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Community Historian

Los Angeles

Dave Brown was rough around the edges. Dave and a another man of similar character had a difference of opinion concerning a game of chance. The other man didn't live long, and the good citizens of the community decided they'd had enough of Dave Brown. He was sentenced to death. There was a Mexican gentleman on death row along with Dave Brown, and when a pardon came through for Brown but not for the Mexican, some people thought it was a little unfair. After all, should a murderer be pardoned only because he's white? The mayor resigned his office, organized a lynch mob, and dispatched Dave Brown along with the Mexican. The mayor was re-elected in the next election cycle.

Dodge City? Tombstone? Abilene?

No. Los Angeles.

A wealthy man moved west, and he took his favorite slave with him. Biddy Mason was a good slave -- intelligent, resourceful, a self-taught nurse and midwife. When her owner decided to move back home, she refused to go, and the courts upheld her freedom. She stayed free, invested in land, and became very wealthy.

Atlanta? Richmond? The free Kansas Territory?

Nope. Los Angeles.

Maybe the newspaper editor was looking at the calendar planning the next few days. October 1, 1910, he saw. He didn't care about the date once the building exploded -- 20 dead, 17 injured. Some people suspected the newspaper's publisher because he had just contracted an outside company to do his printing at another location, but ultimately, the McNamara brothers were captured for the bombing. One was an officer in the Bridge and Structural Workers Union, and both were on a first-name-basis with dynamite. They were likely suspects, who did later confess, but in the meantime, the conservatives accused them, and the Socialists defended them and hired Clarence Darrow to save their lives in the loaded courtroom.

Chicago? New York? The Black Hand?

You guessed it. Los Angeles.

Hollywood doesn't show the real city -- the Los Angeles that still inhabited the Old West into the Jazz Age, the Los Angeles of grape vineyards and bean fields, the Los Angeles of average people of everyday greatness.

Calle Saltamontes, "Grasshopper Street" in English, headed south from downtown. The street's name changed to honor an early governor of California under Mexican rule -- Figueroa. Thirty-fourth Street was renamed to honor an early president of the United States -- Jefferson.

One of Biddy Mason's land investments became the site of the University of Southern California. Just to the south of the Trojan alma-mater was Agricultural Park, but the "park" served the prostitution trade more than the farming trade, and the City of Los Angeles took control of the sprawling property in 1910 and changed the name and atmosphere. Exposition Park's rose gardens and museums presented peaceful culture to Angelenos, and it's 105,000-seat Memorial Coliseum hosted the 1932 Olympics. Douglas Fairbanks, Marlene Deitrich, Mary Pickford, and Charlie Chaplin entertained the Olympic-sized crowds. Heading north on Figueroa toward home, these stars would have passed USC on their left, crossed Jefferson, and passed the Shrine Auditorium which hosted a number of Academy Awards through the decades.

If Douglas Fairbanks had wanted to, he could have kept driving north on Figueroa for another 3,000 miles because the LA street was also home to US Highway 6 -- the longest member of the US Highway system. Fairbanks could have driven all the way to the tip of Cape Cod without changing highways.

Still further north, they would have come to the intersection of Figueroa and Adams where a fine home occupied the northwest corner. Norma Talmadge was a super-star -- tall, languid, and sexy -- who played Cleopatra on the big screen in 1917. Norma's sister, Natalie, married film star Buster Keaton who also lived in this home. Eventually, a friend of Keaton's bought the home. The friend was an up-and-coming comedian with a skyrocketing career and a reputation for wild parties. Fatty Arbuckle was a hit, and when he landed a million-dollar, multi-picture contract from a major movie studio, it was the perfect excuse for the party to end all parties -- literally. It was Labor Day weekend, 1921. The party's slow explosion started at this home where Arbuckle and two associates poured themselves into a new Pierce-Arrow with a case of Prohibition liquor, drove to San Francisco, and ended Arbuckle's career when a shady extortionist rumored falsely about a sordid Coke-bottle-related accident. Arbuckle's home is now on the grounds of St. Vincent's, headquarters of the Los Angeles Archdiocese.

In the automobile's earliest days, the roads weren't marked, and driving an unreliable, new-fangled contraption through uniquely Southwestern immensity was a frightening gamble. The Automobile Club of Southern California won the public's loyalty with a massive sign-posting operation beginning in 1907, and the red-white-and-blue, porcelain-coated signs still turn up in the Mojave Desert's sand washes. The Auto Club needed offices to match its success, and their beautiful Spanish-style building has stood opposite Arbuckle's former home since 1923.

While USC's students walked down Figueroa to relax over dollar pitchers of beer at Tobacco Rhoda's, the Beat poets of dingy Hollywood coffee houses were decrying the 1950's urban landscape -- a city of nowheresville banality, daddy-o! The Beat Generation thought they were looking up to the stratosphere, but they forgot to look down into the soil they were standing on, underneath the concrete of Los Angeles, where its history supported them.

A new Chevrolet turned on to the street with a license plate frame touting "Felix Chevrolet -- Figueroa at Jefferson." To an Angeleno, it's just called "Fig."