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How Yellowstone Led to Los Angeles

Posted Mondays, Jeremy Rosenberg's (@LosJeremy) Laws That Shaped L.A. spotlights regulations that have played a significant role in the development of contemporary Los Angeles. These laws - as nominated and explained each week by a locally-based expert - may be civil or criminal, and they may have been put into practice by city, county, state, federal or even international authority

Ed. note: Jeremy Rosenberg and James Rojas -- a planner, artist, and California Community Foundation Visual Artist Fellow -- have previously collaborated on the Laws That Shaped L.A. column about the Laws of the Indies and also this column about Jitneys. Recently, Rosenberg and Rojas have been in touch regarding both Rojas' ongoing series of neighborhood and city models and about what, if any, effect early National Park legislation has had on contemporary cities? Rosenberg's voice returns to this column next week. Today, he turns over the rest of this space to Rojas.

This Week's Law That Shaped L.A.

Law: Yellowstone Act
Years: 1872
Jurisdiction: Federal
Nominated by: James Rojas

By James Rojas

Building models of various places in Southern California helps me make sense of our happenstance built environment by highlighting the geographical, social and cultural forces that created the region's eighty-eight cities and countless communities.

Each model I construct begins with an investigation of the natural and built environment through the examination of maps, street grids, old photographs, postcards, topography, and streetcar lines.

I pay particular attention to identifying buried creeks, leveled hillsides, and lost names of places. I read about how places were founded to understand the human drives that have created them. I make site visits and ask myself what visual or graphic features do people recognize and identify with their community? These features may be natural or man-made. I combine hard data with visual cues and interject my artistic/urban planner perspectives to create a diorama that uncovers the past and provide people with access to the future their community.

From constructing twenty-five models of various SoCal communities, development patterns have emerged. The mountains, hills and beaches are the most visually popular feature of many these older cities in our region.

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Below is a list of the first ten cities to incorporate in L.A. County. Other than Los Angeles and Compton, the rest are in the foothills or on the coast:

1. Los Angeles
2. Pasadena
3. Santa Monica
4. Monrovia
5. Pomona
6. Long Beach
7. South Pasadena
8. Compton
9. Redondo Beach
10. Whittier

James Rojas's model, titled, Re-Image Lake Street, Hugely Tiny Exhibition shows a view of Lake Street from the San Gabriel Mountains. From a Store Front Exhibition, Pasadena, 2012. Photo courtesy James Rojas

This leads me to ponder -- like others have before me -- how the region was settled by an affluent group of people who brought with them an awareness for America's West.

In 1872 Congress created Yellowstone, the first National Park. This signaled the end of the "Wild West" and of the Western landscape as visual and physical experience.

The Act, signed into law on March 1 of that year by President Grant, said in part that a territory larger than Rhode Island "is hereby reserved and withdrawn from settlement, occupancy, or sale under the laws of the United States, and dedicated and set apart as a public park or pleasuring-ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people..."

Early settlers like Charles Lummis, a classmate of Teddy Roosevelt at Harvard, had promoted the region's southwest landscape and physical experience of place.

European and U.S. eastern cities at the same time were toying with the City Beautiful movement by realigning streets, creating civic spaces, building grand buildings and major infrastructure projects like parks, subways, bridges, etc. Southern California's early settlers were concerned with capturing the region's natural landscapes.

In Belle Epoch Vienna, two influential urban theorists, Otto Wagner and Camillo Sitte, developed competing ideas for the future of cities. Wagner's idea was the city as a machine with geometric street grids while Sitte's utopia was human interactions with the built and natural environment.

In the west, we were forging the new utopia combing both these ideas. Street grids in Santa Monica were laid out based on the shoreline, and in Riverside the original street grid was laid out at the foot of Mt. Rubidoux.

View of Hollywood from Laughlin Park, 1901. Photo courtesy Los Angeles Public Library

The City of L.A. was founded according to the Spanish "Laws of the Indies," where landscape was for survival. However once Americans with means started arriving to L.A. they started to settle in the coast or in the foothills many miles away from the L.A.'s city center.

Huntington's Red Car line serviced to these far-flung places. There were even Red Car routes such as the Balloon Route that took people to the beaches, or the Mt. Lowe route that took people to one of highest points of the region.

Today we no longer experience our city as physical awakening but instead as through our car windshield. The billboards, hillside clutter, the price of gas and the car making the left-hand turn are what we react to. What was Hollywood Boulevard like when you could see hills on three sides and the ocean in the distant horizon? What was the Santa Monica's Palisades like before they were cut off from the beach by a highway? What was Long Beach like before the port? What were Riverside and Pasadena like before air pollution obstructed the views of the mountains?   

My city models uncover these lost experiences, topographies, streams, development patterns and stories that were forgotten as soon as they were written. I want residents experience their environments in a new way, interject their own stories by moving objects around, and begin to develop shared values for their communities. These models give residents insight to their past and an opportunity to experience and reshape the future.

James Rojas model. Santa Monica Off the Grid, Shangri L.A.: Architecture as a State of Flux, 18th Street Art Center, Santa Monica, CA 2009. Santa Monica Palisades reconnect to the beach in this car free city. Photo courtesy James Rojas

The 1872 Act that created Yellowstone National Park gave a value to the land that was other than economic. This value was about how places that should be preserved for everyone to enjoy forever. These same values laid the foundation to the early settlement patterns of Southern California. The irony is our region destroyed what are forefathers valued and sold it the highest bidder. Therefore, L.A. has become a park poor city, where sprawl, and congestion are our trademarks.

When did we lose touch with our natural landscape and can we ever connect with it again?

Unlike a Third World city, our region was planned. We should reevaluate the role of planning in setting values not just zoning codes. Our local planning schools should teach students how to understand and experience the landscape. We should support artists like Fallen Fruit, L.A. Urban Rangers, and projects like Lauren Bon's Not a Cornfield** that make us physically experience our landscape.

We should unplug all air conditioners to make us experience the weather. We should make every child learn how to climb a tree. Mobility should be a physical experience for us therefore we should walk more, build monorails, and host CicLAvia every month.

Underneath our concrete jungle there are plains, hills, rivers, streams, and trees that are ready to reconnect with us.


Have a suggestion for a Law That Shaped LA or someone to interview? Contact Jeremy Rosenberg via: arrivalstory AT gmail DOT com. Also contact or follow Rosenberg on Twitter @LosJeremy

**Jeremy Rosenberg was an employee

Top photo: Visitors to Yosemite -- not Yellowstone -- National Park in 1920. Photo courtesy Los Angeles Public Library.

Hollywood Bowl, 1928. Photo courtesy Los Angeles Public Library

About the Author

Jeremy Rosenberg is a Los Angeles-based writer, editor, and consultant whose work has appeared in various books, magazines, newspapers, and online.
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