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A Topographical History of Los Angeles: Physical and Cultural Landscapes

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Los Angeles is dotted with enclaves, spanning from a few blocks to vast neighborhoods deeply embedded with diasporas. Within these enclaves, different cultural heritage is maintained through cuisine, and the casual diner would consider whatever the dish is to be authentic. While food is a critical aspect of preserving culture, it is important to explore where that food comes from, and how it came to be grown in California. Many staples of the California food system originated half a world away, and as such, an ethnically diverse population can tap into the same resources. Historically, Los Angeles’s achievement as an agricultural hub was reliant on topography and weather, which Spanish settlers found to be similar to that of the Mediterranean Basin. Early success in farming Mediterranean produce led to a slow growing transnational movement of immigrant farm workers that brought with them news crops, laying the framework for the culturally diverse landscape of present day Los Angeles.

Many of the crops first grown in Los Angeles were once passed interculturally through an immense global trade network of the pre-colonial Old World. Produce often travelled as seed on the Silk Road around the Mediterranean Basin. At the peak of this trade network, various crops were cultivated in one country and transported to the next. For example, figs, olives, citrus varietals and stone fruits traveled from East Asia, but were cultivated in Western Europe and came to be known as “staples” to their cuisine. Spanish colonists brought many of these crops with them on their conquest of the so-called New World. In turn, certain produce came to be cultivated en masse in Southern California because the fertile farmlands and distinctive climate were similar to their point of origins in the Mediterranean Basin.

Los Angeles & San Bernardino Topography Map (1880)
Los Angeles & San Bernardino Topographic Map (1880) || Map courtesy of David Rumsey Historical Map Collection

Los Angeles County sits within the Transverse Ranges—mountains that stretch across Santa Barbara at their northern point and San Diego County in the south. Most of California’s mountains run north to south, congruent with the coastline, but these ranges run east to west with a lush pocket of land nestled in between. The chaparral region that spans within the mountain ranges is marked with woodland, shrubbery, Mediterranean forests, rolling hills and miles of tillable farmland. 

The weather has long been the main attraction of Southern California, but it is also vital in sustaining crops grown in the region. California has what is called a Mediterranean climate, meaning summers are long and warm, winters are mild, and rainfall is generally sparse year round. The Mediterranean might evoke the idea of palm trees and coastlines—perhaps rows of olive trees and vineyards. This is for good reason, olives and grapes, two of the first Mediterranean crops to be planted in what is now Los Angeles County, thrive in the dry summers and survive during the frostless winters with little irrigation. With even a rudimentary irrigation system, Mediterranean regions can also sustain wheat and certain grains; these too were early Southern California crops.

View of East Los Angeles, California, looking north to the Sierra Madre Mountains
View of East Los Angeles, California, from Brooklyn Heights looking north to the Sierra Madre Mountains || Photo courtesy of UC Berkeley, Bancroft Library​

Globally, a handful of metropolitan cities of Los Angeles’s geographic magnitude subside in a Mediterranean climate. Most of these cities—like Athens, Barcelona, Beirut, Jerusalem and Rome—are part of the classical Mediterranean Basin, which surrounds the Mediterranean Sea in Southern Europe, Western Asia and North Africa. The climate of this landscape was conducive to dryland agricultural practice, so historically, crops like olives and oranges flourished before crossing to the Americas with Spanish colonization.

The Spanish Empire expanded into North America’s Pacific Coast by way of Jesuit missionaries. With seed brought from Mexico, the missions were able to sustain themselves with both orchard crops and cereal grains. To cultivate the arable lands, irrigation systems called zanjas harnessed nearby water sources. One such hamlet, using the Rio Porciuncula (better known as the Los Angeles River), was founded as El Pueblo de La Reina de Los Ángeles in 1781.

