An excerpt from Los Angeles in the 1970’s: Weird Scenes Inside the Gold Mine (edited by David Kukoff)
Any good craftsman carries his tools.
Years ago they were always at the ready.
In a car. In a knapsack.
Claw hammers, crisscrossed heads,
thirty-two ouncers. Wrenches in all sizes, sometimes with oil caked on the teeth. Screwdrivers with multicolored plastic handles (what needed screwing got screwed).
I had specialty types: allen wrenches,
torpedo levels, taps, and dies.
A trusty tape measure.
Maybe a chalk line…
In the 1970s, I labored within industrial Los Angeles—in a steel mill, a foundry, a paper mill, a chemical refinery, and in construction. I had skills: truck driving, mechanics, welding, carpentry, smelting, piping, down, and dirty. When people think of the city, they generally don’t conjure up steel mills or auto plants. The images tend toward Hollywood. Glittering lights. Marquees. Sunset Strip. More like beaches.
Los Angeles is that, but it’s also the country’s largest manufacturing center. Today it leads in aerospace, defense, and the so-called creative economy—movies, music, fashion, design. It has the largest commercial port in the US: the Los Angeles/Long Beach harbors.
I’m now part of that creative economy, the current official poet laureate of the city with fifteen books in poetry, children’s books, fiction, memoir, and nonfiction. I cofounded and help run a cultural space, bookstore, and small press called Tia Chucha’s Cultural Center in the northeast San Fernando Valley.
But in the 1970s I was an unlikely working class hero (I was more likely a working class fool). When union-negotiated consent decrees in the 1970s brought African-Americans, Mexicans, Native Americans, and women into the higher-paid skilled jobs, previously dominated by white males, the Bethlehem Steel Plant in southeast Los Angeles hired me for their “repair gang.” Prior to this I labored in unskilled drudgery. The year was 1974. I had just married my “high school sweetheart,” who received her diploma only two months before the wedding. Less then a year after, we had our first child.
I recall donning my hard hat, safety glasses, steel-toed shoes, and mechanic’s uniform, and staring at the mirror. I felt as if my life had purpose, direction, longevity. This job had rotating shifts, including “graveyard,” often double shifts (sixteen-hour days), and great pay, particularly with overtime.
The plant’s nineteenth-century equipment was brought over from back east around World War II, when LA also boasted fabrication, assembly, or refinery work in auto, tires, garments, canneries, shipbuilding, aerospace, meatpacking, oil, and more. We had GM and Ford plants, Firestone and Michelin, Boeing and Lockheed. This industry drew workers of all ethnicities from the South, the Midwest, the Northeast, the Southwest, and Mexico for what were largely well- paid, mostly union jobs with pensions, health benefits, and a taste of blue-collar stability.
Despite being miles removed from the industrial powerhouses of Chicago, Detroit, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, and the like, in LA you could follow much of this industry from the northeast San Fernando Valley, to the Alameda Corridor north of downtown, down to the Harbor. Whole towns with names like Commerce and Industry thrived.
But in the mid-1970s, deindustrialization began to hit throughout the country, picking up steam in the 1980s, mostly due to advanced technology, including robotics. Labor-saving devices became labor- replacing. Major industries also sought cheaper labor markets in the South, Mexico, Central America, Southeast Asia, and such— impoverished areas with little or no regulation, down to dollar-a- day wages, and low living standards. Then during the first Reagan administration, the worst recession since the Great Depression exploded in 1981–82 and the unemployment rate went to double digits. Only the 2008 recession cut deeper.
Homelessness became a permanent feature of American life.
We all know about the Rust Belt that traversed through states like New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Michigan, and Ohio. Los Angeles may not be considered part of the Rust Belt, but the impact was the same. As plants closed, the two most industrial cities—Los Angeles and Chicago—were known as the “gang capitals” of the world when drugs, guns, and gangs became key to a new, largely illicit economy.
Mass incarceration, which heightened in the 1990s, turned into its own “industry” arising from the crisis. In California alone, the state went from 15 prisons with 15,000 people in the early 1970s to a height of 34 prisons and up to 175,000 prisoners in the 2000s.
The places I worked at during the height of industrial might in the 1970s went down—Bethlehem Steel in 1981, and at St. Regis Paper Company, National Lead Foundry, Chevron Chemical Refinery at various times… I can go on and on. Some three hundred big mills and plants were gone by the mid-1980s. Forever. And with it, any illusion of stability.
What needed screwing got screwed…but only figuratively. In the literal sense, it was far less constructive.
I don’t want people to forget the City of Angels as a City of Workers. My decade or so in that time, that industry, were extremely meaningful to me. At the same time, we can’t go back fully to that kind of work. Instead the city, the country, and the world is crying out for something new and momentous—aligning our governance, our economy, our environment, and our culture to the possibilities of the new technology as well as the creative potential in every person, family, and community.
And, again, Los Angeles leads the way…
I often met other travelers, their tools in tow,
and I’d say: “Go ahead, take my stereo and TV.
Take my car. Take my toys of leisure.
Just leave the tools.”
Nowadays, I don’t haul these mechanical implements. But I still make sure to carry the tools
of my trade: words and ideas,
the kind no one can take away.
So there may not be any work today,
but when there is, I’ll be ready.
I got my tools.
In 1954, Luis J. Rodríguez was born in El Paso, Texas. He grew up in Watts and the East Los Angeles area, where his family faced poverty and discrimination. A gang member and drug user at the age of twelve, by the time he turned eighteen, Rodríguez had lost twenty-five of his friends to gang violence, drug overdoses, shootings, and suicide. He wrote two autobiographical accounts of his experiences with gang violence and addiction, It Calls You Back: An Odyssey Through Love, Addiction, Revolutions, and Healing (Touchstone, 2012), winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for Autobiography, and Always Running: La Vida Loca, Gang Days in L.A. (Curbstone Books, 1993), winner of the Carl Sandburg Award of the Friends of the Chicago Public Library.
His books of poetry include My Nature is Hunger: New & Selected Poems, 1989-2004 (Curbstone Books, 2005), winner of a 2006 Paterson Poetry Book Prize; Trochemoche (Curbstone Books, 1998); The Concrete River (Curbstone Books, 1991), which won a PEN West/Josephine Miles Award for Literary Excellence; and Poems Across the Pavement (Tía Chucha, 1989), which received San Francisco State University’s Poetry Center Book Award.
He is also a journalist and critic and the founder of Tía Chucha Press, which publishes emerging, socially conscious poets. In May 1998, Curbstone Press published his first children’s book, entitled América Is Her Name. In 2014, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti appointed Rodríguez as the poet laureate of Los Angeles. Rodríguez currently resides in California and manages the Tía Chucha Cultural Center in San Fernando.
All Photos by Luis J. Rodríguez