Newsletter: The best California writing of 2019

Palm trees on fire
The 25 stories collected below make up some of our favorite writing about California published this year. Together, they’ll take you up and down the coast, into the desert and through the Central Valley. There are narratives, investigations, news stories and personal histories. You’ll meet porch pirates, pool cleaners, serial killers, activists, YouTube streamers and academics, to name a few. Scroll on and enjoy.
(Glenn Koenig / Los Angeles Times)

Good morning, and welcome to the Essential California newsletter. It’s Tuesday, Dec. 24, and this morning we’ll be sharing our compendium of some of the best California writing of 2019.

BEST OF 2019

Here’s some of the best California writing of the past year. The list is highly unscientific, but these were 25 of our favorite stories published this year, from The Times and beyond.

“The Man in the Window” (Paige St. John, Los Angeles Times, June 2019)

Joseph James DeAngelo Jr. was arrested on suspicion of being one of California’s most prolific serial killers and rapists — the Golden State Killer — on April 24, 2018, after decades of terror.


Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter Paige St. John began work on a profile of DeAngelo shortly after his arrest. But what started as a profile soon grew into a yearlong project that eventually became a four-part series and podcast.

[See also: Our newsletter interview with Paige about the series]

“How Racism Ripples Through Rural California’s Pipes” (Jose A. Del Real, New York Times, November 2019)

Amid a vast migration during the early 20th century, tens of thousands of black people came to California’s farm country from far-off states in the Cotton Belt and the Dust Bowl. Often, the only place those black farmworkers could settle was in waterless colonies. The legacy of segregation in the Central Valley endures underground, through old pipes, dry wells and shoddy septic tanks.

“Getty fire: Housekeepers and gardeners go to work despite the flames” (Brittny Mejia, Los Angeles Times, October 2019)

Sent to cover the Getty fire, my colleague Brittny Mejia wrote about the largely immigrant, low-wage workforce who still trekked to their jobs in one of L.A.’s most affluent neighborhoods because their employers had neglected to tell them about the evacuation, leaving many stranded. This is a story that has seared itself into my brain. I think about it constantly, about the vulnerable chaos of that scene and what it says about our city. And also how easily such an important story could have been missed, if another reporter without Brittny’s language and cultural fluency had been sent instead.

“The Porch Pirate of Potrero Hill Can’t Believe It Came to This” (Lauren Smiley, The Atlantic, November 2019)

A longform investigation into the “porch pirate” of San Francisco’s Potrero Hill enters a vortex of smart-cam clips, Nextdoor rants and cellphone surveillance that tugs at the complexities of race and class relations in a liberal, gentrifying city.

“Lugging water into the desert for thirsty migrants unites this couple. Trump divides them” (Cindy Carcamo, Los Angeles Times, October 2019)

Sometimes, truth really is stranger than fiction. John is a Trump-loving conservative whose former congressman brother helped push for the “triple fencing” that separates the cities of Tijuana and San Diego. His wife Laura is a Mexican immigrant who dismisses Trump as a “despicable human being.” Together, they work to fill and maintain more than 100 water stations scattered along the sun-bleached California borderlands, to prevent the deaths of migrants deep in the unforgiving desert.


“Tongva, Los Angeles’ first language, opens the door to a forgotten time and place” (Thomas Curwen, Los Angeles Times, May 2019)

For decades Tongva, the language of the first people who lived in the Los Angeles region, was consigned to notebooks and papers hidden away in museums. Through the efforts of a UCLA linguist, Tongva is being spoken again.

On the southern end of Del Mar, train tracks run precariously close to the edge of rapidly crumbling cliffs.
(John Gibbins / San Diego Union-Tribune)

“The California coast is disappearing under the rising sea. Our choices are grim” (Rosanna Xia, Los Angeles Times, July 2019)

This investigation into California’s rising sea levels is masterfully reported, exquisitely told and deeply terrifying.

[See also: Our newsletter interview with Rosanna Xia about this story]

“Four years in startups” (Anna Wiener, the New Yorker, September 2019)

In this deeply compelling personal history, Anna Wiener writes about her life in Silicon Valley during the dawn of the unicorns: “I was employee No. 20, and the fourth woman. The three men on the Solutions team wore Australian work boots, flannel, and high-performance athletic vests; drank energy shots; and popped Vitamin B in the mornings. The Solutions manager assigned me an onboarding buddy, whom I’ll call Noah — employee No. 13 — a curly-haired twenty-six-year-old with a forearm tattoo in Sanskrit.”

“I get one last Lent with my Mami. I’m using it to learn our family’s capirotada recipe” (Gustavo Arellano, Los Angeles Times, April 2019)

This is a eulogy for Gustavo Arellano’s mother, Maria de la Luz Arellano Miranda. But it’s also a food story, about learning to cook the layered bread pudding that’s the de facto Mexican dessert for Lent. And like all food stories, it’s a culture story too, interwoven with family history and the zacatecano exodus that has spilled throughout California for more than a century.

“The People v. Melina Abdullah” (Jason McGahan, the LAnd, January 2019)

Former LA Weekly writer Jason McGahan profiled Melina Abdullah and looked at how one of the city’s most visible Black Lives Matter organizers became an LAPD target, facing eight criminal misdemeanor charges stemming from her activism. [Note: The charges against Abdullah have since been dropped.]


“Nipsey Hussle’s brother found him dying. These are his final moments” (Angel Jennings, Los Angeles Times, April 2019)

The caller on the other end of Samiel Asghedom’s phone was panicked but clear. His younger brother — known to the world as rapper Nipsey Hussle, but to Samiel as just Nip — had been shot. In this deeply moving story, Asghedom recounts to Angel Jennings what happened in those final moments outside the Marathon Store.

