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Searching for Bonnie Brae

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What's in a Street Name is a series that explores the origins and stories of Los Angeles streets.

Driving around Echo Park or cutting across the hills west of downtown, you might find yourself wondering about a mysterious character named Bonnie Brae. Who exactly was Bonnie? A silent film actress perhaps? The daughter of a city founder?

None of the above. In fact, Bonnie Brae means "pleasant hill" in Gaelic, a language still spoken in Scotland and Ireland. Whether a group of influential Scots christened the street, which runs north to south from Echo Park to Pico-Union, is still unknown. The Gaelic phrase is used throughout the United States -- both Denver and Kansas City boast Bonnie Brae neighborhoods.

Several Los Angeles Times articles from the 1880s mention the street, indicating it was created before the turn of the 20th century. According to a Times "City Brief" from 1889, a local baseball squad called The Young Bonnie Braes defeated the Young Chicagos 9 to 0 on October 6. The following week the Bonnie Braes were walloped by the Young Morris Vineyards 25 to 13, leading to the conclusion that baseball was more exciting to watch in the 1880s. The "Young" moniker was literal -- the Bonnie Braes belonged to an amateur youth league with an age cap of 13.

An unidentified Los Angeles baseballl player ca. 1900
An unidentified Los Angeles baseballl player ca. 1900

The Birth of the Pentecostal Church

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In February of 1906, 34 year old Texan William J. Seymour, the son of slaves, was invited by a local church to preach in Los Angeles. Seymour was passionate about spreading the word of a new blessing: speaking in tongues. After his first sermon he was barred from returning to the church that was hosting him -- it seemed the church elders had rejected his message, since Seymour had not yet experienced the blessing himself.

Nevertheless, not all of the parishioners were skeptical of Seymour's teachings. He was invited to continue preaching at the house of Richard and Ruth Asberry, on 214 North Bonnie Brae Street. On April 12, 1906, after a marathon prayer session, William J. Seymour was blessed by the Holy Spirit and began speaking in tongues before his followers. News of the divine intervention spread, and soon people from many backgrounds were flocking to the little house on Bonnie Brae, bearing witness to the indecipherable manifestations pouring from the mouths of believers. One witness remarked:

The crowds grew too large for the little house on Bonnie Brae, eventually collapsing the front porch. Soon after, with the help of his followers, Seymour relocated his teachings to an empty building on Azusa Street in Little Tokyo, and the Pentecostal Movement began to flourish.

Around this time sections of Bonnie Brae near Miramar Street were dotted by oil rigs. Further down the street, a majestic collection of Victorian homes would later become the South Bonnie Brae Tract.

More recently, the street has been mentioned by two of L.A.'s most beloved songwriters. On "Let's Turn The Record Over," Elliott Smith penned:

Anthony Keidis of Red Hot Chili Peppers also referred to the street in the song "Slow Cheetah":

A quick search on fan forums reveals that the the singers are alluding to the streets reputation as a place to acquire contraband.

From Gaelic phrase to the birth of Pentecostalism, Bonnie Brae Street is proof that some times a street name is only but an entryway into deeper chapters of history.

Oil Fields at Miramar and Bonnie Brae ca. 1900. Courtesy of Los Angeles Public Library
Oil Fields at Miramar and Bonnie Brae ca. 1900. Courtesy of Los Angeles Public Library
Victorian Homes on South Bonnie Brae ca. 1910. Courtesy of Los Angeles Public Library
Victorian Homes on South Bonnie Brae ca. 1910. Courtesy of Los Angeles Public Library
Hawaiian Girl playing with dolls on Bonnie Brae. Courtesy of Los Angeles Public Library
Hawaiian Girl playing with dolls on Bonnie Brae. Courtesy of Los Angeles Public Library