by Paul R. Spitzzeri
With the onset of the 20th century, greater Los Angeles underwent another of its succession of growth and development booms with expansion going in all directions of the compass, including the City of Los Angeles and its outlying suburbs. One of these at the northern fringe of the original four square league limits established when the pueblo was established under Spanish dominion in 1781 was Cypress Park, located at the confluence of the Los Angeles River and the Arroyo Seco.
Tonight’s featured object from the museum’s holdings is a photo postcard, with a postmark of 13 October 1919, of Cypress Park taken from the steep hills of Elysian Park. The view shows the sparsely settled community just beyond the Los Angeles River with the Arroyo Seco emptying into it and the San Fernando Road bridge spanning the latter There are perhaps several dozen houses in the community, but beyond, towards Mt. Washington, is lots of undeveloped property, including the bare hills to the north.
In the distance are the Verdugo Mountains and the image is striking considering the lay of the land now, over 110 years later. As for the developing community in view, it was labeled “East Los Angeles,” though that much older neighborhood, established in 1873, is a little to the south out of the right side of the view and was renamed Lincoln Heights not long afterward.
In the first decade of the 1900s, planning was still in its early evolutionary stage and, while it was generally easy for developers to get city approval to build tracts, what proved to be problematic for residents and city government was getting a handle on the amenities wanted and needed by those living in places like Cypress Park. Though some sources indicate that the community was established in 1882, it looks like the first major stage of growth in the neighborhood came after the new century began.
Some of the elements desired by the growing number of residents in these years included sidewalks, lighting, gas, parks, fire and police services, and schools, which we tend to take for granted, but were not necessarily in the works as communities like Cypress Park were being created. In fact, there was no identity for the area until October 1909, when a group of concerned citizens gathered at Hope Chapel, situated at the corner of Cypress Avenue and Loosmore Street, and created the Cypress Park Improvement Association.
As expressed in the 22 October 1909 edition of the Los Angeles Times, the two dozen residents who attended the meeting were “tired of doing without gas, street lamps, fire protection, and a number of other things the rest of the city has” and the secretary and treasurer of the Association, A.W. McGahan, told the assemblage, “within two and one-half miles of the City Hall, we of the Cypress Park district receive fewer benefits from the City than any other section in Los Angeles.”
Also mentioned in the piece was that property owners along Cypress Avenue were said to have assented to having it widened into a boulevard with the idea “of making the thoroughfare one of the most attractive in the city.” It concluded by listing the names of the six other officers, beside McGahan elected for the Association.
A second confab the following week was covered by the Times, which noted that more than twenty new members joined as the group, covering an area “between the San Fernando road and Mount Washington on the northeast inside the city” went to work, with a constitution and by-laws adopted. One item of business was to have a more orderly way of naming the streets crossing Cypress Avenue, so that those going south toward the river and those heading north from the streetcar line that paralleled the street had common monikers, as well as placing street signs. It was also anticipated that the Los Angeles Railway, the system owned by Henry E. Huntington and which operated all cars within city limits, would use the name “Cypress Park” on its cars plying the Eagle Rock line.
There were, in fact, a growing number of such improvement associations developing in the city and region at the end of the 19th century and into the 20th. In February 1910, the Times reported on three of them, including the Ninth Ward Improvement Association, one of the oldest in Los Angeles and which covered the Boyle Heights area, and the Cottage Home Improvement Association, comprising an area along North Broadway below Elysian Park and just north of today’s Chinatown.
With respect to the Cypress Park Improvement Association, it was noted that it formed the prior October and until the time of the article, “it has aroused public spirit among the residents of the district, and called the attention of various city departments to matters for the betterment of the community.” There were about sixty members who shared the “aims to secure electric street lights, police protection, fire protection, gas and electric lights for domestic use” while also making improvements to Cypress Avenue to city limits towards what became Glassell Park. In addition, the group looked to having a park and a public school (soon after, a playground was added to the list of wants) located in Cypress Park and the paper called the entity “a thriving and enthusiastic association.”
In fall 1911, in petitioning the city for a fire station at Cypress and Idell streets, the Association noted there were up to 700 houses in the Cypress Park district and it was reported that Mayor George Alexander moved that the fire commission visit the area and look to choose a suitable locale. The problem, however, when that expedition was made was that it was learned that the community was only served by two-inch water mains, not nearly sufficient for fire hydrants. This only highlighted the problem with piecemeal planning in places like Cypress Park, though in many ways the development of neighborhoods in Los Angeles and other regional cities did improve over the years.
Cypress Park was, with the race restrictions that operated throughout most of the city for year, a white working and middle-class community with access to blue-collar railroad and industrial jobs downtown. By the 1970s and 1980s, many of those jobs vanished and the Latino-majority neighborhood was hit hard by the loss of economic opportunities for its residents. Recent years have brought, as with other districts near downtown Los Angeles, gentrification, which has become a controversial and contentious issue for long-time residents finding themselves priced out of their community.
This image is an early one of a newly established neighborhood on the edge of Los Angeles and was taken at a time when Cypress Park residents formed an association to advocate for services that were lacking. Over a century later, conditions are dramatically different, but many of the same concerns regarding essential services remain, if not in not having them at all as in 1909, then in looking to have an acceptable level for today’s needs and wants.