As of December 31, 2014, I retired from full-time teaching in Humboldt State University's Department of History. While this website will remain online, it is no longer maintained.

History 383 - Dr. Gayle Olson-Raymer

Southern California and Los Angeles - A Case Study in Urban and Suburban Growth

Photo of Los Angeles Plaza 1869

The "Old Plaza Church" facing the Los Angeles Plaza, 1869.

Introduction: The last time we met, we learned about Califiorna during World War II and we especially focused on how the federal goverment's military expenditures and investments dramatically contributed to increased population and the side effects of such an increase. Today we are going to step back a bit and take a close look at Southern California and the dramatic growth that occurred there prior to World War II. Further, we will take our study of Los Angeles into the post-war era by examining the riots that tore Southern California apart in the late 20th Century.

Discussion goals:

  1. To gain a logistical and geographical understanding of Southern California, with an emphasis on Los Angeles.
  2. To examine the growth of Southern California at the end of the 19th Century.
  3. To understand how the discovery of oil shaped Southern California's early 20th Century economic, political, and social growth.
  4. To understand how the eternal quest for water shaped the history of Southern California and Los Angeles.
  5. To chronologically examine the way in which transportation technologies influenced the growth of Southern California and Los Angeles in the early 20th Century.
  6. To understand the evolution of South Central Los Angeles prior to and after the Watts Riots.
  7. To understand the Rodney King Riots.
  8. To understand one woman's attempt to make sense of the Rodney King Riots - Anna Deavere Smith in Twilight.

Cold Call: 16th cold call for required reading - Introduction, Goals 1 and 2 in discussion guides for today at AND Chapter 1 in California for Health, Pleasure and Residence which you can download at

Goal #1: To gain a logistical and geograpical understanding of Southern California, with an emphasis on Los Angeles

A logistical understanding of Southern California and Los Angeles:

For a very detailed "Historical Timeline of Los Angeles," go to

A geographical understanding of Southern California and Los Angeles

Goal #2: To examine the growth of Southern California at the end of the 19th Century

Beginning in the 1870s, some local leaders in Los Angeles began to explore several ways to encourage the growth of the city and end the isolation of the Southern California region.

  1. Bringing a RR line to Los Angeles. In 1872, some leaders explored possible ties with the Central Pacific RR - efforts that achieved some success in 1876 when the Central Pacific agreed to build a 50-mile highway between the Central Valley and Los Angeles. The city raised a municipal bond of $610,000 to subsidize the costs of the Central Pacific.
  2. AdvertisingCalifornia's agricultural products - especially oranges, which increased both the Southern Pacific's railroad's freight business and its land sales. Thus, the California Fruit Postcard of California OrangesGrowers' Exchange made an agreement with the Southern Pacific for a joint advertising experiment using billboards - "Oranges for Health - California for Wealth." Consequently, orange acreage increased rapidly. In 1873, two navel orange trees that were well suited to Southern California's climate existed near Riverside; by the end of the 1880s, more than a million were profitably producing throughout the region.
  3. Advertising the health advantages of living in California. Beginning in 1870, city boosters claimed that the climate was helpful in curing tuberculosis and encouraged invalids and their families to move to Southern California. Another city booster wrote that "California college girls are larger by almost ever dimension than are the college girls of Massachusetts. They are taller, broader-shouldered, thicker-chested (with ten cubic inches more lung capacity), have larger biceps and calves, and a superiority of tested strength." (as quoted in Rawls and Bean: 207)
  4. Publishing a series of books designed to attract people to Southern California. One of these books - California: For Health, Pleasure, and Residence - was written by Charles Nordoff in 1872 and was especially popular.

Group Work: Please get into groups of five each. Then spend 10 minutes discussing the following:

  1. If you had lived in 1872 and read this book, what did you read in Chapter 1 that might have encouraged you to move to California? Why?
  2. What might you have questioned as being too "far fetched" or steeped in myth?
  3. What do you think is the "bottom line" most important point made in Chapter 1 about California as a destination for one's health, pleasure, and residence?

Despite such advertising, it was not until there was a railroad rate war that what many have called the "Boom of the 80s" began in Southern California.

