The process of urban development is complex and multi-faceted. When planning a city structure, certain considerations must be accounted for such as transportation, sustainability, population growth, congestion, and water supply. When political agendas become involved, issues can become complicated and corruption can occur. The movie Chinatown, directed by Roman Polanski, illustrates how problems may develop due to the poor urban planning.
Chinatown is a fictionalized adaptation of the California Water Wars in 1937. The actual California Water Wars began in the latter part of the nineteenth century; they were a series of conflicts between the Los Angeles Water Department and the farmers and ranchers of Owens Valley in eastern California. Though the film is a fictional account that was inspired by events, Chinatown still represents the tone and the overall sensation of political corruption which occurred. In the film, the chief engineer for the Los Angeles Water Department, Hollis Mulwray, is loosely based upon William Mullholand, the chief of the Bureau of Water Works and Supply. Chinatown begins with the investigation of Mulwray’s alleged infidelity by Jake Gittes, a private investigator. While following Mulwray, Gittes learns about the proposal to build a new dam to distribute water to Los Angeles. Though the city is in the middle of a drought, Mulwray publicly expresses his lack of support for the construction. Mulwray is concerned about the effects on the farmers, ranchers, and the environment and does not want to encourage political corruption. Gittes discovers that the Water and Power Department is dumping fresh water from reservoirs into the ocean at night. Mulwray’s body is pulled from the Oak’s Pass Reservoir and when Gittes investigates the reservoir’s secured area, he is caught by security and gets his nose slashed. Gittes questions Mulwray’s associate, Yelburton, who admits to diverting water to Orange Valley to help farmers.
Gittes later discovers Mulwray was business partners with his father-in-law, Noah Cross; both men owned the water department. However Mulwray felt that the water should belong to the city and their partnership was dissolved. Mulwray knew that Cross and his associates were cheating farmers out of their land by purchasing real estate and selling it for a higher amount of money. Cross and his partners were planning to build a dam and water system that would redirect Los Angeles’s water supply to their farmland, increasing its real estate value. In order to avoid legal connections, Cross partnered with a retirement home that the older residents would unknowingly and legally own the land.
In the actual history of the California Water Wars, the real political corruption ensued when it became apparent that Los Angeles would not be able to accommodate its growing population. The most pressing concern was the lack of water, and it was in trying to solve this problem that political corruption became entrenched in the city’s development. In 1904, an engineer and mayor of Los Angeles, Frederick Eaton, decided to transport water with an aqueduct from Owens Valley into the city. However, farmers and ranchers living in Owens Valley wanted to wait until the United States Reclamation Service completed the irrigation project to assist the progress of agriculture and to ensure that they receive appropriate compensation for their land. Eaton and Mulholland bribed a local Reclamation Service agent into showing them the plans and began buying land and water rights in the Owens Valley. Mulholland also led the citizens of Los Angeles to believe that the river was important to the city when in reality they were using the river to irrigate the San Fernando Valley and increase the return on the financial investments made by Eaton’s political allies. Not only were the farmers and ranchers cheated out of fair financial compensation, agriculture was made difficult because so much water was taken from the Owens Valley that Owens Lake became completely dry. As a result, farmers tried to destroy the aqueduct.
If a city’s resources are sustainable, there is less of a chance for political corruption to occur. It is important to make sure that the city has a good water supply and sewage system, and proper transportation for both inside and outside of the city. If these factors are not accounted for, more people will choose to live outside of the city, decreasing financial resources.
Urban sprawl and suburbanization often occur when people move away from the main city. Though this migration happens for many reasons, ensuring that a city has necessary resources can decrease the amount of people leaving the city. In the film Chinatown, drought conditions could have contributed to the desire to leave the main city.
The quality of life is often perceived to be better in more suburban or rural environments. Since the factors contributing to suburbanization and urban sprawl may not always be controllable, it is important that cities accommodate commuters. In order to sustain a thriving urban environment, solid business and economics must be maintained. Ensuring good transportation within the city may help to persuade more people to remain living in the urban environment and not depart for suburban and rural areas. By providing residents the opportunity to travel, they are better able to enjoy the benefits of living in an urban environment such as an active social scene and saving money on transportation. When people decide to reside in the city, community bonds are strengthened, crime is reduced, and the city is able to achieve a more desirable image.
However, living in urban environments is not always desirable for everyone. Some people prefer to live away from the crowds and noise a city. However, they may still need to work in the city. Better transportation supports the development of business and can strengthen the economy. Even though they may work in the city, people are able to live in areas which they would prefer. The emergence of private automobiles also enables people to commute. In the film Chinatown, many of the wealthier people had access to automobiles. Developments in railways and buses enable commute and can help to assist transport within the city as well.
Conversely, the energy required to maintain adequate transportation could end up costing money as well and contribute to problems such as water shortages and sewage drainage. In the 1930’s, the higher volume of people able to travel may have contributed to more living in the suburbs and commuting to work. Another problem which commuting to the city may present is an increase in pollution. Fumes emitted from automobiles can create pollution in the air and water, which harms the environment and the health of the city’s residents. Agricultural land is affected by these conditions and can destroy crops and foods. Though in the 1930’s pollution was not as significant a concern as it is today, Chinatown describes the need to ensure that agricultural land is protected.
Proper urban planning can help to sustain a city’s resources. When basic necessities such as water are at risk, many political interest groups can capitalize on this plight. Chinatown can be used to show what happens when political corruption and lack of planning spiral out of control. By studying the effects of both the film and the actual history of the California Water Wars, much can be learned about the necessity of proper urban planning.
Echenique, Marcial, Anthony Hargreaves, Gordon Mitchell, and Anil Namdeo. “Growing Cities Sustainably: Does Urban Planning Really Matter?.” Journal of the American Planning Association. 78.2 (2012): 121-37. Web. 19 Mar. 2013. <http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/01944363.2012.666731>.
Hoffman, Abraham. “Myth, History and Water in the Eastern Sierra.” Mt. Whitney Packers & Owens Valley History. N.p.. Web. 19 Mar 2013. <http://www.owensvalleyhistory.com/ov_aqueduct1/myth1.html>.
Stringfellow, Kim. “Forget Chinatown, Get the Real Story of California’s Most Famous Water War.” KCET. N.p., 24 October 2012. Web. 19 Mar 2013. <http://www.kcet.org/arts/artbound/counties/los-angeles/los-angeles-aqueduct-there-it-is-take-it.html>.