(return to Los Angeles essays)

full size imageBy five o'clock on a hazy afternoon of early April, 1920, downtown Los Angeles was a jumble. As the central banking, retail, and management core of a thriving metropolis of almost a million people, LA's downtown, constricted to about 300 square blocks, anchored the city's economy and concentrated its capital — and, it seemed by five P.M., much of its labor as well.

full size imageIndeed, the crush to catch the interurban trains had become a daily trial for the workers who, like many of their white collar contemporaries in early twentieth century urban America, commuted by streetcar to and from work downtown.

full size imageYou see, the trains ran late, often as much as 45-60 minutes behind during rush hour. Automobiles, parked and moving, clogged the streets, causing the streetcars to constantly be rerouted to avoid the worst of the congestion. By this time, business downtown was beginning to suffer from the congestion. The city was simply being crushed by traffic.

With foresight, the elites firmly established at the core of this metropolis directed the city to inaugurate a planning commission to design a workable solution to these traffic problems.

full size imageHere they are—a respectable looking bunch. As their most urgent goal, the planning experts were charged with finding a way to make the urban rail system run punctually and smoothly again, as the transportation network all over the city was snarled by the congestion and delays at the downtown hub. By mid-April of 1920 the commission — fully backed by the downtown banking and retail interests — recommended what appeared to be an eminently sensible and prudent plan of reform, which the city council — again dominated by those downtown interests — promptly put into force.

full size imageThe city would immediately institute a ban on automobile parking downtown during business hours. (Here on the right is the cover of the Los Angeles Times that day.) Effectively, private cars would be banished from the heart of the city.

full size imageThis plan was widely considered a triumph of progressive era rational planning, and indeed, the experts seemed to have proved their worth: The day after the plan was instituted, the trains ran on time for the first time in years. April 22, 1920, was the dawning of a new era of control over automotive congestion in Los Angeles.

Downtown business leaders were thrilled — or at least they were for a couple of days. Until two in the afternoon on April 24th, to be precise. Right then, they looked out the windows of their stores and saw tens of thousands of enraged urbanites descending upon downtown. And this mob was motorized; thousands of cars deliberately clogged the streets in mass protest against the parking ban.

full size imagefull size imagefull size imageThey were urged on by public speakers calling for boycotts and led in their protest parade by "grand marshal" Clara Kimball Young, a prominent film star of the time (the first image on the left above is her in a publicity still printed in the movie section of the LA Times that month; next are a couple of more vivid images of her — that last is with none other than Rudolph Valentino). The police department, which had confidently printed up an extra 5,000 parking tickets in preparation for parking ban enforcement, was overwhelmed.

full size imagefull size imageWithin a week, the city council had withdrawn the downtown parking ban, the captains of local business having seen their retail traffic decline by a quarter.

full size imageYes, it was true; the city was utterly dependent upon the automobile, and, once again, Los Angeles was plunged into the Babel of gridlock. This metropolis was not merely a traffic nightmare, it was increasingly confusing, disorienting, and illegible to its residents.


This incomprehensibility of the traffic jumble played into a number of doubts Angelenos were already having about their town. As the always incisive social critic Carey McWilliams put it later,

"As one of the newcomers who came to Southern California in the great influx of the 'twenties, ... I hated, as so many other people have hated, the big, sprawling, deformed character of the place. I loathed the crowds of dull and stupid people that milled around the downtown sections dawdling and staring, poking and pointing, like villagers visiting a city for the first time. I found nothing about Los Angeles to like and a great many things to detest." (McWilliams, 375)

full size imageMcWilliams was indeed not alone in his opinions about LA, and he was particularly characteristic in his use of the word "sprawl," for, beginning in the 1920s, the term "sprawl" began to emerge more and more frequently in discourse about Southern California. It was a word that efficiently both described the region's great geographic spread, and the attendant sense of chaos in that expansion. With connotations of a sort of unplanned or lazy physical distribution, "sprawl" reflected the impression that Los Angeles's physical shape was merely careless. The city was not modern, but 'hicksville,' cluttered with rural "Iowans," in the derogatory cliché of the day.

full size imageBy the time of LA's international exposure via the Olympic Games of 1932, the keyword sprawl would come to serve as a primary token of the region for countless reporters and visitors to this seemingly backward Western metropolis. As Harry Carr put it somewhat later, in 1935,

Fifth Avenue is New York. Market Street is San Francisco. Paris is the Champs. Berlin is looking through the Brandenberger Thor down the Linden. Shanghai is the Bund. Peking the Forbidden City. But there isn't any place that is Los Angeles. Approximately one thousand correspondents came here for the Olympic Games and they all felt a sacred duty to describe Los Angeles. They all said it was "sprawling." That adjective went sizzling over the cables in just about every language that can be put into words. (Carr, 251)

Well, even in the 1920s, it became difficult to find published commentary on the region that did not somewhere invoke — derisively — the language of sprawl.

