Essential California: The best California writing of 2020

A man walks by a mural that says "Stay Home, Life is Beautiful."
A man walks by a mural on La Brea Avenue by artist Thierry Guetta, aka Mr. Brainwash, as photographed in April 2020.
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

Good morning, and welcome to the Essential California newsletter. It’s Thursday, Dec. 24, and I’m writing from Los Angeles.

This morning we’ll be sharing our compendium of some of the best California writing of 2020.

California contains multitudes. This is a state of 40 million people — a place so big that there have been at least 220 recorded attempts to break it up. Which is all to say that even a hundred stories couldn’t capture the entirety of the California experience during this historic year.

But these were 30 of our favorite stories published in 2020, from The Times and beyond.

Together, they’ll take you up and down the coast, into the desert and through the Central Valley. There are narratives, investigations, news stories, essays and personal histories. You’ll meet nurses, linebackers, strawberry growers, a Qatari sheikh, a homeless 7-year-old, an iconoclastic federal judge and a devoted mail carrier, to name a few.


“A nurse without an N95 mask raced in to treat a ‘code blue’ patient. She died 14 days later” (Soumya Karlamangla, Los Angeles Times, May 2020)

This is a story about a decision. An L.A. nurse was faced with a choice — she could either rush into a COVID patient’s room to save him while only wearing a thin surgical mask, or wait to find an N95. But it’s also a story about the human toll of the pandemic, and the broken systems that left a frontline worker without adequate PPE.

“USC’s dying linebackers” (Michael Rosenberg, Sports Illustrated, October 2020)

There were 12 linebackers on the Trojans’ depth chart in the fall of 1989. Five are gone now — dead before age 50. None of them died on the field, but for each former player, football was inextricably tied to mortality. Part of what makes this piece so gutting is the simplicity with which it is told. No flowery language or fancy descriptions. Just sparse, simple sentences that land like ceaseless punches.

“How do you sign ‘Black Lives Matter’ in ASL?” (Sonja Sharp, Los Angeles Times, June 2020)

For black deaf Angelenos, it’s complicated. As with everything in American Sign — a language that many hearing people have been exposed to regularly since the outbreak of the coronavirus — nuance shows up in translation.

“What my dad gave his shop” (Francesca Mari, The Atlantic, December 2020)

A piercing essay from Francesca Mari about her father’s fading San Francisco audio-video store, and the travails of being a small-business owner in America — before and during the pandemic.

“What happened on Howard Street” (Ashley Harrell, North Coast Journal, August 2020)

Racial politics, family and a fight for justice unfold in a rough corner of Eureka, high in Humboldt County. At the center of the story is a wiry, bright-eyed 16-year-old boy struggling to make the best of difficult circumstances, as the forces that should protect him fail to do just that.

“For contact tracers, COVID-19 fight is personal” (Colleen Shalby, Los Angeles Times, December 2020)

Contact tracers tell people they’ve tested positive for the coronavirus or warn they’ve been exposed to it. The conversations are confidential and sometimes surprisingly intimate. Some last minutes; others, hours. Much of the job relies on intuition shaped by cultural and familial ties — bonds that make the work personal.


“Why did it take a white chef to pique my interest in my own Mexican culture?” (Javier Cabral, Bon Appétit, February 2020)

L.A. Taco editor Javier Cabral’s moving essay on internalized racism, his mother’s cooking, and finding a career as a taco expert.

“Facing dangers from coronavirus and Trump, postal carriers just keep delivering the mail” (Brittny Mejia, Los Angeles Times, June 2020)

A lovely portrait of the embattled United States Postal Service, and a letter carrier named James Daniels methodically making his way through the roughly 800 addresses on his San Clemente route.

“The true story of the heartthrob prince of Qatar and his time at USC” (Harriet Ryan and Matt Hamilton, Los Angeles Times, July 2020)

When a Qatari sheikh came to live in L.A., an entire economy sprouted to meet his wishes. “His highness doesn’t like to hear no,” one associate told a professor. This is a wild yarn, from two of the best investigative reporters in the game.

