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The original version of this article was published on April 28th, 2022 for our new Making a Neighborhood Newsletter. Please consider becoming a paid subscriber today to get more stories like it, plus work from our colleagues Samanta Helou Hernandez (@Samanta_Helou) and Ali Rachel Pearl (@alirachelpearl).
In 1922, historian Carey McWilliams arrived to Los Angeles from Colorado via the Southern Pacific railroad. His first home in the city was in the area that, in the year 2000, was designated as the Little Armenia section of East Hollywood. As McWilliams tells it in his Southern California: An Island on the Land (1946), “My dear uncle–the kindest man I have ever known–met me at the old Southern Pacific station…and drove me out Sunset Boulevard to the white-stucco six-unit flat he owned near the corner of Normandie and Sunset.”
Today, Southern California remains relevant for its candid look at the racial relations underlying L.A.’s history since the city’s founding. Note the book’s following excerpt on L.A. County and the state’s record-breaking deadliness just three years after their induction into the U.S. (1850) for example, “In 1853, California had more murders than the rest of the United States, and Los Angeles had more than the rest of California. In a five-year period, 1849-1854, Californians invested $6,000,000 in bowie knives and pistols, and during this period the state reported 2,400 murders, 1,400 suicides, [and] ‘10,000 other miserable deaths.’”
When one considers that the same year California entered “the union,” its first legislators passed the 1850 California Act for the Government and Protection of Indians, which outlawed Native Californians from testifying in court against whites while also legalizing their indentured servitude and forced removal from ancestral homelands, it’s clear just how such an “arms race” led only to more fatalities; it’s also telling of how L.A. and the Golden State’s racial hierarchies were literally embedded into law at the outset of their tenure for U.S. markets and government, only for still too many residents here to have little to no familiarity with.
Williams’ arrival to Los Angeles in the early 1920s was also in line with one of several migrations over the years in which Mid-Westerners and Black people from the South came to California. By 1930, both groups and more would help to double L.A. County’s population to some 2.2 million residents, making it the fifth largest city in the nation.
From 1930 – 1940, of the Great Depression, Hoovervilles, and World War II abroad, L.A. County would grow further, although this time—due in no small part to racial covenants, deed restrictions, and other racist tools—towards unsustainable proportions for Black residents in particular. According to the L.A. Times:
“Between 1940 and 1965, the black [sic] population in Los Angeles County jumped from 75,000 to 650,000, with two-thirds in the South Los Angeles area.”
Untold numbers of these Black residents came to the aid of the United States, then, at a time of war manufacturing for the state, only to find themselves in de facto rather than de jure segregation in South L.A. afterwards. Following Mayor Yorty and LAPD Chief Parker’s militant and deadly response to protest against these conditions in 1965, McWilliams also wrote about Watts and its ties to the rest of the city that, “The new middle class living in jerry-built ‘lily white’ subdivisions, each with its own shopping-center, can honestly claim to be no more aware of Watts than the nice Germans were of Belsen. For the highly paid technicians at the Jet Propulsion Lab, Watts might well be an unnamed crater on the moon.”
McWilliams died in 1980, but were he alive to see the glass shards and flames emerging across the intersection of Florence and Normandie avenue on April 29th, 1992, which marked the outrage of yet another generation—this time Black as well as Brown—he’d quickly recognize how so much unrest could spread through Los Angeles again.
Thirty years since L.A. residents rebelled against the racial rule and order of another government on this westernmost part of the United States, there is still not yet a unified, comprehensive, and citywide commemoration of the unrest of 1965 and 1992. Just this past 2021, both the city and county began proceedings to officially apologize to Native Southern California tribes here for official county and state crimes against them, but no such proceedings have been motioned for with respect to the city and state’s bombardment of Black and Brown communities in the 20th century.
Yet if the renewed momentum for civil rights in the U.S. over the past few years indicates anything, it’s that opportunities to connect these histories for public commemoration are rare, and should thus be pursued with haste, especially for generations of Black, Brown, Asian-American and other communities in the city; honoring memories of these legacies should also be for more than planners, journalists, and even educators’ programs, but for the general public’s engagement.
In this vein, the August 1965 rain of fire from the Los Angeles Police Department and California’s National Guard in Watts led to the immediate deaths of 34 people–overwhelmingly African-American–the injury of 864 others, and material damage of $200 million, according to sources, including Gerald Horne’s Fire This Time: The Watts Uprising and the 1960s (1995).
In 1992, the Los Angeles Police Department and National Guard’s response to a second mass rebellion across L.A. led to the deaths of 64 people, the injury of nearly 2,400 others, and damage to storefronts and thoroughfares of $800 million to $1 billion, setting a national record.
A 2012 spreadsheet by the L.A. Times also shows that at least seven of the people killed during the horrific five days of unrest following LAPD’s acquittal in the Rodney King verdict were located in East Hollywood, Silver Lake, and Hollywood. A brief commemoration for them follows, along with some notes on where the sites of their deaths “stand” for residents today. Also note that the first four deaths listed are those of civilians at the hands of other civilians, while the final three listed are those of civilians in encounters with LAPD.
James L. Taylor, a 26 year old Black man, was shot and killed near a looted video store and laundromat close to Sunset boulevard and Kingsley drive, or the Little Armenia area. Today, evictions and the demolition of housing in the neighborhood increasingly push residents out. Council District 13, of which the area is a part, ranks 3rd on the list of 15 districts for the highest number of unhoused residents in L.A. from 2010 – 2020.
Jose Solorzano, a 25 year old Latino, was shot and killed by a security guard within range of Vermont avenue and Santa Monica boulevard; today, the intersection serves as a prime location for several unhoused people’s tents along its sidewalks. Within a couple of years, it will also be home to the area’s first mixed-use development of seven stories on top of where a local swap meet once resided; however, it will also soon oversee affordable and transitional housing atop Metro’s Vermont/Santa Monica station, East Hollywood’s first such gain in its short, though versatile history.
Jose Pineda, a 20 year old Latino, was shot and killed in a gun-fight at the junction between Santa Monica and Sunset boulevard by a shop owner defending his business there. Today, across the street, luxury apartments of no more than 428 square feet rent for $2,300 a month, while Erewhon’s customers and littered memorabilia dominate the vicinity.
Wallace Tope, a white man of 54 years, died seven months after sustaining injuries at the same lot which now situates the three-story Target store at Western avenue and Sunset boulevard. In Hollywood, near the intersection of Santa Monica boulevard and Seward street, three Black residents—Darnell R. Mallory, 18 years old; Jerel L. Channell, 26 years old; and Juanita Pettaway, 37 years old—were also killed in a car crash while attempting to escape pursuant LAPD squad cars.
Today, as one walks from Santa Monica boulevard along the edge of Silver Lake and onto Sunset boulevard and Western avenue, one can see another steadily developing unsustainability along racial lines, in which more luxury lofts, $17 bagels and other new capital proliferate at the same time that more people have nowhere to live, exposing them to no less than premature death. Were the ghost of McWilliams to return to where his uncle first introduced him to the town today, he might point it out as another neglected “squalor” the city would be wise to stop ignoring.
Our neighborhood’s losses and the connections they continue to bear with marginalized and silenced vicinities across L.A. County thus also need to take more space in public dialogue and memory. As another historian, Sandra de la Loza, put it in her Field Guide to L.A.: Monuments and Murals of Erased and Invisible Histories (2011):
“For the dispossessed whose stories are not memorialized or recorded, memory becomes a vital space in resisting erasure, silence and invisibility.”