angeles can be highly unsettling for many recent Latin American immigrants (cf. Fojas 589):

Imagine coming to the city with the dream of free mobility only to find that your presence is the subject of security measures, that parts of the city are off-limits to you – from gated communities to shopping malls and other semi-public and public spaces – or that you are under permanent surveillance and profiled as part of a criminal class (ibid.).

Moreover, this shock and mental disturbance may be intensified even further by a sense of displacement and disorientation as a result of immigration (cf. ibid.), by “traumas left behind in origin countries[, such as] war, famine, poverty, [and] violence” (ibid.) as well as by the experience of (illegal) border crossing itself:

Crossing boundaries, from a familiar space to an alien one which is under the control of somebody else, can provide anxious moments; in some circumstances it could be fatal, or it might be an exhilarating experience – the thrill of transgression (Sibley 269).

But even in case of an exhilarating experience, the thrill of transgression will quickly be forgotten when it is followed by the feeling of “a break, a disjunction and shock” (Rocco 378) in combination with a discrimination by non-Latinos (cf. ibid.). Hence, “border crossings are not necessarily acts of liberation” (Walter 146) because they neither break up existing hierarchical structures and frameworks of exploitation nor annihilate borders per se (cf. ibid. 146 f.). As has been shown, they may on the contrary even “lead to a multiplication of borders as mental states” (ibid. 147) and tangible walls.

In this regard, also “immigration policy ha[s] become increasingly phobic” (Fojas 588) and stringent, starting for example with the “Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986” (Straughan and Hondagneu-Sotelo 195), which proposed sanctions against employers for hiring illegal immigrant workers (cf. ibid.), through to “California’s ‘Save Our State’ proposition 187 in 1994” (Fojas 588) that intended to “prevent illegal aliens […] from receiving benefits or public services in the State of California” (Freese 221). With its immigration policy, the U.S. government is therefore itself responsible (cf. Rocco 372) for the “long-standing popular anti-immigration sentiment” (ibid.). After all, the term ‘illegal alien’ alone denotes unlawfulness, criminality (cf. Straughan and Hondagneu-Sotelo 205) as well as “marginal involvement in societal institutions” (ibid.). Nevertheless, illegal low-wage workers are exploited and in this respect tolerated to a certain degree (cf. Walter 145). This “double dynamic” (ibid.) resembles the above mentioned desire of the wealthy and privileged to shut out ‘the other’ from their homes and gated communities, while they still rely on them as their servants. Thus, the mechanisms of exclusion and interdependence within the microcosm of the city are the same as within the macrocosm of the nation. A clear contradiction can therefore be recognized between the strict immigration policy and border militarization on the one hand and free international trade through NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) as well as exploitation of (undocumented) immigrant workers on the other hand (cf. ibid.). With their semi-official status, the latter have no chance to improve their situation and are condemned to stay “temporary and extraneous rather than integrated and integral to the city” (Fojas 594):

[A]lthough poor immigrants continue to work in L.A.’s manufacturing sector, these jobs […] no longer hold the promise of upward mobility into steady, well-paying, unionized jobs. […] This economic structure of employment and particularly of the absence of mobility is critical, as it may signify a near permanent form of social and economic subordination for many immigrant groups (Straughan and Hondagneu-Sotelo 206).

So while the forms of exploitation have changed during the many periods of empire building, the hierarchical power relations between oppressors and oppressed continue to be at work in the borderlands separating the United States and Mexico (cf. Walter 148). Marcuse’s theory of hierarchical walls is thus once more confirmed.

The interdependence inherent to this power structure underlines the “arbitrariness […] of boundaries” (ibid. 151). Consequently, border(land)s are uniting spaces as well as dividing lines that at the same time link and separate the two sides of the border (cf. ibid. 152). Most notably, the “circulation of people and ideas continually shape[s] and reshape[s] society and culture on both sides” (Hise 58) and links them to each other. Apart from L.A.’s mere proximity to the U.S.-Mexican border, it is thus primarily the long history of border crossings, which has been crucial in its creation as a border city (cf. ibid.). Borders and borderlands have therefore also to be seen as “a place/metaphor of crossing and cross-cultural contact” (Walter 153). Hence, Los Angeles

has been and remains a site where people, artifacts, and ideas from around the globe converge, a place where residents and newcomers […] created a hybrid or metis culture and city (Hise 57).

But, especially since urban restructuring, it is also – and mainly – a site, where the “border between self and other is echoed in both social and spatial boundaries” (Sibley 269). Consequently, the heavy militarization of the U.S.-Mexican border is reflected in material and immaterial boundaries – in gates and walls, in racism and exclusion – that divide the city. These dividing “lines convey fear: of borders drawn and breached, of districts invaded, of possible […] social contagion” (Hise 54). And this fear leads to still more security measures, which in turn enforce and produce mental borders. Thus,

being deeply embedded in the network of power and knowledge and the hierarchical structures of class, sexuality, gender, race, ethnicity, and collor [sic!], borders and the spaces in between refer to the construction of difference (Walter 153).

