East Is East and West Is West

East or West?
East or West? | Photo: Imparo| Flickr: Creative Commons License

In Los Angeles at least, west and east do meet. If you're paying attention, you experience the meeting point as you turn an obtuse angle at Hoover Avenue and pass from the orthogonal American grid to the bent grid of Spanish colonial law. (Jeremy Rosenberg on these pages summarized the clash of empires embedded in asphalt. I've offered an explanation, too.)

In Los Angeles, even the streets remember our differences.

Bent: Map of 'racial areas' of Los Angeles, 1938
Bent: Map of 'racial areas' of Los Angeles, 1938 | Map courtesy of Los Angeles Public Library

Warren Olney, sounding a little skeptical of the notion, asked the other day if east and west in Los Angeles were in conflict in ways that matter. His guests on "Which Way LA?" -- some of the west, some of the east -- seemed to think that Olney wanted to know where you could find the best Korean barbeque or the cheapest loft spaces or the most obvious displays of plastic surgery. In a mostly lighthearted way, Olney's guests drew boundaries around what they considered authentic Los Angeles based on culture and class. Partisans of east and west who called KCRW's comment line did the same.

A real distinction between east and west in Los Angeles has been a fixture of the city's landscape from the beginning. But does that distinction -- even though it persists -- shape what Los Angeles is becoming?

Los Angeles was founded in September 1781 on the west bank of a river the Spanish authorities called the Rio Porciúncula. The colonials established a plaza on a bluff overlooking the Porciúncula, consigning the Native American residents of Yang 'na to a "rancheria" below and to the east, at the southern end of what are now the train platforms of Union Station.

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Through the 1850s -- following the American occupation of Los Angeles -- that original east/west division continued. The Sonoratown barrio crowded north and east of the old plaza. The newly American town -- actually just a few hundred yards away -- filled the higher ground west.

A bigger and booming Los Angeles in 1890 was similarly divided. East of the plaza and extending to the river's edge was a mixed neighborhood of poor Russians, Jews, Chinese, and Latinos who will be uprooted in the mid-1930s to build Union Station. On Boyle Heights on the river's eastern bank, a largely Anglo community was being replaced by working-class Jews who will be replaced in turn by working-class Latinos.

Westward rose the fashionable neighborhoods of Bunker Hill and Angelino Heights.

In early 20th century Los Angeles, west of the plaza was suburban, gracious, refined, and steadfastly white. East of the plaza, people of all colors promiscuously crowded together and all sorts of vice were available (a story that William David Estrada tells in The Los Angeles Plaza: Sacred and Contested Space).

Displaced: Calvary Cemetary, 1880
Displaced: Calvary Cemetary, 1880 | Photo courtesy of Los Angeles Public Library

The distinction even applied to the city's dead. When the old cemetery in Sonoratown was abandoned in the 1920s, Catholic burials were shipped to a new cemetery east of the river and actually outside the city limits. Jewish, Serbian, and Chinese dead where similarly segregated.

The 1950s and 1960s saw the building of the freeways, creating new physical and psychological barriers between west and east. Bunker Hill -- now an outpost of the east in terms of its ethnic and racial diversity -- was leveled to become an acropolis of office towers.

Today, we know where the Westside begins -- somewhere around Beverly Hills. But where the east lies is much more fluid. Some people locate the boundary in Hancock Park, which would have shocked the proper residents of that once exclusive neighborhood. Some locate the boundary in Echo Park or Silver Lake or Los Feliz. And truly anxious westsiders put the boundary at the 405 Freeway and never willingly travel further east than Farmer's Market.

East of Hoover, east of the old plaza, east of the river are features in the landscape that resist revising by our cultural preferences even as we acknowledge (or scorn or mock or long for) the desirability of some other part of town we think serves what we want to become. We're all tourists of Los Angeles, someone remarked to Olney with approval, as if this city could survive as an exotic destination for people just passing through.

East is east and west is west in Los Angeles, inescapably, but we're all east of the city that Los Angeles once was. The shape of the city to come is a common neighborhood in every way heterogeneous, mestizo, polyglot, impure, troubled, and worth loving.

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