What San Gabrielā€™s Padres taught William MulhollandĀ 

On a hot August day in 1816, waves of heat shimmered off of the dusty plazas and red tile roofs of the San Gabriel Mission community. The surrounding valley and foothills were brown and dry, and the nearby arroyos hadn’t run with water since March. But the town was a verdant oasis, watered by babbling brooks that ran alongside the vineyards, through the workshops, and into a 40-acre garden. These streams quenched the thirst of more than 1,700 Native American and Spanish inhabitants; of thousands of cattle, sheep, goats, pigs, horses, and mules; and of the fruits and grains that fed them.

But more than that, the water powered Southern California’s first center of industry, including a $20,000-a-year cattle hide and soap export business. So impressive was the mission that one of the first visitors from the United States to this Spanish (and later Mexican) settlement remarked that its value was equal to a mine of silver or gold.

The extensive network of waterways was no product of nature—it was shaped entirely by human hands. And as it was improved, the system provided one of the most important early examples of industrial agriculture in western North America, and contributed directly to the rise of the young city of Los Angeles. It’s a story that reminds those of us gripped by one of California’s worst droughts on record that control over water has shaped our region’s destiny for centuries.

The San Gabriel Mission’s water system developed over a 60-year period through trial and error. The first version of the system, in fact, was an utter failure. Unaccustomed to Southern California’s fickle waterways, missionaries initially placed the mission in the fertile floodplain of the San Gabriel River in 1771. After four difficult years, the padres realized that the river’s annual flooding represented as much a threat as a blessing, and they relocated the small community to high ground. Rather than bringing the mission to water, they decided to bring water to the mission.

Tapping into artesian springs more than two miles to the north, the mission’s native Gabrieleño neophytes (captive laborers) hand-excavated a series of zanjas, or ditches, bringing precious water to the growing mission town. By the second decade of the 19th century, lit by the first rays of the dawning Industrial Revolution, clever, self-taught engineers had expanded the simple trenches into a vast system of rock-lined canals, brick and plaster reservoirs, dams, and water-powered grain and sawmills.

Only the broad outlines of the San Gabriel Mission water system’s scope and function have been preserved in the inventories, letters, and histories that the mission priests and their successors left behind. Few images, and no maps, survive from the mission’s active years, and those that we have fail to capture the details of the system. The story that was passed down has its flaws, however, being heavily biased in favor of the handful of men of European descent who designed and profited from these works. So how do we know what it looked like, and how it worked? The science of archaeology specializes in filling this kind of gap by exposing and interpreting the material remains of past human activity.

On another hot fall day in 2014, a team of archaeologists cleared nearly two centuries of soil away from the stone foundations of the San Gabriel Mission water system. Time had been surprisingly kind to the site. In a historical irony, the construction of a railroad atop the ruins in 1874, while initially destructive, had preserved the heart of the water works just across the street from the iconic mission church.

Another train project made the dig possible. The construction of the Alameda Corridor-East San Gabriel Trench, a project that will lower the Union Pacific Railroad tracks below the intersecting streets, required that the tracks be temporarily shifted to the north. This displacement represented a rare opportunity to examine the long-buried foundations, which underlay the entire railroad right-of-way, directly across the street from the mission church. My team of archaeologists excavated those foundations with machines and by hand to reveal the pattern, associated artifacts, and history of the waterworks’ construction.

Project planners have long known that archaeological materials were present in the area, prompting them to hire my firm of professional archaeologists in advance of construction. We have spent years documenting the physical remains of the mission, including numerous foundations and hundreds of thousands of artifacts and food remains. This latest dig has uncovered four major iterations of the water system, from simple earthen ditches, to cobblestone-lined canals and tanks, to masonry reservoirs connected by segmented ceramic pipes, to the pinnacle of the mission’s hydraulic technology—a massive cement flume that served as the millrace and millpond for a New England-style grain mill dating to 1825. In exposing and documenting these systems, we continue to be impressed by the innovation that marked their evolution, and the increasing sophistication that they gained as they were improved. This improvement was not simply about increases in scale—with each new version of the water system, the designers got better at conserving water. They did this not by reducing their use, but by recycling the water several times before releasing it downstream. The network of canals simultaneously powered mills, flushed tanning vats, watered animals, irrigated crops, and supported cooking, bathing, and washing needs.

