A Brief History of the Los Angeles Plaza, the City's Misplaced Heart

Hand-tinted 1869 photograph of the Los Angeles Plaza and Plaza church. Courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library Photograph Collection.

Modern Los Angeles is a city without a center. Nodes of power, prestige, and commerce dot the landscape, even if the skyscrapers of Bunker Hill mischievously invite the viewer to locate the city's center there. In its early years, however, Los Angeles was built around a well-defined center, the Plaza, which remained its political, social, and commercial heart even as it grew from a Spanish colonial outpost into a booming Yankee city.

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The Plaza preceded the city. It was prescribed in detail by the very law that authorized the founding of Los Angeles as Spanish California's second civilian pueblo: Governor Felipe de Neve's Reglamento, written in 1779 and ratified by the Spanish king in 1781. This list of regulations, which represents L.A.'s earliest urban planning document, directed the pueblo's founding colonists to build their houses around a rectangular plaza of 200 by 300 feet, its corners aligned with the cardinal directions of the compass.

Neve's order did not represent an innovation; the concept of a plaza at the center of Spanish colonials settlements dates back to the 1542 Laws of the Indies. Some scholars even suggest that the Spanish inherited the idea from the grand public square in the Aztec capital city of Tenochtitlán. Thus, when los pobladores arrived in the broad river valley just south of the Arroyo Seco's confluence with the Los Angeles River (then known as the Porciuncula) in the summer months of 1781, the plaza they constructed was already a legacy of past imperial dominion.

Reproduction of José Darío Argüello's 1786 plan for the Los Angeles pueblo, translated into English. Argüello's plan was based on Neve's Reglamento. The Plaza and residences appear in the top-left and the agricultural fields in the bottom-right. The two streams running from top to bottom are the zanja, an irrigation ditch, and the river. El Camino real, the road connected the pueblo to the San Gabriel Mission and other Spanish settlements, runs left-to-right between the plaza and the farmland. Courtesy of the California Historical Society Collection, USC Libraries.

1856 map of the plaza and surrounding buildings by surveyor Adolphus F. Waldemar. Courtesy of the Map collection on Los Angeles, California, the United States and the world, Special Collections, UCLA Young Research Library.

Nevertheless, Neve's plaza is not the Plaza that exists today. In the pueblo's infancy, the plaza moved once and, some historians suggest, twice, in response to the raging torrent of the Porciuncula. Before engineers had shackled the river in concrete, the stream's course was uncertain. A major flood in 1815 shifted the river's course from the eastern to the western edge of the valley. (Downstream, the river jumped its banks ten years later and carved a new channel south to San Pedro, leaving behind Ballona Creek as a remnant of its former course.)

With floodwaters lapping at their doorsteps - and at the cornerstone of what would become Iglesia Nuestra Señora Reina de los Angeles - the Angeleños decided to move both the plaza and the church to higher ground. The whitewashed adobe church opened at its present location in 1822. The town then proceeded to create a new Plaza facing the church. That task took years to complete, since houses and other structures stood on or abutted the lot selected for the Plaza. Its principal phase was completed in 1825, but it was not until 1838 that the new Plaza achieved a generally rectangular shape. On its north, south, and east sides adobes belonging to the city's most prominent residents - Pío Pico, Vicente Lugo, José Carrillo - fronted the Plaza. On its west side stood the church and government buildings.

Over the next few decades, the Plaza remained the center of civic life in Los Angeles, even as the flag flying over the town's government house changed from the Spanish imperial banner to the Mexican tricolor and, later, to the Stars and Stripes. In 1835 Mexico promoted the pueblo to a ciudad and designated Los Angeles as the capital of California. In its new role as the public square of a territorial capital, the Plaza hosted two gubernatorial inaugurations: that of Carlos Antonio Carillo in 1837 and of Manuel Micheltorena in 1842.

The Plaza was also an important commercial center in Mexican Los Angeles. Three important roads met at the Plaza: El Camino Real, which linked the Spanish settlements of California; the road to the port of San Pedro; and the trade road to Santa Fe. Merchants often set up shop in the Plaza, laying out handcrafted goods from New Mexico, the United States, and other far-off lands.

Birds-eye view of Los Angeles in 1853. The Plaza is located in the left-center of the drawing, behind the Plaza church. Courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library Photograph Collection.

The Avila Adobe in the late nineteenth century. Courtesy of the Archives & Special Collections, California State University, Dominguez Hills.

In 1847, American troops under the command of Commodore Robert Stockton marched up Calle Principal into the Plaza, their brass band playing "Yankee Doodle." Stockton would make his headquarters in the adobe of Encarnacion Avila, who had fled to the nearby house of friend Jean-Louis Vignes. (The Avila Adobe, which still stands today on Olvera Street, welcomed another intrepid figure from U.S. history in 1826 when fur trapper Jedediah Smith stayed as the guest of Encarnacion Avila and her husband, Francisco.)

