Gated Communities and the Oil Boom in Los Angeles County

oil

In the annals of US history, Los Angeles County’s story is one of unprecedented, rapid colonial settlement and economic growth. Beginning with the establishment of Los Angeles in the 1850s, the city’s population was only 11,183 as of the 1880 census, ranking it 187th in the country as a whole.[1] Today, the county – once little more than a “backcountry tributary to imperial San Francisco”[2] – is home to eighty-eight incorporated cities,[3] and over 9.5 million people[4]. And the area’s growth still continues; some of the county’s official cities were established as recently as the 1990s.[5] Certain other communities in the area – homeless encampments and gated communities alike – have never been incorporated.

The fact that California has the greatest number of gated communities in the country[6] is deeply connected to the historical patterns of settlement and urban growth in the Los Angeles area. That history is unique not only for its rapidness, however, but also for the piecemeal nature of its management, its mythology, its geography, and the timing of its construction, which perfectly coincided with the age of hegemonic automobilism.[7] All of these factors were at play in the early establishment of gated communities in Los Angeles throughout the nineteen thirties, forties and fifties, and laid the groundwork for the explosion of these enclaves that took place beginning in the sixties.

The design and the culture of Los Angeles are two inextricably linked elements in the story of gated communities. This essay will first examine some of the systemic factors that contributed to the fragmentary nature of early Los Angeles – namely, the oil and automotive industries – before discussing the cultural dynamics that gave rise to the anti-social attitude of its upper and upper-middle classes. Both equally play into the political and architectural norms of Los Angeles: its automotive obsession, its penchant for Bauhaus bungalows, and its stubborn aversion to density despite the unwieldy scale of its population.

It is fitting that the region’s first major economic boom sprung from the massive reserves of oil there – among the most auspicious ever discovered at the time. Beginning in the 1890s, the explosion of the oil industry was the primary motivating factor in the growth of the county’s population to nearly one million by 1920 and well over two million by 1930.[8] By the early 1920s, when drilling was at its peak, oil from the Los Angeles basin accounted fully for one fifth of global production.[9] Several of the earliest cities in the county to become incorporated were established due to their proximity to oilfields as the industry established itself around the turn of the century. Redondo Beach (1892), Long Beach (1897), Whittier (1898), Huntington Park (1906), Inglewood (1908), Manhattan Beach (1912), and Montebello (1920) were all among these.[10] (See Appendix Y.) In some cases – including Signal Hill at the Long Beach oil field – these communities were actually embedded within the oil fields themselves. (See appendix Y.) (Today many of the wells continue to operate, but their production is a minute fraction of what it once was. The Wilmington oil field – one of the most valuable in the region – has produced an estimated 2.7 billion barrels of oil, and today contains an estimated 300 million barrels.[11])

Following the lull of the 1930s, the county had experienced yet another tremendous boom during the war years. Los Angeles, along with Detroit, became the major locus of the US military-industrial complex as the government poured billions upon billions of dollars into large-scale manufacturers of munitions, ships, and other military necessities. By 1943, 243,000 people were employed in aircraft industry alone – which itself had won over $7 billion dollars in government contracts by the war’s end.[12] Following the Great Migration, which the war in large part had spurned, the population of Los Angeles county was well over 4 million.[13] The city’s management of the influx of people during the war years continued the pattern of low-density urban design. Many of the poor Okies and blacks who moved to the city were warehoused not in conventional urban slums comprised of duplexes or triplexes, but in communities like L.A.’s Watts where small bungalows dominated the landscape.

