"My sister, my daughter, my sister, my daughter!"
Who can forget the famous slapping scene from "Chinatown," in which Evelyn Mulwray, wife of the murdered Los Angeles water department head, reveals that she was raped at 15 by her father and bore a daughter?
Crowds line the Los Angeles Aqueduct on opening day, Nov. 5, 1913. Courtesy of County of Inyo, Eastern California Museum.
For the past year he has been immersed in the history and lore surrounding the Los Angeles Aqueduct, which opened 100 years ago next month and served as the backdrop of the 1974 cinematic classic. In real life, it was Los Angeles water department head William Mulholland who famously announced at the Nov. 5, 1913, opening ceremony for the 223-mile-long engineering feat that he spearheaded: "There it is. Take it."
The signal event that transformed life in Southern California is the theme of Christensen’s first issue since he became editor of UC Press’ 2½ year-old magazine, Boom, last spring.
Now housed in the UCLA Department of English, the magazine is being produced by Christensen with help from UCLA graduate students in history and English and Los Angeles Book Review veteran editor Eve Bachrach, as well as support from UCLA’s Institute of the Environment and Sustainability.
Boom "is breaking ground, in terms of the character of its content and its business model," the Columbia Journalism Review recently wrote. "The best academics and smartest journalists should be natural allies in the effort to bring new ideas to the public square."
Christensen recently discussed Boom and the aqueduct with UCLA Today’s Meg Sullivan.
For people not familiar with Boom, what’s the general idea?Who are the magazine’s contributors?
Before Boom launched in 2011, California hadn't had a magazine that spoke to the whole state — through which we can have a conversation with each other — since 1991 when New West, which was later renamed California magazine, folded. We also see our mission differently. We are a magazine from California and not just about California. Boom is a magazine of California in the world and the world in California. There is nothing else like it.
From the left, Boom's staff includes: (front) Annie Powers, graduate student in history; editor Jon Christensen; and Robert Smith, a graduate student in English. (Back) Sara V. Torres, Ph.D. candidate in English, and Eve Bachrach, assistant editor. Courtesy of Boom.
Boom brings the best minds from our great universities into conversation with writers, photographers, artists, advocates, decision makers and citizens. We like to think of it as hosting one of the most interesting dinner parties in California every quarter. Among others in this issue on Los Angeles, Owens Valley and the L.A. Aqueduct at 100, we have historians Bill Deverell and Tom Sitton; photographer Chad Ress; artists Valerie Cohen and Rob Sipchen; the L.A. Department of Water and Power's general manager Ron Nichols; environmental advocate and birder Graham Chisholm; technologist Chacha Sikes; UCLA geographer Glen MacDonald; urban landscape designers Hadley and Peter Arnold; and journalists Michael Hiltzik, David Ulin and Bob Sipchen.
When you decided to take the reins at Boom, what did you want to keep and what did you want to change, and why?
We want to hold on to the core mission to bring great thinkers, writers, artists and citizens together in the public square for a conversation about the crucial issues, fascinating questions and deep stories of our times, and California's role in the world. And we are holding on to the lavish format and production values that allow us to display great photography and art, which make the magazine such a thing of beauty to hold in your hands. But we're rebooting to reinvigorate the contents, both art and writing, to open the magazine to more diverse voices, to make the magazine flow more pleasurably for the reader, and to bring the conversation onto the web, in social media and in face-to-face events around California.Why did you decide to focus on the 100th anniversary of the California Aqueduct?
"Chinatown" with Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway.
We don't see ourselves as doing anything alone. We want to be part of inspiring, stimulating and sustaining great conversations. So we always work in partnership with others to do that. The aqueduct centenary has given us a great opportunity to reflect on 100 years of the history of Los Angeles, the Owens Valley, and water in California and the West, and how they have shaped L.A., the state, the region and even the world in fields from politics to photography, from historical archives to the environment today and in the future. This issue of Boom is like an intellectual catalog or guide to the anniversary, something that you can spend time with, think deeply with and then participate in the many different kinds of conversations taking place throughout L.A. and the state that Boom, our friends and partners are hosting this fall.
What kind of reaction are you getting to the issue?
I've been blown away by the enthusiasm with which this issue has been greeted. Our whole team — from the writers and artists to my assistant editors, who are graduate students at UCLA in English and history, to our production team — just really knocked it out of the park. It's beautiful to behold. It's also got deep, deep substance. And I think people are hungry for that. And they recognize the importance of our central mission — to open up the ivory tower to the public square. There is great enthusiasm for that lively conversation from all sides.
What’s the biggest misconception about the aqueduct?
Most people, when they first hear about this issue, say, "Oh, you mean like 'Chinatown.'" That great movie has created a powerful myth about the aqueduct that cannot, and perhaps really should not, be undone by any amount of accurate history. As with all great works of art, there is truth in the movie that has both very little to do with the reality of the aqueduct and, at the same time, everything to do with the aqueduct, which is both original sin and signal achievement for one of the world's greatest cities. For much more on all of this, we have a wonderful essay in the current issue by historians Bill Deverell and Tom Sitton on searching for the truth in "Chinatown."Is there any evidence of crimes of rape or incest on the part of the Los Angeles figures who were involved with the project? Is there a kernel of truth in the "Chinatown" character Noah Cross, the father of Evelyn Mulwray?
Water in the Los Angeles Aqueduct finally reaches its destination as spectators gathered for a celebration watch. By the Los Angeles Times Staff. Copyright 1913 Los Angeles Times..
Deverell and Sitton conclude in their essay that "there is no known rape or incest incident attributed to any of the Los Angeles figures involved with the Owens River Aqueduct project," as the L.A. Aqueduct was known at the time. However, "rape became a common description or metaphor for what the city did to the Owens Valley" at the time and in later accounts. The movie "Chinatown" made this historical metaphor explicit in the disturbing narrative of the Cross family.
What were you most surprised to discover about the system of canals, tunnels and pipelines that conveys water collected from the Sierra Nevada and the valleys of Northern and Central California to Southern California?
As a newcomer to Los Angeles — I moved to UCLA from Stanford a year ago — I have been most pleasantly surprised by how self-reflective and thoughtful Los Angeles is becoming about its relationship and responsibilities to Owens Valley and the rest of California and, indeed, the rest of the West, if we also consider the crucial role of the Colorado River in supplying Southern California with water. There’s still lots of arguing and fighting, as well there should be, over very, very important issues that need to be resolved. But Los Angeles is changing fast. And people from all walks of life — from our universities to policymakers, water managers, business people, artists, writers, designers, builders, advocates and citizens — are reimagining how to survive and thrive in a great mega-city that is going to get hotter and drier with climate change, and, at the same time, to care responsibly for the people and places that share our city's sources of water.
If you had 15 minutes with Mulholland what would you want to ask him?
Was the Los Angeles Aqueduct original sin or signal achievement? Or both? Discuss.
Until Oct. 31, faculty and staff can enjoy a 25 percent discount— a savings of $9.25 on the regular $37 annual subscription to Boom— by using this code: BMEM132 Subscriptions can be ordered at