A Visitor’s Guide to A Coruña, Spain

I was delighted last week to be able to spend time in A Coruña, a seaside city in Galicia, Spain’s northwestern–most province. Galicia has long suffered from a dearth of attention, especially in comparison to Spain’s nearly mythic Mediterranean coast, from Barcelona on down; and despite lying just 100mi from the border with Portugal, A Coruña did not receive the bump in attention paid to Porto, Lisbon, and the Algarve when travel to the Lusophone Atlantic coast of Iberia came into vogue.

With this post, then, I’m going to try and make amends. This will be a by-the-books travel guide to A Coruña, including how to get there, where to stay, and what to do while you’re there. I had a blast with my time and I think you will too.

Overview

A Coruña lies in the northwest of Galicia, itself the northwest of Spain. Together with its suburbs, the city boasts a total population of about 400,000 – in US terms, its size is comparable to that of Asheville, NC, Santa Barbara, CA, or even Anchorage, AK.

Its weather and environs hew much more closely to the cities of the Pacific Northwest, which is why in the subhed I called it “Spain’s Portland” (and I mean Portland, OR); it’s intermittently rainy and cloudy a lot of the time, but rarely stormy or snowy, and heat in summer is softened by the breeze from the ocean.

A Coruña seen looking southeast from the ocean – the Tower of Hercules is at bottom-left, Riazor Beach middle-right. Source: Galiciatips.com

Much of the city lies on a peninsula which extends into a leeward bay known as the Ría da Coruña – opposite the city across the bay lies Ferrol, once an important shipbuilding town. The Ría da Coruña is exemplary of the geography of littoral Galicia, with the verdant coastal land rising rather steeply and irregularly from sea level to form the surrounding hills and dales. Rías like this can be found elsewhere in the world – they are basically the same as Scandinavian fjords, with quibbles over whether glacier action carved the landscape – but were named for the first time on the Galician coast.

A Coruña and surroundings, including the ocean. Source: Wikipedia

If population totals don’t mean much to you, I’ll add that the city feels bigger in terms of geography and smaller in terms of population than it seems. Taking in the sights required several 20k+ step count days, but in my time there I ran into a few repeat customers, including one lovely doña who introduced her 17-year-old dog and informed me it was her cat’s birthday the next Sunday, then showed me a picture of said birthday when I saw her at the cafe Monday.

The city’s name – A Coruña – may look odd to those familiar with Spanish, but that is because it is given in Galician, a Spanish dialect closer to Portuguese. To get its name in Spanish, simply switch the A for La. Since the democratic transition, the government in Galicia has promoted the use of their dialect, also called gallego. However, this should not be cause for alarm on the traveler’s part: everyone in the city speaks perfectly normal (and very clear, I thought) Castilian Spanish, and almost everyone speaks better English than your Spanish anyway.

History, Deep and Recent, and Current State

Deep History

In his excellent The Celts: A Very Short Introduction, Cambridge archaeologist Barry Cunliffe challenges us to rethink our familiar notions of European geography:

A glance at the map of Europe, suitably adjusted to jolt our cognitive geography, is sufficient to stress that Atlantic Europe is a cohesive region. Its many promontories and peninsulas are linked by the ocean, while the flooded valleys of its ria coastlines provide sheltered waters reaching deep inland. The great rivers of France and Iberia flowing westwards into the ocean are arteries of communication binding huge swathes of inland territory to the littoral zone.

Cunliffe, The Celts

Cunliffe focuses on Atlantic Europe as the natural homeland of the Celts, an ancient people who lived down from the Algarve in Portugal through Galicia and French Bordeaux and Brittany all the way up to Ireland and Wales. This ancient cross-European cultural continuity gets some play in Galicia today – souvenir shops sell emblems and necklaces with goofy “Celtic symbols” to tourists – but the region’s Celtic roots are much less important to its history than what came after.

What – or rather who – came after was Julius Caesar and the Romans. Caesar came to A Coruña in 62 BC and established trade in iron with France and England around the Bay of Biscay, a pattern of intercultural communication which would repeat endlessly through Galician history. In the second century, Roman imperial administrators under Trajan or somelike set about building a nice big lighthouse at the end of the peninsula of Coruña – this is the Tower of Hercules, which stands today and is therefore the oldest extant lighthouse in the world.

The band of stone wrapping a helix up the tower is evidence of the old spiral ramp used to scale it, now lost. Source: me! Not bad, right?

After Rome, A Coruña’s status as a rich and well-connected coastal city opened it up for intermittent invasion by the Vikings, while its Romano-Iberian neighbors to the south fell eventually to the great conquest of Al-Andalus perpetrated by the Umayyads.

“The Civilization of the Caliphate of Cordóba in the Time of Abd al-Rahman III” by Dionís Baixeras, 1885. Source: Universitat de Barcelona

By the early 800s the kings of Asturias had reestablished a beachhead of Christian rule in northern Spain, including Galicia. Then around 814, Alfonso II (there would be eleven more Alfonsos ruling Spain) learned that some peasants had found bones supposedly belonging to Saint James the Greater, one of Jesus’ Apostles. Seizing upon the opportunity to up his status as a defender of Christendom, Alfonso II affirmed the identity of the remains and declared that a great cathedral be built on its site – this became the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, and the pilgrimage to it the Camino de Santiago.

Santiago di Compostela Jubilee: A time of grace, healing and encounter -  Vatican News
Source: Vatican News. I figured none of my pictures would be as good as some of the Vatican’s.

While Coruña was not the ultimate destination of the Camino, the Camino changed it as well. Pilgrims on the Camino came from all Christendom as part of a large network of pilgrimages active in the High Middle Ages – Ken Follett’s indescribably popular 1989 novel, The Pillars of the Earth, dramatizes this well in one of its later chapters. But most of those pilgrims ended up coming from France, and the development of the overland routes of travel through northern Spain influenced Coruña and Galicia greatly. Monasteries sprouted up all over Galicia and grew rich and powerful from the income of the pilgrims; the monks began to grow wine, leading to the division of varietals handed down to us today.

Galicia Spain Wine Map
Drank a lot of lovely Ribeira Sacra on this trip. Source: Wine Scholar Guild.

The resumption of cross-cultural communication in Galicia in the High Middle Ages would deal a nasty sting to the region as we turn to the early modern; the Black Death arrived in Iberia at Galicia, via those Biscay-based water routes established by the Romans. But for all the suffering the Galicians survived in the 1400s, the birth of empire in the 1500s led to better times. The Catholic Monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella, built their Royal Audiencia in Coruña, and their successor Carlos I (Charles V to his subjects in the Holy Roman Empire) established one of his Casas de la Contratación in the city as well, this one devoted to the spice trade.

The Spanish Armada departed from Ferrol in 1588. After that lucky storm wrecked it, Francis Drake raided Coruña in retribution in 1589, but was repelled thanks in part to the efforts of a brave woman known as Maria Pita, whose name adorns the city’s main square today.

Plaza Maria Pita and the Royal Audiencia established by Ferdinand and Isabella. Source: me!

Recent History

When Napoleon invaded Spain in the Peninsular Wars, the Coruñeros fought back again, this time aided by the British. The 1809 Battle of Corunna was a Dunkirk moment 130 years before the one we know today in Normandy took place, as 26,000 British troops out of an expeditionary force of 35,000 escaped back to their ships in the Bay of Biscay. Sir John Moore, commander of the British forces in Spain, was wounded and died in Coruña; the Jardin San Carlos in the city’s Marina is devoted to him.

Fast forwarding a bit more, Francisco Franco was born in Ferrol in 1892. He would go on to lead the Right in the Spanish Civil War from 1936 to 1939, after which he would rule Spain singlehandedly for 36 more years. Franco took as his country home the Pazo de Meirás in the hills outside Coruña; oddly enough, that specific home had previously belonged to one of Spain’s most celebrated modern novelists, Emilia Pardo Bazan, who was born there into a noble Coruñero family in 1851.

After the transition to democracy, Galicia was promoted to the status of autonomous community, making it co-equal to Catalonia, Andalusia, the Basque Country, etc. The local government has since promoted the use of Galician, which is why you’ll see it on signs and hear it on the street occasionally.

Current State

A Coruña was changed immeasurably in 1975, when Amancio Ortega opened up his first Zara in the city center. Since then, Zara has grown to be the flagship chain of Inditex, Ortega’s conglomerate and the world’s largest apparel retailer. Inditex’s 100bn Euro valuation is good enough to make Ortega the world’s 11th richest man.

Inditex dominates the region’s economy. Its headquarters, in rural Arteixo, employs 5,000 designers who are shuttled out from the city daily. You can’t go more than a couple blocks without seeing one Inditex store or another, including its crown jewel, the Zara flagship, which lies at the intersection of the Calle de Sanchez Bregua and the Calle Compostela, one block from the ocean.

EPR Retail News | SPAIN: Zara opens flagship store on calle Compostela 3,  one of A Coruña's prime shopping streets
Interior of the 5-story Zara flagship – menswear on floor 5.

Zara brought modernity and industry to the city, attracting designers and models from all over the world, who went on to demand big-city amenities. Couture boutiques like Iamnue Store sprung up in its wake, as did fine dining of various cuisines, helping diversify the Galician diet away from its traditional reliance on mariscos.

Tienda de Ropa Iamnue Store en A Coruña
Imagine if you could buy Comme des Garçons and Acne Studios in York, PA. That’s what Coruña is like.

This novel modernity has made A Coruña a very lively place. Professionals of all stripes walk its streets and crowd its bars alongside Erasmus students from across Europe. If there’s a baby bust plaguing modern Spain, you couldn’t tell by looking at Coruña – almost every young couple I saw had a baby in tow, and the playground of the Plaza Pontevedra in the city center was filled daily with shouts of playing kids.

Life is good in A Coruña, which also engenders a certain chill among its inhabitants. People were very happy indeed to spend their days at big restaurant tables, taking cañas of Estrella Galicia or bumming out on their lovely beaches like Riazor or Santa Caterina. For travelers more accustomed to the haughty monuments of Madrid or the sun-drenched Mediterranean coast, A Coruña’s different pace of life has a lot to offer.

Getting There

A Coruña has a small airport with mostly-daily flights to Madrid and Barcelona – according to Expedia, you can even get there from London-Gatwick.

If you’ve got the time, though, take the train. There are about 5 daily trains from Madrid’s Chamartin Station to Coruña via Renfe, the national rail operator. The journey takes 5-6 hours and lets you soak in the varied geography of Spain while also going through other Galician cities like Ourense and Santiago.

