El Aliso

I am a proud native-Angeleno — born and raised.  Though I now live two hours away in Palm Springs, Los Angeles is mine, like no other place in the world could ever be.  I was born there in 1966, and lived there for forty-one years.  No one seems to know what Los Angeles is, exactly.  In 1925, Aldous Huxley called it “nineteen suburbs in search of a metropolis.”  William Faulkner, screenwriting in the middle of the last century, said it was the “plastic asshole of the world.”  That’s a bit harsh, yes?  I tend to think of it as a a bunch of cities haphazardly stapled together bisected by a mountain range, with arteries called freeways carrying its teaming life to and fro.  To give you some idea of the scale we’re talking about:  the city of Boston fits entirely inside the Echo Park/Silverlake/Los Feliz neighborhood, St. Louis is swallowed whole by just the west end of the San Fernando Valley, and the island of Manhattan is a mere fraction of Los Angeles City Council District 15.  People use "Los Angeles" as a metonym to refer to both the city and the county, which is, in fact, comprised of 88 separate cities.  Greater Los Angeles is the largest metropolitan region in the United States, stretching from the hills of Santa Barbara in the north to the outskirts of San Diego in the south.  It is as colossal as it is ethnically and culturally diverse, with 11 million residents spread over thousands of square miles.

More than 200 languages are spoken in the city of the Angels (which is the translation of “Los Angeles” from the Spanish), and El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Ángeles del Río Porciúncula (the city’s full name given it by Spanish conquistadors doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, but it is translated "town of our lady the Queen of Angels of the River Porciúncula”) is home to just as many whacky cults and “mainstream” religions as it is to ethnicities and nationalities.  Los Angeles is like an all-you-can-eat buffet, but watch out — some of its humanity has been sitting out for awhile and may have gone bad.

The earliest known photograph of Los Angeles, dating from the mid-19th century, circa 1860 (above), shows its humble beginnings in the period immediately after California was ceded to the United States following the Mexican-American War in 1848.  Facing southeast from Fort Moore Hill toward La Plaza in the center of the photo (which is now downtown), behind the Alameda (public walkway or promenade), you can see a massive sycamore tree dating back to the 15th century known as El Aliso — a sacred gathering spot for Los Angeles' indigenous Tongva people, who, in the precolonial era, lived in as many as 100 villages throughout the region and were primarily identified by their village name rather than by a pan-tribal name; they developed an extensive trade network and a vibrant culture based on a worldview that positioned humans not at the apex of nature but as one strand in a "web of life.”  Their tribal leaders would travel from villages across what we now call Greater Los Angeles to confer amongst each other and resolve disputes under the shade of El Aliso.  European contact was first made in 1542 by Spanish explorer Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, who was greeted at Santa Catalina island by the Tongva in a canoe; the following day, Cabrillo and his men entered a large bay on the mainland, which they named Baya de los Fumos ("Bay of Smokes") on account of the many smoke fires they saw (early smog?).  This is commonly believed to be San Pedro Bay, which is now the Port of Los Angeles, a major international seaport.


Port of Los Angeles, San Pedro

The area's growth was exponential after becoming part of the United States.  In a little over one hundred years the city grew to become the second most populous city in the US (after New York City) and the third most populous in North America (after Mexico City and New York City).  The motion picture industry, better known by the metonym “Hollywood” (which refers to a district found just to the north of downtown Los Angeles proper), played an indispensable role in the city's transformation into the behemoth it is today, not only in terms of its economy but equally, if not more so, in terms of its allure.

western union

A young man by the name of Cecil B. DeMille, at just 32, launched his career and an entire industry in Los Angeles with this telegram (at right) that would see him go on to make 70 films spanning both the silent picture and “talkie” eras.

Writing that same year, Willard Huntington Wright had this to say about the fledgling city’s character and its future:

And yet — after the worst has been said, much remains which is deserving of praise. Wherein lies the fascination of the Angel City? Why has it become the Mecca of tourists the world over? Is it because it is the best advertised city in the United States? Is it that it offers illimitable opportunities for making money and eating fruit? Hardly that. After all the pamphlets of the real estate agents, the boosters' clubs, the Board of Trade and the Chamber of Commerce have been read, something remains unspoken — something that uncannily grips the stranger. Despite its suburban pieties, its vice crusades, its domestic ideals, its incessant gossiping, its moral anesthesia, its Oriental religions, its Cagliostros, its leaden midnights, its poor cooking, its garish newness, its lack of hospitality, its tawdry culture, its cruel Sundays and its Iowan traditions — notwithstanding all these handicaps, there is something essentially inspiring in the life of the city. Los Angeles is a modem Ephesus, and as such is a challenge to the virile blood of the nation. Great problems are being worked out there. The city reeks with promise. Life in Los Angeles is real and earnest. There is a continual clash of wit — not the wit of epigram and culture, but the wit of serious endeavor. It is a city of crudities, of experimentation, of reinforced concrete, of gaudy colors, of real estate transactions. It represents the pioneering stage in both commerce and art. It possesses much of the bumptious assurance of the youth suddenly burdened with responsibilities. Its future is not a bustle; all eyes are fixed on tomorrow morning's sunrise. At present it is more heterogeneous than any other city in America. Its hypocrisies are matched by subcutaneous audacities which shock even the hardened policemen. At present it is far more emotional than logical. The god of Los Angeles is a combination of Calvin and Anthony Comstock — with Comstock predominating.

I am tempted to predict the future of Los Angeles; but such is not my mission in this article. But in so far as the personality of the Los Angeles of today indicates the Los Angeles of tomorrow — just as the youth suggests the man — so may I surmise that which the coming years have in store. This looking forward is inevitable when one considers the character of the city. And so, considering it in its present embryonic condition, one sees a vision of a great metropolis, founded on solid stock — a metropolis wealthy and diverse, commercially powerful and artistically wise.

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