Southern California's economy, however, continued to lag behind that of the northern part of the state. The region was principally dependent on agriculture, real estate speculation, service industries, and the retail trade - but very little industry.

Goal #3: To understand how the discovery of oil shaped Southern California's early 20th Century economic, political, and social growth.

Map of oil fields in Southern California

For a brief period in time, Southern California was the center of world oil production. A handful of major discoveries - at Huntington Beach, Signal Hill near Long Beach, Oil Field 1930Telegraph Hill and Santa Fe Springs in Orange County - made Southern California the world's biggest oil producer. The oil industry became the leading sector of the California economy, and the state was soon responsible for about a quarter of the world's supply. Oil, however, had been present for many years in California:

But oil did not have any commercial value in the U.S. until E. L. Drake perfected mass extraction technology and drilled the first well in the U.S. in western Pennsylvania in 1859.

As indicated in the chronology below, it was during the next decade that Californians attempted to tap oil deposits known to exist throughout the state.

In short, oil money was central to California's economic, political, and social development in the early 20th Century.

While oil contributed to the growth of Southern California, especially in Los Angeles County, it also brought attention to one of Southern California's biggest problems - the scarcity of water.

Goal #4: To understand how the eternal quest for water shaped the history of Southern California and Los Angeles

Since the pueblo days of Los Angeles, the lack of local water resources has been the primary problem for the economic future of Southern California.

Selected Chronology of Water Issues in Los Angeles

Selected Chronology of the Colorado River Project - Hoover Dam, the Colorado River Aqueduct, and the All-American Canal

End of 10/27 discussion

Cold Call: 17th cold call for required reading and viewing - Read Goal 5 in the discussion guide for today at

Goal #5: To chronologically examine the way in which transportation technologies influenced the growth of Southern California and Los Angeles in the early 20th Century

In short, while public transportation in terms of trains and electric cars grew dramatically during the first two decades of the 20th Century, they were gradually replaced by the newer and cheaper transportation systems - the bus and the automobile. Both of these had come to age in Southern California by the 1920s. How and why did this happen?

Beginning in the late 1940s, a conspiracy theory arose. Known as the General Motor's Streetcar Conspiracy, the conspiracy holds that General Motors and other companies were part of a deliberate plot to purchase and dismantle street car systems in many cities in the United States - including L.A. - in an attempt to monopolize surface transportation and encourage the growth of the automobile industry over public transit. Wikipedia does a pretty good job of describing the conspiracy at In short, conspiracy theorists argue:

"... that destruction of streetcars systems was an integral part of a larger strategy to push the United States into automobile dependency. Most transit scholars disagree, suggesting that transit system changes were brought about by other factors; economic, social, and political factors such as unrealistic capitalisation, fixed fares during inflation, changes in paving and automotive technology, the Great Depression, anti-trust action ... labor unrest, market forces including declining industries' difficulty attracting capital, rapidly increasing traffic congestion, the Good Roads Movement, urban sprawl, tax policies favoring private vehicle ownership, taxation of fixed infrastructure, franchise repair costs for co-located property, wide diffusion of driving skills, automatic transmission buses, and general enthusiasm for the automobile."(

To read a summary of Bradford Snell's conspiracy theory about General Motor's role in the decline of public transit, see

Goal #6: To understand the evolution of South Central Los Angeles prior to and after the Watts Riot

Map of LA neighborhoods

The Geopolitical Realities of South Los Angeles:

Watts - Before, During, and After the Riots

Watts was originally part of a large Mexican land grant, El Rancho Tajuato. In the 1880s, it was subdivided for the first time and for the next two decades, Mexican laborers moved into the area to work on the Southern Pacific Railroad.

In 1907, Watts was incorporated as a city and consisted of a small residential area without any significant industrial base such as that enjoyed by neighboring Compton. It was annexed to Los Angeles in 1926 - an area 2-1/2 square miles. Map of Watts

Before World War II, Watts was racially diverse with a vibrant Mexican American, African American, and white community. During and after World War II, however, the population changed as African Americans from across the country migrated to take advantage plentiful low-cost housing and new jobs in the defense industry. Watts was one of the only areas in Los Angeles that did not have deed restrictions limiting black access to housing.

