by Paul R. Spitzzeri
The stunning transformation of Los Angeles and its environs during the Homestead’s interpretive era of 1830 to 1930 can be viewed many ways, but one notable example is how rapidly the City of Angels came to be regarded by early 20th century as a major American city in the media.
Tonight’s highlighted object from the museum’s holdings is an excellent case in point, being the 5 August 1925 issue of The Outlook. The New York-based magazine, launched in 1870 as a Christian journal but recast in 1893 to focus on society and politics until it ceased publication in the mid-1930s during the depths of the Great Depression and which positioned itself as “An Illustrated Weekly of Current Life,” made its feature article for the issue George Marvin’s “Nuestra Señora de Los Angeles.”
A frequent contributor to the publication, Marvin penned his essay in a chatty, breezy style well in keeping with popular magazines of the time and his piece, subtitled “The Magic Mecca of Southern California.” Early on, he describes Los Angeles as “a magic city, the metropolis of the American Pacific littoral” and also as “a state of mind.” He claimed that “‘Angelenos’ can’t even see the rest of California outside of Los Angeles County.”
If someone, he went on, was to mention another city in the Golden State, the “Angelenos” would respond so that “their eyes either soften with pity, harden with protest, or glaze with polite boredom.” A denizen of another town would have to understand the special nature of Los Angeles and Marvin informed the reader that “‘Our Lady of the Angels’ is a tyrant blindly worshiped by her million resident subjects.”
The jauntiness continued as the author asserted that the magic aura of the city “is a kind of mental elephantiasis, a dementia quantativa, an insanity of size.” Its denizens didn’t sleep, they “developed,” including such features as the burgeoning oil fields, the man-made harbor connected to the city “by a shoe-string gerrymander,” the imported water via the Los Angeles Aqueduct, and others. Such a transformation was “extraordinary, incredible magical” and “its figures are stunning.”
As quoted from a Belgian chamber of commerce’s publication, the transformation of Los Angeles “constitutes one supreme phenomenon which she has realized thanks for the indomitable energy and the spirit of enterprise of her people.” As Marvin explained, it, the city’s residents (or, perhaps, its power players) “acknowledge without embarrassment that they are the peremptory example of destiny; in terms maritime, industrial, and commercial they concede their supreme phenomenality. These things are food and drink and the breath of their nostrils. Of such is the kingdom of their Angelican heaven.”
He noted the “neat and antiseptic haven at San Pedro” compared with the crowded, dirty and aging harbors in Seattle, New Orleans, Boston and Philadelphia, observing that, in tonnage handled, Los Angeles was second in the nation (though he doesn’t say whether it was Boston or Seattle which led in that category) and most of it was in exported oil and imported lumber.
The core questions, however, are, naturally, expressed by Marvin in his distinctive parlance:
But how do the Angelenos get that way? Why is this southern Californian city a mecca for moving pictures, moving motor cars, moving people? Why does Nuestra Señora exercise her allure over the rest of her own State, the remaining forty-seven States, Latin America, much of foolish Europe and a little of the wiser Orient? Why live in Los Angeles, anyhow?
For the author, the first point was that living in Los Angeles was easier because “there’s no wintry negativity about southern California, no negativity of any kind about Los Angeles.” For those who lived in this veritable paradise, “the earth welcomes you, the skies smile eternally upon you, the climate embraces you.” Anything on earth one could want was there and, importantly, “you can do anything you want to do, everything, all year round.”
Beyond the ease, there was convenience. Marvin explicated that “Hollywood is in Los Angeles, not Los Angeles in Hollywood” but that “the demigods who ‘direct’ our thoughts and aspirations and desires and determine out styles from hair to hosiery” can find Arab deserts, Hawaiian surf, the snow-driven regions of Alaska, western frontier towns and more within easy reach of the film studios. The diversity of climatic regions explained a great deal as to why 80% of the films made by 58 studios and 250 companies comprising Hollywood.
As for those elements of life “not fake or facsimile,” Marvin cited the language of the All-Year Club of Los Angeles, a major booster of the region, that a person could swim in the surf, experience the burning heat of the desert and toss snowballs or ride a toboggan in one day.”
