Los Angeles was founded by the Spanish on the site of a Native American village in 1781, but it wasn't until after the first film studio was established, in 1911, that Los Angeles really took off. Within 5 years, movies such as D. W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation were being produced by the hundreds. By World War I, the Hollywood studio system was firmly entrenched, with the young trio of Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, and "America's Sweetheart," Mary Pickford, at its fore.
As the box office boomed in the 1920s and 1930s, so did the population of Los Angeles. Easterners came to the burgeoning urban paradise in droves to find their fortunes. The world-famous Hollywood sign, erected in 1923, was built as an advertisement for just one of many fledgling real-estate developments that began to crop up on the "outskirts" of the city. Los Angeles was even more alluring during the Great Depression. As Americans ached for an escape from their less-than-inspiring reality, Hollywood's cinematic fantasies were there to oblige. With each glamorous, idyllic portrayal of California, Los Angeles's popularity -- and population -- grew.
Quest for Water
As the city expanded, so did the need for water. Most great American cities grew from small settlements on rivers or lakes, freshwater sources vital to everyday life and commerce. Not L.A. -- it was founded in the middle of an arid basin. The Los Angeles River has always been too unpredictable to support the city's growth, and today it is merely a series of flood-control channels operated by the Department of Water and Power. The quest for water has provided some of L.A.'s most gripping real-life drama. As early as 1799, Spanish padres at the new Mission San Fernando dammed the river to provide for their water needs, causing an uprising among settlers downstream. Disputes continued up to the incidents that inspired the movie Chinatown, about the early battle for the rights to the Owens Valley's abundant water, which William Mulholland and Fred Eaton "stole" with their new California aqueduct. Resentment from Northern California continues up to the present time, as L.A. residents continue to reap the agricultural, domestic, and electrical benefits of what many claim was never rightfully theirs.
The Triumph of Car Culture
The opening of the Arroyo Seco Parkway in 1940, linking Downtown L.A. and Pasadena with the first of what would be a network of freeways, ushered in a new era for the city. From that time on, car culture flourished in Los Angeles, becoming perhaps the city's most distinctive feature. America's automotive industry successfully conspired to undermine Los Angeles's public transportation system by halting the trolley service that once plied Downtown and advocating the construction of auto-friendly roads. The growth of the freeways led to the development of L.A.'s suburban sprawl, turning Los Angeles into a city without a single geographical focus. The suburbs became firmly entrenched in the L.A. landscape during World War II, when shipyards and munitions factories, as well as aerospace giants McDonnell Douglas, Lockheed, Rockwell, and General Dynamics, opened their doors in Southern California and the workers who flocked here needed affordable housing.
From Horseless Carriages to Hot Rods -- The Southern California lifestyle is so closely tied to the automobile that it has given rise to a whole subculture of the car. Since its introduction to the infant city it would grow up with, the automobile has become a pop phenomenon all its own, inextricably intertwined with the personality of L.A. -- and the identities of its residents. Although the first "horseless carriages" emerged from the Midwest, it's been Hollywood's influence that has defined the entire nation's passion for the car.
During the early 1920s, movie comedians Laurel and Hardy and the Keystone Cops began to blend their brand of physical humor with the popular Ford Model T. And a visionary coach builder named Harley Earl was busy in his shop on South Main Street, building special vehicles for the movies -- the Ben Hur racing chariots -- and designing flamboyant custom cars for wealthy movie stars. Earl would later be recruited by General Motors, bringing along with him from Hollywood to Detroit an obsession with style over substance that would culminate in the legendary tail fins of the 1950s.
As movie director Cecil B. DeMille once said, both cars and movies capture Americans' love of motion and speed. Car culture as it was depicted in motion pictures continued to set the pace for the country. In Rebel Without a Cause, James Dean's troubled teenager and his hot-rodding buddies assert their independence through their jalopies in scenes filmed on the roads around the Griffith Observatory in the Hollywood Hills. As authorities cracked down on dangerous street racing, locally based Hot Rod Magazine helped spawn the movement to create legal drag strips, and the sport of professional drag racing was born. The art of auto-body customizing also came into being here, pioneered by George Barns, the "King of Kustomizers."