Sights to See

  • Ciudad Vieja
    • Large, pedestrian neighborhood entirely paved by cobblestones and hemmed in by tall townhouses which emerge occasionally into breathtakingly peaceful courtyards. Reminiscent of Venice in its breadth – you could spend your entire stay here.
Image
Source: Uxío
  • Plaza Maria Pita
    • Large broad plaza at the narrow northern end of the isthmus, home to the Royal Audiencia established by the Catholic Monarchs. The statue at middle commemorates Maria Pita, a Coruñera who assisted in the defense of the city against the marauding British under the command of Francis Drake.
El Ayuntamiento en la Plaza de Maria Pita - Picture of La Coruna, Province  of A Coruna - Tripadvisor
  • Marina
    • The best place in the city to see examples of A Coruña’s characteristic architectural motif – the galerias, facade-wide bay windows which imitate the aft walls of large galleys.
Zona del PARROTE hacia la ciudad vieja de La Coruña desde el puerto  deportivo. - Photo de La Corogne, Province of A Coruna - Tripadvisor
  • Riazor Beach
    • Beach on the western side of the isthmus, facing the ocean. At low tide quite rocky, but no less beautiful.
  • Monte San Pedro
    • Large park on the hilltop to the southwest of city center – can be accessed via taxi or via a cool funicular which takes you to a big observatory. Great restaurant up there too.
File:Ascensor ó monte San Pedro, A Coruña.jpg - Wikimedia Commons
  • Tower of Hercules
    • Already mentioned, but site of the oldest extant lighthouse in the world, built by the Romans in the early part of the first millennium. Lovely park surrounding it, with the compass rose of the Celts and a statue of a Celtic king.
  • Riazor Stadium
    • Home to Real Club Deportivo La Coruña, the city’s soccer team, which plays currently in the fourth league. At one time (2005) they were actually good enough to win La Liga championship, but people love them regardless and I’m sure catching a game there would be a tremendous experience.
Stadium Guide: Estadio Riazor, Deportivo La Coruna
  • Estrella Galicia Museum
    • The Museo Estrella Galicia (MEGA) is a baffling thing – an absolute corporate narcissism and meticulously detailed and curated museum of the history of beer at the same time. At one point, a theme park ride puts you inside a vat of barley as you become hops. The 25 euro ticket is worth it for all the free beer at the end, but this is a long tour.
  • Museums
    • The Museo de las Bellas Artes da Coruña was very well-equipped, with a great selection of portraits from the 16th century up to the modern era. Also had a lovely collection just of Goya sketches. Other museums focus on Pablo Picasso, who spent his adolescence in the city.
  • Churches
    • The Colegiata de Santa María del Campo, located behind Plaza Maria Pita, dates back to the 12th century, which is sort of incredible in its own right. Otherwise go for the Parroquia de San Jorge, which is about 100 years younger.

Eating and Drinking

As an addendum to this section, I’ve put all these great bars and restaurants in a Google Map, available for viewing here.

  • Bakeries, cafes and fruterías
    • Every block in A Coruña has its own bakery and its own frutería. While there are supermarkets, people rely on these local shops for their fresh goods, and how fresh they are. Upscale bakeries like Tahona offer truly scrumptious treats with the Scandinavian industrial-chic design affectation a New York-based traveler might already be homesick for.
    • Some of my favorite cafes: Tahona, Vazva, Cafe Central Park, Astro Coffee, Cafe Siboney
Panadería Tahona inaugura un nuevo establecimiento en la Ciudad Escolar de  A Coruña
  • Seafood
    • Cab drivers in Madrid on the way to the train will tell you to eat the seafood in Galicia, and they’re not wrong. All of it’s good, but try taking the little tapas camarones at Os Tigres on Calle Galera. Very lovely.
    • Some of my favorites: A Mundiña, NaDo, Peculiar, Gastromaar, Terreo Cocina Casual
  • Bars
    • Like I said earlier, there are a lot of kids and students in A Coruña, and they will absolutely mob bars along Calle Juan Canalejo basically every night of the week. Bars tend to close at 1am but there are clubs, lines for which you’ll see begin to form as the street-fronts close up.
    • Some of my favorites: Twin Fin, La Maleta, La Tata, Abuela Josefa, Kvras
PUNTOS DE RUMBA | Rumba is good

Shopping and city life

  • Coruñeros shop for clothes like Americans shop for gadgets – when in Rome, do as the Romans and go shopping!
    • Definitely try the Inditex complex – any of the several Zaras, the Massimo Dutti, Pull & Bear, and Bershkas available in city center all fantastic.
    • Boutiques in city center are great as well, and it’s fun shopping at the David in the relationship when Goliath is worth 100bn Euros.
    • It’s worth heading for Marineda City, the giant mall built on the city outskirts in 2011. If you’re dying for it, they’ve got the region’s only McDonalds and Starbucks.
Interior of Marineda City, A Coruña’s shopping mecca. Source: me.
  • Coruñeros also prioritize chilling
    • Siesta is pretty well-adhered to most days – don’t try and go shopping or out to eat between 2pm and 5pm
    • Plaza Pontevedra always has kids screaming and skateboarding thanks to the Colegio which fronts it. Otherwise, Plaza Maria Pita is gorgeous, as are the Plaza de Galicia and Plaza de España. For a nice day trip, try going to Santa Cristina Beach in Oleiros.
A fitting image to close on – a big palm at Santa Cristina Beach. Source: me!

Local Notes No. 5 – Fort Ross, the Frontier Outpost of Russian America

Heading west from Santa Rosa, CA, out along the Russian River, there runs thirty miles of charming, bucolic country: a thick canopy of trees and hills and small towns with names like Rio Nido, Guerneville, Monte Rio, Jenner. Eventually, the canopy thins, the sea comes and you can go no more west, so follow the road and turn north – what will then open before you is the Sonoma Coast, an area of unbelievable beauty. Describing its vistas defies the words normally used for this kind of thing – dramatic, yes; stunning, yes; but even more than that, jarring and vertiginous and almost deadly.

Sonoma Coast | The Lodge at Sonoma
It can get foggy – bring a jacket.

New Deal funds led to the construction of a highway along the seaside in 1933. When I drove on it this summer, the good people of the California Dept of Transportation were hard at work shoring up its asphalt against the encroaching seaside. But long before these roads were laid down, before prospectors struck gold and before San Francisco became the Paris of the Pacific, a different, almost alien set of eyes took in the sight of this beautiful coastline – Russian ones.

Fort Ross
Aerial view of Fort Ross, credit Humboldt State University.

In 1812, a shipful of Russians landed at an inlet they named Rumiantsev Bay, in honor of the empire’s Minister of Commerce at the time, the Count Rumiantsev, and founded an agricultural settlement they named Fort Ross. The expedition’s leader was one Ivan Kuskov, previously a paper-pusher at the Russian-American Company, the startup enterprise given royal imprimatur in 1799 to fortify the Russian presence in what was rapidly becoming a race between Britain, Spain, and the sixteen-year-old USA for control of northwestern North America.

(I will take the time here to note that my little note about Russian colonization of Northern California is not designed to downplay the lives and experiences of Native peoples who lived in the area before, during, and after the Russian presence. The presence of imperial Russian traders in California is notable for their complete foreignness, both then and now, as well as the ways in which they tried to make up for that foreignness. However, I would be not doing my part if I didn’t mention that there were large and active indigenous populations in these regions all along.)

ONLINE EXCLUSIVE: Russia Got Into Its Own "Folly" in Alaska
Detail from a painting depicting Alaskan natives watching a departing Russian-American company ship.

Even before the Tsar’s ukase of 1799, Russians had crossed the Bering Strait in explorations mostly aimed after the economic object of nearly all tsarist expansion from time immemorial – fur pelts. From Ivan the Terrible on down, each tsar in turn sought more virgin forest to harvest yet more furs from the chicest of sources – beavers, sea-otters, sables, ermines, and even squirrels. This long process of Russian eastern expansion suffers from underdiscussion in the broader history of European colonization – although it never involved daring man-o-wars crossing oceans to find new shores, to the Siberians they encountered, the tsarist troops and profiteers were unstoppable marauders, forging their way with cannon and musket in a marshy semi-tundra whose sparse native populations, be they Tatar, Kirgiz, Samoyed, or Yakut, had before mostly concerned themselves with fighting each other.

Russian eastern expansion from the time of Ivan the Terrible on.

By the turn of the 18th century, imperial boots were planted firmly in what we still today call the Russian Far East, and so it was that in 1725, Peter the Great asked for his bravest sailors to test the waters east of Kamchatka for whatever fur-growing mammals might be found in the land across the strait. A few shipwrecks later, Russian traders had figured it out and were engaged in a brisk business from a port like Kamchatka or Okhotsk to the Alaskan mainland and the Aleutian islands and back. According to Gibson, one successful summer’s hunt for pelts in the Aleutians could net between 10,000 and 30,000 rubles, doubling the money invested to outfit the expedition.

The capacity for such profit sparked a fur rush of sorts, with hundreds of voyages being launched from the middle of the century on. This had predictably tragic environmental consequences – otters were extinct in the Kuril Islands by 1780, and fading fast from the Aleutians by the next decade. In order to impose some discipline on the crush of trappers headed across the Bering, the Tsarina Catherine granted the first state licenses for otter hunting in the late 1780s, a system which was updated by her successor, Paul I, in his 1799 edict forming the Russian-American Company, which won the right to a strict monopoly on fur trading and bore the responsibility of creating more substantial settlements in North America.

Paul’s decision to grant the monopoly to the RAC represented a break from previous Russian imperial strategy and also marked the introduction of a dynamic form of corporate management – the joint-stock company. This new corporate form allowed individual shareholders the right to invest capital and own separate chunks of the business, as well as transfer those shares freely without impacting the existence or operations of the company. What’s more, early practitioners of the joint-stock form figured out they could limit their liability to only capital invested, a development which essentially turned them into modern corporations as we understand them today. And although the Dutch and British had had wildly successful joint-stock companies operating colonial enterprises since the early 1600s, most notably in their respective East India Companies, Russian exploration had for two centuries neither birthed nor adopted the same organizational model.

When they finally did, it allowed them to focus. Under the leadership of A.A. Baranov, the RAC founded two settlements, Pavlovskaya and Novo Arkhangelsk, which became the modern day cities of Kodiak and Sitka. After receiving intelligence that there were long stretches of the California coast to their south unoccupied by other imperial powers, Baranov dispatched his lieutenant, Kuskov, with instructions to leave some plaques claiming the land for the Tsar and also to set up camp and do some settling.

Tikhanov - Alexandr Andreyevich Baranov (1818).png
AA Baranov, first leader of the Russian-American Company.

Walking the well-maintained grounds (thanks, CA Parks & Rec) of Kuskov’s krepost’, I found myself wondering what these outcast Russians must’ve thought about the new landscape they found themselves in. Homesickness is written into the very planks of the structures they built – one of the most striking details at the amply sized fort is the small Orthodox cross hewn in soggy oak standing atop the church.

The Fort Ross church (right) and its little Orthodox cross, beating back the tides.

Only the higher-ups and visitors actually stayed within the fort walls – most other Russians lived in smaller houses just outside the fort, while the indigenous Kashaya people who were more populous and integral members of fort life lived in another village a short distance to the south.

What did these people do all day? For starters, they didn’t actually end up hunting much fur – beaver and otter populations plummeted too quickly wherever the Russian trappers went to set up a real business. By 1834, the RAC’s leadership was so desperate to save something of their founding livelihood that they called for a twelve-year moratorium on all fur trapping and thereafter imposed a strict quota system.

Instead, the colonists at Fort Ross turned their attention towards other economic activity – Kuskov was a gifted gardener, and established farms of grain and barley with minimal success, but also of grapes, peaches, and pears which were modestly more successful. The Russians figured out ranching as well, grazing herds all the way down the bay to where modern-day road-trippers like myself make the turn out from Jenner onto the coast. They even tried their hand at shipbuilding, assembling California’s first windmill as part of a semi-industrial effort. This fizzed out after only a few attempts.

