During the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s Los Angeles also became deeply racially divided. As the metropolis and economy expanded, Mexican and African American populations grew in great numbers, but were concentrated in the hardest and lowest-paying jobs. Chinese immigrants were more successful in developing small businesses, and Japanese immigrants were most successful of all, especially in wholesaling and retailing of agricultural crops and produce. All minorities suffered discrimination, however, and were increasingly segregated in specific residential areas near the core of the city. During the Great Depression, the national economic disaster of the 1930s, thousands of Mexicans were “repatriated,” meaning deported back to Mexico.
Many white Californians had long harbored resentment against the successful Japanese and Japanese Americans. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941 became an opportunity to vent these hatreds. Over the course of 1942 all persons of Japanese descent in the region were rounded up and transported to concentration camps, euphemistically called relocation centers, located far inland. Of the approximately 120,000 American people of Japanese descent interned during the war, fully 40,000 were taken from Los Angeles County.
Wartime stress in Los Angeles also led to the notorious Zoot Suit Riot of 1943, a week-long clash between white, off-duty U.S. sailors and Mexican American youths identified by the distinctive suits they wore. Over the course of the riots, the sailors beat and harassed Mexicans and Mexican Americans while local authorities looked the other way.
Thanks mainly to war production, World War II (1939-1945) launched a period of astounding growth in Los Angeles that did not slow down until the 1970s. The population of Los Angeles County at the beginning of the war was just over 3 million; by 1950 it had soared to 4.7 million. Postwar demobilization of military personnel created a huge demand for homes, so a new burst of residential and population expansion characterized the 1950s and 1960s. As this segregated white population spread outward, 20 new cities within Los Angeles County were founded during the 1950s alone. In the San Fernando Valley, thousands of acres of orange groves were bulldozed and replaced with tract homes. At the same time, national military buildup associated with the Cold War continued high levels of military production, keeping the area’s economy strong.
In 1961 the expanded and redesigned Los Angeles International Airport was dedicated. Its spaceship-shaped Theme Building became a new Los Angeles icon, and, like many features of Los Angeles, an American icon as well. In the period of the 1950s and 1960s, many U.S. citizens came to view Los Angeles as the representation of the American dream. This dream life featured an affordable home with a backyard swimming pool, year-round barbecues, and a convertible automobile for commuting to a white-collar job—possibly in Hollywood—during weekdays and to the beaches for surf parties on weekends. A major symbol of Los Angeles's challenge to the East Coast for American cultural preeminence was the move of Brooklyn’s beloved Dodgers baseball team from New York to Los Angeles in 1958. In Los Angeles the Dodgers won the World Series in 1959 and moved into Dodger Stadium in 1962, where they won the pennant again in 1963.
Federal transportation and housing funds poured into the metropolis during the 1940s and 1950s, fueling a massive boom in freeway construction and urban redevelopment. Within two decades hundreds of miles of freeways were built, including the Harbor (I-110), Hollywood (U.S. 101), and Santa Monica (I-10) freeways. The old core of downtown Los Angeles was razed in the 1960s and rebuilt as a gleaming new office and fine arts complex.
But amid all this prosperity and optimistic building, social crises clouded the otherwise sunny skies. Prosperity and expansion had proceeded heedless of racial equality. Los Angeles was one of the most segregated cities in the United States, and the most lucrative new jobs were beyond the reach of the increasingly impoverished African American community. Frustrations exploded in August 1965, sparked by the alleged beating of an African American motorist by two California Highway Patrol officers in the community of Watts. Six days of unprecedented, destructive rioting ensued, laying waste to 28 sq km (11 sq mi) of the city and resulting in 34 deaths (28 of whom were African Americans) and $40 million in property damage. It was estimated that 50,000 people participated in the riot, which took more than 35,000 law enforcement officers and National Guardsmen to suppress. Racial relations improved in the aftermath of the riot, leading to the election of the city's first African American mayor, Tom Bradley, in 1973.
|The Modern City|
The 1970s and 1980s saw the end of the boom years for Los Angeles and the beginning of a period of painful maturation. As if to herald bad times to come, the destructive Sylmar Earthquake of 1971 took 64 lives and caused $1.5 billion in property damage. In the 1970s population growth tapered off, as most suitable land in the region had finally been covered with an unbroken sprawl of urban development. Millions of automobiles and trucks on the city’s freeways created the worst smog in the nation. The city's major automobile and rubber plants in the San Fernando Valley, Inglewood, and South Central Los Angeles closed their doors under pressure from overseas competition, taking away the best blue-collar jobs. However, these industrial zones were eventually converted to light industries such as food processing and the production of aluminum wheels and clothing. A similar shift occurred in other parts of the city, as the economy shifted from heavy to light industries. In the 1980s Los Angeles became the leading garment manufacturing center in North America. Similar transformations characterized the 1970s and 1980s, as the city’s economy shifted from heavy to light industries.
The restructuring of the Los Angeles economy coincided with another massive demographic transformation. Reforms in U.S. immigration policy opened the doors for a flood of immigrants from Latin America and Asia. Many were motivated by economic opportunities and were willing to take low-paying jobs; others were Southeast Asian and Central American political refugees, often with decent education but inadequate language skills. The stream of immigrants from Mexico was especially large. In little more than a decade Los Angeles became a multicultural metropolis, a truly global city. Population growth thereby increased again, reaching 9.4 million in Los Angeles County by 1990, of which non-Hispanic whites now constituted a minority.
A recession in the early 1990s helped fuel tensions once again. In April 1992 a terrible urban riot broke out at the intersection of Florence and Normandie streets in South Central Los Angeles. This riot was sparked by the news that four police officers accused of beating African American motorist Rodney King (a beating in 1991 that had been recorded on home video and shown worldwide) had been acquitted by an all-white jury in nearby suburban Simi Valley. Lasting several days, the riot cost about 55 lives and caused 2,300 serious injuries and $735 million in property damage. This riot broke with the pattern of the 1965 Watts Riot and other U.S. race riots of the 1960s through the 1980s: It was not confined to the poor, minority neighborhoods, but spread throughout the metropolis, and it was also a multiracial riot. Immigrant Latinos were widely perceived by African Americans as competitors for jobs, and Korean merchants were targeted for alleged job discrimination. Although African American youths were prominent at the beginning, Latinos also participated in the rioting. Of the thousands arrested, 51 percent were Latino and 36 percent were African American.
After the 1992 riot and 1994 Northridge earthquake, Los Angeles began a rapid recovery. The economy bounced back, relieving social tensions, if not solving the social problems that underlay the riot. Rapid reconstruction of the freeway system restored optimism among the city's millions of commuters. Over the course of the late 1990s, social tensions decreased and a new boom in major civic construction began. Los Angeles massively revised its city charter in 1999 to provide greater accountability and give neighborhoods a greater voice.