3.4. L.A.’s Urban Ecology : From Natural Disaster to Environmental Racism

One reason for immigration restriction and the policing of borders (cf. Hartmann) is moreover the “greening of hate – blaming environmental degradation on poor populations of color” (ibid.). Thereby, some sort of Malthusianism is promoted that claims immigrants to be the primary cause of overpopulation, which in turn produces urban sprawl and hence environmental problems. The first notable greening-of-hate wave occurred in the United States in the mid-1990s (cf. ibid.), “when conservative anti-immigrant forces began mobilizing within the Sierra Club, the nation’s largest membership-based environmental organization” (ibid.). Since then, several of such forces have been organizing. In this regard, the government, conservation societies (cf. ibid.), and others have been spreading “narratives of expanding human populations destroying pristine landscapes” (ibid.), while concealing the real reasons for environmental problems. Two of these are corporate or state-run resource extraction as well as the unregulated real estate market that encourages urban sprawl. Hartmann traces four popular myths, which have allowed the greening of hate to establish itself in current U.S. environmentalism (cf. ibid.). The “man versus nature” (ibid.) myth is the belief that human beings are inherently bad for nature (cf. ibid.). The second myth is the “wilderness ethic” (ibid.): It promotes a romantic, nostalgic and “quasi-religious (ibid.)” image of nature. Moreover, “[b]y locating nature in the far-off wild, it allows people to evade their responsibility for environmental protection closer to their homes” (ibid.). The “degradation narrative” (ibid.) then, views immigration as a threat both to the ecology as well as to security. It blames poverty on overpopulation and makes poor Third World peasants responsible for environmental degradation because they over-farm their lands (cf. ibid.). Thus, it homogenizes “all rural people in the Global South into one big destructive force, reinforcing simplistic Us vs. Them, West vs. The Rest dichotomies” (ibid.). Last but not least, the “myth of scarcity” (ibid.) is the fear that the planet does not hold enough natural resources for all (cf. ibid.).

Missing from the picture, of course, is the role of the rich in gobbling up both economic and natural resources at an ever expanding rate, undermining effective environmental protection, and refusing to invest in renewable, non-polluting energy sources (ibid.).

Consequently, the real cause of ecological destruction is primarily suburbanization, propelled “both [by] public policy and private market choices” (Williamson, Imbroscio, and Alperovitz 310), rather than immigration and the proliferation of poor people of color. Hence, there exists a clear “link between environmental hazards and urban social conditions” (Wolch, Pincetl, and Pulido 383).

As has been described before, Los Angeles is a prime example of urban sprawl. The region’s settlement patterns are thereby to a great extent determined by its natural surroundings (cf. Fröhlich 155):

Limited in the West by the Pacific Ocean, the LA basin and San Fernando Valley as central parts of LA's built-up environment are delineated by regional mountain ranges and semi-desert areas. Some of these areas, such as the cañons of the Santa Monica Mountains, are among the most desirable residential areas for the region’s upper 10,000 (ibid.).

So although urban development of other areas within the region is still limited by the natural landscape (cf. ibid. 155 f.), “suburbanization [is] eating into the wild, chewing up the mountainsides” (Meyerson 79). In this sense, “[w]ithin Los Angeles County as a whole, more than 60,000 house sites were carved out of the mountains and foothills during the 1950s and 1960s” (Davis, “Ecology” 79) alone. However, because of its extreme and varied environment as well as weather conditions, the area is actually “a highly improbable site for an urban region of more than 14 million people[7] ” (Wolch, Pincetl, and Pulido 372). So contrary to the myth of “Southern California having an idyllic climate free from natural disasters, favorable to health, agriculture, and industry” (Willard 318), the extreme weather, in combination with the natural landscape and poor development, rather ensures natural catastrophes (cf. ibid. 314):

Few if any regions in North America face the prospect of so many extreme geophysical events as Southern California, including earthquakes, floods, wildfires, landslides and debris flows, and even hurricanes (Wolch, Pincetl, and Pulido 373).