View of the fort to the south.

Truth be told, it seems that the Russians at Fort Ross, and especially the RAC higher-ups there, spent most of their time waiting for company resupply ships and thinking of life back home. A French visitor in 1828, A.B. Duhaut-Cilly, noted astutely that, “In the apartment of the governor are found all the conveniences valued by Europeans but still unknown in California.”

The possessions and house of Alexander Rotchev, the Fort’s last administrator, are still at the Fort today and in them you can see the truth of Duhaut-Cilly’s observation. Rotchev and his family spared no expense in attempting to live on the Sonoma Coast like the genteel Europeans they thought themselves to be – they kept a score of Mozart on the piano at all times.

The Rotchev house, the only building still standing since the Russian period.

Like any discerning Europeans of their time, the fort’s higher-ups investigated their California surroundings with a scientific eye. The first vaccinations in California were reportedly done at the fort in 1821. The reports of one Captain Golovnin’s stay at the Fort in 1818 include the first written mention of the native population intentionally burning large grasslands to inhibit future wildfires. Yegor Chernykh, a rancher at the Fort, kept systematic weather records for the first time beginning in 1837. Ilya Gavrilovich Voznesenskii, a friend of Chernykh’s, left for a surveying trip in 1841 which led him eventually up the Sacramento River to the door of one unassuming miller named John Sutter.

Inattentive, however, to the pioneering exploits of their scientists in California, the Russian-American Company had decided by 1840 to call time on their outpost at Fort Ross. None of their attempts in hunting, farming, or industry had ever panned out, and by the late 1830s, they were spending some 40,000 rubles per year just to keep the colony afloat. Rotchev, the administrator, asked around if any of the surrounding great powers were interested in taking over for the Russians; when both the British and Mexicans declined, he went up the river and knocked on Mr. Sutter’s door himself. After 30 years of trying, Tsarist Russia unceremoniously sold away its most distant outpost in North America to a miller better remembered today for the gold others found on his property and the rush it inspired. Rotchev and his patrician family got onto the same boat as the other hundred or so farmers, ranchers, and would-be shipworkers who called Fort Ross home and sailed for RAC headquarters at Sitka. Russian California was no more; before another 30 years were out, Russian America would be gone too, sold to the American government at William Seward’s request in 1867 for $7 million.

A lovely painting of Fort Ross, with all the drama of the Sonoma Coast on full display.

What can we learn from the Russians’ experience in California? Plenty, not least of which the important lesson that for all the incalculable transformation wrought by other colonial enterprises around the world, we have to remember that none of them were ever sure things, and indeed very many of them did fail. I wrote my senior thesis about another, earlier attempt by a German banking family to establish a pearl fishing colony in Venezuela – that one ended with everyone dying in the jungle, either from horrible disease or a machete to the head, so the Rotchev family was probably better off having just taken the long boat ride up to Alaska.

Another lesson is the variance in interactions between colonists and indigenous peoples: the cossacks who conquered Siberia swept over unprepared peoples with ease, while Baranov was a butcher of a colonist, slaughtering native Alaskans and building Sitka on the bones of a Tlingit town. By contrast, it seems that the colonists at Fort Ross like Kuskov and Rotchev worked hard to maintain cordial and mutually respectful relations with the Kashaya and other groups of indigenous people in the area. Some sources claim the indigenous groups even played their own imperial politics, preferring the Russian approach to the heavy-handed Spanish, and balancing one against the other.

Lastly, we can’t forget about the environmental impacts of extractionary colonial economies – those extinct Kuril Islands otters aren’t coming back – but nor should we pat ourselves too much on the back, lest we think we’ve got all the answers. The RAC tried moratoria and quotas beginning nearly 200 years ago. It will likely take more than that to save our fish.

Fort Ross is today an interesting curiosity and a great state park lying on one of the prettiest stretches of coastline on the planet, but for a quarter-century it was the nexus of imperial hopes and worries from Moscow to Sitka and including London, Washington, Paris, and Mexico City. Not bad, I say, in the end for a bunch of promyshlenniki.

Review: Daniel Immerwahr, “How to Hide an Empire”

In June of 1944, Dwight Eisenhower hesitated for cause of bad weather in crossing the English Channel and launching the Allied re-invasion of Nazi-controlled Europe.

In this he was following an example set some two millenia prior by Gaius Julius Caesar, at the time the scouring governor of Gaul, in both its Cis- and Transalpine flavors, and mighty Illyricum too.

In his own De Bello Gallico, Caesar described the approach to Britain:

When about eighty transports — enough, in his opinion, to carry two legions across — had been collected and concentrated, he distributed all the ships of war he had over between his quartermaster-general, lieutenant-generals, and commandants.​ To the total stated eighteen transports should be added, which were detained eight miles off by the wind, and prevented from entering the port of concentration;​ these he allotted to the cavalry…

These arrangements made, he caught a spell of fair weather for sailing, and weighed anchor about the third watch; he ordered the cavalry to proceed to the further harbour,​ embark, and follow him. They took somewhat too long to despatch the business; he himself reached Britain about the fourth hour of the day, and there beheld the armed forces of the enemy displayed on all the cliffs.​ Such was the nature of the ground, so steep the heights which banked the sea, that a missile could be hurled from the higher levels on to the shore. Thinking this place to be by no means suitable for disembarkation, he waited at anchor till the ninth hour for the rest of the flotilla to assemble there.

Julius Caesar, De Bello Gallico Book IV: 21-22

Twenty centuries of progress could not deliver Ike good forecasts for the twenty miles of sea between Dover and Calais, but they could deliver him something nearly as useful: live real-time computer-based messaging with the other top brass.

Daniel Immerwahr’s language here is neat: “Before the invasion of Normandy, George Marshall in Washington used a similar system to confer for more than an hour with Dwight Eisenhower in Europe, Douglas MacArthur in the Southwest Pacific, and John Deane in Moscow. The generals communicated by sending short typed messages, which appeared on a screen. In other words, they texted.”

Taken from George Raynor Thompson and Dixie R. Harris, The Signal Corps: The Outcome (Mid-1943 Through 1945). Office of the Chief of Military History, Washington DC: 1956.

This little contrivance is found in Immerwahr’s 2019 tour de force history, How to Hide a Nation, in the portion of the book devoted to what he refers to as “empire-killing technologies”. It’s one of the many striking anecdotes he marshals to build an alert and lively argument concerning US imperialism, its impacts on the colonized around the world, and the striking lack of impact left on mainland citizens.

Immerwahr’s book received all the praise it deserved; the New York Times called it a best book of 2019. My review, then, is not only late, but also redundant, because I feel similarly to the other, quicker (some might call them professional) reviewers. Still, I hope to bring out a few more interesting morsels from this very well-constructed book.

Hide an Empire succeeds because it is principally not about the actual land grabs with which most people are familiar from an AP US history course, neither Teddy Roosevelt carving up the decrepit Spanish Caribbean nor Seward’s folly.

No, Immerwahr did something bolder: he dared to bring us with him into the history of those new American lives and what the brutality of the 20th century visited upon them even as we mainlanders remained safe, two oceans away from the firestorm of it all.

How to Hide an Empire does what it says on the tin – it traces the capture of America’s overseas territories, their development (or lack thereof) in the period leading up to World War II, the wartime experience, and the twin processes of either decolonization or true mainland integration (via statehood) which followed the war.

It is important, I think, that Hide an Empire is not only concerned with the titular empire-hiding, which takes place in the imperial period, but also in the birth of the American empire and in the surprising new form of American hegemony developed after decolonization.

This fullness upgrades the work from “pretty good” to “great,” offering no-nonsense mechanical narratives of how wartime advances in science and technology “killed” the empire, or at least the need for the American government to administer a set of overseas territories directly.

Learning a bit of Immerwahr’s background reveals the seed of research around which the rest of the book coalesced pretty plainly. His academic career at Berkeley and then Northwestern has been made in intellectual history, and his “real historian” bonafides are unimpeachable – his first book, Thinking Small: The United States and the Lure of Community Development, won the Organization of American Historians’ 2016 award for best intellectual history.

That seed, then, must be somewhere in the tradition of American intellectual history, and indeed, some of the book’s most interesting and novel arguments come in the discussion of mapmaking and cartography in early-20th c. America. The introduction to the book is subtitled “Looking Beyond the Logo Map,” Immerwahr’s term for the cartographic depiction of the United States as merely the Lower 48, and a few chapters later he describes the impact of the successful end to the Spanish-American War on American cartography:

To McKinley…[there was] only one option: take the Philippines, ‘educate the Filipinos, and uplift and civilize and Christianize them, and by God’s grace do the very best for them, as our fellow-men for whom Christ also died.’ Resolute, he sent for the War Department’s cartographer…

The war with Spain gave rise to the only moment in US history when cartographers aggressively rejected the logo map. In its place they offered maps of the empire. Publishers, cashing in on empire fever, rushed to put out atlases showcasing the country’s new dimensions…

By 1900, such maps were common. They appeared as a matter of course in atlases, on classroom walls, in textbooks and at the front of the census report. Some showed the North american mainland surrounded by insets. Others showed the United States stretching out over the world from the Caribbean to the edge of China. Either way, the message was clear: the country had undergone a metamorphosis.

Immerwahr, How to Hide an Empire, p.74
United States of America, 1900. - David Rumsey Historical Map Collection
A map of the US, published by Rand McNally in 1904, showing the state of the country as of 1900.

This is clearly not hiding an empire – so what was? By the 1910s, once the glory of war had settled into the doldrums of occupation, the appeal of empire had vanished to the mainland audience – “a regrettable drunken binge,” in Immerwahr’s telling. First Filipino and then Puerto Rican nationalists admirably profiled in the book, like Emilio Aguinaldo and Pedro Albizu Campos, agitated militarily for independence from rule by Washington DC.

The war in the Philippines was brutal, ugly stuff, reportedly claiming more lives than the American Civil War and defying the best efforts of the nascent Roosevelt administration to bring about a swift end. “As [Aguinaldo] saw it, the point of guerrilla warfare was not to defeat the U.S. army…he hoped he might influence the 1900 presidential election.” That year’s Democratic party platform indeed called it a war of “criminal aggression,” thanks to the work of anti-imperialist activists no less prominent than Mark Twain.

As much of a push factor as the miseries of the Philippine War represented, anti-German sentiment which coalesced into a resurgence of white American nationalism pulled mainlanders away from any attachment greater than the purely imperial towards their colonies.

Woodrow Wilson declared Flag Day in 1916, just two weeks before the first offensive in the Battle of the Somme, and as Immerwahr points out, even if they’d wanted to, there wasn’t much for mainlanders in the old Stars and Stripes to celebrate about the empire:

Whereas British children were made to examine the world map [for Empire Day], U.S. children venerated the national flag, which had a star for each state but no symbol for territories.

If U.S. teachers had pulled out their maps, as many surely did, it’s not clear what they would have found on them. The ‘Greater United States’ maps in vogue a decade earlier were no doubt still hanging on some classroom walls, but by 1916 few such maps were being newly commissioned. Cartographers were returning to the old logo maps, showing only the states.