Thanks to this flood of criticism, by the mid-'20s, Angelenos began to doubt whether their town qualified as a real, modern city at all. Indeed, as local real estate researcher and prolific historian W.W. Robinson has recounted, "In the early 1920's, sardonic visitors to Southern California began describing Los Angeles as 'six suburbs in search of a city.' Later the number became ninety or one hundred" (Robinson, 27). Was this a city or a sprawling jumble of housing tracts¤ In the Jazz Age, an era preoccupied with conceptions of the modern, how could this mess of movie stars and traffic jams possibly qualify as a real American metropolis¤

The Modern Metropolis

Well, what was a "real" American city in the 1920s, and what did such a place look like?

full size imageAh, New York City — and Manhattan specifically — was the very epitome of modern American urbanism in the popular mind of the Jazz Age. And, yes, it was the skyscraper — the exemplary Chrysler Building shown here, of course — that defined Manhattan. New York City defined modernity by towering over its rivals.

full size imageIt was not a city of stone or wood, but of steel and glass. And in New York, it was the skyscraper, not the private automobile, that was the predominant symbol of modernity. In magazines, newspapers, and the increasingly ubiquitous picture postcards of the 1920s, the skyscraper reigned as the embodiment of modern progress.

full size imagePerhaps most striking in this respect were the famous King's Views of Manhattan and Brooklyn. Beginning back in 1891, Moses King began producing a series of tour guides of New York City. These "handbooks" were lavishly illustrated, furnished both with line drawings and, increasingly, with photographs — pictures, almost exclusively, of tall buildings.

full size imageBy 1896, King had spun these pictorial features of his guide books off into separate paperback volumes of "Views" of the modern city. Before long, most New Yorkers, and quite a few other Americans, thought of Gotham in terms of these popular representations of iconic buildings.

Historian David Nye terms this obsession with the towering metropolis the allure of "the vertical sublime."

full size imageAnd King's Views played on this "vertical sublime" by presenting the tall building as a sort of fetish item. The skyscraper was effectively compacted for mass consumption: Reduced to folio size, to two dimensions, and to ink on pulp. The depicted massive skyscraper somehow became a sort of miniature souvenir of itself. In this way, King's chapbooks trafficked in the very currency of modern urbanism, allowing the consumer to covetously possess a token of these edifices that were so fundamentally the product of massively co-ordinated labor and concentrated corporate capitalism.

And it was in this way, as well, that King's Views helped associate the skyscraper with the future of urbanism. Early on, Moses King and his renderers began to add fanciful, futuristic urban scenes to his collections of profiles of notable buildings.

full size imagefull size imagefull size imageThe image on the far left, from 1908, shows the future as King and his men envisioned it. It was — not surprisingly — a city of taller and taller buildings. He called it "King's Dream of New York," and it proved so popular that he had his artists revise the vision again and again in subsequent editions.The next image is from the 1911 edition — by now the cover piece for that year's book of Views. The existent and the merely imagined came to imperceptibly merge in this vertical sublime fantasia.The rightmost picture is of the 1915 edition, and once again these images revel in the play of multiple spatial planes; they present the viewer with urbanity in depth, a rich tableau of towers and flying ships and elevated roadways.

full size imagefull size imageBy this time, this vision of modern urbanity had become a hegemonic discourse within American popular culture as a whole. Through the famous image of such films as 1933's King Kong, filmgoers across the country, and indeed around the world, became familiar with the vertical city. Other films, reveled in the vertical sublime of the modern metropolis, but none more so than the influential Science Fiction movies of the era. The fantastic notion of this skyscraper urban future burned itself into the popular consciousness in countless scenes, such as these from 1926's Metropolis — the idea for which, by the way, Fritz Lang later traced to his first sight of the Manhattan skyline.

full size imageIn novels and short stories, as well, this vision of the future metropolis circulated widely during this era, dominating popular fiction in this age of pulps. Indeed, for many people in the 1920s, the towering city of skyscrapers defined modern urbanism — and it was an alluring image to many.

