Space in the Rural-Urban Spectrum

Faculty Respondent: Elsa Devienne

Alyse Berthenthal, Criminology, Law & Society, University of California-Irvine
“Municipal power and the rural “non-place”: Los Angeles and the Owens Valley, California, 1900-1940”

The Owens Valley is situated in Inyo County, a few hundred miles northeast of the City of Los Angeles. For many of its residents and visitors, the Valley is best known as the source of the Los Angeles Aqueduct, which has channeled billions of gallons of water to Los Angeles for more than a century. In the early twentieth century, the Los Angeles public utility department and city officials embarked on a massive public relations campaign aimed at convincing Angelenos to approve and finance projects in the Owens Valley, and, just as importantly, to accept a nascent model of public ownership of municipal utilities. Through close analysis of the language, detail, subject, and order of this campaign set in the context of wider legal and political battles, this paper explores how and why municipal officials – including the Los Angeles City Mayor, City Council, and public utility – urged urban residents to locate nature outside the city’s boundaries and to make use of the natural environment in certain specified ways. By “de-localizing” nature, these officials generated popular support for resource extraction and development in the Owens Valley, and created a lasting legacy of local urban identity in contrast with a naturalized rural Other. Set off from municipal reality, the Valley became a “non-place,” a sort of utopia unbound to various rules and norms, and a crucial site for re-imagining – if not actually re-constituting – new kinds of social and legal orders both in the Valley and in Los Angeles. Contributing to a broader understanding of urban-rural intersections and ideologies, this paper considers how utopian thought and practices influenced the interventions of Los Angeles in the Owens Valley, and also the legal development of public ownership of municipal utilities.

Jessica Cooper, Anthropology, Princeton
“The Prius and the Percocet: Regulating Homelessness through the Santa Clara County Mental Health Court”

Santa Clara County (Calif.) spans 1,290 square miles (U.S. Census 2014). These twelve-hundred or so miles are diverse, ranging from Stanford University’s manicured lawns and tech start-ups in the northern part of the county, down through the spiky artichoke fields of Gilroy, in the southern part of the county. Expanses of rural farmlands knot together into urban localities, connected by an always-condense network of highways. Smack in the center of the county’s two poles sits the Santa Clara Mental Health Court (MHC). Located in San Jose, the MHC is a criminal courtroom that aspires to solve many of the county’s problems through a unique form of legal adjudication that aims to take offenders who have been diagnosed with psychiatric disorders out of jail and place them in community psychiatric programs. To participate, an individual whose case is sent to the MHC accepts a guilty plea in exchange for access to courtroom sponsored public health care and social services, like employment assistance and housing. From this point forward, the individual, once known as a “defendant,” is now a courtroom “client.” The court actively monitors clients’ progress towards mental health, requiring clients to return to court monthly to determine whether clients are abiding by courtdeveloped treatment plans. Should the court find that an individual is deviating from the treatment plan, the court can return that individual to custody. In other words, the MHC splits the bounds of criminal law wide open, claiming jurisdiction over anything that impacts clients’ wellbeing. Said differently, the MHC is both a product and an apparatus of the locality of which it is a part. Insofar as clients’ environments impact their lives, clients’ environments become the media through which the court aims to heal.

Harriet Klein is one such client of the Santa Clara County MHC, a client who has found herself falling through the cracks of a county that has mixed urban, suburban, and rural resources. Harriet lives out of her car, parking in various municipalities throughout Santa Clara each night, strategizing about the safest place to sleep. How does space come to matter when one does not have a home? What difference does it make whether the broader community in which one lives as a homeless person is urban, suburban, or rural? When homelessness is so frequently conceptualized as problem of urban America (Bourgois & Shonberg 2009; Desjarlais 1997; Estroff 1985; Lovell 2007; Luhrmann 2010), how does observing homelessness along a trajectory through rural spaces change our understanding of homelessness as an experience? This paper traces Harriet’s experience as a homeless MHC client to better elucidate the relationship between the unique aspects of MHC adjudication and county-based resources, turning our gaze to the significance of place for this experiment in criminal law

Sean Fraga, History, Princeton
“Enclosing the Water: Houseboats, Law, and Property in Puget Sound”

This paper uses houseboats in twentieth-century Puget Sound to explore how water shapes assumptions about class, mobility, and appropriate use of common space in rural places and at the semi-rural peripheries of urban areas. I argue that water was central to conflicts between houseboat residents, often known as liveaboards, and local and state government agents.

Houseboats are dwellings a person can own—that is, they are personal property. But because they float on water, houseboats have historically lacked a legal connection to land and have rarely been treated as real estate. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the U.S. directed western settlement by surveying, granting, and selling its public lands. But the government didn’t survey America’s public waters in the same way, nor did it sell watercourses or bodies of water to private citizens. The parceling, sale, and distribution of land established clear legal terms for private ownership, while waterways were generally held in common. In the Puget Sound, the distance between houseboats and land exposed them to aggressive policing.

At first, houseboats were simply dwellings on water. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, liveaboards were either working-class men (often workers in extractive industries who lived in houseboats in their off-season) or middle-class vacationeers. But during Prohibition and the Depression, houseboats came to be associated with poverty and illicit activities. Officials saw liveaboards as free-loaders and polluters and houseboat communities as floating shantytowns. (Middle-class vacation houseboats did not receive the same level of state attention.)

Government officials increasingly contended that houseboats infringed on the public’s right to use common waters. When liveaboards fought these efforts, they appealed to history, arguing that houseboats’ continual presence on Puget Sound since the start of white settlement established their claim to the waters. Ignoring these points, state officials attempted to regulate, restrict, or remove houseboats. In short, the state gradually criminalized practices that had previously been acceptable, changing liveaboards into squatters. The houseboats that survived the twentieth century did so by adapting themselves to state notions of real estate as landed property.

The centrality of land to American expansion, settlement, and development shaped understandings of property. These views prevented waterborne dwellings from counting as real estate, thereby exposing their owners and residents to state encroachment.

William Voinot-Baron, Anthropology, University of Wisconsin
“Contested Cartographies: Colonizing Space and Adjudicating Practice in “Rural” Alaska”

In Alaska, subsistence interests are restricted to rural residents, Native and non-Native, on federal public lands. Although the vast majority of federal lands in Alaska are designated as rural, one effect of this rural priority has been to exclude from subsistence hunting and fishing Alaska Natives whose communities exist in increasing proximity to expanding urban hubs. When the viability of Alaska Native lives and livelihoods is contingent on determinations of rural space that are based on proximity to urban areas, the effect on Alaska Native communities is an assimilatory one. Drawing upon Michel de Certeau’s notion of maps as texts that “colonize space,” this paper explores the history of Alaska’s rural subsistence preference and considers how settler conceptions of space envision Alaska Native proximity to non-rural (and non-Native, or white) spaces as authorizing Native social, cultural, and physical displacement.

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