The Los Angeles Leaf Blower Wars

ROMAN MARS: This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars. The leaf blower is one of the most hated objects in the modern world. If you’ve lived pretty much anywhere in America in the last 40 years, you probably know their motorized whine. They’re loud. They pollute. And how important is a leafless lawn anyway?

FIL CORBITT: In a lot of towns and cities, the gas-powered leaf blower has been banned. In others, there are strict guidelines on where and when they can be used. But in Los Angeles, California, the leaf blower has never gone quiet.

ROMAN MARS: That’s reporter Fil Corbitt from a podcast called The Wind.

FIL CORBITT: In 2024, the state of California banned the sale of gas-powered leaf blowers. But this most recent development is just the latest shot in the Los Angeles leaf blower wars. This is a fight that goes back decades–a fight that’s kicked up questions about labor rights, environmental concerns, and ideas of beauty.

ROMAN MARS: In 1970s Los Angeles, it was common for people to hose down their driveways. Homeowners, renters, and gardeners would wash dirt and leaves and whatever else out onto the street. But a serious drought in 1976 and ’77 spurred many Californians to start saving water and stop hosing everything down all the time.

FIL CORBITT: And as it just so happened, to meet this moment, a new piece of machinery was introduced to America.

ECHO ADVERTISEMENT: There’s a lot of things we like to do outdoors, like golf, gardening and backpacking with Echo!

FIL CORBITT: The Japanese company Echo debuted what they called the “clean-up machine.”

ECHO ADVERTISEMENT: In fall, it rounds up a yard full of leaves in no time. We use it year round for garden grooming–sidewalk, patio, and driveway sweeping. Works great for snow blowing, too.

ROMAN MARS: Originally invented as a crop dusting device in 1947, Echo soon realized that this machine had some serious leaf-moving properties. Fallen leaves had long been one of the main enemies of the perfect American lawn.

FIL CORBITT: At first, this clean-up machine, AKA leaf blower, seemed to solve the problem perfectly–a drought-friendly way to move leaves and debris off your yard. That commercial shows a person with a backpack engine setup–a big hose coming out–blowing leaves across a green lawn.

ROMAN MARS: What you can’t really tell in that commercial is that these things were loud. These things were loud. Before the leaf blower, people were using gas-powered lawn mowers, too. But adding another engine to a full lawn cleanup meant double the noise.

FIL CORBITT: By 1989, some estimates say that about 1 million leaf blowers had sold in America. But while they were ubiquitous, they were also almost universally hated.

ROMAN MARS: This noisy, little machine could be used more often than a lawnmower–even daily. And some people wouldn’t even use it to make leaf piles to bag up and remove. They just blow leaves into the street or–in the case of dust–up in the air

FIL CORBITT: Through the 1980s, facing pressure from homeowners and constituents in quiet neighborhoods, many city councils had introduced or passed outright bans on the leaf blower.

ROMAN MARS: From the start, Californian cities stood at the forefront of the war against the leaf blower. And the most high profile ban in Southern California was in–you guessed it–Beverly Hills.

FIL CORBITT: In Southern California, there was a celebrity cast of characters speaking out against the blower–not exactly household names today, but people who were well-known at the time.

ROMAN MARS: One of the main proponents of the leaf blower ban was Peter Graves, the main actor in the original Mission: Impossible TV show.

PETER GRAVES: Besides leaves and dust, just what do blowers blow? Things better left on the ground.

ROMAN MARS: This is from A PSA that Graves recorded

PETER GRAVES: Pesticides, fertilizers, spores, molds, fecal matter, insects, dangerous chemicals, allergic fungi, and more.

ROMAN MARS: The video shows a man blowing leaves outside of an open window. Just inside, a baby is taking the nap.

PETER GRAVES: The evidence is mounting. Leaf blowers are dangerous.

FIL CORBITT: But for all of their loudness and fumes, the leaf blower was also very fast at removing leaves from a yard. And for the people who were not just maintaining their own lawn but many lawns, the speed was a big deal.

JAIME ALEMAN: Like, a regular, small house? Maybe half an hour, 45 minutes. But a big house–you’re going to spend, like, an hour or two hours.

FIL CORBITT: This is Jaime Aleman.

JAIME ALEMAN: And we are at my place in Sunland, California.

FIL CORBITT: How long have you been a gardener?

