Sighting Signal Hill: Collaborative Ethnography in Late Industrial California

This essay documents a workshop hosted by the Center for Ethnography at the University of California, Irvine on November 2, 2018, as part of the Field Works: Soiled Grounds series of site-based experiments in collaborative ethnographic fieldwork.

In this workshop, approximately 25 ethnographers from UC Irvine, UC Los Angeles, and other institutions toured the city of Signal Hill, an affluent enclave surrounded on all sides by the city of Long Beach.

Perched atop one of the world's most productive oil fields, Signal Hill's manicured parks and greenways afford visitors views of the two largest ports on the continent and (on rare smogless days) most of South Los Angeles. The city is emblematic of how Southern California histories of speculation, displacement, and dispossession have produced a stark landscape of racial segregation. It also evinces how local histories of oil extraction, real estate development, and global trade have converged to consolidate power through the production of racialized environmental vulnerability.

Exploring Signal Hill via roads and sidewalks, ethnographers explored how to use this site as at once a historical archive, a spatial vantage point, and a living case study for understanding environmental racism in "Late Industrial California." What questions does this landscape call us to ask? What methods does it demand? What kinds of collaboration does it enable or foreclose?

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