The world watched Southern California's physical landscape change to accommodate the four-wheeled resident. In postwar suburban tracts, the garage, which had traditionally been a separate shed, grew attached to the house and became the family's main entrance. The Arroyo Seco Parkway (now the Pasadena Fwy.) opened in 1940; its curvaceous lanes were modeled after the landscaped parkways of the New York City metropolitan area, each turn placed to open up a series of scenic vistas for the driver. (Later L.A. freeways, reflecting a greater concern with speed, were modeled after the straight, efficient autobahns of Europe.)
Meanwhile, businesses in town built signs in an attempt to catch the eye of the driving customer; as the cars got faster, the signs got larger and brighter. A look at the gargantuan billboards on the Sunset Strip shows where that trend ended up. Another scourge of the modern landscape, the minimall, actually started innocently enough in 1927 with the first "supermarket." The term was coined by Hattem's (at the corner of Western Ave. and 43rd St.), where several grocers lined up side by side, set back from the street to provide plentiful parking and one-stop convenience for their customers.
But perhaps the most enduring feature to arise from the phenomenon of the automobile is the drive-up, drive-in, and drive-through business. In the mid-1920s, someone thought to punch through their outer wall to serve the motoring customer. By the next decade, Los Angeles boasted the world's largest collection of establishments that you could patronize from the privacy and comfort of your car. There were drive-up bank-teller windows, drive-through florists and dry cleaners, drive-through dairies (Alta Dena still maintains several in the Southland), and drive-up restaurants. These weren't the impersonal fast-food joints of today, but real restaurants (like the popular Dolores Drive-In chain) with cheerful carhops bringing your freshly made order to you on a window tray.
Perhaps the most popular of these drive-in landmarks are the movie theaters. Los Angeles had the second one built in the country (at the corner of Pico and Westwood boulevards). Long established as a teenage make-out haven, one theater gained popularity in a more spiritual way when Reverend Robert Schuller began to deliver Sunday-morning sermons to a comfortably parked audience at the Orange County Drive-In. His slogan: "Come as you are, in the family car."
The trend to view the car as an extension of the home persists today, with the marketing of mobile phones, scanners, electric shavers, Blu-ray players, and more, all capable of plugging in and functioning inside your car (or even coming as standard equipment). What more could the auto-loving Angeleno ask for?
The Postwar Era
After the war, the threat of television put the movie industry into a tailspin. But instead of being destroyed by the "tube," Hollywood was strengthened when that industry made its home here as well. Soon afterward, in the 1950s and 1960s, the avant-garde discovered Los Angeles, too; the city became popular with artists, beatniks, and hippies, many of whom settled in Venice.
The 1970s gave rise to a number of exotic religions and cults that found eager adherents in Southern California. The spiritual "New Age" born in the "Me" decade found life into the 1980s, in the face of a population growing beyond manageable limits, an increasingly polluted environment, and escalating social ills. At the same time, California became very rich. Real-estate values soared, banks and businesses prospered, and the entertainment industry boomed.
The New Millenium
Today, as always, Angelenos are on the leading edge of American pop culture. But they've discovered, as the world wags its finger and shakes its collective head, that success isn't always all it's cracked up to be. The nation's economic, social, and environmental problems have become the city's own, and even become amplified in this larger-than-life arena. The 1991 Rodney King beating and subsequent 1992 rioting, the 1994 Northridge earthquake, the 1996 acquittal of O. J. Simpson, the 1998 El Niño floods, the LAPD Rampart scandal in 2000 -- half the city proclaimed these disasters as signaling the beginning of the end, declaring each time that L.A. would never fully recover. The other half optimistically predicted that adversity would unite the fragmented city and it would emerge, phoenix-like, stronger than ever. Both factions were partially correct -- but mostly the city has just gone on with the business of being L.A.
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