In its early years, the Plaza was a dusty open space crossed by wagon ruts, devoid of landscaping. Animals often wandered through the square, and open farmland lay only a stone's throw away. A small brick structure in the center served as L.A.'s first water reservoir. German-Jewish immigrant Harris Newmark, who first saw the Plaza in 1853, described it this way:

"There was no sign of a park; on the contrary, parts of the Plaza itself...were used as a dumping-ground for refuse. From time to time many church and other festivals were held at this square...but before any such affair could take place--requiring the erecting of booths and banks of vegetation in front to the neighboring houses--all rubbish had to be removed, even at the cost of several days' work."

By 1870s, the Plaza and the surrounding area had developed a reputation for vice and violence--at least among the city's Anglo population. The infamous Calle de los Negros--given an unprintable English appellation--was home to several gambling dens and in 1871 was the site the vicious Chinese Massacre, in which a mob of 500 white men murdered 19 Chinese men and boys.

The Plaza in the late 1860s, before the city converted it into a park. Courtesy of the California Historical Society Collection, USC Libraries.

Similar view of the Plaza in the 1870s, after the addition of landscaping and a central fountain. Courtesy of the California Historical Society Collection, USC Libraries.

City leaders were making a concerted effort to revitalize the Plaza, though. Pío Pico opened his upscale hotel, Pico House, on the Plaza's south edge in 1870. The next year, the city removed the brick reservoir, installed a fountain, and built a circular walk in the middle of the Plaza. Four years later, flowers and trees were added, followed soon by the planting of two Moreton Fig trees that still shade the Plaza today.

Despite the new park-like appearance, the Plaza soon ceased to be the center of town for L.A.'s ascendant Anglo population, who established a downtown south and west of the old Plaza. St. Vibiana's Cathedral opened in 1876 at 1st and Main, and most English-speaking members of the Plaza Church congregation migrated there. Adjacent to St. Vibiana's, the Temple Block and Stearns Block developments became the commercial heart of the city. In 1889, City Hall moved to a site at Broadway and 2nd, further alienating the traditional heart of the city from civic life. In the 1890s, the park at 6th street formerly known as the "Lower Plaza," which we know today as Pershing Square, was re-ordained Central Park. By the 1940s the alienation was complete with the construction of the 101 freeway, which - though sunken in its trench - represents a physical and mental barrier between the old Plaza and the modern civic center.

Still, the plaza remained an important cultural center through the years for those left outside the social mainstream. Immigrant neighborhoods like Sonoratown and Chinatown ringed the old Plaza, while socialists staged rallies inside the old Spanish heart of Los Angeles.

Open-air market on the Plaza, circa 1880s. Courtesy of the California Historical Society Collection, USC Libraries.

Los Angeles' Spanish-speaking Catholic population continued to observe Corpus Christi on the Plaza even after many Anglos had abandoned the area. 1927 photograph courtesy of the California Historical Society Collection, USC Libraries.

The Plaza hosted what the Los Angeles Examiner described as a Communist rally on May Day 1934. Courtesy of the Los Angeles Examiner Collection, USC Libraries.

In the 1920s, the Plaza was in jeopardy. Historic adobes were being lost to neglect. At least one early plan for Union Station located the rail passenger terminal on the site of the Plaza. But the plaza was at once saved and transformed in 1930, when Christine Sterling, aided by Los Angeles Times publisher Harry Chandler and other civic boosters, converted a back-alley adjacent to the Plaza into a tourist marketplace. Her creation, Olvera Street, has since drawn millions of tourists to the historic area. Although Sterling's vision was distorted by a romantic notion of L.A.'s Spanish past, her efforts secured the future of the Plaza. Today, the Plaza still functions as an important multi-cultural space, crowded year-round with public events and festivals.

As California historian Kevin Starr wrote, "Olvera Street might not be authentic Old California or even authentic Mexico, but it was better than the bulldozer."

Postcard of the Plaza. Courtesy of the Werner Von Boltenstern Postcard Collection, Department of Archives and Special Collections, Loyola Marymount University Library.

Many of the archives who contributed the above images are members of L.A. as Subject, an association of more than 230 libraries, museums, official archives, personal collections, and other institutions. Hosted by the USC Libraries, L.A. as Subject is dedicated to preserving and telling the sometimes-hidden stories and histories of the Los Angeles region. Our posts here provide a view into the archives of individuals and cultural institutions whose collections inform the great narrative—in all its complex facets—of Southern California.

About the Author

A writer specializing in Los Angeles history, Nathan Masters serves as manager of academic events and programming communications for the USC Libraries, the host institution for L.A. as Subject.
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We appreciate what is included in this short history of the Plaza -- but it is too short and leaves out significant parts of the forgotten history of people of color in Los Angeles.