“How the waters off Catalina became a DDT dumping ground” (Rosanna Xia, Los Angeles Times, October 2020)

Last year, Rosanna Xia was a Pulitzer Prize finalist for her writing about how sea level rise will affect the California coast. In a new and equally critical story, she unravels a toxic mystery along that same coast. Here, she recounts how the waters off Catalina became a dumping ground for a now-banned pesticide — a toxic legacy that remained hidden until a new generation of scientists discovered the evidence.

“This federal judge is risking his life to save homeless people from the coronavirus” (Ben Oreskes, Los Angeles Times, April 2020)

There are many niche categories of journalism, but “profile from a beat writer” has long been one of my favorites. Beat writers aren’t struggling to understand the stakes or day-to-day nuances of a new world — they come to the assignment already intimately familiar with the broader landscape. This is a story about one singular, 76-year-old judge hectoring public officials, touring encampments and insisting on in-person hearings during a pandemic. But it’s also a story about the homelessness crisis in L.A., written by a reporter who’s spent the last two years focused on just that.

“How will we grieve once the coronavirus pandemic is over?” (Thomas Curwen, Los Angeles Times, April 2020)

How do we craft the narratives that will define a pandemic? My colleague Tom Curwen — who writes with the precision of a doctor, the wisdom of a rabbi and the sparse economy of a poet — looks to the wreckage of history to try to understand how humans will make sense of this story too.

“Deceit, disrepair and death inside a Southern California rental empire” (Aaron Mendelson, LAist, February 2020)

This deeply upsetting investigation from Aaron Mendelson digs into Mike Nijjar’s PAMA Management empire, where tens of thousands of California’s poorest tenants have endured dirty, dilapidated housing conditions.

“The unheroic reality of being an ‘essential’ restaurant worker” (Sara Selevitch, Eater, May 2020)

Sara Selevitch vividly describes the various indignities and absurdities foisted upon her while risking her health to hand customers takeout noodles during a pandemic. Several of the anecdotes in this story have haunted me, including this passage: “Regulars who never tipped before the crisis have continued their practice of not tipping. ... During a rainstorm, a customer called and asked that we bring her order out to the car. When I handed her the receipt, she wrote ‘0.00’ and signed her name with a flourish. She was wearing a T-shirt that said ‘Wild Feminist.’”

“Coronavirus has emptied places of worship, but here’s how it also fuels our faith” (Marcos Bretón, Sacramento Bee, April 2020)

Columnist Marcos Bretón writes about ancient rituals reimagined in the early days of the pandemic.

“Theo: Homeless at age 7” (Sarah Ravani, San Francisco Chronicle, July 2020)

Meet Theo, a homeless 7-year-old in Berkeley. All he wants is his own room and a kitchen where he can bake chocolate cake. He dreams of it while he sleeps in tents in parks and under the freeway.

“The making of American money” (An Uong, Hyphen Magazine, May 2020)

An Uong writes beautifully about childhood days spent rummaging through L.A. recycling bins and how income from other people’s trash provided her mother, a Vietnamese immigrant, with her first taste of independence in the U.S.

“This 81-year-old was L.A.’s most devoted museum-goer until COVID-19 shuttered cultural institutions” (Deborah Vankin, Los Angeles Times, April 2020)

For eight years, Ben Barcelona had been visiting a different art museum, gallery or public art installation every day of the week, rarely, if ever, deviating from his routine. His story is a love song about what he — and we — have all lost during these long months of isolation. (The reporter checked in with Barcelona a few days ago, if you’d like to read the coda.)

“‘I’m going to be honest with you,’ the grandfather told the police. ‘I killed a lot.’” (Jessica Garrison, Buzzfeed, August 2020)

In this excerpt adapted from nonfiction book “The Devil’s Harvest,” former Times editor Jessica Garrison details a contract killer’s 35-year run in the Central Valley, and how the criminal justice system failed his vulnerable victims.

