Eras in the Development of Los Angeles
Many marvel at how Los Angeles was able to develop from a remote pueblo into one of the country’s largest commercial hubs. Truth is that colonialism and the spread of Christianity had a hand, influencing how people interacted with each other, and with their land; and in turn shaping the development of the regional metropolis that we live in today. The permanent exhibition, Becoming Los Angeles, presents the 500-year history of Los Angeles right from the Spanish Era through to the post World War II period. I visited the National History Museum in Los Angeles County to get a glimpse of the same. The subsequent sections summarize the major historical happenings that characterize the six historical eras of the town’s development.
The Spanish Mission Era
In the last decade of the 15th century, Spain embarked on a mission to convert natives in the ‘New Spain’ region, which was composed of Mexico, the Caribbean and a greater part of what is known today as the Southwestern United States, into Catholicism, as a way of expanding its holdings in the world. It was, however, not until 1741 that conversion in the Southwestern region began — the Spanish established a network of missions geared at instilling Christian teachings and other vocational skills in the natives (the Gabreleno-Tongva).
To facilitate their mission, the Spanish established two stations (locally referred to as presidio) – one at Monterey and the other at San Diego. With time, however, it became apparent that the two presidio could not sufficiently serve the entire population. This prompted the then governor of California, Spaniard Felipe de Neve, to establish additional civic pueblos to support the presidio in Los Angeles, San Jose and Santa Barbara. He imagined that these civic pueblos would increase the number of missionaries and settlers in areas outside Monterey and San Diego, and this would increase the level of financial support from the Spanish government to these areas, thereby facilitating agriculture and development. The City of Los Angeles was officially founded on the 4th of September, 1781, under the Spanish name ‘El Pueblo de La Reyna de Los Angeles’ (translated as the ‘Town of the Queen of the Angels’). A chapel was built three years later, and by 1800, there was a total of 29 flat-roofed buildings (Spanish style) across the city. The permanent Los Angeles River, and the abundant swamps and wetlands attracted European settlers, who came in numbers; Indians too came in from the surrounding areas of San Luis Obispo and San Diego to provide labor on Spanish settlers’ farms. The settlers built a water system that would channel water from the river into their farmlands. The level of development increased, but the population swelled in almost equal proportions. Spanish settlers took advantage of the large population of poor Indians to source low-cost labor; they made effort to undercut San Francisco’s unionized wage structure by fighting unionization and promoting the ‘open-shop’ labor mechanism. This created tensions between Indians and European settlers, but still worked to the benefit of the latter.
The Mexican Rancho Era
Mexican independence from Spain in 1821 changed the way natives in Los Angeles, and the greater ‘New Spain’ region lived their life. The flag of independent Mexico was raised, replacing that of colonial Spain, and citizens’ rights were affirmed. With the Spanish no longer in control, the population swelled as more Indians and other people from America moved to enjoy the economic prospects of the southwestern region. Cattle ranching and agriculture expanded, and so did the trade in hallow and tides. The Mexican administration rebuilt the ditch system, which the European settlers had built channeling water to their farms alone, so that water was now available to a greater proportion of the population. Land titles, which the Spanish had taken up selfishly for themselves at the expense of the population, were redistributed. This increased productivity and pulled up the level of trade and commerce. In 1833, the Mexican Congress secularized the California Missions, further opening up the prospects of trade and commerce. This was followed by the declaration of Los Angeles as a city in 1835, a move that opened up avenues for more foreigners from Europe and the United States. Despite the promising economic prospects, the level of development remained low for two major reasons — i) the constant attacks on Mexico’s northern territories and ii) the huge disparities between Indians and other groups, which left the latter marginalized and underdeveloped. Owing to the large size of the ‘New Spain’ region, Mexico’s administration was unable to rule effectively, and this left the northern parts (the modern-day California) exposed to foreign attacks. The Battle of Los Angeles broke out in 1846 as the Californian population revolted against these attacks, and in 1848, the Guadalupe Hidalgo Treaty was signed, ceding California to the United States from Mexico.
The Early and New America Period (The Transitional Era)
Trade and development were intense during this period. In 1848, gold was discovered in Coloma, attracting a large number of miners from different parts of the United States and Mexico. Owing to its success in cattle ranching, Los Angeles became the main supplier of beef and other foodstuffs to the miners in Coloma. There needed to be effective infrastructure to aid in the transportation of gold. Massive industrial expansion was witnessed, beginning with the construction of the city’s first railroad, the Los Angeles and San Pedro Railroad, which ran 34km between Los Angeles and San Pedro. This was followed by the construction of the California Southern Railroad; and together, the two provided connections to the east, increasing trade and commerce, and facilitating the transportation of both people and trade items. To aid trade and commerce further, the harbor at San Pedro was dredged to create a shipping port for Los Angeles. An interurban electric railway system, the Pacific Electric Railway, was built to aid in public transport within the county. Then the largest of its kind, the electric railway (running over 1,600 km) joined multiple towns in the country including San Bernardino, Pomona, Santa Monica, Venice Beach, San Pedro and Los Angeles. Images of the electric railway under construction, and the towns that it joined are available at the National History Museum. Development and immigration were spearheaded even further by the discovery of the Salt Lake, Beverly Hills, and Los Angeles City oil fields. An image of the oil pump jack used in the mining of oil then is available in the museum.
