Like other WPA divisions, the Federal Writers Project was designed to create jobs and income for artists during America's Great Depression. What this improvised project achieved however went far beyond its "make work" origins. The WPA Guides to America's states and cities remain monuments to pivotal moments in our local histories. These welcome, excellently edited University of California Press paperback versions of the guides will introduce these classics to a new generation of readers. Each volume contains a new introduction that describes the original book project and the city.
Los Angeles in the 1930s: The WPA Guide to the City of Angelsby Federal Writers Project of the Works Progress Administration
Los Angeles in the 1930s returns to print an invaluable document of Depression-era Los Angeles, illuminating a pivotal moment in L.A.’s history, when writers like Raymond Chandler, Nathanael West, and F. Scott Fitzgerald were creating the images and associations—and the mystique—for which the City of Angels is still known. Many books in one, Los Angeles in the 1930s is both a genial guide and an addictively readable history, revisiting the Spanish colonial period, the Mexican period, the brief California Republic, and finally American sovereignty. It is also a compact coffee table book of dazzling monochrome photography. These whose haunting visions suggest the city we know today and illuminate the booms and busts that marked L.A.’s past and continue to shape its future.
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Los Angeles in the 1930s
The WPA Guide to the City of Angels
By David Kipen
UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESSCopyright © 2011 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
The Contemporary Scene
LOS ANGELES, the metropolis of southern California and of a L vast adjoining area, is frequently regarded as one of the newer American cities, as an outgrowth of the motion-picture industry and as a creation of the real estate promoter. Actually, however, it is almost as old as the nation itself, having been formally founded and "subdivided" in the year the Revolutionary War ended—more than half a century before Chicago was incorporated. Over Los Angeles have waved the banners of royal Spain, imperial and republican Mexico, of the Bear Flag Republic, and, since 1847, the stars and stripes of the United States.
That the city seems perennially young and new despite its long, picturesque history is not surprising, for the bulk of its population is new. Only a handful of the inhabitants are descended from pioneer Mexican and American families. Only a small number of adult Angelenos were born in the city. The majority of the inhabitants have come here in recent years, mostly from the Middle West. Since 1870 the population has either doubled, tripled, or quadrupled in every decade except two. In addition to American settlers, Los Angeles has attracted immigrants of many races. The distribution of population among racial groups not characteristic of other large American communities in I930 included Mexicans (97, 116); Japanese (21,081); Chinese (3,009); Filipinos (3,245). Other racial groups are of much the same proportions that characterize the average cosmopolitan city. The Negro population is estimated at about 45,000.
Los Angeles' population (1,496,792 by the 1940 census) is still increasing rapidly. The normal influx has been accelerated in recent years by droughts and dust storms, mortgage foreclosures, and factory shut-downs in central, southern, and eastern states. In addition there is a large transient population of tourists, job-hunters, climate-seekers, elderly retired persons, and Hollywood hopefuls. It has been estimated by the All-Year Club of Southern California that winter visitors increase the population by about one-half between November I and April 30.
People who have lived here a dozen years are likely to regard themselves as old-timers; and in a way they are justified, for even in that relatively brief time they have witnessed one of the city's most spectacular eras of expansion. Length of residence in Los Angeles often replaces the weather as a conversation-starter. When strangers meet, one of them is likely to remark: "I came out in '26. How long have you been here?"
With these comparative newcomers, who form the majority of the population, ties with the home state remain strong. Angelenos dearly love to reminisce about "back East"—and "back East" may be anywhere east of the Rocky Mountains. Former residents of other states gather periodically at huge picnics, usually held in the public parks.
