Shock of the New: Los Angeles vs. Modernism

Why was the city of Los Angeles so scared of modern art in the mid-20th century?

In 1939, conservatives on the county museum board turned down a gift of modern works from the collection of Walter and Louise Arensberg. In 1944, the Arensbergs tried to interest UCLA in the collection, but nothing came of their offer. Vincent Price, Edward G. Robinson, and Fanny Brice founded the Modern Institute of Art to keep the Arensberg collection in Los Angeles, but the institute closed when funding ran out. When James Byrnes, the first curator of modern art at the county museum, sought to buy works by Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko in 1947, he was advised by one of the trustees to keep the paintings off the museum walls. More

Photograph courtesy of the Herald-Examiner Collection, Los Angeles Public Library

Photograph courtesy of the Herald-Examiner Collection, Los Angeles Public Library

Milk Made These Communities of Southeast L.A. County

Photograph courtesy of City of Lakewood Historical Archive

Photograph courtesy of City of Lakewood Historical Archive

We’ve gotten used to L.A.’s “littles” and “towns” – among them Little Ethiopia, Koreatown, Little Armenia, Filipinotown – the places where immigrant aspiration gets a foothold, nostalgia is served, and Jonathan Gold finds the joints he loves. Official recognition of the city’s ethnic neighborhoods is fairly recent, but Los Angeles has always been culturally diverse, even as far back as the end of the Mexican colonial period and the start of the city’s Americanization.

French and Italian communities clustered around the old plaza in the mid-19th century, as did Basques and German Jews, creating some of the city’s earliest civic institutions. Sonoratown, north of the plaza, and old Chinatown to the east kept those ethnic communities at a distance. At the edge of San Pedro, a Japanese fishing village – Furusato – flourished on Terminal Island from the turn of the century until World War II and internment.

South and east of downtown, along the Orange County border and straddling it, are lesser-known ethnic communities that continue to hybridize with suburban Los Angeles. Milk made two of them: Bellflower and Artesia, where Holland and the Azores met. More

Beneath Our Feet: Water and Politics in Southeast L.A.

Photograph courtesy of KCET’s Lost LA

Photograph courtesy of KCET’s Lost LA

The cattle and horses were dying in early September 1864. Three years of little rain was burning through rangeland that had been unusually lush in 1861. Over-grazing now made the land barren. In Los Angeles County, 70 percent of the herds died or were slaughtered to leave forage for the rest. Carcasses were left where they fell. Out of reach beneath them – in some places, only a few dozen feet – pooled billions of gallons of life-sustaining water in the Los Angeles aquifer. 

New cycles of drought intensified the search for reliable water at the start of the 20th century. The worst dry period lasted for eleven years, from 1893 to 1904. In six of those years, rainfall was less 70 percent of normal; three consecutive years averaged less than 51 percent. The city of Los Angeles went looking for water in the foothills of the Sierras and found it in the Owens Valley. The communities west of the city and the towns on the Downey Plain punched some 3,500 wells into the Los Angeles aquifer for agriculture, industry, and the neat rectangular lots of suburban homes. More

How Did the Mexican-American War in California Actually End?

Uncertainty clouds our memory of January 13, 1847, when Andrés Pico and John C. Frémont signed a document variously called the Capitulation of Cahuenga or Treaty of Cahuenga.

It’s a perfectly ordinary table, big enough for two to sit across from each other. The grain of the wood shows through the worn finish in places. The panels of the top are uneven, but not so much to make the table unusable. It’s a piece of homely furniture that could have been found in any kitchen anywhere in Los Angeles until the middle of the 20th century.

A table like it might be in anyone’s garage today, after losing its one drawer, and now a place to set a clothes hamper or store garden tools, except this ordinary table isn’t in a garage. It’s in the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. It stands, elevated and lighted in a tall glass box, as a witness to history (although both the witness and the history, in this case, are somewhat ambiguous). More

Mural photograph courtesy of the federal Works Progress Administration Collection, Los Angeles Public Library; table photograph courtesy of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County

Mural photograph courtesy of the federal Works Progress Administration Collection, Los Angeles Public Library; table photograph courtesy of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County

When L.A. Sold Itself Into Existence: The Boom of 1887

Photograph courtesy of Bancroft Library, UC Berkeley

Photograph courtesy of Bancroft Library, UC Berkeley

The writer for the Los Angeles Herald knew his stuff. There was, he said, a favored place just 45 minutes by train from Los Angeles that “comprises … the finest land on the globe, with ample water rights and a water power equivalent to 250 horsepower.” And that wasn’t all, the Herald reported. “A grand avenue, 88 feet wide, bordered with shade trees and containing two highways, extends from the Sierra Madre to the south side of the tract. In the center of this highway, ten electric masts are being erected so that the great highway that cuts the land into two royal domains will be lighted from (and after) tonight with the pure light borrowed from the sun by the permission of that luminary.”

