How We Got This Way (Los Angeles has Always Been Suburban)

Suburbanization of Space

When the city's first immigrants from Mexico finished their walk west from Mission San Gabriel in 1781 and climbed up from the bank of the little river that gave Los Angeles its name, they saw smoke rising from the cooking fires of the Tongva village of Yang-na in the folds of the hillocks around them.

The colonial town the new arrivals founded would remain dependant on the Native American village for labor for the next 75 years, but the new town was distinct from the village in every way possible. The Pueblo de Nuestra Señora de los Angeles was a creation of 18th century rationalism, most of all in its abstract grid of streets drawn on sheet of notepaper by Governor de Neve before the first house was built.

While it reamined, the Native American village remained stubbornly a separate center of life.

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The Franciscan friars at the San Gabriel mission were skeptical of the secular and Enlightenment values the pueblo would plant among these native "gentiles" (as the priests called them). The Franciscans viewed the lax morals and mixed ethnicities of the pueblo's founders with such suspicion that they would supply their religious needs only intermittently for the next 40 years.

Not until the 1820s did Los Angeles have its own parish church and permanently resident priest.

From its beginning, then, Los Angeles has been a place of multiple centers: religious and secular, indigenous and colonial, European and mestizo, and familiar and alien. This is the first cause of the unease some Angeleños (and many critics) feel about this city - that in centerless L.A., they don't know where they stand.

When American troops under Commodore Robert Stockton took the city from Mexico in January 1847, decades of colonial administration had further fractured the Los Angeles basin among more than 50 ranchos (whose property lines snake across maps of L.A. still). Few of these land grants were smaller than 2,000 acres, and some were more than 100,000. Each rancho was a nearly self-sufficient economy, trading cattle hides and tallow for luxury goods and manufactured items but growing or crafting everything else.

Speed and seduction
L.A.'s pastoral moment ended abruptly in the mid-1860s with a killing drought and the collapse of the Gold Rush boom, ruining the Southern Californian economy. Population leaked out of the region, further depressing land values, and San Francisco bankers foreclosed on the extortionate loans they had made to the heedless rancheros when beef was the gold of the south.

In a region only lightly tethered to its urban core - the city of Los Angeles grew to only 5,728 residents in the twenty years between 1850 and 1870 - the pressing problem for L.A.'s American ascendancy was too much empty space. There was almost nothing here, except air, sun, earth, and water (if you could find it and hold on to it).

But from these simple elements, a marketing scheme of power and seduction would be woven around the themes of health and happiness in the sunshine. All that was missing was speed.

In 1876, the Southern Pacific Railroad finally linked Los Angeles to the national rail network. In 1886, the Santa Fe Railroad broke the SP's monopoly with a new transcontinental route. In the magical year of 1887, the steam-driven speed of the rival railroads boomed Southern California. One-way fares from the Midwest dropped below $5.00 . . . 25 new towns were platted by "improvement" companies . . . and well over $100,000,000 in subdivided land changed hands. The real estate market had spun into speculative frenzy. It collapsed with the suddenness of a train wreck.

The many stillborn suburbs of L.A.'s first real estate boom had an afterlife, however. They accelerated the dispersal of the region's population along the mainline tracks from the East. The phantom cities of 1888 also established a grid of agricultural irrigation systems that became suburban water companies over the next thirty years, providing the essential ingredient to turn so much empty space into small farms and house lots. The boom also increased the region's permanent population by luring thousands of Eastern visitors to Los Angeles, many of whom stayed.

They found a region in which several cities were already flourishing as semi-rural enclaves for like-minded prohibitionists and church goers. The residents of Pasadena (incorporated in 1875), Monrovia (1875), Long Beach (1880), Whittier (1887), and Claremont (1887) shared a peculiarly American sensibility of moral uplift, fear of ethnic contagion, and entrepreneurial ambition that made Los Angeles an early and successful "lifestyle product."

