The story of the land beneath LA

Illustrations by Vera Valentine

“Elemental LA” is an exploration of Angeleno’s “sense of place” using the four classic elements – air, earth, water and fire – as guides.

I stand… in a part of the yard where the ground refuses the insistent demands of order. It swells with rebelliousness and the tropical. A region of the backyard that asserts the authority of the native, a place where the ground refuses to be manicured. There is a bird’s nest, perhaps, and mouse vines, red and yellow hibiscus hedges beaten with lataniers.

Kate Braverman, “Wasting the Blue”


Dig a six-foot-deep well anywhere in Los Angeles County that is not on the side of an arroyo or mountain ridge. Go up. What do you see ? If you’ve dug in your own backyard, you might see a layer of “weathered, man-made soil”. Developers moved entire landscapes in the creation of Los Angeles, dredging mud from wetlands, pushing earth down to terrace a hill. Or you might see three feet of native soil (sometimes more) and below that, older layers in bands of color and texture.

The surface soil is dug by ground squirrels, insects and earthworms. It is alive with nematodes, fungi, and mood-altering Mycobacterium vaccae that actively break down organic detritus. Below, the pace slows. Not much has changed since the last spill from the Los Angeles River into Santa Monica Bay. Dig deeper and your well peers into the distant past of a lagoon, a dune-fringed shore, a river channel, a fan of debris, a grassland. Dirt has a history.

Los Angeles County has nearly 200 soil types depending on the location and the handling the soil has undergone. Soils are grouped in series. San Emigdio is one. Palmview, Grommet, Abaft at the beach and Windfetch above, Azuvina, Buzzpeak are others. The floors affected by the development are Dapplegray and Counterfeit.

Urbanized Los Angeles hides what it stands on. The “sealed ground” underlies the built landscape that covers almost half of the city and almost as much of the county. There is nowhere for fallen jacaranda flowers to decompose into “sealed ground” and nothing to support its living part. Nowhere where rain can seep into groundwater; nowhere to go except, as the stenciled warnings in the storm drains say, “towards the ocean”.

The 11% of the city that remains “bare ground” is too often salty with lead, cadmium and arsenic, the detritus of industrial Los Angeles and the silt of the freeway thrown into the air, to be deposited on the neighboring backyards, layer upon layer poisoned.


If you dig deeper, you might find oil. In some places it actually oozes out of the ground, albeit as tar or pitch (brea in Spanish). In 1900, a strip of oil fields from Brea Canyon in the Puente Hills to Rancho La Brea supplied Los Angeles. The city’s oilfield stretched from the foot of Chavez Ravine to Hoover Street, where wooden derricks towered over suburban bungalows. In Long Beach, oil rigs rose above Sunnyside Cemetery on the slope of Signal Hill. By 1925 oil was being pumped from wells in Huntington Beach and Santa Fe Springs, Whittier, Montebello, Torrance and Beverly Hills. Real estate ads sold the dream of owning a home with an oil well in the backyard.


Pump jacks, nodding like giant workhorses, are still hard at work in Los Angeles, Inglewood and elsewhere. Magali Sanchez-Hall, who lives in the Latinx and working-class community of Wilmington between working oil wells and a refinery, is used to the coughs, rashes and asthma that plague her neighbors and her own family. “We don’t often look at the environment we’re in and think the chemicals we’re breathing in are the cause.”

Half a million Angelenos live within walking distance of an active well. A thousand of them abandoned — some without caps, others leaking methane and toxic gases — lie just below ground in neighborhoods from Ladera Heights to Echo Park.

Los Angeles was once the equivalent of Saudi Arabia or Kuwait. Oil is under our skin.

Oil rigs covered with foliage images with a colored filter.

Memory as a Blessing

In a city inhabited by footless people, even the dead are forced to roam. Los Angeles’ first Catholic, Jewish, and Protestant cemeteries were uprooted and their graves moved in 1920, mostly beyond the city limits. The dead were separated after their exile. Catholics, Jews, Serbs, Russian Molokans and Chinese had separate resting places. In a two-square-mile neighborhood at the eastern end of Boyle Heights, among modest homes, carnicerías, and body shops, there are eleven cemeteries.

