Mark Byrnes is a former senior associate editor at CityLab who writes about design and architecture.
A look back at how far downtown L.A. has come since the turn of the 20th century
With the 20th century approaching, Los Angeles was about to turn from a bustling town into one of the most important economic regions in the world. The city had been part of the United States for less than 50 years but with new railways (1870s) and the discovery of oil (1892), Los Angeles was booming, seeing a 350 percent population increase from 1880 to 1890.
The growth would remain explosive as L.A. became the film production center of the world and an international trade hub in the early 20th century and onward.
We looked at this 1894 map, courtesy of the Library of Congress, to see how downtown Los Angeles has evolved since. Although economic activity has spread expansively away from the core, we still see a substantial evolution from what once was.
Developed as a wealthy subdivision in the late 1860s, L.A.'s Bunker Hill neighborhood rapidly declined after the creation of a nearby freeway. Decades of redevelopment later, it now anchors some of the more iconic towers of the city's downtown skyline.
Also in Bunker Hill (as pointed out by a reader, it would be more precise to refer to this intersection as part of the Civic Center neighborhood) two new and architecturally striking public buildings now rest where there once was a dynamic cluster of mixed-use structures.
Heading south, we see a sparsely developed residential area turned into a mixed-use neighborhood primarily centered around light manufacturing, food production and warehousing.
In the 1890s this portion of downtown was a well-populated residential area near much of L.A.'s busiest streets. It has since turned into a collection of much larger and ornate, early 20th century structures. On street level, it hosts the city's Jewelry District.
One aspect of urban life in Los Angeles that remains unchanged is the land use impact of the Los Angeles River. To this day, it remains as a geographic center for rail, manufacturing, and warehousing.
East of the Los Angeles River, Prospect Park is still intact but its surroundings have changed a bit. No longer a quiet residential area, the neighborhood has filled in and a cluster a freeways surround it to the north, west, and east.
Back over to the western edge of downtown we see L.A. Live. The $2.5 billion project hosts a substantial collection of high-end retail, hotel, and entertainment options to service the Staples Center. This ambitious development represents a complete 180 compared to the neighborhood that once existed there at the end of the 19th century.
117 years later, Los Angeles has grown dramatically but with so much of its growth spread outward, the increases in density and scale within its downtown and inner cities is not as profound as you might anticipate.