Planning historians criticize Los Angeles for having little history. Admittedly, Los Angeles has a much shorter history than China and exhibits fewer famous historic monuments than Greece. But history is not exclusively constrained by length of time or number of monuments – history can also be measured by rates of change. Each day, we Angelinos walk, run, socialize, and drive throughout our 231 year old community. Most are unfazed by the historical significance of the existing structures that line our streets. We unconsciously dismiss that World Wars, racial riots, the entertainment business, and natural topography influenced the layout of our current Los Angeles. While attending the University of Southern California, I always focused on the existence rather than the evolution of specific sites surrounding my community – Little Tokyo, the Coliseum, the Fashion District, and the Natural History Museum. My myopic perspective overlooked the historical richness of Downtown Los Angeles.
An assignment in an urban planning class expanded my historical understanding of my surrounding environment. I constructed the history of a parcel of land by piecing together Sanborn maps, archived newspaper articles, and historic photographs. Analyzing these sources for my assigned parcel, 3335 South Figueroa Street, I found that the site had transformed from exclusively residential into a commercial center and then into a mixed-use, residential and commercial property. Surprisingly, I found that the building that I lived in had synthesized its previous land uses into its current use. Because my building visually portrayed its past, I wondered if the rest of the downtown buildings evidenced their histories.
First, let us look at the history of my parcel and the community to understand the city’s complex transformation. With this understanding, we become more aware of the historical richness of our own communities – whether we live in Los Angeles or other metropolises.
The first Sanborn map, which details the parcel’s residential land use, dates back to 1894. Within twelve years, housing density dramatically increased, creating a residential community in today’s urban jungle. The subsequent Sanborn map shows how the community developed by 1906. First, one dwelling transformed into a school, indicating that families in the community demanded public services. Second, residents constructed new homes, added garages and patios to their existing homes, and meticulously landscaped their residences. This dramatic increase in housing density and longstanding tenures of residents seemed to create a permanent residential community in the downtown area. However, the booming economy quickly sparked commercial development. Surprisingly, this historical trend recently repeated itself. As a five-year resident of Downtown, I have seen young professionals matriculate to the area, which caused new commerce to develop around the residential communities.
The shift from residential to commercial use paralleled the emergence of American consumer culture between 1900 and 1930. As incomes increased, the ability to own automobiles became tangible for many middle class families, perpetuating construction and consumption. City planners approved construction of eight retail and automotive stores on the periphery of the property, attracting residents and passing drivers. This physical determinism induced consumption. The longstanding tenure of these automobile stores portrays the significance of the automobile in Los Angeles. This auto-centric culture permanently endured; today, cars outnumber the pedestrians and commercial establishments outnumber residences. Arguably more car-dependent than any other American city, Los Angeles reinforces its historical reliance on the automobile today more than ever.
On your next visit to Downtown LA, take a look at the price of valet parking (I have paid up to $20) or the cost of street parking meters per hour (up to $4.00).
During this period of commercialization, venue construction also occurred. The Shrine Auditorium, which hosted automobile and entertainment shows, was built on the adjacent parcel of land between 1920 and 1926. The construction began a process of displacing residents, which further catalyzed the transition of the parcel into commercial use. By the mid-1900s, all residences in the area were demolished and replaced by commercial structures; complete gentrification had occurred. The area’s quaint, suburban history quickly disappeared. Noisy automobiles and clattering construction displaced the quiet, landscaped dwellings, leaving little evidence of the area’s past residential charm. These economic decisions by retailers also changed the social fabric of the community; business transactions replaced personal interactions, much like today’s commercialized and individualized culture of Downtown LA.
Between the 1950s and today, Downtown Los Angeles has experienced considerable transformation. Commercialization increased rents, forcing working class residents to move away from Downtown’s core. Then, in the early 1960s, the downtown area began to decline when developers constructed mass amounts of office space west of Downtown, attracting businesses towards the neighborhoods of Century City, the Wilshire Corridor, and Hollywood. At the same time, public transportation failed to fully develop due to the large number of automobiles in the area.
Since 1998, the Figueroa Corridor Partnership, a business that works with the local government, has significantly improved the downtown neighborhoods. The partnership revitalized Downtown by cleaning up the area, increasing safety, and attracting businesses. Today, the demand for housing in Downtown Los Angeles has infiltrated both the commercial core and the area surrounding USC. University Gateway, a giant apartment and retail complex exists on the parcel I examined. The site serves a variety of economic and social purposes; it houses students and provides the local community with a market, a drug store, and multiple restaurants.
By detailing the complex past of one street corner in a small community within Downtown Los Angeles, we become aware of the powerful influence of our social and economic decisions on current structures throughout our cities. Due to these rapid changes, structures transformed quickly, destroying the visual remnants of Los Angeles’ historic past. But before we Angelinos dismiss our seemingly lackluster history, we should look at what exists around us, because the physical structure of the surrounding buildings might visually reveal our community’s historic past.
Paris Rebeil recently graduated from the University of Southern California with degrees in Business Administration and Policy, Planning, and Development. She currently attends Loyola Law School, Los Angeles and plans to practice real estate law. Paris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.