As one booster pitched it, Claremont was "the mountain home, the place of rest, the sanitarium," and in his haste to sell another lot to an enchanted immigrant, he elided metaphors of a tamed wilderness, redemptive leisure, and flight from urban disorder that pervaded the new century's gospel of improved social hygiene through suburbanization.

In effect. you came to Claremont or Redlands or Riverside specifically to live among white, middle-class property owners who might also be "lungers" (hoping for a cure from tuberculosis) and part-time real estate speculators. You arrived hoping to acquire for yourself a utopian amalgam of domesticity, modernity, and individual freedom, just as the sales pitch promised.

If you could, you purchased this dream whole in the form of an orange grove whose ordered, golden acres defined for the rest of America the image of Los Angeles as a house set apart in its garden. If you couldn't afford an orange grove, you could buy a building lot with a single orange tree on a street of identical lots. The sale in either case required a pitch implying that, in acquiring any piece of Southern California, you also acquired the values and virtues of the entire landscape - all of nature and all of modern civilization.

A home for all
The locomotive dispersed the small towns of L.A. into a networked of communities by the 1890s, all of them suspicious of each other's metropolitan aspirations. The next century quickened the pace of growth and competition to the speed of electricity.

Already by 1898, the city of Los Angeles had a rudimentary rail system that included cable cars and an electric interurban line between downtown and Pasadena. A group of shrewd investors - including Collis Huntington, president of the Southern Pacific Railroad, and his nephew Henry Huntington - saw the possibilities in electrified transit to transform farm and ranch land into more suburbs, just as the steam railways in the preceding decade had turned the valleys and foothills around Los Angeles into orange groves.

Henry Huntington began buying cheap land at the margin of LA. and, in 1901, established the Pacific Electric Railway to tie his several scattered subdivisions together.

The "Old Mission Route" went to the San Gabriel Mission and Pasadena before returning to L.A. The "Balloon Route" ran west from downtown through Hollywood, Santa Monica, and Venice and returned through Culver City. The "Triangle Trolley" went to San Pedro, Long Beach, south to Balboa, east to Santa Ana, and back to L.A. By 1914, Huntington's electric cars took potential homebuyers to picturesque destinations as distant from downtown as San Bernardino, Redlands, Santa Ana, Yorba Linda, and San Fernando.

Huntington later gave up subdividing for art, but he was closely followed by dozens of other developers who filled the empty acres between existing cities and nascent suburbs with a uniform grid of highways and residential streets. Between 1900 and 1920, 22 new cities incorporated in Los Angeles County, and the county's overall population grew from 102,479 to 576,673. By 1930, it had more than doubled again, to 1,238,000. (It was 3,781,000 in 2010.)

L.A.'s dispersal, propelled by expansion of the Pacific Electric interurban system and made permanent by the automobile, encouraged the development of a range of suburbs that further fragmented the region by income and class.

The quietly rich could buy an acre or two near Henry Huntington's estate in San Marino, a city so sedate that it restricted hospitals and mortuaries from its business district. (The Bel-Air development was so exclusive that it eliminated businesses entirely, except for the Bel Air Hotel.)

The merely rich might choose to live in Beverly Hills, with the added advantage that motion picture money was welcome there. The well-to-do and progressive could choose to live in Palos Verdes, a "garden suburb" designed by the celebrated Olmsted brothers in which half the developed area was set aside as park-like open space.

Subdividers of middle-class suburbs - Santa Monica, Glendale, Arcadia, Monrovia, and the Liemert Park district of Los Angeles, among others - associated themselves with the aesthetics of planned communities "back East" while emphasizing rail and highway access to jobs and the region's public attractions: the beach, the mountains, and the theaters and department stores of downtown Los Angeles.

Working-class suburbs promised access to jobs and amenities, but their residents were prepared to accept industrial noise and pollution within their grid of streets. Vernon, Bell Gardens, El Segundo, Hawthorn, Redondo Beach, and other blue-collar communities clustered small houses on small lots around the factories of L.A.'s expanding manufacturing base.

