Eye of the Beholder
The Cornfield is an eye watching
over Los Angeles. This is what Janet Owen told me when first we
met. Hers is a persuasive metaphor: the
shape of an eye has universal aesthetic appeal, and an eyes proximity to the
brain echoes the Cornfields adjacency to the original pueblo. It also reminds us that history lies in the
eye of the beholder. What, then, has the
Cornfield witnessed? How should we
remember its past? [Place image # 1 at this point]
notion of place is at the heart of the way we remember. Pierre Nora observed that Memory attaches
itself to sites, whereas history attaches itself to events. Memory also refers to the way individuals
recall things, whereas history is more a collective process of formal commemoration. Between memory and history lies the city,
where the past is stored in buildings, ruins, parks and street corners. The city is where time becomes visible.
memory (place) and history (time) are selective processes involving manipulation
and forgetting as much as recollection.
Norman Klein refers to this as historys uncertainty principle: as
soon as a chronicler gazes upon the past, the narrative is altered; the very
act of writing history becomes an intervention in the historical record. In this sense, there is no way we can truly
know our past. History becomes a process
of constant revision of the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves. In the
words of novelist W.G. Sebald: History requires a falsification of
perspective. We, the survivors, see everything from above, see everything at
once, and we still do not know how it was. The
sense of history as an agreeable fiction is not an attack on historians; it is
simply an admission about the limits of human knowing. Multiple versions of history are the norm,
and history only becomes dangerous when it is institutionalized as a single Official
truth. Then it is transformed into a
political document intended to silence dissent, test loyalties and persecute
contrast, memory is a much more democratic and egalitarian form of remembering
because it proceeds from the eyes of many beholders who together constitute the
meanings of place. In order to avoid the
potential tyranny of Official history, multiple autonomous acts of memory are
necessary, each one tantamount to an act of historical sabotage. The
accumulation of such acts produces a peoples history in place of the Official
Indigenous Acorn Fields
There is in Southern
California an archeological record of extensive human occupation
and settlement going back over 11,000 years.
Reconstruction of that record has been hampered by rising sea levels
that have obliterated most coastal sites, and by rapid urbanization that has carpeted
many inland locations. One important
exception occurs in the Channel Islands off the coast of
Los Angeles, where some sites
record an active fishing culture from over 8,500 years ago. On the mainland, nomadic hunter/gatherer
societies sprang up around inland lakes and streams. Somewhere around 2000 BCE
the acorn became a food staple that allowed permanent settlement, increased
trade, and more complex social systems to develop. According to archeologist
In the sixteenth century A.D.,
the inhabitants of California
formed a dense network of groups, large and small, speaking over sixty
languages, and numbering an estimated 310,000 people. They occupied about
256,000 square miles of varied terrain, with an average population density of
about 1 person per square mile, a higher figure than average for the North
America of five centuries ago. 
this time, the lands surrounding the Los Angeles
River were home to a group of 5,000-10,000
Tongva Indians. They occupied many
relatively small settlements of perhaps 200 inhabitants apiece, although the
sites of individual settlements appear to have moved quite frequently.
One of these settlements, Yang-na, was established at or near the site of the
future pueblo close by the Cornfield.
Another, called Maung-na, was located in nearby Elysian Park. [3.B]
Tongva are generally regarded as one of the most materially rich and
culturally influential indigenous groups in Southern California.
 After the Spanish conquest, they were renamed
the Gabrieleño Indians, reflecting their
incorporation into the Mission San Gabriel.
The Yang-na community survived until the 1830s largely because the
pueblo was dependent upon its labor for survival. And the Gabrieleño
peoples endured well into the twentieth century despite missionization, epidemics,
and political/military upheaval.
The Spanish entrada on the
west coast began in September 1542 when Juan Cabrillo entered San
However, extensive Spanish occupation and settlement was delayed for two
centuries at a time when other colonial powers began to evince an interest in Spains
far-flung empire. In 1769, Gaspar de Portolá, governor of Baja (Lower) California,
set off with Father Junípero Serra on an expedition to colonize Alta (Upper) California.
On August 2, the party stopped at a riverbank close to the site of the future
pueblo. In a contemporary diary, Father Juan Crespi recorded the sites appeal:
it had all the requisites for a large settlement, including a vineyard of
wild grapes, an infinity of rose bushes in full bloom, and a soil capable of
providing every kind of grain and fruit.
Portolá expedition named the river and valley Nuestra Señora la Reina de Los
Angeles de Porciúncula. Portolá most likely forded the river at the northern
end of the Cornfield site, near the present-day North Broadway (previously Buena
Vista) bridge. His party proceeded to Yang-na, noted by Crespi as
a delightful place where Indians presented them with gifts and a group of old
men puffed at us three mouthfuls of smoke. A
few years later, another fabled explorer, Juan Bautista de Anza, traversed the
same river crossing with a group of 240 people from Sonora,
Mexico. Their purpose was
to establish a settlement at San Francisco
Bay. Anzas 1800-mile journey, incorporating
the Portolá pathway, is today commemorated as the Anza National Historic Trail.
