Smogtown: The Lung-Burning History of Pollution in Los Angeles BY Chip Jacobs, William Kelly. Overlook Hardcover. Hardcover, 384 pages. $26.

The cover of Smogtown: The Lung-Burning History of Pollution in Los Angeles

Historians of Los Angeles have tended, even when critical of the city, to re-inforce its long-standing reputation as a place of fantasy. Among the first to examine LA as an object of serious scholarship was Reyner Banham, who, in Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies (1971), imagined La La Land as a series of discrete laboratories for democratic life, an exciting but highly romanticized LA of sun, fun, and motoring. A generation later, that book found its dark opposite in Mike Davis’s City of Quartz (1990), which turned LA’s penchant for unreality against it, revealing a bloated science-fictional dystopia. Both books boast compelling urban histories and continuing relevance, but even as each attempted to explore the form and fundamental logic of the city, they glamorized its past, and LA remained under a haze of myth.

Some of it gets burned off in Smogtown, a meticulous chronicle of the city’s signature airborne grime and of the civic and social forces that emerged to stop it. The authors, Los Angeles–based journalists Chip Jacobs and William J. Kelly, bring LA back to its unglitzy basics in a story of greed, pollution, and molasses-slow political change. Their history describes a decidedly dreary Los Angeles: Patio furniture fades, flowers die, and a man’s coral-colored tie turns bluish-purple over the course of an afternoon—all due to the smog that rolled into the city quite unannounced one morning in 1943. “The blocked skies,” write Jacobs and Kelly, “were tantamount to acne on a beauty queen.”

While Angelenos choked on the black stuff, variously described as an “aerosol barrage” and a “hanging bouillabaisse,” the government floundered. The Bureau of Air Pollution Control (BAPC) was the first local agency to tackle the crisis, starting in 1945. It failed to identify the smog’s source, as its engineers focused chiefly on sulfurous factory smoke and ignored gasoline-related fumes. The BAPC was replaced in 1947 by the Air Pollution Control District (APCD), under whose aegis Dutch-born biochemist Arie Haagen-Smit isolated automobile exhaust as the culprit. The APCD, however, couldn’t get much traction on the problem; neither could its successor agency, the South Coast Air Quality Management District; nor could the California Air Resources Board, the superagency created to coordinate statewide efforts. As Jacobs and Kelly demonstrate, the reason so little got done for so long was simple: Haagen-Smit (known fondly as Haagy) had solved the mystery, but in “linking smog with the tailpipe,” he put the antipollution bureaucracy in a bind for decades—caught between California’s burgeoning car culture and the smog-bedeviled people of Los Angeles.

It’s enough to make you feel bad for bureaucrats. Speaking of APCD chief Louis McCabe, one observer recalls, “The poor chap was being harassed from all sides.” Haagy’s credibility was called into question by “scientists” funded by the automobile and oil industries while rumors spread in the general population about a plot by big-business polluters to indict the “little man’s automobile.” The smogmen were charged with the daunting task of mediating between the public and private sectors and one another, all while dealing with angry citizens who threatened to “[come] down there after you with a hatchet.”

The ensuing stalemate causes a bit of difficulty for Jacobs and Kelly, as their narrative stalls amid the governmental wrangling. Not a lot happens as the APCD struggles with petroleum giants Unocal and Western Oil & Gas, with their shills in the media, and with Detroit manufacturers that for decades stubbornly refused to install the catalytic converters that would reduce emissions of unburned fuel. There’s not even a proper conspiracy. GM proved more than capable of frustrating environmentalists without actively thwarting eco-minded R&D, by developing a viable electronic car that simply failed to sell, and the authors call “pure fiction” the theory that auto manufacturers colluded to destroy LA’s Red Car mass-transit system, which simply lost favor with the public.

And there’s just enough good news in Smogtown to blunt its tragic potential. Vehicles in California produce 99 percent less pollution today than they did sixty years ago. Between 1986 and 1997, the number of days that LA failed to meet federal ozone standards dropped to 68 from a high of 164. Skies are clearer now than they’ve been in years, but a rise in the transportation of imported goods and accelerated exurban development have increased the net production of greenhouse gases for the region. It represents “‘the perfect storm’ in a warming world”: LA’s history, as read through its pollution, is a tale of one step forward, one step back.

In an effort to give this rather static story momentum, the authors toss in a dose of gallows humor and a light brushing of melodrama. The smog is personified as a “beast you couldn’t stab . . . cunning and silent,” with scientists “jousting” to defeat it. Such instances remind one of the voice-over from Dragnet, and it’s hard not to laugh when imagining Joe Friday intoning, “Deep within Disneyland in Anaheim, California, stands Tomorrowland.”

But the point of Smogtown is well made: that the truth really is inconvenient. Nearly fifty years after the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, we are coming to know the cost of environmental stewardship in blood, sweat, and dollars. The story of Smogtown is that of a city vying against time to reconcile incommensurables. Any city, or any country, is only as amenable to improvement as its citizens are prepared for change. It’s an uphill slog the whole way.

A writer and critic in New York, Ian Volner is a regular contributor to Architectural Record.