Immerwahr, p. 111-12

By this point, we’ve strayed from talk about cartography. The book does too, covering the exploits of the US in its colonies up to WW2 in the intervening period, but returns, just as Truman is unwinding the US’ territorial claims, to discuss map projections, the favorite of every devoted West Wing fan.

Pivoting from Sorkin to Immerwahr, we find the following:

In 1898 imperial expansion had inspired new maps. The 1940s wartime expansion yielded a similar burst of cartographic innovation. Writers tapped surprisingly deep reservoirs of feeling as they touched on the subject of map projections. The long-familiar Mercator map, which showed North America protected on both sides by enormous oceans, became an object of scorn. It had worked well enough in an age of east-and-west sail, but the editors of Life deemed it ‘a mental hazard’ in an age of aviation…

More popular was the ‘polar azimuthal projection’ perfected by the dean of wartime cartography, Richard Edes Harrison. It showed the continents huddled around the North Pole, a jarring angle of view that highlighted aviation routes and showed how dangerously close North America was to Germany’s European empire.

The map was an enormous hit, reprinted and copied frequently. Joseph Goebbels waved it in reporters’ faces as proof of the United States’ world-conquering ambitions. The U.S. Army ordered eighteen thousand copies, and the map became the basis for the United Nations logo, designed in 1945.

Immerwahr, pp. 221-22

While the history of cartography alone would make for a compelling read, there’s a lot more to this. In fact, the breadth of topics which Immerwahr manages to fold into his book on American imperialism in itself is startling and worth reading, let alone the actual content of those topics. This is purposeful; as he claims, the work is designed to be “perspectival, seeing a familiar history differently”.

As such, Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! comes out of the history of the actual settlement of Oklahoma, especially the former Indian territory never honored. The celebrated architect Daniel Burnham, designer of the White City and author of the Plan of Chicago, is revealed to have had much greater success in American-era Manila, though many of his creations were sadly destroyed in the Philippine Campaign of WW2.

Burnham’s Plan for Manila

The late 19th-C. craze for guano islands on the Pacific drove the earliest urges of American settlement beyond the North American continent, but the pioneering work of Fritz Haber, who synthesized ammonia, made the acquisition of guano moot. For this Immerwahr calls him “arguably the single most consequential organism on the planet”.

More tragic is the story of Haber’s later career; the worthy scientific work of his wife, Clara, stalled while her husband canoodled with Albert Einstein and set up a new institute for further research. After that work led to the development of poison gas, the German military staff kept Haber on tap to supervise its first deployment on French troops at Ypres. After that war, Haber helped develop a new insecticide named Zyklon A, and which would later be redeveloped into Zyklon B, used in the gas chambers of the Holocaust.

“Clara’s relatives were among those who died in the camps,” Immerwahr writes, continuing, “Luckily, not all of them perished. Although Clara’s married name was Haber, she is today known by her maiden name, the name under which she defended her dissertation: Clara Immerwahr. Her cousin Max was my great-grandfather.”

After that rhetorical mic drop, the book tracks the story of medical practice in Puerto Rico, in what turns out to be a particularly piquant example of the perspectival thesis. All $4.1 billion of the money managed today by the Rockefeller Foundation for “improving lives and the planet” would never have been put to work if not for an an early imperial-era deworming campaign on the island. Bailey Ashford, the physician responsible for this life-saving campaign, was replaced in time by one Dr. Cornelius Rhoads as the main medical administrator on the island. Rhoads, by contrast, spent much of his time performing detestable medical experiments on unconsenting patients; racist and eugenicist private correspondence of his, discovered by housekeepers, helped stoke the flames of revolutionary Puerto Rican nationalism.

And yet while Ashford remained on Puerto Rico for love of the island, Rhoads went on to become director of Memorial Hospital in New York, then head of the medical division of the Army’s Chemical Warfare Service, for which he received the Legion of Honor. He ended his career as the director of Sloan-Kettering, and the American Association for Cancer Research later established an award for promising young doctors in his name.

“But so complete,” Immerwahr notes, “was the informational segregation between Puerto Rico and the mainland that the prize was given for thirty-three years before anyone objected…Even the donor who’d funded the award hadn’t known of Rhoads’ Puerto Rican legacy. And that’s how you hide an empire.”

I really can’t say enough about this book; if you’ve followed along to this point just go out and read it.

Local Zoning and Hukou – Systems of Mobility Management in the US and China

The writer Michael Hobbes had an excellent thread on housing and homelessness the other day:

As Hobbes continues to say, “Every American city that sees a boom in incomes and employment also sees a spike in homelessness. Our deranged housing policy has made equitable urban growth a thing of the past.”

The relationship is indeed causal. The poster children for the current housing crisis in America are precisely those cities where high amenity construction and an influx of college-educated workers has not been followed by sufficient homebuilding – San Francisco, Boston, New York and Austin; to a lesser extent Los Angeles and Seattle too. With no other alternatives, these new high-income workers bid up the existing housing stock – this is the gentrification process – and research by Zillow has found that future increases in homelessness is well-predicted by what comes next, i.e, increases in average rent. While the natural solution to an increase in the demand for housing in a place is to increase the supply for housing in that place, the issue has instead festered and spawned a kaleidoscope of groups all pushing their own solutions, each with a worse tradeoff than the last.

In a classic case of strange bedfellows, some NIMBYs and pro-homeless activists have pointed out that in fact there is no housing crisis, since the national housing stock is more than capable of housing the unhoused, with there being more vacant homes than homeless people. This is true, but subject to an obvious critique: since extra houses in Detroit can’t be moved to Culver City, the only option remaining is to move some of the people out of the crowded cities into these extra homes. And while there are thoughtful approaches to this (like pursuing geographic redistribution as a tool of federal policy), more often than not proponents of this approach end up advocating for a deep and modern form of segregation.

As it happens, the mismatch of homes and jobs is not a uniquely American problem. China, amid its stomach churning rise to middle-income, has been groaning under the weight of a similar problem for decades. I want to compare the restrictions on mobility imposed by local control of zoning in the US with the top-down system used in China – the hukou, which is a form of census and identification strategy that maps each Chinese citizen to a region and determines their eligibility for legal residence in other regions. Obviously, hukou is a rather more domineering way to control the movement of a population. But the effects of local control of zoning are no less severe; rather remarkably, the natural whims of homeowners in Marin County and the Upper West Side have come to align with the technocrats at the CCP.

“Getting to Denmark”

First some accounting: every population on Earth has become more urban since the Industrial Revolution, but the Americans (beginning in the 1850s) and the Chinese (beginning in the 1970s) were really good at it.

It was only by 1920 that the US would become a majority-urban nation; today about 80% of Americans live in cities. The late 20th C. suburbanization is evident to see in the below chart as a break in trend, as is the great return of the millennials to cities after 2008; to a first approximation, however, it’s easy to see that urbanization followed a linear trend up for several decades before slowing at higher levels.

The Chinese have taken a much more volatile path to urbanization.

In 1949, the Communist Party took power in a country that counted 60 million urban residents, a mere spearhead compared to the 450 million living in the countryside.

Early on, they established the hukou, or “household registration” system, a tool of the command economy designed to help the party manage the vast Chinese population. Hukou were used to designate where residents would receive government benefits, like healthcare, schooling for their kids, and work eligibility. They came in two flavors, rural and urban, and while changes to hukou status were nominally allowed, in practice they were exceedingly rare: maybe something like 1% of all rural holders could have converted to urban status each year.

China Loosens Hukou Residency System to Spur Growth - Bloomberg
These are hukou – they’re physical books, sort of like IDs, with all the requisite data about each individual on them.

Hukou shaped Mao-era policymaking. As the Dear Leader’s focus swung from rural collectivization to leap-frog industrialization and then back to iconoclastic civil struggle in the late 1960s, holding an urban hukou was tantamount to a stay of execution – 19 in 20 deaths during the Great Chinese Famine were of rural hukou holders, as they were expected to feed themselves with the surplus remaining after CCP authorities had collected their grain targets, while urban residents received (meager, but reliable) state rations.

Even after the death of Mao and up through the 80s, modern megalopoli like the Pearl River Delta were agricultural, still covered in “rice paddies and water buffalo,” as one urban studies scholar puts it. Shenzhen changed all that. Amid the raft of economic reforms which opened up special economic zones from 1979 onwards was a crack in the armor of hukou that allowed for rural merchants to legally bring their business to cities distinct from their own.

Further reforms in 1992 would open more benefits and a form of legal residency to migrant laborers in a few cities; yet more reforms in the early aughts would finally tear down the rural-urban distinction, replacing it instead with a “regional” hukou. Those reforms have basically worked:

Statistic: Degree of urbanization in China from 1980 to 2020 | Statista

By the mid-2000s, poor farmers in the Chongqing hinterlands had it well within their rights to cast down their plows and pick up factory tools – but only in Chongqing. They couldn’t leave behind the farm as easily for one of the dynamos like Shenzhen, Shanghai, or Beijing. And therein lay the rub.

Between countries, within countries

While overall urbanization stats tell a simple story, they hide the changes in mix between cities which has attained a greater salience today. Put another way, like the UN does in 75-year report on Inequality, “Income inequality between countries has improved, yet income inequality within countries has become worse.”

The below chart illustrates this well – taking the per capita personal income of the top 100 combined statistical areas in the US, we observe that the playing field has become much less equal. In 1969, the median CSA had personal income only 25% lower than the peak, in that year oddly enough represented by Reno, NV. In 2019, the median CSA had a personal income nearly 50% lower than the Bay Area’s.

Source: Bureau of Economic Analysis

This development has important implications for individual behavior and the study of urbanization more broadly. If, say, rural productivity in 1969 was equal to an index of 25 on the chart, then even someone moving to the poorest CSA at that time – New Orleans, LA – could have expected to nearly triple their personal income.

By contrast, say rural productivity was again at 25 for 2019, then someone moving to the 100th-richest CSA, Lexington KY, would only expect to double their income. That 2019 mover has to get all the way to Minneapolis to triple their income like the person who moved to the Big Easy in 1969.

Put simply, while the returns to urbanization were rather uniform in the mid-century, the distribution has skewed in our day. All urbanization is no longer created equal and the restrictions which prevent workers from moving to San Jose and Seattle and NYC and Boston are a club to the kneecap of broader American growth.

Two clever economists advanced this argument a few years ago and did the legwork too; they found that the increase in GDP from ending restrictive housing regulations and allowing greater mobility was astronomical – from 1964-2009, the total increase in GDP would’ve been +36% higher than it was in reality, worth an extra $3.4tn in 09 dollars (Hsieh & Moretti, the authors of that study, corrected an error caught by the economist Bryan Caplan, which had actually underestimated the theorized effects by something like $2tn dollars!).

Of course, for all this to work you have to believe that the increase in income inequality between cities has actually come along with a decrease in mobility to those rich cities. But that does seem to be the case – as above, we noted that these richest cities are ground zero for the housing crisis, places where housing costs are so high not only as to deter all the potential newcomers who don’t have FAANG RSUs as part of their compensation, but also to actually evict present residents!

