Myth of a Desert Metropolis

by Glen M. MacDonald

From Boom Fall 2013, Vol. 3, No. 3

Los Angeles was not built in a desert, but are we making it one?

Editor’s Note: The full article can be accessed through JSTOR, where it will remain free for 60 days.

The question is posed like this. You’ve probably heard it or asked it yourself. Perhaps at a cocktail party. Probably not in LA—but hey, maybe even here in the heart of the folly.

Why on Earth would you build a city for millions of souls in a desert?

Someday, and maybe sooner rather than later, the water is going to run out, and Los Angeles will dry up and blow away.

Alex Prud’homme, author of Ripple Effect: The Fate of Water in the Twenty-First Century, prophesied that Perth, Australia, “could become the world’s first ‘ghost city’—a modern metropolis abandoned for lack of water.” And, he warned, “similar fates may await America’s booming desert cities: Las Vegas, Phoenix, or Los Angeles.”1 Prud’homme’s description of Los Angeles as a “desert city” has a distinguished lineage. Boyle Workman, a 1930s booster, recalled Los Angeles’ “desert” beginnings when he described the Los Angeles Aqueduct as a triumph of human ingenuity and engineering. Workman praised “the men who diverted streams into ditches and fed waving fields of grain, vineyards, glossy orange groves and rich gardens that blossomed where once desert brooded.”2 A 1977 article by the famed aqueduct critic Remi Nadeau was headlined “Los Angeles is by Far the Largest City Ever Built in a Desert.”3 And nine years later in Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water,4 Marc Reisner referred to Los Angeles as being second only to Cairo as the most populous desert city on earth.

Mojave Desert and creosote bush on the outskirts of Lancaster, California. Photography by Glen MacDonald.

The myth of desert Los Angeles suggests that if not for the Los Angeles Aqueduct—and if the city were ever to lose the water that comes from Owens Valley—LA could be Ozymandias: that “colossal wreck, boundless and bare,” around which “the lone and level sands stretch far away,” in the immortal words of the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. But is Los Angeles the once and future desert? And should the LA Aqueduct be seen as Mulholland’s greatest gift? Or a curse because it gave rise to an ultimately unsustainable metropolis?

That Los Angeles is a “desert city” is, in large part, a myth. Writers have chipped away at the myth of the desert metropolis before.5,6,7 Here my objective is not simply to dispel the myth but to explore the history that underlies the mythology and to consider its potential for becoming true—because sometimes myths have a strange way of becoming true. Could we, through our own actions, be transforming the myth of desert LA into a self-fulfilling prophecy? It turns out, we have in fact gone a long way down that road.

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Notes

1 Alex Prud’homme, “Drought: A Creeping Disaster,” New York Times, 16 July 2011.

2 Boyle Workman, The City That Grew (Los Angeles: The Southland Publishing Company, 1935).

3 Remi Nadeau, “Los Angeles: A City That Water Built,” Los Angeles Times, 26 June 1977.

4 Marc Reisner, Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water (New York: Viking Press, 1986).

5 Mike Davis, Ecology of Fear (New York: Vintage Books, 1998).

6 Ralph Shaffer, “That desert myth: will it ever dry up?” LA Observed, 10 November 2003, <http://www.laobserved.com/archive/2003/11/la_is_not_a_des.php>.

7 Glen MacDonald, “Los Angeles Water––Myths, Miracles, Mayhem and William Mulholland,” AAG Newsletter, December 2012.



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