How Los Angeles Got a "Downtown"

A circa 1935 postcard of downtown Los Angeles. Courtesy of the Werner von Boltenstern Postcard Collection, Department of Archives and Special Collections, William H. Hannon Library, Loyola Marymount University.

It's easy enough to locate downtown Los Angeles. On a map, the name hovers over a compact urban street grid. In a car, it's where most of the city's freeways lead. From a plane, it's visible as a dense cluster of modern skyscrapers and older commercial buildings.

But even if locating it is a simple matter, downtown L.A. resists easy definition and delineation. Does it include Chinatown? The Arts District? Does downtown sprawl across the 110 freeway, or do those high-rises occupy a distinct district known as City West?

Perhaps we can trace the uncertainty surrounding downtown to the term's origins as a New York import.

When it originated there in the early 1800s, downtown referred to the lower or southern end of Manhattan. (Uptown was northern or upper Manhattan.) As Robert Fogelson recounts in his 2001 history "Downtown: Its Rise and Fall," the term's meaning eventually came unmoored from simple polar orientation. By the 1850s downtown referred not just to lower Manhattan as a specific geographic place but also to the city's business community more generally. Soon cities across the United States were adopting the term for their own central business districts.

And when it arrived in Los Angeles, which lacked Manhattan's strong north-south polar axis, Angelenos weren't quite sure how to map the new term onto the city's existing geography.

At first, they used downtown almost exclusively as an adjective or an adverb referring to the city's commercial center, not as a noun. There was no downtown Los Angeles per se, but by the late 1870s there were "downtown hotels" and "downtown railroad offices", and Angelenos could "walk downtown" in the direction of such businesses.

The precise geographic location of downtown, however, was anything but fixed.

In 1887, "downtown businesses" occupied the city's three biggest commercial buildings -- the Temple, Baker, and Downey blocks -- as well as nearby storefronts along North Main Street. Within a decade, "downtown businesses" had migrated several blocks to the south and west. The Southern Pacific's downtown office, for example, had moved from the Baker Block on Main just north of Temple to 144 S. Spring by 1895. The Union Pacific had relocated from 236 N. Main to 229 S. Spring, and several smaller railroads occupied the brand-new Bradbury Block at 2nd and Broadway.

For a time, Angelenos also adopted downtown's counterpart, uptown, to refer to businesses located near but not in the downtown core. The Bisbee-Fishburn door and window company, for instance, opened an "uptown office" at Ninth and Main to supplement business at its main office at Washington and Alameda.

Meanwhile, locations we'd almost certainly identify as downtown today were excluded from its scope. In 1902, the Los Angeles Herald apologized for misidentifying a hotel as "downtown." It was the Bellevue Terrace Hotel at Figueroa and Sixth.

Eventually, as the city sprawled far into the surrounding countryside, it became useful to distinguish between a downtown -- a noun referring to a fixed place -- and the city's outlying areas. Hence downtown Los Angeles was born. The term made its first appearance in the Herald in 1906 and in the Times three years later.

But even as downtown Los Angeles gained common currency, it lacked legal definition.

The city council came close to drawing official boundaries in 1920, when it defined the Los Angeles "business district" as an irregular pentagon-shaped area bounded by Sunset on the north, San Pedro Avenue on the northeast, Central on the east, Pico on the south, and Georgia, Bixel, and Boylston on the west. It declined, however, to use the term downtown.

In the late 1950s, when city planners began eyeing L.A.'s downtown area for redevelopment, they adopted a new, synonymous term: "Central City." On official maps, four existing or planned freeways bounded the Central City: the Hollywood (101), Harbor (110), and Santa Monica (10), as well as the unbuilt Industrial Freeway that would have sliced through the city's wholesale and industrial districts.

Today, a slightly altered Central City survives on planners' maps, but the term has never supplanted downtown in everyday conversation. Its borders, meanwhile, stop short of embracing all that Los Angeles generally considers downtown -- the Arts District lies beyond Central City's eastern border along Alameda. Likewise, the Downtown Los Angeles Neighborhood Council's official boundaries fail to definitively answer where downtown begins and ends, as they exclude quintessential downtown locales like Little Tokyo and Union Station.

