Race and place names, in the news again

December 4, 2011 § 3 Comments

An article in today’s L.A. Times and a recent Daily Show episode, Amazing Racism, reminds us that we still have work to do as a nation in healing our history of racial discrimination, right down to what ends up on maps.

And lest we try to cloak ourselves in the notion that ugly place names pertain uniquely to the attitudes of far-away-others, we have our own local history of place name alienation attached to a street and a former LA-area waterbody.  A link to my previous piece on the N-word Slough turned up in the comments to the LA Times piece, and Joe noted it here.

Source: Cal State Dominguez Hills

I’ll write a little more about the wetland itself another time.  Today is for remembering the lives and courage of regular people, 19th Century African-Americans finding their way in the newly colonized, racially-charged Los Angeles.  Is there a way to honor the perseverence, while also genuinely balming the pain?

Foxes poisoned at the Devil’s Dip in West Athens

May 7, 2010 § 3 Comments

Recovering grey fox used to live at or near the Devil's Dip creek. He was poisoned with strychnine. Photo: Valley Wildlife Care

It’s been a rough time for the diminishing grey foxes* of the Anderson Wash area, aka Devil’s Dip creek, in the West Athens District of unincorporated LA County. That they’re even around here is a welcome surprise to people who track the remnant wildlands of urban LA. That is, that they were even around, as it remains to be seen if any are left after this incident.

It turns out that three grey foxes – including a baby – died recently on the campus of Southwest College. Someone there called in a nonprofit wildlife rehab group, Valley Wildlife Care, « Read the rest of this entry »

Preliminary maps of the Dominguez Watershed

October 2, 2009 § 1 Comment

For your perusal and comment.

Dominguez watershed with detail from 1896-1902 USGS overlaid.

Dominguez watershed with detail from 1896-1902 USGS overlaid.

Here’s some preliminary maps of the Dominguez Watershed, in LA’s South Bay, that I’m working on for Friends/Amigos of the Dominguez Watershed. It’s a work in progress, so I’ll walk you through some of the details.

First of all, the watershed boundary is based on the contemporary watershed, as you can see in the old maps, today’s boundary would also include portions of Compton Creek, for example.  As the streams were straightened and culverted or channelized, subdrainage areas were also reconfigured – hence the change.

Dominguez watershed overlaid with detail from 1920s-30s USGS maps. Map is a work in progress.

Dominguez watershed overlaid with detail from 1920s-30s USGS maps. Map is a work in progress.

The next big difference (to me) is that the 1920s-30s era map has so much more detail than the 18906-1902 map.  That’s because the later map was drawn at a more refined scale.  So we see streams and sumps that I’m classifying as wetlands/vernal pools(in green) that don’t read in the earlier map – but we can bet they were there, research and oral histories indicates it is so.  Another big change is that the large Dominguez Slough converted in a mere 30 years to being mostly open water to mostly wetland or sump or wet meadow (see large blue and green areas on the maps).  This is the result of deliberate draining of the wetland, today’s Dominguez Channel being the descendant of that earlier effort.

Dominguez watershed today - with some info missing, this is a work in progress.

Dominguez watershed today - with some info missing, this is a work in progress.

So in less than 100 years, this has become quite the desiccated little watershed (the white and orange line are the stormdrains, almost no blue anymore, green is a missing layer to be added, but will be small) – to say nothing of polluted.  Not covered by these maps is the shift in land use.  Wetlands, often being considered a waste (once the hunt clubs have had their fill of the game I guess), get drained for agriculture, and then, being still floodprone, tend to get pretty undesirable zoning – our Dominguez Slough was no different:  chemical and petroleum industries set up shop over much of the wetland and today some areas are Superfund sites.

Searching for Tom-or Joshua-down in Dominguez

December 20, 2008 § 19 Comments

OK.  I need to begin by telling you that there is an offensive and insensitive word in this post, one that I regret being here, but that is also the genesis of my search.  I apologize for its presence.

Some of you have also been looking for it.  We can see search terms that lead you to the LA Creekfreak.  And ever since that map exhibit at the Public Library, we’ve been seeing those two words, one of which is really ugly.  I bet you have wanted to know how the hell a waterbody ends up with a name like that on a federal map.  In any era.  If you don’t know what I’m talking about, the image below contains racist language, in a shockingly banal context.