Especially firestorms are frequent in the chaparral surrounding the city: Together with the annual Santa Anas, hot and dry winds from the north, a single spark is enough to evoke uncontrollable wildfires (cf. Davis, “Ecology” 100). Furthermore, the area’s dense and dry vegetation (cf. ibid.) is not only adapted to fire (cf. Wolch, Pincetl, and Pulido 373), but moreover “may have volatile oil coatings or require fire to germinate, thus ensuring periodic wildfires even in the absence of human occupation” (ibid.). But instead of accepting the natural inevitability of the “chaparral fire cycle” (Davis, “Ecology” 132), suburban residents have continuously blamed an “incendiary Other” (ibid.) for the destruction of their homes:

While the fire has natural causes, its damage results from social contradictions – the dialectics of white flight, privatization, flight from development – naturalized by being blamed on the racialized and bestialized incendiary other (Meyerson 79).

In this regard, the “official hysteria about suburban wildfires” (Davis, “Ecology” 130) has even led to the suspicion of ethnic minorities burning wealthy white neighborhoods on purpose (cf. ibid.). “White fear is thus superimposed on ecological disaster, and fighting fire and fighting crime are conflated” (Schäfer-Wünsche 410). Originally, the term ‘environmental racism’ meant the fact that “residents of lower-income and immigrant neighborhoods were exposed to air, water, and soil pollution” (Fröhlich 170), while whites increasingly moved away from industrial zones into the suburbs “at a time when suburban living was almost exclusively available to Whites” (ibid.). But the criminalization of natural disaster may be seen as another, recent form of environmental racism, respectively, that goes even further. Congruously, “residents are unwilling to take responsibility for living in fire hazard zones” (Wolch, Pincetl, and Pulido 384) and to accept that the loss of their homes through wildfires is the result of suburbanization (cf. ibid. 386). Rather than regulating and limiting urban sprawl (cf. Davis, “Ecology” 53), the rich are therefore even led deeper into the chaparral firebelt (cf. Meyerson 81) by “[f]ire, white flight, [and] eco-racism” (ibid.). In addition, suburban houses destroyed by fire are rebuilt in the same high-risk zones, subsidized by public funds (cf. Wolch, Pincetl, and Pulido 400). And whereas “wealthy [suburban] homeowners benefi[t] […] from an extraordinary range of insurance, landuse, and disaster relief subsidies” (Davis, “Ecology” 99), the tenement fire crisis in the inner city has been largely ignored by officials (cf. ibid.). These “urban fires among the poor […] result from overcrowded housing [as well as] budget cuts in fire safety and prevention/inspection” (Meyerson 81). So while slumlords ‘negotiate’ with city officials, inner-city “residents – poor people of color and, increasingly, immigrants – are left to take the heat (literally)” (Wolch, Pincetl, and Pulido 386). Moreover, while natural wildfire is criminalized, “there has been a persistent tendency to naturalize the strictly human causality of tenement fire” (Davis, “Ecology” 132). The treatment of the suburban fires of the rich and the tenement fires among the urban poor is therefore highly unequal and is correspondingly also part of environmental injustice. Furthermore,

unequal fire treatment is [only] one component of a general subsidizing of the rich through the creation of edge cities that loot not just the inner city but the older suburbs, which subsidize their own decline (Meyerson 81).

Other negative effects of urban sprawl on the urban center and inner suburbs are for example “declining jobs, dwindling tax bases, increasingly expensive services, property abandonment and the loss of the middle class” (Williamson, Imbroscio, and Alperovitz 303). But suburbanization is also bad for (outer) suburban communities themselves (cf. ibid.) that have to face the loss of scenic landscapes, open space and a sense of isolation and quiet, increasing traffic congestions in combination with a higher number of accidents, as well as the raising of taxes (cf. ibid. 311). So while at first appearance, urban sprawl fulfils suburbanites’ desire to live near nature, it actually destroys the very object of this desire, namely nature itself (cf. Wolch, Pincetl, and Pulido 397). As we have seen, the suburbs are in addition at the mercy of various ecological catastrophes. Of course, such disasters are triggered by urban development in flood and wildfire areas in the first place (cf. Schäfer-Wünsche 404). In this sense, apart from being “pyromanic” (Davis, “Ecology” 134), “sprawl [moreover] increases runoff water pollution” (Williamson, Imbroscio, and Alperovitz 313). This, in turn, causes erosion (cf. ibid.), which evokes floods and mudslides. Not for nothing does Davis refer to edge cities as “sloping suburbia” (“Ecology of Fear” 141). Thus, suburbanization could be viewed as one of Southern California’s ‘natural’ disasters itself (cf. ibid. 91).

