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Los Angeles came of age in the 1920s. The great boom of that decade gave shape to the L.A. of today: its vast suburban sprawl and reliance on the automobile, its prominence as a financial and industrial center, and the rise of Hollywood as the film capital of the world. This collection of original essays explores the making of the Los Angeles metropolis during this remarkable decade. The authors examine the city's racial, political, cultural, and industrial dynamics, making this volume an essential guide to understanding the rise of Los Angeles as one of the most important cities in the world.
These essays showcase the work of a new generation of scholars who are turning their attention to the history of the City of Angels to create a richer, more detailed picture of our urban past. The essays provide a fascinating look at life in the new suburbs, in the oil fields, in the movie studios, at church, and at the polling place as they reconceptualize the origins of contemporary urban problems and promise in Los Angeles and beyond. Adding to its interest, the volume is illustrated with period photography, much of which has not been published before.
Industry and Imaginative Geographies
"The City of the Angels," so attractive to the tourists because of climate and natural beauty, is fast becoming a great industrial center. The Panama Canal will bring the ships of the world to its own harbor. The awakening of the nations across the Pacific will create demands for goods manufactured in coast cities. Oil fuel is at hand, transportation is assured, and a vast market is being opened. Capital will quickly respond, and soon the loom and furnace will furnish products for a new world of commerce. Already great industrial plants are busy day and night satisfying the demands of an ever-widening district. DANA BARTLETT, 1907
In the domain of city growth Southern California finds itself reversing the ordinary processes of municipalization. The attractiveness of life in this community draws, as with a magnet, thousands upon thousands each year who beg for a chance to make a living in this nature favored spot. Many specialize, in intensive agriculture. Others try to pry their way into industry.... The problem of Southern California thus becomes the difficulty of providing an economic foundation for its rapidly accumulating population. The people continue to come. How shall they be cared for? CLARENCE DYKSTRA, C. 1930
In a 1907 reform tract, The Better City, Dana Bartlett, a Protestant cleric and urban progressive, waxed euphoric about the promise of Los Angeles. From its church-centered founding to the beneficent climate and increasing civic "patriotism," Bartlett cast his eyes upon an "American city," where the foreign-born "vied with his neighbor in devotion to high ideals," a city poised for greatness and, if residents heeded the social gospel, goodness. In its setting and its development to date, Los Angeles had avoided the blight Bartlett saw in Chicago, New York, and other eastern cities. "Ugliness," he wrote, "has no commercial or ethical value. The crowded tenement and rookery, a city's ill-kept streets and yards, are not incentives to higher living." Los Angeles, by contrast, was a "city of homes, without slums." There might be "slum people," Bartlett confessed, but "no slums in the sense of vicious, congested districts." Here the "poor live in single cottages, with dividing fences and flowers in the front yard, and oftentimes with vegetables in the back yard." The notable exception, cited to prove the rule, was the house courts along Utah Street, east of the Los Angeles River, occupied by laborers "brought in from Mexico to work on the trolley."
Bartlett lavished considerable praise on the river itself, a site, as he envisioned it, for promenades, ornamental bridges, and the coming together of diverse culture groups and classes. Although recently, and lamentably, given over to base uses, the river still possessed its "ancient possibilities," and Bartlett's initial plan was to hide existing warehouses and factories behind a "wealth of climbing vines and roses," clear the area north of First Street to Elysian Park as a playground for the children of the "congested districts," and construct public baths, gymnasia, and civic centers along the river banks.
Whether hidden by flowers or open to view, those factories posed a considerable challenge; in Bartlett's lifetime, the "call of the factory whistle [had become] louder and more insistent than the sweet music of the mission bells." Quite rapidly, it seemed, the City of Angels as a "city of homes" was giving way to a great industrial center. This was particularly true for a zone lying between Alameda Street and the Los Angeles River from Ninth Street north to Elysian Park, which came to be known as the East Side Industrial District. In many ways this moniker was a misnomer. Although there were a number of manufacturing concerns in this district it was, in fact, a polyglot landscape of the type most urbanists associate with the teeming central area in cities like Chicago and New York. In Los Angeles, this mixed zone housed an extraordinary degree of diversity in terms of land uses and activities as well as of the people who lived and worked there.
Walking along North Main from Alameda to Sotello Streets Bartlett would have passed by foundries, boilerworks, patternmakers' shops, and both Llewellyn and Western iron works. Interspersed among these firms were a Salvation Army store, two groceries, and a number of restaurants and saloons, as well as residences ranging from single-family dwellings to apartments and furnished rooms. Writing in 1919, following a survey of this district, the California Commission on Immigration and Housing deduced that "surely life can not be normal in an area so much given over to industry, where there must of necessity be noise, grime, confusion, unpleasant odors, and nothing restful or beautiful to look upon." True to his politics and position, Bartlett imagined this mix of uses and people as a problem to be overcome. He shared the progressive vision, advanced by public health professionals, social workers, and advocates of urban improvement and city planning, that the proper solution to this problem was a parsing out of land uses, people, and activities to create a more orderly, rational, efficient city.
