Michael Portillo strikes oil in the suburbs of LA, contemplates his navel in the orange groves of Riverside and paints a pretty picture in Laguna Beach.
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I have crossed the Atlantic
to ride the railroads of North America,
with my faithful Appleton's Guide.
Published in the late 19th century,
it would direct me to everything that's novel, beautiful,
memorable, and curious...in the United States.
As I travel through this vast continent,
I'll discover gold and silver, movies and microchips,
oil and oranges,
and learn how America's most famous railroad
conquered the wild landscapes of the West.
I'm completing my time in Los Angeles,
a city whose history is evident in the diversity of its population.
Almost half of Angelenos are of Latino descent,
and in California, 10 million people speak Spanish at home
as their primary language.
It seems that here, Spanish is almost as useful and necessary
as English, especially, if you're going to a party, as I am.
My 1,000-mile excursion began in Reno, Nevada,
and will end just shy of the Mexican border in San Diego.
Today, I'm in Los Angeles, at its historic heart,
and will travel to its oil-rich suburbs
before continuing to the orange groves of Riverside,
and end by the ocean in Laguna Beach.
Along the way,
I discover what put the zest into California's economy...
Citrus fruit, really, Michael,
became the source of wealth in the early 20th century for California.
..attempt to create a local delicacy...
You did very well, a first-timer.
-It could easily be my last.
..and take to the beach to indulge my artistic side.
I didn't realise how well I was doing!
I'm beginning in what was originally the centre of Los Angeles -
a place today known as El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historical Monument.
The name clearly signals this city's cultural heritage.
-Hola, como estas?
-Muy bien, gracias.
In all the times I've been to Los Angeles,
I've never been here, to these low-rise adobe buildings
and ancient Catholic churches.
It's funny because, for about half the people who live in the city,
this is their heritage, much more than Hollywood and the freeways.
Nearly one in two of the population of Los Angeles is Latino,
'mainly of Mexican descent.'
It's a legacy from when Mexico ruled over California,
Texas and much of America's South-West.
And before that, Spain was the imperial power.
This plaque commemorates the first settlement of Los Angeles
in September 1781.
Spain deliberately sent some families here,
to establish their claim on the area.
So, half of the people who came were actually children.
And all the nationalities are listed.
So, these people here are of mixed descent, and fascinatingly,
only two of the first settlers
are actually listed as "Espanol", Spanish.
So here are the origins of Los Angeles.
They are mixed race, they are Indians, they are Latinos.
They are not Europeans.
Los Angeles was settled under the Spanish flag
as an extension of its Mexican territory.
Mexico formally won its independence from Spain in 1821.
And 200 years later,
that event is still a cause for celebration in LA
for those of Mexican descent.
I'm meeting John Etcheveste of La Plaza Cultural Museum.
Hello, John. I'm Michael.
Michael, how are you? Bienvenidos to Los Angeles.
Thank you very much indeed.
It looks like you're preparing a celebration.
This is a big two-day celebration,
commemorating Mexican Independence Day.
Did the city prosper during the period of Mexican independence?
Well, it did. Of course,
most of the land here was owned by people of Mexican background.
Those people were very active in commerce,
they were large landowners,
they established school systems and court systems,
and it flourished as really a Mexican community for many years.
But, in 1846,
war broke out between Mexico and the expansionist United States.
And Mexico lost half its territory, including Southern California,
to its powerful neighbour.
How did things change around the time of the Mexican-American war?
What happened then was that many of the Mexican landowners
essentially lost that land, they were really swindled from it.
They were forced to sign contracts that they didn't understand,
that were written in English.
They were promised that they would be taken care of,
and they would receive a fair settlement for the land,
and that didn't really happen.
How does the population of Mexican heritage feel today?
The word I like to use is, very aspirational.
In the 1960s, we began to see a reassertion of people
of Mexican heritage, into primarily the political life of Los Angeles.
So, we saw the election of people to the state legislature,
to the LA City Council,
we had our first congressman of Mexican heritage elected,
and the current and previous mayor of the city
are both of Mexican descent.
That will only continue to happen through the years,
in spite of the current political climate in Washington, DC.
Today, Los Angeles County is home to around 1.2 million Mexicans -
the largest concentration outside Mexico.
And here, celebrations for Independence Day are in full swing.
TRADITIONAL MUSIC PLAYS
Fantastic sense of fun, the Mexican people have.
They're celebrating an event that happened nearly 200 years ago.
HE SPEAKS SPANISH
And they've still got lots of partying left in them!
I am riding the Metro's Blue Line south, out of the city.