JAIME ALEMAN: Over three years.

FIL CORBITT: I met Jaime in his hilly Southern California neighborhood. Horse tracks marked the mud where a sidewalk should be–rows of ranch houses–more pastures and native plants than manicured lawns.

ROMAN MARS: In 1989, Jaime Aleman left his job in office supplies to start his own landscaping company. His father-in-law gave him a handful of clients. And he remembers the first time he ever used a leaf blower.

JAIME ALEMAN: It’s a good thing to blow the leaves, and it’s fast. You do that with a blower, and it looks clean and nice.

FIL CORBITT: A landscaper often starts their business when an older gardener gives them a few houses or clients. Through much of the 20th century, a lot of the gardeners in Los Angeles were of Japanese descent. But throughout the ’80s and ’90s, that began to shift to mostly Latin American gardeners. Their circuit of clients became known as “La Ruta” (The Root).

ROMAN MARS: The difference between failure and success for a gardener is all about speed. They get paid per lawn, and the margins are already small. Using a blower instead of a rake means they can work a bigger circuit of lawns in a single day.

FIL CORBITT: But as Jaime began his business and expanding La Ruta, tension had been building for almost a decade. Word began to spread through the community that the Los Angeles City Council was seriously considering a ban on gas-powered leaf blowers.

JAIME ALEMAN: I remember. I remember the whole thing when this thing started. We were kind of upset because they wanted to take one of the best tools to clean the house.

FIL CORBITT: Jaime saw this proposed ban as an obvious threat to his young business. And he started to ask around, looking for some advice on how to fight it.

ÁLVARO HUERTA: This is actually like a Hollywood story, to tell you the truth.

FIL CORBITT: This is Dr. Álvaro Huerta, associate professor in the Urban and Regional Planning department of Cal Poly Pomona. But back in 1996, he was a young Chicano activist from Boyle Heights.

ROMAN MARS: Álvaro had a small group of activist friends who took on some big issues, like getting UCLA to provide financial aid to undocumented students.

FIL CORBITT: One night around May of 1996, Álvaro was drinking with some friends, watching a boxing match, when Jaime Aleman came up and confronted him.

ÁLVARO HUERTA: Jaime approached me. He was calling me out, and then he said, “you guys act like you’re for the raza–the community–but here we are, the Jardineros. The City of LA wants to take away our leaf blowers, and you guys are not doing anything. What are you going to do for us?”

FIL CORBITT: Jaime asked Álvaro to take on the fight to save the leaf blower.

ÁLVARO HUERTA: I just said yes, not knowing what I was getting into.

FIL CORBITT: Pretty quickly, Álvaro and a small group of friends and activists sprung into action. Since gardeners are independent contractors and self-employed business owners, this would not be a traditional union labor kind of fight. But they wanted to show that they were united.

ROMAN MARS: And so, the Association of Latin American Gardeners of Los Angeles–or ALAGLA–was born. And Jaime joined right away.

JAIME ALEMAN: We got together in different areas because there’s gardeners all over. We have meetings here in the valley, West LA, Hollywood, and all over

FIL CORBITT: ALAGLA’s opponents were no small adversary. Not only were these leaf blower bans widely popular among non landscapers and people who enjoy sleep, but this one was about to become law. It seemed that the City Council had a lot of momentum.

ÁLVARO HUERTA: So, this bill–it took, let’s say, six months or a year to get to that point. So, we got there at the 11th hour.

ROMAN MARS: On a spring day of May 1996–not long after Jaime approached Álvaro–the subject of leaf blowers came up in Los Angeles City Hall

CLERK: On the balance of the regular agenda. Item nine is an ordinance first reading, which would prohibit all gas-powered leaf blowers within 500 feet of a residence…

ROMAN MARS: This is audio from Los Angeles City Council in 1996,

FIL CORBITT: The chambers were packed. The leaf blower ban had been generating a lot of buzz. And the person championing this effort was Council Member Marvin Braude.

MARVIN BRAUDE: Society is going through many, many changes. And one of those changes is that more people are working in the home.

FIL CORBITT: Again, this was pre-pandemic, pre-video chat 1990s. But there was a growing number of people working by phone and running businesses out of their houses. As Council Member Braude put it, the leaf blowers were disruptive.

MARVIN BRAUDE: And how we measure that is by the number of complaints that we get–and we get very, very many.

