In a Time of Drought, Remembering Hollywood’s Brief Independence

September 14, 2014 § Leave a comment

Clausen's Ranch, at the foot of Beachwood Canyon, c. 1895/ Courtesy Los Angeles Public Library, Security Pacific Collection

Clausen’s Ranch, at the foot of Beachwood Canyon, c. 1895/ Courtesy Los Angeles Public Library, Security Pacific Collection

When I was making my documentary “Under the Hollywood Sign,” I was surprised at how many of the people who signed my releases wrote “Hollywood” rather than “Los Angeles” as their address. A century after its incorporation into Los Angeles, Hollywood’s history as an independent city seemed to endure in the minds of residents, whether or not they were fully aware of it.

Hollywood went from mostly unsettled land to a metropolis in a matter of two decades. Most of what is now the district of Hollywood was purchased in 1877 by Harvey and Daeida Wilcox, a wealthy Kansas couple who came west to Los Angeles and, after the death of their only son, went looking for a rural retreat. After laying out streets and building a home, they deeded property to churches and enticed other like-minded Christians to move to their town. New residents opened businesses and grew citrus and exotic fruits like pineapples and avocados. But by the turn of the century, Hollywood was more than a farm village: it had become a resort for city dwellers who came by bicycle and streetcar from downtown Los Angeles. Two restaurants catered to daytrippers, and the rather grand Hollywood Hotel provided lodging for those who wanted to stay longer. Among the town’s charms was its microclimate: noticeably cooler than downtown Los Angeles, Hollywood was known for its ocean breezes. (In spite of Hollywood’s tall buildings, these can still be felt near Sunset and Vine, and sometimes carry a whiff of salt.)

In 1903, Hollywood was incorporated as a dry, Godly city: the un-Los Angeles. Its first laws were sumptuary: no alcohol for any purpose, either at home or in businesses; no gambling, no brothels. Its dryness was absolute: liquor going west from downtown had to be transported around Hollywood, a substantial detour that pleased neither merchants nor the Los Angeles City fathers. Though Harvey Wilcox, the stricter of Hollywood’s founders, died in 1891, his widow Daeida (despite her remarriage to Philo Beveridge, a bon vivant who enjoyed flouting the law by drinking wine) kept up her husband’s teetotaling tradition.

Things might have continued along these lines for a while longer if not for the problem of water. Hollywood had very little, and more often than not found itself in drought. The start of construction on the Los Angeles Aqueduct in 1905 allowed City Hall to present the town with an ultimatum: either become part of Los Angeles or make do without its water. Knowing the town wouldn’t survive without access to the Aqueduct, Hollywood gave up its independence, becoming part of Los Angeles in 1910. Today, in the fourth year of a severe drought, it’s difficult to argue with the decision.

Lake Hollywood, Jewel of the Los Angeles Aqueduct

Lake Hollywood, Jewel of the Los Angeles Aqueduct


Yet Hollywood still feels distinct from Los Angeles, even in the midst of its current building boom. In 2000, a referendum was launched to return Hollywood to independence, but Los Angeles fought hard against it and it failed. Today Hollywood’s seven years as an incorporated city are remembered through its bylaws, which reside in bound volumes the Los Angeles City Archives. But Hollywood’s larger legacy is quotidian: its customary use by residents when giving their address.

Related articles:

https://underthehollywoodsign.wordpress.com/2010/06/21/hollywood-before-the-movies-part-i-ranches-orchards-and-laws/
https://underthehollywoodsign.wordpress.com/2010/06/30/hollywood-before-the-movies-part-ii-city-of-churches/

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