The Millennium Hollywood Project: A Highrise Future For a Gridlocked Little Town

March 30, 2013 § 2 Comments

Artist's Rendering of the Millennium Hollywood Project/Courtesy LA Times

Artist’s Rendering of the Millennium Hollywood Project/Courtesy LA Times

As readers of this blog know, Hollywood was once an independent city, culturally and politically distinct from Los Angeles. In fact, it was the anti-Los Angeles: religious, semi-rural and dry. From 1903 to 1910, Hollywood passed its own laws and collected its own revenues. It not only outlawed alcohol but forced Los Angeles to send liquor westward in a circuitous route around it. Life would have probably continued in that vein for a few more years if not for the matter of water. In an arid region, Hollywood’s survival depended on water from the California Aqueduct, then under construction. But the only way for Hollywood to tap into the Aqueduct was to become part of Los Angeles, so like a lot of other little towns, it did.

Change came immediately. There was massive new development in the form of movie studios and houses for the new stars and moguls of that industry, and by 1920 Hollywood had surpassed downtown Los Angeles as an urban hub. Its glory days were shortened by the Great Depression, and over the decades Hollywood became a seedy and crime-ridden place. Despite various attempts at rejuvenation, things didn’t really turn around until a decade ago, with the completion of Hollywood and Highland in 2002.

Since then, Hollywood has became not only a tourist destination but a kind of Nightlife Ground Zero for suburbanites from miles around, drawn here by restaurants, clubs, theater and concerts. Anyone attempting to drive through Hollywood on a weekend night can see the difference: streets that not so long ago were the nighttime domain of panhandlers, hookers and homeless people are now thronged with young women in tight dresses and stiletto heels and the men who want to meet them. Hollywood Boulevard, once so blighted that the average tourist spent only 20 daytime minutes there, is now vibrant, glittering and packed with pedestrians–and lots and lots of cars.

Unfortunately, the major aspect of Hollywood that hasn’t changed is the streets–essentially the same ones laid out by Harvey and Daeida Wilcox in the 1890s. The exponential increase in traffic has overburdened them to the point where certain streets such as Franklin Avenue are now congested day and night. During rush hour, gridlock is common, and on Franklin drivers often jump the median line in an attempt to gain some advantage, terrifying the oncoming traffic.

Given the evidence, it’s safe to assume that few of Hollywood’s visitors arrive by public transport, yet this is what Mayor Villaraigosa thinks will happen if a massive new project call Millennium Hollywood is built. Occupying a large swath of land north of Hollywood and Vine, the development features two towers over 50 stories (dwarfing the current tallest building in Hollywood, at only 20 stories) as well as numerous other buildings. Where all the cars for the new residents and workers are supposed to go is anyone’s guess–certainly the developers and City Hall haven’t given it much thought. The objections of 40 neighborhood organizations have just been dismissed, and it seems obvious that some version of the scheme pictured above will be built.

Of course there’s so much more to the story–including a clear conflict of interest at City Hall that uncannily mirrors one of a century ago. The more things change in Los Angeles, the more things stay the same: needless to say, I’ll be writing more about Millennium Hollywood and its antecedents in the future. In the meantime, I’m taking a couple of weeks off to do other, non-Hollywood things, and will be blogging again in mid-April.

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The Agrarian Origins of Beachwood Canyon

November 27, 2010 § 1 Comment

The O.E. Roberts Orchard, left, and Clausen's Ranch, right, at the mouth of Beachwood Canyon, c. 1890/All photos courtesy Los Angeles Public Library, Security Pacific Collection

Although many people think Hollywood sprang into existence at the start of the movie industry, its history as a settlement pre-dates not only the 20th century but the Spanish Colonial period. The area was settled ten thousand or more years ago by Tongva Native Americans, some of whom were still living in Beachwood Canyon at the turn of the 20th century. (It was the Tongva who paddled out to meet Cabrillo’s ship in 1542; they truly were the first Angelenos.)

