If they look closely enough, visitors to the Los Angeles Public Library's new maps exhibit may notice a geographic incongruity. On older maps of the city, the neighborhood northeast of downtown and across the river from the Elysian Hills bears the name "East Los Angeles." That area--today known as Lincoln Heights--is usually considered part of L.A.'s Eastside, but "East Los Angeles" proper typically refers to the unincorporated community east of Boyle Heights, several miles away from Lincoln Heights. What happened--who moved East L.A.?
As the perennial debate over the location of L.A.'s Westside and Eastside continues, the migration of "East Los Angeles" may remind us that, far from corresponding neatly to cartographers' designs, names for neighborhoods are often determined by a nexus of topographical features, community aspirations, cultural considerations, and political decisions.
As the early maps attest, Lincoln Heights was the original East Los Angeles. One of L.A.'s first suburbs, the community's growth took off after 1889, when the Los Angeles Cable Railroad opened a viaduct that soared over the Los Angeles River and the tracks of the Southern Pacific to connect the riverside neighborhood with central Los Angeles. By the start of the twentieth century, many Italian Americans had made East Los Angeles their home.
Only a short railcar ride away, the unique attractions in East Los Angeles also drew many day-trippers. At Eastlake Park (since renamed Lincoln Park), visitors could rent a boat and row it across a tranquil pond. Across the street, captive animals were on display at the Luna Park Zoo and the California Alligator Farm. For a fee, visitors could even ride Billy the Alligator, whose toothy jaws appeared in dozens of Hollywood films.
In 1913, Abraham Lincoln High School opened in East Los Angeles. Built on a hill, the imposing three-story building overlooked much of the community. Soon, so-called neighborhood improvement groups eager to cultivate the community's image took up the name of the martyred president. Their proposal: rename the neighborhood "Lincoln Heights."
On March 26, 1917, they took the issue to a vote. The Los Angeles Times reported the result:
By the unanimous vote of 1000 of its residents Monday night the name of that section of the city hitherto known as East Los Angeles was changed to Lincoln Heights. The meeting was the fortnightly "Community Night" of the neighborhood and was held at Lincoln High School. Joseph Mesmer made the motion to change the name. There was the usual musical and literary programme.
The vote may not have carried the force of law, but city officials promptly implemented the community's expressed preference by renaming nearby civic installations. In May 1917 Eastlake Park was rechristened Lincoln Park. (Its counterpart on the opposite side of downtown, Westlake Park, would be renamed MacArthur Park in 1942.) Two years later, in September 1919, the East Side Police Station became Lincoln Heights Police Station.
Not everyone adopted the change, but with East Los Angeles officially stricken from the map, the name eventually lost currency among most neighborhood residents.
The New East L.A.
Two decades later, it was resurrected to refer to the new residential subdivisions, home to a thriving Mexican-American community, just east of the Los Angeles city limits.
Although the city of Los Angeles grew right up to the eastern boundary of the pueblo's original land grant (a line now delineated by Indiana Avenue), the land on the other side remained undeveloped for years, preserved for agriculture and oil extraction. But by the early 1920s, workers in the growing industrial district to the south were clamoring for nearby housing. Land developers responded.
In 1921, Belvedere Gardens was born when the Janss Investment Company purchased 154 acres adjacent to Whittier Boulevard and divided the empty land into housing lots. Located at the end of a streetcar line, Belvedere Gardens was soon joined by other housing subdivisions. By the 1930s, most maps labeled the area East Los Angeles or East L.A., names which continue to identify the community today.
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 will provide a view into the archives of individuals and cultural institutions whose collections inform the great narrativein all its complex facetsof Southern California.
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