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Calle de los Negros: L.A.'s "Forgotten" Street

Calle de los Negros, circa 1886 (cropped)
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The earliest streets in Los Angeles reflect the rich history and diverse cultural heritage of the city. Some convey the cultural and political change from a Spanish-speaking to an English-speaking city. Calle Principal became Main Street; Calle Loma became Hill Street, and Calle Primavera became Spring Street. Other streets with names like Pico, Temple, Ord, Vignes, Lankershim, Griffin, Coronel, Moore, Sepulveda, and Beaudry memorialize the streams of 19th-century Mexican, American and European settlers, as well as soldiers who either fought against or were part of the eventual U.S. invasion and occupation of Los Angeles. But of all of the city streets whose primary purpose beyond geographic reference is remembrance, the one street which bears the name of the city, Los Angeles Street, was named for the deliberate purpose of forgetting the past. How today’s Los Angeles Street got its name is most timely and, certainly, worth remembering.

Calle de los Negros, Los Angeles, 1871
Calle de los Negros, Los Angeles, 1871. Photo courtesy of the California Historical Society Collection, USC Libraries.

During the California Gold Rush, Los Angeles saw an influx of people who would dramatically and negatively alter the social atmosphere of the city that was centered around the old Plaza. This began in late 1848 when the regiment of New York volunteers under Col. Jonathan D. Stevenson was disbanded following the end of the war between the U.S. and Mexico. Charged with maintaining order in the city, many of these disbanded soldiers arrived with racial attitudes intolerant to anyone non-white. They were hardened thugs and brawlers from the rough Five Points and Bowery districts of New York who soon began roaming the streets of Los Angeles. Adding to this scene were northern gamblers, failed gold miners, outlaws, and prostitutes who followed the money south or were simply driven out of San Francisco by the local vigilante committees.

Most men walked the streets armed with pistols and knives, and it was said that a murder occurred every day in the city, most of which were on or around Calle de los Negros.

Consequently, much of the city's growing vice and violence during the 1850s and into the 1860s were centered on a block-long row of adobes housing several businesses, among them saloons and prostitutes’ cribs. This block on the Plaza’s eastern edge was called Calle de los Negros among Spanish speakers, or Negro or “Nigger Ally” among English speakers, as it graphically appeared on official city maps in the early American era. The Spanish use of the term negro was a neutral term referring to people of dark or black skin that was part of the complex Spanish-colonial casta system of racial classification in New Spain. The term does not directly translate into its English name for the street in the American era (the “N word”), which became unambiguously a pejorative, racist insult that always carried with it the potential for violence against African Americans. Indeed, Los Angeles during the early 1850s, with a population of nearly 4,000, was considered the toughest and most violent and lawless city west of Santa Fe. Most men walked the streets armed with pistols and knives, and it was said that a murder occurred every day in the city, most of which were on or around Calle de los Negros.

Painting of Old Chinatown, Los Angeles, 1886
Painting of Old Chinatown, Los Angeles, 1886, by F. Schafer, courtesy of the Seaver Center for Western History Research, Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History.
Calle de los Negros, circa 1886
Calle de los Negros, circa 1886. Photo courtesy of the California Historical Society Collection, USC Libraries.

The origin of this street name associated with so much vice and violence has been a subject of discussion among Los Angeles scholars and historians for some time. Some incorrectly theorized that an early colony of black pioneers lived on the street, hence the name. The best explanation for the street name can be found in a letter to the editor in the March 24, 1877 edition of the Los Angeles Express concerning the City Council's passage of a resolution changing the name “Nigger Alley” to Los Angeles Street. The letter stated that in the early 1840s, the property on the unnamed street was "owned by some of the most substantial citizens of Los Angeles" who were "men of very dark complexion." The letter went on to explain that one morning, "when the people arose, they found a placard put up at each end of the alley bearing the words Calle de los Negros," which they interpreted as a sign of reproach. The letter concluded by explaining that the residents of the street traced the authorship of the insulting placards to prominent ranchero, soldier and politician José Antonio Carrillo (1802-1862), who apparently had an ongoing feud with residents on the unnamed street. The aggrieved parties filed a complaint with the alcalde, a close friend of Carrillo. After the unabashed Carrillo admitted his role in the incident, the charges were dismissed, but the new street name remained. So as the daily violence continued throughout the city, local citizens were forced to take action.

