Los Angeles! There she blows! by Louis Adamic

The Hollywood Bowl in the 1930s.
The Hollywood Bowl in the 1930s

Louis Adamic's classic 1930 essay on the origins and development of Los Angeles. For those who saw this mentioned in Mike Davis' City Of Quartz this is the entire article from Outlook Magazine.

Submitted by Comrade Motopu on August 1, 2020

Los Angeles! There She Blows! by Louis Adamic
From the August 13th, 1930 edition of Outlook Magazine

The 1930 census figures show Los Angeles to be the fastest growing of the big cities of the United States. In 1920 its population was 576,673; this year it is 1,231,730. Los Angeles County, not including the city, has 967,827 people, bringing the city-county total to 2,199,557; an increase of 134.88% for the decade. Ten years ago Los Angeles was the tenth city in the country; now it claims fifth place.

Behind these arid figures lurks a dank story, dramatic and 100 per cent American, and little known to any but a few people even in Los Angeles; for most of them are recent arrivals there from the Mid-Western pampas and are still too excited about their new home town, its perennial spring weather, its palm-lined boulevards and picturesque bungalows, and its very own Aimee Semple McPherson, Clara Bow and Tom Mix really to know anything about the place.

A hundred years ago El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora Santa Maria la Reina de Los Angeles—its official name then—was a moribund Mexican village built around a dusty plaza. Then, in the war with Mexico, the United States acquired California and in ‘49 the Gold Rush brought to the pueblo a mob of disappointed prospectors and “bad men” driven out of San Francisco by the Vigilantes; after which the place soon assumed a different face. Unlike the Mexicans, these newcomers had pep and vim. They began to call the place simply Los Angeles, or just “Loss.”

In the '50s and '60s there was no tougher town in America than Los Angeles. With a population fluctuating between three and eight thousand, it supported two or three churches, including the Franciscan Mission, and 110 saloons. The sun seldom rose without finding a few bullet-riddled bodies in the gutters. The Indian aborigines living in a dismal settlement nearby—now wholly extinct—were used as targets by drunken Americanos. Lynchings were frequent. One sunny afternoon in '71, a mob of 500 white men, searching for a Chinese criminal, massacred eighteen Chinamen in a few hours, and looted Chinatown.

The good people of Los Angeles nowadays dislike being reminded of that incident. I mention it only because it was the beginning of the golden era of moral uplift and industrial progress. Eighteen in one afternoon were too many, albeit they were only Chinamen; so the best people got together and legislated drastically against such bloody doings.

At about the same time there also came definitely into the life of the town several new brands of Christianity hitherto little heard of in southern California, where Franciscans had had, practically, a monopoly upon spiritual matters. Industry began to pick up and progress was on. Mexican labor was cheap; besides, Japanese and Chinamen were being imported wholesale in order to help do the dirty work.

Then, suddenly, in the late '80s, the boom hit the place; an amazing boom, which has been going on ever since, with only slight let-ups from time to time.

Two recently completed transcontinental railroads, the Southern Pacific and the Santa Fé, started a war for the supremacy of the Far West, especially of California, where they owned vast tacts of land which they were eager to develop. California was advertised throughout the East and Mid-West as the Golden State, the spot on which God had smiled His broadest smile, the land of perpetual sunshine, the paradise on earth. For a time, round-trip tickets from points west of Missouri could be had for as low as a dollar apiece. "Come-ons" arrived in hordes and within a few years the population of Los Angeles trebled and the land values increased 300%.

In the '90s, two books—Our Italy by Charles Dudley Warner and California for Health, Pleasure, and Residence by Charles Nordhoff—became best-sellers in the East and Mid-West, and every- body learned what an ideal place California was for the sick. Helen Hunt Jackson wrote Ramona and numerous magazine articles, playing up the romantic ideas with which the name of California was being associated. Many other writers visited the State, some of them as guests of the railways, and became enthusiastic about the Climate— which was already being spelled with a capital C.

Ever since a stream of humanity has been rolling Los Angeles-ward, mostly victims of the pioneer era in the development of the Middle West. In the '80s the permanent population of the town increased from fifteen to fifty thousand; during the '90s to nearly 100,000; in the next decade it trebled; in the following it almost double; since 1920, as the latest census indicates, it passed well over the first million; and now the go-getters—some of them descendants of the rough characters of the hell-roaring period—look confidently ahead to 1935, when the third million will be on the way. Big things are immediately ahead for Los Angeles.