He noted that “a picturesque and eloquent literature” also pointed out other benefits, including the “open shop for labor,” meaning that unions hardly existed in pro-business Los Angeles, that there was more electricity and natural gas than anywhere else in the nation, the water was in enough supply for double the population (of course, other sources were later found to boost that availability), and “that no such thing as a tenement-house exists in southern California,” while there was no lot smaller than 150 x 50 feet in size.
Marvin observed that the population, in just five years, mushroomed from about 575,000 to an estimate of 1.1 million (it was during that period, for example, that Walter Temple engaged in a flurry of real estate development projects, including the founding of Temple City.) With such massive growth, described as “coming up from behind on the wings of the morning,” the City of Angels was the largest on the coast and the fifth in population in the country.
Here, however, the author tempered the reverie he attributed to the common denizen of Los Angeles and inquired, “but left to yourself, what would you see with candid eyes and sense with perceptions unjaded with statistics?” The answer to this rhetorical query, Marvin asserted, was “an ugly city in a setting of rare beauty—the same kind of city that a hundred other American municipalities represent North and South and East and West—plus palm trees and roses all the year round.”
Like Chicago and New York, he continued, “you would encounter the same appalling congestion that blocks your every effort to get anywhere.” Moreover, there was the same “flat suburban areas of dull sameness merging into sporadic oil fields . . . [which[ resemble fire-devastated forests” and “strident real estate ‘developments’ which had taken advantage of every vacant space to urge their claims.” He also critiqued “the miles and miles, the acres upon acres, of billboards and advertising frameworks which line all the highways, climb the hills, blot the beauty of valley and stream, and profane the sky.”
A true characteristic and, evidently penned with sarcasm, “one of the most impressive features of the city and county of Los Angeles” comprised “the insistence of an apparently universal and colossal and interminable effort to sell something.” It was this recurring idea of “developing” and of “selling the world on itself” that was key in Marvin’s analysis, although, he argued “Los Angeles needs no boost.”
In fact, he ventured, “it has already boosted itself into a momentum too great to heed the cheers of the bystanders” and, even if one wanted to knock the grudgingly admirable devotion and dedication to the relentless pursuit of its future, ” it would not feel a knock.” He added that the massive Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce, with fully 12,000 members, “has done much to shape the past of the community, direct the various phases ot its development, and determine its future.”
The chamber’s report on regional industry “publishes an exceptionally clear and plausible presentation of the case for Los Angeles, a case which apparently admits of no argument.” After poring through the publication, Marvin added, “there seems to be no good reason left for the manufacturer, the shipping man, the employer of labor, the laborer himself or the happiness seeker to remain wherever else he may be making the best of secondary conditions.”
It would not do to rehash the arguments or regurgitate the statistics as they “might tend to discourage the immediate neighbors, depress dwellers in the Middle West, or prematurely deflate the Florida balloon [a land bubble there burst the following year].” Simply put, Marvin stated, “either the rest of this United States of America must incontinently pull up stakes and trek to southern California or else reconcile themselves to exile.”
Yet, Marvin’s essay comes to a strange and ambiguous conclusion. He returned to the rhetorical:
Size—concentration, congestion, ‘development’ instead of growth, quantity production, quantity distribution, standardization of things and thoughts. More, more, more—but whither? And why?
He then ended by quoting Daniel Webster, when asked about the tough winters and hard life found at a New England university, who replied “it is a small college, but there are those who love it.” What this had to do with Los Angeles and why Marvin felt that a city had to have an explicit reason for existing went unanswered and unexplored, though the fact that the journalist was in New York looking back (and perhaps down) to Los Angeles might be part of the issue.
As for those eternal optimists Marvin talked about, they were, we can assume, representatives of the dominant ethnicity and class, white well-to-do men who had, presumably, every reason to radiate with confidence and claim that Los Angeles, that “magic mecca,” offered unbounded opportunity in the ways the journalist described.
That, of course, did not hold for Asians, Blacks, Latinos or many working class or poor whites. There may not have been New York-style tenements, but there were areas with substandard housing, schools and other amenities and industries in the so-called “open shop” where laborers had no leverage with employers—they were simply left out of the booster narrative.
So, this take on 1920s Los Angeles by a New York journalist is remarkable and fascinating on several levels, including the take on the booster spirit that animated the feelings of many in the city and region, the critiques of Marvin about the ugliness, congestion and other failings of the Angel City in contrast to its stunning growth, and the general rise of the region from a remote frontier town to a major American metropolis in little more than a half century, among others.