CityDig: Giving Thanks for L.A.’s Spanish Roots

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When Angelenos sit down to Thanksgiving this year it will mark the 138th anniversary of such feasting and celebration in L.A. Our city’s original settlers probably did not watch the Packers-Lions game beforehand or drink Napa Valley wines with their bird, but the ladies and gentlemen of early Los Angeles did enjoy turkey with cranberries down at the old Bella Union Hotel on Main Street back in 1876—a tradition often recounted in historical journals.

To salute those who came before I submit a map of Los Angeles in 1876, the very year when the city was beginning to experience some big changes that would turn the old Spanish pueblo into the American megalopolis of today. This map is one of several from the time that capture the remaining Spanish/Mexican influences and pioneer residences while tracing the beginnings of what was later to be known as Sonora Town (and the sad stories connected therein). The Stahlberg map above shows a city of 9,000 that is preparing to grow at an astounding rate—the population alone quadrupled in the next decade. It may have taken a while to catch up with the original 1621 Thanksgiving sit-down at Plymouth, but L.A. was starting to become American for better or worse.

Albert J. Stahlberg was a civil engineer and surveyor who lived at 1st and Spring and who created several important early maps of the city and surrounding areas. This one is especially important, as it shows the early layout of the streets and the owners of property dating back to the mid-1850s. There is the Zanja Madre water source flowing from right to left, the old jail lot, Don Abel Stearns’ “El Palacio” (the most lavish domicile in the old pueblo), Bath Street with its “scarlet women,” Vine (which would someday be reborn as Olvera Street), and Calle de Eternidad, which lead up to a cemetery that would disappear from maps soon after this one’s rendering.

Also seen here is the soon-to-be-forgotten “Calle Corte,” or short street, along with Arcadia Street (named for the legendary beauty Arcadia Bandini), and the grand three-story high Baker Block with an immense staircase, broad halls, and spacious rooms. The elegant Pico House, completed only six years before with 33 rooms, a picturesque fountain in the courtyard, and an aviary featuring exotic birds, is the standard for classy hotel accommodations. Negro Alley is also on the map, referring to the dark-skinned families from Sonora who first settled there after the long journey from Mexico.

Familiar names here include Sepulveda, Olvera, Vicente Lugo, Rimpau, Dominguez, Downey and Pico. The Spanish and Mexican pioneers are still well represented above, but it wouldn’t be long before all vestiges of the old pueblo got the ax—just like a Thanksgiving turkey.

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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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