History of Los Angeles

Los Angeles 1928

The fact that Los Angeles has lived through a fast-paced as well as storied history can easily be recognized by looking at these numbers: In the year 1900, a few more than 100,000 people lived in the city. Exactly one hundred years later, there were almost 3.7 million. In between, there was a century in which L.A. has in fact made history, both with good and not-so-good headlines. Because apart from all the diversity that has stamped the town and that has been carried into the world by it in many regards, there were also reports about violenece emanating from here, about deep divides between races. Those news reports have impacted the image of Los Angeles in the world as well.

As early as 1542, the first European had appeared in the area in which later the megacity of Los Angeles should develop. While looking for a sea route to Asia, the Portugese Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo sailed along the California coast and went onto land in several locations, today’s Los Angeles area being among them. Back then, however, the Europeans were not too interested in this land, where a few hundred thousands of natives then lived. It should take until the year 1769 before they made a serious attempt to settle here. In that year, an expedition made up of representatives of the Spanish crown and the church of Monterey traveled in the direction of San Diego with the goal to establish mission churches along their route. This expedition was the first to recognize the fertile land in the Los Angeles area.

In 1777, Felipe de Neve was made governor of the Spanish Las Californias colony. He decreed the establishment of townships in a number of places, Los Angeles being one of them. In 1781, the first 44 settlers arrived; they would later be recognized as the Los Angeles Pobladores. It was a mixed-races group consisting of two Whites, 26 Blacks and 16 Natives. The community proved to be successful and grew quickly. From 1821 on, Los Angeles was able to support itself from the land each family had received. In that year, Mexico gained independence from Spain, which brought a certain level of democracy, which in turn enhanced the attractiveness of the settlements. At the end of Mexican rule over California in 1848, there were about 1700 residents in town.  Before, the village had been incorporated as a town by the Mexican Congress and had experienced settlers from the vicinity coming in as well as the arrival of some immigrants from Europe. Los Angeles had been designated the seat of the Mexican governor for the Alta California region, but he fled shortly after the war between the USA and Mexico began. In 1848, California came to the USA and in 1850, Los Angeles became incorporated under US law.

Shortly after the war ended, gold was found in California and thousands of fortune-seekers from all over the country moved to the West. Los Angeles became a supply hub from where food was forwarded into the gold rush areas farther north, on the other hand it suffered from the absence of a working administration and legal framework to create widespread lawlessness. Former, white soldiers from the East, who had remained in the area after the war had ended, declared themselves to law enforcement officers but often were not respectable persons. Especially residents of Mexican origin objected to their rule. Soon, there were Mexican gangs formed, resulting in more violence, murders and lynch murders. In these years, a deep ditch between races developed, with natives being widely seen as second-class persons, expulsed from the city and often becoming victims of violence.

The next decisive break in the city’s development came with the arrival of the railroad. In 1876, a connection to San Francisco was completed and in 1885, the line was connected to the transcontinental railroad from the East to the West coast. Being tied to the continental transportation network meant another economic boom for Los Angeles, as well as an explosive growth in population numbers and increased significance of the city as a whole, but it also brought new social problems. The railroad tracks had been constructed by mostly Chinese workers, many of whom then stayed in Southern California. In Los Angeles, like in many other West Coast cities, a rapidly growing Chinatown developed. Almost as rapidly, resentments against the newly-arriveds grew and in October 1871, the so-called Chinese Massacre occured when, following the accidental death of a white person in Chinatown, several hundred Whites and Hispanics stormed the neighborhood and lynched 19 Chinese without any distinction.