According to the Herald, Professor Warren, “the electrician in charge of the manufacture of electric energy in Los Angeles,” would provide the promised lighting. William Gladstone, briefly the Prime Minister of Great Britain in 1887, provided the townsite’s name. Gladstone, “the most beautiful land that the sun ever shone upon,” would be the city of destiny for smart buyers who got in early. “Business lots … will double in value within a week after the day of sale,” developer H. H. Boyce confidently predicted. More

Cathedrals of the Air: Sister Aimee, Fighting Bob, and Early L.A. Radio

Photograph courtesy of Security Pacific National Bank Collection, Los Angeles Public Library

Photograph courtesy of Security Pacific National Bank Collection, Los Angeles Public Library

The softly glowing dial of a radio receiver illuminated nearly every middle-class living room in 1920s Los Angeles. Crooners and dance bands came over the airwaves. So did exercise routines and household hints. Recorded concerts played on weekday evenings. Sunday mornings were set aside for local pastors whose sermons were a little dull, like the ones that listeners had heard “back home.”

“Back home” was still very real for the majority of Angeleños. Nearly half a million new residents had arrived in the decade of the 1920s, almost doubling the city’s population. It had already doubled in the previous decade. Many of the newcomers were the chronically ill or retirees from the Midwest cashing in on the prosperity that the post-World War I boom had brought them. These new Angeleños would be described later, somewhat unfairly, as lonely and troubled. A better description would have been unsettled. More

A City in Opposition: How History Shapes Tomorrow’s Los Angeles

Photograph courtesy of City of Lakewood Historical Collection

Photograph courtesy of City of Lakewood Historical Collection

We’ve been here before, arguing fiercely about the look of Los Angeles, memorably in the mid-1970s, when the growth machine that had boomed the city to bigness – and greatness – first stalled. It had been an epic, hundred-year bender by then, turning square miles of flood plain, valley, and foothill into single-family house lots. And it seemed that the city was sobering up – and growing up – as its development pattern matured around its low-rise, suburban-appearing uniformity. Sure, the hangover from the boomtime lingered in City Hall’s failure to notice the changing direction of the growth machine, and in Angeleños’ faith that an improved middle-class paradise – in the form of yet another subdivision – would be found around the next bend in the freeway. More

From Lummis to Hockney: What Coming to California Has Meant

Image courtesy of the Bancrof Library, UC Berkeley.

Image courtesy of the Bancrof Library, UC Berkeley.

In 1884, Harrison Gary Otis was looking for newspapermen to staff the Los Angeles Daily Times, the modest paper he edited in a very modest Los Angeles. The city’s first paved road – Main Street – had been laid down less than four years before. With only 12,000 residents, Los Angeles was the provincial seat of a rural county with hardly 34,000 residents.

But more would come, Otis was sure. The Southern Pacific railroad linked the city to the transcontinental rail network (but it wouldn’t be until the end of 1888 that trains arrived directly from the East). An “orange empire” in the county’s inland valleys had begun to boom. The whole nation wanted the golden promise of navel oranges from Los Angeles.

Civil War veterans suffering from PTSD and “lungers” – men and women suffering the urban scourge of tuberculosis – had a promise to redeem too: the promise of renewed health in the easeful sunshine of the valleys and foothills. The new rail connection from the East would bring them by the thousands.

Los Angeles, so favored by nature, Otis thought, was not destined to remain in the shadow of San Francisco, the center of industry, finance, and population in California. What Los Angeles needed was a storyteller, a weaver of tales, a poet really, to further Otis’ demand that the city deliver on its promise of wealth for those, like him, who intended to turn millions of vacant, dusty acres into farms, orchards, and house lots for millions of migrants. More

Part 2 - Red Flags Over Los Angeles: Bombs, Betrayal, and the Election of 1911

Part 2 - Red Flags Over Los Angeles: Bombs, Betrayal, and the Election of 1911

In part two of Red Flags Over Los Angeles, bombs and ballots decide the future of socialism in Los Angeles.

Job Harriman’s gifts for organizing and oratory had helped the Los Angeles branch of the Socialist Party grow from just seven affiliated clubs in 1890 to a countywide network with members in Santa Monica, San Pedro, Glendale, Long Beach, Bellflower, Buena Park, Fullerton, and other communities. He had barnstormed the state while running for governor on the socialist ticket in 1898. In 1900, as the party’s vice presidential candidate, Harriman ran with Debs on the Socialist Party ticket.

