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How a Neighborhood Disappears: The Life and Death of Pico Heights

How does a well-established Los Angeles neighborhood name disappear? For nearly a century, Pico Heights was a vibrant and well-known district of Los Angeles, just west of downtown. But during the 1970s, the name Pico Heights was erased from maps and today the name is all but forgotten. What happened? To find out, we must explore the history of this little neighborhood centered around Pico Boulevard roughly between Alvarado Street and Normandie Avenue.

Pico Heights rail car
Pico Heights electric car, the first in Los Angeles, ca.1887. Courtesy of the USC Libraries – California Historical Society Collection.
The Los Angeles Electric Rail-Road
The Los Angeles Electric Rail-Road. Courtesy of the California State Library.

A neighborhood is born.

For the first century of its existence, the westernmost boundary of Los Angeles was what we now call Hoover Street. During the 1880s, Los Angeles underwent a real estate boom and the population increased by almost 500% - from 11,183 at the decade’s beginning to 50,395 at its close. In 1886, the Electric Railway Homestead Association started selling tracts west of Hoover Street in a brand new neighborhood called Pico Heights. Advertisements described “Beautiful Pico Heights” as a place with “Pure Air, Pure Water, [and a] Charming View” and tracts sold quickly.

The new neighborhood needed public transportation to connect residents to the city center, so the Pico Street Railway was chartered by the County Board of Supervisors in 1886. The railway opened in 1887 and was the first electric railway in Los Angeles. Because of this distinction, some of the early Pico Heights streets were named in homage to the technological wonders of the time: Electric Street (later changed to Sepulveda), Telegraph Street (later changed to Berendo), Lightning Street (later changed to Catalina), Telephone Street (later changed to Dewey), and Cablegram Street (later changed to El Molino). According to the charter granted by the county, the power for the railway was to be electricity, cable, horse, or mule and the fare was not to exceed 10 cents. During the early days of the line, service was extremely unreliable, and it was reported that there were even occasions when passengers had to get off and push the car themselves.

Potion of map showing Western Addition of territory annexed to City of Los Angeles
Potion of map showing Western Addition of territory annexed to City of Los Angeles. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

In 1895, Pico Heights residents started considering annexation to the City of Los Angeles. The debate over annexation was contentious and lasted for thirteen months. According to the Los Angeles Herald, the “saloon element” fought against annexation because it did not want to see saloons and any other establishments offering alcohol come under municipal control. But the proponents of annexation won out in a special election and Pico Heights was annexed by the City of Los Angeles in 1896. The vote count from within the neighborhood was 149 for annexation and 117 against it.

A wealthy and exclusionary neighborhood.

"Pico Heights Is All White"
"Pico Heights Is All White" – an article from the May 17, 1906, edition of the Los Angeles Times

Over the first decade of its existence, Pico Heights became a fashionable suburb filled with stately Craftsman homes and wealthy families. The neighborhood was described in advertisements as “[t]he finest location for a home around Los Angeles” attracting the “best class of citizens.” But, as was common at the time, non-white Angelenos were not welcomed.

In 1906, an African American philanthropist named Hillard Stricklen announced plans to build a home for “aged negroes” in Pico Heights. At first, neighbors did not take Stricklen seriously thinking he was “a man with little money and big pretensions.” But when workers and building materials appeared at the site, neighbors panicked and protested the project. A resolution was finally reached when neighbors agreed to buy the property for $20,000 and Stricklen built the home in another neighborhood. In an article titled “Pico Heights is all White,” the L.A. Times reported that “Pico Heights residents may breathe easier. Hillard Stricklen … says he won’t start up his home for aged colored people … out of consideration for the feelings of citizens who feel squeamish over the thought of having black-skinned neighbors.”

The neighborhood’s exclusionary tactics weren’t completely successful. By 1919, about a hundred Japanese families had moved into Pico Heights. That year, some white residents, assisted by an official of the Los Angeles County Anti-Asiatic Society, formed the Electric Home Protective Association in an effort to rid the neighborhood of the Japanese. Their first approach was to personally visit Japanese residents and ask them to leave, citing the alleged negative effect their presence had on property values. This effort continued on a small scale for two years until a proposal for a church in the neighborhood propelled the Protective Association to prominence. The Board of Home Missions of the Methodist Episcopal Church announced plans to build a church in Pico Heights that would serve the Japanese community. Whites in the neighborhood became even more alarmed when they learned that the church would also serve Japanese from outside the area because it was located near a streetcar line. Opponents denounced the proposal with racist language, describing it as a “Jap invasion” of a “fashionable part of the city.” Under local pressure, the city council announced that the Methodists would not receive a building permit because “practically 100 percent of the property owners in the affected district are opposed to the granting of this permit.” The church was built elsewhere in the city.

The neighborhood becomes a melting pot.

Starting in the 1920s, the composition of Pico Heights began to change as wealthy residents moved out of the neighborhood to other areas farther from the city center. As wealthy residents left, Pico Heights became the home of working class whites and an evolving tapestry of immigrants from around the world. During the 1930s and 1940s, the neighborhood was a destination for European immigrants – Greeks, Norwegians, Swedes, and Russian Jews. The Greek community was centered primarily around Pico and Normandie, adjacent to the St. Sophia Greek Orthodox Cathedral, which opened in 1952.

	St. Sophia Cathedral
St. Sophia Cathedral. Photo courtesy of the Security Pacific National Bank Collection – Los Angeles Public Library.

