Los Angeles History

How About a Bit of Background on Los Angeles?

Oftentimes a vacation trip is made much better by knowing a little about the history of the place; that can often steer you to cool destinations.

If you’re looking for a detailed account of Los Angeles history, check out that page at Wikipedia and other online sources, but here’s a brief summary that you might find interesting (we’ve deliberately trimmed the details, looking for that fine balance between beneficial and boring).

The Earliest Days

Los Angeles was home to numerous native American tribes for thousands of years before Explorer Juan Cabrillo stopped at what is now San Pedro (Los Angeles Harbor) in 1542. He died a year later on Santa Catalina island, 22 miles off the L.A. coastline. It was 227 years later that Europeans once again visited the area.

Eventually, in 1781 the Mexicans created a formal settlement near downtown (see Olvera Street ) with the help of Catholic priests and a military detachment, and named it El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora Reina de los Ángeles sobre El Rio Porciuncula, Spanish for The Town of Our Lady Queen of the Angels on the Porciuncula River (and quite a mouthful I might observe). The Church of Our Lady Queen of the Angels would be the heart of the community.

The 19th Century

The city was incorporated as Los Angeles in April, 1850 (can you see why they didn’t stay with the original name??). According to Wikipedia the population was less than 200 in 1790, increasing to 1,600 in 1850 and 102,500 in 1900.

Los Angeles Plaza in 1869

The next hundred years saw the city grow to around 3,700,000 residents. We’ve included a few early photos, courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library’s Photo Collection; you might want to check that out. The first is an aerial photo of downtown, taken from a balloon, on June, 27, 1887. The round Plaza (currently the focal point of Olvera Street) is visible to the left-center. North is to the left.

The second photo was taken looking northeast from downtown at the Bunker Hill neighborhood in 1900; although not a large city there was some dense development even then.

Hollywood was in the country northwest of downtown in the late 1800s. It was the weather that drew the fledgling film industry to this area, starting with D.W. Griffith.

The 20th Century

Downtown LA in 1900But there is much more to talk about in Los Angeles besides Hollywood. Most of the development up to WW II took place pretty close to downtown; Hollywood is only a few miles from Olvera Street. Some nearby communities like Pasadena and Santa Monica were also growing in the first part of the 20th century, but they were separated by miles of vacant land or farmland.

Route 66 had its western terminus in Santa Monica. You might get your kicks on Route 66, learning more about that chapter in our history; the route is marked on many streets passing east/west through Los Angeles County and out to the Inland Empire.

Los Angeles City Hall in 1931

After the second World War, returning veterans flocked to new tract homes in nice suburban communities, and the population spread out in all directions. Some went northwest into the San Fernando Valley (the Valley), some went west towards Beverly Hills and Santa Monica, some went east and on to Orange County (which split off from Los Angeles County at some point in the past), and some went south towards the harbor (by the way, there is a narrow slice of land that runs miles down to Los Angeles Harbor from downtown, surrounded by other incorporated cities; this has ensured that the city maintains its harbor presence as other, smaller cites were created as the years passed).

Because the growth took place during a time when automobiles were ubiquitous, vs. New York and other eastern cities that matured prior to the Model A, we find that the original development density was fairly low for a big city. Nobody would have believed that all the available land would be developed and we’d need to go back and redevelop older neighborhoods with higher-density, multi-story projects as we now see regularly.

But one of the advantages of living here was the ability to live in suburbia, with your own detached house on a nice little parcel. The development of the interstate freeway system resulted in the creation of the freeway grid that is now being overloaded, but that made it possible to live miles away from work.

One of the earliest freeways in the country is still in operation, the 110 Freeway north of the 101 Freeway as it leaves downtown. You can see the short offramps and onramps and appreciate the modern design we enjoy almost everywhere else!

Commercial districts would spring up at freeway intersections or other locations that had some spark or catalyst to prompt development. So the intersection of the 101 and 134 freeways is a dense commercial district, influenced certainly by the presence of Universal Studios. There are plenty of other examples to be found.

In much of Los Angeles there is virtually no land for new development. New construction typically involves demolition of an older project of lower density, replacing it with a higher-density project. In some cases low-density industrial areas have been gradually converted to residential neighborhoods or commercial districts. This is true in much of the country, so it’s not new news to most of us.

We’ll end this section on Los Angeles history with a little true story. Once upon a time there were many dairy farmers in large portions of Los Angeles County and elsewhere in the L.A. Basin. In the 1950s and 1960s land values increased so much with the demand for new communities, that the farmers moved out to the Chino Valley in the Inland Empire (where there was already serious citrus and other agricultural action). Dairy farms in Cypress became Los Alamitos the Racetrack, for example.

For quite some time, the Chino Valley has become too valuable for farming, and thousands of acres have been in transition, with the farmers moving further east to cheaper land. Many don’t really want to move, but they see the writing on the wall.

It should be obvious from this summary that Olvera Street is at the heart of local history, and is a fascinating place to visit. It lies just north of downtown and the 101 Freeway. There are many historical buildings throughout the region and numerous museums that target historical themes. And of course there’s history in Hollywood, as we summarize on another page.