Creating advocates for history through the stories of greater Los Angeles.
by Paul R. Spitzzeri
So, here it is, the eve of the Victorian Fair festival this weekend at the Homestead. This post looks at the late Victorian period with a rare issue of the East Side News, a weekly paper published in East Los Angeles (now Lincoln Heights) during the 1890s and 1900s. The sheet gives an interesting view into life in the city’s first suburb during those last years of the era.
East Los Angeles was subdivided in 1873, around the peak of Los Angeles’ first significant growth period, which began after the Civil War and ended in 1875. Its founders were a trio of some of the region’s best-known citizens, including former governor John G. Downey; Dr. John S. Griffin, who came to Los Angeles during the American invasion in 1846-47; and Griffin’s nephew, Hancock M. Johnston, whose father Albert S. Johnston was a Confederate officer who died at the Battle of Shiloh.
In 1874, Benjamin C. Truman, proprietor of the Los Angeles Star newspaper, published his booster book Semi-Tropical California, and stated that East Los Angeles “is destined to become the very prettiest ‘attachment’ to the city proper.” Disclosing that he was an owner of property in the community, Truman, who had a street named for him on which the paper’s headquarters were located, turned to a San Francisco newspaper testimonial from a visitor to the Griffin and Johnston-owned ranch of some 2,000 acres, mostly planted to field and grain crops. The unnamed visitor went on to observe “one hundred and seventy of which have been reserved to a town site . . . it will, in a year or two, be one of the most beautiful in the county.
The main street was Downey Avenue, with a hundred-foot width, and forty acres around it were, to date, subdivided. Water was brought in via eight-inch pipes from the city’s water works, drawing from the Los Angeles River, though Griffin had plans for a reservoir to secure what was needed for the subdivision. With the Southern Pacific railroad station and its branch line east to the San Gabriel Valley and beyond nearby, the visitor remarked,
Much of the future growth of Los Angeles must inevitably be in that direction . . . there is one thing which adorns a home in Los Angeles which will not flourish equally well in East Los Angeles.
Initially, this opinion seemed justified, especially when William Workman’s nephew, William Henry Workman, and his partners Isaias W. Hellman and John Lazzarovitch, subdivided another “eastside” development, Boyle Heights. But, by the 1890s, most of the suburban movement, especially the “fashionable” ones, went west and south of downtown, and the eastern portion of the city did not develop as successfully.
Moreover, the great Boom of the Eighties that erupted after the completion of a direct transcontinental railroad line to Los Angeles in 1885 and which peaked during the mayoral term of William H. Workman, crashed by the end of that decade. The following decade was marked by a national depression that broke out in 1893 and there were also several years of drought in the region. The East Side News, in fact, reflects some of the malaise that set in during the end of the Victorian period.
The most obvious indication probably is in an advertisement from C.M. Burr, the owner of a shoe store on the main drag, Downey Avenue. He headed the notice “Reduction in Prices! Now is the Time for Bargains / The Cheapest Boot and Shoe House in the City.” Slashing his prices was very likely a consequence of the depression and declining business.
Another indication of hard times may be in the relative lack of interesting local news. When times are good, there are usually plenty of articles boosting the town or locality, glowing reports of new houses and business buildings being constructed, and examples of prosperous enterprises cropping up. This issue is notably absent of these.
In fact, one short article lamented the fact that Downey Avenue remained unpaved, called on merchants to do something about this, and opined that “it is a shame and disgrace to the East Side to have a street as pretty as the avenue ought to be and then let it go to rack [if not ruin].”
There is another troublesome aspect to what often happens in economically depressed period, though could easily take place during flush times, too. That is, the paper enthusiastically endorsed an anti-immigrant meeting to be held at the lodge of a local Maccabee Temple, a fraternal order. Much of the sentiment and language found in the piece might ring familiar to our ears now.
The short piece stated that the purpose was
to protest against the further landing upon our shores of the hordes of vicious and ignorant foreigners, and to publicly endorse and urge the passage of the Stone bill.
This referred to a bill introduced by a member of the House of Representatives the prior year. Three ministers were among the speakers in support of the legislation and there was to a performance of the national anthem “in costume by a leading local lady vocalist.” The article concluded urging attendance so that participants could
show by their presence and encouragement that they are in sympathy with this patriotic order in their offorts [efforts] to suppress a giant evil.
There was further news relating to potential infrastructure improvements with sidewalks, street grading and sewer projects, but not much reflecting excitement or enthusiasm for how the suburb was faring in the depression environment. Local tidbits in one column told of a marriage; a cave-in at the Buena Vista Street bridge leading to the area from downtown; heavy rains; the popularity of an evangelist in the community; the Board of Education’s recommendation of school bonds, including for East Side schools; and the committing of a teenage “incorrigible” from the neighborhood to the state school for troubled boys in Whittier. That column concluded by basically begging for local news items to print, stating “if not one will give us the information, it is impossible for us to give it publicity.”
The economy did get better in the first decades of the new century and East Los Angeles grew with the rest of the city. During that period, the community’s name was changed to “Lincoln Heights,” while the name “East Los Angeles” was recycled for an unincorporated county area just east of Boyle Heights and Los Angeles city limits.
Meantime, please join us at the Victorian Fair, where you can learn more about the 19th century in greater Los Angeles and see more interesting historical artifacts from the period from the museum’s collection.