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The Twenties
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Page 1234

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Los Angeles

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, 770,000 cars.

[picture of residential Los Angeles]

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 sprawl.

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 dreams.

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

[picture of Charlie Chaplin]

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

[picture of the headline of the 'New York Times' announcing the stock market crash]

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 stop.

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.

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