This article was originally published on March 31st, 2022 for our new Making a Neighborhood Newsletter. Please consider becoming a paid subscriber today to get more stories like it, plus more work from our colleagues Samanta Helou Hernandez and Ali Rachel Pearl.
Los Angeles was founded in 1781—next to and on top of the Native Tongva/Gabrieleño village called Yaangna—by 11 familias and four soldiers of mixed African, Indigenous and European ancestry. In two separate groups, they came largely from the Mexican states of Sonora and Sinaloa, one crossing through Baja California, the other through the Sonoran and Mojave deserts; they were a total of 11 men, 11 women, and 22 children who trekked over 1,200 miles north before reaching La misión San Gabriel Arcángel, which was founded by the Spanish priest Junipero Serra only a decade earlier. Nine miles later, they raised the pueblo this storyteller names himself after.
Four years after this journey, Toypurina, a Tongva/Gabrieleño medicine woman born and raised on the land prior to la misión taking control of it, led an attempted revolt against its padres, etching her name into Los Angeles’ rebel archives ad infinitum. Sixteen years later in 1801, Pío Pico, of African and Indigenous roots, was born at the church. He would become the last governor of California under Mexican law.
La misión is now both a site of worship as well as a tourist destination; it’s also a smidgeon in the rearview mirror of a city whose “direction” seems more intent on building stadiums instead of housing for its most essential workers and families, to say nothing of relief for untold numbers of people living on its streets. As a pastor, Serra might be perplexed by such a humanitarian crisis so close to the walls of his and his brethren’s place of refuge, while Toypurina and Pico, both stripped of their original homes by forces larger than themselves, might not be as surprised.
Yet, that it was a band of familias who traced the first 28 square miles of L.A. (which are now 4,800 square miles) allows us to see a few things about the origins of a city which still appears committed to eluding a sense of history and place.
For starters, the journey of the familias—long and arduous, and during a time when no vaccine existed for some deadly, 3,000-year-old virus called smallpox—makes it clear that immigration and resilience—or resilient immigrants—are strengths Los Angeles and California never merely acquired, but which they’ve been made of since their humble beginnings.
After all, the pobladores of 1781 were not the first group to make a sojourn through the mysterious land of California in an effort to establish a town. According to historian William M. Mason: “An attempt to settle the southern tip of Baja California in the 1530s ended in failure, and there was to be no slow progression up the peninsula for nearly two centuries.”
Secondly, it’s clear that the familias were heterogeneous, containing wide-ranging colors, languages, and histories between them. In a collage recreation of what they may have physically looked like, the L.A. Almanac notes: “Two are white and two are black. Eleven are indigenous to Mexico. The rest are multiracial combinations of white, black and indigenous. Half are of African descent. L.A.’s founders were perhaps the most ethnically diverse group of founders for any major city in America.”
Yet the story of these familias is about even more than their shades of brown under the sun. Unlike the homogenous “founding fathers” to the east in Philadelphia who rebelled against the queen five years before L.A.’s establishment, the pueblo’s founding familias were largely workers, and made up of more women and youth than men.
Among the 22 youth, the average age was seven years old; the youngest were Cosme Damian, whose parents were both of “Indian” ancestry, and Maria Antonia, whose parents were also documented as “Indian.” Each of them was only a year old. The oldest of the youth was Maria Getrudis, 16, whose father was noted as Black and whose mother was considered a “mulatta.”
These were the first families of the city whose absorption by the U.S. nearly a century later in 1850 came to complete the dream of Manifest Destiny; of the same city which a century after that, between 1950 and 1970, erected a 527 mile-long “freeway” system that destroyed the homes and businesses of at least 250,000 of its residents—losses to which the families of the Yaangna villages from 1781 could relate.
But let us also make clear about the founders that they were contractors. They had no benefits. Together with their Black and Indigenous bloodlines, they were mostly there to do a job and perhaps get some land from Governor Felipe De Neve, who himself was under orders from King Carlos III to preempt encroachments by Russian and English navigators snooping around California at the time; L.A. was supposed to be both a potential military outpost as well as a pueblo, which required the pobladores to be the multi-skilled pioneering types (characteristics still required and typical of most immigrants today).
