Inequality and death in LA

Pamela J. Prickett
University of Amsterdam
CUSS Newsletter Summer 2022, Vol. 35, No. 2

“I think of the view from a favorite arroyo in the late afternoon, the east slope still bathed in sunlight, the far slope already full of dark shade and lengthening shadows. A cool breeze, as one can look across the plains, out over miles of homes and trees, and hear the faraway hum of traffic on the high-ways and see the golden light filtering through the mist-laden air.”

-Carey McWilliams, Southern California: An Island on the Land

Much has changed about the views across Southern California in the time since McWilliams wrote these words in 1946, but the golden light remains. Sunsets in Southern California are unforgettable. Layers of tangerine, fuchsia, and violet light the sky. The sun may rise in the east, where ASA more often meets, but it sets in the west, and in this way SoCal does not disappoint. For those of you embarking on Los Angeles for this year’s annual meeting, do yourself a favor and try to make it to a hilltop or beachside to take in the cornucopia of colors at dusk (just don’t skip the CUSS reception on Sunday).

The beauty of the late day sky in Los Angeles obscures a darker truth, though. The sun sets on a city marked by unconscionable inequality. In one part of the city, Kim Kardashian buys a Birkin bag that costs more than some families earn in one year, while in another part of the city (South Central, East LA, Skid Row—take your pick) LAPD harass the unhoused. Rob Sampson, Jared Schachner, and the late Rob Mare, found that “97 percent of Los Angeles neighborhoods in the bottom income fifth in 1990 remained there ten years later. At the other end, and after the [2008] recession, 87 percent of the highest income neighborhoods in 2000 retained their status ten years later” (2017, p. 124). Their conclusion: inequality in Los Angeles is both deep and persistent.

This inequality is visible once you drive the city’s streets. Mike Davis famously described Los Angeles as a fortressed dystopia, where the wealthy barricade themselves from the poor.

When it’s the final sunset for Angelenos, there is yet more inequality. Mortality is highest among residents in the lowest income group (632 deaths per 100,000 population) (LA County Department of Public Health 2022a). Blacks face consistently higher mortality rates than Whites (ibid). Unsurprisingly, COVID-19 has made racial disparities worse. Age-adjusted all-cause mortality increased 24% in the county, with South Los Angeles faring the worst with a 157% increase (LA County Department of Public Health 2022b). Mortality in the richer (and whiter) West LA health service area remained relatively unchanged, despite the pandemic.

Mortality rates are a prime indicator of the public health of a city, allowing us to see how social inequities kill. I’m interested in a slightly different angle, though. Together with a colleague, Stefan Timmermans (UCLA), I use death as a starting point for thinking about inequality and work backwards to ask what different kinds of deaths tell us about differences in life. Our method is the social autopsy, which “takes the death of a set of individuals as its starting point and then critically and systematically examines social and political conditions to explain these deaths and generate awareness and policy change” (Timmermans and Prickett 2021). Our current project is on unclaimed deaths, or people who died with no one willing or able to claim their bodies. Our forthcoming book offers a deep dive into the lives of the unclaimed dead in Los Angeles, their families, the workers charged with tending their bodies, and the strangers who show up to mourn them. Some of the differences we find are expected (men go unclaimed more than women) but others surprised us (millionaires also end up unclaimed). For this newsletter, I’ll focus on what some of the unclaimed deaths we’ve studied reveal about Los Angeles and particularly its lesser-known histories of inequality and isolation.

The County of Los Angeles has been burying unclaimed remains in the same small corner of Boyle Heights since 1896. Before that time, the city didn’t need a potter’s field. Los Angeles was less metropolis than pueblo, a landscape of sweeping vistas, ranches, adobes, and citrus trees (California became part of the US in 1848). Then came the transcontinental railroads, built largely by Chinese laborers. Suddenly LA was linked to the nation. A town of less than 6,000 in 1870 exploded to over 100,000 by the turn of the century. Settlers and migrants came in search of new commercial, industrial, and land wealth. Anglo, Chinese, Italian, Danish, Polish, German, Irish, Syrian, Russian, Armenian, Japanese – the newcomers brought a degree of ethnic diversity which other parts of the country would not see for another century. The eastern side of LA, where the potter’s field was established, was “quite possibly the most ethnically and racially diverse urban area in America” (Flamming 2005: 99). It was also becoming one of the most divided. Whites lived west of the city center, closer to the fresh coastal air, while nearly everyone else was segregated to less-desirable parts of the city (a century later, racialized class segregation continues). Looking at who went unclaimed offers a window into whose lives were valued at the time.

The first person officially registered for county disposition was a 35-year-old Chinese man named Gour Fong. He died from a knife wound three days after Christmas in 1895. Fong was interred by an undertaker that charged the city $15 (about $400 in today’s money), more than twice the amount the same undertaker charged to handle the body of a 21-year-old white woman two weeks later. But Fong’s family—if there were any local at the time—had little choice. No other cemetery in LA would allow a Chinese person to be buried. Violence and legal exclusion of LA’s Chinese population persisted well into the 20th century, making headlines again in 2005 when construction workers unearthed 174 Chinese graves as they dug for a new metro line in Boyle Heights near the county cemetery, forcing the city to confront its hidden racist past and finally, one hundred years later, recognize the forgotten graves with a memorial.

In 1922, the county shifted to cremation to save space. Eight years later, Inga Knudsen Weller died from kidney disease. She was 49. The daughter of Norwegian immigrants, Inga grew up in Springville, Utah, an area settled by followers of Brigham Young. She married Albert Knudsen in 1905 and in 1910 adopted a son, Orval. When Albert died of appendicitis one year later, Orval went to live with Inga’s brother and his wife. Inga moved to California, where she worked as a nurse. She also remarried, this time to an Englishman with the first name Albert. However, at the time of her death, the couple was considered “separated” and the contact details for her husband listed as “unknown.” Inga’s one-time son, Orval, would die and go unclaimed in Modesto, in Central California, nine years later. But of all the facts about Inga that are intriguing, it was where she died that I think is most revealing: the Los Angeles County Farm.