Bartlett feared the prospect that Los Angeles might come to resemble eastern cities: "As factories increase in size and number, aliens will be attracted, tenements and house courts will become congested, causing an increase in sickness and crime." Salvation would be assured if industrialists took up the cause; they could become architects of the better city. "No modern industrial movement," Bartlett wrote, "means more for the welfare of the working people than the transfer of manufacturing plants from the crowded city to the country where, with better housing conditions, better sanitation, fresh air, greater freedom from temptation, and with flowers and parks and bright work rooms, life seems worth the living." Supporters of this kind of urban improvement believed the rational, orderly dispersion of jobs and people would benefit the majority of Angelenos, if not all. In his 1907 tract Bartlett evoked an imaginative geography that would inform city building in Los Angeles for decades, a vision of manufacturing facilities and working-class residences moving out from the city center and into the surrounding country.
Bartlett was not a prophet; Los Angeles, and other American cities, did not expand along the lines he envisioned. He was prescient, however, and rather than dismiss his account outright, it is worth considering the ways in which industry has shaped, and continues to shape, Los Angeles and Southern California. The 1920s was a generative period when civic elites, entrepreneurs, and workers fixed the coordinates for an industrial Los Angeles that has structured the pattern of city building and urban life from that time forward. For this line of inquiry, the primary concern is locational with an eye toward understanding the ways industrialists, in concert with developers, design professionals, and other city builders, helped shape the precise nature of urban expansion in the region. This essay features two factors that are absent in most narratives about Los Angeles: an investigation of the connection between residential development and industrial development—what geographers call the workplace-residence link—and the role that planning, broadly defined, played in this process. To put it more concretely, my first concern is city building, the creation of industrial Los Angeles as a material artifact, with its particular production landscapes and social patterns.
At the same time, I am interested in a concomitant creation, the construction of industrial Los Angeles in narratives about Southern California. At first glance this may appear an unlikely topic of investigation, one that could offer insights into culture, perhaps, but might not provide much explanatory power for questions of lived experience or policy. As recent scholarship has shown, however, cultural practices like the plotting and dissemination of stories about manufacturing prowess and the spatial reach of local capital are not simply fabrications or passive reflections. Often these narratives serve as instruments that people leverage as a means for acting on the world. For this line of inquiry we might ask, simply, Who told what stories when and with what effect or effects?
On a similar, or somewhat higher, level of abstraction, a study of industrial Los Angeles during the igaos should be situated within the expanding literature on the history of the western United States. One aspect of this investigation would contribute to a general reinterpretation of the relationship between financial interests in East Coast and midwestern cities and urban development in the intermountain area and along the Pacific slope. As was the case in the nineteenth century, investments by Chicagoans, New Yorkers, and capitalists in other cities provided the financial wherewithal mandatory for controlling land, creating infrastructure, constructing manufacturing plants, and commanding labor. Just as critically, however, the story of industrial Los Angeles is a regional one. Over time, civic elites, businesspeople, and residents in western and West Coast cities transformed these settlements from mercantile centers dependent on outsiders for goods and the means of exchange to command and control centers with Los Angeles, for example, playing an increasingly important role in international trade and production networks through the twentieth century.
If we return to Bartlett's tract with these themes in mind, we find that his assessment generates as many questions as it might possibly answer. There are the obvious contradictions; Los Angeles is a city without tenements and slums poised to be overrun by "aliens," who will then congest the tenements and house courts. His language and terminology raise questions as well. What, precisely, would it mean to have a "city" freed of production and manufacturing located in the "country"? Finally there is an imaginative and idealized coupling of industry and nature; factories with bright work rooms and fresh air surrounded by parks and humble yet uplifting cottages, the latter housing workers and their families who are invited to inhale the "golden smoke" of industry.
But the vision that aroused Bartlett's imagination can be described summarily. He believed in a spatial fix, an extensive pruning and thinning out in the congested districts intended to alleviate unhealthy physical conditions such as overcrowding. Out in less densely settled sections of the city, workers could construct single-family dwellings surrounded by open space, light, and air. Here, according to Bartlett, even though the "walls may be only the thickness of a single board, [a worker's house] covered in vines and flowers equals in comfort an Eastern palace." We recognize this as part of an Americanization project, acculturating immigrants through industrial employment and a normative standard of living. During the subsequent decade, sociologists, health professionals, and housing reformers would offer alternative assessments of conditions in the congested districts, but their prescriptions for change remained consistent with Bartlett's vision.