Traffic & Modernity

full size imageSo, what does this "vertical sublime" have to do with Los Angeles and its traffic crisis? Well, the intrusion of the private automobile onto the landscape of the American city was never a simple affair.

full size imageIn Los Angeles, we have seen how anxiety about traffic created a frenzy in local public discourse. Many Angelenos felt that the auto was making their city simply unworkable.

Yet, this was not always the case in early twentieth century America. Many cities managed to weave the automobile into their urban fabrics with much less anxiety and disruption. For some time at least, these cities managed to reconcile automobility with Jazz Age verticality.

Indeed, I would like to argue here that the vertical sublime was not in fact restricted to the urban booster or the wide-eyed visionary, but that it spread into what Antonio Gramsci calls the "common sense" of the Jazz Age city and its observers. Although these vertical metropolises were, like sprawling Los Angeles, deluged with automotive traffic, that gridlock never raised such profound questions about the very character of their urbanity.

full size imageOne of the leaders in this respect was Chicago. By the 1920s, the city suffered from fairly intensive congestion of its own; yet over the course of the decade, Chicagoans self-confidently embarked upon a variety of ambitious programs designed to integrate this crush of cars into the existing topography of modern skyscrapers.

full size imageOne example of this is 1926's Chicago Jewelers' Building. It was one of the first in the nation to be designed specifically with the automobile in mind. It may look here like an ordinary skyscraper, but the bulk of this tower houses not people, but cars. They were ferried between levels within the structure by massive elevators. Clearly, this was a solution to the urban parking problem animated by the dominant discourse of the modern city.

full size imageFurthermore, this building was directly integrated by a system of basement ramps and tunnels into a massive, modern two-level roadway cut into the embankment of the Chicago River. (You can see it better in this close-up shot.)

full size imageThe new highway was on the site of the city's old market district, then known as South Water Street. The newly renamed Wacker Drive would take traffic entirely off the city's surface streets, carrying the cars instead through a dedicated multi-level, grade-separated corridor.

full size imageAs one architectural historian has put it, "both the [Jewelers'] building and its adjacent street ... were designed as an integral and functioning unit" (Sennott 1988 166). In Chicago — and in the imagination of the Jazz Age metropolis — automotive traffic could be easily assimilated into the complex play of vertical spaces, depths, and levels in which the modern city reveled.

Even more ambitious measures were contemplated in New York City, where respected city planners and architects were consumed with imagining new ways of accommodating the automobile into the existing cityscape. Perhaps most notable among these urban professionals were Harvey Wiley Corbett and Hugh Ferriss.

full size imageCorbett built skyscrapers; Ferriss was perhaps the era's greatest architectural renderer (Here Ferriss is in his studio).

full size imagefull size imageStarting with a series of sketches, the two collaboratively proposed double-decking all of Manhattan's streets, and further removing pedestrian traffic to its own discrete level. Here, the urban modern — serious and practical — mirrored the fantastic.

full size imagefull size imageNew York would be criss-crossed with mounting courses of roads, overhead walkways, and cloistered arcades. Ultimately, Corbett and Ferris suggested, urban blights and dangers could be cured by partitioning conflicting urban elements into stratified vertical space. A ravenous verticality would consume and annihilate all the inconveniences of the modern city. Eventually, Manhattan would become a metropolis of spires, a towering utopia of vertical urbanism.

full size imageBy 1931, the Regional Plan Association of New York and its Environs had thoroughly bought into this vision of the future. As we see in this image, from their Master Plan for the Metropolis, massive grade-separated automotive highways — on a larger scale even than Chicago's Wacker Drive — would course through the canyons of towering skyscrapers; the car would be fully absorbed into the vertical city, occupying one level among many.

Thus, by the end of the 1920s, a powerful collective set of urban visions, all smoothly juxtaposing automobiles and skyscrapers, was dominant within both popular and professional planning circles within the Jazz Age city.