Next year is the sesquicentennial celebration, which will bring there hundreds of thousands of tourists, a large percentage of whom will succumb to Climate and other allurements of southern California; and in 1932 the Coliseum will be the scene of the Olympic Games and, with good luck and Mr. Hoover in the White House, the Republican Party will hold its National Convention in the famous Hollywood Bowl—both big boosts for Los Angeles

That Los Angeles will ultimately—perhaps within the next three or four decades—be the biggest city in the world, is a very popular notion in Los Angeles. The place has many great advantages, among the foremost, of course, being Climate, and but a single drawback, which, however, is an extremely serious one—that of water shortage. The Los Angeles business and civic leaders, afflicted as they are with great desire for swift development of the community and for increased real estate values, are caught between Climate, which draws the "come-ons" by the hundreds of thousands every year, and the Water Problem, which threatens to put a stop to the growth of the city—if not now, eventually.

Los Angeles has plenty of water for a population, perhaps, twice its present number; but the big go-getters are thinking, in all seriousness, of the not distant future when the town will have seven or eight million people—and to provide water for that population keeps them scratching their heads. However, they are resourceful men, and their ability to deal with the Water Problem has already been tested.

Thirty years ago Los Angeles was a small city. The water supply was sufficient for its needs then, but in the opinion of the go-getters it was a mere drop in the bucket. They saw that Climate eventually would make it a great city, perhaps the largest in the world. They were “men of vision” and owners of undeveloped real estate. They could almost foresee the time when the part of southern California that lies between the mountains and the Pacific, from Santa Barbara to San Diego—a distance of two hundred miles—would be virtually one enormous community. The newspapers shared these same visions of growth, for their owners were the biggest real estate men in the city.

So early in the 1900's they began to harp upon the idea that Los Angeles needed more water immediately. The supply at the time would be insufficient in five years. They were most emphatic and vociferous about it. Los Angeles must think of its future in terms of millions.

Some 260 miles northeast of Los Angeles, beneath the Sierras, off the Nevada border, in Inyo County, is an arid region called Owens Valley, and it was there that the Los Angeles leaders turned their avid eyes; for through it ran a river of melted mountain snow.

In 1903, the National Reclamation Service became suddenly—and for the time being, inexplicably—interested in the reclamation of the region. The ranchers were pleasantly surprised, for the government apparently contemplated storing the flood waters for irrigation purposes and distributing them to promote settlement and development. At last prosperity would come to Owens Valley!

Some storage locations had previously been made by ranchers who, however lacked the means to carry out their purposes. These locations were now willingly surrendered at the government’s request, and every co-operation that the National Reclamation Service asked was given by the people of Inyo Country, some of whom were already deriving water for their land from sources that would be involved in the project. The government agents went through the motions of making extensive “investigations,” covering stream measurements, tests of soil, area of farming lands, sites of proposed storage dams, and other details. All the local circumstances favored the project, and the people of Inyo, while noting the slowness of definite announcement of action, entertained no doubt of the good faith of the government. But for two years nothing was done.

Then, in 1904, a couple of strangers appeared in the valley. They were big go-getters from Los Angeles. Mrs. Mary Austin, the novelist, who was then living in Inyo, once told me that she felt an instinctive dislike for the men the moment she saw them. "I knew," she said, "that they were playing a high-handed game." Mrs. Austin’s instincts were sound. They bought up great stretches of land along the Owens River, thus gaining control of the flow of the river; whereupon they deeded the land to the City of Los Angeles. They acquired even the locations that the ranchers had surrendered to the government, for the chief of the National Reclamation Service in California and supervising officer of the Owens Valley “project” was a Los Angeles man who had been hired by the Los Angeles go-getters to handle the “project” so that the city would get most of the water, and who used his official position to defeat the reclamation enterprise, which would have benefited the valley, after the settlers there had given the government their cooperation. It has been said, and to the point, that “the government held Owen Valley while Los Angeles skinned it.”

Meantime the people of Los Angeles were being urged by the go-getters to vote for a large water-bond issue. They proposed to build a great aqueduct to bring the water to Los Angeles. But, unexpectedly, considerable opposition developed to the bond issue; for the people had been asked to vote for all sorts of bonds for years and they were getting weary of the game. To overcome this opposition, the go-getters, who were in charge of the Water Board, induced or ordered the chief engineer of the water works to run millions of gallons of water stored in the reservoirs into the sewers— ostensibly for purposes of sanitation, to flush the system, whereupon the people were forbidden to water their lawns and gardens. This artificially created drought lasted throughout the summer months, and all the lawns in the city turned brown and the flowers died.