Harriman was even better known in Los Angeles as the defender of union members jailed for violating the city’s anti-organizing and street meeting ordinances.

Harriman’s true opponents, however, weren’t at city hall. They were at the Los Angeles Times building on First Street, personified by Harrison Gray Otis, the paper’s fiery antiunion publisher, and in the boardroom of the Merchant and Manufacturers’ Association, whose members were just as reactionary as Otis. According to the San Francisco Bulletin, the members of the Merchant and Manufacturers’ had only one principle: “We will employ no union man.”

In addition to being an advocate of progressive causes, Harriman was on the right side of the ideological split within the socialist movement which separated the moderate majority that followed Eugene Debs from a faction led by Daniel De Leon, one of the founders of the radical Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). More

Part 1 - Red Flags Over Los Angeles: Socialism and the Election of 1911

Part 1 - Red Flags Over Los Angeles: Socialism and the Election of 1911

Completed in 1935, the Times building is a cenotaph for the twenty-one press operators and linotype operators who were blown up in October 1910 and flung into fire and collapsing masonry by a union-laid bomb. But the Times building is more than the memory of a crime in stone. It was intended to be a blunt assertion of the paper’s victory in bending the politics of Los Angeles toward conservative reaction.

For the Times and the paper’s business allies in the Merchants and Manufacturers’ Association, industrial freedom would mean freedom from organized labor.

Dynamite in Ink Alley wrecked more than the adjacent Times building in 1910. Reputations were wrecked, too, principally Clarence Darrow’s, the crusading lawyer who defended the two union organizers implicated in the Times plot. Also in ruins was a coalition of socialists and union members whose representative was the charismatic Job Harriman, who might have become the city’s first socialist mayor. More

The Newsboy, the General, and the Lost Soldier of MacArthur Park

The Newsboy, the General, and the Lost Soldier of MacArthur Park

Photo by Wally Gobetz, 2014 and used under a Creative Commons License

Photo by Wally Gobetz, 2014 and used under a Creative Commons License

There's something missing from MacArthur Park's memorial to Harrison Gray Otis, the larger-than-life publisher of the Los Angeles Times.

There’s a rough stone block at the western edge of the causeway that divides what was once Westlake Park. The stone is grouped in a plot next to two others: a taller block surmounted by a bronze general and a smaller one with a bronze newsboy. The general points across Wilshire Boulevard to the northwest. The newsboy, his back to the road, clutching a bundle of papers, shouts the latest headline to boaters on the lake in what is now MacArthur Park. But one block is empty.

But the one block is empty. It once supported the figure of a muscular youth striding past the general, a flag staff and partially furled flag on his right shoulder, calm resolve on his expressive face. He was dressed as an Army volunteer – even then, called a doughboy – in the boots, leggings, cartridge belt, and campaign hat of the Spanish American War. He could have been seen as marching toward battle or away from downtown. Except for the flag, he was unarmed. More

The Cold and the Dark: A Short, Sooty History of Smudging

There was a time, not very long ago, when a fair, dry night in winter would have been watched through with dread of the "great white terror."

The last nights of 2015 - before the rains came - were clear, and the stars, even against the city's glare, were bright. A rare full moon hung directly overhead at midnight on Christmas Eve, as sharply defined as if chiseled from a chunk of diamond.

Photo courtesy of USC Digital Library, Dick Whittington Collection

Photo courtesy of USC Digital Library, Dick Whittington Collection

There was a time, not very long ago, when growers would have watched through such a fair night with dread.

Hajime Fukuoka, a candidate for a master's degree in Economics at USC in 1918, explained why in almost poetic terms in his thesis The Lemon Industry in Southern California:

"Great rapid loss of heat ... takes place on quiet, dry, star-lit nights. Under such conditions, the heat in plant tissues passes into space by radiation or by the long, dark heat-rays which pass rapidly through the air without appreciably warming it. As a result, (leaves and fruit) quickly reach a temperature considerably lower than that of the surrounding air. ... Soon, if the night be quiet, the air arranges itself into layers or strata of varying temperature, the coldest and heaviest resting on the ground. These cold layers slowly slip downhill, seeking the lowest levels." More

The Tragedy and the Man That Made LA TV

TV really wasn't essential, that is until the evening of April 8, 1949. What viewers saw the following day changed what watching meant.

TV really wasn't essential, that is until the evening of April 8, 1949. What viewers saw the following day changed what watching meant.