We preserved the most intact portion of the 1825 flume two years ago by picking it up and moving it across the street to Plaza Park and installing a self-contained plumbing system. It once again flows with cool water so that visitors can experience the look, feel, and sound of the historic waterway. Our finds in 2014, however, included the largest and least expected element of the system, representing a kind of missing link between the earliest zanjas and the late Mission period millworks.

I have been conducting archaeological research for 20 years, excavating in Arizona, New Jersey, Honduras, British Columbia, Florida, and Peru. But much of my career has focused on the early history of Los Angeles. I have learned how deeply L.A.’s roots are entwined with water issues. After making the 9-mile walk from San Gabriel to their new town site, one of the first acts of Los Angeles’ pobladores (settlers) was to create their own Zanja Madre, a “mother ditch” connecting the Los Angeles River to their houses and fields. More than a century later, a former zanjero (ditch tender) named William Mulholland took the idea pioneered by San Gabriel’s missionaries to its logical end, bringing water from the Sierra Nevada to Los Angeles in a ditch of epic proportions, the Los Angeles Aqueduct.

As Los Angeles looks to the future, the thirst of its growing population remains to be satisfied. In both Los Angeles and her predecessor, San Gabriel, bringing water to the people was only half of the equation. The other half – seeking new ways to conserve the water – was the key innovation upon which this great city was first built, and will be built again.

John Dietler is the lead archeologist for the Alameda Corridor-East Construction Authority and the California cultural and paleontological resources program director at SWCA Environmental Consultants. He is a graduate of UCLA. He wrote this for Thinking L.A., a partnership of UCLA and Zócalo Public Square.

Old-World charm, modern life mingle in Holland

Here’s a travel riddle that might send you packing: It’s a European capital where culture abounds and permissiveness pervades. Its terrain is marked by 17th-century canals and floating houseboats, and it’s home to a relatively small percentage of Jews despite its rich Jewish history.

It’s also where to find the Anne Frank House.

By now you’ve probably guessed: Amsterdam.

In addition to the Anne Frankhuis, as the Dutch call it, popular destinations in this city include such sites as the Rembrandt House, the Van Gogh Museum, the Waterlooplein Market and the former Jewish Quarter, with the Jewish Historical Museum at its heart.

Upon entering the Jewish Historical Museum, the corridors echo with the pleasant sounds of Dutch families singing Hebrew songs to the tune of a guitar. The museum’s permanent collection features more than 11,000 ritual objects and works of art, and its complex is home to four synagogues — the New Synagogue, the Great Synagogue, the Dritt Shul and the Obbene Shul — that were painstakingly reconstructed following their destruction during World War II. On Dec. 17, the renovated three-story Obbene Shul will debut a children’s museum.

The museum doubles as a cultural center for Amsterdam’s small Jewish community and offers tours of the adjacent Jewish Quarter, a popular draw for Israeli tourists. The museum also includes a bookshop and kosher cafe, which can be accessed separately without paying an entrance fee. While the cafe’s food is kosher, the certification is limited because it’s open on Shabbat. There is a glatt kosher, Israeli-style meat restaurant, King Solomon, around the corner from the Jewish Historical Museum, and the museum staff is happy to direct visitors to its location. Across from the museum is Pinto, a new glatt kosher meat restaurant featuring French and Israeli cuisine.

From Nov. 10 until Feb. 4, 2007, the Jewish Historical Museum will feature “The ‘Jewish’ Rembrandt,” an exhibition that will explore the non-Jewish painter’s special relationship with prominent Jewish friends and neighbors. And if you find yourself craving more of Mr. Harmenszoon van Rijn’s work, be sure to check out the Rembrandt House, a red-shuttered building located at 4-7 Jodenbreestraat. While you won’t find any of Rembrandt’s paintings there, approximately 250 of his etchings are on display.

After you finish with Rembrandt, consider a trip to the Van Gogh Museum, which boasts the world’s largest collection of the pioneer expressionist’s work. Linger in the wide-open galleries and peruse 200 paintings and another 500 drawings. From Nov. 24 to March 4, 2007, the museum is featuring “Vincent van Gogh and Expressionism,” which explores the painter’s impact on German and Austrian expressionists.

In her now-famous diary, Anne Frank wrote about everyday life as she hid from the Nazis. She detailed her fears, the isolation and the hardships she shared with her family, the Van Pels and family friend Fritz Pfeffer.

The Anne Frank House is a 10-minute walk from Centraal Station on Prinsengracht in the western portion of the Canal Ring. A journey through the home transports visitors back to the late 1930s, and as you peer out the window you can spot where Jews were snatched from the street and deported to concentration camps.

