Situated in the southern region of California, Los Angeles claims the title of the second most populous city in the United States and functions as the central hub of Los Angeles County. The city sprawls across an extensive coastal plain, nestled between the Pacific Ocean and surrounding mountains. Los Angeles serves as one component of the larger Los Angeles County, which encompasses approximately 90 other incorporated cities, including notable ones like Beverly Hills, Pasadena, and Long Beach. The county boasts a diverse topography, featuring iconic landmarks like the Channel Islands Santa Catalina and San Clemente, Mount San Antonio (also known as Mount Baldy or Old Baldy) with a towering elevation of 10,046 feet, expansive desert terrains spanning over 900 square miles, and a captivating 75-mile shoreline.
The interconnectedness of the city and the county, both in terms of geography and economics, necessitates a comprehensive examination of Los Angeles. Population density in the metropolitan area exhibits considerable variations, ranging from as low as one person per square mile in mountainous regions to as high as 50,000 per square mile in downtown Los Angeles. Los Angeles, as a city, covers an area of 466 square miles, while Los Angeles County encompasses a vast expanse of 4,070 square miles. In the year 2010, the population figures stood at 3,792,621 for the city, 9,818,605 for the Los Angeles–Long Beach–Glendale Metro Division, and 12,828,837 for the Los Angeles–Long Beach–Santa Ana Metro Area. Fast forward to 2020, and these numbers had climbed to 3,898,747 for the city, 10,014,009 for the Los Angeles–Long Beach–Glendale Metro Division, and 13,200,998 for the Los Angeles–Long Beach–Anaheim Metro Area.
|Approximately 468.7 square miles
|Covers the city’s total land area.
|Los Angeles County
|The city is located within the county.
|The city’s approximate northern latitude.
|The city’s approximate western longitude.
|285 feet (87 meters) above sea level
|Average elevation within the city.
|Over 3.8 million (as of 2020)
|The number of residents living in the city.
|Approximately 8,100 people per square mile
|Population density of Los Angeles.
|Pacific Ocean to the west, San Gabriel Mountains to the north
|Geographical boundaries of the city.
Table of Contents
1. Character of the City
Nestled in the heart of Southern California, Los Angeles, a relatively recent addition to the ranks of world-class cities, was once characterized as a mere “large village” in the early 20th century. Its remarkable ascent is even more remarkable considering its initial lack of typical urban features, such as a natural harbor. Despite these initial limitations, Los Angeles overcame them and transformed into a bustling center for commerce, agriculture, tourism, and industry. For over a century, the city has been synonymous with a temperate climate, abundant recreational opportunities, outdoor activities, and the unique allure of Hollywood’s celebrity culture. Its residents, known as Angelenos, embrace a lifestyle centered around automobiles, favor single-family homes, and embrace informality in their daily lives. While exceptions exist, the city’s skyline predominantly extends horizontally rather than vertically. Los Angeles proudly reflects a rich tapestry of ethnic and racial diversity, primarily fueled by immigration, and, like many global metropolises, grapples with the growing wealth gap.
Throughout its history, Los Angeles has faced criticism from detractors who often depict it as either a laid-back “la-la land” or, conversely, a city plagued by earthquakes, fires, smog, gang conflicts, and riots. On the other hand, its defenders extol its mild climate and geographical diversity. They argue that the city’s major societal challenges are comparable to those encountered in other major urban centers and may even be less severe here. Indeed, some observers consider Los Angeles to be the embodiment of a modern American city.
2. Landscape of Los Angeles
Los Angeles County boasts a diverse and extensive terrain, featuring a blend of inland valleys, coastal plains nestled between low mountains and steep passes, elevated mountain ranges, and a lengthy seacoast. These mountain chains, comprising nearly half of the county’s landscape, have seen their share of earthquakes, firestorms, and mudslides. The north and northeast are dominated by the San Gabriel and San Bernardino mountains, while parallel ranges like the Santa Monica Mountains, Puente Hills, Repetto Hills, and San Jose Hills shape the San Fernando, San Gabriel, and San Bernardino valleys. To the south, between Orange and Riverside counties, the Santa Ana Mountains stretch. The county’s iconic coastline boasts unique beaches that attract millions of sun enthusiasts annually.
Three waterways flow through the county: the westward Santa Clara River in the north, the Los Angeles River to the south, spanning from the San Fernando Valley to the Pacific Ocean, and the San Gabriel River, originating in the north and flowing south to the ocean. Historic floods have at times inundated substantial portions of the county, leading to significant efforts to control these watercourses by channeling them through concrete structures. In 1825, a deluge permanently altered the course of the Los Angeles River, shifting its flow from Santa Monica Bay to San Pedro Bay. In the winter of 1861–62, extensive flooding transformed the western Los Angeles basin into a chain of lakes with scattered islands. The San Gabriel River also overflowed its banks and connected with the Los Angeles River through a new channel known as the Rio Hondo.