Of course, any chance of realizing some version of Bartlett's vision hinged on the interests of industrialists, particularly their locational decisions, and on a continued expansion of industry in the region. The latter became increasingly critical during the 1920s since over the course of the decade more and more people chose to move to greater Los Angeles. Given this, it is important to consider the magnitude of industrial expansion in the region and then situate this change in a national context. Contemporary accounts featured quantitative assessments with associated charts and graphs. Both plotted an ascending trajectory and implied that continued expansion was expected, if not inevitable.
This accounting of industrial progress, to use a phrase that boosters trotted out routinely, can never convey the nature and texture of change in Los Angeles during the 1920s. However, the acres of land developed for manufacturing, the increasing number of firms setting up plants in the region, the rising employment in industrial production, the innovation in products and production processes, the enhanced array of goods available from local suppliers, as well as less positive, and therefore less often noted, changes such as growing pollution and an increase in physical and social congestion were important factors that shaped the city, and it is instructive to review the numbers.
During the decade total land area increased by approximately 80 square miles through 45 separate annexations, and the population grew from 577,000 to almost 1.24 million. Population in the county increased 140 percent, from just over 900,000 residents in 1920 to over 2.2 million in 1930; the latter translates into an average of 350 newcomers a day for ten years. During these years civic elites noted with escalating concern that it would require more than tourism, land speculation, and services to provide employment for all the new residents streaming into the southland. By 1930, the promotion of industrial expansion as a means to meet this perceived shortfall between wage earners and jobs—a call the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce (LAACC or Chamber) first issued in the igios as a novel adjunct to the standard litany of year-round sunshine, recreation, and an expropriated Spanish culture—had become the equivalent of a civic mantra.
As Robert Fogelson has shown, the plea to wean the regional economy from the "tourist crop" and real estate speculation and reorient it toward industry was advanced with an ever-increasing measure of urgency. A Los Angeles Times editorial, "Balanced Progress," published on Sunday, November 18, 1923, articulates this particular vantage on existing conditions and advances one vision of the region's future. Los Angeles, the editors declared, "stands at the dawn of a golden tomorrow." But even though they gazed out upon a city "glittering" with promise and opportunity, the future was "fraught with great problems" because population growth routinely "staggered all power of anticipation." (Keep in mind that this statement was crafted at the beginning of the even greater increases of the 19208.) It was time
for us to see to it that the various forces that go to make up this terrific expansion are kept working in even and balanced effort ... new industries must be established to provide a stable means for the largest possible number of people to make their living.... This vast hegira of people who are rushing into Los Angeles must find a way to work and make their living. They can't go on indefinitely supporting themselves by building each other houses and selling lots. As roofs are built to cover their heads, big industries must be developed to give them means to earn money. Whenever population outruns industry, stagnation follows. The principal industry of this city at the present time is building new houses. Other industries of more stable and permanent character must be planted and encouraged.
What would it take to achieve this objective? The Times identified a series of needs. The majority can be categorized as urban infrastructure—water and power, an expanded harbor, solutions for traffic congestion, police protection, schools and parks. But it also required "men with a large enough vision, prophetic instinct, and practical unselfishness to make these dreams come true." To turn dreams into reality, entrepreneurs would have to reach "further into the back country," where they could control the coal, iron, wool, and cotton necessary "to feed the industries which will grow." I will consider much of this inventory but want to underscore the call for territorial expansion, a project of annexation, whether political, economic, or cultural, that would dominate the agenda of movers and shakers in Los Angeles throughout the decade.
For a comparative, statistical assessment of change over the course of the decade we can turn to a special report produced by the Industrial Department of the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce for Henry M. Robinson, chairman of the board of Security-First National Bank. This accounting shows that in eight years, 1919–27, industrial output in the county had increased from just over $400 million to almost $1 billion, an advance of more than 140 percent. Comparable records for the city showed an increase of almost 500 percent, from $103 million in 1914 to just over $610 million in 1927. In 1929, Los Angeles County, which began the decade as the twenty-eighth leading manufacturing center in the nation, had moved to ninth. Between 1925 and 1927, the county was second only to Flint, Michigan, in the percentage increase in value added, fourth behind New York, Flint, and Milwaukee in terms of dollar value of output, and fifth in value added by manufacturing wage earner.
Excerpted from Metropolis in the Making by Tom Sitton, William Deverell. Copyright © 2001 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Contributors: Clark Davis, Mike Davis, William Deverell, Michael E. Engh, S.J., Douglas Flamming, Philip Goff, Greg Hise, Doug Monroy, Becky M. Nicolaides, Laurie Pintar, Nancy Quam-Wickham, Steven J. Ross, Matthew W. Roth, Tom Sitton, David Charles Sloane, Jules Tygiel