'For everyone's safety, and to keep service on time,
'please do not try to hold the doors open.'
If this state of California were a country,
it would account for the fifth or sixth biggest economy in the world.
That prosperity has its roots in the 19th century.
In Northern California, it was the discovery of gold and silver.
But here in Los Angeles, it was oil.
Los Angeles, says Appleton's,
is the centre of the petroleum district of South California.
And, if you're used to thinking of vast Arab oilfields in the desert,
this will be a surprise to you, because this is an urban oilfield.
And in Los Angeles, the production wells sprout up at busy junctions,
in car parks, amongst the houses, and at your favourite burger joint.
I've come to the oil-rich residential neighbourhood
of Signal Hill to meet Dave Slater of Signal Hill Petroleum.
Michael, it's so good to meet you.
Thank you very much. Is that for me?
-You'll be needing these, momentarily.
Wow, this is an extraordinary spot to find an oil well!
So, this nodding donkey, patiently nodding away,
how much oil does it produce?
This particular well produces 15 barrels of oil per day.
15 barrels of oil is not very much. Is it worth it?
It absolutely is.
Every barrel has got value, it just depends on the cost
to get it out of the ground, and our company is particularly good
at operating these wells for a very low cost.
How important were these urban Los Angeles oilfields, historically?
The legacy of wealth in southern California
comes from the discovery of oil in the 1910s and the 1920s.
Los Angeles went from being a small, dusty pueblo
to a very rapidly growing urban centre.
It was the Saudi Arabia of the worldwide oil and gas industry
in that time.
The Los Angeles basin is the largest urban oilfield in the United States,
and oil wells are everywhere.
Where I come from, people who object to any kind of development
are sometimes accused of "Nimbyism".
"Not in my back yard".
Well, here in Los Angeles, small-scale oil production
occurs literally in people's back yards.
To learn about the origins of back yard drilling in Los Angeles,
I'm meeting Don Clark, a petroleum geologist.
So, how was it that the oil business got going here in Los Angeles?
Historically, it starts with Edward Doheny.
In 1892, Edward Doheny came from Colorado,
and he and his friend Charlie Canfield
decided they were looking for a place to get rich.
And they saw oil leaking in Westlake,
so they moved up the street about two blocks, and started digging.
And they get oil.
They came up... It only produced about five barrels a day.
But that was the first productive oil well in Los Angeles.
Even though some wells were drilled before it, that one made money.
With that came more development, and this place, 100 years ago,
had 1,000 oil derricks, going up and down the streets.
So, were these derricks on lots of different people's properties?
Yes, they were. It's because every single lot, no matter where it was,
had its own mineral rights.
Every single lot had at least one well on it. It was just nuts.
How significant then was this Los Angeles oilfield in its day?
It's very significant, because it started the oil boom in California.
So, we had rail lines going up and down the mountains,
out to all different places,
when cars came, everybody got their own car,
because gasoline was cheap.
And so begins the Californian love affair with the motorcar?
You've got that right. That's exactly what happened.
What's the significance of the oilfield in Los Angeles today?
I think there are about 50 oilfields still producing.
It's a big change from the old days, but it is very significant still.
And we have unexplored areas. Maybe there's more oil.
It's a new day, and I'm now leaving Los Angeles,
taking a train east out of the city.
I've boarded the Metrolink train to take me to Riverside,
which Appleton's tells me is 12 miles south of San Bernardino.
"The finest type of colony town in Southern California,
"it is the chief seat of the navel orange culture."
Well, that gives me something to contemplate.
And, as I approach the citrus groves, I'm camouflaged!
'This is Downtown Riverside Station.
'Please use the handrails, watch your step.
'This is Downtown Riverside.'
Founded as an agricultural district in 1870,
Riverside became the root of California's citrus fruit industry,
now worth over 1 billion a year.
I'm visiting the Citrus Variety Collection,
which was established in 1910,
and carries out cutting-edge research for the citrus industry.
I'm meeting Dr Tracey Khan.
What is it you do here at your research institute?
So, I am the curator or guardian of this collection that's behind us.
It's one of the world's most diverse collections of citrus
and related types.
We have over 1,000 different cultivars and species.
We develop new varieties for California and for the world.
I get very confused about citrus,
because there are so many different varieties on sale.
So, what does it all go back to?
It goes back to what we think of as four basic, biological species.
One is a pomelo, one is a mandarin, one is a citron,
and one is a small-flowered papeda.
This pomelo sounds like the word, in some languages, for grapefruit.
-Does the grapefruit derive from this?
Grapefruit's actually a hybrid between a pomelo and a sweet orange.