The real economists have weighed in on this for a while too – the impacts of lower mobility are at the core of Tyler Cowen’s Complacent Class. Davis & Haltiwanger (2014) found rates of job relocation fell by a quarter going into the 90s, while Molloy et al. (2011) declared internal migration to be at a 30-year low.

Molloy et al. (2011), p. 174

If that’s not enough for you, Brookings laid it out cleanly in a 2018 note called “Americans aren’t moving to economic opportunity” – more than half of migration out of “low vitality” counties was destined for other “low vitality” counties, and only 13% of migration from lowest vitality counties made it to highest vitality counties.

The Chinese economy has been no less susceptible to this phenomenon. The mid-aughts hukou reforms which got rid of the urban/rural split brought in new dividing lines, this time in the form of regional boundaries. This has caused its own chafing issues as poor rural residents want the gains from income possible in Shenzhen & Beijing and impossible in their local tier 3 urban area. Filmmakers like Jia Zhangke, who have made it out to the coastal superstar cities, pay testament to these inequities – the lives of a group of miners in remote Shanxi province are depicted in A Touch of Sin as being all sound and fury, bitter cold and hard labor for meager wages.

It’s no wonder that, as The Economist found in 2020, the smallest Chinese cities are actually seeing their hukou-compliant populations fall. Rural hukou holders have a certain “reservation” status, similar to job-seekers in a labor market, below which they will prefer to retain their rural status and forgo the social benefits of registration in the city in which they work. Xi Jinping, who wrote as a student about tinkering with hukou, has pushed a new initiative to spruce up these smaller towns and cities, with little word back on success.

Hukou today, as The Economist has it, is a game of three tiers: you’d love to but can’t get into Shanghai and Beijing, you’re ok with and can get into Chengdu and Xi’an, and you don’t even want to get into small cities like Dawan or Wuwei.

NIMBYism on the Pacific Rim

Nowadays the arguments for keeping strong hukou distinctions are weaker than ever. Faced with four years of Trumpian jousting, COVID-19, and a burgeoning demographic crisis, the party under Xi has been more and more active in tinkering with the rules and allowing for more migration, a strategy once referred to as adding a “new engine for the slowing economy”.

Where opponents of liberalization usually stake their claims is in arguments about the cost of providing for all those newcomers. In a very telling discussion, Fei-Ling Wang, a professor at Georgia Tech, describes the modern pressures on the reform camp:

Resistance to any proposed major reform now, ironically, comes from the urban people – not ironically, but expectedly I guess – and not necessarily from government planners. Government planners are hoping to speed up urbanization even in large cities so the economy can get a new driving force. However, urban officials, the local cadres, see this as compromising their current privilege. They see the rural folks as coming in to share their fruits. The urban-rural difference in China is horrendous – living standard, income, education, medical service, you name it. This great gap really makes the urban folks feel they are privileged and wonder why they should share the scarce resources with country folk. The local officials also worry about it [hukou reform], as it may get local people really angry or create a management issue.

Fei-Ling Wang, quoted in The Diplomat

There we have it – Chinese NIMBYism made flesh. What in the end distinguishes the ideas of those who were there first, either in China or the US, from those who would like only the chance to share in the fruits of high-productivity economies? Very little, except for a commitment to keeping the rest of us all a little poorer.

Misreading Malthus – The Life and Death of Family Planning Policy in China

An era has ended – the Chinese government has capitulated on its near-half-century-long attempt to restrict the growth of its population. Following the release of results from the most recent decennial census, the CCP has told families that having as many as three children is permissible – this from the same organization that promoted in 1978 the slogan “one is best, two at most”. Hand-wringing has already begun as to whether this relaxation will end up having any positive effects. I find it more curious why China’s government embarked on this quixotic errand in the first place.

The writer Sui-Lee Wee has been the New York Times‘ reporter of choice in covering this topic. In a recent series of stories covering the census and its policy impacts, she has updated and typified the discourse around Chinese family planning – focused on the mothers of today either stymied in their desire for more kids or completely overwhelmed by the cost of rearing their single child, Wee’s writing offers the perspective that the Party’s fretful back-pedaling on population planning will end up too little, too late.

That the Party should be worried at all is noteworthy – their fear validates at least in part a sort of pat wisdom now commonly shared about the hegemonic prospects of modern-day China, namely that China as a country got too old before it became rich.

Western countries are not unconcerned about similar matters. South Korea & Japan are quite a ways ahead of the Americans and Europeans in terms of staring down the barrel of the developed country demographic transition, worrying about plunging birth rates among alienated city dwellers. But at least the OECD countries are rich; China, as The Economist notes, still only has per-capita income about one-quarter of the US’.

This is a tension not totally explored in Wee’s stories – in centering the individual women whose lives were and are altered by the policy, this approach paints a valuable picture of daily life in modern China. Yet at the same time, this close portraiture understates the larger dimensions of the one-child policy, its logic, its implementation, and its effects. In fact, I can’t find any more useful way to conceptualize the 1CP other than as the one of the most tremendous acts undertaken by a totalitarian state upon its own citizens in the whole brutal 20th century.

The basic chronology of family planning is worth noting here: Mao is dead in September 1976. Following a short period of intramural combat, the reformists under Deng Xiaoping take power at the December 1978 party plenum.

Moving in parallel to the power politics in the Politburo, a group of scientists and doctors concentrated in Tianjin began to circulate writings through 1978 which asked the state to embark upon a formal policy of population control. A short CCP document advocated “one is best, two is most” the same year, and though it remained merely a party suggestion, some provinces began then to implement 1CP.

In 1980 it became law at the highest levels of policymaking, with a September Open Letter from the Secretariat of the Central Committee announcing “one-child per couple” to its people. Loopholes opened rather quickly – in 1984, the CCP allowed local governments some leeway in administration of the 1CP, mostly to relax requirements for the most rural localities.

And yet in this basic form it endured for more than thirty years. Xi Jinping took the premiership in 2013 and moved as part of his reform plan to loosen family planning policy, declaring in 2014 that couples in which one party was an only child should feel free to have two. In 2015, a two-children policy became the law of the land.

That the one-child policy arrived so late in the difficult history of the People’s Republic is jarring; the whole point of Deng’s regime was to remove the heavy yoke of Maoism from the administration of the country. It was in the fall of 1978 that the pioneering reforms in Xiaogang began, and early in 1979 that the Special Economic Zone in Shenzhen was opened.

Deng pledged “reform and opening-up” at his ascension at the December plenum. His plenipotentiary in Shenzhen, Yuan Geng, became famous for the phrase “time is money, efficiency is life” (时间就是金钱,效率就是生命). The new socialism with Chinese characteristics was a tremendous success, with real gross output rising twelve-fold and extreme poverty being eradicated.

All the while, however, Deng’s lieutenants in the provinces were enforcing 1CP with zeal. This dynamic is typical of Chinese political economy, where the key to a successful political career is leading a provincial government to outperform its targets and peers. The human toll was terrible: official party estimates claim some 400 million births were prevented by the policy.

This is a shocking acknowledgement in its own right, and yet it loses its vigor upon recognition of the crimes committed along the way. Reports abounded of infanticide after unexpected pregnancies, most victims girls. Preferences for boys among Chinese families led to a black market where girls commanded low prices. One NGO claims that the average Chinese woman could expect to have several abortions through her child-bearing years, many of which forced on them by the state.

The tragedies of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution were spurred by one of the 20th C.’s worst madmen trying to enforce rule by personal cult over the planet’s longest-lived and largest civilization. And yet in 2020, the number of births actually matched the nadir of the great famine in 1961. What possibly could have driven the CCP to implement such a policy?

The Foundations of the One-Child Policy in Midcentury Catastrophism

The Chinese government’s goal since liberalization has been to become rich and powerful – less than a year into his reign, Deng was already referring to this as the goal of becoming a “moderately prosperous society” (小康社会), a slogan which has endured through Xi’s massive reworking of CCP ideology.

Keeping this goal in mind makes the 1CP even less sensical than it might seem prima facie. To make your society richer, you can increase the amount of workers or you can make more valuable the work they do. This is mere mechanical accounting: keeping per-capita incomes equal, levels of gross domestic product increase with population, as do rates of economic growth increase with rates of increase in population.

We have to conclude that China’s leadership in the late 1970s was convinced of a more radical idea: that unchecked population growth would actually block them from the successful completion of their goals. This is indeed what happened, and stranger still, most of the intellectual force of this notion came from the advocacy of one scientist, Song Jian.

Song, who yet lives, was trained as a missile scientist in the early 1960s. He survived the Cultural Revolution only through the personal intervention of Zhou Enlai, who named him to a list of fifty indispensable scientists. At the dawn of the Deng era, Song was part of a small cohort of scientists asked to convert from the study of military science (principally missile technology) to the study of economic growth.

Key to the history of the 1CP is a trip to Helsinki taken by Song in 1978, where at a conference of the International Foundation of Automatic Control, he was introduced to the ideas of a book called The Limits to Growth. The book, which first appeared in 1972, was the result of a collaboration between an NGO called the Club of Rome and a group of MIT scientists they commissioned to develop a model for long-term resource use. The basic conclusions of the book were alarming:

If the present growth trends in world population, industrialization, pollution, food production, and resource depletion continue unchanged, the limits to growth on this planet will be reached sometime in the next one hundred years. The most probable result will be a rather sudden and uncontrollable decline in both population and industrial capacity.

The Limits to Growth, pg. 23-24

Underpinning these conclusions were a set of models which displayed the exponential rate of increase of human population and consumption, and in contrast, the linear rate of increase of resource availability, namely food and industrial metals. Acknowledging the imprecision in their forecasts, the team responsible wrote, “precise numerical assumptions about the limits of the earth are unimportant when viewed against the inexorable progress of exponential growth.” (p. 51)

In order to forestall the worst consequences of this dynamic, Limits to Growth recommends “a nongrowing state for human society,” one in which “the birth rate equals the death rate”. The book even goes so far as to warn its readers against waiting for natural phenomena which might ease population pressures to occur, writing, “we cannot say with certainty how much longer mankind can postpone initiating deliberate control…Deliberately limiting growth would be difficult, but not impossible.”

Song Jian returned to China equipped with Limits to Growth and began working on population control diligently. “In the West, the Club of Rome work had provoked an outcry from social scientists concerned about the application of cybernetics’ mechanistic models to the solution of human problems. Song apparently did not encounter such critiques,” writes Greenhalgh in her 2005 article on Song.

Moreover, population control was a topic ripe for the picking by an ambitious and brilliant scientist – “throughout the 1970s population was a weakly institutionalized sector, with few institutions or standard operating procedures for processing policy issues. In this context, policy entrepreneurs [like Song] would have room to exert appreciable influence over the policy outcome.”

Song was able to use his privileged place as an “indispensable” defense scientist to access Western science like in Limits to Growth and also to become a leading voice in a narrow field. His approach worked – after about a year of workshopping, he presented his paper to a leading journal in January 1980, equipped with the recommendation that adopting a one-child policy was an “extremely urgent strategic duty”. By February 1980, the Central Committee was talking population targets, and in March they allowed Song to go wide with his research in the People’s Daily. From there, there was no looking back.

