Giving credit where credit is due: The chosen people chose the City of Angels and helped to make L.A. prosper

In writing the other day about a walking tour of the splendid old financial palaces on Spring Street, I noted that the city's first "skyscraper," the Hellman Building at 4th and Spring, had been built in 1905 by Herman W. Hellman, "a pioneer Jewish merchant and banker from Bavaria."

That description of Hellman provoked a colleague into writing my editor the following memo: "In Jack Smith's column he referred to a Jewish pioneer businessman. I wonder if, had the man been of a different religious persuasion, he would have used Baptist, Presbyterian, Christian Scientist or whatever. . . ."

I suppose I could point out that I had simply lifted that phrase from the excellent brochure on Spring Street, "Palaces of Finance," published by the Los Angeles Conservancy. However, that would make me guilty at least of carelessness and insensitivity, were I to honor my critic's complaint.

He means, I infer, that in identifying the builder as a Jew, I betray myself as an anti-Semite and a bigot.

I will leave it to the reader which side of the fence the bigotry is on.

My colleague insists that Hellman's being a Jew was not relevant to his being the builder of the anchor building on Spring Street--a magnificent Beaux Arts building that set the scale and the style for the entire street.

Though I just picked up the phrase, as I say, I would probably have added that he was a Jew, of my own knowledge. It seems to me relevant indeed that it was a Jew who showed the city the way to its future as the financial center of the West.

Los Angeles was hardly a city at all in 1850 when the first census showed that of its 8,624 inhabitants, 295 were "foreign," and of these "foreigners" eight were Jews--two from Poland, six from Germany.

They happened all to be young unmarried men, and all merchants, except one, who was 40 and a tailor, and they all lived in four adjacent dwellings.

They were soon joined by other young Jews from Central Europe whose main motive was to escape the constraints of life in Germany, Bohemia, German Poland and Hungary. They were tough, self-reliant, intelligent and ambitious.

Wrote Horace Bell in the 1850s: "The business of the place was very considerable; most of the merchants were Jews, and all seemed to be doing a paying business. The fact was, they were all getting rich."

If they were getting rich, it was not at the community's expense, but to its profit. Los Angeles was in those days perhaps the meanest city in the United States. Its streets were awash with gamblers, drunks, prostitutes and gunmen. There was no law, to speak of, and the murder rate was one a day.

In this atmosphere no Protestant clergyman could survive, which may be why a Presbyterian didn't build that first skyscraper on Spring Street. They came intermittently, tried, and gave up.

In 1856 the Rev. T. V. Davis, Presbyterian, wrote that he was leaving because it was impossible to live in the "torrents of vice and immorality which obliterate all traces of the Christian Sabbath--where society is disorganized, religion scoffed at, where violence runs riot, and even life itself is unsafe. . . ."

Nine years later there was still no Protestant minister in town.

In this turmoil the young Jews learned to carry a gun and to speak Spanish as well as English; they carried on their businesses; they kept their faith, bringing Jewish girls from Europe, and with few exceptions, marrying only Jews (Horace Bell noted that intermarriage between Anglo men and Californio women was "a quicker way to clean (the native landowners) of their assets"); they formed benevolent societies to take care of their poor and their dead; and they began their first synagogues.

The Jews not only started commerce in early Los Angeles, but also, because it was a vacuum, went into politics and provided leadership for the young city. One of the first eight city councilmen was a Jew, and for many years a Jew, Emil Harris, was chief of police.

The Daily News of Jan. 22, 1869, noted that Californios had been "plucked of their substance . . . but it is not the Jew that has wrested from them their fair and hereditary possessions by extortionate rates of interest. . . ."

While Herman's brother, Isaias W. Hellman, was giving mortgages on land at 2% per month, which was not then considered exorbitant, such sterling Christians as Benjamin D. Wilson, John G. Downey and E. J. (Lucky) Baldwin were lending money at 5 to 10% per month, and greedily foreclosing.

It was into this environment that Herman, then 15, and Isaias, 16, came to Los Angeles from Bavaria. Isaias went to work in an older cousin's general mercantile business, and in six years saved enough to buy out a men's clothing shop. Here he put a safe in one corner and kept clients' gold dust while they ventured out on the dangerous streets. It was Los Angeles' first bank. Isaias built it into the great Farmers & Merchants Bank at Main and Commercial streets.

Our friend Herman started out as a helper in Phineas Banning's forwarding business, at Wilmington; later he got into wholesale groceries and then into banking.

It is curious that until recently in this century Jews were excluded from the main businessmen's clubs of Los Angeles, though they had virtually founded the city's business institutions.

In that light, it is perhaps not irrelevant to remember that Spring Street was started by a Jew from Bavaria.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World