In 1892, oil was discovered in the location where Dodger Stadium now stands and later in other places as well. In the early years of the 20th century, Los Angeles had grown to be an important center for the petroleum industry. In the 20s, a quarter of the global petroleum demand was extracted here. Oil production in the region continues to this day. But at the same time, which also saw the arrival of the movie and fashion industries in the city, Los Angeles once again had to face the problem dividing society. Over the years, a workers movement had established that consistently grew in strength and continued to protest work conditions for the Mexican workers. The activists received support from the socialist journalist and author Upton Sinclair from Mexico. With the help of police and the media, the ruling Californian classes successfully kept protests low, for example by having workers on strike arrested in large numbers. In the 30s and 40s however, the organized workers experienced a new uptick strengthening their position sustainably. 

In 1932, Los Angeles hosted the Olympic Summer Games. While the World Economic Crisis lingered, no other nation had applied as host and many countries did not have the financial means to send athletes to Los Angeles. Nevertheless, the competitions saw 1300 athletes particpate. While the city moved into the international spotlight, it was plagued by corruption and abuse of office over many years on the inside. During the war and after it, Los Angeles established itself as an industrial town and continued to grow. After annexing more and more villages in the vicinity over decades, the city began to grow in height, too. The United California Bank Building, today called the Aon Center, standing 262 meters tall, was completed in 1973; in 1990, the Library Tower (today US Bank Tower) with 310 meters followed. In the 1980s, the city received its subway network and in 1984, it once again hosted the Olympic Summer Games.

However, one cannot ignore the social problems of the city which can be traced through all of its history. On one hand, these become evident in the gang culture and in high levels of violence among youths, resulting in Los Angeles holding unfavorable rankings in crime statistics, on the other hand, they are reflected by race riots that have gripped the city more than once. In parts, this is due to the residential separation between races that has always existed and which has, for example in the 1930s, led to the development of ghettos. Often Mexicans, who have always lived in Los Angeles in large numbers, had to suffer from bad living conditions and low wages and in economically dire times, many Americans would project their bias and reservations against this population group. In 1943, the so-called Zoot Suit Riots occured. Following a pair of minor confrontations between soldiers and Mexicans, many troops stationed in California roamed Los Angeles streets by the thousands and beat up all Mexican-looking people. The police and the public initially supported the soldiers’ actions, calling them a “cleaning” effort, but when, after a few days, Blacks were also attacked in the riots, politicians objected and prohibited soldiers from entering the city.

While the Zoot Suit Riots were seen by many as an expression of contempt against the great number of Hispanic immigrants, the momentous 1965 Watts Riots were about the inequality between white and black Americans. For many years, the black residents of Los Angeles had felt discriminated and had repeatedly claimed abuses of power by the mainly white police force as well as protested against their difficult work and living conditions. When a policeman stopped the Black Frye family on August 11, 1965 because of driving under the influence of alcohol and arrested all three car occupants, this marked the beginning of riots lasting for days, during which almost 1000 buildings were set on fire and looted. Primarily, stores run by whites were attacked, but there were also assaults on policemen and firemen and on uninvolved whites. In the end, 34 people died in the riots lasting for six days, more than 1000 were injured.

The 1992 riots following the brutal foul play of white police officers against the black citizen Rodney King centered around the same accusations of discrimination against the black population. The appehension of King following a car pursuit, when the suspect was beaten up by four white policemen had been made public by a video of the incident. When a jury acquitted all four officers on April 29, 1992, six-days long riots began, killing 53 and injuring thousands. Initally hundreds, later thousands of blacks reacted after the verdict, set buildings on fire and looted stores. These actions mainly took place in South Los Angeles and while mostly the stores run by Asians were attacked, white and black storeowners were also among the victims. In several instances, drivers were pulled from their cars in that part of the town and were badly hurt by the mob. The scaring pictures of these deeds were in parts broadcast on live TV. The city was placed under a state of emergency and it took the commitment of the National Guard and the Army to re-establish the quiet after six days.

In 1994, Los Angeles was struck by the Northridge Earthquake, damaging numerous buildings and killing 72 persons. In 2004, it became known that the actual plan of the 9/11 terrorists had been to steer a plane into the US Bank Tower.



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