El Segundo at the edge of the Santa Monica Bay. I was raised there, 9 blocks south of LAX (second busiest in the US), two blocks east of a sewage treatment plant (one of the world’s largest), and three blocks north of the Chevron Oil refinery (processing oil from Alaska, Ecuador, and the Middle East for the LA region’s planes and cars). Factories 1.5 miles to the east became the core of the US aerospace industry. Urban historians call El Segundo an industrial suburb. Constrained by industrial infrastructure, there is little room for the small town to expand. Meanwhile, the robust industrial tax base supports a very strong public school system; in 2017 the high school was ranked among the top 4% in California.
The town, the high school, and Hyperion figure prominently in popular visual culture since the 1950s, including Soylent Green, Beverly Hills 90210, and the Terminator. The refinery appears on local television with every fire, most recently in September 2018. Known locally as Smell Segundo and El Stinko, the town remains defensive about pollution; its air and water quality are monitored as part of a much larger region, so its distinctive features are obscured in the data. More has been erased. Only traces remain of a nearby neighborhood, razed for LAX runways. The Ballona Wetlands where I played as a child were drained to build a marina. The 405 Freeway was built where we shopped for vegetables and rode horses among the farms.
My focus is on the contrast between El Segundo’s visibility and its absence in the data, its public appearance and its toxic odors, its huge tax base and its modest incomes, a stable community in a rapidly growing region with vast inequalities. Its contradictions reveal impressive methodological, theoretical, and political challenges.
The red dot points to where I was raised during the Cold War, 9 blocks south of LAX (second busiest in the US), two blocks east of a sewage treatment plant (one of the world’s largest), three blocks northeast of a power plant, and three blocks north of a refinery (processing oil from Alaska, Ecuador, and the Middle East for the LA region’s planes and cars). Factories 1.5 miles to the east became the core of the US aerospace industry. Missing from the image is the smell; locally the town is known as El Stinko. Odor can be detected, monitored, measured, sampled, and mitigated, but not eliminated.
The US Center for Disease Control (CDC) Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry [ATSDR] suggests that community members keep “odor diaries” https://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/odors/air_pollution_odor_diaries.html Even now when I smell petroleum and new asphalt I suddenly feel at home. Later in Europe I lived in a fifth floor walkup with a dirty shared toilet in the stairwell; it smelled so familiar. Burnt rubber from nearby midnight motorcycle races in Japan reminded me of LAX. Coming from El Stinko I could feel like a local many places in the world. I already knew the coping tricks and the jokes; I knew that familiarity breeds tolerance, but I also recognized the shock on newcomers’ faces when they first encountered that heady chemical concoction of gasoline, shit, ammonia, and asphalt, plus the additives designed to transform those pungent odors into another scent. Like perfumers and wine makers, those with experience can smell each of the component parts, including the mask.
In Anthropology of Odor and Aroma: The Culture History of Smell David Howes claims that smell evokes much deeper memories than either vision or sound. I ask how our senses of contiguity (touch, taste, and smell), reverberate with sensing at a distance (sight and sound) as we perceive and embody toxicity. When I see the Google satellite map of where I was raised, I remember the smells and hear the refinery sirens and the roaring jet engines. Images trigger my embodied memory of toxicity, the detritus of the American empire during the Cold War.