On election day the people, convinced that there was a shortage of water, voted the water bonds—$22,500,000! After which the city immediately set out to build the aqueduct. In two years it was finished—a great engineering feat: as long as England is wide, passing through 142 tunnels and crossing a desert as large as the State of Massachusetts. Thus the go-getters of Los Angeles took the water that a naive God had intended for the use of Owens Valley and so neatly ruined the region for agricultural purposes.

The "drought" ruined also what is known as San Fernando Valley, a choice section immediately north of Los Angeles. The ranchers, who were getting their water from Los Angeles' reservoirs, were told there was no more water for them. Ruined, they had to sell their land—to a syndicate of Los Angeles men, organized for the purpose of acquiring the entire valley! Since then, with the aqueduct going right through San Fernando, the go-getters have cleaned up millions of dollars on subdivisions. Immediately after the aqueduct was completed the people of Los Angeles complained about San Fernando, which was not a part of the city, using the water. To quiet these complaints, the go-getters simply extended the city limits beyond San Fernando—one reason why Los Angeles is so big!

The people of Owens Valley have tried in vain to make Los Angeles pay for their ruined ranches and towns; they have no power in the state, whereas Los Angeles has. In desperation, they have dynamited the aqueduct three times in recent years, but that did them no good. Los Angeles repaired it immediately. Some of the leaders of the protesting ranchers have been framed up or lured into criminal acts for which they are now serving long sentences in San Quentin.

In brief, Los Angeles business leaders are quite able to deal with the great drawback of little water. They are determined that Los Angeles shall grow. The Owens River and other sources will provide plenty of water till 1935; by then Boulder Dam will be finished at the expense of the entire United States, and the southern California boosters intend to get—indeed, have already insured for themselves—a lion’s share of its benefits. In October, 1928, Herbert Hoover delivered his Boulder Dam speech from the steps of the Los Angeles City Hall. It pleased all the big men of Los Angeles. With their past experiences and success in getting water and power, they will have no difficulty in handling effectively the opposition to their schemes now developing in Arizona, New Mexico and the other arid states interested in the project. Secretary Wilbur of the Interior is a loyal Californian, as is President Hoover.

Los Angeles means to grow, drawbacks or no drawbacks, and sooner or later become the biggest city in the country.

Twenty years ago Los Angeles barely missed acquiring another handicap when the labor unions tried to organize all the workers and make it another closed shop town like San Francisco where industry at that time was at a standstill chiefly because ambitious and unscrupulous laborites had gained economic and political control of the city. But Los Angeles, under the leadership of General Harrison Gray Otis' Times, defeated the attempt just as it was about to succeed. As a part of the unionizing campaign, the McNamaras dynamited the Times Building and killed twenty non-union employees, but to no avail; the boosters were determined to stay in control of Los Angeles’ future, and they stayed. Had the unions won, the town probably would be much smaller today, and of little importance industrially. The unions are still one of the principal reasons for San Francisco’s inability to keep up with Los Angeles in point of population and industry.

Thus everything possible and impossible is done by the big Los Angeles entrepreneurs, organized in the Chamber of Commerce, Merchants’ and Manufacturers’ Association and the Better-America Federation, to keep the organized labor movement down. The A. F. of L. is considered as dangerous and un-American in southern California as are the I.W.W. and the Communist Party. Every effort to organize workers is nipped in the bud; the leaders are usually arrested on the charge of suspicion of criminal syndicalism and jailed. As I write this, a score of organizers and agitators are in various southern California jails. San Francisco is in favor of releasing Tom Mooney, who is doing his fourteenth year in San Quentin for a crime he evidently did not commit, but Los Angeles wants to keep him in—"as an advertisement to eastern capitalists of California's open shop status/' as one Los Angeles capitalist recently put it.

Eastern capital and industry come to Los Angeles with the understanding that the place is to be kept open shop— and it will be kept open shop. Next to Climate, the open shop status is the biggest factor in its growth.

Industrially, Los Angeles is decidedly going forward. Huge areas within the city proper and in the harbor district at San Pedro are occupied by auto- mobile assembly plants, rubber factories and others; while other industrial property has been bought by large national concerns with a view to the future when they believe it will be advisable for them to have branch factories in southern California. Driving about Los Angeles one comes on veritable forests of oil derricks every half hour. The products of fruit and nut growers double every few years. Los Angeles harbor, in point of total tonnage handled, which includes oil, is among American ports second only to New York.

Yet the region is still undeveloped to make it advisable for working people without savings to go to southern California in search of work and earnings. Jobs are scarce and wages low; for the immigrants from Illinois and Nebraska who have been accustomed to work all their lives get bored after they idle a while amid Climate, driving around, walking on Hollywood Boulevard, and decide to find a job—any kind of job, at any pay, just so they get something to do.