ROMAN MARS: So, he proposed a simple solution.

MARVIN BRAUDE: It’s a one-line ordinance. And it, in effect, says that gasoline-powered leaf blowers are prohibited,

ROMAN MARS: Though noise seemed to be the animating factor, Council Member Braude laid out three reasons for the law, which echoed the complaints in other cities. Number one–the sound of leaf blowers. It drowned out dinners on the back patio. It interrupted phone calls. Or perhaps worst of all, it woke up the entire neighborhood at 7:00 AM on Saturday mornings.

FIL CORBITT: Number two–the dust. For decades, Los Angeles had been trying to address air quality issues. And leaf blowers were blowing all types of dust and particulate matter into the air, which is related to reason number three–emissions

ROMAN MARS: Gas-powered leaf blowers run on a small two-stroke engine that, even by 1996 standards, was polluting and inefficient. In short, it was a trade-off. You could have lawns with fewer leaves on them or cleaner air and quieter neighborhoods.

FIL CORBITT: But if this ordinance seemed like a no-brainer to some, City Council hadn’t really thought about who was on the other side of these blowers–people like Jaime Aleman. As a landscaper, he was understandably nervous about this crackdown on a tool that he used every day.

JAIME ALEMAN: So yeah, we have to raise the prices. We’re going to spend more time. And as long as they pay more, that’s okay.

ROMAN MARS: If you were a landscaper with a wealthy clientele, this change might not affect you too much. Raising prices could lose you a couple of clients–but it might pencil out.

FIL CORBITT: However, if you were a landscaper working in less wealthy neighborhoods or if you had older clients on a fixed income, this could seriously affect your ability to make a living.

ROMAN MARS: In City Hall, the proponents of the ban came ready to make a point. They wore matching yellow lapel pins and hammered home the health effects of breathing bad air and emissions.

FIL CORBITT: By contrast, the pro-leaf blower side of the room had a lot of empty seats. A few gardeners expressed concern about their livelihoods, but they were nowhere near as organized as their opponents.

ROMAN MARS: But the thing about city ordinances is they typically take a few meetings to pass. So, this first hearing–though important to set the tone–was definitely not the end of the line. City council would next meet to discuss the leaf blower ban in November of 1996–and then a vote.

FIL CORBITT: This meant Álvaro and ALAGLA would have a little time to get creative and mount a counter-effort against the ban.

ÁLVARO HUERTA: We’re very confrontational–nonviolent–but very forceful and uncompromising.

ROMAN MARS: ALAGLA saw that their best chance was to flip public opinion and shift the focus from the noisy, polluting blower to the hardworking gardener.

ÁLVARO HUERTA: That’s why we started to take it to another level where we were able to engage in political theater.

ROMAN MARS: After the meeting, Álvaro and the others began planning protests, trying to attract the press. They organized a barefoot walkthrough downtown, holding brooms to illustrate how this ban would impoverish them.

ÁLVARO HUERTA: “So, y’all want us to use brooms instead of a leaf blower? Here. Why don’t you use a broom, too, right? So, you have advanced technological equipment, yet you want the gardeners to go back to feudal times.”

FIL CORBITT: ALAGLA was up against public opinion and the power of celebrity. But they knew that they could put faces behind these hated machines. And deploying a couple PR stunts worked. Their cause started to attract attention, and Álvaro remembers…

ÁLVARO HUERTA: ABC, NBC, BBC, the New Yorker, New York Times–everybody! Everybody was covering it.

RUBEN ORTIZ TORRES: The thing that started grabbing my attention is the fact that most of the gardeners were Mexican or Latin American.

FIL CORBITT: This is Ruben Ortiz Torres, an artist and professor at the University of California San Diego. He found it symbolic to see these futuristic looking machines wielded by Latino immigrant laborers. These laborers had a kind of power.

RUBEN ORTIZ TORRES: They are the owners of their means of production. They own the tools.

FIL CORBITT: They’re their own boss with their own company.

RUBEN ORTIZ TORRES: So, in a way, owning the company puts you in a different position in your attempt to achieve the American dream.

FIL CORBITT: As national and international news outlets covered the gardners’ protests, LA’s public perception of leaf blowers became a little more complex. And going into the next hearing in November, ALAGLA was ready.