The sprawling city of Los Angeles covers a significant portion of the southern county. Its topography varies greatly, ranging from sea level in beach communities like Venice to the lofty Mount Lukens, rising above 5,100 feet. The city’s expansion began in 1781 as a small village encompassing 28 square miles. It grew substantially through a series of annexations, ultimately gaining control over the Los Angeles River watershed and importing water from the Owens River, located 230 miles northeast in the Sierra Nevada. To access this vital water resource and essential public services like police and fire protection, neighboring communities opted to join Los Angeles. The annexation of Wilmington and San Pedro and the narrow “shoestring” of land connecting them to the city in 1909–10 occurred as Los Angeles established a harbor. By 1917, Los Angeles had tripled in size, adding the entire San Fernando Valley and the Palms district. Between 1922 and 1928, 34 unincorporated areas and five cities merged with Los Angeles. As it expanded, Los Angeles encircled five independent cities: Beverly Hills, Culver City, West Hollywood, Universal City, and San Fernando.
Original city neighborhoods and annexed communities such as Boyle Heights, Chinatown, Little Tokyo, Hollywood, San Pedro, Encino, and Watts retain their names and identities. However, the city never formally recognized neighborhoods, resulting in vague and informal boundaries for these smaller units.
Los Angeles’ climate is typically classified as semiarid or Mediterranean, influenced by various natural factors. The city’s southern latitude deflects the harshest North Pacific winter storms, while a layer of marine air tempers the summer heat. The towering mountain ranges act as a protective shield against extreme desert temperature fluctuations. Nonetheless, these favorable conditions also give rise to a well-known Los Angeles phenomenon: photochemical smog, a persistent issue since the 1940s. Stringent anti-pollution laws have helped reduce motor vehicle emissions that contribute to smog formation, but air quality remains a significant concern, not only in Los Angeles but in numerous other California cities.
Los Angeles experiences two distinct seasons: a dry and moderately warm period from April to November and a wetter, moderately cool phase from November to April. The city’s mean temperature hovers around 64°F (18°C).
Temperature variations can be substantial depending on location. For example, the San Fernando Valley can be 10°F (5.5°C) warmer than Santa Monica in the summer and 10°F cooler in the winter. Elevation, wind speed, and fog also influence temperature. Beach areas tend to be 10 to 15°F (5.5 to 8°C) cooler than downtown Los Angeles. The hottest month, August, sees an average of 85°F (29°C) downtown and 68°F (20°C) at the ocean, which is only 15 miles away. Areas near the mountains in the San Gabriel Valley can reach 100°F (38°C) during the day and drop to the low 40s or 50s°F (low to upper 20s°C) at night. January is the coldest month, often leading to icy roads, but temperatures on the plains rarely dip below 40°F (4°C).
The city’s annual precipitation averages around 15 inches (380 mm). The central Pacific weather pattern known as El Niño can sometimes produce more than double the average precipitation in a rainy season. Prolonged rains or intense downpours can trigger mudslides, particularly after fires have stripped hillsides of vegetation.
The frequent sunny days and minimal rainfall contribute to a general sense of physical well-being. Periodic Santa Ana winds, typically hot and dry, blow through the mountain passes in the fall and winter. These “red winds” were once vividly described by mystery writer Raymond Chandler, noting their impact on the populace.
The natural environment in the Los Angeles region is a double-edged sword. While it offers great allure, it also presents challenges such as extended droughts, torrential rains, powerful surf, mudslides, wind-driven fires, and, most notably, earthquakes. Earthquakes have been documented throughout the area’s history. For instance, in 1769, during Gaspar de Portolá’s expedition, a temblor lasting “as long as half an Ave Maria” toppled a soldier from his horse as they crossed the Santa Ana River. The major fault line, the San Andreas Fault, is situated just 33 miles from downtown Los Angeles and has been the source of major earthquakes in the area, including those in Long Beach in 1933 (magnitude 6.4), Sylmar in 1971 (6.6), and Northridge in 1994 (6.7). The Pacific Plate, which includes the portion of California west of the fault, moves northwestward past the North American landmass at a rate of about 2 inches (5 cm) per year, potentially leading to Los Angeles eventually sliding past San Francisco in tens of millions of years.
Ranching, farming, and urbanization have disrupted much of the region’s original flora and fauna. Nonetheless, native trees such as oaks, maples, sycamores, and willows still flourish. The California poppy (Eschscholzia californica) blooms abundantly in the spring near Lancaster, approximately 80 miles north of the city. The native chaparral blankets the mountains. The region has also seen the introduction of numerous exotic flowers, shrubs, and trees due to its suitability for diverse plant species. While some iconic palm trees, eucalyptus, and pepper trees are exotics, wildlife that was common in the 1850s, like grizzly and black bears and pronghorn antelope, have disappeared. However, deer, raccoons, and coyotes still inhabit some areas, and even a few nocturnal mountain lions, a protected species, are found in the hilly parts of Beverly Hills, Tarzana, and Chatsworth. The county is also home to the endangered El Segundo blue butterfly (Euphilotes battoides allyni).