Defining and delineating downtown Los Angeles, then, remains an uncertain task. Even more uncertain -- where is uptown Los Angeles today?

The View from Dodger Stadium in 1877

If Instagram had been around in 1877, Dodger Stadium would not have been the world's second most geo-tagged site -- a distinction it attained in 2014. Not an inning of baseball had yet been played on the site, a steep hill and gaping ravine unaltered by mechanized grading equipment. Wild scrub brush rather than manicured Bermuda grass carpeted the ground. No life-sized bobble-head figures populated the upper deck.

But at least one of the ballpark's chief attractions was already present. Long before earthmovers carved Dodger Stadium's amphitheater into its northern flank, Mount Lookout (elevation: 726 ft.) was renowned for its sweeping views. To the south, the growing city of Los Angeles sprawled into the surrounding countryside. To the north, hazy mountain ranges floated on the horizon.

Sometime in late 1876 or early 1877, an artist named Eli Sheldon Glover scampered up Mount Lookout to capture those sights. His drawing became one of L.A.'s earliest birdseye city views. The Daily Star described Glover's vantage point:

The drawing was executed from a point which presents a beautiful view of Los Angeles proper and the delightful and growing suburbs of East and West Los Angeles [present-day Lincoln Heights and University Park, respectively]. On the whole, it presents a truthful picture of the city looking south from the hill north of town, with the ocean and intervening objects in clear prospective [sic].

Six years later, hopeful that the city would transform it into a public park, the Los Angeles Herald heaped praise upon the "grand and lofty hill":

No one who has not ascended this hill has any idea of the beauty and comprehensiveness of the scene that is spread out before the vision of the beholder. This hill, one of the highest in the city limits, towers above all the hills towards the sea, and its summit is a point where a magnificent view can be obtained by anyone who takes the trouble to ascend by either of the two trails which lead to the top....At the summit the view is wide-spread and grand. In addition to the distant and near places seen during the ascent...the four cemeteries, almost the entire city, the ocean, a glimpse of Anaheim, Azusa, Vernon, Florence, Wilmington, Compton, with the dark eucalyptus groves below the city are plainly in sight...To the North, a glimpse is obtained of some fine ranches in the hills, but the intervening hills partially obstruct the view.

Though Dodger Stadium's construction eventually shaved some elevation off its summit, the truncated hill remains one of the best places to gaze at the downtown Los Angeles skyline. A 2013 renovation by Mia Lehrer and Associates enhanced those city views, framing them between palm trees and other landscaping. Today, Dodger fans -- Instagram users or otherwise -- can stand outside the top deck and recall the Herald's description of the site: "a beautiful mount of vision for those who delight in scenes of beauty."

Bellevue Terrace and Beaudry Park: L.A.'s Two Lost Hilltop Gardens

Bellevue Terrace appears prominently within the larger, trapezoidal Bellevue Terrace Tract in this 1868 map of Beaudry's real estate holdings. Courtesy of the Map Collection - Los Angeles Public Library.

Some looked at the arid hills of Los Angeles and saw worthless land. Prudent Beaudry gazed up at them and envisioned prime real estate.

In 1867 Beaudry -- a French Canadian immigrant who would later serve as mayor -- began snapping up hilltop parcels on the cheap from sellers who didn't share his vision. Soon he'd built an elaborate system of reservoirs, iron pipes, and steam pumps to irrigate the sun-baked hills. Suddenly land he'd bought for $1,500 was worth twenty, thirty times as much.

To advertise the potential of his hilltop tracts, in the early 1870s he transformed two barren knolls into Bellevue Terrace and Beaudry Park -- Edenic landscapes that, though privately owned, welcomed the public to visit. Here, the fragrance of orange blossoms mingled with that of eucalyptus leaves. Paths meandered through vineyards and fruit orchards. And ocean views dissolved into the horizon.