ROMAN MARS: Back at the first hearing in May, the anti-leaf blower side was full and organized. The pro-leaf blower side was sparse. But this time around, the gardeners showed up in force.

FIL CORBITT: Rows and rows of men packed the benches. And several guys who looked like they came straight from work stood at the back of the chamber in baseball caps and denim jackets.

ÁLVARO HUERTA: It was like us versus them, the little guy versus big bad government, or Latino immigrants just struggling to get by against these rich West-Siders who want to sleep in because they’re bothered by the leaf blower that wakes them up at 7:00 in the morning. We started to expose these contradictions.

ROMAN MARS: At one point, a gardener named Roy Imazu approached the podium with his leaf blower in hand and turned to the audience to acknowledge the gardeners directly.

ROY IMAZU: All the gardeners, please stand up.

FIL CORBITT: As the dozens of men in the benches stood up, the room erupted with applause. Peter Graves from Mission: Impossible was not at this hearing. But the anti-leaf blower side did deploy their other most notable celebrity: Julie Newmar, the original Catwoman.

JULIE NEWMAR: I’m a movie star and my gardener doesn’t use a leaf blower. I asked her not to.

ROMAN MARS: Behind Julie Newmar was a crowd of white-haired elders.

JULIE NEWMAR: I am the much maligned, long suffering, sometimes hated upper middle class person. But I’m… Ladies and gentlemen, I’m also a single, working mother of a multi-handicapped child. I work at home–I have to. And last year, losing two to four hours a week from work from the machinery– And this year, about 10 to 15 hours…

ROMAN MARS: Then Newmar brought up the existing noise laws that seemed to not stop the blowers, even when they exceeded the decibel level or allowed timeframe. She was not happy with the way government had failed to intervene.

JULIE NEWMAR: But we need laws. We need laws to keep from hurting each other–and here’s the important part–otherwise we take the law in our own hands.

COUNCIL PRESIDENT: Thank you. Please–

JULIE NEWMAR: And I’ve never broken the law. But I’m thinking–mind you, only thinking–about buying a hatchet and smashing a few tires just to let out my anger.

COUNCIL PRESIDENT: Please don’t do that.

JULIE NEWMAR: All right.

COUNCIL PRESIDENT: And please stand aside, and let’s–

JULIE NEWMAR: Because I don’t think you hear us. So far, you’ve been powerless–powerless to do anything for any of us.

FIL CORBITT: As she wrapped up, Newmar put on her reading glasses and stepped aside.

COUNCIL PRESIDENT: Alright, thank you very much.

FIL CORBITT: While some on the anti-leaf blower side clapped, the gardeners sat quietly. Newmar seemed to be at her wit’s end. And the gardeners would have to figure out an effective response to this impassioned argument.

ROMAN MARS: This time around, the gardeners had a strong, simple message: this ban would make it hard to make a living.

DOUGLAS TUCKER: If you ban this, it’s going to kill our businesses. It’s going to hurt us badly. It’s going to affect us economically.

ROMAN MARS: Anytime somebody said anything in favor of gardeners, the room erupted in applause.

DOUGLAS TUCKER: A lot of my customers are not movie stars. We definitely need your help. So, think about that. Thank you.

COUNCIL PRESIDENT: Okay, thank you.

ROMAN MARS: But the anti-leaf blower side still had more ammo.

FIL CORBITT: The council president called up Dick Hingson, a representative from the environmental nonprofit Sierra Club.

DICK HINGSON: Quality of life and environmental quality includes especially where people sleep and recreate–those quiet residential areas where we try to find respite.

ROMAN MARS: The Sierra Club was not known for wading into big city issues. But for leaf blowers, they would come down from the mountain.

FIL CORBITT: Instead of focusing on noise as a mere hindrance to rest or productivity, Hingson went big. He focused on the spiritual value of silence.

DICK HINGSON: We need these areas as open space–and not just for the eyes but also for the ears and the mind and the heart.

ROMAN MARS: When public comment ended, the fight was handed over to the City Council. And compared to the first hearing, the workers were front and center in many of the council members’ arguments–so much so that it was hard to tell what the vote might be.

FIL CORBITT: Some seemed moved by the gardeners’ concern. One had clearly flipped entirely, and one even proposed a substitute motion banning loud machines instead of gas-powered ones.

