Boosting Boyle Heights During the Boom of the 1880s

After a decade of economic stagnation, Los Angeles entered into a major growth boom in 1886 shortly after a direct transcontinental railroad link was made to the city from the east by the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway.  Over a few year period, tens of thousands of new arrivals poured into the region and a major transformation of the area took place.

Boyle Heights, which was founded in a smaller boom in the mid-1870s, languished as the local economy did for ten years, but found its fortunes greatly enhanced by the new growth explosion.  With its convenient location to downtown, the location on the bluffs providing great views of the city, and transportation improvements via cablecars being implemented, the status of the neighborhood as an upscale residential community was highly promoted.

One such example, a classic of what is typically called “boosterism,” is found in the 1886-87 Los Angeles City Directory.  As a representative sample of the booster mentality, the language will seem too good to be true (which, naturally, was usually the case!)  The five-page document is filled with flowery descriptions of the ideal community.

Actually, the piece began by extolling the virtues of Los Angeles County broadly:  “it is the riches, most prolific and prosperous county in Southern Californa . . . [and] has attracted wide-spread attention on account ot its unrivaled resources and superb climate.” 

Then, follows another typical tactic in comparing the past to the present: “What was a few years ago a poor Spanish town, sleepy, dull, and filled with discouraged people, her streets filled with adobe buildings and here and there a wooden shanty of no architectural pretensions whatever[,] now what have we?”  Obviously, this strange sentence is laced with racism and unintentional comedy in equal measure.  Without being sure of just when “a few years ago” actually was, the use of the word “sleepy” to describe “Spanish” Los Angeles was used regularly, but the word “dull” is out of place for a town that, during the 1850s especially, was rocked with significant violence and racial and ethnic tension.  The phrase “discouraged people” is a bizarre and laughable one–how did the author(s) know that the residents of Los Angeles were chronically depressed?  And, of course, the presence of adobe houses must have been a guarantee of backward thinking!

This is the first of a five-page booster article about Boyle Heights that appeared in the 1886-87 Los Angeles City Directory, issued during the Boom of the Eighties which transformed Los Angeles and its environs.  Click on the image to see an enlarged view in a separate window.

Alas, progress came to the “metropolitan [that is, Americanized] city, whose streets are lined with buildings as fine as those of San Francisco or Chicago.  Noting that the population had jumped from about 12,000 to “nearly if not quite four times that number,” the piece went on to discuss Boyle Heights, claiming that, “of all the sururbs or surroundings of Los Angeles the elevated tract of land east of the river is in many respects the most desirable.”  Taking estimates from late 1884 that there were 2,650 people in Boyle Heights and East Los Angeles (that is, what later became known as Lincoln Heights), the author stated that tere were about 7,500 and that a school census from May 1886 showed that Boyle Heights witnessed a doubling of population in one year.

As to why Boyle Heights was so desirable, the piece highlighted several factors.  First, businessman liked to “get away from their business” and enjoy leisure time at a healthful residence, “free from malaria [and] fog.”  Second, the land was half the price as that in downtown.  Third, it had “perfect” drainage and “an abundant water supply.”  Fourth, in addition to the water, Boyle Heights had “a horse railroad . . . and the electric light,” though within a few months, the electric railroad was to be opened and this was to be the first such line in the state.  Meanwhile, a cable railroad, the first in southern California, was to be extended on Second Street and into the neighborhood.  Finally, Boyle Heights “has the pure sea breeze, unadulterated by any impure contact with the city” and the article claimed that existing air currents “would carry any impurities . . . much to the west . . “

To further entice future residents and investors, the essay claimed that “to do justice to Boyle Heights,” readers should know who was living there.  First, of course, was community founder William H. Workman, who “by patient and courageous work, by liberal sowing,  . . . has now the satisfaction of gathering a liberal harvest.”  The beauty of his house was extolled as was the products of his ranch and the attractions of his private park surrounding the house.  Mrs. John Hollenbeck, H. P. Benedict, George Cummings, L. N. Breed and J. W. Browning were also lionized for their building of fine homes in Boyle Heights, in which the names of three of the group are recalled with street names and the Hollenbeck Palms retirement home on the grounds of the Hollenbeck estate. 

As to Browning, he was mentioned simply because he was the author of the piece and described himself
“as being the only man who handles Boyle Heights property” as a realtor.  He listed thirteen tracts within the community that he dealt with for rentals, houses for sale, ranches and vacant lots (as well as loans), these being the Atwood, Benedict, Blanchard, Breed, Browning, Conrad, Cummings, Gleason, Miles, Spence, Stevenson, and Wilson tracts.

As per usual, the great boom of the 1880s went bust by the end of the decade.  The 1890s brought a prolonged drought and the debilitating depression of 1893, but Boyle Heights continued to grow, though, as with all communities, it transformed in sometimes unexpected ways.

Contribution by Paul R. Spitzzeri, Assistant Director, Workman and Temple Family Homestead Museum, City of Industry, California.