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Labor & Economy

The Magic City

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We all learn many important lessons from our parents. One lesson that I learned from my father was this: If you cut through a pipeline that’s carrying raw sewage you should be really, really sure that it’s not under pressure before you start. Unfortunately, this was something I discovered through actual observation when my father tried to fix our septic system and was sprayed down with a putrid stream of human waste as a reward for his efforts.

This is the type of home repair that I, now an Angeleno, never need to make on my own. Because I am currently a fancy city-dweller, I no longer have to take my trash to the dump, fix potholes in the road or do all of the other chores that are part of everyday country life but are magically taken care of when one lives in the city.

Not only do I get to avoid these day-to-day chores, I can rest secure in the knowledge that if something goes horribly awry, it’s highly likely that someone else will be responsible for dealing with it. For example, last winter when there was a big windstorm and a lot of trees blew down, I wasn’t stuck at home waiting for a neighbor to loan me a chainsaw so I could cut my way out to a main road.

In fact, most of the time I can count on nothing going wrong at all. We Angelenos get to carry on with the delightful assumption that everything around us will work all the time – like magic. Not once since I moved to Los Angeles has anyone commented on how great it is that we’ve had power for most of the winter, or how fantastic it is that this summer we didn’t have to use the neighbor’s outhouse for a month because the well ran dry. Ta-da! Flip the switch and the lights turn on, flush the toilet and away goes the mess.

Where does the magic come from? When I was growing up I had a better sense of where our water came from and where our sewage went, just as I knew who grew a lot of our food. But while many people have become very interested in where their food comes from, most of us still don’t think much about our power and water.

Perhaps that’s because the systems that bring us these things are so monumental, so overwhelmingly vast, that they are just harder to think about. The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power draws in electricity from all over the American West. Pylons march towards us from Washington State and Utah — massive metal structures crossing deserts and forests, the first branches in a network made of thousands of miles of wires that bring 25 million megawatt-hours a year to nearly four million people.

The power that flows into our glittering megalopolis must be matched by a steady rush of water from far away, water brought to us through an astonishing assemblage of dams, aqueducts and wells whose construction made history and whose existence has allowed humans to enjoy the charming climate of a place that could never otherwise support them. Angelenos purchase 168 billion gallons of water a year. When that’s turned into wastewater, it becomes the Bureau of Sanitation’s problem and is disposed of through more than 6,500 miles of sewer lines to plants that process 550 million gallons of wastewater every day.

It is an amazing endeavor to keep this many people in electricity and water (and out of their own waste) and, of course, it comes at a cost. But this cost is relatively easy to bear, at least from the perspective of someone who grew up in place where that cost included a lot of time and effort and some pretty unpleasant experiences. I know this is not the case for other people, and I’m sure that for some it is because they are so financially strapped, but I think many people who are born and raised in cities just don’t understand how much money and work is required to take care of them.

They seem oblivious to the complex, enormously expensive infrastructure supporting every single thing they do during the course of the day. And given the scope of the systems supporting all of us the bills aren’t that high; my sewer charge for the last two months was $32. My parents – no longer attempting to repair their septic system – put in a brand new one last year. The price tag for them? $25,000.

There are a lot of great things about being a kid in the country, but there are a lot of great things about being an adult in the city. Especially at night, when I look out over Los Angeles and see all those twinkling lights and know that there are millions of people out there going about their business, day and night, never needing to stop — it feels like a place where anything is possible, a place run on light and magic. But when I stop to think about the miles and miles and miles of pipes and wires and towers that make this happen, and try to imagine the cost and work that must be behind it, I’m reminded that this is an enormous human feat and that there is nothing magic about it at all.

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