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L.A. THEN AND NOW

A Sycamore Deeply Rooted in City's Past

September 08, 2002|CECILIA RASMUSSEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A sacred sycamore that served as Los Angeles' Plymouth Rock once fixed in time and place a now-vanished village of the Tongva Indians, whose settlement thrived here for three millenniums.

As Christopher Columbus was wading ashore in the West Indies in the fall of 1492, a seedling began to grow not far from the Pacific shoreline where Spanish explorer Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo would make landfall half a century later.

In its 400 years, the tree would serve as shelter and symbol for the highest councils of a Native American nation, then as a landmark to Spanish soldiers and ground zero for the fledgling city of El Pueblo de Nuestra Senora la Reina de Los Angeles de Porciuncula.

Before 1781, when a small band of settlers christened the huge tree simply "El Aliso," which means "the sycamore," more than 200 Tongva Indians lived in Yangna, the largest of the 100 or so villages in the region that were home to 5,000 indigenous Californians. Chiefs from the lesser villages would travel to confer under the vast branches of the "council tree."

For a century, the precise location of Yangna perplexed historians and anthropologists. They placed it variously at City Hall, Union Station, Pershing Square and the corner of Temple and Main streets. Eventually, its exact location was found to have been what is now a center divider on the Hollywood Freeway, just south of Patsaouras Transit Plaza, the headquarters of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

Its location was discerned a few years ago by John Crandell, a Westwood Village landscape architect. He found a revealing entry in the Mexican-era City Council records dated March 12, 1845, that clarified the village site.

There is nothing left of Yangna, which Spanish explorer Gaspar de Portola chanced upon in 1769 on his way to close escrow on Alta California. The Mexican rulers who followed the Spaniards did to the Gabrielinos--the name the newcomers gave the Tongva--pretty much what the U.S. government would soon do to other tribes: took their lands and consigned them to ever-smaller parcels.

Over the years, locals chipped away at Indian property. In 1834, French immigrant and vineyard owner Jean-Louis Vignes simply took over the land on which the 60-foot sycamore stood. For tax purposes, he valued the tree at $20.

In 1836, the City Council, or ayuntamiento, gave half the remaining area to a neighboring property owner, reducing Yangna to a small triangle less than 100 yards long on each side. Even that small portion lasted barely a decade. In 1846, the city moved it altogether, resettling the tribe and relocating the village on the east side of the Los Angeles River where Cesar E. Chavez Avenue and Mission Road now meet.

A few years later, after 26 residents complained of noise from "disorderly gatherings" when American soldiers visited the relocated village for unauthorized R&R, the military commander ordered the city to eliminate it "or else." Townsfolk contributed all of $24--coincidentally, the value of the beads that effected the transfer of the island of Manhattan--to help the surviving Indians move their belongings to wherever they could find refuge. By then their numbers had been ravaged by decades of disease, violence, liquor and opium. But the tree remained, the spread of its branches then measuring 200 feet in diameter. Twice, in 1815 and 1825, it survived roaring floods that changed the course of the river. The tree survived the drought of the 1860s that killed cattle and bankrupted ranchers.

But by the 1870s, the Philadelphia Brew House--later the site of Maier and Zobelein, Maier Brewing Co. and Brew 102--surrounded El Aliso. By 1892, the ancient tree of Yangna was dead.

Little Charles Gibbs Adams, who was about 8, watched as the tree was cut down and hauled off for firewood. He counted its growth rings and recorded its life span as 400 years. Adams would grow up to become one of Los Angeles' first landscape architects.

In 1972, the suds of Brew 102 stopped flowing when the old brewery closed. The shutdown ended almost a century of the pungent aroma of malted barley, hops and freshly brewed beer in the shadow of the Civic Center.

Today the 26-story MTA headquarters and the glass-domed Gateway Intermodal Transit Center stand little more than a football field's length from the spot where the six-story sycamore grew.

Its skyscraper height contrasting with the lower Union Station, the transit headquarters may become the city's 21st century transportation hub even as it revives a long-neglected neighborhood.

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