Vistas were certainly the highlight of Bellevue Terrace, if its Canadian French name is any indication. Perched atop a 70-foot hill that no longer exists (it's the site of the Central Library today), this 6.5-acre garden overlooked the growing city below and the pastoral countryside beyond. Clear days offered glimpses of the Pacific. But there were spectacles inside the garden, too. High-pressure hoses cast water high into the air -- "a refreshing sight," in the words of a Los Angeles Herald scribe. And within the garden's eucalyptus-lined perimeter, a grove of some 500 fruit-bearing orange and lime trees stood in an orderly grid. The Austrian prince and naturalist Ludwig Salvator visited in 1876 and left thoroughly enchanted, describing Bellevue Terrace as "a perfect jewel."

Further west was Beaudry Park. The eight-acre private reserve rose above the canyon that today carries Sunset Boulevard between the city's downtown and Echo Park districts. Here Beaudry's landscape gardener, Francis Tamiet, planted a veritable forest of fruit and ornamental trees: 475 oranges, 2,600 Mexican limes, 1,200 gums, 1,000 cypresses, and 100 Monterey pines. Amid all this horticulture, wild nature managed to thrive -- in 1878, the Herald reported the appearance of "a splendid gray fox from the mountains." "His tail is a sight worth climbing the height to see," it added.

Bellevue Terrace and Beaudry Park might have become crown jewels of Los Angeles' parks system, but Los Angeles in the 1870s possessed only the rudiments of an organized public parks movement. With orange groves, vineyards, open pasture, and rugged mountains surrounding the city, perhaps Angelenos felt little pressure to set aside open space for retreat and recreation. Even within the city, greenery abounded. Visitors were welcome to stroll through lushly landscaped residential yards, as well as private, commercial resorts like Washington Gardens or City Gardens. (See USC sociologist Pierrette Hondagneu-Sotelo's new book, "Paradise Transplanted" for more on that.) When booming development finally convinced the city that it needed municipally owned parks, it turned to its leftover, marginal lands -- marshy depressions, defunct reservoirs, and rugged hillsides.

Ultimately, Beaudry placed his two gardens on the market soon after he'd liquidated the surrounding real estate tracts. In 1881 the state purchased Bellevue Terrace for the site of the California Branch State Normal School, a teaching college that eventually became UCLA. When the Los Angeles Central Library replaced the college in 1926, construction crews graded the hill out of existence. Beaudry's Park, meanwhile, was purchased in 1883 by the Sisters of Charity. On that site (now occupied by The Elysian apartment building and Holy Hill Community Church) the sisters placed their new infirmary, repurposing Beaudry's fruit trees and cypresses into a soothing backdrop for their patients.

A Diner Shaped Like an Oil Can? It Happened in Montebello

The Oil Can restaurant in Montebello, 1928. Courtesy of the USC Libraries - Dick Whittington Photography Collection.

There are greasy spoons, and then there was The Oil Can. Located on Whittier Boulevard in Montebello, this tiny diner mimicked the shape of the cans once used to lubricate machinery, complete with a giant handle and a spout that towered above the building's domed roof.

Its oil can shape may have been unique among restaurants, but this eccentric building does fall squarely within an architectural tradition inspired by Southern California's embrace of the automobile in the 1920s: programmatic or mimetic architecture. Built along major automobile routes, these eye-catching structures attracting passing motorists with their unusual forms. In essence, the buildings acted as their own signage. Some resembled food items (Randy's Donuts), others pieces of clothing (the Brown Derby), and some everyday items like an oil can.

Montebello's Whittier Boulevard was home to several examples of programmatic architecture in the 1920s and '30s, but as the bus-driving historians of Esotouric note, none was as fitting as The Oil Can. The discovery of an underground oil field in 1917 had brought fortune to the town and transformed its once graceful hills ("Montebello" is Italian for "beautiful mountain") into a forest of wooden derricks.

How L.A. Celebrated Sunset Boulevard's Opening in 1904

Motorists celebrate Sunset Boulevard's completion in 1904. Courtesy of the Automobile Club of Southern California Archives.

