Opinion Columns & Blogs

Joe Mathews: Los Angeles and its thirst represent a water balloon of myths

News flash! Los Angeles, a famously dry place, this month has been suddenly inundated. The source is not rain, not El Niño. Nope, we’re experiencing a flash flood of commentary tied to the 100th anniversary of the opening of the Los Angeles Aqueduct.

Fueled by donations from an artist who is a member of the wealthy Annenberg family, a host of California institutions have produced more materials – stories, photos, art, events, exhibits – on the aqueduct than a single Angeleno could process in, well, a century. And while much of the work is beautifully done, a lot of it reinforces some commonly believed nonsense: that the aqueduct is a singular, only-in-L.A. engineering accomplishment; that it was responsible for the creation of the city; and that it was the city’s original sin, committed by a few tyrannical conspirators.

All of this is wrong. First, imported water has been a feature of cities since Roman times. New York built its first two aqueducts in the 19th century, decades before the Los Angeles Aqueduct. Second, the city had been growing rapidly for more than 30 years before the aqueduct, and that growth was – and I use this word pointedly – natural. This place, with fine weather and rivers, was always well-suited to people. (Native Americans prospered here before the missionaries, the real original sinners, showed up.)

It was the pressure of that growth, not some conspiracy, that led L.A. to look for water elsewhere. The city didn’t act alone or extra-legally. The federal government approved the project. If the city hadn’t built an aqueduct into the Eastern Sierra, we would have gone elsewhere, as we eventually did.

So why do we cling to this narrative of sinful water thieves who built a city in a desert (which is in fact not a desert)? Quite simply, Angelenos, guilty about easy comfort in the sunshine, love the idea of ourselves as rogues. And we adore the movie “Chinatown,” in which the city (as depicted by screenwriter Robert Towne) is a fallen, corrupt place held in incestuous sway by one powerful figure who fools the public to control the San Fernando Valley and bring water to it.

For years, historians and journalists have put Chinatown in context by saying, lazily, that the historical particulars of the movie are mostly wrong but that it gets at a larger truth about L.A. and its water. But that supposed larger truth – that the city’s expansion was a conspiracy of a few powerful people – is misleading at best.

L.A.’s real modern history is distinguished not by conspiracy or corruption, but by a progressive devotion to anti-corruption and a fear of concentrated power. This is the land of endless commissions, of weak mayors, of nonpartisan elections and sidelined political parties. The aqueduct, as a public project successfully completed, should be celebrated – but more as an exception than a rule.

Even our corruption has often been more pathetic than powerful. It is fitting that this month’s aqueduct centennial coincides with news reports that a state senator from Los Angeles County, Ron Calderon, took $88,000 in bribes, but was unable to deliver on the legislation he allegedly promised.

Of course, it is the banality of L.A. civic life that makes the conspiracy theories and cinematic narratives so powerful. We’d rather believe in shadowy power than reckon with the fact that no one is in charge. The “Chinatown” narrative – it’s the powerful guy’s fault – absolves us not only of blame for L.A.’s problems but also of responsibility for solving them.

The ostensible reason for all this month’s aqueduct remembrances is that they are supposed to spark a conversation about what we need to do to use water wisely and build a brighter future. But telling the story as if it’s out of “Chinatown” doesn’t serve this purpose. You don’t spur people to action by telling them that the fix is always in.

The bigger question is this: Can Los Angeles ever stop thinking of itself as an exceptionally unnatural or corrupt or fallen place? You can try to debunk the conspiracy theories. You can try to argue that we have the power to write our own history, just as we did in the past. You can try to convince people that we’ll never get our act together as long as we believe that a few powerful people control everything. You can ... Ah, forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.