The city of Los Angeles is a collection of widely dispersed settlements loosely connected to downtown. Unlike the popular urban theory of the 1920s and later, which emphasized a central downtown focus, Los Angeles diverges from this pattern. Most Angelenos have little daily connection with downtown and prefer to work, shop, and enjoy leisure activities in the suburbs that extend in all directions. Outlying districts within the city limits include Hollywood to the northwest of downtown, the San Fernando Valley with areas like Encino, Van Nuys, and North Hollywood, Century City, Westwood, and Venice on the West Side, San Pedro and Wilmington in the harbor area, and Boyle Heights just east of the river. Some newer outlying communities, such as Warner Center, appear as self-contained mini-cities.
The extensive Los Angeles freeways serve as the primary links connecting downtown with the suburbs, creating a vast network of concrete arteries. Driving in any direction reveals a range of landscapes, with some roads crossing the Los Angeles River, often appearing as a large, cement-lined flood-control channel. Mountains and their steep canyons are adorned with shrubbery, grass, and the occasional house. While some routes offer breathtaking vistas, many communities seem indistinguishable from one another when viewed from the freeways. Cars and trucks stream continuously, passing through single-story residential areas, shopping districts, and malls at rooftop level.
Los Angeles lacks a single concentrated industrial area, as typical industrial establishments occupy single-story buildings adjacent to spacious parking lots, often near a railway line or accessible from a major road or freeway for large truck access. This layout has led to the quip that Los Angeles is “seventy-two suburbs in search of a city.”
While cities like Chicago feature grid-based street patterns, Los Angeles’s history is marked by a lack of comprehensive planning. Despite this perception, the original pueblo was established in 1781 based on a plan from the 16th-century Laws of the Indies. The county maintained a general grid for outlying tracts, roads, and highways. Although an extensive regional planning proposal by Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr.’s planning firm in 1924 aimed to preserve open space, it failed to gain adequate support to counteract urban sprawl and the preference for automobiles. Nonetheless, some smaller planned communities in outlying areas, such as Westwood and Palos Verdes Estates, have gained recognition.
Downtown Los Angeles serves as a focal point for hundreds of thousands of Angelenos, housing government and commercial offices as well as cultural facilities. The area encompasses distinctive subareas such as Civic Center, Music Center, Spring Street, Broadway, Chinatown, Olvera Street, Little Tokyo, Library Square, and the Staples Center. These districts bustle during workdays but often appear deserted in the evenings. Bunker Hill, in particular, boasts the city’s tallest and most imposing buildings. Downtown has never been home to many factories and lost numerous major department stores including Target Superstores, Ross Dress for Less, and Dollar Tree. It also houses relatively few residents. However, the wholesale markets for garments, jewelry, toys, furniture, flowers, and produce remain among the busiest enterprises in southern California.
Since the 1980s, the city has made significant efforts to revitalize downtown by expanding housing options, accommodating new recreational and cultural activities, and promoting pedestrian activity. Loft conversions have created new condominium living spaces, and the river is viewed as a significant recreational asset. Nevertheless, downtown still faces challenges in the form of a large Skid Row area (sometimes called Central City East) and a lack of housing for middle- and lower-income families, along with the shops and amenities that make street-level life enjoyable.
Despite its sprawling and seemingly decentralized layout, Los Angeles maintains a distinct character shaped by its geography, climate, and diverse communities. The city continues to evolve and adapt to the demands and aspirations of its residents, making it a place of constant change and renewal.
The demographic landscape of Los Angeles has seen remarkable transformations throughout its history. In its early days under Spanish rule in 1781, individuals of European descent were in the minority, with a majority of the original 44 settlers being of African, Native American, or mixed heritage. However, as the late 19th and early 20th centuries unfolded, the white population began to dominate, earning Los Angeles the nickname “the seacoast of Iowa” due to an influx of white Midwesterners. Unlike the eastern United States, southern California attracted relatively few immigrant groups from eastern and southern Europe during this period.
The demographics began to shift once again in the early 20th century, triggered by the Mexican Revolution in 1910. This led to a significant increase in the nonwhite population, primarily through the arrival of Mexican agricultural workers. The 1970s marked a turning point when Los Angeles became a magnet for various ethnic groups, cementing its reputation as one of the most diverse metropolises in the country, if not the world.
By the early 21st century, California had achieved the status of a “minority-majority state,” where the combined population of minorities surpassed the majority population. Los Angeles County stood out as the county with the largest Hispanic (or Latino) population, the largest Asian population, and the largest Native American population in the United States. The African American population, while significant, saw some decline as middle-class families left traditionally African American neighborhoods for newer suburbs, extending as far as San Bernardino County. Areas like Compton and Inglewood, which once had African American majorities, have now become predominantly Latino.
