Los Angeles is a city build upon a History of Forgetting and a built in defense mechanism wherein the mind erases one memory replacing it with the new. Los Angeles is also constantly remaking itself making it easy to move on and on enjoying progress and change with little left to remind us of what once was, little left from over 236 years of History lost. Only, our city that heralds so many global forces, so much glitz and glamour associated just by uttering its name, was deliberately designed to shut out the poor and make those unwanted invisible.
With so much activity taking place in #DTLA of late, and the inexplicable surge of energy one feels when taking to the streets in protest, I couldn’t help but feel a strange reminder following me around lately. I’ve always been drawn to what progress leaves behind, and of course embrace change with open arms, but there’s something to be said about the cities dedicated to a preservation of architecture if nothing else. Storming the streets at night you feel like they come to life like the days when bustling markets might have been flooded with people, or reminded of the stories from old timers about the reason certain roads were built to divert traffic. Meeting up just outside Olvera Street some days, a small enclave that just barely skated by avoiding the wrecking ball in the last few years, I generally feel comforted. That is until I discovered that in the 1930’s over 20,000 people lived in that very enclave, in just those few blocks. Literally a four block square that we have walked after protesting several times used to be crowded with life. So where did they all go?
Now I want to take you on a different tale:
In the early 1900’s Los Angeles was surrounded by farms and orchards, so much so that the scents of crops in bloom would waft through the ocean scented air providing them hints of sweet citrus.
Until the drought of 1915, watermelon patches were plainly visible off Riverside Drive in Echo Park. Legend ha[d] it that children used to steal watermelons and sail them down the L.A. River. All that was gone by 1920…Hollywood remained half citrus for years. Orchards looked like private parks inside the city…Farms and orchards were boundaries between townships.
At the same time the city was extremely divided between downtown, the west side, and the SFV, which lead to each area developing its own separate identity. Even then L.A. was a city of neighborhoods much like today, much more than a simple map might suggest. Tourism was defining development, and with that began the blatant disregard for the residents and inhabitants within:
The Bonaventure Hotel…was built specifically in a zone wiped out, then sealed from the east by tunnels and huge parking structures- to the point where nearby residents were almost impossible to find. The entrance, in fact, was so inaccessible to anyone other than guests that an extra entrance had to be added on the easter face in the late eighties, simply to allow the businesses inside to find some street traffic…self alienation might be more like it.
It’s hard to imagine that something that has withstood time like the Bonaventure was built to keep the people out of sight. Writers describe that time almost as if Los Angeles suddenly looked like a real city, without poverty or minorities, with some sudden outbursts here or there, but “that is why L.A. begins to resemble a nether world.” I had to know more.
in 1943 L.A. underwent what some call a ‘Gas Attack’ or four hours of thick noxious industrious gas and from then on has been dealt it’s SMOG hand. Some blame rubber factories in East LA or the Oil Refineries which no one seems to want to acknowledge, but after 1965 SMOG was considered to be worse in Non-White areas of the city. Also, since then our beautiful city has been dealt its symbol and emblem of SMOG riddled and polluted, and polluted we most certainly have been.
I take you to the area of town that few if any have spoken of since her dissolution: Temple-Beaudry, who “by the late seventies, oil wells from 1910 were pumping again in” from vacant lots. Did you know that Temple-Beaudry was also known as the Oil District in 1892? with over 1,000 rigs pumping from her land? Because the land was seen as undesirable:
Unlike many neighborhoods, there were essentially no covenants here restricting rentals to Jews, blacks, or Mexicans. As a result, by the twenties, an influx of central Mexicans settled in Temple Beaudry, and founded Our Lady of Holy Rosary Mission.
Then in the 1950’s buildings began to simply and systematically be removed. The new Hollywood Freeway was built and cut right through the grassy knoll and easiest path to Echo Park. “So instead of pedestrians meeting easily, the freeway roared overhead, two hundred thousand cars a day. What remained of the knoll became detached. Shut off from life lines, businesses along Temple began to dissolve.” City planners, instead of aiding the area, sought to further separate and feed its dissolution. Since 1960 only 4% new housing has ever been built in the area and housing has only been destroyed or flattened for new developments without housing options.
After the earthquake of 1971:
The Temple library on the isolated knoll was damaged, then removed rather than repaired. The remains of the knoll were converted into public tennis courts.
