LA History 101
Moving to a new city can be hard, especially an unwieldy, disjointed, sprawling metropolis like Los Angeles. One thing that helps ties all Angelenos together? Talking about things we know!
When the city’s history comes up, it’s good to know the basics, so you can hold your own and not ask foolish questions like, “What’s a Chavez Ravine?” More importantly, history can ground you in your new city, and make you feel at home.
Before you know it, you’ll be giving a tipsy lecture on the Hollywoodland sign in front of a taco stand on Sunset Boulevard at 2 a.m., just like a real Angeleno!
1. Queen of Angels
El Pueblo de la Reina de Los Angeles (The Town of the Queen of Angels) was officially founded on September 4, 1781. The settlement was part of Spain’s colonization of California, which began in the 1760s as a reaction to Russian advancement into Alaska and Northern California.
According to historian Nathan Masters, the pueblo was part of a three-pronged plan to colonize California. “Settlement would take three forms,” he says. Settlers would build “a string of religious missions to convert the indigenous peoples into Spanish subjects, presidios to secure Spain’s military hold on the province, and pueblos to supply the garrisons with food and establish a secular, civilian presence in the territory.”
The Los Angeles residents were made up of 44 pioneers from Spanish Mexico, known as the “pobladores.” According to historian Antonio Rios-Bustamate, the 23 adults and 21 children included people of Spanish, Mexican, American Indian, and African descent. They settled around the area we know today as the Plaza and Olvera Street, and the rest is... rather complicated history.
2. The land of sickness—and sunshine
You can’t beat the SoCal sunshine, but you can monetize it!
With the Americanization of Los Angeles during the second half of the 19th century, Anglo boosters—mostly recent transplants themselves—began to sell what we might now refer to as the “California Dream.”
There was even a magazine called Land of Sunshinededicated to promoting and celebrating the natural, temperate beauties of the state. With its Mediterranean climate, Southern California was a place where a new immigrant could “cheer himself with her almost everlasting sunlight.”
By the 1880s, droves of chilly Midwesterners—like Daieda Willcox, the founder of Hollywood—were streaming into LA, as were people with all sorts of illnesses and maladies. “The overworked and over worried class,” one SoCal promotion read, “will find here a most soothing climate to regain their lost energy or restore the nervous system to its normal equilibrium.”
And so long before Malibu became the rehab capital of the world, the Los Angeles area was littered with sanitariums and health resorts. Although these sanitariums often offered little more than TLC, many who survived their maladies decided to stay permanently and soak up the sun.
3. Water and Mulholland
It’s not exactly Chinatown, but it’s a lot like Chinatown. During the late 19th century, it became clear to enterprising Los Angeles boosters that the only way the town could grow into the metropolis of their dreams was with a much bigger, more consistent water supply.
LA leaders, led by the city’s chief water engineer, the self-taught William Mulholland, devised a plan to gain—or steal—the water rights to Owens Lake, 200 miles away, high in the Sierra Nevada. The lake’s water was already used by ranchers in the Owens Valley, but that didn’t bother the intrepid leaders.
In September 1907, construction began on a massive aqueduct that would transport water from the lake all the way to Los Angeles. At the aqueduct’s opening on November 5, 1913, around 40,000 people watched as the lake water began to flow into the waiting San Fernando Reservoir in Sylmar. “There it is—take it!” a triumphant Mulholland exclaimed.
Of course, ranchers in the Owens Valley were none too happy with this state of affairs. For decades, what came to be known as the “water wars” plagued the aqueduct. Ranchers dynamited portions of the pipeline over a dozen times, and armed guards working for Mulholland clashed with farmers.
In the end, Mulholland and Los Angeles “won” and grew into the metropolis we know and love today. In the words of Marty Adams, DWP water systems manager: “If the aqueduct had never been built, the city would never have grown larger than about 300,000 people.”
4. The Venice Canals
Los Angeles has always drawn dreamers and visionaries to its expansive shores, be they developers, cult and religious leaders, or amusement park innovators. One of the cities earliest visionaries was developer Abbot Kinney.
In 1905, Kinney opened “Venice of America,” a planned seaside community which featured its Italian namesakes Italianate architecture and copied its world famous canals. Kinney constructed seven man-made canals with fanciful names including the Grand Canal, Venus and Aldebaran. Tourists could travel by gondola to take in the new city, and private cottages soon dotted highly-coveted canal-front lots. Six copycat canals were soon constructed for a secondary tract by rival developers.
Sadly, in the 1920s, all seven of Kinney’s canals were filled in in the name of progress. Today, it is the six copycats that remain.