These shifts among major ethnic groups have been influenced by both natural population growth and immigration patterns. Since the mid-1960s, immigration policies shifted away from favoring European immigrants, instead prioritizing those with family connections in the United States and those possessing higher education and skills. Simultaneously, illegal immigration increased significantly, particularly from rural areas in Mexico and Central America. This has led to Los Angeles County having the largest concentration of Mexicans outside of Mexico. People from more than 140 countries now call Los Angeles County home, with the city boasting the largest populations of Koreans, Filipinos, Iranians, Salvadorans, Guatemalans, and Cambodians living outside their native countries. The city is also home to a larger concentration of Native Americans, most of whom were born in states other than California, than any other county in the United States.
While the overall population of the city and county has become more diverse, housing segregation has persisted, particularly for low-income Latinos, African Americans, and Asians in the central city. Families from various backgrounds who could afford to do so have often relocated to the suburbs in search of better housing and safety.
Los Angeles is a linguistic tapestry with over 90 languages spoken in homes, including Spanish, Vietnamese, Hmong, Cantonese, Tagalog, Korean, Armenian, Russian, Farsi, Cambodian, and Hebrew. Radio broadcasts in the city can feature a dozen or more foreign languages in a given week, and readers can choose from more than 50 foreign-language newspapers published in the county.
The religious landscape in southern California mirrors its cultural diversity. Once predominantly Roman Catholic, Los Angeles began welcoming Protestant and Jewish communities in the late 19th century. The 1920s witnessed the proliferation of small religious sects, some of which gained notable followings. The African American preacher William J. Seymour ignited the Pentecostal religious movement with the Azusa Street revival in 1906, which would eventually spread worldwide. Today, Roman Catholics still constitute a significant mainline religious group with about 100 parishes. Various Protestant denominations, including Evangelicals, now outnumber mainline denominations. The city is also home to a substantial Mormon population. Los Angeles houses around 600,000 Jews, while Eastern Orthodox congregations serve the growing Greek, Russian, and Armenian communities. The city is also home to a diverse Muslim population, including immigrants from Africa and Indonesia. Buddhists and Hindus number in the tens of thousands, and smaller non-Judeo-Christian religions, such as the Baha’i faith, have found a place in this diverse religious tapestry.
4. Economy of Los Angeles
Southern California hosts a vast and continually evolving regional economy with deep historical roots dating back to the 1700s when Spanish missionaries introduced citrus orchards, marking the dawn of agriculture in the region. Manufacturing also played a pivotal role in its development. Today, Los Angeles County showcases a diverse economic landscape spanning financial and business services, high-tech manufacturing, and creative industries encompassing jewelry, fashion, music, and the iconic film industry. If the Los Angeles metropolis were its nation, its gross national product would rival that of some of the world’s most prosperous countries.
However, the economic journey has not been without its challenges. After significant growth throughout the 20th century, the local economy faced a recession in the 1990s. Nevertheless, it rebounded robustly, particularly in the high-tech sector. By the turn of the century, the most rapid job growth occurred in sectors like construction, transportation, public utilities, finance, insurance, real estate, and government services.
The global economy introduced intricate dynamics to the regional job market starting in the 1980s. As less profitable manufacturing plants closed or moved overseas, higher-paying labor-intensive jobs declined, while lower-paying positions increased. The local job market increasingly relied on immigrant labor, with some challenges, such as sweatshop conditions in certain low-wage industries.
From the 1930s to the 1950s, the labor movement made significant strides in auto, aircraft, film, trucking, longshoring, and food handling industries. Subsequently, unions expanded their influence by organizing teachers, nurses, and other service employees. These gains continued into the 1990s and the early 21st century, with the AFL-CIO actively supporting immigrant workers, advocating for a living wage for city employees, and participating in local politics.
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In earlier generations, Southern California’s agriculturalists cultivated orchards of citrus fruits, vegetables, and dairy cattle, establishing it as one of the most productive agricultural counties in the country. Although urban expansion has claimed much of the farmland, agriculture remains a significant contributor to the regional economy. Key crops now include nursery and greenhouse plants, vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, and hay.
In earlier generations, Southern California’s agriculturalists cultivated orchards of citrus fruits, vegetables, and dairy cattle, establishing it as one of the most productive agricultural counties in the country. Although urban expansion has claimed much of the farmland, agriculture remains a significant contributor to the regional economy. Key crops now include nursery and greenhouse plants, vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, and hay.
Finance and Other Services
The service sector now forms the backbone of the Los Angeles economy. Business and professional management services, healthcare services, research, finance, trade, and tourism have emerged as major components. The bulk of the workforce today is employed in services such as retail, restaurants, hotels, government agencies, schools, and colleges. The University of Southern California stands as the city’s largest private employer.
Transportation of Los Angeles
Los Angeles, known for its car-dependent lifestyle, has grappled with achieving a balanced mass transit system. The city once celebrated the Pacific Electric Railway (PE), an early 20th-century trolley system created for real estate development that ultimately became financially unsustainable. The rise of automobiles, coupled with an extensive freeway system, transformed the city’s transportation landscape. Though public transit took a back seat, initiatives were later pursued to develop a more comprehensive system that included light-rail lines and subways. Metrolink, a regional commuter rail service, further expanded transit options. Additionally, the city’s airports, especially Los Angeles International Airport (LAX), are vital connections to the rest of the world.
