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What's in a Name?

GUEST COMMENTARY-In this age of Trumpistic double-speak and alternate facts, we need to take a closer look at our history and begin to understand how evil has come to be memorialized in our culture.

The vestiges of racism, slavery and corruption need to be eradicated; one step in that direction has already begun: the purging of overtly racist artifacts. Confederate flags are not appropriate to display in public; Confederate and racist monuments should be taken down (General Lee); some names need to be changed (Washington Redskins and Cleveland Indians); some products need to be rebranded (Aunt Jemima, Uncle Ben’s, Eskimo Pie).

But let's be careful how far we take this. Washington Post and MSNBC columnist Eugene Robinson recently asked: “What about non-Confederate historical figures who were white supremacists? If every statue of a racist were taken down, we’d mostly have empty pediments and plinths. It should depend on the person, the context and the memorial itself.”

Indeed, Woodrow Wilson's name has been removed from Princeton's School of Public and International Affairs and Wilson College because he was a segregationist; President Ulysses S. Grant and lyricist Francis Scott Key's statues were toppled in SF's Golden Gate Park (both were slave holders). Locally, Orange County has decided to rename John Wayne Airport because the actor had made racist comments in several interviews. What are the contexts here?

Robinson again: "There is an obvious difference between George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, who founded our union, and, say, Jefferson Davis and Stonewall Jackson, who tried to destroy it. The fact that [they] owned slaves should temper our admiration for them but not erase it entirely." I kind of think that sentiment goes for Wilson, Grant, Key, and even John Wayne. If you disagree, then there's still more to do, right here in Los Angeles. The history of our city is one of oil, land and water scandals, of genocide and segregation. Maybe we should reconsider some of our local names and make some changes. And let's not stop at racism.

The growth of California, particularly the southern portion, was pushed along by slavery. The Franciscan missions were built on the backs of the Indians, who were beaten and slaughtered by the Spanish. In 1769, Father Junipero Serra founded California's first missions by implementing a near-genocidal policy. With the help of Spain's soldiers, the Indians were brought to the sites of the missions and, once there, they became slaves, directed by the friars. A side note: Serra was instrumental in bringing the Spanish Inquisition to the New World. For doing God's work, Pope Francis canonized him in 2015. Activists have toppled his statues, but that's not enough. Anything having to do with Serra and Mission culture needs to be reevaluated.

Joseph LeConte, who was one of the co-founders of the Sierra Club and was an early advocate for conservation and preservation of California's natural wonders, was a die-hard racist from South Carolina. He joined the UC Berkeley faculty in the late 19th century as a professor of physics and chemistry and there used scientific language to promote racist ideas. In 1939, long after his death, the university named its  physics building after him. Just this week UC Berkeley pulled down LeConte's name from the building. 

Last July, the North Westwood Neighborhood Council voted unanimously to rename Westwood's Le Conte Avenue (possibly changing the name to honor UCLA alumnus Jackie Robinson) but the city council has the final say on that. (Also at UCLA there has been a movement to rename the campus' Janss steps, named after the Janss Investment Company, which used racial covenants to exclude people of color from buying or renting property in Westwood).

Until developer Abbot Kinney created Venice in 1905, he crusaded for Anglo Saxon racial purity through eugenics. He also demeaned women, Chinese, Jews, etc. -- but, for some reason, changed his mind in later years (probably for economic reasons while he was building his "Venice of America"). Because of this disdain for minorities, Abbott Kinney Blvd. in Venice should have its name changed.


Edward L. Doheny of Pan American Petroleum and Transport Company bribed U.S. Secretary of the Interior Albert Bacon Fall to get oil leases without competitive bidding; this was part of the infamous Teapot Dome Scandal (1921-23). Fall went to prison; Doheny has a street, a mansion, libraries, and several other buildings named after him. The street and these buildings should have their names changed.

The Chandlers (the Los Angeles Times dynasty), Henry Huntington (Southern Pacific Railroad)), Isaias W. Hellman (Wells Fargo) and other prominent LA tycoons, joined in "syndicates" to monopolize development and subdivisions of Hollywood and the San Fernando Valley in the 1900s-1920s. The San Fernando valley was indeed ripe for development, but to turn it into a boom area it needed water. Under the pretext of bringing needed water to LA, Frederick Eaton (LA's Mayor) and William Mulholland (head of the Los Angeles Water Dept.) sold the city on building an aqueduct from the Owens Valley -- in eastern California -- to LA proper. They created a false drought by dumping water from Los Angeles reservoirs into the sewers and supported the "drought" by scare articles in the Los Angeles Times. 

LA acquired the Owens Valley water rights in a deceitful way, forcing prices down and pitting neighbors against one another. There was violence on both sides of these "Water Wars" (1905-1928) -- some Owens Valley farmers were fond of dynamite -- but in the end, LA won. Meanwhile, the aforementioned syndicates, with secret inside information from Eaton, connived to buy land in the San Fernando Valley at incredibly low prices. Unknown to the public, the water from the aqueduct would be used to irrigate the San Fernando Valley, allowing for unbridled development, and filling the syndicates' coffers with money. The Owens Lake was drained, and the once bountiful farming paradise became a desert -- to this day. 

Should we change the names of any buildings, streets or charities bearing the names Chandler, Huntington, Mulholland or Hellman?

The city of Lakewood, developed by Mark Taper and his partners in the early 1950s, was funded by FHA loans with the stipulation that African Americans be barred. The rules stated that “incompatible racial elements” would disqualify builders from federally backed loans. Additionally, property deeds were required to prohibit resale to African Americans. Because of Taper's complicity in this implicit act of segregation, the Mark Taper Forum should have its name changed.

This is just the tip of the iceberg. I know there's many, many LA racists, scoundrels, and crooks I've missed who have had buildings and streets named after them. What do you think?

    

(Harley Lond is a longtime Los Angeles resident. He has held editing positions at Boxoffice Magazine, The Hollywood Reporter, AOL's Moviefone, The Wrap, and the Writers Guild of America’s Written By. He edits several websites, including Dreamsville.net, OnVideo.org and TheWordGarage.com. )Prepped for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.