 

 

 

USGS map, circa 1900.

USGS map, circa 1900.

Clearly a loaded topic, and one which links our environmental history to our racial (and racist) history, something which has been lurking in the background in a number of our posts on historical LA and its waterbodies, and which I also feel as an angelena is often not readily acknowledged.  

I have been avoiding writing about this slough in part out of the theory that it is better to let sleeping dogs lie. We have a lot of trauma in the city caused by racism, we are still living out the effects of this trauma, and unfortunately there are those creating new traumas.  All the time.  And I don’t want to re-traumatize our African-American neighbors by reviving this horrible name.  But I have also regretted that the story behind the name can’t be turned on its head, and wondered if there was a way to elevate the story to help unwind history a little.

And so this is my attempt, and an incomplete one at that.  

There has been quite a bit of speculation as to the origin of this former place name, later renamed the Dominguez Slough, and today the Dominguez Channel (the slough being all but gone).  Some have asserted that its desultory name came from the black mud that surrounded the area, but I don’t buy it.  The 1914 Reagan papers have repeated references to this Slough, one of which added the name Tom:

“The water was pouring through the bridge that caused our wreck and was running into the Nigger Tom slough…” Mr. A. C. Cook, 1914, in Reagan.

Who was this man Tom, if this name refers to an actual person?  Rudy Mattoni and Travis Longcore, in their 1997 publication, The Los Angeles Coastal Prairie, A Vanished Community, provide the following comment in a footnote: “The wetland was reportedly named after the freemen who farmed near it and the name appears on historic maps of the area (Nelson 1919).”  To further complicate matters, I went over to the CSU Dominguez Hills archives to see what information they had.  In 1977, a student researcher, Bonita Lucille Braddock Miramontes, pulled together archival resources to what she could piece together.  She had met with Bill Mason, then of the Natural History Museum (I don’t know if he’s still there), who shared the view that our  mystery man was believed to be a hog farmer who lived on the old Rancho Dominguez lands, near the slough, in the 1870s.  Bonita then tracked down Robert C. Gillingham, who wrote a history of the Rancho San Pedro.  Gillingham elaborated that he had heard this story from an old caretaker and Dominguez-Carson family members, who in turn heard it from old Mexican farmhands.  He also noted that our mystery man arrived sometime after the Civil War, but that by the 1880s there were no blacks living in the vicinity of the slough.  He also mentioned that “one conjecture is that” the hogfarmer “may have been a descendant of one of the pioneer settlers who founded Los Angeles in 1871, which included a number of negroes.” Bonita went further with her research, locating the name of a black man, Joshua William Smart, who owned property near the slough, in the Assessment Book for LA County, 1870-71.  So…Joshua or Tom?  Or someone else?or all of them?  How did they come to live there, and why did they leave?  How did the slough affect their lives and livelihoods?  How were the neighbors?

Clearly more research is needed.  Bonita listed newspapers that could be consulted, including the California Eagle, a black LA newspaper that began publishing in 1879.  There are other historical society archives to visit, and perhaps even descendants of early settlers.  I haven’t given up this thread just yet.  You see, I can’t help but think of how courageous and resilient he or they would have been, and I think his or their presence lends yet more richness to the diversity that was early Los Angeles.    

If only the County could have been as aggressive in erasing housing covenants and other forms of discrimination as it was in erasing this glaringly embarrassing and insulting name from the maps.  If only they didn’t have to erase the history of Tom/Joshua when they did this.  

I will write more about the slough and its story another time.  For now, I’d just like to point out to you that it was so large as to extend from Carson (think Victoria Golf Course) to Torrance (Madrona Marsh), Gardena, and parts of Compton, with fingerlets in Hawthorne and West Athens(fragments still remain at the Devil’s Dip/Chester Washington Golf Course).  Other bits of remaining marshland include the Gardena Willows near Vermont and Artesia, and what’s called Albertoni Farms in Carson, a bit of slough in the middle of a trailer park.  

I think it would be pretty cool if one day,  a park or greenway or remnant wetland was properly named after Tom X, or Joshua Smart, or whoever our mystery man is.  Smart Creek has a nice ring to it.

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