ROMAN MARS: But ultimately, City Council voted down the substitute motion, instead deciding to vote on the single line ordinance. After a long battle, this was the moment of truth. City council would finally decide.

FIL CORBITT: When they brought up the ban on gas-powered leaf blowers, it passed easily–ten votes to three. It would soon become illegal to use a gas-powered leaf blower in the city of Los Angeles.

ROMAN MARS: The Association of Latin American Gardeners of Los Angeles wasn’t surprised by the loss–just disappointed. Álvaro Huerta for one found the new ban ridiculous.

ÁLVARO HUERTA: Well, there’s the noise. There’s the pollution. What I think about that is that they’re exaggerated, right? We live in an industrialized country, and we have to put up with noise. We have to put up with pollution. Go to the mountains or something, and then the bears will be attacking you. So, there’s always a problem somewhere.

FIL CORBITT: If caught violating the ordinance, gardeners could face a thousand-dollar fine and up to six months in jail.

ROMAN MARS: Six months in jail for using a leaf blower seemed like cruel and unusual punishment to many, especially for the gardeners themselves because this threatened their livelihoods. For a while, they decided to collectively ignore the ordinance.

FIL CORBITT: In defiance of the new ban, the gardeners kept using the gas-powered leaf blowers. And in January, 1998, when the law was about to go into full effect, ALAGLA decided it was time to deploy the nuclear option.

ÁLVARO HUERTA: The hunger strike–that was the climax of our movement.

FIL CORBITT: They wanted to delay if not outright stop enforcement of this new law. So, they decided to go on hunger strike.

ROMAN MARS: After the break, the LA gardener hunger strike of 1998… On a cold gray Saturday–January 3rd, 1998–several gardeners ascended the steps of City Hall with big jackets and blankets.

FIL CORBITT: There were 11 hunger strikers. Around them, dozens of gardeners showed up to support. Many, including the organizers, set up camp on the front lawn. And they slept in front of City Hall

ÁLVARO HUERTA: Every single day, it was more and more pressure. So, we started with 11 hunger strikers one day, and then the next day there’s 50. And then people see it on TV.

ROMAN MARS: The spectacle of dozens of men camping on the lawn–the workers hungry and cold–caught the attention of the press while ratcheting up the pressure on City Council. ALAGLA wanted City Council and Mayor Richard Riordon to repeal the ban.

FIL CORBITT: As the days passed, the men continued their strike. City Council planned to vote later in the week not to overturn the law but to reduce the punishment for using a leaf blower.

ROMAN MARS: Finally, on Wednesday, under pressure, the mayor agreed to meet with the gardeners.

ÁLVARO HUERTA: It forced the mayor to meet with us because he didn’t want to meet with us before. And one time–this idiot–he shows up at a hunger strike, when we’re negotiating with him, eating a hamburger.

FIL CORBITT: Several days in, four of the men had become dangerously weak and dropped out at the request of doctors. But the remaining seven hunger strikers made it seven days–to Friday. That morning, rain dumped on the city.

ROMAN MARS: Finally, a few City Council members and Mayor Riordon pledged in writing to negotiate with the gardeners. They likely wouldn’t stop enforcement, but they did vote to lessen the punishment.

ÁLVARO HUERTA: Which is the jail, thousand dollars, and misdemeanors–and just make it into a fine. A $271 fine. It’s like a parking ticket. So, it was still banned, but it was a fine only

ROMAN MARS: It fell short of the sweeping victory ALAGLA wanted, but a win was a win–at least enough of a win for the gardeners to end the hunger strike and go home.

ÁLVARO HUERTA: So, at first, it was like, “These guys are bad. They’re polluters–the leaf blower, the sound, the pollution, blah, blah, blah…” And then all of a sudden, it’s like, “Why are you picking on these little guys? They’re workers. They just want to survive and all that.” We changed the narrative.

ROMAN MARS: Even though public opinion had shifted, the ban on gas-powered leaf blowers still became law. But if you spent any time in Los Angeles over the past 30 years, you’ll know that it is not a place free of the motorized whine of the leaf blower.

FIL CORBITT: After the ordinance with the reduced fine went into full effect, Álvaro and the rest of ALAGLA were not yet done with the leaf blower wars. They hatched one final plan.

ROMAN MARS: Since taking the issue head on with a hunger strike didn’t move the city to stop the leaf blower ban, they decided to stop using grand, moral arguments and just circumvent the thing.