The missions used the mixed agriculture techniques typical to the Mediterranean Basin, planting figs, apricots, pears to name a few. Similarly, the ranchos, a Spanish public grants program, created a cattle industry. Cattle stock was profitable on the ranchos, while the mission settlements grew into farming communities. When the United States annexed California from Mexico in 1848, El Pueblo de La Reina de Los Ángeles was a booming agricultural town known simply as Los Angeles. During this time, the city had experienced an influx of farmers and farm workers, presupposing what would become a long relationship with immigrants.

Early landscape alterations in California are the result of Spanish farming and ranching, depicted in this 1883 lithograph of Rancho Estudillo, in San Diego County
Early landscape alterations in California are the result of Spanish farming and ranching, depicted in this 1883 lithograph of Rancho Estudillo, in San Diego County || Photo courtesy of Riverside Museum Press

Initial farm workers, mainly European immigrants, came to Los Angeles from the Eastern Seaboard. As Mediterranean crops become more commodifiable, immigrants from a variety of countries could be found working the farm lands. The larger ethnic groups—including Chinese, Japanese and Italian—settled in enclaves.

While not entirely typical, certain immigrant groups were able to monetize culturally specific crops. Celery and asparagus, for example, both originated in the Levantine region of the Mediterranean Basin before being cultivated in China and brought to Los Angeles. Both thrived under the large garden plots, and often full scale farms, worked by the newfound Chinese labor force. By the 1890s, Chinese immigrants were selling their celery and asparagus from vegetable wagons. And by the 1920s, the majority of the asparagus production was either owned or at least worked by Chinese immigrants.

 Chinese-American agricultural laborer harvesting stalks of celery on the field
Chinese-American agricultural laborer harvesting stalks of celery on the field || Photo courtesy of Los Angeles Public Library

Chinese immigrants carved out a stake in Los Angeles’s agriculture narrative by establishing a solely Chinese operated farm-to-vendor system, which created the framework for produce (or farmers) markets citywide. This food system allowed the thousands of Chinese immigrants living and working in Los Angeles at the turn of century to survive in spite of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act.

However, other ethnic groups that play a larger role in the city’s current demographic landscape came well after the agricultural boom. Korean Americans, for example—today one the city’s largest ethnic groups—migrated en mass over the last 60 years. To put that in perspective, when the Chinese population numbered well over 3,000 in 1910, a U.S. census showed there were only about 400 Korean immigrants. Now, the Chinese-American and Korean-American populations in the greater Los Angeles area each number in the 300,000 range.

The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 was the reason Korean Americans have had such an impact on contemporary L.A. even without a substantial history in the city agricultural landscape. Waves of newly arrived Koreans settled into mid-city enclaves, and instead created a new market wholly their own by way of the Korean grocery store. Grocers provided access to products common in Korean cuisine, which are either grown locally or imported.

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Certain ethnic food is imported from the country of origin, but the vast majority of the produce sold in California is grown somewhere between Fresno and San Diego County. So, one might find Napa cabbage and daikon, staples in Korean cuisine, grown locally in Southern California and sold at the Korean grocery stores that sprouted up after the 1965 influx. It is not entirely clear if Korean immigrant farmers tapped into the Mediterranean climate themselves, if farms catered to a new buying demographic, or if early Chinese American farmers planted these crops (they are used in some regional Chinese cuisine as well). Regardless, it is highly plausible that the kimchi prepared in your favorite Korean restaurants in Los Angeles was first grown in or close to Los Angeles County. 

Dotted throughout Southern California’s Inland Empire region, east of Los Angeles, a handful of farms focus on growing crops that are considered to be “Asian vegetables,” like bok choy, coriander and gai lan. These Inland farms have a direct pipeline to Los Angeles’ 1.5 million Asian-Americans, including larger Chinese, Japanese, Korean and Filipino communities. Distribution centers in Los Angeles sell to the various restaurants and markets, so demographic-specific production makes sense.