The oil and war booms are key to understanding the early establishment of municipal cantons in a region that would ultimately absorb the entire region into a single, sprawling urban system. Equally key to that process, of course, was oil’s parent in the automotive sector. Motivated in part by cars as well as public transit, the dispersion of the city had already been underway for several decades by the time of the automotive explosion in the 1950s. Richard Longstreth, focusing on the area in and around the city of Los Angeles, notes that already by 1920, there were at least ten outlying centers containing eighty or more businesses. All of them, however, were located along the city’s streetcar lines, operated by Los Angeles Railway (or LARY).[14] These sorts of economically active suburban communities presaged the growth of what sociologist Robert Fishman has referred to as “technoburbs” – the form of urban space that now defines L.A. and is comprised of horizontal networks of both suburban-style housing and isolated economic hubs, rather than a single central business district. L.A.’s early public transportation system is unique in that it actually facilitated sprawling growth, rather than being grafted onto an already-dense urban landscape (as in New York or Chicago) where it is more suitable to the needs of commuters. Robert Gofflieb notes that the LARY was the most extensive rail system in the country in the 1930s, and that it “established a sprawling land-use pattern that preceded and later became synonymous with the car commute.”[15] However, Angelenos had been opting for cars and jitneys in increasing numbers even since the time of the First World War, and patronage of the streetcars had declined accordingly.[16] In 1944, the Los Angeles Railway was bought by a company called National City Lines, which was owned in part by General Motors. (Other investors in the company included Standard Oil, Firestone Tire and Rubber, and Phillips Petroleum.)[17] The company quickly set about dismantling the city’s streetcar system, replacing the trolleys with buses it mostly bought from its own investors.[18]

The process of modern technoburbanization occurred at a rapid pace as Los Angeles moved into the fifies, and encompassed the construction of an extensive network of highways and new communities. The growth of the automotive infrastructure that moved in to replace the streetcar radically reshaped the urban topography of Los Angeles, accelerating the process of sprawl that had made public transit so inconvenient to begin with. Paved freeways had begun in 1941 with the establishment of the Pasadena Freeway at the behest of downtown business owners, but by the 1950s, businesses in the outlying nodes were demanding the same.[19] Robert Gottlieb writes that, “L.A. already led the country in its myriad manifestations of car-centered growth, culture, architecture, politics and residential development.” But the establishment of new communities throughout the region – driven in large part by a boom in speculative real estate development – demanded even more asphalt. Of the eighty-eight Los Angelean cities we know today, forty-five of them had been established by 1938. Following an eighteen-year lull, an additional twenty-five were incorporated between 1954 and 1960.[20] Virtually all of them were planned communities. Gottlieb continues, “In the 1950s, with the parkway concept having become a historical curiosity, Los Angeles (as well as other metropolitan areas) embarked on a highway construction frenzy, financed by the Federal Interstate highway Act, that divided neighborhoods, reconfigured cities, and promoted suburban sprawl.” The effects of the highways were rapid and palpable. Whereas in 1924, all major places of employment were located in L.A.’s downtown (with a couple of exceptions in the oil fields), by 1960 the city had transformed into the polyvalent technoburbia we know today. (See Appendix of Bottle 201.)

This is the geographic context in which gated communities began to establish themselves. Only a handful of them had been established in Los Angeles County prior to 1955,[21] but it bears noting that for decades the city’s residential topography already had been dominated by the interests of wealthy real estate moguls, Hollywood pooh-bahs, and oil magnates. These people settled in the myriad neighborhoods that were not gated per se, but were opulent and suburban in their design, and as such were simply unwelcoming to outsiders.[22] The Hollywood Hills area, for instance, is totally inaccessible unless by car. Similarly, Burbank, where several film and television studios were established, can only be accessed from downtown by highway. Beverly Hills, a quintessential wealthy enclave,” writes Edward Soja, also serves as an example of this. “The effect,” he writes, “is to divide Los Angeles into village-sized fragments, what I would distinguish as enclaves of exclusion (Rolling Hills) from enclaves of desertion (the black area of Watts).”[23]

Thus the architectural norms that had already established themselves in Los Angeles by the fifties had plenty of room for the gated community. Wealthy residential areas were already designed to keep outsiders away; the multiple municipalities within the developing Los Angelean nexus handily allowed the wealthy to keep their taxes within their community, rather than being distributed to the city at large; there was plenty of automotive infrastructure (and the government was always willing to build more); and there was never any shortage of land. This general trend has persisted in Los Angeles to the present day. As Mike Davis, one of the most important historians of the city, has written, “In Los Angeles – once a paradise of free beaches, luxurious parks, and ‘cruising strips’ – genuinely democratic space is virtually extinct. The pleasure domes of the elite Westside rely upon the social imprisonment of a third-world service proletariat in increasingly repressive ghettos and barrios.” Davis adds:

