More than two decades ago, Pulitzer-Prize winning former journalist Victor Valle got a tip about an insurance fraud in the City of Industry. Pulling on the threads of the various angles he investigated as a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, Valle exposed a web of corruption and greed surrounding Industry’s founder, James Stafford. Now, with much additional research and a broader view of the narrative’s implications, he recounts his entire gripping story in City of Industry: Genealogies of Power in Southern California (Rutgers University Press, Nov., $25). Valle, currently a Professor of Ethnic Studies at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, sat down at the appropriately gritty Cole’s restaurant downtown to tell us about this noir tale.
When did you first learn about Jim Stafford and the City of Industry, and what made you decide to write the book?
I started working at the LA Times in 1981. The way they trained you and [the way] to prove yourself as a reporter was, Can you cover crime? Do you get to play with the big boys? If I was really going to be a crime reporter, I wanted to write about capitalism. I didn’t want to write about Latino and black crime, and I didn’t know how I was going to do it. I began to do embezzlement stories. I love stories about money. If you come from the working class or you’re poor, you are really attuned to money. So I [began working on] a story about a guy who was accused of insurance fraud in Industry. I didn’t write about this case because there were so many frauds. It was so convoluted; it was this whole bird’s nest of people. All these names would end up appearing in the FBI’s log. So I wrote a story (in 1982), and I ended up disclosing facts that no one else knew, so they wanted to put me on the stand. I wasn’t even sure of what I had disclosed. When they said, “The DA wants to talk to you,” I said, “Oh something’s afoot.” I began finding out as much about the city as I could. I began to do my own investigative reporting.
You spent lots of time doing archival research for this book. What’s that process like?
I went to the County Hall of Records, and in the basement are property records for LA County. I went through the general index, and I began to reconstruct the history of property ownership for the Stafford family. It was weeks upon weeks. Everything is dusty, and I have terrible allergies. To even find the microfilm, you have to find all these codes, and then you go back in the microfilm and everything is dark and dusty and the people are grumpy. It’s its own special version of hell. I grew to like the people there, and they thought I was really crazy. I just wanted to just understand from an economic point of view: What did (Stafford) buy and how did he buy it?
It seems that no one can talk about civic corruption in Los Angeles without mentioning the film Chinatown (1974). How is Chinatown’s historical narrative misunderstood?
I think people became glib in their references to Chinatown. When they saw political corruption, they said “Chinatown,” and I said, “Wait a minute, there’s another meaning here. [This film] is really about capital subverting the public, whether Robert Towne thought of it or not.
Your book starts with the rape trial of Jim Stafford’s father, C.C. Stafford. Why did you choose to start with this episode?
I’m also trying to deconstruct Stafford. I was one of that group of people who was trying to turn him into the ultimate bad guy, but 0there was a lot of this other stuff going on. That’s why the trial is so important; that’s part of his personal motivation. He’s been overexposed. He’s 12 and 13 years old when this is going on. It’s hugely embarrassing.
Your book follows Stafford’s criminal exploits in chilling detail, from his shrewd ability to carve out an industrial city that could service the railroads to his nefarious domination of local government and his monumental money laundering schemes. How do you describe Stafford when you talk about your work?
I didn’t want to absolve him. The guy was a bad guy, don’t hide that part. Even though he’s a complex character, he did what he did and these are damaging things. I don’t want to make it seem like I relieve him of any responsibility. To me, he is very typical of a certain period in Southern California history. He’s a child of the Depression, and he’s also part of an immigrant, early cowboy capitalist class that in a certain sense we have forgotten about. It was very multiethnic. It’s a part of California history that we have to write more about. Part of his identity is always invested in agrarianism. I sympathized in certain ways, because as sons of immigrants, my family was cattle ranchers. I understand its appeal. I want to leave the message open for the reader to decide who he is.
Each chapter begins with an epigraph, most of which are taken from Latin American literature. What’s the significance of these epigraphs?
When I want to think of role models for the avant-garde, it’s Latin America. Their experiments of modernism were always pushing the envelope. That’s why those epigraphs are there. I am proclaiming my subjectivity in the book. I’m reminding the reader that there’s no ideal position of objectivity. I’m an unlikely spy. I’m using those epigraphs to remind the reader that this is a Latino point of view. I’m sort of an eavesdropper, a Latino son of immigrants. How do the poor look at the (problems) of the rich?
There are many ironies in the book, including the fact that in 2001 Stafford died in the Santa Barbara County beach resort where he had plotted his conspiracies. Which ironies are most significant to you?
Stafford’s father dies on the Southern Pacific Railroad track. The inquest said it was an accident, but [a relative] said that it was a suicide to [collect the life insurance and] begin to settle their debt. At the same time, what is clear is this is very intimately linked to the railroad. I don’t really know whether it was suicide or not. The point that I’m making is that at key points in the story, the railroad appears. It’s always there. They have a rail car with a black waiter, and they move it around so they can have lunch. All those elements of power are there. I try to use those as a structuring device, a thematic element that comes back. There’s another invitation here: let’s write a real thorough post-1930 history of the railroads. My book is not that, but we need it.
According to your account, there was a significant relationship between Stafford and Ed Roski Jr., a part owner of the Staples Center. In fact, you call Roski Stafford’s “paper son.” Do you expect any backlash against Roski after your book is published?
I’m getting responses form readers who said they didn’t realize what they were in for when it comes to the power he has amassed. I would compliment the journalists now because they are being very critical. He’s becoming a public figure. What I want people to do is to become more critical of what he’s doing. What I really want people to be aware of is how these technologies of power undermine the public sector. I want the citizens to become more critical and to reclaim the public. What people don’t realize is that when the state intervenes in ordinary lives, those interventions are engineered by corporate capital, and in the City of Industry, and all these other forms of privatized government, that’s what we have. Nowhere in the Constitution does it say the purpose of the Constitution is to make capitalists prosper. We think we’re critiquing capitalism when we’re critiquing consumerism, but that’s only one part of it. Capitalism as a system has other cultural technologies that are not visible. They follow the logic of cultural processes but they are not about getting you to buy more soap, they are about reformatting the state in some way. I want people to be more critical. That’s what I want to achieve. It’s not personal.
In what ways might the City of Industry’s troubled history be seen as a microcosm of the larger national crimes that occurred in the “settlement” of the West?
You’re dealing with violence. This is colonial. Call a spade a spade. If you’re Native American or Mexican, there is no romance here. As the descendents of colonized people, we’re close enough to that history to not see it romantically. That’s where my Latino sensibility comes in. It’s just, “we’ve heard that story.”