Books

Los Angeles in the 1930s, a time traveler's guide

la-in-30s-cover.jpgMy favorite new Los Angeles book — the one I took driving with me on Saturday — is a guidebook from the distant past. "Los Angeles in the 1930s: The WPA Guide to the City of Angels" is a new issue by University of California Press of a Federal Writers Project guide that works 70 years later as historical snapshot of Los Angeles the way it was at the cusp of World War II — neighborhoods, places of interest (the ostrich and alligator farms on Mission Road), recreation (45 bowling alleys), literature and familiar restaurants like Musso & Frank and El Cholo.

My KCRW column tonight (6:44 p.m. at 89.9 FM or on kcrw.com) praises the long out-of-print book, which has photos by the likes of Julius Shulman and was mostly written in 1939: as Union Station opened, Raymond Chandler came out with "The Big Sleep," Hollywood made "Gone with the Wind" and "The Wizard of Oz," and the studios employed writers such as F. Scott Fitzgerald and Nathanael West.

Those and most other writers working in L.A. didn't answer the call to contribute, author and critic David Kipen writes in the foreword to the new edition. But despite gaps, it's a special document: "If there's a WPA guide to a more vanished American city, beats me what it is," Kipen writes. "Idea bin for historical novelists, iffy crib-sheet for fact-checkers, God's gift for narrative historians, Los Angeles in the 30s is a wayback machine for retrophile Angelenos everywhere."

As one of those retrophiles, I'll probably be cribbing from the guide all year. I became fascinated first, though, by the most vanished aspect of the city: old industrial Los Angeles, much of which was located in what's now called the Arts District. Some highlights after the jump:

oil-field-lapl.jpgThe opening entry of the guide on The Northwest Section is the Old Los Angeles Oil Field, lining Glendale Boulevard between Beverly Blvd. and Colton Avenue: "the city's first petroleum producing area. Ninety-seven flimsy wooden derricks, survivors of the hundreds that were in the field at the turn of the century..." LAPL photo: Oil field near 1st Street and Belmont Ave.

The Industrial Section entry opens with a reminder that "although Los Angeles is widely known for its manufacture of motion pictures and aircraft, and the extensive commercial development around its harbor, relatively few people are aware that it produces such diversified goods as automobiles, clothing, pottery and canned fish..."

In the "industrial area" along the river, the buildings cited include:

biscuit-company-lapl.jpgThe National Biscuit Company Cooky Bakery, 673 Mateo Street, "a six-story brick-faced building covering nearly half a block. Visitors are conducted through a child's dream of heaven — an inexhaustible cooky factory." This building now houses the million-dollar Biscuit Lofts and Church & State restaurant. 1927 LAPL photo


joannes-bros-bldg.jpgThe Coffee Products of America, Incorporated, Plant, 800 Traction Ave, is the five-story red-brick building across the street from Wurstkuche that reads Joannes Bros Co at the top. "The company processes coffee, tea and spices. The coffee is imported...roasted for 16 minutes at a 300 degree temperature, cut by large circular knives and packed in tins under 31 inches of vacuum." LA Observed photo

capitol-milling-lao.jpg
LA Observed photo

Capitol Milling Company Flour Mill, 1231 N. Spring Street..."the company, whose plant was called the Eagle Mills until 1853, is believed to be the oldest in Los Angeles. It was the seventh name in the city's first telephone directory, which listed 91 subscribers."

Los Angeles Brewery, 1920 N. Main Street, "housed in red brick buildings of the massive Victorian type dominated by a clock tower, is the largest on the Pacific coast." It could produce 1,800 barrels of beer daily, the guide says.

white-king-stack-fajack.jpgLos Angeles Soap Company Plant, 617 E. 1st Street, "spreading over 40 acres, some 600 employees produce more than 75 brands of soap." Photo of the plant before its demolition, by Scott Fajack.

And a little farther afield:

Los Angeles Union Stock Yards, 4500 Downey Road, "is the largest in the 11 western states, occupying approximately 35 acres...pens for cattle, sheep and hogs."

Chrysler Motors Assembly Plant, SE corner Slauson and Eastern avenues, "of the modified Mediterranean style, with red-tiled roofs and massive oak doors. In the plant behind it all the Plymoputh motor cars and dodge trucks sold in California, Nevada, Arizona and Hawaii are assembled."


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