Why the California Dream Long Included a Lawn

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As Southern California’s water supplies run perilously low, more and more homeowners are doing something they might not have imagined even a few years ago: ripping out their lawns.

As I reported this week, the shift away from thirsty grass toward native plants and artificial turf marks the twilight of one of Los Angeles’s most iconic fantasies — a vision of suburban homesteading that evolved over centuries.

American lawns have their roots in 18th-century England, where wealthy people started to accumulate land and private property. Setting a mansion amid a grassy expanse became an early demonstration that one could afford to have land that wasn’t farmed, said Christopher Sellers, a historian with Stony Brook University who has written about the rise of lawns in the United States.

In the late 19th century, the lawn was imported to the East Coast by Gilded Age capitalists building their own versions of English country estates on Long Island and in Newport, R.I. The northeastern United States got 15 to 20 inches less rainfall per year than England, but horticulturalists developed heartier grass hybrids, including some that were previously considered weeds, Sellers said. And a house with a well-tended lawn became both an aspiration and a baseline for a ballooning middle class.

“It becomes a cultural norm, the expectation,” Sellers said.

The opening of the Los Angeles Aqueduct in 1913 made the remote waters of the Owens River available to fuel the growth that would eventually make the city the second largest in the country, said William Deverell, a history professor at the University of Southern California focusing on California and the West.

As Americans moved West to an arid landscape, they brought with them visions of a form of nature tamed by suburbia: lush carpets of grass that could, with enough water, be kept green year-round.

“It allowed people to bring a lot of water to the landscape,” he said. “You get some good hoses and sprinklers, and you’ve got the ability to indulge this other impulse: Midwestern uniformity in private property display.”

Then, that image of a suburban paradise was magnified and projected by Hollywood.

“The T.V. and film industry using Southern California, as they have since the beginning, as a great, big set — that’s going to influence what you think you do as a successful working-class or middle-class person,” Deverell said.

But as early as the 1960s, at the dawn of California’s nation-leading environmental movement, some Californians began to recognize the fragility of the Los Angeles Basin, Deverell said. There was an inkling that the water couldn’t last forever.

“The fact that we’re talking about lawns a lot is a recognition of these bigger, deeper problems around the perception of infinite resources,” Deverell said. “Lawns are a symptom.”

Now, he said, the movement to replace grass with native gardens is, “in a way, going back to the future.”

For more:

If you read one story, make it this

Schools across the country have been caught up in spirited debates over what students should learn about U.S. history. We talked to social studies teachers about what they actually teach.

Where we’re traveling

Today’s tip comes from Lorna Flynn, who recommends Calaveras Big Trees State Park. Ninety miles southeast of Sacramento, the park preserves two groves of giant sequoias:

“To stand next to one of these giants with furry bark is to set your place on this planet. You can stand on the edge of the Grand Canyon and get that sense, but the canyon isn’t living.”

Tell us about your favorite places to visit in California. Email your suggestions to [email protected] We’ll be sharing more in upcoming editions of the newsletter.

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Parents, children and teachers: How are you feeling about the start of the school year?

Email us at [email protected] with your hopes, fears and stories. Please include your name and the city that you live in.

And before you go, some good news

After a two-year pandemic pause, the Santa Cruz Mountain Jam returns this weekend.

The free outdoor concert in the Santa Cruz Mountains began in 2013 as a way to raise money for children in Santa Cruz to study music. Proceeds from this year’s event, held on Saturday, will benefit music programs at local elementary and middle schools.

“For us, it’s kind of a way of paying back the community,” the concert organizer, Louis Niemann, told The Santa Cruz Sentinel. “We just want to have a really fun musical event that everybody can enjoy.”

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