The city has a rich history of newspapers, with the Los Angeles Times being a prominent fixture. In the 1950s, Los Angeles had four daily papers, but competition led to a decrease in their numbers. In the modern era, the media landscape includes regional papers, Spanish-language dailies, numerous radio stations broadcasting in various languages, and a substantial presence of Spanish-language television networks.
The Entertainment Industry
The entertainment industry, with Hollywood at its core, is a critical contributor to the local economy. Hollywood produces a significant portion of films in the United States and exerts global cultural influence. Beyond films, the recording industry and other entertainment-related businesses play a vital role, employing hundreds of thousands of individuals. Iconic corporations such as Disney and Universal Studios contribute to the industry’s vibrancy.
5. Administration and Society
Southern California’s complex governmental landscape spans municipal, county, special district, regional, state, and federal jurisdictions. The County Board of Supervisors, comprising five members, wields extensive authority in executive, legislative, and quasi-judicial matters, particularly related to planning. It oversees unincorporated county areas and collaborates with specific cities for services like law enforcement. Governing a population of approximately 10 million and managing a multibillion-dollar budget, this board presides over the second-largest municipal government in the United States, exceeded only by New York City. The Los Angeles City Council, with its 15 members, holds substantial regional electoral power, overseeing contracts, permits, zoning, and city department funding. Meanwhile, the mayor’s focus centers on crafting the city budget, nominating top officials, and exercising veto power over council ordinances.
Embracing a Progressive movement heritage, city and county elections maintain a nonpartisan character. Despite a majority of registered Democrats among Angeleno voters, Republicans maintain a significant presence in the suburbs. The demographics have shifted significantly, particularly with the population growth in the San Fernando Valley and the west side, altering the established power dynamics. The election of Tom Bradley, Los Angeles’s first African American mayor in 1973, marked a watershed moment in the city’s political landscape. Following Bradley’s tenure, power in City Hall became more diffuse, raising concerns about bureaucratic inefficiencies, insufficient city services, and underrepresentation in the city council. This prompted secession movements in areas such as the San Fernando Valley, Hollywood, and San Pedro. The city also underwent charter reforms in 1999, enhancing public participation in legislative affairs through the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment (DONE) and regional zoning commissions.
In the early 21st century, the substantial Latino population in Los Angeles emerged as a potent political force, exemplified by Antonio Villaraigosa’s election as the city’s mayor in 2005, gaining strong support from the Latino community and the broader electorate.
Planning and Housing
The future of downtown Los Angeles remains a topic of ongoing discussion in urban planning and redevelopment circles. Key issues revolve around the challenge of providing affordable housing for low- and middle-income families, creating pedestrian-friendly spaces, addressing homelessness, preserving historic landmarks like Broadway’s theaters, and revitalizing areas such as El Pueblo Park (Olvera Street), Chinatown, and Little Tokyo.
State law mandates citizen involvement in the city’s planning process and encourages strict enforcement of environmental impact regulations. While the city experienced unrestrained growth through most of the 20th century, local communities, homeowners’ associations, and environmental organizations successfully lobbied for more measured growth.
Public housing initiatives in the early 20th century included projects like the housing development in Chavez Ravine during the 1950s. However, opposition from the building industry, coupled with concerns related to racial integration and communism, led to the project’s demise, eventually making way for Dodger Stadium’s construction. Rent control laws and increased enforcement against slumlords were later introduced to alleviate housing issues, but the supply of affordable housing units struggled to meet demand.
Delivering essential services to a rapidly growing and geographically expansive population poses a significant challenge for local governments in Southern California. The city of Los Angeles primarily sources its water from the Owens River, with smaller contributions from the Feather and Colorado rivers, and recycling facilities. The city generates its electrical energy through a combination of fossil fuels and hydroelectric sources, while other areas in Los Angeles County rely on private electric utility providers. Most county cities acquire water from the Colorado River and rely on wells and pumps tapping into underground aquifers. Flood management in the region is a collaborative effort between local and federal authorities. The Hyperion Treatment Plant, operated by Los Angeles, treats wastewater and discharges it into Santa Monica Bay, serving multiple jurisdictions.
In the past, Los Angeles residents disposed of combustible trash in backyard incinerators, but this practice ended in 1957 due to smog concerns. Today, the city’s sanitation trucks collect thousands of tons of household waste daily and deposit it in local sanitary landfills. The region’s hillside areas present a significant fire hazard during dry seasons, necessitating fire departments to combat potentially destructive brush fires.
The Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) was known for its professionalism until around 1965. However, the Watts riots in 1965 and the 1992 Los Angeles riots, following the acquittal of police officers in the Rodney King case, strained police-community relations. In response, a blue-ribbon commission led by Mayor Bradley recommended community-based policing to build better relationships between the police and local citizens. This involved initiatives like the Neighborhood Watch program, where lead officers collaborate with residents to prevent crime.