During the 1950s, other ethnic groups started settling in the neighborhood, including Eastern Europeans, Romanians, Lithuanians, and Hungarians. During this time, Pico Heights became a cultural mosaic. An Armenian family owned a grocery store, a Jewish family operated a “Five and Dime,” a Chinese family owned a vegetable market, and a Syrian family ran a liquor store. A resident of Pico Heights from the 1950s recalled the ethnicities of his neighbors as French, Columbian, German, Jewish, Spanish, Mexican, and Russian.

During the 1970s, large numbers of working class Mexican immigrants started to settle in the neighborhood. And in the 1980s, an even larger number of Central American immigrants primarily from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras moved in – many fleeing civil war and political persecution. Situated just south of Koreatown, the neighborhood also became home to a smaller number of Korean immigrants. By the 1990s, the neighborhood had become a predominately Latino neighborhood, with nearly half of the population having arrived in the U.S. within the past ten years.

From suburb to inner city.

At its outset, Pico Heights was a suburb of Los Angeles located at the outskirts of town. But over the next 90 years, with the massive growth and increasing suburbanization of Los Angeles, Pico Heights became part of the inner city, now surrounded by vast swaths of subsequently annexed neighborhoods and suburbs. And like many other parts of the inner city, the neighborhood started to physically deteriorate. The housing stock became worn down and overcrowded. Sidewalks were in disrepair. Barbed wire and graffiti started to appear, representative of a rising crime rate. The neighborhood started becoming known as a poor, minority, high-density, inner-city neighborhood. It was during this time that the neighborhood lost its name. During the 1970s, Pico Heights was arbitrarily added to the adjacent and larger Pico-Union district by the Los Angeles Planning Department. Signs and maps started referring to the entire area Pico-Union, omitting the name Pico Heights. As long time residents moved away or died and newer immigrants moved in, the name Pico Heights was used less frequently until it eventually fell out of usage. Today, the only remaining vestige of the name Pico Heights is in the name of the local post office.

The neighborhood is renamed.

During the 1990s, local residents, community activists, faith leaders, and business owners formed a coalition to address the deteriorating physical and social conditions of the area. In partnership with UCLA and the Los Angeles Neighborhood Initiative, the coalition developed a community plan to revitalize the neighborhood. Fostering community pride was identified as a key strategy, and, as part of this effort, they sought a specific name for the neighborhood, separate and distinct from the Pico-Union district. Instead of resurrecting the neighborhood’s historical name, they decided to invent a new name: the Byzantine Latino Quarter. The name was chosen to recognize the Greek community that used to reside there and the Latino culture currently dominant in the neighborhood. Street banners illustrating the name “Byzantine Latino Quarter” were placed on light poles along Pico Boulevard in an effort to re-brand the neighborhood. In 2001, the State of California formally recognized the neighborhood’s new name and the Department of Transportation erected signs and markers designating the area as an officially recognized historic area. One neighborhood name was erased and another was born, as the residents looked to forge a new identity and future for their neighborhood, formerly known as Pico Heights.

Pico Heights on an 1894 birdseye city view
Pico Heights as seen in an 1894 lithograph. Los Angeles, California, 1894. Drawn & lithographed by B. W. Pierce. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Sources

Brightwell, Eric. Exploring the Byzantine-Latino Quarter. California’s Fool’s Gold. Accessed December 6, 2016. http://www.amoeba.com/blog/2013/03/eric-s-blog/california-fool-s-gold-exploring-the-byzantine-latino-quarter.html.

Frost, Rufus. The Evolution of Pico Heights (Text of a speech delivered by Rufus H. Frost at the opening of the Pico Heights branch of the Public Library on March 28, 1903). Huntington Library, HM 74617.

Loukaitou-Sideris, A. Sustainable Community Development and Urban Design. Sustainable Built Environment - Vol. 1 – Sustainable Community Development and Urban Design, 55-67.

John Modell. The Economics and Politics of Racial Accommodation: The Japanese of Los Angeles 1900-1942 (Chicago, University of Illinois Press, 1977), 60-62.

“Beautiful Pico Heights.” Los Angeles Herald, July 14, 1886.

“Pico Heights.” Los Angeles Herald, July 25, 1886.

“Lovely Pico Heights.” Los Angeles Times, August 17, 1886: 1.

“Pico Heights.” Los Angeles Herald, October 27, 1886.

“The Electric Railroad.” Los Angeles Herald, November 2, 1886.

“Pico Heights: Growing Without an Electric Railroad.” Los Angeles Times, December 7, 1889: 4.

“Pico Heights and Annexation.” Los Angeles Times, May 23, 1895: 5.

“Up to the 1000,000 Mark.” Los Angeles Herald, March 22, 1896.

“Pico Heights is all White.” Los Angeles Times, May 17, 1906: 17.

“Would Eliminate Home for Negroes.” Los Angeles Herald, May 18, 1906. 

State of California Assembly Bill 516. Assembly Member Cedillo. February 21, 2001.

“History of the Neighborhood.” Byzantine Latino Quarter. Accessed on December 6, 2016. http://blqbid.org/main/explore/history-of-neighborhood.html.

Robert H. Petersen, interviewed by Robert D. Petersen, Los Angeles, December 15, 2016.

Los Angeles City Council Minutes, Vol. 46, pages 90-93 (1896); Los Angeles Ordinance No. 3393 (New Series), Box No. B-0051. Los Angeles City Archives, Erwin C. Piper Technical Center.

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