Misreading Malthus and the Errors of Degrowth

But let us return for a moment to the work that undergirded Song’s push – in Limits to Growth‘s contrast between exponential human growth and linear resource growth, readers should be reminded of the work of one man: Thomas Malthus. Indeed, the Club of Rome does that work for us, counting him among their antecedents, as well as such notables as Plato, Aristotle, and John Stuart Mill.

Malthus was the author of a remarkable work which appeared in 1798 called An Essay on the Principle of Population. In it, he discussed his thoughts on exactly that, why population rose and fell and what it meant for national wealth. Early on, he explains his thesis in terms of differing growth rates:

Taking the population of the world at any number, a thousand millions, for instance, the human species would increase in the ratio of—1, 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64, 128, 256, 512, &c. and subsistence as—1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, &c. In two centuries and a quarter, the population would be to the means of subsistence as 512 to 10: in three centuries as 4096 to 13; and in two thousand years the difference would be almost incalculable, though the produce in that time would have increased to an immense extent.

Malthus, Chapter II

Sound familiar? The rest of it remains a strikingly modern read – keep in mind that Adam Smith had only published Wealth of Nations about twenty-five years prior – and full of great discussions. Today, however, Malthus’ name is deployed almost exclusively in the service of discussing the above dynamic. This phenomenon sometimes is called the Malthusian Trap, one where poor societies are unable to become rich, as rising incomes lead to higher populations, which then necessarily lead to lower incomes in the future.

Until the Industrial Revolution, Malthusian dynamics like these did retard the ability of societies to achieve launch velocity and become what we think of today as developed nations. What’s important to note here is that even in his work, Malthus recognized this as a natural dynamic, an ebb and flow of society. Malthus has been received in modern times by the Club of Rome and others as an advocate for population control, but this seems drastically, unbelievably wrong to me. He was not pushing in a normative sense for policymakers to intervene and stop the cycle before it took its natural path; he was instead documenting a general phenomenon about human life in a descriptive way.

He says as much a little later:

The constant effort towards population, which is found to act even in the most vicious societies, increases the number of people before the means of subsistence are increased…The poor consequently must live much worse, and many of them be reduced to severe distress. The number of labourers also being above the proportion of the work in the market, the price of labour must tend toward a decrease; while the price of provisions would at the same time tend to rise. The labourer therefore must work harder to earn the same as he did before. During this season of distress, the discouragements to marriage, and the difficulty of rearing a family are so great, that population is at a stand. In the mean time the cheapness of labour, the plenty of labourers, and the necessity of an increased industry amongst them, encourage cultivators to employ more labour upon their land; to turn up fresh soil, and to manure and improve more completely what is already in tillage; till ultimately the means of subsistence become in the same proportion to the population as at the period from which we set out. The situation of the labourer being then again tolerably comfortable, the restraints to population are in some degree loosened; and the same retrograde and progressive movements with respect to happiness are repeated.

This sort of oscillation will not be remarked by superficial observers; and it may be difficult even for the most penetrating mind to calculate its periods. Yet that in all old states some such vibration does exist; though from various transverse causes, in a much less marked, and in a much more irregular manner than I have described it, no reflecting man who considers the subject deeply can well doubt.

Malthus, Chapter II

The “periods” of Malthus’ “oscillation” represent the key to his whole theory – increases in population don’t lead to some Mad Max style disaster zone; they lead to rising food prices, which induces a rational response by the next generation of parents to wait a little longer before having kids. This is a far cry from Limits to Growth‘s urgency. The only rub for Malthus is that he thinks the length of these cycles is too hard to discern – “difficult even for the most penetrating mind,” as he puts it.

Luckily, modern economists and their analyses turn out to have rather penetrating minds themselves, and a recent paper from Bouscasse, Nakamura, and Steinsson updates the literature on pre-industrial growth cycles. “Our estimates imply that Malthusian population dynamics were very slow,” the authors write. “[A] doubling of real incomes led to a 6 percentage point per decade increase in population growth.” This dynamic held from the Black Death through to 1650, after which things changed – the economy transitioned “from Malthus to Solow,” and increases in productivity couldn’t possibly be swallowed by increases in population: England was getting more productive too quickly.

The Club of Rome read Malthus to say that unless populations were reduced, poverty would result. They had it all backwards. What’s worse, this belief was based in the worst intellectual error one can ever commit: confidence in predictions about the future. Yes, they were right to be concerned about climate change, although it appears Exxon was not too far behind them, on much better evidence. Other parts of the book stress about chromium consumption, which does not rank very highly in a recent study’s concerns about resource usage. They worried also about the potential for the Mexican population to reach 130 million by 2060. Mexico contains 127 million people today, and I am willing to bet that the addition of 3 million more will not suffice to bring on civilizational collapse.

Song Jian and his colleagues bet the farm on a policy motivated by the errant reasoning of doomsayers like the Club of Rome. The strength of modern society is in its ability to constantly transform, to always seek a new answer to an old problem. Growth is an inescapable good – this is the crux of industrialization, and just as there was no reason to doubt this dynamic had changed in 1978, there is still no reason to think so now, though saying so raises the hackles of a minor debate about sustainability and population control now ongoing in the US.

One side of this debate calls itself degrowth, and exhorts us for the good of the planet to abandon economic growth, arguing that the current model of perpetual increases in GDP is merely unsustainable. “Huge chunks of our economy are totally irrelevant to human wellbeing. We must ask ourselves; do we really want to pursue aggregate growth if it’s going to put our planet — and our civilization — at such extraordinary risk?” asked Jason Hickel, its foremost prophet, to CNBC.

My reaction is that all this has been tried before and found to fail. As above, economic growth requires either more people or richer lives. Degrowth, therefore, can really only come from one of two things: fewer people, or poorer lives. I find this degrowtherism to be cowardly, uninventive, a pearl-clutching sky-is-falling fatalism about what we can expect from future technology.

Instead we need to take a different tack, and recognize the limitlessness of human ingenuity. Andrew McAfee wrote admirably about how we’re already solving the problems degrowthers say we’ll never solve. Elsewhere, writers like Matt Yglesias, Lyman Stone, Elizabeth Bruenig, and Noah Smith, among others, have taken up the pen, advocating not for fewer children or smaller economies, but larger nations full of revitalized population centers, bursting with new ideas and an entrepreneurial spirit to take down the challenges of climate change in a positive way.

Malthus’ Last Trick: The Demographic Transition

Ultimately, the voices of those authors are needed because even without encouragement, the growth of the human population is slowing down. Sure, in developing countries, we expect a boom in population to continue until well into mid-century. But demographic transition has occurred in rich countries without fail, leaving large populations of retirees supported by smaller bases of prime-age workers.

This is the great doom of population control efforts, one the Chinese government unwittingly walked into. Their population growth was going to slow down anyway as the country got richer. 1CP only hastened the transition and made the increase in dependency ratio much more rapid – whereas in 1980, one prime-age Chinese worker had to support the income of 1.47 retirees, today that figure stands at 2.5 retirees to every worker. In the US, the same figure is 1.8 retirees to every worker.

At its core, the Malthusian dynamic describes the response of families to the cost of child rearing. In pre-industrial societies, that was easy to understand – kids were mouths to feed, and so Malthus could ask of the desirous but penniless family man, “May he not see his offspring in rags and misery, and clamouring for bread that he cannot give them?”

Today, the pressures on parents are much different, but no less potent. The continued decline in the US birth rate, for example, is sometimes explained as a free and equal choice by women to live childlessly. “There turn out to be a large number of surveys asking about fertility preferences,” Lyman Stone wrote in rebuttal of that idea, “and no matter how creatively it is sliced and diced, no matter what data source is used, women have fewer kids than they say they want, desire, intend, expect, or consider ideal—for themselves or for society on the whole.”

Eric Levitz, writing for NYMag, continues the line of reasoning: “in meritocratic, capitalist societies, middle-class expectations for the amount of time and financial investment a child requires have grown so high, only a radical economic reordering can make larger families feel broadly attainable.”

This same attitude turns up in Sui-Lee Wee’s articles about the changes to family planning. She quotes a 26-year-old Beijinger as saying, “No matter how many babies they open it up to, I’m not going to have any because children are too troublesome and expensive…I’m impatient and worried that I won’t be able to educate the child well.”

Wee phrased it more strongly in another article – ending family planning policies “could also founder amid broad cultural changes. Anxiety over the rising cost of education, housing and health care is now deeply ingrained in society. Many Chinese simply prefer smaller families”.

In seeking to head off a mostly imagined civilizational collapse, the side effects of the one-child policy proved to have the greatest staying power of all. For their latest trick, the Chinese government will have to find another way out.

Re: The NYT Piece on Extended Stay America and Modern SROs

Mya Frazier has a blockbuster of a piece out in the NYT Magazine covering the people who live in long-term hotels, a group one of her sources refers to as the “precariously housed”. It’s a very well-balanced read, taking the proprietor of one chain, Extended Stay America, to task for outsized room fees and brutish eviction practices while also lambasting high growth regions like Columbus and Atlanta for blocking the building of new housing. Taken as a whole, this piece (including the asides about revolting check-cashing fees) presents a crystal-clear accounting of the “high costs of being poor”.

I wrote on Twitter that I see the key culprit here as being lack of new housing, which I am wont to do. The piece also highlights the decline in single-room occupancy hotels, which were once a robust part of the lowest-income housing market but were regulated away to death. But for her part, Frazier focuses more on the role of credit scores in denying many poor Americans access to the rental market.

The criticisms are all spot-on here, including a nice piece of grapeshot fired at the chancy figure of Richard Cordray, who in 2012 became the first boss of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau after Elizabeth Warren decided to forgo leading the agency she’d molded and remain in the Senate. Cordray left the agency to go lose state-wide for the second time to Mike DeWine in the 2018 Ohio gubernatorial race but apparently landed on his feet in Biden’s Dept of Education, running student loan claims.

In her piece, Frazier describes how the former director helped the credit-report triumvir of Experian, TransUnion, and Equifax pivot their businesses after the housing crash to peer deeper into the lives of poor people. They began to include “‘alternative data,’ such as rent and utility payments, into credit reporting…Cordray saw the push as good public policy — a form of ‘financial empowerment.'”

Credit reports have a shallow history – they were only used for the first time in 1989 – but as everyone knows, they control more than just prices for credit, the interest rate borrowers face; for people with bad credit scores, their score can lock them out of credit entirely or be used as a proxy rationale for institutions to enter into non-credit transactions with them.

Case in point: the usage by landlords of credit scores for offering apartments. There is no prima facie reason why a landlord should be able to deny you an apartment in February because they worry about your payments in October – if October comes and you can’t pay, you leave and it’s on the landlord to find a new tenant.

It’s kookier still to believe that that February rent should depend on credit mishaps from years prior. But that’s how the industry has developed – landlords have been able to impose on renters everywhere the 12-month lease as a technology of brutal repression, making a simple payment for services into a loan-like contract.

(One line of counterargument might emphasize that there are benefits to renters for this long-term contract, but I’m skeptical: when times are good, you can probably get a raise, so you could afford higher rent; but when times are bad, you lose everything, so you can’t afford the prior level of rent anyway. Paradoxically, longer maturities benefit the creditor here.)