Los Angeles has small use for poor people. Four years ago, when about 25,000 people—mostly "folks" from the Middle West—lost approximately $30,000,000 in a gigantic oil swindle, one of the leading papers in town remarked editorially, in effect, as follows: "The crooks have taken the money from the fools. What difference does it make? The money stays in Los Angeles. It is helping to build up the city."

The idea that literally millions of people from Ohio to Idaho and from Texas to the Carolinas have the intention of going to California sooner or later is not a mere Chamber of Commerce wish-dream. My recent trips across the continent convince me of this. Thousands of people actually arrive in Los Angeles daily by train, ship and motor. Perhaps one-fifth of the automobiles in the streets of southern California carry license plates from other states. One or two big conventions are held in Los Angeles nearly every month. Most of the tourists, of course, return home after a few months, but those who remain usually have money.

The most important people in Los Angeles, of course, are the big business men, the super-Babbitts, who, as a local columnist once put it, are "puffing down the city's windpipe with the intent to inflate it to a degree that it shall be reckoned the largest city in the nation." They form the inner coteries of "the most effective Chamber of Commerce in the country" and other business and anti-Red and pro-Climate organizations. They are grim, rather inhuman, individuals with a terrifying singleness of intention; they see a tremendous opportunity to enrich themselves beyond anything they could have hoped for fifteen or twenty years ago, and they mean to make the most of it. They have their fingers in every important economic pie in the region. They work hard, harder than any other group of people in town.

They are possessed by a mad and powerful drive which, somehow, is not deeply rooted in their own personalities, but is rather a part of the place— this great region of eternal spring that lies between the Sierras and the sea and that, in the last few decades, has captured the imagination of millions of people, who for various reasons have become dissatisfied with what life offers them in the East, the South and the Mid-West. Apart from a role they are playing in the up-building of southern California, these " big men " impress one as rather dull and ordinary, but they become considerable personages when in action for a greater Los Angeles and bigger profits for themselves.

Trailing after the big ones is a mob of lesser fellows, whom the former awe with their superior economic advantages and control through the Chamber o f Commerce and other organizations; thousands of minor realtors, boomers, promoters, contractors, agents, salesmen, bunko-men, office-holders, public- relations counsels, lawyers—all motivated by the same motives for wealth, power and personal glory, and a greater Los Angeles. They exploit the "come- ons" and one another, envy the "big fellows," live half deliriously for business and more business, wonder what can be the matter with the wife and fear—vaguely—that the children are going to the dogs, but are at a loss to do anything about it.

Then there are the Folks, as they are called half affectionately, half derisively, by the men who run things. These are the retired farmers, grocers, Ford agents, petty hardware and shoe merchants from the Middle West, hundreds of thousands of them, who have worked harder than any one should through their best years, no doubt swindled a little, prayed a little, paid taxes, raised four of five kids, made their little pile, grown old and rheumatic, and then sold out or turned the business over to the younger hands and come to Sunny California, to rest, regain their vigor, enjoy Climate, look at pretty scenery, live in a tiny bungalow with a palm in front, and eat in cafeterias. Toil-broken and bleached out, they flock to Los Angeles every week, fugitives from the simple, inexorable justice of life, from hard labor and drudgery, often bringing their children along, vaguely hoping to spare them from their own fate. They are unwell, vacuous, biologically finished men and women, neurotic, incapable of new ideas; good, simple, honest people as people go; God-fearing, sensible and shrewd in their little ways, equipped with typical American democratic conceits, loyalties, prejudices and sentimentalities, yet very credulous and trusting, easily swayed by expert Machiavellis, Cagliostros, and Savonarolas.

THERE are, of course, other kinds— many kinds—of people in Los Angeles, but the Folks predominate numerically and give the place the quality of a tremendously overgrown village. They are organized in state societies, run by ambitious, energetic go-getters interested in other things than their members' social life. They hold mammoth quarterly or semi-annual picnics in the largest parks in Los Angeles, Long Beach or Pasadena. The last Iowa picnic given in the immense Sycamore Grove was attended by nearly 100,000 sons and daughters of that state, including some of the leading politicians and many reporters from "back home."

The Folks come in machines and streetcars with baskets of fried chicken, hard- boiled eggs, potato salad, short-cake and thermos of hot coffee. The park becomes a map of Iowa, divided into counties and townships, and they gather around the signs, meet friends and acquaintances, talk and eat and chew, and scream with delight when they spot a familiar face in the crowd. They dance old- fashioned dances, pitch horseshoes, do stunts, listen to speeches of aspiring California and Iowa politicians, take snapshots, talk of things "back home" and of Climate—how wonderful it is; how much better they feel since coming to Los Angeles, though now and then, they admit, they get real lonesome for the snowdrifts of Ioway.