ÁLVARO HUERTA: These idiots in City Hall, these morons, these imbeciles–they passed a law banning gas-powered leaf blowers.

FIL CORBITT: Apparently, a friend of the group–a lawn equipment mechanic–proposed converting some of the leaf blowers off of gasoline.

ÁLVARO HUERTA: He goes, “Why don’t we convert ’em into methanol?” So, that’s what we did. So, we got, like, a hundred gardeners or more even to convert their machines into methanol because they didn’t say, “Repeal motorized leaf blowers.” They didn’t say that. They said, “Gas-powered.” Methanol’s not banned.

FIL CORBITT: These converted blowers would still be loud and polluting but technically legal

ROMAN MARS: ALAGLA thought that, if a few guys with methanol blowers got tickets from the police, they could get these cases thrown out and ultimately muddy the water on enforcement.

FIL CORBITT: Because how could the police tell if a leaf blower was using gas or methanol from afar? Finding out would be difficult, time-consuming, and maybe they’d stop checking altogether, which is ultimately what did happen.

ROMAN MARS: Maybe it was because of the hunger strike, or maybe it was the general shift in public opinion that did it. But ultimately, the leaf blower ban didn’t really work. The police decided to not enforce the law.

FIL CORBITT: The gardeners lost the fight in City Hall. But in the end, they won a quiet… Actually, maybe not so quiet victory. The ban passed. But without real enforcement, the gardeners kept their leaf blowers.

ROMAN MARS: The leaf blower wars faded into the background for a while. But in 2024, nearly three decades after ALAGLA’s hunger strike, they’re beginning to flare up again. And this time, the gas-powered leaf blower might actually be on its way out.

MICHAEL CACCIOTTI: Lawn equipment–you wouldn’t believe it–surpassed cars and light duty trucks as a major source of pollution.

FIL CORBITT: This is Michael Cacciotti.

MICHAEL CACCIOTTI: I’m a five-time mayor and current council member with the historic city of South Pasadena, California.

FIL CORBITT: And he is currently the vice chair of the South Coast Air Quality Management District, which aims to control air pollution in a huge chunk of Southern California. Michael has been a strong voice in the present-day fight against leaf blowers.

ROMAN MARS: The science on gas-powered leaf blowers is pretty damning. Putting aside the evidence of significant hearing loss when subjected to that level of sustained noise, the emissions are serious.

FIL CORBITT: According to at least one frequently cited study, using a single gas-powered leaf blower for one hour is the equivalent of driving a modern car the 15+ hours from Los Angeles to Denver.

MICHAEL CACCIOTTI: And the reason is–as you’d probably know–your cars, as required by law in the ’80s because of all the pollution in California then followed by the nation and all the manufacturers, have catalytic converters.

FIL CORBITT: The catalytic converter breaks down many of the pollutants coming out of the car exhaust, which reduces smog.

MICHAEL CACCIOTTI: On the other hand, the lawn equipment has no catalytic converters. And you use gasoline, you use two stroke oil, you mix it up, and it’s a toxic combination.

ROMAN MARS: Battery technology and electric leaf blowers have come a long way in the last 30 years. So, the modern day fight is mainly about getting people to switch to electric.

FIL CORBITT: With the new statewide law in California, which bans the sale of gas-powered lawn equipment and other small off-road engines, Michael is working to get landscapers set up with that electric gear. Some like Jaime Aleman are reluctant to make the shift.

JAIME ALEMAN: The gas blower is fast. But with these tools, electric is going to take us more time, and the job is not going to be as nice as the regular blower.

FIL CORBITT: Jaime bought a new electric setup just in case, but says that he’ll keep using the gas powered one as long as he can. He says that it’s more powerful, he doesn’t have to deal with battery charging, and the electric blower definitely isn’t quiet.

JAIME ALEMAN: No, they’re different. The noise is lower, but the sound…

FIL CORBITT (FIELD TAPE): It’s, like, a higher, like–?

JAIME ALEMAN: A tiny “yeeeeeee.” Yeah.

FIL CORBITT: This time around, the government did offer subsidies to get gardeners switched. And some municipalities made a good faith effort to work with them. But in reality, the electric leaf blower is at best an imperfect alternative.

ROMAN MARS: If you remember the three central arguments against blowers–noise, dust, and emissions–the shift to electric really only solves the third.

