Baghdad On The Freeway

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But though some fortunes were shattered, the collapse was no calamity. When the dust cleared Los Angeles was a city of large brick buildings and paved streets, new colleges and churches, electric railroads and street lights—an American metropolis that looked the part. Approaching a population of 80,000 in 1887, it had fallen back to 50,000 in the census of 1890—but that was still five times as many people as it had had ten years before. Across Southern California the more solid boom towns clung to life, their industrious citizens doing more than looking on “while the earth sends forth her plenty.” The boom had revolutionized an empire—swept away the vestiges of its Spanish origin, left it thoroughly Americanized in appearance and culture, made it the promised land of eastern immigrants yet to come.

Most important of all, the booster spirit—far from dying with the boom—was fused into the Los Angeles mind. Broken to harness, it was put to work by the newly formed Chamber of Commerce. Bottled and corked, it was spoon-fed to every new arrival, whether he came by birth or by rail. Los Angeles was going to be the biggest city in the world. The only question was how long it would take.

With this war cry the Angelenos laid a firmer basis for growth than climate and ballyhoo. In 1892, in Los Angeles, E. L. Doheny made Southern California’s first great oil strike, one of several that would make California the second largest oil-producing state in the nation. Led by the Chamber of Commerce and the Los Angeles Times , the city was campaigning for a federal-built harbor at San Pedro, and by 1899 work began on a man-made port that would bring to Los Angeles the merchant ships of the world. Answering a need for intercity transportation, Henry E. Huntington built a network of electric railways that helped start another real-estate boom after the turn of the century. With new growth straining the local water resources, engineer William Mulholland reached 240 miles to Owens River for a fresh supply. Even the climate joined in and helped bring to Los Angeles two massive new industries—motion pictures and airplane manufacture.

Spurred by its own success, boosterism was riding high. By 1920 Los Angeles had passed San Francisco in population and was still boasting about this when it topped a million after the boom of the twenties. Up to this point no one had thought of asking whether population was an end in itself. More people meant more customers—it was that simple. But the depression made it terribly clear that people alone do not make prosperity. Switching its tactics, the Chamber of Commerce stopped trying to attract population for its own sake, and began to concentrate instead on attracting industry.

Yet this was only a shift of emphasis. It took World War II and the postwar boom to kill the booster spirit. By the time Los Angeles became the third city in the nation and was ready to take on Chicago, many Angelenos were wondering whether it was worth the trouble. Elbow room—always dear to the westerner—was gone. Life in Southern California had become a huge jostling match. In San Fernando Valley, the city’s last frontier, subdividers had built tract homes so fast that schools, streets, sewers—the simple utilities—fell years behind. Though valiant efforts were made to rush construction of freeways, Los Angeles became a vast traffic jam enveloped in smog. Sometimes hidden from its own sunshine, the city was doing a good job of destroying its first and best resource—climate. And as for the “good land,” it had disappeared under a layer of pavement, roof tops, and swimming pools.

Unable to stem the flood it started, Los Angeles was the victim of its own salesmanship. It was too late to wonder whether the Spanish might have been right, after all. The only thing left was to build a city equal to the population.