This polarization marks the decline of urban liberalism, and with it the end of what might be called the Olmstedian vision of public space in America. Frederick Law Olstead, the father of Central Park, conceived public landscapes and parks as social safety-valves, mixing classes and ethnicities in common (bourgeois) recreations and pleasures: “No one who has closely observed the conduct of the people who visit [Central] Park,” he wrote, “can doubt that it exercises a distinctly harmonizing and refining influence upon the most unfortunate and most lawless classes of the city – an influence favorable to courtesy, self-control, and temperance.[24]

What Davis neglects to mention here is that Olmstead was in fact the architect of one of the earliest and largest planned communities in Los Angeles County, the Palos Verdes Estates.[25] Though not technically gated, Palos Verdes was geographically quite remote, and in all other respects its design was that of a gated community. “Olmstead and [his partner] Cheney possessed an enviable opportunity,” writes Robert M. Fogelson, “their tract was enormous, their employers wealthy, and their authority considerable.”[26] Indeed, the fanfare surrounding Palos Verdes when it was built at the height of the oil boom probably made it the most important precedent for the gated communities that would follow in the postwar era – in terms of its sprawling design[27] and architecture[28] as well as its political implications.

As the city’s upper classes ballooned in the 1950s, certain strategies for the establishment of gated communities became normalized. Some of the gated communities that already existed at the time incorporated themselves into municipalities, thus allowing them to evade paying taxes to the county, and instead establish an autonomous taxation system for their own small, wealthy niche. Bradbury and Rolling Hills both did precisely this in 1957.[29] Another important watershed came in 1954 when the community of Lakewood decided to incorporate itself. What was unique about Lakewood was that it chose not to provide its own municipal services, instead paying other local governments, or private contractors, to provide them instead.[30] Anthropologist S.M. Low comments on the significance of the development at the time:

In Southern California the incorporation movement began between 1954 and 1970 sparked by the “Lakewood Plan,” a state law that allowed small bedroom communities to incorporate and contract with counties for their urban services. It was a ‘quiet tax revolt’ by homeowners who wanted to limit their property tax burden, expansion of government bureaucracies, and social welfare programs. … It benefitted homeowners by insuring that people who needed welfare benefits could not live within the local boundaries, protecting high property values without the assessments that would otherwise be taxed for extensive social services within the municipality of Los Angeles.

As the city’s population grew – its wealthy segments along with its poor ones – the demand for gated or semi-securitized housing grew. Malibu Colony, Toluca Lake, Brentwood Circle, Leasure World (not to be confused with another gated community in the region called Leisure Village), Chino Hills, Canyon Lake, and the Palisades Country Estates – all of these and several others were established in the fifties or shortly thereafter. As of 1960, approximately 1,700 houses in the Los Angeles area resided in gated enclaves. By 1970 that statistic had skyrocketed to 20,000, eventually hitting 80,000 by the year 2000.[31]

Accompanying these movements throughout Los Angeles’s history – especially in the postwar era – was a utopian conception of the city: the wealth, the space, the easy access to land. Spurned in part by ads for real estate in the proliferating planned communities, Los Angeles was portrayed as a modern-day Garden of Eden. “Canyon Lake Area Popularity Soars With New Homes,”[32] one 1969 Los Angeles Times headline exuberantly proclaimed, amidst others such as, “Trout, Bass Prospects Look Good,”[33] and “Seven-Day Golfing Binge to Open Monday on San Diego Courses.”[34] Los Angeles combined the romantic narrative of nuclear modernism with that of the Great Frontier. It was to be a utopian place, where one could raise a family in peace without ever even having to see a panhandler. For many perhaps it was. “Los Angeles,” wrote Christopher Rand in his 1967 book Los Angeles: The Ultimate City, “may be the ultimate city of our age.” This self-conception, combined with the growing racial tensions that emerged in particular from the Watts uprising, provided the cultural basis for the proliferation of securitized communities after 1965. Demand for new, heavily securitized housing zones continued to grow throughout the remainder of the twentieth century, as fearful portrayals of gangs, drugs and violent crime dominated the media.[35]

