"A Delightful Suburb": Boyle Heights in the 19th Century
Perched on the bluffs on the eastern banks of the Los Angeles River, the area that came to be known as Boyle Heights was home to the Tongva (or Kizh) peoples for centuries before the arrival of Europeans. Spanish colonists referred to the area as El Parédon Blanco (“the white bluff”) and claimed the land as their own, marking the eastern edge of the Pueblo de los Ángeles established in 1781. After Mexico won its independence from Spain in 1821, portions of the land in the area were granted to the López and Rubio families, who built farmsteads there, mostly growing grapes for use in the production of wine, then Los Angeles' primary crop.
In 1858, after California became an American state, an Irish immigrant named Andrew Boyle became the first Anglo to settle east of the Los Angeles River, purchasing a 22-acre tract and vineyard from the Rubio family, who had retained their property rights. The American government did not, however, recognize the entirety of the López and Rubio families' holdings; deeming most of the land in the area to be unoccupied, and therefore property of the state, in 1865, the Los Angeles City Council sold those "public lands" at auction, dividing the bulk of El Parédon Blanco into 35-acre lots, most of which were sold to investors for between five and ten dollars an acre. Boyle expanded his holdings to some 385 acres, and other plots were purchased by prominent investors, including Isaias Hellman, a Bavarian Jewish banker; John Downey, who later served as Governor of California; and William Workman, Boyle’s son-in-law.
Because of its limited access to downtown and lack of water supply, most of these plots remained undeveloped and unoccupied until the 1870s when, anticipating the growth that would follow the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad, landowners began pushing for municipal improvements in the area that would enhance their investments. Workman, who inherited his father-in-law’s holdings after Boyle’s death, played a leading role in these efforts, demanding that the City Council develop a sustainable water supply in the area, and running for City Council himself when they rejected his proposal. By the end of the decade, the City Council authorized the first bridge across the river at Macy Street (later Brooklyn Avenue) and the area’s first water pipelines and sewers, which were followed by its first horse-car transit lines and street pavings. These crucial infrastructure developments enabled landowners to subdivide their acreages into smaller holdings and sell them to individuals and real estate speculators.
Workman's efforts were supported by another landowner in the area, George Cummings, who was married to Maria del Sacramento López, daughter of Francisco López, one of the area's prominent landowners. In the later half of the nineteenth century, intermarraige between European-origin male settlers and women of elite, landholding Mexican families was a commonplace business strategy amongst new arrivals to acquire land and other economic privileges. Unlike Spanish and Mexican legal systems, U.S. laws did not permit women to be listed as property owners and, accordingly, intermarriages like that of Cummings and López facilitated an overall transition of private property from Mexican to European-origin families throughout the American west. After their marriage, Cummings set about to increase the value of the family's holdings by hiring architect W. R. Norton to design a fine new hotel on his property adjacent to the new streetcar lines on First Street, an area known as the Cummings Block. Opened to the public in 1889, the Queen Anne style building, known as the Boyle Hotel, featured decorative brickwork, cast iron columns, and a corner turret with an open balcony and quickly became a hub of social and political activity in the neighborhood. To learn more about the Boyle Hotel and its 2007 designation as a Historic-Cultural Monument, visit the Los Angeles Conservancy.
Marketed as an upscale development with picturesque views, beautiful parks, and a convenient location, Boyle Heights was home to approximately 2,000 residents by 1890, most of whom were affluent, white Protestants who lived on large estates in the western-most portion of the neighborhood. In an 1889 article, the Los Angeles Times described it as a "delightful suburb" where the "choicest residence sites are located," citing its "magnificent" views and "climate that cannot be improved upon." Alongside sketches of their large estates and "princely mansions," the article included profiles of the "men who pioneered and built it up," including William H. Workman, George Cummings, Samuel Rees, R.B. Young, and W. H. Perry, noting that "it is not at all surprising that a section so favorably situated...should have attracted wealth and culture." And, describing the improvements and street work underway—including on North Soto Street which, the author predicted, "will be by odds the finest drive as well as the finest residence portion in the city"—owed to the initiative of its upstanding citizens, the Times declared that "the Heights" was destined to become "the Nob Hill of the City of Angels."1