Baghdad On The Freeway


O n a hot summer afternoon, two commuters sat in an auto on a Los Angeles freeway—stalled bumper to bumper in the homebound traffic. Their shirts were open from the blast of the sun, their eyes swollen with the smog of a hundred thousand exhausts.

“My solution,” drawled one of them, “is to make everybody in L.A. draw lots to see who packs up and moves out.”

A generation ago this would have been treason. But gone now is the booster spirit that sparked a hundred-year migration to Southern California. In its place has come a desperate realization that Los Angeles has oversold itself. And it is too late to stop the tide.

How did this sprawling city of two million—for that matter, this metropolitan area of almost five million—rise up from a semidesert devoid of resources save a balmy climate?

Its story begins with Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo, a Portuguese captain in the employ of Spain, who sailed up the west coast of Mexico in 1542. Discovering California, he also discovered the site of Los Angeles. From the ships anchored in San Pedro Bay, his men could see that it was “a good port; and the country is good, with many valleys and plains and trees.”

Their opinion was confirmed two centuries later when Spain moved to take actual possession of California. In 1769 an overland expedition from Mexico under Gaspar de Portolá halted near what is now the Los Angeles River. Father Juan Crespi surveyed the virgin countryside and made a prophetic note in his diary: “It has good land for planting all kinds of grain and seeds, and is the most suitable site of all that we have seen for a mission, for it has all the requisites for a large settlement.”

It was so delightful, in fact, that even the Indians exhibited the proper booster spirit. They engaged in friendly trade, and when it appeared that the Spaniards were about to leave the area, they anxiously made signs to inquire whether they would stay.

But though the Spanish marched on, they were back two years later to found Mission San Gabriel, located on Crespi’s “good land” just east of the present site of Los Angeles. It was to become one of the most prosperous California missions. By 1810 it ministered to 1,200 Indian neophytes, ran 10,000 head of cattle, produced oranges, grapes, and more grain than any other mission.) Convinced that California could be self-sufficient, Felipe de Neve, the Spanish governor, determined to establish two pueblos, or farm communities, and picked out the sites on a personal trip in 1777. One was in the north, at the foot of San Francisco Bay—the location of San Jose. The other was the “good land” of Cabrillo and Crespi—the site of Los Angeles.

By 1780 soldiers were moving through the upper provinces of Mexico, recruiting settlers for the southern pueblo. By May, 1781, eleven families were on their way north from Lower California—the first small wave of the huge overland migration to come. Escorted by four soldiers who parceled out the land, they founded their village early in September. Its full name: El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora La Reina de Los Angeles —“The Town of Our Lady The Queen of The Angels.” It was soon called simply Los Angeles, and its inhabitants Angelenos.

The governor’s plan worked well. The Los Angeles pioneers built rude huts, diverted the river to irrigate their fields, and soon were producing enough to feed the military posts of San Diego and Santa Barbara from the surplus.

But to the good fathers of San Gabriel the new neighbors were a mixed blessing. Shiftless and unruly, they set a bad example for the mission Indians. They paid, as one friar put it, “more attention to gambling and playing the guitar than to tilling their lands and educating their children.” Indeed. Father Mariano Payeras believed the Angelenos should “give their attention to other products of industry than wine and brandy.…” Visiting the pueblo in 1821, he grieved at the lack of a church, though the foundation of one had been laid six years before in a burst of piety. Calling the citizens together, he made them agree to join in completing the church if he would provide help from the missions.

“I have seen that 800 Catholic souls are there without a shepherd in sight,” he wrote his colleagues. “This is very painful.”

Though the missions lacked money, they eagerly responded with labor and trading goods. From San Juan Capistrano and San Luis Rey marched a small army of Indians to labor on the great project. From the other missions came contributions of cattle and barrels of brandy. In such a spirit of devotion the Los Angeles church was completed in 1822. For their part, the good Angelenos provided cash for the project by purchasing the brandy and drinking it with utmost zeal.