Through the Viewfinder on Calle Eternidad, Los Angeles, 1880s

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

One of the best books I’ve read on Los Angeles history is Eternity Street, John Mack Faragher’s recently-published analysis of crime and violence in early Los Angeles. Obviously, the name of the thoroughfare that went from Bunker Hill to the Elysian Hills encapsulated something about the staggering degrees of violent behavior that were exhibited in the frontier town, especially in the Gold Rush decade of the 1850s.

LA north to Elysian Park 1880s
This 1880s photograph by Isaiah W. Taber of San Francisco shows the “Sonoratown” of Los Angeles with Calle Eternidad (Eternity Street, now North Broadway), heading from Bunker Hill in the foreground to the Elysian Hills and the old Calvary Cemetery.  At the upper left is the first Jewish cemetery in town.  From an original in the Homestead Museum collection.

An interesting visual of Calle de Eternidad is shown in the accompanying 1880s photograph by San Francisco’s Isaiah W. Taber.  Taken from Bunker Hill and looking north, the view shows Eternity Street running left of center towards the upper right in an area of Los Angeles once called “Sonoratown.”

So named because of the number of Mexican immigrants who settled there from the Gold Rush period onward, the area became one of the first barrios in Los Angeles, especially as, by the time this photo was taken, distinct areas of town were becoming more ethnically-specific.

It was said that “Sonoratown” along with the Calle de los Negros, which ran north to south in an area just southeast of the historic Plaza, in the path of what is now Los Angeles Street, was a hotbed of gambling, prostitution, drinking and, of course, violence.  This daytime scene looks serene and pastoral, but the nighttime history of the area was anything but this way, including during the 1850s.

On 2 December 1895, James M. Guinn, a chronicler of early Los Angeles, read a paper called “The Plan of Old Los Angeles and the Story of Its Highways and Byways.”  Published in the Annual Publication of the Historical Society of Southern California, Guinn’s address stated that Calle Eternidad was “so named because it had neither beginning nor end, or, rather, each end terminated in the hills.”

ord survey 3
This detail of an old reproduced copy of the Ord Survey of 1849 shows Sonoratown at the right, with Eternity Street the second from the bottom of four streets running left to right.  From the Homestead Museum collection.

Guinn didn’t provide a source for this, though it has an air of plausibility, but to this observer, it seems that Eternity Street might as well have been bestowed its name because it ran straight north to the little white square seen at the lower flank of the hills in the distance.

This was the Calvary Catholic Cemetery, created in 1844 when the original pueblo burying ground next to the Plaza Church (recent excavations for the La Plaza de Cultura y Artes revealed that there were still many persons, especially native Indians, buried on the old cemetery location) was abandoned.

Also notable at the upper left of the photo is another “island” nestled in the folds of the hills–this was the first Jewish cemetery in Los Angeles, n0w a residential area roughly near the 110 Freeway and Sunset Boulevard.

The image shows a few old adobe houses, more recent single and two-story wood-frame houses, a windmill, barns, outbuildings, stables and outhouses and, off in the distance to the north, the snow-capped San Gabriels, indicating a winter or early spring time of year.

Also included here is a detail of an old copy of the first survey taken of Los Angeles, conducted by Captain E.O.C. Ord of the United States Army in 1849.  At the right in the accompanying photo is the “Sonoratown” area and Calle Eternidad is the second from the bottom of four street shown running from left to right, above Calle Principal, or Main Street and below Calle del Toro, Bull Street, now North Hill.

When Taber took his remarkable photo, Los Angeles was on the cusp of transformative change with the famed Boom of the 1880s poised to remake the landscape of the emerging city.  It wouldn’t be long before the placid scene depicted in his image would be reconfigured.

Future posts from the Through the Viewfinder series will show just how much change was captured by the camera in a rapidly-growing greater Los Angeles region.

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