This point leads to two further and alternate observations. The first is that we should abolish credit scoring. This is seductive, but wrong-headed, because as the Frazier piece points out, credit scores were a technology that facilitated broader access to borrowing: “Credit scores…stratified credit markets. If you had a low score, you paid higher interest rates; once the process was automated, decisions that used to take days or weeks were made within hours.” That improvement in lending decision speed was useful, and shouldn’t be thrown away.

The second observation is on sounder footing: if we must be stuck with a minority precariat, long-term leases, and predatory credit reporters, then credit scores must be reformed to move faster. If you get a new steady job, the weight of your prior credit should fall sharply. Entries in your credit history should stick around for a couple of years at most. Landlords should be steeply disincentivized against declining because of credit score, and instead should be biased towards green-lighting applicants unless something is incredibly wrong.

Siegel Suites, the business operating the hotels where the piece is set, has carved a middle way through this dilemma by ignoring credit histories and offering short-term rentals. This is a good thing: for lack of Siegel, the women profiled in Frazier’s piece would be flat-out homeless, as indeed her first subject was until she and her father learned about Siegel’s offering.

However, by being the only game in town willing to take on these higher risk renters, Siegel is able to charge exorbitant premiums above market rates. Of her second subject’s budget, Frazier writes, “For about five months, Green and her partner managed to cover the initial daily room rate of $44.99, which would add up to more than $1,300 a month — almost twice the fair-market rent of $717 for an efficiency apartment in Columbus, as calculated by HUD.” Renters at Siegel Suites, started by a one-time NoHo body-shop owner, and the better-known Extended Stay America, deserve more competition in this space, which would drive down these painful premiums to rational levels. These landlords deserve some extra profit from the risks they’re taking, but not very much.

(As an aside, I’ve been curious about the model for the landlord decision to evict, prompted first by the closure of the Cinerama theater. When is it more advantageous to evict and reenter the tenant search market, rather than restructuring payments in arrears [even at 100% haircuts] and allow the current tenant to return to normal payment schedule? The fact that it took a CDC order to prevent evictions during the pandemic suggests landlords are quick to evict, a tendency too strong to be fully rational.)

I criticized a recent story from a trio of NPR reporters which tried to account for the large racial homeownership gap by means of credit score discrimination, because I really don’t believe that it’s responsible for driving much of the variation in the purchasing process. But I am much more inclined to believe Frazier’s account, that recourse to the three-digit number in rental markets has gone too far.

At the end of the day, you need a house over your head at whatever price you can afford, and it boggles the mind that the market for housing is insufficiently thick to provide that. More public investment is likely the answer.

Notes Towards a Biography of Martin Van Buren

I’m in the middle of the rightly much-lauded How to Hide an Empire by Daniel Immerwahr – expect a review shortly. Importantly, although Immerwahr has unimpeachable credentials when it comes to academic history, Hide an Empire is not meant to overturn our understanding of belle-epoque American imperialism; it’s a popular work, briskly written, with at least a few passages that have made me gasp out loud. It’s great! And it has got me fiddling with my own American history passion project, a biography of our 8th president, Martin Van Buren.

I came to be fascinated with Van Buren from the facts of his childhood. Born Maarten Van Buren in Kinderhook, NY, he spent many years before speaking a word of English, the only president so far to pick up the language later in life. He singlehandedly reinvigorated partisan politics in the Monroe administration and schmoozed his way to the top job through decades of party politics. Other salient interesting features include:

  • His ancestors left Holland amid the Dutch Golden Age and came to be part of a large section of Dutch families in New York, whose impact is of course endemic throughout the city and state
  • He was the first one-termer not named Adams, and played dirty politics following his 1840 defeat with presidential nominations
  • Between him and George HW Bush, no vice president would take over the reins from his termed-out predecessor
  • The Panic of 1837 began barely 60 days into his administration, an economic crisis without parallel until the Great Depression
  • His vice president, Richard Mentor Johnson, was the only one elected under the provisions of the 12th Amendment
  • His foreign policy had to deal with Indian wars, Mormon wars, Upper and Lower Canadian wars, the Amistad, and Texas
  • As regards slavery, he was in modern eyes, “on the right side of history”. He lived until 1862 and strongly backed Lincoln’s efforts to persecute the war against the South

&c., &c. Anyway, if there are any desirous publishers out there, please don’t hesitate to send me over a wad of cash. You’ll get a nicely padded biography for your efforts. I can’t promise it’ll become a best-seller, but I am very interested to pursue it!

Local Notes No. 4 – Civic Architecture on Sunset Blvd

I have been stymied for some months now in my attempts to visit Frank Lloyd Wright’s Hollyhock House. The massive structure, inspired by pre-Columbian art and architecture, sits atop a hill named Barnsdall Park in Los Feliz.

Photos: Joshua White / JWPictures.com
Detail of the Hollyhock House with view to the west (I think).

It was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2019 and is an irreplaceable entry in Wright’s Los Angeles oeuvre, whose other entries comprise probably the most interesting architectural body of work in the area. (The City has closed Barnsdall Park for COVID-19 reasons, but transmission of the virus is much reduced in our little slice of heaven, and at any rate it is an outdoor park, so I remain miffed.)

Luckily, LA contains multitudes, and so by piloting yourself just a smidge further west, you can come across the two buildings I’d like to write about today: the headquarters of the International Cinematographers Guild and the Motion Picture Editors Guild.

Sorry for the picture quality! Those weird columns in the foreground are palm trees.

The two buildings straddle Genesee Ave and are just about equal in size, filling up the corner quarter-acre on each block. They also do what they say on the tin, housing the offices of the union locals which represent the crews that make Tinseltown run. In today’s age of atomized labor, the idea of a powerful, rich union making studio heads quake in their boots from showy modernist offices may read like science fiction. But the history of organized labor in film is long and rich – recall that Ronald Reagan, who ushered unions out of the modern workplace when he broke the Air Traffic Controllers’ strike in 1981, first made a political name for himself as President of the Screen Actors’ Guild. As the boss of SAG, Reagan led his actors on the first strike in film history and got the studios to cave to paying residuals.

reagan moneypenny ap images 615.jpg
The Gipper in 1947 presenting a SAG card to Lois Maxwell, who would later star as Moneypenny in several James Bond films.

David Fincher’s wonderful Mank sets itself right at the intersection of Hollywood and the drive for labor organization in the 1930s, though some of that action is backgrounded in favor of the drama of Upton Sinclair’s abortive gubernatorial run. These days, tens of thousands of industry workers carry a union card, and their actions continue to shape film and TV history – as an example, Jesse Pinkman on Breaking Bad was set to be killed off by the end of the show’s first season, but the notorious 2007-08 strike gave Vince Gilligan time to reconsider and rewrite the character for the long haul.

The Int’l Cinematographers Guild (ICG) and the Motion Picture Editors Guild (MPEG) are both locals under the umbrella of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, show business’ most storied union, with origins dating back to Vaudeville theater. The ICG, housed in the westernmost of our two buildings, is Local 600 of the IATSE and represents anyone who touches a camera, including big-name DPs and cinematographers like Roger Deakins. The MPEG, meanwhile, is known as Local 700 of the same mother union, and represents both film and sound editors, as well as other editorial staff.

The battle to build these organizations was mighty, but well-rewarded in the years following the Great Depression. Membership rose as the guilds secured better wages from the studios, who were themselves navigating the new landscape being forged by the emergence of television. By the late 1950s, the ICG and MPEG were on sound enough footing to construct a new set of offices down the block from their first headquarters.

This plaza at Sunset and Las Palmas, funnily enough named the Crossroads of the World, was home to the MPEG starting in 1937.

Internet records of the construction of these buildings are sadly scarce – if I were a more dedicated reporter, I would’ve gone into the Records desk at the city Dept of Building and Safety – but my sleuthing indicates that they were likely constructed as a pair beginning in 1959, under the design of the architectural partnership of Douglas Honnold and John Rex.

Motion picture cameramen & film editors unions building, 7715 Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles, 1959 : News Photo
Still of an architectural drawing of what was to become the MPEG headquarters.

Writing on the work of Douglas Honnold often mentions that he passed up on an opportunity to design the McDonald’s Golden Arches, which I find a bit unfair. Buildings he did actually design included the William Morris Agency building, several of a coffee chain known as Coffee Dan’s, and the Valley Plaza Tower in North Hollywood, one of the first true skyscrapers in Los Angeles (a 150-foot city height limit was scrapped in 1957, and Honnold & Rex struck quick).

The Valley Plaza Tower sits just of the 110 in North Hollywood, and dominated the skyline of the San Fernando Valley for years.

Honnold was a skilled residential architect, too. He built an estate for Samuel Goldwyn, now owned by Taylor Swift, and participated in a contest run by the magazine Architectural Products to produce a set of “Research Houses”. This contest was in naked imitation of the famous “Case Study” effort launched by Arts & Architecture, many of whose designs became classics of the mid-century modern style. The Research Houses never ended up with such fame, but Honnold’s entry has endured – Meryl Streep ended up owning the place before passing it on to Alex Rodriguez, who in 2019 sold it for a cool $4.4 million.

An ad for a later Research House – Honnold built his in 1954.

Honnold & Rex together were part of an enduring clique of forward-thinking, hard-working architects who had their finger on the pulse of jetset-era Los Angeles, a city hurtled into the future we live in today via an influx of modernist thinkers and builders, eager for a postwar landscape they could leave their mark on. I admire their designs for the ICG and MPEG headquarters so much because they manage simultaneously to be pristine examples of the mid-century corporate style as well as to express their intended function with absolute clarity.

In the facade of the MPEG building, the interplay of the exposed steel beams and the glass-paned wall behind it creates a resemblance to a film reel, frames of office life perceivable through the shutters – an invocation of the very stuff the building’s inhabitants spent their careers tenderly cutting and pasting together, or else leaving on the cutting-room floor.

7715 W Sunset Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90046 - Property Record | LoopNet.com
Another view, this time from the southwest.

Meanwhile, in the ICG building’s case, Honnold & Rex deftly carved mass atop mass to create apertures out of their walls, sculpted quadrangles conjuring an association to the camera’s own eye. Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window had come out just five years prior, and its conceit resonates here – both the camera technicians indoors and we as passers-by outdoors cannot venture outside of the frame given us by the architects to view the world. To paraphrase Scorsese, the design of the ICG building is a matter of what’s in the frame and what’s out.

A view of the building from the southwest. Credit Elliott Cowand 2017.

Local Notes No. 3 – The Brock & Co Jewelers Building in Downtown Los Angeles

Happily, I got to go to Dodger Stadium yesterday to watch my Nationals lose the third of a three-game series and slink back east, well and truly swept. The loss didn’t bug me too much though, as going to Dodger Stadium means going downtown and going to downtown Los Angeles means getting to see some really excellent architecture, still standing from a different era of Angeleno development.

Anyone who’s been by the famous Olvera Street is familiar with the fact that Los Angeles used to consist entirely of what we today call downtown. Land speculation in the areas surrounding the old pueblo during the 1880s brought a mass of migrants, swelling LA’s population from its pre-American norm of ~10,000 people to 100,000 by 1896. In the twenty years that followed, the many-tentacled development of railways throughout the Southland would give the city more rail mileage than New York.