And this one. I didn't catch the name, I've never heard of it,
-I've never seen it.
-This is a small flowered papeda,
and we don't eat these.
These are something that you probably wouldn't see anywhere else.
But it has a really distinct smell, so you smell it.
It does indeed.
Quite sort of peppery and pungent.
Yes. Yes, really pungent.
And this is one of the progenitors of a lime,
so you think about limes having that pungent smell to them.
That's one of the places that's coming from.
So, how did the so-called Washington Navel Orange,
on which California depends so much, come about?
The navel is actually a sweet orange,
a hybrid between a pomelo...and a mandarin.
So, sort of like a Great Dane and a Chihuahua,
The state is famous for its navel oranges,
so-called because their top end looks like a tummy button.
To discover the seed of this industry,
I'm meeting historian Dr Vince Moses.
Vince, how does the history of citrus fruit in California begin?
The Spanish missionaries brought citrus here from Mexico,
to Mission San Gabriel first.
1873, Eliza Tibbets, who had moved here with her husband,
was bringing in citrus from the Department of Agriculture
for experimental purposes and they sent her two or three new trees.
They were based on a mutant variety from Brazil
that, when ripened in winter in Riverside, was a seedless fruit,
brilliant orange, easy to peel, absolutely delicious.
It became the winter-ripening navel orange.
They were extraordinarily successful in California,
better than anywhere else, because of the climate, the soil, the water.
I'm assuming that the citrus fruit was sent around the nation
mainly by refrigerated railcar?
That's exactly right. It began, really, as ventilated cars,
but, by the turn of the 20th century,
they had shifted to refrigerated cars,
so they could equalise the temperature across the country.
In fact, the two major railroads, Southern Pacific and the Santa Fe,
were competing for growers' business.
Southern Pacific, finally creating the Pacific Fruit Express,
specifically for transporting California orange growers' fruit.
On my travels I've heard about gold, and I've heard about oil.
Was citrus fruit a third source of tremendous wealth for California?
By 1915, it was bringing back 150 million to the state,
which is an extraordinary amount of money.
Before oil, before Hollywood really got off the ground,
citrus fruit, really, Michael, became the source of wealth
in California in the early 20th century.
I've made my way to the neighbouring city of Anaheim,
to pick up a train south.
I see this is the Anaheim Regional Transportation Intermodal Centre,
a somewhat inflated name for a somewhat inflated building.
I'm riding this busy Metrolink train down to Irvine.
Appleton's says of Southern California,
"The air is not only warm, but remarkably dry,
"and the days are nearly always brilliantly bright and sunny.
"I imagine that the light here is comparable to southern France,
"or at least, that's my impression."
My next stop is Laguna Beach, which is famous as an artists' community.
But, before I delve into the town's art scene,
I'm making a pit stop to sample a Californian delicacy
which was invented for local tastes,
but which has become a sushi stable eaten across the globe.
-Kooichi, lovely to see you, sir.
I have heard a lot about California rolls.
What are they?
Well, California roll is made for the people who doesn't like,
or not get used to the raw fish.
So, does the California roll have no raw fish in it?
No, it has a cooked crab.
How would we set about making a California roll?
Well, first, you need seaweed.
-You need to grab the rice, like about this much.
And then you place the rice on top of the seaweed.
So, we are going to spread this rice all over the seaweed, are we?
And then grab the little cucumber, then place the avocado...
Like three little smiles.
This is crab meat.
This is very important stuff for the California roll.
Just place it...
It's looking like something now.
And then we are rolling now.
And then you chop that, do you?
-It's incredibly hard.
-You're pushing it.
-I've got to saw it, have I?
-That is better, yes.
-This is your first time, right?
-It's certainly my first time.
-You are doing very well, first time.
-Could easily be my last!
-Let's try it.
-Pop it all in in one go?
-That's very kind of you, eating one of mine. That's very sweet.
-It's good, isn't it?
In the decades following the completion
of the Transcontinental Railroad in 1869,
California began to attract artists from the East Coast.
Influenced by the Impressionist movement in Europe,
many were drawn to the beautiful landscapes,
sunny climate, and glorious light of Laguna Beach.
I've arranged to meet Janet Blake,
Curator of Historical Art at the city art museum
to hear about the Laguna Beach art colony.
So, when is there a school at Laguna Beach established?
The colony started developing right at the turn of the last century
and artists were here as early as the 1890s.
By 1918, when they founded the Art Association,
there were probably 15 to 20 artists living here.
This is Frank Cuprien's Golden Hour
and he just loved painting the ocean.
This is one of the most beautiful of his paintings, it really is.
It's so quiet and subtle.