In addition to all these negative consequences, “[l]and consumption also impacts the overall ecosystem in ways that damage existing wildlife and reduce biological diversity” (Williamson, Imbroscio, and Alperovitz 312). This applies to plant as well as animal species (cf. Wolch, Pincetl, and Pulido 374). Moreover, because Los Angeles has the “longest wild edge […] of any major nontropical city” (Davis, “Ecology of Fear” 202), (dangerous) encounters between humans and wild animals have become more and more frequent (cf. ibid. 201 f.): The “Los Angeles region is unique in the Northern Hemisphere for the intensity of interaction between humans, their pets, and wild fauna” (ibid. 202). Thus, suburban development does not only threaten wildlife, but also humans (cf. Wolch, Pincetl, and Pulido 371) – as well as their pets. Especially coyotes have continuously been a source of suburban fear: “Despite repeated extermination campaigns, coyotes remained numerous not only along the urban edge but also in relatively built-up areas” (ibid. 392). However, quite simple measures such as locking garbage bins, keeping pets indoors at night and feeding them inside, may deter coyotes from visiting residential areas (cf. ibid. 392). The frequent encounters between humans and wild animals also reflect an increasing interpenetration of the wild and the urban (cf. Davis, “Ecology of Fear” 204): “Wildlife, in other words, becomes more urban in its basic subsistence patterns, while, at the same time, domestic species go feral” (ibid. 207). This inversion of wild and urban is also applied to human beings and is thereby used in issues of class and racial conflict (cf. ibid. 208). In this regard, “predators are criminalized as […] ‘serial killers’ or ‘gangbangers’[, while] the urban underclass is incessantly bestialized as ‘predators’” (ibid.). So “the social construction of nature is typically mirrored by the naturalization of purely social contradictions” (ibid.). The bestialization of the ‘underclass’ other moreover corresponds to the Malthusian or greening-of-hate concept of “the border-crossing immigrant as animal” (Schäfer-Wünsche 410), more specifically as the “fast-breeding species that threaten to take over by way of sheer demographics” (ibid.). Conversely, coyotes and other predators are equalized with immigrants: “White fear readily conflates an encroaching, undomesticated environment with uncontrolled immigration” (ibid.). Moreover, some animals, such as pets, are perceived as “quasi-human” (Wolch, Pincetl, and Pulido 393). Those who violate these culture-specific concepts, for example by eating cats or dogs, are perceived as beastly again (cf. ibid.). So while the symbolic and material boundaries between different classes and ethnicities become more and more rigid and controlled, “[t]he boundary between human and animal becomes increasingly porous” (Schäfer-Wünsche 410). In this regard,

[h]uman-animal interactions can […] become highly politicized in culturally diverse cities such as Los Angeles and can, in turn, initiate processes of social exclusion and racialization (ibid. 392).

The several inversions of human and animal conceptions therefore reveal once more the ubiquitous environmental racism at work in the L.A. region. Thereby, an interconnection between suburban residence and conservative opinions can be recognized (cf. Williamson, Imbroscio, and Alperovitz 319): “[L]iving in the suburbs produces more conservative social attitudes even among self-identified Democrats” (ibid.). So in summary, it can be stated that suburbanization not only hurts the environment, but moreover creates and enforces deep social inequalities within the city (cf. Wolch, Pincetl, and Pulido 383).


[1] The phenomenon of gated communities will be described in detail in the next chapter.

[2] Also Davis’s concept of the fortress city will be further examined in the following chapter.

[3] “Hell Town was the name given to Los Angeles in the period after the end of the Mexican-American War and the beginning of the great California gold rush. Reminiscent of the bloodiest Hollywood westerns, in the early 1850s there was an average of one murder every day in the newly established Los Angeles County (which had a total population of about 3,600) and even more frequent displays of racial hatred, violence, and Yankee vigilantism, a tradition that continues even to the present day“ (Scott and Soja 20).

[4] How serious and farreaching California’s environmental problems really are, how environmental racism and ecological disaster are triggered and how they intersect – all this will be outlined in an extra chapter further on in this work.

[5] For a more explicit analysis of Marcuse’s concept of walls, see the next chapter.

[6] After all, it did in fact move geographically, the last time when California was annexed to the United States.

[7] According to the 2000 Census, already 16.3 million people lived in L.A. County at the time (cf. Fröhlich 154). By now, the numbers have certainly increased.


ISBN (Paperback)
1.4 MB
Institution / Hochschule
Universität Duisburg-Essen
2015 (Februar)
Urban Study Fortress City Gated Community L.A. School Environmental Racism


Laura Schomaker wurde 1987 in Ratingen geboren. Ihr Studium der Medien- und Kulturwissenschaft an der Heinrich-Heine-Universität Düsseldorf schloss die Autorin im Jahre 2010 mit dem akademischen Grad Bachelor of Arts erfolgreich ab. Ihr weiterführendes Studium der Literatur und Medienpraxis sowie American Studies an der Universität Duisburg-Essen beendete sie 2013 erfolgreich mit dem akademischen Grad Master of Arts.

Titel: T.C. Boyle's "The Tortilla Curtain": Urban Conditions, Racism, and Ecological Disaster in Fortress Los Angeles