Some of the segregation that separated these denser, working-class suburbs from upper- and middle-class communities resulted from pioneering zoning laws adopted by the city of Los Angeles, which created industrial zones in the southern and eastern suburbs of the city. But the contingencies of oil discovery, the placement of power plants and sewage treatment facilities, and the likelihood of seasonal flooding also determined where the modest homes of workers would be built in the form of an industrial suburb.

By 1930, subdividing working-class dreams in L.A. had been reduced to a formula - a 1,000-square-foot house on a 50-by-100-foot lot on a street of small houses in a neighborhood of identical streets collected into something like a typical small town, although this suburb might be lumped with many others in a much larger city that had, like Los Angeles, some urban character at its core.

The sameness of this formula infuriated contemporary critics, who (like many today) failed to register the fine-grained detail in these neighborhoods or measure just how adequate they were.

Angeleños wanted houses that facilitated their new relationship with the out-of-doors, rescripted as a place of personal renewal in the favorable climate. The typical L.A. house seemed comically flimsy - a single story, constructed entirely of wood, and without even a fireplace - but its sketchiness also brought the outside indoors. The house was assembled by carpenters, not craftsmen, from mass produced millwork, standardized lumber, and national-brand fixtures. These houses were arrayed in orderly neighborhoods that required an automobile for most daily activities because public transit hardly accommodated the scattered destinations that daily life in L.A. required - downtown for work, across town for the beach, at the edge of the subdivision for the movies or groceries, and out to more distant suburbs with their lure of new possibilities.

The fifteen years of depression and war from 1930 through 1945 did not change the process of suburbanizing L.A. Some of this new development even blended the suburb and the farm. In the San Fernando Valley, owning a small house, running an orchard, keeping a kitchen garden, and tending chickens for market was common from 1930 to 1955. Bellflower was on PE line from Orange County to downtown making it possible to be an office worker by day and a "home farmer" on weekends.

Other cities in the region - such as Long Beach, Pasadena, and Santa Monica - reflected miniature versions of this patchwork urbanity. Suburbs in west L.A., particularly those associated with the movie industry, continued to display the lush landscaping, swimming pools, and tennis courts that the rest of America understood to be the real Los Angeles. In working-class L.A., casual construction standards, few public services, close proximity to industry, and lower barriers for minority groups made homeownership possible

However inadequate these uniform subdivisions might have seemed, their pattern had evolved from a broad, national debate about middle- and working-class housing. Throughout the first half of the 20th century, the federal government, the new profession of urban planning, eager realtors, the construction industry, writers for popular magazines, and ordinary Californians were imagining mid-century Los Angeles into existence, making L.A., for better or worse, among the most planned of American places.

None of these subdivisions of the L.A. dream - urban core, garden suburb, industrial housing tract, or suburban farm - was capable of putting up neighborhoods fast enough to satisfy the waves of new immigrants who came to L.A. during the Second World War and who continued to come with the build-up of defense industries at the start of the Cold War.

The urgent desires of L.A.'s newest residents required instant suburbs, built on an enormous scale, for blue- and white-collar workers whose aspirations included a modest home and a pleasant neighborhood.

At the edges of L.A. - in the San Fernando Valley, on the former swampland between the harbor and Santa Monica, and along the border of Los Angeles and Orange counties - a new kind of builder engineered the mass-produced suburb that would serve for the next fifty years to satisfy some of these longings. Beginning in 1946, these builders used an assembly-line model derived from wartime ship and aircraft construction to put up and sell thousands of new housing units a week.

The best known of these builders were Fritz Burns and Henry Kaiser, whose Kaiser Community Homes developed Westchester near the Los Angeles airport and Panorama City in the San Fernando Valley.

