Los Angeles is a City of Contrasts, according to Mike Davis

What is the point of learning about L.A.’s past? Because history repeats itself unless we inform ourselves.

“…Los Angeles in the 1920s was in many respects a de facto dictatorship of the Times and the Merchants and Manufacturers Association, as the LAPD’s infamous ‘red squad’ kept dissent off the streets and radicals in jail.”

In 2016, it sounds like it’s straight out of a Hollywood script: a newspaper and an Association forming two parts of a ‘dictatorship’. But Los Angeles in the 1920s wasn’t the megalopolis it is today. If one can imagine it, in 1900 L.A. barely had over 100,000 people living in it.

By 1910, the city population more than doubled to over 300,000, but was still smaller than Long Beach (+400,000) today. And though by 1920 the city grew to a population of over 576,000 people, it was still only the tenth largest city in the United States, behind Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (+588,000) of all places.

New York, by contrast, counted over 5,620,000 people in 1920.

In other words, L.A. was still just another town out west in California, leaving room for just a few major ‘players’.

Davis goes on to describe how the Times and the Association’s reign took place at the time of a great internal migration in the U.S. from the the early twentieth century up to the mid-1920s, when ‘middle America’ came out to the West coast and made L.A. a particularly white, Anglo-Saxon protestant town supported by a Mexican underclass.

“…the new WASP ascendancy found its essential economic support in the arrival of Mexican labor in massive numbers after the fall of the Porfiriato in 1910.”

The Porfiriato was a thirty-five year dictatorship in Mexico from 1875 – 1910. Headed by President Porfirio Diaz, his rule by force made significant developments for the state and relative stability of Mexico, but also violently suppressed the poor or lower classes.

In the end, Diaz’s rule came to a violent demise when a revolutionary war ravaged the country. Diaz would die in exile in France, as war for his succession ravaged Mexico for the next ten years and saw many leave their homeland with dreams of a better life en el Norte.

As such, it’s easy to see how Los Angeles was a prime destination for a new beginning for Mexican laborers in the 20s, as well as how their desperation for a decent living would make them great workers for a city in need of building.

It also makes sense how a newspaper and its printing power at the time could command far more power. There were only half a million people in its beat, then.

And when considering that the Manufacturer’s Association was one of its kind as industry was still lacking in Los Angeles, the state of The City in the 1920s becomes clear: it wasn’t anything but a few people’s stomping grounds.

Yet even with this relatively ordinary backdrop, there was still a shift in power taking place. In Davis’s words:

One of the first casualties of this recomposition of demography and power was the integrated social status of Los Angeles Jews. By the early 1900s elite Jews, including the pioneer dynasties of the 1840s and 1850s, were being excluded from the corporate directorships, law firms, philanthropies and clubs that in many cases they had helped to establish.

When I read this, it was as fascinating as it was problematizing, as I realized that if the “upper classes” weren’t all just one united front but a series of different actors, then surely they aren’t now, which makes the entire notion of power far more complex than what meets the eye. It’s not just a city, but a world of contrasts.

With more soon,


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