Urban Sustainability, Circa 1933

Urban Farming in 1936
| Photo courtesy of Los Angeles Public Library

It took some effort to get Lakewood off the ground at the start of the 1930s. Hardly any of the lots in a leisure-oriented subdivision around a new golf course were sold. The Great Depression was sinking into its worst year when the Montana Land Company abruptly switched from estate homes to home farms.

Now you could buy a "semi-sustaining" house lot that was 120 wide and 140 feet deep, big enough for a substantial garden and fruit trees, with space to spare for rabbit hutches and chicken coops, maybe even a goat.

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Lakewood Village Sales Brochure, 1934
| Photo courtesy of the City of Lakewood Historical Archive

The sales pitch was pure L.A. ... with a Rooseveltian twist: Build a city home on a country lane that was hardly a block from the new Long Beach Junior Collage and across the street from a championship golf course.

"Under this new deal in city development, it would be possible for a Lakewood Village resident...to produce on his land enough fruits, vegetables, poultry and rabbits to care for his family almost exclusively on a year-round basis," the sales brochure enthused. "With the city convenience of Long Beach just a few minutes away and industrial centers in close range, a family man can work part-time for cash income and devote part-time to food cultivation."

Suburban farming had an obvious appeal in early 20th century Los Angeles. Almost anything would grow here, and it was nearly a sin for a transplanted Midwesterner to let all that sunshine go to waste. The region's dispersed development put jobs near trolley lines and highways, making it possible for a man to work in the city and farm in the evening and on weekends.

Good transportation also meant suburban farmers, if they wished to make some extra money, could get their produce to local markets easily.

In helpful, boosterish publications like "What the newcomer should know about the small farm home in Los Angeles County," the Chamber of Commerce emphasized the possibilities for an income producing farm on as little as two acres. The Los Angeles Times offered annual prizes to home farmers and boosted small farms in their news pages, too, not incidentally profiting the business cabal (headed by the owners of the Times) that had bought cheap San Fernando Valley land just before the Owens Valley aqueduct reached what is now Canoga Park.

The success of the campaign can be measured in Census results. The number of farms of less than three acres in the county boomed from 1,334 in 1920 to more than 5,000 by 1930.

The New Deal of the 1930s put the federal government in the business of promoting suburban farming. "Subsistence homestead" projects, funded by the Federal Resettlement Administration, spread over the region's semi-rural fringe. In El Monte, 100 families were helped in building simple frame houses and laying out gardens, orchards, hen houses, and rabbit hutches. The war years that followed helped, and many thousands of "Victory Gardens" bloomed.

By the end of the 1940s, at least 10,000 families lived on a small farm of one acre or less in Los Angeles County.

Not many of those small farms remain, but today's suburban farmers who are focused on sustainability can see themselves as the latest cultivators of a long L.A. tradition ... although keeping goats in your backyard probably won't earn you any prizes from the Los Angeles Times.

Urban Farm, El Monte
| Photo courtesy of the UCLA Library Archive

About the Author

D. J. Waldie is the author of "Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir" and "Where We Are Now: Notes from Los Angeles." He is a contributing editor for the Los Angeles Times.
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