 Los Angeles city market
Los Angeles city market postcard, published by E. C. Charlton, a company that was active from 1899 to 1912 || Photo courtesy of Postcard Roundup

Post-1965, the Immigration and Nationality Act brought not only an upswing in the East and Southeast Asian immigrant population, but also brought immigrants and political refugees from the Middle East. Like the Korean population, the Arab and Persian diaspora flourished in Los Angeles, establishing a food culture based around both existing crops and imported specialty goods. 

While distinctly different, both Arab and Persian cultures have common ingredients and dishes. One such dish is kibbeh, found in both Syrian and Persian cuisines, with other variations appearing throughout Latin America. Both cultures have their own unique spin, but the common thread is the main ingredient—a cracked wheat known as bulgur (or bulghur), which originated in the Mediterranean Basin and is grown commercially in Southern California.

Much of Los Angeles’ Persian population is composed of Iranians arriving in the late 1960s. Some Iranian Americans have found the climate and topography similar to that of Iran, and ingredients common to Persian dishes have long been crops in Southern California’s farmlands. Pomegranates and walnuts, for instance, both came to California in the late 1700s with Spanish settlers and have since burgeoned. The irony of course, is that neither of these products originated in Spain; they are considered amongst the oldest known cultivated crops—both traveling from ancient Persia and prefacing the arrival of the city’s Persian population by a few hundred years.

Farmer Clarence Blane shows off a bowl of persian Mulberries under one of his trees on his farm near Lake Hughes
Farmer Clarence Blane shows off a bowl of persian Mulberries under one of his trees on his farm near Lake Hughes. There are only a handful of mature Persian mulberry trees in the Los Angeles area and Blane has most of them. || Photo courtesy of Bryan Chan/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images

Los Angeles’s current agricultural landscape is unique to Mediterranean produce. Yet, while Mediterranean crops dominate the agriculture narrative, Los Angeles has long been a champion for crops indigenous to the Americas. This points to the city’s deep roots with Mexico, going back to the city’s initial foundation as the mission settlement by the Rio Porciuncula. The Jesuit missionaries had brought with them not only crops from the Mediterranean Basin, but those indigenous to the Yucatan and Central America—squash, corn, tomatoes, bean varietals, and even avocado.

Currently, Latinos are the majority demographic in Los Angeles, but many assume that this population is solely made up of Mexican-Americans due the city’s longstanding relationship with Mexico. Yet, there is also a sizable Central American population that is often overlooked. In the 1980s, war and social upheaval throughout the Central American countries, particularly El Salvador and Nicaragua, caused huge migratory numbers to travel north through Mexico in hopes of reaching the United States. Many of these political refugees ended in the city of Los Angeles as well, building relationships with the longstanding Mexican American community. Mexican and Central American cuisines are distinct, but they do share some indigenous crops that are native to the Yucatan Peninsula.

South Central Farm
The South Central Farm was once the largest urban farm in the nation, a 14-acre food garden operated by about 350 Mexican and Guatemalan immigrant families in South Los Angeles. || Photo courtesy of David McNew/Getty Image News/Getty Images

Like many of the other communities that arrived after the 1960s, some staple crops in Central American cuisine were brought to Los Angeles by another culture be they Spanish settlers or immigrant farm workers. This overlap between California’s Mediterranean climate and Central America’s tropical climate allowed for some crops originating in both ancient Mesopotamia and ancient Mesoamerica to be grown a few miles apart. 

Ultimately, this speaks to the idea that for some immigrants, food allows the cultural landscape of Los Angeles to become reminiscent of their home. For other diasporas, it is a place they have long since been. Regardless of where and when a diaspora arrived in Los Angeles, aspects of the city’s farming history allows them to settle. The initial cultivation efforts of Mediterranean produce in Los Angeles reflected Old World transnational crop trading establishing that produce from the ‘Old World’ could thrive in the New. After multiple waves of immigration, the agricultural landscape would become as diversified as the many cultural identities that make up Los Angeles.

 

Top image courtesy of Deepi Ahluwalia

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