America hit the road in the twenties, and nowhere did the car make a bigger
impact than in Los Angeles. In the 1920s LA had more cars than any other place
on earth. This new auto-age city exploded into prominence overnight, and would
influence the direction of urban change all over the world.
In 1932, a writer from New York named Morris Markey had trouble making sense
out of LA. "As I wandered about Los Angeles, looking for the basic meaning of
the place, the fundamental source of its wealth and economic identity, I found
myself quite at sea." Markey had read the Chamber of Commerce propaganda about
the citrus crops and the recent oil boom, but "none of these seemed to be real
the cause of the city." It struck him as odd "that here alone, of all the
cities in America, there was no plausible answer to the question: `Why did a
town spring up here and why has it grown so big?'"
The city that he could never figure out had grown from a tiny Spanish village,
founded in 1781, to a place of well over a million people. And most of that
growth had occurred in the 1920s, when LA's population doubled. Most of these
new arrivals came across the plains from the Midwest, many of them in Model
Ts, the modern-day prairie schooners. In 1920, LA had 141,000 cars. In 1930,
Before this influx of cars and people, Los Angeles had grown much like other
American cities. It had a busy downtown surrounded by streetcar suburbs. The
difference was the almost total absence of apartments and the tremendous
preponderance of single-family houses. That and the sweep of the city's reach,
far out into the surrounding orange groves and irrigated valleys.
But LA was a sprawling suburban city before the introduction of the Model T.
Its suburbs were created not by the car but by the trolley car. Before World
War I, Los Angeles had the largest mass transit system in the country, most of
it the creation of Henry E. Huntington, whose uncle, Collis Huntington, had been one of the builders of the Southern Pacific Railroad.
Huntington built this system to feed his real estate empire. He bought empty
land, drove his transit lines to it, advertised it all over the country, and
then sold it to people coming out from the East.
While this was going on, Los Angeles expanded in an orderly manner, along its
radiating rail lines, which connected the suburbs to the downtown. But when
people began buying Model Ts and driving them in town to work and shop, that
started the problem. The narrow streets of the city simply couldn't handle the
crush of trolley cars as well as automobiles. Downtown LA soon had the worst
traffic congestion in the country. Something had to be done.
The Los Angeles government considered building a combination subway and
elevated track system, but this ran into the opposition of a group called the
Los Angeles City Club. It called for the creation of a new type of city, a
decentralized metropolis of suburban businesses, strip malls, and garden
suburbs, all connected by wide, well-paved roads. A city deliberately planned
for the car.
"Why build an expensive subway system when people preferred to use cars?" That
was their reasoning. Spread out the city, spread out the cars, and congestion
would be solved. There would be a downtown, but it would no longer be the focal
point of the metropolis. Henry Ford put it more directly: "We shall solve the
city problem by leaving the city."
This is exactly how LA developed in the 1920s and afterwards. It was a city
built by urban flight and by the decline of those things many people considered
the sign of a great city--a bustling downtown and an efficient mass transit
system. Orderly growth along the electric lines gave way to spaghetti-like
With the convenience of a car, families didn't have to live near mass transit
lines. They could live anywhere, provided roads were built to carry them
around. And the city accommodated them, undertaking the greatest road building
program in the world. People of Los Angeles proudly called it the City of
Freedom, because that's what the car meant to them.
All the while, trolley ridership, and service, declined, and with it, the
downtown. This wasn't done according to a master plan. The City Club merely
expressed the desire of thousands of people drawn, like most other Americans
would soon be drawn, to the double dream of a car and a home in the suburbs.
This is why Morris Markey couldn't make sense out of LA. It was a city built on
A sizable number of Mexican Americans did immigrate to LA and lived downtown.
But most of the people who came to Los Angeles in the 20s weren't impoverished
immigrants seeking industrial work. They were mostly white people from the
farms and small cities of mid-America. And they were drawn to Los Angeles not
by work opportunities, but by the dream of leading the good life in a city of
sunshine, a place without sprawling immigrant slums, organized crime, and
industrial pollution. Historian Frederick Jackson Turner had it wrong. The
frontier still beckoned. Far more people went west in the 20th century than had
gone there in the century before.
For a promising moment, constant road building and expanding subdivisions
stayed ahead of congestion. But there were limits to the amount of land that
could be converted to roads and houses. First, limited access highways relieved
congestion. Then in 1939, the first of the massive freeways was built, in a
continuing attempt to accommodate the car. Los Angeles, by then one of the
great cities of the country, still had congestion, only now it was on the
periphery, not at the center.
The Movie Industry
By this time, the auto-age city had become, as well, Tinsel Town, the capital
of American movie-making. That too happened in the 20s, when a sleepy little
retirement community called Hollywood became the home of the world's greatest
concentration of movie studios.
The movie industry grew up in New York City in the first two decades of the
20th century, and many of the first movie houses and small studios were run by
immigrant Jews who got started in the garment industry, a business based, as
movies were, on changing styles.
These silent movies were universal entertainment. There were no language
barriers to overcome, so they became wildly popular in ethnic communities. The
New York Jews who created Hollywood were risktakers and dreamers. They started
small and became big: Samuel Goldwyn, William Fox, Adolph Zukor, Louis B.
Mayer, Marcus Loew, the Warner Brothers (Harry and Jack).
They came for the sunshine and the space. In that age of poor lighting, most
movies had to be made outdoors. California sunlight allowed producers to make
movies all year round. Land was also cheap and available in big parcels, giving
studios lots of room to expand as they moved to the production of biblical
extravaganzas with huge casts and sets.
Henry Ford hated movies. Even the religious epics were, he said, "all about sex
and sin." And they were made by Jews, who Ford blamed for everything, from jazz
("Jews ruled the music industry"), to short skirts ("Jews also controlled the
garment industry"). But even Ford used newsreel-type films to advertise his
cars to a country hooked on movies.
By the mid-'20s, 100 million people were going to movies every week. And films
about the rich and famous whetted the appetite of people for cars and other
expensive consumer goods.
Ford held his nose while his wallet expanded. Like most Americans, Ford looked
to a future of unstoppable economic growth. But just when people were thinking
that the prosperity wave would never break, it broke.
The Stock Market Crash of 1929
The Stock Market Crash of 1929 triggered a twelve-year-long economic
depression, the biggest national crisis since the Civil War. Both auto sales
and movie attendance dropped. But the last thing a lot of people were willing
to let go of was their car. As the comedian Will Rogers said: "America is the
only country where people drive to the poor house in their car."
The displaced poor patched together their dilapidated Model Ts and hit the
road in search of opportunity. Most of us have seen The Grapes of Wrath, a
movie that was banned in the Soviet Union after audiences expressed amazement
that even wandering peasants owned cars. But to the Joad family of John
Steinbeck's novel, California wasn't the American Dream. It was the last
At first Henry Ford refused to believe we were in a depression. "These are
really good times," he declared in 1931. But this wasn't unusual behavior for
Ford. A lot of Ford's life was an escape from reality.
The man who built an empire on speed and movement, tried to slow down the
accelerating pace of change. Beginning in the 1920s, he began to restore small
pieces of America as he remembered them. He rebuilt his boyhood home down to
the last detail. And he built a complete 19th century community called
Greenfield Village, in Dearborn. It was a tribute to the candlelit America he
was born into. It's still there. And in this, Henry Ford's time machine, there
are no cars. The man who claimed to have invented the modern world left orders
that they be forever prohibited.