Beyond the reconstruction of the movable bookcase, a walk into the concealed entrance and up the stairs brings visitors into the hiding place where Anne Frank lived for more than two years. Her room has been left as it was, with her movie star collection and picture postcards pasted to the wall.

The house also features poignant letters written by her father, Otto Frank, detailing to Swiss relatives his quest for his two daughters and his eventual pain upon discovering they’d both died. After learning of their deaths, Miep Gies, one of the Righteous Gentiles who helped hide the Franks, presented Otto Frank with the diary, which she’d discovered on the floor after the Nazi raid.

The Anne Frank House has steep steps and is not handicapped accessible.

Amsterdam is notorious for pickpockets, who prey on tourists and the elderly. In fact, a pickpocket detection stand is situated outside the Anne Frank House, since many people have had their wallets swiped while waiting in line to enter Amsterdam’s most popular attraction.

The city offers a variety of transportation options, including bicycles, buses, trams and canal boats. Bicycles are by far the most popular choice among tourists and residents alike, adding another element of charm to an already charmed city. The city offers bike lanes, so that pedestrians, vehicles and bicycles don’t accidentally mingle, although unacquainted tourists can be spotted meandering along the bike lane, oblivious to the sounds of ringing bicycle bells and dodging cyclists.

If peddling is not your thing, information, maps and tickets for canal travel or trams can be obtained at Central Station, which is a short train ride from Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport, which in itself is a tourist hub of shops, a miniature golf course, spas, a free museum with rotating artwork, and even a casino. While there are many organized cruises and canal buses to choose from, Canal Bus offers a low-cost, convenient tour with 14 stops. Passengers can hop on and off all day long for only 16 euros, and packages are available that include museum passes.

On the one hand, Amsterdam is a medieval city replete with old-world architecture surrounded by semi-circles of canals. On the other hand, it’s a modern, active society that moves from place to place on bicycles, happily oblivious to its chilly wind and rain. Despite its turbulent Jewish history, today’s Amsterdam offers Jewish travelers a vibrant, beautiful destination that pays homage to its past.

Jewish Community of Amsterdam (NIHS)
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Pinto Reataurant
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Van Gogh Museum
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Canal Bus

Amsterdam’s Split Personality

Anne Frank’s house, a fabulous 17th century synagogue and an excellent heritage museum give Amsterdam special appeal for Jewish visitors. But they are all sites whose very existence reflect the city’s incurable split personality, making for a sightseeing experience that constantly provides food for thought.

Jews were victims of Amsterdam’s schizophrenia from the mid-1600s, when they first came from Portugal disguised as Catholic converts, to the mid-1900s, when the horror of the Holocaust provoked serious atonement for a level of duplicity that helped the community to virtual annihilation 60 years ago.

At first, Jews were tolerated yet barred from all but the brokers’, printers’ and surgeons’ guilds and were later emancipated by Napoleon, only to be left to a terrible fate under the Nazis. It is surprising, given how little help was given to the few wartime survivors, that a modern community exists at all.

Yet, this beautiful city has done more than any in Europe to acknowledge the contribution of its late, great Jewish citizens.

Amsterdam has much else to recommend it — beautiful canals, buzzy cafes, world-class art and architecture and eclectic shopping — plus discomfiting contrasts that give it a certain edge. Elegant canalside neighborhoods sit only minutes away from a raucous Red Light District, while a rip-off taxi-driver element preys on tourists who shun the fast and frequent trams.

However, for those sufficiently fit to get around by tram, boat and on foot, dodging the bicycles, Amsterdam makes for a rewarding weekend. The city looks utterly unique, thanks to its legacy of distinctive 17th century buildings, and also feels unique, thanks to the cultural sea change of the hippie era in which it remains charmingly stuck. There’s a hallucination round every corner, whether it’s a five-story gingerbread house leaning at a precarious 20-degree angle into the canal, or a rescue barge fishing drowned bicycles out of the water by the truckload — not to mention those ladies of the night in their neon-framed windows.

Anne Frank’s house, the saddest canalside mansion of all, is the first place of pilgrimage for virtually all cultural tourists. Despite the queues and the controversy (some feel it whitewashes wartime facts), it is impossible not to be moved by the sight of her bare room decorated with pictures from the cinema magazines smuggled in every week, not to mention the original diary pages in which she recorded every agony of her interrupted adolescence and longing for a future in which it would be OK to be Jewish.