The fact that fragmentation was inherently built into the city as it expanded to envelop preexisting settlements – much like America did California – lent itself to the inconspicuous growth of small, gated enclaves. The remarkable ease with which anyone with money could establish a settlement on unincorporated land additionally facilitated this process.[36] These factors, combined with the pervasive cultural forces embodied by the automobile and the suburb, ultimately led to a paucity of shared, public spaces in Los Angeles. Mike Davis has characterized this postwar process as an ongoing “war on public space,”[37] and it is undoubtedly true that certain interest groups (especially developers) have sought to privatize as much land as possible there. But it is equally important to note that other systemic factors – in particular the landscape of semideveloped urban nodes that already existed in postwar Los Angeles – have also led to the cantonized municipal structure of Los Angeles County. Many, if not most, of these municipalities today contain gated communities. Other wealthy municipalities – Beverly Hills for instance – effectively serve as governmentally sanctioned private secessions from the public economy of the city. It bears noting too that today the urban footprint of Los Angeles is by no means even limited to Los Angeles County. The sprawl extends deeply into the neighbouring Ventura and Orange Counties. (The latter has an even greater number of gated communities than Los Angeles – at least forty-seven.[38]) In addition to being a common geographic feature of the region’s landscape, the gated community can also be seen as a slightly more extreme example of the privatization and suburban economic secessionism that pervades the entire region.


[1] City of Quartz, 111 & 25.

[2] City of Quartz, 25

[3] Cities within the County of Los Angeles, pdf. Cali_cities

[4] http://1.usa.gov/hHUW3G 2000 US Census

[5] Cities within the County of Los Angeles, pdf. Cali_cities

[6] Blakeley 5

[7] Though not yet enshrined in the OED, “autocentric” has been used in a number of different contexts to indicate the centrality of the automobile.

[9] pg 48, Industrial Activity and its Socioeconomic Impacts: Oil and Three Coastal California Communities, Final Technical Summary. US Department of the Interior, 2002.

[10] Cities within Los Angeles county

[11] California Oil and Gas Facts, 2007. Pg 64. State of California Department of Conservation.

[12] Los Angeles: Biography of a City, John Caughey and LaRee Caughey pg 359

[14] Longstreth 58, 59

[15] The Next Los Angeles, 104.

[16] Bottles, Scott. LA and the streetcar 49.

[17] Ibid 240

[18] This is a familiar story to most urban historian and urban planners. By 1947, NCL owned transit networks in forty-six cities across the country. (Ibid 240)

[19] Bartlet, Randal. The Crisis of American Cities, pg 112

[20] Cities within Los Angeles County.

[21] There were four at the time, according to Renaud LeGoix’s analysis. These included Rolling Hills, (established in 1935,) Bradbury (1938), Leisure World (1946), and Hidden Hills (1950). (LeGoix 327) LeGoix may have omitted Palos Verdes Estates and Huntinton Palisades because they are not physically gated.

Palos Verdes ought to have been included in LeGoix’s analysis.

[22] Davis, City of Quartz

[23] Soja, Edward. The City: Los Angeles and Urban Theory

[24] Davis, 156

[25] Davis is right to note Olmstead’s bourgeois attitude, but his participation in the Palos Verdes project may speak to the flippancy with which planners treated the West more than anything else.

[26] Fogelson, 157

[27] Any newcomer would certainly get lost in its labyrinthine web of roads. See Appendix Y

[28] Its architecture was characterized mainly by villas in the Mediterranean revival style. The project prompted one prominent Californian architect to remark, “We have arrived at an architecture which is our own, and which is the real expression of our culture and civilization.” (Fogelson 159) See Appendix Y.

[29] LeGoix 329.

[30] Fortress America page 25.

[31] LeGoix 327-328

[32] June 29 1969, p J1.

[33] Los Angeles, Calif.: Mar 17, 1967. p. C11

[34] Los Angeles, Calif.: Jan 26, 1969. p. B7

[35] SM Low

[36] Fortress America, p 25.

[37] City of Quartz 231

[38] LeGoix 334

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