During the Colonial period, the future Hollywood was part of the San Fernando Mission–its outlying pastures, on which sheep grazed. In 1887, Harvey and Daeida Wilcox founded their Christian utopia as an agrarian village–one that had more orchards than houses. 19th- century Hollywood produced excellent lemons, poor oranges (used for orange soda, not fresh juice), flowers immortalized by the painter Paul deLongpre, and some rather exotic fruits and vegetables. Among the crops that were grown in Hollywood’s orchards were bananas, figs, apricots, avocados, dates, pineapples and chermoyas.

It was this  bounty, made possible by a frostless climate and more than 300 sunny days each year, that attracted the Theosophical Society to Beachwood Canyon in 1911. The Theosophists were vegetarian, and thus naturally drawn to agricultural self-sufficiency; the perfect climate of Southern California was a major reason for their relocation from Chicago. In a letter to Annie Besant, then president of the Theosophical Society, A.P. Warrington, the head of the American branch, wrote: 

We can make the spot a veritable Garden of Eden, because….the region we have chosen happens to be one of those rare spots that are [sic] absolutely frostless, and so we can raise anything…

The Krotona Colony included fields and gardens– presumably worked by its members, though I’ve seen no photographs proving it.

The mystery in all of this is how these farmers managed to coax crops out of  Beachwood’s soil. Thin and nutrient-poor, it sits atop solid granite, the result of which is geological stability–we barely feel earthquakes–and the constant appearance of rocks and stones. Since moving to Beachwood 5 years ago, I’ve struggled to make something of my garden, despite assiduous efforts at soil enrichment. Although roses do well with regular applications of compost and fertilizer, vegetables grow with limited success, and only in boxes. Interestingly, the ten fruit trees I’ve planted have stayed true to historical precedent, producing terrible oranges (if any), but wonderful lemons, peaches and apricots. This year, I planted a green gage plum whose first crop I’m eagerly anticipating; more on it, and the “Pineapple Tract,” in a future post. 

Banana trees in Beachwood Canyon, circa 1900/Courtesy Los Angeles Public Library, Security Pacific Collection

Additional Sources:

Krotona of Old Hollywood, 1866-1913, Vol. I, by Joseph E. Ross. Montecito, CA: El Montecito Oaks Press, 1989.

The Story of Hollywood, by Gregory Paul Williams. Los Angeles, CA:  BL Press, LLC, 2005.

Los Angeles City Archives.

Hollywood Before the Movies, Part II: City of Churches

June 30, 2010 § 3 Comments

Hollywood Congregational Church/Courtesy Los Angeles Public Library, Security Pacific Collection

In December of 2007, a bus carrying audience members to a taping of “The Dr. Phil Show” at Paramount went out of control on Gower Street and crashed onto the lawn of the First Presbyterian Church of Hollywood. Reading about the accident online, I was annoyed to come across this comment: “Who knew there were churches in Hollywood?” 

As anyone who has visited can attest, Hollywood is full of Protestant and Catholic churches; it boasts three major synagogues and temples of various Buddhist and Hindu sects as well.  In addition, Hollywood has long been a hub for nontraditional religions, from the Theosophical Society in the early 20th century to the Church of Scientology today.  But all these houses of worship merely hint at the town’s religious history: from its beginnings in the 1880’s to its absorption into Los Angeles in 1910, churches were Hollywood’s raison d’etre.  

Hollywood Christian Church/Courtesy University of Southern California Archives

Hollywood’s powerful religiosity sprang directly from its founder,  Harvey Wilcox, a devout Protestant and vehement teetotaler. In order to draw like-minded residents to Hollywood, he granted free land for church-building. Although Wilcox didn’t live to see the ultimate result, large houses of worship dominated Hollywood Boulevard by the beginning of the 20th century. 

Hollywood’s original churches have all been rebuilt since, though many of the names–Hollywood Presbyterian, St. Stephen’s Episcopal, Church of the Blessed Sacrament and Hollywood Methodist Church–remain the same. Interestingly, St. Stephen’s traces its lineage directly to Daeida Wilcox,  mother of Hollywood. Tired of commuting to Colegrove (now West Hollywood) to worship at St. James’ Mission, she donated land at Prospect (now Hollywood Blvd.) and Ivar for a new church. At that point, most of the congregation and even its rector relocated to Hollywood, sharing quarters with the Catholics at Blessed Sacrament until St. Stephen’s was completed in 1903.

