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Thursday, June 25, 2015

Oil Wells on Court Street from Bixel

Oil Wells on Court Street from Bixel. Anton Wagner (Photographer), 1933, gelatin silver print, California Historical Society, CHS2012.833.
Oil Wells on Court Street from Bixel. Anton Wagner (Photographer), 1933, gelatin silver print, California Historical Society, CHS2012.833.
By Shelly Kale
“This lovely place, cuckoo land, is corrupted with an odd community giddiness. . . . Nowhere else do eccentrics flourish in such close abundance. Nowhere do spiritual or economic panaceas grow so lushly. Nowhere is undisciplined gullibility so widespread.”(1)
So the cultural milieu of Los Angeles appeared to the editors of Life in 1930 as a new decade began—one defined nationwide by the harsh economic realities of the Great Depression. On the streets of metropolitan Los Angeles, however, a different outsider perspective was emerging.

In 1932–33, the German geologist and urban geographer Anton Wagner conducted a “geographical investigation” of Los Angeles. Wagner had become interested in Los Angeles in 1925–26, when a visit provided a firsthand view of the city’s rapid development following World War I. Now, on this second trip, he would conduct “my own thorough observation of Los Angeles” to explain the area’s phenomenal growth and how “the cultural forces of the Far West manifest themselves in this urban landscape.”(2)

Wagner’s approach—he explored roughly one thousand square miles of metropolitan Los Angeles on foot, including homes, businesses, and industrial sites—revealed a region in physical, economic, and cultural transition. From 1920 to 1930, the city’s population had grown from 576,673 over 365 square miles to 1,238,048 across 440 square miles. As the decade began, the larger metropolitan area boasted a population of 2,209,492. (3)

Through the lens of a cultural geologist, Wagner sought to describe this “human activity in its triumphant struggle against the opposing forces of nature.” He called the Hollywood studios “stage-set cities” and oil fields “drilling-tower forests.” With his maps and photographs he detailed a cityscape of “increasing spatial and temporal distance,” capturing its transformation into an “insatiable city.”

This image of drilling towers sandwiched among homes documents the growth of Los Angeles, as the city’s rich oil deposits that were developed during the 1920s gave way to the residential needs of a booming population. As homes encroached on existing oil fields, the drilling towers disappeared.

“The example of Los Angeles,” Wagner concluded, “reveals that the importance of a city is due less to its geographical location, which only provides the departure point, but is primarily due to its people. . . . When the individual displays the greatest possible energy and intellectually fertile initiative, when he also promotes his city everywhere, when he does not close himself off from, but constantly stands together with, the citizenry, there can be no going backwards.”

Wagner took his lessons back to Germany, where, ironically, the collective energy of its people exploded into a new world war—one defined by territorial expansion and the wanton destruction of the physical and human landscape.
  1. Carey McWilliams, Southern California: An Island on the Land (Layton, UT: Gibbs Smith, 1946, 1973), 250.
  2. Wagner’s survey formed the basis of his dissertation, which he published upon his return to Germany as Los Angeles: Werden, Leben und Gestalt de Zweimillionstadt in Sudkalifornien (Leipzig: Bibliographisches Institut, 1935). In 1997, the book was translated by Gavriel D. Rosenfeld for the Getty Research Institute as Los Angeles: The Development, Life and Form of the Southern Californian Metropolis. Quotes in this essay are from Rosenfeld’s translation.
  3. Population of the 100 Largest Urban Places: 1920 and 1930, U.S. Bureau of the Census, internet release date: June 15, 1998,, accessed June 24, 2014. Census data of Los Angeles County: Fifteenth Census of the United States: 1930, vol. 3 (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1932), 1:252, in Thomas W. Gaehtgens, “Studying Los Angeles’s Urbanism,” in Overdrive: L.A. Constructs the Future, 1940–1990, ed. Wim de Wit and Christopher James Alexander (Los Angeles: Getty Research Institute, 2013), xiii n 4

This article originally appeared in Spotlight, a feature of the California History journal (Vol. 91, #4), published by the University of California Press in association with the California Historical Society. Conceived by former journal editor and historian Janet Fireman as a last-page photographic feature that itself would evoke a lasting image for journal’s readers, Spotlight draws from CHS’s vast and diverse collection of California photography and photographic history.

California History, Vol. 91, Number 4, pp. 67–68, ISSN 0162-2897, electronic ISSN 2327-1485. © 2014 by the Regents of the University of California. All rights reserved.

Shelly Kale is Publications and Strategic Projects Manager at the California Historical Society. Formerly Managing Editor of California History from 2007 to 2013, she has held editorial and administrative positions in academic, museum, educational, electronic, and trade and mass-market publishing.

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