Were it not for the title – “South Spring Street, Los Angeles, Cal.” – would you recognize L.A. in its first starring role? After all, not a single palm tree appears in the 25-second film Frederick Blechynden shot for the Edison Manufacturing Company. Nor does a sandy beach, a sun-drenched orange grove, a Spanish mission in ruins, or any other visual trope that might identify the place as Los Angeles. It was only a matter of time – merely a few days, in fact – before a filmmaker captured an iconic Southern California scene: the Santa Monica coast. But on Dec. 31, 1897, Blechynden was content to train his lens on the passing street traffic and record a scene that might as well have been Chicago, New York, or any other North American city. Blechynden’s “animated photograph,” as the film was advertised, was meant to showcase the emerging technology of the motion picture. Motion is what mattered, not symbolic imagery.
Not a single palm tree appears in the first film footage of Los Angeles.
And yet the film does have something to say about the Los Angeles of 1897. The bustling street scene reveals a city that, despite its deep-seated anxieties about East Coast urbanism, was beginning to embrace the East Coast idea of having a downtown. Spring Street had not yet reached its heyday (that would come in the 1910s-20s when it was the “Wall Street of the West”) but had clearly emerged as a major commercial corridor. How Angelenos use the street itself is interesting, too. The concept of jaywalking had not yet been invented, and in the film pedestrians confidently share the roadway with horse-drawn carriages, electric trolleys, and bicycles. Finally, the film depicts a Los Angeles that appears to value its public realm, a “first Los Angeles,” to use architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne’s formulation. People crowd the sidewalks, and those in the passing vehicles seem engaged with rather than sequestered from the surrounding city. You can almost imagine a serendipitous meeting happening just off-camera. Even today, two decades into downtown L.A.’s revitalization, Spring Street rarely looks so animated.
Video courtesy of the Library of Congress Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division.