FIL CORBITT: Throughout the fight in the 1990s, representatives from the leaf blower manufacturers promised quieter, cleaner machines. But as multiple council members pointed out in the meetings, they never delivered on that promise of a quiet leaf blower. It seems in some part that this statewide ban is aimed at forcing those manufacturers to come up with better solutions. Whether or not it works is another thing entirely.

RUBEN ORTIZ TORRES: I do believe in those mandates.

FIL CORBITT: That’s artist and professor Ruben Ortiz Torres again.

RUBEN ORTIZ TORRES: There’s all sorts of problems with gas. I don’t need to explain. They should be substituted by machines that don’t pollute. We should, again, work on the design–work on the technology. We should do this in concert with the gardeners.

FIL CORBITT: It’s a straightforward idea. Involve gardeners in the political and design process, make sure they aren’t penalized for doing the job they’re hired for, and–in the meantime–we can ask ourselves if beauty is a leafless yard or a quiet one. Back at Jaime Aleman’s house, we sit in his backyard. It’s a warm Southern California day, and the air over the valley is clear. You can see a haze toward downtown, and the sun is bright.

FIL CORBITT (FIELD TAPE): What does your dream yard look like? What’s a beautiful yard to you?

JAIME ALEMAN: A beautiful yard to me is to see the plants more natural. You can make a nice yard natural–I mean, trim it natural.

FIL CORBITT: There are leaves on Jaime’s lawn and in the garden bed behind his patio, too. The plants are beautiful–not too trimmed. We sit in the shade of a tall, leafy tree, and I think back to something Julie Newmar said in City Hall in 1996…

JULIE NEWMAR: And with my radio full blast, I look out my windows–made filthy by the leaf blowers–and wonder why my neighbor needs a lawn that, for 15 minutes, is as clean as a billiard table. There’s some mental insanity here.

FIL CORBITT: Jaime’s Lawn is no billiard table, but it’s nice.

JAIME ALEMAN: It’s crazy. Right now, it’s crazy because I haven’t had time to weed it.

FIL CORBITT (FIELD TAPE): Yeah, I mean, you don’t have just a flat lawn. And it’s really pretty.

JAIME ALEMAN: Yeah. I love it, and I enjoy coming out here. But I don’t like very, very…


JAIME ALEMAN: Manicured–I don’t like it.

FIL CORBITT: As I leave his house, we hear an electric leaf blower start up across the street. I look at Jaime and nod. He waves goodbye, and I walk down the road and past the horses and watch the freeway pulse in the distance. And the leaves fall from the tall, swaying trees to land in the lawns below–short and green in the warm winter sun.

ROMAN MARS: 99% Invisible this week was reported by Fil Corbitt, produced and edited by Neena Pathak. Additional production by Sarah Baik, mix and sound design by Dara Hirsch. Music by Swan Real. Fact-checking by Liz Boyd. Fil makes a podcast out at a desk in the mountains. It’s called The Wind, and it’s all about listening. If you liked this episode, you might like Whip Law or Judas Priest on Trial. Listen and subscribe at Kathy Tu is our executive producer. Kurt Kohlstedt is our digital director. Delaney Hall is our senior editor. Nikita Apte is our intern. The rest of the team includes Chris Berube, Jayson De Leon, Emmett FitzGerald, Gabriella Gladney, Martín Gonzalez, Christopher Johnson, Vivian Le, Lasha Madan, Jeyca Maldonado-Medina, Kelly Prime, Joe Rosenberg, and me, Roman Mars. The 99% Invisible logo was created by Stefan Lawrence.We are part of the Stitcher and SiriusXM Podcast Family, now headquartered six blocks north in the Pandora building… in beautiful… uptown… Oakland, California. Home of the Oakland Roots Soccer Club, of which I am a proud community owner. Other teams may come and go, but the Roots are Oakland first, always. If this episode has you wondering how we ended up with the American ideal of the leafless, perfectly trimmed lawn aesthetic, we’ve done an episode about that too… way back in 2015. It’s our Episode 177, called Lawn Order. It’s a good one, I hope you check it out. There’s a link to that, as well as every past episode of 99PI at



This episode was written/reported by Fil Corbitt. Fil makes a podcast out at a desk in the mountains called The Wind. This episode was edited by Neena Pathak

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