“How an unknown British actress played a role in the downfall of two Hollywood moguls” (Stacy Perman, Ryan Faughnder and Meg James, Los Angeles Times, August 2020)

How does a 28-year-old woman from Kent, England, with a thin résumé of bit parts in a few movies take a starring role in the downfall of two of Hollywood’s most powerful moguls? That’s the question that riveted — if not rocked — the industry this summer.

“As a Black journalist, covering civil rights protests has been harrowing” (Lexis Olivier-Ray, L.A. Taco, June 2020)

Photographer and writer Lexis Olivier-Ray writes about how he came to photograph a now-iconic image of an LAPD cruiser engulfed in flames at the intersection of Beverly and Fairfax, continuing to record even while fearing for his own safety and why he has sometimes wondered “if it would be more impactful for me to put my camera down and join the protest.”

“Black Panthers now are grandparents and great-grandparents. But we still show up” (Henry Lee Wallace V, San Diego Union-Tribune, July 2020)

Henry Lee Wallace V, a retired bus driver, recounts his family’s role in the founding of the San Diego chapter of the Black Panther Party, and all that came after. The piece is an oral history, as told to Union-Tribune community opinion editor Laura Castañeda.

“A family of strawberry growers had big dreams. Then came the pandemic” (Daniel Hernandez, Los Angeles Times, April 2020)

“The Carranza family is a rare unit in the state’s strawberry supply. They are not laborers on a large industrial farm, like those paid by the box, but an entirely family-run enterprise that sells to restaurants and at five farmers markets: Santa Monica, Hollywood, South Pasadena, Ojai and Santa Barbara. At least until recently, before the coronavirus began forcing closures.”

“A lifeline leveled” (Carin Dorghalli, Chico Enterprise-Record, September 2020)

Enterprise-Record photographer Carin Dorghalli mourns the loss of her immigrant father’s market — the only store in Berry Creek — as she documents the flames ravaging mountain communities.

“George Floyd, Central Park and the familiar terror they inspire” (LZ Granderson, Los Angeles Times, May 2020)

A wrenching essay from Times sports and culture columnist LZ Granderson detailing a lifetime of encounters with police — and why Granderson is tired of writing about racism. Not just tired of writing about racism, but also “tired of black and brown bodies being killed by it,” tired of the endless, soul-slicing micro-aggressions and “tired of watching some white people be more upset by those who are protesting racism as opposed to the racism itself.”

“From healthcare worker to patient: Death in Room 311” (Maria L. La Ganga, Los Angeles Times, December 2020)

A nurse died alone at a Days Inn in West Covina, under isolation because she had COVID-19. For an investigator with the L.A. County Department of Medical Examiner-Coroner, the job was to piece together the puzzle of the victim’s life and death — and to stay healthy.

“Want to tear down insidious monuments to racism and segregation? Bulldoze L.A. freeways” (Matthew Fleischer, Los Angeles Times, June 2020)

“The aftermath of George Floyd’s death while in police custody has created a moment for radical truth-telling,” writes opinion editor Matthew Fleischer. “So here’s some ugly truth about the city of Los Angeles: Our freeway system is one of the most noxious monuments to racism and segregation in the country.”

“Systemic racism isn’t just about police brutality — and it has a long history in Fresno” (Manuela Tobias, Fresno Bee, June 2020)

Over half of west Fresno lives below the poverty line, while the rest of Fresno hovers around 27%. West Fresno residents earn about half the median salary as the rest of Fresno. Fewer residents graduate high school or own homes. And, on average, they live about 20 years less than residents in wealthier parts of the city. None of this is by accident — unrelenting disinvestment, neglect and a lack of representation have held back generations of Black and brown residents on this side of the city.

“This hidden Salton Sea birder oasis burned in the Niland fire. Its owner vows to rebuild” (Mark Olalde, The Desert Sun, July 2020)

The story of Barnacle Snug Luffy, who looks to pick up the pieces after a fire ripped through the town and torched his birding oasis.