Far less well-known than the diary, but an equally powerful testament of a young girl in the wrong place at the wrong time, are the 769 vivid comic-strip tableaus by Charlotte Salomon, who also died in the camps. Salomon was a Berliner, but her illustrated autobiography is a jewel in the crown of Amsterdam’s Jewish Historical Museum, which attempts to explore all Jewish identity — as well as the sad tale of the Dutch experience — within a complex of 17th and 18th century shuls.

You don’t, however, need to enter a museum to trace the history of Amsterdam’s community, thanks to an excellent self-guided walking tour around the old Jewish quarter, whose most poignant site is the Hollandsche Schouwburg, a music-hall grotesquely turned into a Jewish theater by the Nazis and shortly thereafter a collection point for Amsterdam’s Jews sent from bound for death in the camps.

Almost equally chilling to behold is the handsome canalside Jewish Council building, whose members so efficiently carried out the orders of their new Nazi masters in the vain hope of not making things worse. Like the Amsterdammers at large who went on strike to protest the occupation long after the event, they realized the truth too late. It is a wonder that the magnificent Portuguese synagogue completed in 1675 survived the war, unlike its community, and that it continues to open for services today without the benefit of electric light. one of the most breathtaking aspects of a Shabbat visit is to experiencing davening by candlelight, but a visit is possible at any time without special arrangement.

Across the road lies Waterlooplein, a big waterside market square once the main trading venue for Jewish peddlers barred from owning shops, now a Mecca of ’70s-style tat. Nearby — and thus perfectly placed for touring Amsterdam’s Jewish sites, as well as the canal belt, which is a living legacy to the city’s golden age — is the Hotel de l’Europe, one of Amsterdam’s three five-star deluxe hotels and by far the most conveniently situated. Worth the price for its luxury as well as location, it is just a couple of doors down from the city’s best cafe, Cafe de Jaren, a brilliant waterside rendezvous for anything from a late breakfast to a late drink. Less posh than the l’Europe, but very acceptable, is the Hotel Estherea, offering a canalside view of Amsterdam life. There is a Waterlooplein stop for the excellent Museum Boat that goes one step further than other canal cruises by linking all sites of interest, including Anne Frank’s House and the Jewish Museum, and permits a start-stop cruise as often as you want within the scope of a day ticket.

A large part of the day will doubtless be spent on land, in the art gallery belt at the southern end of town, where the Rembrandts, Vermeers and still-life masters of the Rijksmusum compete with the Van Goghs at the modern museum dedicated to the work of the mad Vincent — including several incarnations of his sunflower paintings.

Next door, the Stedilijk Museum promises world-class modern art, but out of season it displays disappointingly few of its Mondrians, Maleviches and other Post-Impressionists. Before leaving the museum belt, do wander down to the lively Leidseplein, which, although rather gaudy, is distinguished by the turn-of-the-century Cafe Americain, another Amsterdam institution. Each city center meeting point seems to have its signature cafe. In the Leidestraat shopping area, it’s the top floor of Metz, Amsterdam’s answer to Harvey Nichols, with a fantastic view of canalside rooftops, while on Spui Square, aficionados divide themselves between the Dante and the Luxembourg. Negotiating Amsterdam life depends on knowing the difference between a grand cafe (all the aforementioned — large and glamorous), a brown cafe (smaller and more traditional) and a coffee shop — which legally dispenses cannabis, with or without a shot of caffeine. Scary as they sound, these law-abiding establishments are safe, no one pushes customers to smoke, and the odd one, like the Jolly Joker, where a tiny hive of left-wing Jewish intellectual debate on the Nieuwmarkt, is an absolute gem. This former brown cafe, with its fabulous art nouveau light fittings, serves the best cappuccino in town against a suitably laid-back musical backdrop — everything from the Mamas and the Papas to modern Chill. Traditionalists may prefer the equally exquisite and tiny Papenisland, Amsterdam’s oldest brown cafe, named for the secret tunnel under the canal that Catholics used to reach their clandestine church in the days when their own religion was outlawed.

Visiting this fantastically lit watering hole for a nightcap would be reason enough to head for Jordaan, Amsterdam’s loveliest and also funkiest residential neighborhood, but although the nearby Brauwersgracht canal and its elegant homes and bridges are enchanting by night, its shops are equally worth a poke around during the day. A good bistro hereabouts is Lorrainen, but the gastronomic gem likely to be of greatest interest to Jewish visitors is the delightfully decorated Lucius fish restaurant, back in the town center on Spuistraat.