Gang violence was a significant social problem, prompting multiple programs and reforms. However, the allocation of funds toward suppression instead of intervention, social services, job placement, and economic development remained a point of contention. Coordination among various efforts in the city was another challenge.
Health and Welfare
The region’s mild climate historically attracted individuals seeking improved health. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, thousands of tuberculosis and asthma patients sought treatment at local hospitals and clinics. Today, Southern California retains its exceptional medical facilities, housing institutions such as USC, UCLA, Kaiser Permanente, Cedars-Sinai, and City of Hope hospitals.
Responsibility for public health and welfare falls under the county’s jurisdiction. The Department of Health Services, one of the largest such agencies in the United States, has grappled with insufficient funding to serve a growing number of underprivileged clients. The county is also responsible for public welfare matters. In the late 1980s, caseloads surged, largely due to an influx of foreign immigrants. The welfare-to-work reform program established in 1996 reduced caseloads and connected people with social services, but many participants remained in low-wage jobs without benefits. Los Angeles County continued to have an elevated caseload compared to most U.S. states due to an increasing concentration of poverty, particularly from poor immigrant families.
The Los Angeles area is renowned for its institutions of higher learning, both public and private, known for distinguished faculties, including Nobel Prize recipients. Notable institutions include UCLA, part of the University of California system, and the California State University campuses in Dominguez Hills, Long Beach, Los Angeles, and Northridge. Private institutions like USC, Caltech, the Claremont Colleges, Occidental College, and Loyola Marymount excel in various fields.
The region is home to several independent school districts, with the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) being the second-largest public school district in the United States. Turmoil in the 1970s over court-ordered busing to combat racial segregation led to “white flight” to the suburbs and the emergence of numerous private schools. LAUSD faced challenges in the early 21st century, dealing with growing enrollments and decreasing public funding for education.
6. Cultural Life
Entering the 20th century, Los Angeles contended with a reputation as a somewhat conservative, oversized village. Surprisingly, in the 1910s, newcomers from the East Coast were bewildered by the absence of wine service in local restaurants. However, this perception soon shifted, leading to the city’s transformation into “Tinseltown,” a term popularized by Woody Allen’s 1977 film, “Annie Hall,” in which he famously quipped, “I don’t want to live in a city where the only cultural advantage is that you can make a right turn on a red light.” By this time, Los Angeles had already evolved into a hub for creative artists, attracting notable figures, including European luminaries like Aldous Huxley, Billy Wilder, and Thomas Mann. These artists nurtured diverse art forms and established impressive cultural institutions. The 1960s ushered in a cultural renaissance led by civic leader Dorothy Chandler, who harnessed private and corporate support to secure a county subsidy for the Los Angeles Music Center, home to the iconic Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. The city further championed the arts through the “one percent for the arts” mandate for major construction sites, leading to the proliferation of vibrant murals throughout the cityscape.
The history of theatrical performances in Los Angeles can be traced back to the 1850s. By the 1890s, the city had become a stopover for touring companies en route to San Francisco. Famed performers like Sarah Bernhardt graced local stages as part of the Orpheum Circuit. The 1920s witnessed the construction of numerous theaters, about half of which could accommodate both film and stage productions. Outdoor amphitheaters like the Hollywood Bowl, Greek Theatre, and John Anson Ford Amphitheatre gained popularity as venues for the performing arts. In 1967, Los Angeles rose to become the second most important theater city in the United States with the opening of the Ahmanson Theatre and the Mark Taper Forum at the downtown Music Center. This era also saw the emergence of many small theaters, nourished by the presence of approximately one-fourth of the nation’s professional actors, writers, and directors living in the region.
Music and Dance
Established in 1919, the Los Angeles Philharmonic has grown to become one of the country’s premier orchestras, performing at the Frank O. Gehry-designed Walt Disney Concert Hall since 2003. The city’s classical music scene was enriched by European musicians fleeing Nazism in the 1930s, such as Otto Klemperer, Kurt Weill, Igor Stravinsky, and Arnold Schoenberg. Jazz flourished in Los Angeles from the early 1920s, with luminaries like Dixieland’s Kid Ory and legendary figures performing on Central Avenue in the heart of the African American community, including Charlie Parker and Louis Armstrong. The big band era of the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s featured singers like Jo Stafford, Lena Horne, Frank Sinatra, and bands led by Jimmy and Tommy Dorsey, Glenn Miller, Louis Armstrong, and Duke Ellington. In the 1960s, a surfing craze in Southern California gave rise to surf music, pioneered by artists like Dick Dale. The Beach Boys, a rock and roll group from Hawthorne, further developed this genre, contributing to Los Angeles’ diverse and vibrant pop music scene. The mid- to late-1960s witnessed the coexistence of country rock with diverse musical styles represented by bands like the Doors and Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention. Los Angeles Opera was established in 1985, and the city welcomed its first resident ballet company, Los Angeles Ballet, for its inaugural season in 2006–07. Visiting companies frequently perform at the Music Center, while Los Angeles-based groups cover modern, tap, jazz, ethnic, and experimental dance.
