In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Los Angeles

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Urban Studies Los Angeles
Max Felker-Kantor
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 May 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190922481-0066


Founded in 1781 by a multiracial group of forty-four settlers who had traveled more than one-thousand miles from northern Mexico as part of the Spanish imperial project to colonize Alta California, El Pueblo de la Reina de Los Angeles has, over the course of more than two centuries, became the nation’s second-largest city and a world trading center on the Pacific Rim. Los Angeles’s rise to global city status, its place in the development of new urban theory, and its racial and ethnic diversity make it significant for the field of urban studies. Indeed, Los Angeles has come to be viewed as the prototypical 21st-century city. While Los Angeles is often defined as a metropolitan region encompassing the five counties of Ventura, Los Angeles, Orange, San Bernardino, and Riverside, this article focuses on the City of Los Angeles and Los Angeles County. In select places where a work on the broader metropolitan region has implications for the city or county, it has been included. Los Angeles has often been described as a sprawling, decentralized city made up of suburbs. It is also characterized by immense demographic growth, from a population of roughly fifteen thousand inhabitants in 1870 to nearly one million by 1920, Los Angeles County is home to nearly ten million people in 2020. Such demographic growth was the result of internal migration from the Midwest in the 1920s and 1930s, the region’s place in the US-Mexico borderlands and the Pacific Rim, and immigration to the city after the 1965 Immigration Act. Los Angeles has also been characterized by polarization, a place of conflict and extremes. It has a long history of labor and capital conflict stemming from its pro-business orientation through much of the twentieth century and as the site of new forms of unionization in the service sector during the 1990s and 2000s. Urban unrest, violence, and racial conflict—most notably the 1871 Chinese Massacre, 1943 Zoot Suit Riots, the 1965 Watts Uprising, and the 1992 Rebellion—have been central features of the city’s development. Yet, there is also a deep history of multiracial and multiethnic coalition building and solidarity in the city. In other words, Los Angeles is a more complex place than the simplistic views, produced by Hollywood, of the city as a place of either utopia or dystopia. The study of Los Angeles, in short, blends the historical and material story of the city with views of it as a concept for global urban processes and form. Long viewed as an aberration from the “traditional” industrial cities of the Northeast and Midwest, Los Angeles is where urban form and development, culture and artistic production, trade and globalization, race and ethnicity, and urban theory all come together. The author thanks Emily McGuire for her research assistance and contributions to annotations and summaries in the Gender and Sexuality section.

Inventing Los Angeles

Los Angeles has been the subject of a wide range of scholarship that has traced both its material history and the construction of the city as an idea and concept. General overviews of the history of Los Angeles focus on the city’s invention of itself as an exceptional place and its transformation from a small pueblo to a global metropolis. Early work like McWilliams 1946 (cited under Classics) set the foundation for how scholars have thought and written about Los Angeles. Much of the scholarship that followed led to the view of Los Angeles as an exception to the model of typical urban growth in the United States. This romanticized view of Los Angeles was simultaneously highlighted and challenged by a noir vision in a range of classical studies produced in the mid-twentieth century. The result was a polarized view of Los Angeles as a place of extremes, something that subsequent scholarship has complicated by providing much more nuanced accounts of the city, its development, and its diverse people. Cumulatively, the study of Los Angeles led to the creation of a new school of urban studies and theory based on the city’s unique process of spatial and economic development. This so-called Los Angeles School of urban development emphasized the importance of Los Angeles as a vital site of study for urbanists and historians alike.

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