On September 4, 1781, the eleven men, eleven women, and twenty-two children recruited by Alta California Governor Felipe de Neve founded El Pueblo de la Reyna de Los Angeles (The Town of the Queen of the Angels). They had gathered in August at the Mission San Gabriel in New Spain (present-day Mexico) and traveled together to arrive at the site of the new pueblo alongside the Los Angeles River.
Located between the San Gabriel Mountains and the Pacific Ocean, El Pueblo, as it was called, remained independent of the United States until the Mexican War in 1846, when the city was taken in a bloodless effort by U.S. forces. On April 4, 1850, the city was incorporated as Los Angeles and designated the county seat of Los Angeles County.
The city grew considerably with the arrival of the railroad in the mid-1870s allowing both the easy export of agricultural products and an influx of immigrants. During the 1880s, the population of Los Angeles more than quadrupled—increasing from approximately 11,200 in 1880 to 50,400 by 1890, and then doubling to 102,500 by 1900.
For the stranger Los Angeles is the place to go to see a new play, or marvel at the display of fruits seen at a citrus fair—forts made of thousands of oranges, and railroad stations and crowns of lemons, etc.—and admire a carnival of flowers, or for a day’s shopping; but there are better spots in which to remain. I found the night air extremely unpleasant last winter, and after hearing from a veracious druggist, to whom I applied for a gargle, that there was an epidemic of grip in the city, and that many died of pneumonia and that a small majority of the invalids got well, I packed my trunk hastily and started for Pasadena.
As the city continued to grow in the new century, planners sacrificed several thousand acres of farmland for highways and housing. Los Angeles, once the nation’s wealthiest agricultural county, now derives its wealth from trade and transportation, manufacturing, tourism, finance and banking, and the entertainment industry.
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Architect and city planner Daniel Hudson Burnham was born in Henderson, New York, on September 4, 1846. He moved with his family to Chicago nine years later. As a young man, Burnham worked in several Chicago architectural offices before joining fellow draftsman John Wellborn Root to establish a practice in 1873.
Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men’s blood and probably themselves will not be realized. Make big plans; aim high in hope and work, remembering that a noble, logical diagram once recorded will not die.
The firm of Burnham and Root soon became central to the pioneering Chicago School of architecture, known for transforming the late-nineteenth-century urban landscape. With such structures as the Rookery Building (1886-88), Reliance Building, (1890-94) and Monadnock Block (1891), Burnham and Root helped to invent the modern skyscraper, changing forever our city skylines.
Burnham and Root’s prolific partnership ended in 1891 with Root’s death from pneumonia. At that time, they were working closely with landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted on the plan for Chicago’s upcoming 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, for which Burnham served as chief of construction. Burnham coordinated the design and construction of an elaborate fairground replete with grand boulevards, elaborate neo-classical buildings, lush gardens, and a wide array of artworks. Noted artists including Mary Cassatt, Daniel Chester French, and Augustus St. Gaudens, as well as architects including Richard Morris Hunt, Louis Sullivan, and the firm of McKim, Mead and White, all contributed to plans for the Chicago’s World Fair. Burnham’s “White City,” as the fairgrounds came to be called, quickly popularized the neoclassical beaux-arts style in American architectural design.
After his triumph at the fair, Burnham’s now-solo firm took on a variety of monumental projects including New York’s dramatic Flatiron Building, and Washington, D.C.’s Union Station and adjoining Post Office building. Burnham also expanded his involvement in city planning. His Washington, D.C. contributions, in fact, stemmed from his appointment as head of the Senate Park Commission, also known as the McMillan Commission. In 1901-02, the commission was charged with revitalizing Pierre Charles L’Enfant’s plan for a monumental federal city. The resulting “McMillan Plan” laid the groundwork for the completion of Washington’s National Mall and Monument Grounds as they are known today.
A leading proponent of the “City Beautiful” movement, Burnham presented his most ambitious work, the Plan of Chicago, in 1909. Coauthored with architect Edward H. Bennett, the plan anticipated by several decades the need to control random urban growth. The proposed system of city parks, civic buildings, commercial boulevards, transportation routes, and lakefront recreation areas not only influenced Chicago’s development over many decades, but set the standard for U.S. urban planning in the modern age.
Charles Moore. Daniel H. Burnham, Architect, Planner of Cities, v. 2. (Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1921), 147. (Return to text)
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On the afternoon of Sunday, September 4, 1949, violence broke out after renowned but controversial African American baritone Paul Robeson sang at an outdoor concert near Peekskill, New York, to a mixed-race audience of more than 20,000 people. This was a rescheduled performance. The original concert, slated for August 27 as a benefit for the leftist Civil Rights Congress, had been preempted by violence aimed at Robeson’s race and politics. While the second concert itself went off peacefully despite nearby protests, concertgoers leaving the venue were ambushed by attackers who threw stones and overturned cars while local police stood by. Together, the two incidents have come to be known as the Peekskill Riots, and interpreted not only as a test case for free speech rights, but as a harbinger of both the reactionary politics and protest movements that would unfold in the post-WWII era.