“Safe at home in Los Angeles” (Lynell George, High Country News, March 2020)

Lynell George is one of the greatest living chroniclers of Los Angeles, a native who captures this contested domain in all its complexity. This lyrical dispatch from the early days of shelter-in-place pulls from the city’s literary canon to process those strange days.

Last but not least, an honorable mention in satire writing, from The Onion: “Gavin Newsom slammed for eating at the French Laundry when Atelier Crenn clearly superior take on contemporary cuisine.”

And now, here’s what’s happening across California:

California surpassed 2 million coronavirus cases on Wednesday, in another marker of the wrenching toll the pandemic is inflecting. The coronavirus has been spreading with breathtaking speed in recent weeks, creating crisis conditions in hospitals and making California one of the hardest-hit parts of the United States. Los Angeles Times

Trump gives Congress chaos for Christmas, with aid to millions up in the air: What may well be the final two legislative battles of the Trump presidency unspooled in typically chaotic fashion Wednesday as the president departed Washington for his Mar-a-Lago resort, leaving behind a vetoed defense bill, continued uncertainty over the fate of some $900 billion in COVID relief, and some very dismayed Republican leaders. Los Angeles Times

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COVID-19 surges at L.A. County shopping malls as holiday customers pack stores: Shopping malls and retail businesses deemed nonessential must limit occupancy to 20% of their maximum capacity, under county rules. But in the eyes of many, even public officials, they remain unsafe. Los Angeles Times

Crowded outdoor mall
People walk against the suggested flow of foot traffic for coronavirus precautions at the Citadel Outlets in Commerce on Tuesday.
(Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)

Doctors treat patients in hallways as Long Beach hospitals begin to overflow: Long Beach officials painted a dire picture of the situation inside local hospitals Wednesday, as ambulances struggled to keep up with a crush of patients and the city activated a “mass fatality” plan to back up local morgues. Long Beach Post

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President Trump continued his string of pardons Wednesday night, bringing the two-day total to 41 and wiping felonies from the records of Paul Manafort and Roger Stone, two political advisors who were convicted in the Russia investigation. Los Angeles Times


Billions of dollars were spent on fighting California wildfires, but little on prevention: The numbers highlight the enormous chasm between what state and federal agencies spend on firefighting and what they spend on reducing California’s wildfire hazard — a persistent gap that critics say ensures a self-perpetuating cycle of destruction. Los Angeles Times


California residents have not greatly reduced their visits to stores and workplaces since Gov. Gavin Newsom ordered them to stay at home in early December, according to a review of mobility trend data collected by Google from cellphones. Sacramento Bee

Two California counties and the town of Truckee are asking Airbnb to help halt short-term rentals in the Lake Tahoe area that violate the state’s stay-at-home order amid the continuing coronavirus surge. San Francisco Chronicle

A poem to start your Thursday: “At the California Institute of Technology” by Richard Brautigan. Poetry Foundation

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Los Angeles: cloudy, 66. San Diego: cloudy, 70. San Francisco: partly sunny, 59. San Jose: cloudy, 64. Fresno: fog, 57. Sacramento: partly sunny, 55. More weather is here.


Today’s California memory comes from Laurie Kasparian:

I grew up in Westchester in the ‘50s and ‘60s, just north of LAX. The sound of the planes was such a constant disruption that we learned not to notice the rumble. Or maybe we just turned the TV up or used the roar of the engines as a lullaby at night. As the jets got bigger, the crescendo could stop you in your tracks when playing outdoors. Looking down our alley, it would seem like the 747s would hang in the air just above the house on their slow climb out over the ocean. At one point, airport officials drove around handing out earmuffs to kids playing outside. By the time I headed to college, our home was on the chopping block to make way for a new north runway. At night, we heard the loudest rumble of all, the sound of homes being moved down our street to new locations. We all headed to Orange County, but our home ended up in Chino.

If you have a memory or story about the Golden State, share it with us. (Please keep your story to 100 words.)

Please let us know what we can do to make this newsletter more useful to you. Send comments, complaints, ideas and unrelated book recommendations to Julia Wick. Follow her on Twitter @Sherlyholmes.