Wo/Men at Work: Building the Firestone Tire and Rubber Plant, South Los Angeles, 1927

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

The last post touched upon the rich agricultural history of greater Los Angeles, which continued to be strong regionally until after World War II.  Cattle, wheat, grapes, citrus and walnuts were among the major crops.

However, there were certain areas that were transformed from that use to others from the late 19th century onward. In particular, these were the industrial districts that first appeared along the west bank of the Los Angeles River in downtown.

There is still a strong industrial and business area, now known as the Los Angeles Downtown Industrial District, spanning some 260 acres between 3rd and 8th/Olympic and between San Pedro and Alameda streets.  For more on this district, click here.

In September 1905, what had been known as the Vernon District became an incorporated city, the first in the region to be exclusively established for industrial and business purposes.  Vernon’s development was largely predicated on access to railroad spur lines off the main lines from the rapidly expanding harbor facilities at San Pedro and Wilmington to downtown Los Angeles.  The harbor area became another natural location for a major expansion of industrial and manufacturing plants.

During the 1920s, Vernon’s growing industrial portfolio included Bethlehem Steel, General Mills food production, meat packing by Swift and Farmer John, paper manufacturing and much more.  Nearby communities like Huntington Park, Cudahy, Maywood and Bell, developed to the west of the Los Angeles River had industrial areas and/or provided housing for working class residents who worked in the industries and businesses that were nearby.

The groundbreaking ceremony for the Firestone Tire and Rubber Company in present South Gate, 16 December 1927.  The photo, from the Homestead’s collection, shows a huge crowd of onlookers and a wooden stage filled with dignitaries with a large backdrop rendering of the plant, which was completed in June 1928.

By that decade, another major industrial corridor emerged along Alameda Street south of downtown, including an area designated as Florence-Graham, which is generally defined as being between Alameda and Central Avenue and between Slauson Avenue and Century Boulevard.  Later named Florence-Firestone, after the two main roads that cross in the heart of the area, the 3.5-square mile community is home to just under 65,000 persons and had its significant businesses.  For more about this neighborhood, click here.

One was the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company plant on Central Avenue between Gage and Florence avenues that was so big it had 2,500 workers in shifts around the clock and featured its own residential element.  In 1929, the Samson Tire and Rubber Company opened, in what became the City of Commerce, an architecturally distinctive plant with “Assyrian” motifs that is now The Citadel shopping complex off Interstate 5.

Not far southwest, in what is technically the City of South Gate, was the Firestone Tire and Rubber Company facility.  Located on the northeast corner of Alameda and Firestone on 40 acres of what had been bean fields, the plant was developed to build smaller tires, whereas larger ones were manufactured at company headquarters in Akron, Ohio.  The four-story complex was designed by architects Alexander Curlett and Claude Beelman, perhaps best known for the 1925 Art Moderne Harris and Frank Building in downtown Los Angeles, as well as Seventh Street’s Roosevelt Building, and the Elks Club building at the edge of Westlake Park.

Not long after the plant opened, it was expanded and then again by World War II, so that the complex had nearly 1 million square feet of space, a staggering amount for the era.  It kept very busy during the peak of American economic dominance following the war and as Los Angeles, with its car-centric culture, provided the biggest market for Firestone tires.

By the 1970s, the glory years were over and competition from Japanese and other car makers weakened domestic automobile production and tire manufacturing suffered, as well.  The Firestone plant downsized significantly, but, by 1980, it was decided to close the facility (the company shuttered half of its plants during the era) not long before the firm was sold to Japanese manufacturer, Bridgestone.

The Homestead has a pair of fascinating photographs in its collection relating to the building of the Firestone plant.  The first is for the groundbreaking and shows a wooden stage from which speeches were given while a rendering of the plant is on a large backdrop.  The other image shows crews working on the early stages of the project and includes a fine glimpse of some earthmoving machinery on the site.

Once the crowd dispersed, the photographer (seen in shadow in the foreground) mounted the stage and took this view of earthmoving equipment starting construction on the 40-acre site at the northeast corner of Alameda Street and Firestone Boulevard.  The plant, which eventually totaled near 1 million square feet, closed in 1980 as manufacturing was vanishing from much of America.

After the 1920s, the next major iteration of industrial development included the 1950s creation of the City of Commerce, but also a movement east from Los Angeles into the San Gabriel Valley and the Inland Empire.  Ontario, for example, planned for extensive industrial sites along planned freeways and existing rail lines.

In 1957, as annexation wars were heating up among existing cities that looked to gobble up disappearing farmland, factions arose in the southern part of the eastern San Gabriel Valley.  One of them looking at the proposed State Highway 60 corridor and the proximity to the Southern Pacific and Union Pacific rail lines coming out of Los Angeles created the City of Industry.  At the time the Homestead was the site of El Encanto Sanitarium, but which was soon sold in phases to the city and eventually developed into the museum.

Heavy manufacturing has, however, largely been replaced over the last four decades or so and light manufacturing and warehousing for products manufactured mainly in Asia has become the norm.

The stunning result of this week’s presidential election was significantly based on concerns about what has happened to America’s manufacturing sector and the people who were workers in that economy.

Many old “rust belt” areas have experienced economic, political and social dislocation and, while many think of these areas as being in the corridor between Pennsylvania and, say, Wisconsin, there are parts of greater Los Angeles that show the marks of de-industrialization and there are people in those areas who have been greatly affected by conditions from that process.

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