Between 1940-60, the black population of Watts increased eightfold and by 1965, African-Americans were 87% of the population in Watts - making it the most segregated city in the west. Some of the consequences of such segregation included:

The Watts Riots. The riots began on the evening of Wednesday, August 11, 1965, when a young black man was arrested for drunken driving and many people in the area of the arrest stated that two black women were victims of police brutality. The stories of police brutality rapidly spread and drew people throughout the area to the scene. Officers responding to the scene had no understanding of the cultural or economic conditions of the community and plunged into the area assuming the worst and reacting accordingly.

The Aftermath. Several months after the riots, the state sponsored the McCone Commission Report, Violence in a City - An End or a Beginning? - which identified numerous contributors to the riots:

However, while it admitted that black residents of Watts were disadvantaged, the McCone report also stated that instead of protesting, residents needed to shoulder "a full share Cover of Newsweek after Watts Riotsof the responsibility of his own well being." Other reports on the riots included:

And this final quote from the 1970 study was correct - despite the studies, literally nothing was done to deal with the underlying grievances in Watts or South Central Los Angeles. So, 21 years later, violence again erupted.

Goal #7: To understand the Rodney King Riots

Events leading to and following the Rodney King Trial and Riots: Photo of Rodney King

Goal #8: To understand one woman's attempt to make sense of the Rodney King Riots - Anna Deavere Smith in Twilight.

Cold Call: 17th cold call for required viewing - Twilight at

In an interview with the Los Angeles Times in 1993, Anna Deavere Smith said of Twilight - "I'm just trying to create possibilities for dialog, to decentralize the race discussion, to try to bring more voices to it that don't get heard. I believe we haven't found the language for discussing difference yet, and the only way we find that language is by talking in it - not about it - and talking in it in these moments of crisis, when our anxieties a so big that we can barely speak."

Photo of Anna Deavere Smith acting in "Twilight"

Questions for discussion of Twilight by Anna Deavere Smith:

  1. Which of the characters provided the most convincing portrayal of injustice? How and why?
  2. What do you think she wants us to understand about the causes and consequences of the riots?
  3. Do you agree or disagree with LAPD Chief Gates when he said that the Rodney King beatings had nothing to do wih race? Why or why not? How does his response compare and contrast with what Lou Cannon found in his research?
  4. One of the accused who was let go said the riots were the work of "cynical, diabolical predators." What does this mean? Why might he feel this way?
  5. Maxine Waters said the riot was "the voice of the unheard." Do you agree? How and why? How is looting a function of that voice - or is it?
  6. According to Smith, in 1999 - 7 years after the riots - not much had changed in South L.A. Why?

Conclusions - Southern California and Los Angeles - A Case Study in Urban and Suburban Growth

  1. Southern California developed as an artificial, largely man-made region in which virtually everything has been imported: plants, flower, shrubs, trees, people, water, and electrical energy.
  2. In the late-19th Century, Southern California's economy lagged behind the northern part of the state largely because it was still primarily dependent upon agriculture, real estate speculation, and service industries and had therefore developed very little industry.
  3. By the early 20th Century, the discovery of oil moved the state's economic focus to Southern California. The subsequent growth of the oil industry was central to the Southern California's economic, political, and social development.
  4. Among the many things oil helped to finance and influence were the growth of huge real estate developments, the construction of roads and highways, and the financing of many of Hollywood's earliest films.
  5. From its early pueblo days, the lack of local water resources has been an ongoing problem for Southern California. Consequently, from the very beginning of Southern California's history, the patterns of the seasonal and regional distribution of water have made the control and acquisition of this scarce resource the center of a series of water wars.
  6. The growth of modern transportation - especially the automobile - led to the emergence of Los Angeles as the first modern decentralized city.
  7. In short, Southern California, and especially Los Angeles, grew dramatically once a private elite of business, financial, political, and governmental men acquired the power to control the resources and technology that permitted the spectacular growth of the region. Foremost among those resources and technological innovations were oil, water, and transportation.