Los Angeles is famous for a lot of things—great weather, celebrities, movies and music. But there’s a lot more to the city with a wealth of history. Here are 10 things about L.A. that you may never have known.
- Today, Los Angeles is known as a diverse and dynamic community. What most people don’t realize is that Southern California was a diverse population from the get-go. Long before Spaniards colonized the territory, more than 100 Native American tribes—each with its own language—called Southern California home.
- The Pueblo of Los Angeles (full name: El Pueblo de Nuestra Senora la Reina de los Angeles del Rio de Porciuncula) was founded on September 4, 1781. Father Junipero Serra, a Roman Catholic priest and friar, founded the mission system that dots California’s coast under orders of the Spanish crown. Pueblos consisted of missions, homes, and presidios (military forces). Many of these pueblos survived after the mission system crumbled after the 1833 Secularization Act and developed into self-sufficient cities, such as Los Angeles, San Diego, San Jose and San Francisco.
- During the mid-1800s, right about the time gold was discovered and California transitioned to a state, the murder rate in Los Angeles soared to more than 10 to 20 times the annual rate of New York. Some estimates are as high as one murder per day, or approximately a 1 in 11 chance of dying by homicide. Los Angeles was called “the toughest town in the entire nation.”
- The Old West has its share of legends, gunfighters, and all-around characters—Los Angeles, the “toughest town in the entire nation,” was not immune to the lawlessness plaguing the Southwest.Perhaps L.A.’s most notorious outlaw from the Old West era was Tiburcio Vasquez, a Californio bandido who was active from 1854 to 1874. Vasquez was a prolific bandit, participating in burglaries, highway robberies, cattle theft and possibly murder, though he denied that charge. During a stint in San Quentin, he helped plan not one, but four, prison breaks. Twenty prisoners ended up dead in the violent upheaval. Vasquez, however, was also handsome, fluent in Spanish and English, charming, a poet and a good dancer. Needless to say, ladies liked him. And he liked them right back. It was likely an angry husband or father who finally sold Vasquez out and alerted authorities to his hideout, which is approximately where Melrose Place is located now, about 200 yards south of the future Sunset Strip.The posse that captured Vasquez was headed by William Rowland, son of rancher John Rowland, for whom the city of Rowland Heights is name. Vasquez was sentenced to death by hanging for his crimes, but for the few days he sat in jail he used his entrepreneurial skills to sell photos (money went toward his defense), sign autographs and flirt with female visitors. A plea for clemency was denied and Tiburcio Vasquez was hanged on March 19, 1875, in San Jose. Still, his legacy lives on. Vasquez Rocks, rock formations and caves about 40 miles north of L.A., were named in honor of one of the bandido’s many hideouts.
- According to Kim Gordon, best known as an artist and bass player for Sonic Youth, her maternal ancestors, the Swall family, owned a ranch approximately where Doheny Dr. now meets Santa Monica Blvd. Swall Dr., in nearby Beverly Hills, memorializes the family’s local history.
- In the 1880s, Harvey and Daeida “Ida” Wilcox arrived in Los Angeles with the hope of bringing religion to the city and creating a wholesome community that would appeal to Midwestern folks. They bought up 120 acres of land and named their property “Hollywood,” a name that was registered 1887. With the Wilcox house situated smack in the middle of the development on Prospect Ave., now Hollywood Blvd., Harvey quickly issued a map of Hollywood in hopes of creating a development for the expected real estate boom—which turned out to be more bust. Land in the Hollywood area developed slowly. Harvey, who was 30 years his wife’s senior, passed away on March 19, 1891. Ida, a widow at the age of just 28, later remarried and had three children. Harvey and Ida Wilcox now rest together in the land they created at Hollywood Forever Cemetery.
- The Sunset Strip, a short strip of land that stretches about a mile and a half from approximately Crescent Heights to Doheny Dr., most likely got its raucous reputation during the Prohibition era. The land now known as West Hollywood was then unincorporated Los Angeles, which meant the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department—not the Los Angeles Police Department—patrolled the area. The Sheriffs, known for more leniency than the LAPD, often turned a blind eye to drinking and gambling on the Strip’s upscale establishments, which catered to celebrities, socialites and other wealthy elites.
- In 1976, Los Angeles County doctors went on a month-long strike. The result? L.A.’s death rate dropped 18 percent.
- Oil was discovered in Los Angeles in 1890 and quickly become a cornerstone of the local economy. Edward Doheny, the family for whom the streets, beach and library are named, drilled the first successful well in 1892. By the 1920s, Los Angeles was producing more than one-quarter of the world’s oil supply. Although the “boom” is over, L.A. still produces a large supply of black gold, though with urban and suburban development that has taken over the landscape in recent decades, many of the rigs are now camouflaged. If you see a windowless building in snooty Beverly Hills, the chances are pretty high its shell covering up an unsightly oil well.
- Founded in 1877, Evergreen Memorial Park & Cemetery is the city’s oldest cemetery and contains former mayors, indigent circus performers, American Civil War veterans (both sides) and such city pioneers as Isaac Van Nuys and Isaac Lankershim. Also, shopping entrepreneurs George A. Ralphs, who founded the enormous grocery store chain, and Joseph Winchester Robinson of Robinson’s, later Robinson’s May, fame also now rest here. Evergreen is notable for never banning the burial of African Americans; in fact, the cemetery’s grounds have become the final resting places of just about every race, nationality, and religion, making L.A. just as diverse in death as it is in life. Memorials dedicated to carnies, first-generation Japanese settlers (known as Issei), Chinese laborers and the 442nd Infantry are erected here in their memories. Today, Evergreen carries on its tradition for welcoming everyone. Each year, Los Angeles County buries the ashes of approximately 1500 of the city’s homeless and unclaimed in a single grave marked by the year. During the year’s indigent internment, Los Angeles County holds a modest memorial in their honor and invites the public to attend.
Do you have any interesting facts about LA?