5. Tinsel Town
In the early 1900s, the infantile movie industry was centered in the Northeast. But there were problems: bad weather, demanding employees, and the ever-watchful eye of Thomas Edison’s Motion Picture Patents Company, which was relentless in perusing licensing fees.
Film scouts started looking for other places to shoot, and came across the Eden of Los Angeles. It was sunny and temperate, with ample locations, from the mountains to the sea to the city.
As KCET’s Zelda Roland notes, LA was also open shop, with a cheap workforce and weak unions. Both Biograph and Selig-Polyscope began shooting in in Los Angeles by 1910, but it was the arrival of director Cecil B. DeMille that really set LA on its path to movie mecca.
In 1914, DeMille filmed The Squaw Man, the first feature film to be shot in Los Angeles, for the newly formed Jesse L. Laskey Feature Play Company. Production was run out of an old Victorian barn in the village of Hollywood.
By the First World War, the rest of the movie business had followed DeMille to LA. Today, you can visit the Lasky-DeMille barn, which now houses the Hollywood Heritage Museum. Hooray for Hollywood!
6. The Hollywood Sign
The construction of the iconic Hollywood Sign didn’t have anything to do with the entertainment industry. It had everything to do with something equally LA—real estate.
Originally spelling out Hollywoodland, it was built as a temporary advertisement in 1923 for a new upper-middle class neighborhood snuggled in the hills of Beachwood Canyon. Made of wood, steel, and telephone poles, it featured 4,000 light bulbs so that potential homeowners could see it from all across Los Angeles.
By the 1930s, the Hollywoodland development had petered out, but the sign’s myth grew as it became an unwitting symbol for the film industry. The “land” was torn down in the late ’40s, and by the ’50s, the shortened Hollywood Sign was a mascot for the dreams of stardom.
The sign we have now was erected in 1978, with money donated from Andy Williams, Alice Cooper, and Hugh Hefner. It is supposedly haunted by Peg Entwistle, a distraught actress who jumped to her death from the original sign in 1932.
7. The streetcar conspiracy
It seems unbelievable, but Los Angeles once had an amazing public transit system. For the first half of the 20th century, an extensive system of both local (“yellow cars”) and interurban streetcars (“red cars”) made travel in Los Angeles quick and easy. So it is not surprising that their demise has sprouted one of the city’s most famous conspiracy theories. According to Curbed’s Elijah Chiland, it goes like this:
In 1945, a sinister corporation called National City Lines [comprised of General Motors, Firestone Tire, Standard Oil, etc.] took over the thriving Los Angeles Railway, which served most of the sprawling region. Then, over the course of the next two decades, L.A.’s extensive streetcar network was eliminated and the iconic Red Cars…were replaced with shiny new buses.
This myth obscures a much more complicated history. National City did indeed buy and dismantle the Los Angeles Railway, which was already being superseded by personal automobiles.
The aging, increasingly unprofitable and empty Red Car system was not taken over by National City but was discontinued in 1961 by LA’s Metropolitan Transit Authority. As The Guardian’s Colin Marshall explained in 2016, “One can confidently accuse General Motors and their National City Lines of nothing worse than scheming to profit from a trend already in motion.”
From its decimation of the Native Californian population to its violence toward the Chinese population, Los Angeles has a troubled racial history. During the 20th century, black and brown Angelenos were the target of two particularly hideous practices.
The first was the nation-wide creation of “sundown towns,” communities where black people were not allowed to live (under the umbrella of racially restrictive covenants) or be seen in after sundown. For many years, LA communities including Hawthorne, Palos Verdes and South Pasadena were considered sundown towns and avoided by minority populations.
The second practice was known as “redlining.” When the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation was established in the 1930s as part of the New Deal, it was meant to bolster the housing market. It also assessed and ranked the value of land and risks according to a neighborhood’s economic and racial makeup.
“Areas comprising minority and foreign-born populations as well as poorer residents were graded lower and were designated red and yellow on maps,” Curbed LA’s Lauren Ro writes, “while the desirable, more affluent (and usually mostly white) neighborhoods were colored green and blue.” This made it difficult for people of color or poor people to secure home loans or move out of their “designated” neighborhoods.
The Fair Housing Act formally deemed both activities illegal in 1968, but their deep-seeded scars remain.
9. The dark history of Dodger Stadium
Once upon a time, Chavez Ravine was a thriving, friendly hillside community of Mexican-American families, many of whom had roots in the neighborhood stretching back to the Victorian era. There was a general store, an elementary school, and neighboring Elysian Park for the Ravine’s numerous children to explore.