*Native Americans.* The Plaza and El Pueblo were built on the site of the Native American Tongva Gabrieleño village of Yaangna. The Native Americans were for the most part exterminated by succeeding onslaughts of Spaniards, Catholic missionaries, Mexicans, and Yankees. About 200 Tongvas lived in Yaangna, the largest of some 100 villages that were home to about 5,000 Native Americans in the Los Angeles region, when the Spaniards arrived in 1769. Eventually, the Tongvas were relocated to the east side of the River. In the mid-1800s, Yaangna was destroyed.

Today Yaangna is commemorated only by a small plaque at Union Station.

*Pobladores.* Los Pobladores who settled the original Pueblo and built the Plaza included 44 Spanish, Native American, Black, mestizo and mulatto settlers, and four Spanish soldiers.

*Desecration of Native Americans and Pobladores.* In 2010, during the construction of County Supervisor Gloria Molina’s pet museum project, the county illegally and secretly excavated 103 ancestors buried at the Campo Santo across the street from the Plaza, including Native Americans and Pobladores. The federal government has withheld federal funding for the project and is continuing its investigation. Molina has admitted “There’s probably gonna be plenty of blame to go around on all of it. For us, we probably didn’t have as thorough an EIR as we probably should have had.” “Had [the county’s contractor] done better work, we wouldn’t be in this situation.”

*Black L.A.* A Black man, Francisco Reyes, served as alcalde (mayor) of El Pueblo in 1793, almost two hundred years before Tom Bradley, the first Black man elected mayor under statehood. The last Mexican governor of California before statehood, Pío Pico, was born of African, Native American, and European ancestry under a Spanish flag. Biddy Mason, one of the most prominent citizens of early Los Angeles, was born a slave in Mississippi. She walked behind her owner’s wagon first to Utah and then to Los Angeles. She gained her freedom in Los Angeles through a federal court order in 1856, just before the United States Supreme Court held in the Dred Scott case that slaves were chattel entitled to no constitutional protections because Blacks had “no rights which the white man was bound to respect.” With savings earned as a midwife, Biddy Mason bought a homestead a few blocks south of the Plaza on Spring Street between Third and Fourth. She helped found the First African Methodist Episcopal Church, one of the most influential and affluent African American churches in the City today. The Biddy Mason wall and pocket park in the heart of downtown Los Angeles commemorate her contributions to the City.

Despite the prominent role of Blacks in early Los Angeles, Black residential and business patterns began to change in response to discriminatory housing and land use patterns in the twentieth century. Los Angeles pioneered the use of racially restrictive housing covenants. The California Supreme Court sanctioned restrictive covenants in 1919 and California courts continued to reaffirm them as late as 1947. The Federal Housing Authority not only sanctioned restrictions, but developed a recommended formula for their inclusion in subdivision contracts. Blacks increasingly were pushed out of the Plaza area and became concentrated a few miles away in South Central Los Angeles. 95% of the city’s housing stock was off limits to Blacks and Asians in the 1920s.

*Chinatown.* The article states “The infamous Calle de los Negros--given an unprintable English appellation--was home to several gambling dens and in 1871 was the site the vicious Chinese Massacre, in which a mob of 500 white men murdered 19 Chinese men and boys.” It is inappropriate to coyly white wash, literally, the history of discrimination at the site. Nigger Alley was the line that defined “the other side of the tracks” on the east side of El Pueblo. Old Chinatown was there, not just gambling dens. Old Chinatown was razed to build Union Station in the 1930s. Chinese who were forcibly evicted built the present New Chinatown.

*Japanese.* The first Japanese emigrant party to the mainland United States reached California in 1869. Japanese migration increased significantly in the 1880s, in part because of the demand for labor caused by the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. Since the 1910s, Los Angeles has been the home of more Japanese Americans than any other city in the United States. Little Tokyo, located just south of Old Chinatown, became the residential, business, and cultural center of the Japanese American community in Southern California. The Japanese were moved to concentration camps during WW II. Black folks from the south looking for defense jobs moved in and the area became known as Bronzeville.

*Culture and history.* David Alfaro Siqueiros, the great Mexican muralist, painted "America Tropical" depicting an indigenous person double crossed with the American Eagle hanging over his head in the 1930s on Italian Hall. The city whitewashed the mural immediately, ironically thereby preserving it for future generations.

The standard history of the Plaza is written by William Estrada, a Latino man.

Robert Garcia, Founding Director and Counsel, The City Project, and a contributor to KCET's Departures.


For more detailed information about what is a probable location of the prior Los Angeles Plaza - http://www.lanopalera.net/LAHistory/LASite.html and map - http://www.lanopalera.net/LAHistory/OldPueblo.gif . The street layout northeast of today's plaza serves as a clue.