One thing that should never surprise you about Los Angeles is that it always surprises you. Because we are a spread out landmass of a region, it is impossible to be familiar to all things Southland.
While we are in the midst of an urban renaissance, our urban core is being rediscovered as we move back inward. The backbone of a developing 19th century Los Angeles lies along the Arroyo Seco from Downtown to Pasadena.
Water was scarce at the time to levels hundreds of times worse that what we face now. Many communities were built north of Downtown because of the sense to be upstream on either the Arroyo or LA River.
Once the city began channeling water from other regions, the landscape rapidly flourished with homes, farming and streetcars. As the freeway boom hit in the 1950’s, people continued moving outward leaving many of the older areas neglected.
Lincoln Heights should be the first neighborhood mentioned as it is considered the earliest suburb of Downtown taking shape in the 1830’s. Even though I-5 bisects the community, you can hardly get any sense of it from the freeway. As you wander around, you’ll notice the pedestrian feel of this neighborhood despite its close proximity to Downtown. With Broadway acting as the major thoroughfare, Lincoln Heights still retains a small town feel with skyscrapers just in view.
There’s a pastoral element that serves as a timely relief from all of our hustle and bustle. During its rise, many prominent citizens settled their roots as evidenced by the many Victorian and other ornately styled mansions. This craftsmanship carried over to the many single homes in the neighborhood.
There are a number of historical landmarks in this region, including the venerable Griffin house. Built in 1887, Dr. J S Griffin was considered the father of East Los Angeles responsible for laying out the streets and selling off parcels as the neighborhood took form. His home itself is still in great condition and is located on the street named after him.
Another important building to tour is the Lincoln Heights Branch Library. Established in 1916, it is the second oldest library in our system. It also is one of three remaining Carnegie libraries in Los Angeles, along with the Cahuegna and Vermont Square branches.
While Lincoln Heights has its share of landmarks, you could argue that many more should reach that status. The problem many of these buildings have is the high cost of retaining their design after receiving that designation. If you reference the database, there are already a number of landmarked homes that haven’t recovered from their state of disrepair.
One giant shame is the number of unique attractions that are no longer with us. The Los Angeles Ostrich Farm existed up until 1953 and allowed patrons not just an up close experience with these animals, but carriage rides as well. Also, next door was the Selig Zoo, which operated as our city’s first. When it fell into hard times, a number of animals were donated to what became the LA Zoo.
Another thing you may notice without the use of a map is the prior existence of streetcars. Since Los Angeles grew before the birth of the automobile, most residents relied on the use of rail to get around. Lincoln Heights had a great network between the gold and red cars where you’d never be more than a few blocks walk from a line.
If you want an idea of what Lincoln Heights looked like in its peak, rent the Angelina Jolie movie, Changeling. By its title, it sounds like a space alien movie, but is actually another well-directed Clint Eastwood motion picture, which is a true story about an abduction and our corrupt police department in the 1920’s.
The film itself was shot in San Dimas because the homes are currently in a better state than what you find in Lincoln Heights. What’s important is that Eastwood does give you a sense of what life was like there ninety years ago and how simple things had appeared.
Next time you have a Dodgers game or are headed downtown, I encourage you to take a small side trip to become better versed in Los Angeles history. You can visit at a scale, where you could comfortably try to take everything in by walking or bike. After all, they really didn’t have cars back then.
Zachary Rynew has touched Los Angeles in many ways. For years he helped visualize many of the city’s major projects (LA Live, Hollywood Blvd., Metro Rail, UCLA) and had his work featured at the Getty. He was a winner at the LA Improv Comedy Festival and ran in five LA Marathons. Now, he travels the city by bike and couples his local knowledge with his sports writing experience to bring you a different look at the blurs we normally pass by.