I've been reading William David Estrada's account of the "sacred and contested space" that has often been at the center of this city's story. What is unexpected in his generous and lucid account of the Plaza de los Angeles is persistence . . . persistence of the plaza in both in time and significance . . . that makes the plaza a genuinely durable place (despite our preference for impermanence).The site of the plaza had been chosen by Spanish colonial authorities early in 1781, but their choice only mirrored a Native American town planning tradition, itself already hundreds of years old. The Tongva town of Yang-na was on a low shelf of land not far from the confluence of two streams - the larger flowing year-round and forming, further south and west, a mixed landscape of forest. meadows, and wetland.
The colonists of Los Angeles were led to the same favorable location and laid out their house lots around a U-shaped plaza between what are now the platforms of Union Station and the 101 Freeway (according to researcher John Crandell). The settlers' fields were a little further north.
The unpredictable river flooded the houses around the first plaza, and the settlers rebuilt further west and on higher ground, but still within easy walking distance of their fields. Even greater flooding followed in 1815, shifting the bed of the river west and washing away the foundations of the first plaza church. Relocation of the church to its present site (about a quarter-mile south and east) required that there be a new plaza.
That is the Plaza de los Angeles we have. It's a pivot in time.
The church, 30 or 40 adobe houses, and the rancheria of Yang-na was all there was of Los Angeles until the 1830s, when grants of former mission lands were given to retired soldiers and their outlying adobes first "sprawled" the city. Even by 1860, Los Angeles was hardly more than that and still only provisionally American. The plaza then was two-faced: derided for its filth and proximity to brothels and saloons but also the location of the city's best hotel, the Pico House.
The plaza also was the heart of the city's darkness. In October 1871, the plaza neighborhood was the site of the brutal lynching by a mob of Anglos and Mexicans of at least twenty Chinese residents - the city's first "race riot."
A time-lapse film of the plaza would flicker from dumping ground for dead animals (1860), Victorian-era promenade (1880), free speech corner (1900), annex to skid row (1920), and a "theme park' for Midwest tourists (1930). In each change, something of what Los Angeles is today suddenly comes into focus and then dissolves into something else.
Nearly everything has been erased: the Calle de los Negros, the Sonoratown barrio, the city's first Chinese quarter, and a working-class neighborhood of Mexicans, Molokans, Serbs, Japanese, and Italians. But the fact of the plaza is always there. The church on the west side of Main Street is always there. The people of Los Angeles are always there.
The drawing on this page of the Plaza de los Angeles as it appeared in 1847 is taken from Wikipedia.