So, for these American artists, like the Impressionists,
it was important to paint in the open air, was it?
Yes. Often they would paint en plein air, and make smaller paintings,
take them back to their studios, and from that would make the larger one.
I'm sure French Impressionists did the same thing.
And now we've moved away from the sea, but is this still Laguna Beach?
Yes, this is definitely Laguna Beach.
This is a profile view of the general store, its front porch.
The dappled light, this now is quite reminiscent of an Impressionist.
Yes, very, and the hillside, yes.
This painting is very, very Impressionistic.
And here we have Anna Hills, a vigorous sea scene.
-First of all, a lovely piece.
-I mean, really the energy of the sea there,
-it is dramatically displayed, isn't it? Beautiful.
One thing that she was really known for is working with a palette knife
and that wave that's crashing over those rocks
is just filled with light,
and it really is a beautiful, beautiful painting.
Where does Laguna Beach, the colony,
fit into the history of American art?
Well, I think they're very important in the history of American art.
The community has a national reputation today.
We get visitors from all over.
Impressionist artists advocated painting outdoors,
known as plein air.
And today, the Laguna plein air painters have invited me
to join them on the beach.
You're painting into the sunset.
I am. I picked a challenge today.
You have, haven't you? Is it your habit to paint in the open air?
Yes. I think it's a great way to make a study of the colour.
I really love my office.
-Thank you, thank you, thanks for coming by.
You're doing some lovely work here.
You're very attracted by Laguna Beach.
Yes, it's one of the prettiest places in Southern California.
And the light, people talk about the light. Is that a big thing here?
Oh, it's lovely. We're getting that special stuff called 50-50,
a little bit of sun, and a little bit of clouds.
Do you feel inspired by the artists who were coming in the early part
of the 20th century, Anna Hills and so on?
Oh, absolutely. Those are my definite inspirations.
They're at the top, and we're just following their tradition.
I don't paint at all, but could you give me some pointers?
How would one begin even?
Well, I was hoping you'd finish one with me.
I brought two out today. I'll come on your side with you.
My suggestion is scoop up a big blob of the white,
and kind of come in and capture some of this white water
that's rolling ashore.
You can just do big, bold brushstrokes, whatever you like.
You have to be quite bold to do a big brushstroke.
-Yeah, it takes a little bit of...
And you can bring it down a little towards us.
Oh, it looks like a crashing wave right there.
Right, so when we step back,
now everything becomes a little less abstract and a little more in focus.
I didn't realise how well I was doing.
Yeah, I know. Fantastic.
You must get a lot of satisfaction being out here.
I do. It's a real pleasure. Who couldn't be happy out here?
During my travels in California,
I've discovered a shameful history of mistreatment of minorities,
Native Americans, African-Americans,
Japanese, Chinese, and Latinos.
But, California pioneered civil rights legislation
and today it's the first state in which the minorities,
added together, constitute a majority.
Latinos, in particular, now occupy powerful political positions,
and so if the rest of the United States
is tempted towards isolationism or xenophobia,
California is unlikely to follow.
And, given that it's the biggest economy,
and the largest population, it won't be easily pushed around.
Next time, at the birthplace of Top Gun, I get ready for action...
So, the fear is that there might be something in that pipe
-and it just spurts out when I take it off.
-It could, yes.
..get a sense of proportion at a very big small railroad...
Would it be unfair to say that you people are a bit fanatical?
Oh, yes, yes!
Very easily so.
..and find a novel way to play the organ.
You've got it!
That was such fun.
Michael Portillo strikes oil in the suburbs of Los Angeles, contemplates his navel in the orange groves of Riverside, makes a California Roll and paints a pretty picture in Laguna Beach.
It is Mexican Independence Day and the locals are celebrating the country's hard-won independence from Spain in the early 19th century. There is dancing, singing and feasting in the streets and Michael is up for joining the party. He learns that one in two of the population of LA is Latino, mainly of Mexican descent, and hears after only a few decades, Mexico lost half its territory and California became part of the United States. Michael learns the secrets of backyard oil drilling in Los Angeles, home to the largest urban oil field in the United States. Nodding donkeys are everywhere - in residential neighbourhoods, parking lots and burger joints.
Michael sports a zesty orange jacket to visit the Citrus Variety Collection and learns the difference between a pummelo and a papeda. Alongside oil, the citrus fruit industry, he discovers, is one of the bedrocks of the state's economy. At Laguna Beach, Michael learns how artists from the east coast travelled west on the Transcontinental Railroad to found a colony of 'plein air' painters attracted by the beautiful coastline and glorious light to paint outside.