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Essential California: How a remote California tribe set out to save its river and stop a suicide epidemic

Essential California: How a remote California tribe set out to save its river and stop a suicide epidemic
Graffiti commemorating Damien French, who committed suicide on May 22, 2015, is painted on the Martin's Ferry Bridge spanning the Klamath River. (Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times)

Good morning, and welcome to the Essential California newsletter. It is Saturday, May 20. Here's what you don't want to miss this weekend:



A tribe in crisis: The Yurok Native Americans have lived off the Klamath River for centuries — its salmon providing nourishment for the tribe. "But over the last 50 years, the yearly migration of salmon from the Pacific dwindled, and poverty, addiction and lawlessness gripped the reservation. Last year, a rash of suicides had pushed the tribe, California's largest and one of its poorest, into an existential crisis." Here's how they resolved to fix this crisis. Los Angeles Times

Newsom in the crosshairs: A lawsuit to overturn a San Francisco ballot measure that can limit the height of waterfront developments is stirring up trouble for Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom as he runs for governor. Los Angeles Times

What the what? "Amazon is planning to open a bookstore in a Century City mall, its first brick-and-mortar bookstore in Los Angeles. The online retailer, credited with causing a crisis in the physical bookselling industry, has opened five brick-and-mortar bookstores in the last 18 months and has announced plans for seven more." Los Angeles Times

Pushing against the narrative: Here's why California Republicans aren't as vulnerable as they look. "The Democrats were absolutely convinced that running against Trump down-ticket was going to create the biggest Democratic blue wave of all time, and it did not work at all," said Mike Madrid, a Republican consultant. POLITICO

Dana, be careful! The FBI warned Rep. Dana Rohrabacher in 2012 that Russian spies were trying to recruit him, officials said, an example of how aggressively Russian agents have tried to influence Washington politics. The New York Times

A helping hand: A then-13-year-old boy living in Los Angeles is credited with helping the Los Angeles Police Department stop and take down the infamous Night Stalker serial killer. CBS LA

Snow summer? With record snowfall in mountain areas, California ski resorts are hoping for an endless winter. Los Angeles Times

OC noir: The story of the Newport Beach murder yacht — the Well-Deserved — and the choice of what to do with it. OC Register

Gross sight: San Francisco's latest tourist attraction: A rat cafe with real rodents. Mercury News


Earlier this week, Times staff writer Thomas Curwen dropped a stunner of a story about the massive tunnel being built 60 feet below downtown L.A. Curwen started in the paper's advertising department 33 years ago and was a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 2008 for a story about a father, a daughter and a grizzly bear. He walked your Essential California team through his latest piece:

How did you first hear about this story? What about the subject interested you?

I was working at the Times one Saturday afternoon. Construction crews had closed Spring Street as they were building the 2nd and Broadway Metro station, and I started talking with the flag man. I knew they were digging a tunnel for the subway, but it wasn't until he described their work — navigating this monstrous machine 60 feet underground — that I realized that we had to share this story with readers.

I contacted the Metropolitan Transit Authority, who had held a media day in January for the tunnel boring machine and had turned down follow-up requests from other media who wished to visit the tunneling crew. With a little perseverance, I was able to persuade Metro that the Times would be the best outlet to tell this story.


I was fascinated at the prospect of such an epic undertaking going on just under my feet. We've all seen the construction cranes crowding the skyline of downtown Los Angeles, but just as importantly, the city is pushing its way underground. As soon as I toured the tunnel, I knew this would be a terrific story.

In the story you talk about how these guys who build these tunnels travel around the world. If you could, which project would you like to travel to visit?

As I started to write, I read a number of accounts about other tunnels both local and international. There were, of course, stories in The Times of the construction of Red Line during the 1990s as crews pushed their way under the Hollywood Hills. And then there were two terrific features in the New Yorker about tunneling under the Alps and working in Manhattan. Finally, I watched on Netflix a PBS documentary on the Crossrails project that's taking place under the streets of London.

Each of these accounts gave me a great view of these astonishing projects.

What surprised you the most in the course of reporting? Were there any setbacks while you were down there?


I was most surprised at how mesmerizing the tunneling process was. Yes, there was dust and heat and it was extremely loud, but as the crews operated the tunnel boring machine, digging and building the rings, I felt like I was watching a ballet, this methodical choreography of construction that proceeded like clockwork, slowly grinding its way ahead through the depths of the earth.

I spent two shifts in the tunnel, meeting the workers at 4:45 a.m. and staying with them until 3:30 p.m. The days were long but resulted in a thorough knowledge of the tunneling process that, I believe, informed the story.

Was there anything that didn't make it into the article that you'd like the reader to know?

What I enjoyed most about the time spent in tunnel was getting to know the miners. I realized that details of tunneling— how the machine worked, the geology of downtown Los Angeles, the science of subsidence and heaving — might get a little arcane, and I wanted instead to weave into the piece more intimate details from some of these lives: Scott Halsey's passion for tunneling (a big kid's dream, as he told me), Jose Bautista's struggle to get out of debt from student loans, Alex Barajas' following his father's footsteps into the tunnel.

I'm grateful to these miners who shared their stories so willingly with us and helped bring to life their work creating a subway system that will serve the city for decades to come.

This week's most popular stories in Essential California:

1. Climb inside the massive tunnel 60 feet below downtown L.A. Los Angeles Times

2. Honest Los Angeles street signs. The New Yorker

3. What $1,700 rents you right now in Los Angeles. Curbed LA

4. Uncovering the storied history of the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel. LAist

5. Inside Apple's insanely great (or just insane) new mothership. Wired

ICYMI, here are this week's Great Reads:

Gold speaks: Times food critic Jonathan Gold says the time for Filipino cuisine is now, and the place is Los Angeles. He writes: "In the idealized form you're seeing from young chefs and restaurateurs, it can be a light cuisine filled with fruits, vegetables and seafood, and more dependent on dashes of fish sauce, vinegar and citrus for flavor than on slugs of added fat." Los Angeles Times

An outsider's view: Hollywood being out of touch is a common refrain, and, here, three southerners discuss media and politics. They all come to this same conclusion. "The folks in Hollywood, those that went there to 'make it big,' they got enamored with the bright lights and the money and forgot where they come from," says Ann Jones of Flowery Branch, Ga. "They forget that we're all just people, but I think that comes from getting away from the family farm and getting ensconced in themselves." Los Angeles Times

Trump's bestie: In reality, no politician has more clout with the Trump White House than House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy does. He was one of the first Republican leaders to express support for "Trump, and when Speaker Paul Ryan and other Republicans disowned him after the release of the infamous 'Access Hollywood' tape, McCarthy held his tongue and served as a go-between. In business and in politics, Trump prizes loyalty above all else, and McCarthy's decision to stick by him is paying off." The California Sunday Magazine

Problems in Fremont: As Tesla attempts to dramatically increase the number of electric cars it produces, its factory workers in Fremont reveal stories of pain, injury and stress. In an interview, Tesla CEO Elon Musk conceded his workers had been "having a hard time, working long hours, and on hard jobs." The Guardian

Please let us know what we can do to make this newsletter more useful to you. Send comments, complaints and ideas to Benjamin Oreskes and Shelby Grad. Also follow them on Twitter @boreskes and @shelbygrad.