On reaching the trail of the future L.A. river, then, the founders did not just declare the future city. According to historian David Samuel Torress-Rouff: “They went to work fulfilling the obligations outlined in their documents: damming the river; drawing off an irrigation channel; dividing among themselves a series of house, garden, and agricultural lots; and establishing a central plaza. In doing so, they carved a town out of the arid yet fertile basin.” It was quite the achievement, Torress-Rouff goes on to note, for workers who as “Indians, Negros and Mulattos,” undoubtedly occupied the lower ranks of Spain’s casta or racial system.
Nearly 241 years later, a new, but not too dissimilar diversity of workers sustains Los Angeles against only more odds (like “the Big One,” for example), including in a little neighborhood known as East Hollywood, a brief history for which follows.
In 1910, less than seven miles from the limits of the original pueblo, a vote by the residents of Hollywood added their little “Tinseltown,” including its eastern portion (plus 3,015 acres of the Rancho Los Feliz donated by Griffith Jenkins Griffith), to county lines. At the time, it had also been just three years since L.A.’s residents voted in support of William Mulholland’s then-new aqueduct in an election highly influenced by the L.A. Times. To this day, Mulholland’s aqueduct is credited as the biggest incentive for Hollywood’s residents opting to join the pueblo.
But the addition of Hollywood (including East Hollywood) to county limits also went into effect just one year after L.A. officials drafted their first ever zoning guidelines. You see, by 1910, L.A. had been on a fast-track of expansion over thirty years, starting in 1876 when the Southern Pacific Railroad out of San Francisco effectively connected the pueblo to cities as far east as Chicago. Los Angeles’ population had gone from less than 34,000 people in 1880, to just less than 102,000 by 1890, and up to 170,000 by 1900. Yet somehow—even pre-aqueduct—the city’s growth was set to erupt again.
By the time L.A. extended westward into Hollywood, the population had more than tripled from its size at the start of the 20th century to more than 504,000 people. It happened too fast, and living conditions became hemmed in and awkward. According to Los Angeles Walks, “Residential areas were rubbing up against both farms and burgeoning industrial areas. People complained about the smells and sights of slaughterhouses, saloons, laundries, brickyards, and a host of other perceived negative land uses.”
By 1920, then, L.A. officials published their first-ever zoning ordinances in response to these conditions, creating single-family, multi-family, business, light industry, and heavy industry zones. So today, when, as the New York Times points out, “[i]t is illegal on 75 percent of the residential land in many American cities to build anything other than a detached single-family home,” those cities can thank 1920s L.A. officials for setting the standard.
As importantly, across lands beyond Los Angeles and California, another set of ordinances and laws were also expanding in scale and scope. They were the U.S.’s Jim Crow laws, or legalized and enforced segregation dividing Black people from white people. These laws were most pronounced in the south, but their origins could be traced to white “northerners” on train cars who demanded to ride separately from Black passengers along growing U.S. railroad tracks.
Northern support for segregation could be traced to as early as 1841, as noted by this op-ed from Massachusetts titled “Rebuke of the Eastern Railroad Company, for their Treatment of Colored Passengers.” But Jim Crow didn’t truly proliferate until confederates and their sympathizers sabotaged earlier legislation for civil relations such as the 1875 Civil Rights Act; the Act’s purpose was to honor the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments created for freed Black men during Reconstruction. When the Supreme Court struck it down in 1883, then, “separate but equal” got its official shot. It would be established as law in Plessy versus Ferguson in 1896.
In effect, over the three decades that Los Angeles transformed from its sleepy rancho days to one of the 10 most populous cities by 1910, counties and states across the U.S., including in the north and south, were transforming the right to access within city limits to serve white supremacy. It was only a matter of time before these issues intersected with the city, and did they ever. As Mike Davis noted about East Hollywood’s neighbors one mile north towards Griffith Park: “The first Homeowner’s Associations in Los Angeles, beginning with the Los Feli[z] Improvement Association in 1916, were the children of deed restrictions in a new kind of planned subdivision…” By “subdivision,” Davis means divided plots of land which by and large belonged to white people, quite a few of whom had every intention to keep things as such.
The heirs of General Robert Lee’s confederate legacy had thus done more than win the south back from the union on legislation. They had spread the reach and instruments of white supremacy as far north and west as orange-grove rich L.A., where racism would take on new forms like racial deed restrictions, the KKK, Homeowners Associations, eminent domain, and more.