Spanish presence at Los Angeles was
assured when the Governor of Spanish California, Felipe de Neve, arrived at
Mission San Gabriel in 1781 to establish a pueblo at the Los
Some months later, on September 4 1781,
forty-four settlers accompanied by four soldiers arrived at the site chosen by
de Neve not far from present-day Olvera Street.
There the pioneers began to build a new settlement called El Pueblo de Nuestra
Señora la Reina de Los Angeles de Porciúncula.
first task of the settlers was to secure the pueblos water supply. By late
October, a zanja madre (mother ditch) was completed, diverting water
from the river for irrigation and drinking purposes.  The main channel from
the zanja madre followed the present-day northern perimeter of the
Cornfield, and a second channel passed to the south of the site. More than any
other single factor, the zanja system allowed the pueblo to prosper. By
1870, there were eight zanjas in Los Angeles,
with a total length of about 50 miles.
However, the system became unsanitary, and local officials worried about public
health. Pipes began to replace the zanjas, and private carriers sold to
subscribers water drawn directly from the river. In 1858, the Los Angeles Water
Works Company erected a 40-foot high water wheel near Abila Springs
(present-day Chinatown) to lift water for conveyance by
flume to a brick reservoir in the pueblos plaza. The waterwheel was destroyed
by bad weather in 1861-2, and the zanja system itself was condemned and
buried by 1885. 
The first rail locomotive arrived
in Los Angeles in 1869, ushering in
the modern industrial age.
In thirty short years, between 1870 and 1900, the population of the City of Los
Angeles grew from 5,782 to over 102,000. A large part
of the boom was due to the Southern Pacific Railroad Company (SP) which in 1873
was offered a sweet deal to connect LA to its rail network. The deal included
part of the Cornfield site where SP established a freight house and depot which
came to be known as River Station. The economic activities that quite literally
passed through and around River Station in the early twentieth century established
the foundation for LAs emergence as an industrial metropolis. [7.A]
the 1876 arrival of the transcontinental railroad, SP acquired the northern
portion of the Cornfield, known as the Bull Ring. There the company built a
new passenger depot and the two-storey Pacific Hotel, together with expanded
maintenance facilities. [7.B] During the 1880s, the River Station/Cornfield
complex served as SP headquarters for its passenger and freight operations. It
was a period of vivid and tumultuous growth.  The agricultural lands around Station
were quickly overtaken by railroad and industrial activities, including an iron
works and one of Standard Oils first refineries. The great land boom of the
1880s saw the rise of streetcar suburbs. In 1889, the LA Electric Rail Company
built trolley lines along Buena Vista (North Broadway)
and San Fernando (North Spring)
streets. As the nineteenth century drew to a close, SPs expanded passenger and
maintenance operations moved away from the Cornfield site, although River Station
retained its function as nerve center of SP activities.
Trains continued to stop at River Station until 1915. [9 or 12]
twentieth-century metropolitan Los Angeles
expanded, SP began to decentralize its operations, transferring its freight operations
to Taylor Yard in 1925. When road transportation grew in importance, especially
during and after World War II, River Station expanded its intermodal capacity
to facilitate freight transfer from rail to road transport. However, by the
1970s, sprawl and plant obsolescence foreshadowed the decline of the Cornfield
facility: Taylor Yard closed in 1985, and River Station was sold in 1992.
Eye on the Future
Aside from the pueblo itself, Los
Angeles has no place of greater historical
significance and continuity than the Cornfield. Once regarded as a site of
limited historical interest, the Cornfield has rapidly acquired an almost
mythological standing as people began to pour their memories into the site,
flooding anew the zanja madre.
Cornfield has been present at so many important openings: indigenous origins,
the Spanish pueblo, and the modern industrial age. Close by, there have been
countless other acts of local history: for instance, the 1871 Chinatown
massacre, the 1890s Pullman Strike, the forced relocation of Chinatown
and deportations of Mexican workers in the 1930s, and recent community
struggles over the redevelopment of Chavez Ravine. Now the Cornfield is to be
given new life as a state historic park. How can the place of so much history, so
many memories be commemorated? Has the Cornfield simply seen too much?
think it is possible, even necessary to imagine a Cornfield that will contain
both an official history and a host of informal memories. But, truth be told, Los
Angeles is not very good at official remembering. We
have no grand palaces, monumental war memorials, commemorative boulevards, or garish
testaments to governmental authority. Instead, we are better at small spaces
that surprise most city dwellers: the Great Wall of Los Angeles mural, for
example, or the Biddy Mason and Little Tokyo Power of Place projects in
let us begin with the Cornfield as a place of small remembrances. The past is
present, anywhere memory acts. An orange-blossom fragrance always recalls the
first time we came to LA; the phrase Florence
and Normandie reminds us (powerfully, without further qualification) of the
1992 civil unrest in the city. The challenge at the Cornfield is to incorporate
multiple memories in ways that are consistent with present-day community needs
and identities. Because it is a small site, perhaps the brimming, echoing well
of Cornfield memories is best honored by ensuring its active engagement and
connectivity with the places around it the Los Angeles River, pueblo, Elysian Park,
Chinatown, and so on to create a spontaneous peoples memory.
there may also be space for official history in the Cornfield, through one of
the few truly great urban vistas in Los Angeles.