The North End of DTLA in 1894, as drawn by Bruce Wellington Pierce; sadly, almost all of this neighborhood was leveled to make way for City Hall.

At the center of all that iron and all those people was the Historic Core of downtown, where booming economic fortunes spawned arcades of department stores, great canyons of banking houses, and a jewelers’ district, where George C. Brock set up Brock & Co. jewelers in 1903. By the 1920s, Brock was doing so well in the diamond trade that he signed a 99-year-lease at 515 W 7th St, and there asked the architects Dodd and Richards to build him a new corporate headquarters.

PCAD - Brock and Company Jewelry Store, Downtown, Los Angeles, CA
515 W 7th in three-quarter view.

515 W 7th is a stunning building, even sitting squat as it does at only four stories tall. Indeed, its height sets it apart somewhat from its immediate neighbors – I find that its stature enhances the presentation of the whole thing, like a sprinter leaning forward to edge his opponents out at the finish line. Starting at bottom, the impression of iron frames and glass storefront is rather utilitarian, artfully set away from the shock yet to come above street-level. As we move up past the awning and into the mezzanine, with its lovely bronzed patina, we run for the first time into 515’s complicated web of columns and windows, inset into its facade as a painting into a gilded frame.

Màs Malo from “Scandal” – IAMNOTASTALKER
A frontal view of 515 W 7th.

The three stories of curvy pilaster breaking the glass space is striking, reminiscent of what others call the Churrigueresque style – others still refer to it merely as “Ultra Baroque”. The sinuous broken pediment which forms the top of the facade offers one last thrill for the eye, reveling in the full gaudiness of its curves.

The man responsible for the building’s design was William J Dodd, an architect of Midwestern extraction who was trained in the offices of William LeBaron Jenney, builder of the first skyscraper. Dodd spent a remarkable quarter-century in Louisville, there and through other states back east building beautiful houses in the Beaux Arts style.

The Major LW McKee House in Lawrenceburg, KY, built by Dodd in 1886.

In 1912, he quit Kentucky for Los Angeles. In truth, no one may be more responsible for the way the south end of DTLA looks than Dodd – for the next twenty years he would have his fingers in most of the city’s developing cookie jars. In 1917, he built an addition to the famous Brockman Building, then built Coulter’s department store a block east.

Advertisement for Dodd’s Coulter’s department store, which sat among the other great shopping stores on 7th St downtown.

His Henning Building went up right next to Coulter’s, and the Huntsberger-Mennell Building popped up the same year on the 400 block. He finished his annus mirabilis on 7th St with the construction of the great Ville de Paris department store.

Dodd’s Ville de Paris under construction.

Dodd had a hand, early in his California period, in helping the great architect Julia Morgan to build William Randolph Hearst a new home for his Los Angeles Herald-Examiner. Works like the Herald-Examiner Building show off some of the decorative flair Dodd would bring to the Brock building.

The Herald Examiner Building, completed in 1914.

That decorative urge seems to have been everywhere in the SoCal air at this time – the revival of the Ultra Baroque in California is in fact credited to the architects responsible for the Panama-California Exposition of 1915, Bertram Goodhue and Carleton Winslow. The pair chose a decidedly more Spanish style both to honor the history of San Diego, where the fair took place, as well as to stand apart from the Beaux Arts monuments so common of other fairs going on at the time. Think of Daniel Burnham’s White City in Chicago, home of the 1893 Columbian Exposition, and you’ll have a good feeling for what the organizers were rebelling against.

The Casa del Prado in Balboa Park, San Diego, erected for the 1915 Panama-California Exposition. The Exposition helped revive the Baroque style in LA architecture.

Funny enough, it was at that Panama-California Exposition where the modern history of San Diego was set out: Franklin Roosevelt, then Assistant Secretary of the Navy, gave a press conference from Balboa Park where he described the new naval base set for construction in San Diego Bay. While their permanent structures were under construction, the Navy would use some features from the Exposition still standing, as would the San Diego Zoo, which cobbled together some poor leftover critters from the exotic corners of the fair to use for their first exhibits.

For all these reasons, Dodd was a natural architectural call for the jewelry shop to make. Headquarters in hand, Brock pere went on to make his little concern Los Angeles’ biggest diamond dealer. Celebrities of a species we’ve all forgotten now, like Mary Pickford, frequented its 7th St halls.

Coquette Poster
Pickford won 1930’s Best Actress award for Coquette, advertised here as a ‘100% talking picture’. I bet it’s a great movie!

Ad men combined Brock goods with great copy to make timeless ads like the one below. Per one source, Tiffany’s actually approached Brock with the intention to merge their businesses, but the deal fell through.

Brock & Co even had a minor place in California legal history, as they sought to have a 1937 tax assessment reduced, arguing that much of their valuable stock was not in Los Angeles but actually in Hawaii and therefore not subject to the duties set by the LA County Board of Supervisors. They lost at the California Supreme Court.

1937 Ad Brock Jewelry Company Los Angeles Ring Diamond - ORIGINAL FTT9
$535 for a diamond ring – good deal

George Brock retired in the 1960s and the Clifton family, who ran a network of popular cafeterias, bought the building out from him to install one of their franchises. Clifton’s Silver Spoon Cafeteria operated until 1997 – Jack Kerouac mentions eating at one of their LA locations in On The Road.

A diner carries a tray in Clifton's Silver Spoon. 1981 photo by Shelley Gazin, courtesy of the Gazin Archive.
Shot from a 1981 story about the Clifton Silver Spoon

After that, the building briefly fell into disrepair, victim of the utter hollowing-out of DTLA in the years following the 1960s. History picked it back up as part of the vaunted Downtown LA revival in the late aughts, when a restauranteur refurbished its second floor and opened Seven Grand, a whiskey bar. Heads swiveled apace as young creatives poured into the watering hole, and a buzzy Mexican restaurant, Más Malo, followed the whiskey bar into operation a few years later. Network producers apparently liked the old styling of the Brock building’s interior too – Scandal and Parks & Rec both have scenes filmed there.

Más Malo met an abrupt end sometime in 2018, and the pandemic has meant that Seven Grand and Bar Jackalope, its speakeasy, have been shut for some time now. But I have faith that the life contained within William Dodd’s otherworldly Spanish terra cotta and marble creation, dropped into the middle of what was once an old pueblo by the mid-century California king of diamonds, will rise again.

Local Notes No. 2: Clyde Hill, WA’s Coin-Flip Mayor

On one unseasonably warm day in December 1975, two candidates vying for the mayoralty of Clyde Hill, WA, a 3200-strong suburb sandwiched between Seattle and Bellevue, met in the office of the King County Superintendent of Elections. Against all odds, the normal course of count and recount in the scheduled November election had exhausted itself and the true result seemed to be a tie.

It’s probably more symptom than cause of anything in particular, but I find it hard to ignore the ways in which close elections, and the mechanisms used to finally decide them, have become critical historical focusing points of late. Among the notables:

But set that all aside for a second and put yourself in the mind of a Pacific Northwest voter in late 1975. Richard Nixon had only a few years prior taken 49 states to win a second term, including your own of Washington, where an incumbent Governor Daniel Evans cruised his way to an 8-point reelection.

Elsewhere, Saturday Night Live had premiered, Queen had released “Bohemian Rhapsody,” Bill Gates had written down the name “Micro-soft” for the first time, and the SS Edmund Fitzgerald had just sank in Lake Superior, though you’d have to wait a few more months to hear a killer ballad about it.

Close elections were not really part of your world – Seattle Mayor Wes Uhlman could even easily fend off a recall election brought that same year by disgruntled city unions. Such thinking is probably what led Miles Nelson, one of the two would-be mayors in the Superintendent’s office that day, to asses that his would-be constituents “didn’t know there was a choice. They didn’t vote intelligently”. Probably for the best, then, that it was Nelson who called “Heads” while the flip was up and won the gavel in Clyde Hill.

Incumbent head honcho Liberino Tufarolo, who had called “Tails,” was despondent after the loss was settled, and slipped out of the room “quietly commenting that maybe it was time for someone else to take over.” New Mayor Nelson was all smiles, picking up calls from media colossi like the New York Times, NBC News, and People magazine as well as from local dailies in Maine and eastern PA.

Political History of CH

In a way, this story has a fair ending, since neither man tried his hands at Clyde Hill politics again – Nelson followed his predecessor into retirement after finishing his term in 1979. But I think the story resounds today for what it has to say about the media and local government.

No one votes in local elections, then as much as now. Certain future President Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez won her seat representing 700,000 New Yorkers by dint of a primary election in which 27,700 votes were cast. Los Angeles once had to resort to issuing cash prizes to those who voted in Board of Education elections. Zoltan Hajnal, a political scientist at UCSD, pegs the number of voters who participate in municipal elections at around 25%, but that still comes off too optimistic to me.

Dr. Hajnal has an easy partial fix to this phenomenon: aligning the scads of important but boring municipal elections on the calendar with the important and exciting presidential elections. And while I’m sure that’s a prudent and effective way of engineering higher turnout in critical local votes, I’ve got a better idea: make the TV trucks show up.

By way of example, the 94th District of Virginia represents Newport News, a stone’s throw from where Cornwallis surrendered to Washington. In 2017, the election of a representative to the state’s House of Delegates was decided – you guessed it – by the drawing of lots from a film canister.

A Republican, David Yancey, won what ended up being quite the consequential draw, for it allowed Republicans to retain control of one chamber of the state legislature. Amid the frothy media blitz which covered the drawing, and the two Trump years which followed, Democrats pressed enough interest into normally low-turnout House of Delegates elections to take the majority, securing trifecta control of Virginia politics for the first time in twenty-five years. Shelly Simonds, who had drawn the short straw in 2017, beat Yancey by 16 points in their rematch.

We are without a doubt in the midst of a crucial realignment period for both parties and politics more broadly in this country, with no one really sure who is calling the shots anywhere. These battles will be fought less in the normal battlegrounds of Florida retirement communities or Rust Belt suburbs and increasingly in the loci of dynamic change like Seattle, paired with Denver as the two fastest growing cities north of Tennessee.

The population of metro Seattle has already increased by 300% since Miles Nelson’s election as Mayor of Clyde Hill. As the city continues to add residents in perpetuity, voters in these after-thought municipal elections will end up wielding significant power. So much of success is just showing up – future you doesn’t want to find yourself quoting Fry from Futurama:

Image result for futurama fry forgot to vote

On the other hand, maybe the lesson is less “go vote in local elections” and more “maybe random processes aren’t so bad at picking officials”. The Athenians did it, and the French are trying it out as a means of fostering more public trust in the COVID-19 vaccine. It even has a cool name: sortition. Tim Dunlop, an Australian writer, included the practice among his list of “big audacious ideas for a better world”.

Consider me unconvinced, however. Usually the combo of a funny Greek-derived word and random sampling is enough to win me over, but I find it sort of solving the problem downstream to do away with elections entirely. There’s not a lot any one of us can do to change the course of our country, or save the planet, or arrest some giant machinations of capital and illicit power, but your neighborhood is just the right size for you to make an impact in. Even as we turn the page from a contentious election and look forward to going back to brunch, please, remember to vote.