Sunset may have been its name, but the boulevard's grand opening on May 14, 1904, marked the dawning of a new age in Los Angeles. A parade of a dozen or so automobiles -- accompanied by horse-drawn carriages, tally-hos, and electric rail cars -- puttered over the freshly macadamized roadway that now connected Los Angeles with the then-independent city of Hollywood. Crowds of well-wishers gathered along the route. Buildings displayed patriotic bunting.

The idea of a Sunset Boulevard had been around since 1887. As originally conceived, it would have run west from the Los Angeles city limits to the sea, connecting several of the towns that sprang up during the Southland's great real estate boom of the 1880s. But while some isolated segments were soon built (notably a stretch through the short-lived boomtown of Sunset, possibly the source of the road's name) a crucial link remained missing: the section between downtown Los Angeles and the rapidly growing suburb of Hollywood.

When Anaheim's Flying-Saucer Arena Touched Down Near Disneyland

The Anaheim Convention Center arena in 1973. Courtesy of the Anaheim Public Library's Anaheim History Room.

Had one of Tomorrowland's flying saucers gone missing? When the Anaheim Convention Center's arena opened in the summer of 1967, it looked as if a spacecraft from another world had touched down directly opposite Katella Avenue from Disneyland.

Designed by Los Angeles-based architects Adrian Wilson and Associates, the Space Age arena cut a striking figure. Two 200-ton steel arches held up its concrete shell dome. When viewed from the proper angle, the arches seemed to spell out the letter "A." Inside, project architect Craig Bullock boasted, the circular arrangement of the auditorium around an elliptical floor plan provided more intimate views from the 9,100 olive green, tan, and orange plastic seats.

In its early years, the multipurpose arena hosted circuses, a Richard Nixon political rally, boxing matches, and numerous musical performances. Days after the convention center's formal dedication on July 12, 1967, The Doors played to a capacity crowd under the arena's concrete shell. Months later, the Anaheim Amigos of the newly formed American Basketball Association moved in for their debut season, which turned out to also be their last, as average crowds of 500 forced the team to relocate the next year to Los Angeles.

Was Western Avenue Once L.A.'s Western Boundary?

Western Ave. as a dusty county highway in 1894. Courtesy of the Braun Research Library Collections, Autry National Center: LS.14502.

It seems logical enough -- Western Avenue, as the oft-repeated explanation goes, is so named because it once formed Los Angeles' western boundary. But is there any truth to this just-so story?

Some streets did once mark L.A.'s western city limit. Most notably, West Boulevard's name dates to 1915, when the city's annexation of the Palms district made the street the city's western boundary. And Hoover Street runs along the westernmost limit of L.A.'s original pueblo lands. Until 1892, much of Hoover Street bore a different name: West Boundary Street.

But Western Avenue never did define the city's western boundary, as a brief glance at a map of Los Angeles annexations confirms. On April 1, 1896, the Los Angeles city limit lay a mile and a half to the east. The following day, as Los Angeles absorbed its so-called Western Addition, the city limit jumped far over Western Avenue, landing a half-mile to the west.

Photos: Aliso Street, Before It Became the 101 Freeway

Aliso Street in 1899, looking west toward downtown Los Angeles. Courtesy of the USC Libraries - California Historical Society Collection.

When C. C. Pierce balanced his tripod on the roof of the Maier and Zobelein Brewery on Feb. 22, 1899, and pointed his camera west toward the city of Los Angeles, he never could have envisioned how time would obliterate the scene he was capturing. Perhaps he could accept that steel towers would one day supplant the two hulking structures whose clocktowers then pierced the the city's skyline -- the county courthouse on the left and the high school on the right. But how could this 19th-century photographer ever comprehend the idea of a freeway -- automobiles speeding over concrete at sixty miles per hour -- where Aliso Street, that broad avenue running down the center of the photo, had reigned for so long?

