209767 Building inequality: Sewers, civic ideals, and public health in Los Angeles, 1873-1891

Monday, November 9, 2009: 10:55 AM

David Torres-Rouff, PhD , Department of History, The Colorado College, Colorado Springs, CO
Infrastructural development is a critical historical process within which to explore the relationship between water, human rights and public health. Throughout the nineteenth century, civic leaders in U.S. cities built sewer systems to enhance the purity of municipal waters and improve public health. Los Angeles' city council began building sewers in 1873, converting miles of open water canals, or zanjas, into underground sewers over the next twenty years. While not an unusual aspect of urban development, sewer building in Los Angeles commenced following the resolution of an acrimonious, fifteen-year long battle between Mexican Californians, who advocated common ownership and equitable, cost-free distribution of the city waters, and Anglo Americans who preferred private ownership, fees for service, and the separation of waste, agricultural, and potable waters into separate pipes to improve the “purity” of the water supply. Following a decisive political victory in 1872, Anglos built a sewer system that fundamentally altered people's relationship to water, converting it from a communal resource into a commodity. However, city leaders failed to build sewers where Mexican and Chinese Angelenos lived. In addition to exposing these neighborhoods to greater health risks, unequal sewerage created experiential asymmetries between Mexican/Chinese and Anglo American districts, provoking condemnations of Chinese and Mexican residents as dirty and diseased. Over time, these stereotypes have worked in lock step with the spatial and institutional barriers resulting from infrastructural inequality to limit marginalized populations' claims to human rights in Los Angeles.

Learning Objectives:
To explain ways in which the building of the Los Angeles sewer system in 1872 fundamentally altered people’s relationship to water, converting it from a communal resource into a commodity

Keywords: History, Water

Presenting author's disclosure statement:

Qualified on the content I am responsible for because: Ph.D. in History
Any relevant financial relationships? No

I agree to comply with the American Public Health Association Conflict of Interest and Commercial Support Guidelines, and to disclose to the participants any off-label or experimental uses of a commercial product or service discussed in my presentation.