“In Little Saigon, this newspaper has been giving a community a voice for 40 years” (Anh Do, the Los Angeles Times, March 2019)

A single man served as founding editor, publisher and circulation manager of Nguoi Viet Daily News. The paper grew with the Vietnamese community of Orange County’s Little Saigon to become the largest Vietnamese-language publication in the United States. Reporter Anh Do — the daughter of Nguoi Viet founder Yen Ngoc Do — reflects on her father’s paper, and his legacy.

“The Day the Music Burned” (Jody Rosen, New York Times, June 2019)

It was the biggest disaster in the history of the music business — and almost nobody knew. Jody Rosen delves into the story of a 2008 fire on the Universal studio lot that destroyed an irreplaceable treasure trove of seminal master recordings.

“Gone” (Mark Arax, California Sunday Magazine, July 2019)

Decades of greed, neglect, corruption and bad politics led to last year’s Paradise fire, the worst in California history. Mark Arax’s sweeping account revisits how it all happened.

“Street of dreams” (J.K. Dineen, Trisha Thadani and Roland Li, San Francisco Chronicle, May 2019)

Eight years ago, San Francisco city leaders offered a tax break to draw companies to the Mid-Market neighborhood. In this three-part series, J.K. Dineen, Trisha Thadani and Roland Li look at the evolution of the street, the impact on commercial and residential real estate, and the benefits that flowed — or didn’t — to the city and its people.

“Nipsey Hussle Understood Cities Better than You. Why Didn’t You Know Who He Was?” (Sahra Sulaiman, Streetsblog LA, August 2019)

Sahra Sulaiman brings an incredible amount of history and context to this deep dive on Nipsey Hussle, and the broader legacy of decades of disinvestment, disenfranchisement and repressive policing in South L.A.


“The working witches of Los Angeles just want you to be your best self” (Deborah Netburn, Los Angeles Times, June 2019)

The incomparable Deborah Netburn details the lives of L.A.’s “working witches,” whose prominence is growing thanks to social media and who primarily see themselves as healers. They help clients who are struggling to cope with life’s hurdles — heartache, aging, misogyny, work stress — and who find that more culturally accepted remedies, such as therapy and meditation, aren’t enough.

Shade” (Sam Bloch, Places Journal, April 2019)

In this fascinating piece, Sam Bloch looks at the unlikely, omnipresent politics of shade in Los Angeles. After all, shade is a civic resource, an index of inequality and a requirement for public health. It’s also often seen as a luxury amenity.

“Sikh drivers are transforming U.S. trucking. Take a ride along the Punjabi American highway” (Jaweed Kaleem, Los Angeles Times, June 2019)

There are 3.5 million truckers in the United States. California has the second most after Texas. As drivers age toward retirement and a shortage grows, Sikh immigrants and their kids are increasingly taking up the job.

“Homeless people keep arriving at Tarzana mansion thinking it’s a shelter, but it’s really a prank by online trolls” (Ariella Plachta, Los Angeles Daily News, July 2019)

This story involves a YouTube star and a tent city and the burn of a promised opportunity that doesn’t pan out when you are already so very down on your luck. It unfolds like a Russian nesting doll of the city’s darker contradictions.

“Inhaled” (Robin Epley, Chico Enterprise-Record, August, 2019)

Chico Enterprise-Record reporter Robin Epley spent much of the past year examining the health effects of wildfire smoke in the wake of the Camp fire for this powerful five-part series.

[See also: This newsletter interview with Robin about the series]


“Desert pool culture” (Amy DiPierro, The Desert Sun, July 2019)

Pool season never ends in the Coachella Valley cluster of resort cities 120 miles east of Los Angeles. Today more than 30% of Coachella Valley homes have a swimming pool, but one man’s leisure is another man’s livelihood. And to understand desert pool culture, you also have to understand the lives of the backyard laborers who scrub them clean.

“Grounded during white flight” (Rich Manning, L.A. Taco, September 2019)

A “white boy” from Maywood (a neighborhood that is now 96% Latinx) reflects on how his upbringing as the neighborhood changed shaped him, and made him a better parent and citizen.

“The sea wanted to take this California lighthouse. Now, it’s part of a conflict between a town and two tribes” (Hailey Branson-Potts, Los Angeles Times, November 2019)

This story looks like it’s about a small, red-roofed lighthouse on an eroding bluff. But it’s really about the big impact of small-town politics, ancestral burial grounds and the changing California coastline.

“Buck Delventhal dies, and San Francisco loses its most capable guide” (Joe Eskenazi, Mission Local, October 2019)

Buck Delventhal amassed 49 years and four months of institutional memory at the San Francisco city attorney’s office, and played a major role in this city’s groundbreaking equal benefits legislation and, subsequently, its fight for marriage rights.


Los Angeles: sunny, 61. San Diego: rain, 61. San Francisco: cloudy, 52. San Jose: cloudy, 53. Sacramento: partly sunny, 51. More weather is here.



Today’s California memory comes from Steven Tracy:

“I remember entering UC San Diego (La Jolla) in 1968 when the campus was barely eight years old and still in construction. Surrounding it were thick eucalyptus forests in which owls hooted and which dripped with water when the fog came in at night, making walks home from the library a mystical experience. Behind the campus to the east were deep ravines with mustard plants taller than one’s head in the spring and in the evenings, the coyotes would bark. In some ravines were rivulets in the mud of which one would periodically find bobcat and coyote tracks.”

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.