Los Angeles boasts a rich literary history spanning various genres. Southern California fiction was inaugurated by Helen Hunt Jackson’s “Ramona” (1884), creating a romanticized image of Native Americans and missions. Hollywood novels, including Nathanael West’s “The Day of the Locust” (1939) and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Last Tycoon” (1941), were particularly popular. The city often became the target of satire in literature, as exemplified in Evelyn Waugh’s “The Loved One” (1948), a satirical work set in a cemetery, and Aldous Huxley’s “After Many a Summer Dies the Swan” (1939). The hard-boiled detective novel genre thrived, with authors such as James Cain, Raymond Chandler, Chester Himes, and Walter Mosley depicting Los Angeles’ dual facets of optimism and corruption. The city also inspired a variety of other novels, including Joan Didion’s “Play It As It Lays” (1970), Carolyn See’s “Making History” (1991), and Janet Fitch’s “White Oleander” (1999). The Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, inaugurated in 1996, has grown to become the largest literary event of its kind in the United States.
Architecture of Los Angeles
Los Angeles boasts a diverse architectural landscape characterized by a wide range of styles. While the region is known for Spanish Mission Revival and Craftsman architecture, renowned architects such as Irving Gill, Frank Lloyd Wright, Richard J. Neutra, and R.M. Schindler contributed groundbreaking work in the first half of the 20th century. The city’s abundant sunshine, appealing terrain, and lack of entrenched aesthetic conventions encouraged experimentation, leading to unique vernacular buildings often humorously reflecting their commercial purposes. Playful structures like the Brown Derby Restaurant, resembling a hat, and the Tail o’ the Pup hot dog stand, shaped like a hot dog, emerged during this period. Notable architectural landmarks include the Case Study Houses designed by Craig Ellwood and Charles and Ray Eames, which continue to serve as subjects of study for architectural students. Prior to 1956, Los Angeles adhered to a 140-foot building height limit (with City Hall being the primary exception) to maintain a predominantly horizontal appearance. Once this restriction was lifted, the construction of skyscrapers in the city commenced.
Los Angeles is home to an extensive array of museums, with the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) as the foremost fine arts institution. Founded in 1910, LACMA houses an extensive art collection and anchors “Museum Row” along Wilshire Boulevard. Other prominent art museums in the area include the Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens, the Norton Simon Museum of Art, and the J. Paul Getty Museum. The city’s museum scene is remarkably diverse, encompassing ethnic heritage museums such as the California African American Museum, the Japanese American National Museum, and the Skirball Cultural Center, which showcases Jewish culture and history. Museums in Los Angeles cover a wide range of subjects, including natural history, cinema, music stars, children’s interests, crafts, maritime history, television history, military history, automobile history, aviation, and railroad history.
Sports and Recreation
Los Angeles residents exhibit enthusiastic support for a diverse range of sports. The city’s sports culture reached significant milestones with the hosting of the 1932 Summer Olympics and the arrival of the Dodgers baseball team in 1958 and the Lakers basketball team in 1960. In 1984, Los Angeles once again hosted the Summer Games, cementing its status as a major sports hub. The city is home to numerous professional sports teams, including the Rams and the Chargers (football), the Angels (baseball), the Kings and the Ducks (ice hockey), the Clippers (men’s basketball), the Sparks (women’s basketball), and the LA Galaxy and Los Angeles FC (football [soccer]). In addition to professional franchises, Los Angeles boasts a vibrant amateur sports scene, high school rivalries, and college-level competitions. The city provides a blend of urban and natural recreational spaces, with neighborhood parks like Exposition Park, Hancock Park, and Elysian Park offering residents opportunities to engage in outdoor activities. Griffith Park, covering approximately 6.5 square miles of rugged mountain terrain, stands out as the world’s largest urban park. On a regional scale, the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area is a sprawling preserve of 239 square miles, making it the most extensive of its kind in any American metropolis. Managed cooperatively by the U.S. National Park Service, the California Department of Parks and Recreation, and the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, this area includes existing homes while limiting new construction to preserve the natural environment. Moreover, regional beaches attract millions of visitors annually, necessitating the deployment of several hundred lifeguards during the summer. Walt Disney’s creation of Disneyland in 1955 marked a revolution in the theme park industry, as he extended his beloved cartoon characters into an amusement park. The concept was a resounding success and inspired the establishment of Universal Studios Hollywood in Studio City, another prominent theme park that welcomes millions of visitors annually.
7. History of Los Angeles
Spanish Colonial Outpost
Centuries ago, the Los Angeles region was home to the Tongva (Gabrielino) and Chumash Indians, with Spanish explorer Capt. Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo making early contact in 1542, leading to the naming of “Bahía de los Fumos.” In the late 18th century, Spanish Crown efforts under Capt. Gaspar de Portolá and Junípero Serra brought missions and settlements to California, including San Gabriel and San Fernando. In 1781, Governor Felipe de Neve founded El Pueblo de la Reina de los Angeles near the Río de Porciúncula, ultimately shortened to Los Angeles. The transition to American rule began in 1822, with California becoming a state in 1850, making Los Angeles its largest community.
