Los Angeles Stories and Tips

Los Angeles: The Expansion of a City, Part I

Los Angeles Skyline Photo, Los Angeles, California

Los Angeles is 72 suburbs in search of a city -- Dorothy Parker

Olvera Street Area

In 1781, eleven families settled the area that is now known as Los Angeles. They based their settlement (El Pueblo de Nuesta Senora Reina de Los Angeles) close to the river, southeast of Olvera Street. Due to flooding this settlement moved to higher ground around 1800, when a plaza was established, surrounded by adobe buildings and, beyond that, agricultural fields and cattle ranches.

This new village remained under Spanish control until 1821 when Mexico declared its independence. In 1877 the long street by the plaza became known as Olvera Street, after a prominent early judge. In the 1880s the center of town shifted -- in part due to the arrival of a large number of European settlers -- and the area fell into disuse. The population was now based around as the center of town shifted to (present-day) Temple and Main Streets. The population in 1880 was 11,000, which exploded to 100,000 by 1896.

Olvera Street Today

The area has been restored, and the Spanish influence is celebrated - it’s a great place to commemorate Cinco de Mayo. In the old Plaza, around the bandstand, Mariachi bands fill the air with triumphant music and vendors offer fresh fruit sprinkled with chili powder. Down Olvera Street itself, a multitude of shops sell handmade Mexican crafts, and cafes offer tasty tamales and cold, creamy horchata.

Highlight

The Plaza Fire House
126 Plaza Street

The Plaza Fire Station was built in 1884, though there had been a volunteer system in place since 1871. This had been known as the Volunteer 38, which was made up of 38 volunteers, three horses and a cart. The building was designed by William Boring, who was a native of Illinois, where it was common to house horses and equipment together due to the colder climate. (Anyone who has visited L.A. in August pities those poor horses). The total cost of the building: $4,665.

These early firefighters were paid only when they actually put out a fire. Several buildings turned to ashes, due to fights about jurisdiction and who was responsible for paying the men. An official fire department was created in 1885, and the firefighters moved out of the firehouse in 1892 because the city forgot to actually purchase the property! But, in 1953 the firehouse was restored and turned into a museum.

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Downtown

In 1847 the United States took control of the area from the Mexicans with the signing of the Treaty of Cahuenga. Two years later the railroads arrived and, in 1892, oil was discovered in the area. Over the next 30 years the Los Angeles area produced 25% of the world’s crude oil.

By 1920 the rail system connected four counties, and rivaled New York’s system in size. It was during this era -- when the population was at just over half a million people, and L.A. was the 10th largest city -- that the downtown saw a building explosion. It grew big enough to be divided into districts: Financial, Arts, Fashion, Jewelry, Toy, Warehouse, and etc.

As in many cities, after WWII the soldiers returned home to marry, start the Baby Boom and move into the suburbs.

Downtown Today

Since 1955, several attempts have been made to revitalize the downtown area. Many of the vacant buildings have been developed into trendy lofts. In 1999, the Staples Center opened and became the home of the Lakers and Clippers, as well as the Kings and Sparks.

The city still has a long way to go. Skid Row -- defined as 3rd to 7th streets, and Los Angeles to Alameda streets -- contains the largest population of homeless persons in the U.S., estimated beween 7,000-8,000.

Highlight

If you aren’t a movie star or married to a Rockefeller, you will savor the bargain shopping of the "Fashion District." Santee Alley is a simple back alley, downtown (between Maple and Santee streets). You can expect counterfeit purses and illegally downloaded copies of DVDs, CDs, faux designer watches and perfumes. But, you cannot beat the prices of the 150 vendors.

Let’s start with parking — it rarely goes over $5 in a lot. Within the nearby food court, $3 gets you a great lunch. And, the last time we visited we got luggage for $20. (Which we still have). With these kind of prices, no wonder the place is always packed!

Hint: Go early. Most stores begin opening at 9:00 AM. Take cash. Some vendors don’t accept credit cards. For more information: www.thesanteealley.com

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Chinatown

The history -- and locations -- of Chinatown are many and varied.

Old Chinatown
The first Chinese recorded in the area arrived in 1852. By 1857, they had established a settlement, that the locals had started calling "Chinatown" by 1870. At this time there were roughly 200 Chinese centered around Calle de Los Negros - Street of the Dark Hued Ones - which was located close to the El Pueblo Plaza (see Olvera Street). Between 1890 and 1910 the population grew to 3,000, and the area expanded to fifteen streets or alleys, and an estimated 200 buildings. Chinatown had a Chinese Opera, its own newspaper, and three temples.

However, Chinatown’s success was limited by the Exclusion Act, signed into law on 1882 by President Chester A. Arthur. The Act suspended Chinese immigration, and placed restrictions on current Chinese immigrants - they couldn’t own property. The Chinese had initially come as laborers during the Gold Rush era. At the time of the signing of the Exclusion Act, they were the largest minority in California.

Anti-Chinese sentiment had grown for over a decade prior to the Exclusion Act. In 1871 a caucasin bystander had been shot, when two Chinese gangs began a shoot-out over a woman. Over 500 caucasians surged through Chinatown, robbing and killing 18 Chinese immigrants in retaliation. It would become known as the ‘Massacre of 1871’.

In the 1930s Chinatown was moved to make room for Union Station, the train terminal, that was built at 800 North Alameda Street.

New Chinatown
The new area was bordered by Olvera Street and Dodger Stadium. In order to promote the area as a bonafide attraction, the Central Plaza was developed. Hollywood added exotic touches Chinatown, thanks to director Cecil B. DeMille who wanted the area to pass for Shanghai, to save on filming costs.

Highlight

The fine to funky art galleries along Chung King Road: Mary Goldman Gallery (932), China Art Objects (933), Black Dragon Society (961-971), The Happy Lion (963) and Peres Projects (969).

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