This attachment for the old home furnishes a clue to the character of the City of the Angels and its people. It suggests that the transplanted settler has never quite grown used to living here, has never quite been able to regard Los Angeles as his true home. Coming largely from the prairie regions, of rigorous climate and even more rigorous conventions, he suddenly finds himself in an exotic land of lofty purple mountains, azure ocean, and mild, seductive climate, where the romance of old Spain is nurtured and blends with the gaudiness of Hollywood, where rigid conventions are relaxed and comparative tolerance is the rule. To many a newcomer, Los Angeles is a modern Promised Land. It amazes and delights him, and thaws him out physically and spiritually. There is a heady fragrance in the air, and a spaciousness of sky and land and sea that give him a new sense of freedom and tempt him to taste new pleasures, new habits of living, new religions. Finding himself in the amusement capital of the West and at the hub of a vast natural playground offering every variety of sport from surfboarding to skijoring, he proceeds to have more fun than he ever dreamed was possible. He is fascinated by strange new industries and new agricultural products: movie studios, oil fields, almond orchards, vineyards, olive and orange groves. He encounters new and exotic types of people: movie actors and sombreroed Mexicans, kimonoed Japanese and turbaned Hindus. He develops an urge to try things that are novel and exciting, from Chinese herb doctors to Indian medicine men, from social credit to nudism, from a wine-colored stucco dwelling to a restaurant shaped like a hat. And because the array of things to do and see is so dazzlingly different from everything he has known, his curiosity is always whetted, his appetite never sated. He feels a certain strangeness in this place he now calls his home, a strangeness that is at once exhilarating and disturbing, and that he had not known in his native place "back East."
The environmental restlessness and novelty-seeking tendency provide a key to the city's distinctive character. They help to explain why new fads, strange cults, wildly mixed styles of architecture, and unusual political and religious movements blossom and flourish so profusely here, making Los Angeles a metropolis of "isms."
Even in their everyday attire, Angelenos sport the brightly-colored and the bizarre. Girls wear flapping, pastel-tinted slacks. Housewives go to market with furs thrown over cotton dresses. Boys blaze forth in multihued silk shirts. Beach costumes are seen on urban streets thirty miles from the sea. Schoolgirls wear gaily colored kerchiefs tied peasant-style over their heads. Men go hatless, women stockingless. Summer outfits are worn in winter. and vice versa.
On Main Street an occasional cowboy swaggers along in 10-gallon hat and high-heeled boots. Fringed leather jackets, Buffalo Bill style, are sometimes seen, and youngsters from the mountains or desert, in town for a spree, often wear Indian beadwork vests and belts studded with bright glass "jewels." Frequently a "messiah" of one of the dozens of bizarre local religious cults, garbed in biblical robes made of flour sacks, pads barefoot along a crowded sidewalk, apparently oblivious to the stares of the curious. And the curious are apt to be the newcomers, for seasoned Angelenos have long since become used to living in an open-air circus.
On occasion the variety of dress is even more striking. American business men parade in ball-fringed sombreros and dashing Spanish serapes during such celebrations as San Pedro's Cabrillo Day and Pasadena's Tournament of Roses. Japanese don flowered kimonos on Boys' Day, when huge paper fish flutter atop bamboo poles before their homes. Mexicans wear bright sashes and serapes on their numerous saints' days and fiestas. While these manifestations are exceptional, they vividly color the community's life and give it its character.
To the Easterner, descending the Pacific slope after the long trip across deserts and mountains, southern California is like a new world, a world set off by itself, with definite geographic boundaries of mountain ranges and sea. Los Angeles, sprawling across the slope, is like the capital of an empire in miniature; a land that has its own Riviera, its Alps, and its Sahara; a domain that is richer and more diversified than many an American state or foreign country. Los Angeles County alone is nearly as large as Connecticut.
The visual impression of this capital of the Pacific Southwest can be summed up in three words: whiteness, flatness, and spread. Bathed in relentless sunshine most of the year, Our Lady the Queen of the Angels is one of the "whitest" cities in the United States. Its newer office buildings gleam with concrete. Its miles of homes are bright with stucco. Glaring viaducts over the stony bed of the Los Angeles River and a maze of unshaded concrete roads add their shining whiteness to a sun-bleached setting that culminates in the tower of the City Hall, a long, tapering, chalk-like finger dominating the cubistic plain.