The Early American Era
The post-Mexican rule era in Los Angeles was characterized by ethnic conflicts, lawlessness, and violence. The dominance of white settlers replaced Mexicans in city government. Economic hardships hit in the 1860s due to a severe drought, changing the course of rancheros. Ethnic tensions escalated, leading to the infamous Chinese Massacre of 1871. While the city was marked by certain limitations like a lack of natural harbor, railways, and water supply, it underwent a remarkable transformation over the 20th century.
Inventing a City
Los Angeles embarked on its journey to modernity in the 1870s when the Southern Pacific Railroad connected it to San Francisco. The “Sick Rush” saw an influx of newcomers drawn to the city’s healthful climate. In 1885, the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railroad linked it to Chicago, sparking a land boom. Despite a subsequent bubble burst in 1887, a robust promotional campaign by the chamber of commerce, along with natural beauty, attracted affluent visitors who eventually became permanent residents. The creation of a deepwater harbor, battles over its location, and an expanding transportation network further propelled the city’s growth.
From the Aqueduct to the 1920s
A major turning point came with the construction of the Los Angeles Aqueduct by water engineer William Mulholland between 1904 and 1913. On November 5, 1913, water flowed into the city, addressing its water needs for millions. This feat laid the foundation for further development. The 1920s and ’30s brought both prosperity, with the film and aircraft industries, and challenges, including racial tensions, the Great Depression, and political reform.
The 1920s and ’30s
In the 1920s, the residents of Owens Valley, feeling that their water had been wrongfully taken, expressed their anger towards Los Angeles by resorting to dynamite to sabotage parts of the aqueduct system. The disputes, often referred to as “water wars,” were heightened by the collapse of the St. Francis Dam in northern Los Angeles County in 1928, causing a massive release of water that tragically claimed the lives of hundreds. William Mulholland assumed complete responsibility for the disaster. During the 1930s, Los Angeles expanded the aqueduct northward to Mono Lake, increasing its total length to 338 miles (544 km). Later, the city imported additional water from the Colorado River and California’s Feather River.
Historian Carey McWilliams once described Los Angeles’s growth as “one continuous boom punctuated at intervals by major explosions.” By 1920, the population of Southern California had exceeded that of Northern California, and this period marked “the largest internal migration in the history of the American people.” Hundreds of thousands arrived in the city by automobile. The era was marked by frenzied wildcat oil drilling, intense business speculation, religious fervor, substantial suburban development, the emergence of the aircraft and film industries, and civic corruption. The charismatic Pentecostal minister Aimee Semple McPherson captivated audiences with her dramatic sermons, and many starry-eyed individuals arrived, aspiring to follow in the footsteps of famous movie actors such as Mary Pickford, known as “America’s Sweetheart,” and her husband Douglas Fairbanks, a daredevil in his own right.
However, in the 1930s, Los Angeles was primarily a city dominated by white residents, featuring segregated housing and public facilities and widespread job discrimination. The Great Depression led to high unemployment, depleting the resources of both private and public assistance. In an effort to reduce the welfare rolls, public officials repatriated thousands of Mexicans, including their U.S.-born children. Despite these challenges, Los Angeles successfully hosted the 1932 Olympic Summer Games as planned. The city’s remote location and the prevailing economic conditions in much of the world contributed to limited international participation, but the Games were a resounding success and introduced Los Angeles to the world. The rampant corruption in City Hall led to a recall movement against Mayor Frank L. Shaw and his close associates. Police misconduct and the mayor’s mismanagement of public funds eventually forced Shaw’s resignation, leading to the election of reformist Mayor Fletcher Bowron in 1938.
The late 1930s saw economic recovery due to the prosperity of the film industry, the utilization of electrical energy from Hoover Dam, and the production of airplanes for Britain and France at the outset of World War II.
World War II and the Postwar Years
World War II fueled Los Angeles’ economic boom as a major manufacturing center. However, it also saw the internment of Japanese Americans and the Zoot Suit Riots, reflecting deep social conflicts. After the war, a surge in population occurred as people found employment in wartime industries.
The Contemporary City
The early 1980s marked Los Angeles’s bicentennial celebration, highlighting the city’s growth and achievements. However, it faced challenges, including traffic congestion, violence, and racial tensions. Initiatives addressing environmental issues, historic preservation, and urban development contributed to a changing city.
How big is Los Angeles has a rich history of resilience, innovation, and continuous transformation. With its diverse culture and ever-evolving landscape, the city stands as a testament to the spirit of its residents. As Los Angeles moves into the 21st century, it remains a vibrant metropolis, embracing change and tackling complex issues while cherishing its unique identity. The city’s residents look to the future with optimism, knowing that Los Angeles will continue to be a place of dreams, innovation, and limitless possibilities.