Southland: Excavating the Urban History of Greater Los Angeles

Welcome to Southland, a new blog that explores themes of urbanism in the greater Los Angeles area through the lens of the city's history. Southland is made possible by a content partnership among Gizmodo, the USC Libraries, and the extraordinary collections of L.A. as Subject—an association of more than 230 libraries, museums, official archives, and private collectors, all of which collect, preserve, and make accessible the great and varied narratives of Los Angeles.

Why Los Angeles? Because L.A. is a place of lost landscapes and forgotten infrastructures. Because historical Los Angeles does not always equal the Los Angeles of Hollywood. Because L.A. as Subject represents a unique source of understanding the past, present, and future of Los Angeles and its influence on other world metropolises.

Wallace Stegner once quipped that California is like the rest of America—only more so. And in this unexceptional exceptionalism we find countless stories ripe for mining. The Southland didn't invent the freeway, but it did perfect it. An oil derrick once stood in the middle of a major road. A real estate developer refashioned tidal marshlands into Venetian canals.

Southland: Excavating the Urban History of Greater Los Angeles

Los Angeles in 1874. [USC Libraries - California Historical Society Collection]

In downtown Los Angeles, the city waged war against its topography, tunneling through hills and reshaping the land in the name of progress. In suburban Anaheim, redevelopment erased the town's real main street just as the Disney version rose from freshly bulldozed orange groves.

And inside a horse barn on a Hollywood lemon ranch, Cecil B. DeMille launched an industry that projected Los Angeles's stories, myths, and stereotypes around the world.

In the Southland, urban sins find their cathartic expression, if not redemption, in motion pictures. L.A.'s dismantling of its interurban trolley system? That's Who Framed Roger Rabbit. The city's diversion of a distant watershed? Chinatown.

Needless to say, as works of fiction both films exaggerate the villainy. Did tire and auto manufacturers really conspire, like Judge Doom, to replace trolleys with concrete superhighways? Not exactly. The films also overstate the degree to which these Los Angeles stories are exceptional. San Francisco, for example, dammed the canyon John Muir once called "a second Yosemite" to secure its water supply, and New York City still drains distant watersheds with its own massive aqueducts.

Southland: Excavating the Urban History of Greater Los Angeles

Orange groves surrounded Disneyland upon its opening in 1955. [Orange County Archives]

The fossilized mammoths and saber-toothed cats pulled out of the La Brea Tar Pits give lie to the oft-repeated claim that Los Angeles has no history. In fact, people have called the region home for at least ten millennia. The emergence of Southern California's modern postwar metropolis—even the arrival of the Franciscan padres in the 1770s—is only a recent event in the grand sweep of the region's human history.

Another lie about the Southland: its natural state is desert. In fact, tree-lined streams once coursed through L.A.'s coastal plain, feeding marshes, lagoons, and other wetlands. This readily available water, along with plentiful food sources like acorns, pronghorn antelope, and fish, sustained the largest concentration of indigenous Americans north of Mexico.

That's not to deny the region's complicated relationship with nature. A powerful earthquake frightened the first Europeans to visit the Southland by land: the 1769 Portolà expedition, whose members also witnessed the aftermath of catastrophic flooding. Despite technological solutions like debris basins and seismic monitoring, the region's 16 million residents have only been able to achieve an uneasy truce with these ancient forces of nature.

We can turn our gaze toward the future. In some 15 million years, tectonic activity might rend the Southland from the rest of North American, realizing old cartographic fantasies of an island named California. That also presents questions about the present: how does the region prepare for that inexorable movement of land? And what technologies has the region deployed to monitor it? Though Southland's attention will often be fixed on the past, on occasion it will also look at more contemporary questions.

Southland: Excavating the Urban History of Greater Los Angeles

Sunset Boulevard in Beverly Hills, circa 1925. [Beverly Hills Public Library Historical Collection]

Many of the stories we'll share have already appeared at KCET.org, and we're happy to reframe them here for an audience beyond the region, an audience that will arrive at these stories as history enthusiasts, technophiles, urbanists, and skeptics.

The Southland perspective is not the only perspective—so, by all means, explore the history yourself beyond what we share here. Many of the highlights of Southern California's historical collections are only keystrokes and clicks away. Prominent digital archives include the USC Digital Library, the Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection, the Metro Transportation Library and Archive's Flickr photostream, the Pasadena Digital History Collaboration, Imagine Santa Monica—and several others we'll highlight here on Southland.

But there's more than images. The L.A. as Subject online directory provides descriptions and access information for more than 250 archival repositories that preserve everything from personal correspondence to wax phonograph cylinders. They may not be digitally accessible, but it's these archival materials that underpin our understanding of the Southland's past and provide valuable context for where cities are headed in the future.


Southland is made possible by a partnership between Gizmodo, the USC Libraries, and the member collections of L.A. as Subject. Written by Nathan Masters, the series explores the urban past of Los Angeles, including the lost landscapes and forgotten infrastructures that continue to influence the city we know today. Many of these posts previously appeared in a different version on KCET.

Top image: Courtesy of the USC Libraries - California Historical Society Collection.