In the last year of World War II, Army Navy Screen Magazine (produced by the Signal Corps) gave GIs a look at what their postwar world was supposed to be like. The first of these reports explained that the future would be televised.

Photograph courtesy of Herald Examiner Collection, Los Angeles Public Library

Photograph courtesy of Herald Examiner Collection, Los Angeles Public Library

Television had been promised "a couple of years away" since the 1920s, and it was even possible to watch experimental broadcasts before the war began. Now that men were being demobilized into an uncertain economy, TV was just around the corner again. In "Tomorrow Television," the Signal Corps made two points for an audience of anxious men with memories of the Depression: there would be jobs for those trained in electronics, and TV would be a transformative consumer product for everyone.
For once – and finally, after so many years – the prognosticators were right.

On January 22, 1947, commercial TV came to Los Angeles via Paramount Pictures and station KTLA. Bob Hope hosted the first -- necessarily live -- program. Hope's audience was small. By one estimate, there were less than 1,000 television sets in KTLA's broadcast area.

By 1949, Los Angeles had seven channels of television: KTSL-2, KNBH-4, KTLA-5, KECA- 7, KFI-9, and KLAC-13.

The broadcast day in L.A. was still short, generally beginning around noon. Programming was a mix of B-picture westerns, variety showcases, puppets and cartoons, wrestling, and talk shows. Nearly all of it was live. Korla Pandit (who never spoke on camera) played the electric organ. Betty White was co-host with Al Jarvis of a daily musical review. In the evenings, Spade Cooley fiddled western swing in front of his band.
TV in 1949 didn't have much to compel viewers to watch, beyond the novelty of having entertainment beamed into their living rooms. TV screens were mostly small, the definition of the image a bit rough, and the sets were expensive. A 12.5-inch Philco TV cost $319 in mid-1949, the equivalent of $3,100 today.
Television, although fitfully amusing, really wasn't essential – that is until the evening of April 8, 1949. What viewers saw changed what watching meant. More
 

I've Got You Under My Skin: Smog and Modern Memory

Photograph courtesy of Herald Examiner Collection, Los Angeles Public Library

Photograph courtesy of Herald Examiner Collection, Los Angeles Public Library

Wednesday, February 11, 2015 was a good day. Santa Ana winds, blowing moderately, had mixed stalled air over the central district of Los Angeles. Levels of ozone and nitrogen oxide were below state and federal maximums, as they had been all month. As it does most days, the amount of "particulate matter" in the air climbed as the traffic increased and industries began their day.

At the end of the previous week, morning fog had pushed levels of unhealthful air higher in coastal Orange and Los Angeles counties. Older adults, children, and anyone with lung or heart disease were advised to avoid prolonged outdoor activities in the hazy air.

By February 11, air quality conditions had moderated, but particulate levels remained elevated throughout much of that day. High levels of fine particles are tied to greater incidence of childhood lung disease and chronic illness in older adults.

Exactly sixty years before, when I was nearly seven and spent the afternoon of February 11, 1955 outside, the weather was as warm as it was on February 11, 2015.The breaths I drew then contained some of the highest levels of air pollution in the nation. The bright sun cooked together particulates from diesel trucks, nitrogen oxide from manufacturing plants, carbon monoxide from car exhaust, sulfur dioxide from oil-fired industrial furnaces, and stray hydrocarbons evaporating from solvents and degreasers, industrial paints, and gasoline. More
 

Why L.A. needs La Virgen

Her title in English — Our Lady of Guadalupe — is almost superfluous. 

She is La Virgen, Mary the mother of Jesus. She appears everywhere in the diaspora of Mexicanidad, the “Mexican-ness” that transcends borders and centuries. She waits on stucco walls, above shop counters and at roadside shrines, eyes downcast in an attitude of tender expectation, to receive appeals in Spanish, Spanglish, English and the polyglot of languages that has always been Los Angeles.

The Virgin is supposed to have appeared to Juan Diego on Dec. 9, 1531, at Tepeyac, a hill near Mexico City where a pre-conquest shrine of Tonantzin (Beloved Mother Earth in Nahuatl) had once stood. Miracles were said to have followed in the days after, including the appearance of her image, still preserved, on Juan Diego's cloak when he opened it before the astonished bishop of Mexico City. The greater miracle? To those who prayed and trafficked her on city streets, in church sanctuaries and tattoo studios, and into the hearts of Los Angeles, she has never left. More
 

Photograph courtesy of Wikimedia and used under a Creative Commons License

Photograph courtesy of Wikimedia and used under a Creative Commons License