Paul Robeson had performed in the Peekskill area for several years without incident, but several factors converged to generate new controversy in 1949. The singer-actor’s left politics were well-known, as was his advocacy for civil rights. Considered a Communist “fellow traveler,” he had first visited the Soviet Union in 1934, where he claimed that he was treated with a level of respect he had never experienced in his own country. By 1947, as the Cold War heated up, the House Un-American Activities Committee had started its investigations into alleged Communist influence in Hollywood, and Robeson was one of the targeted performers. Robeson had, in fact, put his career on hold to help organize the Progressive Party’s 1948 presidential campaign. But then, in April, 1949, he gave a speech at the Congress of the World Partisans of Peace in Paris that was widely covered, and likely misquoted, in the American press—recasting his intended pacifist and antiracist message as a strongly pro-Communist one. One article from Peekskill’s local Evening Star newspaper, for example, featured the subhead “Robeson Says U.S. Negro Won’t Fight Russia.”1
In addition, the newly-controversial Robeson’s pending appearance helped to catalyze the simmering resentments of year-round Peekskill residents toward the area’s Jewish summer community. A mix of union members and professionals, some immigrants, some political radicals, Jewish New Yorkers routinely escaped the heat of the city at upstate camps and bungalow colonies; near Peekskill, their presence more than doubled the size of the area’s population each year. When local chapters of the American Legion and other veterans’ groups, as well as the Chamber of Commerce, set themselves in public opposition to Robeson’s concert in the name of patriotism, there was an undercurrent of deeper tensions in the rhetoric. “The time for tolerant silence that signifies approval is running out,” proclaimed one Evening Star editorial on August 22.2 Once protest against Robeson’s appearance did turn violent, the violence was directed especially at the members of his audience, who were taunted with racist and anti-semitic epithets or openly assaulted. “The outbreak thus embodies the combined expressions of the most explosive prejudices in American life—against Communists, Negroes and Jews,” claimed one report soon after.3
As a singer Robeson was known for his renditions of spirituals and folk songs as well as show tunes he had helped to popularize such as Showboat’s “Ol’ Man River.” His first Peekskill concert had been planned by People’s Artists Inc., a group recently started by rising folk singer Pete Seeger to facilitate bookings. Novelist Howard Fast was the intended emcee who, because he had arrived before the rioting started, became a defacto leader for the hundreds of audience members trapped on the concert grounds. Fast’s book-length Peekskill, USA: A Personal Experiencerecounts events such as the burning of a cross on a nearby hill, blockades at nearby roadways, attack on the makeshift stage and destruction of thousands of rented wooden chairs on the evening of August 27. Robeson had not made it past the blockades to the concert grounds that day. Once he returned to Harlem, at a press conference denouncing the violence he vowed to come to Peekskill again and sing. Plans quickly emerged for a larger concert at a different venue the following weekend. This time, both Robeson and his audience were protected by a body guard of WWII veterans and union members on the stage, with a ring of hundreds more surrounding the venue. The show of solidarity led Pete Seeger—who both sang at the concert and whose car was later attacked with stones—to write “Hold the Line” with his colleague Lee Hayes, which was recorded by their folk group The Weavers soon after:
Let me tell you the story of a line that was held,
And many men and women whose courage we know well,
As they held the line at Peekskill on that long September day,
We will hold the line forever till the people have their way.
Paul Leroy Robeson was born on April 9, 1898 in Princeton, New Jersey, the youngest child of a father who had escaped from slavery on the eve of the Civil War and a mother whose ancestors included prominent members of the Northeast’s Free Black community. Robeson grew up in nearby Somerville and then won a scholarship to attend Rutgers College (now University) in New Brunswick. He was one of the school’s first African American students, and the very first to play for the school’s football team, with great success but some controversy surrounding his race. Robeson was indeed multi-talented: admitted to Phi Beta Kappa in his junior year, he earned fifteen varsity letters in four different sports, won the class oratory prize each year he attended, and—to a standing ovation—gave the college’s commencement address on the topic of his choice, “The New Idealism.”
After college Robeson moved to Harlem, studied law at Columbia University while playing professional football to help finance his education, and cultivating his singing talent by giving recitals. In 1921 he married Eslanda Cardozo Goode and it was Essie, as she was known, who encouraged him to take up acting as a hobby. After encountering significant racism in his legal work, Robeson turned to acting as a profession. His 1924 appearances in two Eugene O’Neill plays, The Emperor Jones and All God’s Chillun Got Wings, launched his professional career. His 1930 appearance in London as one of the first Black actors to ever play Othello was considered a triumph for the quality of his performance; he later reprised the role on Broadway. Robeson’s illustrious acting career included dozens of movie credits; his musical career hundreds of recordings.
The fallout of the Peekskill riots took a significant toll on Robeson himself. Late in 1949 he was blacklisted, his passport revoked, and he was unable to travel or perform for most of the 1950s. In 1958 he published Here I Stand, as much a manifesto as a memoir. Having regained his passport due to a related Supreme Court case, Robeson spent only a few years traveling abroad. By 1963 he would retire due to deteriorating health—which his son Paul, Jr. attributed in part to the toll of long-term surveillance—and after Essie’s death lived with a sister in Philadelphia until his own death from stroke complications in January, 1976. As one biographer summarized, “Paul Robeson is an American tragedy. He was an enormously talented black man whose imposing personality and uncompromising political ideals were more than a racist and anti-Communist United States could appreciate or tolerate.” 4
“‘Peace’ Rally Hits North Atlantic Pact. Robeson Says U.S. Negro Won’t Fight Russia,” The Evening Star (Peekskill, New York), April 21, 1949: 1. (Return to text)
“The Discordant Note,” The Evening Star (Peekskill, New York), August 22, 1949): 4. (Return to text)
American Civil Liberties Union, Violence in Peekskill (New York: American Civil Liberties Union, 1949): 1. (Return to text)
Larry R. Gerlach, “Robeson, Paul,” American National Biography (Online edition: 2000). (Return to text)