CityDig: A Brief History of the Historic Core

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The admirable goal of this pictorial map was to spread goodwill throughout a multicultural L.A. during the city’s 200th anniversary in 1981. Sponsored by the benevolent Junior League of Los Angeles and selected businesses, this simple but concise look at downtown shows the Historic Core just 35 years ago—different as night and day when compared to today’s DTLA.

On this map we see only a handful of high-rise buildings whereas today there are more than 500 (fun fact: seven of the tallest buildings in California are in L.A.). In the Ronald Reagan-dominated ‘80s—smaller government, more private enterprise—the spirit of the urban renewal of downtown was expressed by the motto “L.A.’S THE PLACE,” which didn’t quite galvanize the masses (although it made for a nice decal that was ubiquitous at the time).

This map harkens back to the power of people working together to build a better and economically stronger center while showing burgeoning cosmopolitan intentions and the modern sprouting of a metropolis to rival New York and Chicago. The Victorian mansions of Angelino Heights at Carroll Avenue (1887), Heritage School, the original one room schoolhouse (1884), the Bradbury Building (1893), St. Vibiana’s Cathedral (1876), and El Pueblo represent L.A.’s transition from colonial pueblo to big city.

There are examples also of the dogged struggle to survive and thrive after the booms and busts of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, including the Flower Market (1912), Grand Central Market (1917), the Biltmore Hotel (1923), glorious City Hall and Central Library (both 1926), the Art Deco Oviatt building (1928), the Los Angeles Stock Exchange (opened in the heart of the depression in 1931), the often overlooked decorative sidewalks of Clifton’s Cafeteria (1935), the “New” Chinatown (1939), the Streamline Moderne Coca Cola building (1939), and the Los Angeles Theater, the magnificent motion picture palace which hosted the premiere of Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights in 1931. The last historical layer hints at things to come: the big-time Music Center with the Ahmanson and Taper theaters (1964), the ARCO Plaza (1972), and the dazzling glass columns of the Bonaventure Hotel. The whole is held together by the easy-to-navigate modern freeway system pictured in blissful simplicity, with “the Stack” at the center of downtown. It is there that the 110 and 101 freeways coil and slither, awaiting innocent motorists.

Things changed downtown after 1980 in unexpected ways: the Stock Exchange became a discotheque, the Herald-Examiner bloomed then folded in 1989, Central Library burned in a terrible arson fire (then rose again triumphantly in 1993), the Music Center had its thunder stolen by the Disney Concert Hall, St. Vibiana’s is now a restaurant, and the Grand Central Market—where the elite from Bunker Hill used to shop—is a destination for hipsters from all over L.A.

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Los Angeles Public Library map librarian Glen Creason shares a map from the Central Library’s collection at CityThink each week. 

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