We’ve always been dense

Todd Gish, an architect and planner, recently completed his doctorate in urban planning at USC. His research examined the role of multifamily housing in the urbanization of Los Angeles in the early 20th century.

There has been much hand-wringing and some angst of late over the upsurge of big residential projects downtown and in other parts of Los Angeles. The new apartment and condo towers, as well as mixed-use projects, are anxiously portrayed as the “first sprouts of a vertical cityscape” or a “testing ground for a vision of a dense, taller L.A,” according to stories in The Times. Some even decry “the Manhattanization of Los Angeles,” which, they say, would threaten the city’s suburban, single-dwelling character.

All this fretting misses an important historical fact: L.A. has been an urban place with plenty of multifamily housing for a century now. Yet this image runs contrary to all we think we know about our hometown in the early 1900s. What about all those Craftsman bungalows and stucco cottages on private lots? we ask.

True, Los Angeles did have many single-family dwellings. But that’s only half the story. In 1924, the Eberle Economics consulting firm calculated that 167,000, or just over half, of the city’s 328,000 housing units were detached homes. The remaining units were in duplexes, four-flats, bungalow courts and apartment houses of every description.


This ordinary part of the urban landscape did not fit the powerful Arcadian myth crafted by local boosters, however. These growth-driven business leaders and real estate speculators tirelessly promoted Los Angeles as a “city of homes” -- a suburban paradise for homeowners of all classes -- to distinguish it from other cities competing for new residents. In fact, as of 1930, the proportion of single-family dwellings in L.A. was lower than that in San Diego, Miami and Denver. The “shack problem” was also common here, meaning that some subdivisions resembled purgatory more than paradise.

As in any booming city with a fast-growing and diverse population, apartments for rent were a necessary reality in L.A. But they were left out of the hugely successful “L.A. as Arcadia” publicity campaign. As did journalists in the 1920s and 1930s, many historians and pundits since have swallowed this myth -- which is why the discovery of an early apartment-housed Los Angeles sounds like a revelation to us now.

Look around. In the oldest parts of the city, seemingly ancient apartment buildings sit alongside equally aged private homes and commercial structures. Drive -- or walk -- along portions of Sunset Boulevard in Echo Park and Silver Lake, Soto Street in Boyle Heights or Witmer Street in Crown Hill and you’ll see such a residential mix.

But it is in Hollywood and the Mid-Wilshire district where you will find the highest concentrations of apartment houses -- four, six, eight or more stories tall -- that cover an entire lot. These still-robust residential dinosaurs occupy stretches of Yucca Street, Wilcox Avenue and Cahuenga Boulevard in Hollywood, and rise on South Normandie and South Mariposa avenues, as well as South Kingsley Drive, near Wilshire Boulevard. Rossmore Avenue, which winds between these two areas, displays still-grand apartment houses where such early movie stars as Mae West and George Raft once lived.

Most of these hulking structures -- hundreds of them -- were built as a result of the same economic boom that gave downtown its grid of 12-story office blocks in the 1920s. Not only did many Angelenos prefer to rent an apartment rather than buy a house, but investors saw residential income property as less risky than oil fields or orange groves. Much of this real estate activity took place between the end of World War I and the onset of the Depression, when L.A. was booming in population, commerce, tourism and all the development associated with such growth.

And it’s not only apartment buildings that helped characterize L.A. back then. Mixed-use projects -- the Holy Grail of “smart growth” planning that critics of mainstream American urbanism tell us existed only in Paris or New York -- were located all over Los Angeles.

Again, at many street corners you can still spot old multistory buildings with shops on the ground floor and flats above. But this urban fact of life never makes it into current discussions about development. A couple of years back, oohs and aahs hailed the arrival of the shiny block of apartments and stores built next to the subway stop at Hollywood Boulevard and Western Avenue. This is a good project, suitably urban in size and function. New, however, it is not. Directly across the street is a sturdy, four-story block of flats-over-shops that’s been there, showing the way, since before the Depression.

And down at Sunset and Vine sits, well, Sunset + Vine, another recent high-profile project stacking hip residences over trendy businesses. New! Edgy! Exciting! Yet three blocks south on Vine sits the St. George apartment building, creaky but still pleasant in its brick and terra cotta, housing the same mix of activities as its flashy new neighbor -- and beating it to Vine Street by three-fourths of a century.

Many more of these older hybrids have been demolished and replaced since they were built in the 1910s and 1920s, and many of the survivors are rundown and easy to (dis)miss. But each one is testament to a thriving urban place where folks saw their neighbors in the hall, had no car or backyard and walked or took public transit to work -- all before movies had sound.

Municipal zoning did its best to standardize land-use distribution, but the housing/retail combination was never prohibited. In 1930, L.A. planners gave this classic hybrid its own category, which was then applied to stretches of city thoroughfare. “Mixed-use boulevards” along Pico, Olympic, Venice and Washington boulevards -- hyped by today’s planners as the city’s new salvation -- were not only being built by private developers 80 years ago but were encouraged in public policy.

Los Angeles is known for its attractive, tree-lined streets of bungalows -- but it was also built on the back of multifamily rental housing in an urban setting. Current neighbors may object to the greater density and increased traffic brought about by new residential projects, and pundits may question the wisdom of building taller and denser. But the tired cliche of an aging suburban paradise invaded by big, new, alien development can be put to rest. These big urban projects are not foreign to our city, but right at home.