This begins at the northern end of the Cornfield site, close by the
faux-classical columns of the North Broadway/Buena Vista bridge, and extends
south to the towers of downtown LA and City Hall.  For me, the bridges
classical references instantly, involuntarily evoked echoes of the Appian
Way, the triumphant causeway into Ancient Rome. The distant towers
recall the foreshortened perspective down the Champs-Elysées toward lArche
de Triomphe in Paris. And walking
south through the Cornfield causeway stirred memories of approaching the
Pyramid of the Moon along the Calzada de
los Muertos in Teotihuacán, Mexico Citys
Aztec capital. These are not fanciful allusions. This heroic Cornfield vista can
and should be preserved. It would be a noble act of official commemoration for
our indigenous, Spanish and industrial heritages.
we respect this place as a container of history and memory, the new Cornfield
may serve as both an opening to a remarkable past and an eye toward the vistas
of an unfolding future.
I am grateful to Janet Owen and
Steve Rowell for their extraordinary generosity in making available the Not a
Cornfield archives to assist in preparation of this essay. Jennifer Mapes
provided excellent research assistance and, like Janet Owen, made helpful
comments on an earlier version of the essay. Any residual errors are mine, all
in M. Dear, 2000. The Postmodern Urban
Condition (Malden: Blackwell),
Klein, 1997. The History of Forgetting: Los Angeles and the Erasure of Memory (New
York: Verso), pp. 318-9.
 W.G. Sebald,
1998. The Rings of Saturn (New
York: New Directions), p. 357.
 Brian Fagan,
2003. Before California: an archeologist looks at our earliest
inhabitants (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield), p. 357.
Eastman Johnston, 1962. Californias Gabrielino Indians (Los Angeles:
McCawley, 1996. The First Angelenos: The
Gabrielino Indians of Los Angeles (Banning: Malki
Museum Press / Ballena Press), p.
 Ibid., p.
 Ibid., p.
208. There seems to be little agreement on the spelling of indigenous Indian
names in the region, so throughout this essay I have adopted the spellings used
by the authors I am citing.
 Quoted in
Michael Dear, 1996. In the City, Time Becomes Visible: Intentionality and
Urbanism in Los Angeles, 1781-1991
in A.J. Scott and E.W. Soja (eds.) The
Urban Theory at the End of the Twentieth Century (Berkeley:
University of California
Press), p. 86.
 Ibid., pp.
Gumprecht, 1999. The Los Angeles River: its life, death, and possible rebirth (Baltimore:
The Johns Hopkins Press), p. 61.
 See William
Deverell, 1994. Railroad Crossing:
Californians and the Railroad, 1850-1910 (Berkeley:
University of California
Department of Parks and Recreation, 2005. Los
Historic Park: General Plan and Final Environmental Impact Report (Sacramento:
California Department of Parks and Recreation), p. 23.
 Ibid., p.
 Ibid., p.
LIST OF POSSIBLE ILLUSTRATIONS TO ACCOMPANY "Eye of the Beholder" by Michael Dear [An asterisk (*) is used to indicate those illustrations
that are a priority for inclusion in the published essay.]
colossal head, detail of eye.
dancing, Mission San José, 1806. Painted by Georg Heinrich von Langsdorff.
Bancroft Library, UC Berkeley. In R.M. Beebe and R.M. Senkowicz, Lands
of Promise and Despair: Chronicles of Early California
1535 1846, Berkeley:
Heyday Books, 2001, p. 280.
- A. The
Gabrielino Indians at the time of the Portolá Expedition. Map from B.E. Johnston,
Californias Gabrielino Indians Los Angeles:
1962, p. x.
* B. Map Indian Villages near
courses of Los Angeles River.
In B. Gumprecht The Los Angeles
River 1999, Johns Hopkins
U.P., p. 30, fig. 1.6.
State Historical marker. (MD) 2 small images?
- * Map
showing the location of the old zanja madre, ditches, vineyards and old
town, etc. Los Angeles, CA., May 7 1875. [Source: NAC website]
Angeles Water Wheel, ca. 1860 from Norman Dash, Yesterdays Los Angeles.
- A. SP
1875 rail depot and 1879 Pacific Hotel (detail) From: Los
General Plan and Final EIR, p. 20.
B. Pacific Hotel lithograph,
possibly taken from History of Los Angeles County (Thompson and West, OR
Wilson, 1880, p. 31). Reproduced in Los Angeles
to Pasadena Metro
Blue Line Project, 2000, p. 27; and in Results of a Phase 1
Investigation, River Station.
Oblique birds eye view of SP River Station site, 1894. [Source: NAC
Photo: SP River Station rail yards, looking toward North Broadway bridge.
[Source: NAC website]
Cornfield oil painting, looking south from North Broadway bridge. 2006?
Artist: Diego Cardoso. In possession of Lauren Bon? [Source: NAC warehouse
of excavated zanja madre.
Station Roundhouse. In Los Angeles
to Pasadena Metro Line
Project, 2000. p. 31 (Replaces #9?)