An amazing new look at Great Depression-era Los Angeles

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A new collection of photos available in the Digital Collections of the California Historical Society offers an amazing look at Los Angeles and Angelenos during the days of the Great Depression. The photos are all the work of Anton Wagner, a PhD student from Germany’s University of Kiel who came to Los Angeles to study it in depth and to document it for his research, says KCET.

Wagner spent time in Los Angeles between August 1932 and February 1933, shooting photos to use “as research materials for his 1935 dissertation, Los Angeles: Werden, Leben, und Gestalt der Zweimillionenstadtin Sudenkalifornien (Los Angeles: The Development, Life and Form of the Southern Californian Metropolis).”

His photographs offer an interesting look at Depression-era Los Angeles, capturing the conditions in which people lived, the roads people drove, the places Angelenos worked, and neighborhoods that no longer exist.

Wagner came to LA because he was investigating its incredible growth from more or less a backwater to a full-on metropolis, especially in light of the odds stacked against it. “Wagner sought to explain how a city in such a ‘disadvantageous geographical setting’ could grow and prosper with such robust vigor,” explains KCET. (Some of our disadvantages included earthquakes and a lack of natural water sources.)

Looking north from City Hall tower. (Los Angeles: 1932-33 by Anton Wagner, PC 17, California Historical Society.)

Wagner thought he would find that nature would win against Angelenos, but by the time he wrote his dissertation, his position was that Angelenos were miraculously thriving. Wagner credited citizens with the success of the city. “Los Angeles has produced the active spirit of the citizens in the awareness that the welfare of the individual depends upon the thriving and importance of the communal,” Wagner wrote in his dissertation.

Wagner’s photos of the unpaved Los Angeles River and Westwood are unrecognizable to a modern eye. And even photos with recognizable scenes have one alternate-universe-type addition, such as oil derricks in the middle of the at La Cienega near Third Street.

The vision of 1932 and 1933 Los Angeles that emerges after viewing many of these photos is that from some angles LA was very metropolitan, and from others, it was still downright rural.

The full, 438-photo collection is viewable here.

Los Angeles River, looking north from Los Feliz Boulevard bridge. (Los Angeles: 1932-33 by Anton Wagner, PC 17, California Historical Society.)
Upper part of Arroyo Seco, looking north from Avenue 60 Bridge. (Los Angeles: 1932-33 by Anton Wagner, PC 17, California Historical Society.)
Oil rig on La Cienega Boulevard south of West 3rd Street. (Los Angeles: 1932-33 by Anton Wagner, PC 17, California Historical Society.)
Oil rigs on Court Street from Bixel Street. (Los Angeles: 1932-33 by Anton Wagner, PC 17, California Historical Society.)
Manchester district, northeast corner of Manchester Avenue and Broadway. (Los Angeles: 1932-33 by Anton Wagner, PC 17, California Historical Society.)
Looking from Wall Street between 8th and 9th Streets. (Los Angeles: 1932-33 by Anton Wagner, PC 17, California Historical Society.)
Looking west on Wilshire Boulevard from Fairfax Avenue. (Los Angeles: 1932-33 by Anton Wagner, PC 17, California Historical Society)
Fox Theater; in background “Streets of Old Monterey,” a themed residential area, Westwood Village. (Los Angeles: 1932-33 by Anton Wagner, PC 17, California Historical Society.)
Looking southeast from National Boulevard and Overland Avenue. (Los Angeles: 1932-33 by Anton Wagner, PC 17, California Historical Society.)

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