The Folks’ interest in politics is slight and superficial. The go-getters and politicians can do anything they please. Ballyhoo puts over almost any candidate.

The big thing in California is health; indeed, most of the people come there to be sunkissed and made well. Healing is a tremendous industry in Los Angeles. There are thousands of regular physicians and surgeons and dentists, and hundreds of chiropractors, osteopaths, "drugless doctors," electro- therapeutists, Christian Science practitioners, other religious faith-healers like Aimee McPherson, health lecturers, manufacturers and distributors of all sorts of health "stabilizers" and "normalizers," health psychologists, magicians, spellbinders, mesmerists, mystics, miracle men and women, wonder workers, yogis, and quacks and charlatans of all descriptions.

Next in interest among the Folks is the Hereafter and generally the mysterious side of life. Los Angeles is "the city of churches," most of them Fundamentalist with modern publicity methods to attract crowds. Some years ago Rin-tin-tin, the famous movie dog, appeared "in person" on the rostrum of a great Protestant church.

In addition, Los Angeles has immense evangelistic institutions with their own radio broadcasting plants and resident correspondence schools for religious workers. One is apt to be stopped in the street any time of the day by a "fisher of men," as the Bible Institute calls its graduates, or one of Mrs. McPherson's "scouts," and asked whether or not one is saved, or has been washed in the Blood of the Lamb; and if not, why not?

CHRISTIAN SCIENCE is a powerful factor in the life of Los Angeles. It is stronger in southern California than in its native Boston. The Monitor is sold in the streets and Los Angeles papers are required to print long Christian Science lectures, else they are boycotted by the followers of Mrs. Eddy's doctrines. Christian Science is a power in the educational institutions. A few years ago a young professor was dismissed from one of the universities because, after several warnings, he would not refrain from mentioning the plague in connection with the Elizabethan Period! Such things as plagues do not exist for Christian Scientists.

Los Angeles also has the largest women's clubs, the greatest number of literary societies, and all sorts of clubs devoted to the Higher Things in Life. It is a favorite city of visiting English and native authors. The town is well on the way, too, to becoming a great music center, though there appear to be comparatively few real music-lovers in southern California. The famous Hollywood Bowl, while an excellent enterprise from the purely musical viewpoint, is fundamentally a device to lure the “come-ons." It received its early financial backing mainly from non-musical go-getters who had been persuaded that it was a good advertisement for the town and would bring in a lot of people who otherwise would not think of coming. Of late years, to keep the Bowl going, the management has been resorting to typical American stunts. Two years ago, for instance, to get space in the papers and attract crowds, they had Percy Grainger, the conductor, take unto himself a bride on the stage after the concert, in the presence of 25,000 “music-lovers."

FROM an airplane, Los Angeles looks as if a delirious hand had scattered it over the plain, along the beaches and on the hillsides. But it is an impressive —by the grace of height, almost beautiful—sight, as it spreads beneath one far and wide, its farthest suburbs vanishing in multicolored mists. As one walks or drives through the streets, however, the town is full of annoying aspects, lovely only in spots, few and far between.

With all the room there is within the city limits, the main business district is noisy, chaotic, overcrowded, ugly, though, of course, no worse than are the business sections of most American cities. The residential parts are conglomerations of all styles of architecture, with California bungalows pre- dominating. There is much cheap gaudiness and artistic freakishness. It seems that Iowa and Nebraska folk who settle in California, reaching out for splendor, long for something "cute and comfy," different from the gray old house "back home." They like tiny little houses painted green with red window-frames, colored panes, curious doorways and swinging lanterns over the doorstep; while movie stars, oil men and evangelists, also reaching out for beauty, take to florid chauteaux and villas. There are, of course, many residences built in fine, simple taste, but their architectural beauty suffers from the "arty" horrors around them. The chief virtue of the freakish dwellings is that they are flimsy affairs, put up hastily by crooked contractors, and perhaps ten years hence most of them will have been replaced, I have no doubt, by more sensible architecture. The organized architects are beginning to take an interest in the appearance of the town.

In the center of Los Angeles stands a pew twenty-six story skyscraper—the City Hall—in defiance of the only possible thing, so far as the go-getters can see, that might put a stop to its growth, and that is an earthquake. Slight tremors, when they, occur, are usually ignored by the press. Instead, the papers feature stories of the terrible summer heat and worse winter cold in the East and the Middle West, and the cyclones and hurricanes of Oklahoma, Texas and Nebraska—in sharp contrast with the benign, calm Climate in southern California.