The ones seen today when driving on the 101 into down town just off the freeway. It wasn’t enough. “No home improvement was allowed through the city loans either,” not for the Temple-Beaudry area and not for the Mexican Americans who lived within. Having lived in Silver Lake, I always felt there was a pocket in that area, a pocket that was vulnerable. Then, The Holy Rosary Mission was torn down in 1993 and a school was built over it. It felt awkward, it felt strange, it felt like forced overcrowding created in realtime history: and it was.
By the eighties, the district had become a point of entry for Central Americans who lived in miserable rentals that were overlooked by the city…Some streets began to take on the ambiance of a Tijuana weigh station in an abandoned corn field…Even though ceilings caved in from leaking roofs, and plumbing rotted… in 1980 Police warned…that Temple Beaudry had the lowest per-capita income of any neighborhood in the state of California…
Between 1970-1986 30% of the buildings in the small district were eliminated, taken away from the people who lived there, families who had roots there, and they were left with nowhere to go. Reports also showed only 5% of the buildings as being livable, so not only were multiple families crowded into small spaces out of necessity but they were living in substandard or worse conditions: and the city knew all along.
By 1988, most people who are in their mid twenties were born at this time, 47% of the houses were removed. That means that almost every family now had another family living with them, if they were charitable, or there was no where for these people to go. So why was this happening? How could this happen? Why doesn’t the world know about the “Imaginary Chicano City” within Los Angeles? Because it was deliberately erased.
Every neighborhood erased by urban planning in and around downtown was MEXICAN, or was perceived that way…The fear of a Mexican horde surrounding downtown has much to do with what the historian Mauricio Mazon calls ‘the psychology of symbolic annihilation’…
The majority of those alive today don’t know war as we have not experienced World Wars. For those who were alive, or for our parents, their experiences are stark differences to ours today. Perhaps in reading this there can be a greater understanding for what life was like for minorities when the world around is literally crumbling. Following WWII in the streets of Los Angeles:
Servicemen acted like vigilantes. They would roam up and down Spring, Main, Broadway and Hill Streets. In the beginning, the jumped any young person who looked Mexican and Black and dressed in drapes [zoot suits]…White America Cheered…And the police stood by and watched the action.
During the Zoot Suit riots, anti-Mexican fears and bias were unmistakably influencing city planning initiatives and thus, almost all of these actions took place around that time when hysteria was at its peak. Also, wiped from conversation was the controversy which followed in Chavez Ravine. Since it was inhabited by people with cheap rents, ragged homes, and unpaved roads, they were driven out and cleared out as well. Wiped off the ravine as if they never existed and tossed to the side with no regard. The scandal remains left out of Dodger history as well. With everything bulldozed and wiped clean from that era, with every first time home bought with hard earned money of Mexican Immigrants and Mexican Americans stripped from them, then redeveloped over time into what lies underneath Temple-Beaudry today; I feel a duty to tell this story for you all to read.
Los Angeles is changing at the present as well. In 2017 it has been gentrifying for years, the cheap rents, cheap real estate, developer’s dreams, have driven minorities from their homes just like Temple-Beaudry. We see it in East LA, Silver Lake, Echo Park, Eagle Rock, Mount Vernon, Mount Washington, we see it the other direction in West Adams and beyond. The people with less get pushed further and further from sight, erased just as they were before, pushed to drive longer commutes and pay higher gas prices while facing little to no reprieve for inflation. Pushed further and further where their land is polluted, the air is unbreathable, and there are fewer hospitals to care for them as they age. Forced to live atop landfills that have now been developed into new homes and never spoken of again.
Sometimes it’s easier to go along with the changes as they happen, to listen to a person talking about the gentrification of a neighborhood or the ways another area has changed and just disregard; but, maybe we should listen a little more closely. Perhaps there’s something we’ve been missing that’s been repeating itself time and time again. Just waiting for us to rise up together and deliberately outsmart it. If we can come from this type of history to becoming a Safehaven city for all types of people today then we have already accomplished so so so much.
Quotes From The History of Forgetting By Norman Klein a book I read over 10 years ago when I lived in Silver Lake, dusted off from the shelf, and put to use today.
Images of Evictions by force: (from archives LA Times, UCLA, KCET libraries)
When Dozers plowed homes- they rallied and made their voiced heard:
What the Opposition looked like then- Zoot Suit Riots:
The Bonaventure then:
Los Angeles is a much more diverse place, a much more accepting place, than it once was. Perhaps we can use that to our advantage. Something about this story reminds me of today, the images, the fight, there are similarities and differences, areas we’ve grown and areas that need improvement.
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