The automobile industry also flourished during this period; one of the earliest models being the Tourist Automobile from the Auto Vehicle Company. The only survivor from the model’s first year if production is available for viewing at the museum. When Glenn Martin built the city’s first airplane, the aviation industry took off; the city actually came to dominate the industry with its unmatched innovations. With this shift towards industrial activities, Los Angeles began to position itself as America’s regional metropolis.
The Great Depression
Development slowed down in Los Angeles during this period like in many places across the world. Two fundamental developments during the Great Depression were the construction of the Los Angeles Aqueduct and the Los Angeles Airport. The city appeared to be fast moving from an agricultural hub into an industrial center; all the same, the Los Angeles Aqueduct was constructed to ensure a constant supply of clean water. The aqueduct increased the city’s water supply immensely, and the administration locked customers and investors within its confines by refusing to share the excess water with neighboring cities. The area around the aqueduct attracted numerous developers, leading the city to experience multiple annexations that increased its surface area by huge margins. Neighboring towns that were incorporated into Los Angeles as a result of the construction of the aqueduct include Tujunga in 1932, Barnes City in 1927, Watts in 1926, Venice in 1925, and San Pedro and Wilmington in 1909.
In 1930, the city’s first private airport was opened by Mines Field; the same was, however, purchased by the city seven years later, becoming the Los Angeles Airport (1941) and then the Los Angeles International Airport (1949). During the Great Depression, public transportation was facilitated mainly by Mines Field’s private airport, the Grand Central Airport in Glendale, and the Burbank Airport in Burbank. The Burbank Airport was the busiest of the three; however, with the opening of the Los Angeles International Airport, most airline flights moved there.
The Summer Olympics held in Los Angeles in 1932 opened avenues for further development in the city. The city experienced a surge in tourism, and the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum was expanded from a seating capacity of 76,000 to over 100,000. The coliseum continues to generate massive revenues for the city, serving as the home grounds for the popular USC Trojans football team.
World War II to the Present
Throughout WWII, Los Angeles grew as a production center for ammunition, war supplies, and aircrafts. Factories specializing in the production of the same increased, and hundreds of immigrants came in from other areas to work in these factories. Immediately following the war, real estate became the city’s leading drive for development, replacing agriculture and oil. The freeways built in the 1940s and the development of the San Fernando Valley reinforced the city’s development even further. By the 1950s, Los Angeles had grown to be the second-leading car assembly center and tire manufacturer (second to Detroit and Akron respectively) in the country. It also led in the production of television shows, radio programs, Army and Navy training films, and motion pictures. The city’s leadership in television programs was spearheaded by Walt Disney’s opening of its first ever theme packs in Disneyland. The construction industry also boomed during this period as a result of the Federal Housing Administration’s financing of tract houses. Los Angeles was a financial and industrial hub in the 1950s and 60s. Owing to increased industrial activity, pollution became an issue, prompting California to enact some of the toughest anti-smog regulations as a way of reducing the level of pollution stemming from industrial activities. The automobile industry was particularly affected, falling prey to the toughest anti-pollution penalties and regulations. These tight regulations prompted most industries to shut down their operations in the 1980s and 90s, and move to states with more conducive conditions for business. Aerospace and furniture production have both dropped substantially since the Cold War, with the latter almost entirely relocating to Mexico. Most steel mills, tire, and automobile companies have also left for states and countries with better conditions. The LA economy, however, still remains significantly strong, particularly because of the television, radio and fashion industries, and the strong physical infrastructure developed during the transition period. The construction industry has boomed over the years, also contributing to the high level of development. Evidently, however, the rich-poor gap still remains relatively high, and is the only thing that seems not to have undergone considerable change from the Mexican Era.
Well, evidently, Los Angeles enjoys a rich history in regard to economic growth and development. Colonialism, industrialization and immigration all had a hand in the city’s growth and admirable development. However, all these historical happenings bring forth one looming question — would Los Angeles be what it is today if it was not part of the United States? The bottom-line argument, nonetheless is that Los Angeles offers a perfect example that developing nations could adopt to stimulate growth and development.
National History Museum. “Becoming Los Angeles.” The National History Museum, 2015. Web. http://www.nhm.org/site/explore-exhibits/permanent-exhibits/becoming-los-angeles
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