Aliso Street was already an ancient route when Pierce photographed it in 1899. Sergeant Jose Arguello noted its existence on his 1786 diseño of the newly founded pueblo, describing it as the main highway between the pueblo and Mission San Gabriel. In fact, it almost certainly predated both, as the Spanish likely repurposed a well-worn footpath used by the Gabrielino (Tongva) inhabitants of Yang-na. Soon the highway rambled through a matrix of vineyards and by the 1830s it had acquired its name, Aliso Road, in honor of a huge sycamore tree that shaded the wine cellars of Don Jean-Louis Vignes.

The vineyards of Aliso Road might have been the pride of Los Angeles (the city was an early leader in viticulture), but a more shameful episode in the city's history transpired just south of the road. in 1836, the ayuntamiento (town council) forcibly relocated the remaining inhabitants of Yang-na to a parcel near Aliso's intersection with Alameda. Already decimated by disease and decades of missionization, Yangna's population now mingled with Indian laborers from across Southern California in what became known as the "rancheria of poblanos." It survived only ten years. In 1845, responding to complaints that the rancheria's inhabitants had been bathing in the town's zanjas, the ayuntamiento forced the villagers to abandon their thatched huts once again and move across the river to the present-day site of Boyle Heights.

Soon after the American conquest of California, an influx of newcomers transformed the old road into a major business corridor. In 1855, the city rerouted part of the highway to straighten its approach to the river. What had been "a willow-bordered, picturesque little lane...[that] paralleled [Vignes'] grape-arbor as far as the river-bank," in the words of memoirist Harris Newmark, was widened into Aliso Street. The older route survived as Old Aliso Road (later renamed Lyon Street) and veered off at an angle at the Vignes winery.

When East Hollywood's Barnsdall Art Park Was an Olive Orchard

Some of the olive trees of Barnsdall Park, pictured here in 1929, date from 1890, when the site was planted as a commercial olive orchard. Courtesy of the Adelbert Bartlett Papers. Department of Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library, UCLA.

Before the Hollyhock House, there were olive trees -- a veritable army of them, some 1,225, each spaced 20 feet apart, marching up the hillside in an orderly grid formation. Above them rose the unconquered crown of the hill, which stood bald and barren some 89 feet above the flatlands of East Hollywood.

This arboreal phalanx -- in reality, a commercial olive orchard -- was the work of Joseph H. Spires, a Canadian immigrant who arrived in Los Angeles in 1886 and soon became the real estate broker for the Los Angeles Pacific electric railway. Around 1890, Spires bought a 36-acre tract encompassing a round, flattened hillock near the townsite of Prospect Park (today, East Hollywood).

Spires likely wanted the site for its development potential. The hill's summit offered unobstructed, commanding views of the Los Angeles basin, from the eastern Santa Monica Mountains (then still the private reserve of Griffith J. Griffith) to the Pacific shore -- an ideal place for a grand hotel. But such development was still years off. So to ensure a more immediate economic return on the land, Spires planted an orchard on the hill's slopes, leaving only its summit bare and unplanted.

His choice of crop -- olives -- might have been unusual for what was then called the Cahuenga Valley. In nearby Hollywood, scented lemon groves were all the rage. But olive cultivation, if successful, promised three to four times as much revenue -- about $1,000 per acre annually. Spires' olive trees also resonated with growing comparisons between Southern California and the Mediterranean, voiced most famously by Charles Dudley Warner in his 1891 book, "Our Italy."

At the Autry, Looking for the West

William S Hart
| Photo: DJ Waldie

I went the other day to the Autry National Center in Griffith Park with a group of about 18 college students from Japan's southern island of Kyushu. After five weeks of summer study in Long Beach, they went to the Autry to look for the West.

Bob, the docent who led the students, was patient, careful, and thorough. He knew his stuff, although to hear him, the West seemed mostly to be what's in the vitrines and on the walls.

The students from Japan were polite, a bit shy, and perhaps uncertain of their English. They asked very few questions, and so I'm not sure what they found in the galleries of the Autry. I'm not even sure it was the West.