Panorama City's sales pitch described the development as "22 miles of homes" and emphasized the "planned community" aspects of its curved street grid that integrated schools, playgrounds, shopping centers, and highway access to nearby aerospace employment. The houses - priced at $9,150 to $10,500 - shared a common interior layout relieved by the application of a few simple design elements to produce 70 exterior elevations. The New Englander had columns in front. The Panorama model included a picture window. The Catalina design put the garage at the end of a slightly longer driveway.

The vast majority of the Panorama City houses were bought with loans guaranteed by the Federal Housing Authority or through the Servicemen's Readjustment Act of 1944 (better known as the GI Bill). Many of these houses were bought with a $500 down payment; Despite the easy terms, these houses weren't for everyone.

Among the "Conditions, Covenants, Restrictions" in the property deeds in Panorama City was a declaration that no lot could be "used or occupied by any person whose blood is not entirely that of the white or Caucasian race." Racial restrictions were almost universal in the post-war, mass produced suburbs, including specific restrictions on the purchase of homes by Mexican-Americans. These restrictions were based on "redlining" requirements laid out in the 1939 Underwriting Manual issued by the Federal Housing Administration: "If a neighborhood is to retain stability, it is necessary that properties shall continue to be occupied by the same social and racial classes."

A landmark 1948 Supreme Court case began the process of outlawing racial restrictions, but nearly all L.A. builders continued to write deeds that included them through the early 1950s. Combined with the practice of "steering," salesmen made sure that non-white buyers found housing only in the "right," racially defined neighborhoods. For white, not-quite-middle-class aspirants, however, the two-or- three-bedroom, one-bath, "minimum house" (standardized from federal housing regulations going back to the 1930s) provided an affordable simulation of L.A.'s suburban dream.

Being modern
"Visit this dramatic new city being built," said one Panorama City advertisement. "See how well Kaiser engineers and architects have interpreted the desires of 'Mr. and Mrs. Modern'." Being modern in Lakewood meant garbage disposal units in every sink, making Lakewood "America's first garbage-free city." New construction equipment, like the pneumatic hammer, and new production methods, like radio communications between supervisors and construction crews, speeded up the pace of construction so much that work might begin on as may as 50 new homes a day. 17,500 Lakewood houses were built and sold within 33 months, beginning in 1950.

There were alternatives, however. Innovative forms of public housing in Los Angeles had been built during the war years, including Richard Neutra's Channel Heights development and the 2,000-unit Banning Homes in L.A.'s harbor district. The Park La Brea development on Wilshire Boulevard showed how low- and mid-rise apartment blocks might be integrated into an existing quasi-suburban grid.

Nearly all the remaining blank spaces on the periphery of Los Angeles filled between after 1960 with subdivisions of single-family, detached houses, served by a regional shopping mall. The grid of suburban streets, which had formerly opened outward to symbolize the connection of each house lot to nature, closed into confusing loops and cul-de-sacs.

The suburbs of the 1980s and 1990s acquired an entrance gate with a guard. Inside the encircling walls, variations on L.A.'s typical wood frame and stucco house strived for an unearned nostalgia. Mediterranean tile roofs, Mexican paver tiles, and some sketchy ornamentation from the tropics struggled to sustain the exoticism that had first sold the empty square miles of L.A. in the 1880s.

Outside the gated and guarded walls, the aging, mid-20th century suburbs of the San Fernando Valley, the San Gabriel Valley, and the Los Angeles plain evolved into an ethnically diverse and complex metropolis in which no single economic or cultural center dominates a region that is neither conventionally suburban in character nor fully urban.

D. J. Waldie, author, historian, and as the New York Times said in 2007, "a gorgeous distiller of architectural and social history," writes about Los Angeles on KCET's SoCal Focus blog.

The image on this page is from the author's collection.

About the Author

D. J. Waldie is the author of "Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir" and "Where We Are Now: Notes from Los Angeles," among other books about the social history of Southern California. He is a contributing editor for the Los Angeles Times ...
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The whole history of L.A. in one post!