The flatness of the city is emphasized by its mighty backdrop of mountains. Along its northern and western edges, Los Angeles approaches these barrier ranges, breaking like a surf over the foothills and dashing up against the base of fire-scarred hills. Up gullies and draws and dry gulches it creeps and swirls in a tide of plaster and of palms. Yet for the most part the city stretches spaciously over a wide plain descending gently from the peaks to the Pacific. In many places, particularly in the level coastal areas, it is sometimes difficult to discern the dark-blue or snow-covered crests of the distant, semicircling mountains.
The spread of Los Angeles arises from the fact that it is a vast agglomerate of suburbs, loosely strung together. In area it is the largest single municipality in the world, with 451 square miles of territory between the mountains and the Pacific. Curiously enough, when the pueblo was named, the Spanish founders seemed to have had a premonition of its ultimate expanse, for its full Spanish title is perhaps the most prodigious place name in American geography: El Pueblo de Nuestra Senora la Reina de Los Angeles de Porciuncula (The Town of Our Lady the Queen of the Angels of Porciuncula). Properly pronounced "L6ce Ahng-hay-lace," the abbreviated name is variously mispronounced "Lawss Angless," "Lawss Anjeless," and even further abbreviated to "Los" or "L.A."
Puzzling to the uninitiate is the fact that the city on the map and the city as it is, often do not correspond. On maps an inland town, some 15 miles from the coast, it dangles southward a "shoestring district" nine miles long and half a mile wide, to include within its corporate limits the two seaport towns of San Pedro and Wilmington, which form Los Angeles Harbor. T o the west and north the city reaches out over quiet valleys where solitary ranch houses display street numbers running up into five figures. It penetrates brush-covered canyons inhabited chiefly by forest rangers and wild animals. On the other hand, many a street lined solidly with homes and other buildings extends far outside the city boundaries. Even more confusing are the independent towns which Los Angeles completely or partially surrounds: Beverly Hills, San Fernando, Culver City, Universal City, Santa Monica, Inglewood, and Burbank. One reason for this extensive urban expansion has been the widespread use of the automobile. Many people in these scattered areas motor in to work in Downtown Los Angeles. Others work in their own communities, but drive to town for shopping and amusement.
Each outlying municipality or community usually has its own important industrial resources: Culver City has motion pictures; Long Beach has oil wells and seaside resort facilities; Pasadena and Beverly Hills offer retreats to the financially secure; Inglewood has airplane factories and a race track; Glendale and Burbank have airports and various factories; San Pedro and Wilmington are supported by shipping, fisheries, and the Navy's Pacific Fleet; the San Fernando Valley communities depend mainly on farming. Not without reason, perhaps, has Los Angeles been dubbed "nineteen suburbs in search of a city."
The Los Angeles of the future is likely to evolve along highways. Already there is a vast network of superb roads. In other rapid transit facilities, however, Los Angeles is outranked by many a smaller town. Cumbersome, old-fashioned trolleys still rattle through the streets. The interurban service is incredibly slow and antiquated. Busses and a few lightweight streamlined trolleys have been introduced, but the inadequacy of the city's transportation as a whole has hardly been mitigated by these measures. Travel on public conveyances is often a distinct inconvenience because of long waits and overcrowding. In some instances the city has left outlying districts devoid of any method of travel except by automobile or on foot.