The LA County Farm was founded in 1887 as an almshouse for the ill and destitute of the city. Located in Downey, 13 miles southeast of Downtown Los Angeles, the farm housed people with nowhere to go and put them to work in fields. The farm also included shelter for the aged and mentally and physically disabled. Inga was considered an “inmate” – no apparent crime committed other than being poor. She became a ward of the county, receiving medical care from the farm’s doctors for the last five months of her life. Her body was cremated and her ashes interred alongside vaudeville performers and silent film stars – plus tens of thousands of other Angelinos who had no one but the government to bury them.

Today, many of the people who would have been housed at the County Farm live on Skid Row, considered the “homeless capital of America” (Stuart 2016), and just a brisk 30-minute walk east from the Los Angeles Convention Center. While an estimated 4,000-8,000 people live on the streets along 6th Avenue, thousands more residents are housed in neighboring SRO’s and low-income units. One such resident was Tina Castellaw. Tina died in her one-room apartment in the Las Americas Hotel Apartments in 2012, eleven days before her 50th birthday. The building is part of the Skid Row Housing Trust, a supportive housing program for people who are homeless and who, like Tina, faced years of extreme poverty, untreated mental illnesses, and addictions.

Before she was homeless, Tina owned a salon near Santa Monica. “I loved my salon,” she told an interviewer for a Skid Row housing newsletter. “It was homeopathic with spiritual guidance, but very zen and fun.” Tina liked to connect the physical with spiritual, drawing out clients’ beauty from within. She had to close her salon in the late 1990s when the economy declined. She started renting chairs in local salons and used the money from styling hair to support herself and her daughter. Then she started to hear voices. At first, the voices, which came to her as Jesus and the angels Gabriel and Michael, provided comfort. “They were creating love and generating love.” But she knew the voices were atypical and sought medical help. Tina was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and mild schizophrenia. With medication, the voices quieted and Tina’s life was under control.     

Then, in 2000, Tina had a serious bicycle accident. She suffered a concussion and coma. When she woke up, Tina said the voices that had once provided solace were different. “They became demonic and negative in nature.” Another bicycle accident in 2009 led to a broken arm and dislocated shoulder. She was confined to a full upper body cast for more than three months. Unable to work, her savings dried up and she was evicted. “I was 48 and I was homeless in Los Angeles,” explained Tina. She stopped taking her psychiatric medications, and while on the streets she became addicted to alcohol and drugs.  

After several years, Tina met an outreach worker. “He saw in me what I couldn’t see,” she said. The worker helped Tina get an ID so she could apply for social services and housing. In 2011, she moved into the Las Americas. Despite the area’s reputation, Tina was thrilled. “I didn’t care where it was—it was a room and had a window and my bed was right next to it. And I was safe.” She became an active member of the building community, cooking turkeys for a Thanksgiving celebration and participating in the design of a garden for the courtyard. She had just been accepted into a housing ambassador program when she suffered a fall that caused a serious head injury. She passed away the next day. According to the medical examiner’s office, she had morphine and cocaine in her system.

The unclaimed mirror an image of Los Angeles’ pernicious inequality. Over its 126 years, the Boyle Heights pauper’s cemetery has received Los Angeles’ most marginalized dead and its inhabitants reflect social changes in the city’s approaches toward poverty. Take migration. Chinese migrants, like Fong, can now be buried in cemeteries but undocumented migrants far from home more likely end up cremated and their ashes dumped in a mass grave or the ocean. The unclaimed tell stories of how the city dealt with the persistent problem of managing its unhoused and mentally ill: institutionalizing them or, as Neil Gong (2019) has shown, providing them with personal choices that still leave them vulnerable and at structural disadvantage. The forever residents of Boyle Heights, abandoned in life and disposed in death, are a quiet but highly relevant indicator of social disadvantage.

If you take in a view across the arroyos this August, consider also taking a moment of silence to honor the people who died in the city with no one able or willing to bury them. Caring about the unclaimed dead is, at its core, a chance to care about the most vulnerable living among us.


Davis, M. 2006. City of Quartz: Excavating the future in Los Angeles. Verso.

Flamming, D. 2005. Bound for Freedom: Black Los Angeles in Jim Crow America. Univ of California Press.

Gong, N. 2019. Between tolerant containment and concerted constraint: managing madness for the city and the privileged family. American Sociological Review 84(4): 664-689.

LA County Department of Public Health. 2022a. Patterns in Mortality and Life Expectancy in Los Angeles County, 2010-2019. Office of Health Assessment and Epidemiology. May.

LA County Department of Public Health. 2022b. Mortality in Los Angeles County, 2020: Provisional Report. Office of Health Assessment and Epidemiology. May.

McWilliams, C. [1946] 1973. Southern California: An island on the land. Gibbs Smith.

Sampson, R.J., Schachner, J.N. and Mare, R.D., 2017. Urban income inequality and the great recession in Sunbelt form: Disentangling individual and neighborhood-level change in Los Angeles. RSF: The Russell Sage Foundation Journal of the Social Sciences, 3(2), pp.102-128.

Stuart, F. 2016. Down, Out, and Under Arrest: Policing and everyday life in skid row. University of Chicago Press.

Timmermans, Stefan, and Pamela J. Prickett. 2021. “The Social Autopsy.” Sociological Methods and Research.

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