To stem the tide of violence, the Los Angeles Rangers were formed in 1853 as a volunteer militia/semi-vigilante group with only a few paid full-time lawmen. Their membership roster, with names like Andrés Pico, Phineas Banning, Agustín Olvera, John Downey, and José Sepúlveda, reads like a who's who of the city's power elite. Wealthy Anglos and Mexicans found common class interests through the Rangers. Among the general population, however, tension and misunderstanding among Anglos and Mexicans persisted. Mob lynching of Mexicans colored civic action and reaction in the early 1850s. Rumors circulated surrounding the violent exploits of real and imagined Mexican "bandits" such as Pío Linares, Joaquin Valenzuela, Salomon Pico (nephew of former governor Pío Pico), the Juan Flores-Pancho Daniel gang, and, notably, Joaquin Murrieta, the most famous and mythological "bandit" of the Gold Rush era. Horace Bell wrote that in August 1853, amid rumors that Murrieta was in the city, the entire Ranger Company, mounted and on foot, marched and rode through Sonotatown, Calle de los Negros, and surrounding areas to "search every suspicious house and place within the city limits." Thus, the spectacle of violence throughout the 1850s and 1860s, particularly in the form of public lynching, was directed against Mexicans and served to consolidate Anglo hegemony by securing the socioeconomic decline of the Mexican population. But if there was one act of violence that led to the ultimate name change from Calle de los Negros to Los Angeles Street, it was the one leveled against the emerging Chinese community.

Photo of Calle de los Negros, circa 1890
Photo of Calle de los Negros, circa 1890, courtesy of the Seaver Center for Western History Research, Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History.

According to the 1860 Census, only fourteen Chinese residents were listed in Los Angeles. By 1870 a recognizable Chinese community had appeared, with a population of nearly 200, about half of whom lived on Calle de los Negros, where much of the city's vice and violence of the previous decades persisted. Yet despite the general desire for law and order, Los Angeles was burdened by the dual characteristics as an open city—providing opportunity for some and lawlessness for others—while undergoing dramatic demographic change. The decline in gold production, the completion of the Central Pacific Railroad, and an extended drought that caused a sharp drop in farm production brought large numbers of unemployed white laborers into California towns from Sacramento to San Diego. Thus, within a climate of exploitative labor and corporate monopoly by railroad barons, white labor unions misdirected their dissatisfaction to the Chinese, who they believed were lowering the wages and living standards of white workers. Combined with the inflammatory anti-Chinese writings of the San Francisco press that local journalists sought to emulate, Los Angeles was rife with anti-Chinese fervor.

In the early evening of October 24, 1871, the city witnessed its most callous act of racial violence—the notorious Chinese Massacre. A race riot occurred after Robert Thompson, an Anglo in the company of a local police officer, was killed on Calle de los Negros after being caught in a crossfire between two feuding Chinese societies, or "tongs." An estimated crowd of 500 "people of all nationalities" took part in a brutal racial assault on the Chinese that spread through the Plaza area. When it was over, some 19 Chinese men and boys (sources disagree about the exact death toll) were murdered in the assault. After news of the massacre made national and international headlines, city leaders took further steps to implement effective law and order, which included renaming Calle de los Negros Los Angeles Street in 1877.

Ten years after its name was obliterated, Calle de los Negros itself was finally razed in 1887. Adobes were replaced with fired brick structures, but the change did very little to improve the surrounding area. Even though the violence that had characterized the area from the 1850s to the early 1870s had largely declined, prostitution continued to flourish on the eastside of the Plaza and Chinatown continued to be neglected by local government, becoming the last community to be connected with the city’s sewer system in the early 20th century.

Today, the stretch of Los Angeles Street where Calle de los Negros once was cuts between El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historical Monument and Union Station. Makeshift dwellings of homeless Angelenos congregate in the little park adjacent to the street—a forgotten population, and a forgotten street.

Photo of Old Chinatown, Los Angeles, circa 1890-1920
Photo of Old Chinatown, Los Angeles, circa 1890-1920, courtesy of the Seaver Center for Western History Research, Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History.

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