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Excavating Urban Democracy: Water Infrastructure and the Public Realm in Los Angeles, circa 1870-1890

Jan Hansen

Pages 151 - 170



This publication is distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons License Attribution - NonCommercial - NoDerivatives 4.0. (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0)

This essay investigates the changing contours of the public and the
private in Los Angeles at the end of the nineteenth century. It argues
that the introduction of engineered water supplies from the 1870s to the
1890s caused urban residents to move their routines and habits—such as
washing, bathing, and hauling water—from open ditches to the domestic
sphere, catalyzing a retreat from the public in Los Angeles. This
domestication of everyday life was accompanied by new forms of ratepayer
protest in the growing city. In other words, underground pipes created
private regimes while also leading residents to engage in civic activism
to demand better water. This duality and tension are at the center of
this essay, which follows two storylines. First, it sketches the
establishment of water infrastructure that shaped urban built space in
Los Angeles. Second, it delves more deeply into the diverse types of
political activism by analyzing letters of complaints to the city
council. Through the lens of Los Angeles, however, the essay tells a
bigger story of public and private tensions in modern America. By
exploring a major city through its water supplies, it reconceptualizes
urban history as water history.

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