IN 1997, environmental historian Robert Gottlieb took up a position at Occidental College in Los Angeles that encouraged him to teach and research, but, somewhat uniquely, also to continue his activist role in the community. Four years earlier Gottlieb had published his groundbreaking Forcing the Spring, which brought the issues of race, ethnicity, gender, and class into the environmental dialogue. Gottlieb was determined that urban communities be seen as a critical context for environmental action, and his 2005 revision of that book validated his conviction. Occidental would prove to be fertile ground for the professor.
Gottlieb introduces Reinventing Los Angeles as an account of his work with the community and the Urban and Environmental Policy Institute that he founded at Occidental as a way of integrating his activism into his teaching and research. His meditations are organized around the interrelated themes of water, automobiles, and immigration. The reclamation of the Los Angeles River, management of freeway traffic, and the effects of globalization on the city furnish the historical specifics, while projects undertaken in the community provide the narrative. The upshot is Gottlieb calling for the establishment of an “urban nature agenda” developed in the global laboratory of Los Angeles and applied to cities elsewhere.
Gottlieb suggests that activists pick significant local geographical features in need of transformation as rallying points for policymakers and politicians. One example he provides, and a successful intervention, is the “Cornfield” in downtown LA. Not far away from the Los Angeles River and Chinatown, the thirty-two-acre parcel was called the largest remaining block of land available for development in the core of the city.
Community activists wanted a park, city government was pushing warehouses, and in stepped a member of the powerful Annenberg family, the artist Lauren Bon. She co-opted the conversation by turning the land into a literal cornfield titled — with all deliberate irony — Not A Cornfield. The work was modeled after a land art–action conducted by Agnes Denes in New York City during 1982 when she planted a wheat field on a landfill near the World Trade Center. Bon’s cornfield is now the Los Angeles Historic State Park and awaiting final design.
Gottlieb never defines it as such, but his richly informative book is really about flow — of resources, people, history — and about how we all need to put our hands into that urban stream as participants directing community, a word he sensibly makes very nearly synonymous with environment.