Yet, back in East Hollywood, where such deed restrictions and other confederate-inspired legacies had not yet shaped the surrounding area, a dream of Reconstruction quietly persisted. In 1892, as reported by Samanta Helou-Hernandez’s “J-Flats: Stories From a Redlined Neighborhood,” a formerly enslaved African American man named George Albright and his wife, Josephine Hardy, a white woman, arrived to the west coast by train and settled on a small lot south of Los Feliz, west of downtown, and east of Hollywood. Preceding any racist subdivisions to be found nearby in the ensuing decades, they started a family here: “At the time, the area was all farmland, full of fruit orchards and streams. The Albrights homesteaded the area, living off the land and the grist mill George ran.”
Eight years after the Albrights joined Los Angeles at this juncture, Anny Bakalian points out in Armenian Americans how, “the very first Armenian in Los Angeles was a student who came from the East Coast for health reasons around 1900.” While it’s unclear whether this student settled in East Hollywood—which today is home to Little Armenia—it’s safe to infer that only a generation later, at least a handful of fellow Armenians did just so. Says Bakalian of a scholar and researcher of Armenian migration in the early 1920s: “Yeretzian was a Protestant minister and social worker who had the opportunity to gather firsthand information on the Armenians in Los Angeles…He writes that there were between 2,500 to 3,000 Armenians at the time of his study.”
Obituaries of residents located in East Hollywood from the 1920s until before the second world war also show the area as housing a considerable number of “Turks,” which were erroneous references to Armenians displaced by the Ottoman Empire during the genocide of 1915. Nonetheless, like the Albrights near Virgil Avenue, Armenians were allowed to live in East Hollywood and not written out of inclusion as they would be elsewhere.
Not far along, Filipino and Japanese families also made their way to the vicinity in waves over the early 20th century after U.S. military engagements in the Pacific changed the balance of power in their countries; so did Mexican-American laborers after the Mexican revolution to pick oranges and citrus, so much so that by 1939, when appraisers for the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (HOLC) stopped by what today is known as Historic Filipinotown (East Hollywood’s southeast neighboring community) they’d write: “Population is extremely heterogeneous, there being a concentration of Japanese south Temple St., and one of Negroes west of Alvarado between Bellevue and Beverly Blvd. In addition to these concentrations there is a sprinkling of Russians and Mexicans.” HOLC language used to describe the area within the boundary lines of what’s now known as East Hollywood was not much different.
Today in the vicinity, along Vermont Avenue, a Salvadoran pupuseria takes space next to an Armenian pizzeria, which resides next to a convenience mart run by a Chinese-American family; less than a block away, another, newer college mart owned by an Indian-American invites one and all. On the weekends, vendors from around the world, but especially Central America, earnestly take over the avenue with tarps and small goods to make business, friendships, and, if anything else, to uplift Los Angeles’ colorful and vibrant characters. At least 48% of L.A.’s residents can now also cite roots to some Spanish surname, and like the first familias, many of them have also crossed thousands of miles on their feet to reach the locus of new beginnings the land has harbored for ages.
It’s also evident that like the founders cast as “lowly” workers or part of some “undesirable” social class, they are far more talented than the empire might give them credit for, as shown by their counterparts in the vicinity’s more established sites of commerce, vast swaths of which remain family-owned: auto body and repair shops; bakeries and donut shops; haircut salons and spas; newsstands, print-shops, and more. Together each of these “slices” of the neighborhood maintain an explosively heterogeneous environment that remains as open as it was 100 years ago when the Albrights, Armenian Americans, Filipinos and others reached it.
While some may doubt the strength of so much divergence for its lack of centrality or uniformity, it’s actually this same “absence of center” that makes East Hollywood a unique home to Russian, Ukrainian, and Latinx churches within blocks of each other. Many of the faithful followers who can be found in these centers of worship can also share experiences of displacement with each other, all unique in their own way, but ultimately similarly catalystic in their motivation towards a better way of life and living in Los Angeles; they are also living proof of the benefits fought for and won by Black strides against institutional racism, including the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments, and the 1965 Immigration and Naturalization Act, among others.
Perhaps most of all, however, the people of these neighborhoods—mothers, aunties, grannies, tios and tias, and their heirs—share with the original pobladores from 240 years ago a fierce unwillingness to simply conform to market, racist, or other forces larger than themselves; instead, their resilience creates a new city, one daily remaking “the old with the new” in ways that sustain life altogether. Together they are East Hollywood. And East Hollywood is Los Angeles. Each is still just getting started.
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[…] candidates for public office are far more reflective of the diversity embodied by the city’s first familias than what’s been the case in decades, and have likewise hit the ground running against the […]