by Paul R. Spitzzeri
As greater Los Angeles underwent, in the early 1920s, another in its series of large-scale development booms, one area that saw tremendous growth was the raft of unincorporated subdivisions springing up in Los Angeles County. Without restrictive ordinances that were enacted in incorporated towns and cities, some of these made allowances for people on larger lots to treat their properties as “mini-farms,” with crops and smaller farm animals.
One example was the Town of Temple (renamed Temple City in 1928) which was launched in spring 1923 and had smaller 50-foot wide lots around its small commercial downtown core, but which offered larger, usually half-acre, tracts around the perimeter on which personal farming and animal husbandry was permitted.
It is likely that Walter Temple and his partners, business manager Milton Kauffman, attorney George H. Woodruff and Alhambra sheep rancher Sylvester Dupuy were influenced by earlier projects that utilized this model for development. Tonight’s highlighted artifact from the Homestead collection may be one of those exemplars, being a press photograph with a date of 13 May 1926 of Belvedere Gardens, better known to us as East Los Angeles.
Going back more than a half-century prior, the first subdivision in the city of Los Angeles that was east of the Los Angeles River was East Los Angeles, opened for development in 1873 during the peak of the region’s first boom. The name of the community, however, changed by a vote of residents in 1917 to Lincoln Heights. So, the name “East Los Angeles” was retired for a while.
Meantime, the Janss Investment Company, headed by a doctor who’d arrived two years before to start a medical practice, was formed in 1895. Peter Janss and his sons, Edwin (also a doctor) and Harold, slowly built the firm into a real estate powerhouse over the decades, including developments in Boyle Heights, Van Nuys, Yorba Linda, and Monterey Park.
In 1922, the company purchased over 3,000 acres owned by the recently deceased Arthur Letts, who ran the Broadway department store, in an area of rolling hills in West Los Angeles. One of Letts’ daughters was married to Harold Janss, so that made the sale likely a foregone conclusion.
The Janss corporation then made the inspired decision to donate a large tract of just under 400 acres of the property to the University of California for a new “Southern Branch” campus that, by the end of the decade, became U.C.L.A. The surrounding areas including prime real estate that, being near a major university, enhanced property values in Holmby Hills and Westwood.
Not as prestigious and more like the earlier projects mentioned above was Belvedere Gardens, which was launched in 1921 as the real estate market was red hot regionally. Early ads from February promoted the rural purposes of much of the tract. For example, the 21 February issue of the Los Angeles Express stated:
One hundred and fifty acres of land at the end of the Stephenson avenue car line, fronting on the Whittier boulevard road, has just been acquired by the Janss Investment Company, and is now under subdivision for home sites. In reality these are to be little farm homes, a survey platting them into one-third acres and up.
The Los Angeles Railway line followed Stephenson Avenue, which became Whittier Boulevard, to the eastern end of city limits, and terminated there, but “the property is within walking distance beyond” and the five-cent fare made for affordable commuting to downtown. In an ad shortly appearing in that paper, it was noted that the “little farms” of 100′ width and 160′ depth would be sold at “pre-war prices.” Those who took the yellow car to the end of the line would be met by an agent who would drive them to see the tract.
By early March, the advertisements got much larger and eye-catching, luring readers with the idea that “Belvedere Gardens is the answer” because those larger lots were “big enough to reduce your living expenses with garden truck [meaning fruits like strawberries and melons rather than those raised on trees and vegetables], chickens, rabbits.” Alternatively, the lots could be divided into two or more smaller lots “for as much as the original cost” and, presumably, realize for the owner a tidy little profit.
Within in a few months, there was a modification to the “small farm” angle and one that, with somewhat of a contradiction, promoted the idea that Belvedere Gardens was “away from the noise and smoke” while also touting that the tract “values ought to increase because of industrial growth to the south.”
In fact, much as Boyle Heights, formed in the 1870s with an upper middle-class target audience for much of its land because of elevated views from a bluff overlooking the Los Angeles River and the rest of town, became working class by the end of the century because of the proximity to the original industrial section of downtown and railroad yards along the river, Belverdere Gardens appealed to the same demographic because of the next phase of industrial development to the southeast.
In places like Vernon and the future City of Commerce, enormous growth in manufacturing demanded a working-class workforce in close proximity and the attractive pricing of places like Belvedere Gardens conformed to the conditions available. Thirty-five years later, the creation of the City of Industry meant that areas like La Puente, Bassett and sections of Hacienda Heights, Rowland Heights, Baldwin Park and West Covina that were near it had housing stock that fit the demographics of workers in the industrial city.
With its location just outside Los Angeles city limits, there were other inducements Janss Investment could make to buyers, including the allowance of the building of temporary structures, rather than finished homes and this was in addition to easy payment plans to make affordability in reach for working class purchasers. Interestingly, a June article in the Express discussed a related question and one that is reflective of one of our biggest current concerns about the cost of housing:
Recent official investigation by one of the municipal departments disclosed the fact that there is practically not a place rentable in Los Angeles for $25 or less per month This is the maximum that many families are able to pay, and the situation is said to have been productive of much deprivation. Many families of moderate means in such places as had been obtained at this figure were reported to be living under stressful conditions.
To families of moderate means unable to find suitable quarters, the opportunity to move onto a lot and put up a temporary home, and to pay for their piece of land by a small cash payment and a little monthly amount, the opening of new subdivisions has been a boon.
These methods were apparently very successful, as it was reported that “families have moved on so fast that frequently lots are settled in advance of street work” and that “it is said to have been difficult for subdividers to keep pace with growth in this new district.” Of course, today’s “families of moderate means” just about a century later do not have new affordable subdivisions like Belvedere Gardens for them.
Clearly, however, the concept of providing low-priced newly subdivided tracts like this reached a large and ready audience as, five years after the community was established, this press photo’s caption had an eye-catching statement. It noted that, with a population of some 30,000, Belvedere Gardens “is larger than hundreds of towns, but which is not incorporated as a city.” In fact, the statement continued, “it is by many thousands the largest unincorporated community in the world. Not only that, the caption offered that it “for no particular reason has drifted into its present size without organization.”
The image is taken from an eminence on a chaparral-covered hillside and looks on mostly level areas with dirt streets and, with magnification, it can clearly be discerned that the houses are very modest, including bungalows and, in some cases, little four-room frame dwellings. There are some larger two-story residences, a few commercial buildings and what looks to be a school on an elevated parcel at the center right. At the upper right and left are some changes in elevation in the landscape and, overall, it is obvious that Belvedere Gardens was a working-class community.
Later, the name changed to East Los Angeles and, while the ethnic demographic has shifted from primarily white to predominantly Latino, that working-class aspect has remained with the industrial areas of downtown and the southeast area still largely drawing its labor force from the community. This photo is an early view of this area and provides a perspective both on housing and market conditions in 1920s greater Los Angeles and a way to reflect on the very serious issue of housing affordability in that specific area and region-wide nearly one hundred years later.