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A Dream on the Brink

November 03, 2002|Thomas Curwen | Thomas Curwen is the deputy editor of the Book Review at the Los Angeles Times.

"The city came into being to preserve life, it exists for the good life."

-- from the west cornice of the Mayor Tom Bradley Room, City Hall


The mayors are not smiling. From the walls of their official portrait gallery, a remote and unheralded aerie on the 26th floor of City Hall, they stare somberly ahead, as if wondering what went wrong. Los Angeles, the city that came together under their guidance, one annexed piece of land at a time, stands in danger of unraveling. And there is nothing they can do about it.

Nor is there anything we can do. The lines have been drawn, the arguments made. For better or worse, we live in the world these men created, and our decision on Tuesday -- whether to let the Valley or Hollywood secede -- passes judgment on their work. Hoary visages, they look out from their gilded frames through windows that face their messy triumphs, and they must wonder why we have become so faithless, distrustful and disenfranchised.

Canadians, Irishmen, Missourians, Illinoisans, the early mayors were strangers to this place. They shared a goal of making a life and building a city far from home. Merchants, bankers, privileged landowners, they believed that what they desired would be beneficial for those whose lives were lived less publicly. We can see them now, these stern patriarchs, through the gauze of time, in their outdated clothes and hairstyles, seated for a moment in triumph.

Can we stare them down? Benjamin D. Wilson, our second mayor, from 1851 to 1852, presided over 160 acres -- from Figueroa Street to the river, from Pico Boulevard to San Fernando Road. Can we look him in the eyes and tell him that it doesn't work anymore? Can we make the case for secession to John G. Nichols, the mayor in 1852 and 1853 and again from 1856 to 1859? He sat for his portrait with the pride of being the first mayor to expand the city, having presented to the United States Land Commission the city's claim to four square leagues of land.

Annexation and consolidation were the watchwords for the politicians and speculators who followed and realized that Nichols' plot of 28 square miles was insignificant when set against the vast ranchos and the open spaces that surrounded it. So they learned to wield water like a carrot and a stick, channeling it or withholding it, promising it or diverting it in bids to acquire outlying areas and municipalities.

It was a random process that led at first to the acquisition of Highland Park, Garvanza, Sycamore Grove and an area south of Slauson and west of Arlington. Then the city needed a harbor. Enter Frank Rader, an innocent-looking man with a handlebar mustache and wavy hair. During his term -- 1894 to 1896 -- federal funding was secured to develop a port in San Pedro. It proved to be the first step in a nearly 10-year battle that joined Republicans and Democrats in the common goal to annex not only San Pedro but also Wilmington and a 16-mile-long, half-mile-wide strip running from downtown to the harbor itself.

It wasn't just the mayors' ambition, but commerce and cupidity that fueled the city's growth. Look to the next major annexation -- a 168-square-mile parcel just over the Cahuenga Pass from Hollywood -- for proof of that. The San Fernando Valley was a dream waiting to be sold. It began in 1909 with the founding of the Los Angeles Suburban Homes Co., the Los Angeles-based syndicate that purchased and subdivided the land. It continued with land auctions that doubled the initial investments, and it ended with William Mulholland standing on the bunting-draped platform in 1913 welcoming the arrival of the Owens River water.

"There it is. Take it," he said, and standing near him on that auspicious November day was Henry R. Rose, the newly elected mayor. It had to have been an awkward moment. Rose -- his portrait reveals a shrewd, battle-sharpened face -- campaigned against speculators like those who rooted for Mulholland, so eager to turn a dollar on this newly arable land.

It would be naive to think that economics was the only motive for building the city. People believed in it. When the Valley annexation election was held in 1915, Valley residents overwhelmingly favored joining Los Angeles: 681, or 96%, voted yes; 25 were opposed. It had taken nearly eight administrations in City Hall to accomplish this, some 17 years that saw one mayor die in office and one resign, saw a Socialist leader nearly get elected and a newspaper get bombed.

Yet for all the arrogance this city has fostered, there has been a strange nobility about its adventurism as well. Los Angeles was a city not about to be limited by either geography or politics. In two days we will see whether this conceit has run its course and whether the city that these men imagined, running from the mountains to the sea, from the Valley to the harbor, is as relevant for tomorrow as it was for yesterday.

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