Though its tendency to spread and sprawl has been more or less unrestrained, the city has strangely enough denied itself the right to soar. Since 1906 a municipal ordinance has limited buildings to 13 stories and 150 feet in height. This restriction, sponsored by architects, fire underwriters, and others, was adopted for several reasons. Since Los Angeles had virtually unlimited space in which to expand, and since the city was becoming known as a health and resort center famed for fresh air and sunshine, it was felt that it would be a mistake to erect tall buildings that would create traffic congestion and turn the streets into dark, narrow canyons—conditions which people from the East were trying to escape. It was believed, further, that tall buildings were not a paying investment. With a few exceptions, such as the 32-story City Hall, the restriction has been rigidly enforced; and as a result, Los Angeles' sky line presents a series of long, low lines instead of the rearing, jagged contours of most large American cities. Another effect of limiting the height of buildings has been to decentralize the city. One of the distinctive aspects of Los Angeles is its number of community shopping centers, each virtually self-sufficient. The stranger, driving in what appears to be a residential section, may suddenly find himself in a highly concentrated area of shops and offices of every description. In these business districts, where buildings are frequently of the most bizarre architectural design, practically every service is represented. However, the tendency toward decentralization has not alleviated congested conditions downtown, since downtown streets are narrow, elevated railways are lacking, the single subway is short, and office buildings, large department stores, and a number of theatres are concentrated in a relatively small area.
Architecturally, Los Angeles has somewhat matured. Seldom perpetrated today are the monstrosities of a few years ago, the Moorish minarets sprouting from a Swiss chalet, the Tudor mansion with chromatic Byzantine arches. In many streets, these older homes survive, continuing the tradition of a florid era when the builder was the architect, and his bad taste was exceeded only by the vigor of his unrestrained imagination. Contrasts between the Victorian and the contemporary structure are often ludicrous, as when a constructivist garage rubs rooftops with a grotesque gingerbread castle. But in general the present-day designs are simple, pleasing, and well-adapted to the climate. Much of it is in harmony with the city's Latin heritage. Reminders of the days of the dons are becoming more and more numerous: in the municipal coat of arms, which embellishes such public works as the new Figueroa Street tunnels; and in the bright tile roofs and shady patios of private homes. Here and there are buildings that are portents of the city-to-be: the dignified but striking edifice of the Public Library, the towering City Hall, the functional modern residences.
A lavish variety of flowers and trees bedecks the city. Curious and exotic species offer. the nature lover a surprising new world of colors, odors, and flavors. Three kinds of trees—palm, eucalyptus, and pepper —against stucco walls and red tiles, are as characteristic of Los Angeles as are the elms and maples above the white frame farmhouse of New England.
The character of the city is also reflected in the facilities for open-air living. Angelenos not only enjoy sports the year round, but also patronize outdoor libraries—"parasol stations"—three of which are maintained by the Public Library in downtown plazas and parks. They listen to "symphonies under the stars" in the Hollywood Bowl. They patronize drive-in movie theatres and watch the show from their automobiles. They park in front of restaurants shaped like zeppelins, ice-cream cones, or shoes, and dine within their own cars. Multitudes go shopping in open-air markets, where displays of bright fruits, vegetables, and flowers remind easterners of the lavish exhibits at a state fair.
Other institutions that have either originated or been perfected in Los Angeles are cafeterias, supermarkets, and "motels" (auto camps). Cafeterias, especially, are in full glory, one of which treats its patrons to pipe-organ concerts, singing waiters and waitresses, and free fruit-ades.
Much of the foregoing has catalogued the more sensational manifestations of the character of Los Angeles. However, the majority of the people live as conventionally and tamely as citizens of other large American cities, and many are inclined to frown on their less restrained brethren. The average Angeleno, be he business man, professional man, tradesman, or artisan, is generally so busy with humdrum affairs that he has little time or inclination to indulge in the vagaries that delight his more leisured neighbors.
Excerpted from Los Angeles in the 1930s by David Kipen. Copyright © 2011 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Meet the Author
The Federal Writers Project (FWP) of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) not only provided jobs and income to writers during the Depression, it created for America an astounding series of detailed and richly evocative guides, recounting the stories and histories of the 48 states (plus Alaska Territory and Puerto Rico) and many of the country’s major cities. David Kipen served for five years as Director of Literature at the National Endowment for the Arts, where he led the Big Read initiative, and for seven years as book editor and book critic of the San Francisco Chronicle. He operates a lending library/used book store in Los Angeles called Libros Schmibros, and he is also the author of The Schreiber Theory: A Radical Rewrite of American Film History and translator of Cervantes’ The Dialogue of the Dogs.
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