Los Angeles at a Cross-Roads

full size imageYet, in the 1920s, Southern California resisted this alluring image. Angelenos feared the dark streets under the 'el' — shadows cast over the bucolic bungalows of sunny Southern California. And they feared the sort of congestion — human, not automotive — that all this dense urbanism might cause.

full size imageBut by the mid-1930s, the automobile had brought chaos to the region. As shown in this traffic analysis from the period, motorists were commuting in unpredictable, contradictory patterns that was producing widespread gridlock.

full size imageSo, at long last Angelenos gave up their resistance; local visionaries finally became willing to borrow ideas from those exemplary eastern cities in order to solve the local traffic crisis.

full size imageLA would go vertical, and by the late years of the decade, Los Angeles planners were even contemplating the construction of an urban freeway system.

full size imageNow LA had skyscrapers of its own.

full size imageIn fact, an influential proposal put forth in 1937 by the Automobile Club of Southern California portrayed these new motorways passing over and through them in a fantasy that might have come from one of King's Dreams.

full size image(This is the Auto Club's doctored photo of what it would all look like.)
After all these years of resistance, Los Angeles would finally become modern.

full size imagefull size imagefull size imagefull size imageThe very next year, in 1938, construction began on the first of these new freeways. This was the Arroyo Seco Parkway, now known as the Pasadena Freeway.

full size imagefull size imagefull size imageFurther work was then begun on the Cahuenga Freeway, now part of the Hollywood Freeway.

full size imageBy the end of World War II, an entire network of these new, ultra-modern freeways was planned and ultimately constructed.

full size imageBut what emerged here, in Los Angeles's own built imagination, was something a bit different from the vertical metropolises of the 1920s which inspired it.

full size imageThese new freeways were certainly towering at their intersections, and no less intricate as well, such as the four-level so-called "Mixmaster" shown here.

full size imageBut they were not predominantly vertical things in of themselves. So, what was developing in Southern California by the postwar period was something compatible with, but significantly different from, the modern vertical sublime of New York and Chicago.

We might call this new aesthetic the 'horizontal sublime.'

full size imageBut vertical or horizontal, the freeways were unambiguously modern. And the result of their construction — the largest urban public works project of the era — was...

full size image
Yes, more gridlock.

By the 1950s, social critics were bemoaning the "sprawl" of Southern California, and now commenting critically upon the new freeways as the cause of it. Within the decade, the freeway and the sprawling, gridlocked urbanity that it now seemed to represent, were frequently cited as the undesirable outcome of progress run wild.

full size imageHere was the very epitome of the modern city. This smog, this traffic, these new downtown skyscrapers: They were all seen in this postwar era — so far removed from the optimistic fantasies of the Jazz Age — as the way modern urbanism itself had gone terribly, tragically wrong.

Works Cited

  1. Adams, Thomas. Regional Plan of New York and Its Environs, vol. 2. The Building of the City. New York: Regional Plan of New York and Its Environs, 1931.
  2. Automobile Club of Southern California (Engineering Department). "Traffic Survey: Los Angeles Metropolitan Area." Los Angeles: Automobile Club of Southern California, 1937.
  3. Carr, Harry. Los Angeles: City of Dreams. New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1935.
  4. Ferriss, Hugh. The Metropolis of To-Morrow. Originally published in 1929 ed. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1986.
  5. King, Moses. King's Views of New York 1896-1915 & Brooklyn 1905. Views Originally Published 1896-1915 ed. New York: Benjamin Blom, 1974.
  6. McWilliams, Carey. Southern California: An Island on the Land. Originally Published 1946 ed. Santa Barbara CA: Peregrine Smith, 1979.
  7. Nye, David E. American Technological Sublime. Cambridge MA: The MIT Press, 1994.
  8. Robinson, W.W. Los Angles: A Profile. Norman OK: University of OK Press, 1968.
  9. Sennott, R. Stephen. "Chicago Architects and the Automobile, 1906-1926: Adaptations in Horizontal and Vertical Space." In Roadside America: The Automobile in Design and Culture, edited by Jan Jennings, 157-69 [chapter 15]. Ames IA: IA University Press, 1990.

The author would also like to gratefully acknowledge the following sources of the images used in this essay: The Los Angeles Times; the Los Angeles Examiner; the Los Angeles City and County Regional Planning Commissions; the Los Angeles Department of Transportation; the Los Angeles Public Library; the University of California, Los Angeles; the Automobile Club of Southern California; the California Department of Highways [CalTrans]; the Long Island Historical Society; the Museum of the City of New York; the Chicago Historical Society; the Avery Library; The American City magazine; the Library of Congress; and the Smithsonian Institution.

Jeremiah Borenstein Axelrod
Department of History
University of California, Irvine

Copyright © 2000 Jeremiah Borenstein Axelrod. All rights reserved.

Last updated 16th November 2000