Thursday, August 05, 2004

The Downtown Los Angeles Tour Begins at Union Station

We always meet for our tour at the front door of Union Station, Los Angeles’s wonderful Spanish- colonial railroad station with white walls and the red tile roof. Let’s go outside the station and take a look at the famous red tile roof which has a history behind it. During the 1820s the Chumash Indians of Santa Barbara, who were in full-scale revolt against the four Spanish missions, would regularly shoot flaming arrows at the missions’ wooden roofs, but in the revolt of 1824 the Chumash burned down the mission at San Luis Obispo Indians. Then the Franciscan padres at San Luis Obispo replaced the wooden roof with a fire resistant red tile roof; soon all the missions wanted them, so Spanish colonial buildings had red tile roofs from then on all over Southern California including the house I was raised in.

As we inspect this lovely train station, we ask why did the city of Los Angeles start here inland rather than at the sea? Before the Spanish came, the Tongva Indians had a village they called Yang-na near the Los Angeles River as the Tongva usually put their villages near water sources. The Spanish, who wanted to conquer Alta California, decided to subdue the Indians and keep out rivals such as the British by building a chain of missions and then a chain of forts (the pueblo Los Angeles was one of the forts). The Spanish put their forts near the Indian villages they were subduing, so the pueblo of Los Angeles was sited next door to the Yang-na village by the Los Angeles river; such a location made it easy for the Spanish soldiers to round up the Indians and bring them to work at the San Gabiel mission ten miles away.

In 1785 a Native American woman shaman Toypurinia of the Tongva tribe led a revolt against the San Gabriel Mission. According to the Los Angeles Times, she was angry that Indians were “dying from syphilis and other disease and being chained and beaten while trying to escape.” The revolt included Toypurinia, two chiefs and dozens of warriors from six villages in the San Gabriel Valley who scaled the mission walls where they met soldiers who defeated them. Late in the 1820s Indian workers demanding more pay had LA’s first strike in the pueblo across the street. Well, in 2004, the Tongva are still here, protesting the destruction of their sacred sites all over Southern California.

Now we’ve inspected the outside white walls of Union Station and the red tile roof, let’s walk around the building, looking at the lovely fountains on the plazas both north and south of the railroad station. We’re walking over land which was Old Chinatown from 1870s to 1930s before it was torn down to build the railroad station. The Chinese had built the Southern Pacific line from San Francisco to L.A. and then settled around the original station depot to farm vegetables. When the Santa Fe railroad reached Los Angeles in the 1880s, there were then two railroad depots.

In 1871 Los Angeles was a small town of a few thousands, center of a region of cattle ranches known as Helltown because of the frequent murders. The town center was in the El Pueblo/Olvera Street now across the street from Union Station. In Helltown there were Indian rebels, Mexican revolutionaries, and Anglo bandits—all fighting against the U.S. “Rangers” and the U.S. government. After an Anglo man was killed trying to make a citizen’s arrest in the Chinatown area called Calles de los Negroes, a vigilante mob of Anglos rampaged through Chinatown, killed 20 Chinese (out of population of 200).

The Chinese Massacre gave LA terrible international publicity. In order to “rebuild LA” (hey, attempts to rebuild LA are still going around in 2004) the city fathers decided to move the town center from El Pueblo to a few blocks south and east in order to attempt to erase these images of racism and violence. The Chinese, who continued to live on this site of Union Station and across the street in Garnier Block just east of the Plaza, became the city’s main vegetable growers and sellers in the late 19th century. By the early 20th century the Chinese had also gotten into raising flowers, starting along with Japanese farmers the Flower Mart, a huge marketplace for flowers south of us. In the mid-1930s Los Angeles's city fathers decided to tear down its two ancient railroad stations, raze Chinatown, and build a spanking brand new Union Station over the ruins of Chinatown. The Chinese community survived both vigilante ethnic cleansing as well as destruction of its home when Union Station was built in 1939. Chinatown move one mile north and 1/2 mile east to it’s present location on north Broadway.

Now let’s walk inside Union Station’s front door, go right down the corridor until we enter a large wooden paneled room, site of the Harvey Restaurant. During the 1870s after the LA city fathers successfully got Southern Pacific to have its southern terminus in Los Angeles, the Southern Pacific along with LA city fathers promoted LA as a tropical/Mediterranean resort for Anglo Midwesterners—either for the ill to regain their health or the elderly to retire or those wanting to change jobs could buy a small citrus farm. This promotion set off Los Angeles’s first land boom of the 1880s and mass immigration from the Midwest.

The Harvey Restaurant within Union Station was one of a chain of restaurants aimed at this middle class railroad tourism of the West. In order to make LA appealing, exotic local architecture such as Spanish colonial and Mission Revival was encouraged. By 1891 El Pueblo, the site across the street where the city was founded, had become a decaying neighboring, so city fathers established in 1891 El Pueblo as the city’s first “historical park.” This historical park erased such events as Indian revolts and Chinese massacre, etc. Well, we’ve seen and learned about Union Station. This is only the beginning of the Real Downtown Los Angeles Tour. Stay tuned for later episodes as we make our way across the great forgotten: downtown LA.

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