Four Jewish cemeteries cluster south of Whittier Boulevard. The Maison de la Paix is ​​the oldest. Agudath Achim and Beth Israel are smaller. Mount Zion is the most abandoned, apparently it does not belong to anyone. The Jewish Federation of Los Angeles described itself as “inheritance” and paid Mount Zion’s taxes. Concerned Jewish organizations have reset Mount Zion tombstones tossed by vandals and earthquakes and sealed the broken burial beds of Angeleno stakes buried in accepting ground in East Los Angeles.

Three squares showing tombstones in a cemetery.

Bougainvillea bloomed red on the boundary wall of Mount Zion in early 2121, and the front gate was chained. If there was a number to call for inquiries, it is now missing. It is not easy to visit Mount Zion to place a pebble on a grave, to remember someone whose memory could have been like a blessing.

ancient hills

Mapping apps that offer redemption from traffic jams send drivers into worse shape. One of the riskiest shortcuts is Echo Park’s Baxter Street, an incline with a 32% grade (more than double what road standards currently allow). The software only knows the topography of a billiard table and directs the impatient accordingly. What comes next needs strong nerves.

As Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez observed, “On Baxter, whether you’re climbing the steepest grade from Allesandro on the west side of the peak or Lakeshore on the east side, you don’t see the sidewalk in front of you through the windshield. You see the sky, like you’re in a photo of the moon, blind to what might happen to you on the other side of the mountain.” Not all of Los Angeles was designed for car comfort.

Baxter Street, circa 1937

Restless Los Angeles didn’t care much about its hills. Poundcake Hill (topped by the town’s first high school, then the county courthouse) was cut back for the Clara Shortridge Foltz Criminal Justice Center. Normal Hill (once the location of a UCLA predecessor) was lowered to ease traffic congestion, then nearly flattened for the Central Library. Fort Moore Hill (US troop command post in 1847, later Protestant cemetery) was carved out for the Hollywood Freeway. During construction, the bones of Los Angeles pioneers fell into the excavation.

Bunker Hill, once home to a multi-ethnic and multi-racial community, fell into “slum resolution” in the 1960s. Graders planed 30 feet from Bunker Hill and opened up 27 blocks for redevelopment. For a time, the drastically reduced hill was an acropolis of Fortune 500 companies – Mike Davis’ menacing “City of Quartz”. The businesses are gone now, as are most of the hills themselves.


It’s not going to be pretty. The city’s filth was dumped into the Los Angeles River bed, set on fire, fed to pigs, haphazardly buried, funneled to farmers’ fields and dumped in Santa Monica Bay. Today, waste is collected and approximately 65% ​​is diverted from landfill. Green waste is composted. Wastewater is treated. It still goes to Santa Monica Bay, but the biosolids are mined to become soil for producers or to be injected as mud into a depleted oil formation a mile below Terminal Island.

Two men wearing hard hats walking through oil and a headstone that says, "Rest in peace."

Mid-century Los Angeles buried a lot of trash. From 1956 to 2013, when it closed, the Puente Hills landfill absorbed more than 130 million tons of waste, raising a mound 500 feet high. Clean dirt covered each week’s buildup, the boundary of a new layer called lift. Trucks continue to deliver trash to three county-maintained landfills. There are nearly 20 active landfills and up to 300 labeled inactive landfills in Los Angeles County. There are probably others, unknown.

Much of the Puente Hills landfill will one day become a park. By then, the buried trash can will be just a memory. What lies beneath will last for what will seem like an eternity.

Deeper exploration

Wilmington is just one of many communities in Los Angeles County where the environmental effects of oil extraction and processing are literally life and death issues. Learn more here.

How did Los Angeles lose its downtown hills? Nathan Masters of KCET searched for the missing landscape.

Active, closed, and abandoned landfills are scattered throughout the county. Find out if you live nearby on the county’s Department of Public Works website.

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