Additional Source: www.ststephenshollywood.org

Hollywood Before the Movies, Part I: Ranches, Orchards and Laws

June 21, 2010 § Leave a comment

Claussen's Ranch on Krotona Hill, Beachwood Canyon, 1902/Courtesy Los Angeles Public Library, Security Pacific Collection

Hollywood first appears on maps not as a studio town or even a farming village but as ranchland, part of the San Fernando Mission located some twenty miles northeast. Of course, its true history goes back much further, to the Indian settlements of the pre-colonial era. A few Indians remained after the territory was settled by Californios in the late 18th century, probably working the ranchos granted by the Spanish Crown.  

By 1890, Hollywood not only had its present name but a distinct identity from that of Los Angeles, five miles to the east. It was founded by Daeida and Harvey Wilcox, a prosperous Kansas couple who had suffered the loss of their infant son. In the aftermath of their tragedy, the Wilcoxes took long Sunday carriage rides in the Cahuenga Valley. Their fondness for the area’s rolling farmland and fresh breezes led them to the discovery of a 160-acre tract that they were able to buy in 1887. Development soon followed, and by 1900 the area had a population of 500. 

Early Hollywood was a village of Victorian cottages, farms, orchards and considerable charm. Daeida Wilcox apparently chose its name at random, after the country house of a woman she’d met on a cross-country train after a visit to her native Ohio. (The popular idea that Hollywood was named for California holly, or toyon, is unlikely, as the bushes grew too sparsely and remotely to have qualified as a civic symbol.)  

Unlike most rural hamlets, Hollywood was from the start a tourist haven, popular among daytrippers who could easily bicycle or ride on horseback or in traps from Los Angeles. Once in town, visitors enjoyed the hospitality of the Glen-Holly Hotel, which served a 75 cent chicken dinner. Afterwards, they could walk lovely residential streets shaded by pepper trees and bordered by citrus groves. (Although Hollywood lemons were well-regarded, Hollywood oranges were inferior and used mainly for soft drinks.) What they couldn’t do was have a drink, because alcohol was illegal in Hollywood. (When I screened “Under the Hollywood Sign” at Paramount last year, the mostly local audience erupted in hysterical laughter at this fact. But it’s all true.)  

Temperance was non-negotiable for Harvey Wilcox, a strict teetotaler whose religious beliefs set the civic tone.  Enforced morality obviously inspired Hollywood’s incorporation: the city’s first by-laws in 1903 not only prohibited drinking and the possession of spirits but the prescription of alcohol for medical reasons and the transporting of alcohol across town lines. Not only could residents not drink publicly: they couldn’t drink in their homes or own alcohol for any reason. Moreover, west-bound liquor from Los Angeles had to travel a southerly route, beyond pious Hollywood’s borders. 

Close on the heels of alcohol-related legislation came laws against gambling, prostitution, noise, speeding, oil wells, tanneries and the driving of large herds on city streets. Although Hollywood’s civic independence lasted only seven years–the town became part of Los Angeles in 1910 because of its desperate need for water–its many laws are preserved in bound volumes in the Los Angeles City Archives, providing a fascinating glimpse into a mostly forgotten history. 

Not surprisingly, Hollywood was unable to remain a dry, Protestant town. Three years after Wilcox’s death in 1891, his widow Daeida married Philo Beveridge, a very dissimilar husband with whom she had four children. The freewheeling son of a former Illinois governor, Beveridge publicly flouted the liquor laws by serving wine to his guests at the Hollywood Hotel.

Once Hollywood annexed itself to Los Angeles, of course, the matter was moot. 

Additional sources: 

Kevin Starr, Inventing the Dream: Southern California Through the Progressive Era. Oxford University Press, 1985. 

Gregory Paul Williams, The Story of Hollywood. BL Press, 2005.

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