But in 1950, Chavez Ravine was slated to be the site of a massive public housing project called Elysian Park Heights, which would provide 3,600 affordable apartments. The only problem: the neighborhood would be leveled. Chavez Ravine homeowners protested, staging sit-ins at the Mayor’s office and protesting at City Hall.
But in the end, the city won. Using the power of eminent domain, the city was able to buy or force out most of the residents... By 1957, only 20 families lived there. The housing project fell through, and the city struck a deal with the Brooklyn Dodgers baseball team- and gave them 315 acres of Chavez Ravine to build their new stadium. On Black Friday, May 9, 1959, the remaining families of Chavez Ravine were met with bulldozers and sheriffs wielding eviction orders. In a heart-wrenching scene, defiant families were forcibly dragged out of their homes.
10. The Watts Rebellion
On the hot night of August 11, 1965, a young black man named Marquette Frye was pulled over for drunk driving in the Watts neighborhood of South L.A. As onlookers watched, a scuffle eventually ensued, and soon Marquette, his mother, and stepbrother were all arrested, as were two people in the crowd, which had swollen to 1,000 people.
“For decades, civil rights activists had challenged Los Angeles’s pervasive racial injustice, even as the news media failed to call city leaders to account for unequal schools, police brutality and housing and job discrimination,” professor Jeanne Theoharis wrote in the New York Times.
When the uprising was finally quelled, there were “34 dead, 1,032 injured, nearly 4,000 arrested, and $40 million worth of property destroyed.” The fundamental problems remained.
Los Angeles is earthquake country, and we are due for a big one. Past earthquakes have devastated the region, but we’ve always bounced back. Below are three of the biggest of the past 100 years.
- The Long Beach Quake of 1933: A 6.3 magnitude earthquake that is considered “the deadliest seismic event in recorded Southern California history,” it killed 120 people and may have been caused by the drilling for oil. For a fascinating fictional description of living through this quake, read John Fante’s Ask the Dust.
- The Sylmar Quake of 1971: This 6.6 early morning earthquake lasted for twelve seconds and devastated the San Fernando Valley, “flattening freeway overpasses, collapsing hospitals, toppling power stations, sparking fires and threatening to burst dams and flood the homes of tens of thousands,” according to the Los Angeles Daily News. Thirty-four people were killed.
- The Northridge Quake of 1994: This 6.7 magnitude quake, centered in the San Fernando Valley, collapsed a portion of the I-5, killed 60, caused 466 fires, and injured more than 9,000 people. For first-hand accounts, ask any native Angeleno over 30, or read this harrowing collection of first-person accounts.
12. The LA Uprising
It all sounds so familiar. Five days of anger, grief and destruction take hold of LA as the world watches. On March 3, 1991, Rodney King was arrested by policemen after a high-speed chase. White police officers were filmed brutally beating King—kicking him long after he had fallen to the ground.
On April 29, 1992, four police officers charged in the beating were acquitted of using excessive force in the King beating. Within an hour of the verdict, protests began in downtown Los Angeles and at the Hansen Dam Rec Center. Violence began a short time later at the intersection of Normandie and Florence.
By the evening, the situation was explosive. A truck driver named Reginald Denny was pulled out of his car and brutally beaten, an event broadcast live. The city leadership was shockingly negligent and MIA; police chief Daryl Gates chose to attend a fundraiser in Brentwood as the situation spiraled out of control. Over the ensuing five days, over a thousand buildings were looted and burned, 63 people died, and the city incurred more than $1 billion in damages.
Many saw the Uprising as the city’s wake-up call. But the debate continues over how “woke” it really is.
Take the 10, avoid the 5, cruise the 101. For an LA newcomer, getting directions can make you feel like you’re being initiated into some pretentious, numerically inclined cult. Why do we refer to our freeways with the definite article “the”?
According to historian Nathan Masters, California’s early adoption of the freeway meant routes were given names as they opened to correspond with places they passed through. Hence the Hollywood Freeway, the Pasadena Freeway, etc. These highways also had numbers assigned to them, often more than one, which added to the confusion.
That changed in 1964, when the highways were each bestowed only one number. As Curbed LA’s Bianca Barragan writes, it became “easier to call the freeway by its one, easy-to-remember number rather than its longer, more descriptive name.” She continues:
But those wordy nicknames had already become a habit among SoCal residents, and it was still common to refer to freeways’ nicknames for years after the numbers were standardized. The enduring popularity of the nicknames led to the San Bernardino Freeway becoming known as the 10, and the Hollywood Freeway becoming the 101.
Since you’ll be spending half your new life on the freeway, it’s good to know the facts. Welcome to Los Angeles!